**This is an ongoing, free prequel to the book Steel Journeys: The Road to Patagonia
available digitally or in Paperback**
Haven’t read part 1 of the prequel yet? Go here first!
Steel Journeys Origins: Part 2
The doctor gave them a little time to process the initial shock and then asked if he could answer any questions for them. Lauren couldn’t speak.
“Why did they hit the tree?” Abby asked.
“We’re not sure” Dr. O’Reilly answered. “There were no other cars involved in the accident. No skid marks or obvious attempts to stop. According to the highway patrol the car just…drifted off the highway.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Abby tried to work the problem. “My father is an excellent driver.”
“It’s possible that he had a heart attack or something that caused him to be incapable of pulling over safely. We’d like to do an autopsy of both of them, to see if we can find the answers, but we’ll need you to sign for that.”
Sign for an autopsy. Yes, I should sign for that. At the mention of the word autopsy, Lauren threw herself out of Jake’s arms and into Abby’s, sobbing. Abby started rocking her instinctively, the same way she used to comfort Lauren when they were kids. The same way she rocked her nieces when they cried.
“As I said, they appear to have died on impact. If it brings you any comfort at all, I don’t think either of them experienced any pain.” Dr. O’Reilly sat quietly as Abby stroked her sister’s hair and kissed the top of her head, shushing her and rocking gently.
“Of course. I’m so very sorry for your loss. Grace will sit with you now and answer any further questions you might have.” He started to stand and move toward the door.
“Can I see them? I need to see them.” Abby waited for his response, but peeled Lauren off of her and started to stand before he even gave it. It was a non-negotiable for her. The only thing that would make it real was to see him, not moving, not able to breath on his own or carry his heartbeat into the future. It was sure to be gruesome, but that didn’t matter. She needed to know that it was real.
He nodded once and opened the door for her. Abby looked at Grace. “Will you stay with them? I’ll be back.”
She followed the doctor down a series of hallways that felt more like a haunted corn maze than a hospital. The air felt stretched and pinched in all the wrong ways. People’s faces flew in and out of her vision, distorted as if she were looking at their reflections in a fun house mirror. When they finally arrived at their destination, they were standing in front of two adjoining rooms with a series of glass doors and windows all along the front. Behind the glass, curtains were pulled around each of the beds.
“Your mother is in this room here.” He indicated the room on the right. “You father is here.” This time he gestured to the room on the left.
“Do you want me to go in with you?”
She looked at him, considering the question seriously. Did she want someone with her as she witnessed the truth of this? “No. I’d rather be alone.”
The doctor nodded. “We’ll be right here if you need anything.”
Abby chose the door on the right first, trying to prolong the agony. When she pulled the curtain they had her mother laid out on the bed, covered in a sheet up to her neck. Her face was bruised and blood was caked along her eyelids from a gash that went from her right temple across her forehead and down her left cheek, as if her face was split completely open.
Abby sat down in a straight-backed chair that had been pulled up to the bedside. The sheet was pulled back to only to her neck, and allowed her left hand to remain uncovered. A box of tissues was sitting inches from her hand, as if she was offering to grab one and give it to Abby in case she needed it. Abby assumed the hand was there for her to hold, but declined the unspoken offer.
Even laying there, pale and still, her mother’s nose seemed to be turned up in a pout. The two of them had disagreed on just about every choice she’d ever made. Especially Trevor. She disapproved of motorcycles and was convinced that he would get her killed riding around on the back of his Gold Wing. How ironic.
When things had gone south with Trevor, it was her mother who called Aunt Jane and asked if Abby could come up to the mountains to clear her head. At first Abby thought it was an uncharacteristically kind gesture, until she overheard her talking to Aunt Jane on the phone.
“I knew that boy was no good. I tried to tell her, but you know Abby—she wouldn’t listen to reason. She caught that boy fooling around with her best friend…Yes, in the act if you can believe it. Didn’t even finish high school, that no-good son of a—listen Jane, we need to get that girl as far away from that boy as possible…Yes I know how old she is. Did you know anything about life when you were twenty-one? Did I? She doesn’t know what’s good for her. Trust me, she needs to get up into those mountains and forget all about that piece of dirt.”
The words played over and over in her head as she stood staring at her mother’s corpse. All her life Abby had been an old soul, and wise beyond her years. For a mother to know so little about her own child was laughable, and the offense cut deeply. In the end, she did go to Shasta to live with her aunt, but not because for any of the reasons her mother had laid out. It was mostly because she wanted a quiet place to mend her heart in peace, out from under the judgmental stares of her mother’s disapproval.
None of that mattered now. Janine Steel had breathed her last sigh of disapproval. Never again would Abby have to endure another one of her lectures. It was hard to blame her, of course. Lectures were a part of her life. She taught school for forty-two years and was used to being judgmental of children’s behavior. Indeed, she seemed to delight in pointing out a lesson that needed to be learned, or illuminating the consequences of bad behavior in an I-told-you-so kind of way. It was difficult not to blame her for her shortcomings, but then again, Abby had never been a parent. She saw how Lauren struggled to do the right thing raising her own daughters. Lauren and Jake were good parents, but it wasn’t easy.
