Missed Crash by Bradley Hornsby
I’ve started writing this on the night of your fourth birthday, after you had finally fallen asleep. The car crash had shaken you up more than your mother and I had first thought, and since we’ve gotten home you have been crying steadily, asking “why crash, Daddy?”, “why crash, Mommy?” without relent. You finally drifted off and I was able to creep downstairs to write this out for you. I hope it may one day help you understand why bad things happen, and when you’re having a bad day or a string of bad luck where nothing will go right, and it seems the world is out to get you, that this will give you some consolation and know there’s a reason for everything. I can only draw from my own experiences, but take it from a guy who’s had to rely on a cane since his late teens that life can seem pretty shitty.
It was late June in 1995, just days after my sixteenth birthday and I had finally gotten my learners permit. I came from a proud blue-collar family and quickly learned that things were earned, not given. Your Papa – my Dad, worked the next town over as a lineman at the General Electric plant, and my mom worked days as a cashier at the local grocery store. Once I had mastered the art of bicycling and independence, I obtained the only paper route in our small town, much to the chagrin of all the other able bodied boys. A few years later I switched to mowing lawns and general landscaping, and had developed a steady roster of clients to keep my pockets lined. I was mostly saving up for college, hoping to take Police Foundations and join onto a big city police force.
With both parents at work for the day, I was playing some CDs louder than usual and reorganizing my comic book collection. It was just after noon when the phone rang and Dad called to say the guys had to stay for overtime, and that his carpool wouldn’t be home in time for him to pick up mother at 4pm.
“So I want you to be there for four o’clock and don’t make your mother wait, alright?”
“Yeah sure, Dad. No problem.” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Now you’re to go directly to the store and directly back, no cruising around or revving the engine. Be sure to bring your permit and watch your speed, alright?”
“Yes I got it, Dad. I will do all those things. See you when you get home.”
I hung up with a smile and turned my music back up before attacking my stack of comics, keeping an eye on the clock.
I remember it was a clear sunny day as I stepped outside. I was giving myself a thirty minute head start to meeting my mother, and contrary to my father’s concerns, I planned on driving nice and slow, enjoying my first independent drive. I climbed in the car and rolled the windows down and turned the radio up as I sat and felt the engine rumbling. I did all my system and line of view checks feeling rather adult about the whole situation, and backed out the driveway.
The first independent drive (according to my uncle Jim) was one of those things you remember for the rest of your life, like your first kiss or first lay. As the music played loud with the wind whipping past my face, I maintained perfect vehicular control by checking my mirrors and keeping both hands on the wheel. I felt truly adult and knew that I would remember this moment for the rest of my days. With a smile pasted on my face I drove through a green light and was T-boned by a truck on the driver’s side. All I saw was a flash of red before everything shifted right.
The truck that hit me had been going fast enough to roll the family car twice before crashing into a tree with the passenger side facing the ground. For the time that I was rolling and having everything loose in the car flying everywhere and out the window; the two thoughts that stayed with me was of how my mother was ever going to get home now, and how expensive this would be to fix. Both those things quickly vanished as my mind comprehended what had happened, and I began to feel the trauma my body had just endured. Blood was trailing down my cheek and my arm, shattered glass seemed to cover everything and I smelled a mixture of burnt rubber, motor oil and dirt. I wanted to get out but my jeans felt like they were snagged on something and as I attempted to kick my leg free I gasped in painful alarm and passed out, never fully aware of what happened.
I came to two days later, and remember dreaming of a bustling department store that I seemed to be floating through while I was in a hospital bed, all of which appeared perfectly normal to everyone around. As the ambiance of voices, footsteps and overhead announcements of the store increased I realized the steady ringing of the cash register had a repetitive tone to it and I was suddenly fully awake listening to beeping medical equipment and staring at an unfamiliar white tiled ceiling. I tried to look around and groaned loudly as pain shot down my neck and right shoulder.
