According to my GPS, I am edging toward Gatlinburg, Tennessee, yet nowhere on this road is there sign of a service station, only slender trees, foliage, and insects. A fist of air has lodged itself deep in my abdomen. I consider braking at the roadside to stretch my legs before looping back to the highway when a narrow lane and wooden picket sign, reading Tea Room, emerge out of the forest. I swerve a sharp right onto the path, and grasping at a flurry of hope, I dial Hal again on my cellphone. The ring trills while our car forges ahead along the path, snapping with twigs and acorns. As his voicemail tone sounds, a log cottage appears at the end of the lane, a good way into the woods. I rev the car engine.
“I’m sorry for whatever it is that I’ve done. But we have a life together, and you can’t just go off and leave,” I say. “I think you’re in Jacksonville with your brother. Please come –”
His voicemail clicks off. I imagine his cellphone lying idly on a bed stand and that he’s with another woman, perhaps ignoring my actuality altogether. No man can stand being around a woman like you. He said that, took his things, and left.
I toss my cellphone onto the passenger’s seat just as a black shape thumps against my windshield. I cry out, and it does too, shrill and awful. It thumps against the car and rolls, like a football, from the windshield and onto the path. Although my leg slams at the brakes, my tires squash over a soft knoll. The car finally stalls an inch short of a heavyset oak. My mouth tastes foul, and I wait in my seat for the lurching in my chest to subside. There is a thin crack in the windshield, and I realize that I have been whispering to myself. Stupid, how could you be so stupid?
I prop open the car door and step onto a mound of dark leaves. The afternoon is warm and sticky, and a zephyr dries my sweat like napkin. Dim chatter carries from an open window of the log cottage, however blood pulses through my head so loudly that I can barely register another noise. I crouch near our front tires, which glisten with red and pink streaks, like war paint. I stand up and pad toward the lane behind our car. A man, dressed in a navy sweatshirt and black pants, stands by a dark lump. He grimaces as I approach.
“Aw, shit,” he says. “That was you?” He scratches at his beard, which is blond and trim. His face is serious, although he holds himself laxly. He takes a sniff, and his lips curl. I now see that the furry mound on the lane is a raccoon, now flattened and disemboweled. Sadness, like a heavy wave, comes over me, and a horror chills my insides.
“It was an accident,” I say. The man looks at me and nods.
“Are you from around here?”
“I’m just passing through.”
“I was eating out on the patio there, and I saw you run into that thing and swerve from road.” He glances at the Tea Room and then shoots me a curious look.
“I was using my cellphone. I suppose that’s why I didn’t see it right away,” I say.
“Ah, it’s always something like that,” He replies. Then he nods at me, lifts his hand as a wave, and turns back toward the log cottage. The raccoon’s intestines uncoil, like a spring, onto the ground while its face lies on one cheek as if in deep slumber. My stomach twists and bubbles, but I perk my head up and face the man, who is walking toward the patio seating behind the cottage.
“Hey,” I call. He stops with his hands in his pockets and swirls around to face me. “Can you help me?”
He pads back and holds both arms halfway up like a question.
“Do you think we can bury it?” I ask.
“What?” The man snorts.
“By any tree, just so it’s not out here by itself rotting,” I suppress a gag and hold out a hand. “I’m Johanna.”
He takes it, “David.”
I stride to the car and rummage its side pockets for plastic bags. I find a few and stuff them into a hand before returning to David. We find a large oak that is surrounded by soft dirt and dig with our hands, which we’ve covered with paper bags. I am largely silent, the shock still wearing off, but David tells me about Gatlinburg and his favorite trails along the Smoky Mountains. A few times, I find myself laughing, despite preparing a burial site for raccoon entrails. When we’ve decided that we’ve dug deeply enough, we carry the raccoon in a plastic bag and then place its body into the grave. Halfway through this process, I stumble off and retch by an adjacent tree. Despite this, I have more energy than I’ve had for a long time. When we fill the grave with the last of the dirt, David rubs his hands, now filthy with mud.
“We need to say a few words,” he says. I laugh at the absurdity, but out of nowhere, I hear him again. No man can stand being around a woman like you. But this time, I grow angry, and I imagine tossing my phone and turning back. I imagine returning to our apartment and living alone. I picture starting my life over, never knowing whether it was Hal’s problem or if there was really something awful about me. I don’t know what I will tell my parents or even my friends. I’m not even sure what I can tell myself, whether we really could have worked it out in the end. All I know is that he left me, and I will make my own path.
“Your journey is over, dear raccoon,” I say. “And so is mine.”