Previously published in a 2018 zine by the San Francisco Bay Area Shut-Up & Write group
There were no streetlights on Highway 70. It was a two-lane road flanked by farms, trees with white hazard stripes painted on them, and orchards. Aside from the crashed, upturned car in the dark, ours was the only vehicle around. We were the only ones who could help, suited out in our funeral clothes as we were. We had hardly spoken to each other all day, even at the event; in fact we had hardly spoken to each other since Jolene, our daughter, had died. We seemed incapable now of standing each other’s company.
“Gosh I hope they’re okay,” Linda said while I pulled onto the shoulder.
“It looks pretty bad,” I answered, turning and removing the keys, unbuckling my seat belt, genuinely thankful for the distraction.
The car had somehow flipped over and hit a tree. Plumes of black smoke wafted into the air, coming from the front of the car.
“I’ll call 9-1-1,” said Linda, unbuckling her seat belt as well and getting out.
“I’ll see how they’re doing inside,” I said.
I got out of the car and walked towards the accident. The vehicle’s nose was crumpled, and the underside, facing up towards the sky, was cracked and fractured, pipes broken and bent, the engine jutting outwards at an odd angle. The smoke drifting out was heavy. There was the smell of something burning. The air around the car was hot.
Jolene was not far away from me. There was a sense as I approached the car that she was there, watching, like she hadn’t left, as if she were as shocked as Linda and I at what had happened to her. Like she too felt alone abandoned.
I was just happy to get away from Linda.
I got on my knees by the broken driver’s side window and looked in.
Maybe it was because she was on my mind. Maybe it was because I now faced the prospect of living the rest of my life without her. Whatever it was, I saw what I saw. I saw Jolene: A blonde, pretty little girl in a black dress with white trim, the skirt of her dress having fallen upward, as she was upside down in the car, revealing a pair of skinny legs clad in white tights. She wore a black ribbon in her hair. It was the same ribbon that Linda had put on her for her first day of school. I recognized it instantly.
There was someone else in the car also, a man I think it was, but I didn’t see his face.
“It’s hot in here,” Jolene said, and indeed it was, very hot. The car might go up in flames at any minute.
“We’re stuck,” the man said. “Help us get out.”
“I will,” I said. “Wait there, Jolene.”
“How is it?” I heard Linda’s voice.
I stood up and looked at her. Linda was holding the phone to her ear, her free hand cupping her opposite elbow, arm crossed against her chest to fight the chill. I couldn’t see her tear-smeared, mascaraed face in the dark.
“It’s fine,” I called back to her. “I’ve got something to show you.”
I circled the car to the other side, Jolene’s side. A fire had broken out near the car’s crumpled nose, but I barely noticed it. A feeling of ecstasy had overtaken me, and the rest of the world melted away, except for Jolene, my Jolene, who needed my help. I wasn’t going to let her be taken from me again.
I took a Swiss army knife out of my pocket and flipped open the blade. I got on my knees and crawled forwards into the passenger side of the car. Jolene was suspended in the air, held in place by her seat belt. I would have to cut through it.
I couldn’t look her in the face. She was too beautiful, lost and found again. But she smelled, through the smoke and burning oil, just as I remembered her.
“What the hell are you doing?” I heard. “I need help over here too!”
I started to saw at the seat belt with my Swiss army knife. I heard Jolene crying.
“You’re fine, just fine,” I said to comfort her. “I’m going to get you out.”
“WHAT THE FUCK MAN?” said the driver. “THE CAR IS GONNA GO UP!”
I kept sawing at the seat belt, thinking to myself there’s no time, no time. I had to get her out of there. It was so close, but the seat belt was tough. It was getting so hot.
Jolene was crying.
“My neck hurts,” she said.
“You’re going to be okay,” I said, sweating. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
And then I’d cut the seat belt through. The little girl fell into my arms, and I brought her out of the car.
I heard the man screaming.
“IT’S HOT OH MY GOD MY LEGS IT’S FUCKING HOT!”
I walked back towards Linda, silhouetted by our headlights. She was shouting at me, gesticulating toward the car, but I didn’t hear her.
A police car, sirens blaring, pulled to a stop next to ours.
“I’ve got you, Jolene,” I was saying. “I’ve got you.”
“That’s not my name,” she replied, sobbing.
“Yes it is,” I said. “Don’t you worry.”
“What on earth are you doing?” Linda screamed. “Go help him!”
But I had Jolene in my arms, the only person I would ever need. When the car behind me went fully into flames I felt the heat on my back. There was an explosion, and the screams were cut short, but as long as I had Jolene in my arms, where I thought she’d never be again, everything was going to be all right.