Eighteen and Invincible

Their beer of choice was Budweiser.

I know it by the empty cans on scene, scattered among the detritus of the typical wreck scene; engine parts, trim pieces, windshield glass, brilliant shards of taillight lenses winking occasionally in the light reflected from our strobes. A ball cap, a leather purse.

Four dead bodies.

There are three empty cans on the scene, nearly a dozen more in what was left of the car; all of them still nestled neatly in the hatchback, amid the ashes and melted plastic of what I assume was a cooler.

Or perhaps it was seat fabric and headliner, or plastic molding. I don’t know. The car itself is a smoldering heap, burnt to the frame, nothing left but scorched metal. I idly wonder why the beer cans didn’t cook off in the heat of the flames. None of them did, all of them still full, although the cans themselves are so scorched that the brand is unrecognizable.

Perhaps their beer tastes mirrored mine, back when I was eighteen and invincible. My friends and I couldn’t afford good beer, so we’d pool our money and buy a few cases of Budweiser, and a few cases of Milwaukee’s Best. We’d start the night drinking the good stuff, and after a while, tongues properly anesthetized, we’d switch to Milwaukee’s Best.

God, that I’d survive to an age where I’d look back and realize that I once thought of Budweiser as the good stuff.

Beer was a taste I acquired merely because my wallet could afford little else. I was young and stupid then. I grew older. Wiser, perhaps.

But right now, I just feel… old.

*********

Josh and I were on the way back from a long distance transfer when we got the radio call. Unusual in itself, right there. Our calls normally come in over our mobile data terminal.

“So anyway, the lady talks all the way to the hospital,” Josh was saying. “I mean, three solid hours of nothing but her dog, and how the government is monitoring our thoughts. Seriously, I was about to – “

“Headquarters to CCT 552,” the radio interrupts.

“552.”

“How many body bags do you have on your unit?”

Josh and I trade a look.

“Uh, just the usual one, headquarters. Somebody missing theirs?”

“552, give me a 21.”

“Why do I get the feeling we just failed a pop quiz?” I wonder as I dial dispatch on my cell. Josh just rolls his eyes in resignation.

“Hey, it’s Kelly on 552. What’s up?”

“We need you en route to a fatality wreck at the intersection of 383 and 190 East. You’re right on top of it.”

“So why are you sending us to an obvious fatality? We got other victims on scene?”

“No, it looks like multiple fatalities. Parish coroner is doing a declaration on a fatality wreck at the other end of the parish right now, and the deputy is on the scene, but he only has one body bag. He’s got a body transport van en route, and I’m sending a supervisor truck with more body bags.”

“Lovely,” I reply as I thumb the END button. Josh just looks at me questioningly, because my sigh says it is anything but.

“Turn east when we get to 190,” I direct. “We’ve got an assignment.”

“They gonna put the call on us?”

“Fatality wreck,” I reply tiredly. “The bad news is, we won’t be transporting. It’s just a standby detail.”

“That’s bad news? So what’s the good news?”

“There is no good news.”

**********

Did you know you can smell blood, if there’s enough of it? And if they’ve been drinking, you can literally smell the alcohol. Well, not alcohol, really. Technically, they’re ketoaldehydes, the byproducts of alcohol metabolism. It’s a sickly sweet, model airplane glue kind of smell. But there is none of that smell here, only the stench of burned plastic and rubber, with an undertone of charred meat.

Odd, you’d think that there would be the smell of blood. Four bodies hold a lot of it.

You tell yourself that if you’ve seen enough death, you’d become inured to it. You kid yourself that your emotions have toughened, that you’ve built up some psychic scar tissue to protect you from scenes like these. But it’s not a scar, it’s a scab. And some scenes… some of them pick loose the scab on old memories, and your soul starts bleeding all over again. You kid yourself that you’ve seen the worst that machinery and man can wreak upon their fellow men, and you’re mentally prepared when you step out of the rig.

I am not prepared. I am not fucking prepared.

