“I don’t want mac and cheese again!” Gracie whined as I plopped a small helping onto her plate. She was right to complain; we’d had it four nights in a row. My cheque hadn’t lasted as long as usual and the week had been rough. I had to stretch our dollars as far as they would go, and we’d hit our limits.
“How about if I add some hot dog pieces on there too?”
“Okay, Mommy,” she replied in her squeaky three-year-old voice. “But can we have peamut butter sammiches tomorrow?”
I chuckled. “You can have anything you want. Maybe we can even pick up a pizza!”
“Yay!” she squealed, throwing her arms straight up in the air, sending cheesy pasta airborne.
“Who’s my Doodlebug?”
Gracie was my perfect cherub – blond, ringlet pigtails, chestnut eyes and that one dimple on her right cheek. She was the essence of eternal hope and endless happiness. Even at that moment, watching her pierce the orange elbow pasta onto her fork with such determination, gobbling every bite even though she’d rather have a proper home cooked meal, my little Doodlebug kept a joyful smile on her face.
My childhood lacked luxuries, but Daddy made sure we never wanted for nothing. He worked three jobs so Mama could raise us herself. Our bodies stayed clothed for the seasons, our tummies were full and there was always a roof over our heads. When I found out I was pregnant at sixteen, I promised my tiny human that no matter how tough life got, she would want for nothing, just like me. But life had other plans. After Mama, Daddy and Tyson died in that crash, I had no one to help me raise Gracie and nowhere to call home. I didn’t know what our future looked like. Gracie’s daddy was useless. He even questioned if she was his daughter, suggesting he, “wasn’t the only one.” I’d often cry myself to sleep at night, wondering if we’d make it, if I would fail to keep my promise to her.
“I have to charge you more,” said Sally Jamieson as I dropped Gracie off at the apartment upstairs.
“What?” I replied, with a shriek I hadn’t planned on releasing. “That’s not what we agreed.”
“Your kid cries for you all night and I’m losing sleep. You want me to cradle her and be up all night with her, it’ll cost more.”
“Look, I’m already late for work.” I passed Gracie into her arms along with her overnight bag. “Can we discuss this in the morning?”
“I’ll need the balance when you pick her up,” Sally said with a cold look. “Or you can find another sitter. See you in the morning.” She closed the door behind her. How could she screw me like that? I thought I’d found a nice neighbour, willing to help us out, but Gracie and I were nothing more than a paycheque to Sally. I stood there on her doorstep trying to calculate how much money would remain after I paid rent and bought groceries. It would be another week of mac and cheese for us. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to give Gracie fruit or veggies, or anything that didn’t come in a box.
“You’re late again,” said Stu as I ran through the doors to the diner. He was a miserable, lanky middle-aged man, covered in grease and five o’clock shadow, hell bent on pulling everyone around him into his pit of misery.
“I’m sorry.” I said as I tossed my purse behind the counter and tied my apron around my waist, hoping my new boss wouldn’t fire me. “There were some issues with my nanny…”
“Guess you mistook me for someone who gives a shit. You have customers waiting for you.” He pointed his greasy spatula toward the booth by the window. “Go!”
I ran over to an elderly couple playing footsies under the table. “Hi there. Sorry to keep you waiting. Can I get you something to drink first?”
“Yes, dear,” the wife replied with a kind smile. “We’ll each have a coffee and, if you wouldn’t mind, could you please bring us two meatloaves with a side of mashed potatoes? His with gravy, mine without.”
“Sure thing,” I said, scribbling their order into my notebook. “Anything else?”
“Just the meatloaf for now, dear,” said the husband. “We’ll get dessert once we choose something from the menu.”
The woman laughed. “Stan, why even bother looking? You always get the banana cream pie.”
“Maybe tonight I’d like to try something new.”
