There are no street lights on that stretch of Dixon, just the odd dirt drive peeling off towards rusty hovels with tin siding, moonlit farmhouses, a few big country estates. Where the foliage is thick it’s like an endless hallway in a nightmare, blackness ahead and behind, walls of foxtail and wood fern rushing past on the sides and pulsing red in the emergency lights. He can’t splash his face with water, so Lee presses one cheek then the other to the cool glass of the window. Outside, the tops of the trees brush the moon. He’s not usually prone to sleeping on a shift, but it’s been something of a week. Monday saw a wreck involving two seventeen-year-olds who had been wearing their seatbelts, plus one who had not and could not be helped. The Wednesday shift ended with a call that turned out to be a mistake – they needed a coroner, not EMS. Lee rubs his scalp and jiggles the coffee cup to see if there’s some left. There isn’t. He turns to his partner.
Stan sits immobile, staring ahead, hands at ten and two. His eyes are sunken above his large, hooked nose, his curly black hair is plastered down on his forehead. Lee recognizes the enforced blankness – a concentrated effort not to dread the immediate future. The only sound in the cabin is the droning of the engine.
‘“Don’t Fear the Reaper,”’ Lee says.
‘A little obvious,’ Stan says. He considers. ‘But not bad. Not mopey, at least.’
‘I don’t mind mopey. “Dust in the Wind.”’
This is one of their games. They started several years ago, when they first became partners, by picking out their personal entrance music, as if they were professional wrestlers or winners at an awards show. The current version of the game, which Lee came up with, is the opposite. The goal is to choose the songs they want to accompany their deaths. Because it is morbid, it is more fun, and more helpful.
‘Just a horrible choice,’ Stan says. ‘You’d fall asleep before you died.’
‘So you’d recommend . . .’
‘Iron Maiden, “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”’
‘I’d kill myself before I died. “Paint It Black” by the Stones.’
‘There you go.’
‘“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.’
‘Topical, but “Night Fever” is better.’
They had become medics at the same time. Lee came to Little Rock from Memphis, where he had failed as a concert promoter after failing as a DJ. Before that he had failed as a musician and a line cook, and before that as a philosophy major. He considered himself a savant at failing. Back home, his sister had just had a baby, so he told everyone that he was moving to be closer to family. He told no one that he had bought a gun and one bullet from a bouncer friend and driven to Jefferson Davis Park one night, and would have shot himself if there had not been a god-awful blues band carrying across the water from Mud Island. He wept the first time he held his niece. His sister was taking time off from her nursing job, and she was the one who suggested EMT school.
Stan was older, in his early thirties, married to his high school girlfriend. He had just become a father, unexpectedly, to twins. He said it was the girls that sent him to work – that he and his wife had been lake bums on Ouachita before, and planned to go back to it as soon as the kids were shipped to college, in seventeen or so years. Lee had never considered himself a burnout until he met Stan, who was content with the label and thought more people should adopt the attitude. On their first shift together they were called to a sidewalk in Hillcrest where Bud, a local hobo and mouthwash-drinker, looked dead but was just drunk. They took him to the hospital for a shower and a night in a bed, and in the room where they undressed him, when Stan lifted Bud’s arms and pantomimed a waltz, Lee felt pride in what he was doing, possibly for the first time in his adult life.
The memory of that dance is warm and hopeful. He needs moments like that to set against the other ones, the ones that give him a queasy feeling in his stomach. There was a call last year at the home of an elderly couple. The man, ninety, lay in the kitchen with a shotgun wound to the jaw. His wife, eighty-four, said he had been showing her how to use the gun when it went off. Later she seemed confused, and told them she had loaded it the night before, because she was afraid of him. She said he had locked her in the bedroom, which Lee noticed locked from the inside. The man was a code blue; the body had eight-ball haemorrhaging, the front chambers of his eyes were solid black with pooled blood.
‘“Lake of Fire,”’ Lee says.
‘Be better at the funeral,’ Stan says. ‘Flip everyone out.’
A few more miles down the road, they see a car stopped in the left lane, flashers and headlights on. A woman is standing next to the open driver’s side door, waving her arms over her head. Stan drives up to her slowly. Lee turns off the siren. She is middle-aged and has dark red hair that she pulls with her left hand. She does not seem hurt. There is no visible damage to the car.
‘He’s there, up there,’ she says, teeth chattering though it’s sixty-five degrees outside. She points at the darkness looming beyond the beams of the ambulance.
‘Who’s up there?’ Stan asks.
‘The guy, on a motorcycle,’ she says. ‘He came into my lane. Swerved suddenly. I was just gonna go to Bryant. Then he swerved. It was pretty sudden.’
It’s pitch black on the road. Not even the stars are out. Stan tells the woman to sit tight and wait for the officers who are on their way. He tells her to stay calm.
‘Totally,’ she says. ‘Of course, calm. I don’t have to go to Bryant. You guys got a cigarette?’
