Submitted Date 06/18/2022



The parking lot at the Wal-Mart was icy and treacherous when Peggy McDougall pulled her 2006 Ford Windstar off the exit and into its vast expanse of asphalt. Coated over in a mixture of slush and two day old snow, it was grayed by the continual crushing from the tires of light duty pickups and minivans.Coated over with their own palette of blacks, grays, and dishwater whites, each traded drabness and dirt with the sidepanel of its counterpart in the approaching lane. Peggy surveyed the expanse and spotted an open parking space close to the front door, close enough that she thought she might make it inside without being frostbitten. A bitter northeastern wind was slicing across the lot at twenty miles per hour, causing the bundled souls plodding toward the doors to hold their headgear in place.

Peggy was halfway to the space before she considered the needs of the elderly population of Christmas shoppers searching vainly for a spot within tolerable limits to their aged limbs. She reconsidered her needs and those of five year old Amanda, her half day kindergartener in the booster seat behind her, and found they paled in the presence of the hypothetical grandmothers. So with a loud sigh she refocused her gaze off the prize spot and set to searching for something more distant yet tolerable.

Having to take Amanda out on such a bitterly cold night, exposing her to the elements, both the weather outside the store and the less than savory folk that tended to populate the Wal-Mart at this hour, had Peggy burning with resentment. But what else could she do? She was a single mother, widowed for two years by the bizarre accident that took her husband on the very road she used to get to the store. For reasons that remained unexplained, Mark had apparently veered off the right side of the two lane road, and then swung back on, overcorrecting and driving head-on into the path of an oncoming semi-tractor trailer.

He was headed to Wal-Mart to buy a gallon of milk and some breakfast cereal. Amanda was barely three at the time. The semi driver was the only witness. He had no explanation. He applied his brakes, Mark did too, but it was too little, too late.

Peggy was left alone. Her folks lived a thousand miles away. Her mother came and stayed for two weeks but had to get back to her job. Her sister was three hours away in St. Louis but she was a head case. She could barely take care of herself, so Peggy hadn't asked for her help, and none had been offered.

Her mother wanted her to move back home, but Peggy had a good job working in records at the state prison. Jobs with benefits were hard to come by. So she stayed and toughed it out.

"Mom," Amanda blurted as Peggy recovered from the latest jolt of the minivan scaling and then quickly dropping off one of the mini-mountains of ice and snow left by the recent blizzard, "when are you gonna git my hair done for Christmas like you promised with the blond highlights like that girl we saw at the Thanksgiving parade…it's almost Christmas mom!"

The temperature had risen and a frozen drizzle was falling on the snow, giving the lot an eerier than usual feel. Peggy swerved around another mini-mountain as she contemplated her answer. "We're here to get your medicine, 'member?" she told Amanda. "'The beauty salon people went home a long time ago so we can't do that now anyway."

Amanda sighed audibly. "Yeah…but when we gonna get my hair done?, com'on mom you promised 'member? " she said, raising her voice to that sing-songy high pitched tone that Peggy knew meant she was pleading and would be batting her eyes if Peggy could have seen them. Mark had always loved it when she did that.

"If I recall you promised you'd be picking up your room better before we got the highlights, right? How's that goin'? " Peggy queried, turning slightly in her seat and smiling with raised eyebrows at her suddenly frowning daughter. Amanda sighed again, realizing her dream of two-toned hair for Christmas was in jeopardy, and that she would need to think of another way to impress the rest of the female population at half-day kindergarten.

Peggy successfully navigated the remaining mini-mountains in her lane and parked. She turned the van off and turned to the task of reviewing Amanda's readiness to depart the warm confines of the van into the wintry mix that awaited them, thinking once again about how nice it would be to have Mark here to help. As the door slid open she braced herself for the slap of the northeaster she knew would wash over her now warm face.

"Mom, let's run, its way too cold out here!," Amanda shouted as she jumped out of the van and headed in the direction of the doors. Peggy felt her heartbeat double as she considered the possibility of unwary drivers flattening her five year old like so much two day old snow. "Amanda McDougall," she barked, "get back her and wait for your mother, you can't just run off like that."

