He popped the container lids and neatly laid the different pills onto the motel room’s bathroom counter, one after the other. He thought of them as tiny little traffic lights, all coming with their own neat little functions and instructions.
The round blue pill was for relaxing. Sometimes, he used it for sleeping, but only if he took one or two more than he usually did. Then there were the green and yellow capsules, which helped him to reach a certain plateau on the days he really wanted to throw the covers over his head and go back to the tiny death of sleep. He used these on the days when he could ill afford to take the blue pills, the days where it simply wouldn’t be professional to take the blue pills.
And the yellow pill … the yellow pill did something to his eyes. They kicked open his retinas. They also made him sweat, and often made him feel as though he had to give birth to a massive pile of shit. His stomach would growl at him. His hands, they might begin shaking.
Those, he thought reaching for them. The yellow pills were what he wanted.
He slid two or three of them onto his tongue and quickly swallowed them dry. He didn’t need water — at least, not here. For one, the hard, metallic taste of the motel’s tap water had left something to be desired. It probably had to do with its source, the murky lake across from the motel on the other side of the highway. Once upon a time, back when he was growing up and visited his grandparents in the area with his family, he’d learned that the solid waste from this motel had seeped into the lake through its septic field. Besides the metallic taste, he had to wonder if any turds that had gone into the lake still remained, and were now finding their way into the drinking water. At least, the water wasn’t brown.
He walked to the front window, pushed aside the blinds and looked outside to watch the occasional traffic pass by on the highway. A real death trap it’d been to drive on. It had been slowly eroding since the province sold it off to the county in the late ’90s. He doubted if there had been any upgrades since then, save for an annual fresh coat of paint slapped down on the centerline. The road was crumbling at the edges where the pavement met the shoulder, which was now slowly being reclaimed by spring grass. Just one more sign that this area, this village, was gradually becoming irrelevant to the outside world.
He sighed and returned to the bathroom, where he examined himself in the mirror. He straightened his tie, brushed off his suit with his hand. It was so unlike him to dress up for such an occasion. Most times he just showed up wearing whatever rages he felt like wearing that day. He didn’t usually get so nervous about the talk. Today, however, would be quite a bit different.
He wondered if the suit would put him at odds with his audience, keep them from really paying attention to what he had to say. Deep down, he felt that it was, perhaps, too formal — but it was a simple obligation to the school’s administrators. Still, another side of him violently disagreed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he whispered to the figure staring back at him in the mirror. “Once you start showing the pictures, everything will … .”
He gulped and looked at himself, unable to complete the sentence. The man in the mirror did the same. He felt itchy. The suit seemed too small. It felt like a body bag.
“ … fall into place,” he finished weakly.
He sighed, suddenly surprised by his own sudden lack of self-confidence. He took his mind momentarily off the problem by methodically putting the pills on the counter back into their respective containers. He then checked his watch impatiently. It was a quarter after twelve. In less than two hours, he’d be giving his talk. He’d given it many times in the past two years — too many times to count — and had become quite well seasoned in giving it. He was the Association’s number one man — well, number one man after all the survivors of impaired driving-related accidents were booked up. (Now, those guys could really work the Kleenexes in the audience.)
The thing that unnerved him about this talk, however, was he’d give it to a bunch of teenagers, who probably were more at risk these days from perishing from texting and driving — making him seem irrelevant somehow. He’d be giving it in a village he was somewhat familiar with, at that, even though most people here probably saw him still as an outsider. God only know how this was about to all go down.
He wondered silently to himself, Maybe I should have taken the green and yellow capsules after all, and felt a bead of sweat trickle off his brow. Thankfully, it didn’t take long before he felt his heart slowly beginning to accelerate as the yellow pill started to kick in. It was a fast one. It was a familiar feeling — as familiar as slipping in behind the wheel, starting the engine. He felt sweet relief and walked into the bedroom, where the slide projector was packaged up. Old technology. It was what he was used to.
He suddenly felt good.
