The Difference a Year MakesbyCia81©
The customer smirked at the pink, blue, green, and purple circle around my wrist. I nodded without looking at it or him. It was a gift from my daughter and I wasn't willing to talk about it, especially today, and definitely not to someone who was being such an ass.
"Here is the invoice for the repairs. If you'll just sign it on the line at the bottom." I slid it across the counter with a small feeling of satisfaction. The total at the bottom was an eye-popping amount, just what he deserved for not knowing how to shift his foreign made status symbol properly and frying the clutch.
The grimace on his face as he handed me a credit card and signed the slip I passed back was even better. I was in a black mood already and having to come into work for his petty bullshit was enough to almost make me forget I was a business owner. I wanted this done and him gone. Dylan was waiting for me in my office while I dealt with this schmuck who tried to question the integrity of my manager and my garage. Honestly, I'd rather do without his type of business, even though I bet he would need more work done on his baby real soon.
The bracelet crack was just his parting attempt to get back at me after I threatened to just take the new clutch off his car and let him tow it away if he didn't pay up. He was pissed but he paid. Dealing with dickheads was a part of my job that I hated but it was the cost of being the owner of my own business. I had to take the bad with the good.
And if I hated to admit it there was some small good to the situation with Mr. Attitude. Delaying what I really wished wasn't my duty for the day was actually a blessing in disguise. I was dressed in black slacks, a button down shirt and dress shoes, not because I didn't do the day to day dirty work in the garage as owner, because I did. I was cleaned up because I was heading to the cemetery as soon as I was finished with the customer Danny hadn't been able to handle.
I didn't really want to face what the day meant; my first year as a single dad, the anniversary of the day my life came to a screeching halt. A patch of ice, a car crossing the center line, and in one split second of wrong place-wrong time, my wife and daughter were gone. Falling to my knees, holding Dylan as I found out, I thanked god that by a fluke teething fever he was with me at the garage rather than out Christmas shopping with them. At the same time I was cursing God and sobbing because we were now all alone. The girls that meant the most to me in the world were never coming back.
Danny had dropped to his knees beside me and wrapped us up in his strong arms. He was my anchor that day, just as he had been since we met as teenagers. He helped me plan a double service for my wife and daughter and stood by me as I laid the other half of my family to rest. The comforting grip around my shoulder and the squirming child I had held in my arms had been the only things that kept me from falling onto the pair of polished oak caskets and sobbing. I was a wreck for weeks afterward. Danny kept the garage going and checked on me every night.
He brought me casseroles his wife made and stayed to make sure I ate some of them. He held Dylan and me as I broke down, offering me a shoulder to cry on. He was the best friend any man could have. There wasn't anything I wouldn't do for Danny in return.
"I'm really sorry I had to call you in today, Cole. That guy was threatening to call his lawyer and I was losing my temper with his bullshit."
"That's okay. It's fine." Danny just looked at me. "Really! I know you thought I should take the day off and I even agree, it's just..."
"Not easy," he finished for me. He reached up and squeezed my shoulder.
I nodded with a frown. "Yeah. That and more." I rubbed my neck; I was so tense it hurt.
Danny looked over at the repair schedule. "Do you want me to go with you? I could take my lunch early and close the garage," he offered.
I shook my head. "I think Dylan and I need to do this by ourselves. Or at least I do. A toddler isn't going to understand but I need him there with me."
"He's your family, I understand." Danny looked down, shuffling some parts catalogs.
"You're my family too, it's just..." I just couldn't explain exactly how I felt, not even to myself.
Danny gave me a hug. "You don't have to try and explain. Go get Dylan and do what you need to do."
I could hear Dylan gurgling in his playpen in my office. His happy sounds and the rattling noises meant he had gotten hold of Mr. Bendy, his flexible plastic rattle that looked like an orange alien. It was his favorite toy and he loved it. That sound was a balm to my frazzled nerves. Without him to look after I probably wouldn't have been able to pull myself together when my world shattered. But my baby was my world now. I worked to provide for him and I spent every moment I wasn't working caring for him. Unable to delay any longer, I headed toward my office.
