At Fault

Orange winter holidays greeting card background with white snowflakes

Bethany scanned the bistro for her mom and crashed into her brother. A cascade of Chenin Blanc streamed down her blouse.

“Jimmy! Shit.” She yanked the soaked fabric away from her skin.

“Sorry, Bethany.” He handed her the small, square napkin from under his glass.

She sighed and grabbed it, pressed it against the saturated fabric and walked away. “I’ll be right back.”

In the bathroom, she soaked up most of wine with paper towels, then angled her front under the automatic hand dryer. Satisfied the shirt was reasonably dry, she went into a stall and locked it.

A swirl of cool, damp air moved into the bathroom. Bethany peeked under the stall door. No feet.

“Lani?”

Silence.

Bethany stood and flushed. She opened the door and froze. The blood drained from her face.

A small, worn teddy bear keychain sat on the shelf under the mirror.

Bethany spun around and pushed open each of the stall doors. Empty. She faced the bear and the mirror again.

The jagged scar on her left cheek was an angry crimson, a stark contrast to her alabaster skin. She pulled several locks of hair forward to cover it. Her eyes locked on the fawn-colored bear while she washed and dried her hands.

She swallowed hard, reached out and picked it up. With shaking hands, she turned it over.

A+B = BFF!

Bethany closed her fingers around it and hurried from the bathroom. She fell into the first seat she found and took a few deep breaths.

“You okay?” Lani glided onto the seat next to her.

Bethany held her hand in her lap and uncurled her fingers, revealing the bear. “Someone put this in the bathroom.”

“Oh, shit. Isn’t that…”

Bethany nodded. “Same red bowtie, same keychain, same everything as the one I gave Angela in high school. ”

“Who do you think left it?”

“Angela.”

“Really? You think she’s been here all this time?”

“Maybe. Who else could get in and out of the bathroom without opening the door? Present company excluded.”

“Bethany, it’s been a long time. It wasn’t your fault.” Lani stared at the bear. “You worked really hard to recover. Don’t let this set you back. Angela pulled out in front of you. You tried, but you just couldn’t stop.”

“Maybe I should have swerved. Maybe I would not have killed her. Or you.”

“Bethany, stop. Accidents happen. We both know that. The airbag killed me. I died because my stupid self was leaning forward and it broke my neck.”

Bethany glanced outside to the darkened velvet sky. She jumped up. “It’s late. I’m ready to go.” She crossed the room to where her mother stood with a few relatives. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m going to head home.”

“Sure thing, Sweetheart. I hope you enjoyed yourself.” Her mom wrapped her arms around Bethany. “We’re so proud of you. My baby girl, going to Fairbanks to get her masters. You’ve come so far since the accident.”

Her mom touched her cheek.

Bethany flinched and adjusted her hair over her scar. “See you at home, Mom.”

“Drive careful. Love you.”

“Love you.” Bethany said goodnight to a few other relatives and friends. She hurried out, into the crisp night air. A chill ran down her back and she lengthened her stride across the parking lot to her truck.

She jammed the key in the ignition and turned it, then rubbed her gloved hands together until the heat picked up. “I didn’t miss needing the heat in May. I sure don’t miss the hospital or rehab, but I do miss that about Seattle.”

“It doesn’t bother me so much anymore.” Lani winked.

Bethany pursed her lips and backed the truck out of its space. “Why wouldn’t we have seen Angela before? Not once in the two years since the accident?”

Lani frowned. “I don’t know. And why leave the bear?”

“I gave it to her after a big fight our junior year. Maybe that’s why she left it? She wants to reconcile?”

Silence stretched out between them as the truck continued down the road and Swan Lake appeared on their right. Bethany stared at the painted concrete barriers, covered in messages to Angela and Lani after their deaths. The scrapes made by Angela’s SUV were still visible on the tops of a few.

The headlights swept across a woman on the edge of the road, next to one of the painted barriers. She ignored the approaching truck, her gaze focused on the black water.

Bethany gasped. She jerked the wheel to the left. Lani flew out through the door, onto the paved shoulder. Bethany parked and jumped out. She dashed to the edge of the road.

Lani floated up off the asphalt. “Damn, Bethany. It takes a lot of effort for me to be able to sit in the truck with you. You know a sharp turn will throw me through the door. It’s not like I can grab onto anything.”

Bethany ignored her and stared across the street. “Angela?”  

The figure had her back to them. She moved away, passing through the concrete barrier to stand on the sidewalk.

Bethany rushed back to the truck and grabbed the bear. “Angela, please!”

“Bethany, wait!” Lani held up her hands.

Bethany paused and stared at her friend, the soft blue halo that surrounded her visible in the darkness. “Lani, I never got to tell her how sorry I am. Maybe it wasn’t my fault, but I still hit her. I got to apologize to you. She deserves that, too.”

“Bethany-”

“Angela!” Bethany dashed across the road. She leaned against the concrete wall, the bear in her outstretched hand. “Did you leave this?”

Angela whirled around, a smirk on her lips. “I did. I’m glad you found it. And me.”

“Angela, I’m so sorry. What happened was horrible. I wish I’d braked faster, or harder, or something.”

“Or maybe not hit me? Not flip my Explorer over these barriers and into the lake, where I’d drown?” Angela scoffed.

“Of course.” Tears filled Bethany’s eyes. “I think about it every day. It happened so fast. I didn’t see you pull onto the road until too late. I couldn’t avoid you.”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll never be able to avoid me now.” She shoved at Bethany.

Instinctively, Bethany stepped back. Golden beams bathed her in light and a horn blasted. She threw her hands up, the bear falling from her fingers.

The impact shattered bones. Bethany flew forward. Her body bounced and skidded across the road, stopping at a spray-painted barrier.

Rest in peace” were the finals words she read as her spirit drifted up, into the cold night air.

Sara Tranum is a physician assistant who left a full-time medical career for domestic engineering. Based in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, she writes fiction and non-fiction during naptime and in the pre-dawn hours. Her stories can be found in the regional magazine Shenandoah Living, and on her blog TheMomWhoRuns.com. At Fault is her first fiction publication with Gold Fever Press.

 

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