The following story is a creative writing entry I was planning to submit to a scholarship contest about dangerous and distracted driving before, for a variety of reasons, I changed my mind about entering the contest. However, I still wanted to upload (and expand) the story. Warning: due to the seriousness of the original prompt, the story is quite depressing and I promise I’m not this morose in real life.
Also published on Figment.com
Last week I walked seven miles to go to my cousin’s birthday party. People gave me confused, pitying looks as I was shuffled in by my aunt through the front door, sweat dripping down my face, my shirt sticking to my back. My legs were sore and my heart was thumping. I downed a bottle of water in less than a minute. Nobody said anything to me about it, but I could feel their questioning glances and once or twice I even saw someone whisper a concern to my mother when they thought I wasn’t paying attention.
I walked everywhere now. It took longer to get places, sure, but now I could feel every step it took to get from place to place. I didn’t skip over anything. And I always waited for the walk signals and kindly stepped to the side when bikers or cute little dogs or women with strollers passed by.
Often I had to walk along the main streets, next to all the busy traffic, and I would see people racing in their cars, dodging each other in and out of lanes like intertwining strands of genetic material spiraling down the street, and I would hold my breath waiting for those strands to intersect and infect the air with fire and metal and smoke. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t.
Or sometimes I would see a little old lady trying to cross the road at a snail’s pace, and a long line of angry, impatient drivers would throw everything from car horns to insults at her, but she looked straight ahead and didn’t seem to notice.
That day at my cousin’s party, Jenny Nelson insisted on walking the seven miles back to my college dorm with me. She came up to me quite suddenly, took my sweaty hand, and said very softly, “Nick, you need some company. I’m walking back with you.”
“Thanks, Jenny,” I said, and I could not help but see Evan Nelson glaring at me, and I turned my eyes away and tried not to panic. “That really isn’t necessary. I’ll be fine.”
“No, I want to,” said Jenny. Her voice got even softer, and she said, “Nick, you need a friend. You need to talk to someone.”
“I had a friend,” I said, and Evan sprung up suddenly and went into the backyard with all the little children, slamming the door behind him. I could hear the kids shouting with joy and playing games. The door closed and I couldn’t hear anymore.
“I’m coming with you,” said Jenny firmly, and I didn’t feel like arguing. At least it was her choice and not mine.
We started out, and I suddenly felt very anxious and panicky again. I get that way sometimes – this feeling of absolute fear and panic rises in my throat like a ghost, and I can’t do anything, can’t shut my eyes because all I will see are flashes of red, blinking over and over again, don’t want to leave them open because then I will see all the things that the red lights made disappear, that I made disappear, carried away on a white bed with wheels.
I said nothing to Jenny as we started out. By that time, it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun was still burning brightly in the sky. Jenny’s parents hadn’t wanted her to go with me, but they couldn’t do anything to stop her: she was nineteen and paying for her own college education. She was – is – an amazing girl.
My head was a mixture of worry, panic, and confusion. I did not understand what Jenny wanted with me. I hadn’t really known her that well before my brain went all muddy, and most people didn’t want to know me after my brain got all muddy. Jenny least of all, or that’s how it should have been.
For the first thirty minutes neither of us said anything. Finally we came to a green metal bench, the kind with lots of holes, and Jenny sat down and said, “Let’s stop a while, Nick. We need to talk.”
I sat down next to her. “What about?”
I shook my head. “I can’t – I can’t think straight right now…”
“Try,” she said, without a hint of bitterness. “Try very, very hard.”
“What do you want to talk about?” I asked, feeling more uncomfortable than ever.
“I want to talk about Bryan,” she whispered softly, her voice made of smoke, smoke that had once covered a windshield and a hood and a broken face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because I had spent the last year saying that to what felt like hundreds of people, Jenny’s family especially, and it wouldn’t hurt to say it again. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not driving anymore, are you?” she said.
“No,” I answered. “I just walk. It’s easier. Plus, I think I forgot how to – you know, my brain went all muddy, and…”
“Your brain went all muddy?”
I nodded. “It’s how I…it’s what I call it. Sometimes I can’t think straight, and my brain feels like mud.”
“Your brain went muddy before you had the accident, Nick,” she said suddenly, and I flinched and the ghost started ascending my throat again. Then Jenny closed her eyes and put her hand on her forehead. “I’m sorry, Nick. I shouldn’t have said that. I spent a whole year hating you, being angry at you. I yelled at you before I went to sleep at night, screamed your name into my pillow. I would look at you and think, ‘If only he hadn’t been so stupid and distracted, staring at his goddamn phone instead of paying attention, if only he had just paid attention, then Bryan would still be here. But then I kept seeing you walking from place to place, and I realized you were suffering too – and I thought about what you did and what it would be like if I had been you, and I couldn’t imagine it. What it must feel like. My brain wouldn’t stretch that far. I told myself to stop being mad, I wanted to reach out to you…but I don’t feel different…I want to, I’m trying, but…Nick?”
Her words had begun to fade away like water receding into a ditch. My eyes closed, and I saw the red lights again, blinking and blinking. The scene, the one that had replayed so many times in my head, was coming back once more, and my mind opened to the ugliness of it. The red lights became sirens, the white bed a stretcher, and lying there motionless on it, looking all at once broken and beautiful, was Bryan Nelson, my best friend, “killed on impact,” at least that’s what they said later, killed killed killed killed the word echoed in my brain like the flashing red lights and the cell phone I couldn’t keep my eyes from, not even enough to stop when I should have. Bryan, Bryan, my best friend. I killed him, I killed my brain, I killed Jenny and Evan and his parents and my parents. I made their lives collapse in a pile of spinning wheels and broken metal and blood painted on glass.
The ghost in my throat was a screaming banshee now, but only I could hear it. I was shaking, badly and visibly.
“Yes?” I said to Jenny.
Jenny was crying. She had Bryan’s eyes.
“What was…the last thing he said?”
I raised my head and looked into my best friend Bryan’s gaze.
“Vanilla,” I told her. “Your car smells like vanilla.”