The accident played out like a slow-motion action scene in a blockbuster summer movie. A blown tire, the car spinning to the right, wheel cranked to the left, overcompensating. A deafening crash into the guardrail, sparks raining down as it flew into the air.
Eli slammed on his brakes, jerking to a stop on the shoulder, barely avoiding the wreckage.
Tire marks painted the asphalt, broken glass sprinkled over the top like glitter. What had once been a car was now a crumpled heap of metal and plastic blocking the right lane. It had come to a rest on its side, the wheels in the air still spinning in a cloud of smoke and dust.
Eli pried his fingers off of the steering wheel, his knuckles stiff. His heart beat against his ribcage like a drum. Those three or so tense seconds had him feeling like he had just run a marathon. On the edge of a cliff. During a downpour.
When he opened the door, the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline assaulted his nostrils. A couple vehicles passed by hesitantly in the left lane, their drivers glancing over with horrified fascination. But three other vehicles stopped. Eli was vaguely aware of the occupants running up behind him as he stood frozen in place, holding onto the top of his door frame. Thump, thud, tap. Thump, thud, tap. They passed him, thump, thud, tap, and crouched in front of the car, trying to peer inside through the spiderwebs that were left of the windshield and rear window.
Urging his legs to move, Eli made his way to the group. His stomach clenched at the thought of what horror could be waiting inside. He knew better than most. He’d seen it before.
What struck him first when he reached the car was the silence. Four people, four strangers, huddled together, communicating their apprehension and indecision only through their eyes and drawn faces. Eli had been on the other side once. The one receiving a look of pity rather than giving it.
Then it was like someone called action backstage. A woman to his left, who Eli came to think of as Violet because of the vibrant color of her hijab, held a phone to her ear. She started instructing the 9-1-1 dispatcher to send an ambulance to McAllister Road, five miles west of Walnut, as fast as possible, that there were two victims — a woman and a baby.
Eli held his palm out and placed it delicately, hesitantly, on the roof of the vehicle. The touch a concrete reminder that this was real.
Two young men were alternating yelling into the car, trying to wake up the driver. Eli was suddenly struck by an intense feeling of déjà vu, but he knew it wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him. Memories he thought he had buried were now bubbling up to the surface.
…are you okay? Can you hear us? Hang in there! An ambulance is on its way…
A few more cars drove by, their wheels crunching the remains of one of the side mirrors. A flock of birds flew overhead as the sun drifted closer to the tops of the hills. It would be dark soon.
Eli turned to his left and saw a balding, bespectacled man, kneeling awkwardly on the ground, peering into the back of the car as he held a hat in one hand. The man was shaking underneath his tweed coat, but Eli couldn’t tell if it was from the sight of what was inside or a grievous effect of old age.
“Here, let me,” Eli said, gently grabbing the man’s patch-covered elbow to help him up. Patches took a step back and let Eli get closer to the window.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Eli leaned forward, practically pressing his nose to the glass. He could see the back of a baby’s car seat and a puff of curly hair sticking out of the top. “We have to get them out of there,” he whispered. “Let’s get them out of there.” Louder this time.
The others all turned to look at him and everyone started speaking at once.
“We can push the car over, get it back on its–.”
“No, the dispatcher is saying to wait for the ambulance. They could have neck injuries. We could paralyze them.”
“A neck injury is better than fucking dying.”
“Let us pray together. Lord, we come to you–”
“No one’s dying. Help will be here soon.”
“We are help. We can save them.”
“–for your guidance in this situation–”
A terrified wail broke through the commotion and brought all their bickering to a halt. It was the child. Alive. They breathed a collective sigh of relief, Violet and Patches hugging.
Eli took off his shirt, wrapping it around his hand. There were a few holes in the window. He started at the biggest one, wiggling his fingers inside and breaking chunks off as carefully as he could, not wanting it to rain down on the child. The crying became more insistent. Eli wanted to wail too.
The others stood shoulder to shoulder, Violet relaying information to the dispatcher, watching to see what Eli was going to do. Finally he had enough glass removed to lean inside the car. The boy, somewhere around two years old, was kicking and flopping his head around, clawing frantically at his straps. After examining the car seat and struggling with the latches holding it in place, Eli pulled his head back out. “I need a knife!”
One of the young men, who by the looks of his fresh buzz cut was straight out of bootcamp, handed over a pocket knife. Eli flipped it open and cut the straps holding the car seat in place. He took a deep breath and then inch by inch dragged it out the back window. He set it down gingerly on the shoulder of the road, stepping back as Violet rushed over to comfort the boy, handing her phone to Patches. “Leave him in the seat until medics come,” Eli told her. She nodded and sat on the ground in front of the child, softly singing in Arabic.
When Eli returned to the car, Army and the other young man, JD (based on the bottle of whiskey tattooed on his bicep), were kneeling near the front windshield again.
…we’re gonna get you both out of there…
Patches was standing facing east, hands clasped, no firetruck or ambulance yet in sight.
“She’s alive!” JD yelled, hopping up in elation.
Eli pushed the men aside, dropping to the ground in their place. The left half of the windshield was gone, the frame distorted like a smile in a funhouse mirror. He got lower, looking up through the empty space for a clearer view. Inside he could see a young woman, limply held in place by her seatbelt. She was moaning softly, as if caught in a nightmare. If only she knew the truth. Her eyes were closed, and if it wasn’t for the blood turning the woman’s blond hair to red, Eli would have thought she looked just like his wife had when she was sleeping.
