Before the Crash

*This short story was inspired by a news story I heard on CBC last week. It is purely fictional, but some of the details were culled from the story, which can be found here.

They met at the grocery story the previous evening. He had just finished his shift at Century High School, where he’d recently landed a part time maintenance job; his hands always smelled of bleach and Ajax. She was in her third year of a Women’s studies at UBC: she’d finished her last mid-term of the semester and decided to reward herself with a small pail of Tom and Jerry’s ice cream, a treat which she only rarely indulged as she was incredibly self conscious about her weight. They met in the store’s massive freezer aisle; her arms wrapped around her upper body as she tried to stay warm, he hummed along to the muzak coming down from above.

“What kind should I get?” She asked herself distractedly, deciding to wait until she’d made up her mind before opening the freezer’s glass door.

“Are you kidding? Cherry Garcia for sure! I don’t know… it’s kinda cliche, but I think it’s the best!”

“Yeah. I always get that one too, but look at all these. “Phish Food”? I wonder what that one tastes like.”

“Don’t know. To be honest, I can’t really say with any kind of authority that Cherry Garcia’s the best. It’s the only one I’ve ever tried.”

“Ha.”

“Well, good luck!”

He walked down the aisle towards the coca-cola bottle gummies in the bulk food section on his way to the till. He grabbed a large handful, dropping only half of them into the thin, clear bag he’d ripped from the dispenser. As he walked to the 10 items or less till, he inconspicuously ate the rest. When he got to the till, he saw the ice-cream girl again.

“So, what did you get?” He said.

“I went with the Phish Food. I’ve always liked Phish better than the Grateful Dead, anyway. Time for a change.”

“Mhmm. Well, good luck with that.” He grinned.

“Gotta see what crazy antics Harry’s up to these days.” She said, half ironically as she thumbed through a copy of the Enquirer.”

“Ha. I actually like that kid. Seems pretty normal for everything that’s happened to him. I’d definitely rather drink a beer with him than his brother. ”

Her time had come. She focussed on the rising price of the till as a middle aged cashier roughly scanned them through. She’d come into the store only to pick up the ice cream, but she was hungry, having forsaken food in favor of studying all day. She only had $25, and the block of marble cheese had yet to be scanned.

“That will be $26.95. Do you have a rewards card?

“…no. But is it too late to get rid of the half and half? I’ve only got $25.”

“Here, try this.” He offered the cashier his own rewards card, knocking the price down three dollars. He was quite pleased with himself.

“Thanks!”

“No, thank you! I’m only 25000 points shy of a bag of flour now, thanks to you!! You should really get a rewards card.”

“Yeah, maybe some other time. Thanks again so much!”

She took her receipt from the cashier, and waved goodbye to both.

This was her first significant social interaction in weeks. She took her studies seriously: too seriously, actually, a fatal flaw she blamed on her father. Since moving to Vancouver for school in 2009, she’d made no real friends. Her social time was restricted to the study group she’d joined in her first year. The people in the study group were even more disciplined than she: sometimes she’d take in a movie, though she was sure they didn’t engage in such trifling activities. These people were hardcore.

Upon walking through the sliding doors of the store, and out into Winter’s sweet-brine evening, she surprised herself for the first time in years. She spun around on her heel to find him walking the opposite direction. It was the first time she’d looked him directly in the eye.

“Hey! Wanna try some Phish Food?”

He smiled. “Sure!”

About a half an hour later, she surprised herself again as she buzzed a complete stranger into her apartment building. In the time she’d had to evaluate her decision, she’d imagined every possible tragic outcome of her impulsive decision. She knew nothing about him, not even his name. All she knew about him was that he liked ice cream, and was curiously enthusiastic about his rewards card. But still she rang him up, even though she trembled fiercely.

When she opened the door, she was surprised again– this time, by him. He was much taller than she’d remembered, and older. He filled her doorway with his large frame, squinting in the halogen light. He cradled a motorcycle helmet in his arms, instantly setting off her imagination: “Young Student Bludgeoned to Death with Helmet”. She hesitated before letting him in.

Her worst fears went unrealized. They each ate their first bowl of Phish Food. As he articulately appraised the ice cream, she let her guard down. She even giggled at the mock inflection of his serious tone. She liked him, but she was cautious. She held her cell phone in left hand underneath the table.

By the time they’d moved on to a second bowl of Phish Food, it was clear that they shared much in common. He’d graduated from UBC the previous year, and though he was an English major, they’d had some of the same professors. She was impressed to learn that he had an adequate understanding of Camille Paglia’s work: Paglia was the writer who had turned her on to feminism in the first place.

Immediately upon finishing his second bowl of ice cream, he took his dish, along with hers, to the sink. He washed and dried the dishes and asked her to which cupboard they belonged. She liked him.