As she looked over the dark and foreboding walk to the front door; thoughts of Mark's absence broke into her thought pattern again. She didn't like this parking lot even on days when the weather was good. It was far removed from the rest of town. Wal-Mart had bought up the property for what seemed like miles around it and had landscaped hills around the edges of the property into a bowl-like half circle, cutting off what scant connection one might have otherwise felt with the surrounding subdivisions. It was a lonely place late at night for a single woman with a little one in tow. Peggy could not help but be angry over the fact that Mark was not here with her. And of course with that anger came a healthy dose of guilt. How could she be angry with the dead? She felt like she had the right to be at mad at somebody, at least part of her did. And if not Mark, then whom?

As they bowed their heads against the wind and started tramping through the dirty snow Peggy caught a glimpse of a squad car parked in the row ahead. One more reminder of what she was trying to forget. The County had investigated the accident.

A Deputy came to her door that terrible evening to report it, and without much grace or apparent forethought began asking questions no one should ever ask a person who had been widowed for less than an hour- "Was your husband taking any medications?" ; "Was he upset about anything tonight?"

Peggy found herself still asking those questions. The truth was that she and Mark had not been getting along. Money was tight, caring for a toddler and trying to work was running her ragged, and Mark was working away from home a lot. She thought he drank too much and some nights he got home late without explanation. They were not a happy couple when he died. Had he decided that it was just too much to handle? Had she said something that evening that he took the wrong way?

Toxicology said he had not been drinking. No drug beyond his usual medication was found in his system. The weather was clear that night. There was nothing to suggest road conditions were bad. But there were tire tracks showing one set of tires briefly left the road and then came back on. Why? Peggy knew she would never know, but the question would not go away.

So she keep juggling cursing Mark for leaving her alone with missing him and guilt over what she did or did not do to cause his demise. Her sister said Pastoral Counseling had helped her, so even though it was out of character, she followed her sister's advice and had gone to see one that her church recommended.

The counselor told her not to blame herself or Mark, it wasn't fair to assume he did it intentionally and if he did that was beyond her control. Sometimes bad things just happen to good people. Sometimes God doesn't tell us why. She should try to focus on what good might come of it, how God might use it.

So far it seemed like God wasn't saying. She didn't see any good in a woman left alone a thousand miles from help raising a three year old by herself. If God wanted to use that then he seemed like unlike the God she believed in. She stopped seeing the counselor after a couple of months.

"Mom, let's run," Amanda suddenly blurted out, " these icicles keep hitting me in the face and it hurts!"

She reached down and grabbed her mitten covered fingers and broke into a slow trot . Amanda liked running with her mom and started to giggle. The giggling took Peggy's mind off Mark.

As they got closer to the front door Peggy began hearing a bell ringing. It seemed to come from the front entrance. She saw there was a Salvation Army kettle near the front door, a young woman in a red Salvation Army pull -over smock was ringing the bell. Her long, stringy black hair was soaked from the drizzle. Peggy smiled at her.

The girl smiled back through rain-spotted aviator glasses but stopped smiling and ringing the bell as she continued to look at Peggy. She seemed to recognize Peggy but Peggy did not recognize her.

"Mom, kin I have a quarter to drop in that bucket?" Amanda pleaded while pulling on Peggy's coat pocket. Peggy dug in her pocket and found nothing to give. "Maybe we can get some change in the store and do that on our way out." Peggy glanced over at the girl as she finished her sentence. The girl was still looking intently at her and holding her bell still.

Wal-Mart was uncharacteristically empty that night. The bad weather had apparently scared off most of the Christmas shoppers.

"Mom!" Amanda chirped as they passed the shopping carts; "give me a ride in the train cart! That is so much fun! Com'on Mon push me in that train cart. All aboard, passengers all aboard!" Amanda announced to the empty entry way.

Peggy remembered Mark would always push Amanda around in the train shaped shopping cart.She usually didn't because the thing weighed a ton and hurt her back. .

"No, baby, that hurt's your mommy's back."

"Ah, your no fun…." Amanda gripped without much conviction as she ran forward to inspect what toys were displayed in the aisle closest to the door.