Their eyes stayed connected as they teased each other. There was so much love between them and I envied them in that moment, even though I knew nothing about them. I’d never seen them before. Most people in town were new faces since Gracie and I didn’t socialize too much. We’d only been in town a year, and between work and trying to raise a child with no money, it didn’t give us much time to mingle with the locals. I’d met more townspeople since starting at the diner a week before. So far though, I wasn’t a fan of the town. Everyone I’d met was curt, cranky or crude. Maybe it was time to find another home.
When the diner cleared out of everyone but the old couple, I wiped the counter hoping to get out early. Maybe I could grab Gracie from Sally’s and save myself the new overnight rate. I pondered asking Stu for a raise, but I didn’t think he’d sympathize much. The old couple waved me over.
“You ready for dessert?” I asked, pulling out my notepad. “Are we going to try something new and exciting?”
The woman looked at her husband. “Well?”
He scanned his menu, twisting his lips and chewing on the inside of his cheek as he inspected each item on the short dessert list with meticulous consideration. He furrowed his brow, exhaled and said, “I think I’ll try… the…banana cream pie.”
“You rebel, you,” said his wife with a chuckle. “Two forks, please.” I laughed and took their menus away.
“Janette!” Stu bellowed from the kitchen. “Get in here!”
“It’s Janey,” I corrected him as I walked back to where he stood. He held a wad of cash in his hand and he was shaking his head. “You thought you could steal from me and I wouldn’t notice?”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t…”
“The till is short by forty bucks,” he said, fanning the bills against his fingers. “Where’s the rest?”
“I don’t know. That old couple hasn’t paid their bill yet. Maybe you miscounted?”
“Are you calling me an idiot?” he snapped, as spit flew from his mouth and smacked against my cheek. “Get your shit and get the hell out of my sight, before I call the cops.”
“Stuart Middleton!” said a stern voice from the other side of the counter. It was the old woman from the booth. She held her hands on her hips and tapped her foot on the floor, shaking her head in disapproval. “I know your mother would not appreciate hearing about how you speak to your staff! And to a lady?”
Stu shrivelled up like a scolded dog. “Just get out of here,” he whispered to me.
“Fine, whatever. This job sucks anyways.” I grabbed my purse and tossed my apron on the counter, then stormed out of the diner. Standing outside, I fought like hell to stifle the tears burning my eyes. The job sucked. I came home at night stinking like the deep fryer and stale coffee, I’d feel gross from Stu’s uninvited glances whenever I bent down to pick something up, and serving people food wasn’t exactly glamorous work, but it paid our bills. Sally would expect more money in the morning and I had nothing to give her. As I was about to break down and lose all my shit, a hand rested on my shoulder.
“Can we drive you home, dear?” said the old woman. “Do you live far?”
“Thanks, but I can take the bus,” I said, reaching into my purse and fiddling for change as the bus pulled up across the street.
“Nonsense,” she replied. “Where do you live?”
“Over on Howerton. The walk-up apartments.”
“Perfect. We live on Smithfield so it’s on our way.” She reached into her purse for a tissue and placed it in my hand. “Stu’s always been gruff. He’s had a tough go at life, but he had no place speaking to you that way.”
“I didn’t steal…”
“We know. He’s also never been the sharpest tool. He miscounted, but he won’t admit that to you. Come on, let’s get you home.”
“Thank you,” I replied, cleaning my face. We climbed into an rusty, old Chevy pickup parked outside the diner and drove toward the apartment complex. As I sat wedged in between them in the front seat, I’d learned the old couple were Stan and Connie Aberdeen. They’d lived in Summerhill their entire lives. In fact, they were highschool sweethearts and a walking cliche. Stan had been the star quarterback and Connie was head cheerleader. They married right out of high school and even went off to college together. Stan inherited the family business and Connie worked at the diner before Stu bought it. A sudden cancer diagnosis, followed by a hysterectomy stifled their plans for a large family and Connie could never conceive children of her own. It had always been just the two of them, along with many dogs and animals on their small farm. Life had dealt them some brutal punches, but they remained happy, kind and so positive. About everything.
“We’ll wait here,” said Stan, as I hopped out of the truck. “Just until you get inside.”
