Updated: Nov 16, 2022
A short story by Terri Harrington
Warning: This story contains text on alcohol abuse.
Buffalo winters are brutal. You can wake to the promise of bright sunshine and cerulean skies and, within hours, trudge through snow deep enough to cover your boots, and the air is frigid enough to steal your breath—a time when running ordinary errands can be treacherous.
It was a snow day, and Chloe and Paul were home from school, enjoying a three-day weekend. I was cleaning the breakfast dishes when I noticed my bottle of Jack Daniels by the toaster. Two thoughts registered simultaneously: the bottle was half full, and the storm showed no signs of abating. If it continued to snow, we might be stuck in the house for days, and I would run out of Jack. I tried to keep the panic from my voice when I yelled to the kids to put on their coats. There was at least 5” of powdery white on the ground now, and it might be a tricky drive, but we would make the trip to Dick’s Liquors to pick up more Jack Daniels even if it killed me because every night was a party when you brought Jack, right? And the need to get down and boogie with Jack, my favorite fella, was a nightly occurrence.
It’s snowing pretty badly, Mom, Paul, my nine-year-old, had said. I’d answered curtly; we’ll be fine. Just get your coat.
If I had watched the weather report, I might have known about the light freezing rain that had fallen earlier that morning.
I was going 35 mph when I hit the brakes at the red light and went into a skid on the thin sheet of ice hidden under the snow. Time seemed to stop as a delivery truck from the right attempted to swerve around me, but in the end, it t-boned our Toyota Camry. I vaguely remember the sound of glass shattering and pain so intense I was sure my back was broken. When they pulled me from the twisted metal that had been my car, someone screamed—later, I realized that someone had been me. My memory of everything that happened in the next month was hazy, out of focus. Faces hovered before me as I lay in bed: family members, friends, neighbors, a doctor. But today, it felt like I turned a corner. The rising sun peeking through the curtains seemed to call me, inviting me back into the world beyond my bedroom. Sitting up in bed, I lazily stretched my arms over my head and decided to return to work. After dressing, I breezed down the steps, grabbed my coat, and yelled to the kids to have a good day at school.
I was a little skittish about driving—it was the first time behind the wheel since the accident—but it was a clear, crisp afternoon devoid of precipitation. The journey was easy peasy. After clocking in, I took the elevator upstairs and saw Sheryl, the nurse on duty, with her back to me. Feeling cheery and in need of a bit of mischief, I soundlessly sneaked up on her and tapped her shoulder.
“Well, I’m back.”
Her gasp was audible when she whirled around, eyes wide as saucers. I nearly doubled over with laughter when her accusatory frown quickly became an ‘O’ of surprise. She grasped my hands. “Diana, I’m so sorry for your loss.” Her deep brown eyes glistened, and her brow furrowed as she gazed into my eyes. “Are you sure you’re able to come back so soon? I thought you would take more time off.”
Loss?! What loss? This was definitely not the response I had expected. I could swear she looked at me like I was one of our terminally ill patients, and it caused me to step back.
“I’m fine.” I laughed, embarrassed at her concern. “My back’s a little stiff, but I’m healed and ready to get to work.”
She carefully set down the chart she had been studying and reached out to rub my back. “Well, if you’re sure you’re okay.” She seemed reluctant to leave. “Call me if you need me to cover for you.” Peering into my eyes, she said the same words I would soon find familiar: “I’m here for you.”
On her way down the hall, I noticed her stopping to chat with one of the CNAs. The two furtively looked in my direction and slowly shook their heads. I felt tears well up in my eyes but held them back, thinking, why are you crying?
As I went about my duties, other co-workers sought me out to tell me how sorry they were. My response to each one was the same—I curtly thanked them. Honestly, there was no need to get so worked up about a strained back; I counted myself lucky to have walked away from the accident intact with my life!
The day seemed to fly by, and soon it was the end of my shift.
When I crossed the threshold of my front door, I heard the theme song from The Brady Bunch blasting from the TV and became incensed. I stomped into the living room, grabbed the remote control from its place by the sofa, and lowered the volume, pausing to glower at my children. But Paul and Chloe sat on the sofa, neither acknowledging my presence. I fumed. They knew homework came first, then TV. Since it was three-thirty, I knew they hadn’t adhered to that rule.
For the first time in weeks, I noticed how pale my children were, their skin almost gray. Nevertheless, rules were rules. I cleared my throat to get their attention, but the two stared at the screen as if hypnotized by Marsha Brady.
“Well, isn’t this nice?” I said sarcastically. I unwound my scarf from my neck, threw my coat on a chair, and stood in front of them, hands on hips, ready to give them a verbal licking.
But instead of guilt, they both wore the same sorrowful expression, giving me pause to reconsider my course of action. Rather than ranting about responsibilities, I stepped back, my anger sliding quietly away. Maybe I could let the indiscretion slide just this once.
“Never mind. You can do your homework later.”
