“My life is over.” Those four words flash dumbly across my consciousness as I try to piece together what’s happening around me. But my brain can’t process the stimuli fast enough. I can see a woman running, desperately, towards me. I can hear screaming – a different woman screaming from someplace. The shrieking is everywhere, an unending, pulsing keen that has no center. Parents grab their kids, herding them close to their bodies, the dusk revealing only their outlines and giving the scene an indistinct but sinister quality.
Nothing makes sense. I only knew that something is horribly wrong. I’m in the middle of the road, in the dark, with noise and confusion everywhere. Again.
It’s October 31st, 2003, almost 7 years after my accident. I’m certain I’ve killed somebody.
* * *
The trick or treating starts early in the afternoon. Blue sky. Autumn sun not yet in its terminal phase.
No point in walking the local streets in the dark, risking the shaving-cream and silly-string wielding hordes of teenagers who will soon claim the pavement. My wife and I snake our way through the neighborhood. She’s pushing my younger son in his stroller while I walk ahead with our five year-old. He has reached that age and level of sophistication where the word “Halloween” elicits a visceral and visible excitement. (The kind of joy that causes his younger brother a few years later to proudly proclaim to me, in February, that he knows the costume he needs to get that day for the following October.)
Our little parade of fitful starts and stops results in a jerking progression through the neighborhood that reminds me of learning to walk with a prosthesis. Uneven, short steps for 15-25 yards. (Now – try not to trip over son whose costume and generally distracted state compel him to gravitate into the black hole between my legs; then, drive prosthetic heel firmly into ground while firing remaining muscles in my leg to make sure knee fully extended upon impact to prevent the dreaded Fall). Stop. (Now – watch miniature Toy Story character race as fast as short legs can carry him up driveway to collect the ransom he’ll never ingest; then, collapse into chair, assess whether suction of prosthetic socket sufficient to keep prosthesis on body for another cycle or not). Repeat.
After an hour of this on-again off-again journey around the block, light fading, it comes time to pack the kids into the car to head over to their grandparents’ house for pizza. And pictures. And exclamations about the originality, uniqueness, and, well, flat-out all-around wonderfulness of the two little boys masquerading as the characters they play with every day.
We strap the kids into their car seats. Buckles click after forcing the metal over the extra fabric of the costumes. I tell my wife to be careful when driving. Bad things happen when you have that many people walking the streets in the dark.
She leaves before me. I have no idea why. There can’t be anything more important to do at that time on that day. And yet, apparently, there is, as I’m not in the car with them.
Traveling in two cars to a house that’s 12 minutes away expands our carbon footprint to a retrospectively unacceptable level. But, unconcerned that night about our impact on the future of all humanity, and with some task to perform that’s so important I can’t remember it today, I stay behind.
By the time I climb into my car, it’s nearly 5:30. The popping blues and oranges of the fall day now cede to the fugue-like gray that eases you rapidly into the true darkness of night. It happens so fast at this time of year. In the summer, the transition from day to night drags on from late afternoon until almost 9 pm. But now, that same metamorphosis occurs like flipping a switch: day/night, day/night.
The orange glow of the car’s cockpit surrounds me. I back out of the driveway, gravel crunching under the tires. I take a left, and head slightly uphill and around the 90 degree curve that will take me to the main road in less than a minute. Mindful of the pressing darkness, conscious of how quickly things can change, and wary as the parent of two boys who themselves cross the street with the competence of a drunk squirrel, I scan for the breakaway kid who will materialize in front of my car before I can react.
Crawling up the street, a cluster of parents and young kids walk on my right. Maybe eight people, total. As I approach, I gave them an extra-wide berth, their eyes searching the windshield of my car for verification that I see them, and I reacting in kind. I drive by. And that’s when the screaming starts.
What the?! I look in my rearview mirror. They’re already 30 yards behind me. I’ve gone safely past, but . . . and it hits me. One of the moms has detached herself from the group and is chasing me down the street at a dead run. Oh my God. She’s trying to catch me. Somehow, despite my countermeasures – slow speed, extra space given, heightened sense of awareness – some child is now being dragged underneath my car. I’m tearing someone’s kid to pieces.
“My life is over.”
