The RAV4 sits like “exhibit A” on the blacktop outside of our apartment, facing me with its little dent; that dent outlined by a smear of red paint. Even when I walk out of the room, it draws me back again, “here I am,” it says, “I’m right in front of your door with my blood on your car.” Of course, it’s not blood.
My head hurts from being awake all night, checking on the dent, as if it would disappear like a bad dream. But this is a living nightmare and it isn’t going away, dent or no dent.
It is the day after our trip from the coast, a Saturday morning when my husband and I are off work, normally his day to cook. Mitchell sits across the kitchen table from me thumbing through his phone, searching for a barber. He's already showered but not shaved. Odd how he’s wearing the same dirty sweatshirt from yesterday.
Our shaggy mutt, Sammy sleeps in front of the TV which is tuned to the nature channel. I like to think it's for her, but she sleeps whether or not it's on.
"I hardly slept a wink," I say.
"Yeah, I know. Every time you got up, I woke up too. You're going to drive yourself crazy. And me.”
Normally we'd be talking over our plans for the day. It's as if we are on hold, waiting for life to pick up the phone and say, "Hello, Riley. Hello, Mitchell. You are exonerated. You may continue your lives now."
I flip through a House Beautiful magazine absentmindedly and sip my coffee. It sears the surface of my tongue, sending me shrieking to the sink. Mitch is silent. I'm not even sure if he notices.
The toaster oven dings and suddenly I realize smoke is pouring out; the English muffins are black.
“Want one of these? I can scrape off the burned part."
“Nah, I have to get going,” Mitch says. He throws his phone on the table, stretches both arms straight up, and groans, pushing his dark curly hair away. “Okay, I’m going for a haircut.”
He gets up and steps behind me, bends down, and looks out toward the car. “Now that I see it in the daylight, it’s not as bad as we thought.” He takes two quick tugs on my ponytail. “Quit obsessing, will you?”
I look up at him, turn my mouth down, exaggeratedly into what he calls my poopy-face.
“Try not to think about it. I’ll see you in a few hours.” He kisses the top of my head, then my cheek, his bristly face pokes at my skin. “I’m not taking the SUV,” he says, closing the door behind him.
I toss the brunt toasts at the trash, miss it, pick them up and dump them into the wastebasket, wipe up the black crumbs scattered on the floor, stand up, and look outside. My neighbor, Mrs. Brewster, I call her Mrs. Busybody, is headed toward the dent. She lumbers to her old Chevy, carrying a bin of recyclables overflowing with paper and glass.
“Don’t look down, don’t look down,” I whisper.
The woman goes around to the rear, opens the trunk, and pushes the armload in. She looks in my direction and I duck down below the window. A door slams and when I peek out, her car is gone.
It happened on our way home from an overnight at the beach. We were like two kids, high on life after a day of unusual winter sunshine and Pacific Northwest endorphin-ific air. The winding two-lane road was deserted and Harry Styles' tunes were playing on the stereo.
We were in the market for our first house, and lately, that’s all we talked about. Mitchell was telling me about places in our price range. He held his phone up to me. “Here, check this one out,” he said, "this is a beauty."
It was a lovely mid-century house with trees and a yard, better than most starter homes we'd seen.
I was in the other lane. The driver, my God, he looked right at me, his face contorted. We swerved, glanced against each other, front fender to his rear; it spun like a toy.
It happened so fast. The car was there and then it wasn't. There was no place to stop or turn around or do a U-turn. I slowed down but on the curves, even that was dangerous.
“Call 911,” I screamed. “Oh God, Mitchell, hurry up.”
“There’s no cell service,” he shouted. “Keep going, just keep driving.”
My heart was in my neck. Mitchell was beating on the dash, shouting, “No, this can’t happen. Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he said it a dozen times, maybe a hundred.
“Oh God. Riley. I’m sorry."
My heart was still going crazy; he's sorry, I'm driving, I can't think straight.
"He went off the road. Mitchell, he went off the road!"
“The accident a few months back?"
