In sixty seconds, Mom would be dead.
We’re driving down Telegraph Highway, the two of us, a wrapped gift box on my lap. It is rectangular, maybe fifteen inches tall, in red foil paper with a white bow on top. We were lucky to find the drug store still open on Christmas Eve.
Mom is pleased. She’s humming along with the radio, which is playing a lively fifties holiday song. Her thumbs tap out the tune on the steering wheel. Her car keys sway in the ignition, jingling like bells.
Outside, the sky is dark. Through the storm, the road ahead looks like a long tunnel.
Snow is falling.
It happens so fast there is no time to react. Bright lights hurtle toward us on our side of the road. Mom’s arms brace against the wheel. She thrusts her foot against the brake, but the road is slick with ice. The car swerves.
I hear a car horn blaring. I hear the crunch of metal, the pop of glass shattering. A powerful force shoves me against the car door as everything suddenly whirls in the wrong direction. I feel pain. I scream.
And then it’s over.
When I blink open my eyes, everything is white.
Snow is falling.
His was the sort of face you couldn’t forget—yet somehow, I had.
I was slumped in a chair, blocking out the airport racket with my music and a pair of ear buds, when I first spotted him slipping quarters into a vending machine. His faded gray coveralls looked completely out of place amid the crowd of holiday travelers, and I wondered if he was an airport janitor or some kind of repairman. But it was his face that sent the jolt of recognition through me. His brown skin was disfigured with long, deep scars, as though shriveled by the sun like a raisin. I knew this man, the way I’d know a song by hearing the first notes of a melody. But where had I met him? I couldn’t remember.
“Are you all right, Carly?” Dad closed his Grisham novel and patted my hand. He was a handsome man, with cocoa-colored eyes and short black hair, completely at home in khaki Dockers and a polo tee.
“I’m fine,” I said. But I didn’t feel fine. A wave of hot prickles crawled under my skin, like they did whenever I was somewhere I didn’t want to be. Dad meant well, but the truth was that I was still angry at him for guilting me into this trip.
The loudspeaker in our terminal crackled, and a woman’s nasally voice called our flight. I rolled up the magazine I hadn’t read and tucked it into my jacket pocket along with my phone. Then Dad and I got in line. Once on board, I slipped my art box (my only carry-on) into the overhead compartment and shut the cover. Dad settled in at the window, so I dropped into the aisle seat.
The other passengers continued to board. They moved slowly, a trail of human ants doped up on Dramamine, waiting for the inevitable deep sleep of late night air travel. I tried to imagine what secret lives they might be living, like mail carrier by day, stripper by night or something.
Then he got on.
My stomach lurched. Go to the back of the plane, I thought, as if summoning some latent power deep within my psyche. I read this e-book once on mental magic, about how our thoughts influence the world around us. I tried to move a paperclip just by thinking about it. It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop me from trying to will Raisin Face into sitting as far from me as possible. Instead, he took the seat directly across the aisle from me.
Dad and I sat in silence while the plane taxied down the runway. I leaned over Dad to look out the window. As the plane nosed its way into themidnight sky, I stared, mesmerized as the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me. The city from this vantage point was astoundingly beautiful, like a giant Christmas tree. My town, three hours north of Los Angeles, didn’t even have a regular traffic signal. It was snowing there when we had left that afternoon. I couldn’t believe I’d missed our first real snow day of the season.
After a few minutes in the air, the lights disappeared, blocked by cloud cover. It was so dark outside I could see my face in the glass. I squinted at the reflection staring back at me, narrow bronze features framed by long, brown hair topped by a white halo.
“You can take off your hat now,” Dad joked. “The sun went down hours ago.”
The hat, cotton canvas with a floppy brim, had been a gift from my mom.
“I like my hat,” I replied, tugging it tighter onto my head.
“Reminds me of Gilligan’s Island. You know. That old TV show?” Dad hummed the show’s theme song and took a pitiful stab at the lyrics. “A three-hour tour. A three-hour tour.” He looked pleadingly at me as though expecting me to chime in.
I settled back into my seat.
“Never mind,” he said, giving up.
It was well past midnight by the time the plane reached cruising altitude. The flight attendant came by, offering drinks. I accepted a plastic cup filled with Coke and ice.
“Peanuts?” she asked with a pasted-on smile. There was a swath of red lipstick on her teeth, and I wondered if I should do the polite thing and point it out to her. I curled back my lips like an orangutan, but her expression didn’t change. So, I pointed to my teeth. The skin between the attendant’s eyebrows creased. A possible sign of intelligence?