Abby’s heart softened. “We all just do the best we can with what we have, don’t we mom?”
She was numb, sitting there, and grabbed onto her mother’s hand anyway. Needing to say the words. Needing to bury the past before being able to bury the present.
“I’m sorry I was a difficult child.” She spoke the words as if they were more of a concession than a confession. “We’re both stubborn and set in our ways, so I guess I can’t exactly fault you for that. I’m so sorry this happened. I hope you’re at peace, mom.” She went to stand and the chair scraped back, making a loud noise. “Sorry.”
The words came out of her mouth before she realized she was apologizing to someone who was no longer there. It was as if her mother had left the room and then just left her body there for someone else to get rid of. She didn’t feel her presence there at all. Just a cold, stiff shell that used to house warm blood.
Abby took a deep breath and steeled herself for what was coming.
Although her mother had given her the basics of reading and writing and arithmetic, it was her father who taught her all the lessons she considered truly important in life. He was the one she talked to about the kids at school who were mean or how she felt about losing the soccer game. He taught her how to ride a bicycle, but more importantly, how to get back up on it if she fell, even if her knee was bruised and bleeding. “You can’t let the bike beat you” he used to say. “You can clean up that knee later, after you win this battle.”
To him everything was a battle. He’d been in the navy and he was all about fighting your own battles and doing it with honor and integrity. Pete Steel, unlike his name, was tough on the outside but soft on the inside. She felt his love as a fierce intensity born of mutual respect. By the time she turned eighteen, they were having regular long talks about the deep things in life.
“No one will ever match you in smarts and good sense, but that’s ok” he told her once. “The trick is to find someone that makes you laugh, but who you care enough about that they can also make you cry.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun, dad.”
“I’m not sayin’ this the right way. Listen, lots of men will say they love you, and that might be true. But what matters isn’t if they love you. What matters is if you love them. Otherwise there’s no sense puttin’ any skin in the game.”
“But I do love Trevor dad. I do.”
“I know you do.” He winked, matter of fact. “Why do you think I let him hang around?” It wasn’t so much that he disliked Trevor as a person, he just…never thought anyone could be good enough for her.
After Trevor’s betrayal, it was his arms she ran to. His advice she listened to night after night as they sat together in the garage out back, her handing him tools or holding the light, him talking from underneath the hood of a neighbor’s car.
“He loves you something fierce, anyone can see that, but sometimes love just isn’t enough. That boy’s got some issues, baby. Now, those issues have got nothing to do with you, but he’s got a lot of learning to do and you can’t be his teacher. Some lessons just have to be learned the hard way. You just stick to your guns, little girl.”
“Hey Dad? I’m not a little girl anymore.” Abby had laughed. “I’m twenty-one years old!”
“Aw honey. You’ll always be my little girl. Always.”
And she was. Always.
Nearly twelve years had passed since that conversation. Once she realized that he was right, it was the final straw in the decision to move up to Shasta for the summer with Aunt Jane. It needed to be a clean break, she realized, and putting some distance between them was the only way to ensure he had the time and space to figure his shit out. At least, that’s how she rationalized the running away part.
Truth be told, she didn’t trust herself enough to stick to her guns if he came around in person. Especially if he wore that damn cologne that drove her crazy. Even without the cologne. Hell, even without a shower—it was like she was hard-wired for him and him alone, and if they got within six feet of one another the traction was just too much.
What the hell was wrong with her? And what did Trevor have to do with all this? She came back to the present, annoyed and frustrated with herself. All these other thoughts were her mind’s way of procrastinating. Putting off the inevitable. She didn’t want to stay with her mother, but her legs didn’t want to move next door either.
Finally she pulled the curtain and Dr. O’Reilly looked up from behind the desk where he was working at a computer. His eyes were kind and gentle and he nodded again, acknowledging her pain but without needing words to do so.
She moved toward the second set of glass doors and felt her resolve weaken. She put her hand up against the door frame to steady herself and in seconds Dr. O’Reilly was there by her side with an arm under one elbow and his hand supporting her back. “Are you all right Miss Steel?”
She let her weight fall into him for a moment. “I’m ok.”
“Do you want me to call your sister in?”
“Not unless you have a tranquilizer gun handy.” She met his eyes and they smiled into hers. He wasn’t that much older, and yet she felt his care and compassion like the older brother she never had.
“Is there someone else you’d like us to call? A husband?” He looked down at her hand. “Boyfriend?…Girlfriend?”
Abby blinked a couple of times. Eric was at work, busy getting ready for the dinner crowd. Did she need him there? Did she want him there? The sudden realization gave her the answer she’d been needing, and it was yet another point of grief that needed to be pushed aside to make space for the reality of the moment.
