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The Last Photograph

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The Last Photograph

The Last Photograph

I retired my Pentax K-1000 15 years ago when the new Nikon D-100 arrived at our newspaper office.

But I took one last photo with it.

I keep that photo in my desk drawer and I take it out and look at it every Christmas Eve.

You would regard the photo as mundane if you didn’t know the story behind it.

Consider the story before you judge.

‘Twas a bitterly cold December day and slate grey clouds moved with agonizing languor across a glowering sky.

As I was locking the door to our office, I noticed a few flakes of snow falling about the navy blue sleeves of my jacket.

I hurried along because I knew the roads would become treacherous soon. I didn’t want to be negotiating the notorious curves of Unicoi Turnpike between Helen and Hiawassee in the gloom of twilight with ice falling on the asphalt.

As I passed by the old flea market and the entrance to Chattahoochee River Road, the snowflakes on my windshield began to melt as the defroster heated up. Just before I passed the bend in the river near Scorpion Hollow, I saw headlights slicing through the vapors of the night behind me.

A second glance confirmed my suspicion that the vehicle was moving fast. I knew this because I, too, had ventured beyond the speed limit in my haste to get home. Both of us were courting with danger on these snakelike roads with sleet beginning to fall.

Back in those days, a White County deputy named Bradley often hid in the woods near Tray Mountain Road and infuriated locals and tourists alike with the prodigious number of speeding tickets he wrote.

The vehicle continued to gain on me and I was finally able to tell it was a large truck. I could make out the word “Mack” embossed in the chrome grill; and as it passed, I saw that it was a dump truck with a yellow body, a black dumper and chrome wheels.

I muttered a curse in the direction of the juggernaut and hoped to see the blue lights of Deputy Bradley’s patrol car light up. Instead, I saw headlights flickering through the gaunt pines higher up on the mountain near the old Ranger Road.

The dump truck began to pull away from me, but before the glowing red taillight disappeared, I saw the dump truck fishtail slightly. The driver decelerated briefly, offering hope that a sane man was indeed at the wheel, but then it began to pull away again.

The headlights coming down the mountain slid into view just as the dump truck fishtailed again, this time spinning nearly 180 degrees into the oncoming lanes of traffic.

I heard a sickening crunch as the dump truck plowed into a compact like a battleship running over a rowboat. Both vehicles spun almost gracefully for a moment in the snow before colliding with trees on the side of the road and more dreadful crunching.

I slipped out my cell phone and almost miraculously had enough signal to call 911 and report the accident.

When I reached the scene of the accident, the dome light inside the dump truck came on and I could see the outline of the man driving it. I stopped and got out of my car with the Pentax cradled in my left hand. The only sound was the steam hissing from the radiator of the dump truck.

Moments later, another car pulled up and stopped. The door swung open but no one got out.

Then I heard the ambulance coming from the direction of Helen. As the tires of the ambulance crunched along a gravel cut near where the accident happened, a woman wearing a shawl stumbled from the other car.

I could hear her weeping as she zigzagged toward the accident scene, her lips trembling as she blubbered something about Santa Claus.

A paramedic emerged from the ambulance and ran to the door of the mangled compact wrapped around a tree.

He peered in the window and slammed his palms on the roof of the car. He shook his head grimly. The other paramedic climbed up on the running board of the dump truck. The dome light came on, and I saw the man wave at the first responder.

Reminding myself that my job sometimes involved photographing ghastly scenes like this, I lifted my camera and took several photos.

Suddenly, the woman in the shawl began to mutter hysterically as the paramedics tried to calm her down.

I learned from her bellowing that the passengers in the compact had been her daughter and two granddaughters who were going to Cleveland to visit with a Santa Claus there.

I felt sick. I got back in my car and continued on to Hiawassee where I dropped off the film to be developed at an overnight developing shop the newspaper sometimes used.

When I returned to Helen the next day, I called my editor at her office in Cleveland, but she didn’t seem to know anything about the wreck. Both vehicles involved had White County plates on them, so I had expected my experienced and connected editor to know the life stories of all three.

I called the sheriff’s office for details, but they didn’t know anything about it either.

Perhaps the Georgia State Patrol had worked the accident in their stead. That sometimes happened.

But when the local fire chief told me he hadn’t heard about the wreck, I was baffled.

I decided not to press the matter but retrieve my photos and show the man the wreck had indeed occurred.

The next day turned out to be another bitterly cold December day with slate grey clouds moving slowly across a glowering sky.

As I was locking the door to the office, I noticed a few flakes of snow falling about the navy blue sleeves of my jacket.

I hurried along because I knew the roads would become treacherous soon. I didn’t want to be negotiating the notorious curves of Unicoi Turnpike between Helen and Hiawasse in the gloom of twilight with ice falling on the asphalt, especially in light of what I had seen on the previous evening. 

Just before I passed the bend in the river near Scorpion Hollow, I saw headlights slicing through the vapors of the night behind me. What?

A second glance confirmed my suspicion that the vehicle was moving fast.

As I approached the area where Tray Mountain Road intersects the Unicoi Turnpike, I could see Bradley hiding in the woods.

The speeding vehicle continued to gain on me and I was finally able to tell it was yet another large truck. My mouth dropped open when I saw word “Mack” embossed in the chrome grill as it was moving to pass me.

Bradley’s blue lights flashed, almost hurting my eyes. The dump slowed and pulled over.

At that moment my cell phone rang.

It was my editor.

“Hello, Michael,” she said. “I was in Hiawasee and thought I would pick up the film you mentioned, but all they have are a few pictures of two cute little girls sitting in Santa’s lap.”

I looked at the lens of the Pentax poking out of the red leather bag on the seat beside me. I knew I would never shoot another photograph with it.

This fiction story by T. Michael Stone appeared in the Holiday 2018 issue of Lakelife.