“It’s snowing,” Michael says, yawning as he gets out of the car. He wraps his arms around his body. “It’s also freezing.”
“It’s the real snow!” Alexander shouts, running up to Michael and tackling him into a bear hug. “We’re at the really real snow!”
James laughs and dusts the snowflakes off Alexander’s beanie. “No we’re not, buddy. Not quite. How about we get back into the car and get going, huh? Get to the place with enough snow to make a snowman.”
Alexander wavers indecisively, torn between wanting more snow and wanting to play in the snow he has now.
“Come on,” James says, picking him up. “The sooner we get going, the sooner we’ll get to the ski resort.”
Alexander sighs. “Okay. I guess so.” He looks at James’ head. “You have snow in your hair.” James grins and shakes his head rapidly, showering them both with snowflakes. Alexander giggles. James puts him down and helps him into the car.
“Better put the snow chains on now,” Michael says, looking up at the sky. “Looks like this snow is only going to get harder.”
James gets them out of the boot, and together they attach them to the wheels.
“Alright!” Michael says when they’re done. “Who’s driving?”
“Can you sit next to me?” Alexander asks James. “Please?”
Michael laughs and takes the keys from James. “Guess I am.” He gets into the front seat. “It’s okay. Not only am I a better snowboarder and a better coffee maker, I am also a better driver.”
“Whatever you want to believe, Mike,” James says, getting into the car beside Alexander. “Whatever you want to believe.”
“Can we listen to Frozen?” Alexander asks, picking up Astro and hugging him. Michael groans.
“Of course we can,” James says, laughing at Michael’s expression in the rear view mirror as he pulls onto the road. “Put it on, Mike.”
“Do you want to build a snowman…” Michael mutters, reaching for the CD player.
It happens very quickly.
A car appears out of nowhere, racing towards them at what looks like twice the speed limit. In the wrong lane.
Michael grips the steering wheel and swerves towards the side of the road, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision. For a moment, he thanks God that they are okay.
The wheels skid on a patch of black ice, spiraling out of control despite the snow chains.
The car fishtails along the road, skidding along slush-covered asphalt. James throws his body across Alexander’s, shielding him from whatever is about to come. Alexander squeezes his eyes shut and burrows into James’ hold. Michael is shouting something or maybe James is shouting something but there’s a lot of shouting and banging and tire squealing and then
“Alexander?” he whispers. “Alexander?”
He moves back. Alexander is still safely in his seat, covering his face with his hands.
“Alexander? Buddy? Are you okay?”
Alexander moves his hands away.
“Did we die?” His body trembles. “Are we dead?”
James wraps his arms around him. His heart is beating a million miles a second. “No, buddy,” he says, resting his cheek on top of Alexander’s head and closing his eyes, silently thanking God. “We’re okay.”
His eyes snap open.
“I’m fine, brother,” Michael says from the front seat. His hands are still firmly gripped on the steering wheel. “I’m okay.”
James thanks God again.
“What happened?” James asks, looking out the window. They’re stopped on the side of the road. Just stopped. Not wrapped around a tree.
“That car,” Michael says, still gripping the steering wheel. “It came out of nowhere. It was in our lane and I swerved to avoid it and I, I…” Michael turns around. All the colour has drained from his face. He looks like he is about to pass out. “I’m so sorry, J,” he says, wide eyed and fearful. “I don’t, I couldn’t…”
“Shhhh,” James says, putting his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “We’re okay. It wasn’t your fault. You swerved in time. You stopped the car. You kept us safe.”
Michael nods, but he looks like he is in a daze. Alexander grips James’ other arm. He’s still trembling.
“That other car,” James says, looking back. “Are they…”
He sees it.
It’s a few hundred feet back. Lying on its roof.
James’ brain kicks into gear.
“Michael, call 911,” he says, taking off his seatbelt. “Stay here with Alexander. I’m going to go help those people.”
Michael nods and reaches for his phone. Alexander’s grip tightens on James’ arm.
“Don’t go,” he says, shaking his head. “Don’t leave me. Don’t go!”
James puts his hand on Alexander’s cheek. He meets his terrified gaze.
“It’s okay, buddy,” he says, trying to calm him down. “We’re okay. We’re not hurt. But those people in the other car, they might be. And they need help. They need help, okay? I’m going to go help them. Uncle Michael will be here with you and I’ll be back quicker than you know it.”
