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Dead Canyon





Flash Fiction Short Story

Irene drove through Dead Canyon in early February. She always called it that in winter. The life in the trees long since drained away, dribbled down the inside of bark and out roots. The leaves fell and crumbled to nothing. Animals slept, fled, or died. The ice on the road never melted. Two cars slid through the railing that year.


The headlights of Irene’s Hyundai flashed over the second crash site, now marked only by the broken guardrail and a single orange traffic cone.

A month earlier someone strung a banner on the cold-metal barricade: In loving memory of Emory Waters. Now the railing stood bare except for a coating of icy phlegm. The poster gone. Blown away or taken down—folded up or burned.


Irene glanced at the drop-off in her rearview and a memory prickled her scalp. Mr. Hunter’s science class—the pucker of his fish-lips, his buzzed hair and trimmed mustache, the giant foam finger that he used to point at the whiteboard—all of it clicked over her vision like Powerpoint slides. A poster of one cell becoming two. A map of where the tectonic plates lean against one another, carelessly toting the world on their backs.


She saw herself in the second row, god-awful bangs on her forehead and a bulky, chipped heart pendant knocking against her sternum. Small-breasted and thin-limbed. Her eyelids, heavy with boredom, half covered the diagram projected over the pull-down screen.


A ball perched at the top of a sloping line, another ball at the bottom. Or maybe they had been cars, and the line had been a craggy, snow-covered canyon wall.


End of slideshow.


She wondered if Emory Waters thought about potential energy when she went over. Maybe after that first impact where she mangled the guardrail into a straw wrapper, everything went silent and her brain pulled out a memory of her science class. Her hair rose up to the ceiling of the cab, and she sucked in the heated air, and the music still played on her radio. And she thought about potential and kinetic and how little it took to go from one to the other. Then her car tipped forward and tumbled through trees and boulders, and Emory thought of nothing at all.

The needle on Irene’s dash pointed to 30. She didn’t dare go faster in Dead Canyon, especially now that she had the blastocyst. That’s what the doctor had called the three-week-old ball of cells that clung to her uterus, and Irene decided she would call it that too. Ice slicked up the road that night just like every night since late November. No one else braved the winding roads—just Irene and the blastocyst.


Irene clenched her way around another outcropping of the canyon wall.

A raccoon stood in the road. Its round eyes lit up with her headlights and one fingered paw raised. Irene saw the raccoon before she made it out of the turn. The animal froze in the center of her lane. She swore she could detect fear in its barely-open mouth.


Irene’s foot snapped away from the gas and flew to the brake, but she hesitated over the pedal. Braking on the ice would send her car skidding into the canyon wall or the guard rail. Somewhere in her hazy moments of indecision, it occurred to her that if she died, no one would ever know about the blastocyst. She would be Irene Roundy, 17-year-old victim of Dead Canyon. Maybe her obituary would feature a picture of those horrible bangs, before her breasts came in, and her hips filled out.

Still her foot hung over the brake pedal.

She thought about the pale pink dress that she had picked out with her mom three weeks earlier, long and tight fitting. Plastic gem stones decorated the bodice and bled down onto the skirt. She thought of the threads snapping, the jewels breaking free from her swollen stomach and glittering on the gymnasium floor. She thought of the navy graduation gown and the hills of her body underneath it. She thought of sweat on pale skin and thin arms, the hollow bumping of hip bones, the way she cried into his chest afterward and watched her tears skirt around his nipple.

Still the raccoon stood frozen, its fur rustled by the frigid winter air. The muscles in Irene’s legs tightened. The headlights bore down on the animal. The clouds shifted overhead. The moon spilled blue light over the husks of trees. Irene tightened her fingers on the steering wheel and put her foot back on the gas pedal.

She hit the raccoon.


Then the sickening roll-over, up and over the soft fleshy body, so slow she should have been able to stop it. She should have been able to stop herself. Irene didn’t put her foot back on the gas pedal. She slowed to a stop fifty feet from the raccoon’s round form, her car’s energy spent. Irene put it in park and stared at the raccoon in her rearview for a long time, one hand on the door handle, the other on her stomach as though comforting the blastocyst. As if her small, sweaty palm could say: you’re different, I wouldn’t do this to you. Nausea expanded her throat. She felt her heart through her belly button.

Irene got out of the car and walked to the raccoon. She looked down at the light that gleamed off of its still-wet eyes. She thought of holding its tiny hands.

“It was me or you,” she said, still clutching her stomach.



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