By Kaitlyn Griever
You have so much to do today that you scalded your tongue on your morning coffee because there simply was no time to wait for it to cool. There is a grocery list running through your mind—the eggs, the milk, the cheese, and maybe a chocolate bar because you’ve had a long day. Impatiently, you get in your car and slide across the worn leather seat. You slip the key into the ignition and wait as the engine turns over once, twice, three times before sputtering and choking to life. With one hand on the wheel of your beat-up Toyota Camry, you reach out to fiddle with the radio. You smile smugly to yourself as you flick to the classical station and think about how your best friend only lets you listen to the top 40 countdown. But today it is just you. There is something authentic and peaceful about the slow roll of violin strings cracking over the old sound system in your car.
You navigate the meandering roads of your town effortlessly and thoughtlessly. You could make this jaunt in your sleep. Right, then left, straight for two miles and a sharp left. Your mind begins to wander to the left over Chinese from last night that you really hope that you put in the fridge, and how you have been telling yourself for three days straight that you really need to call your grandmother. Today you are in no mood for the traffic backup in the center of town or the screaming kids that pile up at the cross-walk by the school. You roll down your window in time with your rolling eyes and fling an arm out into the crisp October air. Your fingers tap out the steady rhythm of the symphony on the metal of the car and you roll forward in peaceful silence.
As you slowly pass the middle school, still mentally planning your excursion to Stop and Shop, you are interrupted by the sound of metal crunching metal. At first the only sign that something is wrong is that suddenly the crescendo of instruments harmonizing over the radio system is not the loudest thing in the car. And then your senses are assaulted all at once. Visions of a red minivan coming out of nowhere and sandwiching a small four-door car against a light post stream before you, before your eyes become trained on the patch of white cloud in the otherwise clear sky. The smell of burning rubber and smoke from a deployed airbag permeates the air, leaking in through the open window on your driver’s side. Your foot slams down on the brake so fast that you nearly spin out as your own car comes to a screeching halt. Your chest comes into contact with the tough nylon of the seatbelt, and while you ought to be seeking out those involved in the accident your first instinct is to reach for the base of your throat and rub soothing fingers across the angry red skin of your neck and think about the mark that it will leave. Finally, you pull your car safely up to the curb and stagger out of the door. Your fingers reach for your cell phone automatically, dialing the 9-1-1 that you have practically practiced since birth and never needed to use. And it has been a total of fifteen seconds. But you know what they say about accidents—blink and you’ll miss it.
The dispatcher’s voice crackles through the phone line, but you don’t hear the tired woman on the other end because you have discarded your phone on the lush grass by the library in the center of town. For a second you marvel at how green the lawn is for an unusually cold fall when you are brought back to the task at hand by a shrieking woman planted next to what used to be the library sign. The sign used to be proud and erect, framed by daffodils in the spring and bright like a white picket fence, but it has been plowed over, now lost between two parallel tire tracks and some scrap metal. A woman in the distance wails, a horrifying groan that resonates deep within your soul, and you are distracted. But you are also unprepared.
When you think of fatal accidents, you think of carnage. You think of trauma and ambulances everywhere and chaos. No one tells you that sometimes when people die on impact, you don’t even see them bleed. You had no idea that sometimes the people who have it the worst are the ones that look absolutely fine. A woman in a long white sweater streaked in blood is bent over the body of the driver. She was the one who was crying, you realize as she looks you in the eye and tells you that the body on the ground has lost its pulse. And you hear what she is saying, and you understand the awful truth of it, but you are also captivated by how bright green her eyes look set in between her blonde gossamer eyelashes and how, even though you are sure that she was a passenger in one car or another, her hair still looks perfectly coifed. The only sound that can be heard now is the whimper of the woman over the body. An old man, about seventy, to your right looks at you with understanding eyes as he nods you in the direction of the police. You were the first witness. But you do not even know what you just saw.
With shaking hands, you give your statement. You explain how it felt like you were watching a movie, powerless to change the outcome of the events. You think of how the person died in an instant, but how the death was not like it is in the movies. No, this was real. There was no blood spilling everywhere or unnatural angles of the limbs. Someone was dead, in an instant, and you are about to swing open the door to your car and make your way to the grocery store. How are you supposed to sit in the refrigerated section and ponder which brand of milk to buy when you have just seen something like this? Your feet feel as though they are glued to the asphalt, and even the idea of getting back in your car and continuing your trek to the grocery store makes your stomach lurch. You are about to go on with your day while someone is not even going to get to take another breath. It could have happened to anyone, and it definitely could have happened to you. In fact, in ten seconds your body would be pinned to the lamppost instead of shaking like a leaf in front of the kaleidoscopic blue and red lights of a police car.
As you shut the door to your car with a shaking hand, flick on your blinker, and ease back onto the road your mind keeps picturing the accident that was just sprawled out on the library lawn before you. You drive on, you continue your day because really, what choice do you have? But you are careful to stop the whole three seconds at every stop sign, to look both ways more than once before pulling onto the streets in front of you. You look at every red minivan in fear. The accident is over, yes, but what you saw stays with you. You see it over and over in your mind, a constant loop of the horror and the fear that you felt. And you recall how the police on duty had asked you how you remembered so clearly what had happened after you relayed your story and gave him every sight and every feeling that you had been through. And you still think about your answer. It twists your gut and wrenches your heart up into your throat, but you couldn’t look away even if you wanted to.