You see them gathered about every roadside accident. Should we move the victim?
I can't guess how many times I drove past them and wondered. I can't count how many of them I had seen before I really saw them for the first time. Thousands, certainly. Maybe tens of thousands. Dozens gathered at every minor fender bender. Scores in congregation about every injury accident. Hundreds standing, curiously watching the helicopter ambulance whump-thump into the air with its mangled, dying cargo.
Yet I never really took notice. At most I may have grunted and wondered at the morbid desires that must draw such ghouls to these spectacles of human suffering.
What does it take to make a grown man or woman stop his or her car in the middle of the day, when ordinarily they might not have stopped to avoid running down their own dogs, just to stand in the sun and squint beneath a shading palm at bloodstained sheets and shattered windshields? What drives one to knock heads in hushed conversation with strangers that would not have received the time of day in any other circumstance, simply to discuss the every gruesome aspect of body parts left lying in the street? What does one say during such morbid intercourse?
I could not begin to understand. And I could not begin to care.
Of the victims, I might have been content to say 'better them than me' and chide myself to keep my eyes upon the road and my hands upon the wheel, lest I end up the same way. Of them, I might say nothing.
But that was before. Before I stumbled onto them. Before, quite by chance, I fell into the company of their secret society.
On a Sunday afternoon around three o'clock, I was driving down the interstate five miles faster than the posted speed limit, which had always been my habit, when a brown sedan zipped passed me on the right. I remember cursing softly at the kid's break-neck speed, as I estimated at the time that he was traveling at about one hundred miles per hour. It was a carload of teenagers. Three of them in the backseat, two up front.
After they blew past me, the ones in the back turned to catch my face. They were laughing and clowning around, but their eyes were scared. They were afraid in a mortal fashion that is arduously described or related. It must be witnessed to be believed, but I realized then that at least a few of those poor children suspected they were about to die.
No sooner had I suffered this thought, than the driver did something erratic with the wheel and the car went sideways on the freeway to a belch of smoking tires. My right foot jumped to my own brake pedal, my hands went fierce and white on my own wheel, and my every breath was exhaled to a sing-song of curses. I began to see in jerky, stop-action flashes of images.
Their car was sideways, its tires smoking. Coming closer. Closer. Closer. My own car was in a fish tail, as I fought in fits and spasms to avoid their wildly destructive death.
The sedan washed back and forth before me. It went left, I went right, only to watch the dying machine swing back to the right again, as if it were deliberately trying to kill me. Then its tires came off the rims. And the rims bit the pavement on the passenger side of the vehicle. Now I could see the undercarriage. Someone was coming out through the back, driver's side window, his head bulging through a bubble of shattered safety class, his face plainly visible so I could see the black 'O' of a screaming mouth and the terrified glint of dying eyes.
It rolled in front of me. Once. Twice. Maybe a dozen times before it was finished. Three of the kids came out through shattered windows or burst doors. I watched, horrified, as one skidded along the pavement beside the whirling dance of destruction, only to disappear beneath the tossing mass when it bounced fatefully and crushed him. Pieces of his body came off and skidded along the highway with parts of the car, so I could no longer tell which was which.
I remember cursing and weeping when I finally came to a stop. I remember reaching for the clasp of my safety belt, even as I habitually glanced in the rearview for following traffic. And I remember the grill of the truck that slammed into me with startling clarity.
Now I was moving again, and I was hurt. Stars filled my vision, but I could yet see enough to know that I had been forced over the top of a body lying in the road. I knew the boy was still alive before I hit him, as he had raised a defensive arm before he disappeared beneath my bumper. I screamed and fervently wished it all away.
It's cliché, of course, but I just knew the whole thing was a nightmare and that I would soon awaken. Then I was hit again by another car in the next lane over. And a third time, when my insanely careening Ford spun around and crashed into the ruined sedan, at last. By the time all was settled and a semblance of order had returned to the universe, I understood without equivocation that it had not been a bad dream.