“Thanks, but you don’t have to stay. I’m going to run upstairs and pick up my daughter first.”
“You have a child?” Connie asked, climbing back into her seat. “How old is she?”
“Gracie just had her third birthday last week.” Then the tears burst from my eyes.
“What’s the matter, Janey?” Connie asked, as she slid out of the truck and wrapped her arms around me. Her cradle felt safe.
After I’d explained the situation with the babysitter and my struggle to afford real food, daycare, my apartment, or even a birthday cake for my little girl, the Aberdeens looked across me at each other and smiled.
“Why don’t you two come over for dinner tomorrow night?” Connie asked. “We’ll make you a home cooked meal and we can chat. Stan will pick you up at five.”
“No, that’s really sweet of you, but…”
“We don’t take no for an answer. I’ll make fried chicken and mashed potatoes with my famous mushroom gravy. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
As promised, I found Stan waiting for me and Gracie at five o’clock sharp the next afternoon. I was hesitant to accept kindness from strangers, but they were just so nice and after the repeated blows Gracie and I had suffered, well, a little good was just what we needed.
“You must be Gracie,” Stan said as we approached the truck. “You can sit in your own special throne back here, just like a princess.” He opened the door to the back row where a child seat waited for her. “I borrowed this from my neighbour who has about a hundred grandchildren. Figured it was safer than having her bounce around in the front seat.” An unfamiliar warmth pulsed through my body. I wasn’t used to the kindness of strangers. I wasn’t used to the kindness of anyone.
I felt bad for not saying anything, but I didn’t know what to say, other than a thank you, and it just didn’t seem like enough.
If I’d been at a loss for words then, I was utterly dumbfounded and speechless by the end of the night.
“Happy Birthday to you!” chanted Connie as she walked into the room with a birthday cake lit up with three giant candles. I bit down on my lip to steady my quivering chin.
“It’s so pwetty!” Gracie squealed when she saw the icing flowers covering the top. “Is it chocolate?”
“Of course!” Connie said as Stan chuckled. “And you get the first taste!” She handed Gracie a fork and said, “Go ahead. Dig in!” Gracie looked at me with confusion with the fork gripped in her hand. I nodded in permission. She aimed her fork and attacked the cake with a look of determination and pure bliss. In no time, she was wearing more cake than she’d consumed and I sat there with blurry eyes, watching my little Doodlebug exude joy I hadn’t seen maybe in her entire life. Then Stan stood up and left the room, only to return with three large presents wrapped in bright paper, each adorned with shiny ribbon and a giant bow.
As I watched Gracie tear the paper from the gifts, discovering a new doll, a teddy bear and a building block set, I couldn’t contain my emotions. “I don’t even know what to say. Why did you do this for us?”
Connie sat down next to me, gave me a fresh tissue and said, “Because you looked like you needed some light. We’re all alone in this world with no children to spoil. All of our friends have grandbabies to dote on, but we have only each other. This was as much for us as it was for you.”
“No,” I said, taking Connie’s hand in mine. “I don’t think you’ll ever know how much today has meant for us. How will I ever be able to repay you?” I watched Gracie cling to her new teddy bear, beaming ear to ear, rubbing the soft fur against her cake-covered face.
“His name is Fwoggy!” We all laughed out loud at the ridiculous choice of name.
“You don’t owe us anything, Janey. In fact, Stan and I were talking last night, and I know you don’t know us, and it may be an unconventional invitation in light of us just meeting you. But we would like to invite you and Gracie to come and live with us.”
“What?” I asked, trying to hide the stunned tone to my voice. “What do you mean?”
“We have all this room. We could help you take care of Gracie while you find another job. Maybe you could go back to school?”
“No, that’s too much. You’ve already done…”
“It would be our pleasure. Really. We’re retired and have all the time in the world to help you two.
“But why would you want to?”
“Because we can. Besides, we need some youth in this creaky old house.”
