He was awakened by the sound of the car leaving the road, the crunch of the tires in the snow, and he opened his eyes just in time to see the tree a split second before the car struck it. He turned the steering wheel as hard as he could to the left, but it was too late. The air bag blew up in his face as the car tipped to its left side, and he felt something hard hit him, on the left side of his head.
He woke up again on his side, the air bag pressing on him, the dashboard and steering wheel caved in, leaving him barely enough room to move. He got his bearings and realized the car was on its side, the passenger door up in the air above him. He reached for it but it was difficult moving, with the air bag and the steering wheel pressing in on him, and with the angle of the car. He was finally able to wiggle up the seat just enough that he could lunge and grab the side of the passenger seat closest to the passenger door. His chest came to rest on the shift stick in the center console, and it hurt, and it made him aware that everything hurt.
He hung on to the passenger seat with one hand and pulled himself up and with the other hand he reached for the doorknob, but the door wouldn’t open. It was locked shut, and he had no way of unlocking it – the power locks weren’t working. It took him a long time to reposition his body so that his feet were over him, pointed toward the passenger door, and his hands were underneath him. He bent his knees above him and kicked at the passenger window, both feet at the same time. On the fourth kick, his steel toed hiking boots were finally able to break the window. Shards and nuggets of glass rained down upon him, on his face and his flannel shirt and on the seat around him. He closed his eyes and his mouth tight as he scooted his torso up closer to the window and stuck his legs out, bending them at the knees, the back of the joints resting on sharp shards of glass. He tried to ignore the pain and lifted himself up until he could grab the top of the window with his hands. It took every ounce of strength he had left to pull his body up and out of the window, and he laid against the side of the car for a moment before he dropped down into the snow.
The snow was cold and wet, but he didn’t feel it at first. Gradually he became aware of his surroundings, and the blood on his hands and the wet dampness under his knees, from where he cut them on the glass crawling out, and then he felt the cold wind and the snow on his bare arms. He became aware of the black emptiness that surrounded him, and of the one headlight that silently shone into the forest, week and inconsequential against the blackness that consumed its narrow beam.
He stood up and tried to remember where he was. He looked at the highway for a clue but there was none, not even a sign telling him what road he was on or what direction he was pointed. He looked for the light from a house or a town or another car or anything, but there was nothing. He searched his pockets for his cell phone but it wasn’t there, it was in the car somewhere, and he knew, with the car tipped on its side like it was, that there’d be no retrieving it.
There’d be no retrieving his coat, either, and he stood there, in his flannel shirt, in the sub zero temperature. There was no traffic on the highway. He was unable to remember where he was before he fell asleep, and what time it was the last time he looked at the dashboard. All of the information that his brain had recorded in the hour or so before the crash was inaccessible.
He started walking down the highway, looking for a house or a farm somewhere. After about fifty yards, he reached to scratch an itch on the left side of his head when he felt thick goo tangled up in his hair. He put his hand to his face but it was too dark out for him to see the blood. It annoyed him, and he kept putting his hand to his head, absent mindedly rubbing the matted hair and the rough surface.
He walked in the black. In the absence of light, he relied upon the sound of his feet on the pavement to keep him on the highway, to keep him on track. After a couple of minutes he collapsed, and he lay in the middle of the highway in a crumpled heap. His eyes were open and he could see the snow off to the side of the highway, and he looked up, and could see the night sky, thousands of stars shimmering in the blackness. He stared at the sky and the stars and they gave way to the house he raised his children in. and he was sitting in the living room on the couch reading to his son, five years old again, sitting by his side. It was a Dr. Seuss book, “Fox in Socks,” a series of tongue twisters, and he got to the page that always gave him trouble. “Chicks with bricks come, chicks with blocks come, chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.”
Then he was up again, standing in the cold darkness. He became aware of how alone he was, and how cold and empty the highway was. He put his hand to his head again and he realized it was bleeding, it was blood that was all matted and tangled up in his hair, and it kept coming. For the first time, he became aware that he could die. For the first time he felt panic.
He looked back to the car, silent and still, resting against the tree, its headlight still beaming into the forest. He didn’t know what to do, should he continue walking down the road, or should he walk back and stay by the car? Eventually someone would have to come down this highway. Whatever he did, he knew he had to keep moving, to stay warm, to stay awake. If he was moving he was alive, he wasn’t dead.
He pulled himself up and looked around. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness to the point he could make out the silhouettes of trees and the contours of rolling knolls and hills, but there were still no lights, no signs of life. He still couldn’t remember before the crash, where he was or what time it was. He decided to head back to the car. Somehow, the beam of the headlight, the only light, looked warm and safe.
As he walked back to the car, he became increasingly tired, cold and exhausted. He got to the car and stumbled off the road into the white that was lit up by the headlight and he collapsed, in the snow. In the beam of light he laid looking up at the sky. Soon he was back in his living room, with his five year old son again. They were reading when he saw someone approaching from the light of the hallway. He turned to his son.
The state trooper ran to him in time to hear him clearly say: “Chicks with bricks come, chicks with blocks come, chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.” He lay there, still and silent in the headlight’s beam, his mouth turned upwards in a smile, his eyes open and lifeless.
One thought on “One Headlight”
The details are so vivid that I believed I was actually watching him. I felt the cold and was in darkness waiting to see what would happen to me.