*CONTAINS SENSITIVE CONTENT - DEATH OF LOVED ONES*
Grace had no idea where her end destination would be. She just needed to get away. Get away from the whispers. Away from the pitiful looks. Away from this place.
She bought a ticket at the station for the next departing train. She didn’t even remember where it was headed. She didn’t really care as long as it was anywhere but here.
As she leaned her forehead against the cool glass of the window, she scanned the landscape of the town she had called home for the past seven years. She couldn’t imagine staying here after all that had happened. She hoped it would only take a few days away to clear her mind enough to come up with a plan. She would have to come back soon; she had only packed for a handful of days. No matter how painful, she would need to return home, even if it was just long enough to pack whatever she decided to keep for her next life.
Next life. What would that look like? And why was she spared? Why was she afforded the ability to keep living? If you could call it that. Why her and not them?
She had asked herself these same questions, among others, about a million times over the last few months. She knew she would never know the answers. They were merely rhetorical questions, and she was pretty sure she wasn’t the only one asking them.
Grace was truly at a complete loss. No family to turn to. No job to support her. She had spent the last two months pushing away her friends and anyone else who tried to care for her. She was utterly alone, except for her grief, which unfortunately kept her company, taking up every bit of the emptiness inside of her.
She had nowhere to go and only one place she couldn’t stay. As she watched towns go by out the train window, her most pressing question became, how far away did she need to get from the place that haunted her memories? If she could answer that, she could determine where she should settle.
She took out her phone, the lock screen photo of her husband and children staring back at her. She quickly swiped up to unlock the screen and touched her maps app. Unsure of the direction the train was heading, she pulled out her ticket to remind herself of where she was bound. Maysville, Kentucky, wherever the hell that was.
She boarded the train in Charleston, West Virginia, about 30 minutes north of her home in Comfort, WV. Comfort. She chuckled uncomfortably as a knot formed in her throat, just thinking of the irony in that word. At one time, she did live a comfortable life in Comfort. And then, one day, that comfort was stripped from her, and she has felt barren every day since.
Their town’s name was a little joke between her and her husband, Stephen. “How can you not live comfortably in Comfort?” he used to say. They would laugh, although it’s not really funny. It must have been the way he said it. She suddenly wasn’t sure and didn’t know whether to cherish the memory or force it out of her mind.
Grace looked back to her map to search points west, looking for Maysville, Kentucky. She found it sitting in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.
She was used to living in small towns. Comfort only had 300-some people in it, and everyone knew everyone else. She didn’t want to start her next life in a place that small. She wanted to be somewhere large enough that she could remain anonymous for the most part. She Googled Maysville and found that it was considerably larger, although she guessed just about everywhere was. With a population of almost 9,000, Grace thought she could make this place her new home for her next life. The next life that she would be living all alone.
Grace’s eyes began to fill with tears, and she could feel a tightening in her chest. She dug through her shoulder bag for tissues, trying to catch the tears before they fell fast and hard. Though she attempted to control them, her breaths came in short sobs. Soon she felt dizzy, and her vision blurred. Then everything went black.
When she came to and opened her eyes, Grace was surrounded by four strangers, each with a concerned look on their face. They began firing questions at her. “Are you okay?” “Ma’am, how many fingers am I holding up?” “Do you need to lie down? We should get her to lie down.” “What is your name, ma’am? Can you tell us your name?”
Grace straightened in her seat, rubbing her face and pulling her collarbone-length hair off her neck. She felt hot. She felt rattled and embarrassed. She felt overwhelmed by the presence of these people occupying her space and wanted them gone. She took the hair tie that she had around her wrist and pulled her hair into a ponytail.
“I’m fine, really. Sorry to scare you all.”
“Ma’am, are you sure you don’t need medical attention?”
“No, thank you. It was just a bit of anxiety, that’s all.”
“Yes, though some water might be nice and a cool cloth for my neck.” Grace felt the only way to rid herself of these do-gooders was to give them something to do. Sure enough, they all scattered back to their nearby seats, with one older gentleman returning with bottled water and a damp towel.
