Jess thought her family Christmas Eve dinner and gift exchange had been more like a funeral no one wanted to attend; it had been short, formal, and awkward. Strictly an obligation. Her granddaughter, Tracy, Jess's only ray of light during the ordeal, planned to leave for the airport in less than an hour.
An angel ornament had fallen onto a lower branch of her Christmas tree. Jess retrieved it. Stan had given it to her the Christmas before he died. The figure wore unique features: gray curly hair, hazel eyes and a few well-placed age-lines. Stan had found the angel at a craft fair the December before he died.
"Reminds me of you," he'd said. At 72, Jess complained that her sun-loving skin resembled dried fruit. "Don't glamorize a beauty that can't last, Jess," he had told her. "We both carry some great memories in our wrinkles. Inside our brains and our skins."
Jess winced, knowing she would never stop missing Stan, especially since she lived with those memories alone now. Her only daughter and son-in-law rarely spoke to her. Jess had disliked her daughter's husband the first time she had met him.
"How can you marry someone who calls you boat nose?" she'd asked Elena.
"Because no one else will ever ask me," Elena had replied.
Even now, anytime Jess expressed concern, Elena gave the same answer. "You don't understand, Mother. Never have, never will."
Tracy became Jess's only reachable family. The two had a front-and-back-cover relationship. At least Jess felt as if her granddaughter held her life-purpose story together. Tracy had told her grandmother about her engagement before she told her own parents.
Jess looked out at a sky pregnant with winter warning. Tracy would be driving to the airport along the dip on Anderson Ferry Road where a pick-up truck, traveling at some God-forsaken speed, hit a patch of ice two years ago. Stan's car had been forced into a telephone pole. He died instantly. "It happened so quickly he never felt a thing," the police officer had told her. She nodded, not because she believed it, but because she couldn't bear hearing another word.
She smelled an ice storm in the air. The darkened trees waved as if they were trying to get away from something. "Maybe you'd better call the airport and see if your flight has been delayed. Or cancelled."
"Grandma, don't worry. It won't be that bad. You know Cincinnati's news: Better stock up on bottled water -- we could get up to three flakes tonight. Besides, I'm giving myself five hours.
"Come on, Grandma. Worry won't get you anywhere." Tracy stood arms akimbo, narrow chin jutted forward. "I'm guessing you're still mad at Dad." Her freckles looked a shade darker than usual, her red hair a tinge brighter. "Not that I blame you."
Jess grabbed scattered wrapping paper into a plastic garbage bag. Scrunched paper noisily answered for her. She was glad her daughter and son-in-law had left early, before dessert dishes had been cleared. Elena hardly had said a word. He spent most of the time lecturing Jess on how much she overpaid for organic products, the laziness attached to using gift bags, and the superiority of his politics.
"Don't pay any attention to him," Tracy said. "I don't."
Jess laughed. "I'm sure he appreciates that."
"Truth is, he doesn't notice. I either make some kind of joke or change the subject. And yes, I am grateful I have my own apartment."
"What about your mother?" Jess held her breath.
"She tries to make me happy, even if she can't do the same for herself. Sure I want her to wake up and smell the manure. But I can't do it for her. I tell her how great she is all the time. She can't hear it for some reason."
Jess sighed. "Maybe you should make sure your flight is on time."
"I know why you're nervous, Grandma," Tracy said. "But you can't keep expecting the worst. I'm on my way to meet my fiancé's parents. He and I both want a house full of munchkins. Think about that."
"You could fly to Vermont tomorrow. It's supposed to be sunny by afternoon."
"And you believe local forecasting? Besides, I got my ticket on the Internet. Cheap but non-returnable. Red-eye flight. If departure is delayed, I'm prepared. I brought two mystery novels, three National Geographics and an iPod."
Jess watched her granddaughter from the front door. Iced winds blew at a slant. Tracy walked on the grass rather than slip on the sidewalk. Snow and ice blended into a screen between her and Jess.
"See you New Year's. I'll be flying back after meeting my sweetie's family," Tracy called from her car. "Merry Christmas. Love yah!"
Jess tried to smile as Tracy pulled away in her new tangerine-orange Volkswagen. "It clashes so well with my hair," she had told Jess the day she bought license tags: TZ RIG. "Won't lose this baby in the parking lot."
Dirty glasses and plates lay on Jess' coffee table. They felt deep-soiled to her, lost in the vacuum of an empty house. Snow whipped along the windows. She tried to ignore it.
Tracy's right. I worry too much. She washed the plates slowly. She had refused to let Tracy do them for her. She wanted to pour her anxiety down the drain with the dirty water. "Silent Night" played on the radio. It felt too silent. She turned on the TV for background sound.
"Breaking news! Live from Delhi Township."
Jess sighed. She wasn't paying attention to the channel's identification or the reporter's name. A news person's concern always sounded thin to her, made of raw sensationalism.
