I was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. My lifeless body slumps over the cat carrier in the backseat of the twisted wreck. Bloodstains bloom through my T-shirt and jeans, and my hair sparkles with bits of broken glass. My parents sparkle and bloom, too. They are in the front seat, pinned upright by the dashboard of our crappy little hatchback. The airbags slowly deflate, floating down over them like freshly washed sheets. My mother’s cheek is pressed against the side window. My father’s head droops, his chin on his chest. Even with all the blood we look peaceful, as if we’re napping at a rest stop before continuing the long drive to our new home.
Were my earbuds still in my ears when the rescue team arrived? Was Lucy making that strangled calling noise she makes when she can’t find me? Did they use one of those metal saws to free us? All I know is some stubborn paramedic refused to give up on me. Maybe because I’m only fourteen. Maybe because he has a daughter or little sister who listens to the same music and has an orange-and-white cat or wears all black and loves cheese-filled pretzels.
I am alive. My father, too. My mother is gone. Lucy is gone. That’s what I know. Here’s what I don’t know: Where did my mother die? (The middle of the highway? The back of an ambulance? On a stainless steel gurney in a fluorescent-lit ER?) Where is she buried? Did Lucy die or is she lost? (Lost seems worse.) How long was I in the hospital? (Long enough to lose most of the fifteen pounds I’d put on during The Worst Year of My Life. Long enough for my hair to grow out. Long enough for the red scars on my wrists to fade to white.)
Here is what I remember before everything changed forever: We were somewhere in the mountains of Pennsylvania—the Poconos, I think. My dad was driving. My mother was in the passenger seat warning me not to let Lucy out of the cat carrier again.
“She’s miserable,” I said.
“She’s a cat,” my mother said. “She’ll survive.”
My father smiled in the rearview mirror. “Watch it or we’ll put you in a carrier.”
I poked a cheese-filled pretzel through the metal gate. Lucy loves salt but she ignored it. I popped it in my mouth and chewed.
“That’s enough,” my mother said, reaching behind her. “Give me the bag.”
I plugged in my earbuds and ate one more. New Ellie is addicted to cheese-filled pretzels, too.
“Richard? Talk to your daughter, please. We had an agreement. She’s going to start eating better. No more junk food.”
We were starting over. This was our New Beginning. Not just for me, but for all of us. A few weeks after his unemployment ran out, my father was offered a job in a water treatment lab in Pottsville, New York. My mother was going to get her real estate license. I was going to lose weight and dress better and not try to kill myself again.
Honestly, right then, things were good. Better than they’d been in a long time. It’s surprising what distance can do. I was obsessed with the number of miles between me and Jackson Middle and everyone in it, especially Priscilla Hodges. I asked my dad for an odometer reading.
“Three-ninety-one, kiddo.” He winked. “Nope … wait … make that three-ninety-two.”
We were driving into a bank of clouds parked low over the mountain, but the darkness was lifting. My heart was lifting. I felt lighter than sunshine. I wanted to live forever.
Before I tried to end it all, Old Ellie’s favorite morbid pastime had been imagining her own death: school shooting, E. coli, terrorist attack. It’s what got her through the endless days at Jackson Middle. God, how they shunned me. Correction: shunned her. Old Ellie had low self-esteem. Old Ellie had dependent personality disorder. Old Ellie engaged in self-destructive thought. But Old Ellie always had Scilla. It was the two of us against the world until …
Stop. Just stop. I know what happened. I’ve got a box of journals documenting your stupid, sorry life. This is not about Old Ellie. This is not about Priscilla. This is about New Ellie and Mom and Dad and Lucy.
“Can you turn down the air? I’m cold.”
Those were my last words before I died. Poignant, right? For someone who loves books and spent hours planning her own annihilation, you’d think I could have come up with something a little more poetic. At least I get a do-over.
Mom’s last words: “Oh my God!”
And now I’m here. We’re here. Without Mom. I woke this morning with my father staring down at me, a look of joy (or was it horror?) distorting his face.
“Where are we?” I said.
I was in my bed, but not in my room. I sat up and looked around, and then it hit me: the new house. We’d made it. It was all a bad dream. New Ellie was in her new room. It was nicer than I remembered from our trip back in June when we’d flown to Pottsville to go house hunting. My father had painted it the colors I’d picked: Nacho Cheese and Chips.
I tried to get up.
“You shouldn’t even be here,” my father whispered, tucking my comforter around me. “Stay in bed. You need to rest.”
