“That’s seven. And eight,” I said. “Two in a row!”
“The next stop is a few miles,” my father said.
I was no longer a child, but I felt like one on that drive. We were almost half-way through the nine-hour drive from Ohio to Georgia to attend my grandfather’s funeral, and I’d been counting the number of cars that had pulled over due to road conditions. It was a passive-aggressive nudge after asking if we should pull over.
The snowstorm was easing, but the West Virginia roads were slick. My stepmother, meanwhile, barreled ahead in her tiny red Camaro. I was stuffed into its backseat alongside my sister, who was almost an adult herself, and our golden retriever mix, Honey. My father watched the road from the passenger’s seat, and we all listened to staticky top-40 hits on the radio.
I wanted to scream “I told you!” after feeling the Camaro’s wheels hit a glass-like patch of black ice. We spun left. My father immediately began to coach, telling my stepmother which way to turn the wheel and to take her foot off the gas, but there was no human control at work anymore. We were at the mercy of the machine. And it was at the mercy of the road.
As the Camaro’s front bumper hit the berm and was thrust back, redirecting us toward a ditch, the exaggerated silence of the moment took over, and all I could see was my stepmother release the wheel, then my sister’s green eyes. I felt Honey shaking, and I wondered if this is what it was like to surrender. We headed toward the inevitable place where the car would stop moving—however that would happen—and I felt nothing at all. I simply watched.
In the year before my grandfather died, he wrote me a letter. My father’s dad, the Grandpa I rarely saw from the polished side of the family, the side with money, wrote to me. It was as though he knew he didn’t have much time.
I never blamed him for being distant when I was growing up. I figured it to be a lack of emotional bandwidth. He was decorated military, an engineer who’d remarried and had two additional children, so his life was full. We were the warm-up family, the first pancake that you have to scrape from the pan, and even from my perspective, he had no reason to sign up for our collective drama.
At the time, I had been attempting to heal what I wasn’t sure could be healed. I was in therapy for anxiety. My father and I were trying to reconcile our relationship. A part of me wanted to dismiss Grandpa’s outreach with something like disdain, but when my father handed me that tiny envelope with eggshell monogrammed paper and Grandpa’s perfect cursive, I felt important.
In the letter, he suggested we all take a family vacation overseas, to Greece or Scotland. It would be a reunion for our scattershot kin, and he would flip the bill. It would be a way to make up for lost time. He said he was sorry for not doing this sooner. He’d heard I’d enrolled in community college, and he was proud. He wanted to know about my classes. I imagined what a plane ride might be like, let alone another country. I didn’t have my driver’s license, and the idea of being among the clouds consumed me.
I crumpled paper after paper before finally settling on a short reply, thanking Grandpa for reaching out and telling him about my English and psychology classes. Then I asked for details. Commitment. I wanted to know dates and times. While I could picture traveling overseas one day, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t truly see this happening in real life with him. Nor could I imagine the entire family all in one location. My grandfather’s life was perfect. Why spoil it now?
As the car careened, I imagined my grandfather smiling in those last moments, offering a softness that I glimpsed in his cursive apology. He’d found something in his last years that I was still searching for. He’d been having breakfast with his third wife, reportedly happily discussing what he planned to do that day, when he stumbled over his chair and landed cheek to kitchen linoleum. He didn’t make it to the hospital before his body’s rhythms slowed to a stop. A cerebral aneurysm that burst in his brain had taken him out swiftly.
When the car landed in the ditch, nose-down, I slid down to the crevice-like space where my feet had been. My sister was horizontal across the seat. I don’t know how or when our bodies shifted, but we still weren’t steady. There were screams at some point—mine or no, I wasn’t sure—but everything fell silent. The DJ, Casey Kasem, announced the next song. The car was still running, and when I oriented, I saw that I was almost crushing Honey.
As I comforted my shaking pup, we each reported out—I was okay, my sister was crying but okay, my stepmother was okay, and my father told us to wait for him to let us out. The car felt unsteady, and as he eased out of the car, it began to feel like a suspended seat at the top of a Ferris wheel.
I was searching for a permanent place to live that year, still trying to heal what I was beginning to think could be healed. My father and I were still at odds, but our relationship was on the mend. His narrative was that I had forever altered the family dynamic because I ran away when I was almost sixteen. Mine was that he’d kicked me out, and I’d been a kid. Our collective narrative was remorse and confusion.
I said I was sorry day after day, because I wanted to be part of the family again, and there weren’t many of us left. I couldn’t imagine my father apologizing, but I wished for it. Everything and everyone had been changing too slowly. But now it was too fast. My father had lost his father. And we were in a ditch.
My sister jerked to grab something she’d dropped, and the car shifted.
“Hey, stop! Help me calm Honey,” I said. Both of our hands settled on soft fur at the ruff, feeling the tiny heartbeat, surging electricity.
As my father slid around the car, it shifted again, and I worried it’d crush him. My stepmother was shaking more than Honey, and I asked if she was okay, even though she’d already said she was. She turned off the radio and looked back at me, eyes wide. She said she was sorry, so very sorry. She should’ve pulled over.
“It’s not your fault,” my sister said.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“We’ll still make it to the funeral. I promise,” she said.
I imagined my grandfather receiving my last letter and opening the envelope carefully, with a heavy sword-shaped paper knife I once glimpsed on his desk. I imagined what he might have thought about how I had chain-smoked in his basement with my Gothic-clad sister some years earlier and how we both seemed to be surrounded in a cloud of angst and, in my case, fear. I thought about my parents’ divorce and my tense relationship with my father.
Then, somehow, I caught my breath and was shaken back to the moment. My father
appeared outside my sister’s window with a knock and a thumbs up. The car was steady enough to get out.
“Just be careful,” he yelled, “and come out on this side.”
When we were all out of the car, I couldn’t understand how we were, in fact, all okay. The Camaro looked like the dented cans that were always on sale at Big Bear. The four of us stood in a line as Honey sniffed the frozen ground and we waited for a tow. There was so much to grieve and so much to heal as we stood to wait. No one said anything for a long time.
We watched cars as their passengers watched us, some of them pointing, and we all shook—undeniably alive.
“Ten,” my father said at last. He glanced over to me, offering a smile, a sort of apology.
“Ten indeed,” my stepmother said.
“We’re number ten!” my sister said with a mock cheer.
We all laughed. And time, which had contracted for so long, eventually expanded again, resuming its normalcy as we watched the snow swirl. We traded stories about Grandpa and the past, but I couldn’t remember much beyond that letter. Maybe that was enough. My grandfather had been planning a trip when he died, and while I never got specifics, the family would soon reunite around him. We were all okay. And we knew that because we were so incredibly cold.
Jen Knox teaches writing and leadership. Her collections include The Glass City (Prize Americana winner) and After the Gazebo. Her debut novel, We Arrive Uninvited, is the Prose Award winner from Steel Toe Books and was released in March 2023. Jen’s shorter work appears in McSweeney’s Internet Quarterly, The Saturday Evening Post, and Chicago Tribune. She recently won the 2023 CutBank Montana Prize in Nonfiction.