They roll forward in the truck, eyes scanning the blacktop, wary of running over potential patients. Lee spots some debris, presumably from the crashed motorcycle and points it out to Stan. Stan nods, weaves around it, and keeps going. Then Lee sees a part that is not from a motorcycle. It’s lying on the asphalt in the middle of the lane, preposterous and unmistakable: a leg.
‘That,’ Lee says, ‘I would call traumatic amputation of the lower extremity.’
Stan drives around it.
After a few more yards they see a man, propped against a motorcycle lying on its side. Stan puts the ambulance in park, leaving the headlights on and pointed at the victim, and they get out quickly.
The man is conscious, looking around with dreamy eyes. He is young, probably in his early twenties, blonde hair. His left leg is sheared off mid-thigh and blood is spilling into a puddle around him. His left arm has a new joint halfway between the wrist and the elbow, the hand pointing ninety degrees in the wrong direction, though the leather jacket sleeve is only scraped.
‘Well,’ Stan says to the guy, as Lee presses two fingers to his neck and shines a penlight in his eyes. ‘You don’t look so good, buddy. You there? Can you hear me?’
The man’s head drifts and he gurgles a little. Stan sets his bag on the ground and takes out a pair of blue latex gloves, slips them on and takes out the laryngoscope. Lee takes the man’s head and holds it in line as Stan rolls him onto his back.
‘I’m going to intubate,’ Stan says. ‘Radio Baptist, tell them to launch Med Flight.’
Lee goes to the truck and uses the radio. ETA on the helicopter is four minutes. He rushes back and they apply a constriction bandage and tourniquet to the leg wound. Stan elevates it. They clamp a hemostat onto one of the haemorrhaging vessels. Back down the road, a squad car has arrived and the officer is talking to the woman.
‘Right back,’ Lee says. He goes to the truck and takes out a large plastic bag, then jogs on to the other cars.
The woman has found a cigarette. The end glows like a raccoon eye. The officer is an older man with cream-coloured hair and pocked cheeks. They seem to be watching each other’s shoes, and the woman’s expression when Lee approaches is like the agitated boredom of someone in a waiting room. The officer has the half hidden scowl of a waiting room receptionist.
‘Is he OK?’ she asks. ‘I bet he’s not. We hit pretty hard. When he came into my lane.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Lee says.
‘That’s right,’ the officer says. ‘Don’t even worry.’
‘Why would I worry?’ the woman says. Ash trembles from the end of her cigarette.
‘Med Flight is coming from Baptist,’ Lee says to the officer. ‘Should be here in a few minutes. Can you move your cruiser up past the patient and turn on the light bar? We need to make a place on the road for the chopper to land.’
‘Sure thing,’ the officer says. ‘Just wait here ma’am. And don’t worry.’
Lee sets back up the road, scanning the blacktop with his flashlight. Where he expects it, he finds the lower extremity. The pant is dark denim, the shoe a red sneaker with the laces neatly tied. He rolls the leg into the plastic bag and carries it along. It weighs almost exactly the same as his eighteen-month-old niece. Not a good connection to make – the hair stands up on his neck. You don’t bring in family.
The police cruiser slows down beside him and the officer leans out the window. ‘Do you think,’ he says, and looks at the clear plastic bag. ‘Oh.’ His eyes return to the road and he accelerates.
At the ambulance Lee takes out the stretcher. He sets the leg on top and pushes it up the road towards Stan. The streaming headlights and flashing emergency lights struggle against the darkness around them, giving it a hard, touchable quality. Most accident scenes are not quiet. Accidents happen in high-traffic areas, but not a single car has been down Dixon since they arrived. There is no sound louder than the cicadas in the leaves. Lee tries to whistle, but his mouth is dry. He feels like a kid left alone after a horror movie.
Stan is crouched next to the victim. He has the endotracheal tube in the man’s mouth, and has started an IV that he is holding in the air. Lee collapses the stretcher and rolls it next to them.
‘It’s goddamn quiet out here,’ he says.
‘Yeah, it’s freaking me out. Let’s get him on here,’ Stan says.
He rolls the man onto his side, and Lee jimmies the spine board underneath. They roll him back down on top of it, careful with the head, maintaining spinal alignment. The thump of the helicopter is audible in the distance.
‘Uunnnngh,’ the man says.
The foliage is thicker than usual on the sides of the road here. It forms a wall almost shoulder height, and the headlights only penetrate a few inches into the gloom beyond. Lee has the uncomfortable feeling that something large could hide there, and could be watching them.
‘James Lattimore,’ Stan says. He holds up a brown wallet.
‘And how is Mr Lattimore,’ Lee says. He forces his voice to be easy. He ignores the opaque leaves surrounding them.
Stan takes a deep breath, furrows his brow. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I think he’s going to be all right.’
