Friday, October 30, 2009

Screwback Hill

Screwback Hill
Lea Ann McCombs

I almost missed it. If it hadn’t been for that piercing ray of sun, the flash of chrome in a murky forest…
I took the last curve with my tongue clamped between my teeth, tapping the brakes, and mentally cursing the fools who designed this deathtrap—suicide after an eighteen-hour shift like I’d had.

Preston and his staff meetings. Didn’t the man have a life outside the hospital? Apparently, the rest of us weren’t supposed to, either. He obviously didn’t have teenagers. Lauren had called every thirty minutes with another segment of Why-isn’t-Chad-inviting-me-to-the-Winter dance? and now Morgan would meet me at the door demanding that I check her shoddy homework.

I whipped the wheel to the left and wondered if Rodney had scraped all the graffiti off the garage door yet. Having to look at it every day made me sick. Thought we were past all that.

I whipped the wheel to the left as the sun offered its final farewell and cast the eastern slope in shadow. Rainclouds hung over the peeks like an angry swarm of bees. I flipped on my headlights.

That’s when I saw it. A flash of light against the black forest. With both hands on the wheel, I hugged the inside of the curve and darted another look down the steep bank. A flicker of yellow through the green boughs.
My foot hit the brake and I skidded to the gravel shoulder, sending clouds of grey dust over the hood. Through the haze I glimpsed a yellow four-door sedan halfway down the slope, its nose pleated against a centuries-old pine tree. Six feet away, a splash of blue denim puddled against the emerald grass.

I leaped from the car before the engine shuddered to silence. My thumb jabbed 911 on my cell phone as I trotted to the edge of the cliff and looked down. The blue puddle took human form: a man, sprawled on his back, red slicing his neck like a ribbon.

“Hello…this is Margie Howell. I’m a nurse at St. Joseph’s and I just came upon a wreck.” I inched one foot down the vertical slope and felt the pebbles roll under my shoe. “A yellow sedan, maybe a Nissan…and I see someone lying on the ground. Hurry! It’s bad. It’s Screwback Hill. That last curve.”

I snapped the phone shut and crammed it into my pocket. Tumbling down the embankment, I grabbed branches, scrub brush, anything that would break my fall.

Halfway down, my feet sank into loose rock up to my ankles. “Anybody hear me? Anybody hurt? The ambulance is on its way!” The echo bounced off the distant mountains and came back to me in a chorus.
The puddle of blue never moved.

Then I heard the scream. “Help me! Mommy! Mommy! Help me!” A young girl’s voice.

My blood chilled and I plunged into the thicket, rolling, leaping, prickly branches tearing at my scrubs.
A flash of dark red through the trees jerked me to a stop. My stomach lurched and my hands flew to my mouth.
A Toyota Celica lay on its top, crushed like a Pepsi can.

Oh no! Please God…oh, please don’t let it be…

“Lauren!” I screamed. “Lauren! Lauren!”

The name screamed back at me, echoing from the mountains, mocking my panic.

A bramble tore my shirt as I flew past the blue-clad body on the grass with scarcely a look, all attention fastened on that smashed Toyota with the wheels still spinning in the air. “Please God, no!”

“Mommy! Mommy! Help me!” The voice was louder now, laced with terror, coming from inside the car.
How could that be? The red Celica was compressed into a perfect cube. Upside down, front and rear ends were crushed. How could she be alive in there?

“I’m coming! I’m coming, baby, hold on!”

“Mommy? Help me!”

I shoved through the last thicket and stopped beside the car, panting, doubled over to catch my breath. The faintest flicker of movement caught my eye. An arm, long and creamy white with black-painted fingernails poked through a four-inch space that used to be the driver’s window. No sleeve, no blood. Just a perfect white arm. A beautiful white arm.

I tore off my jacket and threw it on the ground, then dropped to my stomach so I could peer into the narrow crack. Nothing but blackness and the unmistakable smell of blood.

The fingers clutched my sleeve. “Mommy!” Hysteria gurgled from her throat. “Oh, Mommy, you came, I’m so scared, help me!”

“I’m here, baby. I’m here. Anybody else in there with you?”

“N-no. Mommy, don’t leave me! Stay here, please don’t leave!” The voice was pure panic, fighting for air. Shock lurked behind every syllable.

“No, I won’t leave. I’m right here. Feel my hand?” I clutched the pale hand in both of mine and shut my eyes, kissing the curled fingers, thanking God for this beautiful arm. “See? You’re not alone. Mommy’s here. I’ll stay right here with you until they come and get you out.”

I stroked the hand, the fingers with the ugly black polish, and let my tears wash away the dirt. Why wouldn’t she wear pink, or at least red? Something feminine, pretty. The cheap ring on her middle finger had left a green circle and I caressed it with my thumb. Such a tiny, precious hand.

A choking sob, then a whisper all but drowned in that persistent gurgle. “Mommy, I can’t feel anything…it’s like I’m underwater…I’m all broken.”

“That’s all right, baby,” I kept my voice smooth as the tears dripped off my chin. “They’re coming. They’ll fix you right up.”

“MOMMY!” The scream violated the hushed forest and sent electrical charges through my body.

God, I can’t do this…I can’t do this! So what if I’m a nurse, I can’t do it this time…

“Yes, baby. I’m right here. You’re not alone.”

A sob, then softer, “Mommy, I’m so sorry.”

I stroked again. “Yes, I know.”

“I’m so sorry about everything…you don’t know…so terrible. I hurt those people…those black people…called them names…trashed their car…their house…Brad said…” A watery cough.

