Chapter one of a novel
Boom. The crash rattles the house, knocks flat all the ornaments on her television set, ripples through the carpet, shifts the curtains, makes even the air, for a moment, fizz. Her first thought is blank; before she realizes what’s happening she’s up at her window, cranking flat her blinds to stare across her sunburnt front lawn and picket fence to a single car on its back and burning black smoke. The road both ways is as vacant as always – just an infinite strip of asphalt headed West one way and East the other, desert all around and nothing to make you slip or skid, but still, somehow, a flipped-over car breathing fire.
She’s thinking now and talking to herself. She knows for miles and miles around there’s nobody, says it out loud, ‘Nobody’, breathes in air and watches the wreck, then decides.
‘Okay,’ she says and starts moving, pulling her hair back. ‘Alright Mary. Okay. Let’s go.’
Jake, her dog – so rheumatic, deaf and half-blind that the fast crack boom caused by the car’s somersault only made him raise the wisps of his eyebrows – just barely lifts his head as she scrambles around, then he sets it back down.
She searches first under her couch, sliding her forearms into the tumbleweeds of fluff and dirt, then dashes up into her kitchen onto cold tile, its chill on bare feet making a weird contrast with the fire she still sees streaming up from the car in the street. Her bedroom next, closet, a pile of laundry she needs to do, a single flipflop and more dust, boxes of old unworn high heels. Fuck it, she thinks, still looking, and then she’s running barefoot to the threshold, slow down the handful of steps into her scrubland lawn, across the yards of it, the car like an apocalypse in front of her and somehow – as she thought – no bodies near it, just all that fire. It takes her longer to get out there than she wants it to, her knees and hip pain getting worse every day, but then she’s there, just a few feet away, and stops.
She doesn’t know anything about new cars. The body – one of those smooth plastic bodies – is on its head, half on and half off the road, smoke and fire raging from some space between the front tires and out around an axle, below all that somebody’s white arm, palm up and blood on it, fingers extending with screams she hadn’t heard before but hears now as if she’s screaming herself.
She feels paralyzed, feels her own pulse, the air like a mouthful of burnt matches, a throatful of exhaust. She crouches down without thinking, coughs, her chest in search of better air, eyes at the billowing smoke, the broken car; eyes at the arm – lower to the ground, a better view: there’s a little boy trapped upside down and limp in the back, doll-like in a car seat, his mom up front – the one reaching her broken arm – and something like a man slumped forward and – it’s hard to tell – all that smoke – all this endless smoke like hellfire all around them. Is there even a man? ‘Are you alright!’ she yells, but of course no one says anything and they’re not. If everyone isn’t knocked out yet they almost are – the car upside down, on fire, and possibly about to explode. ‘I’m gonna. I’m gonna try to get you all out!’ she yells, but the words make it worse; she still can’t move, still doesn’t know where to start, the hand out the window still grasping for something it can’t quite touch. ‘My name’s Mary,’ she says, just to say something else. She gets flat on her stomach under the smoke, although there really is no underneath it now. ‘I’m Mary,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ All the windows are open, at least. ‘I’m gonna get you all out of here. I’m gonna get you all out and call some help for you. You’re all gonna be fine. I’m gonna get you all out, all of you, and you’re all gonna be fine. So just wait a second.’
During all the talk she drags herself forward on her stomach, chin just above the dirt, and slides her arms into the car and starts to unbuckle the child, a little girl not a little boy, maybe Indian – it’s so hard to see and breathe – a tangle of arms and legs, dark hair, definitely, long dark hair, beautiful like a princess’s even in all this and she has her now, she has her out, and slides back, inches back out of the car like a worm in the dirt, crawling backwards, contracting her body, crawling back and back and back until they’re out, just beyond and she runs.
A beautiful, pristine little girl, maybe five or six years old in her arms, and she’s running. She takes the girl a hundred feet or more away from the car and steels herself, two more trips in and out she thinks, and then the car explodes.
Not a series of perfect spheres expanding outward in overlapping, exotic color: just a loud noise, sharper than the earlier crack boom and pieces flying and flame and even more fire. The weight of the air knocking her straight back into the grass.
Caught in her arms, the little girl, coughing.
But Mary isn’t thinking anymore. The body of the car is burning, more or less on her front step, no one anywhere near her and this little girl is coughing and her eyes – she has dark eyes – and Mary’s heart is wild and the hand out the front window opening and closing and then the explosion. She leaves the girl, eases her onto the ground, gets up, tender, and runs at the car but can’t get near it because of the heat, the intense heat worse than anything she’s ever felt. Her body steps her back and back and then the little girl is crying behind her and babbling and Jake comes forward, from somewhere, slowly, and barks an old man’s bark that tires him out and makes him slump down and her mouth is so dry and she has no breath, and then, backing away from it, the hellfire, toward her house, to dial 911, her chest clenches, her legs go limp, and she goes down.