From A Place Called Salvation
It was warm inside the car, but I could see through the back passenger side window that it was cold and icy outside. The window was wet with condensation, and little lines made by the tiniest of drops had drifted their way across the glass, racing one another to the other side. It was dark both out and in, and I could only see the outlines of the trees as we passed them. They flew by so quickly that I couldn’t focus on any single one of them as they came one right after another, sprinting past. They all blurred together and seemed to be linked to one another like a continuous line of paper dolls, their long, skinny branch arms outstretched to each other, each holding the hand of the next, forming one long chain.
I pressed my palm to the window, shivering as I felt the chill move into my hand and through my arm. I drew a smiley face with my index finger, and then quickly wiped it away with my flat hand. I moved my wet fingers across my jean leg, rubbing the cold away.
As we climbed higher into the mountains, the trees continued to climb with us. The elevation grew greater and greater, and my ears ached as we made our ascent into that world. I forced myself to yawn. I chewed the inside of my cheek. I moved my mouth over and over in an attempt to pop my ears, but the pain shot far into them like sharp, little needles poking at me, stabbing deep inside, finding their way to the innermost part and jabbing at me firmly over and over once there. All the sounds in the car—the radio, the hum of the engine— became distant, muffled, as more pressure pushed into my ears, blocking the sound from them. When I finally managed to pop them, I felt thankful as the pain subsided and the noise around me returned to a normal volume.
The night outside seemed vast and quiet and empty and scary. It surrounded us, enveloped the three of us with its black wrapping, but we were safe and contained in our car, a little moving box in the big, wide world. I felt a sense of contentment to be buckled safely in with the warmth of the car heater keeping me cozy in my backseat. The night could not harm me there.
I was comfortable.
My father was driving, and my mother sat in front of me with her head against the rest. I was alone in the back, and my seat belt was tight against my waist. The radio was playing, but I couldn’t place the music. I didn’t know the words, had never heard the song. It was music from another era, a time before I existed, when my parents had been mere children and had, like I did now, parents to shield them from the harshness of the world.
My father knew the song. He hummed softly here and there, never following the tune, but adding a quiet, deep hum from time to time.
I tried to imagine my father as a boy, listening to the old music, wearing faded blue jeans and a t-shirt and sporting a ball cap and a crooked grin. I knew what he’d looked like from pictures that my grandmother kept in a shoebox inside a cabinet in her spare bathroom. There were several from his childhood. The dusty, weathered container held a few faded photos of her and my grandfather, who had died long before I’d ever been born and who hadn’t been a big part of my father’s life. I never knew why she kept those, because she swore the man she’d married and had her children with had just about been the death of her. Aside from those few, there were a couple dozen or so color pictures of my father and his younger brother playing in the backyard, posing in front of some scenery on a trip somewhere, sitting at a table to eat birthday cake. In pictures where only one of the boys was present, it was hard to decipher which one it was—my father or his brother. They were a short two years apart, and they looked nearly identical in the photos.
In almost all of them my father and his little brother wore jeans and t-shirts, which usually had something written across them, like a brand name or an advertisement for something. One said “Coca-Cola.” Another read “Converse.” Others had pictures of cartoon figures or were stamped with a team logo. The caps they wore always named a college or professional football or basketball or baseball team.
As an adult, my father had still worn jeans most days, but his logo t-shirts had been replaced with plain white ones, which were worn under button-up shirts. His hair was kept very short and tidy, short enough to reveal a deep scar just above his right ear. It was a souvenir from a dog bite he’d received as a boy. It was the reason my father would never let me have a puppy.
I looked at him in the dark. I couldn’t make the scar out. I could see his right hand’s index finger and thumb thumping the steering wheel in beat with the music.
The windshield wipers were moving slowly across the front window like a pair of synchronized performers, swaying back and forth in unison, never missing a beat. Only a sprinkle of stars and the dull headlights of our car lit the dark night, illuminating my father’s hands on the wheel. The sky was a thick, black blanket, and those few bright spots dusted across it seemed out of place, and as I pressed my face against the glass, I could feel that the temperature outside was dropping even more.
It was growing colder as we moved higher and higher. There was such a contrast between the frigid outside and the snug inside that I shivered again, thinking about having to leave the warm car after we arrived. I snuggled my face into the neck of my loose, cowl neck sweater. I leaned back, pressed the back of my head to the seat.
