By Zach Murphy
Pete and Richard’s orange safety vests glowed a blinding light under the scorching sun, and their sweat dripped onto the pavement as they stood in the middle of the right lane on Highway 61, staring at an opossum lying stiffly on its side.
Richard handed Pete a dirty shovel. “Scoop it up,” he said.
Everything made Pete queasy. He once fainted at the sight of a moldy loaf of bread. Even so, he decided to take on a thankless summer job as a roadkill cleaner. At least he didn’t have to deal with many people.
Richard nudged Pete. “What are you waiting for?” he asked.
Pete squinted at the creature. “It’s not dead,” he said. “It’s just sleeping.”
“Are you sure?” Richard asked as he scratched his beard. He had one of those beards that looked like it would give a chainsaw a difficult time.
“Yes,” Pete said. “I just saw it twitch.”
Richard walked back toward the shoulder of the road and popped open the driver’s side door of a rusty pickup truck. “Alright, let’s go.”
Pete shook his head. “We can’t just leave it here.”
“It’s not our problem,” Richard said. “They tell us to do with the dead ones, but not the ones that are still alive.”
Pete crouched down and took a closer look. “We need to get it to safety,” he said.
Richard sighed and walked back toward the possum. “What if it wakes up and attacks us?” he asked. “That thing could have rabies.”
“I don’t think anything could wake it up right now,” Pete said.
Richard belched, “It’s an ugly son of a gun, isn’t it?”
“I think it’s so ugly that it’s cute,” Pete said.
“No one ever says that about me,” Richard said with a chuckle. “I guess I just haven’t crossed into that territory.”
Just then, a car sped by and swerved over into the next lane. Pete and Richard dashed out of the way.
“People drive like animals!” Richard said. “We’d better get going.”
Pete took a deep breath, slipped his gloves on, gently picked up the opossum, and carried it into the woods.
“What are you doing?” Richard asked. “Are you crazy?”
After nestling the possum into a bush, Pete smelled the scent of burning wood. He gazed out into the clearing and noticed a plume of black smoke billowing into the sky. The sparrows scattered away, and the trees stood with their limbs spread, as if they were about to be crucified.
“Jesus Christ,” Pete whispered under his breath.
Pete picked up the opossum and turned back around.
Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories appear in Reed Magazine, The Coachella Review, Maudlin House, Still Point Arts Quarterly, B O D Y, Ruminate, Wilderness House Literary Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and more. His debut chapbook Tiny Universes (Selcouth Station Press, 2021) is available in paperback and e-book. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly in St. Paul, Minnesota.