An E-ride on the I-10

by Janelle K. Smith

The inside was dark. And I seemed to be hanging upside down. I tried to see through the blackness but soon realized that endeavor would be easier if I opened my eyes.

I was hanging upside down. But it wasn't dark anymore. In fact the sun shone surprisingly bright. It glinted in rainbow flashes off the shattered glass around my head and the small cubes of it jewelling my hair. My eyes felt gummy and dry and the world tilted at an odd angle around me.

My chest was tight and I labored to get air into my lungs. The whole of my weight was being supported by a four-inch wide strap of grey nylon, and I felt the seatbelt cutting into my chest and shoulder. Two figures were approaching my car but through the blunt edged remains of my windshield, they seemed to be walking on their heads.

Sand and random plants filled the roof below my head. That same sand turned my skin to mud and my clothes a uniform dirty beige. But someone was speaking in my left ear now. I tried to turn in my suspension and saw an older man outside my driver side window. Or through the frame of that window, at least.

"Are you okay? Miss, can you hear me?"

I licked my lips, ignoring the grit that caked them, and tried to find my voice in the sand.

"I think"" My words cracked and my throat felt thick. I tried to swallow down what sand I could and spoke again. "I think so."

"Good, good. Can you turn off your car?"

The inside of the car looked different, smaller, and from my position near the roof I had a hard time orienting myself to where I should look for the key. Then I remembered it would be by the steering wheel, found the dangling keychain, and turned it towards me. A low beeping began to sound but the car was off.

By now the two upside down figures had reached my car and their voices, though muffled, became audible.

"We won't be able to get her out the driver's side." A rough voice, a man's.

"Well, we need to get her out. Let's roll the car over." Younger, still male, with a slight Spanish accent.

"Ma'am, we need to push your car over before we can get you out. Is that all right? You're gonna feel a little jolt."

I tried to brace myself with the steering wheel and pushed my back into the seat. Then my world shifted, righted itself. The sky was where it was supposed to be again and the three figures around my car were no longer on their heads. My butt hit the seat as the sand, glass, and vegetation showered down on me.

"Okay, we're gonna get you out through the passenger door. Can you move?" Rough voice stuck his head in the passenger window. "Do you want us to help you out?"

My fingers found the belt buckle and clicked it open. The tightness in my chest didn't lessen with the loosening of the seat belt, but seemed to be getting steadily worse. Taking as deep a breath as I could manage without choking, I took a quick survey of my body and determined it was capable of moving. Slowly I inched my way across the front seat and slid out the passenger door.

My eyes instantly squinted against the bright sun, and the roar of highway traffic filled my ears. A handful of people stood around me. I saw one woman and instinctively moved towards her. My legs had other ideas.

"Why don't you sit down, miss? Let's get you over here and you can sit down." The older man put an arm around my shoulders and guided me to a spot in the sand a few feet away from my car. I hesitated before I sat in the dirt, thinking of my tan pants. However, when I looked down at myself, I saw that a little more sand couldn't hurt and eased my body onto the ground.

For the first time, I saw my car. Or what had been my car at least. An unfamiliar voice, high and panicked echoed in my sand-filled ears.

"Oh my god. What happened? Was it my fault? Where am I? Oh my god, my car!" Each sob hurt but I couldn't stop them. Suddenly my body began to shake and tears streaked muddy lines down my cheeks.

Then the woman was at my side, a bottle of water in her hands. "It's okay. You're okay. It's just a car. You're okay." She held out the bottle to me and when I nearly dropped it she held it for me. I spit out the first two mouthfuls, rinsing the sand from my mouth and lips. The water calmed me, grounded me, and I was able to look around again. Three more people stood to my left, and two of them held up a car sunshade to block the sun. Two men circled my wreck of a car, shaking their heads. My car"

None of the windows were intact. And it seemed to be more compact than I remembered. The front wheel was bent at an odd angle and through the passenger door I could see that the driver's side of the car had been crunched into an A-frame around the small pocket I had somehow remained protected in. My belongings were strewn all about us in the sand.

My sobs began anew and I dropped my face into my hands. I had just wrecked twelve thousand dollars of my parents' money. I had just increased their insurance. I had just incurred god only knew how many fees for doctors and emergency care. What were they going to say when they found out? Who was going to come get me? What had happened?

