“Mom, why are all the police cars and fire trucks here?”
“What did you say, honey?” I said, covering my free ear. “Police? Fire trucks?” Noise at the reception counter made it difficult to hear. I gestured to co-workers to lower the volume. A quick reply of silence followed. They listened to the boss, my prerogative as the Chief Medical Examiner.
I took the call from my son David, then thirteen, at the front desk extension, the fifth time he’d called me at work that day. He was home from school with a fever and sore throat. I had already advised him on what to eat, what DVDs he could watch, when to take Tylenol, and how to make a fruit smoothie. I glanced at my watch — 1 P.M.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” David said. “I can’t see what they’re doing. I want to go outside. Why are they here? There’s no smoke. Everybody is at the dead end.” He strung the phrases together like a pukka necklace with no space between the shell disks.
The cause for the 911 response eluded me. We lived on a private lane. Occasionally, a pet dog got loose.
“Can I go see Miss Teddy?” he asked. He referred to our elderly next-door neighbor. At ninety-two she lived alone and maintained an independent life. My son often went to see her after school even at the cusp of adolescence. What would greet him today? The first responders must be for her.
“I’ll be right home. Stay in the house with Baba,” I said gathering up my keys and jacket. “You don’t want to get Miss Teddy sick.” A maternal rationale.
“Dr. J.” called the receptionist as she waved a message slip in her hand.
“I have to go. Emergency at home. I’ll call you when I get there,” I said.
“There’s a motor vehicle accident,” she said as I turned to rush out the door. “Try her in five minutes,” she added, handing the pink while-you-were-out message to the head forensic investigator.
The route to my house unspooled in front of me like a roll of cotton gauze. I wished to drive quickly; worry about my neighbor was foremost in my mind. I stayed just over the speed limit not wanting to incur a traffic stop. Thoughts of calling David or Miss Teddy or the fire department surfaced. In my hurry I hadn’t connected my hands-free device. Siri wasn’t born yet. I kept going.
Staccato images of Miss Teddy resonated as I headed home.
The pioneer of the community welcomed us with an orchid from her greenhouse when we arrived in town a decade earlier. Invitations to visit followed. We shared dinners at each other’s homes.
My mother had lived with my nuclear family — husband and three sons. When she died, our neighbor became a surrogate grandmother. Miss Teddy’s two grown daughters lived far away. The relationship between us grew with symbiotic intimacy.
Pine trees filled our corner of the world. Our street was even named after them — Pine Valley.
“I built this house after my husband passed away,” she informed me. “The name on the sign is ‘Evergreen.’ Still, I like to think of it as ‘Serendipity.’” Miss Teddy saw our connection that way, forever grateful to the circumstance around her.
The day she met David, not long after we moved in, she had puttered into our driveway in an open golf cart. As I unloaded groceries from the station wagon, David ran over to her. She shut the engine off and stood up. Her spine remained at a 45-degree angle with the ground.
“What’s wrong with your back?” David asked, seeing her stoop. “You look like that hunchback guy.” The curse of reading Illustrated Classics to this precocious preschooler.
“David,” I said, “that’s not polite.” My face flushed. I turned to our neighbor, “I’m sorry.”
Miss Teddy eyed him and said, “Hop on and I’ll tell you all about it.”
A bond formed that day, special to the two of them. She enjoyed his inquisitiveness and forthright attitude, qualities she carried with her for more than nine decades. He visited her and played checkers. They surveyed the forest animals through binoculars. She shared her artistic projects with him — objet d’art lamps and Scandinavian wooden trays decorated with stylized flowers (rosemaling). David’s and Miss Teddy’s creative spirits had synergy.
She liked reciting poetry, her own and those remembered from her one-room schoolhouse. Her raised-bed garden produced an abundance of pole beans in the summer. Hummingbirds crowded outside the large picture window in her den. Echoes of “Here Dickie, Dickie, Dickie” rang out in the evenings as she called her golden retriever home.
She and I talked of spouses — both of ours were physicians.
“It’s a wonder,” she said, “you’re at the job all hours, and your husband cooks.” She shook her head. “You’ve got things turned around, but it works.” She marveled at my ability to have a career and a family. She had given up Occupational Therapy to raise her children.
The fear of losing her coalesced into a focus of pain, like a bee sting unattended, the barb left in the skin.
I’d imagined she would live forever, a gossamer dream that expressed yearning. Of course, no one did. I saw that every day at my job. In the broadest terms, a death caused shock and sadness in the moment, even if expected. No one was ready when it hit close to home. Not even me. I was not prepared as I reached my street.