“I’ve got this.” She straightened, gently removing her elbow from the palm of Dr. O’Reilly’s hand. “Thank you.”
He stepped back slightly. Abby nodded and disappeared behind the second curtain. What she saw made her knees buckle, and she nearly lost her balance, but held onto the stretcher to steady herself. Her father was similarly laid out under a clean white sheet, the only things visible being his head and both hands. She stared at his face for a long time, so still and so peaceful, as if he wasn’t even aware that he was gone. His face was similarly bruised and broken, his hand purpled with the same type of bruising she’d noticed on her mother’s.
His hair was matted with dried blood, but someone had at least attempted to comb it over to one side, the blood helping it stick together where it normally would have been tousled and a bit unruly. It was a nice gesture, she supposed, although why it even mattered made her head shake.
“Hey dad.” She took a deep, shaky breath in. “You’re gonna hate this, but someone combed your hair.” She reached down and tousled it again, without much thought to the fact that she was touching blood. Or a dead body, for that matter. He was in there. She was sure of it. “There, that looks a little more like you.”
She sat down in the chair once again, like she had with her mother, a little more aware of the reality of the situation, and yet strangely numb to it at the same time.
“What the hell even happened, dad?”
She saw the seat belt burn on his left shoulder, and lifted the sheet ever so slightly, taking a peek at his torso, which was completely purpled in a diagonal line that crossed his body like a tattoo. So, they were wearing seatbelts, but the grotesque swelling in his face told the rest of the story.
Dad hated airbags. He had disabled the ones in their car a few months back to work on some wiring behind the dash. As a mechanic, he had to fix and reinstall air bags for customers after a simple fender bender would deploy them and then the car wouldn’t run without having them fixed. At an average cost of fifteen hundred dollars per airbag, he thought it was a rip-off. He could have hooked them back up but he was planning to do more work installing a remote start so he was dragging his feet about it.
Mom was not happy about this and they’d argued about it several times. Abby knew this because both of them complained to her about it. For her it was a simple matter of prudence and safety. For him, it was more of a moral / ethical dilemma. He always said the airbag was more likely to break your neck than save your life, and if it was his time to go, he wanted to go out with a bang.
“Well dad? You got your wish.” Abby stroked his hand and felt its roughness. After so many years of working on cars and diesel engines, his hands were always like sandpaper, but Abby wouldn’t have it any other way. Those rough hands had always been a comfort. Until now.
His hand was rough, yes. But it was also limp. Cold. Still.
She leaned across his barrel-chest and laid her head gently against the sheet, keenly aware of the bruises but unable to comprehend that she couldn’t possibly hurt him anymore. He smelled like smoke and gasoline and dried blood and yet—there was no heartbeat. No movement of breath.
Abby wasn’t one to cry, like Lauren. Tears had never worked for her. Never actually helped her to feel any better. In fact, she hadn’t cried once in the past twelve years. Not since the day she came back from Aunt Jane’s, only to find that Trevor had left town. Knowing he’d chosen not to fight for her, for them, had undone all her resolve. The feelings were all too similar. Defeat. Abandonment. Unspeakable grief.
Tears were foreign enemies, she reminded herself. Terrorists determined to undermine her autocratic rule.
Despite her best efforts, the truth began to descend like a dark cloud, the flood of emotions welling up inside her heart until suddenly the dam broke. She sat down hard on the chair and began to cry, all the emotions mixing together in a tangled mass of confusion and pain, tinged around the edges by anger and resentment. She pulled a wad of tissues from the box and buried her face in them, allowing her tears to soak through the thin paper, only to be followed by more tears, but the closure didn’t come. She didn’t know how to do this. Had never known how to do this. How did you say goodbye to someone your heart loved so deeply that they were a part of you, embedded in your DNA?
There was nothing left for her in this room, or the adjoining room, for that matter. Nothing left but to go and bury the dead, and try to build a life without them. She wasn’t sure what to do next, but assumed that’s what Grace Daly was there for. To hold their hands and help navigate the next part of the journey.
She looked down at his wristband, with his name and birthdate and a series of other random identifiers stamped across the flimsy white plastic. Peter Steel. The name he had given her had always felt like strength. He was the one who taught her to be strong, to not let the hard times beat her down. To let her knees bleed until she’d finished the task at hand. Eventually, the tears subsided, replaced by numbness and hardened by resolve. Tears would have to wait until later. Or maybe not at all.
“I love you daddy. I love you so much.” The emotions caught once again in her throat but she swallowed them down. “You were the best dad a girl could ever want. I’m going to make you proud.” She squeezed his hand for the last time, took a deep breath, and walked over to the curtain, pausing for one last look back at the man who had loved her through everything life had ever thrown at her. She pulled back the curtain and slid open the glass door.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this second installment from the Steel Journeys Origins series. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on the Steel Journeys Facebook Page.
Still haven’t read Part 1? It’s right here…