What does that look like to you?
Marguerite pointed out the window of the car. She indicated with her finger a large cloud in the blue sky that was vaguely the shape of a living room, complete with couch, coffee table, and a television showing the evening news. The cloud broadcaster was discussing the implications of a recent scientific study of the North Pole as an airplane flew through his face and displaced his puffy nose.
Michael ducked his head down and squinted up at the cloud through the bluish part at the top of the windshield.
I don’t know. It’s a big, knobby cloud.
No, it’s a dinosaur, Marguerite said, because she hadn’t noticed the cloud’s resemblance to a televised news broadcast playing in an empty room.
That night, in the hotel, they had quiet sex, but Michael worried that they were a little loud. Naked in the moonlight from the window, Marguerite and Michael looked blue like the top of the windshield. The cloud in the shape of a televised news broadcast drifted overhead, drawing conclusions about sporting events. All this really happened.
The dead dog episode was difficult for both of them. Coming down from the mountains in New Mexico, they came to a part of the highway with stoplights. You could see them from a long way off, like the slightest skeletal sketches for a town that wasn’t built yet: just the streetlights where the crosswalks would someday be. Michael made a joke about ghost towns, but Marguerite somehow misheard him and thought he said something about a rural America full of skeletons.
Then Michael saw the dog on the side of the road. It was trotting on the shoulder of the highway, its tongue lolling out, its one visible eye narrowed in the huge shine of the bright sun as it looked back at the advancing car.
Look, Marguerite, look at that dog.
Oh no! What’s it doing here?
I don’t know. Should we stop?
Can you stop here?
I don’t know, do you think it’s dangerous?
Marguerite twisted her head around and glanced at the traffic behind them.
It looks pretty clear. You should have space enough to stop.
As Michael slowed down, the dog bounded out in front of the car. He was still going about forty miles an hour when he hit it, and all he could really think of later was the dog’s idiot grin as it disappeared under the hood, its tongue happily spilling out of its mouth like a pink rag.
Marguerite covered her face with her hands and Michael repeatedly shouted OH! louder than he could remember ever shouting before, causing Marguerite to quickly draw her hands from her eyes to cover her ears, though she immediately re-covered her face and cried into her palms while Michael pulled to the side of the road. He didn’t think he could stop and go back. It was an accident, and the dog was surely dead.
Oh my god! Michael said.
A-huh, a-huh, a-huh, Marguerite cried.
The day after killing the dog, Michael and Marguerite didn’t say much in the car. They were both filled with huge guilt and sadness. What are you supposed to do when you hit an animal? Normally, you do nothing. But a dog is not considered to be an animal by most people. A dog is a person. Not a human person maybe, but a dog person. So really the question was more like: what do you do when you hit a person? This question carried Michael and Marguerite on its back like ugly, weeping children.
A few days later, Michael and Marguerite were gripped—in a final, inevitable slackening of their sadness over accidentally hitting the dog—by a deep and relaxed good humor. They laughed at jokes. It was Marguerite’s idea. Michael came out of the truck stop vending machine room with two sodas, neither of which were the ones that he and Marguerite had wanted. She laughed at him, and her laughter went straight into his body. He could feel it fill his chest like breath. He just shrugged and handed her the unwanted sodas, which, they concluded later, were among the greatest-tasting sodas of all time.
Later that same day, in the car, they decided to play the Game of Questions. Marguerite went first.
Okay, she said, if you were the shoreline of an ocean, what would you be littered with?
Michael maneuvered his mouth into a grimace.
Oooh, he said, that’s a good one.
Give it some time.
Okay, I will.
Later in the hotel night, they lay next to each other on the bed, silently communicating. They were counting white noises: the sound of the air conditioner, the sound of the pipes, and a persistent buzzing, as though a large lighted sign were somewhere nearby, not glowing but still humming its rrrrrrr noise.
I’ve got it, Michael said.
You’ve got what?
What I would be littered with. If I were a shoreline.
There would just be one giant, beached whale, but when you got close to the whale, you would realize it was mechanical.
