When I come up off the path I see the car and the road. The car has run up into a ditch; the front bumper is smashed in against the moist red clay. The man is standing beside the wreckage. Reese is behind me. He comes up and surveys the damage. Cracked windshield. Busted door. Could have been worse.
"Took a rough turn there, mister," Reese says. "You from town?"
"No," the man says.
"Where you from?" Reese bends over, looking at the undercarriage.
"Near Memphis." The man is quiet.
"Memphis is a fine place."
Behind the car near the road the girl stands. She is sullen and plain. She carries a small backpack.
"Listen, mister," the man says, "I really got to go. There's places I got to be at."
"I understand," Reese says. "But you aint driving like this."
The man comes around the up-ended back of the car and saunters down the ditch. He is tall and lean. He wears a maroon sport jacket. "Cant we push it out?"
"I reckon not." Reese smudges his boot into the soft wet ground. "Too muddy."
The man rubs the back of his head as if he had hair but he does not.
His face is pale and clammy. "Dammit to hell."
"Dont get yourself worked up. We'll figure it out." He places a hand on the crunched hood. "We'll have to call a tow."
"No, no. I dont have time for that. I need to be going now."
"I told you, this car aint fit for driving."
"I think it is." He stares intently at Reese.
Reese sighs: he leans back to me. "Is the truck ready to go?" He speaks quietly, private.
"I think so."
The man looks up. "What're you two saying?"
"We're gonna tow you out."
"I told you already, I don't have time for that."
"It's our truck."
The man stands impatient. "Fine."
Reese gives me the go-ahead. I turn and start off back to the path. As I walk I catch a glimpse of the girl, watching me through small dark brown eyes. She wears something around her neck. It is gold or silver, I cant tell. The shape of a star or a tree. A cross.
At the house I come to the truck. It is parked beside the shed.
I check the tow cable on the front. Then I open the door and step up into the driver seat. I take the key out of my pocket and start the engine. The road is dark and wet and lonely. The forest looks more like a jungle. So much poison ivy. I remember-
Moving. The tall grass swaying in the breeze. The sky, blue and silent, an open canopy hiding Heaven in plain sight. There are no clouds. Only sun and light and that familiar shade of blue. That familiar shade. Sitting beneath the tree, the basket between us. I'm sixteen years old, tall and lanky, a farm boy. I should have been working with my brothers in the field but I am not. We smoke cigarettes and drink wine, me and Charlie and Bridget, though Bridget only pretends to smoke. Charlie is talking, I dont know what about. My eyes are closed as I lean against the trunk of the oak tree. My eyes are closed to the warm spring sun shining down on us like grace pouring into the soul. I remember-
I drive. I take the truck slowly around the quick curves, around the potholes that litter the road. The trees are wet and soggy, the branches weighed-down and hung over, dripping water from their leaves. It has been raining. The river flooded the bridge down by Vern's. It flooded his crops too. The stream at our place is high and rushing. It is brown like chocolate milk. It hasnt overflowed yet.
I drive the truck down the road and then up a hill. As I come to the top I see Reese and the man and the car and the girl about thirty yards ahead. Reese is talking to the man. They turn their heads when they hear me coming.
I park the truck on the road facing the rear of the car. I get out.
"Took a little while," Reese says, coming towards me.
"I was going slow."
"Didn't want to slip."
Reese moves to the truck. "Help me get the cable," he says.
The sky is gray with the high thin clouds left over from the storm. The rain has moved on. I wipe my forehead and look around. We are all sweating. The air is wet and hot and thick like a steaming sponge.
Reese pulls out the cable with the hook on the end and brings it to the car. He hitches it just beneath the bumper. I get in the truck and remove the slack from the cable. Reese yells to start backing up.
-that day, the happiness in it. Charlie and his sister and me. Sitting amid the songs of birds and the croaking of toads and the soft wind kissing our faces. I open my eyes to see them, their beautiful countenances. Here we are in the open, the prairie. The freedom, the lightness of conscience, the peace. Innocence in all its child glory. These were happy days.
They were crushed when the diagnosis came.
The car is pulled up to the road. The front looks worse than we thought. Reese checks it out. "Damn, mister."
"What?" The man comes up and stands next to him.
"What is it?"
"You must a hit that ditch pretty hard."
"No kidding. Ask my neck."
