The year I turned twenty-three, I was alone in my parent’s house on Christmas Eve (see the story The red wheelbarrow). It had been a sweltering day, and it hadn’t cooled down much during the evening. I had left the windows open to let in what little breeze there was. At two in the morning, I was still awake, reading the Douglas Adams book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At the end of chapter twenty-seven, the supercomputer Deep Thought had just revealed that the answer to the Great Question, the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, was in fact forty-two.
As I sat back to marvel at this, there was a juddering screech of brakes followed by a loud crash. The sound had come from the Old Military Road, today called the M33, that passed behind our house. I ran out to the pool and peered over the wall, but there was nothing. About a block up from us this road intersected another large artery called Glenwood Road. I couldn’t see this intersection from the wall as there was a bend in the road, but I could make out flashing amber lights.
That was quick I thought as I jogged barefoot up Old Military Road. It hadn’t even been a minute. How could tow trucks be on the scene already?
But I was wrong. What I had seen was the flashing indicator of a BMW into which a pickup truck had smashed from the side. It was eerily quiet but for the sound of water and oil and gasoline that dripped from both vehicles onto the warm road. There was glass everywhere and I had to approach carefully so as not to step in it. The truck was closest to me. The driver-side window was open and the driver, a man who was perhaps in his thirties, was dead. I had never seen a dead person up close before and had always expected that it would be obvious why they had died, that they’d be broken in ways I would be able to understand. But all that seemed to be wrong with this man was a thin runnel of blood that trickled from his right ear and a strange bulge in his neck.
The driver and passenger of the BMW were also dead. Unlike the man, they had been mangled by the impact of the collision. The driver had been thrown onto the passenger and they seemed to be holding one another a last time.
I stood there with them for what felt like hours before other cars and emergency services arrived. Everything these people were planning to do a few minutes earlier had been reduced to the amber flashing of an indicator. The plastic and metal and glass would be cleaned up. By the next day, others would pass there without knowing. The death of these people would tear a hole in the lives of others, but the rest of the world would know nothing about it.
All of it mattered, it seemed to me, and none of it did.