“Thank Goodness” is Madelaine Dickinson’s award winning essay, taking first place in the First Year Composition Maude Uhland Award contest as well as in the Y1 Writes: A Collection of Student Essays contest. At NIU, Madelaine is a member of the Honors Program, Honors Student Association, NIU chapter of Lambda Sigma, and University Choir. Madelaine has chosen nutrition as her major and plans to become a chef and nutritional consultant for people with special dietary needs. In “Thank Goodness,” Madelaine narrates an experience she had never been able to fully explain to anyone before she wrote the essay.
I’m running so hard the muscles beneath my ribs and in my legs are beginning to sing like stretched rubber bands. Raw fear tastes bitter in my dry mouth. I run and run but never get any further than the cluster of dense, bushy trees on the side of the gravel road. That’s where I was standing. That’s always where I am standing as I watch the inevitable break out of my memory in a flash and flurry of staggering images and hair-raising noise.
A concerned voice calls my name, shattering the waking dream. My head snaps up and my distant blue eyes suddenly refocus. A moment of confusion passes. “Oh, thank goodness,” I think, when I realize I am not there. Thank goodness, I am not there.
I am helping my mom clean up after dinner. I briefly glance out the window into lengthening shadows of early twilight. The advancing night is so beautiful this time of year. The warm, moist air smells sweet, clean, and soothing, but a sense of wrongness descends on me as I am compelled by a feeling I don’t understand to look again out the window. Something very peculiar is happening. The shadows are moving—wandering and gliding. As my mind struggles to give them a name, I try hard to focus on the drifting shapes.
I suddenly realize what I am looking at: the horses. And they are not in the pasture where they should be. The atmosphere rapidly becomes charged with a feeling of urgency. My mother and I rush out the door as our two horses, Beauty and Noel, pass under the farm road light. I can see their large eyes glint in the lamplight, wide with confusion. They wander with no sense of purpose as my mom slowly approaches them, talking in a low and persuasive voice. They skitter off like leaves. Whether it’s because they still want to explore or because they are spooked in the near-darkness by my mom’s advancing shadow, I can’t tell. The horses are not coming to my mom. Instead, they are slowly making their way further and further out—out towards the highway, out towards danger.
My mom sends me to get molasses sweet feed to lure them back. I start running. I run towards the barn as quickly as my twelve-year-old legs will carry me. Fear starts to prickle in the center of my chest. As I get the feed, my hands quiver because I feel so much pressure to hurry. I grab lead ropes also. I rush out of the barn, but my heart sinks as I realize that it’s too late. The horses are already well out of the yard and heading straight towards the highway, the last direction they should be going. It’s like they are moths and the highway is a giant glowing bug zapper. I run so fast my side starts cramping and I spill half the feed.
Then there is a shifting car noise, maybe a truck engine breaking. Whatever it is, it’s loud and it’s startling. I can’t see, but I can hear the thundering of hooves, as my horses begin to bolt —not away from the unexpected noise but towards it. I still don’t know why they ran towards it. I feel raw, dry-mouthed fear explode in my chest as I hear the pure terror in my mother’s voice as she starts screaming. My strong, steady mother doesn’t get rattled, but she is beyond rattled now. I listen to her plead at the top of her voice with the horses to stop. All I can do is run and run.
My muscles are tightening and cramping and I am wishing that my mom hadn’t sent me back to get the grain, so I could be there. I want so badly to be up ahead helping her, but at the same time I also wish I could just be faster. I wish I just could have been faster. I have this grim feeling that Beauty and Noel are already far too scared to be lured by thoughts of sweet treats.
I come around the scrubby, dense patch of trees obscuring my line of sight. That’s when I see it. That’s when everything begins to move in slow motion. My horses are standing in the middle of the highway frozen in the headlights just like deer, like terrified wide-eyed does. The headlights belong to a van. I have come into the clearing just in time to see the van head in an unerringly straight line. Bone-chilling numbness washes over my body as I watch the van collide with the horses. I feel a strange sense of floating detachment from reality as I hear the frantic screeching of breaking tires blend with the visceral, unearthly scream of horses. Time stretches here, drawing this one moment out for what feels like centuries. I believe this sound will be the single most haunting thing that I will ever hear for the rest of my life. I watch one horse bounce off the side of the van and another horse fly limply through the air, maybe fifteen feet into the drainage gully, where the van follows. I hear a banging crunch and the distressed whine of tearing, twisting metal and then, suddenly nothing.
I have frozen. About twenty-five feet in front of me, my mother is in the same position. I am incapable of any thought for a few seconds. I slowly place the pitcher of sweet feed and the lead ropes down in the prickly grass, subconsciously knowing that they are of no use now. There is nothing I can do with them; they’re utterly useless. I am not even sure why.
I blink, and abruptly time snaps back to a normal speed, but my mind still feels disconnected from my body. I watch myself run over to my mom. She looks about as shell-shocked as I probably feel but can’t sense. People start piling out of the van, and there are so many. They are like the salty little fish crammed into cans—ten, twelve, thirteen—I don’t know how many. What I do know is that it is an eight-passenger van that they are all walking away from, unscathed.
My mom and I go closer. I look, not at the van, though. I look at the crumpled heap of my little sister’s chubby, mischievous pony, Beauty, who could be as cantankerous as she could be endearing. Beauty’s legs are bent at bizarre angles, as is her neck. Her head is matted with clods of the thick, black mud she has fallen in. Dark ruby blood trickles from her nostrils. Standing in a slight depression, one that leads down into the gully where the van’s passengers are standing in a huddle, I look up towards the highway. The passengers are about ten feet away from my mom and me.
I see Noel, a mixed-breed horse that danced around the fields like a Lipizzaner. Her graceful form is laid out on the shoulder of the county highway. I start to edge closer and see that her eyes are still open, shocked wide in an expression of horror. The glint and life have already left them, cheaply replaced by a hard, flat, glazed appearance. I try to go closer, but my mom, whom I had forgotten, pulls me back. I beg her to let me go. My heart denies the facts that swirl around me like ashes, as I incoherently mumble about doing something to save them. My twelve-year-old head knows the truth, though, that the snapped and twisted form of my sister’s stocky little pony is not going to pull a Lazarus act.
Just then I hear one of the sardine-people of the van say loudly, “Thank God no one was hurt.” I lunge forward without thinking, a scream already trying to escape my throat. If I weren’t so numb, I’m sure that I would feel the anger that sears through me at those words. Instead, I feel like I have been kicked in the gut because this is when I accept that there haven’t been injuries; rather, there have been violent, gruesome deaths. There have been deaths of loved ones, and the bodies aren’t even cold. I lurch forward to tell them this, to set those people straight.
The words are already on my lips, primed to pour out of my mouth when my mother quickly reaches out and pulls me to her, putting her arms around me. She understands that they mean humans. No, I’m thinking. They mean what they care about. Bitterness fills my mouth. I want to tell them this. I also want to tell them exactly what I saw. The driver’s head was turned around, distracted; he didn’t even break until after the collision. He was driving down a straight strip of highway in some of the flattest land in the country, and he didn’t even swerve. I want to tell him, “Yes, thank goodness. Thank heavens this will have no lasting consequences for you. Yes, thank goodness. Thank goodness, no one was hurt.”
It’s in this sudden burst of overwhelming feeling that the numbness evaporates and my full range of emotion returns. Reality comes in a swift, caustic burst, and suddenly I wish I were anywhere but here—here in the past.