Sunrise in Colorado is incredible. It starts when pitch black slides into slate gray that stretches across the sky. Eventually, pink ribbons begin to pile up in the east the tops of the mountains start to glow faintly. Then, almost instantly, the world explodes in light. Reds and yellows flood the sky and you can almost hear the air crackle as it warms around you. Morning breaks in the Centennial State.
The morning of my 22nd birthday must have been something like that, but I don’t remember. I woke up in an irrigation ditch, bloody and cold. Half a mile away, I could see that somebody had come and pried my car off the guard rail and towed it away – probably under the instruction of the State Patrol. My head pounded from both the wreck and the booze; I didn’t have my cell phone or my keys – I had thrown them into a field before I fled.
I pulled myself out of the ditch and began walking to where I assumed the nearest phone was – a filling station two miles down the interstate. My face was swollen from the steering wheel and my right leg was gashed above the knee. My shirt was torn. Nothing felt broken.
The night before, I had done hard drinking in Denver, celebrating another year on Earth. What started as a casual dinner among friends became a mix of bars and nightclubs. Eventually I got separated from anyone I knew. It got late. A text message from an old interest and the prospect of her bed sent me careening from the last bar to the interstate.
I walked slowly towards the filling station, composing my story along the way. I considered reporting the car stolen. That was the reasoning behind ditching the keys. Swallowing hard and tasting the alcohol still on my breath, I abandoned the idea of speaking to the law.
Sometime after I left downtown, I had pulled off the interstate at a convenience store on the north side of town. I bought a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee to keep myself awake and sober up a bit. I could barely count the bills in my wallet as I tried to pay, fumbling with them with incapacitated hands. If the guy behind the counter noticed, he didn’t say anything about it. A woman putting gas in her car yelled at me for lighting up at the pump, but I was already on my way out of the parking lot and onto the road. That is the last memory I have before the crash.
The filling station was busy for a Saturday morning. A few farmers were chatting by the front door while others bought their lunch for the day or filled up travel mugs and looked at the newspapers stacked by the registers. The woman checking people out didn’t look up at me when I asked to use the phone.
“There are pay phones outside, sweetie.”
“I don’t have any change. I’ve been in an accident.”
Her ears perked up at that, and she finally looked up from the counter at me. Her eyeglasses were low on her nose and had a chain that ran behind her neck like a librarian. Her face melted from boredom to concern at the state of my clothes. She apologized quickly and ran to the back of the store. The people in line behind me bristled, more worried about the delay in their commute than my situation. The Librarian returned with a cordless phone and a bottle of water.
“Call whoever you need to, honey. And get cleaned up. I’ll have somebody call the police for you.”
My chest clenched at her words. “No, no. You don’t need to do that. I’ve already talked to them. I just need to call a friend for a ride home.”
She seemed skeptical, but gave me the phone anyway. My plan had been to call someone I knew nearby – somebody who wouldn’t judge – until I’d sorted out a plan. That idea evaporated as I stared at the numbers on the phone, realizing in horror that the only numbers I knew by heart were those of my parents. It was Saturday morning and they were sure to be home, tidying the house and mowing the lawn happily.
I punched in their number three times before I got the nerve to let it connect. My father answered after the fourth ring. His voice was light and easy.
“Happy Birthday, kiddo!”