Dead Upon Collision
by Justin Moritz, October 31st 2022
A heartier breakfast would have done you good. The powdered donuts in your stomach burnt up fast beneath the sultry afternoon heat, leaving you with nothing beside a sickly sweet taste in the back of your throat and a knot in your belly. You find your head between your knees, vision spinning dizzy as you dry heave on the shoulder of the road. But maybe it’s not the sun and your poor diet that’s getting to you, it could very well be the pregnant doe plastered to the side of the road. Ragged ribcage and splintered spine, belly burst open somewhere between being struck by a speeding car’s bumper and smacking against the concrete. Gruesome perhaps, but to you, it’s just another afternoon scrapping roadkill for shitty pay.
What makes you yank your gaze from the gore is the mess spilling out from her. The fawn lies half on the concrete, glassy eyes staring up at you. A pregnant animal struck down in the heat of breeding season is far from unusual. But when you lean close, you can see that the fawn is far from intact, all four of its legs torn from its body yet nowhere in sight. You can’t bring yourself to pull the fawn from its mother’s belly so instead you push it back inside and go about heaving the doe into the plastic tub with a pair of straps. You load mother and child into the back of the van.
When you’re back in the car, you grab a pad of paper from the passenger seat. Tally marks mar the page, categorized by the type of mutilation. A few dozen slashes beneath Torn/Severed Legs, an elevated number of heads missing from their owners. It’s a morbid exercise, but one that guarantees your supervisor won’t poopoo your observations, guffawing, “Probably a picky coyote.”
Tossing the pad back in the seat, you start the van. A brain-numbing amount of your time is spent driving, scanning the asphalt for your next cleanup job. You find your head nodding along to the radio, zoning out as you drive these roads you’ve navigated countless times. Then you’re pressing the brakes on instinct, a pile of white and orange fur lying on the pavement a hundred yards out. Clearly a cat coiled about its own feet. If you saw it anywhere else besides this long stretch of sparsely populated backwoods, you might wonder if it was simply sleeping.
Your heart breaks every time you stop for something domestic, imagining the owner yelling out into the night for a pet that will never come home. And each time you find yourself thinking of your cats, wondering if somehow this time, you’ll be scrapping their bodies from the road. But today, hearing the doe’s body thud against the sides of the tub as you stop, an unfortunate accident is a relief.
You’re forced to walk on the shoulder of the road, the slope leading up from the woods reduced to a muddy mess from last night’s rain. A shovel in hand, you keep tabs on traffic out of the corner of your eye. The cars dangerously speed by, not even slowing as you make your way towards the mess with a flathead shovel. You walk quickly.
Better get this over fast, you think as you come upon the body. When you go for a closer inspection, your guess of what happened—a car’s fender quickly striking the animal as it wandered into the road, knocking it back away from the tires, an injury the cat addressed by pulling in its extremities, tucking its head against its chest, then dying—is dashed.
“So that makes an even dozen missing heads,” You say ripping your eyes away from the ragged wound running the length of the cat’s torso.
Cleaning up the body doesn’t take long, but as you go to load the bin into the back of your van, you take a step too far into the road. A horn blares, forcing you to jump away from the road.
“You’re blocking the road, dick for brains,” The driver screams.
Tomorrow, the asshole will have forgotten the sight of you on the side of the road, ridding the roadside of an unpleasant eyesore. People, they’re all the same, sticking their tongues out in disgust when they’re forced to stare death in the face. They should be thankful that they don’t have to watch the bodies rot because of you. But to them, you are nobody. A civil servant, no, you’re a lesser janitor condemned to scrapping the filth from the surface of the earth. Their gratitude for your job? It comes in a perpetual ringing in one ear, the eardrum beat paper thin by their palms slamming the car horn as they drive by.
As the car swerves around you and you regain your footing, you see something in the grass: a glimmer of metal. You walk to the edge of the road and sweep it into your hand. It’s the cat’s bloodied collar, a phone number etched in the stained tag. Thinking of your two cats at home and how you would want to know right away if anything happened to them, you dial the number.
Then there is a woman’s voice saying, “Hello?”
“Uh, I’m with Public Works, and I, uh, let me think how to say this.” If you got a call like this one, what would you want to hear? Yes, the truth. You continue, “I found your cat dead on the side of the road, I’m sorry.”
A long pause.
“How’d you get this number?”
“Found the collar in the woods near the body.”
“Can I have it?”
“No, sir, the collar.”
You know that your supervisor wouldn’t approve of an unwarranted break. Just forward her to the office, that’s the protocol, but then she’s speaking again, “Come for a cup of coffee, it’s the least I can do.”
