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It's not that fatals are beneath me.
It's just that these days, no newspaper reporter jumps into her car and rips off to an actual car accident scene. We settle for getting the facts from the cops over the phone. Partly, this is because we're so understaffed, but partly it's a sad fact that fatals are rarely front-page news anymore, just an exploitation of all-too-frequent tragedy, the ultimate senselessness of blood and gore.
I never would have even been on that road, that late, aloneexcept that I had to pee.
I was coming back from another assignment, a god-awful political banquet in Connecticut, and I'd taken an exit off the highway hoping to find an open service station. At the end of the ramp, I found a Mobil. But it was closed. It was raining and much too damp to squat outside. I'd run a 10K race in this area a month ago, and thought I'd remembered a Wendy's or some sort of fast-food place nearby. I headed left out of the driveway.
The road narrowed, and the trees grew fuller to form a canopy that blocked out the sky. The only source of illumination came from the weak headlights of my Honda, and I knew that the Wendy's I'd remembered was nothing more than a wishful thought, a bladder mirage. I had just about decided to turn around when I saw streetlights ahead at what looked like an intersection.
On my left, there was an old farmhouse, set back, but with a falling-down garage close to the road. As I passed, the porch lights flashed on, and I saw a woman standing in the doorway. She was in silhouette, but I could still tell she was an old lady. What was it, I wondered, the narrow shoulders? The posture? And then, before I could decide, I saw it, a weird sputter of light ahead, just beyond the intersection, in what looked like woods. A car, taillights out, was crashed into the tree. A flicker rose from the hood.
I was pretty sure that I was still in West Bay, which meant it was the bureau reporter's job to get this accident from the cops in the morning. I admit itthat was my first thought. But then I realized the cops might not even know about this accident yet. That there might be a human being trapped inside.
I crossed the intersection onto what had become a dirt road, pulled up behind the car, and jumped out. Wet, grassy air mixed with a bitter petroleum smell. My nose twitched, and I wanted to jump back into my car and seal the doors. But by now, a shot of adrenaline had boosted the caffeine in my bloodstream.
The car was a Ford Taurus, the front end crumpled with the kind of violence that makes you stop and swallow, and I could taste the smoke that rose from the gap where the hood was hinged. I ran to the driver's-side door and found it ajar, which should have alerted me that something was weird.
But by this time, I was fairly distracted. There was enough light from the interior light and my high beams to make out the form inside, a female body thrown sideways, across the console from the driver's side so that her head was on the passenger seat. The windshield was cracked at the centerline and the driver's-side airbag was deflated.
"Are you all right?" I shouted through the window. Clearly she wasn't all right. She hadn't been wearing a seat belt, and her hair was bloodied. Her head must have hit the windshield.
"You've got to wake up," I shouted at the woman. "Get out of the car." The woman did not move.
The flame at the hood sputtered. It was still small, but the clouds of smoke had grown thicker. I grabbed the cell phone out of my pocket and fumbled, trying to turn it on. Nothing. It was completely out of charge.
Think, Hallie, think. On the floor on the passenger side, the contents of the woman's purse had spilled out. I leaned into the car, trying to see if there was a cell phone anywhere. Wallet, makeup bag, date book, crumpled store receipts, a gold and black pen, and a can of Mace.
A city girl, I thought. What was she doing way out here? But at the moment, my main concern was communications.
You weren't supposed to move anyone who was injured unless you knew what you were doing. And I sure as hell didn't know what I was doing. I could feel the heat of the flame. How long before the entire engine compartment went up? Before this whole car blew?
I stepped away from the car, and my shoes sank into the wet grit of the road. I needed to get help. I ran back toward the farmhouse. Just as I got to the intersection, I spotted a flashlight making its way toward me. Behind the flashlight was the old woman, wearing a nightgown, bathrobe, and one of those clear plastic rain scarves that fold up into a bag. She was probably seventy-five years old. Underneath the rain scarf, I saw long, dark hair that couldn't possibly be real.
The woman stared at me. "Looked like that car had it out for that tree."
"Hit it twice. I seen it from my porch."
"Did you call the police?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"Go back and call 911. There's a woman in there, badly injured!"
She turned and headed back toward her house, moving at old-age speed. "Run!" I shouted after her. "Run as fast as you can!"
Adrenaline took over, making me forget about my bladder. I raced back to the car. The flames were now blazing in the damp air.
In the backseat, I could see a soccer ball, a crumpled McDonald's bag, and a couple of Disney figurines that looked like they came from a Happy Meal. This woman might have a child. Maybe more than one.
I made one last assessment. I'm slight, barely five feet four, and not exceptionally strong, but this woman looked even smaller than me. The smoke was getting thick and my eyes burned. If I was going to do this, I should do it now.
I reached into the car. As I crouched over to lift her, I could see that she was about my own age, midthirties. She looked Hispanic, with light mocha skin and dark auburn hair spattered with blood. There was a stillness about her I didn't like, and her lipstick had dried on bluish lips. Around her neck, she wore a silver cross with a tiny diamond chip in it. I slipped my arm under her back. "I hope I don't totally mess you up," I said.
But just then, I heard the siren, and looking behind me, bright lights flashed. A cop jumped out of a police cruiser with a fire extinguisher, pulled me away from the car, and headed to the hood, where he doused the flame. Behind the cruiser were a fire truck and an ambulance. Two firefighters and an EMT rushed out, following the cop to the car. Within minutes, they'd extracted the woman from the car and secured her on a backboard.
"Is she going to be all right?" I asked.
No one answered.
As the ambulance pulled away, the cop, extinguisher still in hand, guided me back to my own car. He was a tall, stocky man in his midthirties, whose eyes looked swollen, either from exhaustion, or maybe the fumes.
He asked me a laundry list of questions, about what time I'd gotten there and if I'd seen any other cars. Then he asked for my driver's license and registration, which I handed over.
"You live on the East Side, huh?" He squinted at the address on my license. "What you doing in West Kent at this hour?"
I explained about the assignment in Connecticut and how I was looking for a rest room. "I work for the Chronicle."
His groan suggested that he wasn't pleased with this development.
"I'm going to need to get her name. And your best guess as to what happened," I said.
"You're gonna have to call the station in the morning. The captain has to clear any release to the press."
Given the hour, this seemed reasonable. It was past deadline anyway, and with the adrenaline subsiding, the pressure in my bladder was back. I wanted to get the hell out of there and find some place to pee. I may have forgotten to tell the cop about the driver's door being open, but I did suggest that he go up to the farmhouse and talk to the old lady.
He denied it later, of course.
Copyright © 2007 by Jan Brogan. All rights reserved.