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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Drama · #1646342
I want to use this for a contest, but it needs to be 600 words shorter. Any suggestions?
In Michigan the snow started and turned the road to ice.  Tension rose in the front seat as Dad squeezed the wheel and squinted through the blizzard.  The taillights of the next car were barely visible, and beyond the wall of white lay dozens of cars in the ditch on the side of the road.  Silence took over as they passed a three-car crash.  Two SUVs had sandwiched a little red sports car.  Paramedics were on the scene, huddled around a stretcher on the ground.  Johnny saw blood running from the forehead of an unconscious blonde woman.  Her eyes rolled back in her head and her lips were blue.  Maybe it was from the cold, maybe her injuries weren’t that bad.  Maybe Johnny had constructed most of the details in his head; he was eleven, but he was nauseous now, and it would be a long time before the image left his head.

Dad persevered, barely breaking 20 miles an hour as he desperately clung to the tire tracks in front of him.  Several times he pulled onto the shoulder just so Mom could get out and slam the ice off the wiper blades.  Each time the door opened, the howling wind blew snow into the car and subzero air slapped Johnny in the face.  Johnny thought of the woman.  How cold she must have felt lying there helpless, if she felt anything at all. 

After 90 minutes of driving in the snow, a distance of 25 miles, Johnny’s dad had had enough: enough squeezing the wheel in stiff hands, enough straining to find lanes in the road, enough holding his breath and waiting for his car and his family to slide into the ditch.  It would have been safer to find a motel, even to pull onto the shoulder and wait for visibility to improve, but Johnny had a hockey game in Windsor, and any chance of making it on time meant continuing the treacherous drive.  It seemed crazy to worry about, but if not for the tournament, they wouldn’t be on the road at all. 

At a rest stop Mom took over driving, armed with a cup of coffee, fresh eyes, and hopefully fresh nerves.  Dad was spent.  Though relieved to escape the driver’s seat, watching his wife drive was nearly as stressful.  He hated losing control and was an overly critical passenger-seat driver.  The car fishtailed as she moved into the left lane. 

“Joan! COME ON.  What’s the matter with you?  The roads are ice, slow down.” 

She immediately regained control, never teasing the median or any other cars.  She bit her bottom lip and swallowed hard to keep the words in her head.  She didn’t want a fight, but she wasn’t about to listen to his garbage all day. 

In the back seat, Johnny felt the tension.  His dad could be such a jerk.  His mom fought hard to hold back, but his abuse got the best of her.  When she snapped back, it only got worse.  Steve would yell louder, his words cutting deeper.  He viciously barked obscenities, his attack becoming more personal as the confrontation continued.  His violent threats angered Johnny even more than Joan.  Still too physically small to challenge his father, but plenty old enough to want to knock him out, he despised the way he spoke to his mom. 

It was worse when he drank.  He never hit her, not as far as Johnny knew, but he would raise the back of his hand or lunge to within inches of her face as he cursed at her, the veins popping out of his neck and forehead.  She shouted back, but she couldn’t bring herself to be as cruel.  It wasn’t for lack of courage, or the wit to find a fitting response, but she hated to fight, especially in front of Johnny.  Better to swallow her pride than let it get further out of control, or heaven forbid push Steve over the edge.  He was a powerful man, and while she was in no way afraid to defend herself, the images that flashed before her when he raised his hand brought tears to her eyes.  She would fight back the tears until she was alone, or sometimes she would lose it in front of the boys when Steve had finally stormed away. 

Johnny saw the muscles tense up in his mother’s neck, and he knew the expression on her face.  The muscles of her mouth squeezing her lips into a tight frown, the skin on her chin wrinkled like a brain, her eyebrows furled together as she forced the anger back down inside of her.  The violence in his father’s voice, the pain in his mother’s face, and the absent look of the woman’s face all blended together in Johnny’s mind.  He was scared.

After lunch the snow let up and the road seemed at least passable.  Not necessarily safer, not with Steve driving again.  He may not have realized that Johnny could see the bottle refill itself when he went to the men’s room, but he had to know that Joan knew, and the shame, or anger, or whatever it was made the car unbearable.  The odor of his breath went unnoticed or just disregarded.  The attitude and careless driving were too obvious.  He swerved into the right lane dangerously close to the front bumper of the car he had just passed and hit the grooved shoulder as he leaned out the window to slur at the honking driver behind them.

Johnny and Joan wondered why they let it happen, but what were they to do?  Accusations that he was unfit to drive were met with angry, indignant denials like, “Don’t I know if I can drive or not?  What do you know about it?”  Pressing made it worse and pleading uncovered a problem too painful to deal with. 

So they coped.  Nobody copes quite the same, but it helps to deny, to rationalize, and to escape.  It helps when you’re eleven to imagine that all fathers do the same thing, that everyone else was on the road to a tournament of some sort, and their dad was a jerk too.  All kids opened presents on Christmas morning and then filed the memory and went back to their lives of pain and loneliness, and every one of them had a father who drank, or a brother who stole, or a mom who stayed out too late, and maybe in the end everyone comes out the same, or they pull themselves together and fight back.  But now wasn’t the time for fighting back.  Now was the time to look out the window, find all 26 letters on road signs or count license plates from all 50 states.  Hawaii – Hawaii to Michigan, are you kidding?  Not even an eleven year old could make sense of that.  Not that day. 

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