“What’s this?” asked Catherine as she hopped into bed. She shoved her legs deep under the covers, and her frigid toes found Bob’s warm feet.
He turned and glared at her. “Don’t you own socks?” he said. His beautiful wife scrunched her face into that cute little look that made him love her so much, and all the while her frozen little toesies kept sucking the heat away. Bob sighed in defeat. “I don’t know,” he said, turning back to the TV. “Some guy or something. I don’t think he’s a celebrity. I don’t recognize him.” He turned the volume up and they snuggled together under a thick comforter. Catherine’s cold hands found their way to Bob’s chest. “Jesus, woman,” he protested. She playfully tugged at his chest hairs and he quickly shut up.
“So you see the car,” says the host with moving hands that illustrate the story, “and is it already on fire?”
“No, not yet,” says the guest. He’s a middle-aged guy and very run-of-the-mill. His hair is receding and he looks to be settling comfortably into a few extra pounds. His wife is next to him. Her dress is modest and her smile closed and self-conscious. “At this point it’s still, like, I dunno, coming to a stop. I’m basically freaking out because I’ve never seen a car do that before.”
“Ya, you didn’t know you’d be driving through the set of the next Terminator film!” says the host, and the audience laughs. “So the car finally stops, and you’re in the middle of the freeway, right?”
“And is everyone else around freaking out and slamming on their brakes?” asks the host.
“Oh man, I thought I was gonna get plowed into any second,” says the guest.
“Out here in LA,” says the host, “we flip you off if your car isn’t on fire.” He makes a mean face and pretends to flip the bird at the camera. “Get outta the road, yer car ain’t even on fire!” The crowd roars with laughter.
The guest smiles, but the distractions of the lights and the crowd and the cameras are fading. His mind is reeling, reliving. He’s traveling back in time. He’s falling back into that moment.
“So the cars go screeching by and eventually everything stops,” says the host.
“Yeah, everything stops. I’m just trying to catch my breath at this point, and that’s when I really start to realize what’s happened. This car has just flipped and rolled in front of me. So I get out and see if I can do anything.”
“And then what happens?” asks the host.
The man looks at his wife, a woman he’s likely known for well over twenty years. There are two boys sitting on the next couch over wearing little suits and ties. They’re as stiff as boards, paralyzed by the Hollywood lights. She’s smiles, but there is a fear there, a fleeting reminder of how quickly life can say goodbye. “I get out and make my way to the car. The driver, this woman—”
“I knew it,” says the host with rolling eyes. Laughs and playful boos come back from the crowd.
The guest gives a polite smile. “She’s trying to crawl out of the car, but it’s upside down and there’s all this glass everywhere. There’s a lot of blood pouring down her face. She’s trying to say something, but she’s barely speaking. I didn’t realize until later that she was speaking Spanish.” He pauses and takes a breath. This time, no jokes or prompts come from the host. “I get closer, and that’s when I realize the car is on fire.”
“The car is on fire,” repeats the host with a dreadful calm.
“And then I notice there’s just gas… like, everywhere. Well, at least it looks like gas.”
The audience sits in silence. The host joins them.
“So for a split second, I freeze up. I, like— I dunno, I just freeze. But then the flames catch and make the whoosh sound and it kinda snaps me out of it. So I run over and start helping this lady out of her car. I start pulling her through the broken window. And she’s crying out some, obviously in pain, but I just keep yelling, ‘Fire! Fire!’ and finally she stops resisting and just kinda comes out like a sack of potatoes.”
“So you pull her out?” asks the host in a flat tone. The guest nods. “And at what point did you realize there was a baby strapped in the back seat?”
The man pauses and tries to breathe, but can’t. His wife tightens her grip on his hand and the camera catches the glossy look filling his eyes. “The flames were going pretty strong. It didn’t take long. It was actually pretty scary,” he says, and the audience gives a nervous chuckle. “I was setting her down and I heard something, I didn’t know what it was a first. I thought it was something weird happening to the car, but I guess it was the baby waking up. It started to cry pretty loudly then, and I knew exactly what it was. And then I could actually see it. I could see the car seat backlit by the flames.”
“And did you freeze again?” asked the host.
“No,” replied the guest instantly. “I don’t know what came over me. I mean, it was like a switch was flipped on the back of my neck. I just started running and before I knew what I was doing, I was crawling in through the same broken window I had pulled the woman from.”
The host takes a moment to point out the nervousness of his wife. “That is not the look of a happy woman,” he says, and the audience laughs a little louder. She pats her husband on the hand and only shakes her head. “Please,” says the host. “Go on.”
The man has stopped looking at the host or the crowd or the camera. His eyes have fixated onto some spot on the shiny floor. His eyes drift away, and he’s back in that mechanical inferno. “I’m reaching around and the flames are already just searing hot. I can smell my hair being singed. And I’m already coughing. The smoke is bad, burning rubber and electric wires and battery acid. I remember my eyes burning and my lungs burning and just everything burning. But I can hear that little baby just crying. And it’s not a panicked scream either. It’s almost pleading, ya know?” He looks up at the crowd that is now completely silent. “It’s crying like it’s saying, please don’t give up on me. Please just try if you can. Try a little harder. So I pull my head out of the car and take in as much air as I can. And while I’m breathing in I’m thinking to myself, this is how I die. On the freeway in a burning car trying to save some baby. I close my eyes, I shove my head in, and I just reach for the sound.”
The entire studio is silent while the guest tries to find the words, tries to find the baby.
“And my hand grabs this hot piece of plastic. It’s not melted, not yet, but there are little legs and little arms inside of it. So I shove my other hand in and just start squeezing at the clips, hoping the heat hasn’t ruined anything yet, and then that’s it,” he says, still staring at the floor, starting at his hands. “I’m out. I’m out of the car and I’ve got this crying baby in my hands.”
He looks up at the audience and holds up his hands to reenact the scene.
“Incredible!” yells the host as he stands and claps his hands, and everyone cheers.