We’re driving down Cinderbox Road, bright afternoon sun bouncing off the corn that’s starting to turn brown in the late summer heat, when a buck jumps in front of the pickup. It’s the last curve before home, a zag to the right so sharp it’s almost a turn. This one always gets you, makes you dig your nails just a little into the palms of your hands.
The road drops here, and we can see the house below, peeking through the cornstalks where they melt into the edge of town. The buck stands rigid in the center of the lane, staring straight at us, eyes locked on ours. He’s a big one.
You scream, and I hit the brakes. There’s no place to go; the road is a high berm between two steep ditches. The truck goes into a deep slide on the loose gravel scattered across the two-lane. The buck doesn’t move, watches as the bumper tags him high on the haunches.
It’s a glancing blow, but a solid one. He staggers, confused, eyes big and wet.
“No. Oh, no!” you shout.
The buck takes a step, stumbles, rights himself and steps again. He tries to run, crashes awkwardly off the road and limps to a drainage run-off where the stalks are thin, and disappears inside.
He doesn’t look good.
“Shit,” I say, gripping the wheel. “Shit.”
We’ve been here before. Not here, exactly, but we’ve had this conversation. One of your greatest fears since we moved to the farmhouse is that you’ll hit something. But we both knew that when it happened it would be me behind the wheel.
“He’s hurt,” you say. Your hands are still clenched. I can see where your fingernails will leave imprints.
“We didn’t kill him,” I try. We’re still in the middle of the road, mostly sideways. The engine purrs from the tune-up I gave it yesterday, out in the shade behind the barn.
“He didn’t even try to move. He just stood there, like he wanted to get hit.”
Your elbow twitches, and you turn away to the window. I want to touch you, break the spell, but I know it would be too much. You’re breathing shallow, at the top of your lungs, keeping most of the air in and letting only the smallest amount escape. Like when you’re having a bad dream and I lay beside you. I know that the air in your lungs must be getting stale, turning to carbon dioxide, blue, purple. I reach over—
“He’s too hurt. He won’t be able to survive.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You don’t either! You killed him.”
Your hands fall into the seat now, and I know it’s time to go. But Roy comes out of the field behind us on his tractor, closing at a good clip. I can see that he’s shouting, but I can’t hear what he’s saying.
“Go,” you whisper, too late. Roy is edging up beside us.
“Everything all right?” he shouts, and it comes out much too loud now.
I give him a salute, our usual greeting when he’s out in the fields, but he’s probably too high on the tractor seat to see it. “Fine,” I say, twisting my head out the window. “Buck in the road.”
Roy has lived on Cinderbox Road his whole life. Got the farm from his daddy and raised his kids here. He knows every inch of every acre for miles.
He scans the crop line, looks at the skid marks behind us. “Where?”
“Run off,” I say, pointing.
Roy nods. “You missed him, then?”
I shake my head. He bends to try to see you, can’t, and inches the tractor forward until he’s in front of the windshield. “You all right, ’Lizbeth?” he asks, looking in through the glass.
You lean forward to let him see you better, give him a piece of a smile, and he seems satisfied.
“All right then,” Roy says. He turns and looks down the line of corn, takes off his hat and holds it against the sun.
“I better get her out of the road,” I say through the window.
Roy looks at me, then gives the salute and rumbles off in a hurry.
I ease the truck into gear and back it up to straighten out in the lane, hoping you won’t see Roy when he bumps off the road and disappears into the wash where the deer ran.
We drive the half mile home at about five miles an hour.
You jump out as soon as the truck stops, and I call after you, “What do you think I could have done?”
You spin, mid-step. “You know I hate that road.”
“That’s the way home,” I say, more harsh than I know I should. “You can’t keep trying to avoid it.” It’s a mistake. This was going to be a good night. Our anniversary. Six years. Three months to the day since the miscarriage. We were just starting to move forward again.
This is an excerpt from Scott Geisel’s short story “Cinderbox Road.” The remainder of this story can be read in the complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1. The complete book book features seventeen additional stories. Click here to find the book on Amazon. E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.
Scott Geisel’s stories have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Best New Writing 2008 (Hopewell Publications) and Christmas Stories from Ohio (Kent State University Press), from which his story was aired on WYSO. He was a finalist for the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award for fiction. Scott is the founder and editor of Gravity Fiction and was a founding co-editor of MudRock: Stories & Tales (Honorable Mention, Best American Mystery Stories 2004). He was Assisting Editor for Flash Fiction Forward and New Sudden Fiction (Norton 2006, 2007). Scott has been a presenter at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and Sinclair Writers’ Workshop, has taught workshops at the Dayton Art Institute, and founded a series of teen writing workshops and a publication for the Dayton Metro Library.