“Michael?” My mother’s face suddenly appeared above me. “Michael! Oh thank God! Michael, thank GOD!” She broke down in tears and left my view but I could hear her blowing her nose. My father appeared just as quick, pale faced and red eyed. “You’re in the hospital, Michael; you were in a car accident. How’re you feeling?”
As I looked up at their faces full of love and concern I remembered what had happened to bring me here, and started crying, and continued for some time, trying hard not to move my head or neck too much. “I’m sorry I wrecked the car.” I finally managed to blurt out.
My parents who were obviously struggling to hold back tears of their own, chuckled at my concern for the car more than my battered body. It helped lighten the mood around us and we were all able to check our emotions for the remainder of their visit.
“What happened to me?”
“Police are still looking into it, but they say a lady in a truck ran a red light and hit you.” Dad said, clearing his throat. “Eye witnesses say she was going pretty fast.”
“It’s nothing he needs to hear about right now, Mark.” Mom gave my dad a cutting look. “I’m going to get you something to drink and tell the nurse you’re awake now.” She gave me a gentle kiss on the forehead and rushed out the door. I would’ve liked to find out how bad off I was but I was feeling very tired very fast and wasn’t sure I’d stay awake. I turned my heavy eyes to Dad and the room slowly followed. I forced my eyes to stay open a moment longer.
“How is she?”
“The lady who hit me, is she okay?” My eyes drooped close as I struggled to remain listening. I heard nothing and I had slipped into light sleep when I thought I heard my father reply.
“No one knows” he said. “She disappeared.”
But in my battered and groggy state, I must have misheard.
When I had next reawakened I was alone and the lights were off other than what filtered in under the door. The cheap near-transparent blinds on the window were drawn against the glow of the streetlights. I felt a deep burning pain in my left leg and the nurse on duty that answered my call-bell was a young petite brunette who I would have loved to meet in any other circumstance yet looked familiar.
“Hey there, is everything okay?” She stage whispered, bending down to my level.
“My leg is killing me, is there any way I can have something for the pain?” I was struggling to keep my voice steady and could feel myself sweating.
“Oh, of course, I’ll be right back.” She said. “I’m Karen by the way.”
I thanked her and while she was gone I realized Karen used to babysit me the odd time my parents would venture out for an evening. When she returned I swallowed the pill and felt better knowing the pain would soon subside. Karen readjusted my pillow and stood looking at me with clasped hands.
“Ok, the pill should start working in a few minutes, just try to lay back and get some sleep.”
“I will, but one more thing and I’ll let you go.”
“No problem,” she said turning back. “What’s up?”
“How banged up am I? I must have passed out again before the doctor came so I’m yet to hear what exactly my condition is.”
“Oh...well I’m sorry Michael, but I think it’s best that the doctor tell you all that. He’ll be by in the morning, just try to get some rest for now, ok?”
“Didn’t you used to babysit me? Karen Foster, right?”
“You got it, Mikey” She said with a chuckle. I could see her debating on what to say next before she knelt down again with a sigh and a smile. “The doctor could go over this much better than I but if I’m being honest you’re going to pretty sore for awhile. The truck hit you smack dab on the driver’s side and your left side –especially your leg, took the brunt of the damage. Your neck and back will be so stiff you can’t move comfortably for a few weeks as well – not that you’ll want to. This time next year you’ll be lucky if you’ve started any real physio. Damn lucky.”
I looked down at the twisted remnants of my leg under the blanket, and though the pain was temporarily subsiding, I felt tears roll down my face. I balled my fists and banged them weakly against the bedrails. “This is so...fucked! I’m going to be lurching around for the rest of my life like some Civil War veteran, if I’m lucky. Why me, what did I ever do? I don’t deserve this shit!”
“There is a bright side though.”
“Really, what’s that?”
