My first coherent thought was that I was glad I'd listened to my mother. It was a thought that I actually had much more often than I would ever let her know, but this time I would probably make an exception. And after telling her, I would buy her something hugely expensive as a thank you.
All of that was after, of course. Thought doesn't have a place when you're stuck in the glare of oncoming headlights like a deer. There is only terror—an incredible and horrible clarity on the subject of your own mortality—before your survival instinct kicks in and everything else falls away.
When I saw the car, too close and coming way too fast, I swerved hard to the left. It felt like the stupidest thing I could possibly do, but right now, crossing into the wrong traffic lane was actually safer. At least the left side of the road was empty. I threw on my brakes and felt a hard jolt that threw me against my seat belt as I hit the opposite curb. It was then, as I was trying to deal with the shock of the impact and the pain that was shooting across my collarbone, that I heard another scream of vehicle outrage, louder even than the one my brakes had caused. It was a crash, one that put my little fender bender with the curb to shame. The impact seemed bone jarring, even from so far away, like a ripple in the atmosphere. I heard the tortured protest of metal as it was twisted violently out of shape.
In some ways it was the scariest thing that had happened so far. Who knew what kind of pain and damage could be lurking in that emptiness? I was afraid to break through and find out. I sat with my eyes firmly fixed on the Ford symbol of the steering wheel, the spot where an airbag should have broken through but hadn't, and did a quick mental check. I was thinking, and almost coherently, that was good. Or it meant that I was doing too well—that I was beyond help, and that was bad. But no, I felt too much to be dead: my breathing as it came in hard, laborious gasps, my ankle, twisted at an uncomfortable, but not unnatural position against the floor mat, the absolute pounding of my terrified heart drumming in my neck. But most of all the pain. There was a burning against my collarbone that ran up through my left shoulder and down toward my opposite hip. I hoped it was something as simple as a bruise, but I was afraid to look down and find out.
Slowly, noises started to creep in through my abused consciousness. I heard a hissing, like steam, that seemed to come from far away. The whimpering was much closer. Until then, I'd forgotten Eve was even in the car. I'd forgotten everything. For a few moments my world had compressed into the point of impact and only now were outside details floating in.
Finally, I turned my head. No pain in that, other than to aggravate my shoulder. I didn't want to look, but I forced myself to focus on Eve. Almost instantly my fears were abated. Eve was slumped down in the passenger seat, but that was just a product of her inebriation. I could tell because when she looked at me, her gaze was totally blank, an expression that I unfortunately recognized. When Eve was drunk, she didn't get loud or obnoxious or silly. That was how she acted when she was sober. Under the influence of alcohol, she became quiet and amazingly introspective. It made me glad that she didn't frequent parties as often as she claimed. I missed Eve when she was quiet.
Now she rubbed at her eyes, apparently completely unharmed. "Alli?" she mumbled, like she'd been half asleep and our near-collision had merely woken her up. "Are we there already?"
That was the moment that I thought of my mom. Eve was wasted, and in more than one sense. She was heartbroken and far from thinking well enough to walk in a straight line, let alone drive. If I had let her behind the wheel, or if I'd been drinking and looked like she did, there wouldn't have been room for the quick thinking that had allowed me to swerve. We'd both be dead.
"Hey!" this too came from far away. I shifted a little and saw a figure hurrying towards our car.
"Stay here," I told Eve as I reached across to unbuckle my seat belt. She didn't respond. She'd probably already forgotten her question.
I got out slowly, testing things as I moved to make sure everything was functioning properly. The door opened smoothly. My left leg moved without any trouble; my right leg was okay down to the ankle. That part was a little stiff and sore when I put pressure on it, probably from how hard I'd had my foot pressed against the brake. When I stood, I held on to the door frame just in case, but I was only shaky not dizzy so I let go. The burning had subsided into a dull ache, a diagonal line that crossed my torso like the malicious ghost of my seat belt.
The car itself wasn't half as damaged as I'd allowed my worst imaginings to fancy. We'd run up against the curb, and the left bumper was bent so that the indentation looked like a deep valley, but that was about it.
At last, I let myself breathe. It wasn't a steady breath, or even a very relieved one. Mostly it was just filled with the horrible realization that this all could have been so much worse.
