Rachel slowly opened her eyes, the sun was high in the sky, so she brought her arm up for shade. She looked around, disorientated. She was standing by the side of a two-lane road. She jumped the first time a car sped by on her side. It was so close she could hear the radio. It sped by and shook the ground. Her heart was racing, and she found herself blinking uncontrollably, as if trying to wake from a dream.She took a step or two back from where the road met the shoulder, and surveyed her environment closer. She was standing beside a rather busy two-lane highway. It was well traveled with cracks zigzagging from one side to the other and several prominent potholes with in sight.
She retreated into the shade provided by the tall trees draped with Spanish moss lining the highway, buffering the marshlands beyond. The temperature dropped dramatically, and she rubbed her upper arms. Rachel faced down the tree line, looking for a place to sit. The orderly trees stood closely together for what appeared to be miles and miles, except for the gaping hole directly in front of her.
The hole in front of her was ugly and violent. There were remnants of trees, torn from their roots, the bright yellow of old growth contrasting against the dark brown bark. Rachel caught the scent of pine on the light breeze attempting to overcome the stink of car exhaust coming from the highway. Limbs lay torn and crushed into the ground.
Rachel’s curiosity was now peaked, and she approached timidly through the tree limbs thrown randomly on either side of the unnatural tear in the tree line. As she overcame the pile of debris her foot was sucked into the mud created by the deep tire tracks tearing up the grass, leading into the swamp. She stood in the archway created by the untouched trees and stared into a disaster. She grabbed a limb hanging unnaturally and used it to balance herself and pull her foot from the muck.
She slowly stepped into the scene, and surveyed the scars created by untold violence. Tire tracks lay pressed deeply into the soft earth came from every direction. There were several instances of deep holes, where the vehicles may have gotten stuck and they had spun their wheels, mud was cast onto the trees and bushes. The ground was also covered with little bits of papers, and clear plastic. Rachel looked closer and saw the footprints, running over themselves, and patches of tall grass flatted, and held down by the mud. A flash of bright pink and blue plaid caught her eye, unnatural in all the browns and greens. She slowed her pace, careful of her footing on the soggy landscape.She sunk to the ground, as if her support system had been removed, like all the air had been removed from her being. Her knees sploshed into the mud as she cradled her face in her hands. The vibrant pink and blue was the lining of her youngest daughter’s car seat, it could not have been from anything else. The image of her hands strapping Delilah into this very seat flashed through her memory. It was torn and muddied, and most terrifying of all, Rachel knew she had not been the one to take her daughter out.
It was then that Rachel knew she was the one that had created this mess. She reached out and fingered the black shoulder strap that had obviously been cut. She had done this.
“What happened here?” she asked, her voice cracking with sobs, the scarred trees surrounding the empty clearing.
“There was an accident,” a voice answered, from behind her.
She turned suddenly, her legs still frozen in the mud.
“An accident,” she agreed, softly. “What kind of accident? Where are my children?’ Her eyes looked up at the tall figure standing a few feet from her. There was recognition in his voice, and even more so in his looks. She squinted to bring his face into better focus, but she could not place him. She wiped the silent tears from her eyes with her forearm. “Are they okay?” As the thought crossed from her thoughts to her voice she began sobbing, she couldn’t hold back anymore.
“They are okay,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You made them okay.” He squeezed her shoulder.
“What-“ she sobbed. “What happened?” Tears dropped from her chin onto her knees. She looked around at the wreckage that had been left, papers fluttered in the breeze, the sounds of the highway creeping into the solitude of the marsh.
Rachel felt a hand at her elbow, encouraging her to rise. She allowed herself to be led back to the tree line closer to the highway. They walked to a gathering of trees with a rock in the center, she sat down, and was able to see the entire scene.
“You can remember,” he said reassuringly, as he pointed to the hole in the tree line. “Start there.” He rested his hand on her shoulder again.
Rachel stared into the gaping hole, watching the dust dance on the sunrays, and then suddenly everything was dark. It was nighttime, she was driving the Explorer, and the kids were in the back, except for Kevin, he was in front, a perk of being the oldest. The radio was on, and they were singing along with an All American Rejects song, they were all excited they had finally gotten a local channel. It was late and they had been driving for quite a while. They were all tired and hungry, and Delilah had been mentioning using the potty, but then drifted off to sleep, and Rachel was relieved she had decided to put her in a Pull Up after all, just in case. They were on the section of Highway 17 that was between Interstate 95 and Charleston, and there were very few places to stop for a potty break, especially this time of night. They should have been much closer to home by now, but they had decided not to drive through some intense smoke clouds created by a wildfire on their drive through Georgia. They had simply pulled off the highway and had an extended lunch at a McDonald’s with an inside play ground, until authorities reported wind had dispersed the clouds.
