The woman and the girl are driving quickly along a two-lane road through heavy woods. The girl, eight now, used to doze and dream on these drives, leaving the woman free to arrange the past and the future into corroborative juxtapositions, cool and efficient outlays of time and space and intention. Not long ago, the girl had a sappy faith in the salvific powers of horses, dogs and little prairie children. On one drive, a dead deer had sprung straight into legibility, charged toward them with its broken neck, stretched white throat, stiletto hooves pitched in the air, and thank god the girl had been asleep because when was it ever really the right time for things?
This time, the girl is addicted to seeing. She doesn’t sleep—maybe she can’t. She looks out at everything. The woman dreads questions, which don’t come, but they could. Why are all the trees close to the highway dead? Why does that lake only have mud in it? Could there really be escaped convicts along the road? The woman realizes that her dread comes not from how her answers to these questions might strike the girl; it is on account of what she herself would be made to see, in trying to answer.
The questions don’t come, but they might. The woman can’t let her mind wander; the girl’s watchfulness compels her own. She desperately wants to be in a place she can tell a good story about. The girl is making her own stories these days. She makes accurate buildings out of cardboard, and knows the names of the forty most common snakes in North America. The woman would be happy just to give a good account of herself.
Here is how it will go: they will come to a crossroads soon, with a store there that has a woodpile outside, and a flag, and they will go inside and get sodas, or maybe the woman will get coffee and the girl will get a soda. They will turn right, go steeply up a mountain, climbing and climbing till a blue sign says they’ve gone as high as they can on this particular road, and gives their elevation as it was at that momentary apex. From there, downhill for miles, gently at first, then quicker and quicker, into a deep valley where they’ll roll into a town past empty sheds and old stores.
When they eventually come to the crossroads, they don’t turn, or even stop. The girl is frowning at a field of sunflowers, and doesn’t mention sodas. They go on and on, not locked in different dreams anymore, but in the same one. When the girl begins to speak, it is with observations. They have passed five roadside crosses on the trip, she observes, one of them grey and almost toppled over, one of them very fresh with a lot of flowers and pictures around it. It seems like people aren’t careful of each other at all, up here, she says. Or of themselves, the woman says back, though soon she’s unsure of whether she actually said it out loud.
It has begun to get dark. It is the woman’s favorite time, when there are starting to be lights but you can still see everything. The girl has said she is hungry, and now a sign says there will be a restaurant soon, something with “barn” in the name. The woman thinks of hamburgers. It is not clear what the girl is thinking about.
There the barn is ahead, with its lit-up inside, its parking lot full of cars. As they slow for the turn in, they pass something lying beside the road, heavy-seeming and substantial. When the woman gets out of the car, she can smell food, as well as herself. The girl’s door slams, but she walks off the wrong way, crunch crunch crunch. Following, the woman sees the dead thing, not as far away as she’d thought. What is it? It seems to have fallen on its face, cartoonishly prostrate, like a sack tossed from a truck. It could be beaver, it could be woodchuck, but it has some thick ruff all over it, that they now can see is its quills. The woman doesn’t think she has ever seen a porcupine, outside a picture. The quills stir softly, drily in the weak breeze, like seagrass, out of the animal’s control. The girl is crouching beside it, reaching out a hand. They are too close to the road, the woman thinks.
Then—maybe it’s the wind? It is not the wind. The porcupine is quivering as it drags itself a half-inch toward the guard-rail. Then a half-inch again, or maybe a quarter. Only its front paws still work. It might have just laid there and finished dying, but escape has become urgent again. What hit it is abstract, the creatures around it now are not. They cannot avoid having come up on it, and it cannot avoid having seen them.
Bright lights keep barreling toward them. There is the clatter of cutlery nearby, laughter in little outbursts. The woman thinks the porcupine will probably make it at least to the shadows of the guardrail, maybe to the damp ditch.
The girl weighs a rough rock.
It’s not capable of surviving, she says. We’re going to have to kill it.
In the 20th century, Steve Lane was a student of medieval history, and spent too much time in the archives of Italian monasteries. In the 21st century he’s pursued a career in software development and project management. He’s spent several summers at the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute and holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. “Pit Stop” is his first published work of fiction.