A Curve in the Road by Julianne MacLean
Intuition is a funny thing. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, and you look around and just know something bad is about to happen. Other times, it’s elusive, and later you find yourself looking back on certain events and wondering how in the world you missed all the signals.
Tonight, I’m on my way home after Sunday dinner with my mother. It’s a one-hour drive on a dark two-lane highway.
As I turn the key in the ignition and shift into reverse, my mother comes running out her front door, waving her hands. “Wait! Abbie! Wait!”
I see a look of panic in her eyes and wish she wouldn’t rush down the concrete steps as if the house were up in flames behind her.
Careful, Mom . . .
I shift into park and lower the car window.
My golden retriever, Winston, rises in the back seat and wags his tail. Mom reaches toward us and passes an enormous Tupperware container through the open window. It’s full of chicken leftovers from the dinner she just cooked for me.
“You forgot this,” she says, out of breath.
I take it from her and set it on the passenger seat beside me. Winston sniffs and paws at my shoulder, wanting to know what’s under the blue plastic lid. I give him a pat on his big, silky head
“Settle down, mister. This isn’t for you.” Then I turn to smile at my mom, who is shivering in the late-November chill.
“Thanks, Mom,” I say. “The guys would never forgive me if I came back empty-handed.”
By guys, I am referring to my husband, Alan, a cardiologist I’ve been married to for twenty years, and my seventeen-year-old son, Zack, who didn’t come with me today because he had a hockey game this evening.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take some of that pie with you?” Mom asks, speaking to me through the open window as she wraps her sweater around herself to keep warm.
I know it’s not a conscious thing, but it’s obvious that she wants me to stay a little longer. She’s never enjoyed being home alone in that big, empty house—especially on cold, dark nights like this. You would think that after more than twenty years of widowhood, she’d be ready to downsize, but I can’t fault her for anything. I love her too much. It’s why I drive over an hour from the city every Sunday afternoon to spend time with her in the house I grew up in.
“No, thanks,” I reply. “Alan’s trying to cut calories again.”
Truthfully, he isn’t, but I don’t have time to wait because I’m hoping to make it back to the city in time for Zack’s game. Then I have an early-morning case in the OR—a gallbladder surgery scheduled for seven o’clock.
Mom gives my hand a squeeze. “Okay, dear. Wish our boy luck on the ice tonight, and say hi to Alan for me. Tell them I missed them today. And please drive safely.”
“I will. Now get back inside, Mom. It’s freezing out here.”
She nods and hurries back up the stairs, while I feel a familiar twinge of guilt over leaving her alone. I can’t help it. I always feel like I should do more for her or call her more often than I do. But I tell myself not to worry. She’s independent, and I know she’ll be fine as soon as she turns on the TV
Winston turns in circles on the back seat, then finally settles down to sleep for the next hour. I shift into reverse and back out of the driveway.
Despite the heavy fog, the roads are dry as I make my way out of my beloved hometown. Lunenburg is a picturesque fishing and shipbuilding community and a burgeoning center for the arts, and the Old Town area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site to preserve its historic architecture. As might be expected, it has a robust tourism trade in the summer.
As I pass by the brightly lit restaurants along the waterfront, I can’t help but glance wistfully at the sparkling reflection of the moon on the harbor and the undulating shadows cast from a tall ship’s masts over the dockyard. The image is beautiful and serene, yet I feel a pang of sadness, and I’m not sure why. Something just feels off today. Maybe it’s because Mom has seemed so much older these past few months. She never used to refer to herself as a senior citizen, not even when she turned sixty-five, but lately she’s been making jokes about it, saying things like “Old age ain’t for sissies!” and “If only I could remember what it is I’m forgetting to remember!”
Today, when she couldn’t figure out how to get the messages off her phone, she said, “Look out, nursing home. Here I come.”
While I love that she has a sense of humor about growing old, it reminds me that she won’t be around forever and eventually our Sunday dinners will be a thing of the past.
I find it rather unsettling how time has been flying by so quickly lately. What is it about growing older that makes the clock hands start to spin like a whirligig? I suppose it doesn’t matter, as long as I’m happy with my life.
Am I happy?
Surprisingly, I have to think about that for a few seconds.
Then I wonder . . . am I nuts? Of course I’m happy. Why wouldn’t I be? My life is perfect. I have a job that I love, a beautiful home, a brilliant husband, and a son I’m incredibly proud of. In his final year of high school, Zack is captain of the hockey team and president of the student council, and his grades are top-notch. Most importantly, he’s a decent human being—sensible and kindhearted.