"Oh hey, before I forgot, I'll come by with dinner tonight. Lisa threw a casserole together and taped some reheating directions on it. I'll run home to clean up and then bring it over around six."
I turned around in the doorway to my office and looked at Danny. "Yeah, sounds good. I don't think I'm going to be up to much cooking tonight. I don't think I'll be much company for you guys though."
"Actually it will just be me and you'd be doing me a favor. Lisa is going to her mom's house for dinner. Spending extra time around my mother-in-law around the holidays?" Danny shuddered with an exaggerated look of horror on his face.
I shook my head with a wry smile. Danny and his mother-in-law didn't exactly see eye to eye. She always thought her daughter should have married a lawyer or doctor. Lisa loved her mother though and Danny adored Lisa so he put up with her mother's attitude. For the most part.
"Alright, you can hide out at my place. Now get back to work before I dock your pay!"
Danny arched an eyebrow at me. "Yeah right, BOSS."
He flipped me off as he turned to walk back in the shop. I walked into my office smiling and shaking my head. Dylan saw me and grinned.
I loved it when he said that. I bent over and picked him up out of his playpen. "Hey buddy, that's right, I'm Daddy." I kissed his dimpled cheeks and snuggled him into my chest, closing my eyes. He was an amazing blend of his mother and me. He got her blond curls and full lips, plus her sunny disposition. He had my bright blue eyes and dimples though. Sometimes looking at him made me sad but for the most part I was just thankful that some part of her was still in the world with me.
I struggled to put his waving arms into his coat and then buckled him into his car seat as he babbled at his toys. I pulled out cautiously into the light traffic that ran in front of C&B Auto Repair. Owning a garage had always been my dream and Bethany had supported me when we finally saved the money to start it. It had only been open about two years when I lost her. The last year the garage had taken a lot of my time which made juggling childcare with Dylan hard sometimes, but I was lucky to have several very sympathetic women neighbors. Sometimes too sympathetic, but I had walked the fine line so far between friends and more than friends.
Danny had picked up a lot of slack too, always there when I needed him. It was close to the holidays, maybe I should think of a bonus for him and the other two guys I had working for me. They deserved it. I kept my mind firmly on the garage as I made my way to the cemetery. My knuckles were white on the steering wheel as I drove slowly and carefully, chewing on my lip the whole way.
I had been here before of course. I came once a month to lay flowers and make sure the stones were tended but this was the anniversary of the worst day of my life; this was different. This morning exactly one year ago I woke up and made love to my wife. We had breakfast as a family and I kissed her and my daughter goodbye before they walked out the door and pulled down the snowy drive for the last time.
This morning I woke up to a cold empty bed; tears streaming from my eyes as I buried my face in my pillow and wished that the last year was just a bad dream. My pillow was soaked when the sobs finally eased. The horrible feeling that nothing was quite real filled me through breakfast, a cup of bitter coffee and cheerios for Dylan.
It still hadn't gone away.
I could feel the trickle of tears already falling down my cheeks as I pulled through the black wrought iron gates of the Vernon Cemetery. I slowly drove along the winding road and parked closest to their graves. As I was getting out of the car an icy wind blew through my coat; I shivered and hurriedly buttoned it. Pulling Dylan out of his car seat I tucked his hat down closer over his ears and wrapped his chubby little body in a blanket. Bethany would never have forgiven me if I let him get chilled.
We made our way slowly across the dead grass, bouquets of hothouse lilies held in my free hand where Dylan couldn't mangle them. Coming to a stop, I stared at the black marble slabs that bore my loved one's names. Bethany Nicole Matters, Beloved Wife and Mother; Marissa Eleanor Matters, Beloved Daughter and Sister. The dates stared back at me; May 14th, 1984-December 4th, 2009.
My wife was just 25 years old, a young mother who would never watch her son grow to a man. March 27th, 2005-December 4th, 2009; my darling daughter, precocious and always full of joy. She would never go to school, have her first kiss, or hold my arm as I walked her down the aisle on her wedding day.
I gently laid down my burden of flowers on each grave. The numbness that had been blanketing me fell away as I fell slowly to my knees; Dylan sleepily snuggled into my chest. I cried as I talked to the cold stone, pouring out my love and sorrow. I smiled through my tears and told them of Dylan and how he had grown. I promised that I would never forget them, that Dylan would never forget the mother and sister he lost.