A couple hours later, he stood on stage in the darkened cafetorium of the local high school, in front of a few hundred pairs of bored, shifty teenaged eyes. A pinprick of light from the projector beamed its image behind him, nearly blinding him. The room felt stuffy, humid, even this early in the spring, with the carbon dioxide emissions of so many bodies. His suit pricked at him, and he felt the sulphuric, overly medicated smell of the yellow pill in the back of his nose. His hands trembled. It took every inch of his willpower to keep them from shaking.
He quickly glanced down at a young girl sitting in the front row, in the faux orchestra pit area — a small, carved-out place slightly lower than the rest of the room. He’d saw her come in when the house lights had been on. She couldn’t have been more than 15, 16. Nice blonde chick. The breasts weren’t bad, either. His eyes sailed over the dim outline of her curved landscape, and then he cleared his throat, averting his gaze. Rubbernecking usually resulted in messy accidents, he reminded himself.
He then turned to his presentation.
“I worked as an ambulance attendant for six years, in different places,” he said, talking into a cheap microphone that made his voice sound tinny and distant. “But I mostly worked here.”
He clicked the controller in his hand, and a photo of the Pembroke General came up. Pembroke was a small city that was about an hour’s drive away. He pushed the button again, and another photo came up. A candid shot of one of his fellow co-workers, putting a stretcher into the back of an ambulance.
“This is Jim,” he continued. “Guy I worked with for a period of time. We got to be pretty close.”
He could now hear voices in the back of the room. Oafish grunts. Occasional snickers. He wasn’t getting their attention. Sweat began to bubble on his brow, and he felt moisture on his shirt and suit underneath his armpits. He wiped his forehead with his suit sleeve, and tried to relax. He was sure everyone would be quiet in a moment or two, their breath taken away. He just had to stick to the script.
He clicked the button. A bunch of graphs and lines flooded the screen behind him.
“Ok,” he said with a cough, “Now, I’ve told you that I’ve been asked by the school to talk to you about the dangers of drunk driving. I could rhyme off a bunch of stats if you want. For instance, roughly 2,000 people usually die in automobile accidents nationally each year. Of those, about 1,300 people, give or take, die as the result of an accident involving alcohol. That, I believe, is not too far off the population of this village.”
He clicked the remote again. Another graphic appeared — this time, a pie chart.
“Every one of those death is preventable,” he added. “What’s more, it’s the 19 to 24 age group that has the highest concentration of drunk drivers, as you can see from the chart behind me. We’re talking about people not much older than you.”
He looked over the audience before continuing, hoping that the fact had sunk in. Nothing but a sea of blandly disinterested faces, the few of them he could see, stared back at him in the dark bluish light. Somewhere in front of him, a teenage girl, a different one, chewed on some gum. She blew a bubble. He waited until it popped before going on.
“Of course, pictures always speak louder than a bunch of stats,” he continued.
“For that reason, I have a number of pictures to show you about the dangers of driving drunk. I will warn you that they’re very hard to look at, but they should illustrate just what’s at stake every time you slip in behind the wheel with a few drinks in you.”
He paused for dramatic effect, and then started to pace across the stage.
“What I’m about to show you is pretty horrific. I completely understand if any of you feel that you have to leave the room.”
He stopped and shifted his gaze towards the back of the caffe.
“I would also like to point out that I’m about to show you pictures that involve real people — some of whom are deceased. I ask that you show some respect … .”
He continued to the next slide. It was a somewhat blurry, out of focus shot showing the interior of an ambulance, with all of its gadgets and tools.
“This is just some standard tools of the trade,” he explained. “Of course, you have your defibrillator, your heart monitors, and some pretty high-tech stuff. And then you have your splits, you bandages. Nothing that you probably haven’t already seen on television.”
Somewhere in the back of the room, someone made an exaggerated yawn. Even in the dark, he could see the heads of authority — the teachers and principal — turn their heads suddenly, to search out the offending sound and the person who had made it. The sound of an authoritarian shush slithered out of the darkness, sounding not unlike a snake’s hiss.
