APRIL 10, 3:44 A.M.
A sticky thread of saliva runs from the corner of my mouth down to my earlobe, cool across my cheek. My vertebrae feel like a bunch of disconnected Lego pieces but I manage to hold up my head.
Humid April wind howls through the car. That’s not right. Then I realize there’s no windshield and the gleaming uncut diamonds scattered all over the passenger seat are glass shards.
My temple throbs with hot, clean pain, and I realize I need to call someone: Milton, or better yet, an ambulance. Why didn’t the airbag work? The light from the car—the one surviving headlight, like a beam of a lost lighthouse in the night—shines into emptiness filled with stray raindrops, catching the side of the tree that I wrapped my car around.
When I raise my hand to my forehead, my fingers come away coated with slick, shiny blood. More of it is already running down my neck under my collar—foreheads bleed a lot. An ambulance sounds better and better, but I don’t know where to even begin looking for my phone. Was I texting when I crashed? Checking my email? They’re going to ask that, and I have to say no. I sometimes use my phone as a GPS, but not tonight. I’ve taken this route a million times. When there’s no traffic, and there’s never any traffic, it takes me forty-five minutes to get home.
The door is stuck, and for a few moments, I tug and push and pull on the handle, consumed by ever-growing panic. But then, once I give it a kick, it comes unstuck and swings open. Getting out is a feat. I unfold my aching body and have to hold on to the car door to keep from falling over. After stumbling through the usual debris on the side of the highway, I breathe a sigh of relief when there’s finally flat, solid asphalt beneath my feet, the yellow stripe in its center curving into the dark distance. I follow it. Down the road, there’s a gas station. If I were driving, it would be right there around that curve. I don’t know how far it is on foot but, hopefully, not that far.
I take one step after another until the road steadies itself beneath my feet and stops swaying. Next thing I know, when I turn around, I can no longer see my car. The one headlight went out, and now it’s just me and the sky and the road.
My heart starts to thunder, which makes my forehead bleed more—or at least it feels like it, that little throbbing pulse intensifying. Maybe I should have stayed and looked for my phone in the wilted grass of the ditch. Anything could be out here on this road. The darkness is alive.
I wrap my arms around myself and do my best to walk faster, but a rush of dizziness stops me in my tracks. When I close my eyes, an image flashes in front of them, a shadow. A figure. Except this isn’t imagination—it’s memory. It’s vivid, fresh. I’m driving, twin beams of my car’s headlights intact, my hands firmly on the steering wheel, my mind calm in that dull way it is after a long, late shift. I’m thinking about a bath and a bowl of ramen noodles in front of the TV I will only half watch because nothing good is on that late.
The shadow flickers out of nowhere, my headlights snatching it out of the darkness. It’s the silhouette of a man, standing stock-still in the middle of the road, right over that yellow line.
I open my eyes, and there’s nothing—no car, no lights, no figure. A glow in the distance suggests that I’m getting closer to the gas station and, hopefully, a phone and an ambulance. At the same time, the dizziness settles in, and I fight the temptation to sit down, just for a moment. Or better yet, lie down, right here on the side of the road. This means I have a concussion, which means I need to do precisely the opposite, as I learned in my mandatory first aid courses.
A spike of headache drives itself into my temple, and when I flinch, the image springs back up, like a movie I paused in the middle of the action. I’m careening toward the figure at eighty miles per hour. When I react, it’s already too late to slow down, to give him a wide berth. The car’s headlights bathe him in bluish light, erasing facial features, bleaching out everything except a strange harlequin pattern of splotches and spots that look black against his hostly skin. Just as I swerve the steering wheel and hit the brakes, I have time to see that I was wrong—it’s not black. It’s red, red like ripe cherries and rust.
Then the world spins, the road is gone, and so is the figure.
My eyes snap open just as everything explodes. Bang. I’m panting and need to stop to catch my breath, hands on my knees. The gas station is finally in view, deserted but all aglow like a church on Christmas Eve.
Only a few more steps and I’ve reached salvation.
What follows is a blur but somehow I find myself on a gurney with a blanket around my shoulders, and an ambulance tech is shining a flashlight into my eyes. Whether I have a concussion or not, the cut on my temple keeps oozing blood so they tape a gauze pad over it. I expect someone to ask me what happened but no one does. Through the open doors, I watch the ambulance lights bounce off the rain-slicked road. Is that what happened? Did my car skid? Maybe I fell asleep at the wheel.
“Ms. Boudreaux?” the ambulance tech is saying. They already know my name, which means they ran my car’s plates. Then I see my open purse just sitting there in the middle of the wet road, my wallet splayed open next to it. Oh. How did it get here? I don’t remember grabbing it as I got out. “We’re taking you to Saint Joseph Hospital, all right? For observation.”
I hate that soothing tone, maybe because I’ve oftentimes used it myself, on frightened teenage runaways who show up at the shelter where I work. But whether I like it or not, it has the intended effect: He could be saying literally anything in that calm, measured voice. It’s the intonation and timbre that have the effect.
We’ll notify your family,” the tech says. It’s that word that wakes me up, overriding whatever he just shot into the crook of my elbow. I make a clumsy move to grasp his forearm.
“Wait. There’s someone else there.” I must have hit my head harder than I thought—I can barely get the words out, slurring and misshapen.
He frowns. “Someone else?”
“I saw someone. Maybe they’re hurt.”
“You mean you hit someone?”
I give a vigorous shake of my head. I’m disoriented as hell, but this I’m sure of. Certain. Although when I think about it, I have no reason to be so certain, considering I still go to AA meetings once a week. “No. I saw someone.” I didn’t drink, I didn’t take anything, I haven’t even smoked a joint in months. That part of my memory is crystal clear. I wasn’t wasted, and I didn’t run anyone over.
But there was a man, covered in blood. And by the time I came to, a few minutes later—or maybe hours later, for all I know—he was gone.