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I glanced at the clock as I eased my tiny blue car to a stop. 11:10. If I hurried, that would give me just enough time to get home before lunch was over. As unnecessary as it was on the abandoned country road, I quickly flicked on my turn signal and left the relatively smooth chip-and-seal for fresh, loose gravel. Griffin road was not unfamiliar to me—I had traveled up and down it dozens of times throughout my then seventeen years. It isn’t a very long road, just a stretch of dirt and rocks that winds through a thick pocket of forest. The only things that made the road special in any way were a far-fetched supernatural story and its notoriety for being a short cut to a local camp. I personally had been taking the road to get to summer camp every year from the time I was six.
Even so, there was one portion of the road that always brought out the cautious side in me. About midway down the road was a steep hill. Not even eleven years could guard the uneasy feeling that always rose from the pit of my stomach as I neared the top of it. I turned the radio down to just above a whisper, barely louder than the tiny droplets of rain sprinkling down. I slowed the car to a sluggish ten miles-per-hour as I began creeping down the hill. For a few seconds that felt like an eternity, my nerves were dialed down as I listened to the quick taps of loose gravel hitting metal.
As I neared the bottom of the hill, the rainfall became harder. I tensed at the sudden chaos but I reminded myself that it was just rain, just a hill, just temporary. I continued my drive down the hill, my back ramrod straight. A sigh of relief escaped my lips as I reached the bottom of the hill. I instantly scolded myself. I had been through this too many times to be worrying about the hill. If anything, I should be worried more about a car shooting from around the narrow curve. It was just a road, a simple country road.
My body relaxed, only to instantly clench back up as I felt the back of my car jerk to the right. I griped the steering wheel with both hands as I tried to correct the vehicle. Confusion clouded my mind, panic joining it as I felt myself losing control. I pivoted the car to the left, right, left, right once more before my whole world began to spin into a swirl of green, brown, and gray.
My jaw fell slack as I realized what was happening. A strange calm fell over me as I registered a tree that seemed to be sprinting towards me.
I am going to die, I thought. I snapped my head in the other direction, not wanting to see. Everything went black.
The world slowly drifted back to a blurry existence. I felt a sharp stabbing pain near my rib cage that seemed to be cutting off my air supply. I doubled over, gasping, and rested my head on the steering wheel as the pain evaporated and I could once again use my airways. I wildly looked around as my mind tried to comprehend what had happened. There were branches—or were they bushes?—lying on the hood of my car. My head rolled to look out my window, noticing a tree too close to my face for comfort. The only visible barrier between my head and the tree was the jagged remains of the car window still jutting out from the door. I felt panic creep in as I wondered what happened to my window. Frantically, I checked my lap, my hands, even the car floor for the remains of the glass, but everything was clean. A sick understanding leaked into my head. Carefully sitting up straight, I leaned out of the door and looked on the ground.
My stomach churned as tiny shards of glassed glittered at me from among scattered twigs and mud. My hands flew to my face, feeling for any pieces of glass otherwise lodged into my skin. Tears burned my eyes as I blindly clawed through my purse in search of my cell phone. Snapping it open, I tried not to panic as I punched in the numbers. When my mother answered on the other line sounding cheery as ever, I could not keep my voice from cracking as I spoke.
“Mommy,” I struggled to speak, still slightly dazed. “I think…I think I—I need you!”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, alarm and worry etched in her voice.
“I think I hit a tree,” I choked out as tears started to run down my cheek.
“I’ll be right there, don’t move,” she ordered before hanging up the phone. After our conversation ended, the phone slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor. I looked at the clock once more.
