If there was one consistent nightmare to my childhood, it was this: Legends of the Eastern Coast, page 12, plate 2. The Wreckers. I can’t tell you what horrors that etching awoke in my young soul, those vile people with their sneering grins and makeshift weapons. They didn’t wear buccaneer finery, didn’t fly the jolly roger or drink rum. They were land pirates, my grandfather explained to me, a thousand times more terrible than any scurvy dog I had come to know. He would dissect the scene for me, sickle-moon fingernail hovering on each crucial point of the illustration. Here is the signal fire they lit in mimic of a lighthouse. Here was the cargo that drifted to shore once the ship ran aground on the shoal. Here were the living crewmen, being set upon by countless devil-tongued hounds. Here were the wreckers coming with wicked knives and clubs towards the survivors—
I lived in terror of them. I had never even been in a boat or visited the east coast, yet they awakened some kind of ancestral fear in me. There was something so unusually cruel in them that struck me, even as a child. I imagined myself on one of those boats, seeing the friendly signal of a fire only to wind up sinking. Lighting out, terrified, for the shore and the arms of my fellow man, only to be beaten and stabbed for what was in my boat. It could be hay. It could be a weary head of soldiers back from some military action, worthless as cargo. What then?
My mother finally saw to it that the book wound up on one of his higher shelves. If I stood on his stepladder, I could graze the spine with my fingertips but I could not pull it from the shelf. It could not get to me.
I grew up and married. Traveling along the highway one night, my man at the wheel, I sat in the back with the safety belt buckled around my swelling belly. Our child. My cargo.
My husband leaned forward and squinted out the windshield. “Someone’s had an accident.”
Four words I will never be able to forget.
I pulled myself up so I could look over the seat. Far ahead, I could see the red gleam of road flares. The silhouettes of people did frantic jumping-jacks while lit from behind with that hellish glare. It woke something in me.
“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “You can’t help.”
“Nonsense. I think I’ve got my kit back there.” He was rummaging on the seat beside him, that loving fool. “And there’s that trail blanket.”
I don’t know if we hit something, or if something hit us. I know the car flipped over, because I woke with the seatbelt pinning me in place. I had been crying before I woke up.
I screamed my husband’s name. He, too tall to wear the shoulder belt comfortably, was in a heap in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t moving.
“Hello? Is there anyone?”
Talking was difficult. “Yes, we’re here! My husband— he’s—”
The driver’s-side door groaned open. The beam of a flashlight stabbed my eyes, made me turn away.
“You alive in there?”
“Yes! My husband—”
He groaned in his heap.
“Get him!” I sobbed with relief. “Get him out, he needs medical attention.”
“Now just hold on, little lady.” The man’s voice was slow and drawled and in no hurry at all. “We’ll get him out, then we’ll come for you, all right?”
“Yes, good, fine, just get him.” I squinted, but I couldn’t see beyond that bright light. Someone grabbed my husband under his arms and pulled him slowly from the car. The light did not move.
I don’t know how long I sat there, blood running to my head, light blinding me, but the quiet let me think. Had I heard sirens? I didn’t remember. How much time had elapsed since we’d crashed?
…why had we crashed?
I started hyperventilating.
There were no swirling red and blue lights, no radio cracks from a squad car. I was visibly pregnant. Why weren’t they more concerned about me? The way they’d hauled my husband from the car seemed more likely to injure him further.
I could hear subdued conversation from somewhere outside the car. I could feel my child within me stir as if he, too, was full of fear.
The back hatch creaked open, spilling our cooler and picnic blanket and a million other little things I had yet to clean out of it. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.
“Little lady, you still in there?”
My face felt inflated. My vision began to tunnel.
After a long silence I heard them rooting through the pile of our things. Murmured snatches of conversation: “….that ain’t…less than….don’t even…”
“But the car’s nice!” Someone burst out shouting, only to immediately be shushed.
I squeezed my eyes shut and let my body dangle. Let me be dead, let me be a worthless corpse.
Headlights flooded the car interior. From behind. An engine idled. I could hear the soft murmur of one of those men, a lilting tone that soothed like a lullaby, as he tried to keep the driver from getting out.
“You’re all alright here?” Someone called over.
I screamed. They scattered. Maybe the driver had a gun. Maybe they weren’t ready to put up with even slight resistance. But when the real emergency crews came they only found two cars, mine and my savior’s, with my husband stabbed quietly to death on the pavement not far from us. No lights, no other cars. Just the stubs of the road flares guttered down like the embers of a signal fire on some distant beach.