The shrieking of tires startled me from my magazine: swimsuit girls kissing in tropical water. I looked up as a blue LeSabre, already smoking severely, was struck by a rusted out F-250 pickup truck. The impact shredded plastic, ripped away metal, sent the LeSabre careening out of control—pummeling into the tollbooth next to mine.
Debris whizzed in my window next to my head. Cling. I flinched so hard that I’d cut my head open striking it on the door handle. The floor felt electrified.
Black smoke, all around. All there was. I jumped out of my booth as tires squealed again. The pickup thundering away from the LeSabre, ripping its own bumper and fender off. It almost got struck by another car as it zoomed away wildly through the lanes.
Stop pay toll …
The LeSabre which’d arrived smoking, was then fully on fire. Flames licked from beneath the hood. I coughed in a fit as the wind sent the fumes at me. Cars stacked up behind us. Holiday traffic. Heat wave. But everyone was still snaking by in super slow motion: rubber necking as birth right, rolling through the toll without paying.
“It’s gonna blow up!” I heard an old woman yell out of a red station wagon, like it was an action movie.
I ran to the LeSabre, the dashboard engulfed. I ripped open the driver side door. A woman fell out, her hair on fire, orange dress, shoeless. I rolled her around on the blacktop, stomping out the fire with my white Nike’s. I beat the fire out with my palms, my shirt, with her own dress. She moaned. I beat harder. The fire vanished.
There was a little girl in a car seat, still in the back. Three years old. Blonde pigtails. I yanked at her, the car seat was still buckled in, she shrieked in my face, clawing me, as I unclipped her belt. I threw the car seat with her in it out onto the road–skidding. The plastic was hot, melting. I had no fingerprints on my left hand for two months. All I could smell was burning hair, skin, plastic.
The kid shrieked louder. And louder. The burnt woman wheezed. Her once fair face now black. There were driver’s outside their cars then, staring at me. It was the fourth of July. I heard an ambulance. I heard a thousand car radios all at once. I heard the horns in the distance because traffic was stopped. Someone else screamed, “It’s gonna blow up!” It was my second day on the job.