It was a bitter cold December evening, and Officer Pierce wished he was home with his family. It was the holiday season, after all.
Soon he arrived at the scene, which had an ominously festive appearance. Blue and red lights flickered, reflected in the glass shards that covered the ground like a light dusting of snow. The crunch of his boots on the glass sounded like a stroll through a winter wonderland. But there was death here.
It was a dangerous corner, a turn that coincided with an intersection established long ago, when drivers heard hoof beats or the jingle of horse-drawn buggies, and paused, tipping hats and bidding good evening to neighbors they knew, not only by name or appearance, but by voice and words and deeds.
Officer Pierce had complained, but it was just this sort of curious merger of lanes that drew visitors, gave impulse to the wanderers who came here to reminisce over what they had never really known, but somehow understood was lost. The city council stonewalled, and his stack of accident reports climbed.
He looked beyond flickering lights; saw the rose encrusted crosses, the photographs of those who paid the ultimate price for sentimentality and carelessness. The paramedics were waiting for the Jaws of Life to disentomb the teenage boy’s body from the crumpled vehicle. They stood about, restless; this job was tedious, one of gloom. They were only here to testify to what already was fact.
The car had been t-boned, struck as it passed the intersection by a pickup pulling into the main road. It had been launched diagonally and flipped several times before slamming into one of the large oaks that lined the ambling country lane. The driver of the truck survived, having departed minutes earlier in another ambulance, its paramedics busy, hopeful for success.
Officer Pierce continued to survey the wreckage and finally saw the elderly man, leaning on the hood of his undamaged car, head in hands – a witness. He walked over to the man, waited for him to look up.
“Mr. Brogdon, may I take your statement?”
Moist cheeks and reddened eyes soon emerged from behind the shelter of his shaking hands. His voice was quavering, but full of conviction, agitated.
“I killed him!”
“Pardon me, sir. I don’t see how you might have caused the accident. It’s clear that the driver was rounding this corner too fast and the driver of the truck didn’t see him until it was too late. Is there something else?”
“Is he dead?”
There was a sort of foolish, childlike begging in the question. Officer Pierce didn’t answer, but his face told the truth. Despair fell over the weary man, who hid face in hands again, sobbing. Eventually he spoke, in a whisper.
“He wasn’t careful, but neither was I. He cut me off. It filled me with rage.”
He hesitated, swallowed hard, steadied himself, and then confessed.
“I shouted at the top of my lungs. I could have said anything, but I said I hoped he’d die.”
His eyes dropped and his writhing fingers pressed violently into the back of his neck and downcast head.
“Don’t you see, Officer? It should have been me. He was just trying to get clear of me but I made him run harder. And then, I cursed him. Couldn’t I have just let him go, let him get away? I might have seen him again someday. Oh, his poor Momma, how will she ever forgive me?”
He broke down again, and Officer Pierce strolled back to his car, ran the license plate of the victim, waited on the dreaded particulars. He would get an address, and then he would go, bringing the shadow of death, the verdict of the perpetually empty chair, and decades of sorrowful remembrances for every future December.
He received the coordinates, cherished the safety of his own small children, and prayed a silent prayer for the family of the boy while he strolled back to Mr. Brogdon. The man’s body was heaving. Officer Pierce offered to call his family or drive him home.
“Thanks, I guess I better come with you.”
The man wiped his face and stood, suddenly stoic. He followed Officer Pierce and the two got into the patrol car.
“Where do you live?”
Mr. Brogdon pointed to the address on the monitor, and then looked out the window.
Author’s Note: On any given day, riding along I-295 in New Jersey for my morning or afternoon commute, there is a high probability that I will be tailgated, cut off and/or flipped off. On one such day, the kernel of this story came to me. We feel invincible in our cars, and the break and gas pedals sometimes become the embodiment of our raw and inexplicably violent emotions. Humanity is forgotten and vengeance (for losing that precious minute or two of travel time) grabs the steering wheel in our brain. This is not my judgment of anyone else here. I have felt the rage too. But then I remember that these are my neighbors, and I wonder at how easily I forgot.