Everything was, at this point, cool with him. All he had to do was press the button in his hand. This is precisely what he did next.
“This, now, is something I highly doubt you’ll see on the nightly news,” he said, precisely at the same time he clicked on the remote.
Almost immediately, he felt the sound of dozens of people squirming in their seats, gasping for breath. To his immediate left, he heard a solitary boyish voice whisper, “Cuh-ool.”
He glanced down at the girl in the front row, and he noticed that she was looking upward at the screen, transfixed in horror. For a brief second, he and she seemed to lock eyes in the nearly complete darkness. She then turned away. The volume in the back of the room began to rise — which wasn’t out of the usual. The pictures usually stimulated discussion, but there was a matter of having reverence for the dead.
“Again, just a reminder that these are real people here,” he added, with a cough.
The voices piped down, though only gradually, and he turned to briefly look at the carnage behind him. There, on screen, was a picture of a mangled white pickup truck — the remnants of a ’92 Dodge Ram. Its nose had been bashed in, and the dim gray outline of a rock cut could be seen in the foreground to the right. A man lay slumped over the steering wheel of the truck. The windshield had been blown out. It’d lay a few meters away from the truck with a clump of skin, hair and skull trapped in one of the spider webs that had formed during impact, though that wasn’t in the picture. Only the back of his head was visible to the camera. It was the colour of dark crimson. Blood.
The man had had a name, but it wasn’t worth mentioning. Nothing about this man was now important. Not now. Not anymore. The picture clearly was a testament to that.
He’d always seen the pictures as being a part of Ottawa Valley mythology. A private mythology only shared in darkened auditoriums. The photos were all equally as remarkable in their clarity and detail. Many of them had been, surprisingly, taken with a simple point and shoot film camera. You could do a lot with the simplest and most outdated of equipment, he’d found. Sometimes, he’d had to save lives that way — just him and his bare hands.
Many of the pictures had been taken in conditions of a steely, objective sort of emotional duress on the part of the photographer. Sometimes, that role had been him. Sometimes, it’d been the other attendant on shift. A few of these photos had been taken just seconds before the photographer had bent over to vomit. It happened. It was part of the job. Seeing dead bodies at the scene of an accident was something you could never really emotionally prepare for if you had one sensitive bone in your body.
The green pills didn’t even help, sometimes. Neither had the therapy.
“Jim and I were the first to arrive on the scene, as we usually were in such instances,” he said. “SVA. Single Vehicle Accident. As you can tell, there wasn’t much we could do. “
He let his voice trail off for dramatic effect, then clicked to the next slide. It was a long shot of the truck, showing more of the background. A number of tallboy beer cans lay all over the road behind the truck.
“The driver here, let’s call him George, was traveling about 30 km/h over the posted speed limit. It was overcast, kind of foggy, too. Maybe a little too early in the morning to be drinking.”
He paused to let the picture, the memory of that horrible morning sink in, and then added, “Poor guy probably never saw it coming, never felt a thing. His blood alcohol level was about double the legal limit.”
He pushed the button in his hand again.
There was a slide of Jim checking “George” for vitals. It was a shot taken from a distance that made it difficult to see the man’s face with any clarity. This was deliberate. You couldn’t identify anyone with his pictures for fear that it might be someone’s dad or uncle in the audience. You could never be sure. There’d been that stopover in Eganville not long ago where someone in the audience had recognized a person being shown and left the room in tears, screaming the name. That’d been a tough one to explain to the Association, even though he though it did sort of come with the territory.
“Now this is interesting,” he continued matter-of-factly. “You can’t really see it, but his face — it had been a bloody mash. The top of his head had been quite lacerated.”
The new picture showed another angle of the wreckage, this time from the rear.
“Jim and I had thought at first that he’d been scalped,” he added, wondering if the next photo would dull the patter of the crowd. “If there’s anything I can say about this, it’s thank God that he didn’t hit another vehicle. Like this poor family did.”
