I don’t know what caused it. Perhaps it was a fever or a sharp blow to the head or any of the countless other injuries I’ve suffered over the course of my life. To some extent, the sensation has been there for as long as I could remember, but it has only been recently that it’s become problematic.
I was standing on the street last week, waiting for the light to change so that I could cross. My wife and my son were both sick, and someone had to go out to get their medicine from the pharmacy. It was Saturday night, and as you can imagine, the college-aged crowd that makes up such a large percentage of our city’s population were out in full force, laughing and drinking and enjoying their youth, as is their right. I kept my head down, trying very hard not to make eye contact with anyone. I was no more than a few blocks away from my apartment when this girl and her friends approached, loud and drunk, and I could not help but look at the source of the noise.
I make it a point to avoid large crowds, and had my wife and son not been sick, I certainly not would have been out on the city streets. The more people I encounter, the more likely I am to see someone’s fate. We all ultimately suffer the same fate, of course, but it is the specifics that make it unbearable, and it’s the specifics that I see. A mother walking down the street cradling a giggling child with its neck bent at an unnatural angle. A serviceman at the airport hugging his family, his clothes soaked with blood yet to be shed. And now a girl in her early twenties, blonde hair with dark roots, tight dress and high heels. She wore a plastic tiara accented with rhinestones, and she laughed too loud at the jokes of her friends. She was beautiful in the way that all wild and carefree young women are.
I looked at her, trying not to let my eyes linger on her for more than a few seconds at a time, but she saw me. She saw me looking and she laughed and she smiled and she blew me a kiss, and half of her head disappeared in a smear of blood and bone. What was left smiled still, turned to her friends, whispered and laughed. Her chest flattened. One of her arms and one of her legs snapped. Her mangled body tottered around one leg.
A car accident, then. And soon. She didn’t look any older than she did now. Sometime within the next year or two, I imagined.
I turned and looked away, forcing my eyes closed and taking deep breaths. The image of the girl’s grisly end would haunt me for days, but there was nothing I could do to save her. I had tried in the past to change the things I saw, and I’d never been able to. Every time, I failed. Children. Men. Women. The young. The old. When I warned the people of what I saw, they still died. When I tried to actively save them, they still died. No one could be saved. No one can be saved. But sometimes I still tried.
The color drained out of the world. I couldn’t summon the energy to look away from the people around me. Old age. Drug overdose. Old age. Cancer. Gunshot wound. Died young. Died young. Died young.
So many deaths. So many people all meeting the same fate. It was hard to care. It was hard to care about anything.
“Oh, my God, Maggie! You’re so drunk!” The college girls laughed somewhere behind me. “Maggie, stop it!” More laughter. The light changed. I crossed the street. The girls followed, undoubtedly intent on making it to yet another bar in the same general direction I was traveling in. I turned and they turned. I waited to cross and they waited to cross. They hounded me, their laughter and joy a painful counterpoint to the ache and the numbness that accompanied my every step. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned around, faced them, and despite their drunkeness, they stopped and looked at me uncertainly.
“Who’s driving?” I asked. “How are you girls getting home tonight?”
The leader, a brunette, frowned. Old age. “What?”
I pointed at the blonde in the tiara. Maggie, I assumed. Her twenty-first birthday, I assumed. “How is she getting home? She can’t drive herself. And any of you who have been drinking can’t drive her.”
A redhead stepped forward. “Uh, who the fuck are you? You can’t tell us what to do.” Medical complications at about sixty.
I ignored her. I pushed past her, setting my hand on Maggie’s shoulder. “Listen. Call a cab. Or get a van for you and your friends. Take the bus. Have someone come pick you up. I don’t care. Just don’t drive. Don’t let anyone else drive. Please. For your own sake.”
She stared at me with half-lidded eyes, looking at me but not seeing me, and then she frowned. Her face contorted into anger. She shoved me, slurred invectives at me, and that was it. I could do no more. I said nothing, not even an apology. I just turned and walked away.
There was nothing to be done. There was no way to save her, or any of them. Nor would I be responsible for her death. She would meet the same end no matter what. The things I saw couldn’t be changed.
She followed me for a bit, shouting in my wake, but I ignored her. Her friends called out to her, and I ignored them too. I ignored the people around me, the noises of the city streets, the cars, the bus, the shouting of her friends becoming squealing brakes becoming gasps and screams of horror and inevitable cries of anguish.