The sound of vehicular homicide

The worst sound I ever heard in my life was the sound of a teenage girl’s wail.

The girl had just killed a man, probably the only person she would ever kill. She had hit him in her car while he was crossing an intersection on a motorcycle. She would claim later in a courtroom that she’d been rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver and was dazed, trying to follow the offending party. This is why she had run that red light.

Photo by Adam Porter on Unsplash

There was no reason to disbelieve her, but still—courtrooms take red lights seriously, especially when a man ends up crushed into the asphalt. This is when a traffic mistake turns into a charge: “vehicular homicide.” The uncomfortable thing about reading charges like these is that most of us have run red lights. We know that we have. We just haven’t run them at the age of 17, with our lives taking a forever-altered course because of the blood that ended up on our front bumper.

It was one of the first stories I ever covered at the small-town newspaper where I’d just been hired. I was the editor, reporter, and often photographer, covering nearly everything with the help of a few freelance writers and photographers. This was among the first accidents I attended, listening to a police scanner on the way over. I didn’t know how familiar it would become, this rush, this chasing of ambulances around country roads until the pile of blinking blue and red lights came into view.


Newspaper buzzards

It would come to be my least favorite part of the job: relentlessly chasing these accidents because the other paper always splashed photos of twisted cars on their cover. For some reason, when news was slim, these accident stories always came, and I accepted the fact that they were legitimate pieces of news in a small town where everybody knew the names on the printed page. It was something that needed reporting—a flip on Hwy 52, an air evacuation on Rocky Mound.

But I couldn’t avoid seeing the resemblance we bore to carrion birds. What were we but people who came behind the destruction of wheels, pecking details up off the road, about ten minutes behind the people who were actually there to help?

This accident was at the main intersection in our little town—a corner of two main highways, right near the town center (Walmart) and the town square (courthouse).

When I parked my car near the intersection, which was blocked off and littered with emergency response vehicles, I heard only a strange silence. No traffic. No sirens.

The lady from the other paper was already there: Debbie, who’d been reporting for a lifetime, who lived alone and presumably slept next to a police scanner. I could see her stamping, dipping, shifting her weight and craning her head around on a bird-like neck the way she did. Nobody ever moved like Debbie when she was waiting. And there was almost always a wait—for people to be moved out of cars and into ambulances, for Tennessee Highway Patrolmen to make their reports, for somebody who knew the facts to find a moment for the two newspaper buzzards.

I do know that I was a much more careful driver—and neurotic passenger—during my time at the paper. I saw upwards of two accidents a week. I knew that they could happen, knew that they happened all the time, saw the metal on the side of the road. I remember that over time I began to experience a strange sense of foreboding—surely I had it coming. I began to cringe at the moment just before I rounded the final bend before the site of the crash.

One of these days, I knew, I would round that bend and I would see a red Ford—my husband’s car. Or I would round the bend and see one of the vehicles I knew from my church parking lot, and I would be unable to report. I also had a recurring scene play where I was the one in the accident, and Debbie would show up to pick over the wreckage. I would see her dipping head and her shifting feet, hanging behind the furthest cop car, and I would beg her to leave the story alone and go back to the office. She wouldn’t. Her head would dip and—snap!—a photo of my car.

Snap! Another photo.


A first death (and two others)

But none of this knowledge had come yet, the day of that first motorcycle accident. I had not even covered my first week of news.

Photo by Sam F on Unsplash

I hooked a camera around my neck and started jauntily over to stand near the officers who were directing traffic. I felt exuberant, conscious of being young and new and from the city. I felt intrepid and bold—ready to witness anything, ask anything, uncover anything.

The closer I walked, the more aware I became of a strange spirit that was cast over the length of the road.  Slowly, by the time I came to a stop outside the ring of ambulances, I found myself abashed by this collective mood. No conversation was taking place. Facial expressions were stoic. Firemen and EMS drivers were clustered near each other, also not talking. They were mostly watching their own shoes.

I rounded one more blinking blue car and came upon the motorcycle, lying on its side. It was mangled. Along the road next to it, going on for several yards, another substance had been strewn. I didn’t recognize it at the time. Later I came to know it well—it was the silty mixture they sprinkle on a road to soak up blood. Blood, apparently, is too slick to drive on.

That was when I became aware of the sound; the one lone sound that rose above us all and descended like a weight along the length of the highway. At first I thought it might be a wild animal in the woods nearby. Then it struck me, realization that traveled right down my back: it was a girl. She was screaming, wailing, crying inconsolably. Her cry rose and fell, rose and fell, never stopping, never giving a moment’s rest to the men standing around in uniform. This was what had stooped their shoulders and made them avoid eye-contact with one another.

I still don’t know where she was. Probably behind one of those emergency response vehicles or maybe sitting in the back of an ambulance with the rear doors open.

This was the sound of a girl who had seen a man on a motorcycle fly before a machine that she operated with her own two hands. It was the sound of a girl who had staggered out onto the road and seen more, known something that no one else can ever know for her. It was the sound of innocence lost.

Do you know? Ever since I heard that sound, it’s the sound I imagine when I read any account of Adam and Eve leaving the garden. I’ve seen illustrations of Eve wearing fur, covering her face with her hands and moving east from the entrance of paradise with a fur-clad man beside her. And now I have the memory of a sound to go with this image. Perhaps Eve also screamed, wailed, cried inconsolably. Perhaps she dimly understood what the consequences would be, dimly and imperfectly as that teenage girl only dimly understood the court system and the jail time that would later become quite clear to her.

All either of them knew was that something had changed, forever. Something had been lost, something that only a miracle could ever retrieve.

The miracle came… after Eve, before the motorcycle accident. It was bloody, like asphalt, like fur just after an animal is skinned for clothing. The miracle came, and it was death. Then it did the impossible, destroying death.


Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive… For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

-1 Cor. 15:22-23,25-26

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