I stare numbly around me, my writer’s mind searching vainly for a metaphor capable of describing the carnage I see. Searching, and failing, and finally running away chittering madly into the night. If I can find a way to describe it, I might one day be able to tell the story to KatyBeth, a cautionary tale designed to inspire the proper amount of fear and caution to keep her safe. To keep her from drinking and driving one day.

But this is something I can never share with my daughter. Childhood already has its own fair share of nightmares, and when she’s old enough for it to matter, she won’t heed it anyway.

Nobody does, when they’re eighteen and invincible.

So I turn off the writer’s mind, and I force myself to be cold and clinical. The car is literally ripped in half lengthwise, the metal sheared as if by a monstrous can opener. I try to calculate the amount of sheer kinetic energy it takes to tear a car’s frame and body in two, and can only come up with… a lot. Staying cold and clinical might let me function, might keep my mask of impassivity from slipping, but what died here cannot be measured in foot-pounds.

Three bodies lie scattered around the scene. And I don’t mean a body here, a body there. I mean the bodies themselves are scattered. In pieces, no doubt cleaved by the same merciless combination of inertia and alcohol. None of them were wearing seat belts, not that it would have mattered. The fourth body was, and he – I guess it’s a he – still sits in the driver’s seat, a blackened husk on a bare seat frame.

A casual glance at the driver reveals what killed him; the left parietal region of his skull is caved in, the brain beneath cooked through. The contents of his abdominal cavity have spilled out, still attached somewhere inside, perfectly preserved by the searing heat. I marvel quietly a moment, every organ still perfectly formed and colored, like a macabre anatomical model; the liver greenish-brown, the intestines a gray green, the stomach pink, the reddish spleen peeking out from behind the fundus. I poke at them in fascination, finding them the consistency of silicone rubber. Behind me, I hear Josh stifle a retch.

I straighten in embarrassment. “Get the body bag from the rig,” I order. “We may as well help the deputies until the body transport van gets here.”

“Help them with what?” he asks dully.

“Help them find the pieces, Josh. The families at least deserve to bury whole bodies.”

He swallows, sickened, and then grudgingly trudges to the rig. I scan the scene briefly, and then wade into the brambles to the left of the massive pine the car struck. After a couple minutes of searching, shadows and branches in my flashlight beam playing tricks on my mind, I find a severed foot, torn off at mid-calf.

Painted toenails.

I gingerly make my way out of the thicket, slowed by small brambles and wait-a-minute vines, and gently lie the foot next to the female body. The purse probably goes with her, too. It has a broken strap, perhaps was even draped over the arm that has yet to be found. A deputy nods at me silently as his compatriots go about the same grim task. You can tell which ones are fathers by the expressions on their faces.

I move the purse next to her body, and search it for identification. There’s a driver’s license there, the picture the kind you never capture after that first one. The picture you get with your first license is the one full of victory and optimism, the smile undimmed even by a long, dreary day at the DMV. By the time you renew it, that innocence is gone.

If you survive that long.

I hand it silently to the deputy, taking care not to read the name. Faces are bad enough without names. Faces fade, but not when a name is attached. The deputy reads it, blanches.

“Sixteen years old,” he breathes. “Goddamnit.” I grunt in agreement. I glance over to see Josh on his hands and knees, gingerly picking something out of the underbrush. I turn away.

There’s a man standing behind a police cruiser, a civilian, staring hollowly at the goings-on, wearing a look I know well. It’s a look all of us have worn before, back before we learned to compartmentalize it, learned to put on a mask of detached professionalism.

“Is he supposed to be here?” I ask, nodding at the civilian.

“He called it in. Lives just through those trees on the left there, heard the crash. Said it was fully involved when he got here. We were working that fatality wreck south of here, with the State Troop. Took us a while to get here, fire was mostly out by the time I rolled up.”

“He looks shaken.”

