The idea for my young adult novel, Before You Go, came fully formed. Page one, four teenagers traveling in a car at night. The radio plays. The car spins out of control, hits a tree, someone dies. Then the story rewinds six weeks into the past. The book is divided into two parts: “Before” and “After.” The book catches up with the accident about two-thirds of the way through.
I had to decide what song plays on the radio, though I guess I could have punted that one. Selecting the Petty song seemed in some ways a mistake. Classic rock. Maybe these young people would have been listening to something more current, more typical of teenagers of that age: rap, possibly. But I went with Petty because: 1) It was still believable, certainly; and 2) The song was perfect. Besides, nobody would know.
Can you name the song from the clues in the scene below, which represents pages 1-3 of the book? I’ll send a free, signed book to first person who guesses it — just send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and address.
NOTE: Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! I’ll be sending the book out to Carlos in San Diego who correctly guessed, “Here Comes My Girl.” The key line from that song? “And then she looks me in the eye, says, “We’re gonna last forever.”
This is the moment between before and after, the pivot point upon which story, like a plate, spins.
Two cars drive down a bleary road. One headed east, the other west. A small animal moves from the shadows to paw the asphalt. Not thirty seconds sooner, nor a moment later, but exactly now.
To the eastbound driver, traveling alone after a long night, the animal appears only as a dreamlike shape, two red eyes floating in the misty wash of headlights. He veers to avoid it and in doing so drifts into the approaching lane.
Music plays from the westbound car, intermixed with teenage voices, laughter. Eyes widen when the car swerves toward them. The driver jerks the wheel and the car cuts counter-clockwise, careens across the left lane. A foot stomps the brake pedal, back tires lock and skid, loose gravel sprays from the wheels. The side of the car crashes against a mighty oak that has stood undisturbed for over one hundred years. The front passenger’s door collapses inward, its metal panel crushed like a paper cup.
It happens fast. The span of a heartbeat, the time it takes to squeeze a hand, to shut your eyes and . . . nothing. Blood flows, bones shatter. It is the slice of a razor: when before becomes after, when everything changes.
And all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men . . .
There is a moment of stunned disbelief, an absence of movement, the vacuum suck of unreality. The music still plays like the soundtrack of a frozen photograph: a car on the side of the road wrapped around a tree, broken windows, mangled metal, the cold-eyed moon indifferent; a record voice bounces off a satellite to sing about a town that seems so hopeless.
After a pause, the summer bugs start in again, the buzz of cicadas, a cricket, the croak of a bullfrog from a muddy pond. Now the screaming begins from inside the car, drowning out the other night noises. Hysterical, high-pitched, piercing. The driver’s side rear door flies open, a figure staggers out from the backseat. The figure turns, eyes wild and unseeing, falls to both knees in the middle of an empty road on a warm, wet, shimmering summer night, battered head in bloodied hands.
Movement appears from inside nearby homes. Shadows cross behind the panes, curtains shudder. A door opens and a shaft of light spills to the ground, stumbling like a drunk on the sidewalk. Phones are found, numbers punched, 9-1-1.
Hurry. An emergency. Car accident. Hit a tree. Hard to see, sounds bad. Morgan Road, please hurry. Woke up to a crash and screaming, terrible screaming.
Come and stop the screaming.
Two of the four passengers will walk away with minor injuries. A miracle, some will say. Thank God, thank God almighty. The third will suffer a concussion, three broken ribs, cuts, and bruises. The injuries will not be fatal.
The final passenger, who sat in the shotgun seat opposite the driver, never had a chance. Death came instantly, like a curtain closing, a theater turning black.
The night animal scurries into the underbrush, its role in the passion play complete. One car races unscathed into the distance, hurtling east like a bullet from a gun. Taillights dim, then fade. The crashed vehicle plays a song from the radio.
This town, it seems so hopeless, so hopeless.
That’s the scene when you run out of miracles. The light, the light just disappears.
Rest In Peace, Tom Petty. Thanks for the music.