It’s winter in Western North Carolina. The hills are white. A ‘58 Chevy Impala rolls across gravel roads. A young girl is driving.
She is fifteen, not old enough to have a license. Not old enough to do much of anything except make mistakes.
And that’s why she’s leaving.
When her mother discovered she was pregnant, they had a fight. Things got heated. In a moment of fury, her mother told her, “Get outta here and never come back!” So that’s what she did.
Earlier this very morning, before sunrise, the girl stole the Chevy. It was impulsive, irrational, juvenile, and pick an adjective. She didn’t pack a coat or a change of clothes. She just started driving.
The roads are steep, covered with ice. Driving is harder than she thought. A clutch and stick shift are difficult to master.
The weather is getting worse. She cannot see where the road ends and the ditches begin.
There is a shallow bridge ahead. A guardrail. Her tires lose traction. It happens quickly.
The car plows down a hill. It falls nose first into a creek. The whole thing happens so slowly it is almost surreal.
When she awakes, she is trapped in a car that’s filled with icy water. She is pinned inside. And maybe it’s shock, or maybe it’s because of the cold, but she passes out.
A few minutes later, she opens her eyes. She realizes she is so cold she can hardly move. She screams, but nobody is around for miles.
“This is it,” she thinks to herself. “I am going to die in this car.”
The passenger door creaks open. She sees a man plunge into the water to retrieve her. He is wearing a brown wool coat, he has silver hair.
And in her moment of delirium, she misses her late father, a man who died before he reached forty-five. She remembers how he used to hold her. She remembers how he used to hoist her on his shoulders and show her the world.
It’s funny what you think about when you are dying.
The man carries her up an embankment. His breathing is labored, but his arms are strong. There is something familiar about him.
But then, she isn’t sure of anything. She is drifting in and out of consciousness, caught between old memories and the present.
The man removes his coat and places it over her. It does little to cut the cold, but it’s a start. He wraps her, then holds her tight.
Her blurry eyes get a good look at him. She could swear it’s…
No. It can’t be.
She falls asleep in his arms. When she awakes, he is gone. She is leaning against a pine tree.
Her neighbors, Miss Caroline and Mister Danny, are patting her hands and cheeks.
“Wake up!” Miss Caroline is hollering. “Wake up! Come back to us!”
She opens her heavy eyes. They take her home. They immerse her in a hot bath. The doctor says she has a few bruised ribs and a minor concussion, but the baby is okay.
She is brought back to life with prayers, chicken soup, and aspirin.
Her mother sits beside her and sobs. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you,” she says. “Don’t ever leave me again.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” the girl says. “I’m so sorry.”
They exchange embraces.
Then, her mother has something else to say. She asks her daughter a question for which the girl cannot find an answer.
“Sweetie,” she says. “Where did you find Daddy’s coat?”
“What do you mean?” the girl says.
“That wool coat, where’d you find it? I got rid of that ugly coat years ago. Your father hasn’t worn it since before you were born. How on earth did you get it?”
The girl buries her face in the wool. She smells it. She cries.
Maybe there are some things better left unexplained.
Anyway, that was a lifetime ago. Today, the girl has a head of white, and four adult children who revere her.
This year, those children and their families will gather at her house for Christmas supper. They will eat, open gifts, and share memories.
Then, the old woman will do what she has done every year since her first child. She will tell a ghost story.
She will tell the kids she sustained head trauma, bruised ribs, but her baby remained unharmed.
And she will admit that even though her memory recalls one story, she’s not sure if it’s the right one. She isn’t certain about details, and things only get fuzzier with age.
Then, she will stop talking. She will walk to the hall closet and show them a shrink-wrapped wool coat. She will smile and say:
“No matter how bad things get, I know someone way up there loves and watches out for me.”
May this Christmas Eve be one for the books.