Plan On Me
It was a quiet night, on a quiet street, in a quiet part of town, in a neighborhood made up of older people. Although it was nearly Christmas, most houses were not decorated. Of course there was the occasional door wreath, or electric candelabra in a front window, and even a few lights on a few porches, but nothing that would require climbing a ladder or risking a fall.
Except one house, on a cul-de-sac, which was brightly lit, with blinking lights on the porch, and Santa in his sleigh sitting on the front yard. Seeing it, you would know that this was a house with children. As you got closer, however, you would see that Santa was a bit threadbare, and his face had been inexpertly repainted. Nonetheless, it was the brightest, most cheerful house on this quiet street.
Inside, quiet carols were playing, as a young girl, the reason for the cheerfulness, sat at the kitchen table, doing her last homework before the Christmas break. An older woman, just the right age to be the girls grandmother, was at the sink, washing dishes.
From the living room, over the quiet carols, came the ring of the telephone.
"I'll get it, Gramma!" called the child, then pushed her chair back and rushed from the room.
"Hello, Simkins residence, this is Alicia speaking."
"Hi, Sweet Patootie," said the voice on the phone. Alicia's eyes grew large.
"Hello, Baby Doll."
"Daddy! Gramma, it's Daddy!"
"I'll be there in a minute," answered Gramma's tired voice.
"Guess what?" said the voice on the phone.
"I'll be home for Christmas," the voice broke into song.
"You can plan on me." By then, the girls eyes were full of happy tears, and a huge lit her face.
Her grandmother reached for the phone, and said, kindly, "Go finish your homework, Sweetie. You can talk to your Dad a little more before we hang up." Alicia looked like she was going to argue, then handed her grandmother the phone, and skipped back to the kitchen, singing "Daddy's comin' home, Daddy's comin' home."
"Well?' said the older woman into the phone.
"I mean it, this time, Corrine. I am on my way, now. Driving across on 80. I stopped for dinner and got a bunch of change to call. Should be there by tomorrow night."
"Like last time, Robbie?" Corrine's voice hardened. "That little girl can't have another disappointment like last time."
"I explained that, Corrine."
"To me. And you left me to explain it to her. I won't go through that again, and I won't put her through that again. Understand?"
"Corrine, I am on my way, and I will be there, or I will die trying. Look, put Alicia back on, OK? I've just about used up my change, I have a very short time left."
Robbie talked to his daughter for a few more minutes, learning her greatest desire as a Christmas gift, then finished the conversation with "Remember, I love you forever."
He turned away from the phone booth at the restaurant truck stop just outside Laramie, Wyoming and headed for his car, collar up against the biting wind. He thought that perhaps he'd promised too much, given the weather that had been following him the whole way from Nevada, but he was going to do his best to keep that promise, "Or die trying," he said out loud as he started the car.
Robbie thought, as he drove, about what had led him to this. He thought of his baby girl, and how much he missed her, and that naturally sent his thoughts to his dead wife, and how much he missed her. It had been almost three years since his wife's funeral, and his collapse, and almost 2 years since he'd left his daughter behind, with his mother-in-law, and gone west.
He told himself, and anyone who would listen, that he was trying to get a stake, to start over, to build a new life for himself and his daughter. But he realized, deep inside, that he was running from memories that he could not deal with in any other way. He also knew, even deeper inside, that everyone else realized that, too.
Well, he finally had his stake. On the winter solstice, his dead wife's birthday, as he was just at the end of his money, and his sanity, he had finally had one perfect night, in Las Vegas. Everything he touched turned to gold. Well, actually to chips, which he cashed in. By the end of that night, Robbie had over $100,000, and a complimentary high-roller suite in a casino that hoped he would stay and lose it all back to them.
But Robbie had fooled them. The next day, he went into a Las Vegas car dealer and bought a brand-new, 'End-Of-The-1976-Model-Year-Clearance' Oldsmobile Cutlass sedan. He'd really wanted the red coupe, but decided, in a burst of domesticity, that the white sedan would be better for a father and daughter. It felt wonderful to pay cash for the car, keep out more than $1,000 for the trip, and still have a savings account of $100,000 to start his new life, or maybe, he thought, just to re-start his old one.
Robbie drove through the night, then at six am, found himself a room in a cheap motel, where he asked for a wake-up call at noon. By twelve-fifteen, Robbie was showered and dressed and ready, he had chugged two cups of 'complimentary' coffee, asked directions to the nearest toy store, then stepped out into a world that had gone white. The weather had caught up while he was sleeping.
Robbie brushed the snow from his running car with the sleeves of his coat, and realized that he would need to get used to winter again, if he was going to be living in Pennsylvania. But soon the defroster and wipers cleared the last of the snow from his windshield, and Robbie headed east on Interstate 80.