The projector coughed up a new image. Four bodies all covered with yellow tarp lay beside a crumpled car that’d been hit by a drunk driver. Two of the bodies were significantly smaller than the other two. He couldn’t help but remember that poor little girl, the one whose eyes had rolled back in her head like a broken doll’s eyes.
He flipped through these photos rather quickly, and barely said anything. He thought the photo might speak for itself, create its own ghostly echo in the room as it had elsewhere. Instead, he found himself trying to black out the sound of rising voices at the back of the room.
He came to another set of accident photos taken in the winter. It was a picture of another Single Vehicle Accident. In the photo, he and a cop were talking to a young man in the car. The young man couldn’t have been much older than 17 in the picture, and he was trapped behind the wheel of a black Honda CRX. His icy breath frozen for posterity in the picture.
“In this photo, you’ll see that this police officer is talking to this unfortunate young gentleman,” he said, before hesitating, rethinking the direction in which he was going. “I say unfortunate, but this young man was actually quite lucky. He was trapped in the car for about 45 minutes in subzero temperatures, until we could get the Jaws of Life for him.”
He paused, and paced the stage a little, this time for dramatic effect. He could hear the buzz of voices again in the back of the room. He flicked his gaze there and silently wished they would shut the hell up. He almost told them to do just that, if it weren’t for the smell of medication in his nostrils. It fuelled him, coaxed him forward.
“See, now, his friend here wasn’t quite so lucky,” he said, letting his finger fall on the familiar button.
The next picture showed the young man’s friend, another young man of a similar age with his head tilted backward. A trickle of blood ran out of his right nostril. You couldn’t see it in the picture, but this young man had pissed his pants. He remembered the sharp tinge of urine he’d smelled upon discovering the body.
He said nothing for a moment, letting the audience gasp as they figured out what condition the friend was in — as they usually did. However, he sensed his audience was simply impatient with him, not shocked or upset as they usually were. He could hear the shuffling of feet, the nattering of small talk, and the pop of the occasional blown piece of bubble gum. He looked down to the bench where the teenage girl with the nice tits had been sitting and was barely able to notice there was a gap in the seats. She’d vanished. He looked to the back of the room, and saw a gradually thinning sliver of light as the door to the outside world closed. He drew his own conclusion.
He felt something drop in the pit of his stomach.
“His buddy here was dead,” he said. “Both the police officer and I had to take turns talking to this young man to prevent him from looking over at the passenger side.”
He paused and then added chillingly, “For 45 minutes.”
He looked over his audience again, and got the unmistakable sense that he wasn’t hitting all of his marks like he usually did. He suddenly felt like a deer pinned by the hypnotic glow of a pair of oncoming headlights, except he was in front of a slide projector with hazy pinkish red light spilling onto the screen. He reached into his pocket, expecting to find a yellow pill — his lifeline. There was nothing there. And even if the pill had been there, he couldn’t ingest it here, on stage in front of all of these students. He had an image to uphold. He was authority, a professional, after all.
He flicked his gaze to the back of the room, and among the shadows he could see a group of older students huddled amongst themselves. Grubs incapable of respect. He felt sulphuric anger smolder inside him.
Why won’t they listen?
He put his fingers against his now-throbbing temples.
Don’t be redundant.
“There was a good possibility that this guy might have gone into shock had he known that his friend was dead,” he continued, pacing across the stage, raising his voice another few notches to be heard above the growing, indifferent din. “We had to convince him, at the time, that his buddy was OK.”
He stopped and turned to face the slowly thinning and disinterested crowd.
“But that was pretty easy. He was drunk, wasted out of his mind.”
He glanced around. The sound of tiny voices still surrounded him, and had gradually risen from the volume it’d been at a few moments ago.
The light from the projector suddenly seemed too bright. He felt sick. He felt as though he could drop to his knees and just break down. Nobody was listening. He looked around the room, looked vainly in the darkened shadows.