"Hey, are you okay?" I remembered the reason I'd moved in the first place. The voice that I'd first heard through a fog came through clearly now and the panic in it was obvious.
I turned around and gasped. The sight that had been behind me this whole time was far more garish than my personal experience. The screeching tires, the confusing sounds of crunching metal had not come from Eve's car at all. The man who had almost hit us, the one who was now staggering across the asphalt towards me, had fared far worse.
The stranger's car had not had an issue with airbag malfunction. I could see it expanded into the driver's seat, taking the place of the man. How he'd gotten out and was walking—granted it could barely be called walking—in my direction, I couldn't say. It didn't really matter. We were all alive and I wasn't about to argue, especially considering the way the rest of the scene looked. I'd only focused on the airbag in a weak attempt to avoid the rest of the very real horror that I was looking at. Now I reluctantly examined it all more closely. It looked like he had tried to swerve too. The car was propped up on the sidewalk at such an extreme angle that he must have made a similar attempt to avoid collision. But in his case, the effort had failed. Whereas I'd only run up against a puny curb, he'd hit a light post head on. The hissing I'd heard from so far away was steam bubbling up and hovering over the windshield; where it actually originated it was impossible to say because the hood itself was so mangled. The entire front of the car was bent around the pole like someone had used the cylinder to make an impression in play dough.
I felt myself go pale. That could easily have been me and Eve, his car wrapped around hers instead of an inanimate pole. I waited for that to sink in, for my knees to grow weak and the need to sit to overwhelm me. It didn't happen. Not yet. That was good, because the man had finally stopped in front of me. My stomach turned at the sight of him. There was blood streaming down the left side of his face. It looked like something out of a cheap horror movie and I took an instinctive step back.
"I am so sorry," he said frantically. He turned back to look at his car, then back to me in an almost comic series of double takes. "I swear I only looked down for a second."
I swallowed down the bile rising in my throat and turned his own question back on him as calmly as I could. "Are you okay?"
He didn't seem to hear. "I was on my way home, and my phone went off…I could have killed you! I could have killed me!"
"Are you okay?" This time my voice was completely calm, eerily calm.
That finally seemed to stop him, though if it was my tone or the question sinking in, I wasn't sure. "What?"
I brushed my fingers along my forehead, just above my eyebrow where I thought his trauma was originating.
He slapped at his forehead. "Oh," he almost sounded surprised. "That. It's nothing."
He used the back of his hand to wipe off most of the blood. It revealed a large gash along his hairline, long, but not very deep. Still it was a scalp wound, and it started bleeding again immediately. With his face uncovered I could see that he was young, a college student maybe, no more than a few years older than me and Eve.
"It's not nothing." I pulled my phone out of my pocket, wincing as the motion pulled at my pained skin, and prepared to call 911.
"No, no," he said, reaching forward to stop me. "Not for me, don't call for me. Are you hurt? I'll never get over it if I hurt you."
"We're fine," I said flatly.
"We?" he looked curiously over my shoulder, trying to get a glimpse inside the car. I shifted casually to block him. I didn't need him guessing that Eve was underage and drunk and deciding to call 911 for the cops rather than an ambulance.
"Please let me call," I said, redirecting his attention. "You're worse off than you think. You look terrible."
He reached up to his head again, realized that he was still bleeding, and nodded.
I dialed and he came closer. I tried to pull away, but he followed me. Aggravation started setting in. He was staring at me so intensely that I was sure he was listening in, taking in my exact word choice as I described the accident. Like there was any other way to describe it other than 'an idiot drove into my lane and almost hit me.' But I kept that to myself.
When I hung up, there was nothing to do but wait. Our car probably would have started without too much trouble, and I could easily have gotten in and driven away, but I wasn't about to leave him alone to explain things in his own words to the authorities, either.
"Do you mind," I asked finally, after standing there staring at each other had become awkward, "telling me what happened?"
I wasn't sure that he would; it followed too closely toward self-incrimination. He did though, with much self-conscious shuffling.
"My phone went off. Text message. I only looked down for a minute to see who it was."
"Who was it?" I didn't really care. It didn't make a difference.
"My girlfriend." He practically spit the word. "She's pissed at me."