“You’re alive and well enough to complain about it.” She said with a raised eyebrow. Karen had me starting to believe it was true. Based on my parents reactions when I first regained consciousness and the hard-truths that Karen just told me, it seems I was quite lucky to be alive and should count my blessings, despite how helpless and overwhelmed I felt.
I offered Karen a weak smile. “You just may be right about that. Hey, what about the lady that hit me, is she alright?”
It was a moment before she answered. “No one’s told you yet?”
“Oh Christ, did she die?” I felt sudden guilt despite not having been at fault in anyway.
“No no, she didn’t...at least they don’t think she did but no one knows.” She took a deep breath and seemed to prepare herself. “Michael, she’s gone –like she disappeared. I mean...she disappeared! It’s all anyone is talking about right now. There were three or four eyewitnesses who saw the whole thing, and they swear they saw this woman driving a truck -just barrelling down the road, one person even said they heard her speed up. Anyways, they all swear they saw a woman driving the truck before she hit you. After the accident everyone ran over to help, but you were apparently trapped in the car and out cold to boot so they waited for the ambulance.”
“You’re serious? You’re not just goofing around, you’re being serious?” I asked, raising my own eyebrow.
“Believe me; I know how crazy this sounds. I really don’t quite believe it myself and reserving my judgement for now, I’m just telling you what I heard on the news and the gossip before my shift started. Just what I’ve heard.” She said with her hands open in front of her.
“I made the news?”
“Like I said, it was a pretty bad wreck. So anyways, when they went up to the truck there was nobody in it. It was smashed to hell and back, but there was nobody in the cab, and not a drop of blood or anything. People were looking all around the crash site, thinking she had been thrown clear or something but she was just gone.” She leaned in closer. “I heard that her seat was still warm and everything.”
I still wasn’t sure if she was pulling my leg or not, a cruel and punny thing to do to someone in my state, but Karen seemed just as confused and mystified about everything as I did, and I couldn’t think of any plausible reasons she would make any of this up. A ringing began from somewhere in the hall and Karen straightened up and checked her clip-on watch.
“Listen maybe I shouldn’t have said anything but you have a right to know, and I figure you’d find out about it soon enough. I have to get back to work but try and get some rest.”
And with a squeeze of my hand she left, the ringing from the hall soon ended and I was alone with my thoughts. I didn’t remember seeing the truck that hit me, let alone if someone was driving it, and trying to think about it only made my head hurt more. I didn’t need anything else to think about at this point, and already knew I’d be lying awake for the rest of the night trying to make sense of things.
I was asleep minutes later.
The next few days were a blur of family visitors, questions, scans and tests. I learned the extent of my injuries were mainly my left leg, with a broken femur, a shattered kneecap that had swollen to the size of a large grapefruit, and my tibia and fibula were each broken in three places. My hip was only fractured, which I was supposed to be happy about and I strained my neck from the initial impact, then received further whiplash when the car finally stopped rolling, along with a collection of random cuts and bruises that peppered my body with pain.
I was heavily monitored those first few days by medical staff and aside from my parents and the police, I wasn’t allowed visitors. My appetite was starting to come back and I was just finishing a plate of bland beef casserole when a police officer entered and removed his hat. He was short and barrel-chested with grey hair and matching moustache.
“Yes sir, right here.” I raised my hand as limits would allow.
“Hi son, I’m Officer Wells, I’m heading up the investigation into your accident. Have they been treating you alright since you’ve been in here?”
“Hi, and yeah not too bad, I’m still pretty sore though.”
“Good good.” He dragged a chair over to my bed and sat down with a sigh. “If I promise to be quick, would you mind answering a few questions about the accident for me? I still need to get your side of the story and fill in some holes.”
And from what I understand it’s the only side of the story you will hear. I thought. “Sure, but I really don’t remember much.”
He frowned then pulled out his notepad and began. “For starters, what were you doing leading up to the accident?”
“I was heading into town to pick up my Mom from work, -Grocer’s Choice, because Dad was doing overtime. It was actually the first time driving on my own so I was being extra-cautious. I remember going through the first set of lights into town and then everything got loud, and started rolling. Then I woke up here a few days later and don’t remember anything in between.”
