I think of them as goats, those pedestrians. When they walk across the road with their wide eyes and their stiff, unsure gaits, it’s as though that, at any moment, some mechanical, primal instinct will crack, forcing them across the road in harm’s way. My hummer—my SUV—could easily strike them down, cut them in half or break them in two, but for what reason? Idaho law states that all vehicles must yield to pedestrians, no matter the risk that lies in suddenly slamming your foot on the break when you’re going an excess of twenty or thirty miles an hour.
Wear your seatbelt, they say, but neglect to add that you can get thrown through your front windshield if you don’t.
Obviously, it doesn’t matter what ‘the law’ states. People will go by without wearing their seatbelts, obeying the speed limit, or even stopping when they hit one of those goats—a pedestrian, simply crossing the road on an ordinary day.
That happened to me once, on a Saturday afternoon. Ironically enough, I’d been driving home from church, just after I’d said my prayers and repented for my bad ways. I paid a traffic ticket the week before, both for violating the speed limit and for not wearing my seatbelt. I always thought that it was ridiculous that you should have to pay for not wearing a seatbelt—I mean, what’s the point? It’s not like you’re going to hurt anyone but yourself if you don’t wear a seatbelt.
Usually, when you get in a crash, no one gets hurt as long as you take extra precaution.
That day, I did the exact opposite.
A middle age woman of about thirty or forty, she’d crossed the street with the utmost concern, looking once, then twice up both sides of the road. I happened to miss her shock of blonde hair and the mess of her dowdy, long-sleeved shirt because the road seemed too bright. Ahead, I remembered, water seemed to rise out of the baptismal abyss of black road, like flames from dying charcoal.
Birds would have died that day.
The weather had been too hot.
Things had gotten out of hand.
The moment I struck the woman, the world seemed to fade to black. Like a movie shown in the fifties, things seemed to slow down—distort, become uneven. Slow motion ruled the world, a government bent on control, while the black and white continued, walking the street, flying in the sky, getting hit by an SUV.
Only one color broke the surface of the horror movie of my life.
Red—a seemingly normal color upon first glance, but look again, and what do you see? Do you see cherries, the tips of bombs that destroy entire countries, or do you see blood, what soldiers shed when they go to war? Maybe you see rubies, lit with fame and full of shame, if you reek of wealth or passion; or, maybe, you see nothing but an apple, a cruel aspect of nature forced to drop once it has fully matured. Like a child, that apple is innocent, and never deserves to fall from the mother that is its tree.
Neither, of course, does anyone deserve to die.
I would later come to find her name was Cloria Stephens—a respectable, middle-class woman that worked at the local elementary school. She tutored homeless children in math and science and gave her time for the disabled, pushing children in wheelchairs and wiping the mouths of those whose digestive systems did not work properly. She and her husband had three children—a young man of fifteen in high school, a girl of twelve in the seventh grade, and a boy of three that stayed at home, unbeknownst to the cruel, savage world that his virgin soul had not yet met.
I killed a woman that day.
It was only an accident.
When I realized what happened, I slammed on the breaks, threw myself out of the car, and ran to her side, only to find that, in my haste, I had only made things worse. Since I didn’t bother to put the car in park, and since the topmost right wheel caught her leg under its rubber curve—forcing her upper body under the other, opposite wheel with gravity alone—the SUV veered forward, crushing her chest under nearly a ton-and-a-half of pressure.
At first, I didn’t know what to do. I screamed, I cried, I yelled at the neighbors to try and get someone—anyone—to come out. Then, I realized—horribly, and with a sense of fear so terrible I feared my heart would simply stop beating—that no would had, or would, hear me.
No one was around to see or hear what had just happened.
Panicking, and in a state of mind that threatened to overwhelm my senses and force blood from seemingly every part of my head, I threw myself in the SUV, put it in drive, and veered forward.
I crushed Cloria Stephens’ chest and sped down the road, all the while not bothering to look back.
