DEATH ON A DRIVE IN THE COUNTRY
by Eric J. Wallace
American Reporter Correspondent
Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
January 25, 2010
APPOMATTOX, Va. -- You drive over the long sloping hills of State Highway 460, watching the farms and thick trees slip over the horizon, how they rise and rise until you begin to think they are an endless procession speeding past in an infinite blur. In the distance, there is the dark sapphire blue pressing into the clouds, the haunting shadow violet limning the worn undulations of water-carved phosphorescent rivulets trickling down the ancient slopes.
An iron black engine rushes by, its tremendous whistle baying and splitting the air, piercing the car's humming insular silence. The train runs parallel to the road, blowing thin tufts of black smoke that whisk into the air twisted and dispersed by the gusts of the open passing cars, filled with heaped coal. For a moment, it is lost in the trees, and then they are swallowed in its restless breath.
Then the iron beast bursts from behind the old fill-station, where the weathered sign swings in the wind so you can almost hear it creak. The letters are streaked and faded, but there remain faint, washed-out traces of what had been a bright yellow smiley-face. The corroded sign dangles from a single rust-eaten chain. The neglected paneglass windows are grey with dust. Inside there is an old cash-register, one of those that make a bell noise when the drawer opens. The train has passed, there was no red caboose. The bell tolls no more.
A little ways down the road there is a new Exxon, all plastic and flash of assimilate colors. It is depressing to think that you came for a drive in the country, hoping for the mom & pops, to realize the same old man slumped behind the smudged indifferent steel counter used to rest his hands on polished wood, punch the keys of the abandoned register that rang instead of beeped.
But there are the mountains, intensely silent, so blue they seem to drink the sky and shimmer like a mirage. Driving like this, upon their washed-out sprawl, you can feel their age like the wisdom of an elder, like the right-here smiling eyes of a gnarled old man soaking up sun.
Only this is different. The mountains are not enfeebled in their age; they are strong beyond Atlas. How baffling it is, this perspective. Maybe you laugh or sigh or chuckle, or just squeeze the tiny hand of the sleeping child in the passenger seat, glance at the little tilted head, the shaggy disheveled hair, the natural bliss of the curled, smiling lips. This is perspective. Then there is a town. You drive beneath an overpass, glance sideways towards the bypassed painted signs, the one-way Main Street, the restored old buildings, the smoking chimneys, smells of burning wood and Southern cooking, the brilliant red caboose - all of this a mere flash of imagination. You are sad, but cannot say why. Are you missing a thing that maybe never was, that you had propped up to some tremendous height, transformed into some impossible ideal? Now you are realizing you can't go looking for it because it doesn't exist. But there are the looming mountains, the gentle rising slope of the highway, rolling away away, winding through the hills, suggesting it does.
Thick grey clouds blot the Southern sky. They cast dancing shadows across the fields to create bizarre contrasts of light and dark: A leafless sprawled oak suddenly painted jet-black, charred by lighting; a baby lamb playfully galloping in the foreground, its fleece catching the sun's last rays, its glow a brilliant golden white, that pure-nothing-more-white of a dream vision. You shiver. Suddenly, you think: Maybe it will snow. It is an exciting idea, the little boy hasn't seen any in two years… You wonder if he can even remember what it's like.
Glancing ahead, a strange flashing glow outlines the hill. At the crest, you brake hard, cars are backed up along the highway. Dozens of police cruisers are parked along the adjacent road to form a barricade. One passes on the shoulder, the engine growling as the driver catches a clear rutted lane and the tires spin, kicking up gravel, and then squeal as the driver pitches it onto the little country lane a few hundred yards off. He darts from the car, crouched, hand on holster, speaking rapidly into a walkie-talkie.
The little boy stirs. You realize your grip on his hand has tightened, paling the knuckles. Is it fear?
A muffled snap! like a firecracker, followed by a rapid volley like one of those Fourth of July rockets that silently bursts into the air and trails a stream of glowing sparks, and then athe percussive crackle and pop that has been delayed. Now you are afraid. The child, startled by the noise, looks out the window. "Mama! Mama!," he shouts. Look what's goin' on! Look at em, shootin' into the woods!"
The panic rises, expands, a twisted knot in your stomach. You need to get away - escape - but there is nowhere to go, you're blocked on all sides.
"Mama! A helicopter - " It roars overhead, its spotlight carving broad strokes into the twilight. It hovers over a pasture, illuminating the bordering tree line. Cows bawl in a terrifying guttural din and flee in confusion beneath the roaring noise. More firecrackers, and suddenly there are sparks flying from the chopper and you can hear them clank on the flayed metal. The copter swerves abruptly, swinging back out over the highway. Your heart races as the scream rises from deep below, beyond your gut, but it doesn't come, leaving only the suffocated mute silence. You think: It's a bad dream, it's not really happening, it's too unreal, it can't be real. Then, the car before you is moving, the officer anxiously waving you through, unconsciously flinching with each successive snap.