A large ladder truck, a sheriff’s SUV, an ambulance, and two town police cars parked nearby. Further out, television crews set up high reception towers near the intersection. The scene was so familiar like hundreds of others I had attended. Yet this one jarred me. The location, usually comfortable and serene, had morphed into the peculiar. My professional life collided with my personal one. An environmental dysmorphia.
A patrol officer approached as I eased behind the fire engine, closer than he had allowed the reporters.
“Miss, you can’t park here,” he said, holding up his palm to me.
I stepped from the car, flipped open my badge and walked past him without a word.
The chief of police approached, extending his hand. “We just notified your office,” he said. “How did you get here so fast, Doc?”
“My son called me. He was home from school today. I live right there,” I said. My palm sweated as I returned the handshake.
Jim’s eyes turned to gaze at my house. I felt nauseated. Responding to my neighborhood as a civilian now officially transformed into duty. What had happened here?
Still thinking of my friend, I asked, “What is this about? Did she fall? Was there a fire? A home invasion?” Experience draped the possibilities in violence.
“No,” Jim answered. He seemed confused.
We looked at each other. Then I surveyed the view more closely. One of the cops stood in the road with a long measuring tape. The EMTs leaned against the ambulance. Firefighters gathered with large equipment at the end of the road. My vision sharpened. Miss Teddy sat on her front porch, only ten yards from me, not a dreaded celestial world away. I stood straighter. She waved. I smiled and waved back.
A checklist of happy future times replaced the blank sheet of a moment ago. Miss Teddy scaring the kids at Halloween as she proffered candy from her creepy extendable hand. Thanksgiving dinner including her homemade biscuits completing our family table. Her daughters enjoying spiked eggnog at a Christmas visit. Relief infused me.
Jim described the accident — single vehicle to fixed object as it was known in police vernacular. A teenager had died. The boy, driving alone, had flipped the car at the end of the street about three in the morning, trying to achieve zero to 60 mph in less than six seconds as advertised in the TV commercial.
The sky grayed. Guilt rimmed the periphery of my solace.
“How old?” I asked.
“Sixteen,” he said.
“From around here?” I said.
“Nah,” Jim said and named a town fifteen miles away.
I closed my eyes. I envisioned the new driver. Did he even have a real license or just a learner’s permit? The car speeding down the unfamiliar road, my road. The night surrounding him. Where had he been? Where was he going? Questions his family would agonize over in the days to come.
“Parents notified?” I said, thinking of the unimaginable.
“Yeah, Miller is on the way to their house, but they may see it on the news first.” Jim gestured to the towers on the road.
“We can’t let that happen. Get the privacy screen. Stat,” I demanded.
Jim handed me the personal protective equipment I needed then radioed his team. We moved along the path to the site of the wreck.
The cul-de-sac consisted of a circular turn-around with split logs at the edge of the roadway marking the perimeter. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, the boy hadn’t realized the street ended abruptly. No streetlamps illuminated the area. All the suburban houses darkened at night. Later I would check a lunar chart and realize the waxing crescent moon had provided very little illumination. Gloom enveloped him with no way out.
Black streaks coursed on the asphalt surface where the car braked prior to the collision. His tires had struck the wooded border; the car became airborne before impact with the tree. I stepped through the brambles and limestone in the rut beyond the dead end.
A red Mustang hung upside down. The roof crushed into the earth. The engine block had cracked from hitting a one-hundred-year-old maple. A large gouge marked the spot at eight feet up from the base of the tree. I heard Jim breathing behind me. Red and blue lights fractured the atmosphere in rhythmic waves. The air smelled damp in the subdued August day.
I saw the boy through the broken windows on the driver’s side. His body upside down and seat-belted in place dangled like a puppet. A patina of white powdered his chest from the exploded airbag. Dried blood coated the beige fabric of the seat.
“Did you hear anything in the night?” Jim said.
I rewound my evening — pasta dinner, homework review, stories with the kids at bedtime, office reports, conversation with my husband, asleep by 10:30 P.M. Had it stormed last night, thundered? I bent down to touch the dry ground. I had slept uninterrupted until the daily alarm at 6 A.M. No nightmares, no requests for water, no midnight refrigerator raids, no telephone calls from the office. A very calm night. My arms raised goosebumps.
“No,” I said. “Nothing. I don’t think anyone in my family did either. Nobody said anything at breakfast, but I’ll check with them.”
The strike must have made a monstrous boom in the wee hours. I looked in the direction of my home, not visible from this angle. Had the overlay of the tree canopy muffled the noise?
