There was a tunnel a thousand feet up ahead, but I wasn’t stupid enough to walk on the narrow road all the way to the other side, no matter how sparse the traffic. I sat on my pack with my thumb out and grinned at passing trucks, watching each one disappear into the underground passage without even a flicker of brake lights. I was taking the shortcut, but somehow the shortcut was longer. Hardly any cars used the rural highway that cut between the mountains. Most cars took the interstate. It took longer to find rides, but I was still a free man.
Finally, a rusted sedan pulled onto the shoulder. One mirrored black window rolled down. “Where ya headed?”
“I’ll let you know when I know,” I said to the driver. His eyes narrowed until all I could see were wide black pupils between the parenthetic wrinkles on the edge of each eye. My reflection smiled. I made myself harmless, game. Ready for anything until he opened the door.
“Hey, thanks,” I said. The driver swerved back onto the road and sped toward the tunnel. The world became dark, river-smelling and damp like the wormy underside of a stone.
I’d been hitching for days through the territory with no surface, sleeping at night under what cover abandoned shacks could provide. The highway felt endless. It wouldn’t have been so bad to walk a little more—to skate along the subcutaneous crick that ran through life among the wild and sovereign. But the sun was going down and I was still too close to where I came from. An ugly offense committed somewhere back west. A whole country away by now, but there are some things a person just can’t ever shake from their essential nature.
The driver talked for ten minutes straight, taking a breath only when he reached down to an empty pack of cigarettes and dug around with his finger. “You got a smoke?” he said. I didn’t. A vial popped up from around his neck, hidden until then between the folds of his half open shirt, up to his nose for a sharp inhale. His monologue ramped up again, becoming half conversation, half muttered to himself, so I drifted in and out of the speech nodding and shaking my head when he needed a rare response. “So now I got this new plan and the risk is high but the payoff is big, my friend. I’m talking hot items for high rollers, you know?” Underneath the driver’s words, I heard a rustle from the back seat as the car approached another dark underpass. I turned around. The man’s rapid speech muffled like he plunged the car into a lake.
It appeared to be asleep, but something about the way it laid there, neck looped in a collar of worn rope lashed to the door handle, told me it wasn’t. As the tunnel submerged us in darkness, its eyes opened. They burned low and even. Before this, I knew the world as it was presented to me, knew the shape and temperature of things. But now there appeared a tear in the seam, a serrated gap in the fence just big enough for true chaos to slip through. In that moment, danger was slow to cross my mind. What preceded instead was culpability—the gut-level feeling that this creature knew some transgression I had committed by the desperate smell of my drying sweat, and I was staring into the warm, hateful eyes of atonement.
We were reborn in light. A hand reached past me and landed on the fur.
“This here’s Calypso. She’s going all the way to Clark County.” He patted the animal and she stirred, lethargic and simmering under his hand. Not asleep. Drugged. Small and thin, most likely young and underfed.
“It’s a leopard,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” said the young man, looking at me puzzled as if I hadn’t been listening to him. “Like them Saudi princes got.” He reached into his cigarette pack and circled one dirty finger around the opening. “Damn,” he said as he focused his glassy eyes on the rapidly unspooling road. “Out of smokes.”
“I’ve decided where I’m going,” I said. “It’s back there. You can drop me off here and I’ll catch another car.”
The driver shook his head. His hair fell over his eyes. “Can’t stop now,” he muttered and pressed the gas a little harder. “We’re flying, my friend.” My fingers dug into the seat with one hand. The other hand gripped my pack. I craned back to see the animal. She was sitting almost upright, eyes fully open and unfocused. The creature looked at me but I felt she was looking beyond me, beyond the protective reasoning that makes me human, into the blood, muscle and bone that makes me animal. She panted as she wobbled to stand. I watched her return to the state that fit her body. I yanked my handle but the door stayed closed.
As I fumbled for the lock, the driver made a sharp turn into a small parking lot for a disintegrating roadside store that materialized out of the mountain. The leopard’s legs buckled. The shoddy collar slipped off her neck.
“I need smokes.” The driver shut the door behind him, spitting on the gravel as he stumbled toward the entrance and leaving me alone with the wild animal. In the few slow seconds I remained in the car, the smell caught up with me. Both flavors of hot pumping blood and old rotted meat hit me at the same time. Coming from the leopards mouth as she sat up panting was a fog of stale decay and stagnation cycling in and out of her body, as if from the inside of a musty cave. But I did not turn around to look. Instead I made a dizzy break for freedom, stumbling with my pack in one hand and pushing off the gravel with the other and breaking through the wall of trees separating the highway from the interstate. I never heard the car door slam.
I know the proper interstate is risky, but I hurry in that direction, picking my way through the trees. I run until I reach the road. Once I get there, I will hail a truck headed clear out of state. I will do all of this when I make my way out of the woods, when I can no longer hear the low whisper of her paws behind me, keeping her pace, demanding her dues in an ancient rite of compensation.