“I really shouldn’t.”
“So you’re saying you’d rather spend the afternoon with sweat dripping down your forehead, scrapping roadkill from the side of the road instead of having a cup of coffee?”
You suppose not, muttering, “If you insist.”
You say yes not because of the free coffee, but because of the way her voice shakes as she gives you the address, vocal cords quivering with a strange desperation. So you pull up in front of her house, a small single-story painted daffodil yellow with dirty white trim. You ring the doorbell and as you remove the collar from your pocket, you realize by her voice alone, you have no idea if you should expect a young or an old woman.
And then she’s standing in the doorway, younger than you expected, no older than twenty five with her red hair cut in the sort of stylish bob that all the movie stars wear but none of the local stylists know how to style. She holds out her hand, introducing herself as Candace, and welcomes you in.
“Thanks for bringing that, I really appreciate it,” Candace says as you hand her the collar and follow her into the kitchen.
“It’s no bother.”
You shake your head no.
“Pickles was a shitty cat,” She says, locking eyes with you as she looks up from her coffee, “Used to knock everything off the counters. One time, he even snatched all my fish from their tank and didn’t even have the decency to eat them once he tossed them on the ground.”
“That’s horrible,” You say it, then clarify, “I’m really sorry about your cat…and your fish.”
“It’s okay,” Candace says, “The funny thing about pets is no matter how much of a pain in the ass they are, you still miss them when they aren’t around anymore. Easier to get lonely when you don’t have the little shit to keep you on your toes.”
Candace steps a tad too close, her arm brushing against yours as she reaches across your body to place a metal tin before you. Pulling the lid open with her fingernails, Candace offers you a shortbread cookie. You take one out of politeness, your stomach already aching as you take a generous bite from the homemade treat. It crumbles beneath your molars, forming a paste as it melds with your saliva, leaving a stale taste in your mouth as you struggle to swallow it down.
Candace nearly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with you, so when you look down to mutter thank you, her face is closer than you would like. She stares up at you, her shaking hand bridging the distance to touch your jaw. When she suddenly pulls your face to hers, you kiss her back without knowing why.
Candace is peeling your fingers from your mug, leading the freed hand to her waist. The way she looks at you, her eyes desperately searching for any acknowledgement, burrowing into you as she pushes you back into the countertop. The suddenness of it brings about a flustered heat within you, your fingers thrashing about as your hand finds its way to her belt. And with your bodies pressed together, kissing with all the awkwardness of strangers finding themselves in the unexpected throes of intimacy, everything you do feels too quick.
You try to enjoy it, to shut your eyes and forget how strange it is. But on the back of your eyelids, all you see is Candace’s cat with its head ripped from its shoulders. You smell rotting flesh on hot asphalt, can hear the splat of the cat’s body falling into a full tub to stew in the vitriol of other animals. You try to bat these intrusive thoughts away, but all you can think about is every animal you’ve peeled from the pavement, tangled limbs and severed spines and twitching hot meat.
And with her hips pressed against your own, Candace seems to notice your waning excitement, lets go of you and turns away as you stand there trying to sputter out some excuse.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” is what you should say, but you don’t. You just stand there sputtering for an apology that doesn’t find its bearings, before blurting out, “I should be going.”
“Stay for lunch at least.”
“A rain check.” You take a sticky note from her refrigerator, a pen from the kitchen island, and write your number down, saying, “This is my personal number, give me a call and I’ll take you to dinner.”
* * *
Every night you bring the pad of paper home with you, trying to sort through the number of tallies who is the most likely culprit for the mutilations. A bear would be wary of traffic, and even if one did manage to a road when it was quiet and still, bears prefer their kills fresh. So a scavenger then, a fox or coyote scarfing down a chunk of flesh then going on their way. But to tear a deer’s leg off with ease, that coyote would have to be the size of a small car, and surely, someone would notice a creature of that size even in a sparsely populated area.
Your theories are tangled, arguments built on evidence you do not have. But when Candace calls you a week after your last awkward encounter, they are fresh in your mind. Candace speaks before you have a chance, muttering between sobs, “I saw Pickles in the woods.”
When you don’t respond, she repeats herself as if uttering it again will nullify your disbelief.
“Candace, I saw Pickles dead on the side of the road.”
“But I saw him with my own eyes.” When you stay quiet on the other end of the line, Candace cuts through the silence, asking, “Was he wearing his collar?”
“No, I found it a little way off in the woods.”
“And the cat that you found, was it an orange cat?”
“And did it have white stripes?”
“With little black spots on his back?”