He scoffed like this was a recurring issue. "Hell if I know. But I wasn't about to ignore her and get a tongue lashing later. So I replied."
Here was the irritation again, segueing comfortably into anger. "And you almost hit us."
He looked at me incredulously, wiped absently at his head again. "If your boyfriend was mad at you and you wanted to avoid trouble, you would have done the same."
"I would not," I snapped, letting every frustration of this increasingly long night lash out at this man. More than ever, I was glad that we hadn't been killed. To be killed by a superficial moron like this would have been the ultimate insult. "I'm sure my boyfriend would rather be mad at me for twenty more minutes than see me dead." I thought of Chris then, and was glad for the first time that he hadn't come to the party. If he'd been with us now, he'd probably be tearing this guy apart in my defense. And right now, I probably would have let him.
The man looked at me in shock for a frozen moment. Then he gave me an infuriatingly knowing smile and rolled his visible eye. "Whatever. You'll see when you get there."
He tried to use his hand to make a flippant gesture, but suddenly staggered in place. It was the first time he'd seemed unsteady since he'd first walked over to me, but now I could see how shaky he was. His hand trembled and, even in the dark, his complexion had become milky.
Having visions of him passing out in front of me, I disregarded the burning indignation in my chest and grabbed his arm.
"Come here," I said, and when I began leading him to the curb next to Eve's car, he didn't resist. I peeked into the window very quickly and saw that Eve was still waiting patiently as I'd asked.
With the man's arm in my hand, I bent gently until he got the hint and followed me down to sit on the sidewalk.
"Man," he said groggily. "Maybe you were right about the ambulance."
I had a snappy retort on the tip of my tongue, but I bit it back. Now really wasn't the time, not when most of my wit would probably be lost on him anyway.
"Give me your jacket," I said instead. I wasn't about to use my own clothes, even if I'd been wearing a jacket, and I took a vindictive pleasure in noticing how expensive his was.
"Why?" he asked, losing coherency right in front of me. He did it though, pulling one arm out and then the other and letting the jacket fall limply behind him. I grabbed it and placed the cuff of the sleeve against his wound, pressing as hard as I could to try and stop the blood loss.
We were sitting like this when I finally heard the sound of sirens. It really hadn't been that long since I'd made the phone call, but to me it felt like they'd taken hours to get here. The ambulance parked in the middle of the road, followed by a police car. The ambulance had barely stopped before paramedics were out and running to us. They dropped down in front of the man and began a torrent of medical talk that I was too exhausted to comprehend. Suddenly one of them had their hand on my shoulder and another gently took the jacket sleeve out of my hand.
"Good job," I heard one of them say as they did it.
I nodded and allowed the other one to lead me away slightly down the length of the sidewalk. They only used a little pressure, but they'd grabbed on to my injured shoulder and I cried out softly, the burning I'd experienced earlier coming back with vengeance.
The paramedic, a soft-faced brunette in her mid forties, caught the noise with a practiced ear and let go at once.
"Where does it hurt?" she asked. Her voice was sharper than her looks suggested, but her good intentions were obvious.
I let myself slump back until I was back to sitting on the curb and allowed my own problems to take precedence for the first time. I made a gesture as if I was pulling on a seat belt and then leaned back to let the lady look. She pulled back the collar of my shirt and looked down into it. Relief was my first reaction. I could tell by her expression that there was nothing serious under there.
"Okay," she said, and pulled me up again. "Follow me."
She led me into the back of the ambulance, empty while the rest of the team took care of the worst of the man's injuries. She sat me down inside and pulled my shirt up and over my head, leaving goose bumps as my flesh was exposed. Reluctantly, but resolutely, I looked down at myself. It really was like the impression of a seat belt, a red mark that was sure to create a bruise of many fascinating colors, starting dark at my shoulder and slowly becoming less obvious down the rest of my torso. Towards the top, the belt had actually cut into my skin, and I watched as the EMT applied a cream that must have included a pain reliever because the stinging instantly subsided. At long last, I relaxed. Everything was going to be okay.
I let the lady finish her exam, sitting quietly as she pressed at my belly and shined a flashlight into each of my eyes. She asked me a string of questions that I was barely paying attention to. I was too tired. I just wanted to go home. I must have answered them correctly though, because eventually the lady nodded and handed me back my shirt.
