My Only Swerving
By Justin Goodman
He didn’t do it
He didn’t mean to
it was an accident
What was he doing there
All these thoughts crossed his mind when Ed got out of his car to confirm he’d hit a child. It turned out to not be a child, but a teenager, late teens likely. The boy looked prepubescent, like they had had a lifetime of getting comfortable in their own skin ahead of them. Now they couldn’t grow at all. Ed, despite being an old man now (or so he told himself), was not growing anymore. “Long in tooth.” His teeth would grow out of his mouth. He ran his tongue over his missing incisor.
Ed picked up the boy who weighed two weeks of laundry with the bedsheet and pillow cases included and lay him in the backseat. The kid probably lived near here, one of the houses up the drives, but the houses being so far apart and up steep driveways, and lacking night appropriate signage, all he could do was take the boy with him and sort it out as he drove.
Back on the road he thought about what he would do next. By inclination he was afraid of culpability, having grown up in this neighborhood. He lived alone on its rural edges with money his parents left him in their will, preferring the reckless abandon of driving unpaved roads over the uphill anxiety of not knowing when to let go of the gas. He felt a thrill when his windshield popped with pebbles kicked up from the highway. He felt responsibility in his gut to take care of the body, fix his fender, and never talk about it again.
While he thought what to do he pulled past the recycling can he left outside his house the morning before for the town to pick up. He kept looking at it as he pulled his garage door up, drove his car in, and slammed the garage shut. He jumped every time. And this time, when the thrill climbed up his spine, it left an egg sac. Ed lifted the body out of the car excitedly. This time it was lighter than a dollar bill.
He didn’t really look at it until it was lying on his dining room table. For all the death in it, he looked quiet. Not any different than an unlucky fawn. It had a hair lip and a distended face, almost snout-like. Probably a few teeth had been knocked out of place and his face had been bruised by the fall. The skin was still smooth, though parts were patchy and hard, as if the tarmac had left an impression. Ed remembered Pharoah’s Creek up the road. It was an option.
His tools took only half an hour to gather, but his stomach took an hour extra. Ed wasn’t a bad person. He loved. He loved his ancestors. He loved the earth they were buried in. He brought lilies from his garden to where they lay in the town’s cemetery. All the parents back to, supposedly, one of the first Mayflower pilgrims. He loved how the mausoleum looked like a tiny backyard house where kids tuck away gleefully, filling the backyard with tiny adult conversations, giggling when their parents have to bend down to enter. He even loved how he accidentally left his tooth there like a child, swerving to avoid what he thought was a worm, tripping, and knocking it out on the steps.
So Ed wasn’t used to this. But he cared for the earth.
While dressing the body, he tried to think about his family and friends and childhood. His pet cat, Snoopy. His turtles, Galapagos & Crush. His pool that he called Pharoah’s Creek as a kid but thought was bigger than the actual creek he’d never seen. His mom’s love of suits with shoulder pads, some so big he thought that if she turned her head she wouldn’t be able to see him over their collars. His dad’s habit of saying yes three times in three different ways when annoyed. “Yeah, yes, uh huh.” “Gotchya, sure, comprendo.” The fridge that ordered groceries and the doorbell which unlocked the door for approved faces.
It all sunk in and out of memory, none of it present enough or strong enough to obscure his gloved hands and his saw. The blood was stickier and sweeter looking than he recalled deer or fox having. He felt nauseous but focused on his motions. The motions. Ed started thinking about green arrows folded at a crease, two dimensions dressed in three dimensions’ clothes, the eye following a billiard ball banking around the corner pocket, the surreptitious triangle hidden in the negative space like a caution sign behind an untrimmed bush.
He did have to trim a few branches off the red maple before they started blocking his garden. He recalls his dad during his brief back-to-the-land phase, when he started reading Wendell Berry and bought this plot of land with the idea of turning it into a farm. “Listen to this,” he’d command Ed. “’Some cities can never be sustainable, because they do not have a countryside around them, or near them, from which they can be sustained.’ Yes, yes, yes.” By the time the land was Ed’s, it had been entirely abandoned, his father having moved on to investing in anti-erosion tech for the climate apocalypse.
“Your father is worried about the health of the planet,” Ed’s mom would explain when he walked through the foyer talking about shock collars with one of his business partners. Ed was also worried about the health of the planet. Why else recycle? Why else live humbly and minimally? Why else plant local flora for local fauna? The earth was his family, after all. His family made up more and more of the meat and bones of it.
The body was fully unpacked and now he tried to figure out what to do with the parts. He licked at the gap in his mouth. The hide can be tanned and made into sleepwear. The venison can be ground up and thrown into the creek to feed the crabs that liked to scavenge in the tidepools nearer the ocean. The bones he could carve down to make a knife or a fishhook. Even if he didn’t fish, he could hand them out to the old timers who did fish around here. Some bowls and cups. Like his dad said the natives used to do when explaining his Halloween costume in an old photo. The teeth.
He examined each tooth as he sorted through the pile, his tongue creating a lidar rendering of the space. Finally he came across the incisor and was about to try to fit it before realizing his mistake. He walked over to the sink and washed it off. On setting it, it was a little loose, though suitable. He’d use a strip of the hide for a band to wrap around the adjoining teeth and keep the new one in place. And imagining himself with this ounce of flesh and a new tooth, he also imagined himself trading piece for piece with this young body.
He’d swap out the mouth first, stapling the teeth into his gums. Then the skin he’d use localized anesthesia to remove and replace hide for hide. He read up on the nerves that allowed eyes to function while realizing he’d probably have to save that for last. He couldn’t replace his own bones and tendons and tissue for this one’s, but he tried a sleeve on to some success. Unfortunately his hands were too big for the gloves. He considered becoming the body ribboned on the table. Maybe whimsy, maybe hyperventilation, he didn’t know, but his brain lost focus on the dressing.
A grown man made tired by thinking he was young. That’s why this happened. That’s why he sped down the road thoughtlessly. He turned a corner in a city to find a conspicuously similar man there, fresh from his past, ready to talk his ear off about the day of judgement. But the future was bartering at a meat market. Ah. He apologized to himself for feeling nihilistic. It was so hard to stay happy these days if you thought too hard about that ominous little arrows’ bend. If you saw a boy’s hope pleading you to slow down. Ed licks at the incisor now banded in his jaw and puts his arm around this strapping young shoulder. He figures the boy will explain his side. For now, Ed fills him in.
Justin Goodman (He/They) is an Ace writer based in New Haven, CT. His work has been published in Prospectus, Rogue Agent, and Prairie Schooner (among other places) and is available at justindgoodman.com.
They sometimes tweet @SuddenWord.