“We forgive you, baby. We always did. They do too. Jesus does.”

“You do? Are you sure? I hate myself…everybody…how can you love me?” The voice softened but the soft white hand quaked with violent tremors.

I clasped it between both of mine. Why wouldn’t it warm up? Please warm up. “We do, sugar. We’ll always love you.”

“I’ve done so many bad things…you should hate me.” The death rattle.

“No, never. Tell it to Jesus, sweetie. Tell Jesus.”

Stillness screamed through the forest. I gathered the arm to my bosom, cradled it like the infant she had once been. The coldness sank through my thin top and I began to shake.

In the distance, sirens. I shut my eyes. They didn’t matter anymore.

“Mommy?” The voice was a drowsy whisper.

“Yes, baby.”

“Can you sing to me? "Jesus Loves Me"…like you used to….”

My throat was closed. No way could I sing right now. How did it go? Oh God, tell me, how does it go?

“Je-Jesus...loves me—” A sob cut off the words, my air. I curled into a ball on top of my jacket, one hand pillowing my head, the other clutching the icy claw against my chest. I wiped my face in the crook of my arm. “…um, don’t say a word…”

“Harder, Mommy…sing harder!”

I cleared my throat and lifted my chin. An owl peered down at me from a branch above the car. “I can’t remember, honey…um…is it…this-this I know—?”

“It hurts! It’s starting to hurt bad, Mommy. Help me!”

I squeezed the hand, the creamy soft skin that such a short time ago had dressed Barbie dolls and played tea party. No one would know that to look at those ugly black fingernails, but I knew. “Remember our vacation, baby? Tell me about it. Remind me.”

A shuddering breath. “That time at the beach, you mean?”

“Mm-hm. Remember how warm the sun was? How the soft sand felt under your feet?”

A sigh. “Yeah.”

“Let’s go there again. When should we go?”

The sirens took over the night, screaming at us, drowning out this most vital of all conversations. Flashing red and blue lights strobed the treetops, but I stayed on my nest. They didn’t matter now. Only this mattered. Only this precious white arm.

“That other man…another man in that car…is he hurt?”

“I don’t know. Let’s talk about…uh…Florida?”


“Oh, that’s right. How wonderful that was.”

“Yeah. I loved the sea…the dolphin. Remember the dolphin?”

I squeezed the hand as sobs wracked my body. I can’t do this, God…

I could hear them crashing through the underbrush, shouting, and I called to them with a voice that seemed to come from someplace else.

“Mommy?” The voice was so faint I had to press my face against the four-inch gap to hear it. The ominous rattle was louder than her words. “I love you…sorry….glad you’re here….”

“I…love you too, sweetie. Run to Jesus now, baby.”

The hand went limp, but I held on. I’d told her I wouldn’t leave until they came. I’ll never leave her and she won't leave me.

Chain saws and torches fired up around me, promising what they couldn’t deliver. I heaved my aching body off the ground so they could do their jobs. Sap caught my hair as I slumped against a tree and buried my face in my hands.

“Got another body over here!” the fireman shouted over his shoulder. He dropped the precious white arm back onto the ground and jerked his saw to life.

I stared for another long moment at the carnage, then stumbled toward the path the rescuers had made through the tangle of undergrowth. She didn’t need me any more. There were others who did. My bones ached as I forced one foot in front of the other. When had it started to rain?

Halfway up the hill, I glanced back at the wreckage. They had the door off. i couldn’t think straight. Should I have left her? Just walked away without saying goodbye?

They began to pull her mangled body from the car and I wrenched away, but not soon enough. I shouldn’t have looked. Oh, God, I shouldn’t have looked…

The narrow road was choked with emergency vehicles. Radios crackled, engines roared, sirens screamed uselessly. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

I groped my way back up the road to my car and slid behind the wheel. It was warm and dry inside, but my eyes wandered back down that rain-slicked hillside and my heart longed to stroke that precious arm one more time. Just one minute more. Had I done enough?

Somehow I made it home. I sat in the quiet drive and stared at the paint spatters, pieces of the ugly words that still sprinkled the garage door. Tonight I didn’t care. The kitchen window flaunted its bright greeting, but I slumped over the wheel. How could I face them? How could I bring this dark, violent truth into that warm, cozy kitchen?

I forced myself to go inside where normalcy was an assault on the holy shroud that still covered me.

“Mom, there you are! Where have you—Whoa, what happened to you?”

I tried to meet the critical black eyes of my eldest daughter, but my vision blurred. Instead I pulled her close and buried my face in that soft, kinky hair. For a long moment, I basked in the sight of our chocolate-brown arms intertwining, the sensation of those Goth-painted fingernails patting my back.

“Hey, Margie…Lauren? What’s going on?”

Rodney’s ebony face appeared through the screen of Lauren’s hair. Beyond him, through the window, the little red Celica awaited a driver.

I forced myself to pull away and hold Lauren at arm’s length. I inhaled a shuddering breath knowing there wasn’t enough air in the universe to say what I wanted to say. “I love you, honey, and…and you can paint your nails any color you like.”

I excused myself to the bathroom and slid down the wall to rest my face on my knees. Tonight I would cry and pray for another mother who would never have the chance to say those words.

The End.

Lea Ann McCombs is a holds a degree in English from Oklahoma State University. She has written for a number of Christian magazines, including Campus Life, Christian Single and Homelife. Her essay “I Met Your Child Today,” published by Homelife, was picked up for national broadcast by talk radio stations and private newsletters coast to coast. She and her husband Wayne homeschool their four children near Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is working with an agent to have her first novel published.