I took a moment to process what had happened. The first thought to run through my head was the unavoidable fact that my parents were probably going to kill me. Just two weeks shy of having my license for a year and I cause my car an unknown amount of damage less than five minutes from home. Frantically, I patted my body, examining every limb looking for some damage but oddly everything seemed fine. Save for the tiny drop of blood that was sliding down my one of my pinky fingers, nothing seemed out of place. I took a deep breath and carefully moved myself to the passenger seat. There it was: a shooting pain split down the left side of my body. I'd probably wake up tomorrow with bruises galore. I picked my phone up and grabbed my purse, but my hand hesitated on the handle. Did I want to leave the car? It was at a weird slant, stuck in a ditch three or so feet deep. Broken branches and leaves hid any damage there may have been to the front of my car. Judging by the state of the window, I could tell it most likely was not a pretty site.
"Hey, are you okay down there?" a voice shouted. I swung my head around, wincing slightly at the pain. A large dumpster truck was stopped on the road. A portly man with a beard was leaning out the window.
"Do you need help?" he asked. I opened the car door and got out, stumbling a bit as I stood up.
"I crashed my car," I said, stupidly. As if he could not see the wreckage in front of him.
"Do you want me to call someone?"
"I just called my mom, she's on her way." He nodded.
"Do you want to wait down here, or do you want me to give you a life to the end of the road?" I looked at him wearily, hugging my arms to my chest. If there was one thing my parents had pounded into my head over the years, it was the rule of Stranger Danger. Never get into odd vehicles with odd people. He seemed to realize my internal battle. The man pulled a card out of his wallet and held it out towards me. "It's okay, I'm from Animal Care and Control."
Still unsure, I slowly made my way to the truck. I took the I.D. out of his hands and examined it as if I knew how to tell if it was fake or not.
"Do you want me to take you to the end of the road to wait?" I handed him back the card, nodding. He pushed the door open and scooted back to the driver's seat. I struggled to pull myself up the high cab. He restarted the truck and continued driving down the road. My eyes followed the tiny blue car as we drove by it.
"Thank you," I murmured, so quietly I was not even sure he heard it.
"Don't worry about it. You know, it's the craziest thing, my son crashed a little further back on the road not too long ago. It happens all the time. They should just close it off, it's not safe." I nodded in response. Still dazed from the accident, I was only half-paying attention. He stopped the car when we reached the end of the road, tapping his fingers awkwardly on the steering wheel. "Hey, do you want a kitten? I'm on my way to get a stray out of a tree right now."
I looked over at him, my eyes widening. My brain was processing things slower than usual. I shook my head, wanting to tell him that I had just gotten a new cat the week before, an orange tabby from the same organization he works for. Just as I was about to, a golden van, dusty from the dirt road, turned on to the road.
"That's my mom!" I exclaimed. He stuck his hand out the driver's window to signal my mom to stop. I was already walking around the front of his truck.
"She's up here," I heard him say as I reached the other side of the truck. My mom had a worried look on her face. I walked as quickly towards the van as I could. My mom shouted a 'thank you' to the man as I slumped into the passenger seat. One of the little girls my mom babysat was playing in her car seat. She looked up when I closed the door, her eyes wide with happiness.
"Bit-knee!" she exclaimed. "I had chick nuggets for lunch!"
I gave her a weak smile, but my attention was soon turned back towards the road as we neared my car. My mom glanced over at me.
"Are you okay?" she questioned, her face plastered with worry. I opened my mouth to respond, but stopped when I heard sirens. We both looked out the rear window to see a sheriff's car coming to a stop behind us.
"What's he doing here?" I asked. I didn't call 911. Or did I? I couldn't remember.
"That guy from Animal Care and Control must have called it in." I stared, my gaze intent, as the officer approached. My mom put the window down.
"I got a call that there was an accident. Was that for you girls?" he asked. I couldn't tell if his tone was unkind.
"Yes, my daughter's car hit the tree," my mom replied. The man turned his attention to me.
"That you?" I nodded silently. "How fast were you going?" I paused, wracking my brain trying to remember.
"10, I think. Maybe 15. Not any faster than that though, it was raining and I don't like driving." I could tell by the look on his face that he didn't believe me.
"Are you sure?"
