“Sweet, smart, and inspiring.”
My husband had been dead for three years before I started trying to contact him.
By then, our house was long-sold, his suits were donated, and his wedding ring was in a safety deposit box. All I kept with me was a shoebox full of meaningless stuff: a button from a shirt, an old grocery list, his driver’s license, his car keys, a doodle he’d drawn on a post-it. That was everything of Danny’s I held onto: a box of junk.
That, and, of course, his children.
Piece by piece, I had left our old life behind—though I suppose you could argue that it had left me first—and now I was in the final stages of starting over, which meant, for my little lopsided family, leaving town. And so on this Texas-warm New Year’s Eve morning, I was following a ribbon of asphalt out to the countryside, checking and re-checking my directions while my kids poked each other with magic wands in the back seat of our minivan.
“Hey!” I said, catching their eyes in the rearview mirror. “Those are for spell-casting only. No poking! Or else.”
This was about the tenth time I’d threatened to confiscate the wands. Weak parenting, I knew. I should have taken them away ten exits back—no second chances. But I didn’t want to have to take them away and go through all the drama that would follow. I wanted the threat to be enough.
We were approaching the town square of Atwater, Texas. A town two hours from Houston at the edge of the Hill Country that I’d never visited or even thought much about. The speed limit downshifted as we drew closer, and the rolling fields that had surrounded us since we left the interstate now gave way to barn-sized feed stores, cinder-block motels, and fast-food joints. I glanced down to review my next step: go around the courthouse—then a right on FM 2237, known to locals, apparently, as Broken Tree Road.
We were beginning, I kept telling the kids in a voice that sounded false even to me, “an adventure.” Though the truth is, moving to Atwater was much less about starting something than ending something. Because there were many hardships that followed my husband’s death—finding out he’d spent our savings, for example, and cashed in his life insurance—but the hardest hardship by far, one year after his funeral, was having to move in with my mother.
Since then, we had stayed at her condo for two passive-aggressive years, as I endured judgments on my parenting, my figure, my wrinkles, my grieving process, my haircut, and my “joi de vivre” with no end in sight until, at last, unexpectedly, I’d received a letter from my mother’s famously crazy sister offering me a job and a place to stay. On her goat farm. In Atwater. Somewhere southeast of San Antonio.
Now, less than a week later, we were trading one kind of crazy for another–hoping against hope it was an upgrade.
And so the morning’s drive from Houston was not just the pavement between towns. It was the shift between our old life and our new one. All morning, I’d felt it—the big-dealness of it—as a nervous flutter in my chest, and I was sitting straight up in the driver’s seat, gripping the wheel with both hands like a student driver at attention.
Or, as at attention as you can be with two children bapping each other in the back seat with wands. Because just as the road brought us to a stop sign at the town square, and just as I caught my breath at the county courthouse rising up in front of us like a Disney Castle, my son Tank smacked his sister Abby once again on the head with his wand, and when she shrieked, I hit the brakes and turned full around to face them.
“Quit it!” I said, giving them my sternest look. “The next time I have to say it, I’m throwing the wands out the window.”
They bowed their heads a little and held still.
“Got it?” I asked, and they both nodded.
Just as I was turning back around, I heard a man on the sidewalk shout a desperate “Hey! Watch out!”
I looked up, but it wasn’t me he was calling to. It was someone in the crosswalk in front of us—and, at the same moment I realized that, I also realized my car was not exactly stopped. Turning all the way around in my seat had eased my foot off the brake, and we were rolling forward.
I stamped my foot back down in time to see a girl standing in the crosswalk, directly in front of my car. She had turned her head at the shout, too, and thrown her hands out toward the hood as if they could protect her, just as we lurched to a stop, tires squeaking, less than two inches from her knees. She looked straight through my windshield and we locked eyes for longer than I’d ever held a gaze before.
I threw the transmission into park, but before I was even out of the car, the man who had shouted at us appeared in the crosswalk and grabbed the girl by the shoulders. And that’s all I saw as I leapt from the driver’s seat and arrived beside them: her dazed face and a white-haired guy with a mermaid tattoo on his forearm.
The tattooed guy was shouting. “Jesus, Sunshine! Watch where you’re going!”
But she waved him away. “I’m okay,” she said. “I’m fine.”
Then he turned to me. “You almost killed her!”
I was out of breath. “I’m sorry! I thought my brakes were on! My kids were fighting! I’ve been up since five!”
“Killed By A Minivan,” this girl Sunshine said, as if she were reading the headline. “That’s not how I’d prefer to go.”
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
“Killed By An Ice Cream Truck, maybe,” she shrugged, as if that suggestion were less bad. “Or Killed By A Jet Ski.” She looked down at the stripes on the pavement. “Maybe a paragliding accident.”
My kids were back at it in the car as if nothing had happened. I could sense the wands in motion and hear squeals. Cars were lining up behind me. I was just about to excuse myself when she snapped her fingers, met my eyes, and pointed right at me.
“Shark Attack!” she said.
It felt odd to brainstorm the best headline for this girl’s death. But it also seemed like it would have been rude to deny her anything she wanted. So I faked it: “Yes!” Then I nodded. “So much better than a minivan.”
But she could tell I was faking. She let her hand drop and then she stuffed it in her pocket.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said.
That’s when I realized the tattooed guy was studying me. “Are you who I think you are?” he asked.
“Um,” I said. “Who do you think I am?”
“Are you Jeannie’s niece?”
It was so odd for him to know that. And I had never in my life heard my aunt called “Jeannie,” much less with such affection. But he had me. “Yes,” I said. “That’s me.”
And then he did the strangest thing. He stepped over and hugged me. Tight. A big hey-howdy Texas hug. “Welcome to Atwater,” he said, when he finally let go.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Sunshine was turning to leave. We’d been in the road too long.
Just at that moment, the truck behind us got tired of waiting. He honked—loudly. The sound startled us all—and something about it woke Sunshine up. She turned back and seemed to see me for the first time—seemed almost to recognize me, even. She stepped back my direction, took my hand for a second, and ran her eyes over my face.
“That husband you lost?” she said then, out of nowhere. “I can find him for you.”