A family of ducks crossed the dirt road by the slough. In front of our van was a young couple in a small car, a little silver Topaz that we had been following for a while. To avoid running over the ducks, they slammed on the brakes without warning and their car came to an abrupt halt.
With us following too close and no time to react, my girlfriend Laura hit the brakes. She was too late. We skidded, then smashed into the tiny Topaz from behind, sending both vehicles skittering violently off the road. Glass shattered, metal twisted every which way, women's screams added to the horror, and the five of us in the van (none of whom were wearing our seatbelts) ricocheted off the vehicle's interior. The airbags deployed, hitting both Laura and I in the face.
Shaken, not stirred.
When we finally came to a stop, the van was on its side and I was looking straight up through a broken window at a skinny tree branch and blue sky. We must have been close to the very edge of the slough. Clumps of white clouds went by. It was a nice view if not for our circumstances here.
Unknown to us at the time, two other vehicles, again a car and a van, were driving along the road. Both drivers must have witnessed the scene before them and reacted the way most people would, with immediate panic. They, too, collided and went towards the weedy slough. In total, four vehicles were off the road, people trapped in all of them.
Think chaos and multiple injuries. Think hysteria and nervous outbursts. Think entrails dripping on dry dirt.
Every weekend throughout the summer there was an increase in collisions and fatalities on Alberta roads. More vehicles were out and about, more people were driving on unfamiliar roads, and driving longer hours, increasing their risk of fatigue. Add drinking and driving to the mix. Perhaps others distracted by cell phones. Drivers didn't slow down in construction zones. Hazards, hazards everywhere. For this calamity, while I didn't know it at the time, 18 of us were injured, including five from our van.
We blamed the ducks.
Moments like these are when thoughts of mortality entered. The first cut I noticed was on my leg. The first cut was, as they say, the deepest. My chest was purpled, nose bleeding, and my breath came in short gasps. Still in my seat, but with the van on its side, exiting now was impossible. I couldn't budge. Sitting on my hip and pinning me there was my girlfriend, the worst injured presumably. Across Laura's upper thigh was a long, wide gash. Fractured femur. Her hair was blood-soaked, and tiny rivulets of crimson flowed down her pale face. Total freak show.
More concerned for Laura's safety or anybody else's, including my own, I hollered, "Laura, are you all right?"
"I think so," she said, gasping dust and blood-spittle.
Five of us had been in a van, my girlfriend's van actually, en route to a nearby campsite for a long weekend camping trip. Laura and I sat up front. Behind us were Laura's sister, her sister's friend and husband. We anticipated three days of camping out in the great outdoors under the stars, roasting marshmallows, and telling ghost stories. This was a serious interruption to our camping agenda. More serious, Larry was gone. He was the husband of Laura's sister's friend. He had been with us in the van but now he was nowhere in sight. As it turned out, he was thrown when we collided with the car. My imagination playing pessimistic tricks, in my mind's eye I saw him 50 feet down the road suffering from a traumatic head wound.
Think squishy cow brains. Think raw, ground-up sausages. Think blood intermixed with soggy coffee grounds.
There was nothing we could do but wait for help to arrive. All was silent for a time. Then Laura's younger sister, whose name was Rae Ann, alerted us to the fact that we were in real danger. Seven months pregnant, she kept groaning, complaining of a sore hip. This was never a good sign.
Also very vocal was her French-speaking friend Madeline who called for help, using some creatively phrased curse words, francophone style. Quite literally, she couldn't speak a drop of English to save her life; however, her tone more than hinted at the urgency of our situation.
Too exhausted to shoo the mosquitoes away, they buzzed around us in every direction as we lay dying. Just like the William Faulkner novel. Up in the sky I saw the face of somebody in a red outfit. He looked official enough, had the face of somebody I could trust. Firefighters and paramedics had arrived. They were members of Cold Lake Fire-Rescue, Cold Lake Ambulance and medics from the air force base. They asked relevant questions.
"Are you OK!" asked a firefighter.
"How many people in the vehicle!" asked a paramedic.
"Is everybody all right!" asked a police officer.
Their questions didn't make sense to everybody because some of us couldn't remember our own names. A paramedic asked Laura what her name was, and she gave the correct answer. Next, they asked her what day of the week it was. It was Tuesday but she answered Saturday. Blood showed on her teeth when she spoke. She also told them that I was her brother, which most definitely wasn't true. I should know; I just fucked her a few hours prior. She was disoriented, confused, yet not quite defeated. Then they directed their attention on me.
"Are you allergic to something?"
"No," I answered.
"What's with the medic alert bracelet?" he asked.
In a mass casualty incident, somebody with an insulin dependency didn't exactly garner favouritism. Here, there were more immediate concerns. Disorder reigned for about the next quarter hour, maybe longer. Time had no meaning, really. The rescue workers tended to injuries. They searched down the road for Larry. They found him.
