Today it was a broken railing that caught and grabbed her attention. Most days it was roadkill. The grotesque bodies of whatever animals had been foolish enough to venture into the road. It always made her stomach do little flips. Her nose would fill with the smell of death, even though she knew that was impossible. There was no way the smell could reach her in here. She’d picture what the animal had looked like before, as if that would make it any less dead, any less mangled. Then she’d curse humanity for inventing such a destructive force even though she was using it herself.
When she was a child, she had never noticed the roadkill. She was always looking out the window at all the passing sights, but she never saw the flattened masses of flesh and fur. She never noticed the skid marks back then either. The evidence that something bad had happened was all around her, but she had never seen it back then. Why did she notice them now? She wondered if it was because she was hyper aware, always afraid that her fate would intertwine with the fate of those animals, or the cars that had left those marks.
The railing was badly damaged, crumpled. It was all that remained as evidence of the crash. Any glass from the car that hit it had been cleaned up. The skid marks were too numerous to indicate which belonged to the owner of whatever had caused the damage. But even still, her mind lingered on the railing. The car probably went over the bridge. It might have slid down the embankment, but it depended on the angle of the crash. She could feel the terror of the car’s driver and or passengers as the crash happened.
It was night. What made her think that? There was no evidence to show that the crash had happened at night. Even if the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Even if she knew that for sure, there was still no evidence of time. Why did she decide it was night? It didn’t make sense, but she knew it. It was there in the pit of her stomach which churned and asked her to turn around and go back to that railing. That didn’t make sense either. What good would it do to return? The railing would look the same if she saw it up close or from far away. Would her nostrils fill with the smell of death as they did when she saw the roadkill? Would she feel terror and confusion?
Still, despite it being completely foolish, she turned around at the next opportunity. She went back to the bridge, to the broken railing. Unsure why she was there, she parked her car on the shoulder just short of the bridge and neared the steep embankment on foot. The railing was just as mangled up close, but the feeling in her chest grew. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. What was she hoping to accomplish by doing this? She did not smell death, but she heard screams. Screams that came from the ether, muffled, no visible source. It was night. That impression was not going away. There were four people. Three were asleep, one was driving. It was a small mistake that grew into a monumental error. The driver started to drift into the oncoming lane and overcorrected. The impact was immediate and all three of the passengers woke from it.
The muffled screaming intensified until it was all she could hear. She could almost make out words, frantic, panicked words. There was pounding. Someone was looking for a phone, another was trying to revive the driver. There was blood. She could feel the blood as if it was dripping down her temple and matting her hair. There was water. She descended the embankment carefully until she was at the water’s edge. What was she after? Something told her to go for a swim in the narrow body of water not big enough to call a river but hardly just a creek. The feeling was overwhelming. It was guiding her down. As she neared the water’s edge, the smell of death hit her nostrils. It was overpowering. She struggled to take a deep breath before she plunged under the surface.
It was dark in the water, but there was something guiding her she knew not where. She’d know when she got there. Down, down, just a little further. The muffled screaming grew more intense. The car slowly filled with water. She felt the cold water crushing her, but her hand grasped something, and she swam back towards the surface. What had she gone after? As she resurfaced, she heard muffled sirens. Help is coming, she thought. But they remained muffled, and she realized they weren’t really there. None of this was real. This was all in her head.
The panic started to wash away, and relief flooded her at the thought help is coming. She could hear more muffled voices. Authoritative voices. Commanding, taking control, sending this person here and that person there. But the smell of death persisted. Then she felt panic begin to take control again. Too late. Already dead. These impressions took hold. Even as she felt the car had been salvaged from the water. It had not finished sinking. She rationalized she had thought this because she didn’t discover it at the bottom along with whatever it was she held in her hand. She hadn’t looked at it yet. She was almost afraid to.
The sensations and sirens and smell melted away. She looked down at her hand to what she held. It was a medal of some sort. She didn’t understand why, but she felt compelled to go somewhere. She had followed her instinct here, and now it was leading her elsewhere. When she pulled up outside the hospital, she cringed. She hated hospitals. They always made her feel sick. The smell of death was always strongest in a hospital. She grit her teeth and walked inside. She was on a mission. Her wet clothing was starting to dry, but she got a few odd stares as she entered. She barely had energy to care that she looked horrible. She felt horrible. She wandered around until she found the place she was looking for. It was a waiting room just outside the ICU. She walked up to a woman and reached out her hand. The woman looked up in confusion. As her eyes caught sight of the medal, she teared up.
“Oh my God. I thought we lost this forever. How did you find it? Who are you? Were you one of the EMTs at the crash site? What even made you go looking for it? It’s…” her voice caught as she struggled to find the words “Maybe, if he feels this in his hand. It was Donny’s. Maybe… just maybe, he’ll wake up. Thank you.” At the woman’s words, she trembled slightly and then tears began to leak out of her eyes.
She could not find the words to tell the woman what had happened, so she left without speaking. She made her way out of the hospital, which made her feel ill, and down to the safety of her car before she broke down in sobs. This didn’t make any sense. What drove her here? How had she known? It was just a broken railing on the side of the road evidence of a crash, but no more. At least that’s what it should have been to her. What had made her turn around? What had compelled her to find that medal and to bring it here? She was afraid of the answer. Mingled with the doubt and uncertainty, almost as if it came from another place entirely, a sense of relief flooded over her. He's alive. He's waking up.