After a week of considering their offer, I accepted and Gracie and I moved in with the Aberdeens. I didn’t know much about them, but they were kind and offered their help. Maybe it was time to accept that there were some people in this world who just wanted to help. No ulterior motives. No mean streak lurking beneath. I’d suffered disappointment my whole life. Maybe it was time for things to change. To get better.
Thanks to Stan and Connie, I returned to school to be a pharmacist assistant, finishing a two year program in less than one. Connie had arranged a job for me with her brother, who was the pharmacist at the Rite Aid in town. One day, shortly after graduation, I came home to find a mysterious new trailer parked on their land. It stood on the opposite side of their farm.
“You girls deserve a place of your own,” Stan said, teary-eyed as he handed me the keys to our first real home. I protested such an extravagant gift, but he insisted. “We’re so proud of everything you’ve accomplished. You and Gracie have filled a hole in our hearts.”
I crouched down in the garden with Connie on a windy fall afternoon, plucking herbs and veggies from the ground before the late November frosts arrived. Gracie played with Angus, the Aberdeen’s new puppy, and Stan stood on the road staring at the sky.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” I called. “You know we could use some help over here.”
He didn’t respond. I looked up at the dark clouds that had stolen his attention from us.
“He always gets like this when the winds shift,” said Connie, tossing another bunch of radishes into her basket. “He lost his father to a twister when he was a young boy. It still rattles him.”
“You think a tornado’s coming?” I asked, keeping one eye on Gracie as she played tug-of-war with Angus.
“Oh, no dear. We haven’t seen funnels in decades. That’s just November overcast. He’ll be fine. Help me get these into the house so we can start dinner.”
After I dressed Gracie in her favourite pink fairy jammies and tucked her and Froggy into bed that night, I stood at the kitchen sink washing the dirt from the veggies Connie gave us from the garden. The day had been chilly, but the breeze that blew through the open window was like standing next to an open oven door. I hummed and scrubbed dirt from carrots, giving little notice to the leaves flying past my window. I looked up when thin branches flew through the air. Then our lawn chairs shifted from one corner of the yard to the next and I knew something wasn’t right. I turned the water off and reached for the phone. Dead air. The wind churned through the yard at alarming escalation. Windows rattled as the wind howled like the red wolves up in the Smokies. When the lawn furniture went airborne, I ran toward Gracie’s room, praying we would make it to the Aberdeen’s storm cellar in time.
God wasn’t listening. Warning sirens wound up and screamed into the night, alerting everyone in town it was time to take cover. Gracie woke in her room, crying out for me.
“I’m coming, Doodlebug!” I called as the lights went out. If it had been a clear night, the moon’s light would have shone through the windows to guide me. But the clouds covered our town in a thick blanket and left us in an abyss of shadows. Memory was all I had to steer me to Gracie’s room.
“Mama, I’m scared,” she cried as I pushed through her door. Debris slammed into the side of the trailer and the wind wailed as though a jet engine flew overhead.
I scooped her up and held her tight. “It’s all right, Doodlebug. We’re going to be just fine. Hold onto Mommy, okay?”
“Okay,” she replied through fluttering exhales. I carried her back through the darkness of the trailer. The trip back was easier, as lightning flashed every few seconds, lighting the way. I pushed through the screen door with my shoulder and ran outside. Flickering bolts of lightning provided us just enough light to find our way to the truck, but in between, we were running blind as debris slammed into our faces and dust stung our eyes. I did my best to keep Gracie’s face covered from the whirling mess coming at us, while twigs and sharp stones sliced my cheeks.