And then you find a hatch. You hear something inside, like a lapping sound. When you open the hatch, it’s just filled with water, the whole mechanical whale filled with ocean water. So then you dive inside the whale and find a bunch of weird controls. And then there is a small whale swimming around inside it, hiding near the back. It’s the opposite of a submersible. It’s a surfacible that whales built so they could come ashore. I would be littered with surfacibles.
Marguerite was silent in response.
She stayed quiet until they both fell asleep, letting Michael think that she thought his whimsical idea was silly. And she did think it was silly, but she also knew that she would dream about Michael’s whale machine and that her dreams would be like an animal vacation. She liked the idea that when she dreamed, she wasn’t diving down, but instead coming ashore.
Crossing out of the desert and ascending back into the mountains, Michael and Marguerite traveled for a day under green skies. They were afraid there might be a severe thunderstorm or tornado—as a panicked radio broadcast suggested—but nothing happened. The sky remained the same color as the United States on the atlas Marguerite held open on her lap. Her black skirt fluttered in the wind from the open window of the car, and the page turned violently. Soon the sky was blue again, like the ocean on the page the map had turned to.
They took a wrong turn. In a small town, they stopped at a small grocery store. Michael loitered in the back of the store. For some reason, he was mesmerized by the bagged ice. The idea of putting ice in bags and selling the bags seemed to be one of the greatest acts of salesmanship in human history. Michael had never been one to admire salesmanship, but now his admiration—it bordered on soaring affection—was so strong that he considered buying all the bags of ice he could afford. At this precise moment, Michael was one of the greatest customers of all time, but it didn’t last and he turned back to the front of the store.
When he went back up to the front of the store, Marguerite was talking to the tall man behind the counter. She was telling him about the dog they had hit a few weeks previous. Michael winced.
It was horrible, Marguerite was saying.
Yeah, man, the tall man said.
Later, they drive across grassland in which the grass refused to kneel in the wind and stood up like frightened hair.
When you kill an animal, the event stays with you. Michael thought of it this way at first, but then decided that it’s the opposite. The event doesn’t stay with you. You stay with the event. Look down at your hands, in which you are suddenly carrying your bags. Then you walk up to the event. Some people spend a little time loitering on the porch of the event and eventually find a way to move along and walk down the small, twisted street, but Michael felt himself knocking on the door of the event. The door opened, and he walked in. The living room was full of strange, mis-proportioned furniture. Marguerite was there. She was lying on the floor of the event. Michael lay down next to her on the floor of having killed an animal. They were going to sleep there for a long time.
They were driving through a forest of unusually short trees. They had been chatting pleasantly for a few hours, but now had fallen quiet. Michael was a little sick of what he felt was the teamwork of their grief. Marguerite wanted simply to think about the mechanics of other things.
I don’t want to feel bad about it anymore.
It was horrible.
I still think about its face. The grin as it went under.
One dog eyebrow almost half-raised.
Such a small thing.
I think this has ruined our vacation.
There was a brief silence and then one of them said that the trip had never been about vacationing.
After they traveled back and forth across the country, they returned to the city. From far off in the plains, moving into denser and denser traffic, they could see its towers rising from the crescent curve of the bay. The ocean stretched away to the horizon. The kind of birds they could see floating around in the highway air were different all of a sudden.
Ocean birds, Michael said.
Marguerite looked up without squinting. It occurred to Michael that she never squinted. He couldn’t recall her squinting even in the bright desert days way out on the parched highway. And she never held her flattened hand over her brow in a protective salute. When they had sex, she never closed her eyes.
The city was bright in the evening, like an advertisement for the daytime, which even the evening liked better.
It wasn’t much longer that they were together. In fact, they realized later, the car trip had been a sort of ruse. It was a cunning attempt to trick themselves into believing they had a set of experiences. But in fact they weren’t bound together securely at all. They had merely wanted circumstance and feeling to bind them together.
That last day in the car, a long time before they broke up, actually, they played Game of Questions one last time. Neither would remember later that this particular instance was the final time they played.
Marguerite was always better at Game of Questions than Michael.
She asked him, This question is a door that closes behind you and locks: what are you now locked out of?
MH Rowe’s fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Juked, Spork, DIAGRAM, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.