I lifted my head and looked at the faces around me. Self-consciously I tried to tidy my hair but found it matted and filthy. I pulled it back with a hair tie anyway, wanting at least a semblance of order and control. The woman held the water back out to me and I took another drink, swallowing my sobs with the cool liquid. Then I used some of it to wash my hands, noting with relief the gold and diamond ring still encircling my left ring finger. A white handkerchief appeared over my left shoulder and I took it, swiping at the dirt on my lips and cheeks. It came away brown and red.

"You have a slight cut above your eyebrow. That's all." The woman spoke from my right, her hand on my shoulder. "Where do you hurt?"

I moved each limb. Right leg, check. Left leg, check. Right arm, check. Left arm"

"My left arm and shoulder feel stiff. And my chest hurts, just right down the sternum." I went over my body again, thinking there must be more damage considering what my car looked like. Everything else seemed fine, excepting a few scratches on my left ankle and the tops of my feet.

"The CHP are on their way. I just called them." The Spanish accent belonged to a kindly faced man my father's age. He smiled encouragingly at me. "You are okay? I saw the van move right into you. Then it almost hit me!"

"So it wasn't my fault? It wasn't my fault?" I peered frantically at the faces above me, turning back to the Spanish gentleman. "Where am I? Am I in Blythe?"

The woman answered me. "You're way past Blythe. Between Blythe and Indio."

I looked up and down the highway, at the cars flying past in either direction, and beyond them, at the unidentifiable desert. "Which way"" I floundered, not quite sure what I was trying to ask.

The woman's lips tightened and she looked from me to my car. "Well, you were headed west, which is those lanes." She pointed past my car to the lanes of traffic in front of us. The traffic was headed in the opposite direction that my car was facing.

"Is there somebody you should call?" the Spanish gentleman asked.

"Call?" I didn't even know where my phone was. Considering how far my cd's had been thrown, my phone might be in pieces on the eastbound lane. "Is there a red and white bag around here somewhere?"

A young man poked around through the rear window of my car and fished out first my overnight duffle and then my red shoulder bag. He brought it over and I pulled my cell phone out from the sand filled interior. I wasn't sure whether to call my fiancà or my parents first. Both deserved to know what had happened. And they were about the same distance away, if in opposite directions. But my parents held my health insurance. And they wouldn't kill themselves trying to get out to me. I pulled up their number and hit "Send.'

"Hello?"

I tried to make my voice steady, hiding the tears still lingering in my chest. "Hey Mom. I've had a little accident."

"Are you okay? What happened?"

I looked at the car as I spoke, trying to think of what I could say that she wouldn't panic over. "I'm okay, really. The car's kinda wrecked but I'm okay. Some nice people stopped to help me and the CHP are on their way."

My mother's voice became muffled, like she'd covered the mouthpiece, and I heard her relaying to my dad what I'd said. She sounded panicked. My dad took over.

"Where are you?"

"I'm somewhere between Blythe and Indio."

"Are you okay?"

"Yes, Daddy, I'm okay."

"What happened?"

"I don't really know yet. But my car's facing the wrong direction in the median."

He grew momentarily silent and I got the feeling he was more scared than my mother.

"Dad, will you please call Trevor? Let him know I'm okay. I called you first because I thought you might have to call Kaiser."

"Sure, babe. Is CHP there yet?"

I looked around, and as I did, a man uniformed in khaki stepped in front of me. "He just arrived. I think I have to go, Dad."

"Okay, babe. We're on our way. Give us a call when you know where they're taking you. I love you."

"I love you too, Daddy."

I closed the phone and looked up at the CHP officer, trying to appear as steady and calm as possible.

"Nice parallel parking job." He smiled down at me through his large sun glasses.

"Thanks. This is why I never parallel park." I returned his smile, feeling my lips crack as I did so.

"So, what happened out here?" He flipped a page over in his notepad and readied his pen.

I hitched a breath into my aching chest and tried to remember what had occurred before I awoke hanging from my seat belt.

"I was driving west on I-10."

"About how fast were you going?"

I shook my head, unsure. "I don't know. I was in the fast lane, maybe 75?"

"Okay, were there any cars around you?"