"I...I..." I wasn't sure.
"Brittany doesn't normally speed, we got on her all the time for going under the speed limit," my mom added, trying to ease the tension.
"Were you texting?" he continued.
"No, no I didn't-wasn't-no." But had I? I know I sent one when I was stopped at the stop sign. Had I sent another message after I turned onto the rough road? Why couldn't I remember? Either way, I knew I hadn't convinced him otherwise. He patted the top of the van.
"Well, I'm going to call in a tow truck, and then check out the hill real quick. Do you have anything left in the car?" My mom beat me to the response.
"She has crap everywhere in it, we'll go ahead and get it out." The officer nodded. He walked back to his car and picked up a cell phone.
"You just crashed your car, you would think he could be a little less of a jerk," she scoffed. She turned back to the little girl sitting behind us, still oblivious in her own world. "Annie, honey, I'm going to help Bit-knee clean her car out, you stay right there okay?"
"Okay DeeDee!" she chirped, not even taking the time to look at us.
"Mom," I said. She stopped, the car door half open, and looked over at me. "Mom, I wasn't texting." She seemed taken off-guard when I said that. "I wasn't." My voice was more sure this time. Slowly, she began to nod.
"I know, sweetie. I know." We got out of the van and began moving all of the belongings from my car. Soon, the sheriff came back from the bottom of the hill and walked over to us.
"Well, it looks like you hung on for quite a bit there. There's obviously new gravel that's been put down in the past couple of weeks, so that was most likely the main contributing factor, seeing as how your car is so little." He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. "This is the lot we'll take the car to, you can pick it up whenever you want. It's off St. Joe." My mom took the paper and smiled.
"Thank you so much for your help, officer."
"You should take her to the hospital and get her checked out, I'll wait here until the tow truck comes."
We finished getting my stuff and started to drive to the hospital. When the car started moving, I could feel my chest tightening. My breathing quickened and I knew that the tears were close. I turned my head towards the window in hopes that my mom couldn't see. It was to no avail. I didn't have to look, I knew that she was glancing at between me and the road.
"It wasn't your fault."
But wasn't it?
My experience at the hospital was as terrible as I expected.
You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to form a coherent sentence when a blur of white coats are bombarding you with questions and an unbelievable migraine is creeping its way from the base of your skull to the middle of your forehead. It was the same questions over and over again; what happened? Did you black out? Because that’s never a good sign. Describe this. Describe that. Where does it hurt? How long were you out? My head was spinning at all of the questions I didn’t have the answers to. They wanted to take an x-ray of this, and an x-ray of that, and maybe a CAT scan of whatever. It was all so confusing, and even then the worst part of it all was the disapproving looks from every nurse and doctor who spoke with me. All they knew was a teenager had crashed her car into a tree, and no other cars were involved. They made of their opinion of me as soon as they heard the story.
I had a few hellish bruises coming my way, but other than that it was as if the accident never happened. The tiny, itsy-bitsy scratch on my pinky finger was even virtually unnoticeable now. It is unbelievable how I had escaped it, given the state of my car. It didn’t make sense, they kept saying. It didn’t add up. The entire ride home, I listened to my mother rambling on about it. I, frankly, didn’t want to think about it anymore but she obviously needed to talk about it and I could at least listen to her. She was going on about how close the accident was to her father’s grave.
"He must have been watching over you," she said. "He must have been your guardian angel today." I didn’t respond. It was one of the few times I’d ever heard her refer to him in a completely positive manner. But my mind was somewhere far away from Heaven, in the complete opposite direction. Maybe I had seen one too many Final Destination films, but all I knew was I had escaped death. Did that mean somebody else was going to die in my place?
I didn’t spend too much time pondering that. The truth is, I simply didn’t want to know.
