Suddenly it crystalized and shattered. Glass fell slowly, dramatically like dry snow blown from pine boughs deep in the forest where you can hear the tinkling of chimes.
The folks and I were on our way south to Industrial City for the funeral of a family member of friends. It was Christmas Eve. The friends were friends of the family, which means friends of my folks, but I had spent most of my teen years living next door to them. They were friends of mine too, even though their son, my age, was rather unsocial and unneighborly.
We went not because we knew their family member, but out of respect for our friendship, and because no one should have to bury a family member on Christmas Eve without the company of dear friends. We were honored to attend, despite the early morning departure and long drive.
I was laying across the back seat, sleeping. There is a spot where my head fits just so into the alcove of the arm rest, cradling my head just enough without craning my neck. My hands were folded just under my head, and my arms together helped lever me slightly, further reducing any neck strain.
Most of the time when I am sleeping anywhere but in bed, I am sleeping in a lucid state. This was such a time. It allows me to listen to the environment, and respond if needed: in this case, perhaps giving my folks directions or indicating that I needed to use the next rest stop.
The highway we were travelling is a toll-road with limited exits which travelled more or less straight to our destination. This simplified the driving by limiting our options and allowing me greater sleep. The K-rail which separated the traffic flow – instead of the typical grass median – reduced the opportunities for Troopers to turn-about and ticket drivers for speeding to the infrequent breaks in the barrier.
My step-dad was sleeping in the passenger seat, having the seatback just slightly reclined to keep his head from rolling off. From this position, I was able to open my left eye and glance at my mother, making sure she was still wide awake. It was winter, and the morning sun shining up from the southern hemisphere painted her in stark relief and I slept in the strong shadow of silhouette.
The turn-blinker clicked a few times. In my listening sleep, I heard my mother ask, “What do I do? There’s a car coming at us in my lane?” Her voice was quiet, and not alarmed, just curious. No one, least of all my mother, would expect to see headlights shining at them in the passing lane of a controlled-access highway.
My step-dad roused, “what?”
“I went to pass that semi, and I see headlights ahead.”
“Well, just get back behind the truck and follow it through.” A resonable enough answer, the calm and simple tone of his voice suggested he considered the matter settled.
“Oh no,” she exclaimed. I opened one eye, and my brain became fully awake. She continued, the panic in her voice increasing as she spoke. “The truck’s not moving! Oh God, I can’t stop! We’re on ice! It must be black ice and I can’t stop!…”
I propped myself up on my elbows, to see the scene she described. We were currently 100 feet and closing on a semi-trailer. In the inside lane, there was indeed headlights. All around, there was fog. Fog from a lake to which the highway was adjacent. Fog from the warmer water in the cold morning air, which was freezing onto the highway.
I released my shoulder, dropping back onto the backseat. My mind entered bullet-time. “Oh God save us,” my step-dad cried out! From where I laid across the seat, I could see that we had entered the shadow of the trailer. Impact was moments away. From a reclining position in the passenger seat, I saw an arm jab out, grab the steering wheel, and thrust it to the left.
It was enough. The car began to angle out of this lane. But it was too late to prevent the impact.
Inertial vectors became an overlay in my minds eye as the back left corner of the semi-trailer came into my view, looking up sharply from the back seat out the passenger side windows. The sound of the engine and the high whine of tires on road turned into a low bass note as the right front fender began to crumple against the trailer tires.
I drew both my elbows up infront of and to either side of my face as my body started its slide forward. I left my ankles on the seat and let momentum carry the rest of my body off the bench until I was in a straight line. The low bass note became a roar in my ears of blood pressure and rending steel. For several hundred fractions of a second I appreciated the sensation of being suspended in space until my left forearm began touching the back of the passenger seat.
Above me I watched out the window as the underside of the trailer came into view, as well as part of the trailer bumper bracing, the roof of the car beginning to shift and the glass with it. Suddenly it crystalized and shattered. Glass fell slowly, dramatically like dry snow blown from pine boughs deep in the forest where you can hear the tinkling of chimes.
I snapped my eyes shut to protect them from the glass and from the abrasion of the velour on the seatback as my face smashed into it between my arms. My lips ground against my teeth and glass fragments where I opened my mouth to ensure airway after my nose was pressed shut.
Lips and face ground in a new direction as my body was shifted toward the passenger side, and as the car bounced off the trailer wheelset as a pivot point and began a clockwise spin across the inside lane toward the K-rail. Some part of the car eventually met the rail, and we spun counterclockwise away from it.
Our spin was accellerated as another car tapped us, giving us slight momentum toward the K-rail once again. We slapped the K-rail again, this time with the driver’s side, popped clockwise out from the rail and came to rest. My body slipped from where it was lodged against the seat backs to lie fully on the floor of the car.
Somewhere during the revolutions I felt my consciousness fade to black and back, with zero time actually spent “out”. Now, in the relative quiet, I spit bloody glass from my mouth, counted my teeth, and listened to the pointless racing of the engine.