But Zack will head off to university next year, and then it will just be Alan and me. I can’t imagine what our lives will be like without Zack living at home. There are always activities to work into our busy schedules. There’s noise, music, and laughter when Zack’s friends come over. The house is going to be shockingly quiet.
Boy, oh boy. These solitary drives home from Lunenburg make me think too much. I remind myself that college is a whole year away.
Winston’s heavy sigh in the back seat pulls me out of my reverie. I glance over my shoulder to see him curled up on his woolly blanket with his eyes closed, which makes me feel sleepy because I worked late in the OR again last night.
I turn on the radio to help me stay awake, crack a window to let in the chilly air, and shake my head as if to clear it. I check the dashboard clock. It’s only seven, so I have just enough time to make it home, drop Winston off, and reach the hockey rink before the game starts at eight fifteen.
I flick my blinker on and merge onto the main highway, switching to cruise control and tuning in to a classic rock station.
It all happens in an instant, so fast I don’t have time to think.
An oncoming vehicle crosses the center line, and I’m blinded by headlights. Adrenaline sizzles through my veins. Instinctively, I wrench the steering wheel to the right to swerve around the oncoming car, but it’s too late. It clips my back end with a thunderous crash of steel against steel and sends my SUV spinning like a top, as if I’m on a sheet of ice.
My head snaps to the left. I shut my eyes and hang on for dear life as my car whirls around in dizzying circles. Winston yelps as he’s tossed about in the back seat. Suddenly, we catapult into the air. The vehicle flips over the edge of the highway, and then we bounce like a ball—crashing and smashing—as we tumble down the embankment.
Something strikes me in the side of the head, and I feel multiple slashes cutting the flesh on my cheeks. I realize it’s Winston, who yelps as he’s thrown back toward the rear.
I want to hold on to him, to keep him safe in my arms, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s all happening so fast. All I can do is grip the steering wheel with both hands while the world spins in circles in front of my eyes and glass shatters all around me.
We crash hard against something—the bottom of a ravine?—and then everything goes quiet, except for the pounding of my heart as it hammers against my rib cage.
Panic overtakes me. My eyes fly open. It’s pitch-dark outside, but my headlights are shining two steady beams into the shifting mist, and the dashboard is brightly lit. I blink repeatedly and realize blood has pooled on my eyelashes. I wipe it away with the back of my hand.
Think, Abbie. What do you need to do?
An alarm has been beeping since we came to a halt, as if it’s confused and wants me to fasten my seat belt. Or is there some other urgent problem? Is the engine about to explode? I quickly shut off the ignition. I am enveloped by darkness.
With another rush of anxiety, I fumble for the red button on my seat belt, desperate to escape, but my hands are shaking so violently I can’t release it. I shut my eyes and pause, take a few deep breaths, then try a second time.
The seat belt comes loose, and I think—for one precious second—that I am free to move, but I’m not. My legs are stuck. I’m trapped.
I fight to break loose, but I’m pinned under the dash. The roof is pressing painfully on the top of my head, and I can’t free myself. I try to open the door, but it’s dented and won’t budge
My heart pounds faster. I feel light-headed, and I’m certain I’m about to pass out from shock and fear.
I shut my eyes again and fight to remain calm. Breathe. One thousand one, one thousand two . . .
“Help . . . ,” I whisper in a trembling voice.
I realize I don’t hear Winston and turn my head to the side. “Winston? Are you okay?”
No response. I twist uncomfortably, struggling to see into the back seat. There’s no sign of my dog anywhere, and the rear window is completely blown out.
“Winston!” I shout. “Winston!”
I can’t make out anything in the darkness, and I worry that he’s injured or dead, lying somewhere outside the vehicle. I fight wildly to free myself, but it’s hopeless.
I reach frantically to find my purse on the seat beside me to locate my cell phone and call for help, but the seat is empty. Everything’s flown out the windows.
Then I hear sirens in the distance, and I exhale sharply with relief. Thank heavens. Help is on the way.
I let my head fall back on the headrest and try to calm my racing heart.
If only I had my phone to call Alan. It’s all I can think about as I wipe blood from my forehead. Alan, I just want to hear your voice . . . to hear you tell me that everything’s going to be okay . . .