He sat still in my arms, one hand buried under the blanket to rest on my neck, connected to me as if to remind me of the fact that we still lived and had to go on. Unwillingly, I just stood up and kissed my hand, pressing it to each tombstone as I said goodbye to my girls yet again. Tears coursed down my cheeks in freezing trails that I didn't bother to wipe away.
It was time to go.
"I'll always take care of him Bethany, just as I know you will always take care of Marissa. I love you both."
I held back a sob, biting my lip. "Goodbye."
I didn't look back.
My hands shook a little as I buckled Dylan back into his seat. I sat with the heater running full blast for a few minutes to thaw my frozen hands. Taking a deep breath, I put my car in gear and eased onto the road and back out. I was still crying but I felt a deep sense of relief and peace. This day would never get easier but I was here, Dylan was here, and we would be okay together.
We had almost made it home when a street light changed quicker than the car in front of me expected it to. They slammed on their brakes and fishtailed in the road before coming to a stop just over the line. I always gave plenty of room so I was able to come to a controlled stop horror filled me when I looked in my rear view mirror.
A blue mid-size SUV was barreling toward us at what seemed like a high rate of speed. I could even see the panic on the man's face behind the wheel as he got closer and closer, his brakes squealing as his tires locked and slid on the slick ground. I braced myself, waiting for the crunch and screech of metal on metal. All I could see after that brief look was the memory of the police coming to my office door at the garage, a resigned look on their faces as if they were all too used to giving bad news.
'I'm sorry Bethany,' I thought, 'I just promised to protect Dylan. No, it's not his time yet!' One arm went to reach into the backseat but I was unable to reach my sleeping toddler.
"No, no, no..." I didn't realize I was speaking out loud until I felt the impact that pushed my smaller four door sedan into the car in front of me. I felt the momentum of the car as it shoved me forward in my seat belt to crash into the steering wheel and dashboard before my body whipped backward to slam into my seat. I grunted in pain, still locked into a moment I remembered over and over in my nightmares. I didn't feel my car come to a stop or hear Dylan screaming until I felt my door wrenched open and heard a frantic voice cut through the fog clouding my mind.
"Oh my god! Are you okay? Stay still, don't move. I called 911."
I gasped as hands running over my neck and shoulders brought me back to the present. I had no idea what he said; I heard the words but they made no sense. What I did hear were the frantic cries of my son from the backseat. I wrenched my seat belt off and shoved the man out of my way as I got out of my open door. I scrambled around the car, almost skating on the packed snow. I was panting as I tried to pry open the jammed back door behind the driver seat.
"Hey! Sit back down. You need to stay still, you could be hurt."
Hands were on my shoulders, gently pulling at me but I shrugged them off. I looked at the front of my car buried in the back of the car in front of me and a woman talking on a phone in the driver's seat. I couldn't go that way. There was a gap behind my car where the left side of the trunk and car was crumpled and the SUV had bounced back. I headed that way, breaking the grip on me with ease. I didn't see the look of shock on the man's face or hear the approaching sirens; I had to get to Dylan.
His door opened easily, the frame of the car held intact as it was meant to. The side impact air bags had inflated but his seat had been locked into the latch system as well as the seat belt and was still tight in place. His five point harness was still securely buckled exactly where it belonged and there was no blood on him that I could see.
"Shh, baby, shh... Daddy's here, shh..." I touched his face gently, trying to get him to stop crying. His arms were waving at me frantically, I knew he wanted to be picked up but I had enough wits about me to know he needed to be checked out by the paramedics first. I fell to my knees onto the hard ground, half in and half out of the car. I crooned brokenly to Dylan and letting him clutch one of my hands as I gently strokes his face with the other. I could sense someone behind me but ignored them; my son was my only focus.
It was the cool blue nitrile of the paramedic's gloves turning my face toward them that finally broke into my zoned out mind. Dylan was still whimpering but even that was quieter as he calmed. I was panting in between my comforting murmurs but I ignored that.
"Sir, let us get in to see him, please."