In that moment, all I wanted was to be alone. I wanted to go home, cuddle with my cat, and binge-watch anything I could find until the memory went away. Even now, I can still picture the tree hurtling towards me. I can still remember what I thought right before impact. It wasn’t your life that flashed before your eyes; it was your fears. It was the simple realization that most likely this short instance, this single moment that was entirely preventable, was going to result in death and I was the only one in the car. I never heard the sickening crush of metal. I never heard the crunching and snapping of wood as my car made contact with the trees. Everything was silent except for the phrase ringing loudly in my head: the seemingly unavoidable truth that I am going to die.
But I didn’t. And I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t scare me.
I was more than relieved when we finally got home. I took the first two pills from two one-time prescriptions of heavy duty pain killers and muscle relaxers. It took less than 15 minutes for then to knock me out. My next two weeks were a blur. I spent the majority of them unconscious, occasionally coming-to so I could pee, sometimes eat a bit of food, usually so that I could take my next daily double-dosage. The closest thing to conversation I would participate in was small talk with my family, usually my parents asking if I was okay. I didn’t even glance to see how many text messages I had.
I wanted to be alone. That was something that no one seemed to understand. I didn't want to talk about it, I didn't want to discuss it, and I definitely didn't want to go and look at the crumbled blue mass of metal sitting in our drive way. The only thing that I wanted was to be left alone with my own brain.
Or so I thought.
As it turns out, leaving myself alone to think was the worst possible thing I could have done. It was when I was sitting there replaying what had happened on that tiny road. Images of the broken brush, the metal that had folded like paper, the scattered curves of bare road where my twisting tires had pushed all of the gravel away, they would all hit me at once. My body would freeze up in terror; my eyes would involuntarily squeeze shut. In my mind I would relive those four minutes over and over and over until my head ached so bad that not even pain killers could numb the pain. There were so many questions that I needed the answers to. Why had my car started swerving after I was already down the hill? Did I black out when I hit the tree or faint from the sight of the tree zooming in my direction?
The question that troubled me the most was: why didn't I have more injuries? It seemed not only unlikely but impossible. The sheriff said that my head must have smashed the glass of the window out. Why were there no shards in my head? Why did I walk away with a tiny cut on my littlest finger and bruises that felt worse than they looked? And why the hell did my parents act like they didn't care I smashed up a car I'd had for less than a year? It didn't add up. Even as I sit here and write these words down I question the probability. Was it possible? Surely it wasn't impossible. But my family was notoriously unlucky. Of course, in my young, half-drugged state of mind there was only one logical explanation. I had seen enough soap operas, I could tell the signs.
I was obviously in a coma.
That's right. I convinced myself that I was living in a world that was actually not real at all. What's more, I would take everything that happened and put it under a magnifying glass, searching for some inconsistency that would prove something was not right and I would be able to use my inner strength to will myself out of my prolonged sleep and everything would go back to normal.
I am not joking. I am not exaggerating for the sake of a story. I had myself convinced for weeks that I had not, in fact, made it out a-okay. For all I know, I could've been right, and I'm still in a coma, and nobody is actually reading this because I'm not actually writing this because this is a fictional world inside me head.
This was a very real concern for me. And then, when I realize how stupid that was, the seemingly legitimate possibility that I might have gone crazy was a very real, very troubling concern for me. More than anything I needed to talk to someone, but I knew that the only person who would take my words and not slowly back away or laugh in my face would be a mental professional and I knew that my dad would never go for that. No one wants to say they have an insane daughter. So I kept my mouth shut. I distracted myself with living life. Eventually, I came to terms with the ridiculousness of my theory. I stopped looking for explanations. I focused my attention on being happy and enjoying myself and eventually I moved on and didn't have to pretend to be happy. Before I knew it, the start of my senior year of high school was just over a week away and my mom and I were driving home from getting my senior yearbook photo taken. That was when it all fell apart one last time.
With one call from my older sister, every nightmare and theory and sinking suspicion I'd ever had came rushing back. All I could think about was the plot lines of the Final Destination movies. I couldn't breathe, I could hardly think. A new question had carved its jagged letters into the very front of my mind.