The certainty and finality of that phrase crosses my consciousness. And then, in that instant, I understand why hit and run accidents happen. Panicked, I brake to almost a complete stop, but then step on the accelerator again, the screaming causing my adrenaline to pump at dangerously high levels. I can’t feel anything under the car. What does it feel like when dragging a body that’s trapped under the chassis? I’ve seen people driving for miles on the highway with an orange cone under their vehicle. Is it like that? Is it like a stick that gets dragged for a short distance before snapping, and you feel the release underneath, the sudden freedom from the obstruction escorting the car smoothly forward?
What do I do? Stop and confront? Pretend nothing’s happened? Keep driving in the hope this will somehow magically correct itself?
Check rearview mirror again. Nothing. Sideview mirror. Jesus! There she is and closing fast as I sit on the brakes. Oh, Christ, I can’t pretend that I’m oblivious. Shift the car into park.
The screaming is everywhere. I curse the day I got a convertible. The black cloth top blocks out noise only slightly better than rolled up newspaper.
I spastically lurch out of the vehicle, adrenaline surging so severely that my voice shakes, and I croak the same words to the fast-approaching mom that I uttered as I lay, broken, in the middle of road almost seven years earlier: “What the hell happened?”
By the time I finish the sentence she is almost even with me. I get no response as she races past me and continues up the street. I look back the way she has come. Where’s the body? The blood? Why is she not reaching under the rear bumper? Why look for the child under my car in front of me?
The screaming . . . I jerk my head around and look towards the main road ahead. And then I see her. A young woman, still in her teens, hands over her mouth racing back and forth, the sound exploding out of her as she races like a dog pinned to the back of a burning house: ten yards to the left, then ten to the right. Ten to the left. Ten to the right. Her heavyset upper body straightens and hunches uncontrollably as she moves, and the noise explodes out of her like a shockwave that I can almost see.
The Running Mother reaches her and puts her hands out, imploring. Praying? No conversation takes place. The screaming woman grabs her hands and then begins the frantic song and dance again. I have no idea how long I stand by the open door of my car, how long Running Mother stands ahead of me, how long the young woman screams.
Suddenly, Running Mother shoots past me going the other direction, cellphone in hand. “What happened?” I shakily ask, barely able to hear myself over the pounding in my ears.
“Her little brother was just hit by a car.” The words sit in the air as she vanishes into the darkness.
I fall back into the driver’s seat, so amped up I can barely control my limbs. I turn my car around to avoid driving onto the main road past what may look like the accident scene I have no memory of from seven years earlier. I end up, somehow, a short time later at my in-laws’ house. I have no memory of the roads I travel to get there.
As I walk into the brightly-lit kitchen, laughter and happy noise engulfing me, my wife looks at me and asks, “What took you so long? We were starting to get worried.” I feel like I repel the color and light.
I gaze unevenly back at her. “I thought I ran someone over and killed them.” The words hit the room and everything stops. And then I realize that’s the difference between lying broken in the street on the one hand, and acting as the catalyst for the destruction on the other.
As the broken man, I remember the speed of everything. The voices swirl around me, too fast to catch. I try to see what’s happening but my eyes and head move too fast to focus on any one thing. I race into unconsciousness. I wake up to set goal after goal after goal – don’t stop moving – all the way through a 10k road race four months after my accident. And then I keep on moving, back to work, into fatherhood, racing past every opportunity to slow down and rest.
But as the protagonist, it’s the opposite effect. The air gets sucked out of the world. Words that normally flow from my mouth with the speed and ease of a runaway train can barely escape through my constricted, choked throat. My body can’t move – I’m paralyzed. And I’m capable of nothing, except registering those four words: “My life is over.”
More than a year after my accident, I meet the man who was driving the car that hit me. He approaches me, shaking, and through his sudden sobbing, bursts out, “I’ve dreamt about you every night!”, grabbing me fiercely and burying his head in my shoulder. He can’t escape his role in that late-night roadway play.
I’m still moving today. But for a few minutes on October 31, 2003, I know my life has stopped. Forever.
Victim. Catalyst. Fourteen years this December. One hundred and twenty seconds that October. One flashes by so quickly that I can barely keep track of it. The other extends interminably into the future, a nightmare near-miss memory that I will never erase.