After I buckled Gracie into her car seat, I jumped into the driver’s seat and pressed the gas all the way to the floor. At first, the tires couldn’t grip the grass covered ground, but after a few tries of pumping the pedal down as far as it would go, we found traction and started down the road to the Aberdeens’s. Hail crashed into the windshield, cracking the glass in vein-like patterns, making it damned impossible to see. Rain thumped on the roof of the truck and I wondered how long before heavier objects joined in the beating. Gracie screamed in the back seat, clutching Froggy for comfort, but I could barely hear her over the racket overhead. The Aberdeen house was only two hundred feet away, but it may as well have been on another planet with the wall the storm had put up between us. Thankfully, the road was a straight line; I could find my way with my eyes closed. Locating the house was the least of my worries. The truck shook as I pressed the gas pedal down to the floor. The beast was coming. There was no escaping it. There was no fighting it. The best I could do was hope like hell we would get to the Aberdeens’ before the twister found us. I fought to maintain my grip on the wheel and keep us from veering off the road.
I was no match for the monster’s strength. The passenger side lifted, and my body pressed against my door. I couldn’t get free of the grip that glued me to my corner of the truck. Gracie sobbed behind me, but I could do little to console her.
“Gracie, baby hold on! Mama loves you!” The world went topsy, and we went turvy, as the truck flipped over onto its roof. My head hit the window, and a blinding pain consumed me as everything went bright white. Warmth gushed from my chin and ran up my face. Shattered glass rained over me and my left side seared from an overwhelming, choking pain.
“Doodlebug, you okay? Gracie?” She didn’t respond.
Before I could turn to check on her, the monster made it clear it wasn’t finished with us yet.
The wind spun the truck around and then lifted us again. We crashed down hard in a ditch, and the impact battered the left side of my body. I tried to call out to Gracie, but my lungs tensed, and I only mustered a grunt. The ditch held us in place as the storm’s wrath descended, shielding us from another thrashing. I released my buckle and threw my arms up over my head. I gave in to gravity and allowed my body to drop to the roof of the truck. My mind whirled in unison with the raging tempest outside. The rear window shattered when something flew inside and slammed into my shoulder. My left side ignited in an excruciating burn as a steel rod impaled me to the truck’s seat. No matter what this ferocious creature wished to throw at me, nothing would not stop me from getting to my child. I took a deep breath and pulled at the rod. It felt like I was tearing my arm off with each tug. Gracie needed me and I would not give up. With another deep inhale, I used whatever strength hid inside me and pulled the rod out of the seat and out of me. I screamed as each rib on the shaft scraped against my bones. But somehow I freed myself. As more debris blew into the rear window of the truck, I cradled my face and fought my way to the back seat.
The storm’s fury was no match for the jolt I experienced next. Gracie wasn’t in her car seat.
“Gracie?” I shouted, searching under the every dark corner of the small space. “Gracie!” She wasn’t in the truck. The crash had broken her window. If she wasn’t inside the truck with me, then she was outside, somewhere out there on her own, at the mercy of the storm. As I pulled myself through the open window and stood my ground, a flash of lightning revealed the undulating monster growling at my feet. I had no choice. My body dropped to the ground and I crawled back into the truck. Fighting against the throbbing ache in my shoulder, I wedged myself in between the seats, frantically coiling the seatbelts around me like a harness as I braced for impact.
It’s one thing to be under the protective layer of thick concrete as a raging twister stomps overhead, but to receive a direct stab from its vicious lance – well, that’s another thing altogether. A lifetime of school drills left me unprepared to face the thundering roar of a merciless, bloodthirsty funnel. Its strength was unfathomable. It felt as though my flesh was being torn right from my bones as the beast blustered against my skin. I wasn’t sure I could keep holding on, but I would try like hell. Gracie was out there somewhere and only death could keep me from her.
I didn’t see the tree branch in time. My dim world went black.
I woke up lying on the ground with beams of sunlight stroking my cheeks. Birds chirped and the air was still. The sky was clear all but for a few fleecy clouds floating by.
“Gracie!” I brought myself upright in one motion. I looked down toward the Aberdeen house. It was gone, and all that remained was a void in a sea of debris.
