Shipwreck Sadie
by Daniel W. Davis

“Well, David, it finally happened,” my father said. “Your sister’s Ford broke down. Don’t ask me what’s wrong; you know I was never very good with cars.”

I pulled the phone away from my head and stared at. The screen said “Blocked Number.” Nothing else.

“David? Are you there?”

I slowly brought the phone back to my ear. “Dad?”

“Who else? Listen, David, she’s about a mile from the farm. Northeast of it, on County Road 413. That’s Raccoon Road, in case you’d forgotten.”

“I remember,” I said. “Dad?”

“You better hurry, son. Sadie’s all skin and bones these days, and she doesn’t have any heat. Forgot her cell phone, too. Again. She’s such a shipwreck.”

I could hear the smile in his voice, the laughter lurking just beneath the surface. My father was never a laughing man, but he’d smiled a lot. He’d smiled constantly.

I started to say something back to him, a plea or prayer or whatever a man in such a position is supposed to say, but suddenly my phone went dark and silent. I slid it slowly back into my pocket.

My father had been dead for six months. Lung cancer. He didn’t smoke.

Two thoughts entered my mind. One: I was hallucinating. It couldn’t be an imitation, someone playing a prank; I’d phoned my father almost every day when I was going to school in New York. There was no way anyone could impersonate him that well, from the suppressed smile, to his perpetual nickname for Sadie, to his good-humored condescension. The human voice is one of the most difficult sounds to mimic successfully, my father’s more than most.

My second thought was that this was really happening. It was a genuine idea, surrounded by doubt but definitely there. “I never wanted to have a guardian angel,” my father had told me once, “but I always wanted to be one. Call me a paranoid single father, but it’s the only way to look out for my children and know I’ll always be there.”

For men like my father, the existence of God and angels wasn’t a matter of faith; it was a matter of fact. He didn’t go to church, he said, because it would be like peeking out the window to convince himself the sun was still shining. He’d gone while my mother was alive, to pacify her, and because he enjoyed the potluck dinners; but his spiritual relationship had been personal, shared with those who asked, and even then only briefly.

For me, it was a matter of faith, not in God but in my father. I hesitated only a few moments, long enough for the surprise to wear off and acceptance to replace it. I grabbed my coat and was out the door within two minutes of receiving the call. My wife was working the afternoon shift; if I wasn’t back before she got home, she would call. Otherwise, there was no one I had to inform of my departure. I could be on Raccoon Road within the hour.

I’d spent most of the day with my face buried in a nineteenth-century literature anthology. I hadn’t paid attention to how bad the weather was getting. Snow came down in thick, wet flakes; occasional gusts of wind turned the peaceful scene into a fierce storm of damp and cold. Out in the country, the wind would be almost constant, with visibility plunging to zero. And no plows on the winding open roads. This long after the harvest, the fields were nothing but brown, barren wastelands. Nothing to block the wind. And no one around to go to for help.

Not that Sadie would even try. At eighteen, she had the timidity of someone less than half her age. To say she’d taken Mother’s death hard would be an understatement; Sadie was devastated, torn asunder, plunged into a world of doubt and disarray. She withdrew into herself, like a turtle into its shell, only emerging for our father and, eventually and only occasionally, me. She’d gone to as many counselors as Central Illinois had to offer, and had attended special classes in middle school, to no avail. She was brilliant; she made casual friends; she even had a date to the senior prom. But Sadie was never truly herself with anyone other than our father, and even he didn’t fully understand her. “Caught up in the reefs again,” he’d say. “No need to know how deep the waters are; all I care about it is, the ship’s still intact and ready to sail.”

Leaving town, the winds buffeted my Jeep. I’d inherited it from Father; he hadn’t used it much in his last few months, and I had yet to test it in winter conditions. So far, it held well, but the two-lane highway meandered farther from town, the drifting snow encroaching on the lanes, driving the edges further inward. I only passed two other cars, drivers as foolish or desperate as I, and both times I had to slow and swing wide. The Jeep’s tires held well, but I kept my eyes glued to the road, shifting though it was. One wrong move, one moment of distraction, and I’d be in the same position as Sadie.

She was happiest at the farm. Everyone knew that. Mother had been alive, and though our father didn’t work the land—he rented it out—we were still a part of it. A boy and his kid sister, frolicking in the fields and the grove of trees and creek about a half-mile away. She’d loved to watch the birds; her favorite was the red-winged blackbird, that late-summer staple. Mother kept promising to get her one as a pet.

But then Mother died, and the upkeep became too much. So we moved. A simple, sad, common story, except that for Sadie it became the only story, and there was no happy ending. There couldn’t be. Not as long as Mother was gone; not as long as we didn’t even have the farm to remember her by.