"You are very lucky," she told me as I put it on.
"I know it," I said gratefully. I didn't think I could ever forget.
When the cop car pulled up in my driveway, my mother was already sitting on the porch. I wasn't at all surprised. It was the strange thing about my parents: I was closer to my dad, and my mom was strict enough to stifle me sometimes when it came to school, but when I was out at night, it was always Mom who waited up. Not that Dad didn't care; I'd always thought that sleep was his cure for parental worry. Still, it was nights like these, when I'd been out with friends or to much tamer parties than I'd witnessed tonight, that my mom would be waiting for me. She never just confirmed that I was home safely and then went to bed. Instead, she'd sit me down in the living room and we'd talk. I let her in on nearly everything on those nights: boys, and friends, and school. If I was closer to my dad during the day, this was the time when my mom and I made up for lost time. It was the one time when we truly connected with no real life barriers or complications.
Tonight was going to be much different, though, considering that real life had just smacked us both hard in the face. I saw the panic in her eyes as she saw the cop car that only abated a little bit when I stuck my head out of the door to confirm that I was okay. The cop stopped me from totally getting out though. He stayed in front of the door, leaning down to look in at us.
Eve was barely awake, just aware enough to know that it was time to move. She was in her "sleeping off" phase, and I was glad.
Eve had thankfully been quiet during the entire ride back, a fact that filled me with relief. It made me nervous to be in a cop car with her just now. I was grateful for her behavior, but not really all that surprised; throughout the remainder of our dealings with the paramedics, she'd done the same.
After I'd been released from the ambulance, I'd tried to quietly slip towards the car in order to dig out registration and insurance information from the glove compartment, but my better judgment had taken hold of me. I had taken my own advice, and decided that I would rather have Eve angry with me for getting her into trouble than dead from some invisible internal injury, and had turned her over to the paramedics.
The woman who had helped me had given Eve such a severe "Mom" look that I'd been tempted to laugh. She hadn't said anything though. She hadn't needed to, the scolding looks and occasional snide comments had been more than enough. Eve had recoiled and hung her head shamefully.
Since nothing was seriously wrong with either of us, I left Eve in the ambulance and went back to the car. The man who'd hit us was already gone, carted off to the hospital because of blood loss and a nasty concussion I was sure. It was quiet again, remarkably so considering the tow truck which had arrived to move the piece of scrap metal which was once the guy's car. I moved to Eve's car and was glad to see that I really hadn't been downplaying the damage in that first, less than sane observation.
I was feeling the cold again, so I gratefully climbed into the car. I held my breath, waiting for a tremor of fear at sitting in this spot again after what had just happened, but I felt fine. I had my fingers on the keys, hoping I could start the car and get it to move off of the sidewalk, when the cop unceremoniously ripped open the door again.
Startled, I jumped, reflexively placing my hand over my heart, only to be painfully reminded that that was where my bruise was. I hissed at the sensation, and the cop's face, hard and serious when he'd opened the door, softened considerably.
"I'm sorry," he said in a deep, soothing voice that set me immediately at ease.
"It's okay," I said, though nothing about tonight had been okay.
"Come out," he said. "I'll take you home."
I shook my head without thinking. Obviously I was fine or the paramedic wouldn't have let me out of the ambulance. "I can drive."
The cop shook his head too, only on him the gesture left no room for argument. "After a shock like that, I'm not letting you on the road." He moved aside, inviting me to look past him, and I saw that Eve was already sitting in the back of his car, an ominous sight, all things considering. "Come on," he insisted, holding out his hand.
It was such a strong, competent looking hand, and suddenly all I wanted to do was let it carry me. The sight of it made me remember that very soon my adrenaline would wear off and all of the strength I'd been making an outward show of would melt away.
I took the hand and let it take me back outside.
"Where do you live?" the officer asked.
I rattled off my address by rote, spitting it out like the programmed behavior it was.
"And her's?" He was pointing at Eve.
The first syllable popped out of my mouth before I could stop it. Eve's address was as well known to me as my own. I stopped myself though, and the officer looked at me with raised, suspicious eyebrows.