The girl is standing alone on the road. She has not said a word. She grips the backpack by its strap and does not let go. Reese motions to her. "She all right?"
"Sure. She's okay. I'm the one got hit bad."
"Yeah. I'll be all right. It hurts like hell, though."
The man reaches into the pocket of his coat. He takes out his keys. "Can we start it up?"
"We can try."
I watch her. She is young, twelve or thirteen. Pale and thin. Her face is so pale . . .
The man sits in the driver seat, trying to start the engine. Reese hovers over him, standing with his arm leaned up on the roof. The engine doesnt start. The man curses.
There is something about him. Something off.
I turn back to the girl.
She is staring at me.
We tell her it'll be all right. I tell her it'll be all right. We pass the summer and there is no visible change. She is happy and care-free even in the midst of what was told to her. I dont understand it at the time. None of us do. She is beautiful and happy and so are we. Bridget, I say. Bridget.
You got a hair-cut.
Yes, I did. She hands me a sheet of paper. This one's for you, she says. It took me a while.
I take it. A poem. It is titled, Where God Is.
Before long she is in the hospital. Her mother and father and brothers and sisters wait around her. I come with my family. Reese and John, and my sister Emily. Bridget still does not look sick to me. We speak, her in bed and me and my family standing around.
The weeks passed swiftly and unnoticed like a traveler in the night. We missed her. I missed her.
The visits became less frequent. The times I did see her, I could tell she was deteriorating. I began to worry. That Christmas I went with her family to the church they attended. It was midnight. Black veils and incense. Bells ringing clear and crisp into the night. I gazed upon the crucifix. Christ hung in torment. Nails stabbed clean through his hands and feet. Blood and sweat and tears. What was the point? Why did He die a miserable death to save us from our own wretchedness when He could have saved us any other way?
It was the first time I spoke to Him.
A week after we got the call.
We drove to the hospital. In the room, she was barely conscious. Her family was crying. They held fast to Rosary beads, their hands shaking. I came close to her. There was nothing I could think to say.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to but I couldnt. Why is that? Why couldnt I cry?
I had not felt God. Now I did. I knew He was there. He was there but He had separated Himself from me. I do not know which is worse--to not feel His Presence or to know you are cut off from His love. He couldnt even allow me the consolation of tears.
Why are You not here? Why will You not save her?
I loved Bridget. If only I could die so she could live.
She is dying and I am not. She is dying and I am not.
Her eyes were closed when she spoke. She said, Because it was the most loving way.
And that was it.
She stares at me and I stare back. Her face is so grave. I dont know why but a shiver goes down my spine. I am about to smile but I stop myself. Her face is unnaturally pale, sickly so.
She’s wearing make-up.
I never did read the poem she gave me. I couldnt. It stayed on top of my dresser beneath the mess of trash and meaningless mementos I had collected over the years. One day I was sitting on my bed, staring up at where it rested.
I take a couple steps forward towards her. What I could not notice at a distance I notice now. Her faced is caked with white powder. Still I can see the raised lines, the stitches. Her lip is split and swollen. Her beady dark eyes are bloodshot.
I read it that day.
She is still looking up at me. There is fear in her eyes. “Do you need help?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.
She does not respond.
The lines were familiar to me. I did not know why. Beauty, love, truth; they were all contained on that page. She was talking to me.
Reese and the man do not see us. I dont know how many times he has tried to start the car. I think time is running out. “Dammit!” He hits his fist on the wheel. “Why wont the son of a bitch just start?!”
I am in the hospital again, waiting. Her family is with me. Charlie is rubbing his eyes. He is so tired. I sit next to them as they pray, the beads dangling from their fists, the crucifixes. They have a picture book open. The life of Christ. The painting is so life-like. It looks like a photograph. He is tied to a post, His bare back exposed and lacerated as the soldiers scourge him.
Why that way? Why that way when any other?
“Do you need help?” I ask again. My voice is raised slightly. I look at her with the gravity with which she looks at me.
She nods. “Yes.”
Because it was the most loving way.
I look at the necklace she wears. It is a small plain cross.
The Rosary beads dangling, the crucifixes.
“I’ve about had it.” The man stands up out of the car.
“Go,” I say, and motion with my hand. “Get in the truck. Now.”
She runs to the truck. I follow quickly behind. I make sure the cable is rolled up. It is.
Then I fling open the door and get in, she beside me.
We drive away without looking back.