I tried to put myself back into my car, driving down the freeway. I imagined looking out my windshield and saw two vehicles in the slow lane.

"Yeah. There was a van in the slow lane behind a large truck or trailer of some kind."

"Do you remember what color the van was?"

"Maybe a grayish blue?"

"And was the van ahead of you?"

I replayed the scene in my head again. "I think so."

"Okay, so what happened?"

"I was coming up beside the van. Then I noticed it had started to merge into my lane. I don't think they saw me and they didn't use a blinker. They kept merging over and so I" I swerved left to avoid hitting them. But my car tire got caught in the sand or something and I felt myself losing control so I swerved back right to get back on the road. But the truck was there so I steered back left and the steering wheel jerked in my hand and I felt a jolt." I looked down, trying to remember. "I remember the jolt and dirt and that's it until they helped me from the car."

"Very good. Do you think you passed out?"

The older man spoke up. "Yes, she did. She was out when I got to the car."

The officer turned to the people around me. "Did anyone see what happened here?"

The Spanish man stepped forward. "I did. The same van almost hit me. The van merged into her car and she swerved back and forth. Then the car rolled a few times and ended up on its side."

The officer looked back at the righted car. "You pushed the car back on its wheels?"

"Yes, we did. It was the only way we could get her out."

The officer turned back to me. "Did you get out on your own?"

I nodded. "I don't think anything's broken. I'm just a little sore in my chest when I breathe and my left shoulder too."

The officer nodded and made some more notes in his notepad. I heard sirens and then there were more men around me, sliding me onto a backboard and slipping a catheter into my right arm. Oxygen was tucked up my nose and a neck brace finished off the fashionable "I'm on my way to emergency' ensemble. My cell phone rang and an EMT in dark blue held the phone to my ear.

"Hi, baby. Your parents called me. Are you okay?"

New tears leaked from my eyes at the tightly reined emotion in my fiancÃ's voice. I assured him all was well.

"I'm coming down. I'll be there in the morning"

"Be safe, Trevor. I love you."

"I love you too, Janelle, so so much."

As soon as I ended the call, the phone rang again. "Dad's Cell' appeared in the small window.

"Hi, babe. What's going on?"

"The ambulance is here."

"Where are they taking you?"

"I don't know yet." I looked at the EMT in blue. "Where am I being taken?"

"Are those your parents?" At my nod he continued. "Do you mind if I talk to them?"

I shook my head as much as the neck brace allowed. "Dad? There's a man here who wants to talk to you okay? I love you."

I turned the phone over to the EMT and closed my eyes, giving in to the exhaustion I hadn't noticed until then.

The inside of an ambulance was one place I had never really desired to see but during the two hour ride to the closest trauma center I memorized every knob, every button, every little light, every hook and hand loop. Now I never have to see the inside of one again because the image is burned into my memory.

I hadn't been in the emergency ward very long when my family arrived. I hadn't realized how bad I must've looked until I saw it in their faces. My mom and my sister smiled for me though, and immediately went about trying to clean me up. Sarah picked the plants and glass out of my hair while my mother gently washed off what dirt she could. When they looked at me, though, I saw the glint of tears they were so bravely fighting.

Four hours in emergency, three CAT scans and countless x-rays determined that, through some miracle, I had no broken bones, no internal bleeding, no major injuries what so ever. It was as though I had a guardian angel watching over me. My dad was the only one of them who'd seen the car since he was the one who collected what belongings of mine could be collected, and in his eyes I saw how close he thought he'd come to losing me.

After my much needed shower, during which I found sand in places I never wanted sand to be, my mom and my sister spent an hour painstakingly detangling my long hair, pulling out thorns, leaves, and any number of plant parts from the broken strands. A large swath of hair had been pulled out sometime during the accident, leaving a thinned strip from ear to ear. My mother filled up a small trashcan with the broken and shorn strands. I didn't complain considering that was among the worse of my minor injuries.

The next morning, Trevor arrived. I smiled at him through my black eye, and he pretended not to notice the bruise. In return, I pretended his gentle hug didn't cause my body to twinge with pain. His chest cushioned my head and I closed my eyes, finding peace in the sound of his heart. In the darkness behind my eyelids the accident played through again, and I knew the feeling of my life tumbling across the sandy highway median would stay with me for a long time.

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