By Andrew Newall
I slammed on the brakes. That shriek, forced from her body by the impact – a sound I’ll never forget. Popping the gearstick into neutral, I pulled the handbrake up tight. She lay still a few feet ahead.
I was at her side in seconds, my quivering legs collapsed to their knees. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Some of her blond hair partly covered her face. The rest spilled, straw-like on the ground. I didn’t touch her for fear of the slightest pressure breaking something. Please let her be alright. Please let her wake up. Tearing my phone from my jacket pocket, I called emergency. In minutes, an ambulance and the Police arrived, traffic on the expressway slowed, drivers gawking while they all passed. She should have been playing that late afternoon. Instead, she was taken away, leaving Police and me at the side of the road.
“Where had you been before you were driving home?” the Police asked.
A few drinks with colleagues to celebrate my promotion. A step up. It was a big deal. I’d tried for long enough. I was ready to go home when the guys surprised me with a get-together at the usual afterwork haunt. It would have been impolite to turn them down.
When I said the word “drink”, I saw “case closed” on their faces. They took me to the station while my car was towed away for examination.
That evening, I learned the girl hadn’t made it.
Not long after, I hit her again. I got out of the car, running to her, panic-stricken. This time, she got up. I asked her if she was alright. I couldn’t make her out clearly. Her lips moved as though she might be saying no way, which didn’t make any sense, but she was fine. It was the greatest relief until I opened my eyes and all was well for those few seconds after waking before all is real.
Same again a few days later. I got out of the car, ran to her. She got up. I asked her if she was alright. Her lips moved but I still couldn’t make her out. Maybe it was oh wait, but that didn’t make sense either, like most dreams don’t.
I don’t sleep long enough now for her to infiltrate my dreams, so she’s started to goad me in my waking hours. In the living room, in the kitchen, I catch a swish of blond sometimes out of the corner of my eye and turn quickly to find her gone before I have a chance to focus.
A daytime TV show runs a special report on drink-driving statistics. I change the channel. Radio has a discussion on drinking sensibly on nights out. I turn it off. I don’t have to listen this. She’s in the room with me again. I look over and she’s gone.
Work advised me to take some time off. They’ve been good to me. They said the first thing I should have done when I got my car back was go for a drive or it would take me forever to get behind the wheel again. They’re probably right. I promised I would. I haven’t yet. It’s easier to stay at home, hidden from prying eyes and pointing fingers.
Every day, new comments appear on the Facebook page set up in memory of “our beautiful angel” taken from us. Maybe taking time off work wasn’t the best idea. I visit the page every day to read everyone’s tributes.
Then the other comments, condemning the driver when word filtered around that he had been at the pub; how you couldn’t be in full control of a car after even a single drink. Anger builds the more I read; anger at damning statements, at accusations from people who weren’t there but jumping to their own conclusions, fuelled with an instinctive urge to blame. Do they ask what the hell she was doing running out on to the road like that and not using the underpass to get to that playpark (I see her in the corner of the room – as usual she is gone when I look but she waited longer this time). My mind takes me back to the expressway and to the Police questioning.
When I said the word “drink”, I saw “case closed” on their faces.
“And what did you have to drink when you were there?”
“Just soft drinks, no alcohol at all” I replied, shaking but confident, and their subsequent breathalyser test confirmed my answer.
“How fast do you think you were going?”
“I was doing sixty, no more.” The expressway had a sixty mile limit. I know I never went over. “She just ran out. I hit the brakes as soon as I saw her.”
They arranged for my car to be collected for examination. Shortly after they took me home from the station, the car was returned to me, all routine checks satisfactorily passed.
Last night, I hit her again. I got out of the car and ran to her, panic-stricken. She got up. I asked her if she was alright. She nodded. Her lips moved. I heard her this time. She said it’s okay.
When I awoke, all was well for a few moments more than usual. Her words were still with me and although I’d heard those exact same words from others in intended comfort, coming from the one who mattered the most told me it was finally time to start moving forward, as slow as that journey might be.
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Andrew Newall’s short fiction has placed in several competitions and been published online and in print. His work has appeared in the pages of Open Pen, Bewildering Stories and, most recently, in the online magazine Theme of Absence in May 2021. He lives near Falkirk in Scotland.