Short story: Accident
Their house was small, but it was warm and cozy. Cole loved this time of year, the weather was starting to get colder, and the smell of snow was in the air. The curtains that Shea had picked out in their bedroom filtered the sunlight in as it began its descent, bathing the room in a warm glow. It made Cole want to lie in bed with her, holding her against his chest with their feet overlapping. He knew that it was her favorite thing to do at the end of the day. She always said she loved their talks before bed when everything seemed possible and the mundane realities of their days became special.
He walked into their bedroom with his black Nike running sneakers still on; they were the ones Shea had picked out for him. He kicked them off and walked across the creaking floorboards to look at the calendar hanging on the sage green wall. The calendar was Shea’s, she made it with all of her own photographs. This month was November, and the picture was a log cabin in the woods of Minnesota shrouded in fog and surrounded by orange leaves. Shea was an incredibly talented and creative photographer. Cole couldn’t help being mesmerized by how beautiful the image was yet so simple. He was reminded of how easy it was to love Shea. She made him feel invincible. The first few days on the calendar were crossed off with care and Cole looked at November 5th circled and decorated with hearts. He knew the emphasis was there so he wouldn’t forget, but how could he? Being with Shea had been the best decision he ever made, she had changed him for the better. November 5th is our day, the day we will hopefully share together forever. Cole thought. Tomorrow would mark their seven-year anniversary and Cole couldn’t wait. He had the best surprise for Shea.
Shea and Cole met in high school, mutual friends introduced them to one another and they just sort of clicked. They had liked each other for a long time before Cole “officially” asked Shea out because they were both rather shy. They had a stronger relationship than most and never broke-up, but they did argue often. Cole was single-minded and Shea was extremely stubborn it was a hard mix to deal with. The only thing that the two really agreed upon was how much they loved each other, they were crazy in love and it bothered their friends and families for a while because they were inseparable. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best relationship because neither could deal with being away from the other, but there was no stopping these two they marched to the beat of their own drums.
Shea was running late, which wasn’t unusual. She had just gotten out of class and was running to the grocery store before going home to see Cole. She knew they were out of milk and Cole would be complaining if she didn’t grab some. Shea looked incredibly happy on the outside, everything was going well for her and Cole. They were doing big things and the best part was that they were doing them together. As Shea walked down the maple-lined streets of Still River a smile drifted across her face.
But on the inside she was panicking, Cole and she had argued recently about staying together because they both were having second thoughts after fighting for so long. But he had said, “I love you. I want to spend my life with you, so let’s make this work.” Yet, Shea couldn’t pretend that everything was alright. She resented Cole a little for taking away so much of her high school experiences and Cole felt like he needed to do his own thing. It was a tense time for the two of them and a lot of thinking was done, Shea wasn’t even sure if she had made up her mind yet, but Cole apparently had. He wanted her forever, which scared her a little. They had decided to go abroad to Nicaragua in January to do an article on the indigenous people living in the Chiltepe Peninsula together, he would write, she would take the photos. Today, January felt so far away and Shea wasn’t even sure they would still be together at that point. She made a mental note to put off buying their plane tickets for another two weeks. Yet, thinking about him made her walk faster, Shea practically skipped back to the car, she wanted nothing more than to see his face, kiss his lips and smell his cologne. Old habits die hard, but could she really stay in love with him forever? The smile faltered from her face as she started driving home and she wondered what she should do.
“I’m home,” Shea called from the front door.
Cole had just gotten dressed after showering.
“Hi, sweetie.” he said as she came around the corner, “I missed you today.”
“I missed you too,” Shea said with the biggest smile stretching across her beautiful face. Cole looked at her, really looked at her and thought to himself, “how did I get so lucky?” She swiftly kissed his cheek and walked into the bedroom to put her stuff down.
“What do you want for dinner?” she asked.
“Anything,” he said back, “How about that Costa Rican salad with chicken?” Cole knew it was her favorite. They had been cooking together for the past few months and since deciding on traveling to Central America they had been trying to make more of the local cuisine getting their recipes from Pinterest.
“Okay, perfect.” She came out of their room with a pensive look on her face. She crossed her arms, leaned against the door jam and began chewing her bottom lip.
“What are you thinking love?” he asked walking down the hall towards her and wrapping his arms around her waist.
“No, nothing honest. I was making a to-do list in my head, let’s go start dinner.” She closed the bedroom door behind her.
Together they began taking the vegetables out and washing them in the sink, bumping each other now and then as an excuse to touch. Shea placed the milk in the fridge and turned to Cole.
