Winter had buried the remnants of fall. Leaves, flaunting their autumnal shades, now whited out by two feet of powdered snow. Three months ago, Sam would’ve dreaded the day he would have to pack himself into his parka and wind chains around his tires, but now he welcomes it. When the sight of a single blood orange leaf is enough to transport him to the worst night of his life, he’ll take winter’s disappearing act and all its side effects.
The hitch in his gait isn’t as noticeable as it was back In October, or hell, a month ago in December, but he can feel it in every step he takes, in the muscle memory of when his left knee didn’t have to compensate for the damage to the right.
Muscle memory—yet another way he remembers the accident, no matter how desperately he wants to forget. Beyond the limp, he still has the raised lines along his sternum and his thigh from the cut of a surgical blade, the indentations beneath his eye and pocking on his hands from the impact of glass shards, the tightness of chest from the crack of four ribs.
Then again, Sam shouldn’t be complaining. To ask for his life to be different means it could be better, sure, but he also knows it could be far, far worse. And the latter is a fate he would never want.
“You’re quiet, Matthews.”
Case in point: the fact that Addy is beside him, and not beneath a piece of stone etched with her name and a lifespan of 18 years.
Her fractures were compound, piercing through skin, just like the glass had nerves in her lower back. They hadn’t completely robbed her of movement. They just made it more difficult, her muscles feeling like they were either non-existent or fully engulfed in flames. Three months of therapy later, the fire is more like embers and the pinpricks of numbness don’t appear as much, but like him, she isn’t quite at “recovered” just yet, and neither of them know if recovered is something they’ll ever be.
To say the least, they’re a pair—a pair that has been to hell and back together, but a pair nonetheless, and that’s what’s important.
“What are you thinking?” she asks, brushing the nylon of his navy coat with the burgundy of her own.
As much as he can, Sam tries to stay rooted in the moment with Addy, all too aware of how fleeting they are. However, his attention span is also short—either a product of technology or of undiagnosed PTSD—and sometimes, he’s unable to keep himself from wandering.
“About how overrated fall is. Winter is better,” he tells her, an answer that is like an iceberg in that it’s only showing 10 percent of the truth, the rest hidden below the surface.
Addy cackles. “Said no one ever.”
“I just said it, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, and it’s a historic moment. I literally will have to go home and send an email to the National Archives so they can have it in their records for future generations.”
A noise that makes his eyes smart because there were days, literal days, he spent in the hospital—first in separate rooms and then with her hand in hers— that he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to produce it again, or if every part of him, down to his vocal chords, would be too broken to do anything joyful.
“I love you, you know,” he says, his voice more gruff than he intends.
Addy smiles but it doesn’t pull wide. It’s weighted with the empathy that he finds in her gaze. “I love you, too.” She squeezes his hand, as if she’s punctuating it. “You know what I’m thinking?”
“Rarely.” As much as Sam would like to think he does, Addy’s brain is a bit of an enigma to him, perpetually locked and loaded with some unexpected quip or statement.
“That I want to go for a drive.”
And there it is, the curveball she lobs out of her mind, flying past him so quickly, he barely has a chance to clock it. It’s another reminder, and this one sends an alarm blaring within him. No, no, no it whines. “I’m sure your sister would take you on one,” he proffers.
Although Addy has significantly improved, her doctor hasn’t given her the driving go-ahead yet and won’t until her smashed rotator cuff regains its necessary range of motion.
“’I’d like you to take me,” she says and the panic alarm within him is signaling his heart to ramp up its beat, and his stomach to turn like a cement mixer set to whip.
“You know I can’t drive yet.”
“Your dad told me you could.”
Sam turns towards Addy, but can’t meet her gaze. Even a glance at their intertwined hands seems like too much. Instead, he looks at their shoes, her winter boots in their signature Kelly green, and his pair of New Balance trainers that he hates but that provide the support he needs like he’s 80. “He doesn’t know—”
“He said that you’ve been able to for three weeks, that the doctor cleared you,” Addy interrupts, handily catching him in his lie.
“He shouldn’t have told you that,” Sam growls. His dad had no reason to tell her. It wasn’t his business. It wasn’t like Sam went and told his mom about the time his dad lost more than a pretty penny on a bad fantasy football deal, and that was much more of a concern for his mom than this was for Addy’s. Maybe I will tell him, he thought, ready to punch the “on” switch on his wheel of revenge.
“He didn’t mean to. It just kind of slipped out when I was telling him what my doctor had told me about when I’ll be able to drive again. And anyways, that’s really not the point.”
“It is to me.”
With the slightest cock of her head and the bore of her stare, Addy sends Sam what could only be described as a pointed look. “The point is that you’ve been able to drive for almost a month and no one can get you to. And your dad said that they’ve been trying, that they want to take you to look at cars, but you won’t do that either.”
“I don’t need one,” Sam rebuffs. More accurately, he doesn’t want one.
He started saving for it before he had a license, before he knew he’d be able to find one that matched the image he held so dearly in his mind. But then in a stroke of luck, he found it in a random Facebook marketplace ad when he was helping his mom search for a leaf blower. It was love at first click. He cherished the truck, waxing and washing it by hand. At times, Addy joked about how she was jealous about the attention Sam gave his truck, sending him an edited meme one day that read “find someone who looks at you the way Sam looks at his Chevy.” Then, with one absent-minded, split-second, selfish decision, his dream was compacted, all of it sold for scrap metal except the one section of the lid, the “C” of “Chevy” surviving without scrape or dent. No amount of insurance money could make up for all he lost.
