Desperate cries of terror and pain emanating from the mass of victims and bystanders overwhelmed my hearing as I found myself entering into that moment of horror. Seconds before, a large white van with darkly tinted glass roared through the pedestrian area I had been crossing, catapulting somersaulting bodies aside in a red mist.
I had watched it all, dumbfounded. It was a world filled to the brim with high pitched screeching, like an industrial scale poultry barn amplified too loud, mixed with coarse rasping screams tearing the air, ripping up the quiet civility this atmosphere usually knew, vocalized rejection of the reality unfolding before barely comprehending minds with impotent variations of “No!” Beneath all that, off key and unnerving like the string section of a horror film soundtrack, was the low noise of indistinct weeping.
This visceral intensity was in stark contrast to the mundane, almost comical way the bodies had bounced, popped, and come undone when the van met them. The shouts of warning on its approach, too, had lacked some reality, as if nobody really wanted to believe what was about to happen. Shouting in public is not something we do. Am I sure I want to disturb the peace? That van really is off the road and heading towards us in an unsafe manner, right? Excuse me fellow citizen, sorry to disturb you, but I would just like to bring to your attention the fact that there is a van that is on course to smush you, and I think you may possibly be interested to know that, thanks and sorry.
But the present noise really hit me. Millions of years of evolution had attuned my psyche to instinctively feel an urgency to aid the source of the noise. It was the sound of nails being dragged across a chalkboard formulated into the words “Help me now!”
It was electrifying, seemingly in every sense. My skin was a little bit tingling and numb from the shock of the scene and the high voltage arcs of human misery being broadcast through the air from every direction. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I did feel invigorated. Normally when passing through this area on my way home from work my mind would be in a cloud, not present, not focused, the mundane drudgery of quotidian life having sapped my awareness of even my thoughts, so that I lumbered zombie-like through the pedestrian space, weaving automatically between various public sculptures and city-dirty trees imprisoned within concrete cells alike to get from the same start point to the same end point.
The brief carnage swept that all away and in that moment there was an immediacy and solidity to life. The mental cloud dissipated and I found myself staring at the sun.
I took a moment to assess the scene and consider my response. At no point had I myself been in danger, for the van had roared into the pedestrian space while I was mid-weave around a concrete sculpture large enough to block its path if it had charged at me, yet squat enough that it didn’t obstruct my view. It was a blob shaped vaguely like a human head that had undergone a beyond-cartoonish process of abstraction and subsequently been twisted and distorted to remove all symmetry and smoothed to remove all but the grossest feature. There was a plaque, but I’d never invested the minute it would take to read it.
The van was gone now, passed beyond a bend of the road by which it had exited the pedestrian space, perhaps pursuing mayhem beyond our sight, leaving us with a wake of mangled bodies and air charged with the sound of human pain as the only testament to its presence.
Could I help the victims? I’d sat through a few work-mandated safety training sessions, and had absorbed a few bits of first aid there between moments of boredom, so I’d probably be able to help by stemming blood flow and performing chest compressions to forcefully animate the hearts of the unresponsive. Should I help the victims? I pretended to be surprised at this apathetic thought. I would have to touch people I didn’t know, and that is awkward, we don’t normally do that. I would get blood on my nice clothes, and I didn’t want to have to buy new ones. I could do something wrong, and fail to keep someone alive when another bystander would have done a better job. I could just leave, walk away, and no one would blame me, or even know.
I took some tentative steps towards the path of the van to avoid a decision. My curiosity brought me nearer, and I found myself next to a body splayed out on the ground in a red mess, unmoving but for a slightly twitching leg. A blank face looked sideways. Thickly matted hair obscured the back of the head so that I couldn’t quite tell if it was shaped normally or had been deformed. This was the body, I now remembered, that had clunked against the van’s grill, and this was the head that had made an unpleasantly goofy thunk against the van’s windshield. It had been so rude, the way the van bopped the body so carelessly, treating the human as if it had been just matter, just a doll being tossed aside by a petulant brat.
