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SECOND PLACE: "The Swallow"

One family gets a crash course in the frailty of life

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The father's problem is that he cannot look away. Every morning for a week now he has come to the garage to stare at the ruined bicycles, the pancaked wheels and jutting spokes, front forks twisted like crossed fingers, seat posts snapped clean in half, and a chunk of a car's plastic bumper still stuck between a wheel and a chain stay. He wants to understand, but nothing in his body of knowledge has prepared him for this mangled geometry, this sum of pure wreckage. What the father understands are problems of uniform motion, the relationship between distance, speed, and time. If two cyclists leave town at 9 a.m. going 15 mph, and a car leaves town at 10 a.m. going 50 mph on the same road, the father can tell you exactly what time they will meet. He teaches these kinds of problems to children at the high school, and every once in a while a smartass in the back row will raise his hand and asks why it matters. This is why it matters, the father will say next time, and he will pull from his wallet a photograph of the ruined bicycles and tell them the story of how his children almost died.

He comes here to the garage in the mornings to escape the damaged bodies in the house. His son-in-law has a broken arm, 85 stitches in his head, gashes and road burn down his legs. His daughter's spine is damaged, she has multiple fractures in her legs, and her face is a purple scab that glows and pulsates when she talks of suing the girl. The girl, no more than 20, who begged to see them in the hospital and wept on the phone, who said if she could only trade places with them she would.

"Oh no," said the father.

But she would, she insisted, she would give anything to take back what happened. And still the daughter has refused to see her; only the son-in-law agreed, letting her hold his hand while she cried and dug her fingers into bleary eyes.

"It's OK," the son-in-law said to her so she would leave the room before the daughter was back from her CAT scan.

The girl wanted to stay, take care of them, and the father had to tell her there wasn't any need. He and the mother could take care of the children. "Thank you for your concern," he said.

And then she wanted to tell him the story again, even though she had told it to him once on the phone and once again in the lobby outside of the ICU.

"I was coming around a bend. There was a hawk in a pine tree and I was watching it when I hit them. I saw them fly off their bikes and land in the road. I wanted to hold them both but I couldn't drag them close enough together so I wrapped his head in my shirt and held her until a car came."

Every time she tells him this story the father shakes his head, cracks his knuckles, and says I understand, and yet lately he has begun constructing more and more impossible problems: If a car traveling 50 mph collides with two bicycles traveling 15 mph in the same direction, how far do the cyclists fly through the air? At what velocity? How many seconds pass before their bodies crash into the ground?

The father has tried to convince the daughter to see the girl, but each time she stiffens, whispering in her raspy voice that she never wants see that woman again as long as she lives.

"Can we tell her you forgive her?" says the mother.

No, she does not forgive her.

"Can we just tell her you accept her apology?"

No, she does not accept her apology or anything else that woman has to offer. And she will never accept the new bicycles waiting on their doorstep when they arrived at home, with a note from the girl explaining it was the least she could do, bicycles the exact make and model of the ones destroyed.

The father has hung the new bikes on hooks in the far back corner of the garage, upsetting a family of swallows nested in the crook of a rafter there, but it's the ruined bikes he can't stop staring at, these pieces of garbage so useless and priceless at the same time. To throw them away? Like dumping a dead body in the trash can. To bury them? In the backyard? He imagines himself in the dry grass with a shovel, digging two holes side by side, covering them with dirt, making mounds not long and narrow like human graves, but rounded patches of earth like huge zeros on the land, two dead brown eyes looking up at the sky.

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