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Cruise and Control

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Growing up, every kid dreams of getting his or her own driver’s license. Since the early age of 13, or maybe even before that, my friends and I desperately wanted the freedom to come and go as we pleased, to feel the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair as we’d cruise down the road without a care in the world (well, besides the “check fuel” symbol that flashed on the dashboard). For my friends and me, that was all we needed.

It was the very beginning of September 2005 when Kendra got her license. She was the oldest girl in my grade and the first of us to get a full-fledged license. Naturally, we squealed with joy and excitement the first time we all crammed into her car together. Her driving was our VIP pass to our social lives, our freedom.

Six weeks passed, and several other people in my class got the so-coveted driver’s license. Some people passed with flying colors, while others had to try and try again. Meanwhile, I trudged through every day as if it were a lifetime before I could take those keys as my own for the first time, and every day my excitement grew exponentially.

On October 22, 2005, my sixteenth birthday was a week away exactly. It was the homestretch I’d been waiting for, but there just was one more thing to celebrate before I had time to think about driving myself: my friend’s birthday party. It was a cloudless Saturday afternoon when Kendra, the birthday girl, and another friend arrived at my house to pick me up, so we could all head to the party together. We piled into Kendra’s car. The birthday girl was in the passenger’s seat buckled in, while I sat sideways in the back seat, my legs thrown over the other girl’s lap in order to avoid sitting on cupcakes that Kendra had made for the party.

“I spent hours on those! You better not mess them up!”

We set off down the road, laughing and singing to the blaring music. We were so enthralled with each other and the excitement of the situation that we absentmindedly lost track of where we really were. The four of us shrugged it off lightheartedly as we continued down a foreign dirt road. We kept up the conversation and laughter until we realized that the birthday girl might be late to her own party. Kendra stepped on the gas in hopes of gaining lost ground, and before we knew it, we were flying down that dirt road.

The conversation and laughter continued through this sudden acceleration, but was cut completely off in a matter of seconds. As we sped down the road, Kendra reached to the floorboard of the passenger’s seat in an attempt to grab a soda bottle. Her eyes left the road for half a second, and she drifted to one side of the road. At this, the birthday girl let out a panicked yelp from the front seat.

That immediately grabbed Kendra’s attention, and in an attempt to straighten us out, she jerked the wheel a solid 180 degrees around. The car careened towards the other side of the road, headed for a steep and rocky ditch. The birthday girl yelled out Kendra’s name again, and the last thought that crossed my mind might surprise you.

“We are going to be so late to this party. We are in big trouble.”

There was an enormous, overwhelming, unidentifiable sound, then darkness.

I had no idea how long I had been unconscious, I wasn’t even aware that I was in an accident. When I first opened my eyes, I had the feeling that I had just woken up from a nap. I blinked rapidly and looked around, still quite hazy. I remember asking where I was, for all I could see was white and people dressed in blue shirts. They told me I had been in an accident.

I remember lying there, confused. I almost thought for a second that someone was playing a trick on me. A car accident? That would never happen to me, or anyone else I knew. Convinced I was just dreaming, I closed my eyes and returned to that darkness.

The rest of that Saturday was a blur. I remember bits and pieces, almost like a highlight reel of my trauma. The first time I woke up in the emergency room, I realized something was wrong, because my clothes were gone, and my shoes were removed and placed on a small table next to the hospital bed. I was freezing, and I thought my back was going to break in half from the amount of pain it was in.

When I asked them why my back hurt, they told me because I was strapped to a gurney, and they couldn’t move me. I also asked them why I was so cold, and pleaded with them to turn the heater on, or give me blankets. The doctors and nurses explained that I was indeed covered with every blanket they could find, and that the shivering and cold I was feeling was shock. I tried to take a few deep breaths to calm down, then fell back to sleep.

When I came to the next time, a circle of people’s heads partially blocked out the glaring light above me. One of those people was my mom, which immediately brought a sense of comfort to me during my cloudy, dreamlike confusion. She was making a huge effort to stay calm for my sake, but even in my state I could tell something was really wrong. My mom leaned over the stretcher, and whispered to me in the softest voice she could muster.

“There’s something we need to tell you.”

Before she could finish her sentence, a deep growling voice coming from another person near my bed cut her off, and rather insensitively delivered the message.

“Kendra’s dead.”

There it was. Cold, blunt, angry. I saw my mom shoot a stunned and infuriated glare at the man, almost like a primal protective instinct. There wasn’t much I could do. I took another deep breath, turned my eyes away from the crowd, shed one tear onto the gurney, then went back to sleep.

The next day, I sat up in bed the whole day, reading the stories over and over again. The police report said Kendra died on impact. In the newspaper, officials cited inattention to the road as the cause of the accident. I was infuriated. There was no way to pin a cause on to an accident like this. It all happened in a blink of an eye. No more than a couple of seconds, and Kendra was gone and none of us would ever be the same.

The birthday girl was treated and released with minor seatbelt bruises, and the other girl was kept in the hospital overnight due to a concussion and internal issues. As for me, I lay in my hospital bed with three broken bones, a bruised brain, and internal hemorrhaging for the next four days. I remember nothing from the accident, and the details of the accident found in the police report seem beyond real or possible to me.

In 2005, there was a huge spike in traffic fatalities in the state of Oklahoma, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I knew a handful of these accidents had happened before and after ours. They were all so young, lives cut so short.

The accident and Kendra’s death rocked our tiny community to its core. It changed not only the course of the lives of myself and the other survivors, but everyone who knew her, anyone who knew her laugh or smile. We all still remember, some more vividly than others. I remember the last conversations and the last laughs we had before we crashed. I feel to this day that I’m not entitled to those moments or those memories, yet there I was. It’s beyond human explanation.

Kendra’s life was not the first young life lost while driving, and it wasn’t the last either. Teenagers who covet and desire a license the way we did in high school have to know that tragedies like this happen every day. Even when you think it is impossible that it could happen to you, think again.

So, if you are in the verge of taking that driver’s test, or you’ve got the keys for a night out with friends, remember that you can never be too careful. Gather your thoughts, take a deep breath, and cruise with control.

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About Frances Mooney