In the smell of rubber's smoke and engine's ash awoke Lillian Schuster. Breath came solemn as her lungs moved like rusted iron. Before her, beyond the shattered windshield, was the grayed Thursday afternoon sky. In her right mind, she would have right then realized that her Dodge Minivan had been seared in half and faced the clouds. In her right mind, she would have remembered the accident that had happened only minutes before. And in her right mind, she would have remembered her daughter who rode in the rear seat. But instead, Lillian remembered the groceries she set out for. What did she need? Skim milk, white eggs, wheat flour, Dawn natural- oh, God. Oh, God.
Her leg. What the hell? Why did her leg hurt so much?
Lillian looked down to her thigh and learned that deductive reasoning was completely unnecessary in determining the source of the pain. Through her leg protruded a steel rod and at its base emerged more blood than any human should live to see. She nearly faded from consciousness yet again, but pain throbbing her face snapped her to. When Lillian put her hand to her cheek, the hurt escalated to unbelievable levels. And why? Glass. All over her delicate, once-beautiful features rest splinters of the once-unified windshield. Blood and shards painted her soft, scraped hands. From her eyes burst a horrified tear.
Why was this happening? Why the hell was this happening?
Everything in life had been going do perfectly... or at least as perfectly as possible. While Lillian stayed at home to play mom, her husband, Robert, worked hard in the world of graphic design and earned them a better than decent living. Barring the occasional fight, their marriage thrived hitch-free. And their daughter, Nicole... oh, Nicole. She was the epitome of adorable, the definition of childhood innocence, and the embodiment of everything a parent could want out of a five-year-old little girl. And it was in these happier thoughts that Lillian remembered...
Oh my God.
Lillian tried her very hardest to look back to where her daughter had been sitting, but a razor sharp pain struck each time. The side of her neck had been cut. Fighting both the pain in her neck and her lungs, she forced down a deep breath and turned back. She screamed in desperate hurt as she felt her skin tearing open. But despite the hell fighting to overpower this poor mother, Lillian managed to turn and see that the only thing behind her was smoldered earth and ragged steel. Her head snapped back to face the dashboard. She could only look on. She could only look on to a future she knew held no Nicole and... maybe no Robert. Because there would be no Lillian.
No. She could not operate under the assumption of death and she knew it. With resolve and courage she had learned from her CPR training, she pushed aside all thoughts of mortality and searched herself for what is important: Nicole. Using power she did not have, Lillian drew in breath and then shouted, “NICOLE!” It was a single bellow. Everything she had was expended in a single cry. There could not be another scream. If by some miracle-
“Why are you sideways, mommy?” an innocent, all too familiar voice asked. Could it be?
Lillian turned to her left to see none other than little Nicole standing beside her looking so inquisitive. As per her usual habits, Nicole's finger was in her mouth; almost giving way to overlook the splashes of blood staining her pink flowered overalls. Lillian smiled at seeing her daughter again, but her first reaction was, of course, “Sweetie, you need to get your finger out of your mouth.”
“Okay, mommy,” Nicole did as she was told. “Are we still going to the store?”
“No, sweetie, listen, I need you to go find my purse and bring it to me,” Lillian told her daughter. Her phone was in there. If she could just call 911....
“Why can't you go get it?”
“Mommy can't get up right now, Nicole, now please just go do it,” she grimaced at the shooting pain in her neck.
“Oh-kay,” the young girl sighed as she happily hopskotched her way around the wreckage. How in the world she managed to keep so gleeful was beyond Lillian's understanding, but she guessed that it was because of her childish mind not quite having a grasp on the situation. At this point, Lillian needed her daughter to help her. She would have to hope that this mentality would keep up. There was no way Lillian could deal with both her own injuries and a helpless five-year-old girl. It simply could not be done.
“Here you go, mommy,” Nicole said as she held out Lillian's purse.
“Could you reach inside and grab mommy's phone for me, pumpkin?” Lillian asked of her daughter.
Nicole hummed something or another as she reached inside and fundled around. After about thirty seconds, she pulled out Lillian's Blackberry cell phone. She reached out her hand, “Here you go, mommy.”
“Thank you, darling,” Nicole strained as she took the phone and dialed in 911.
