It was a beautiful day in spring. One of those days when the temperature is perfect, the trees flower with green, singing whispered melodies as the wind passes through them, and the sun tickles your skin with gentle rays of light. Jae Lynn Russell stared out the kitchen window with a smile on her face. She loved days like these. The sweet melody of spring birds gave her energy and a need for adventure. The bitter winter had transformed into a beautiful burst of life and it brought delight to her heart.
"Today is a good day for fishing!" she exclaimed to her little sister Casey as they sit at the table eating breakfast.
"Mmhmm.", Casey mumbled
Casey was two years younger than Jae, but at fourteen she could've easily passed for much older. Casey was taller than Jae as well. "Shorter but older sister" as Casey would say. Jae had blonde hair, Casey's was brown, Casey's eyes were green and Jae's were blue. Though they seemed opposite in every way, they had a bond that transcended friendship. At first glance you couldn't tell they were related. In reality they weren't. Adoption was the fate that brought them together. But when you saw them together, laughing, you could tell they were sisters and genetics meant nothing.
"I think I'll give Alicia a call." Jae said, "You wanna come with me?"
"No. I'm still not feeling well." Casey replied
Jae smiled at her sister. Even recovering from the flu she still looked stunningly beautiful.
"What are you smiling at?" Casey asked with a giggle
"Nothing." Jae answered cheerily as she stood from the table
Casey smirked and shook her head "Weirdo..." she mumbled as she plunged her spoon into her bowl, chasing the remaining pieces of cereal.
Jae ran into the living room to call Alicia.
At that moment Becky Russell walked through the front door carrying two bags of groceries.
"Hi Mom." Casey said
"How are you feeling, Honey?"
"Better..." Casey answered, "but I look like crap."
Becky paused and smiled, "You're beautiful to me. Could you help me with groceries?"
Casey got up, walked to the door and slipped on her house shoes
"Where's Jae?" Becky asked as she set the bags on the counter with a gentle clank
"She's on the phone. I think she's going fishing this afternoon."
"Oh really?" Becky replied in her distinct, motherly voice, "I wish she would ask me before she made plans."
Casey smiled as she walked out the door
Becky said that every time Jae made plans. Ever since they gave Jae a car for her sixteenth birthday, she'd been making plans first and asking questions later. Jae was never home, as girls her age rarely are. Becky worried often, she's a mother, and it's her job after all. And it's not that she didn't trust Jae, it was everyone else she didn't trust. There were so many unforeseen dangers out there for a naïve kid. Jae was a wonderful teenager. She made good grades in school, participated in church events, and was deeply involved in cheerleading. They encouraged them but never forced their daughters to get involved, it was some thing she loved to do. This made her very popular at school and in her community but she stayed humble, at least as humble as a teen could be. She was a blessing to her as a parent, not just because of her beautiful spirit, but because she paved a path of wonderful examples for her young sister to follow. Becky heard so many stories on the news, and in her office, of teens that were involved in drugs or having unprotected sex. She thanked God everyday for her wonderful family, for her loving husband, and for Jae Lynn and Casey.
"Hi mom." Jae said as she walked in to the kitchen
"Hi Jae." Becky replied as she stood on her tiptoes to put a can of beans on the top shelf.
"I think I'm gonna go fishing this afternoon with Alicia."
Becky closed the cabinet and stared at Jae, "I really wish you would tell me these things before making plans."
"Sorry Mom." Jae looked away, hoping her mother would still let her go
"Help your sister bring in the groceries and we'll call it even."
Jae walked out the front door and came back in a few minutes later with two arms full of groceries and Casey following close behind.
"Where are you going fishing?" Becky asked out of curiosity
Jae hesitated for a moment, "Well I was thinking Greer's Ferry Lake..."
Just as she expected, a worried wrinkle formed in her mother's brow,
"What road are you taking?"
"Highway 89." Jae replied with a shrug
"Jae... Isn't there anywhere closer you can go?"
"Mom." Jae said with slight annoyance, "Nothing's gonna happen. Just trust me."
Becky raised her voice to defend herself, "I do trust you Jae. It's everyone else I don't trust. Just be really careful okay?"
