On the anniversary of a horrific accident, a woman confronts her long-held fears.
When Ellis was a girl, the world was larger. During dinner she tried to explain this to her children, but they talked over her. She usually blamed such slights on her disfigurement, but lately, at the suggestion of her therapist, Ellis had put her energies into “seeing the whole picture.” For instance, it was quite possible that her children hadn’t heard her, or that they were ignoring her precisely because she was their mother and that’s what teenagers did. She cleared her throat.
“You couldn’t just call anyone up anytime.”
“I know. I know,” Susan, her eldest daughter said, looking up from the keyboard of her phone. “There weren’t any cell phones.”
Ellis motioned for Susan to put the phone away. “It was more than that. We only used the phone for local calls, except on Sundays when long-distance rates were lower. Mostly we wrote letters.”
“Can we write a letter?” asked her youngest daughter, Gracie. “It’ll be like in the movies when you have a pen pal. Do I have to know them before I write? Can I write to someone in China?”
Ellis rubbed her thumb along the mass of scar tissue on her arm. Her husband put his hand on her knee under the table and squeezed lightly. “Is there anymore of that salad?”
“You’re missing my point,” Ellis said to the children as she got up. Her boys, who were older than their sisters, looked up at her. “China might as well have been on Mars.”
“While you’re up, grab me some more of that potato salad,” her oldest said. Dean was seventeen and ate enough for three boys.
“The world was too large to comprehend,” Ellis said, realizing they’d not been listening. She stumbled slightly on the raised threshold of the kitchen.
“Mom, let me get it,” said her other son, Drew, pushing back his chair.
They still have some manners, Ellis thought. She turned back to the table and took Drew’s seat, placing her good arm on her other son’s hand. “It isn’t just cheap phone calls. I’d never seen a black person until I —”
The children cut her off, afraid that just by saying “black” she’d crossed a line. Dean had his father’s heavy eyebrows. When she tried to continue her story, he pulled them together and groaned out a complaint about all that his mother didn’t understand. Drew, returning with the potato salad, stared at his shoes. This boy, with his thatch of red hair, translucent skin, and complex network of freckles, was the only one of the children who resembled her, or rather how she used to look.
Years ago, when little Gracie was learning to speak, she and her husband, Frank, were in a car accident. Fire engulfed their small sedan and consumed Ellis. The doctors marveled at her body’s ability to heal. She didn’t know then that a physician’s idea of a miracle could differ so vastly from hers. Ellis got a good look at her new self nearly six months after the accident. The disfigurement was so utterly monstrous that all she could do was laugh. Her skin was stretched tight across a face that had lost its symmetry. She had no lips, no eyelids and a nose that looked like it belonged on a skeleton.
Dean dropped a spoonful of potato salad onto his plate. She took the bowl from him, scooped food onto outstretched plates and listened. The children, more literal than Ellis had thought possible, had begun to argue about the best way to measure the size of the world.
She knew, of course, that the Earth was the same size it had been when she was a child. What she’d wanted to explain to them was that now people, especially children, were more accepting of deviations because they were everywhere — on televisions, on computers. Her own world hadn’t started to shrink until she went to college in Chicago. There, in her Psychology 101 class, she met a boy with muscular dystrophy who sat in the front row in a wheelchair with his arms useless and curled toward his torso. (Her arms had done this when she was healing.)
Frank took Ellis’ face in his hands. He ran his thumb across the hypertrophic scar along her cheekbone. “Tell them.”
“I’m trying, but —”
Her oldest boy, the one who favored Frank, got up from the table, mumbling something about a study group.
“No,” her husband said. “We’ve got family business.”
The boy’s shoulders sagged. Ellis knew it was not because he’d be late, but because family business, in the past, had been announcements of new surgeries. She’d had 17 so far.
She grabbed her son’s hand. He stiffened and then turned his chair toward her, taking her small two-fingered hand in both of his. Ellis interpreted this action as revulsion. She often felt that because all of them remembered what she had been, that they could not accept who she was now. Her son’s hand felt heavy around hers and as she looked at them, she marveled at their size. When had her son grown hair on his knuckles?
Frank nudged her.
“I’m going to be on Oprah,” Ellis said.
“We’re all going to be on the show,” Frank said. “The tenth anniversary of the crash is next month and they are bringing all the survivors together to tell their stories.”
The children asked question after question without waiting to hear any of Frank’s answers. Ellis continued eating her dinner. She’d made the potato salad from scratch. She made all her food from scratch because her tastebuds were the only part of her that were the same after the accident. The fire that had lit her hair up like a sparkler and melted her rayon dress to her torso had not entered her mouth. She’d kept it closed.
Her youngest child, Gracie, came around to her side of the table and crawled into her lap. The other three children and their father had moved past the questions and started planning the trip.