Rachel and her kids had traveled to Florida for the weekend, to attend a cousin’s wedding. It had been a very special wedding, the first they had been invited to since they had moved back east three years before, and the whole family had been there. It had been the first family event, since the passing of Rachel’s Uncle Butch, two years prior, and that had meant a road trip to New York with the kids. A much longer, solemner trip, but a good trip all the same, Rachel was very confident traveling by herself with the four children, at least once they were on the road.
The hardest part was getting on the road, the boys were old enough to help, and the girls were old enough to think they could help. However, once everything was lined up outside the Explorer, it was inevitable, some things would not make the trip. Rachel would have to go through each bag and weed out the extra stuffed animal Maggie had packed, and then the extra stuffed animal Maggie had packed for Delilah. Thomas would usually pack twenty pairs of under pants, but only three pairs of socks, and Kevin would pack for cold weather when they were headed south. Then she had to make sure sandwiches were made and in the cooler, and then make sure the cooler actually made it into the truck.Kevin would pack CD’s for the radio outages they usually hit on 301, which cut diagonally through Florida, and DVD’s to watch on Rachel’s laptop when everyone got particularly antsy. Thomas would pack his sketchpad, and crayons for Delilah, because she would probably want to try to occupy herself as he did, by drawing anime characters. Maggie would be happy to read, or listen to her little pink mp3 player, and dig her knees into the back of Rachel’s seat.
Rachel remembered turning down the radio to a whisper after their song had ended, and Thomas had leaned forward to tell her Maggie had dozed off, and asked if he should wake her.
“No, we’ll be home soon,” she said, looking up at him in the rear view mirror. “But not that soon, let them sleep road marker says 26 miles ‘til Charleston.” She continued to watch the rear view mirror as Thomas slid back between the girls.
Suddenly, Kevin grabbed her arm, his short dull fingernails dug into her flesh. She heard herself gasp. She used her left hand to try to pry his hand off of her arm. He couldn’t hear her, but she was talking to him, telling him to stay calm, he was having a seizure. Kevin’s knees jerked up towards the center console and knocked over her water bottle onto the floor, and sending the container of silver change sailing through the air.The interior lights reflecting off the nickels and quarters as they rained down in slow motion. She felt the bottle rolling between her feet. She felt herself being pulled into full panic mode, the pain in her arm, the blinking lights of oncoming traffic. She didn’t think of just slowing down.
“Mom, mom,” Thomas yelled from the back seat. “You’re drifting, mom, mom, pull over…” But she couldn’t, Kevin’s grip was too strong, and she couldn’t make herself let go, she couldn’t turn the wheel. “Mom, mom…” Thomas’ eyes widened in terror, she saw him turn his face into his shoulder and cover Delilah’s head with his arm. He tucked Maggie’s head under his armpit and covered her face with his hand. She felt Kevin’s grip loosen, but it was too late, they had crashed through the trees, and then they were in the water.
The Explorer had stopped moving, the headlights cast their light dimly half under the murky slopping water. Rachel realized Kevin had let go and sat crumpled against the passenger side door.
“Thomas,” she called, but it came out as a whisper. “Thomas?”
“I’m okay,” he answered. “We’re okay.” He sat up and began unfastened himself and Maggie. She turned to see him waking up Maggie.
“I’m gonna get Kevin out,” she explained. “Stay in the truck, sit still.” The truck had lurched to her right as she undid her belt. “Wait, no, I’m gonna help you out…” They all felt the truck settle further into the mud, and Maggie began to cry. “Oh, my God…”
Thomas jumped forward and grabbed the cell phone that had managed to stay in the unused ashtray while everything else was getting jostled and knocked around. Rachel leapt into action as she threw her own door open.
She sunk up to her knees in the mud and struggled against the thick water to get the back door open. She pulled Thomas over Maggie and then threw his sister into his arms and pushed him towards the trees where headlights could be seen passing through the hole they had made.
“Go,” she yelled. She then reached over the seat and unbuckled the car seat and pulled it out the opposite door. Delilah, had been stunned by the sudden stop, but when she heard her mother’s voice she began to scream. As she struggled with the bulky seat she saw Thomas, free of Maggie running back into the water. “No, Thomas, no, call for help.” But it was too late, he was already taking the car seat and screaming baby from her.
Rachel grabbed the luggage rack and half walked have pulled herself through the water around the Explorer to Kevin’s door. She tugged on the door and the water hesitantly allowed it to open slowly. The angle the truck laid in the mud caused Kevin to hang out like a rag doll, she managed to prop his limp body up against hers before she unbuckled his seat belt. Then his whole weight was on her, and the truck lurched again.