“Oughta be,” the deputy smiles grimly, then says softly, “He’s a good guy, principal of DeVillier High. He was my daughter’s softball coach, back in the day. Our kids are the same age. Helluva thing to see, you know? I mean, we’re used to it and all, but him – ” he stops, interrupted by the crackle of his radio.

“Headquarters, 33,” comes the clipped voice of his dispatcher. “Tags come back to a Rodger Payne, 54 years, of DeVillier. No wants or warrants.”

“Oh God, Rodger Payne?” blurts the civilian. “None of these are Rodger Payne, but that… yeah, that could have been his son’s car.” He bolts around the sheriff’s cruiser before anyone can react, stopping before one of the male bodies. The body’s head is wrecked, no skull to give it structure, the face resembling an empty Halloween mask. He gags, swallows hard, looks up to us with blurry eyes. “I… I think I know this one. He was friends with Rodgers oldest son. Graduated last year.”

The deputy looks at him speculatively for a moment, shrugs, and makes a decision. He extends the girl’s driver’s license. “Do you know her?”

The man takes it with shaking hands, stares at it, nods mutely. He looks over his shoulder at the third body. Another deputy rolls it over. All the parts are there, but the body is misshapen, an unevenly stuffed rag doll. The man sighs. “Yeah, him too. He’s a senior. I mean, would have been a senior… you know, this fall.”

“And the one in the car?”

“Rodger’s oldest son, Todd. Graduated in May. Gotta be him, they all ran around together.”

“Can you help us get in touch with the parents?”

The man nods again, sighs. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Then come with me.”

**********

Death notifications are something I’m good at. I’ve made dozens of them, maybe a hundred. But they’ve almost all been cardiac arrests, generally elderly people who have been ill for some time, or a middle-aged someone with a dozen risk factors for heart disease who collapsed unexpectedly. You can make some sense of it, rationalize it. They’ve lived their lives. It was their time. The cigarettes and cheeseburgers did it.

You take the family aside, and gently explain that you did everything possible, everything the Emergency Department would have done. But the down time was too long, or their heart too weak, or the multiple diseases too much to overcome. And you explain that no, there wasn’t anything more the family could have done, that even when a resuscitation is performed perfectly, 75% of them fail anyway.

Even when it’s a lie. Often there’s a lot more the family could have done, but the last thing they need to accompany a dead loved one is a heaping helping of guilt.

So you speak gently, and you use the word “dead,” and you avoid pointless euphemisms like “passed on,” or “gone to a better place.” You tell them you’re sorry for their loss, ask them if there is anyone else you can call, and if they’d like to spend a few moments with their loved one. And then you tidy up your mess, including the body, and lead them into the room, explaining that all the unnatural objects you put in them or on them have to stay in place until the coroner arrives.

And then you leave.

But there is no way to soften the blow when you show up on a parent’s doorstep at 3:00 am, wearing a uniform. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. It’s unnatural. It’s unjust. You can’t rationalize it by thinking, “Well, they brought it on themselves. They chose to be stupid.”

At least, not without ignoring all the stupid things you did at that age, and survived.

And so I’m grateful I don’t have the deputy’s job right now. I’d rather be here on scene, with the bodies, and a rookie partner getting his first glimpse of what a career in EMS might mean. I can tell myself they’re not people any more, only meat. They likely didn’t suffer.

Maybe if I repeat it enough, I’ll believe it.

**********

Things are wrapping up at the scene now. Our supervisor has come and gone, dropping off three body bags and a pointed reminder to go back into service as soon as possible. The body transport guys have three bodies loaded, and the deputies are just standing around, chatting quietly, some of them smoking. All that’s left is to get the driver out of the car, and then the wrecker driver who is waiting patiently can winch both halves of the hulk onto his flatbed, and all that will be left behind is a scarred tree and a bad memory. In another week or two, a cross or wreath will go up at this spot, maybe even four of them.

Everybody passes these crosses and clucks sympathetically, but they’re only crosses to them. They didn’t hear the glass crunch underfoot, didn’t see that poor school principal’s face when he realized that four ruined and unrecognizable bodies were his students.