You can see the cat smashed into the asphalt. And as you picture him, your mind starts to play tricks on you. You see him without spots in your memory, but then as if suddenly flicked with a paintbrush dipped in black ink, spots are thrown across his hide. Then they are gone, then suddenly there, all the while you’re fixated on the thought of the frayed edge of the cat’s severed throat.
“I don’t remember.”
“Can you come and help me look for him?”
“Right now? It’s pretty late.”
“I don’t think I can sleep till I know he isn’t still wandering the woods,” Candace cries, “I know that we just met and that maybe I’m asking too much of you, but I just have to know if it was him.”
You begin to decline, then one of your cats hops onto the bed. He purrs so loudly as he rubs himself against your body that you can’t think straight. Every night since you brought the collar, Candace has fallen asleep to silence, no warmth of a loving pet curled beneath the covers.
“Yeah, okay, I’m on my way.”
When you get there, you realize that Candace is ill-prepared, handing you a flashlight that seems impossible to turn on. She takes the thing from you, expanding a lever from the side and cranking it until light beams out.
“You have to wind it up,” Candace explains.
Flashlight in hand, you follow her into the woods at the back of her property.
Candace doesn’t make her search method clear to you. She walks too fast, takes sharp turns that lead you spinning to find her in the dark woods. The two of you only find each other again by the trill of your winding flashlights. The deeper you get into the woods the more frustrated you become with the exercise. Wind the flashlight, walk a few feet, try to make out what your flashlight isn’t bright enough to illuminate, wind again.
“Where did you see him?”
“I think it was around here.” By the way Candace mumbles, you don’t feel sure of her answer.
“I recognize these trees.”
“Don’t all trees pretty much look the same?” You regret saying it, seeing how quickly she walks away from you. But then she shouts your name, drawing your attention to a tree. The bark hangs ragged from its trunk, torn asunder by something large.
Her flashlight moves from tree to tree. The bark ripped from the trees seems strange, the wounds to the trunks too deep to be the result of a nasty storm. And then you hear a familiar noise: tires speeding over wet asphalt. The road isn’t far. So this was how Pickles the cat made his way to the street.
“It’s hopeless, isn’t it?” Candace sighs as her flashlight goes dead. Yours flickers out soon afterwards.
“We can keep looking if you want.”
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“I spend my whole life looking for dead things on the side of the road, it’s nice to look for something living.”
You trail close behind Candace, watching as her flashlight suddenly seems overwhelmed by the darkness of night.
“Why were you even out here?”
But Candace is already stepping out into the clearing, the beam of light doing little to illuminate the empty swathe of land. You crank your flashlight, stopping despite Candace’s continued pace as you shine the light on the ground. Wouldn’t want a broken ankle out here. Candace grunts in the darkness, causing you to flick your flashlight beam in her direction to see her hopping a fence.
“Guy next door keeps his horses all the way out in this pasture,” Candace says as she carefully lowers herself on the other side, “I worry they get lonely too.”
You nod, placing one foot on the bottom plank and heaving yourself over the obstacle. But for every inch God made you tall, he made you equally awkward on your feet. At the top of the fence, your center of balance falls first, sending you crashing on your ass into the dirt. Your elbow strikes the ground hard, the flashlight going dark as its thrown from your hand. Scrambling for the tool, you crank and crank and crank and crank, but no light spills forth from the busted bulb.
You’re forced to run after or remain in the dark. When you rejoin her, you’re able to see the hardly illuminated form of a muddy brown mare against the opposite side of the clearing. The creature’s back is turned to you, snorting air out its nose as it stares out into the woods.
“Candace, I think we should jump the fence again,” You say, already backing up towards the direction you came. Candace doesn’t move.
“Do you think a cat could frighten a horse enough to make it act like this?” Candace motions to the horse peddling its feet, clearly looking like it’s about to bolt.
“I don’t want to find out by being trampled,” You say, motioning her to follow you out of this place.
But Candace is walking further into the field, the mechanical whirr of her flashlight doesn’t even catch a sideways glance from the horse. It whinnies, kicks its front legs high in the air as Candace finally gets close enough to illuminate the woods behind the creature.
Blinking, you only see an empty space in the fence, an exit into the deep woods that the horse inches backwards from. Its flanks are covered in deep scratches, the shattered remnants of the fence’s wooden planks scattered about its hooves.
The animal’s heaves in breaths, foaming from the nostrils as it neighs angrily at the darkness. You dig your heel in, lean in to grab Candace by the elbow, and throw the two of you out of the way in case the horse charges, but then Candace’s flashlight turns off.