“I want to go home.”
“Help, my car's crashed and-”
“Can I get your name please?”
“Schuster. Lillian Schuster.”
“And where are you at?”
She told the operator the last mile marker she had seen.
“Okay, now describe the situation for me, please. Try to remain calm.”
“I was driving down the highway with my daughter and then I remember...” flashes entered her mind. Something crashed into her rear and the next she knew, she spun out of control. There was a feeling of flying through the air and then sudden impact. Lillian recounted everything, including her current situation. As she talked, she looked over to her daughter, who sat Indian-style and sang some children's show tune... but something was amiss... and then it hit her, “Oh, God, Nicky, sweetie, where's your foot?!”
Nicole's right foot was completely absent. A bloody stump was all that remained. By some miracle, the bleeding must have stopped.... Nicole looked down at her absent extremity and quietly replied, “I'm tired mommy.”
“Nicky, listen to mommy, where is your foot?”
“I left it in my shoe, mommy.”
Lillian could not help but smile at her daughter. Part of her felt sorry for her daughter not understanding what had just happened, for having such ignorance, but the greater part was relieved to know that innocence and simplicity prevailed.
“Ma'am? Ma'am are you there?”
“Yes, yes, I am,” Lillian sighed as she suddenly realized just how tired she had become. The land of nightmare and sweet slumber beckoned.
“I've dispatched an ambulance to your location, they're on their way.”
“Okay, we'll wait... I think I'll just close my eyes and-”
“No, ma'am, listen, you cannot do that.”
“Just... so...” Lillian yawned, “tired....”
“Hey, ma'am, could you tell your name again?”
“Schuster... Lillian Schuster.”
“Okay, Lillian, please listen to me. You cannot fall asleep for any reason. You need to stay with me, alright?”
“Alrigh... I'll try.”
“Do you have a favorite poem or a song? I need you to think of something and recite it for me, okay?”
Lillian's lungs solidified more and more by the second. Breath became impossible. And her eyes... they were weighed down with anvils. But she needed to talk to the operator. Whoever it was knew what they were doing. But what to recite? And then she heard her daughter singing to herself, and Lillian joined in:
“Jesus loves me, this I know.
“For the Bible tells me so
“Little to ones to Him belong
“They are weak
“But He is strong.
“Yes, Jesus loves me.
“Yes, Jesus loves me.
“Yes, Jesus loves me.
“For the Bible tells me so.
As the song faded away, as their voices died from singing to silence, Lillian forgot everything about the 911 operator listening in. Was she talking to someone? Did anyone care? Lillian did not know. She did not care. She forgot everything important. Her once iron will gave in to the constant assault of inevitability. Lillian's eyes closed. But her last thought was to her daughter. She said, “Mommy's going to take a little nap now.”
“Okay, mommy,” Nicole watched as her mother's eyes drifted into sleep. And then into death.
But Nicky would not know. She would never know that her mother had just passed on. Would she go to heaven? Or hell? Or would she wind up in oblivion? Nicole did not know. Nicole did not even think such things. These questions were beyond her years and comprehension. In her mind, she saw the disaster that had just consumed their lives, but it was all so trivial to her little brain. These were just circumstances, just occurrences. They had no matter. So she paid them no heed and instead wondered where her stuffed tiger had gone.
Nicole brought herself up and began to search. Mr. Stripes? Mr. Stripes, where are you?
And there he was.
She picked up her beloved stuff being and gave it a great, big hug. Sympathy felt good. She would never know why she needed sympathy. Nevertheless, Mr. Stripes was there to comfort her. And Mr. Stripes was there to keep her mind away from the horrors of her ever-limiting existence. She looked into its eyes and saw stillness, but in such stillness, she found tranquility... what a perfect time to lie down.
Nicole let herself drop to the crash-tainted ground. She curled into a fetal position around her prized best friend and put her thumb into her mouth. Mommy said not to do that, but Nicole did not care. It felt good. It felt so very good. Closing her eyes felt good as well. As she fell away, Nicky wondered what she might dream of. But little did she know that dreams were of a time passed.
The cruel, cruel world left little Nicky Schuster behind never to see her years.
The poem, "We Sat There Thinking About the End of the World," included with this week's post can be found here.