“Here you go,” he said, handing both items to her. “My name is Michael. I’m sitting right behind you. If you need anything, just holler.” He smiled at Grace, and she watched a faint dimple form on his left cheek.
Stephen had dimples. They showed up even when he was trying not to smile. Grace missed those dimples, missed his smile. She missed everything about him, even the little things that irritated her. Like when he dropped his dirty laundry on the floor right next to the basket or left toast crumbs all over the kitchen counter. But she mostly missed when he wrapped her up into his arms and held her tight, kissing the top of her head, whispering “I love you so much” into her hair. She missed seeing the way the kids looked at him like he was their superhero. She missed how they all felt safe and beloved when they were around him.
“Thank you” Grace smiled back at him, but she doubted that it reached her eyes and looked as sincere as Michael’s did to her.
She placed the towel on the back of her neck and took a long sip of the water. She reached into her bag for something to quell the uneasiness in her stomach. She found a bag of pretzels, pulled one out, and took a bite. It tasted stale. Grace remembered the day she packed them.
It was a sweltering day in July. Grace had promised the kids the week before that she would take them to the zoo. They woke that morning full of energy, and despite the heat, she decided it was a good day for them to expel that energy outside. Six-year-old Allie began to chant, “Zoo! Zoo! Zoo!” Then four-year-old Jack chimed in, calling out the names of animals he couldn’t wait to see. How do you say no to that? Grace thought. You don’t. So it was off to the zoo, kids slathered in sunscreen and hats, as protected as they could be.
Grace had tossed a Ziplock bag of pretzels and Goldfish crackers into her purse to stave off minor hunger pangs as they toured the zoo. She remembered Allie and Jack both wanting the Goldfish, and they shared the bag, leaving the pretzels untouched. As she gazed out the train window, looking up to the blue sky, she recalled their little heads pressed together, their tiny hands taking turns digging in the bag for the orange crackers. Grace closed her eyes and cried as silently as she could.
Just two weeks after that zoo trip, Jack, Allie, and Stephen were taken from her. The noise from the train could not drown out the memory of the sound she heard that night. It was a sickening sound, but a slow-motion replay of the accident was what she saw each night when she tried to sleep.
Friday night was Pizza Night at their house. This particular Friday was a night out at their favorite pizzeria right outside of town. Stephen worked later than usual that day, so he met Grace and the kids there. After enjoying dinner together, the kids wanted to ride home with Daddy, Grace following behind.
Every once in a while, she could see Allie and Jack turning in their seats, trying to see her, hands waving at her feverishly. She waved back and motioned to them to face forward each time. Even though it was close to bedtime, Grace could see that the kids were too stimulated to get to sleep any time soon. She imagined letting them stay up for a movie, the four of them snuggling up on the couch together. A beautiful start to their weekend.
Less than five minutes from home, a pickup truck crested a hill heading towards them in their lane. It collided head-on with Stephen’s SUV.
The squeal of tires on the blacktop. The crunch of the metal. The shattering of glass. The heart-wrenching wail that escaped Grace’s throat.
She slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road to avoid the wreckage in front of her. Though she doesn’t entirely recall, she ran directly to the mangled SUV containing her family. She called their names. She tried desperately to reach their bodies. She wanted to shake them awake. She screamed, she cried, she banged her fists on the car. All to no avail. None of it roused her family. None of it brought them back to life.
It’s been three months. Three months of silence where there was once conversation and laughter. Three months with no hugs, no kisses, no one to take care of. Three months of small-town gossip, pity in the form of casseroles, and whispers of “bless her heart” as she passes by. She couldn’t take it anymore, so she boarded this train to anywhere.
She heard the announcement, “Next stop, Maysville, Kentucky.” She gathered her things, preparing to depart the train and enter the possible beginning of her next life. She would spend a few days deciding if this was the right place to start over with the guidance of Stephen, Allie, and Jack each step of the way.