In Time for the Matinee
The little girl’s breath was visible in the chilly air as she puffed and panted. She wasn’t really cold – she was moving too quickly to be cold – but the skin of her face was cold, and she wanted very much to be inside again.
How far away could the place be? she wondered. They had just passed it a moment before. How could they have driven so far in such a short time? She felt like she had been walking forever … but it probably hadn’t been much more than ten minutes. It was just through so much undergrowth, and so much mud! How did it get so muddy? – when it hadn’t rained in weeks and weeks? She didn’t remember all these brambles either, but she hadn’t really been paying that much attention.
Finally she arrived at the little gas station they had passed. It looked different – she had thought it was brown, but now it was white – but it was called “Exxon”, just like she had read when they went by it. She was learning how to read lots of things; she was very proud of herself. And now her reading let her know she was at the right place. With tremendous relief, she scampered up to the door of the gas station and pushed it open.
“Can you help me?” she asked the lady at the counter. “My mom and sister are still in the car.”
“What do you need, sweetie?” the lady asked, leaning over the counter and looking down at her. “Where’s your coat?”
“It was really warm when we got in the car,” the little girl told her. “So I didn’t bring it.” She looked behind her out the door. “The car fell into a ditch,” she said. “It fell a long way. And mommy and Janet won’t wake up, so I came here to get help.”
The lady reached out immediately and called someone on the phone. She started asking the little girl a lot of questions about what the car looked like, and what road they were on. “I don’t know the name of the road,” the little girl said. “But it’s the road to Wilford. We’re going to the matinee of Star Wars.”
The lady relayed everything the little girl said to whomever was on the other end of the phone. “I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t think they even had a theater in Wilford anymore.” After a few minutes, she hung up the phone and came around to the front of the counter. She crouched down in front of the little girl and put her arms around her. “Can you show me where the car is, sweetie?”
The little girl nodded, and took the lady’s hand. They walked out of the gas station and back toward the highway, into the nest of brambles that she had struggled through, across the mud and wet gravel, and finally to a clogged drainage ditch that ran under the railroad tracks. An old station wagon had crashed down from the highway above, coming to rest on its side in two feet of standing water.
“Mommy!” the little girl shouted. She let go of the lady’s hand and ran to the station wagon. “I brought some help!” The lady caught up with her, and put her arm around the little girl’s shoulders.
“Back up, sweetie,” she advised. “It’s not safe.” She put herself in front of the little girl, and looked into the station wagon. “Oh, God!” she cried out, backing quickly away and sweeping the little girl up in her arms. “Oh, God!” Tears began running down her face, and the little girl became very afraid.
“What’s wrong with Mommy!” she yelled. She looked back at the car. “Mommy! Mommy!”
Soon a police car arrived, and the lady brought the little girl to the policeman. “The car’s under the railroad bridge,” the lady said. “It looks new, but the people in it have …” She paused, and cleared her throat, and put the little girl down. She drew the policeman away from the little girl, and whispered to him, “The bodies inside look like they’ve been in there forever. They’re pretty much just bones. But the car doesn’t even have any rust on it or anything. It looks brand-new.”
The policeman looked askance at her, and made his way down to the station wagon. The two people – an adult and a child – were indeed little more than clothes wrapped around skeletons. But the entire car was free of rust or dirt, and the interior was as clean and unaffected as though the accident had just happened a moment ago. “Which it must have,” the policeman murmured to himself, glancing at the little girl up on the edge of the highway. He climbed back up, and knelt down to talk to the little girl.
“Are you sure that’s your car, honey?” he asked her.
She nodded. “We just got it,” she said. “Daddy bought it with his tax bonus.” She looked down at the car, and then back at the policeman. “We have to get to Wilford. We’ll be late for the matinee.” She frowned. “Aren’t you going to help wake them up?”
The policeman debated what to tell the little girl. Finally he hugged her, and said softly, “We can’t really wake them up, sweetheart.”
“But we’ll be late!” the little girl protested. “We’ll be late for Star Wars!”
The lady had been standing, silently weeping, and staring down at the brand-new-looking station wagon filled with long-dead bodies. It looked like the kind of car her grandmother had driven back in the seventies. She felt a strange chill that had little to do with the autumn weather, and almost without consciously deciding to, she asked the little girl, “Sweetie, do you know what year it is?”
“I do!” the little girl said proudly. “It’s 1977!” She straightened her back and announced as though it were something she had been working to learn, “It’s May. It’s Saturday. Mommy and Daddy saw Star Wars last night, and today Mommy wanted to take me and Janet.” She smiled. “And we have to go now, because it starts in twenty minutes. That’s why Mommy was driving so fast.”
The lady continued crying, but she turned around so the little girl couldn’t see. The policeman picked up the little girl and took her to the police car. “I don’t know what’s going on, sweetheart,” he told her. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to see the movie another day. Okay?”
The little girl looked fundamentally disappointed. “What about Mommy?” she asked. “Are you bringing her?”
“Not yet, honey,” he said. He was having a lot of trouble getting his head around the situation in the drainage ditch. “But don’t worry. We’ll sort everything out, okay?”
“Okay,” the little girl said reluctantly. She snuggled down into the seat. “It got cold really fast,” she said. “It was really warm when we got in the car.”