And all you can hear is the panicked animal and the sound of your own breathing coming out rushed and flustered as the whirring of her flashlight muffles your senses. You can’t picture the horse moving in the dark, can only hear the heavy fall of its hooves much too close for your comfort. One last crank and the flashlight’s beam illuminates the scene once again. The horse is now facing you, screaming as a blur of something darts from the woods and nips at its heels.
The horse digs its front legs into the ground and begins to run full-speed at the two of you. You throw your body to the side, watching as Candace stands motionless in the creature’s path. You expect to watch her get smashed to a pulp beneath the animal’s hooves, but then the horse suddenly stops. All you can seem to focus on is the way the creature’s eyes go wide as it’s yanked hard back into the woods. The noises that escape the horse’s throat, desperate and gasping and crying for release, make you grab Candace hard and pull her in the opposite direction. She shouts in protest, tears herself free from your grip. The horse’s protests have gone silent, replaced by a wet tearing noise. Flesh torn from flesh, an animal scarfing down fresh meat.
“Candace, we need to leave.” You grab the flashlight from her hand, watching its beam bob about the forest edge. A flash of orange fur tears through the bushes, only visible as the branches snap back and hide its path. Candace begins to walk towards the woods, leaving you sputtering, “We’ll come back for the cat. I promise we’ll come back for the cat, but whatever just killed that horse…we need to get back to your house and call someone before someone gets hurt.”
What you hear in the woods—the snapping of bones, limbs yanked noisily from sockets, a scuffling as the horses body is dragged through the woods—it makes your entire want to run away. But Candace runs towards the noise.
You want to shout at her that it’s just some cat. She can get another one. You’ll take her to animal shelter, stick around for lunch, and never leave her side if only she would turn on her heel and come running back with you. But Candace doesn’t stop as she passes between the fence posts, just mouths sorry over one shoulder as she pushes her way through the foliage. Right now, all you have to do to save yourself is leave. Forget this ever happened, phone someone more qualified once you get back to your car, but you just stand there, waiting for Candace to change her mind.
But as seconds turn into minutes, you realize her mind is made. Then you’re stepping forwards, inching your way towards whatever monster just slaughtered an animal much sturdier than you. You can’t bring yourself to leave her to die. You’re stupid for it, but you keep walking.
You hear Candace’s feet tearing through the forest debris, pick the noise out of the silence of the wood, and turn the crank in what you think to be her direction. When your light turns on, a creature towers over Candace.
Pickles the Cat lies close to the ground, but then as your eyes adjust, you realize that what you see is not the cat in its entirety, but rather his head attached to a massive foreign body. Its torso is a tower of snapping jaws. Cats and dogs and coyotes held together by pulsating, fibrous muscles. The creature stands on more than a dozen stolen legs, loosely separated into two rows which support its body. You can pick the mare’s legs out from the rest. They don’t seem to move with the rest of the appendages, twitching as threads of flesh secure them to the body. The creature roars the sound of not one single animal, but that of a dozen vocal cords vibrating together—the sound of each of those animals as they were pulled beneath the turning tires of passing traffic.
As Candace turns on her heel to dive in your direction, screaming for help, the many biting mouths rip into her back to pull her kicking into the air. Candace goes limp as the creature consumes her, her arms and legs ripped in opposite directions to sink into the back of the creature. The beast of beasts envelopes her torso, her head lining up with the others. And as her head settles into the mass, Candace comes alive again. Feral, she snaps her teeth at you. That is when you run.
You run in total darkness, the flashlight falling from your hand in the panic, but you can see the illuminated roadside. Just another hundred yards and you’re home free.
You can hear the creature howling in its many voices behind you, the din of Candace’s voice familiar and terrifying amongst them. You pull yourself, hand and foot, up the slope leading to the road, stumbling onto the asphalt, palms broken and bleeding. You hold your hands up, waving for the oncoming semi-truck.
The truck’s headlights grow brighter, blinding you as it nears. But maybe at that moment, the driver has dozed off or got caught in his daydreaming or looked down at his phone because he does not slow. By the time you realize this, there isn’t time to jump out of the road. The truck’s bumper strikes your legs, the pain so bad that you don’t feel your ribcage smacking the windshield. You land on the roadside, a pile of broken bones. Still alive but just barely.
You see the truck’s brake lights a hundred yards down, the driver surely just registering what happened, but then you feel something wrap around your ankle. A tentacle of metamorphic flesh pulls you out of sight into the shrubbery. You see the driver of the truck look at the gore on the side of the road, no sign of you in sight. He shrugs. Just another wild animal who wasn’t luck enough to die upon collision.