“You don’t remember?”
I remembered my dream: I remembered asking Mom to turn down the air. I remembered her reaching for the knob on the dashboard and gazing up through the windshield at the southbound lane. I remembered the way the headlights looked like Christmas lights strung across the mountain above us.
“Oh my God!” My mother clapped her hand over her mouth and pointed.
A black-and-silver RV had gone through the guardrail. It was airborne, nose-diving down the mountain towards us. My father punched the gas. My head snapped back. The RV somersaulted, and pieces of metal and plastic rained down. I grabbed the cat carrier and closed my eyes. I remembered the brakes squealing. I remembered the seat belt locking, digging into my chest. I remembered my pulse rushing in my ears, and my father yelling, “Hold on! We’re gonna hit—”
“We crashed,” I said.
My father nodded. “You were hurt pretty bad.”
I felt fine. No cuts or bruises or broken bones. I wiggled my fingers and toes.
“You hit your head.”
I felt for bandages.
“Inside.” My father drummed his temple. “Let me know if you feel dizzy.”
My father made me poke-in-the-eye eggs and bacon, then dragged a chair beside my bed and watched me eat. He had this hopeful, tender look, like he was caring for an injured bird.
I chewed my food and smiled at Dad and gave the eggs a thumbs-up. They were good, but not as good as Mom’s. Then I realized what I already knew—in my heart. My mother was gone. She hadn’t made it. My father didn’t have to say it. It was written in the lines across his forehead, in those sad watery eyes of his. Everything went blurry. I tried swallowing, but there was a knot in my chest. My throat tightened around a clot of warm yolk.
I put down the fork and closed my eyes, trying to breathe. Everything I’d suffered over the last year was nothing compared to this. I’d hated my mother that day in the family therapist’s office when she turned to me and said, “You don’t know grief. You don’t know misery.”
But she’d been right.
My father squeezed my hand. I opened my eyes to look at him. But his palms—both palms—were pressed into his eye sockets, like he was trying to keep from seeing something terrible.
I felt it again. A clutching. Invisible fingers kneading. Warm. Soft. Something brushed my face. My skin tingled. Not my father, but just as familiar. It felt like … it felt like her.
“Do you think Mommy’s still with us?” I asked.
My father wiped his eyes. “What?”
I felt it again. A grip so tight it made my bones ache.
“I think my brain’s messed up.”
“You’re in shock,” my father said, reaching for the curled hand at my side.
I pulled away. I didn’t want the feeling to pass. But it did. Just like that, whatever it was let go.
My father carried the tray of dishes downstairs and didn’t come back. I heard the strains of some sad jazz saxophone echoing through the house. I don’t know what he was doing down there. Probably the same thing as me—trying to get settled. God, there’s so much to do. Everything I own is in boxes, tubs, and bags. I made sure the movers hadn’t damaged the important stuff—my Pegasus collection, the dollhouse my mother built—before I ran out of steam. I felt weak and achy, like I was coming down with something. I sat at the desk and switched on the lamp. It was getting dark. Correction: darker. It had been gray and murky all afternoon. The kind of day that makes you think all the color has been drained out of the world.
It’s night now. Nine, maybe. I can’t find my alarm clock or even a calendar. And it’s damp and chilly, the kind of night Mom would’ve fixed soup for dinner or called for pizza. It feels more like October than …
I breathe in sharply.
It’s happening again. I feel her.
This isn’t my brain short-circuiting or shock. It’s as if my hand has a life of its own, the fingers uncurling one by one.
Scilla and I used to play this game called knife. I would make a fist (tight, tighter), and she would caress my knuckles, my wrist, the back of my hand. (Concentrate. Concentrate. People dying, babies crying. Concentrate. Concentrate.)
“Close your eyes,” she’d whisper, peeling back my fingers, exposing my palm. (Babies dying, people crying. Concentrate. Concentrate.)
No matter how many times we’d done it, it was always a shock when she stabbed me with her thumbnail. (Stick a knife in your hand, let the blood run down. Stick a knife in your hand, let the blood run down.) Just thinking about her fingers tickling across my wrist and down my arm gives me chills. I swear I used to feel the blood pooling in the crook of my arm.
Does Scilla know my mother is dead?
Something soft presses against my forehead. A rush of breath warms my skin. She’s here. My mother’s here. I know it.
Copyright © 2013 by Barbara Stewart