Everyone was wrong.
It wasn't the SUV that exploded. It was the woman driving it.
I watched it happen, coming out of the Office Express, hobbling and grimacing and wishing I'd been able to park my car closer, maliciously hoping that the drivers of the untagged cars in the handicapped spots were really handicapped. I saw that monstrous yellow Hammer, rolling to a stop almost directly in front of me at the edge of the packed parking lanes. And right before it happened, right as I looked up and puzzled over the blonde inside smiling that lamenting smile at me, the memory flickered.
My phone had talked to me again.
Speaking in its usual riddles, delivering cryptic words from a source I did not know, its text message was simple enough.
And I did. Right at the moment I believe I was supposed to have.
The woman's smile had stopped me. At first, it was surprise. My mind waded through the process of trying to remember her. I wondered if, perhaps, I'd met her at one of the many social functions my agent dragged me to, or at one of my book signings where people I could never relate to insisted my novels had changed their lives. As far back as my limited memory could take me, there was no trace of her.
It was then. Right at the moment when my sluggish mind concluded she was a stranger. Right as I began the next process, trying to figure out why she had stopped to stare at me.
Behind the veil of blue as shadowed eyelids slid down like funeral drapes, and behind the loosened facial muscles conceding to the inevitable, and behind the slow arch of her lips as they laid themselves flat on her tear-streaked face, I saw the profound sadness that had consumed her. Not just sadness. Remorse. Loss. Surrender.
I didn't react as the first flicker of flame hissed from behind her closed eyes. I didn't react as the flames snaked across her face. And by then, shock had paralyzed me; I didn't even move when the rest of her body burst into flame inside the air-conditioned cabin of her Hammer.
Someone grabbed me and threw me onto the hard asphalt of the parking lot. Harsh words screamed out in surprise all around me. And then, the screams died out, drowned beneath the shock waves spat out by the truck's explosion. Searing chunks of metal and debris pelted me as I lay on the ground. I tried not to cry as the pain in my left knee began to burn and devour me, as fiery fragments of the Hammer and its burning occupant poked at my body, and as I felt the right side of my face scrape against the asphalt.
I don't remember what happened immediately afterwards. The next thing I remember is sitting in an ambulance, being told by a paramedic who seemed half my age to stay conscious. Beneath the dissonant, muffled ringing smothering my ears, I could barely understand any of the words that dropped from his mouth. He seemed more like a puppet, performing its sequence of measured, controlled actions, his hinged mouth only mimicking human speech. I didn't respond. I doubt I could have.
Minutes passed, I think, before my senses returned.