It was the unmistakable sound of the door ajar alarm that woke Aiden Freely. He found himself upside-down in the back seat of a Nissan Versa, his brown hair hanging over his eyes. He did not remember what had happened, nor could he feel the blood trickling down his right arm as the adrenaline circulating through his body kept the pain at bay. His head felt like it was getting heavy, filling up with something. He tried to move his body, but it was held back by the polyester harness straps of his car seat. The double belts that usually hung loosely around his neck were driving into his shoulders; the chest clip was digging into his sternum. The awkward position of his body mixed with the repetitive sound of the alarm caused him to let out a scream. When his yell trailed off into nothing but choked air, he suddenly remembered where he had been going.
From the mountains.
With his mom.
“Mom?” he said.
There was no answer other than the off-key bell of the alarm—the car’s very own cry for help.
Aiden had never been in a car accident. As a boy of five, he had seen plenty on TV and the Internet. He liked it when the cars rolled in the street—sparks flying, metal grinding on the pavement, a catastrophe he could not divert his eyes from. Using his fingers, he would try to count the number of times the car flipped (the most he ever got to was seven). One thing he never imagined was what it was like to be in the car: to feel the impact of the airbag exploding in your face, to hear the sounds of the vehicle breaking apart around you, to go from sixty to zero in the blink of an eye. What was on the screen stayed on the screen. To Aiden, that’s where it would always be. That’s where it only could be.
Aiden noticed pieces of broken glass scattered about on the ceiling. They looked like rock candy, the kind his grandma kept in the hexagon-shaped jar in her living room. The jar sat next to the wood stove. Every winter, when the fire was roaring, the candy would melt and become one big boulder. He always wondered what it would be like to try to take a bite out of it.
Aiden shook his head to see if he could locate his mom in the front seat. His bangs were blocking his view. Maybe his mom was still sleeping like he had been? Maybe she was gone and going to get help?
His hand shimmied up to the buckle. His mom told him many times to never unlatch it himself, but he felt like this was a moment where she might forgive him. He was stuck; she would want him unstuck. In case it was a big deal, he would not tell her about unbuckling the belt. He would say that he was already out of the seat if she asked.
The car seat was difficult to get free from. He could not apply the correct pressure needed to unlock the harness. In the midst of his twenty-first attempt, a drop of water struck his cheek. Another soon followed. There was warmth to the droplet. That was unexpected. He looked over and saw that his arm was red. He realized it was not water that had struck him, but blood. Pain broke through his psyche like a river bursting through a dam.
He screamed again. This time, it hurt.
Panic overtook him. He banged his fists, striking his thighs. It would have normally made him shout Ouch! but the pain in his arm was too strong to go unnoticed. Errant swings of frustration were joined by more yelling. He was running out of patience, and his mom still had not said anything since the crash.
“Mom! I can’t get out! Mom, help! Mom, are you there?”
By some miracle, one of Aiden’s swings managed to collide into the buckle, unlocking him from his temporary prison. His victory was short-lived when the weight of his body came down onto the chest clip, flipping him and tightening around his neck. He had inadvertently hung himself. The pressure was immense, like a board being shoved into his throat. He started to kick, sending shards of glass in every direction. He planted his feet firmly on the ceiling, allowing him to lift up his head, ending the hanging. A coughing fit began. He spit onto the headrest, only because he felt like he needed to double check that everything inside of him was working. He slid the chest clip over his head and crawled into the front seat to check on his mom.
She was there.
She was not moving.
“Mom, wake up!” he said, pushing on her shoulder. Her head rolled to the side. He noticed a red bump above her right eye. What he did not notice was the epidural hemorrhage inside her skull, caused by the dramatic impact of the steering wheel banging into her head after the airbag had deployed and the car rolled down a cliff and struck the bottom. He shook her body, he called to her, but she did not move. When he touched her cheek, a realization set in. Her body … it was always like a warm blanket; her hand leading him around the store when they shopped together; her arms holding him when he was sick and hurt; her entire body cuddling him on the couch when they watched movies; her lips kissing him goodnight. Now, it was cold to the touch. Was it even her body anymore?
The noise caught him off-guard.
Where was it coming from?
A soft breath exited his mom’s lips. It was her heartbeat making the thumping noise! But why wasn’t she answering him? Why wasn’t she waking up? Something was wrong, something that he could not quite put his finger on. She was alive. This was good. Yet, he did not feel good about it.
Aiden cried. He rested his head on his mom and waited for something to happen. The Good People were probably looking for them right now; policeman, neighbors—somebody had to have seen the accident or heard his cries. But nobody came. The sun was getting low. A cool wind was making him shiver. The door alarm shut off; the car battery died. He touched his mom’s cheek again.
But it did not sound as loud as the previous thumps. He needed to do something.
He needed to get help.