"By the time you've run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked every tic of your terror, it's lost its power over you ... [Soon it's] a story on a page, or, more precisely, everybody's story on a page." -John Gardner
Half my life ago, I killed a girl.
I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt. It was May 1988. The breeze did its open-window work on the hair behind my neck and ears. We had a month before high-school graduation. I was at the wheel. Up ahead, on the right shoulder, a pair of tiny bicyclists bent over their handlebars. The horizon was just my town's modest skyline done in watercolors. We all shared a four-lane road; the bicycles traveled in the same direction as my car. Bare legs pedaling under a long sky. I think I fiddled with the radio. Hey what song is this? So turn it up. Then one of the bike riders did something. I remember only that - a glitch on the right. My Oldsmobile stayed in the far left lane. After a wobble or two, the bicyclist eased a wheel into the road, maybe thirty feet away. My tires lapped up the distance that separated us.
Next the bicycle made a crisp turn into the left lane and my sudden car. Dark blond hair appeared very clearly in my windshield. I remember a kind of mechanical curiosity about why this was happening and what it might mean.
This moment has been, for all my life, a kind of shadowy giant. I'm able, tick by tick, to remember each second before it. Radio; friends; thoughts of mini-golf, another thought of maybe just going to the beach; the distance between car and bicycle closing: anything could still happen. But I am powerless to see what comes next; the moment raises a shoulder, lowers its head, and slumps away.
And then it's too late. My forearm hooks to protect my eyes. The front-seat passenger shouts. I picture my foot disappearing under the dash, kicking down for the brake, straining farther than any real leg can go. Yet the hood of my Oldsmobile met Celine Zilke at forty miles an hour. Her head cracked the windshield. I remember the yellow reflector from her spokes, a useless spark, kicking up the glass incline and over the roof.
My car bumped onto the grassy median. And then I must have done all the normal driver things. Put on the clonking hazards, rolled to a stop, cut the engine; I must have stepped onto the grass in my T-shirt and shorts. I simply have no memory of how I got there.
Celine Zilke, the girl on the bike, was sixteen and always will be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh-grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts - Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off notes in the public-speaking class we took together. Celine sat by the window.
When I look back now, she strikes me most of all as young.
I walked to where Celine lay on the road. I didn't know who I'd hit or even that we'd had a serious collision. I thought in terms of broken arms and getting in trouble with my parents. Then I reached her and noticed the peculiar stillness of her face. This stillness transformed her - I didn't even recognize her. The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. This openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles - arm bent up and out, foot settled under a knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.
"I think maybe she's hurt," said my friend Dave. We couldn't tell if there was any life coming from her pale, parted mouth. Maybe she's hurt might pass for an obvious statement when you read it now, but it didn't as we stood over Celine on that morning. Her face looked relaxed, as if she were lost in thought. Yet I could feel my own breathing speed up. And that's all I felt.
Excerpted from Half a Life by Darin Strauss. Copyright © 2010 by Darin Strauss. Excerpted by permission of McSweeneys Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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