She smelled oil.
She smelled blood.
She forced her eyes open, squinting against the bright beams of light in the darkness. Broken branches littered a path of wreckage leading to the road. A car perched awkwardly against the road railing, its front hanging over a trench. Another rested a few feet away, wheels in the air.
Sally. She gasped, staggering to her feet. She felt nothing. No pain, no cold. She shuffled forward awkwardly, her limbs heavy, hard to control. Maybe she was in shock? It didn’t matter, as long as it kept her moving.
Broken glass sparkled like snowflakes on the road. Mist hung heavy around her. It was almost beautiful.
Was it mist? Smoke? She squinted, following the thick plumes to the front of the closest car. Fuck. The other driver. Should she help? She felt a flutter in her chest, followed quickly by fury and terror. No, no, Sally, she had to check on Sally first. Sally was in the other car. The upside-down car. The glass painted a broken path to it: a mangled metal form, its driver side crumpled.
The butterflies in her stomach turned into vicious wasps. No. No, no, no. Please no.
She scrambled forward, glass crunching under her feet, then under her hands and knees as her legs gave way, but she didn’t feel it. She didn’t care. She just needed to see her daughter. Sally needed to be okay. She was too young for this.
Sally had just gotten her permit. They’d been coming back from a hike. It was getting dark, but Sally needed the night practice. She’d insisted on driving.
This hadn’t been Sally’s fault. The other car had come from nowhere, veering into their lane. It had all happened so fast. The driver was probably drunk, or high, or texting, or whatever other idiocy she’d taught Sally to never do. Maybe they were just a shitty driver. Who knows? Who cares? She’d deal with that later.
The car loomed large in front of her. The windows were all gone, so she could reach in. Sally’s eyes were closed, but she was breathing. She was strapped to the seat; the seatbelt had done its job. Thank God. She awkwardly pawed at Sally: her hair, her skin, her shirt; anything to assure her that she was whole and alive and there.
“Sally. Honey, wake up. Please. Please baby,” she said as she pulled at Sally’s shirt. Her voice was hoarse and came out barely above a whisper. Sally didn’t wake.
She felt burning in her throat, stinging in her eyes, but she forced it down. Now was not the time to cry.
She had to get Sally out of the car.
She shuffled toward the door, trying to ignore the jagged creases in the metal that shouldn’t be there. Fucking cars these days crumpled so easily. She grabbed for the handle, tried to pull, but couldn’t get her fingers to latch on. It must be the shock. She felt so weak. She could barely control her hands. Focus, for God’s sake. She couldn’t fail at grabbing a door handle. She tried again, clamping her fingers on the handle one by one and pulling with all her might; it moved, but the door stayed closed. It must be stuck.
Okay, that’s fine. She forced her sharp breaths into long, deep inhales. Just have to focus. Have to think. Maybe the seatbelt? Could she just undo it and drag Sally out? She popped her head into the car, straining around her daughter to the seatbelt buckle. She had to be careful, Sally would fall headfirst when it was undone. But that was okay; she’d pillow her with her own body. It would all be fine.
She pushed on the clasp, and then again, tugging at the strap in increasing panic. It wouldn’t give, the button wouldn’t even push in. Fuck this car! Everything was stuck. How could this be so hard? It was a goddamn button. What was wrong with her? She couldn’t leave Sally in there.
She backed out of the car, pulling at her hair. She screamed. She tried to think. She took a deep breath. She needed help.
Her hand went to her pocket but found nothing. Her phone must have fallen out. She swirled around, staring in dread at the forest she’d walked out of. She had little light; it was fully dark now. She’d never find it.
She eyed the other car, still smoking a few feet away. Nobody had come out of it. She doubted they would be of any help, then.
Sally. Sally was glued to her phone–when she wasn’t driving, of course. Thank God for typical teenagers. A sense of relief washing through her. Yes, simple, just find Sally’s phone. It was probably in Sally’s pocket. She’d just call 911 and then it would be okay.
She shoved her head back in the car, straining to pat Sally’s jeans. The pockets were empty. She shoved the panic away. Maybe it had fallen. It had to be here. It would be fine. Just focus.
She looked around the inverted ceiling–now floor–and spotted the black rectangle against more broken glass near the back. Yes!
She grasped for it, and again her fingers failed her, flapping uselessly on the phone like one of those gummy hand toys Sally used to play with as a kid. Worse, even, she thought bitterly. At least those stuck to the glass they were thrown against.
She gritted her teeth and slapped her whole hand over it, pushing down, dragging it inch by inch toward her. It felt like trying to move a mountain; like that phone held the entirety of Earth’s weight in it. She strained, pulling until it was close enough to see the screen. It had a crack, but the screen flashed; it worked, and that’s all that mattered. Now she just had to unlock it.
She swiped up, and then again, over and over for what felt like a thousand times until finally the lock screen appeared, almost blinding in the night. There was an emergency call button under the number pad.
She couldn’t feel anything anymore. She could barely move. Maybe the shock was wearing off. She just wanted to sleep and never wake up.
No. NO. She had to snap out of it. Sally needed help.
She focused all her energy into mashing her finger into the screen until–yes! It began to ring.
She listened to each ring echo in the confines of the car, a bright burst of hope followed by sunken emptiness in the silence, and then there was a soft click, and a voice.