He glanced to the clock on the wall and he could barely make out that he had 10 minutes left to go. Down below him, the students were restless. They were shiftless, squirming in their seats.
He sighed and realized that he’d have to bring out the trump card. If they weren’t going to listen to him, he’d now had to take them by force. He could make them listen. Give them the ol’ scare tactic, put them in the place of one of the sorry victims up there on the screen. He pointed to the back, as the adrenaline stared to surge again through his system.
“You at the back, did you hear me?” he said sternly, but not angrily.
He heard a few snickers in the crowd, before someone started to applaud very slowly. The teachers, once again, tried to hush the crowd. They were doing more harm than good, however. The students were making a mockery of him.
“You there, in the back. Come up here,” he said, pointing arbitrarily into the darkness.
From the back, he heard laughter.
“You,” he said, zeroing in on the shadow that he’d thought he’d heard a laugh from. “I said come up here.”
For a heartbeat, he was worried that the shadow would not take the bait. He worried he’d be left on stage looking like an idiot, which he probably now already was.
It only lasted for a moment, as he saw shadows begin to move in the background. Someone was taking him up on his gambit.
“That’s it,” he ordered, “Come on up. Turn up the house lights.”
Almost on cue, the house lights came up, obscuring the images of death on screen behind him. The shift blinded him momentarily, but he quickly adjusted to the familiar, horrendous shade of white florescent that graces every institution, including hospitals. He was now able to see the figure approaching him — a bulky teenager with black, curly hair so long that it edged into mullet territory. He wore a tattered t-shirt with the same of some metal band, old blue jeans and a shit-eating grin.
The noise in the cafetorium had now reached a fevered pitch, an excited buzz either at what was transpiring on stage or at the fact that the school day, nay, week, was nearly done. It was, to him, akin to the sound of savages or wild beasts excited at a potential kill. It was a robust sound, considering that nearly half of the room had emptied when the lights were off.
“Stand right there,” he ordered the kid when he had gotten up on stage. The microphone gave off a slight peal of feedback, akin to the sound of tires screeching on pavement at high speed. “Now, what’s your name, son?”
The kid nearly laughed at this, and looked at him oddly.
“Brian,” the kid eventually replied. His voice sounded dense and slow. There was an unmistakable deep Polish, Upper Ottawa Valley accent.
“You got a last name, Brian?”
The kid gave him another strange look. A twist formed at the corner of his mouth.
A bunch of younger kids giggled in the front rows. Those who were left, anyway.
“Hold this then, Brian,” he said, and extended the mic toward him. Brian shrugged and did as he was told. Free of the microphone, he turned towards a nylon bag at one edge of the stage, and quickly slid it along the floor with his foot over to the kid. He grabbed the mic from Brian, and then pointed down at the bag on the floor.
“Get in,” he offered through clenched teeth into the microphone. His fury was amplified throughout the room, along with another sharp peal of feedback.
“What?” said Brian, glancing at him and the bag that now lay on the stage floor between them.
“C’mon, get in.”
The kid stared at him wide-eyed, then his eyes suddenly darted between the bag and the man before him, seemingly not sure if what was being asked of him was a joke or not. This kid cracked a small grin and put his hands indifferently on his waist, while he reached down and picked up the long, black object off of the floor.
The room, once abuzz with voices, had gone nearly dead silent.
“What?” he said, pausing and shaking the bag for effect. “You’re too chicken to get into a body bag.”
The kid had a completely vacant look on his face, as though he couldn’t take anything that was just happening seriously.
“I once used this exact, same body bag on a kid around your age,” he said. “I had to put him in piece by piece.
“But don’t worry about it,” he added hastily, to reassure the kid. “It’s been well rinsed out with bleach. It’s quite OK. Step on in.”
He looked out at the audience, looked back to Brian, who clearly was now cringing.
