2013 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Fourth Place

'Landslide Pantomime' - by Hayden Pyke

There is a dreadful irony in taking your eyes off the road to read a sign that reads, “Distracted Drivers are Dangerous Drivers”. That’s the sign I noticed driving between Waiomou and Whitehall one day to get to work. That added another element to the mix; as if there was anything to be distracted by in Waiomou.

People posited that maybe it was my complacency with the stretch of road, or maybe the time of night that caused the accident. They’ll never know for sure. But I can guarantee it wasn’t because I was transfixed by bright lights and go go dancers. The Police later told me it had something to do with the four or five stubbies I’d knocked back that night before getting in the car. But I doubt that anything like this is due to something so simple. I’ve repeated that road in every format  ad infinitum before and after and it never ended this way.

You were probably tired. You’d been on the road most of the day. That drive from Napier is hell at the best of times. By that time ofnight, I can imagine the stark edges of the road beginning to fuzz. Your eyelids would have had their own centre of gravity if they were anything like mine. To say, “drooping eyelids” seems far too passive. My eyelids were clenching closed like someone sitting on an overstuffed suitcase. Did you have your radio on to keep you awake? I did. The last song I remember them playing was Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan. Then a DJ came on She was just a bodiless voice talking sport and weather. She mentioned the fog. I hadn’t really noticed it, but fog is hardly news in Waiomou. Then she introduced another song and I came to the intersection. It was a song I knew the tune to, but not the words. 

I know now that I should be dead. One second either side and your car would have carved straight through mine. This way was different of course and looking back on things, possibly the only way it could have been. When my car stopped spinning and I could comprehend what was happening, what struck me was the silence. On TV it’s all sirens, shredding metal and screaming, but I never really noticed all that before. It was always background noise, not part of the main story. It’s just filler to let you know something horrendous had happened. But there was none of that here. In fact, it felt as though any noise was wrenched away from the scene like a dog being pulled back on its leash, leaving me expecting. Maybe nothing horrific had happened at all.

It took me so long to break out of my car. I knew my legs were gone, but that didn’t seem to bother me nearly as much as being stuck inside that car. Claustrophobia was the only word that resonated and it bounded around my skull adding to whatever reverberation that was alreadyin there doing the same. I dragged myself out a gap in the car, terrified of being enclosed any longer. Probably too much TV again. I was scared that the petrol tank would catch fire and the car was going to explode. Or flip. Or be used in a terrorist attack. Or whatever it is that they show on TV these days.

When I did get out, I looked for you. Your car was mainly upright and, as if it were one of those cross-section diagrams used to display the inner workings of something, much of it was stripped back. Some of it was gone completely leaving just a gaping hole. Exposed. Through that hole I saw you move and nothing, nothing, nothing was as sweet as that moment. I don’t know if that’s when I started crying or I just noticed the dampness on my cheeks. You were on your cell and something told me you were calling an ambulance.

I really expected to see a doctor when I woke up or maybe a nurse. It was terrifying waking up to you and the smell of disinfectant. I was sure I was dead. There was a woman with you and when she turned to me, there was a look between us. She wasn’t the seething revenge monger she should have been.  She seemed calmer if not perplexed.
She started to say something to me and I tried to hear her. I wanted to lean forward to catch what she was saying, but something held me in place. A drip .A heart monitor. Handcuffs. I figured I passed out or went to sleep then because I woke later and sure enough you were there lying on the bed across the ward from me, but she was gone.

You had no shirt and no hospital robe on. You lay bare-chested and battle-scarred like a warrior of old with a fittingly grimaced expression. A petite nurse come in and shaved your chest. I remember feeling so exposed for you right then. You were the one open to the world, but I wanted to hide away on your behalf. I wanted to be back in my car.
You never made it through the surgery. I didn’t find that out until the Police came by to change the charges they were laying. Driving with Excess Blood Alcohol Causing Death.  The same petite nurse, who obviously despised me, told me to call a lawyer. I didn’t have it in me to deal with lawyers; my situation was bad enough. I asked the nurse to call the woman who was with you earlier, your sister. She looked at me the way a cashier does when you refuse your own change. She called your sister though and she came to see me later that week.

Your sister barely acknowledged me when she came. She looked past my bed in a way that was more distracted then confrontational. I wondered if she was reading a sign situated behind my head. She breathed entirely through her nostrils and it was the only sound in the ward, bar the occasional beeping of the machines keeping me alive. I tried to apologise to her. The words were like smooth round stones in my mouth.  They slipped up from my throat in a way that releasing them meant choking and being able to breathe again all at once. A verbal Heimlich Manoeuvre. I thought she would yell or rear up like a horse startled, but instead she remained impassive. She moved her head down and looked at where my legs would have been. She asked if I could get around to which I nodded. She drew her bottom lip in and leaned forward. Her hand touched the side of the bed gently and she told me to be at the funeral on Thursday. Then she drew back and left.

I went to your funeral with a Prison escort and hospital issue wheelchair and orderly. All my tax dollars and probably all of yours, paying the system to fund this outing.The funeral home was dressed up to look like a church. The symbols of Christ and pews reminded me of a faith that changed nothing for you now. The way the pews were situated meant there was no room for a wheelchair in the front and I had to wait at the back and face your mourners as they came in to find their place. I felt like a maître d’ at a restaurant that only sold misery. Finally, as I watched your young relatives wander in last, dazed by the light and their own mourning, the feelings did come. They washed in. Feelings of something heavy that bore through the pain and the medication trying to hold it back. It was something more burdensome, more absolute and more excruciating than my legs or the chaffing of the handcuffs or the guilt. Something real.I think that’s what your sister wanted me to feel and I think it’s what I wanted to feel.

The service began and it became pretty clear that it was going to be one interspersed with wailing. Something about that seemed rude. It was hard to hear the speakers through the bursts of crying and I don’t know if you would have liked that. I thought of the times growing up with you and remembered your frustration at anyone who decided to start a conversation while you were trying to watch the news. It was your sister, my aunt, who gave the Eulogy. A fractured and bitter story of your life spilled out. How you had raised me as your only child after my mother, your wife, had left us. You were 24 years old when that was thrust upon you.

It dawned on me that I had killed you then, as an infant. Even before then, probably with a positive pregnancy test.I’d destroyed your marriage, your freedom and eventually your stock on life.It seemed only fair that a chance intersection, tiredness, the fog, a few too many beers, distraction and I teamed up to finally take your body. Well, that’s roughly how the Judge summed it up a few months later anyway.

After sentencing, I was placed in Kotuku, the segregated unit in the prison where they could watch me. They thought I was a suicide risk. Well that, and it was one of the few units that was wheelchair accessible. I tried to explain to the C.O.’s and eventually my case manger that I could never kill myself. I had to live to make it up to you. To do the things that you couldn’t, to have freedom you’d lost. The fact that I’d lost my freedom for you never failed to make me chuckle. Imagine if the Judge knew how sick you’d been that year.If they’d known about the cancer and how much pain you’d been in. How you weren’t supposed to be driving anyway, because the doctors felt your body wasn’t up to it. Imagine what your sister, my aunt, would say if she knew we planned the accident.

Ok, so the plan didn’t work out entirely. I wasn’t meant to still be in the car. I was meant to get the insurance payout when my car was hit. And I was still in prison, but not for assisting a suicide. There were no euthanasia protestors trumpeting my case. There were no media hungry lawyers with letters after their names desperate to represent me so they could get on TV. I don’t even know if that sort of thing gets on TV anymore. The news was always quieter when you weren’t turning up the volume to drown out my conversations. I barely noticed it these days. It hardly distracted me at all. It was just background noise.

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