29 Mar 2012


The Deon family is neat and nuclear: Dad's in the driver's seat, Mom's in the passenger seat, Alison and Jonathan, five and seven, are in the back. Everyone's strapped in, listening to the whines and drawls of the Double Exposure duo on the radio. In the trunk is an apple pie for Grandma. She'll join them when they get to Trail and they'll all go to church. It's the Sunday morning Grandma visit, starting with the hour-long drive from Nelson through the winding valley roads. Suzie, the tan-hued Subaru hatchback, is on its last trip, but no one has an inkling.

There'd been a dump of snow last night. The roads were bad in the morning. Not ominous though. Now the air is teetering back and forth over the freezing point. Past Castlegar the slush is thick and seems unsafe for driving. But what're you gonna do? Jonathan doesn't worry, at any rate. He's thumbing a wad of play-money his dad got from a friend of a friend of someone at a political campaign, satirical caricatures of a candidate’s rival on imaginary currency.

China Creek is an unmapped hamlet, a few houses they pass on the wide curves. It's where Mom lived when she was daughter Judy, with her mom, who is now Grandma. There’s a mountain slope on the right and steep bluffs on the left. They’re high above the river. The two kids in the back have gazed out at this part of the river on hundreds of these trips, wondering if they could swim to the gravel islands with their stubby trees and imagining what they’d do if they ever got there.

Suzie is kicking up slush like crazy. A car approaches around a bend from the opposite direction, close to the center of the road, maybe even a little on the wrong side, Dad thinks. There's so much slush in the air he can hardly see the road - he's even lost sight of the car. He swerves right to make sure they won't hit each other and loses control. Suzie’s slipping around in slush at highway speed, veering back left and continuing to slide. The edge is closer and closer and there’s nothing Dad can do. Luckily there's no more cars coming so there’s no collision. Unluckily, the trusty guard-rail is absent from this bit of road.

The moment before the car goes over the edge, Brian says "Shit", and Alison thinks for the first time that something serious might be about to happen because Dad swore! There's strange angles, a sheet of slush on the windshield and Judy says "Hang on." There are seconds of flashing bouncing chaos, too fast for memories. Judy thinks, absurdly: We're upside-down. Later, Jonathan will recall only his head knocking against his sister's head, and a headache. The car is tumbling down the embankment, rolling twice, hood over hatch.

Suzie rests in a crumpled heap, about thirty meters from the railway track, itself only a few meters from the edge of the forest, which is a few tree lengths above the river. The car nose points straight down the hill. Brian sees clearly out the front of the car. Most of the windshield has shattered. There are shards on the peripherals, smeared with slush and snow. There are trees and boulders nearby. We didn’t hit any of them, he thinks. How is that possible?

The inside is sprinkled with glass-chips. The passengers are still in their seat-belts. The radio is still on, still Double Exposure. Brian thinks: we ought to get out of our seat belts, quick. Judy says: "Oh, the pie!" The back hatch has popped open in the accident. It's how they exit the car. Brian notices the ceramic pie plate as they're climbing out.

The Deons gather on the slope, knee deep in snow. Before they have a chance to assess the situation, they see people at the top of the hill, on their way down. A family coming down the road noticed the tire marks in the slush, and stopped. A woman calls down, asking if they need help. A young man scrambling down the hill in socks and shoes is first to arrive. He pulls Alison up the slope. Jonathan is wondering if he can go back for his play money, and what else he might've left in the car, but is interrupted by a middle-aged man with a bushy mustache helping him up the bank. They could’ve gotten back up on their own, Judy thinks. But the help is nice, given the state of shock they’re all in. It's something like shock, isn't it? Some "degree" of shock?

When they’re back up top, they see that their rescuers have a van pulled over to the shoulder. The parents are being looked over for injuries. Brian has a cut on his face but feels alright. The man with the mustache points to Jonathan and says: "I thought I saw blood on his neck."

"Oh... I think that was from one of our cuts," Judy says, and people nod. “Everyone seems to be okay,” Brian says. "It's really quite miraculous.”

Other people are stopping now. An off-duty police woman pulled over. The kids sit in the back of her cruiser while the parents talk outside. Jonathan overhears something about how they might all ride home in the police car, and is excited. He thinks it's something appropriately dramatic for having just been in a car accident. But the family that stopped was heading to Trail anyway, also for church, so they offer to take the Deons to Trail with them. Jonathan is disappointed about not getting to ride in the police car. Normal people, now? Doesn't seem like a fair trade.

Everyone packs into the van for the rest of the drive. Turns out the rescuers are from China Creek, former neighbors of Judy's family when she'd lived there in childhood. There'd been no recognition, but the connection is made through conversation. They drop the Deons off at Grandma's house. She'd been expecting them to arrive in time to take her to church. In excited fragments, the four survivors tell the story. Grandma takes it pretty well. She doesn't appear surprised, exactly. "Oh?" she says. Jonathan is disappointed and bitter for a couple of hours. That's all she says? he thinks. After we almost died?

The Deons of Nelson and the Pich├ęs of Trail skip church. The kids are delighted at this, and everything seems a little funner. Mom and the kids stay at Grandma's house in the afternoon while Dad goes with Uncle Paul to the wreckers' to see about the car. Before evening falls, Suzie’s twisted metal corpse is back in Trail. Paul drives Dad to Nelson. There, he takes the green bug-shaped Honda Civic back to Trail. The Deons drive home that night in their anachronistic fall-back vehicle, which does well on the freshly-sanded highway.

Jonathan tells the story to his second grade class for Monday morning show and tell. He's disappointed that it doesn't get more of a reaction.

Brian and Judy will see the car once more, at the wreckers. Only a handful of belongings are retrieved, including the pie plate. It's still in one piece! The kids aren't present, and Jonathan never gets his funny money back. But he does get a little pin from the provincial insurance company. It features a stylized lego-like figure with a diagonal bar across its torso in negative space connoting a seat-belt. Under the figure is the caption: "I'm living proof!" There's talk of doing something "in the paper", to recognize the family's seat-belt use, or low insurance premiums, or something, but this doesn't end up happening, to everyone's relief.

Jonathan is now a little spooked about being in moving cars, especially in the winter, on the highway. Sometimes he'll say to his parents: "Are you sure it's safe to drive today? It's 'pretty safe'? How do you know? What if it's not safe enough?" But he'll get in the car, cause what're you gonna do? He'll get on airplanes too, even though they spook him more than cars. He's reading a morbid paperback called A Book of Disasters, full of vignettes about "the worst earthquakes in human history", and "the deadliest nightclub fires", and things like that, neatly divided into sections about trainwrecks, shipwrecks, tornados, etc.

The Deons will often pass the stretch of road where they went off. On weekly visits to Grandma, the new, nameless Subaru will pass China Creek, and the embankment by the river with the gravel islands will come into view, and Judy will think: Oh yeah, that's where it happened. And she'll have a quick look and then try not to dwell. Brian doesn't think about it much, but when he does, a strange feeling bubbles up briefly, what he imagines must be felt in the presence of miracles. "It does seem miraculous that none of us got hurt", he says on the rare occasions that he's called to tell the story. And then, in a sheepish way, as if apologizing for bring a weak-minded spiritualist, he'll describe the incident as God saying to him: "I guess I've got more in store for you, buddy. You're not going to die yet. You've got to carry on some more."

Alison is younger than Jonathan and less traumatized. She isn't saddled with a memory stamp. Not that Jonathan is either, really. Memory is weird, he thinks, years later. It must have been loud in the car when we were bouncing around. Why wouldn't I remember what it sounded like? There's nothing... but I remember that stupid wad of play money with the political caricatures.

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