TEN YEARS EARLIER...
If I lived in a parallel universe, maybe I wouldn’t have taken the bait. Maybe I wouldn’t have found myself behind the wheel of a car, barreling down a hill, straight for a white pine. Maybe my life would’ve been different.
But this is my universe. My life. My problem.
Mom had parked her SUV—an early Christmas gift from Dad—at the top of the driveway, making it easier to load party supplies. Sunlight glinted off the shiny black paint and the vehicle’s tinted windows.
Except for a few icy patches, the sun had melted most of yesterday’s snow off the tarmac, leaving behind a steep rectangle of blacktop. On either side, the landscape remained hidden under a layer of pure white, all the way down to the plowed street.
“Let’s drive!” my sister shouted. Two years older, she was always telling me what to do. Being my eighth birthday didn’t win me any slack. If anything, it made her meaner. “Race you!” Deya launched herself toward the front passenger door.
With a squeal, I sped around to the driver’s side, party dress flapping. Clambering into the front seat, I slid into place and buckled up before she could shove me out of the victory throne.
Deya slithered into the front passenger seat—she was still skinny back then—and punched me in the arm, but the pain was worth it.
My day; my turn.
While I pretended to steer, she produced a key and slipped it into the ignition.
“What are you doing?” Messing with the key wasn’t smart.
Mom would be ticked. Not that she ever got mad at Deya. That’s why my sister was so cocky. She got away with pretty much anything.
“We need music if we’re going for a ride.” She turned the key and the console screen lit. “Mm, let’s see.”
“Pick something I like.”
She huffed. “Uh, why?”
“Because it’s my birthday.”
“No, it’s my birthday, so I get to choose.” She mimicked a whine I wasn’t making and pressed buttons until a pop station came on. “Yeah,” she murmured, “I like this song…” “Chasing Pavement” by Adele.
“I’m so sick of that one.” This time my whine was genuine. It was my birthday, and I should’ve been allowed to choose. I reached for the tuner.
Deya swatted my hand. “You’re supposed to be driving. Pay attention to the road!” She thumped me in the arm again.
“Ow!” I turned my eyes back to the driveway.
“This one’s the windshield wiper.” Deya flipped a switch.
“Stop. It’s not raining.” I tried to work out how to turn off the wiper blades.
Meanwhile Deya had cranked the music until the bass shook the windows and door panels. She shouted something I couldn’t hear, then jumped out and slammed the door.
Ignoring the wipers still sweeping the windshield, I stretched for the dial, but Adele faded out before I reached it. Something inside the SUV clicked to a double beat. I looked around, not sure what the sound meant.
Huffing, I turned back to the windshield. The driveway was moving.
No, not the driveway—the car.
Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down” intruded, so loud it drowned out my shrieks.
The music banged the walls and my eardrums. I couldn’t think.
“Deya! How do I stop this thing?”
I was eight years old. I didn’t know where the emergency brake was; I didn’t know there was such a thing.
Our driveway was straight and steep, and directly across the street stood an enormous pine.
“That old tree’s gotta be two hundred, easy,” Dad once said.
A swish of brown moved across the rearview mirror, but there wasn’t time to work out what it was.
I wrenched at the door; it wouldn’t open. My hands shook as I groped at the buttons, trying to find the lock release, while panic had turned my fingers numb.
I pressed a switch and the window slid down. Triumph. “Help!”
My head spun, but there was no one in sight.
Stop the car, Brianna! Stop the car!
I slid down the leather seat, tried to reach the pedals with the tips of my red-sequined party shoes, but my legs were too short and the seatbelt held me back.
I’d buckled up like I was supposed to, like Dad always told me. Great thinking, Brianna.
With a cry, I pulled at the door again. One of the buttons had to unlock it.
The car rolled, picking up speed like a log on a water coaster heading for the big splash. Except this was going to be a big Crash!
Then I saw them, an older lady pushing a purple stroller along the sidewalk. She was feet from the bottom of the drive.
If I didn’t stop the car, I’d hit them.
“Look out!” I wailed.
The lady froze as the car barreled toward her on a collision course.
“Look out!” I screeched.
That last shout revived her. Blinking, she jumped backward, pulling the stroller with her.
I looked the other way and screamed. A blue van zoomed along the street.
The SUV streaked across the road right in front of the other vehicle. Brakes squealed. I shrieked.
The shiny black hood of Mom’s new SUV met the massive silver-gray trunk and buckled. I felt the shock wave, heard the crunch and the airbag’s explosion. My head snapped back. White flashed before my eyes, followed by stars which morphed into an endless midnight sky.
I woke with a groan, eyes fluttering. I didn’t want to open them, but blinking can’t be helped when you’re swimming in and out of consciousness.
Mom stood outside the shattered driver’s side window, body stiff, staring at me.
My quivering lips were stilled by cold fear.
I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing the shattered glass and crumpled metal would disappear.
A breathless voice stuttered, “Is sh-she all right?”
Cautiously, I opened my eyes.
Mom drew a sharp breath that whistled between her teeth. “Yes.” There was no relief in her voice, only fury.
No great surprise. I’d destroyed her new car and almost run down a kid in a stroller and an old lady.
And I couldn’t explain why. I couldn’t say anything.
So I remained silent.