“This is 911, what’s your emergency?”
“Car accident,” she said. Her throat wasn’t cooperating, her voice sounded like a stranger’s: distant, empty. It felt like she’d just gotten out from the dentist, her lips rubber, her tongue heavy. She swallowed, trying to muster even an ounce of saliva from the desert that was her mouth.
“Hello?” the phone said. “Is anyone there?”
She leaned forward, putting her lips right to the phone, and tried her best to shout. “Car accident.”
The phone was silent for a few seconds, and her heart nearly stopped. Please. Come on. You heard me.
“Where is the accident, ma’am?” the voice said, and her body nearly gave way from relief.
“Forest,” she shouted into the phone. “202. Past Lake Echo.” Each word was a struggle. Was she losing her voice or her mind?
“Okay, I’m dispatching help your way, ma’am. How many cars were involved in the accident?” the voice asked.
“Two,” she told the phone. The silence stretched on.
“Ma’am? Hello, are you still there? How many cars were involved? Is anyone hurt?”
“Yes!” she screamed. “Two! Two cars! My daughter is stuck! Please–” But the phone flashed before going black. No, no, NO. Don’t do this! She pawed at it, slamming her hands down on the screen, but it gave no more signs of life.
The tears came then, fat and heavy down her cheeks, nearly blinding her. She blinked them furiously aside, and breathed long and deep. She hated useless emotions. Help had been dispatched, the operator had said. It would all be okay.
She glanced up at Sally, her poor baby girl, suspended unnaturally in her seat. The seat belt was biting into her neck. She swallowed the pain of not being able to help.
It was getting colder out. They were on the fringe of autumn, and the evenings had a brisk bite to them. This was her favorite time of year, normally. She loved the colors, the cozy feeling the season brought. She’d looked forward to wearing her favorite sweater today. Sally, naturally, wore shorts and a tank top, clinging to summer with wishful thinking despite her mother’s words of wisdom. Now the lingering warmth of day was rapidly diminishing, and Sally’s lips were turning blue.
She was fading. She could feel it. But she couldn’t, not yet. She had to make sure help arrived.
She dragged herself forward into the cramped space, huddling awkwardly around her daughter’s form. She tried her best to lean against her, offer some support, some warmth. They’d get through this. They had to.
“Please, baby girl. Please be okay,” she whispered. She stroked her hair. Kissed her face.
And she waited.
She didn’t know how long for. It felt like an eternity of nothingness.
But then there were lights, distant pinpricks of flashing colors, distorted by the smoke. She blinked, and they grew closer; blinked again and they bathed the scene in red and blue. There was shouting, sounds of rubber boots hitting gravel and a commotion of activity.
She dragged herself out of the car.
“Here!” she shouted, or tried to. She felt like Rose from Titanic, frozen helpless on a door, unable to do anything. “Over here!” She pulled herself up against the frame of the car and threw her arms in the air. “Please help!”
Two figures came her way with a stretcher. Her knees gave out beneath her, and she sank to the ground. “My daughter, please–" she said, but she needn’t have as the paramedics beelined for Sally regardless. Thank God.
She sat on the ground and watched them work, tried to listen to the unfamiliar medical jargon that instantly jumbled in her head. She prayed. She watched her daughter’s face, took in every familiar feature. And then they pulled Sally out, slowly, carefully, and set her on the stretcher, and finally–finally–she let herself breathe. It would be okay.
They started taking Sally away, and she scrambled after them, watching as they loaded her into an ambulance. She looked so small. But she was safe now; it would be okay.
The other driver–finally free of the smoking car–was loaded into the second ambulance next to her, and the ambulance took off. She looked back to Sally, the paramedics hovering over her stretcher, the ambulance doors still wide open; they should leave as well, she thought. Sally needed help. What were they waiting for?
As if hearing her thoughts, one of the paramedics came to the doors and looked out.
“We’ve got to go, Nick. Are there any others? Should we call for another ambulance?” the paramedic shouted to the darkness. Two more paramedics came from the woods. They carried a stretcher between them, a body bag resting on top.
“Go,” one of them shouted back–Nick, she supposed. “Scene is secured, there were just these three,” he said.
The paramedic in the ambulance nodded and shouted something to the front. One door closed, and then the other. And finally, the ambulance left, taking Sally with it.
She stood in the road and watched it leave until the last speck of it disappeared behind the tree line. She felt nothing, and now she knew why.
She took in the scene around her: the wreckage, the smoke, the paramedics with the body bag. She walked back to the car and sat down. Sally’s phone lay to her right, and with the last of her strength she pulled it closer, tracing the familiar stickers on the phone case. Then she closed her eyes, and pictured Sally, every little detail she could remember of her.
It would be the last time she would see her daughter, after all. In the growing night, she savored it for as long as she could.
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Maria Berejan is a co-founder of 84th Street Press and Seattle NaNoWriMo municipal liaison. She mostly writes fantasy and mystery with a good serving of death, and has published stories in “Boys, Book Clubs, and Other Bad Ideas”, “The Mistletoe Paradox”, and “What Happened to Annabell?” books in the Monday Night Anthology series. She is often found lost in daydreams, engrossed in a new hobby, or puttering about her variety of plants with cats in tow.
Copyright ©2023 by Maria Berejan.
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