Plot lines bloom in the nebula of my head. I’ve drifted into a fictional world, and I’m lost in my own thoughts because I drive this way all the time. The highway signs and vehicles of morning rush hour pass in a haze of inattention while the radio plays classical, an appropriate soundtrack for combating potential road rage.
Sometimes it even works.
A black sport utility vehicle a few cars ahead drifts toward the wide, grassy median separating the northbound and southbound lanes, and suddenly I’m yanked out of my reverie by a tightness in my guts. The SUV’s tires cross the white line and I instinctively slow down. I figure the driver will correct the vehicle, but no, the SUV keeps going right over the rumble strip until the tires on its left side are on the grass, and the tires on its right are on the pavement.
Don’t jerk the wheel! I think.
When one does that, chances are the vehicle will either spin out or roll over, since its tires will be riding on two very different materials; the sudden torque will usually carry it to a nasty ending. The driver doesn’t perceive my telepathic warning, jerking the wheel in a panic to get back on the highway.
Sure enough, the tires in the grass dig in, and the tires on the pavement don’t. The vehicle wobbles violently back and forth before spinning out. Its tires catch on the pavement and the SUV somersaults over the fast lane before rolling down the highway, spitting pieces of itself in all directions like broken teeth. Glass and plastic shimmer in the air, and the crash carries to my ears as a series of high-pitched shatters and low thuds. The SUV lands on its passenger side, sliding down the highway before finally coming to a stop; the confusion of its undercarriage is like a bedroom photo strangers like me were never meant to see. Traffic seizes to a jarring halt.
Beethoven segues into Chopin.
Whoa . . . Did I just see that? I wonder. Then I think: Someone might be hurt. Get out of the car, dummy!
No one moves. I look around to see other drivers staring, as utterly shocked as I am. I jump out at precisely the same time as the driver next to me—a professional fortysomething in a suit—and we’re the catalysts. Our movement breaks people’s surprise, and suddenly drivers are getting out of their cars one by one, or calling for help on their cell phones because something has to be done. The suit and I exchange a glance, and in that moment we’re bonded by desperation, or maybe compassion. We run along the white line toward the SUV, bits of glass and plastic crunching under our shoes. Traffic in the northbound lane slows to a crawl as curious commuters peer over the median.
The SUV is mangled, like someone took a hammer to an aluminum can. Dark antifreeze oozes from beneath the wreckage like blood. The suit and I slow as we reach the SUV, and I don’t know about him, but I sure as hell don’t know what I’m about to see. I don’t even know if I want to look. I sniff the air.
“I don’t smell gasoline,” I say with a nod toward the fuel tank, which seems to be intact. My companion shrugs.
Together, our shoulders almost touching, we creep around the back of the vehicle. The rear windshield is a spiderweb of cracks, and I can’t see through the tinted glass. I reach the shattered window of the rear driver’s side door next, and stand on the tips of my toes to look in because the SUV is up on its side. The baby seat is empty, and I have this awful sinking feeling. Suddenly my heart is pounding, just hammering against my ribs. There are infant’s clothes strewn all over the inside. Sippy cups and a teddy bear. The kid has been ejected from the seat, and I think: This is going to be really bad.
Numbly, I take another step to the driver’s window, lean forward, and peer over the lip of the door. A black woman is suspended on her side, strapped in by her seatbelt, hanging in the air.
“Hey, are you okay?”
It seems like a stupid thing to say—of course she’s not okay—but I ask anyway.
She flinches at the sound of my voice, and the moment she sees me, the exact second, this look of panic contorts her face, and she starts writhing against her seatbelt, mewling wild, high-pitched notes of fear. The seatbelt won’t budge because there’s pressure pushing against it.
Her reaction scares the shit out of me.
“The baby seat,” the guy in the suit whispers.
He’s right at my side, my accidental companion, and he’s had the same thought I’ve had.
“Hey, lady. Is there anyone else in the car?” I ask.
She stops freaking out, looks at me for a long moment in which time oozes by with honey slowness, and then shakes her head. I feel this immense relief, and it’s only then I realize I’ve been holding my breath. She doesn’t say anything though, doesn’t ask for help or tell me her name, just starts struggling against the seatbelt again.
Other drivers trickle over. A hurried discussion begins. Should we get her out? How? Does anyone have any medical experience?
A random sliver of knowledge bobs to the surface of my mind.
“Don’t move her. She might have spinal injuries. Help will be here soon,” I say.
An EMT buddy of mine, no stranger to car accidents, once told me that unless blood is gushing, or gasoline is leaking, untrained people shouldn’t mess with the victims of motor vehicle accidents. It’s too risky.
My voice goes ignored. Some bearded guy in T-shirt tries to force open the doors, which is laughable because they’re mangled shut, but then he starts kicking in the windshield.
“Stop it, man. Let the professionals help her,” I say.
“We have to get her out!” the guy says. He’s freaking out, too.
“She might have spinal injuries. Don’t move her.”
The guy just doesn’t get it, or maybe I’m too shocked to explain myself, but either way, he keeps trying. I make a judgment call. The inside of the vehicle is miraculously intact, and she doesn’t appear to have any broken bones. She’s fighting frantically against the seatbelt, so she’s full of piss and vinegar. There’s no baby, and there’s no blood, and I sure as hell don’t want her to panic any more than she already is, so the last thing I want her to hear is my voice talking about how she could have spinal injuries. I relent, and several people eventually help the woman out by dragging her through the window.
At last, sirens wail in the distance, and far, far off down the highway, I see the fiery lights of emergency vehicles gliding toward us. Cop cars and two ambulances arrive half a minute later, filled with people who actually know what they’re doing. I go back to my car, get in, and drive around the accident. The highway ahead of me is clear and bright, and the sun warms my face.
Chopin has been replaced by Mozart.
Why is this post listed under “writing tip,” you might ask? Isn’t this fiction?
Nope, it most certainly isn’t.
One of the things that almost always helps me get unstuck when the creative juices get too coagulated is to recall the moments when I’ve experienced something out of the ordinary. It’s handy to keep in mind that sometimes the best fiction is thinly veiled fact.
Try thinking back into your past, and try to mine the peaks and valleys of your experiences, the stories your friends have related to you throughout the years, or even just recall a stranger’s wreck on one of life’s highways. It might be the thing to get your creativity motoring along again: just make sure you pay attention to the road ahead.
Vlad V. is the author of The Button, Yorick, and Brachman’s Underworld. His most recent stories, “Toon Time” and “The Somethings,” appeared in Insanity Tales III: Seasons of Shadow in June 2017 (The Storyside Press). His novella “Float” appeared in Insanity Tales II: The Sense of Fear in October 2015 (Books & Boos Press). His novella “The Sleep Artist” was published in Insanity Tales, a collection of dark fiction, in October 2014 (Books & Boos Press). His first kids’ book, The Moon is Dead!, was released in January 2015.