Wells was jotting everything down in his notebook, nodding his head in agreement. “And you never saw the vehicle coming towards you?”
A saw a flash of red, but nothing significant.” I hesitated. “Sir, I’ve heard what people are saying, is it true?”
“That depends what people are saying, doesn’t it?” Wells answered with a knowing look in his blue eyes.
“Ok, well I heard the person that hit me- the lady- is gone, or disappeared or something?”
“Well son, we don’t rightly know. I was hoping you would have some answers for me on that one.” He leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms. “We have sworn statements from multiple witnesses all saying they clearly saw a female driving the truck before impact. I happened to be the first officer on scene and checking the truck found only a purse containing ID, the keys were in the ignition with the radio playing, nothing else.”
He sighed and ran his hand over his short hair. “We’re still investigating but it really seems as though she just disappeared, and myself or anyone else for that matter can’t figure it out.”
“What’s her name?”
“We’ll be releasing that to the public in the coming days, we’re still looking to find and alert any next of kin. I can tell you she wasn’t from around here, but that’s about it.” Wells stood up, and grasped my hand lightly, surprising me with his delicate manner. “I’ve taken up enough of your time and I hope you’re up and moving soon, Michael. A young kid like you should be out raising hell for an old guy like me to deal with.” He gave me his card if I remembered anything and thanked me for my time. I felt I had been of absolute no help, but at least now knew that the rumours were true. That the lady, who smashed into and rolled my car, causing me a magnitude of injuries with probable long-term effects, had vanished into thin air moments after impact, leaving everyone completely baffled.
I saw her name and drivers licence photo in the newspaper later that week. Her name was Dianne Rettle, an attractive heavyset forty-four year old. She had brown hair done up in a ponytail, and a round face with puffed cheeks, dimples showing from the slight smile she had. The article detailed how the police have had no luck finding friends or family of Dianne, the address listed on her driver’s license was from a small town in Maine; and proved to be false. Having no luck finding any information on her, or her last known whereabouts, the police were now reaching out to the public for help. The article went on to recap the crash but I stopped reading.
Though I had just heard her name and learned what she looked like, I knew that I would never forget about Dianne Rettle.
My father had taken a few days off after the initial accident but was quickly back to work although the rest of his carpool was stuck picking up his days to drive, and Mom was stuck taking the bus until they acquired a replacement vehicle, as the car was an obvious write-off.
I had had two major surgeries to put my left leg and hip back in working order, and could still barely move my neck and shoulders. After almost six weeks of lying in a hospital bed with minimal activity, the doctors told me my body was now ready to start working again. My muscle mass had greatly reduced, and I would have looked even more emaciated if my mother hadn’t brought me home-cooked meals four nights a week. The next day I had the first session of what was to be many years of extensive physiotherapy, but left the hospital the following week.
Once I was home and reached a state of settlement, I began my own investigation into Dianne Rettle. I read the police reports and witness statements, saw the photographs of the truck and my smashed car, even obtained maps of the area listed on her licence, all of which amounted to nothing, leaving me bitter, confused and lethargic. My physical therapist didn’t allow me to sulk or accept excuses and all her positive reinforcement seemed to be working on me.
My body healed and though I maintained my daily workout sessions, I was back to my normal life, albeit with crutches before graduating to a cane and a slight limp. I was driving again with no incidents or nervousness, and finished high school the following year. My original plan to join the police force was now out of the question, so I pursued my second interest of Commercial Advertising and enrolled at Carleton University. My parents dropped me off at the student housing and met my new roommate, Jeff Moore. Jeff was also in Advertising and we became quick friends. Jeff liked my cane and started calling me ‘Stick’ from the Daredevil comics, and was enthralled by my crash story.