Gingerly, I opened my eyes. Red smears on the seatback greeted me, as did light from strange angles. My right shoulder was laying in a bed of safety glass shards, and my head was still braced by my fists on each side. I was intact. Except for the discomfort of driveshaft hump under my right side and the grit in my mouth, I was okay.
I tried to move. The passenger seatback had brokeback, but not completely, and I was able to lever myself prone onto the back seat. I kept my eyes ahead of me for now. On the seatbacks. On something familiar. I can’t tell you where the roof of the car was. I rechecked and recheck my physical condition. I was fine.
I was now the first responder to our vehicle. I gagged on what I had to do next. Only months before, I had been the one to find my father dead in bed in his rural home. I found that center and steeled myself for what must come next. I drew a deep breath, and levered myself upright on the back seat.
In front of me, both of my parents sat motionless.
The right side of the car was severely compromised. The roof as I recall was smashed down over the dash (that, or it was smashed up into the air beh
ind me. I do not recall. What I do remember is that I sat up into a convertable. There was simply no roof). The engine was running. In front of us was the semi. We were about even with the hitch point.
And my parents were not moving.
I considered what to do next. Do I say their name, do I shake them? Do I cry? My despair was dispelled as my mother caught a breath, rolled her head around and asked, “What happened?”
I began to laugh as I answered, “We’ve been in an accident.”
“An accident? Where are we?”
“I don’t know. Are you okay?”
As mom considered the question, we both turned our heads to watch in stupendity as a car came speeding and careening through the fast lane in front of us. It disappeared in the fog to our left, and a crash sound shortly followed. It was incredibly absurd at that moment.
“Is Don okay?”
“He’s resting. Are you okay?”
Mom hesitated as she did a physical inventory. “I think so. My chest hurts.”
“That’s probably from the steering wheel.”
There was an awkward silence. My step-dad was still not moving. I was trying to decide what to do next when he, too, drew in a breath, let out a moan, and began yelling about his foot.
This scared me, because from my position I couldn’t tell anything about his foot except that his feet were under a part of the dash and firewall that had been compromised. But the fear was overwhelmed by relief that they were both alive.
Together we reassured him as best we could. Then came another awkward silence.
“The engine is still running,” my mom commented. “What should I do?”
I didn’t know. “I don’t know,” I replied.
“Well, do I turn it off or leave it on?” Mother made a reach for the keys, then lowered her hand, only to reach for them again.
As I considered the best choice, I saw a firefighter walk out of the fog on our left. He was walking down the road, keeping close to the semi, no doubt attempting to ascertain where this accident ended.
“Responder! RESPONDER,” I yelled!
The firefighter looked around as if hearing a ghost, then his eyes landed on our car and us as if seeing a ghost.
“Do we turn off the engine,” I inquired as casually as if I were asking for advice on installing a smoke detector.
“Uh, no, um, yes,” he waffled as he crossed the lane toward our vehicle. When he reached us he smiled, “let’s go ahead and shut it off in case it slips into gear.” Then he got busy on his radio.
He assessed us quickly and moved to focus his attention on my step-dad. I kept my attention on my mother. We made small, thin, but incredibly funny remarks like, “I guess we’ll be late to the funeral.”
Whereas the accident itself seemed to take hours of bullet-time, our rescue felt as though it only took seconds before we were surrounded by firefighters, paramedics and EMTs. I was asked to lay down in the backseat, and a blanket was thrown over me while rescuers used the jaws-of-life to cut open the passenger door and pry back the metal which had pinned his foot to the floor.
Humorously, I was left laying in the backseat with a blanket over my head, as the rescuers who knew about me left with my dad, and the new arrivals assumed I was a fatality. It was secretly entertaining to me when I started yelling about the blanket, giving those around me a start.
Though I was fully ambulatory, I was extricated via a backboard and strapped to a gurney. My mother’s purse was tucked between my legs, and I was loaded into an ambulance with the cutest Paramedic I’ve ever seen. My trip was short, but my wait at the hospital was long. My head, taped to the backboard, was beginning to bruise and burn from the pressure.
We — each victim from the accident — was assigned an attendent from the hospital staff: receptionists, janitors, orderlies..anyone who could be spared was assigned to one patient. These attendents ran messages between family members, answered questions, talked, held our hands, and kept their faces in view of us the whole time.
It was very reassuring. Very comforting. It kept our family close in the only way possible at the time. I even managed to convince my attendent, after begging for the better part of an hour, to loosen my head tape.
My step-dad was treated as emergent due to a blood-pressure crash due to stress and diabetis. My mother and I were x-rayed, examined and released. She stayed with him overnight, and I rode back home with my step-brother to throw newspapers and to bring a ride down the next day.
There was no doubt when we surveyed our vehicle at the accident impound lot, that we three had survived a fatal accident.