Heading through Ohio, Robbie kept the radio on as the snow fell around him. The weather reports were full of dire predictions for sleet and freezing rain to mix with the snow, 'making this Christmas travel season the most dangerous in many years,' and repeating requests from police agencies throughout the eastern part of the country to stay off the roads if possible. He finally had his fill of that, and pushed in the 'Holiday Classics' 8-track he'd bought on a whim at a gas stop.
"You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen."
"Now, that's traveling music," Robbie said to himself, and began to sing along. Every few minutes he looked at the package on the seat beside him, the very last Talking Tina doll available at the store he'd found. He imagined the smile on Alicia's face as she tore open the bright foil wrap, and that made him smile, too
As he moved eastward, Robbie realized that the snow was thickening, and the traffic was thinning, as more and more travelers took heed of the police warnings. Finally, about thirty miles from the Pennsylvania border, he realized that it was not just snow on the windshield, any more, but sleet, and freezing rain as well. "The classic 'wintry mix'" he sighed, as Bing Crosby dreamed of a White Christmas on the stereo. Robbie snorted as he heard that.
Robbie began to pass highway rest stops already full of cars and trucks, their drivers deciding to wait out the storm, but he pressed on. His speed dropped lower and lower with each time his car would fishtail, until he was doing no more than forty miles per hour on the highway. Even so, none of the few cars he saw was moving any faster.
The early sunset caught him just across the Pennsylvania border. Robbie thought about finding a place to stop, but he knew that he would not be able to stand the sound of disappointment in Alicia's voice, or the cold disapproval in Corrine's, if he called to tell them he would not be home in time. "Or die, trying," he repeated to himself. The snow continued to fall.
Finally, on a long straight stretch, where he could see for almost a mile ahead, there was a line of road flares, then two police cars, blocking the blocking, lights flashing. He stopped and rolled down his window as a huge black officer, with the name tag Williams, walked up to his car.
"Sorry, sir" the state trooper rumbled, "but there's been a bad accident, and 80 is closed east of here." He pointed to the right, and added, "this is the last exit you can get to. I really recommend that you pull off here, and find a place to stay, tonight. The road crews should have things clear enough to get on your way sometime tomorrow."
"But, officer, my little girl is waiting for me in Phillipsburg. I promised her I'd be there for Christmas, this year."
The trooper looked at Robbie's Nevada plates, and said, "Sir, until 80 is open again, there is just no safe way for you to get there. Now please do as I suggest. Surely you don't think your daughter wants you to risk your life trying to get home?"
Robbie shook his head, then began to roll the window back up as the trooper said "Have a safe and merry Christmas, sir."
Robbie turned onto the exit and headed down toward a small cluster of highway businesses. He pulled into the first motel he saw, though the parking lot was completely full, shut off his headlights and headed back out onto the road. With the snow, the night was bright with reflected light, and he knew the officer would not see him in his new white car, unless he turned on his lights or touched his brake pedal.
In a few minutes, when Robbie was certain the trooper could no longer see him , he turned his lights back on, and headed down the local road, until he found a connection to State Route 322. He knew that road would take him all the way home.
A few miles ahead of Robbie, Wally Peters was wrestling his short-haul Mack diesel around the twists and turns of Pennsylvania 322. The road conditions and the continuing fall of ice and snow were making him very nervous, but he knew that if he did not get this load delivered by tomorrow morning, he would be out of a job. "Not a very good Christmas gift for Janie and the kids," he said.
Behind him, moving slowly, Robbie was struggling to keep his new car on the road. He felt like a fool now, but he kept repeating to himself, "I promised, I promised...Or die trying." He pushed the 8 track in, for company, and to keep up his courage. "If I can live through 'Holly, Jolly Christmas" he said, I can live through this." The snow continued to fall.
In Phillipsburgh, after Corrine finished reading 'A Christmas Carol' and both of them had repeated "God bless us, every one," Alicia put out a plate of cookies and glass of milk for Santa, then kissed her Gramma goodnight. "Can't I stay up and wait for Daddy?" she asked.
"No, dear, with this weather, I'm sure your father is stopped somewhere to wait out the storm."
"Oh, so he won't be home?" her face fell.
"Tell you what, when he gets here, or if he calls, I'll wake you, OK?"
Alicia went to her room, said her prayers with Gramma watching, then wormed herself under the covers. "Night, gramma," she said.
"Good night, Sweetie."
Corrine walked back to the living room and sat in the only comfortable chair. She turned off the lights, except those on the small tree in the corner, and looked out, through the open curtains, watching. Her thoughts seemed equally divided between anger and worry. "Or die trying," she mumbled.
On State Route 322, Wally Peters was working his way through ever deepening snow and sleet. His hands ached from gripping the wheel. He came around a sharp corner at the start of a downhill stretch, and his trailer swung left. He tried to correct the slide, but could not catch it, and then the trailer and cab were both sliding slowly sideways, the end of the trailer taking out a row of guardrails, that had protected traffic from a steep slope, leading down to a small but deep lake.
