The Mother’s hands grip the steering wheel as she watches her Son in the passenger seat out of the corner of her eye. She allows the tremble of her hands to vibrate into the steering wheel, blending with the gentle rumble of the car’s movement over the road.
“Well, how was school today?” The Mother asks in a voice pitched slightly higher than what’s natural for her.
“It’s fine,” the Son replies while scrolling through his Facebook feed.
“Good. And Grandma?” She briefly turns toward him, placing her right forearm on the steering wheel.
The Son glances at her arm with a clenched jaw, then looks out the window. “She’s fine too. Yes, she already took her medication this morning.”
“Good to hear; thanks for helping with that.”
“No problem.” His eyes are back on his phone.
The Mother has been out back in the free world for a few weeks now, and this is the first time driving the Son since the accident and after the bureaucratic process of reinstating her license. Each night in prison she was haunted by the screams, shattering glass, screeching metal, and lifeless eyes of the Daughter. She hadn’t blinked when the prosecutor offered her the plea deal of two years. Was that what the Daughter’s life was worth? Two years? The public defender assigned to her case explained that she could get paroled after just one year. She nodded in acceptance and knew that the Son shouldn’t be left to live with Grandma longer than that, so she agreed and signed the paperwork. One or two years could possibly be enough time for the scandal to die down.
After the accident and before the legal proceedings, the Mother mostly felt her punishment through the eyes of her friends, neighbors, and the strangers in her town who had learned what she had done. Some eyes glared at her from the other checkout line at the grocery store, and she could feel the intensity of their disapproval burning into her soul. The eyes of her friends were full of pity, with a touch of judgment. They knew the Mother was a good person, and a loving parent, and what happened to their family could happen to anyone’s. The friends wanted to understand, but they naturally drifted, yearning to put more distance between their families and the tragedy of hers.
The Mother holds her breath and flicks her eyes left and right as she moves through the last intersection before their home. Or rather, Grandma’s home where they’re living while she looks for a new job. Ideally one that doesn’t have a form with a glaring empty box to mark if you’ve had a felony conviction.
As the Mother and Son make their way down the two miles of bumpy road leading to Grandma’s, the Mother’s breaths begin to deepen. She coaches herself to stay calm and trust that the family will get through this. They have survived the worst of it and they will just have to move forward any way they can figure out.
The night before the accident, the Mother had broken up a particularly vicious fight between the kids. They screamed at each other from their bedroom doorways in their modest apartment and the Mother was mortified about the neighbors hearing. She could picture them rolling their eyes at what a terrible mother she must be to have teenagers behaving this way. She couldn’t tell what the fight was about, but she saw the Son’s clenched fists and knew she needed to intervene. Her husband would have been better at this part, using his authority and towering stature to scare them into proper behavior. The Mother didn’t have that advantage, so she had to get creative in her parenting techniques in the years after the Father had left. Starting a new life up north somewhere.
Forgetting about the neighbors and their judgement, the Mother ran to the kitchen, grabbed a ceramic plate from the dinner table and smashed it onto the floor, its pieces scattering in all directions. It worked. The kids were shocked into silence as their wide eyes took in what just happened.
“Enough! I don’t know what you were fighting about, but it ends here. Both of you go to bed and I don’t want to hear another word.”
The Daughter slunk back into her room and wiped a tear from her eye as she gently closed the door. The Son stormed back into his room, slamming the door behind him. The Mother ran to the kitchen sink and splashed water on her face before staring at the mess she made on the floor. Was this good parenting? Probably not, but what else was I supposed to do?
Now, as the Mother pulls into Grandma’s driveway she replays the conversation she had with the police at the scene of the accident. She could hear herself screaming the Daughter’s name as the Son buried his head between his knees, shaking in terror. When the police arrived on the scene and an officer pulled her from the Daughter, her mind spun with a mix of disbelief, confusion, and agony over what had just happened. Tears gushing from her eyes she tried to explain what caused the accident. The driver from the other vehicle had only minor injuries but seemed to be in shock and hadn't sees what happened until the Mother’s Mazda suddenly appeared in front of him, a moment before their vehicles collided in a violent collapse of metal and innocence. There were no other witnesses of the accident, so the police needed an answer from the Mother.
“Ma’am, we need you to let the EMTs retrieve your daughter from the vehicle. Please calm down and tell us what happened.” The officer gave her a pained look, knowing it was unfair to ask a grieving mother to explain exactly how she had just killed her own daughter.
Her voice caught in her throat as her eyes jumped from the Son, who seemed to be unharmed, to the inside of her car. She saw her phone on it’s mount on the dashboard light up with a text message from Grandma.
“I, I . . . I don’t know. It happened so quickly. I only looked away for a second. My mother, she needs a lot of help and a message came from her. I needed to make sure it wasn’t an emergency.” The Mother hung her head in shame as her body shook with grief.
“So you looked at your phone while operating a moving vehicle, going roughly 60 miles an hour?” The officer’s eyes narrowed as he started to piece together how this might have happened.
“I . . . I guess. I thought I saw something in the road and I didn’t see the other car. It just all happened so fast.” Her body crumpled to the ground as her tears soaked her shirt.
“I’m sorry to ask this, ma’am, but have you been drinking this evening?” The officer motioned for his partner to bring over a breathalizer test.
“What? Just a little wine with dinner. I am not drunk!”
“I believe you, but we just need to do this test for our report. I’m sorry to do this, but we have to check.”
The Mother’s results showed her blood alcohol just below the legal limit, but it almost didn’t matter. She had been drinking and looking at her phone while driving and now the Daughter was dead. Other details wouldn’t matter to anyone who heard the story as it spread like wildfire throughout their town over the next few days.
The Mother parks in Grandma’s driveway and watches the Son trudge up to the front door before locking himself in the bedroom that became his after the accident.
They were lucky that Grandma had two extra bedrooms in the old house that was left to her from an uncle no one knew existed until she was contacted by his estate lawyer. The Mother was relieved to know the Son would have a home while she was locked up. Maybe they could help each other, she thought before surrendering herself to the state to begin her sentence last year. Her lawyer was right, she made it out in a year, but she didn’t know if her current state really counted as getting out alive, or in one piece.
The first time she saw the Son after her release her knees went weak in a mix of relief and fear. As she pulled him in for a hug her mind flashed with the sound of his sister yelling at him, then his hand springing out toward the steering wheel and yanking it to pull their car into a sharp right. They crossed into the next lane where the car in that lane t-boned the passenger side, killing the Daughter in the back seat. His eyes widened with a mix of triumph, shock at what he had done, and fear of what might happen next for a 17 year old boy who committed murder. The Mother let out a howl of despair when she saw her daughter’s crushed body behind him.
Tonight the Mother tosses and turns in the bed provided by Grandma. The extra pillows and softness feel foreign compared to where she had been sleeping the past year. This is too comfortable. Too comfortable for a mother who couldn’t keep her child alive. A chill runs down her spine as she thinks about the Son on the other side of the wall.