The morning of the worst day of my life started off beautifully, which only serves to show how terribly things can change. She was still sleeping against me when we woke up shortly after sunrise. I don’t think I even recalled falling asleep a few hours before, the last thing I remembered was the quiet sound of her breathing as I ran my fingers through the hair of her sleeping head. That would have been the perfect moment to have opened my mouth and told the truth. I have no doubt that she would have been angry with me for the deception, but I similarly have no doubt that she would have forgiven me…she was that kind of person, the sort of girl who couldn’t even conceive of malice directed at another person.
Of course I didn’t say a thing, no matter how much I wish that I could go back and change that fact…if I had, we wouldn’t be experiencing the conclusion of this chapter of my life together. If I had simply done the right thing, I would be a better man for it…but I did not, and we’ll have to decide together what that says of me as a man.
I was shortsighted and took the beginning of the day as a sign that life was going to turn out just fine. I learned real fucking quick that the beginning of a thing has little to no relevance to determining how that thing will end, and if that is the only lesson you learn from me it will make this whole ordeal worth something.
Our agenda that morning was so simple. We were near some of the other girl’s family on the Eastern side of the state, so we were going to stop there and let her visit them for a short while and then we would continue on our way to dropping the girls off as intended. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for us that morning and we filled up the tank again before leaving town (without paying for it, as you could probably guess) after that brief interlude with her family.
We were well on our way down the highway when a police officer came along, heading the opposite direction, most likely due to the fact that the cops had been called because of a handful of kids in a minivan driving off without paying for their fuel. I don’t adequately know how to describe the feeling I experienced as I saw the cruiser whip around in the rear view mirror with lights and siren going, but terror and stomach churning nervousness fall monstrously short as far as descriptions go. In a perfect world my friend would have recognized that we had reached the conclusion of our strange little journey and it was time to call it quits…instead, he accelerated.
Nothing about this situation could have played out well for us from that moment on. The girls were terrified and screaming from the second row seat, begging him to stop the vehicle…but there was no indication that he was hearing them at all. Until that time I had never really considered that a minivan could reach speeds exceeding 100MPH, and I genuinely hope never to experience that again.
To my credit, the little bit that I might deserve, I tried to get my friend to pull over at least long enough to let the girls out. I pleaded with him and swore that I would stay with him to see it through to whatever end we met if he would just stop and let them out.
There was no getting through to him though, and under the circumstances I can understand how he would have driven on, oblivious to the pleading from the rest of us in the vehicle. He was as scared as we were; more so, I suspect, because he knew that he was behind the wheel of a stolen minivan. During the few minutes that followed the officer beginning his pursuit, there was nothing else going through my friends mind but a desperate need to escape and a cascade of fight or flight hormones.
I was angry with him for quite some time after this, and I liked to pretend that I would have done something differently if I had been behind the wheel, but I don’t know that events would have played out any differently had that been the case. Under the same conditions I may have had the exact same panic response that led him to run rather than stop and accept the consequences for our actions. The simple truth is that I don’t know anything of the sort, and it was unfair of me to be angry with him for reacting out of fear.
The high-speed pursuit didn’t last long even though it felt like forever while it was happening. My friend pulled off from the highway onto another road as soon as the opportunity presented itself, presumably to try and lose the officer and extract us from the god-awful situation we were in. Sadly, diverting our attempted escape onto this alternate road directly led to the horrible outcome that was soon to arrive. No one would have anticipated the sudden transition from pavement to gravel, but the inevitable outcome of hitting the gravel surface at close to 120MPH was highly predictable.
We were out of control almost immediately and the minivan flipped into the air before rolling a few times and coming to a stop upside down a good distance from the road.
The specifics of the accident are difficult to recall, having happened so damn fast. I remember my seatbelt snapping and I have some flashes of recollection of being thrown around inside of the vehicle before being apparently ejected from the rear hatch of the minivan. I remember bouncing and rolling along the dry, hard-packed dirt ground for a while before things finally became still.
I don’t recall losing consciousness at all, but I sure as hell wasn’t fully coherent at first. It was the sound of the other girl crying that shook me out of the daze that I was in. I picked myself up from the ground and stumbled over to where she was laying on the ground. I could see that she was hurt, and badly, but I tried to tell her that everything would be ok and that there had to be an ambulance on the way. She asked me if I saw her friend, and it took me a little while to locate her.
I frantically searched the ground for her, my eyes not focusing quite right, but I did finally see her a short distance away. She wasn’t crying at all and didn’t appear to be moving, so I began to walk over to where she was laying as quickly as I could.
I was almost there when the officer yelled from the road for me to lay down and wait for the paramedics to arrive. My body wanted me to listen to him, but I had to get over to her so I just kept walking that direction until I couldn’t stay on my feet any longer. It had been pure adrenaline that kept me going that far and I had just burned through it, I guess. I don’t really remember hitting the ground, but I was laying there again, my head tilted awkwardly to the side to keep my eyes on the girl who had only a short while before been sleeping peacefully pressed up against me. I swear that she was breathing and looking back at me, but the mind plays tricks on us during times of great stress and I can’t trust the things I believed myself to have seen.
I would later find out that the van had landed on her during one of its rolls and that her heart had burst from the pressure…something to that effect. My lies and cowardice, selfishness and stupidity had literally broken her heart. That was the lesson I carried with me from that horrific day.
She didn’t make it through that morning, didn’t even survive to make it into the ambulance as far as I know. I didn’t know any of that until later. If she was still breathing while I lay there on the ground with my eyes locked on hers, I may have been the last thing she saw before she passed away…and she deserved something so much better than that, she deserved to see something beautiful and peaceful to carry with her into the end.
Her friend’s injuries were severe enough that she had to be flown from the nearby hospital to one where they could properly tackle the rebuilding process required to repair the damage from the accident. I saw her again just a few years ago and she still walked with a noticeable limp, and it made me wince to see it.
Beyond numerous contusions and psychological damage that I will carry with me the rest of my life, I fractured five vertebrae in my middle and lower spine. My insistence on walking around immediately after the accident certainly couldn’t have helped that condition.
The driver was uninjured and taken into custody. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to serve a year in a juvenile detention facility for the part he played in the accident. There was no attempt to convict me of anything, apparently determining that I was being punished enough thanks to the injuries I sustained in the wreck…but I would have gladly traded places with my friend, if it had been an option. Some part of me wanted to be punished, needed it…but I was not. The owners of the minivan did not press charges out of some sense of compassion for the children who had been involved in the theft and subsequent tragedy, but I remember halfway wishing that they had…just so that I could have been held accountable.
I was only a month shy of my 16th birthday, and I was a killer. I may not have been behind the wheel, but I was just as complicit in killing the first girl I loved as the boy who had been driving. Growing up Catholic taught me about sins of commission and sins of omission…and that is a lesson I took to heart. I was actively involved in the theft that placed the fateful Dodge Caravan in our careless, stupid hands…that was a sin of commission. I spent the couple of days during our little road trip neglecting to tell the truth, which would have saved us all a great deal of pain and suffering…that was a sin of omission. I may not believe in God, the dogma of the Catholic faith, or any of that silly spiritual nonsense…but the concept of sin is something that I can embrace, sin is the way that we wrong those around us, the choices we make that directly or indirectly hurt the people in our lives.
This is the point where I should tell you about the time spent in the hospital and the god awful, painful nightmare that was her funeral…but I can’t do it, not right now. I’ve spent too long thinking about this tonight, picking at wounds that I’ve never quite allowed to heal, and I need to step away for a bit. I’ll tell you the rest, just not right now.