…Sir, we have to get you to the hospital. She’s in good hands. She’ll be right behind us…
If Eli had known that was a lie, that it was the last time he’d see his wife alive, he would never have left. He pushed away the thought. “How long until the first responders get here?” he asked, turning his head around.
Patches mumbled something into the phone and a few minutes later held up a wrinkled hand. Five.
In Eli’s experience, five minutes could feel like days. “I’m going in.”
JD frowned. “You can’t fit through there.”
Eli stood up, rubbing the stubble on his face with one hand. “I’ll go through the back window.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” said Army. “Just wait. Help will be here any minute.”
The melody Violet was now humming floated peacefully around them. Although he couldn’t understand the words, Eli could sense that she was singing a lullaby to the child who could possibly end up motherless very soon. “I don’t want her to be alone if she fully wakes up.” His voice sounded only half as broken as his heart felt.
The two friends looked at each other and then nodded. Standing with their backs to the sun, their faces shadowed, Eli realized they seemed older than they probably were. Barely more than adolescents, yet they had recognized the value of a human life when they stopped their truck on the side of the road. Unlike the drivers that had passed by, in a rush to watch their favorite television show or meet a date for drinks or scroll through social media. Or go to sleep in their oversized beds.
…fell asleep at the wheel…
Eli swallowed the lump in his throat and patted Army on the shoulder. Then Army and JD stood on either side of the roof, pushing against it for stability as Eli slid through the back window. The woman was moaning louder now and trying to lift her head.
“Shhh, it’s okay,” Eli said quietly, not wanting to startle her. “Try not to move. An ambulance will be here any minute.”
“Aiden.” Her voice came out dry and raspy, like she’d been out in the desert for days with no water.
“Aiden’s your son, right? He’s okay. We got him out of the car.”
“What… what happened?”
Eli had made his way around the back seat and was now squatting on the door, holding on to the top of the driver’s seat. “You’ve been in an accident.”
…I’m afraid I have bad news…
“You’re going to be okay,” he said, even though he could see how ashen her complexion was, how her collarbone was trying to push out of her skin. Her hand was lying limply against the shifter and he gently placed his on top.
…hemorrhaging… multiple skull fractures…
A burst of fresh sobs rang out from the side of the road.
“Aiden.” An attempt at a yell. “Aiden, mommy’s here.” The mother finally opened her eyes. They were bloodshot and hazy. “I need my baby. Please.”
“You’ll see him soon. I promise. The best thing you can do right now is stay still and wait for the emergency crew.”
…we did the best we could…
There was a commotion outside of the tiny world Eli and the woman were currently occupying.
“I see lights!”
“Mama will be okay, little one. Help is here!”
Eli could just make out the frantic sound of the siren. It grew louder and louder with each beat of his heart. For the first time in almost three years, he had the stirrings of hope flooding his veins. Warm and comforting, it was a glass of bourbon on a winter’s night. A part of him wanted to bury it down again. After all, have a little too much and it could be so cruel to you the next day. But another part of him clung to it, feeling alive again. Untouchable.
Thump thump thump came the work boots of the firemen, their booming voices giving each other orders. One helped Eli out of the car, patting him on the back as he took over the rescue.
Standing on the side of the road with the others – Army, JD, Patches, and Violet – Eli watched firefighters and paramedics work together to bring the woman out of the car and strap her to a stretcher. Before getting out, Eli had promised her he would wait for her. Make sure she got out to see her son. Truth was, he would have even if she didn’t ask. Situations like these, they create a connection between strangers. Sometimes that connection was a painful reminder. And sometimes, like in this instance he hoped, it became a badge you carried in your wallet and pulled out occasionally when you needed to lift your spirits.
…Mr. Clemens? I don’t know if you remember me, but I was there… the other night. I just wanted to see how you were doing. And to say I am so sorry for your loss…
Violet held a hand over her chest as one of the firefighters examined Aiden, giving him a high five when he was done, and then loaded him into an ambulance. Eli smiled at her and saw tears glimmering in her eyes. He nodded.
On the other side of him, Eli noticed Army supporting Patches under his elbow.
JD was squatting down, flicking at pieces of gravel with his fingertip.
A police car appeared, rolling to a stop right next to them. The officer approached, asked if they had witnessed the accident, if they could give him a statement. Eli knew he could replay it on demand in his head, as he was sure so could the others. When life or death flashes before you, it wasn’t something you forget. It was a tattoo etched on your soul. But no one answered the officer at first. Instead they waited in silence, barely breathing, as the paramedics rolled the woman past them.
Even in the dim light, they could see the bruises forming all over, her skin swollen and puffy. They could see her wince when the wheels hit a bump. But they also saw her lift a hand a couple inches off the stretcher and wave to them. Her heroes, the woman would later tell her husband when Eli and Violet visited her and Aiden at the hospital. Or when Patches had flowers delivered to her room. Or when JD and Army sent her a friend request on social media.
But as they watched the ambulance’s taillights fade away, none of them thought of themselves as heroes. Right place at the right time, they would say. We didn’t do much.
Eli knew it was more complicated than that. Call it fate. Call it kismet or divine intervention. Whatever it was, he had now experienced it twice in his life. And it occurred to him that maybe if he paid better attention, more of these instances would become apparent to him. The fabric of life was woven with the threads of interaction. The good, the bad. The beautiful and the ugly. He had the power to weave golden threads through others’ tapestries. With his words, his actions. With a smile or a few minutes of his time. He could make a difference. This was what his wife was trying to tell him while she lingered at death’s door, at the end of a road trip they hadn’t known would forever alter their lives.
…be a helper, Eli. The world needs more…