“No? Well, let me tell you a story. I’m going to ask you to do promise me something at the end of this little story, and see what you have to say about that. OK?”
Without waiting for the kid to agree or not, he launched into his spiel. This story took place in winter, on a cold winter night when he and Jim had been called out to an accident on an icy country road.
That night had been a fairly slow one at first, one of those famine nights where dispatch had been so dead silent that he and Jim tried the scanner in the lunch room to see if they could pick up someone on the police or fire bands. Just to have something to listen to. Even after midnight, you could get the strangest things. Usually a late-night domestic disturbance.
But this night, in particular, had been a truly dead, boring night — there’d been nothing but static on the scanner. So when they’d gotten the call about a two-vehicle accident that’d occurred outside of the city, there were almost looking forward to it, if you could believe such a thing. There’d be lives to potentially save.
They found the car — a puny Nissan Sentra — flipped over on its side of the road. A patrol vehicle was already on the scene, which wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that they were soon able to see that the front of the cruiser had been smashed in; it’d looked as though like some angry giant child had plowed his fist right into it.
They’d found the cop slumped against the side of the Crown Vic a little shaken, but he showed little more than a few cuts and bruises insofar as external trauma went. The cop was able to tell them that there were people in the other car. All of them were dead. All teenagers.
Jim wanted to stay with the cop. Just to be sure he was okay.
The carnage was, upon close examination, utterly unspeakable. There’d been so much red. So much red on white glistening snow.
One of the fragments of memory he held onto was finding part of a torso in a snowsuit on the other side of the snow bank. It would take him another hour or two fumbling around in the blackness, legs wet and cold from wading through the snow, before he was able to find what amounted to the rest of the body.
At some point, his stomach had knotted in frustration and he’d begun to throw up. Not because of the gore, per se, but because of the fact that there was nothing he could do to bring any of these poor kids back from the dead. Absolutely nothing. All the training, all the best equipment in the world, could not stitch these people back together. Even the whole graduated licensing thing that’d come into effect in the early ’90s had done nada to save them.
Around the second time he’d tried throwing up, he understood with absolute clarity and certainty — like a Polaroid developing in the light — that picking up the pieces of the dead was not what he’d wanted to do with his life. He’d wanted to save lives. That was what he’d trained and studied for. Not … this. Not something without any hope of a miracle.
He looked at the kid, this Brian, with surgical focus, straight in the eye. The kid returned it with a look of absolute ennui.
“Brian,” he said, “I don’t want someone to come across you or any of your buddies later on this weekend, and have to put you in one of these.”
He shook the body bag in his free hand again.
“Can you promise me that anyone won’t have to put you in this bag later on tonight, or tomorrow — or even the day after that?” he asked.
The kid looked up at him with bored eyes. The sudden, sharp ring of the school bell marked the end of the lesson.
“Um, I can go now, right?” Brian asked. This brought unexpected laughter from those who were now no longer seated, and were bolting for the doors.
“Just so long as you promise,” he replied into the mic.
That promise never came. Brian just turned on his heel and left.
The principal and vice-principal tried to kiss and make up for the students’ behavior. They all had very kind things to say as he packed up and put the macabre pictures and his equipment away for the next sowing. They apologized for the immature smart asses in the audience, for the people leaving in the middle of the talk, and they assured him that they’d been talking names and would discipline the guilty parties whenever school resumed on Monday.
Fat chance of that happening, he thought. Good luck catching a couple hundred people.
He thanked them, still, and told them not to worry about it. He said that he was happy that the sound equipment was more or less fine (total b.s.) and that the presentation ran smoothly. They appeared satisfied with this answer, and thanked him again.
As quickly as he could, he left the room. He was Jonesing. Badly. He’d never felt it this bad after a presentation in a long time. He took his things to the car in the nearly empty parking lot, put everything in the back seat, then pooped the glove box and reached for the pills.
He spilled some out of the canister and then looked down at his hand. A blue pill lay in his palm.
They found him there, in the car, without the key even making it to the ignition.