Once I forced my car to hobble onto the shoulder, I turned off the ignition, looked further ahead, and partially solved the mystery of the missing second party. Maybe 300 yards in front of me (I’m a horrible judge of distance, by the way), two cars had pulled over. I couldn’t tell if they were damaged, but I assumed they’d been involved. (To this day, I have no idea how they’d disappeared into traffic and gotten so far ahead of me.)
I staggered out, noticed the fluids leaking from under the engine onto the interstate, dropped a jaw at the crumpled front end of my car with various pieces hanging out, and began the slow trek to talk to the other drivers.
I must have looked a sight. My legs were unsteady and I felt a little dizzy, so I was walking slowly and with an uneven, almost bow-legged gait. I kept touching my side and chest, then pulling my right hand away, looking at it in puzzlement, and trying to flex the sore fingers while keeping the blood off my clothes. I was aware of all of this behavior, but unable to change it. In retrospect, I wonder if I was in shock at the time.
It felt like I was crossing some vast wasteland, a neutral zone between warring factions in a dystopian future society. I swear it took me five minutes to reach the other party. I became aware of them watching me, and I was worried they were angry. I also became aware of each fast-moving car as it drove by me, and I was afraid I was going to pass out and fall into the traffic lane. Luckily, the rush of air from each one felt like a physical assault.
As I came closer, I noticed the first car had some damage in the rear, although I couldn’t tell how much. “I must have hit that one,” I thought, then wondered if it had been a three-car pileup (again, to my later shame, hoping that would absolve me of the fault). Three women were standing there, one on a mobile phone. “Is everyone okay?” I called out, unable to hear their responses. They probably couldn’t hear me, either, because it felt like I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to produce much vocal volume.
I finally reached them. The woman on the phone ended that conversation, whereupon she started talking about how bad traffic is in Raleigh, and how drivers are always hitting each other around here. It felt vaguely accusatory, but I think she was trying to be sympathetic.
I remember her saying something about one of the other women that made me think they’d been in a car together, and the second woman had been the passenger. I was wrong about several things. The third car hadn’t been involved at all. In my confused state, it took me a minute to figure out who everyone was – the second woman had been driving the car I’d hit, and the two other women had stopped to help.
The second woman seemed oddly calm for someone who’d just had an idiot ruin her car, and I turned to her and said the thing I’ve always heard one should never say after an accident: “I’m sorry.” But I was, and there was no denying this had been my fault, so I wasn’t exactly admitting a big secret with that apology. I asked if she was okay, and she said, “Oh, yeah!” in an almost-too-chipper voice.
The three of them looked at me doubtfully as one of them asked the same of me. I said, “I think so, but the airbag hurt a little.”
“Oh, your airbag deployed? I’m surprised mine didn’t,” the second woman said. “But something pushed my seat back.”
She pointed into her car, and I almost vomited when I saw the driver’s seat in a fully reclined position. I did that, I thought to myself, then apologized again out loud.
One of them pointed behind me and said, “Oh, look!” I turned and saw that traffic had come to a stop in the rightmost lane, some distance behind where my car was bleeding on the shoulder. Another car had pulled over behind me, and two people were carrying something large off the road.
“I wonder if that’s yours or mine,” the second woman quipped. It was an entire fender, and for the life of me, I could not figure out how it had gotten behind my car. Once I put a conclusion together, I was immediately worried about what it had done to the undercarriage. That’s right – my engine’s guts were hanging out of the front of my car like it had been disemboweled, the airbag was deployed, and I was possibly injured – but my biggest concern was whether I had run over my own fender in the process.
Meanwhile, they were carrying the second fender off the highway while I stood and watched from a safe distance, not doing anything to help them free the road of the large pieces of junk I’d just deposited there.
I texted my wife Kim and tried to sound nonchalant, telling her something had come up and asking if she could possibly pick Matthew up instead of me, because I wasn’t going to be able to get there soon enough. She said sure, but she needed me to handle something else during that time. So much for not raising the alarm. I texted back to let her know I was fine, but had been in an accident, was waiting for the police, and couldn’t be counted on to handle anything, apparently.
The two good Samaritans were satisfied that we were okay to leave alone, so they wished us well and left. I think I thanked them; I certainly hope so. Regardless, that’s when things became awkward. The other driver was still in good spirits considering what I’d just done to her car, but what do two people talk about in that situation?
I asked if the woman on the phone had reported the accident and ascertained that the police were en route. She said yes. She looked at the back of her car and said what a shame it was that she’d just had it inspected and paid for her next year’s registration. I felt a kick of guilt in my gut and apologized again. I asked if she was sure she was okay. She said yes. I told her I was going to go back to my car to call my insurance company.
During the 500-yard trudge back, I kept thinking how unseasonably cold it was, but wondered if the jacket in my back seat smelled like the smoke inside the car. When I opened the door, I realized there was no way it couldn’t as I was hit by a wave of that odor. It was acrid, oily, and cloying, but it was cold outside, so I closed myself in with it and called my insurance company.
The insurance rep had a few questions. The most interesting was, “Is your car currently leaking any fluids?” When I told him yes, he moved on to a new, unrelated question. This stuck in my craw – why ask, if it’s not important enough for a follow-up? What could the “Yes” alone possibly tell him? Didn’t he at least want to know what color they were, or what function they’d served while still in their respective reservoirs? Was I about to die, and all he had to do to avoid paying a claim was keep me distracted until the leaking fluids could work their chemical magic and either burst into flame or poison me?