“Thank you so much for having me over, and for the ice cream. I don’t think I’ll make the switch from Garcia to Phish, but it was pretty good! I’ve gotta get up early tomorrow, so I’m gonna get going but here’s my number if you ever want to get a cup of coffee and talk Paglia.”

She jumped up from her kitchen chair, grabbed his helmet and passed it to him as he put on his jacket.

“What’s it like… riding a motorcycle?” She asked.

He smiled. “It’s something that should be experienced, not explained…. God, that sounds corny, but it’s true.”

She smiled.

“What time do you work tomorrow morning?”

“…. 9:00.”

“Hmm…”

“What time’s your first class?” He grinned broadly.

“Not until 3:00, but my study group is meeting at ten. Long day tomorrow– Thursdays are always long.”

“… So, are you asking me, in a politely round about way for a ride to school? I’d be happy to, if so. I’ve got an extra helmet at home.”

“YES!” A gush of excitement welled up with her single word: it almost made her cry. Her skin turned to goose-flesh.

“Ok. I could be here at 8:00…. dress warm though, it’s chilly in the mornings.”

He turned and walked away from her, just as he’d done in the grocery store earlier that evening. He walked down the hall quickly, eliminating the possibility of a goodnight kiss. It was too soon. She closed the door and considered phoning her sister, but that too would be hasty. She barely slept that night.

He returned the next morning, this time carrying two helmets.

It was cold outside. If not his offer, and the excitement which followed, he probably would have taken the bus to work. A fog had settled over the neighborhood the previous night, and still hadn’t lifted. Fallen leaves were lined with November frost.

He’d left his bike running to warm up the engine. It had stalled twice on his three block ride from his apartment to hers; that never happened.

He got on first, and held her tiny hand in his gloved fingers as she struggled to lift her leg over the back of the motorcycle.

“Are ya ready?” He shouted through the visor of his Arai helmet.

“I think so! Tell me if I’m holding on too tight!”

He closed the choke and kicked the stand. He pulled into the lane, slowly at first, to get his bearings. While his passenger was tiny, it made a world of difference in terms of balance. He waited until they’d travelled a couple blocks to shift into second.

She was completely exultant, even in first gear; she felt as though she was flying. Her neighborhood streets, streets that she knew so well, were completely transformed from her new exciting vantage point. She loved the smell of his leather jacket; their helmets occasionally collided softly, sending a charge through her body.

He checked in with her before turning onto Burrard.

“How ya doing back there?” He yelled.

“Great! This is amazing. Let’s go faster!”

“Alright, hold on.”

He took the turn a bit faster than usual, figuring that the extra weight over his back tire would serve as a good stabilizer. She shrieked with delight, and held him even tighter as if to urge him on to even greater speeds.

Soon, he shifted into third. The engine’s whine waned, giving way to her excited scream There was very little traffic for a Friday morning. He figured people may be getting an early start on the long weekend.

“You’ll want to turn left up at the lights” She screamed.

“What?”

“Up at the lights, turn left! It’s faster!”

“I can’t hear you!”

“Left!”

Finally he heard; he hadn’t planned on turning onto West 2nd, but her plan overthrew his own. He leaned into the turn.

Suddenly, a silver car. The sound of metal.

The motorcycle lay beside the car in a pool of it’s own fluids: thick oil settled on top thin, pungent gasoline. The bike looked like a hastily abandoned toy and sputtered to a stall. For a moment, everything was silent. Nobody screamed; all was still.

“Oh my God!”

Silence broken. A loaf of bread cast aside as a pedestrian ran to the female rider’s limp, crumpled body; terrified to move it.

Other’s followed suit; hazard lights, turned on. Several 911 calls flooded in. Soon, sirens sounded– seemingly following a chorus of screams to the intersection.

To look at the riders was to know that they were dead. So much blood; limbs forced into unnatural, grotesque positions. The borrowed helmet, slightly too big for her head, had been hurled down the street where it came to rest beside a tree. We saw her face; we looked away, before looking again. This time, with phones in hand.

A few police cars finally arrived. Disturbed by those gathered, almost as much as the scene itself, their tempers quickly gave way to rage.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!!! FUCK OFF, GET OUT OF HERE!!! FUCK!!”
They screamed over a rising swell of horns; cars backed up for as far as the eye could see. The policemen ran back to their vehicles in search blankets, anything to cover the bodies and save them from the indignity of instagram messages. Some continued to take pictures even after the bodies were covered, a few were tweeted and the story spread all the way to the CBC.

The news failed to report one piece of the story, however. One image went unnoticed by reporters and gawkers alike. Beside his backpack, which impossibly remained strapped to his back, was the small tub of Cherry Garcia. Even on this cold morning, the icecream began to melt through the lip of the lid. Crows gathered around to taste the wasted, creamy offering: their beaks stained with artificial cherry.

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