My cane was lacquered and made of oak with a comfortable handle, and almost everyone I got to know would eventually ask about it. I told them the entire story, leaving out any mention of Dianne Rettle’s disappearance, instead telling people that she had died on impact, and told Jeff the same thing.
We had time before school began to get to know each other and found we were quite similar, which made the transition to being alone in a new city for the first time easier to deal with. We met our soon to be fellow students during Frosh Week and Jeff and I were soon regulars at our school bar studying over pitchers of beer with other classmates at our favourite table in the back. I found the class work interesting, particularly the case-studies on new trends in advertising and the subtleties involved, and before I realized it first semester was all but done with exams under way.
Our study session at the bar had broken for the night and Jeff and I were walking home with Mike and Sarah, a couple we knew from Frosh Week who left the bar at the same time as us. We were taking the pathway that followed alongside the Rideau River, dividing the school and Residence. The lands edge was high and steep from the water but was deeper into the woods from the path. The week before, our area had been hit by a massive snow storm burying everything in a heavy blanket of white. The last three days had been a welcome change when the temperature rose with clear sunny skies and everything began to melt into the creek, increasing the volume and flow to a remarkable level. Many of the students were wearing shorts and a few bicycles had been pulled out of storage to get around for our last days of exams. I was especially glad for the short reprieve from winter as my leg always hurt more this time of year, and despite my cane’s no-slip rubber end-piece I was never quite comfortable with it in wet conditions.
The four of us were each discussing our plans for the upcoming winter break, and what we would like for Christmas as we marched along the path trying to avoid stepping in puddles whenever possible. I had fallen to the back of the group being cautious with my steps, as my knee had been throbbing harder most of the evening. We were approaching the bridge towards our residence when I thought I heard a large splash come from up the river. I was the only one that had apparently heard anything, as my friends had crossed the bridge and continued up the path. I stopped on the bridge and looked into the churning water. I don’t remember it flowing this high or fast before and despite the last few days of nice weather the water looked cold, with large chunks of ice and snow flowing freely. I was about to go catch up with my friends when I saw a flash of yellow, bobbing in the water. I stared intently down the dark course of the Rideau, tracking its movement when I realized that it was a person wearing a yellow coat. They were waving their arms around and struggling to stay above water as the current moved them steadily towards me.
“HEY! OVER HERE!” I screamed at the person, but couldn’t tell if they heard me or not. “HEY!” Dropping to my stomach and banging my left knee painfully on the cold metal in the process, I dropped my cane and pulled myself over to the edge of the bridge. I stretched my arms towards the churning water and despite its high level I was still a good four feet away from touching it. I glanced up and noticed the person had floated close enough to determine it was a woman, and she was clawing at the air struggling to stay afloat and would soon be passing beneath the bridge. I took the deepest breath I could gather while lying on my chest, and yelled a final time.
“UP HERE!!” I saw the woman glance towards me, now close enough to see the terror in her eyes. I grabbed the end of my cane and swung the handle towards the water, still about six inches away. I could hear my friends coming back and calling my name. I could feel the chill from lying on cold wet metal. The woman floated towards the outstretched cane and with a weak reaching jump was able to grasp it. Her hand started to slip and she quickly doubled her hold against the waters surge. The initial weight of my new catch nearly tore the cane from my grip as my arm crashed against the bridge. My friends had reached me, spread eagle and half hanging over the bridge.
“HANDS! I need some help!”
They hurried to me and looked over the edge. I don’t know what they expected to see but I’m sure it wasn’t a half-drowned woman shivering and kicking against the steady current.
“Jesus!” Jeff yelped and dropped down flat beside me. “Grab my legs!” He took the cane from me then I rolled away breathing hard, and once Mike and Sarah had a firm grip on Jeff’s lower half, he began pulling the woman up and was soon able to grasp her arms. She dropped my cane into the water below and flung her hands around Jeff’s neck , but due to her cold and weakened state it didn’t seem to help much. I grabbed her by the back of her belt and with a final grunt of effort we pulled her atop the bridge. The process had only lasted a few moment but we were all panting with exertion and coursing with adrenaline.