“Hey, Kelly!” one of the deputy coroners interrupts my reverie. He obviously knows me, remembers my name, but I can’t recall ever meeting him before. “Mind helping us pull out the driver?”

Yeah, I mind. But I’ll help anyway.

The sheriff’s deputies stand aside, pretending not to hear. Cops don’t do blood or bodies, not if they can help it. Josh is standing with them, but unable to keep from rubbernecking.

“I think he’s gonna be stuck to the seat frame,” the guy who knows my name says quietly, “but if you get under the arms and I get under the hips, I think we can break him loose without tearing him up too much. If we’re lucky, we can get him out in one piece.”

“Let’s just get it over with,” I mutter, gripping under the kid’s arms. Skin and flesh crackle and fall away under my hands, and I lean over awkwardly, trying not to get charred body on my uniform shirt. “On three. One, and two…”

On three, we all tug gently, and the body comes free with a sickening tearing sound, like Velcro being torn apart. He’s frozen in the sitting position, and we gingerly lay the body on its side in an unzipped body bag.

“Not bad,” judges one of the coroner’s deputies. “We got everything but the feet.” At that, his partner starts sifting through the inches-deep pool of ashes in the floor of the car, pulling out ankle and foot bones, one at a time.

Josh loses it then, hitting his knees and emptying the remnants of his dinner into the grass. The deputies scatter as if he was radioactive. I open the back doors of the rig, grab a few paper towels, and walk over to him, waiting as he finishes retching. Finally he looks up at me, and I wordlessly hand him the paper towels.

“You ready to go?” I ask, and he nods.

A few minutes later, as we’re pulling back onto the main highway back to our station, he ventures, “Ever had a partner throw up before?”

“Nope, you’re the first.”

“Great,” he mutters. “Guess I’ll never live that down.”

“I’ll never breathe a word,” I promise. “No one will ever know that you tossed your cookies.”

“Thanks.”

“Pussy.”

“Come on, man.”

“In EMS,” I inform him, “we use medical terminology. Maybe ‘reverse peristalsis’. Or ‘emesis’ would be good.”

“Ugh, come on, dude.”

“The Technicolor yawn, upchucking, calling Ralph, calling dinosaurs, doing the – “

“Okay, I get it,” he chuckles ruefully. He stares at the road for a long while. A few minutes later, he says softly, “I never saw anything like that before. Some of the guys in class thought the pictures in the textbook were gross. Gross, but kinda cool, you know? But this…”

“Different in real life,” I agree. “Always is.”

“Does it get any easier?”

I think about it a moment before answering. I try to remember how I reacted to my first really gory call, and I can’t remember. It was twenty years ago. All I know is how they affect me now. I suppose I would have liked for someone more experienced to tell me that it does get easier, perhaps dispense a little wisdom. But no one ever did. Maybe they didn’t because they were as empty and tired as I feel now.

“Not really, Josh. It gets easier to compartmentalize, easier to function. You learn to put it away until the job is done.”

“But it comes back?”

“Sometimes, if you’re lucky.”

“Lucky?” he blurts in consternation. “How?”

“Being bothered by calls like that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is not being bothered, and being able to remember a time when you were.”

**********

And now I sit here while Josh dozes in the driver’s seat, pecking out the story on my laptop, wondering all the while if I should. Every so often, I backspace and ponder, but eventually I decide that the story needs to be read. I’m not a fan of “look at me, I’m a hero” stories, and I wonder if I’m just writing accident porn, the literary equivalent of a snuff film, the ugliness fascinating only because there is a little rubbernecker in all of us.

But I suppose it’s because if, one day down the road when I’m a different person than I am now, a failure as a man, a husband, a father… a human being… someone will be able to read these words and get an inkling of what broke me. Maybe the catharsis will postpone that day a little longer. I pray that it will.

Perhaps some adolescent will read these words, and understand how wreck scars more than just the victims.

And maybe they’ll make wiser decisions, when they’re eighteen and invincible.