“If you keep drinking milk the way you do it’d be cheaper for us to buy a freakin’ cow!"
Cole shrugged. “I can’t help it, I’m a growing boy.” He winked.
Shea glanced out the window absently tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She turned to Cole with an unexplained yearning in her deep blue eyes, “Do you mind finishing dinner on your own? I didn’t run today, and I’d like to do that two-mile loop before it gets dark.”
“Of course I don’t mind. But babe are you sure you have to go today? It’s getting late, just run tomorrow morning.” Cole suggested.
She looked at him sharply, “You’re supposed to be motivating me.”
“Okay, fine, have a nice run, be safe, I love you.” He kissed her head lightly as she wandered past him to grab her shoes and jacket.
“Bye, be back soon.” She waved and waltzed out the door.
Cole finished chopping the salad and prepared the chicken, he thought about who he was before Shea and how he was heading nowhere fast, she made him want to be different, to become someone that mattered. The clock on the kitchen wall changed to 5:30 and this snapped Cole out of his reverie. “Where was Shea? She should have been back by now.” The back of his neck started to get hot and he got a feeling of unease in his stomach. Trying to convince himself not to panic he grabbed his car keys and decided to go look for her perhaps she had stopped at the river to sit and think she liked to do that when things were bothering her and Cole knew something was up. He reached the end of their street and turned left when he saw the lights. An ambulance and a police car were on the side of the road, it was dark by now and the red and blue lights pulsed like beating hearts, making Cole’s eyes blur.
He pulled the car over and got out walking briskly towards the accident site. He knew what was coming like when a kid knows they are getting shots at the doctor, but he was in denial. A police officer approached him, “I’m sorry sir I can’t let you any closer, there was a hit and run and the paramedics are doing all they can right now.”
Everything grew quiet or at least Cole felt like it did, he saw her shoe, it was just visible behind the circle of people around her.
“No, no.” Cole heard himself say, he sounded like a broken record but it was all he could get out. This had to be a dream, Shea would come running up behind him at any moment, she had to.
He stumbled closer ignoring the cop as he grabbed his jacket. Cole’s insides grew cold, his heart sank into the bottomless pit of his stomach, ice was running through his veins and he felt ready to pass out. It was like a slow motion movie as he reached the back of the ambulance; the medical crew had backed up and were getting ready to place a body in a bag. He kneeled on the pavement and grasped the hand he knew so well, it felt smaller somehow and was cold, which oddly enough was usual for Shea. She always used to joke that cold hands meant a warm heart.
Cole started crying, people were looking at him, he sounded like a wounded animal. He couldn’t let go of her, she was sleeping, that’s what he kept telling himself, she appeared so peaceful like all Cole had to do was kiss her lips like in the Snow White fairytale and she’d wake up. He tried even though he knew it to be impossible. That's when we noticed her hair stained with blood, it rubbed off on his hands, he was falling apart again and needed to get away. Cole calmly let go of Shea’s hand and walked back to his car where he let himself crumble.
The days that followed were a blur to Cole, so many people came to their home and wished him condolences. He felt almost comatose, he couldn’t take care of himself, how would he go on? There were many people at the funeral that he did not know and he found this strange, how many people’s lives had Shea touched? He didn’t cry as they lowered Shea’s casket into the ground and people probably thought he was insensitive but he didn’t care, all of his tears were gone, he was dried up. Cole remembered looking up for the first time at Shea’s funeral and right across from him he saw another woman who wasn’t crying either just standing there watching. She looked somber, but not distraught and Cole guiltily noticed that she was beautiful. She glanced up and he put his eyes back down not wanting to have to spend time talking to another mourner that he didn’t know.
Cole went on medication after Shea’s death to relieve his pain and depression. The pills made his life seem hazy and he barely remembered anything about the funeral and he certainly forgot about the girl who wasn’t crying. Little did he know, this would be the woman who saved him.
Two Years Later
Two years had passed and the hole that Shea left was still heavy on Cole’s heart. She had died instantly after getting clipped, her head, as the report said smashed against the asphalt cracking her skull and leaving her brain dead even if she could have been revived on the scene. They never found the person who hit her and the idea of them being out living a life of happiness, while Shea’s vibrant self-was buried in the dirt nearly killed him. Cole didn’t know how he survived Shea’s death, telling her parents, arranging the funeral, taking the engagement ring back that he had planned to give her on their anniversary. So many things were lost and left unsaid, how could he move on without answers? How could he become someone that mattered without that person to mean anything to? He was lost, and then he met Emma.
