This Is How It Happens

In my part of Maryland, northwest of Baltimore, deer are thick as pigeons. Most days, if I am alert I can spot at least one or two on my drive into work and my drive home. It is not unusual to encounter three or four in procession darting across the road.

On a Tuesday evening, about 7:00 p.m. and a mile from home, I exit the interstate and exit the exit ramp on to a four-lane road with a cement center barrier. I am traveling about 40 miles per hour. I am not talking on a cell phone, changing the satellite radio station, or checking my fuel gauge. I am paying attention. But I do not see the doe leap the barrier. I sense nothing until impact. There is a flash in my peripheral vision, a frightening bang, and a jolt, followed by the sound of my fender rubbing on the left front tire. There is no shoulder until I make a turn on to another road a few hundred yards along. I pull off and assess the damage, which is considerable. This is my second collision with a deer in the last 18 months.

If it was a deer. The right term to describe the sudden onset of dread, I think, is suffused. In an instant I am suffused with dread. I look back at where the collision took place, but I am too far down the road to see what I've hit. It had to have been a deer. No pedestrian could have leapt across that fast, I would have seen a person, I would have. And no pedestrian would be crossing at that place in the road.

Except I have seen addled people walking oblivious down the center of busy highways before. I have seen people checking email and text messages on their phones as they walked into traffic. Drivers who have broken down take foolish chances as they leave their vehicles to find somewhere to call for roadside assistance. People do stupid things, assuming everyone behind the wheel of an oncoming car will be alert to their presence.

I look back, straining to see. No one has pulled over. Surely, if someone were lying bleeding on the pavement, cars would be pulled over. No drivers behind me had frantically blinked their headlights to get my attention. It had to have been a deer.

I am five minutes from home and convinced I could not have hit a person, so I drive the rest of the way, inform my wife of what has just happened, and tell her she has to go back with me because I have to be sure. We drive past the point of collision, make a U-turn, and retrace my route. Something else, something large, has hit the deer again, dragging it for 30 yards.

I breathe, and I think, This is how it happens. You are engaged in something as routine as your evening commute, and in an instant something dreadful befalls you. On this night, the dreadful thing befell the deer, not me. But I know now: This is how fast life shatters.