The cab thumped into the ditch, blocking the whole roadway, and Wally knew he was not going to get home tonight. At least the accident would give him a good excuse for not delivering on time. He sighed, zipped up his jacket and went out into the snow to set warning flares, deciding to go east first, to warn oncoming traffic. The snow continued to fall.
Less than a mile to the west, Robbie was still fighting his car, and the snow, and the slippery road. He knew that he was being a pure fool but it was too late. Even if he wanted to stop now, there was nowhere out here in farm country for him to spend the night. He pushed on, his wipers barely able to keep the windshield clear of the the freezing slush.
Elvis Presley had just started to sing "I'll Be Home For Christmas" as Robbie came around a sharp corner at the start of a downhill stretch, and saw the truck across the road in front of him. He hit his brakes and the car began to slide, he corrected, but it was too late. The tail of the car snapped back to the right, and his car went straight ahead, through the place where the guardrails had been torn out. It gathered speed as it went down the steep slope, and plunged into the lake. Robbie's head hit the steering wheel as the nose of the Cutlass struck the water, and he was there, unconscious and hanging from his seatbelt as the water began to fill the car.
On the far side of his truck, bending down to set a flare, Wally saw nothing of the second accident.
As the freezing water reached his waist, Robbie revived. He tried to release the seatbelt, but he was still dazed, and his cold hands were not responding. All that he could think was "Oh no, oh no." Robbie tried to open the door, but the outside pressure was too much, he thumped his shoulder against it over and over, a little weaker each time, as the water rose. On the seat beside him, Alicia's package began to float. Robbie kept trying, but he could not unfasten the seatbelt, or open the door. Finally, the cold lake water had closed over Robbie's head. He held his breath for as long as he could, praying to get home, to see his daughter just one more time.
In Phillipsburgh, Alicia was half asleep when she looked at the foot of her bed, and saw her Daddy standing there. He raised his finger to his lips and made a shushing sound. Alicia could see that his clothes were wet, and she could see him shivering.
"Daddy?" she said quietly.
"Listen, Baby. I tried to get home. I tried as hard as I could, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for all the time I was not here. I should have been here."
Alicia could see he was shivering more and more as he spoke, and she threw back her blankets to reach for him. But he held his hand up and stepped back. "Don't touch me, Patootie. I'm cold and wet, and you might get sick. But please remember, I love you forever."
In the lake, under the bitter cold water, Robbie could no longer hold his breath. A line of bubbles escaped his mouth. After a few more moments, he could not stop himself, and Robbie inhaled
In Phillipsburgh, Alicia saw her Daddy shiver hard, one last time. Then he faded away.
Corrine ran down the hall and into Alicia's room. She turned on the light to see her granddaughter crying in despair. As she walked toward the bed, she stepped in a puddle of freezing cold water.
On Christmas morning, on Route 322, trooper Gerald Williams was at the beginning of a steep hill, watching for traffic, as a powerful wrecker pulled a semi-trailer sideways, sliding on the snow and ice, until it was back in a traffic lane.
"Thank God no-one was hurt or killed in this mess" he thought as the wrecker operator went to detach the cable from the trailer. Then he saw the driver look down, look again, and begin waving frantically at him.
A few minutes later, as the wrecker dragged the white Oldsmobile from the water, trooper Williams saw the Nevada plate, and said to himself, "Oh, you damfool."
He looked into the car, and recognized the young man from the evening before, mouth and eyes both open. There was a brightly wrapped package frozen into his hair. A few minutes later the ambulance pulled up with lights flashing, but no siren. It was far too late for that.
The ambulance crew and trooper Williams struggled to work Robbie's stiff body out of the car. As they almost had him free, his knee slammed against the dash, and they could hear Elvis singing, "I'll be home for Christmas, If only in my dreams." Shuddering, one of the men reached in and jerked the tape out of the player.
At Seven-thirty PM, trooper Gerald Williams was standing on the porch of a quiet house, on a quiet street, in a quiet part of Phillipsburgh, Pennsylvania. There were lights around the porch, and Santa's sleigh in the yard, but they were not lit up, tonight. He shifted a brightly wrapped package to his left hand, and knocked on the door with his right.
"Mrs. Simkins?" he said, when the door opened, "I am so sorry for your loss." He held up the package, and added, "Your son-in-law had this with him when..."
"Thank you officer," she replied taking the package from his hand.
Trooper Williams trudged back down the steps, and out to his patrol car. The single glimpse he had caught through the open door of the sad-eyed little girl made him want to hurry home to his own daughter.
Inside, Alicia looked at the package her grandmother carried to the tree. She did not know if she wanted to open it. Her grandmother held it out, and said "He bought this for you, as the last thing he wanted to give you."
Alicia took the package, and looked at it a little while longer, then finally, carefully, opened it, and held the talking doll she had wanted all year. She reached behind the doll, and pulled the string.
"Remember," said Talking Tina, "I love you forever."
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