It was happening again.
Salt hung heavy on the breeze as it whipped my hair across my face. The night was dark and heavy with clouds, threatening rain. A chill that was uncommon for early autumn settled all around the pier. The dim lights of the awaiting ship could be seen off in the distance.
I rubbed at my eye to keep a tear from sliding down my cheek.
“I’ll miss you Dad.” The words came out as a sorrowful melody. I sniffled in a pathetic attempt to postpone the inevitable tears. A sob wracked my chest, but I cut it off before it could reach my throat. “I just wish Mom were here.”
He sighed regretfully, and I could see my pain echoed in his eyes. “I do too,” he said, and immediately cleared his throat to cover the emotion hanging in his tone. “You’ll do well in school this year?” The subject change was abrupt and intentional. He didn’t like talking about my mother in the past tense.
I nodded and forced a tight smile.
“I love you, Valerie. I’ll be back before we know it.” He kissed the top of my head then slowly backed away. When he turned to face the pier, the first drops of rain began to fall.
Frozen in place, I watched him stride toward the ship until he disappeared into the night. Tears streamed freely down my face for I don’t even know how long, soaking me to the bone more than the stinging raindrops, pouring down mercilessly.
Another year full of loss and confusion, loneliness and despair. Another deployment.
It was happening again.
And it hadn’t been calling for rain.
I was lost. Tossing and turning and thrashing to no avail. I couldn’t wake up.
She was singing quietly along with a song on the radio. Knuckles white, she grasped the steering wheel and focused intently on the wintry road before her. I sat tensely in the passenger seat and watched as the scene unfolded.
Laden with heavy snow, the trees bowed into a canopy above the road. It wasn’t currently snowing, but a massive storm had just moved out, and the plow trucks hadn’t made it this far into the country yet.
There was a curve in the road up ahead, angling sharply downward. A momentary break in the tree line on the right offered a view of the rolling hills and valleys of the Appalachians.
I could see it. I didn’t know how. There was at least half a foot of snow covering the entire roadway, but I could see it. Ice.
“Mom,” I warned warily. “Slow down.”
She never even glanced my way, just continued to sing timidly as she took in her surroundings.
“Mom, that turn is a sheet of ice. You’ve got to slow down.”
She took a deep breath and checked the rearview mirror.
“Please!” I shouted, fear freezing my blood. “Stop!”
But of course she couldn’t hear me; I wasn’t really there. I never had been, and yet somehow I evoked this scene more precisely in my mind than any physical memory.
She finally applied more pressure to the brake, but it was too late; we were already sliding. “Look out!” I cried as I braced myself for the impact of the trees. Mom wasn’t so lucky.
Confusingly, I suddenly found myself outside of the car, standing petrified in the erratic tracks of the tires. It was one of those dream elements that made no sense.
The front end crinkled like a paper bag as she hit the first tree. If that had been it, my mother would have lived. As it happened, the initial collision thrust the car around in a wide circle and it veered straight toward that single empty outcropping between the trees. She dropped over the cliff before I could even gasp.
Adrenaline surged like electricity through my nerve endings, jolting my legs into motion. The distant sound of shattering glass and crunching metal echoed through the woods. My footing was sure and unfazed despite the ice. I reached the edge just as the ferocious boom of the explosion assaulted my ears, and I watched the car erupt in hot flames and putrid black smoke.
The ungodly scream that tore from my lips was what finally woke me.
I jerked into a sitting position so quickly I nearly left my skin behind me. My heart hammered as my blood rushed. My breathing was ragged and shallow. A sheen of sweat covered my skin with a ghostly glimmer as pale morning sunlight crept in through the bedroom window.
It was six fourteen on Wednesday morning, time to get ready for school. I dragged a shaky hand across my dampened face and exhaled, willing my body to relax.
It was just a dream, but that consolation was bleak.
From the nightstand, my cellphone began blasting my favorite song as a wakeup call. It was unexpected, even though I should’ve remembered it was coming, and a new wave of anxiety rushed in.
If this was any indication of how my first day was going to go…
The threat was pointless, because it didn’t matter; there was nothing I could do. I was going to school, and I was going to be the new girl at Center Allegheny for the third time.
Transferring schools was never a fun endeavor in general, let alone a month into senior year. I was no stranger to the process, but each year proved just a little more difficult than the last. Fitting in wasn’t high on my agenda, and so I didn’t.
The navy had inadvertently screwed up my social interaction skills. I had apparently missed the memo on how to make friends in the first place. Relationships, therefore, had to happen to me, because apparently I misunderstood how to cultivate them myself. For instance, if my dad made a friend at work, he’d then introduce that man’s wife to my mother. If they hit it off, the children would get thrown into the mix. These ‘friends’ would come over for cookouts, movie nights, birthday parties, and whatever else.
Outside those parameters, social interaction became a sort of panic-stricken endeavor where I was all too aware of my incompetence. If we moved, I’d wait for my dad to introduce me to my new friends. When he deployed and friends were no longer handed to me in prettily wrapped boxes, I simply didn’t make friends. Ultimately, I learned to steer away from the whole premise entirely. It was just easier that way.
There was only ever one girl who I considered a true friend, one that spanned the ages and withstood the tests of time: Sienna Aeris. We still tried to keep in touch via social media, but life had a tendency of getting in the way. Last I’d heard, her family was stationed in Georgia. It had been seven years since we’d spoken face to face, and I didn’t have to do the math on that to remember that the last time I’d seen Sienna, my mother had still been alive.
I showered the icy nightmare off my skin then brushed my straight white teeth and my straight blonde hair. I then studied myself in the mirror. Starkly alert pale blue eyes stared back at me, and luckily there were no bags underneath. Sighing, I smoothed my hair one more time and then nodded.
I would show up, keep to myself, and then shoo off.
At least, that was the plan.