“Gracie? Stan? Connie?” I called out to my family, but only the birds sang back. The remnants of our homes littered the ground as far as I could see. How would I find them? I stood and fought with vertigo to keep from falling back to earth. My sight pulsed as I struggled to focus on my surroundings. When I felt confident I could walk, I searched under the piles of wood and panelling scattering the ground. A large piece to my side would have made the perfect cover for my little girl, so I flipped it over. Photos of my parents, Gracie and the Aberdeens still clung to the wall in their shattered frames; it was a piece of my trailer. I ran to each large piece of debris, tearing it away with a surprising strength as I searched for my little girl.
“Gracie!” I whimpered as I fell to the ground after searching the mess for what seemed like forever. A child as young and as fragile as my Doodlebug couldn’t possibly have survived an ejection from a car during a horrific tornado. I’d failed her once again. My Gracie was gone. How could I lose so much in the blink of an eye? What had I done in a previous life to deserve this? I fell to my side and wept for everything stolen from me.
“Mama?” The sweetest sound I’d ever heard. I looked up to find Gracie, standing atop a pile of rubble, clutching Froggy. “Oh, baby!” I stood and ran over to her, lifting her into my arms.
“Sorry, Doodlebug,” I said, releasing my crushing grip on her. I pushed her away to inspect for injuries. She was unscathed. Not even a scratch. It was as though someone had lifted her out of the path of the storm and cradled her in a safe cocoon until it passed.
“Mama, I flew! I flew like a birdy!” Her eyes lit up with joy and her smile shone brighter than the morning sun. Elation couldn’t bridle my tears of relief. I held her tiny body in my arms again. It was a miracle.
“Kiddo, we’re gonna go look for Grandpa Stan and Granny Connie. I need you to stay close, okay?”
She smiled and nodded. “Oh-tay.”
I focused my attention back to what had been the Aberdeen house. They were likely still hiding down in the depths of their storm cellar. At least, I hoped they were. Hope was all I had left.
“Stan!” I called out. “Connie! Where are you guys?” I grabbed Gracie and we navigated over our landfill to see if they had found safety. The ground faltered beneath our steps. Each uneven mound shifted as I placed my foot onto it, but I kept going, holding Gracie close in my arms.
“Where’s Gampa?” Gracie asked, hugging Froggy. “Where’s Gamma?”
“I’m not sure, Doodlebug. We’ll find them. They’re probably just hiding until they know it’s safe to come out.” Somehow, I got my Gracie back. I wished with everything I could muster to find the Aberdeens safe.
Two wishes in a row were evidently too much to ask. Before we reached the highest point of debris mountain, I spotted something sticking out from beneath a pile of bricks. It was a hand at the end of a plaid, flannel shirt. Then I saw his watch, the watch I’d bought Stan as a thank you for taking us in.
“Doodlebug, you be a good girl and sit here and take care of Froggy, okay?” I sat Gracie down in a small clearing, tightening my face to keep from showing her my true emotions. Inside, I was screaming.
“Oh-tay, Mama!” she said, watching a flock of birds fly overhead. I was thankful for her innocent ignorance as she sat there amid all the destruction, perfectly content to hug her bear and watch the birds. I couldn’t be sure her young mind could even comprehended what had happened. I returned to the sleeve and removed some bricks until I saw Stan’s face. My insides seized and my belly lurched. He was so broken, had it not been for his shirt and his watch, I wouldn’t have recognized him. He didn’t have a pulse and he was ice cold; Stan had been dead for hours.
“Oh, Stan. I’m so sorry.” I caressed his face and combed through his hair, as my tears fell onto his body. He looked so peaceful. “Why were you out here?” I knew the answer though. From the first day I met the Aberdeens, when they’d adopted us into their hearts, Stan protected me and Gracie any way he could. I closed my eyes as I stroked his cold skin. When the storm hit, he left the sanctuary of the cellar to come to our rescue, to make sure Gracie and I had made it out of the trailer safely. His love and need to protect us cost him his life. Then I thought of Connie. Had she been out there too?
“Where’s Gampa Bean?” Gracie asked as I lifted her away from Stan’s body and around the outer edges of the chaos.
“Doodlebug,” I said as I kissed her warm cheek. “He was just so special, God decided he wanted him to be an angel.”