I nodded, stumbling backward when I stood up. Hard hands caught me by the shoulders and pulled me into a firm chest before I could fall. I shuddered and then moaned when sharp pain burst through my fog, almost like glass grinding in my chest as I tried to breathe.
"I think you need that other ambulance there." I resisted the attempts of those hands to move me when I heard Dylan screaming for his daddy as the paramedic ran her fingers over his head and neck, talking to her partner who was writing things on a clipboard.
"It's okay, you can still see him, they are just over here, only a few steps away. You need to be checked out so you can take care of him, right? Let them do their job."
I finally let the man draw me away, leaning into his hands as I began to realize how much my chest hurt and how hard it was to breathe. The man hovered over me as the paramedic checked my pulse and listened to my chest. The way I was breathing was apparently a tip off to him right away.
"I'm pretty sure you have at least one broken rib, sir. Breathe as you slowly as you can, this is just oxygen." He put a mask over my face. "Now, does your neck hurt?"
I shook my head.
"Good. Go ahead and nod or shake your head but try not to talk. I also need you to try and keep your torso really still for me. I'm going to cut off your shirt now." I did as he asked, struggling to breathe through the mask they had put over my mouth and nose. The air was cold on the bare skin of my chest as I sat in the back of the open ambulance.
The police arrived and began to talk to the man who was watching me almost as closely as I was watching Dylan. I realized then who he was; his face had been the one I saw in my rear view mirror right before his car plowed into mine. I tried to summon anger but I couldn't; I was too relieved that Dylan seemed okay. My body was hurt but I knew I wasn't going anywhere, fate had not struck my family twice, and I could only feel relief at our escape.
The man was earnestly answering the cop's questions, taking full blame for hitting me and then pushing my car into the one in front. I was a little surprised at that. He was rubbing his neck a little but otherwise seemed unharmed. The other paramedic had checked him out but he said he felt fine and told him to go check out the female driver of the car in front of me. Then they started to remove Dylan from the car and I was too busy watching them take Dylan out of the car to focus on anything else though.
They set him on a waiting gurney, checking his limbs and back. Grabbing his blanket from the backseat the female paramedic wrapped him up and brought him over so I could see him. "It looks like he's just fine. You had his car seat set up perfectly. I wish all parents were as conscientious as you."
"Oh thank god." I sagged in relief, no longer able to really hold myself up; the fear swamping me disappeared and now all I was aware of was the pain.
"Whoa there, Dad. Let's get you to the hospital for some x-rays before you puncture a lung." The paramedics helped me climb carefully into the back of the ambulance. "Officers." The cops turned to face them. "We're taking them into Peyton Memorial, if you need to get Mr. Betters for anything further."
"Thanks, we'll be along in a little while for your statement." One officer was filling out a report with the male driver while the other came over to my ambulance before they shut the doors.
"We usually call out Ace towing to accidents unless you have another preference. I will bring the paperwork with us when we come to the hospital."
"Thanks. Ace is fine," I panted, "I know Carl. Tell him he can tow the cars to my garage, will you?"
"C&B Auto Repair. I own it." I was panting harder now as my chest felt tighter. I was more focused on Dylan's little fingers wrapped around my finger as I sat on the gurney than on the officer's questions.
"Alright you, enough talking. Time to go." The driver shut the doors and we headed off to the hospital. I winced as every pothole jarred my body causing sharp pain in my ribs. I moaned as we hit one right in front of the hospital. Getting out was even harder than getting in but I was soon on a gurney being wheeled to x-ray.
It was confirmed; I had 2 broken ribs and some bruising on my lungs. The ribs were just cracked though, not splintered or in danger of damaging my lungs.
"You're going to be sore for a while and lifting your son is probably not a good idea, it would probably be better to let your wife do that. Do you want us to call her or another family member?" The doctor treating me was older with a kind face, he meant well. It's not his fault I was still wearing my wedding ring and he made a perfectly reasonable assumption.
"She... She's gone. She died a year ago." I hadn't cried after the SUV crashed into us but remembering what day it was and the loss it represented hit me again, breaking through my shock. I squeezed my eyes shut as tears fell. I drew in a shuddering breath and winced at the pain in my ribs. I grunted and pressed on the bandages.