"Within one hour, Greater Cincinnati streets have turned from smooth to slick, dry to treacherous," a young reporter said, microphone grasped tightly as wind whipped around her. "Foley and Anderson Ferry Roads in Delhi Township is a prime example. A four-car accident has blocked traffic in all directions. Don't go out unless you need to," the reporter said. "A sad fact for several local families tonight as five injured people arrive at Mercy Franciscan. No one knows the extent of their injuries yet. However ..."
Jess stared at the screen, her arms chilled and chest hot. The TV camera honed in on the accident. Three cars had been involved. A mini-van had charged halfway into the driver's side of an orange car. The orange vehicle had slid off the road.
The camera focused just long enough for Jess to read the license number on the off-road car: TZ RIG.
Jess stood, incapable of movement. God! Help Tracy, please. But Stan had been the one who believed in prayer. Jess was capable of going through the motions, not much more. Nevertheless she had to try. I'd give my own breath if I could. Stan, save your granddaughter. Somehow.
Jess felt her heartbeat in her temples as she grabbed her reading glasses and opened the phone book. Mercy Franciscan, Emergency Room. Her first two tries led to wrong numbers, answering machines for persons in non-medical departments. They told her to call back on the 26th and to have a happy holiday.
God, please center me long enough to dial the right number.
A young man in the emergency room answered on her third try. "I'm sorry. Our team is currently working on those admits. We won't have names until after the patients have been stabilized."
"Please, I saw my granddaughter's license plate on the news. It was her car, the orange one, license number TZ RIG."
There was a pause on the other end. "Give me your name and phone number," he said. "As long as there is no privacy violation ..."
"Tracy would want me with her."
"I'm sure she would, ma'am."
But the man's voice sounded like his part in the conversation had already ended. He appeared more busy than unconcerned, but when she heard the click on the other end of the line, she jolted as if she'd been slapped.
Perhaps I should call my daughter. But she knew she wouldn't.
Jess hugged herself to quiet her own trembling. What had gone wrong between her and Elena? The quiet, sensitive child who came home from school in tears over the latest peer insult. The team of girls who shunned her. The boy who laughed every time he saw her.
"Ignore them," Jess had said. "And toughen up." Why couldn't she have been like Stan? He bothered to listen. Although even he couldn't save his daughter from a painful marriage. After Stan died, Elena wore a sullen shield. The parent she loved was gone, and Jess was acutely aware that she could never fill the gap.
She stared at the whirling December wind. She felt a stream of tears fall without knowing they had arrived. Her gaze dropped to the crib figures under the tree. Stan's set, the one that had belonged to his parents. She longed for Stan's simple faith.
"God, if you're real, I'm going to have to see something. Some sign. Let my Tracy live, and bring my daughter back to me."
But Jess knew she was talking to the air, to a hope that was no more than a fairy tale. She listened to house noises: the tick of the clock, wind hitting the window, the whir of a fresh blow of heat from the furnace. Her introspection was broken by the phone.
She swallowed so hard she was afraid she wouldn't be able to answer. "Hello." Her voice was weak, barely audible.
"The ambulance team says there was nobody in the orange car," the man said. "They found it stuck in a snow bank. Abandoned."
"Thank you," Jess said, aware of her words only after she had said them. But where is my granddaughter?
The night passed. But Jess did not sleep.
The next morning after the snow plows came through, the front door opened. Tracy and Elena traipsed in, an icy snow clinging to their reddened faces. Jess looked up, confused. "Tracy, I saw your car on the news ..." But Jess's attention was distracted by Elena who zipped car keys into her purse. Elena drove? She rarely ventured out during a snow squall.
"Hi, Grandma," Tracy said. "Guess I should have listened to you. All flights were down."
"What happened?" Jess stood with her hand to her mouth, as if she were holding her face together.
"A car forced me into a snow bank. Couldn't get a signal on my cell, so I walked home."
"More than three miles?"
"Yup. Okay, not the smartest move. But, when I got there -- I'll let Mom tell you that part."
"I went to bed early, but couldn't sleep. The snoring next to me didn't help, so I tried to sleep on the couch. I was crying over the locket Dad gave me, when I nodded off. I had to be dreaming because the next thing I knew he was in my living room. He turned on the TV of all things. But he watched me instead.
"His eyes were so blue I couldn't help but stare at them. 'You're drowning in your own misery, sweetie,' he said. 'Your mom understands hurts a lot better these days. Go to her. All she wants for Christmas is a smile from you. Keep the TV on for a while. You'll understand why. Tracy's okay. Heck, you're going to be a grandma ten months after her wedding. So, don't let that crushed car frighten you.'
"He blew me a kiss and said, 'I've got to get back now. Biggest party of the year is about to start upstairs. Give Mom and Tracy a kiss from me. Okay?'
"I blinked and he was gone. That's when I saw Tracy's car on the news."
"And the TV was still on when I came in. Strange," Tracy said.
"Huh?" Jess said.
"That old thing has been broken for almost a month, Grandma. We were going to replace it after the first of the year.
"Hey, Merry Christmas! Hug. You two first." Tracy said. "Then all of us together."
Jess didn't need further explanation. She fell immediately into her daughter's arms.