Penn continued to drive through the night. Snow and gales of wind assailed his SUV as he barreled towards home, his foot steady on the gas, his mitts positioned firmly at ten and two. Heat billowed from the vents on the dashboard and moved loose strands of hair on his face. Penn didn’t want to replay the scenario – the quiet hotel room, the closed drapes, the underwear on the floor, the moaning, the taste of her lips – but the SUV’s quiet cabin was a hotbed for reflection.
His headlights brushed a green highway sign, indicating that there were eighty-nine miles left on his journey home. With the winter weather, it might take Penn three hours, but that was all right. How would he look at Kimberly after what he’d done?
Don’t marry young, people had told him a few years ago when he’d passed around the idea of proposing. You haven’t tested the waters. Cliché after cliché came at him, and while the marriage advice was stale and up there with enjoy each day like it’s your last and don’t let anyone tell you something’s impossible, it wasn’t amiss.
Becky had been with the company for a couple months now; there’d been some mild flirting, but Penn just thought that was the way she was, and he flirted back from time to time, knowing that it was just a game. Becky saw the wedding band on his finger; she could put two and two together.
But on this recent trip, Penn and Becky had found themselves at the hotel bar last night. There was a meeting early in the morning, and most of the company’s employees had gone to bed. She approached Penn and slid onto the chair next to his. They drank, and their eyes held one another in the empty bar. The piano man played his versions of “So What” and “Stardust,” songs that made people more attractive and made conversations more interesting. The right strap of Becky’s blue dress kept slipping off her freckled shoulder, and she left her smooth skin exposed longer than normal before bringing the strap back up. Her breasts were pressed up and together, and when she crossed her legs, one of her black heels dangled a few inches from her foot, making it seem as though she was already undressing. Penn remembered the way she reached over and touched his right hand.
The worst part was Penn had only slept with Becky because of the confidence Kimberly had given him. Many times she’d reaffirmed his self-esteem, telling him he was worthy of love, that he was better looking than he imagined, and that he deserved the best.
Penn believed the burden would be lightened if he told Kimberly, but at the same time, he thought the words might destroy her, and that’s not what he wanted. It’d taken cheating for him to know how much he loved her, but who would believe a line like that?
The tapping of a snare drum leaked out from the speakers, accompanied by the beat of an upright bass and the trill of a clarinet. He lowered the window and let the cold air flow into the sweltering cabin.
Was there a perfect scenario? Penn thought. He let his mind wander. When he got home maybe Kimberly would be crying.
What’s wrong? Penn would say.
I did something terrible, Kimberly would answer.
Kimberly would go on to tell Penn that she’d slept with someone else, that she was sorry and that it didn’t mean anything. After that, he’d say the same thing. Two wrongs, one right. But even thinking about her sleeping with someone else made him sick. That wasn’t at all what he wanted.
High school sweethearts turned lovers turned husband and wife turned roommates – that’s what they were. Penn found it more and more difficult to make her laugh. Where there’d been kisses, there were now smiles. Where there’d been heat, there was now platitude. Where there’d been love, there was now familiarity.
Was it dumb to think that a transgression could put the marriage back on the right track? Sure, they’d tied the knot, but maybe this could double-knot it. In Kimberly’s third grade classroom there was a poster that she’d had Penn hang up this past August – Mistakes Are an Opportunity for Learning. Maybe, he thought. Maybe. Sometimes all there was in life was maybe.
The highway patrol was out and directing traffic into a single lane; there’d been an accident on the freeway. Noticing that his gas gauge was nearing empty, Penn broke away from the pack and took to a gas station.
When the tank was full, Penn climbed back into the heated cabin, turned the key, and pressed the pedal.
Snow drifted towards the windshield like little stars falling from the sky. The wipers took care of the weather with quick swipes, and seeing that, Penn couldn’t help but think that it would be nice to have something similar when it came to emotions, something that could clean and restore balance with a flick. In reality, when things got dirty, all people could do was try to find a new vantage point and do their best to look through the filth.
As Penn drove towards the onramp, he noticed the red glow of brake lights. He stayed to the side, the car idling, the radio playing. He decided to take some back roads. From the glove box, Penn removed a map and found where he was. There was a main road a few miles away, and while a tad tortuous, there wouldn’t be any traffic.