I couldn’t see my parents’ faces, but I could make out my mother’s light hair, which was long and shiny and almost glowed inside the dark car. It fell down around her face and was draped over her left shoulder. As she slept, I could occasionally hear her take a deep breath and murmur an unintelligible word. She was peaceful, and she was beautiful. I wondered what she was dreaming about, or if she was even dreaming at all. Was she picturing being in the mountains? About getting to the cabin and climbing into a warm, soft bed?
I knew nothing of my mother’s childhood, or of her parents or any of her family. I’d never met them or heard her speak of them.
They were all in Poland, and she’d never been back to her country after having left it many years before. I wondered about them. I wondered if they looked like my mother with light skin and hair and eyes. I wondered if they spoke like her with a soft, calm, soothing voice that made me feel safe and comforted. I wondered if they even spoke English, and if so, did they have thick accents and speak in broken phrases? My mother’s English was perfect, with only a tiny hint of an accent to suggest that she had ever lived anywhere other than America. Did her family have any pictures of my mother when she was a girl? Were there any pictures of her and her family at roadside stops on summer vacations? Did her mother have photos of my mother tucked away in a shoebox in a bathroom cabinet?
My father turned to look toward his wife several times, but he never looked back at me. He’d smile a soft smile in my mother’s direction, and then return his eyes to the road before him, where I could no longer see his expression. I could see that he loved her, and that he was happy to be with her. It was in his eyes. He enjoyed making trips with her, driving her up to a place that was majestic and breathtaking, and he was pleased to be able to take my mother to a place that she loved so dearly.
They both loved the mountains, and they’d spent their honeymoon there. They returned each year for their anniversary, and my mother always enjoyed telling everyone about how beautiful it was during the wintertime. The busy season was the fall when the leaves were exchanging their dark green coats for shiny yellows, oranges, and reds. People flocked to visit the area during that season. But, my mother favored the winter. She liked it to be cold and damp outside, while she warmed herself at the hearth inside. She often spoke of the cabin where she and my father stayed, the roaring fires he built at night, the quietness of the place, the trees that surrounded the little log structure, the way that she felt like the world was at peace and that she was safe in that tiny little shelter in the woods. She loved the mountain views. She loved the porch that ran around the entire house. She especially loved the two rocking chairs that sat on the front porch, where she rocked and sipped coffee in the mornings as she watched the sun rise. My father kept a snapshot of her sitting on that front porch in his wallet. She was dressed in a thick, hooded coat, scarf around her neck and furry slippers on her feet, sitting in a rustic rocker, tall mug to her lips. There was no place in the world more tranquil and perfect, and she always told others that what she loved the very most about that place is that she could “just be still there.”
I closed my eyes tightly. There was something that I had to tell my mother and father, but I did not recall what it was. I thought and thought. I had to tell them before it was too late. And then all at once I remembered.
It was as if the world stopped. All of the calm of the moments before was gone, and my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. I felt my stomach muscles tighten, and it seemed as though two big fists in my very center were clenching and squeezing my insides, twisting tighter and tighter, wringing my body’s core, as I realized what was going to happen.
Everything that had been so perfect was suddenly wrong.
I opened my mouth to shout it out, but no words came. I tried to scream at them, but I had no voice. I went to move my legs to kick at the back of my mother’s seat, but I was frozen. I could not move. I was paralyzed and helpless, as I sat stiff in the backseat watching them. They didn’t know anything. They had no idea of what was to come, and I was the only one who could stop it.
I needed to get my seat belt off, to push forward, to reach out to my father and tap him. I had to let him know. But I could not undo the belt, and it was growing tighter and tighter against me, pushing into my stomach so deeply that it took my breath away. It was forcing me farther into the cushioned seat, where I’d be swallowed up in just a matter of moments. I was shackled as the seat’s captive, being kept from interfering with fate.
I wasn’t going to be able to stop it. I wasn’t going to be able to tell them, to warn them, to save them. I closed my eyes. I would try harder. I would just have to try harder. I tried to speak. I tried to move. Nothing.
My mother slept on, and my father drove further into the night before us, higher into the tall mountains. We were way up in the sky. My ears popped again, and I knew that the altitude was still rising and rising. It seemed as though we were climbing that mountain straight into Heaven.
But, I had to tell them. And it was impossible. It was useless, and I was useless. We were getting closer to that moment. We were on our way to the place where life would change forever, where life would end.
I started to cry. The warm, wet tears rolled down my cheeks, and my damp lashes stuck together. My heart began beating faster and faster, and my body and voice were hopeless. I was a dead weight lumped on the backseat with the luggage. I could do nothing but watch my beautiful mother, who I would never truly get to know, sleep soundly, and look at my father’s thick fingers tap the steering wheel in rhythm with the music.
