(Ed. Note: This is a true story—recounted to the best of my memory's ability—written as if it were a fictional story. If that makes sense.)
The two children—one boy, perhaps eight years old, and one girl, perhaps ten years old—wait at the edge of the busy highway, in the summer, in Arizona. Four lanes, with cars frantically passing at fifty miles an hour, sometimes faster. They push and push to maximize their vacation, to run their errands, to spend their money. Four door sedans and pick up trucks and SUVs, American and Japanese, Kia and Mercedes and Subaru, Ford and Honda and Toyota. Their tires buzz. Hot day and pressing sun, the rubber warm and pliable and the two children wait, side by side.
Lakeside, Arizona, a small town in the mountains of the state. A ski resort lays within forty-five minutes, a casino within fifteen minutes, and trees and lakes and all the activities that those who live in the valley travel Northeast to enjoy. Every summer, the four lane highway through town—the only road that goes all the way through Lakeside and its sister town Pinetop—becomes clogged with heavy and unending traffic, the danger rising and rising. Accidents occur and people wait by the side of the road for minutes and minutes, peering both ways for a break in the traffic that rarely comes. The lights are few and far between. Pedestrians make breaks for it.
Across the street from the two children a small coffee house stands near empty. Inside, one worker and one customer, a regular, talk. The heavy hum of traffic from outside has long ago faded into the background of both their minds. The day is hot and oppressive and the inside of the coffee house—not air conditioned, not well ventilated—reflects that pressing discomfort. The worker, Joel, is sixteen years old, nearly a child himself. The customer, Hal, is in his sixties, tall and white haired, grizzled and wrinkled and experienced in life, sarcastic and short-tempered and kind and angry. A camera hangs around his neck and he speaks with his hands, emphatically, and occasionally winks and smiles. He is cynical with an underlying but cautious hope. He likes the worker. The worker likes him, as well, as hornery as the customer can be. They talk randomly, passing the time while outside the world continues and two children wait at the side of the road directly across from them, wanting to leave behind the trinket shops for what lies on the other side. Perhaps the coffee house or perhaps the bakery next door or maybe even the nearby Mexican restaurant.
They are alone, for whatever reason, unaccompanied by parents.
A car halts in the lane closest to them, recognizing their desire to cross the road. There is another lane of Westbound traffic next to this halted car, then a middle lane for turning both ways, then two lanes of Eastbound traffic before the other side of the road and its gravel parking lot that serves the coffee house and the bakery and the Mexican restaurant and a gift shop. The car in the lane closest to the children brakes and stops and the children, together, begin to run across the road toward the middle lane, where they can stop and wait for the Eastbound lanes to clear and give them free reign to explore the other side of the highway.
A gardening truck—short and white and squat, so heavy and thick, carrying equipment in a hurried manner, perhaps, but not necessarily speeding or being reckless, but not paying attention to the side of the road, either, or the car that has stopped—barrels down the road and the two children—for some reason, they do not see the danger (perhaps because they are reckless as well, mere children, unequipped for all the life and death decisions they might face)—run out from in front of the stopped car and directly into the path of the gardening truck, which slams into both of them, hits them, hits them (did it even have time to brake, to swerve, or was it perfect timing?) plows into them, strikes them down in a nightmarish manner, in perpetual horror (it surely must have had time to brake somewhat; it couldn't have hit them unslowed, at fifty miles per hour, without simply destroying them) and the two children are mutilated in a flurry of incomprehensibility.
There are brakes then, screeching, and this sound registers in the minds of the worker, Joel, and the customer, Hal, within the coffee house no more than the other sounds of traffic have been registering. The sound that is made when the truck hits the children is surely small and slight, a crunch of bones and the tearing of flesh, certainly, but not so much to carry through the coffee house's open window and register in the minds of the two people inside, and to make them understand what has happened. There are brakes, yes, but no screeching metal, no echoing crunch of vehicle on vehicle that brings people running to view the proceedings, to gawk and stare and point and determine who is at fault, to make instant judgments and express their consternation.