As he drove along the back road, his headlights illuminated thick pines that wore globs of snow. The yellow lines that divided the two lanes blended together as Penn increased his speed. Sounds of humming tires and brash wind blasted his ears, and when Penn focused on the gusts, they almost seemed to speak to him. Shhhh, he heard them say. Shhhh.
The white road had no defining characteristics, just trees and snow, black everywhere but where the lights hit.
Penn drove for an hour and never once saw a car. He wondered what would happen if he were to fall asleep at the wheel, if he slammed into the snowy pines and died on impact. When would he be found? What would Kimberly do when she heard the news? What would she say at his funeral? He pictured his headstone, saw his name carved, the date of his birth, the date of his death and the little hyphen in between the two dates. That’s what life was signified by – a hyphen. Everything a person did or didn’t do contained in a little line – a dash, a minus sign.
Coming around a turn, indications of civilization began to appear in the cones of Penn’s headlights. Houses that looked like the kind children drew – with two windows and a door in the middle of them with a chimney spouting smoke – began to pop up on both sides of the street. The setting reminded him of Lake Forest, Illinois, where he’d first met Kimberly. He remembered her pale skin, her long fingers, the scar on her chin from a car accident, and her freshly pierced ears lobes which wore little bandages. Both of their parents had recently divorced, and the two of them talked about what they were going though. Kimberly was handling it better than Penn. He recalled the way he looked then, facial hair sprouting in strange formations, clusters of pimples that looked like Braille riding his forehead. At that time, he wanted nothing more than to change the world. Now all he wanted to do was live in it. Kimberly had changed too. Since the death of her mother a couple of years ago she’d become more distant, sleeping with her eyes facing the wall instead of looking at Penn like she used to. She’d also developed little lines that bookended her mouth like parentheses and made her always look sad.
The pine-shaped vanilla air freshener dangled from the rearview mirror as Penn navigated the serpentine road. Kimberly had placed the air freshener in Penn’s car a few months ago, and at first the scent had been warm and sweet, reminding him of a bakery, but now it was just a piece of white cardboard that looked like a stale Christmas cookie.
Penn thought about the people who lived in this little town. As he approached a four-way stop, he gazed at a house, the only one that still had its lights on. Inside, an older couple read by the fireplace. They didn’t seem to be talking. They didn’t move. They just read. They were just there. How did people get to that point? Penn wondered if the old man had a clear conscience or if he’d just learned how to live with a dirty one.
With the pedal pushed down and one eye on the rearview mirror, he watched plumes of smoke exit the elderly couple’s brick chimney. The windshield was beginning to fog up, so Penn twisted the dials and allowed the defroster to blow its seductive air over the glass.
When he brought his eyes back up, he noticed something brown, white and low to the ground move into the shafts of his headlights. He punched the brakes and the tires screamed, but he couldn’t slow down in time. He tightened his body and closed his eyes. The tires thumped twice as they crushed the animal.
Penn’s breathing picked up and his hands began to tremble. He looked in the rearview mirror where his brake lights colored the snow red, but they weren’t strong enough to spotlight the damage he’d done.
With his eyes closed, he listened to the weather, his car, and his heartbeat. He could feel his arteries expand and contract in his wrists, a persistent pulsing in his neck.
Under the weak moonlight, Penn got out of his vehicle and walked towards the animal, his gaze narrowed so as not to see the horror in its entirety.
Penn had hit and killed a beagle. The legs of the dog were snapped and twisted; bits of clean white bone pushed through bloodied fur. The dog’s eyes were closed as though it had braced itself for impact. Penn brought his hands from the warmth of his coat, placed them on the dog’s flank and brushed off the ice and snow that had adhered to its body.
I’m sorry, Penn said. White smoke left Penn’s mouth with each syllable. I’m sorry, Penn said again, his hands moving over the dog’s coat, rubbing the hide as though a few caresses would resuscitate its limbs and lungs and heart. He searched for an ID tag to identify the dog’s owner, but the neck was bare, the dog’s name unknown.
Penn worked his hands under the dog’s frame and peeled it from the road. The beagle was heavy and limp in Penn’s arms. Its snout hung over the crux of his elbow and bobbed with each step, while the tail moved gently from side to side and made Penn think of a time when the dog was alive.