I did my best to look convincing and gave him the full address. Then I added, "But no one's there. She's staying with me for the weekend while her parents are out of town." I wasn't sure why I thought the lie was necessary, I only knew that poor Eve had been through enough without having to face her parents tonight. There would be plenty of time for those repercussions later.
The cop gave me a long look, but in the end he either decided that I really was sincere, or that he didn't want to push me. He led me back to his car and let me slide in next to Eve.
"What about the car?" I'd asked, and his answering voice was soothing again.
"We'll take care of it."
Now we were back in my driveway and he was looking at me in the same way he had after asking for Eve's address.
I wanted nothing more than to get out and begin the long process of forgetting this had ever happened, but he was still in front of me and I didn't have the nerve to ask him to move.
"You be careful," he told me finally. "And take care of her, all right?" He looked at Eve with a more severe gaze than he'd yet to lay on me.
"I promise," I said earnestly. "Thank you." My gratitude was for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was letting Eve come home instead of arresting her.
He nodded sincerely and moved aside at last. I wasted no time in getting out and pulling Eve with me. She leaned on me and I held most of her weight as casually as I could so as not to make a further scene.
The three of us walked up to my mom, who'd turned her wide-eyed shock into a calm mask. She looked at me and I tried to smile. I could tell she wasn't convinced, but I saw some of the tension run out of her anyway.
"Good evening," she said, as easily as if this were an afternoon business meeting. "Is everything all right?"
"'Evening," the officer replied. "Everything's fine now. There was a car accident, but your girls had the easier time of it."
Mom nodded like this news hadn't surprised her, like her knees hadn't actually knocked together under her bath robe. "But everything's all right?" she confirmed.
Mom nodded again and reached her hand out for me. She wasn't asking for details now, but that would change as soon as we were alone.
I walked forward, but as we passed the cop, he remembered Eve.
"Your daughter told me that her friend is staying with you this weekend while her parents are away?"
I was too far in front for him to see my grimace, but Mom didn't miss it. I looked up at her with pleading eyes.
"Yes, that's right," she agreed. "I can give them the details. Unless you want their number?"
"No need. We'll be in touch. Have a good night."
Mom didn't even wait until the cop had walked down the driveway before ushering us inside. Once the door was closed, she went on the other side of Eve and helped me to support her.
"Let's put her down on the couch," she said, still calm. "Quietly. Don't wake your father."
I nodded in emphatic agreement. He would never have acted like Mom just did--he would have been hysterical and would not have been able to handle the rest of the situation calmly. He'd be having a mini heart attack instead of helping me with Eve.
Together we managed to get her to the couch. It wasn't a long trek, but she'd gotten somehow heavier in the last few seconds.
Silently, Mom gestured for me and we walked together into the kitchen.
I stood by the table and let Mom keep going. She walked towards the counter, stopped, came back to me. She inclined her head, then decided that the nightlight over the stove wasn't enough, and flipped on the overhead lights. In the brightness, she stared at me in mute horror, looking me up and down until her eyes came to rest on the part of my collarbone that my shirt left exposed.
"Oh, Alli," she said in a choked whisper. She reached a hand out to hover it over my bruise. "What happened?"
I told her the short story, explaining the guy and my swerve, and his less lucky swerve into the light post. My instinct said to avoid the details of what his car had looked like, but since that image was the most vivid one in my mind, I told her everything. I made a quick mention of ambulances, then skipped ahead to the cop that had driven me home. I did my best to spare her feelings, but there was little chance of that.
Mom was ghostly pale when I finished and had sunk down into one of the kitchen chairs. She reached a hand out towards me again, and I gestured as flippantly as I could to my injury.
"It's okay," I said. "They checked me out. It's just a bruise. A really big bruise, but…"
Suddenly, my mom had her arms around me, pressing me against her firmly. It hurt, but I let her and tightened the embrace with my own arms.
"Alli," she said. The placid façade was gone. He voice in my ear was more of a sob, barely repressed. "You could have…" she took a deep, very wet-sounding breath. "I don't know what I would have done without you."
That did it. I'd thought of my own potential demise often enough tonight, but hearing it from my mother, knowing what it would have done to her, completely unraveled me. My knees went soft until my mother was holding me up, and all of the shock, the fear that I had not let myself feel, overwhelmed me. The moment of breakdown had finally come, and I let my mother hold me while we sobbed with relief.