“I’m going to call an ambulance, someone give her their jacket!” Sarah yelled and took off running towards the Residence.
“Are you alright?” I asked, and stood up grabbing the handrail, gritting my teeth at my discomfort. My knee was a constant heat of pain that reminded me of my first days of rehabilitation after the accident. I noticed the woman was trying the zipper on her yellow coat, but her shaking hands weren’t working for her so I limped over and helped shuck her heavy saturated coat as Jeff helped her into his. I wrapped my coat around her waist before I sat her down against the railing and she hugged her knees.
I slumped down close to her with my leg held straight and we looked at each other. “Are you alright?”
“I th-think so, thank-k you.”” She said through chattering teeth, and then her face changed. “I-I let go of your ca-cane.”
“Don’t worry about it, it wasn’t special or anything.”
“It saved my l-life. I’d say that pretty special.” She closed her eyes and rested her head on her knees. By then other people had come up the path and Jeff and Mike were soon relaying them the details. I took another look at the woman next to me to confirm that she was real and the recent events had actually occurred. The fact that I never would have been able to reach the girl if I hadn’t had the cane began to sink in, and my mind flashed back to my crash all those years ago, and of course Dianne Rettle. Feeling both euphoric and exhausted I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the railing.
After that night there was the expected fever of gossip around campus that quickly died off, as everyone was more focused on last minute study sessions, finalizing travel plans and scrounging the mall for affordable presents in the few remaining days of school. The Dean of the university wrote me a letter of acclimation and she saw to it that the Student’s Association cover the cost of a new cane. I went to the hospital and again saw the girl I saved, finally learning her name and what had happened.
Angela Harris –a Political Sciences student, had finished an early exam and was having celebratory drinks at a friend’s house for most of the afternoon, and when she was stumbling home she veered into the scant wooded area near the river to urinate. As she wandered farther away from the path, she lost her balance which turned into a stumbling jog before tangling her feet and falling down the slick embankment, plunging into the water before she could stop herself. Angela had never been a strong swimmer and in the second hand absorbent wool jacket she wore made it a struggle to simply stay afloat. She was admitted to the Regional Hospital that night with moderate hypothermia, and was being monitored for possible pneumonia before she was discharged a few days later; the school gratefully delayed her exams for two days. After the Christmas break everyone came back with new clothes and stories to tell, and life went on as normal.
I graduated with honours the following year, both my parents coming up for the long-winded ceremony, and met Jeff again and my other cohorts. I took a job with a local paper where I had interned and was placed in the advertising department to handle incoming clientele looking for ad space. It wasn’t my ideal job by any stretch but it was steady income and kept my evenings free to work on side projects. Jeff was currently doing photography work and layout design for a grocery stores weekly flyers, and we had been discussing opening our own Advertising company for awhile now, feeling that over time we could win over a large amount of the customer base with our younger, more ‘in-touch’ perspective, and greatly underbidding our competitors. We put together a business plan, borrowed a sizeable loan from the bank and received some government grants for new business owners and was able to start ‘Make it Stick, Advertising’ the following year, feeling like nervous new parents. We began building our contacts and clientele list from friends, family members and a lot of cold-calling to independent businesses. The first years were stressful and filled with many sleepless nights of regret and financial woes but we eventually started landing contracts and asserted ourselves as a legitimate organization. Five years after that we were finally comfortable and some of the larger companies had contacted us directly to handle their next ad campaigns and we grew and expanded accordingly, feeling larger than life each day.