"Yes maam." Jae answered to end the conversation
Highway 89 was a beautiful highway that stretched over green pastures where horses and cattle grazed. As with any roadside in the state of Arkansas it is dotted with towering pines and the occasional plastic bag or some other form of random litter. Pleasant towns that hadn't changed in years dotted the lonely road. If you drove down its road at the break of dawn in the perfect moment you would gaze into the most beautiful sunrise you've ever seen. However, there is a point where 89 intersects Highway 5. At first glance it doesn't seem different from any common intersection. Paper fliers from local churches and advertisements for town events cover the telephone post. The roadsides sloped into drainages ripe with cracked mud and stagnant water. Robins nestled high in the pines as they gave birth to new life. What concerned Becky, and most of the neighborhood parents for that matter, was the blind spot on the south side of highway 5. The only thing that separated these busy roads is a blinking yellow light. Drivers who weren't familiar with the area or truck drivers running behind schedule could not see the caution light until it was too late to slow down. For years locals had been vying to get a real traffic light installed. It was always met with the same response, "We're working on it." There had been some close calls in the past and everyone who lived in town knew it was only a matter of time before something tragic happened. Parents fretted nervously for their loved ones and Becky was no different.
Ralph Russell had spent all morning in the garage trying to fix the lawnmower. The grease and grime stuck to his hands and collected under his fingernails as he tightened the screws to the oil pan. He knew it was time to just give up and buy a new one. It was such an old reliable machine, but the more he tinkered with it the more he realized it was a lost cause. He wiped the grease from his hands on an old rag and brushed the sweat from his forehead and glasses and mustache. He heard the door open as he looped his glasses around his ears.
Jae walked in briskly, humming a song, and grabbed two fishing poles and a tackle box, oblivious to Ralph who was tucked away in the corner.
"Hey kiddo!" Ralph called loudly in his booming voice
Jae jumped and a short squeal escaped her lips as the poles and tackle box hit the ground with a crash, "Dad! You scared me!" she exclaimed with a laugh
Ralph smiled and put his arm around her shoulder. "Going fishing?"
"Yeah." She bent over and picked up the poles and tackle box "Alicia's coming too."
"Are you driving?"
"Be careful on that highway."
"I know, Mom and I have already talked."
Ralph chuckled because he knew how the conversation probably unraveled.
"How's the mower?" Jae asked
"Well..." he paused to examine it once more, "I think we need a new one."
Jae put her arm around his waist and said with sarcastic empathy, "I'm sorry. I know how much it meant to you."
Ralph smiled. He loved their identical sense of humor
"Have fun and bring us back some dinner."
"Okay. Love you." She said looking over her shoulder
"I love you too."
The gravel crunched under her feet as she walked to her car and placed the tackle box and fishing poles in her back seat. Her bright blue eyes studied how they slanted awkwardly out the window. She shrugged it off and assumed that whoever sat in the back could find a way to adapt.
Seeing as how she was ready to go, Jae walked back inside the house, looked at the clock on the wall; one thirty already. The sound of TV commercials could be heard in the next room. Casey lay wrapped in a blanket on the couch with a large plush pillow nestled under her head.
"Last chance to change your mind. Are you sure you don't want to tag along?"
"Yeah..." Casey replied as her nose blew a chorus into her wrinkled tissue "I'm sure."
"Alright. Tell me what kind of trouble Sponge bob gets in to when I get home tonight."
Casey smiled, "Have fun Jae."
Jae walked into the garage just in time to see her parents locked in a kiss.
"Ugh." was her natural reaction, "I'm sorry I had to see that..."
Becky smiled, "Someday you'll understand."
"Well I just wanted to let you know that I'm leaving."
"Okay kiddo." Ralph said as he hugged her and kissed the top of her head, "Good luck."
As Jae walked briskly to her car she heard her mother call out, "Don't forget to wear your seatbelt!"
"Yes maam!" she called back with a quick wave of her hand. Jae slid into the driver's seat and closed the door. She reached over and pulled the buckle over her shoulder. It whizzed by her ear and snapped into place. She stretched the strap up to show her mother that she was safely secure. Becky smiled and gave her thumbs up and Jae turned the ignition and drove on to the open road.
"We have some great kids don't we Ralph?"
"Yes. Yes we do."
That's when they heard the thumping of feet from within the house. Casey ran by the window and into the hallway bathroom. Ralph and Becky stared puzzled at each other for a moment, and then heard the sound of dry heaving. Their parental instincts turned on and they ran inside to comfort their sick daughter.
Alicia Rix looked at the clock on her cell phone as she sat on the steps of her front porch. She sat patiently in the warm sunshine holding a soccer ball under her arm. Alicia was an excellent soccer player and looked forward to starting practice in the coming week. She was a legend at Sylvan Hills high school and feared by neighboring schools for her superb slide kick. Last season alone she broke three girls' legs and her own foot. The coach wasn't a religious woman but found a way to praise God for such an intimidating athlete. It was that tenacity that many loved to see and wished to see in their girls. There were many times after a game when Alicia's mother would hear parents tell their daughters, "Who was that number 14? She's quite a firecracker!"
Alicia's mother was just as notorious in the stands as Alicia was on the field. Every game she would be on her feet screaming at the officials until her face turned purple. That's when the security guard would approach and tell her she would have to calm down or be escorted out of the game.