“An angel? Can I be an angel too?”
Before I could answer, I spied the storm cellar. I needed Connie to be in there. I needed her to be okay. I couldn’t lose her too. With careful precision, we climbed over the ruins of our lives and approached the doors.
“Connie, are you in there?” I called as I pulled against the large handles. The doors weren’t locked. I climbed the steps into the dark space, but it was empty. “Oh, God. Connie, where are you?” I was sick at the thought that she’d also been outside during the storm.
I let Gracie walk alongside me as we walked back to the main road. My body was a shell housing my shattered spirit as I scanned the land and called out to my surrogate mother. I shouted, then stopped to listen for any movement or sound, but still only birds and the rustle of leaves as the gentle morning breeze blew through.
I couldn’t deny the truth nagging at me; Connie was dead too.
“Doodlebug, we have to go get help,” I said, taking Gracie’s hand and guiding her to the road. She skipped along the flat path as I kept a close eye, still hopeful that we’d find Connie standing at the other end of the road. As we walked, a tightness grew within my chest as helplessness consumed me. Our family was gone and Gracie and I were all alone. Connie and Stan had given us hope, brought light into the darkness, showed us true love and happiness. How could we go on without them?
I couldn’t put on a brave face for Gracie anymore. I dropped to my knees and released a torrent of tears.
“Gampa Bean!” Gracie squealed and her tiny feet thumped against the gravel road as she ran away from me. I looked up to find Stan and Connie standing in the road just ahead of us. Relief washed over me as I leapt to my feet and ran to them, jumping onto Stan and gripping him in a vise-like embrace. Then I released him and wrapped my arms around Connie.
“Thank goodness you’re safe! I thought I’d lost you. But…” I looked back to the pile of bricks. “How did you…?”
Stan stepped toward me. “I’m so sorry, Janey. We tried to get to you, but we just didn’t make it in time.”
A shiver ran down my spine as he said the words. My eyes darted between where I’d seen his body to where he and Connie stood before me.
“Sweetie,” said Connie.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What happened?”
“Mama!” Gracie said. “What’s that?” I turned and followed Gracie’s little finger pointing to where our truck had landed, warped and mangled from its flight, still upside down and wedged in the ditch. I scanned the wreckage until my eyes met a small cluster of brown fur on the ground. I walked to the truck, no longer concerned with the unstable ground beneath me. Each step brought the brown fur more into focus, until I realized I was looking at Gracie’s teddy bear. I looked back at Gracie, still on the road with Stan and Connie, still clutching Froggy in her arms. When I looked back at the truck, my eyes moved to two little legs, covered in pink fairy pyjama pants, sticking out from beneath the wreckage.
“No!” I screamed. “No! It’s not true!” My little Doodlebug and her teddy bear lay on the ground, tattered and stained with blood. My eyes moved to something in the field a few feet away, in the exact place I had opened my eyes that morning. Another body.
The epiphany should have been clear, but even as I stood there, looking at my beaten body, I couldn’t comprehend it. How could we be lying on the ground in the aftermath of destruction if we were walking around, breathing the air, feeling the breeze on our skin?
Then before my eyes, our bodies and all the debris faded into nothing. The brightest grass I had ever seen rose from the ground in its place. Wildflowers sprouted and speckled the field with vivid colours. As the sun rose higher into dawn’s sky, the Aberdeen house suddenly appeared, gleaming in the morning light, more beautiful than I remembered it.
I returned to the road and picked my Doodlebug up into arms and held her tight.
“I’m so sorry, baby girl,” I cried. “I did my best to protect you. I promise, nothing will ever hurt you again.”
“Mama?” Gracie replied. “Can I go play with Angus?”
Before I could answer, Gracie flew from my arms and ran toward the farmhouse, where the puppy sat wagging his tail, with his favourite stick in his mouth, waiting for Gracie to play fetch.
“Come on, Janey,” said Stan, as he and Connie each held out their hands. “Let’s go home.”