hobart logo
After the Call about My Dad’s House Burning Down photo

On the way home from a friend’s Christmas party, Liz watches me closely. I feel her eyes on me from the passenger seat. She’s worried about me, but we’ve only been at this a month, so she’s not sure what I need. She asks if I’m okay. I am. She asks if there’s anything she can do. I assure her there is nothing to be done. At her house, in her bedroom, we take off our clothes and climb under layers of quilts. We intertwine our bare legs and we wrap our arms around each other’s backs. She places her face at my chest and I tilt my chin down until it touches the top of her head. I use my left hand to brush back her stray strands of dark hair. We lie there and I listen as the rhythm of her exhales gets more and more steady. That rhythm is coaxing me toward sleep and I am almost there, or maybe beyond it, when I hear the chirping of car tires coming too quickly down the long and curvy hill beside the house. The chirping gets louder and louder as it nears, and then it becomes a single prolonged screech. The pitch of the sound climbs until it is interrupted by the sound of crunching metal.

Liz and I sit up with a start. I lean off the bed to look out the window into the night, through the thick wooden blinds. I see smoke drifting in front of headlights 30 yards away.

“Somebody call 9-1-1,” a voice outside in the dark says. It’s a young woman, obviously in tears, talking at a normal volume.

We jump out of bed and throw our clothes back on. I have no idea what time it is. I have no idea what my plan is, but while I quickly tie my shoes I ask Liz, “Do you know CPR?” She responds, but her answer doesn’t register in my head. I have faith that I will know what to do when we get to the car and the potentially injured passengers, but no evidence in my past suggests I should feel that capable.

Outside, the December air is cold on my skin. We run down the few steps to Liz’s front yard and up the street to where the car I saw through the window has slammed into a telephone pole at the intersection of Liz’s small street and the four-laned Cantrell Road that continues up the hill. In the car, a young woman sits in the passenger’s seat, conscious, but clearly dazed. The girl who was driving walks around aimlessly, bleeding from her head, eyes bugged out. Blood smeared across her face, her injuries appear more brutal than they probably are. Through tears, she tells a man—the only neighbor who beat us to the scene—that the guy in the other car ran away on foot. The other car is a small, late-90s Honda of some kind, red, still in the middle of the road, driver’s door standing wide open.

The minimal, late-night traffic easing up on the scene halts. People get out. Neighbors walk up Lilac Drive to Cantrell. There is no longer a reason for Liz and me to be here, so we turn back and walk toward her house. The wrecked car’s headlights shine on the faces of Liz’s neighbors walking slowly toward the accident as we walk away. Most of them are wearing some modified version of their pajamas with jackets and shoes added. 

“Hello,” I say to a woman who looks familiarly at Liz. It suddenly feels like a coming out party for us as a couple. I’ve never seen these people and they’ve never seen me. They might recognize my little white truck, but not my face. They know Liz’s ex who lived with her in this house. But now here I am with her in the middle of the night. The situation is as clear as I would like it to be.

Back inside, we get back into bed. We hold each other and talk about how quickly things can change in life—one minute you’re alone, the next you have someone, or vice versa—and how a single event like a car accident can alter everything. We talk about how those girls will always remember tonight, and how we might play a small role in that memory. 

The adrenaline of the car accident and the cold air and the desire to know we are not alone overtakes us. The neighbors’ voices outside in the street make everything real. Things happen to people. We are here together. We have each other. As the blue lights from the police car pass through the edges of the blinds to light up Liz’s room, everything seems tactile and vulnerable and intense. And I wonder if, like the girls, we will always remember tonight when we were here together.

image: Aaron Burch