Even now, the smell of peppermint still makes me cry…
We drive the dark streets a little too fast for the weather. Beside me, Gabe crunches a candy cane and drums his thumbs against the steering wheel, singing along to his favorite holiday tune on the radio.
He reaches for the second half of the candy cane with one hand and uses the other to turn up the radio. I tell him to keep his hands on the wheel, but I’m not sure he hears me above the music.
If only he listened, if only I said it louder.
It’s 6:56 p.m. I watch the clock nervously…6:57 p.m. We’re going to be late, and my mother-in-law hates it when we’re late.
At this hour the sky has already turned black, a particularly depressing fact about winter in Chicago. But the twinkling Christmas lights that wind around the lampposts almost make up for it. On vacation from the law firm, with a whole six days of freedom, Gabe is in a feisty and festive mood. Plus, it’s Christmas Eve and we have so many reasons to celebrate this year. He crunches the candy cane enthusiastically, too impatient to savor it. The candy’s sweet, refreshing scent fills the car.
“Your mom is going to lose it,” I say, eyeing the Jetta’s dashboard clock. “We’re going to be so late.”
“Five minutes. Ten tops,” Gabe says. “She’ll live.”
“Wonder if we will.” I give him a wry glance. After eight years of being part of the Lawson family, there are three things I can count on. One, they love to eat, and dropping by for lunch generally means a six-course meal, prepared from scratch by his Italian mother. Two, Gabe inherited his love of life and unwavering positivity from his dad, which I am grateful for. And three, you never, ever, show up late to a Lawson family event…or without a good bottle of red wine.
“You need to relax, my love.” Gabe takes his right hand off the wheel and rests it on my knee briefly, before sliding it up my thigh. His calloused palm—rough from sanding the antique cradle he’s been refinishing, the one I slept in as a baby—scratches against my tights as it works its way along my thigh. The bottle of wine tumbles off my lap.
“Gabe!” I laugh and playfully swat at him. I right the wine bottle and place it between my suede winter boots on the floor. “Get your hand back on the wheel. If this bottle breaks, you’re done for.”
But he keeps his hand where it is. “Trust me,” he murmurs, his smile widening. “This will do the trick.”
“We’re almost there,” I protest, pressing my hand down hard on his, temporarily stopping its climb. “Let’s save this for later, okay? When we’re not late and you’re not driving.”
“Don’t worry, I’m an expert one-handed driver,” he says, inching his hand higher despite my efforts. “Besides, I don’t want you going into my parents’ house all wound up. You know how my mom smells fear.” He turns and winks at me, and I melt. Like always.
His fingers hook the thick waistband of my tights, which sit just underneath my newly swelling belly, and I stop protesting.
Rockin’ around the Christmas tree…have a happy holiday…
My breath catches as Gabe’s fingers work their way past the waistband and into my not sexy, but quite practical, maternity underwear. I look over at him but he stares straight ahead, a smile playing on his lips. I close my eyes and lean my head against the headrest, as Gabe’s hand moves lower…
Then, suddenly, too much movement in all the wrong directions. Like riding a roller coaster with closed eyes, unable to figure out which turn is coming next. Except there’s no exhilaration—only panic at the realization Gabe no longer has control over the car. The tires lose their grip on the road and Gabe’s fingers wrench from between my legs. I gasp out his name and brace my hands against the edges of my seat. We fishtail side to side, and for a moment it seems as though Gabe is back in control. I allow myself a split second of relief. One quick thought that being late to dinner isn’t the worst thing that could happen, after all. An instant to contemplate how lucky we are.
Then, with a sickening lurch, the car swerves. The momentum is so great it tosses me sideways like a rag doll, and my head cracks against the window. Stars explode behind my eyes, mingling with the lampposts’ twinkle lights and creating a dizzying kaleidoscope. I feel like I’m watching a lit Ferris wheel, spinning high in the night sky.
As our car smashes into the lamppost, steel meets steel and everything slows down. I wonder if the bottle of wine will be okay. I think that at least now we have a good excuse for being late for dinner. And I’m amazed the radio continues playing, as if nothing has changed.
After the impact comes the shriek of metal as our sturdy car rips practically in two. And still, the music plays. When the airbag explodes into my face and chest I worry I may suffocate. But then a rush of pain, deep and frightening, crushes my belly—where the most important thing to both of us is nestled—and it takes my breath away.
Seconds later, everything goes quiet.
I try to call out for Gabe, but have no air left to make a sound. With my left hand I reach out, hoping to feel him beside me. I need to tell him something is wrong. My head hurts terribly.
He’ll know what to do.
But there’s nothing beside me except cold, empty space.
Then I realize it’s snowing inside the car.
We will not be lucky this time.