My brother Abner and I were driving between our grandparent’s home in Arkansas and Illinois, where we both lived. We had taken this journey a hundred times as children, experiencing it then as an epically long pilgrimage. Our parents would drive half the distance and our grandparents would do the same, meeting in the middle for lunch at Wendy’s and a handoff of children. The rides were marked by an increase in rolling hills and cliff sides as the midwestern flatlands gave way to the Ozark Mountains, or vice-versa depending on which way we were going. As children, Abner and I would argue over the proper dispersal of backseat real estate, drawing lines between us. We worked through word-find puzzles and connect-the-dots while eating generic fruit snacks. I ate them by the handful while Abner painstakingly sucked each one into a slow dissolve. When all of that ran out, we’d dispute which of us was more intelligent, an argument that had surprisingly long staying power.
When we became adults, we began to pride ourselves on the speed with which we could make the same journey. We didn’t need bathroom breaks or walkabouts. We didn’t have to lower the AC and take the hill climbs at a conservative 60 miles per hour. We would lie to our Granny about our departure time so that she wouldn’t calculate our traveling speed and scold us upon arrival. We could fuel ourselves with coffee and loud music and charge on.
At this particular moment, Abner was driving as I slept in the passenger seat. He had settled into Missouri with some good tunes and the cruise control somewhere in the 80s. I had reclined my seat but still wore my seatbelt for whatever slight assurances that might give a person. When Abner hit a wall of rain, he disengaged the cruise control and began to shift into the right lane to crawl along with the rest of traffic in relative safety. It was too late, though, and the car hydroplaned across the lanes and headed for a ditch.
In an incredibly calm voice, he woke me, suggesting firmly that I sit up and brace myself in the quickest possible manner I could muster. In a moment I was wide awake, and a split second later we hit a sign on the side of the road. The car ricocheted back into traffic, spinning in nauseating circles. In slow motion our view shifted from ditch to oncoming semi, ditch to open road, and back to ditch again. The radio cranked out what suddenly became an extremely memorable bit of lyrics: “I felt a little fear upon my back, he said ‘don’t look back just keep on walking’ … big black horse and a cherry tree,” falling on my strangely newly attuned ears, straining to hear every bit of sound available to them.
The car likely spun about six times, despite it having felt like 20. For most of this time, I was screaming, until Abner, just as calmly as before, suggested I withhold further screaming so that he might more effectively concentrate on keeping us alive. I quieted down and watched in disbelief as we nearly missed one car, then another, then another.
At last the car came to a stop and stalled, perfectly parked forward along the shoulder. When we realized we were both alive and okay, we erupted into maniacal laugh-cries, shaking. “How did you do that?” I asked, but Abner didn’t really know. We hugged each other, got out in the rain to look at the damage, and climbed back into the car. Despite some serious bumps and bruises, she started right up.
We lumbered down the shoulder to a rest stop a half-mile up the road, where, despite being grownups, we promptly called our mother. “Do we have to call the police?” we wondered. “Do you want to get a ticket?” she responded. Not really, the crash seemed like punishment enough. “And you’re okay?” she asked. Strangely, yes. We appeared to be totally fine.
No one was dead. No serious damage. No police or onlookers stopping to see if we had survived. Just the two of us. Laughing and crying and shaking our heads in disbelief. “Holy shit,” I thought. Beside me Abner was breathing hard and talking mostly to himself, but I made out that he said, “I couldn’t let my sister die. Not today.” And we pulled back into traffic and drove on.