I turned and trudged up the stairs, my destination, our bathroom, for a soothing hot bath. Lying in a bathtub of steamy water, I found myself reflective. Usually, I would have a glass of Jack or maybe Chardonnay to help me relax, but since the accident, my taste for alcohol had mysteriously ceased. In fact, I couldn’t bear the sight of it. Interesting.
When the clock downstairs chimed five times, I sat up, sloshing bathwater onto the floor. How had I lost an hour and a half?! My heart, a wild pony, galloped uncontrollably; I was blacking out without alcohol, a cause for serious concern. But, like most inconsistencies these days, I chose to worry about it later. For the moment, I had other fish to fry—there was dinner to make and children I needed to convince to talk to me. Quickly drying off, I put on my pajamas and went downstairs.
The children were watching the local news. Neither appeared to have moved.
“Would you mind leftover Chinese for dinner?” I chirped, hoping my forced smile hid my discomfort.
They stared at me with identical emotionless expressions, and I remembered the kids in that eerie movie—The Village Of The Damned. Were my children reading my thoughts, collectively thinking of ways to kill me? Shaking off my unease, I felt heat on my cheeks as I fought to control my anger. Since the accident, I’ve received the silent treatment from both Paul and Chloe. Special dinners, pizza nights, ice cream—I tried everything to evoke a smile, but they remained cold and unaffected by my generosity. It was as though they blamed me for the accident, an unfair condemnation since it wasn’t my fault.
Fuming, I went into the kitchen, where I heard knocking at the back door. My neighbor and good friend, Geena, peeked thru the curtain and smiled when she saw me. I waved to her.
“Hey, girlfriend! Come on in!”
With a breeze of icy cold air, she came in, rubbing her hands together. “It’s freezing out, but I wanted to see how you are.”
I quickly assured her I was fine. “You can sit and watch me re-heat another lousy dinner.” I laughed wryly.
She said nothing and lowered herself into a seat, never taking her eyes off me. It seemed everyone stared at me as if I were behaving strangely, and it was beginning to make me feel edgy. She must have seen the shadow pass over my face.
“You look great.” Her smile was insincere, but I chose to ignore it.
“It was my first day back at work.”
“Diana, do you think that’s wise?”
Her concern was touching, and I felt myself tear up, but her next words puzzled me.
“Are you still taking tranquilizers?”
“Why on earth would I take tranquilizers?”
“They seemed to help you cope. You know,” she whispered, “with the loss of them.”
“Why are you whispering? Paul and Chloe have the volume on the TV turned up so loud they’re not going to hear you.” I grinned, anticipating her laugh.
But instead of her usual chuckle, she shook her head in sorrow. “You poor soul. Diana, you have to accept that they’re gone.”
Who was gone?
Her worry for me was moving, but I found her pitying tone irritating, and I’ll admit I got a little testy. “I’m not a ‘poor soul,’ Geena. I had a stupid car accident. We all walked away from it with some bumps and bruises, but that’s it. Yes, I hurt my back, but it’s healed. There’s no reason to pity me. I’m fine.”
Her eyes filled with tears, and I was instantly contrite for my harsh tone. “I’m sorry for raising my voice, but everyone keeps asking me if I’m okay. No matter how many times I say, yes, I’m fine, all of you keep doing it.” I realized I was raising my voice again but seemed unable to stop.
“It’s hard to feel better when everyone treats you like you’re dying. Well, I’m not. I am fine.”
When I finished ranting, I found myself standing in the middle of my kitchen, holding a cardboard box of sweet and sour pork, trembling. Tears forged a small path down my face, but their cause continued to elude me.
“Now,” I said, swiping at my cheeks, “our dinner’s ready, and I only have enough food for three, so, unfortunately, I can’t invite you to stay.”
With head bowed, she slowly stood and made her way to the door. When she turned toward me, she avoided my eyes. “If there’s anything you need, I’m here for you.”
I told her I’d talk to her tomorrow and called Paul and Chloe to dinner.
Once again, we ate our meal in silence. Or rather, I ate, and my children sat, watching me. A glance at their plates as I cleaned the table told me they’d barely touched their food. As I scraped the leftovers into the trash, I vowed that I wouldn’t cook anything tomorrow. Let’s see if they’ll talk then!
It’s been two months since the accident, and nothing has changed. When I return home each day, I find them sitting on the sofa, watching re-runs. But yesterday, I couldn’t take the quiet anymore. I stomped into the living room, snatched the remote, and shut off the TV.
“What is wrong with everybody?” I shouted. “Why won’t anyone talk to me?”
Paul’s eyes, once bright and full of joy, dropped to his lap as he gently shook his head. When he looked up, I swear there was abject pity in his eyes. Teardrops slowly dripped down Chloe’s sweet face, landing on her folded hands. I dropped to my knees, head in hands, confused and defeated.
It’s been three months since the accident, and day by day, I have become more immune to my family’s behavior. Lately, I think of the happy days when a glass of Jack or wine made me forget my worries and my mouth waters for a small taste. Today I slowed the car when I passed Dick’s Liquors but didn’t stop.
Tomorrow I might.