Emma was a 24-year-old graduate student interning at the Boston Globe where Cole worked. She was pretty and she made him laugh. He first noticed her bringing in coffees for everyone one day and then the next day she approached him and asked if they could go out. Cole, of course, was hesitant at first; it felt strange to be thinking about another woman when he had loved Shea for so long. He started to say no but stopped, something about her smile drew him in, he was comfortable and he almost felt happy for the first time since the accident. She looked so familiar to him but he couldn’t place his finger on it. Their date, believe it or not, consisted of a trip to one of the oldest bookstores in the city where they talked all night about their love of literature and the things that they hoped to write someday. Cole and Emma dated for six months and Cole fell in love, she gave him hope that he could heal and then finally he was ready to tell her how he felt and talk to her about Shea.
Cole was amazing, he treated her with so much respect. Emma wasn’t used to that because all of her other relationships had been pretty destructive. When she first met Cole’s family and friends they told her never to ask about his past because he wouldn’t be comfortable talking about it. Emma knew he had lost his ex-girlfriend in a hit and run accident years before and that the pain of it almost killed him. She was gentle with him, she didn’t push too hard and she never asked about her. They didn’t have that conversation until much later and Cole initiated it.
Cole called her and asked if she could come over, it was late but Emma agreed because she missed him. He had been weird these last couple of days and she had been worried they were breaking up and she wasn't ready for that yet. She drove to his house on roads that she knew so well; he met her at the door. “Hey,” he said. “I needed to talk to you, I hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah, of course, that’s fine,” Emma said. Beads of sweat trickled down her spine, “Why am I freaking out so much” she thought.
They sat down on the couch in his living room and he grasped her cold stiff hand.
“I’m just going to come right out and say it. Emma, you have made me a different person since the day I met you and I am very thankful for that.
“Don’t thank me…” she started to say but he held his hand up.
“Please let me finish. Emma, I never talked to you about Shea, my last girlfriend. She was beautiful, this blonde haired blued eyed girl who took my breath away. We dated for seven years and I was going to ask her to be my wife but,” he paused collecting his thoughts and Emma’s mind raced, she knew she could have filled in his silence. “She was killed two and a half years ago in a hit and run accident, I never got to say good-bye and the police never found out who hit her.”
Emma looked at Cole, and her breathing began to grow shallow, this man had lost everything and here she was trying to put the pieces back together.
“I’m so sorry Cole, I had no idea.”
“It’s okay, how could you have known I never told you? Anyway, I was lost without her and when I met you everything changed, it got better. So I guess what I am trying to say is that I love you, Emma.” He looked at her and smiled, “I really love you.”
She gazed back at him a look of anguish in her eyes. Her thoughts were jumbled and she couldn’t stop thinking about Cole, his previous girlfriend Shea, and the tragic love story she had walked into. Emma had to leave, now before she fell apart, she couldn’t handle this, Cole couldn’t be in love with her. She stood up, Cole looked confused and hurt.
“I have to go,” Emma said distantly.
“Oh, okay did I make you upset?” Cole looked so genuinely concerned and defeated that Emma had to close her eyes to keep the tears at bay.
“No, I just have to go and think about some stuff. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She fled to the door, wrenched it open and ran to her car before he could protest.
Emma was good at getting away, she needed to be alone. Cole had told her he was in love with her. Emma’s head was buzzing with the realization of it. She continued to drive down the narrow roads way too fast with the music blaring in the background, something upbeat but she wasn’t paying attention her thoughts were on him. He had loved Shea so fiercely and Emma was afraid of that, scared shitless of how much he would then love her.
The road is coming up fast and Emma slows down as she takes a sharp corner, she’s crying now thinking of Cole’s dead girlfriend, she sounded so wonderful. Emma’s stomach ached with the loss of this girl she never even knew, it was heartbreaking. She finally stops the car and opens her purse rummaging through the mess inside to find her wallet. In it is the worn and wrinkled picture of a girl, a girl with dark blue eyes, blonde hair and the biggest smile Emma has ever seen, a genuine smile so contagious, Emma couldn’t help grinning back at her through the tears. She read the bottom, even though she had the name memorized, Shea Willcox it said, October 10, 1993- November 4, 2014. “I’m so sorry,” she thought. “It was an accident.” She carefully slipped the newspaper clipping back into the wallet put the car in drive and kept going, and like that fateful day two years ago, she didn’t look back once.