I never thought that my life would ending in some pinnacle moment of my life. I never saw it ending in despair, or even suddenly. I had been pretty sure that I would end up dying in a hospital somewhere, surrounded by friends and family as I died of old age. I was sure that I would be loved, not running away from my life and away from everything that had led up to this moment.
It was frightening, as I hurtled through space. I didn't know that the adrenaline would slow down my system so that I saw everything as if it were in slow motion. I only remember seeing the headlights seconds before they hit my car, sending me careening off of a cliff somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains.
I became weightless in the giant, metal trap of death. My body lifted, straining against the seatbelt. I watched in horror as the shape of giant tree hurtled into the view of my head lights.
I closed my eyes and heard a loud screeching groan when the pain hit- and then there was nothing.
I wasn't sure how much time had passed before I was opening my eyes. I had somehow been thrown into the back seat of my car, the entire front half crushed into an unrecognizable lump, windshield gone. I waited for the pain to hit, but for a persistent ache in my muscles and joints, I felt… almost ok.
Groaning, I reached for the door handle and pulled the latch. The latch popped, but the metal had folded in on itself in places, making it impossible to opening it more than maybe half an inch. With some shimmying, I turned around and kicked at the door as hard as possible. The metal moaned before giving with a loud squeal.
I stumbled out of the car, realizing as I surveyed the damage, it was a miracle I was alive. I had fallen down a straight cliff probably about 100 meters straight into the trunk of the largest free I'd ever come across. The entire front of my car was smashed in right up to the front of the dash. The windshield was entirely missing- shattered in a million tiny pieces that sparkled like diamonds in the sparse light of the moon.
I fell to the earth, thinking of how I should have been crushed in that car. I remembered wearing my seatbelt all the way up until contact. There had been no time to somehow climb into the back seat.
Trying to find my footing, I skittered down the steep incline and came to the driver's side door. Glancing inside, I could see where the seatbelt had malfunctioned, the metal mechanism had been torn apart from the impact. But what was stranger, when I looked more closely at the belt, there was blood as if from laceration.
I looked down at my clothes, and though there were some rips from the glass, there was no sign of the seatbelt having cut me.
Confused, I unbuttoned the top few buttons of my old flannel and saw, striped across my chest, a dark, painful looking bruise. I was sure, without looking, that a second bruise crossed my hips. Even with the deepening black and purpling bruise, I didn't see any cuts or blood on my chest.
A sense of apprehension tore through me. Something wasn't quite right about all of this. I looked up at the cliff's edge, hoping that someone, anyone, might be looking down, trying to see where the fallen car might have gone.
I was afraid to explore any further. I was afraid of what I might find. Had the second car also plummeted off the edge like I had? Would there be a body lying around waiting me to find, broken and lamenting my mistakes? I was so tired, I wasn't sure if it was my mistake or there's. Highway hypnosis had been starting to really take effect and I was just trying to get to the next exit.
Had I drifted and hit someone? Or had they hit me. All I really remembered was the collision and then the fall. Everything before that was just a strange blur.
Swallow, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly. Breathe. One breath at a time. I could do this. My dad had always told me to not panic if I ever found myself in this kind of situation. It was always best to call someone if you could. If you couldn't, try to get to the road. If those two options didn't work, wait right there and someone would eventually stop.
Shaking the thought out of my head, I got up and went the other side of the car, peaking into the passenger's side, trying to locate my purse. I usually kept it on the seat, so it was either trapped under the crushed insides of the engine compartment which were where the floor boards used to be, inaccessible to me, or it had been thrown out of the car upon collision with the tree and made its way down the mountainside.
Put out, I knew my best hope was to search the immediate mountainside and hope it wasn't broken. I took a deep breath and began to pick my way around the tree. One of the headlights had managed to survive the crash and it lit up half of the forest, while the other half remained as dark as midnight.
I took a steadying breath and put my head down, getting to work, using both my eyes and my feet to search the tall grass that grew between the trees.
It felt like an eternity searching in the dark, but my foot finally hit it with a dull thump, sending the contents rattling. I sighed in relief, grabbing it by the strap and moving toward the lit part of the forest to search through it. Just in case, I made a mental note of where I found it.
I was struggling to open my purse in the half light when my foot caught on something and I fell. Cursing, I propped myself on my elbows and pushed my hair out of my eyes. Today could not have possibly been worse.
Moving my purse out of the way, I pushed myself up and looked for the offending object.
I looked down. Both of my shoes were definitely still on my feet. What on earth could possibly be going on?
I bit my lip, the feeling of something being very wrong hitting me again in the gut. Hesitantly, I started a little further down the hill, toward the edges of the light. It looked like something had been propelled down here. The grass had been flattened in a small area ahead and I felt my chest contract.
I hadn't hit some innocent hiker, had I?
I fought myself and my nausea at the thought of having accidentally killed someone, but I forced myself down toward that tiny clearing where, more than likely, someone lay either dead or dying.
Heart pounding, I edged closer, eyes locked on my goal with something between fear and determination. My breath hitched, and then it came into view. They- she- had landed face down on the ground, her body broken and her legs splayed at awkward angles.
I felt hot tears burn at my eyes before falling down my face. Guilt, so much guilt, flooded me. I hadn't meant for any of this to happen. I had just wanted to change my life and make it into something that didn't make me want to scream in frustration.
And here I was, looking at someone whose choice had left them as soon as I had decided to get on the road tonight. Because of my stubbornness, I was the reason this woman had lost her life.
Crying, I knelt beside her. I felt whispered apologies leave my lips without really hearing them, tears blinding me. Oh god, someone had to come get this woman. Maybe she had some sort of identification. Maybe I'd at least be able to apologize to someone who could hear me, someone who could be angry and blame me for the horrible thing I'd done.
I grabbed her shoulders and struggled to flip her. I managed to eventually get her onto her back, her limbs already growing cold in the clammy night.
Nausea and fear gripped my stomach as I reached up to brush her hair out of her face, wanting to torture myself a little more.
I tucked the strand absently behind her ear and then froze, horrible recognition filling me. Staring sightlessly into the sky, dead as a doornail, was me.
I didn't even hear myself scream.