I'm doing sixty by the time I leave the corporation limit of Painters Mill. Within seconds, the radio lights up as the call goes out to the Holmes County sheriff's office. I make a left on Delisle Road, a twisty stretch of asphalt that cuts through thick woods. It's a scenic drive during the day, but treacherous as hell at night, especially with so many deer in the area.
County Road 14 intersects a mile down the road. The Explorer's engine groans as I crank the speedometer to seventy. Mailboxes and the black trunks of trees fly by outside my window. I crest a hill and spot the headlights of a single vehicle ahead. No ambulance or sheriff's cruiser yet; I'm first on scene.
I'm twenty yards from the intersection when I recognize Andy Welbaum's pickup truck. He lives a few miles from here. Probably coming home from work at the plant in Millersburg. The truck is parked at a haphazard angle on the shoulder, as if he came to an abrupt and unexpected stop. The headlights are trained on what looks like the shattered remains of a four-wheeled buggy. There's no horse in sight; either it ran home or it's down. Judging from the condition of the buggy, I'm betting on the latter.
"Shit." I brake hard. My tires skid on the gravel shoulder. Leaving my emergency lights flashing, I hit my high beams for light and jam the Explorer into park. Quickly, I grab a couple of flares from the back, snatch up my Maglite, and then I'm out of the vehicle. Snapping open the flares, I scatter them on the road to alert oncoming traffic. Then I start toward the buggy.
My senses go into hyperalert as I approach, several details striking me at once. A sorrel horse lies on its side on the southwest corner of the intersection, still harnessed but unmoving. Thirty feet away, a badly damaged buggy has been flipped onto its side. It's been broken in half, but it's not a clean break. I see splintered wood, two missing wheels, and a ten-yard-wide swath of debrispieces of fiberglass and wood scattered about. I take in other details, too. A child's shoe. A flat-brimmed hat lying amid brown grass and dried leaves
My mind registers all of this in a fraction of a second, and I know it's going to be bad. Worse than bad. It will be a miracle if anyone survived.
I'm midway to the buggy when I spot the first casualty. It's a child, I realize, and everything grinds to a halt, as if someone threw a switch inside my head and the world winds down into slow motion.
"Fuck. Fuck." I rush to the victim, drop to my knees. It's a little girl. Six or seven years old. She's wearing a blue dress. Her kapp is askew and soaked with blood and I think: head injury.
"Sweetheart." The word comes out as a strangled whisper.
The child lies in a supine position with her arms splayed. Her pudgy hands are open and relaxed. Her face is so serene she might have been sleeping. But her skin is gray. Blue lips are open, revealing tiny baby teeth. Already her eyes are cloudy and unfocused. I see bare feet and I realize the force of the impact tore off her shoes.
Working on autopilot, I hit my lapel mike, put out the call for a 10-50F. A fatality accident. I stand, aware that my legs are shaking. My stomach seesaws, and I swallow something that tastes like vinegar. Around me, the night is so quiet I hear the ticking of the truck's engine a few yards away. Even the crickets and night birds have gone silent as if in reverence to the violence that transpired here scant minutes before.
Insects fly in the beams of the headlights. In the periphery of my thoughts, I'm aware of someone crying. I shine my beam in the direction of the sound, and spot Andy Welbaum sitting on the ground near the truck with his face in his hands, sobbing. His chest heaves, and sounds I barely recognize as human emanate from his mouth.
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