I knew she occasionally drove past the property. Whenever she took the notion, she went. It had sold as soon as we put it on the market, but that hadn’t stopped Sadie from visiting, either riding her bike or talking Father into a ride. She never talked to the owners, of course, but she kept notes about all the changes they made. A year ago, the owners had moved out, and the farm now stood vacant. The land was still harvested, but the house itself was falling into disarray. I’d seen so for myself on one of the few occasions Sadie had let me inside her armor. She drove me out there, and we sat in her car in front of the house. It was a mild summer day, and I suggested getting out, or at least rolling down the windows, but Sadie refused. She just wanted to look, so we did. Nothing happened, and after a few minutes she drove away without a word. I didn’t know what she got out of such visits, but part of me wished I felt it, too.

The turn for Raccoon Road was nearly invisible amid the blowing snow, but I took it by instinct. Unlike Sadie, I’d managed to move on with my life, but I had no misconceptions about where the happiest parts of my childhood had been spent—not necessarily on the farm itself, but walking along Raccoon Road, so named because of the mischievous bandits who jumped out of the fields and darted across your path. Middle of the day, late at night—there was always a raccoon waiting in ambush. Not a single one ever died, though. Not in the years we’d lived there. If any had, Sadie would not have given the road its name. Even before Mother died, she couldn’t bear to associate anything with death.

Raccoon Road was long—longer still in the winter. I took it one inch at a time; the only plow that had swept this road was the wind, and by now I could barely make out where the road stopped and the ditch began. I kept to the center, my eyes alternating from the road immediately in front of me to the vague grey area ahead. Sadie’s Focus was red; I figured that would enable me to see it from a few yards, at least.

It did, actually, though I almost missed it. The car was titled on its side, halfway in the ditch, creating a slimmer profile than I was expecting. Snow had accumulated on its roof and rear windshield. No headlights, no exhaust. As I pulled up behind it, the vehicle looked abandoned.

I climbed out of the Jeep and pulled my coat tight against the wind. It sucked the breath from my lungs, but I pushed on. I fell against the side of the Ford, and for a moment I thought my weight was enough to push it all the way over. But the vehicle held—didn’t even sway—and I brushed snow off the window.

Sadie was huddled inside. Small, fragile, still in her seatbelt. Mist rose in front of her face. I rapped against the window, calling her name. She stirred slightly, but it might have been a coincidence.

I tugged at the door handle; it was locked. Of course it was—one more piece of protection between my sister and the world. I stepped away, gathering my strength. Keep looking away, Sadie, I thought, then slammed my elbow into the glass.

It hurt. They don’t show that in movies. It hurt, and the glass didn’t break. It took two more blows—reinforced glass, meant to be safer in the event of an accident. Safer too, perhaps, against carjackers. By the time the glass did break, my elbow throbbed, and I had to move it to make sure it hadn’t broken. As I did so, I reached inside with my other hand, knocking free the loose shards, and unlocked the door.

I pulled open the door and leaned inside. “Sadie,” I said, brushing glass off her. “Sadie.” I gently turned her head towards me.

Her eyes fluttered open, then closed again. “David,” she said.

“Sadie, let’s get you out of here, huh?”

I undid her seatbelt and pulled her towards me. “He told me you’d come,” she whispered, as her face brushed my cheek. “He promised.”

“He never lies,” I told her. I slipped off my jacket and put it around her shoulders. She hadn’t dressed for exposure. She’d barely dressed at all: lightweight sweatshirt, blue jeans, tennis shoes. Typical Sadie.

“I think I hit it,” she said. “Is it dead, David? Did I kill it?”

The temperature numbed my brain. I had to think for a second about what she was saying. Then I glanced around. The snow lay thick, but there would still be signs of violence. I didn’t see any.

“The raccoon escaped,” I said. “Don’t they always? It’s safe.”

She mumbled something against my shoulder. Her breath was as bitterly cold as the wind.

I carried her to the Jeep and lifted her into the passenger seat. The cold weighted her down; I couldn’t remember her ever being so heavy.

Back inside the car, I took a minute to let the heater warm me. If something happened now, we would both be in trouble. When I was certain I could drive, I did so carefully. I thought of turning around at the next intersection, but it was too risky. Besides, there was a stop we had to make.

The farmhouse sat a ways off the road, at the end of a long gravel drive, now overgrown with weeds. I paused in the street, long enough for the Jeep to linger a heartbeat in time.

“There it is, Sadie,” I said.

She turned her head slowly. “It’s pretty in the snow,” she said, but I wasn’t sure her eyes were even open.

As I pulled away, she fell against me. Despite how unsafe it was, I put my arm around her shoulders. Partly so she could absorb my warmth, partly so I could absorb her cold. I felt her breath becoming steadily warmer against my arm. I drove her back to town, watching the road carefully for movement. I prayed for my phone to ring, until its silence became the only answer I needed.