“I talked to the lady in the house over there,” Jim said, indicating Serendipity. “Her bedroom is about fifty feet away. She’s amazing.”
I nodded slightly; my head felt too heavy to do much more.
“She said she heard a loud bang at 2:45 A.M,” Jim continued. “She put on her glasses and looked at the clock. It took her about ten minutes to get out of bed and make her way to the front door. Said she stood there yelling for a while asking if everybody was okay but didn’t hear anything else. She couldn’t see much in the dark from her front porch. There were no car lights, nothing. She just thought it was some kids fooling around along the power line ease-way.”
This stalwart woman, spine angled acutely due to osteoporosis, hearing the thunderous crash had painstakingly gone outside in the middle of the night. To see if she could help.
“She’s a reliable witness,” I said.
“Sure is,” Jim said.
Miss Teddy had responded. I slept on. The boy lingered alone.
A warmth spread from my neck upwards. My feet stiffened in my work boots. The surgical gloves tightened around my fingers. I breathed deeply, mouth closed, counting to four with each inhalation. I willed my pulse to slow. Wind gusted in the stillness causing a few leaves to drop. The surrounding foliage prompted a thought.
“How did you find the car?” I asked. “It’s camouflaged in the gully.”
“When he didn’t show up at home last night, the mom called around. The friends had seen him speed off in this direction after he dropped them off. Down the street near the intersection. Said they didn’t hear anything. They went out searching today. Found him here.” Jim looked down as if studying his shoes for the quality of polish.
“Hmm,” I said, pondering the sound, the night, the friends. “Our office will have to talk to the parents. We’ll do x-rays and toxicology tests. After that, the autopsy will be first thing in the morning.” I stripped off the gloves, booties, and mask.
Jim and I shook hands again.
“Thanks, Jim, you got it from here. I’m going to say hello to your witness now,” I said.
Miss Teddy observed the scene from her usual afternoon post on a stone bench by her front door. Gravel crunched underfoot as I approached. She raised her right hand that held an empty tumbler. I took it wordlessly and headed inside the familiar abode.
I called David to reassure him that Miss Teddy was fine. He could come visit when he felt better. I updated my office and signed off for the day.
Arriving at the cabinet that housed the gin and tonic, I replayed Miss Teddy’s instructions on how to prepare the classic British drink. Every day at 5 P.M, she had this restorative.
“How much gin?” I once asked her.
“Just count to three,” she had said, demonstrating with the closed Tanqueray bottle. “One, two, three, for a good day.” She poured quickly. Then she poured again, this time more slowly. “One. Two. Three. For a rough one.”
I used the more languid technique distributing the liquor into two glasses, then added a generous splash of tonic. A fresh-cut lime on the bar along with a few softening ice cubes finished the recipe. Returning to the porch, I handed one to Miss Teddy and sat down with my own. Side by side, our hips touching, we watched the recovery workers.
The sound of metal crunching and scraping filled the air as machinery opened the car to extricate the boy’s body. The Jaws of Life at work — designed to scissor open automotive metal and save an injured occupant. A misnomer for me as I never saw its life-saving capabilities.
Her gnarled hand reached over and patted my thigh. I took her fingers in mine and squeezed them lightly.
“Thanks,” I said, my thumb rubbing along hers. She nodded, her blue eyes rheumy.
“I thought it was just kids out hot-rodding,” she said. Her voice quavered, unlike her usual speech.
“I didn’t hear a thing. Not a sound,” I confessed.
We sipped our G&Ts as the investigators finished up their tasks.
In a matter of days, six-foot-high reflectors would be installed to mark the end of the roadway. In weeks, a guardrail would arrive. Months later, the “No Outlet” sign at the street crossing would be changed to “Dead End.” For a long time, the boy’s friends left flowers and cans of his favorite beer next to the offending tree.
When I return home in the evening, my headlights brighten their shapes, exclamation points amidst the surrounding greenery. These sentries bellow at me in the quiet of my road. “It happened here, right here,” they seem to say. They are daily reminders of redemption and loss.
That day, seventeen years ago, the trucks drove away, leaving Miss Teddy and me alone in a world with a shattered afternoon. I put my head on her shoulder. Feathery white hair tickled my forehead. Her cashmere sweater brushed softly against my face.
“I thought it was you,” I whispered.
“I know,” she said. She cleared her throat in preparation for a poetry recitation. I expected Longfellow’s “The Sound of the Sea” with “A voice out of the silence of the deep” and “Are divine foreshadowing and foreseeing / Of things beyond our reason and control.” That felt apropos.
Instead, silently she leaned her head onto mine. We contemplated the ice melt in our glasses.