“Okay, Petey, you’re all buckled in!” Jolie tugged the strap
holding the baby’s car seat secure. It resisted firmly. “There we go. Are you ready for a nice car
Petey, cherubic cheeks and all, smiled and waved his arms at her. He was swaddled in multiple layers, a cap tied under his chin and little fleece-lined boots laced up. He was a happy baby and an easy one to care for. After the more difficult, much fussier previous two, the break was welcomed.
Jolie slid behind the wheel of the four-door Honda sedan. The day was bitter cold for February. In the previous week, her two eldest children had been off school for three days because of snow. Kara and Shel had been exuberant on the surprise school-free days. Jolie…not so much.
Don’t get her wrong. She loved being a mother, loved the complexity of parenting, excelled at fairness and discipline. She felt…well, that sometimes she ought to have alone time by herself. Even though Petey was her constant companion, her time getting her nails or hair done or grocery shopping was peaceful, a refreshing change in pace. Now that the sun was out, some fresh air and time outside the house would be nice.
“Here we go!” she announced, accelerating the vehicle onto the plowed and salted road. Snow had piled up in barriers on the shoulders. She checked Petey’s reaction in the rear-view mirror. “Yay!”
Petey gurgled, cornflower eyes bright and lovely. Jolie knew it was awful of her, but Petey was her favorite. Cheerful, relaxed, and easy-going, he made her feel like the best mom on Earth.
A few miles along the road, a narrow bridge extended out in front of her, crossing the gap over the Kingston River. Below, the waters gushed and sloshed, swollen from the recent snow and rain. Her stomach fluttered some- -she never quite got over her fear of heights, and she relaxed the foot on the accelerator. Slower the better, she thought, as she drove onto the bridge.
It looked slick, a shiny ribbon of silver, but seemed to be well salted. She was halfway over when the car hit an ice-patch. Her loss of control was too sudden. In one breath, she was right with the world. In the next she felt a long drop. She couldn’t see the road. An enormous impact shuddered the car, slammed into her.
She must’ve blacked out. Pain was her first indication she was alive. The hurt of it was too great, greater even than her contractions for Kara had been. She screamed, but stopped when Petey wailed. She’d forgotten him.
“Oh my God. Petey!” She tried to turn in her seat. “Mommy’s here, Petey. It’s okay, baby.”
As Petey sobbed and heaved, Jolie struggled in her seat. Whatever she did, she had to get to him. She was the mother; she would protect her offspring. The thought gave her wild strength. In her franticness, she yanked, squeezed, and pounded her fists on the dash. Nothing budged from her attempts.
Somehow, the steering wheel had punched up to her chest. The airbag had deployed, cushioning her shoulders and face from the powerful blow, but had taken the brunt of the punch. Flaccid and useless, the limp canvas hung from the wheel.
Worse, she couldn’t feel her legs even when she smacked them in aggravation. She became aware that water gushed around her car windows. One of them had split, a nasty, smiling laceration in the glass, and water dribbled from the crack. It was then she realized she could not see the sky.
Her brain processed the information. Terror seized her throat and heart when she understood. Oh Jesus, oh God. The car was roof-down in the river. Waves and waves of pain and panic crashed through her. Coldness trembled into her bones. She had nothing in her mind except static. The fear spun from her control, swallowed her like the river had swallowed the car, and she couldn’t feel anything over the pound of her heart. As she toed the edge of oblivion, an image soared up in front of her.
Think of Petey. Think of your son, your family. Think of them, Jolie. Think of them and do something.
“Get a grip. Stop freaking out. Stop. Oh my God,” she whined because what she asked of herself was out of her league. “Okay. Okay. You can do this.”
Petey had stopped his crying and snuffled. He could never be upset for long. Jolie breathed against the blood that rushed to her head. With fingers like lead, she felt along her belt strap to the release button. Pressed it. Her seat belt snapped back. She was somehow pinned to the seat.
“Okay,” she told herself. “Wiggle loose.”
Her body tried to understand her command, but as the seconds stretched and she could not move, she became frustrated and afraid again. Hot tears leaked in a strange new direction. She couldn’t get free no matter how she pulled and shifted. She didn’t have the strength even borrowed from desperation.
Water, with slow, inexorable trickles, leaked from that cracked window. Soaked the ceiling’s material, spread like a dark flood over the light gray field. Before long, it would pool, collect, and it would rise in an evil tide.
“Don’t worry, Petey. You’ll be okay. Mommy’s here. Mommy will get us out.” Even she wasn’t convinced. “Mommy loves you.”
Feeling separate from her body, she cast about for anything that could help. Her purse was on the ceiling on the passenger side. Jolie reached for it, gasped when agony lanced up her spine, and did not quit until she hooked the purse strap with the crook of her index finger. Ears ringing, heart beating in her throat, she dumped all the contents out. For one horrible minute, she thought she’d forgotten her phone, but no, it was under some tissues.
Again, her fingers were thick, unresponsive and the power button too small. She pressed the emergency call button. The phone rang.
Oh please God, let someone pick up- -“911, what’s your emergency?”
Her sole focus was on Petey. “Please! My son…you have to get him out!” She didn’t recognize her own voice.
“Okay, ma’am. Do you know where you are?”