Did I cause that?
It was a normal summer day. My mother and I were leaving the photo studio. The windows were down and my hand was surfing on the wind. The sun was shining, the air was fresh, and the radio had played five good songs in a row. Then my sister called. She was frantic. A news story had come up on the television that prompted her to text and call all of her close friends, and then some. Somebody else had crashed, a girl, a teenager like I was. At first, it was just another story on the news. Police cars and ambulances, reporters from newspapers and news station, and bystanders who had followed the sirens gathered. This was bigger. Then they announced the location of the crash. It was less than two miles from my school, just down the street from my best friend’s house. I started texting and calling all of my friends, anyone I knew who could’ve been driving those roads at that time. There was no guarantee that it was one of my classmates. As evil as it sounds, a part of me was hoping it was a student from the Christian school the next district over.
By dinner, everyone knew that the girl in the accident was from my school. Everyone knew she was registered to start her senior year the following Monday. Everyone knew her name. Everyone knew she was speeding. And everyone knew she was not wearing her seat belt. I heard through the grapevine that she had been texting as well, but I have no way of know if that’s true and I hope that it wasn’t. Our entire class was up in arms, not to mention the rest of the school jumping on the grief bandwagon. Her close friends were a a wreck. Facebook groups were created in her memory, a memorial service was schedule complete with a walk to the site of the accident. Carpools were planned for the public viewing and pictures were popping of people who had gone to the accident site in search of wreckage that didn’t get cleaned up. One guy posted pictures of a plastic baggy full of shards of blood red taillight glass. The bag was marked “Relics from Lizzie’s accident” in bold black marker. It made me sick.
I attended the public viewing because I felt like I needed to be there from my friends. I had no right being there. I knew her, but I wasn’t a part of her life. The entire time I felt like I was trespassing. We waited an hour in line to get to her casket, and when we got there I instantly felt sick. I hadn’t cried over the news of her passing, but now I could not stop the tears. She didn’t look peaceful—she didn’t even look real. It was as if somebody took a wax dummy and stuck it in a casket. Her eyes were closed, covered in glitter as per usual. She looked like a copy of the real thing. It was surreal. I saw two of my friends, the two who had considered Lizzie a best friend, crying in a pew. I went over there and hugged them, trying to give them peace that they wouldn’t have for a long time. I walked into that place feeling horrible, and I walked out feeling guilty.
Everyone was so upset about Lizzie’s passing, and rightfully so. There was an urban legend of sorts that was always attached to the student body at my high school, that every couple of years a class set to graduate on an even year, or some mumbo-jumbo like that, lost a student. There had been rumblings the year before that the next year, my senior year, fell on the bull’s eye. There were speculation that we would disprove the theory. I had made it out of my accident scotch-free, but Lizzie’s life came to an abrupt halt.
My mind cut back to only a few weeks earlier when I was fearing that I was got in some real-life Final Destination scenario. I had cheated death, so now death had to cheat someone else. I had almost forgotten about it but now it was fresh in my mind. I was afraid that my survival had caused Lizzie’s death. I was overcome with guilt and anguish and I was too afraid to talk about it to anyone. I didn’t want to make it about me. I couldn’t look her friends in the eyes, couldn’t listen to the song that was sung at her memorial and yet at the same time I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
“If I die young, bury me in satin.
Lay me down on a bed of roses.
Sink me in the river at dawn.
Send me away with the words of a love song.”
The white cross on the side of the road with colorful flowers and a handful of cheap lighters glued to it with candle wax.
“I’ll be wearing white when I come into Your kingdom,
green as the ring on my little cold finger.”
The image of the Chinese lanterns floating up into the air, one by one fading into the deep blue of the night sky.
“Who would have thought forever could be severed by
the sharp knife of a short life?”