‘No,’ Stan says. The ghost of a grin passes through his face. He tilts his head at the patient’s mangled left limbs. ‘I think he’s going to be all right.’
‘Jesus,’ Lee says, but he is immeasurably grateful to his partner.
The officer has parked his car down a ways, leaving a wide stretch of asphalt for the helicopter, which has arrived quickly. The scrub on the side of the road whips back in the rotor wash; the medics shield their eyes when the searchlight turns on them like a white sun.
The chopper touches down on the road, the side door slides open and a flight technician jumps out to help. They wheel James Lattimore up to the hatch, load the stretcher and lock it down. Stan briefs the tech rapidly and hands over the wallet. Lee raises the plastic bag gingerly and the tech grabs the leg by the knee, then they back away so that the door can slide shut. The chopper lifts into the humid night air, having been on the ground less than two minutes.
The medics listen to the rotor snapping off into the distance. Another set of red and blue lights is coming down the road, along with an orange set that would have to be the tow truck. The sound of the helicopter grows quiet enough for insect sounds to return. They walk back to the place of the crash.
‘Only weird thing.’ Stan points at the crumpled motorcycle. On a small metal rack behind the seat is a black canvas case with a red ribbon tied around the handle.
‘What’s that?’ Lee says.
‘Violin case. Or fiddle, whatever.’
‘Just weird, you know? Motorcycle guy? Leather jacket?’
There is paperwork to do, and they still need to give reports to the gathering officers, but Lee is breathing easier. It was bad, but they are equipped for bad. They have done their job as they are supposed to, and now a pilot is doing his job and soon a team of surgeons will do theirs. They lean against the side of the truck.
‘“Let It Be,”’ Lee says.
‘Vomit,’ Stan says. ‘Puke.’
‘“The Sound of Silence.”’
‘I wish we were a couple, so I could break up with you.’
‘It’s your turn, anyway.’
Stan knits his eyebrows. ‘“Space Oddity,”’ he says.
A breeze cools the sweat on Lee’s forehead. He watches a drop of blood fall from Stan’s smeared latex glove. Then he gazes at the dense brush beside the road, the murk as dark as lake water. An entire army could hide there without him knowing.
‘That’s a good one,’ he says.
‘I know,’ Stan says.
Lee can imagine visiting Stan on Ouachita, years from now. Maybe taking his niece along, who will be big and strong and healthy. He’ll teach her to ski, and Stan will tell her about nights like this one – the grisly details are made acceptable because it all turns out OK. The thought calms his nerves. Thankful for this ending, he tilts his head back, closes his eyes, and just listens.
The thrumming of cicadas rises from the forest. It drifts far beyond what Lee can hear, towards the stars that have finally emerged, radiating for miles in every direction. The broken chatter over the radio, giving time estimates and details of the incoming trauma.
The noise is all but indistinguishable to the patient, who is strapped down and unable to see anything but the metal roof over him. James Lattimore has given up trying to speak, and will soon give up trying to think – shock has done strange things to his mental state since Emily nearly dropped her violin from the bike.
She’s only seventeen. Two years younger than he is. Whip smart. Why she’s with a hardware store clerk from Sherwood, he doesn’t know, but he’ll take it. She’ll be applying to college soon, and he’s been thinking that he might also. His grades in high school weren’t so bad. This is a plane, or a helicopter or something. He’s never been on a helicopter before.
Emily is learning the violin. It’s an extracurricular. His ears hurt – they need to pop. He was driving her back home when the case slipped. They had been at his older brother’s house. Just kissing, so far. The case slipped and he grabbed it and held it against his leg, then passed it to her to tie down on the rack, all while they were driving. That was not strictly safe, but Dixon Road is deserted this time of night, and technically her curfew was eleven. That wouldn’t have bothered him in any previous relationship, but she’s different. He actually wants her father to like him, which is unnerving and exciting.
Just at the periphery of his blurred vision he can see that there are others in the helicopter. Someone – he can only see a foot – is wearing the same shoes as him. Emily, though: he loves the way she holds his waist when they’re on the bike. He had been focused on the hand she kept on his side, and she had been focused on lashing the case. Then there were headlights. One of them gasped, he doesn’t know which.
He remembers where Emily went, he can picture it. A spot in the bushes, in that tall grass and fern on the side of the road. She disappeared right into it. Thrown. He sat there against his bike. At first he could call out to her. But he could not move. By the time the paramedics came he could not speak. It became very cold. The pain was like a wall around him. He tried to nod towards the bush where she was. There was no sign. Not a broken leaf.
He is dizzy but no longer cold. A pleasant warmth surrounds him and his ears finally pop. As he loses consciousness he imagines her playing. The noise of the helicopter fades and he can hear her fingers sliding up and down the fingerboard, hear the bow’s hesitation on the strings. She’s only learning, and it’s not really his kind of music but he likes to listen to her play.
Photograph © kygp