I barely understood him. "What are you talking about?"
He yelled, "Insurance. I'm talking about the accident we had. It was our third in three years. The rates. They went through the roof. I couldn’t pay it.”
We argued. By the time we reached the next exit, his phone was dead and he used the service station’s phone to call 911. I waited in the car, while he reported the accident.
Thinking about it makes my head pound and the bright sunlight makes it worse. I pull the blinds halfway down and pick up the stack of fourth-grade papers that need to be corrected; essays on The Tale of Despereaux, a fable about mice and royalty and love and mistakes and unintended death.
Angela Acer’s paper is on top. She wrote in neatly printed pencil that she liked the story a lot…she finished with “I like that there was no bad person”. I make corrections and comments, give her an A-minus and turn to the next handwritten sheet. It too has an unintended personal message for me. After the third one, I stuff them in a folder on the shelf.
Our wedding photo is on that shelf too. It's a posed, awkward-looking picture. I think of how I wanted my dress to show in full. My uncle had said such a handsome couple. My hair could have been better, blonder. I like that Mitch is a head taller than me, my handsome husband.
Sam shakes, rattling her tags, and wanders into the kitchen where she lays down beside my bare feet. My hand strokes the soft fur behind her ears. She lays her head on my lap and lets out a satisfied sigh.
It begins snowing with big heavy flakes drifting down, covering the trash cans, sidewalk, trees, and the SUV. I have fallen asleep in my comfy reading chair and wake up in the dark to my phone's alert. Mitchell has stayed out all day, now texting that he'd gone to a pick-up basketball game with his buddies.
The naked accusatory dent sits under the parking lot floodlights. I can't stop staring out the window, but I don’t see anything, only the man's distorted face and his eyes coming at me. I imagine him bandaged up, laying in intensive care.
Finally, I turn to the news channel. Sammy sleeps beside my chair on her side, legs out like a tipped cow, she snores the soft gentle sound of peaceful rest.
A petite blond woman holds a mike in her hand, blinks in the camera’s bright lights. “A man has gone missing on his way to the coast. His wife tells us she talked with him when he was a half hour away. He never made it.”
The reporter looks down at notes she has in her hand. “If anyone has any information about Bill Whitaker or his 2015 red Miata convertible, please call the number on your screen. Mrs. Whitaker is offering a reward of five thousand dollars for tips leading to her husband’s whereabouts.”
I feel disoriented; Mitchell had called the 911 dispatcher; they said they’d be there in five minutes. That’s what he told me.
“Come on Sam. Let’s go out.” The dog throws her head back and stands up wagging. She jumps in the backseat and lays down. I start the car, put the heat and defrost on high and brush snow off the windshield. The strangeness of the car's inside is like going back to the scene of a crime. My sunglasses lay on the console. The novel I’d bought at the coast lays on the floor with the title, The Secret History, smudged with dirty sand.
I put the car in reverse and drive out of the quiet lot along the snow covered road, everything is muffled. The gas light blinks on. My mind keeps going, the confusion keeps growing. At the gas station a gaunt-faced attendant smiles widely showing misshapen teeth. He repeats my order, “Fill up. Regular. You got it.” He takes my card and walks from my window to the gas cap on my side of the car.
I’m sitting under a spotlight, stupid move. My fingers thrum the steering wheel. Hurry up.
A police cruiser drifts by, heading in my direction. Suddenly I feel as if a giant arrow points to the dent. The attendant wishes me a good evening, “Stay safe,” he says.
I start for home thinking "stay safe" is a wasted wish. Who ever knows what the next second will bring. Flashing colored lights show up behind me, bright on the visor. I want to step on the gas, speed away as fast as I can. Only bad people do that.
This has gone far enough. I pull off the road, ready to confess. Ready to explain how we couldn't stop. How we called 911. But the lights go around me; the police car races down the road with sirens blaring.
Mitchell finally walks in, bleary-eyed and heavy, he throws his coat on the chair and flops down. We sit across the room from each other, with only one dim light on. Neither of us speaks.
