In the Headlights
Rain beaded up on Marianne’s windshield as she wound her way through the curves of the neighborhood between her house and the interstate. Leaves clung to the glass around the edge of her vision, holding tight despite the drizzling rain. She wished she could wipe them away, but her windshield wipers stopped working six months ago. She’d gone to a mechanic with the intention of having them fixed, but his estimate was more than she could squeeze out of her accounts and credit cards. The old bottle of Rain-Ex she found in the basement provided a quick and cheap fix. Spraying it on the glass every few weeks helped the water bead up and roll off, but in a drizzling rain like this one, the misty little drops clung to the glass, not big and heavy enough to start the trip to the edge and off into the wind. It would be better on the interstate where her faster speed would help the water along. These few miles through the yellow “Keep Slow” signs of the neighborhood kept her just below the speed she needed to clear the windshield.
Marianne took her eyes from the road to reach for her coffee mug. The road was clear when she glanced down at the lid to make sure the sip hole was positioned right, but when she looked up, a dog materialized in her lane. She threw her coffee mug to the floor as she slammed on the brakes, stopping short of running over the dog but not short enough to avoid hitting it. The dog flew out in front of her car a few feet and landed on its side. It jumped up quickly, but only managed to stumble a few steps before crumpling to the asphalt again. It did not get back up. Panicking, Marianne’s first thought was to call Drew; he would know what to do. For eight years, he had been her first thought in a crisis and was always ready with the logical, obvious right decisions that eluded her when she was upset. On its heels, a second thought reminded her that she no longer had that option. Riding the high of her weekend away with a lover, she declared to Drew that she was in love with another man, a confession that had ended her marriage and quickly proved to be untrue. She was not in love with another man, and that other man had certainly not been in love with her but the betrayal still hung between them like an empty noose, and they could not repair their marriage. Despite the amiable separation and divorce that followed, the most valuable thing Marianne lost in the split was the option of calling on Drew for anything. Six months had passed since there had been a reason for them to speak to one another.
Stopped in the middle of the road, Marianne realized the right thing to do was to load the dog into her car and take him to a veterinarian, but all her credit cards were maxed out, and she had a meager $32 balance in her checking account. She’d also be late to work if she did that, and she had just asked for a raise the day before. Showing up late while her boss was “thinking it over” probably would not work in her favor. She clutched the steering wheel as if she could squeeze a suggestion from it as she stared at the dog through the misty windshield. “Get up, get up,” she willed it, even muttering the words out loud, but the dog laid there, eyes open and blinking every few seconds. Without another option, Marianne decided she had to at least figure out which one of these houses the dog belonged to. She resolved to carry it to the nearest house with a light on. If it was the wrong house, she figured, surely they could direct her to the right one.
In the glow of the overhead lamp, she searched for a towel she thought she had tossed into the seat on another rainy afternoon. She searched the back seat and floorboards and reached up under the passenger seat. Straining, her fingers touched cloth, and she pulled free a gray t-shirt spattered with various paint colors and the faded logo of a baseball bat, “Atlanta Braves” written across it. Drew’s Braves t-shirt. It was the shirt he used to wear when they did chores around the house. She had taken it one day to Home Depot, hoping they could match one of the paint spatters to the color mixture they had used in the bathroom. That had been well over a year ago, before their divorce, before her indiscretions, before she had spent that first awkward moment in the break room with the colleague that would be at the heart of it. Marianne didn’t want to use the shirt to wrap up the dog. She didn’t want to ruin it, to get it bloody, to leave it on a stranger’s doorstep to be thrown out by a vet moments after telling them bad news about their beloved pet. She had no choice, though, since there was nothing else she could use. She closed her eyes and held the shirt to her face and breathed, hoping for a scent of Drew, for a memory that wasn’t tarnished by what she had done. The t-shirt smelled of nothing.
Marianne opened the door to the drizzle and stepped from her car and toward the dog. The dog started a low growl at her approach that shifted to a desperate whimper. Marianne knelt by it and reached for the tag on its collar to check for a phone number or address. As her hand reached down, the dog moaned again, and Marianne stopped to stroke its face. “Shhh,” she whispered. “You’re gonna be alright,” she said, trying to sound reassuring. The dog moaned louder as Marianne found the tag and read “Willow” in the beam of her car’s headlights but did not find the owner’s information there.
“Hey, Willow, hey sweet girl. You’re okay. I’m going to get you home, and you’re going to be okay,” Marianne murmured. At the sound of her name, Willow’s eyes widened and she whimpered again, pushing her face weakly into Marianne’s stroking hand. “That’s right, girl, you’re okay,” Marianne said.
She would take the shirt and wash it. She would sleep in it that night. Maybe she would just go home and call in sick and take off all her clothes and wrap herself in Drew’s shirt and go to bed for the day.
