I remember being a child in the back of the car, gunning it down the Autobahn in Germany. The speed limit is 80mph, and as you could imagine, it was thrilling to feel your back sink into the seat as high speeds sent a wave of force through your body. But it was not the Fast and Furious thrill I remember about the long stretch of motorway, no. It was the car accidents.
When I was small on the long car journeys, we would always pass at least one crash. Sometimes a handful. My mother and father always told me not to look, and for a time, I passed these fatal accidents with my head pressed into the back of a headrest, or crushed into a siblings’ chest. I can’t remember how old I was when I started ignoring the warnings, when I would turn my head and look.
I would turn and look as we sped past, and flashes of gory horror would imprint themselves in my brain. White sheets over mannequin lumps, red-stained, like a fancy dining table cover that someone spilled a fine burgundy all over. Heads leant against rails with sticky-looking black covering them in the darkness. It was always so dark, I always assumed it was oil or tar over the windshield. One time, I even saw what the inside of a skull looks like. I learned what leaking petrol smells like. I didn’t gawk for an age, as I said, it was always just a flash.
I don’t know if it was some kind of morbid curiosity or fascination that made me look. I felt nothing other than pity for the afflicted as we drove away. I never felt any trauma from looking. But there was one very strong reaction I had to these snapshots: my seatbelt.
I was notorious for only pretending to wear mine, or complain about it being uncomfortable, but when I started looking at the tragedies we whizzed past, my hand would start seeking out the comfort of my belt. Whenever I entered a car, my pudgy child hand would push the square glinting metal into the boxy red and grey plastic, wait for the click and then give it a tug, an afterthought. To make sure.
I always thought that it was funny how I was told not to look at a tragedy, that it would upset me. Traumatise me. Disturb me.
What it really did was instil something subconsciously, even as a child. I started to understand why all those German fairy-tale books at my Oma’s house could have quite grisly endings. Funny that I was never told not to read them.
That we look, and we learn. And we guard against.
A piece of flash fiction by third year Creative and Professional Writing student Stephanie Marquardt.