I’d fixed beans and rice with taco chips for dinner. It's still Saturday but nothing is normal anymore. We sit across from one another at the kitchen table. Mitchell helps himself and begins eating.
Little by little the picture is becoming clear. My husband of five years, someone I dearly love, is someone I do not know.
I serve myself but can't eat, instead I move the food around with my fork and watch him.
Mitchell scrapes up the sour cream with a taco chip and stuffs it in his mouth. He has this nasty way of eating where he lets food fall out onto his plate.
“There was a thing on the news about a man who went missing on his way to the coast,” I say. I take a swig of Corona, the beer foaming out over the neck, making a puddle on the pinewood table.
Mitch keeps his eyes down, takes a giant forkful, stuffing his mouth until it is too full to talk. A piece of green pepper sticks to his chin.
He looks up.
“You didn’t call 911 did you? Did you?”
Silence hangs like a drop of cold motor oil at the end of a stick.
“Say something! Goddammit Mitchell.”
In my life, my other life before the accident, I trusted my husband, believed in him. But here, in this moment, I feel the crossroads in front of us. Which is not where I want to be.
Sam drifts in like a spirit dog and lays down at my feet.
Mitch says, “Look, it’s not only the insurance thing”
I interrupt him, throwing my arms up and say, “I can’t believe this. You’re willing to sacrifice not only a stranger’s life but our lives too, because of what, because of car insurance?"
“Not just that. It’s our future too. It could mean our jobs. Even jail time.”
“Who are you anyway? I’m calling the police. No matter what it costs.”
“The police? You want to call the cops? You’re ready for TV cameras? To be in the news, have your mother see your mug shot on channel six? Go to jail?”
Mrs. Busybody knocks on the wall, her signal to keep the noise down.
Mitch leans back, tilting on the two chair legs, he opens the refrigerator door, and slams it shut.
I reach for Sammy’s soft ears, kneading her scalp, scratching her head and shoulders until she shakes and fluffs the fur out again. I wonder if the man has a dog.
Later that same night, I open internet news. The indifferent anchorman looks into the camera. “The body of Bill Whitaker, age twenty-six was discovered in a wooded area along the mountainous highway, possibly a DUI. He’d lost control around a curve and had been thrown from the car.
His wife comes on the screen with a drawn expression and sunken eyes. “I don’t understand what happened. Bill hasn’t had a drink in five years.” She dabs her eyes. A collie mix with a graying muzzle stands by her side.
“Tell me about this critter. Who is this?” the reporter asks.
“This is Amigo. We’ve had him for thirteen years.” She loses her words for a moment. “He waits by the door for Bill. I coax him away but he goes right back."
I close the laptop and find Mitchell asleep in the bedroom. Maybe he can live with this lie, but I cannot. I need time to think. I have to get out of here; I grab my coat leaving Sam behind.
Past the dent, my grade school, the library. I wonder what Sam would do if I never came home. My fingers and toes started going numb, I have no idea how long I've been walking. I have to head back.
The apartment shines from a block away, lit up as if every light is on. My insides flap like a trapped bird. Questions rattle through my mind. Did the neighbor call the police? Where is Mitchell?
I think of the gun that he keeps loaded in the back closet. Two days ago, this would never have come to mind.
The front door opens before I touch the knob. A woman stands there; her mouth is straight across and stays that way. She's wearing a beige skirt and matching jacket, with a police badge.
“You must be Riley.”
Another woman waits in the kitchen and two uniformed officers sit at the table. Everyone turns toward me.
Mitchell’s gun, where is it? I yell, “Who are you people? Where’s my husband? What’s going on?” I'm screaming, “Mitchell!”
The bedroom door opens and Sam pads out followed by Mitchell. He carries an overnight bag looking pale and vulnerable. I put my arms around his shaking body, hold him as we both cry.
“I had to call them, Rye. For lots of reasons, but mostly because of you. The way you looked at me. Like you hated me. I couldn’t stand it. I shouldn't have lied to you. I am so sorry.”