Little did I know that a trail of blood would follow me for the next hundred feet.
I shaved my head, dyed my lengthy beard red, and starved myself of both sleep and nourishment in order to alter my appearance. My puffy, bloodshot eyes, my scraggly, black-and-red mess of beard, and my nearly-clean-shaven head kept me from being recognized of the man I had once been.
My wife used to call my Charles.
My son used to call me Daddy.
Now, I went by the name of Tim.
Although nothing happened following the incident, the guilt and worry that plagued my consciousness forced me to do things to myself that I would never even dream of doing. Shaving my head—though receding as my hairline was—dealt a blow I never imagined. Me—a teacher at the local college, with a fine, if somewhat graying head of red hair—bald, just like that? I nearly laughed when I saw the light bounce off its baby-smooth surface. I looked like my son when he first went through his leukemia treatments.
Johnny… my baby…
Settling myself into the chair in my shitty, run-down motel room, I bowed my face into my hands and cried. Johnny lost his father, all because of a fear of being thrown in jail for reckless driving. How could any sane, proud man dream of leaving a child who had been diagnosed with an almost-fatal disease? The umbilical-cord blood saved him, sure, but his father—his one and true father—left him, just like that?
“I’m a coward,” I whispered, trying my hardest not to scream. “I’m a damn, motherfucking coward!”
Impulse took hold of my arm, slamming my fist into the table. The side of my hand caught my plate with buttered toast and sent it into the air. Flying like a bird shot with a BBgun, it soared through the air for about five feet, then landed on the muddy carpet.
Crumbs galore, I thought.
The roaches would be eating well tonight.
Forcing myself out of the chair, I bent down, gathered what crumbs and toast I could, then turned and tossed it toward the sink.
The plate fractured on impact.
The bread would be soggy in less than three minutes.
For what seemed like the millionth time since I left the scene of the crime, I contemplated why I left and why I hadn’t tried to call 9-1-1. My cell phone had sat in the driver’s tray right beside me—waiting for three magic numbers to be pushed—yet I’d done nothing. And, upon lousy judgment, I hadn’t stopped to consider putting the hummer in park.
That woman could still be alive, had I kept my head on straight. She could be in a hospital bed, possibly recovering from a severely-fractured leg and a few scratches and bruises. She could be talking to her husband—her children, her family, her parents, maybe even her brothers and sisters—and I could be apologizing for what I’d done, signing a check to pay both the hospital bills and the karmic debt that had surely come back to bite me in the ass.
I’d done none of that.
I ran away from the responsibility of ending a perfectly-healthy, middle-aged-woman’s life.
And now, sitting in a shitty motel room, crying over the fact that I’d left my baby boy and battle-weary wife, I broke, destroyed, and mourned for the things I had lost, when others had lost more than I could ever imagine.
I mailed my wife a postcard under the name of Timothy L. Johnson.
I told her her ‘husband was well’ and that he ‘was sorry he left so suddenly.’
The rest of the note detailed a fictuous account of an affair that never existed.
I cried the whole time I wrote it.
I sent it standard.
She would wait seven-to-eleven days before she read it.
I sent it with stamps embossed with the image of Lady Liberty.
One of those stamps lay drenched in tears before I pushed it to the paper, all the while knowing I would never have to lick it.
My sorrow signed my deal for me.
The postcard had a picture of a man and the woman in the front.
They stood on a beach, in Hawaii.
We spent our honeymoon there.
I broke down in tears in front of the mailman when I handed him the postcard and drove away.
Days, weeks, months—all went by in the blink of an eye. Like a second to its minute, and a minute to its hour, time didn’t seem to exist anymore. One minute it’d be Sunday, then the next it would be Thursday. Nearly a week would have gone by before I’d rise to shave, much less eat. It didn’t seem important anymore. Nothing did, not since I left my family.
All because I wasn’t paying attention.