While I was on the phone with him, a big yellow truck pulled off the road behind me; it appeared to be a tow truck from that perspective. I had no idea how a wrecker service had gotten there before the police, especially since no one had called for one yet. Was this one just cruising for random wrecks, hoping to pick up the business? I didn’t know, but I wasn’t about to let them take my car before the police arrived.
I kept talking to my rep, watching the truck driver in my rearview mirror. After a few minutes, he got out, walked up to my passenger window, and stood there. I sighed, apologized to the insurance rep, and told him I had to deal with something. Seriously couldn’t the truck driver see I was ON THE PHONE?!?
I turned the key enough to roll down the automatic window and the guy asked if I was okay. I said mostly, but I was on the phone with my insurance company and couldn’t talk for long. Also, I wasn’t ready to have the car towed yet. He said that’s fine, he wasn’t there to tow it; he was part of NCDOT Safety Patrol, and the police should be here soon. Now sheepish, I thanked him for stopping. He went back to his truck, pulled into traffic again, drove 700 yards, and pulled off behind the other car, where I can only assume the other driver gave him a warmer greeting.
Speaking of them, back on the insurance call, the rep started asking for information about the other car and driver. That’s when I realized I’d never even introduced myself to her, nor exchanged information. No, I didn’t know what kind of car she had. No, I didn’t know how bad the damage was. No, I didn’t know her name. (Yes, I must be a bad person.)
He told me it was okay, that she’d just need to call my claim contact and provide the information. I felt another twinge of guilt. Sorry, miss – I know I ruined your day and possibly the next month if your life while you await repairs and payments, but would you mind calling this person with your info, since I didn’t think to get it?
I wrote down my claim number, insurance company, and the name and number of my claim contact, so I could take it back to her on my subsequent 900-yard hike. Oh, and I included the national number for the rental car company that my insurance would pay for. Not even a local number. I’m a real hero.
The other driver took a picture of my registration and I did the same with hers. I apologized again and told her the Safety Patrol guy had said the police should be there “soon” – although it had now been almost 45 minutes, and we were in a region of interstate that I know from experience is frequented by cops.
“Are you a teacher?” she asked me out of the blue.
“Your shirt,” she said, indicating the high school name and mascot on my chest.
“Oh! No, I was volunteering at my son’s school this morning, and I thought I should show some school spirit. I would have worn something warmer if I’d known I was going to be standing outside for this long.”
“Yeah, it’s cold.”
“You can wait in your car if you want.”
“I’d like to, but it smells really bad inside.”
“Mine, too!” Silence. “Okay, I think I’ll go call the cops to make sure they’re coming.”
After another 1100 yards, I got back into my smelly car, rolled down the driver window, called the cops, and told them I was checking on a previously reported accident. The dispatcher wanted to know where it had occurred. I told her where, and she informed me there’d already been a report. I told her I know, that’s why I was calling. It had been 45 minutes. She asked if this was the accident with two black sedans. No, I told her, one was navy and one was gray. She asked if I needed an ambulance. I told her no, but my pain was getting worse and I’d like to finish up and go see a doctor. She said they’d be there soon.
I walked 1300 yards back to tell the other driver about the call. She told me she was going to wait in her car. I asked her if she was still okay and she said yes. That was the last exchange we had. She preferred a smelly car to awkward silence with me, and I completely understand. I walked 1500 yards back to my car to wait.
I took some pictures and posted one on Facebook. My car was starting to smell better, but was cold, so I engaged the auxiliary ignition and hit the buttons to roll my windows up. The driver’s side window refused to budge. I tried to start the car – nothing doing.
I shivered and texted Kim again, to check in. She had picked Matthew up and told him what was going on. He had asked if I was okay, then started fretting about money.
Bless him, he was worried about our finances. I felt bad; no kid should ever be privy to their parents’ financial worries. But she’d assured him insurance would help.
By now, it had been 90 minutes with no sign of the police, apart from the four sheriff cars from other counties that we’d seen drive by at various points. And I’d had to pee the whole time. So I called again. Where was the accident? Was this the one with two black sedans? Did I need an ambulance? They would be there soon.
This time, it wasn’t a lie; a cop arrived five minutes later. That response time would have been great if it hadn’t been tacked onto an already 90-minute wait. Regardless, I grabbed my registration, fished my license out of its almost hermetically sealed pocket in my wallet, got out of my car, and began the 1700-yard hike to where he had parked behind the other car.
He was getting the other driver’s version of events when I reached their general vicinity, so I stayed out of earshot and waited a moment. He interrupted their conversation to come and ask if I needed an ambulance and to get my license and registration, then asked me to wait at my car.
I’m glad he got at least one version of events before he walked the 200 yards to question me, because I found myself quite unable to give him one. I couldn’t remember if or how I’d been distracted behind the wheel – only looking up to see her car right in front of me, hitting my brakes, and going through everything else I’ve just described. He didn’t question me further – just asked if I needed a tow truck.
I’m lucky I wasn’t at my best mentally, or I might have given Officer Obvious the type of unfiltered response that usually drops into my mouth when someone asks a stupid question. Instead, I just said yes, please, because my car would no longer start.
He said he would call for one, and that it would be there soon. I hoped that version of “soon” was different from the version dispatch had used when we’d called for the cops the first two times.
He returned to his cruiser, printed something out, and brought it to me – a driver info exchange form. He never gave me a ticket, nor informed me that I was at fault. I suppose he thought that self-evident.
He walked away and I moved into the next stage of that day’s adventures. That’s when the fun really started.