"Why are you asking me to leave?!"
"Mizz Rix, you're distractin' th' players an' causin a scene." The officer replied, behind his aviator sunglasses and mustache, his hands in front of him as if to fend off her anger "It's jus' a game Mizz Rix."
She glared at the officer with fire in her eyes, "Well of course it's just a game for you! Your daughter isn't the one getting called out by those no good excuses for officials!"
Alicia could only glare at her from the field before putting her hands to her hot and blushing face.
She stood to her feet now and kicked the soccer ball between her legs. Thoughts of a typical teenager ran through her mind; school, friends, boys. The west wind blew the smell of freshly cut grass across the land and Alicia squinted as she looked toward the sun soaked horizon.
The car rolled over the gutter as Jae pulled into Alicia's driveway. The bass from Jae's radio thumped in Alicia's ears. She put her hand to her forehead and squinted in the mid day sun. Jae rolled down the window and the rhythm of music spilled on to the yard. Jae pulled her sunglasses to her forehead and brushed her blonde hair behind her ear.
"Hey stranger! Need a ride?"
"Took you long enough." Alicia called back as she dropped the soccer ball from her side and kicked it onto the front porch. It tumbled and bounced before finally resting against her mother's potted plant.
"Good kick." Jae replied
Alicia opened the passenger side door and dropped onto the seat, "I know. I'm pretty awesome aren't I?" Alicia replied in mock arrogance
They gave a youthful chuckle and Jae turned her body to pull out of the driveway. The car sunk once and then again as it fell from the curb.
Alicia stared at the small pig ornament dangling and swinging in circles under Jae's rear view mirror.
She pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail, her brown eyes squinted intriguingly, "Jae, what is your fascination with pigs?"
"I dunno," she shrugged, "...Do you like boys?"
"Of course I do." Alicia smiled with perfect white teeth gleaming
"Well boys are pigs. Doesn't that mean you like pigs too?" Jae replied with a satisfied smile
Alicia's eyes squinted in laughter, "Oh Jae... You are too much! But you're right. I guess I do."
The green car cruised down the beautiful Arkansas highway as free as a bird. The two girls laughed and smiled with the innocence of young, kind hearts not yet spoiled by the adult world. And the afternoon sun cast it's light upon their skin and burned the day to their memories. The wind combed their beautiful blonde locks and they sang aloud to the good and the bad times that made them who they are. The cows grazed sullenly in the fields and scrappy stray dogs trotted down the highway as they passed.
The brakes squeaked softly as Jae placed her foot on the pedal. They were approaching the dreaded intersection that her mother feared so much. In Jae's mind she could hear her mother's voice telling her to be cautious and be safe. As the car crept to the edge of the crossing roads the sun hid behind the giant pines that stood on the hillside. That was when she caught the figure of a silver sedan to her left. Her eyes locked with the other driver's eyes and she was momentarily taken back by their deep shade of blue and his dark brown hair. He didn't look to be her age, maybe a little older and she felt herself blush a little as he smiled and waved her on. She shook her head and returned the generous gesture. He waved his hand as if to thank her and drove under the blinking light to the other side, locking eyes with the two beautiful girls the whole way across.
"Mmmmm...Hot!" Alicia cooed
Jae smiled as she put her foot to the gas petal and pulled into the intersection. Alicia turned to Jae with a clever comment on her mind and Jae turned to her and braced for laughter when a deep guttural horn blasted from her left side. Alicia's look of pleasure transformed in to absolute fear. The corners of her mouth pulled back and her eyes grew wide with gruesome horror. The deafening horn sounded again and Jae's heart jumped in confusion and panic. The earth around them roared and squealed and the small green car exploded against the mighty force of the eighteen-wheeler. The tires popped, glass and metal splattered and bled on to the street. There was a brief moment when Jae felt her bones snap and the sharp pain of glass cutting her face. It was an unbearable, awful pain. It was as if she were watching the events in slow motion. The metal twisted and screamed as it shuddered and shook from the impact. Glass hovered and spiraled in mid air. Jae closed her eyes. The metal crunched like aluminum foil, morphing in to an unrecognizable twist of scrap. Sparks showered the concrete as it ate away at its metallic host. In an instant it was all over.
The earth grew silent. The robins looked down in wonder and worry for their chicks. The wind passed through the trees and ran their invisible fingers through the fliers on the telephone poles causing them to snap and crackle. The sun shined on the tense white knuckles of the only survivor. He gasped heavy for air and his heart beat out of his thick chest. He was numb to the cigarette that had once been in his mouth now burning its signature into his leg. His worn, tired, unshaven face was a zombie and his mouth hung open as his tongue quivered.