Later that night, in the hotel, the little boy lays asleep in your arms. You clutch him tightly to your breast, feeling the warmth of his lips, the hot whispering breath. Watching the news, you begin to shake uncontrollably. Then, moments later, when it is over, you let go: There is the sudden trembling convulsion of released tension, the sound of muffled sobbing, tears streaming into the pillow, the abdominal muscles clinching in consuming pain as you weep.
"Today, in Appomattox County, an unknown man opened fire on residents, injuring at least eight people. Sources say that police responded to a call concerning a wounded man found unconscious in the road. Upon arriving at the scene, officers heard gunshots, which led to an immediate investigation.
"The suspect, holed up in a local residence, fired at police as they approached the house, then fled into the nearby woods. Later, when a police helicopter arrived on the scene, the suspect shot at it, striking the fuel line and forcing the pilot to execute an emergency landing," the news-reader intones.
While the suspect remained on the loose, more than 200 law enforcement officers blockaded the surrounding areas, and local residents were advised to lock their doors and maintain a close watch throughout the night. State police officials described the suspect as extremely dangerous, armed wit high-powered rifles and handguns. Several neighbors reportedly suffered gunshot wounds. The standoff was expected to last through the night.
The screen flips to footage of a local high-school basketball game: A young man sprints down the court, leaps into the air for a lay-up as the superimposed scores flash across the bottom of the screen. Your stare cuts through image, glass, wall, air, space, straight into the bleak, empty nothing-beyond. At some point, your are back inside yourself, dumbfounded and numb, washed out, dangerously fatigued. The next day you learn many things, though you wish you had not. It is on the radio, on the tv news, in the papers - all the papers. The shooter surrendered himself early the following morning. The eight who were wounded all died.
There were children killed, three teenagers and a four year old- the same age as your son.
Two sets of parents were killed, along with their children and a friend who was staying the night. So was the man who tried to help.
Booby-traps were rigged with explosives all over the property. The police set the bombs off at the scene all through the next day. The toys and possessions of the victims lay scattered in the yard, suspected of being stuffed with explosives. Nearby residents were told not to worry about the sounds. No motive has yet to surface.
Then, a week later, you are back at home, returned to the city, to the bustle and clamor, high rise steel and glass, the droves of indistinct faces. To your husband, with whom you talk over and over about what happened, break down and weep upon his shoulder, baffled that it can hurt so deep. It shouldn't hurt like that: You didn't know those people, they weren't close to you, you had never seen them, their names were meaningless. And yet you were there, you saw it, experienced its ugly black. Like the lightning-charred tree, you are stained for a lifetime.
You need to know more, to see photos of the people, to understand this void, this empty horror, this taint. You find what you are looking for: There are online memorial groups with hundreds of members. Reading through the quotes, you construct a person from the piece-by-piece memories of family, acquaintances, friends, come to know the loves, hobbies, eccentricities of a person you never met. The faces become alive, and in the sparkling eyes you begin to see a personality. Only now they are not alive. They are dead.
Scrolling through the long lists within hours of the deaths you read the urgent appeal of some Associated Press reporter repeatedly posting to the forums, digging for names, for information. You see his intrusive posts: "Hello, my name is John T. Newsdigger. I'm looking for the names of the deceased to make sure they get accurately quoted." This follows the beautiful naivete of one teen who writes, "I'll miss you forever! Can't wait to see you in heaven!"
Most of those posting are kids, not much more than 14, and then intrudes this man, this stranger "sticking his fingers in our open wounds," as one girl put it. Is that you?
No, you were there, you saw it…
And what of your child?
Same age as the youngest victim. The murdered kids had done nothing, weren't old enough to commit injustice, to even understand it. And yet, there amid all that silent beauty, in the foothills of those ancient mountains, there was this. But really, you know it is nothing new. It is crushing to think about it, the evil.
Again and again and again, these horrible things, this savagery. And for what? Millions in the great wars- Vietnam- But maybe all that is forgotten… Means nothing to the children, it's just pictures, something unfathomable because they didn't live it, it wasn't their generation, they have no guilt. But there are other instances more modern: the Balkans, Africa, Asia, everywhere… The words drift through the cracked door, the soft child-laughter, the lilting, metered innocent rhymes of Dr. Seuss.
All you can say is "Sometimes the world goes mad - people go mad. it drives them to do things we can't understand."
What else can you say? What can you say? What can you do? He'll grow up, see these things day in and day out, keep on living, smiling, laughing…
Suddenly, you feel very small, very tired, knowing you can't stop this madness - the world runs on it, fuels it.
You take one last look at the photo - goodbye to a person you only knew when they became unknowable - murmur the words, click the X. You rise slowly, walk noiselessly through the dim light of the living room, your gown just brushing the wood floors. Through the cracked door, the walls are laved a warm yellow. The story pauses, the words linger, hanging in the air like incense. They smile at you curiously. The welling pleasure-pain rises in your throat, a single tear spills down your cheek. You glide to the bed - again it is a dream- feeling, the flutter-pound rhythm of your heart. You lay beside the little boy, running your fingers through the long soft curls of his hair.
He searches into your eyes without turning - how strangely the light sparkles and refracts in his pupils - he runs a finger over your cheek to wipe away the tear, whispering, "It's okay, mama. We know."