In the light of the headlamps, Marianne checked for broken bones and blood but found neither. But when her fingers probed the dog’s mid section, the whimper turned to a yelp. It would be hard to carry her so hurt, Marianne reasoned as she spread Drew’s Braves t-shirt over the whimpering dog and tucked the edges between Willow’s damp fur and the asphalt. Kneeling in the road next to the fallen dog, Marianne stroked the dog’s face hoping she would stop the dog’s incessant whimpering long enough to concentrate on what she needed to do. A thought began to form that she tried to push away, but suddenly it was there in her mind and she couldn’t ignore it. She had a choice she had not yet considered; she could just get into her car and leave. She had disappointed so many and ruined so much already, she struggled to see how this would make her any worse of a person. She would take the shirt and wash it. She would sleep in it that night. Maybe she would just go home and call in sick and take off all her clothes and wrap herself in Drew’s shirt and go to bed for the day. She considered it as Willow whined and moaned on the asphalt at her feet, her hand feeling the dog’s warmth through Drew’s t-shirt. There in the drizzling rain, she waited for the weight of a decision to pick her up and push her back into her car.
As Marianne lingered, the glow of headlights approaching around the nearest curve caught the droplets of water and filled the space around her, and she knew she had considered for too long. Someone had now seen her standing in the middle of the road next to the prostrate body of a dog. Someone had seen her car, a distinct color and style, well known in her own neighborhood and this one. If she left now, someone would know it was her who hit and abandoned a dog to die in the street. Someone would tell his neighbors and they would tell their neighbors, and she would not just be the woman whose husband recently left the neighborhood but also the woman who ran over and left someone’s pet to suffer and die alone.
The truck rolled to a stop beside her and through the cracked window, a man asked, “You hit that dog?”
“Yes. She came out of nowhere. I tried to stop but couldn’t,” Marianne tried to explain. “Do you recognize her? Do you live near here?”
“Nu-uh. I just come this way to cut through from Kingston to Franklin.” He looked from Marianne’s face to the dog and back to her before asking what she planned to do next.
“I was going to carry it up to that house,” she explained, pointing across the street. “I would appreciate some help. She’s hurt very badly, and I am afraid I’m not strong enough to handle her gently.”
“Well, I guess if we make it quick,” he said as he shifted the truck to park and stepped out of it. He knelt to pick up the dog that had fallen silent but was still alert. As the man slid his hands under her and lifted, the dog began to yelp. A silhouette filled the window of the house in front of them and hovered there for a moment before disappearing. Within seconds, a door flew open and a woman’s voice carried through the rain droplets over the yard. “What are you doing?” she called as she leaned out of the door. A floodlight filled the yard with its yellow glow and reeled them in from the darkness. “Is that my dog?” she asked, her voice growing sharp and high when she saw what the man cradled in his arms, “Is that my Willow?”
A silent moment passed. The woman floated between the storm door she held open and the light that filled the room behind her. Marianne said nothing but looked away from the woman and into the dog’s eyes. She reached to stroke the dog’s face as the man holding Willow cleared his throat and said softly, “Miss, you need to answer her.”
Marianne closed her eyes and nodded. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m really sorry. I tried to stop, but I just couldn’t in time. I think she might be a little shaken up, but I think she’s okay,” Marianne lied to soften the woman’s worry as she ran through the yard to meet them in the street, the storm door slamming shut behind her.
“Oh, Willow, my Willow girl,” the woman whispered to the dog as her hands hovered over the dog’s body. “Are you alright my Willow girl? Are you alright?” The dog whimpered weakly in response.
“Ma’am,” Marianne began, “I’m really sorry. I tried to stop, I really did try to stop.”
The woman cut her eyes to Marianne but spoke to the man holding her dog, “Sir, would you please help me put Willow in my car? I’ll take her straight to the vet.”
The pair turned to walk away and leave Marianne in the street. She stepped forward and reached out to grasp the woman’s elbow before she was out of reach. “But ma’am,” she began without knowing what she really wanted to say.
“What?” the woman snapped. “What? You’re sorry? Yes, you’ve made that clear. Is there something else?” she asked coldly.
Marianne dropped her hand, drew a deep breath, and straightened her back. “My t-shirt,” she replied, “I need the t-shirt.”
The woman snatched the shirt from around the dog, causing it to yelp loudly. “Take it and get the hell out of here,” she said as she balled it up and threw it at Marianne. It hit Marianne in the chest and fell to the wet asphalt in a pile at her feet. She waited until the man and the woman made it back to the house before she knelt to pick it up.
Natalia Fallon lives in Fairview, Tenn,, where she spends most of her time reading, gardening, and teaching high school English. She participates in several writing groups in and around Nashville and worships regularly at the Mother Church of Country Music.