I still don’t know why that car left the road. The driver–male or female I could not tell, as it was pitch dark outside–sped around us only seconds before. Once it aimed back in front of us the driver never found the lane and powered at full speed off the blacktop.
The weather was fine; it was dark with no moon, but it wasn’t raining. There was no animal in the headlights of either car and I was looking straight down the road, following the other car all the way. Mom was driving our car; I was alone in the back seat.
It was 1975. I was ten years old.
Mom slowed the car as fast as she dared, rolling to a stop, the two right tires in grass and gravel. I threw open the door and bolted across a ditch, through the brush, toward the wrecked car.
“Tommy, stop!” I heard. I gave her the courtesy of a quick look back, but ran on.
A few steps later I saw a dull orange glow under the car directly under the engine compartment. Sweeping wide I tried to get a view into the driver’s area while keeping some distance.
“Tommy, come back here!” sounded now more distant. It was about 200 feet back to our car. I knew Mom wouldn’t follow because my little sister was, in my best guess, still asleep on the front seat. I took full advantage of Mom’s inconvenience.
I could not tell whether the driver was moving, but it looked like something moved in the back seat. Angling toward the rear door, I was reaching for the handle when a whoosh came from front of the car. Without bending I could see the glow was brighter.
It was an engine fire, and it was getting bigger fast.
Pulling the big back door open I saw inside a girl about my size. She was shaking her head as if woozy, trying to form a conclusion from sparse data.
“Hey!” I said. “Are you ok?” She turned her heard. Another quick shake. “Yeah, I think so. We wrecked?”
“Yes. C’mon, you need to get away from the car.” I didn’t mention the fire. A woman driver was in the front seat, and I didn’t want the girl to refuse to leave.
As I eased her out onto the ground I noticed some of the grass near the front tire was burning. She draped her arm over my shoulder for support. Turning her toward my car we started away.
“Who was driving?” I asked.
“My sister, Ann.”
When we were about halfway Mom started toward us. The girl had regained her balance, and was mostly under her own power.
“Walk to my mom. I’ll check on Ann.”
Turning, I saw the fire had spread. More grass was burning, and flames were visible at the bottom of the car.
I ran as fast as I could. The heat was increasing, but Ann wasn’t moving. I couldn’t open her door; not because it was hot but because it was locked. I banged on the window, and yelled her name as loud as I could. Nothing.
I stepped around the open back door and climbed into the back seat. Leaning over the front seat I began shaking Ann and calling her name. Smoke was building from under the dash. I shook, and shook her. Nothing.
I remembered some TV show where slapping brought people back, but my angle was wrong. I climbed over the bench seat and faced her. I pushed her drooping head back and slapped her lightly. Yelled. Nothing.
The smoke thickened. My eyes burned and I began coughing. It took more focus to push her head back. This time I slapped her hard enough to sting my hand severely. I shook my hand; she shook her head, slowly at first, then her eyes fluttered. She struggled, trying to breathe. Each cough was recycled smoke.
Her eyes went alert, and I realized she realized what had happened.
“Where’s Allison?” she sputtered.
“She’s out,” I yelled, trying to find the seatbelt buckle. “We have to get out now! The fire is growing!”
Ann became more alert. Reaching across her lap, she disengaged the buckle, then pulled the door handle. Nothing. We both pushed and shoulder-rammed it. Nothing. It was jammed shut, not locked.
Starting over the seat, I half-yelled, half-coughed, “Come out this way. The back door is open.” My eyes were on fire.
We clambered over the seat and crawled out the back door. Both of us hit the ground running, coughing, shielding our eyes. She staggering just a bit. I looked back for her hand, then: BOOM!
I saw the fireball, then immediately heat and a concussive wave lifted me into the air. Arms and legs splayed I hit the ground and everything went dark.
My mother’s voice, through a cloud.
My eyelids fluttered, eyeballs rolling like marbles in a bowl. I heard the snap of a pillowcase.
“Tommy.” She tousled my hair; “Wake up. You’re flailing like windmill, yelling about a fire.”
I half-raised. Huh? Aw, man. A dream.
I pulled up the sheet, turned my back to her, and shoved my head into my pillow to find the wreck. I wanted to see Allison again. She was cute.