Post after post showing up on my Facebook feed of people posting daily about how the miss her, how it was too soon, she was too young, she was in Heaven sitting on a pile of glitter making friends with every angel up there, and I was too ashamed to hide the posts or remove myself from the group because I felt responsible and I didn’t want to be disrespectful.
“The sharp knife of a short life."
Even months later, in January, it was too much.
I needed to get away.
I had to go.
I told my mom that I was going to hang out with my friend. It wasn’t unusual for me. She had no reason to think I was lying. But I was.
I started my older sister’s truck, the one I had been borrowing to drive to school. I turned out of my neighborhood, headed in the direction to the house. But instead of turning left at the intersection, I went straight. I followed the road until I was on chip-and-seal instead of pavement. I passed the road I collided with the tree on. I kept driving until I was pulling to a stop in front of a small dingy cemetery. It took me a few minutes to dig up the courage, but I was running out of time. I had to be out by sundown, and it was already getting dark.
I pulled open the rusty gate door and walked down the aisles until I reached the slab of rock I was looking for. I stank to my knees and starred at it. It was weird. The only times I’d ever visited my grandfather’s grave was with my family on Christmas Eve to put a wreath over his grave or on hikes from the Girl Scout camp down the street. I was feeling so many things: anger, confusion, sadness. Silent tears traveled down my cheeks like slugs.
"I don’t know why I’m here." No one could hear me. I was alone, but for the first time in months, I felt comfortable saying what I wanted to say. I felt like I was talking to someone.
"Everyone keeps telling me you were a ‘not-nice’ person. What does that even mean? And you’re gone, and I’m here but I should be gone. But I’m fine, and I should be happy, but I’m not."
"Did you help me? Was that you? Or did I just get lucky?"
"I hate you."
"Why? Why am I here and she’s not?"
"Her car was safer, her road was safer…"
"She was so much better than me." I buried my head in my hands and leaned into my knees. I stayed like that until dog barks pulled me back to reality. I looked up, stars studding the sky, and saw a man standing on the porch of the house across the street. Probably the caretaker. I lifted my hand in recognition and stood up, dusting my pants off in the process. With one last glance, I hurried out of the cemetery and into the truck. When I got home, I checked to make sure I didn’t have puffy eyes before going inside my house. I ate dinner with my family, laughed with my siblings, and played tug-of-war with my cat. That night was the first night in a long time I went to bed and my brain was consumed with something other than the possibility that I caused a death.
I still think about the accident occasionally. I still think about the trees and the rain, the pills and the emptiness in my head when I took them. I think about my grandpa and wonder if he was my guardian angel. I still think about the Lizzie and her glitter, but most of all, I think about me. I think of how I could have died but I didn’t, and how Lizzie could have survived, but she didn’t. Now I realize that my escape had nothing to do with her end. I wasn’t in the car with her. I wasn’t an integral part of her life. The fact that I was so consumed by the idea that I somehow caused her death is a disappointment to myself because what happened to Lizzie was what happened to Lizzie, and it wasn’t supposed to be about me or anyone else. I know that now. I accept that now.
I can’t ride in a car without my hands jolting to cover my eyes at every mildly sharp turn. I cringe at the sound of rain crashing on to glass, or the squeak of it being wiped away. I turn my radio to practically zero when I drive on gravel roads, and jump at every resounding thump of gravel hitting against the car. Those four minutes, while such an insignificant proportion of my life span, have affected me more than anything else.
My family still pokes fun about my horrible driving skills.
They still joke about how when most people crash their cars, and ambulance comes, but when I do Animal Care and Control shows up.
This isn't me telling you not to text and drive, although you really shouldn’t. Okay, maybe it’s a little bit of me tell you now to text and drive. This isn't me telling you to enjoy life or to remind you of how fickle and short it can may. This isn't me seeking out your sympathy.
This is me telling you what happened through my eyes. This is me saying what I feel. This is me telling a story I have to tell to move on with my life.
This is me coming to terms with myself.