While we waited, Laura's pregnant sister and her French friend Madeline articulated their complaints the loudest. The proverbial squeaky wheel that gets the grease, Rae Ann was the first out of the upturned van. With her injured hip, she emitted cries of distress throughout the whole ordeal. When they finally got her out, the rest of us were left lingering some more. After all, we had to share this catastrophe with others, also getting their guts worked on. Everybody would have a turn eventually.
I was tired of being ignored, so I spoke out finally. "Get me a candy bar."
"We're dealing with every person one at a time, sir," said a firefighter.
So I kept quiet, and let the emergency personnel go about their jobs. Not long afterwards, all of us were assigned a colour that indicated our condition. If labeled green, you could still walk and talk, but were unlikely to get medical attention anytime soon. I was a yellow. Yellow was a little more serious. My femur was fractured and contusions were on my chest and abdomen. I could handle it; I probably wouldn't die. The yellow label was on a thin strip of cardboard that I hung around my neck.
Laura wore a red label around her neck. Red was more serious than yellow, and meant she was knocking loudly at death's door. Being labeled a black was the worst. It meant you were dead. No blacks were among us, fortunately.
One by one we were rescued from the cramped wreckage. After Rae Ann came her friend Madeline with a trapped foot. A paramedic who spoke French arrived and guided her through the process. She seemed much calmer now, no longer loosing a volley of expletives. They freed her foot, and lugged her out of there. She followed their instructions, and she was soon upraised through the small opening at the rear of the van.
Only Laura and I remained inside.
"I don't think I'm going to make it," wheezed Laura.
"Of course you are," I said.
"No, I really don't think so." Her words came in short, feeble sputters.
"What are you talking about?"
"I can't breathe&"
"We're almost free now," I told her.
Laura positioned on top of me and preventing me from moving, it was obvious who was next. The question was how. Three rescue workers in the van with us now, they brainstormed for options: Take the seats out? Smash the windshield? Carry her up and over the seat? None of these were harebrained ideas by any means, but in her critical condition the best plan for her safety was required. While they went about deciding, I admired the red Rorschach-like patterns of blood on the plastic console by my face. Miniscule-sized bits of glass jabbed into my palms. No concept of time, I later learned that close to 90 minutes had elapsed since the crash, but in a stuffy van on a hot evening the duration seemed much longer. Then, making my own breathing more difficult, unfamiliar legs and butts of the rescue workers were pressed against the back of my head as they lifted Laura out into the sunlight.
I was the last to go. The rescue crew was exhausted by now, overheated, their heads and clothes drenched with sweat. They smelled rancid, like funky gym shorts. Of all the van's occupants, I was the broadest across the shoulders. I also weighed 193 pounds and feared getting dropped. They couldn't lift me straight out. Atop this narrow white board, a sort of mini-stretcher without wheels, they strapped me down, with my hands tied together, and angled my body out through an impossible opening.
Out of the van and happy to see daylight again, I glanced around. Bright flashes of light crisscrossed my eyes. Where the hell was Laura? Looking around, I didn't see her. The reassurance of seeing her face was required now, as was the sound of her voice, and the knowledge that she was alive.
Being treated was a guy with a big naked curly fetus hanging out of his belly, the fetus seeping bright red blood. Except it wasn't a fetus. It was his innards, twisted guts.
Think infant alien poking its head out. Think thick rope braided with sloppy veins. Think pigskin condom filled with vegetable soup.
"Where's my girlfriend?" I asked to no one in particular, just anyone who would provide the right answer.
"You're going to be OK, sir," replied a paramedic, ignoring my question.
The paramedics gave me oxygen, loaded me into the ambulance, and hooked me up to an intravenous unit. Laura was in the ambulance, too. She was not hooked up to anything. My blood pressure was 80/50, my pulse 150 beats per second, respiratory at 36. They were more than just numbers. They were my vital signs. Urgency yet again.
"Laura, hang in there!" I said.
Moments of calmness were a time for reflection. This was an opportunity to ponder what just happened. We were driving down a dirt road. A car in front of us stopped, obstructed us. Our vehicle hit theirs. We had every right to be upset, livid or even violence contemplating. No one was at fault & except the ducks.
A paramedic, face blurred, stood over me solemnly. He said, "She's gone."
"What are you talking about!" I said.
"Sir, is this your wife?" he asked.
"My girlfriend," I said.
The paramedic went on and on about how Laura suffered internal trauma, broken bones, and major blood loss. In case there was any doubt as to the outcome of such circumstances, he added, "She's dead."
Eighteen of us were involved in the four-vehicle collision. One died, and the rest lived. The one who died was the only woman I had loved or contemplated marrying. I glanced over at her face. Even in death her eyes were beautiful. Then they covered her face.
Siren whirring, the ambulance transported Laura's lifeless body and I down the bumpy road to the hospital where doctors and nurses would patch me back together. I'd live to see tomorrow. Without Laura, however, the doctors could never, ever, make me whole again.