THE RED STRING • by H.M. McInnes

The prairie stretches toward the horizon like a dry Midwestern sea, the wind whipping it into waves the color of antique gold. Music faded into gentle static miles ago; the only station left is a constant stream of verses from a preacher’s deep, drawling voice. Noah’s still got eight hours on the road — eight long, boring hours with a broken CD player and no other drivers in sight — before he reaches his hometown. He left the last motel early, hoping to spend the evening with his sister before her high school graduation. A few miles back, the car’s tires caught on potholes and dips in the ill-paved highway. Now, though, his secondhand pickup glides over the smooth road like a kingfisher over water. Noah’s eyelids droop and snap open again and again.

The front fender slams into something. Noah’s foot smashes down the brake pedal. The car jerks to a stop.

He leans his head against the steering wheel and tries to remember how to breathe again. His heart pounds so hard his chest hurts. His shoulder aches where the seatbelt cut into him. He unbuckles the seatbelt and it recoils on its track, snapping against his thumb. His fingers shake so hard he drops the keys twice as he turns off the car. He takes a deep breath in and lets it out slowly before he gets out of the car. Noah’s legs tremble on solid ground.

A dog lies in the road: a large, brown, floppy-eared mutt out of place in the prairielands. Noah feels a fluttering rush of relief that it’s not a person, and a nauseous twist of guilt right after.

He could drive away.

The dog whines, more breath than sound. One look at the twisted tangle of blood and bone that used to be its back legs tells Noah that he can’t lift the dog into his car without killing it. The nearest town is hours away. He pulls his cell phone out of his pocket. Maybe he could call a veterinarian, or some other kind of help. A tiny red ‘x’ flashes over the signal bars. No reception.

He could drive away. People hit animals and drive off all the time.

He thinks of the dog dying alone in the dirt and dust, miserable and ignored. His throat constricts with shame.

Noah holds out his hand and murmurs soft nonsense words because there’s nothing else to do. He expects it to growl. The dog’s cold, wet nose tickles his fingertips. It licks his hand and looks up at him. Its irises are the same grayish sandalwood brown as his little sister’s eyes. He scratches the dog behind one ear, surprised when it presses into the touch. His fingers catch on a ragged piece of bright red string tied around its neck: the remains of a makeshift collar.

Noah sits down next to the dog and waits. For twenty minutes, he pets its short, soft fur. He tells fairy tales and nursery rhymes until he runs out of words.

When it’s over, Noah unties the string from the dog’s neck and loops it around his rearview mirror: a cherry-red reminder.

H.M. McInnes lives in two places at once with her dear friend E and the imaginary prospect of a cat in the future. She likes bite-sized fiction, strong coffee, and the color teal.

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