The first thing that hit her was the smell. The scent of warm tar and burning rubber and spilled gasoline set fire to her nostrils. The fumes overwhelmed her, causing her to sneeze and involuntarily throw her head back into the headrest. Her red-rimmed eyes glistened as she tried to wipe at her nose, but found that her hand had not responded to her request. She tilted her head to look down at her extremity but found that she was looking up instead.
Her eyes were wild then, trying to comprehend the scene around her. She drew her bottom lip into her mouth to bite it. It was a nervous habit that she had developed in middle school, when faking stomach aches and menstrual cramps had stopped being viable options to keep her from the anxiety that plagued her between the hours of eight in the morning and three in the afternoon five days a week. Her mother had always scolded her for her anxious gnawing, but there was something soothing in the act of it that dissuaded her from heeding her mother’s complaints. She was used to the faint metallic twang of blood on her tongue after chewing on her lip too frequently or fervently; however, she wasn’t used to the amount that she found pooling in her cheeks in that moment.
She spit her lip out of her mouth with a spray of blood, covering a mosaic of broken glass around her head. Tears fells up her face, making a rolling ascent from her forehead to the strands of her hair. The glass had come from the fractured windshield before her, translucent red and glimmering from the light of the fire.
I am going to die, she thought. I am going to die today.
There was a flash. Even behind her thick curtain of eyelashes, she saw a bright light shine out from the darkness, if only for a moment. Her eyes fluttered open, turning their gaze toward the source of the brightness as the nylon fiber of the seatbelt cut into her collar bone. A woman was upside down in front of her. No, she remembered. I’m upside down. The woman was kneeling on the pavement, leaning towards her. She tried to speak but her voice had failed her.
“Please,” She finally sputtered, her voice a whisper on the breeze. “Please help me.”
The woman outside reached toward her with a clutched hand. Her brow furrowed as she tried to make sense of it. Before she could muster the strength to utter another word, she heard the familiar click of the shutter on a camera phone. The woman stood and pivoted, walking out of her peripheral vision. Her mouth agape, she felt her sobs begin to stampede through the tightness in her throat. She turned her head to better see the flames licking at the street beside her, but her eyelids pulled themselves shut almost immediately.
“Miss?” A voice called out. “Miss, can you hear me?”
She drew in a ragged breath before opening her eyes. She saw a fit of unruly hair before anything else. Her eyes focused and saw the man, lying on his belly on the pavement outside of her broken window. He tilted his head, his eyes desperately trying to make contact with hers.
“Can you open your eyes for me, miss? Can you hear me?”
Her mouth tightened as her eyelids slowly trembled open. She searched his face frantically.
“Atta girl,” His smile took hold on his lips and in the corners of his eyes, wrinkling at the sound of her voice. “Someone already called 911, the paramedics should be here soon.”
“The paramedics. They’re going to g-”
“No,” she cleared her throat, wincing. “Who called 911?”
“The cashier at the deli right behind you,” he said. “As soon as that guy side-swiped your car, she was on the line with 911.”
“Where is he?”
“The man who hit you?” He asked, his tone somber. “He took off.”
“I don’t know what’s worse,” She laughed. “That the man who did this drove off, or that some bitch just took a picture of me for her Instagram feed.”
“Well, at least you’ll be internet famous by morning.” His face softened, offering a smile. “Some people kill for that kind of publicity.”
“Lucky me, all I have to do is die for it.”
“Hey,” he reached inside the driver’s side window and grabbed her limp hand from its place between the seat and the center console. “Don’t say that. We’re going to get you out of here and you’re going to be fine.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.” She said, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. He couldn’t help but laugh. His hand continued to rub circles gently into hers. “You know how I know you’re wrong?”
“Sweetheart, I’m never wrong.” He smirked at her.
“I’m willing to wager that there’s a woman around here somewhere who is absolutely tired of you saying that.”
“You’d win that wager.”
“I’d also wager that you’re wrong this time.”
“How do you figure?” He said, his voice playful.
“Because I can’t feel that,” she said, her eyes on his hand. “Or anything below my neck.”
His face fell. He brought his free hand up to her cheek, stroking her skin with his thumb. Her eyes pressed tight and her lip quivered, her head shaking from side to side.
“You’re not going to die in here,” he said authoritatively. “You’re not going to die in a piece of shit Honda.”
“It’s not that bad.” She said defensively. “Besides, it could be worse. It could have been a Toyota.”
She smiled but found herself unable to stop crying. His face was pained, looking over his shoulder as if he could simply will the ambulance to arrive. “Tell me something,” he pleaded as he continued tracing patterns into her lacerated knuckles. “Come on, tell me about yourself. What’s your name?”
“Kate.” She managed between dry heaves.
“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you, Kate.” He said. “I imagine I would have enjoyed it more had it been under different circumstances, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.”
She could feel her head growing lighter and her vision began to flutter around the edges. He noticed a dark drop of blood gather on the corner of her cracked lips before it dragged itself up and off of her cheekbone onto the car’s fabric roof below her. He reached with fumbling hands and tried to wipe the blood off her face, but accidentally smeared it instead. She pressed her face into his hand, her eyes closed tight. He used his elbows to pull himself further through the fractured window, glass crunching beneath his bones. A faint sound whirred outside.
“Kate, do you hear that?” He asked.
She opened her eyes one last time and studied his face. He was older than her, but not by much. Maybe he had a high-end job, maybe he had unruly dark-haired children, maybe he had a mother-in-law that put too much pressure on his marriage – whatever it was, it had left him with two distinct gray streaks in his otherwise coal black mop of hair. She could tell that he had shaved his face this morning, the lingering scent of aftershave filling her nostrils.
“What’s your-” she started.
“Ian.” He cupped her face in his hands. “My name is Ian.”
“Give me your business card or something,” She pressed her dry lips together slowly and formed a weak smile. “If you’re right and I somehow don’t die, I would very much like to kiss you on the mouth.”
“You can kiss me now if you’d like.” He beamed.
Howling sirens blared from around the corner as a parade of emergency vehicles began to line the street around them. The back doors of the ambulance slammed open against the rig and a man and a woman in dark blue uniforms jumped out of the back and began to run towards the flipped car.
“What’s that sound?” She asked, her eyes closing involuntarily.
“Sir, we’re going to need you to get out of the vehicle!” A voice behind them shouted. The sound of glass being crushed under heavy footsteps surrounded them.
He held her face between his hands and pressed his lips to hers, tasting her smile-stained lips.
“That,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “Is the sound of you living.”