“No,” Alexander says, still shaking his head. “I’m, I’m…”
The seconds are ticking away. James knows he needs to get to the other car as soon as possible. But he can’t leave Alexander like this. Not like this. He won’t.
“What, buddy? What’s wrong?”
“I’m scared,” Alexander whimpers. His eyes fill with tears. “I don’t want you to go.”
James looks at the car. No-one has gotten out.
“I’ll be back real quick,” James says, turning back to Alexander. “But I need you to be brave. Can you do that for me??”
Alexander shakes his head. James looks up at Michael. He’s on the phone to the 911 operator, giving them the details of their location.
James makes a snap decision.
“Okay, buddy,” he says, taking off Alexander’s seatbelt. “Okay. Here’s what we can do. You can come down with me. Not too close. And you have to do everything I say. Everything. Can you do that??”
“Okay,” James says. “Okay.” He knows it’s not the best option, but time is running out. Every second counts. He gets out of the car and Alexander does the same. He picks Alexander up and runs over to the other car. When he is nearly there, he stops and puts Alexander down, kneeling before him.
“Wait here,” he instructs. “Face our car. Do not turn around no matter what. Do you understand me?”
Alexander nods again. James notices that he is gripping his Astro Boy pendant tightly in his hand.
“Okay,” James says, standing up. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
He turns and sprints the rest of the way to the other car, only slowing down once he reaches it. The wheels are still spinning. There’s broken glass everywhere. He approaches it slowly, checking for any signs of movement.
Inside, somebody moans.
He flies towards the sound. He sees her in the driver’s seat, suspended by the seat belt. Her hands hang over her head. Blood drips from her fingertips. Her long, red hair covers her face.
Not Jenna. No.
He surveys the scene, checking for any immediate threats. The smell of petrol and burnt rubber hangs in the air. He glances at Alexander. Michael is standing beside him now, holding his hand. He’s still facing away. James feels a little better.
“Ma’am?” James calls, dropping to his stomach by the shattered window. “Ma’am? Can you hear me?” He sees something poking through her abdomen. A dark stain spreads across her sweater. He tries not to look at it, instead clearing away some of the glass still clinging to the window. He reaches through the empty window frame to feel for the woman’s pulse.
It’s there. She’s alive.
Before James can formulate a plan, something catches his eye in the backseat.
A little girl. She looks about four years old. Her clear, grey eyes are open. She is watching James’ every move.
“Hello,” James says as calmly as he can, sliding along his stomach to her shattered window. “Can you tell me your name?”
The girl stares at him warily, then she whispers, “Ruby.”
James forces himself to smile at her. She has a long gash on her forehead. It’s dripping blood onto the car roof.
“Hi, Ruby,” James says, still trying to sound calm. “I’m James. Are you hurt?”
“My head hurts,” she says, reaching towards it.
“No don’t do that,” James says, not wanting her to see the blood. Ruby drops her hand. It dangles above her head. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
Ruby shakes her head. Blood dribbles into her hair, turning her blond curls into almost the same shade of red as the woman’s hair.
“I’m going to get you out of here.” James says, trying not to show his panic at the volume of blood. “Is that okay?”
Ruby looks towards the front of her car. “And my mommy too?” she whispers. James nods.
“Yes, Ruby. And your mommy too. But first let’s get you out of that booster seat.”
James isn’t sure that moving either of them is the best idea, but the strong smell of petrol is scaring him. He can’t leave them there.
“Need help?” Michael yells.
“No,” James yells back. “Stay with Alexander.”
He looks over Ruby’s seat belt, planning the best way to get her out without hurting her.
“Who is Alexander?” she whispers. Her lip quivers. James doesn’t know much first aid, but she appears to be in shock. He thinks it’s probably better that she doesn’t feel the full force of what has happened. She looks over at her mother again, who is still unconscious.
“He’s my son,” James says, crawling partway into the car and reaching for the seatbelt. “He’s nine. How old are you?” He wants to keep her talking. He wants to keep her calm.
“I’m five.” Her eyes dart back to her mother.
“Hey hey hey,” James says, attempting to unbuckle the seatbelt. It won’t budge. “Ruby. I need you to look at me.”
She turns towards him uncertainly.
“There’s a good girl. You just keep looking at me.” He feels along the ground for a shard of glass. He finds one.
“Five!” he says, working to keep his voice light while he cuts through her seatbelt with the glass. “You’re a big girl now! Do you go to school?”
She turns towards her mother.