As I neared my thirties, I would often go to a quiet coffee bar in the evenings to outline proposals, or come up with new catch phrases for whoever our current client happened to be. I was skimming the newspaper and noticed an article raving about an up and coming Provincial leader who was making great strides for obtaining youth voters with her passionate speeches, and she wasn’t one to shy away from tough questions or state her unbiased opinion. Her name was Angela Harris, and much of the media was referring to her as the ‘female Trudeau’. I was telling myself that Angela Harris was a fairly common name but the small headshot in the paper resembled the girl I saved many years ago. I was mystified and staring off into space when my eyes adjusted and connected across the room with a beautiful dark haired woman wearing a white camisole over a pink sundress and I happily lost my train of thought. I walked over to introduce myself and she immediately remarked how she found my cane distinguishing and lightly cringed when I told her how I came to have it. I learned her name was Celia Jacobsen, a newly graduated dental hygienist who came to the coffee bar to download music, and we were soon exchanging our best ‘bad day’ stories and laughing loud enough to gather our fair share of dirty looks from the other patrons. We left the coffee behind in search of stronger drinks and heartier laughs, enjoying each other’s company late into the night. We quickly began a relationship, seeing each other most evenings of the week and soon decided it made financial sense to move in together, choosing her apartment.
We had been happily living together for two years, and my workload at the office increased. Last month Jeff and I had finally paid back our bank-loan after opening a second location and hiring a few of our old school pals, and had an open-bar party for all our clients and friends who had helped us out along the way. Many speeches and cheers were made, music and dancing got everyone involved; I was even dragged onto the floor to limp lamely around and pretend that was why I couldn’t dance. It was a hugely successful evening, and we would rib our clients about needing to take out a new loan to pay the bar tab. Celia began taking art classes on her days off, and on weekends we would travel around to local museums and galleries, catch a baseball game or stay in and cook elaborate meals.
One night we were cleaning all the dishes after making and enjoying a pork roast with all the fixings. The radio was playing lightly while we told each other about our days, Celia’s being pretty hectic.
“...and because we had to take a late lunch, all the appointments got pushed back, we had to do an emergency extraction, and then had four kids scheduled in a row for cleaning and check-up, right at the end of the day too. I don’t what that girl is thinking when she’s making these appointments.”
“Want me to talk to her for you? I’ll tell her to step it up and get her head out of her ass.” I said.
“And you would make it sound just like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course! You’ll thank me later. You know, I’m always here to bother someone for you.”
“You tell me that all the time” She gave me a peck on the cheek and scurried to the radio, turning it up. “Oh I love this song, it’s awful but it’s my new guilty pleasure.”
Celia was bopping around the room in time with the beat, in her faded jean shorts and an old tank-top under a dirty apron. She grabbed a dish to dry and twirled around, and I finally realized that I loved Celia and didn’t want to spend another moment without her. I dropped the sponge and carefully dropped to one knee and proposed on the spot, despite not having a ring. She stopped dancing and the plate she was drying dropped to the floor and shattered while she stood frozen. She left me kneeling and went to grab a broom and calmly swept up the mess. My knee and leg were starting to stiffen up and I was starting to think I may have made a huge mistake. “Celia, is everything alright? What’s wrong, why won’t you answer me? ”
“Well you waited long enough to ask me, I figure you should have to wait for me to say ‘yes’”. She replaced the broom and helped me onto my feet, and we held each other close. We were married within the year, opting for a smaller ceremony; where Celia told the story of how we first met. When we got back from our honeymoon in Jamaica, Celia discovered she was pregnant, and we entered into parenthood, with you, Jack. Your upbringing brought its expected amount of joys, stresses and worries and absolute love for you into our lives, and made us realized we would need to learn how to function on less sleep for the next few years, and should probably consider buying a mini-van. I picked you up from school one day, and your kindergarten teacher remarked on how much of an attentive and imaginative child you are, always asking questions and wanting to know how things worked.
