On the anniversary of a horrific accident, a woman confronts her long-held fears.
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There were not many people in the lobby, but Ellis sensed all of their eyes on her. She pulled the hat lower, nearly to her brow. This is why you’re doing the show, she told herself. She loathed strangers — hated how they looked or didn’t look at her, fumed at the arranged smiles and blank eyes she saw in those who’d forced themselves to look at her. She became aware of her claw-like hand dangling at the end of her arm.
The desk clerk fumbled with his computer, and although he looked at Frank when he gave him the room key and suggested they eat lunch in the restaurant, his eyes darted in Ellis’ direction several times. She took a deep breath. Frank had not asked her why she wanted to be on The Oprah Show. No one had asked and she thinks it must be obvious. Ten million people. The show is her chance to let ten million people stare at her without her seeing them. She won’t know if they pause the DVR and study the way her skin is stretched thin across her cheekbones. And once they’ve gotten an eyeful, they’ll be like the people in Staunton, who’ve adjusted to her appearance.
Ellis looked down at Michigan Avenue from their room. At the five-year anniversary of the accident, she and Frank had hiked to an overlook on Afton Mountain where they could see the black ribbon of asphalt where the crash happened. The place had a name. Geologists called it a wind gap. The natural depression where the interstate now ran had many eons before been carved by a stream. The water coursed along the mountain taking bits and pieces of it downstream until a channel had been carved and there it settled in and would have stayed, except that the earth moved. The slope upstream changed and the river was tipped out of its former course — leaving behind a natural path that had been used by feet, hooves, rail cars, and eventually wheels.
She knew her husband loved her, but when she felt isolated because of the staring, she thought that he loved her out of guilt. He was a good husband. When the doctor said it would be okay to resume the more intimate portions of their marriage, he spent time caressing her, making her feel as if it didn’t matter that she was less than she’d been before. He looked at her each time he kissed her. When he came home from work, he hugged her, touched his nose to her horrible skeleton of a nose.
After lunch, the children asked to go exploring. The girls tittered about the stores they’d seen from the restaurant’s window. The boys asked the concierge how to get to the lake. “We’ve never seen a lake as big as the ocean,” they said. Ellis and Frank were to meet with the producer, whom they had known in college. She arranged for them to do their pre-interviews in one of the conference rooms in the hotel. They were to do the interviews separately because Oprah wanted to keep a feeling of spontaneity about their chat. The woman explained this to them and then smiled at Frank. Ellis hadn’t known her well; she had dated someone Frank knew before Ellis met him.
“You mean she wants us to cry,” Ellis said.
The woman, Kiki, was forced to look at her then. It was the first time she’d made eye contact. Her skin was brown, unmarked and looked as good as it had in college. She had elegant hands with pale pink fingernails. “Tears, laughter, anger. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s real. The camera knows when people are faking. So don’t fake it, but don’t waste your tears on me.”
Frank laughed and the abrasiveness of it startled Ellis. She wondered if doing the show was a mistake. Kiki walked Frank to the waiting room — he would be interviewed second. Ellis’ stomach pitched when Kiki put one of her perfect hands on Frank’s back and guided him down the hall.
The interview began by confirming the facts of the accident and Ellis’ background. Yes, she was thirty-two when the accident happened and she had four children at the time and a job in the library of a local liberal arts college. Her husband was, and still is, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Museum, although back then, it was just the house that the president was born in. The museum part came later, after the accident. She and her husband had left the children earlier that morning with a sitter and had gone to an estate auction in Lexington. They were looking for pieces for the house. Old pieces. The sorts of furniture that widows kept. They left before lunch because Ellis had promised the children she’d make pizza. The dough was sitting on the countertop. Then came the hard questions. Questions about what she remembered.
“I’d never seen fog so thick. It was like being on a plane passing through the clouds. It just seemed to fall out of the sky onto the mountain. I think we were driving through it for several minutes before the fog lights came on.”
Kiki’s face registered no emotion. Ellis supposed this was part of the trick. They saved the interest, the compassion for Oprah. “When did you first sense trouble?”
Ellis hadn’t sensed any danger. The fog hadn’t even made her nervous. They’d driven through this type of weather before, although it had never been so thick or so sudden. She had been talking to Frank about how much she disliked her brother’s new wife. “The crash started behind us. I heard the air horn of one of those big trucks and then the squeal of metal striking metal and that’s when I knew we were dead.”