Dad sipped his drink. “This trip won’t be so bad,” he said.
“I already told you, I don’t want to talk about it,” I replied, and I didn’t. What I wanted was to spend the next three weeks in my own house sleeping in my own bed. Why did I agree to come on this trip? I could have chained myself to the tree in our front yard in protest, but then Dad would either have cancelled the trip and spent our entire vacation making me feel guilty about it, or I would have starved to death like a neglected Rottweiler. In either case, I really didn’t have much of a choice.
“I know you were mad,” Dad continued, “but you’re over it now, aren’t you?”
No, Dad. I am not over it.
I scratched at my front tooth. The attendant blinked twice.
“Peanuts?” she asked again.
Dad accepted a bag. Then she turned to me, expectantly. I gave her an exaggerated grin. If she wouldn’t get the hint about the lipstick, couldn’t she at least wipe that mannequin-esque smile off her face? I was not normally so critical of people, but this whole situation had set me on edge.
“No thanks,” I told the attendant. “Peanuts give me the runs.”
That did it. Her smile morphed into a slightly unpleasant expression.
Dad choked on his drink. “Carly!”
“What?” I said as the attendant moved on to the next passenger. “I’m allergic.”
“Since you dragged me onto this plane and ruined my plans for winter break, that’s when.”
Dad opened his nuts, picked one out, and rolled it around his tongue to suck off the salt. Then he crushed it between his front teeth.
“Trust me, Carly. You’ll love Guatemala,” he said. He was relentless. “It won’t be so bad, spending Christmas there.” He poured the rest of the nuts into his mouth and chewed.
Personally, I had serious doubts about spending nearly a month in a third world country where half the people lived in mud huts.
“It’s a great place,” Dad continued. “Lush jungles, ancient ruins, coconuts—”
Malaria, sauna-like heat, amoebas—
“All I ask is that you give it a chance, Carly. Give them a chance.”
Them. The so-called family I never knew. For all my seventeen years, they had been nothing more than pictures on the mantle. Dad rarely spoke of them, so why he chose our first Christmas without Mom to change the status quo was beyond me.
“Why did I have to come?” I asked, my frustration piquing. “I’m old enough to man the house while you’re away. I can take care of myself.”
“We already went over this, Carly. They want to meet you. It’s important to me that they do.”
“If they’re so important, then why haven’t you seen them in two decades?” I didn’t expect an answer. I just wanted to get Dad off my back. But instead, he shrugged his shoulders and gave me an apologetic grin.
“Let’s just say we had our differences,” he said.
The flight attendant returned, this time offering a pillow. She was still smiling. At least the red mark on her teeth was gone.
I took the pillow and arranged it behind my neck. Dad took one as well, tucking it behind his head. I should have been glad to finally have some quiet time to myself, but curiosity got the better of me. I leaned over and whispered.
“Go to sleep,” said Dad.
“What differences?” I asked again.
“Carly, it’s almost one in the morning. Even if you’re not tired, I am. Let me get some sleep. Okay?”
I looked around and realized that most of the other passengers had already dozed off.
“Do you need your pills?” Dad asked.
I shook my head. “If I take them now, I’ll be a zombie when we arrive.”
Although, maybe Guatemala won’t seem so bad if I’m in a drugged-out stupor.
“Night, Carly,” said Dad. Five minutes later, he was snoring.
Across the aisle, Raisin Face had a magazine open on his lap. He licked his thumb before turning each page. I didn’t realize I was staring until he turned abruptly to look at me. Our eyes locked, and in that sliver of a moment, my heart threatened to explode right out of my ribcage. I broke away from his gaze and jerked opened my own magazine, pretending to be absorbed in it.
When my heart returned to its normal rhythm, I set the magazine aside, turned on my music, and leaned back against the pillow. I closed my eyes, but thoughts kept racing through my head. I wanted to look at him again, to study his face and give my brain time to place him.
Is he watching me? I wondered. Does he recognize me too?
After a while, I started to relax. Oblivion was calling, but I desperately clung to consciousness, like a mountain climber gripping a rock by her fingernails while dangling above a precipice. The fall was inevitable, but I strained to hold on. It wasn’t that I had trouble sleeping, but the pills kept the monsters at bay.
Finally, unable to fight it any longer, I surrendered. Falling into sleep, I struggled to recall just where I had seen that man’s face before.