But then there is screaming.
The screaming does not come from the children, for they are far beyond screaming at this point. They are not conscious (are they even alive?). It is the parents that scream, or one of the parents, but who can say which parent? There is no way to comprehend the gender of the person who screams—it is thick and guttural and there is terror and fear and horror and anger and the pain, the hurt, the agony that eats at a person just to hear, to hear the misery that tears at the soul, the emotions, at whatever it is (spirit or chemical reactions) that make us something beyond flesh and organs and pumping blood.
Hal rises from his chair and peers out one of the coffee house's windows, into the street beyond. Only for a moment, and then he gestures at Joel and says, "Look at this." As he opens the door to the outside world, his hands are already reaching for the camera strapped around his neck and he steps out onto the coffee house's porch, Joel just behind him. Together they stare out into the road, at the terrible scene.
The gardening truck has stopped in the middle of the road. Traffic all around has halted. The father is in the middle of the road, screaming—he has literally fallen to his knees—and there are people peering under the truck, talking excitedly, making serious gestures. There is a crumpled figure to the side of the truck—a boy—and the mother is coming out into the road, screaming as well.
Joel and Hal watch, and Hal begins to point out details of the scene. "Look at that," he says, "knocked the kid right out of her shoe." He points and sure enough, there is a shoe lying in the middle of the road, behind the truck. It sits alone, upright, innocent in the midst of asphalt. The truck hit the girl and took her right out of her shoe. It sits there. Joel stares at it. And he wonders, for a moment, how such a thing is possible. The physics do not seem right and surely they are not—a dragged body, a lost shoe, a happenstance upright positioning—yet the internal vision of the thick and heavy and deadly truck striking a child and pulling her, magically, directly out of her shoes—a blink of an eye and the horror is missed—and this stays so very stark and strong and visceral with him.
Hal leaves the porch, hefting the camera that hangs around his neck, and begins to snap pictures of the carnage. He clicks and clicks the aftermath, fascinated and focused but with a detachment that the boy tries to understand. But Hal, this man, he has seen war and atrocities and this must be one more small event in a lifetime of terrible occurrences, and he has taken pictures of pain before. How liberating that must be, to be able to frame and focus the scene, to encase it in boundaries and block out all the endless vistas of the world around, to not have to look too far skyward or to peer off into an endless horizon or try to imagine the vastness of space and realize that there are no confines to pain like this—that, in fact, it simply drifts off into the ether and goes on and on forever, like radio waves, information that will never be truly captured and reined in and understood—that, as a very disturbing matter of fact, there is no good explanation for a gardening truck hitting (killing?) two small children and that these broadcasts of pain weave through the fabric of existence; these broadcasts bind together our reality. They are not accidents or mistakes, but make up the very world we live in as crucial and critical moments. Indeed, could we even exist without such happenings?
The boy, Joel, though, has no camera and instead he watches Hal, and he watches the parents scream, and he leans against one of the porch railings. The driver of the gardening truck has stepped outside of the cab, takes tentative steps on the road's hot asphalt, and surveys the scene around him, of which he is the principle focus. Does he think to himself, I have murdered children? Or is he more forgiving of his own unintentional actions? Or perhaps his mind is blank, because he appears uncomprehending, his face taut with the inability to handle the stimulus around him. He stares at the father, who looks at him as well. The father rises and someone holds him back as he screams, "You killed them! You killed them!" And then the driver, whose face simply does not change but, Joel can see now, is in incalculable pain—it can be seen in the eyes—puts an arm against the back of his truck, against the metal (is it hot or cool on this summer day?) and leans his head against his arm while the father is restrained, while the driver tries to comprehend, while the world spins and spins and Hal takes pictures and the boy sits on the porch steps of the coffee house and slips into time-devouring shock and tries to understand how the world continues on with such abundant pain.