“That was the cheese truck, the one that hit the Subaru with the couple from Ottawa?” Kiki clicked her pen.
“They died. The truck hit the back of their car and rolled over the top, like it was nothing more than a can of soda. I told Frank to drive faster, but he slowed down and all I saw was the driver spinning the wheel of his truck, like it was one of those old rotary phones. Back and forth, back and forth until the truck was sideways.”
Kiki blinked rapidly. “It says four inches. That if the truck had been lower you would have been decapitated.”
“Maybe,” Ellis took a sip of water. “The Jeep in the lane next to us just got knocked out of the way, it slid down a grassy hill and the boys who were in it saved a dozen people.”
“But it took the top off your Honda?”
She nodded. “And we were stuck, near the front of the crash, just over the top of Afton Mountain, where you start to descend into the valley.”
“I’m sure it is beautiful. I’m from the west,” Kiki said. “A flat part of Colorado.”
Ellis didn’t want to waste time getting acquainted. “It got so loud after that. A violent sound when cars crash into one another. More groans and squeals than you’d expect inanimate objects to make.”
“When did the fire start?”
“Frank wanted to get out, to make a run for it, but I wasn’t sure. The collisions never seemed to stop and then he unbuckled his seatbelt and another truck rolled over several cars behind us. I think I saw a woman get hit, but I’m not sure.”
“Leslie Poppers. She was a professor at UVA, and her husband had told her not to get out of the car.”
“See, husbands and wives never agree on what to do. I grabbed his hand and held him in the car. I think the fire had already started, but I couldn’t see it. I felt it first. I was wearing a cheap dress, and what I felt first was the dress sticking to my skin. I looked down and saw blue and orange flames.”
Ellis’ tear ducts didn’t work well. She realized she was crying only when her eyes gummed up with the sticky fluid that escaped when she wept.
“We’ll come back to it,” Kiki said, handing Ellis several tissues. “You were in the hospital for several months?”
“And how did the children respond? Gracie was only a year when this happened?”
“Fourteen months,” Ellis said. She would not tell this woman about her children. She didn’t think she’d tell Oprah, but she knew that the talk show host was good, that she had a hypnotist’s eyes that drew in people who should know better, celebrities, and made them confess. The struggle with Gracie was private, though; not even Frank knew how much it had hurt her.
Her brother’s wife, the one she disliked, helped care for Gracie while she’d been in the hospital. When Gracie came to visit for the first time, Ellis sang to her, you make me happy when skies are grey. Her child had looked around the room to find out who was singing like her mother and when she saw Ellis’ face, her horrid melted face, making sounds that her mother had used to make, she howled and ran clutching at her brother’s wife. Ellis wiped her eyes and cleared her throat. “Fine. They were fine.”
Kiki looked hard at Ellis and then made a mark on her notes. “How many operations have you had?”
“Seventeen. They want to do more, but the improvements are — ” she groped for the right word. “Beside the point,” she finally said.
Kiki stood and motioned toward her face. “May I? I’m not sure what hair and makeup is going to want to do with you. Do you ever wear a wig? Hats don’t do well on stage; they’re hard to light.”
She sat down and looked over her notes. “Can we go back to how you got out of the car? Your husband said previously that he never heard you ask for help. That he looked over to your side of the car and that it was empty.”
“He’s confused. He came back for me. I was struggling for his seatbelt when his arm — it was on fire — reached in through the top of the car and unsnapped the belt. Then he lifted me to safety, even though I was on fire, and carried me to the side of the road. That’s all I remember.”
“And you’re sure it was him who did this?”
“Who else would it have been?”
“There is another man here with burns to his arms. He says he pulled six people from their cars. But we could only identify five and we thought … ” She trailed off.
Ellis stared at Kiki. “It was chaos. Utter anarchy. Who could count people or cars? We were on fire. All of us. I saw a little boy crying as he burned up in the car next to me. The man who drove the cheese truck, his beard was on fire, and I wanted to help him, but my own hair was burning.”
“So it was your husband?”
“Yes,” Ellis said and then she added, “It has to be.”
The girl told her about the format of the show, about the other survivors. Ellis wondered what notes Oprah would get. She couldn’t imagine that the woman, who came into everyone’s living rooms with her curiosity, her kindness, would want to challenge her story that her husband had rescued her. She asked the questions her viewers wanted answered. Wouldn’t the viewers want a happy ending for Ellis?