Penn laid the dog on the side of the road atop a thick bank of snow that was quickly stained with seeping blood. He turned and looked at the spot where the dog had been hit; there, the blood had already frozen.
Penn crossed into the headlights to examine the front of his car. Blood speckled a cracked bumper, but everything else was fine. Back in the cabin, Penn’s breaths rattled from his lips, and his hands were numb and red from the cold. He turned the key and drove, inspecting the peripheries of the white road, expecting another dog to dart in front of his SUV.
The heater blew, but Penn continued to shake. Goosebumps dotted his forearms and ice melted in his boots. Penn pictured the dog’s face. He hoped it hadn’t suffered and that maybe he’d taken it out of its misery. He told himself that maybe it had had cancer. He drove for miles, shivering, blowing on his hands and rubbing his shoulders, but he couldn’t warm up.
Large trees on both sides of the road grew towards one another; branches and snow permitted little moonlight to slice through. Penn drew deep breaths and listened to them pulsate upon each exhalation.
Things began to look familiar. He entered a town that wasn’t far from his. Penn waited at an intersection and watched the stoplight get pummeled by the wind.
After a few more miles, Penn clicked his blinker and turned right onto his street, a wide boulevard with room to park five or six cars side by side. Penn drove in the middle, avoiding the snow and debris that had been pushed to the sides by the snow plow. He wondered if Kimberly would be able to tell, if she’d notice the sputter in his speech, the scent on his body, the betrayal on his breath.
It was 11:30. Penn thought Kimberly might be asleep – this was about her bedtime, but the two top dormer windows were bright, giving the façade of the house a pair of yellowish eyes. He pulled up to the garage, killed the headlights, and brought the gear shift up. He lay his head on the steering wheel and felt the rhythm of his heartbeat. His heart had been through it all – the first kiss with Kimberly, the dance at their wedding, the handshake with his father-in-law, the honeymoon, the death of Kimberly’s mother, the time in the hotel room with Becky, the killing of the dog.
He unclipped his seatbelt and walked across the snow. He peered through a window before entering, scared to open the back door of his own house, feeling like an intruder.
Kimberly was sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace, dunking a tea bag in and out of a cup of hot water. The fire’s flames were large, the tips blue, and they danced around as gusts of wind found their way down the chimney. Kimberly continued steeping her tea in the scalding water before placing her cup on a nearby table. She closed her eyes and sank into the cushions. Since her hair wasn’t pulled back, the strands cascaded over her face like curtains. Penn stuttered through a few more breaths and thought of how cozy and warm it seemed inside, free of his deception. He brought his hand to the cold steel and turned the knob.
The door creaked and Kimberly turned her head. I didn’t hear you pull in, she said. How was the convention?
Penn swallowed, took a few steps towards her and tried to speak, but she cut in.
Jesus, she said. You’ve got blood all over you! She rushed to Penn. Are you bleeding?
Penn looked down at his blood-saturated coat and then at his red-stained fingers. I hit a dog on the way home, he said. I hit and killed a dog.
Oh, God, she said, tucking her hair behind her ears. She helped Penn remove his coat and sweater, and then led him to the couch where she’d been sitting.
It’s all my fault, Penn said, struggling to inhale.
Kimberly sat down next to him and ran her hand over his back.
I didn’t mean to, he said.
Did you tell the owner? she asked.
Couldn’t, he said.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen you like this, she said.
The wood popped and clusters of sparks flew up the chimney. Kimberly grabbed her tea and blew across its surface, then rubbed the nape of Penn’s neck.
How did it happen? she asked.
I just took my eyes off the road, he said, placing his hand on hers.
The fire continued to burn, and Penn studied the way the flickers lit up Kimberly’s face. The scar on her chin was showcased in the soft lighting – the difference in texture was noticeable. They sat on the couch, side by side in the warm room, hands intertwined, listening to the rhythm of their breaths, watching the clean snow fall.
Mathieu Cailler is an educator from Los Angeles who is currently studying fiction at Vermont College. He recently received honorable mention from Glimmer Train and was published in Sleet Magazine. He is honored to be a part of Two Hawks Quarterly.