“Yes,” she says. “My teacher’s name is Miss Bronwyn.”
“Miss Bronwyn!” he says loud enough to make Ruby turn back to him. “Is she nice?”
Ruby bites her trembling lip.
“Sometimes,” she whispers. “But sometimes she’s mean to the naughty boys.”
James laughs. It sounds forced even to his own ears. The first sash of the seatbelt snaps. Ruby screams, but she doesn’t fall. His arms are there to catch her.
“I’ve got you,” he says, working on the second sash. “You’re okay. So these naughty boys…What do they do that’s so naughty?”
“They don’t sit on their bottoms,” Ruby says. “And they talk during story time.”
“That’s terrible,” James says. The belt is about to give way. His heart pounds in his chest. “You can’t talk during story time.”
The belt snaps.
He catches her before she hits the car roof and carefully pulls her out of the car.
“You’re okay,” he says, putting her down beside him. “You’re okay.”
She stares at him for a moment and then flings her arms around him.
“You’re okay,” he repeats, rubbing her back. “It’s okay.”
She holds him tighter.
“Ruby?” he says into her hair. “I need you to let me go so I can help your mommy, okay? I need you to be brave.”
Ruby takes a deep breath in and lets go of James.
“You’ll help my mommy?” she asks. The wound on her head looks even worse now that she’s upright. James pulls a sweater from inside the car and holds it on her head.
“Yes,” he says, applying pressure. “But I need you to turn around. That’s my son over there.” He points to Alexander and Michael. “I need you to look at him, okay? You look at him while I help your mommy. And keep this pressed against your head.”
Ruby obediently turns around and hold the sweater against the gash. James slides back onto his stomach beside the driver’s side window. The woman’s eyes are still closed.
“Ruby,” James says. “What’s your mommy’s name?”
“Meredith,” Ruby says, starting to turn around. “My daddy calls her Mere.”
“Okay,” James says. “Don’t turn around. Look at Alexander. Keep looking at Alexander.”
Ruby does as she is told.
‘Meredith?” James says, reaching through the window to feel for her pulse again. “Meredith, can you hear me?”
Meredith moans and tries to open her eyes.
“Ruby,” she chokes out. “Where’s…Ruby…”
“I’m here, Mommy,” Ruby says, starting to cry. “Mommy I’m here.”
In the distance, James hears sirens. He breathes a silent sigh of relief.
“Ruby’s okay,” he says to Meredith. “She’s here. Help is on the way. Help is nearly here.”
“There was…ice…” Meredith mumbles. “I couldn’t…I couldn’t…”
“Shhh,” James says. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”
Meredith’s eyes roam around aimlessly, not focusing on anything.
They slide closed.
James’ voice shakes.
His fingers search for her pulse. She gasps and opens her eyes. She grabs his hand, causing his heart to skip several beats.
“Keep Ruby safe,” she whispers, meeting his eyes for the first time. “Ruby…Ruby…”
Her hand grows slack. Her eyes close.
“Mommy?” Ruby whispers. “Mommy?”
Two ambulances, a fire truck and a police car come wailing down the road. They come to a stop nearby. James is vaguely aware of footsteps approaching him. He’s still holding Meredith’s limp hand.
“Sir?? Sir! Are you hurt?? Sir??”
“No,” James whispers, allowing himself to be moved out of the way. “I wasn’t in the car.”
He stands up numbly. Ruby stands beside him, slipping her hand in his. He looks down at her. She barely even reaches his hip.
“Is this your daughter?” an ambulance officer asks, swooping in. James shakes his head. His eyes are blurred by tears.
“No,” he whispers. “Her name is Ruby. She’s five.”
And she’s just lost her mother.
The ambulance officer takes Ruby from him. James looks over at Michael and Alexander. Michael is talking to the police. Alexander is holding his hand, still staring at their car. James takes off at a run.
“James?” Michael starts when he reaches them, but James doesn’t listen. He sweeps Alexander into his arms, hugging him against his chest. Alexander hugs him back. He’s still trembling.
“You’re okay,” James mumbles. “You’re okay.”
It takes James a few moments to realize the police officer is talking to him.
“What you did was very brave, sir,” the officer is saying. “I’m going to need a few details.”
James nods, still holding Alexander against him. Alexander buries his face in James’ neck and twists his hair around his fingers. As James tells the police officer what happened, he can feel Alexander’s heart pounding against his chest. He does it automatically, without a conscious decision to do so.
He counts the beats.