She hesitated because for a second she couldn’t remember. “Water…the river!”
“The Kingston River?”
“Yes. We’re in it. Water’s coming in…”
“Okay, ma’am. Do you remember a landmark, anything more specific?”
“River Road…the bridge. Please hurry.” She sobbed as the water in the last several minutes had risen a millimeter higher. It was no longer a dribble coming from the crack, but a spurting. “We’re inside the car, upside down. I can’t…I can’t move.”
“Ma’am, I’m sending emergency services to your location. Stay on the line with me. How much water?”
Water was everywhere outside, would be inside, filling it up. She thought of the Kingston Aquarium, with the bright tropical fish, white sand, and corals. They had gone as a family for Shel’s birthday.
“Ma’am, are you with me?”
Another millimeter higher and rising. Jolie nodded, forgetting the operator couldn’t see her. Her son…someone had to save him. She had to. “Yes. There’s…there’s water. My son…”
“Please stay calm. We’re coming as quickly as we can.”
At that moment, a metallic shriek whined into the dense quiet. Jolie cried out when the car shifted, and in the sudden jerk, the phone flew out of her hand. It sailed out of reach. The water lapped, slapped the insides of the car, and she comprehended that the current rushed the car. Petey’s fear caused a fresh outburst of sobs. Occasional dull thuds pounded the doors as the river hurtled the car downstream.
With each hit, Jolie’s pain worsened. She’d forgotten it- -or maybe not forgotten, but put out of her mind- -and now it was everything, searing and choking and eternal. Sparkles crossed her vision. Her mind returned to the 4th of July picnic in the sultry afternoon and then the sweet evening air that thundered and burst with the firecrackers.
Water splashed across her face. She revived. The idea of her fate fluttered into her mind as the frigid water cradled the top her head. She hadn’t wanted to think about it, but it was too obvious, too huge.
No. Don’t give up, she thought. What happens to Petey? You’ve got to do what you have to.
But the inevitable was happening. She’d already done what she could. What else was there to do? Tragedy happened every day. Life is given and taken away. That’s how the world worked. She groaned when pain clawed up her spine.
No. No. Fight for it. Fight for your life. Fight for his life. Petey had not calmed since the car shifted. The pain his vigorous crying caused her was worse than her physical pain. She couldn’t hold him in her arms or rock him. And maybe never would be able to again.
“Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,” she cooed. She sounded strained, her voice squeezing through the fear-lump in her throat. “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.”
The song or her voice or both had soothed Petey enough that he settled. How much longer? How much longer until their doom or salvation? Her breathing was labored, came in short, wheezing rasps. Singing hadn’t helped her. Quietly, she gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles were white.
She’d be angry if she had the capacity for it. Relentless pain howled inside, stabbed into her nerves. Breathing was difficult. If anything, the bitter cold water would numb her. Gently it caressed her forehead, sent a tendril up her scarf to cool her neck. The touch, although icy, felt kind. The river seemed to say, “You’ll never feel a thing. Just relax. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“But Petey…” She glanced in the rearview mirror.
In the mirror, a horrid face startled her. A purple, bruised mask spread over one side of that face. Deep red, oozing gashes peppered the blanched skin. Her blonde hair streamed out in the pooled water. The face was a ghost’s face with her wide, frightened eyes. That’s me, she thought, disconnected. That’s what I am now.
She shifted her eyes to Petey. Her son was unscathed. Tear-stained cheeks pink. Eyes twinkling. He offered a smile only a son could offer to a mother. “Hi, there, Petey. You’re a good boy. Mommy loves you. Mommy will always love you.”
Then the murky water veiled her eyes, teased the shells of her ears. Oh God oh no, oh please no no no. At least she had told Petey she loved him. What about Kara and Shel?
They’ll be okay, her constricted mind reasoned. They weren’t here in this nightmare. They’ll remember her when she was buried. But Petey might not. Petey might be with her forever. The thought was insidious, sinister when it stayed like a bloated carcass in the forefront of her mind. That would not be fair. Whoever or whatever was out there, spare him. Spare her precious boy.
Water rushed up her nose. She could lean a few inches to the side, but doing so amplified the excruciating pain into a universe inside her. She had precious few minutes left to escape, but her limbs seemed to have accepted her fate even if her mind didn’t.
Cold wet swaddled her head. Jolie tried to block the water with her hands. The attempt was futile, but she kept her hands cupped, hoping it would be enough. She could not draw any air deeper into her lungs. Her chest burned. She realized belatedly she had been holding her breath. For a few seconds, she gulped down air, but it wasn’t enough to alleviate the burning and she had a mouthful of water that choked her.
With the next few seconds, her lungs were ready to explode. She rocked, straining for freedom, attempting to find an air pocket, but there wasn’t any to have. I don’t understand this, she thought. I don’t understand why this happened. She remembered her husband’s eyes and hair the first day she met him, and she thought of how her children took after him.
Low buzzing filled her ears, she was frozen, and when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she involuntarily inhaled. Water gushed into her sinuses, down her throat, into her lungs. Her hands blindly scrabbled. Poor Petey…he must be so scared. I can’t comfort him. He won’t know what’s happening. Who’ll comfort him? Who’ll - -
Too soon she faded into a long, black abyss where she no longer worried or loved or thought.