“Driving is overrated, too,” he grumbles.
“It’s overrated? You think the people who had to go on the damn Oregon Trail with their horse and buggy wouldn’t have minded a car, and maybe bypassing all those opportunities to get cholera and dysentery?” She aims her gray-gloved finger at him. “You think I can’t tell you would like to, too? I know you’re in pain. I can see it.”
Adjusting his stance, Sam shifts his weight to his other foot, and with the pressure pain singes its way from his knee through his hip. Like it does each time he leads with his right foot, the ache lingers longer than action. As much as Sam would like her to be wrong, she’s not. A limp doesn’t make for comfort and driving would be easier, but sometimes the agony of fear trumps that of physical pain.
The thought of slipping behind the wheel again makes him feel like he’s watching Halloween while running a marathon.
“It is that hard to understand why I wouldn’t want to?” His voice is devoid of accusation but not of a quiver, despite his efforts to clear it. He must seem crazy to everyone, like he’s beyond overreacting, and the idea of that chokes him. They say that you mentally stop maturing at the age of your first major trauma, and although the paramedics freed him of that origami metal cage, he’s still there, strapped in his seat, watching the blood slip out of his gashes and punctures, wondering how much of crimson staining the roof of his cab was from him and how much was from Addy. “I don’t understand why you do. How aren’t you afraid?”
Addy’s face falls, grazing sadness on the way down. “I never said I wasn’t.”
“Every time I’m in the car, I’m afraid. Whenever we go through a green light, I’m waiting to get hit. I’m so far from okay.”
Shoving his hands into the fleece of his jacket pockets, Sam shrugs, helpless, grasping for understanding that continues to evade him and instead catching exasperation. “So why are you on me about this?”
“I’m not on you,” Addy sighs, but this doesn’t feel as much like it’s directed at him as much as the entirety of what they’ve come through. “My therapist said letting fear control me is letting a part of me die, and why would I do that if I fought to live?” Her fingers brush through Sam’s blonde waves, and he can feel some of the strands raise with the static of her gloves. “I obviously don’t want you to either. I have enough nightmares about that.”
A few weeks after the accident, when the doctors had mostly weaned Addy off her sedatives, she began to have vivid dreams that left her panting, coated in sweat, and struggling through panic attacks. Her parents found her a therapist, who she met with weekly to sort through the emotions that accompany almost dying. At that time, Sam’s parents offered to find him someone to talk to, too, but he told them he didn’t need it. Based on the anxiety that had weaved its way through his brain like a set of tight shoelaces, he should probably recant.
“Not driving a few more weeks isn’t going to kill me,” Sam says, and despite the enigma status of her brain, to this he knows her answer, and he hates how right she and her therapist are. “But that’s not your point.”
“Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner,” she says minus the usual mirth that is a standard of her game show impersonation.
That afternoon, once they make it back to Sam’s house, Sam takes the keys from his dad, along with an apology for loose lips and an embrace that is more akin to a straightjacket than his usual hugs.
“It will be okay,” his dad promises, but the fact that his dad has to tell him that at all bears the reminder that one time it wasn’t and that somewhere in his dad’s brain, despite the confidence he is trying to project, he is afraid, too.
Addy and Sam load themselves into the silver Acura and as soon as Sam’s hands touch the wheel, it’s as if muscle memory takes hold in the worst way. His grip stiffens until his fingers are white, and his chest constricts as if it’s trying to hold the air within him hostage.
“You okay?” Addy asks, her words quieter, more hesitant, but Sam can’t tell if her tone is a product of his own frantic state of mind or truly her nervousness. Based on the thinness of her smile, he bets the latter.
“I feel like I could have a panic attack.”
“That’s okay. I might, too.”
“Great. We’re the scared shitless leading the scared shitless.”
“If that’s the case, your parents are going to need to do some massive detail work on this car,” she says, running her teal painted nails over the black leather of the seat. A laugh breaks from him in shallow spurts, and she squeezes his hand, caught in her own giggle.
“I’m hoping it’s only figurative,” he replies and clutches the gear shift. “I guess it’s now or never.” At the pace of a drugged sloth, Sam shifts the Acura into drive and eases on the road. It doesn’t matter that he has done this hundreds of times, Sam feels as though he’s reliving his first drive after he got his temps. This time, though, he is far more timid than excited. There’s no desire for freedom when freedom comes with risk.
That feeling increases when he makes a turn at the four-way stop a couple blocks down, and Addy offers him a “nice job,” with a pat to his arm. He snorts, but he doesn’t untense even a fraction of a percent.
Breaking free from a pile of snow, a blood orange leaf floats up past the grill of the Acura and then cartwheels onto the windshield. Sam’s breath catches as if it’s dried brown leaves pinned beneath the wiper.
Unlike the last time such a leaf skittered across his car and vision, there is no collision. Sam and Addy cruise through the green light without incident, and as soon as they do, Addy tunes the radio to his favorite 80s’ station and leaves it on low. He weaves his fingers with hers, co-pilots returning to one another, and with every yard, intersection, mile, the breath comes to Sam easier and the red returns to his knuckles.