Ellis started to sing “You Are My Sunshine” quietly into Gracie’s ear. The fire had not taken her voice and when Gracie was a baby, before the accident, the song had stopped her fussing or crying. Ellis had a rich tone to her voice and when she sung, the world around her quieted. The other children had been calmed by other songs: “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Shenandoah,” “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Gracie picked her head off Ellis’ shoulder. “Why does anyone care about the accident?”
Ellis wasn’t sure she knew why the accident had lodged in the nation’s consciousness. She felt it was somehow connected to the way the world had shrunk. How could she explain to her eleven-year-old daughter that their own family’s grief had become the country’s grief?
“No other accident involved as many cars, or as many deaths,” Ellis said and kissed her daughter on her perfect nose.
“But why does it matter now?” Gracie often persisted in asking questions beyond her ability to understand. When she was four she responded to all requests with one of two words: why or no. Frank or Ellis, on days when they were most frustrated with keeping charge of four children, would throw up their hands and tell the girl “because that’s what God wants.” Gracie had grown up in prayer circles held around her mother’s hospital bed and truly believed that God was the end of the line. She would, unlike the other children, always believe this.
“I don’t know,” Ellis said, but Frank had already overheard his daughter’s question and was recounting a dozen facts about the accident that made it, as he liked to say, newsworthy.
It bothered her that after nearly twenty years of marriage Frank still didn’t understand that just because she didn’t answer quickly didn’t mean she didn’t have an answer. Ellis was trying to find the right way to tell her daughter that such tragedies made people acknowledge their mortality. Own it, she would have said to Gracie. The images of the 200-vehicle collision had become part of the nation’s psyche. Ellis closed her eyes and drew back into herself. The sounds of her family receded, becoming indistinct chatter. This was how it had been in the months after the accident, only now, she could tell from the pitch of their voices and the speed of their words, that they were excited. Her family was no longer mourning.
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?
The next day in the green room, where all the guests waited, Ellis counted 35 survivors. Some of them were like Frank, having already recovered from their injuries, but she counted two people in wheelchairs and seven with prosthetics. There were dozens of scars and one woman who walked with two canes. She looked for the man with scars on both his arms. There were other burns, an arm here, a leg there, and one teenager who had a web of scar tissue that wrapped around his throat and curled up over his jawbone. He was the only one to make eye contact with her.
The children were quiet. They stayed close to Ellis, touching the wig the stylist had secured to her head. She wanted them to look at the people in the room as if they were normal. Frank was nervous. He paced the room glad-handing those he recognized and getting down on one knee to talk to the woman in a wheelchair. He was sweating; his shirt stuck to the small of his back.
She waved to him with her deformed hand. “How did you pull me out?”
He flinched. “Not so loud. We aren’t supposed to talk about it before the show.”
“This isn’t a jury. We aren’t sequestered,” Ellis said. She raised her voice. “We should be talking — all of us about why we’re doing this. What we want.”
The small conversations that had been ongoing stopped. “What do you want?” Frank asked.
Ellis rolled her sleeve up to her elbow. “I thought I wanted people to stop staring at me. I thought that if millions got a glimpse of me all at once, that the world would stop staring. Do you think they will? Do you?” She was yelling at the room and no one was looking at her.
“Stop it,” Frank yelled. “It’s not their fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault.”
“It has to be somebody’s fault,” Ellis said.
Frank crossed the room and spoke quietly to the children. They went together to the back of the room, where a table was covered with fruit, bread, and desserts. Ellis tried not to look at her children, but she saw that Gracie was crying and that Dean had crouched down to try to comfort her.
“Do you think I left you to burn?” Frank asked. His eyes were bloodshot. “I pulled you out. I don’t know what they said, I don’t know what you believe, but it was me.”
“I don’t remember. It was ten years ago.”
“You do remember,” Frank said.
The skin around Ellis’ mouth burned. “You only stayed out of guilt.”
Frank staggered and then sat down on the floor.
“Nobody could love this,” Ellis said gesturing to her face, her arm.
From behind her, Ellis felt two thin arms wrap themselves around her waist. “I love you, Mama,” Gracie said.
Ellis turned and let her daughter hold her. The room was silent, breathing together, hearts beating together. Her older daughter joined the hug, and then her boys. Last of all, Frank’s arms encircled them all.
“They’ll love you. I love you,” Frank said. “It’ll work. I promise if you tell them your story, open up about how you truly feel, then the loneliness will leave.”
“What’ll take its place?” Ellis asked.
The door to the green room opened. A woman with a headset motioned to Ellis and her family. “It’s time,” she mouthed.
Ellis closed her eyes and pictured a world that fit into the palm of her hand.