TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Everybody else was driving south. Miles and miles of thousands of vehicles crawling, bumper to bumper, with many pulled over to the side. She grieved for the freezing people but she could not stop to help. She was the only person heading north on the freeway. Her chest tightened as she glanced at the small box she clenched in her hand. Miles and miles of empty lanes yet the snow kept getting heavier. Even with her snow tires, she didn’t know if she’d make in time for…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
“Are you sure you can make it?”
“Of course. I’ve got good snow tires, and nothing will stop me from being with you today. Besides, it’s only the south-bound lanes that are backed up; I’m the only crazy one headed north. Just keep breathing. I’m coming.”
Willing her SUV to hold steady through the miles of mountainous highway ahead, Erin gave way to the overwhelming dÈj‡ vu. Eighteen years ago, she’d been newly married when her younger sister Molly begged her to come quickly. The weather had been frigid and snowy that day too, and just like today, Molly had been in labor.
Carefully, Erin opened the wooden box she’d been clutching. She pulled out the medal resting inside and put it over her head, letting the cool silver shock her as it landed against her throat. “Be with us today, Jacob,” she whispered to her son.
But Jacob wasn’t really hers, was he? Biologically, Jacob was Molly’s son, and Erin could never forget that. Couldn’t forget the astounding gift she’d been given and couldn’t forget the guilt of losing him. Molly was only seventeen that time, scared out of her mind, and decided in the last days of her pregnancy to place her baby for adoption. Erin and her husband Jack planned to wait a few years for children, but when Molly asked them to raise her baby, the couple agreed – reluctantly, then gleefully – to adopt him.
Jacob was a quiet child, always a bit mature for his age, so it seemed natural when he developed the same intense love for swimming that had shaped his father’s life. A solitary sport, it allowed Jacob to compete only against himself, and it solidified the already remarkable bond between father and son.
Jack, a star collegiate swimmer, began his coaching career just after graduation. Coaching talented young swimmers was his dream job, so when Jacob joined his high school’s varsity team as a sophomore, Jack naturally volunteered his time and expertise to the team. Erin, adoring her guys and the passion they shared, cheered them on at every meet.
Four years ago, at a regional meet, Jacob won the cherished medal now around Erin’s neck. And on their way home from that meet, everything shattered.
On a winding highway, an erratic driver passed the team’s bus and swerved just in time to avoid a collision with an approaching eighteen-wheeler. The truck driver instead struck the bus, sending it tumbling over a steep embankment and into a ravine. Jacob and three other swimmers died that night. Jack sustained permanent injuries and would never walk – or swim – again. The reckless driver was gone before the bus stopped rolling.
Erin’s grief was all-consuming. Enveloping it all was the crushing guilt she felt for losing Molly’s precious boy. She’d sworn to protect him, and her failure felt like purgatory. The sisters grew ever closer in their grief, and Molly’s unexpected pregnancy seemed a merciful new beginning to them both. Erin was determined to be beside her today; snowy turnpike be damned.
As she exited the highway and drove the block to the hospital, Erin sighed. She was safe. Molly was safe. The baby was coming, and the treacherous roads were behind her.
Upstairs, Erin approached Molly’s room just as the doctor was leaving.
“Congratulations!” the obstetrician said to Erin. “Molly told him to wait for his Aunt Erin, but babies do things on their own schedules.”
“What?!” Erin cried. “I missed it? I wanted so badly to be here in time! Did you say ‘him’? It’s a boy? Is Molly okay?”
The doctor chuckled at Erin’s barrage of questions and patted her hand. “They’re both perfect. You can sneak in to say hello.”
Erin knocked gently, then entered the room. Molly cradled the baby, a tuft of dark hair the only hint that this gift may resemble his older brother Jacob.
“I’m so sorry” Erin whispered. “I tried to get here in time, but…”
“Shhhh” replied Molly. “You’re just in time to hold him. That’s all that matters.” Molly laid the baby in Erin’s arms as silent tears slid down her face.
“What’s his name?” Erin asked her sister.
“I was hoping you’d choose one for him,” Molly answered.
“Me? Why would…”
“Erin.” Molly’s voice broke; her sister’s name was a whimper.
A knock interrupted them, and a man Erin recognized entered slowly.
“Detective England?” she asked, confused.
“Erin. It’s been a while.” His gaze shifted to Molly, who cried quietly.
“What’s going on?” Erin asked. Without knowing why, she was afraid. Detective England was the lead investigator for the accident that killed Jacob; he’d worked tirelessly, but after four years, they were no closer to finding the responsible driver.
“I asked Detective England to come. We’ve been talking for a few weeks and he agreed to come once the baby was born. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“What? Why? Why are you…”
“It was me.”
“What was you? What are you talking about? Molly…”
“I caused the accident.” Molly sobbed as she faced her sister with the truth finally between them.
“That can’t be true,” Erin argued.
“It’s true. I’d been drinking, and I was furious with…well, it doesn’t matter. It was me. I caused the accident that killed our boy. I’ll be discharged tomorrow, and Detective England will take me directly to the sheriff’s office.”
Erin sat in stunned silence, her eyes moving from her sister to the nearly perfect boy in her arms.