Realizing that I was now close enough to the body that my inaction would be conspicuous to other bystanders, I stepped forward and crouched next to it. Committed to helping, I reached out and put two fingers on its neck beside its throat. Warm lubricating blood made the skin slide easily under my fingers as I pressed in gently. There was a pulse, but pausing to think for a moment allowed me to recognize it as my own, a beat pounding heavily throughout my body in the electric air. This body had none. I moved my hands to the chest, roughly estimating where its heart would be and began rhythmically pumping.
I noticed then that a bystander had come to watch us. As my hands worked, I looked up at his face and was at first offended by its projection of uncaring indifference, but then noticed his focused gaze. Following it to the body’s head, I saw from this closer view that it was indeed deformed quite badly, and after staring longer, noticed some white, gray, and dark red bits mixed into its hair and spilling onto the ground. Feeling quite foolish for trying to revive a body with a cracked-open skull, I sheepishly got up, and awkwardly walked away to salvage my dignity in the anonymity of the meandering crowd of bystanders.
Now I was a few paces from a bronze sculpture quite different from my dumb guardian. A man in a military uniform of another time, designed to look good rather than to be unseen, sat atop a muscular rearing horse with forelegs curled high above me as if ready to box. Its full regal mane flowed down from between its erect ears directed squarely ahead to perceive the fate to which it had been guided by its master. The man held the reigns in his left hand and in the right held a sword high in the air. He boldly shouted a mute battle cry, rallying his invisible allies against his invisible foe. The fused pair posed a few feet up atop a slab of stone carved with a pattern of clear borders and bevels. Clinging to the piebald discolored metal of a hind leg I saw a modern man of flesh and blood and plastic garb.
I asked him if he was alright, and he turned his dazed, frowning face to me. Slowly, he nodded and peeled himself off his guardian. “What happened?” he asked, as if he hadn’t watched the whole thing from a spectacular vantage. Not wanting to state the obvious, I shrugged, then turned to watch the hurried procession of emergency vehicles that were arriving. Their urgent sirens grew louder as they approached, layering on top of the wails and moans, eventually drowning them out.
There was nothing left for me to do here, and my immediate presence in the mess was only a hindrance to the experts, so I removed myself a few steps away and watched the medics work. I couldn’t say they moved slowly, but there was no urgency in their actions or faces. They worked at saving lives as if it was their job, taking a moment first to put on disposable nitrile gloves. The urgency pressed in around them when those who loved the bodies being worked on implored and inquired at them, but they took notice of this only when it interfered with their work, then intervening only enough to end the distraction.
I watched as one medic who had made a request to his colleague turned his head to face her as he repeated the request. I looked at her face and saw that it had begun to twist and scrunch at the glaring horror of the scene; I thought it might implode. Powerful electric human urgency was buzzing through her mind, frying any deliberate thoughts, creating a negative space where fear and denial echoed in a growing feedback loop. It sucked her face into a deeper gnarl, squeezing out a few tears. Her colleague repeated his request again, and the calm, loud, confident voice undecorated by emotion was a hand reaching out to her as she spiraled in the abyss, and she took it, focused on the narrow task she’d been given, and returned to act in the scene.
The bystanders became onlookers and began to form a crowd around the carnage and the professional work of its undoing. A woman bumped into my shoulder, and we turned to look into each others faces. Beaming confusion, she asked me, “Why?”, as if she didn’t already know. Not wanting to confront the denial, I shrugged and shook my head, then began to leave.
As I rounded the corner of a skyscraper, the scene passed away and I was back among a sea of faceless pedestrians. Had it really happened? I looked down and saw there was blood on my hands. Yes, it had happened. And in that happening, I thought to myself, I had helped. I felt satisfied at my accomplishment, and my thoughts and feet turned towards home, where I’d wash up and change, then maybe order some food and read up on the news to stay up to date on this event. Realizing I could do this now, I pulled out my phone and checked my preferred news aggregator and began to read as I walked. The hubbub of the city around me faded from my mind and the cloud returned.