By Beth Terrell
As usual, I was running late yesterday morning. A few too many minutes snuggling with the dogs after the alarm went off, a little too long in the steaming shower, and I was faced with a choice I'd been making all too often lately: take the interstate to work and (if the traffic is no heavier than usual) arrive on time, or take an alternate route and pull into the parking lot fifteen minutes late--ten if the lights were with me.
I took the interstate. It was raining, and the streets were slick and shiny in my headlights. Traffic was heavy, but moving briskly. I needed to cross three lanes of traffic and merge into the far left lane by the time I-24 split off toward Chattanooga. All around me, cars sped up and slowed, sped up and slowed. A gap formed between two cars, and I slipped my little Honda into the next lane over. (I love my Honda. It's black with a sprinkling of blue glitter that can only be seen under certain lights. It's like a beautiful little secret between me and the car.)
I left my blinker on, and the car in the next lane sped up to keep me from merging. (Why do people do that?) I fell back and let him pass. Then another gap appeared, and I made it into the next lane. Only one to go. I put the blinker back on and after a few minutes, merged into the far left lane, what the police officer would later call the fast lane, but which was also the only lane that would take me to I-24. A small dark car was in front of me, a big red pickup truck behind. He was moving fast, and I felt a momentary twinge, but he fell back a little, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I turned off the radio; with the rain and the traffic, I wanted to be at my most alert.
We cruised on toward the split in our little vehicular dance. Then the line of traffic in front slowed and compressed. I eased off on the gas and touched the brake. The gap between me and the car in front narrowed, but I knew I would have plenty of room to stop if I needed to. I glanced into my rear view mirror, where the red truck suddenly looked alarmingly large. I had a single lucid thought: He can't possibly stop. I turned the steering wheel to the left, knowing it was too late.
The impact snapped my head back against the headrest and shot the Honda forward. Somehow, I kept my hands on the wheel. Somehow, I guided the car into the space between the concrete barrier wall and the car in front of me. A foot to the left, and I'd have struck the concrete wall. A foot to the right, and I'd have been accordianed between the pickup and the car in front. I eased the car to a stop, hands clamped to the steering wheel, and all I could think was, "Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Then I looked back into the rear view mirror and saw black. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at the crumpled lid of my trunk through the empty pane where my rear windshield used to be. The back seat sparkled with crumbled glass. I fumbled for my phone and called our site manager. "Um...Steve," I said. "I'm going to be late. Do you happen to know the number for the police? You know, that one you call if you're not about to die?"
After I hung up, it occurred to me that the driver of the pickup should have come over to trade insurance numbers by now. Maybe he'd been badly hurt. I glanced in the side mirror. Funny. I should have been able to see the truck behind me. Surely, oh surely, I thought, he's just somewhere outside the view of my mirrors. Surely he did not just drive away. I dialed the police dispatcher and then stepped out of the car to check on the other driver. No red pickup.
I began to tremble. Not only had the driver not stopped, no one stopped. If I'd been badly hurt, I would have bled to death and no one would have stopped to help me. For a moment, it was the loneliest feeling in the world. Then I told myself that f I had been on the right shoulder instead of the left, or if we had been coming home instead of heading for work, people would have stopped to help. Probably several people. That helped a little.
The emergency responder was wonderful. He stopped traffic, allowing me to get across the interstate to a safer place. The responding officer, Jeb Johnston, and the ambulance drivers were kind, professional, and solicitous. "You were hit by a Ford," said the officer.
"Oh," I said. "Did someone see it?"
"No." He shook his head, a hint of a grin on his lips. "We found his front grill. It's in your trunk."
For some reason, I found this immensely funny.
This would be a better story if the grill had landed there after the impact, but the truth is, the emergency responder picked it up off the road and tossed it into the trunk. Fortunately, I'm a writer, and my mind is already turning this lemon into lemonade by planning a scene in which the protagonist of my work in progress is rammed from behind by a bad guy in a red pickup truck. And in that version, guess where the front grill will end up?
There's a lot I still don't know. My little Honda may or may not be totaled. The driver of the pickup may or may not ever be caught. My insurance rates may or may not go up. But I did not die on the interstate yesterday, and for that, I feel very, very blessed.