Sighing, I pushed myself out of bed, made my way into the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror. Haggard, with sunken cheeks and a head full of stubble, I resembled someone you’d find out on the street begging for change or a piece of pizza. But unlike the people who intentionally looked like that to get what they wanted in life, I looked that way because I couldn’t help myself.
You’d be better off on the street than wasting your hundreds in a shitty motel room.
“Yeah,” I grunted, “I would.”
Reaching up, I opened the medicine cabinet, pulled out an electric razor, and went to work tidying myself up. I shaved my head, trimmed my beard back to its original, brown-grey length, and washed the dirt off my face.
By the time I finished, I couldn’t help but break out in tears.
Daddy! Daddy! You’re home!
“No I’m not,” I sobbed, resting my head in my hands. “I’m not home, Johnny, and I’ll never be home!”
With the razor still running, I tossed it at the medicine cabinet as hard as I could.
My sanity went with it.
Live and let live.
Die and let die.
Suffer and let suffer.
In my endless, waking dreams, my son chased a kitten across the street, laughing, crying and screaming in excitement. During this dream, he’d wear a tattered flannel stained with blood. His shoes would be missing and one side of his head would be caved in, flattened by some extraneous force. Like the devil from the dead, his one remaining eye gleamed red. His smile, once young and innocent, became cruel—vile, even. Fangs appeared in place of baby teeth and stubby fingernails now became claws, stained with the blood of those long since dead.
The dream shifted.
Johnny no longer chased the cat.
Impaled in his hand, the kitten mewed, legs limply twitching as the last moments of its life ended.
Shocked from the hallucination by the sound of a screeching horn, I looked up and out the nearby window to find a woman jabbing her finger at someone in a truck.
Almost got hit.
“You’d be dead if he hadn’t been paying attention,” I mumbled.
Just like Clah-Clah-Loria, Johnny whispered, tugging on my arm. Daddy?
“I’m not here, buddy.”
Yes you are Daddy. I can see you.
“But I can’t see you.”
What color of shoes am I wearing?
“You’re not wearing any shoes, buddy. The ambulance knocked them off your feet.”
Johnny ceased his incessant tugs. I looked down just in time to receive a fanged smile.
You’re one of us now, Daddy. One of the crazy people.
“I’m not crazy, Johnny. I’m not…”
I turned my head up to meet another ghost.
Head mostly missing and stomach imploded, its spinal cord twitched and moved, vibrating like the rattle on a snake.
Or a baby’s toy.
“I’m sorry, Cloria.”
You killed me, Mr. Johnson.
“My name isn’t Mr. Johnson. It’s…”
Mr. Johnson, you have no reason to lie to me. I know who you are. I know what you wrote on your letter.
Your wife has been having an affair with another man.
You’ve been gone for three months. People die—they move on.
“She couldn’t have. I’m not…”
Dead? Alive? Cloria paused. The sharpened tip of a vertebra twitched, as if willing its former occupant’s missing head to tilt. How do you know whether or not you’re dead?
“Because I’m here, talking to…”
Neither Gloria nor Johnny had spoken.
Who could it have been, if not them?
Who were they, standing at the window, with their dull, black eyes and their twisted, black horns? Why would intruders dress up as goats and stand at the window, only to watch me talking to ghosts?
“You’re not Johnny, Johnny.”
Can I go outside and play with them?
“Play with who?”
Something touched my shoulder.
A hand—adorned with a wedding ring—traced the curve of my muscle and set its broken fingernails to my neck.
Do dead men bleed, Mr. Johnson?
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “You tell me.”
A nail sunk into my neck.
The nail withdrew itself.
No blood followed.
Do dead men bleed? Cloria asked. Or is it just you?
Yes, Mr. Johnson—just you.
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “I…”
The pedestrians pressed their hooves to the window.
Baaing, moaning, crying, they pressed their weight forward and shattered the window.
Like babies crawling to their mother, they poured over the broken window and made their way toward me.
I think of them as goats, those pedestrians.
When they walk across the road, it’s as though some primal, mechanical instinct has pushed them in harm’s way.