by Ella Jakobi
“How far are we?” she asked.
“Only five hours from,” he replied.
They had been married for about a year and would not be together for much longer—a fact they both knew but were hesitant to admit. No one wanted to be the one to say it first. To be branded the one who ruined things.
A landscape of red rock and blue sky washed by the windows. It was the sort of view that was beautiful only for the first thirty minutes. Afterward, all that either of them would think—but not say—was how awful it would be to break down in the middle of nowhere. They wondered who would die first.
He was certain she would, by thirst. Or starvation.
She also thought she would die first but figured her death would arise from a tumble from a red-rock cliff. Or the bite of a diamond-headed snake. Or they could stumble upon an ancient civilization holed up between the I-90 and I-122, where she might be sacrificed as a beautiful woman. She thought of how her husband might weep if he saw her bleed. Oh, how he would weep then.
“Babe?” he said, breaking the silence.
“I love you.”
“Sweet. I love you.”
He drove thirty miles over the speed limit, but there were no black-and-whites to stop him. He did not want to wait around and play the patriarch if their car did break down: Everything will be fine, he would say. Calm down, even as he would watch his wife wither like a husk before him, scratchily complaining until her last breath.
His eyes blurred over the road, but he would not admit it. The last thing he needed was for her to drive. That would have been so much worse.
She thought about helping with the driving, but knew that even if he pretended to sleep, he would keep his eyes half-open so he could watch the road and ensure that she wouldn’t get them in an accident. Which wasn’t really the point, was it? She checked the dirt under her nails and looked pointedly out the window. If there was an accident, it would be an accident. She would try her best, but it would never be enough for his high standards.
Great, he thought, looking from the corner of his eye. She is upset again. Always always always ups—
When she said, “Look out!” it wasn’t a warning but a lightswitch, shifting the world to a whole other color: one brighter, like a surgeon’s chair. Suddenly more alert than he had ever been—even on that day in fifth grade when a soccer ball hit him in the face and he was certain he would die—he slammed the brakes. The car screeched on that toothpick road.
It was only as they slowed that he realized he wasn’t sure what they stopped for.
“What did you see?” he asked. Hands tight on the wheel. Heart rate ready to kill something.
She did not answer.
“Babe. What. Did. You. See.”
She lifted one shaky finger and pointed to the side of the road. There, lying on its side, was an escaped milk cow, toppled over on the edge of the asphalt, its hide the color of ruby wine. Long departed, it seemed to be.
Even from a distance, he could count four of its white ribs, poking out through stripped flesh.
But sitting behind the cow, and suddenly rising, emerged the head of a calf.
Brown, skinny, its cheekbones hauntingly sharp. Its beetle-black eyes yawned in their direction, blinking gently. As if the blinks were blown kisses.
After a moment it rose, and that was when they noticed patches of its legs were pink. And festering. It looked toward them, but did not walk. After a moment, it cried in their direction: a small, thirsty cry.
“Pity,” she said.
“Why did you tell me to stop?”
Her defenses were already up; her tongue was a knife behind teeth. “Well, it looked like it was more in the road, babe. Like, in the center. The road weaves, you know.”
The road had not weaved for miles.
He knew this; she did not.
See? he told himself. This is why I am driving.
“Poor thing,” she said, pressing her fingers against the car’s window—as if to touch the calf.
“Yeah.” He paused. “Do you want to help it?”
Her brown eyes trailed over the scene for a moment, her bottom lip trembling. There was so much she wanted to say.
“No, babe.” She shot him a weak smile. “It can’t be helped, can it?”
His jaw tightened, and he looked away from her. It was much easier to digest the image of the diseased calf on the side of the road. “No. Can’t be helped.”
“Should we hit it?” she asked.
First, he processed it like a joke. Second, he toyed with his seatbelt at the shoulder. Then, “You want me to wreck the car?”
“I was just thinking we could tap the calf!”
“Tap the calf?”
“You know, knock it over. Doesn’t look like it could run far anyway, Babe.” Her lip trembled all the more. “Seems like an awful way to die. Young and confused. Might as well end it quickly. Not…drag it out.”
He thought on this, or rather, pretended to think on this. But he was the one driving, and he shook his head. “Better for things to die out naturally. Not to rush nature, you know. More respectful for it to pass away on its own.”
“Sure.” He lifted his foot off the brake and let the car return to movement. The calf watched them slip by. “You know, death’ll be so easy, so simple, for something young like that. Like falling asleep. It won’t even realize it’s happened until it has.”
They continued down the road, and he accelerated the car, this time to thirty-five miles over the speed limit. At that moment, he decided that he was going to sit on the balcony of their hotel—alone, after she was asleep—and think about the calf, good and hard. To see if this was the right choice.
Minutes ticked by in the car, as slow as an apple dries in the autumn sun.
“Babe?” he said.
“Hm?” She was still looking out the window, in the direction of the calf.
He attempted a smile. “I love you.”
She adjusted in her seat, folding her arms and holding her breath, as if noise, any noise, would be an argument. She looked at the sky far away from him. “I love you, too.”
Ella Jakobi is a writer in Utah county who has never been married, but tends to write about marriage quite a bit. She enjoys aimlessly driving, boiling eggs, and rearranging the pillows on her couch so they look JUST right. She fervently believes everyone should write stories, even if they don’t show them to anyone, because, often, you can only find truths about your mind in the stories you tell yourself.
(Art) Born in 1996, Garcia grew up in Cache Valley, Utah and is in the process of receiving her BFA in studio art at BYU. Her artwork centers on meditative interactions with the land, through the use of her body, documented through video, photo, and installation.