Bad Words and Angels

It would be several months before Hilary began to consider she had been in the right place at the right time, rather than the worst possible place she could imagine. But as the heat of a small girl’s life melted into the cold of certain death, all she had was one word.

“Fuck,” she said in a whisper that came out like a shout.

“What’s your name?” asked the little girl. She was curled up on the side of the road. The fetal position.

“Hilary,” she said.

“My mama says that word is bad, Miss Hilary,” said the girl.

“Well, your mama is right. But sometimes a bad word is the only kind that fits.”

“Like when you spill your slushy?”

Hilary looked at the little girl’s left hand, still grasping a tall paper cup. It was crushed like that steel beer can in the movie Jaws. Hilary measured the girl’s determination against Quint’s display of strength and decided the little girl was the stronger of the two.

“Yeah, like then,” said Hilary. Jaws. Why the hell am I thinking about Jaws? Jaws of life would make more sense. She thought of the crash described in John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. A horrific accident. A thought swept through her head like a rogue wave. Or a prayer. I’ll take a head-on collision in trade for saving this girl’s life.

She listened for the sound of an oncoming vehicle, calculated the time it would take to run across the street, get in her still idling Jeep, and accelerate to an appropriate collision speed. Then she thought of the other driver. Would he swerve? And what about his family. No, that wouldn’t be fair. I’ll hit a tree instead.

But there were no trees. And no vehicles on the two-lane country road.

Just the drone of a small airplane. She willed the airplane to become a medical helicopter. It did not.

“Thanks,” said the girl. “My name is Courtney.” Her words came out as gravel. Hilary ran her fingers through Courtney’s curly blond hair. She thought of her own daughter, Tilly, imagined her drawing elaborate scenes on the driveway with sidewalk chalk. There would be at least one unicorn. Probably two, so the first one wouldn’t get lonely.

Get off the driveway, Tilly! Go inside where it’s safe. Please Tilly. Stay inside forever.

“Courtney. That’s a beautiful name.”

“I like Veronica better. I always wanted to be Veronica.”

“Well, then, Veronica. It’s good to meet you. Do you know that Courtney girl? I think she’s really pretty.”

Courtney gurgled a laugh.

“I spilled my slushy,” said Courtney.

“I spill things all the time,” said Hilary. Was that the right thing to say?

“I think I spilled it on my dress. My mama won’t like that.”

“She’ll understand…”

“My mama gets real mad when I do something bad.”

“Honey…you didn’t do anything...”

“How come everything’s blurry?” asked Courtney. Her eyes were swollen shut.

“It’s just a blurry sorta day,” said Hilary. And it really was, so that wasn’t a lie. She reached for the girl’s right hand and held it.

“I’m cold, Miss Hilary.”

Hilary pictured the blanket in her trunk. It would still be covered with dirt and pine needles and that huge mustard stain in the shape of Gorbachev’s birthmark. She meant to wash it last week.

Shit. I left a load of laundry in the washing machine. I’ll need to run it again. Mike is going to be pissed.

She slipped off her sweater. Her favorite sweater – the moss green one that knew her curves better than her husband’s hands. She placed it gently over the girl’s body. The sweater would be ruined. She’d never find another one like it. People would call it an act of kindness. She would smile and nod, then miss the sweater more than she knew she should.

“My head hurts,” said Courtney.”

“You hit it when you fell down,” said Hilary. When that asshole in the pickup truck ran you over.

“It hurts…a…lot.” Courtney’s speech was slowing.

“I have a blanket in my car. I could make it into a nice pillow…”

“No…don’t go.”

“Okay. I won’t. Someone will find us soon, anyway. Someone who can help.”

Just then Hilary remembered where she’d left her cell phone. It was on the kitchen counter next to the grocery list she had also forgotten in her rush to get to the bank before it closed. Chicken breasts, breath mints, skim milk, some sort of cheese…what was that cheese…

“I think…I want to say a bad word,” said Courtney.

Gouda? No. Not goat’s milk. A soft cheese. Something to stuff in the chicken breasts along with…along with…pancetta. Yes. That’s on the list, too.

“Miss Hillary?” asked Courtney.

It starts with a “B.” Bulimia. No, of course not. Brie? Not brie.

“Miss Hilary?” she asked again.

Boursin! That’s it.

“Yes…Courtney?” Hilary noted that she sounded exactly like a teacher acknowledging a child’s raised hand that had been hovering in the air for so long it would have demanded steadying by another.

“Veronica…,” Courtney corrected.


“I want to say a bad word….but…is there one that’s…not so bad?”

“Yes. Damn isn’t so bad.”


“I’m so sorry it hurts, Veronica.”

“You…you won’t tell my mama…will you? About the…bad word?”

“No. I won’t.”

“Or the slushy?”


“Thanks.” The word was an exhale. Then after a long moment of eerie silence, “Miss Hilary?”


“Are you my angel?”

The sound of an oncoming car stole her answer. Then, the crunch of tires on gravel. A car door. Footsteps. Frantic voices. Dial 911. Had she said those words? Had the stranger in the yellow tie?

“She’s not breathing,” said the stranger. He pushed Hilary out of the way and dropped to his knees.

He grabbed Hilary’s hand. “Put pressure right here, on her leg,” he shouted. She felt flesh and blood and rocks and bone. The man started breathing into Courtney’s mouth, then pressing against her tiny chest. If this was a loving act, it was the most brutal loving act she could imagine.

Minutes passed. Minutes and hours and days and a lifetime.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. His tie was no longer yellow.

Hilary began to cry. The sirens came eventually. But much too late.

For the next few months, she cried every time she heard a siren. And sometimes, merely at the sight of her daughter.

“Are you crying about that little girl again?” Tilly asked once.

“Yes,” she answered through blurry eyes.

“I don’t feel like crying right now, but if I did, I would cry with you,” Tilly said. Then she put her hand on her mother’s.

“Thank you, Tilly,” said Hilary.

“Sometimes it’s okay just to be next to someone when they’re sad, isn’t it?” Tilly asked.

“Sometimes that’s all you can do,” said Hilary. Her words came out in a whisper, hovered between them like a mist, then tickled her daughter’s lips into a kind smile.

Yes I am, Veronica. Yes I am.
blog comments powered by Disqus

What This Is