I wanted to tell them to pull the car over. We could stop the car. We could wait. We could sit there and be still until that time passed, until that moment left. We could bypass all that was sure to happen. We could watch the clock, wait, look for that time, let it go, and then move on. We could still make it to the cabin. My mother could still have her roaring fire, sit in her rocking chair on the front porch, and just be still. I just wanted to keep them, to have a chance to know them, to get a life with them.
But, it couldn’t be done. It couldn’t be stopped. Destiny had chosen what was going to happen, and so it did.
The ice was thin and slippery and hard to see. My father didn’t do anything wrong. He could not have known. My mother never opened her eyes. She never saw what was coming for her. She never knew the terror that must have gripped my father just before the end. She would at least leave the world without having that last image in front of her. She would at least leave the world with no fear.
I raised my head. I could see myself in the rear view mirror. I could see my face. I watched my own eyes in the mirror. They filled with water that left them, rushing down my already tear-marked face. I could see me, scared, sad, alone. And then I could no longer see myself in the mirror. All at once, I was gone. Nothing was there. I disappeared into the dark, vanishing before my very eyes.
“Daddy,” I said inside my own head. Why wouldn’t my voice come? Why would it betray me at a time like this? Why were my legs solid chunks of clay, stone statues that could not come to life? Why couldn’t I lift my arms toward my mother? Why was I so worthless? Why couldn’t I help them?
Suddenly, our car’s headlights were not the only ones shining on the road. I saw the lights before us, coming toward us. They were bright, piercing, burning right into all three of us. I felt them on me. I felt their heat come over me, scorching my skin. I stared at them. “Mama,” I mouthed, but there was no sound coming from my lips. “We’ve got to stop.” No voice. “No, no, no,” I tried to scream. Nothing. My mouth moved, but my voice was sleeping.
Daddy hit the smooth, invisible sheet of ice, and the car slid. He hesitated. Would he slam on the brakes or let the car move whichever way it would? What would be safest? I did not know. I wondered if he knew. The car jolted. I felt the movement shoot through my body like a bolt of lightning. I looked up, but saw nothing other than a massive machine of steel with all its heaviness and whatever it was loaded down with, with all of its 18 tires, and the man who operated it moving right into us. The two vehicles were suddenly stuck together like one machine, moving as only one across the dim road.
I heard screeching wheels, shifting weight, and horns sounding all at the same time. We spun. We hit the rail. I felt my body bounce, jerk, jump, and slam as if it were not my own. I could not control my movements. Suddenly my still, rock body was all movement, where it had been frozen just moments before. I could not get a grasp on anything that was happening. There were noises, lights, and then we fell.
I felt the falling. We fell and fell and fell. My heart dove into my stomach. We were plunging and hitting and almost bouncing – the heavy car and all its weight – off of the solid, jutting mountainside, as we went down. We hit the hard ground below us. My entire being seemed to slam through me and crash into the seat beneath me. Every muscle, joint, bone, organ—every piece of myself—hurt all at once. I tingled, throbbed, burned, ached, hurt. I raised my head.
My father was slumped over the steering wheel, blood oozing from above his ear, just where his scar was, and running down onto his jaw. My mother’s blond hair, streaked with a thick line of crimson, covered the side of her face. She lay lifeless, her eyes shut, her lips slightly parted.
I screamed. This time my voice came. I screamed and screamed and screamed. And then I began to fall again. We began to drop. Again. I was saying “no.” I was repeating the word over and over, as if by saying it, I could stop everything from happening, from being what it was. It was all that would come from my lips, just a continuous stream of “no, no, no.”
We were falling and falling, and I felt sick, and I was so scared to hit the hard ground beneath me.
I couldn’t feel that feeling again. I couldn’t feel everything in me move to the core of my body and then rush through me and out again. I couldn’t bear it. I felt myself falling and falling. It seemed as if it would never end, that I was going to just keep falling until I fell right into Hell and met the fiery Devil under the earth.
Again, all at once, I lurched forward, my eyes wide, my throat scratchy from my screams. I gasped for air. I was drenched in sweat. I felt like my entire body was soaked in it, all the way through to my thick bones. I took a deep breath, put my hand to my chest. My heart beat rapidly, as if I’d been running for miles. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t stop my tears. I couldn’t do anything but feel the raw emotion of what I had been through, what I had seen, what I had just been a part of. My parents were dead inside a car that had fallen off the side of a mountain, and I was shaking in my wet pajamas on top of the damp mattress of my single bed.