So as I first said, it was your fourth birthday and we were going to see my parents for lunch and presents, and then going to the zoo as a surprise. You had been going through a huge ‘animal’ phase recently and we knew you were going to have a great day. We left late in the morning and made good time to my parent’s house. The town had gradually changed over the years, and thanks to vast renovations, some of my old haunts were hard to recognize. We pulled into my parent’s driveway, and you started squealing with delight once you realized we were at Gramma and Papa’s. My parents had aged well over the years, and accredited it to eating hearty and working hard, something they were both doing with no signs of retirement for either of them. They gave you a flurry of kisses and Papa piggybacked you into the backyard where a stack of wrapped gifts laid waiting. We settled into the patio furniture and caught up while you marvelled at your new toys and books. Mom asked if my leg was hurting and if I was still doing my exercises, while your mother and Papa debated hockey, both fans of rival teams, as he worked the barbeque. We ate a hearty lunch and sang you Happy Birthday over cheesecake before loading back into the van, Dad making funny faces for you the entire time we were pulling out.
The traffic was moving well for a Saturday afternoon and I was ahead of the other drivers. Your mother was humming to the radio while looking at a map of the zoo and you were crashing a new Hot Wheels crash into things. I had just crested a hill and saw an upcoming set of traffic lights in the distance, and noticed a truck pulled over with the hazard lights flashing. My initial reaction was to keep driving like everyone else who was whizzing by, but suddenly found myself with my signal on and pulling onto the shoulder as we neared the truck.
“Why are we pulling over?” Celia asked.
“I just thought this guy might need help. We would have been stopped anyways.” I gestured to the intersection where the Toyota that had been driving behind us was now the first in line for the red light. The woman driver and young female passenger – her presumed daughter, could be seen talking and gesturing to each other.
“Well that’s what CAA is for; we have our own things to do today.”
“Where’s the zoo?” You asked, trying to look out all the windows at once.
“Almost there, Jake.” I pulled up behind the truck, the driver’s head bobbing to music they were presumably listening to. I put my own hazard lights on and put the van into park. “I’ll just see if they need to use my phone and then we can go, okay Celia?”
She sighed with a smile. “Just be quick about it, okay Superman? “
I grabbed my cane and eased out of the van, still not sure why this felt so important. The truck was red with grey trim, hard to see through the layers of mud and dust. As I approached the truck I could hear the music that was playing, and by the time I reached the bumper I could almost recognize the song. I could still see the back of the drivers head through the glass and had figured the band was definitely Pearl Jam, when I heard an enormous crash of metal from the highway ahead.
I turned and saw that the Toyota was in the middle of the intersection; its passenger side completely folded in on itself while smashed against it was an SUV with a crumpled front end and smoking, clunking engine. Broken glass littered the intersection and fluids were leaking out of both vehicles. Traffic was stalled in all direction and people were running to the wrecked vehicles. A loud anguished scream emanated from the mother in the wrecked car, which would stay with me for some time. The driver of the SUV exited, holding his neck and began wandering around aimlessly. As I surveyed the damage, it began to sink in that if I hadn’t pulled over, we would have been first in line at the traffic light and would have been where the Toyota was. You or your mother would have been likely killed. The emotional scream continued and the smell of oil and burnt rubber invaded my senses but I barely noticed. I looked down the road at all the stopped cars, as more people were approaching the wreckage, many with cell phones held high for a better view or calling for help. I turned to the truck that I now recognized from all those years ago and peered into the cab, empty except for a purse.
I smiled to myself and seemed to move in slow-motion as I opened the door.
The keys were in the ignition and the radio was still playing loudly.
Reaching across to the brown purse I felt that the driver’s seat was still warm. I pulled out the driver’s license I knew would be there, and looked at the familiar round face of Dianne Rettle.
I looked back at the wreck and then to your mother in the van, who looked frozen in shock or disbelief. I replaced the licence in the purse and shut the door, causing the radio to abruptly end. I walked back to the van knowing that my connection with Diane Rettle –whatever it may have been, was over now.
This may leave you with more questions than answers, Jake, but I hope you understand things happen for a reason and we may never learn those reasons. Bad days and events are a necessary evil, but I believe they all account towards the greater good.
Whatever that may be.