In Jae's mind, colors she'd never seen before flashed by her. She couldn't explain them. They were wonderful and beautiful. She felt numb and serene. It was total bliss. Total silence. Then she opened her eyes. Chaos lay all around her. The smell of gasoline and oil filled her nostrils. Twisted wreckage lay all around and the sound of sirens and panicked voices surrounded her. She darted her eyes darted back and forth. The reality was setting in. That's when she gazed at the face of the dark haired boy. His head hung low and his hands were on his hips. His intense piercing eyes bled with tears and sorrow. The young man glanced at Jae and his eyes widened with shock and he stumbled backward a few steps. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, "This one's still alive! She's still alive!!"
Her vision blurred and she fought to stay awake. A moan left her lips and with one last breath, Jae Lynn Russell fell out of consciousness. The strange colors flashed by her again and then white. In an instant she felt a surge of overwhelming peace and her body quaked with an ecstatic comfort and warmth that liberated her soul. Jae opened her eyes to find herself sitting in a blackened oak tree. Like waking from a dream, Jae tried to remember what had just happened. She knew that something had happened to bring her to the oak tree but she couldn't remember how she got here. All she could recollect was being in the tree. The leaves of the mighty oak were a bright auburn that glowed as the yellow sun kissed their paper skin. They danced in the light breeze and spun like tiny dancers on delicate twigs. It was the tree she and Casey used to play under as little girls when Mr. Carter paid them twenty dollars a piece to rake his leaves She watched with satisfaction as the leaves broke loose and fell gracefully to the earth below. The smile never faded from her face. She followed the leaf's twisted path and a gray silhouette caught her eye. It contrasted so sharply with the fiery floor of leaves below. The object quivered and shook. Jae placed her hand on the branch in front of her to get a closer look at this strange object. She expected to feel some resistance, to feel her muscles tense and sting from use, but she felt as if she had an unlimited surge of energy. Every movement reminded her of the feeling she were a little girl being caressed in her mother's arms.
Jae felt overwhelmed by these incredible feelings of tenderness, but her attention turned back to the dark figure. She moved closer and the object took shape. It was a young teenage girl wearing a light jacket weeping softly under the mighty tree. Jae knew then who she was looking at. Casey's hair blew in the wind and strands stuck to the tears on her cheeks. She held her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth as she stared into nothing, lost in thought. Her eyes and nose were pink and worn but even then she looked stunningly beautiful. Jae Lynn smiled; she'd always been envious of the way her sister could look gorgeous doing anything.
Jae sat in silence for a moment as she tried to find a way to explain all this.
"Casey?" Jae called
Casey's head turned sharply and she stared Jae in the eyes. Her brief look of surprise was overshadowed by the tired, defeated complexion on her face.
"Casey, what's wrong?"
Casey stared blankly in to her
"Hello?" Jae called as she waved her hand in front of her sister's eyes.
Casey turned away and sighed, "I must be losing my mind..." another tear rolled down her cheek. She stood and brushed the leaves from her backside and stared again in to the mighty oak that held so many memories.
"I love you Jae." The words choked her and she swallowed them down. "Sometimes we feel so lost without you here. I miss you so much."
She walked away and blew a kiss into the sky. Jae felt the soft touch of lips on her forehead and she closed her eyes as it sent a shockwave of pleasure and warmth through her body.
"Where are you going? I'm right here."
Casey didn't acknowledge Jae's response; she didn't stop or turn around.
"Casey!" she screamed
Jae stood alone under the oak tree as Casey shrank into the distance.
"Why can't you hear me?" she asked in defeated frustration
A single oak leaf fell on her shoulder and she took it in her hand. Jae noticed the delicate texture and how the colors fluctuate from orange to yellow depending on the angle it was held. Yellow had always been her favorite color. It made her happy and warm. The leaf felt soft in her hand. The surface was shining and shimmering, and she thought to herself how vivid everything had become. As if all of her senses had been heightened to an unimaginable degree. She looked around her. Everything was so beautiful, the color, the smells of the earth. She gazed toward the sky and felt a childlike pleasure at the blinding colors that contrasted with the dark twisted branches of the oak. She looked again at the curled leaf in her hand and smiled.
"It's amazing, little leaf, how beautiful you look in death."
It was at that moment Jae remembered the fishing trip, the face of the cute guy at the intersection. She recalled Alicia screaming and then the force of the impact, the brief burst of pain and then black. She looked down at the leaf in her hand. It quivered and shook as tiny gusts of wind caught its sails and with one quick gust it flew from Jae's hand and nestled on the carpet of leaves under her. Jae marveled at the wise old tree and smiled with closed eyes as she came to understand her new beginning.