Peggy turned and headed toward the pharmacy, In the background, over the store muzak, she could hear the Salvation Army bell ringing again.

It didn't take long to get the prescription. It was long enough for Amanda to spy a dancing robotic Santa in the isle next to the pharmacy and chant a litany of reasons to buy it. Peggy just wanted to get home.

As they headed back toward the door Amanda launched into her daily recitation of her Christmas list. "You could buy them right now if you want mom, I wouldn't look!" she offered sincerely.

Her pleading was interrupted by the peeling of the Salvation Army bell. "Mom, give me a quarter quick!" Amanda shouted. Peggy dug into the reaches of her front pants pocket and found one; handing it to Amanda, she watched her bolt for the bright red kettle.

"Don't run in the store," she scolded in monotone. Peggy watched as Amanda proudly approached the kettle and dropped in the quarter. "Merry Christmas," the black haired girl offered in the direction of Amanda, faintly smiling as she continued ringing.

Peggy caught up to Amanda in time to offer her own "Merry Christmas" back, smiling at the girl as she bent down to take her daughter's hand. Once again the girl stopped smiling and ringing, looking at the plastic I.D. badge from the prison Peggy forgot she was still wearing around her neck.

"Your Mark McDougall's widow, aren't you?," the girl stated flatly, looking directly at Peggy for the first time.

"Yes, I am…did you know Mark?" Peggy asked, trying to be polite.

"No," she quickly blurted, turning her head away, and brushing her matted hair off her forehead. "I just heard about it, I drive by there on my way to work, sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," Peggy stated, waiting for the girl to say more but nothing was offered. She started ringing the bell again despite the fact that no other customer was approaching from any direction. For as far as the eye could see, the parking lot had emptied of pedestrians. There was an awkward pause as Peggy tried to think of something to say, but it was obvious the girl was finished with the conversation. She was avoiding eye contact with them and trying her best to make it look like there was something inside the store that had her attention.

Peggy took Amanda's hand and turned toward the rain soaked path back to the van. The frozen drizzle had turned into rain and a fog was starting to form off of the snow. As soon as they were out of earshot Amanda whispered to her mother, "Mom, who was that lady?"

Peggy started to answer when she suddenly heard a shout from the direction of the front entrance. She turned to find the black haired girl turned and facing her. "I was there that night! I was there when that accident happened!" she shouted loudly, her voice obviously distressed.

Peggy's heart raced wildly. She started walking towards her as fast as she could without yanking Amanda's arm out of its socket. The girl stood, face in her hands, crying and watched her approach.

Peggy didn't know what to say, but she knew she had to hear what the girl would say, she marched up within a few feet and stopped, standing in silence and watching the girl trying to compose herself. Finally she pulled her hands away from her face and brushed her hair back, coughed loudly and looked at Peggy. "I seen it happen, I was driving to work, he was going the opposite direction from me… he never had a chance, that dude just hit 'em head-on, it was terrible. I started to stop….," and she caught herself tearing up again. "I wanted to stop and help but I had a warrant out for me, some traffic fine I hadn't paid. I couldn't go to jail; I got a kid to feed."

While she wanted to say something Peggy found herself speechless, she continued to stand silently while the girl found more words- "Your husband was drivin' just fine, just mindin' his business, not speedin', swerving or nothin'… that trucker was driving o.k. too, he was like a quarter mile behind me, just mindin' his business…"

Her voice tailed off and she stood there with her head down, Peggy knew she had more to say, so she tried to be quiet but eventually she had to talk. "Why did it happen?," she asked as gently as possible, "What caused it?"

She pushed her glasses up her wet nose and looked up over Peggy's shoulder, like the answer might be written on the sky behind her. "His car was comin' up toward mine, I was smokin' back then…," she bowed her head as her voice started to crack, " I was wearin' shorts and I dropped my cigarette in my lap, it burned like hell, made me jerk, I had to get it off my leg! I only jerked for a second!" She looked up at Peggy and started to back away from her.

"You crossed the centerline?," Peggy whispered, trying not to look angry.

"I took my eyes off the road! I had'ta get that thing off my lap, just for a second.." And then without warning she dropped the bell and started to run away. She ran toward the far end of the parking lot.

"Wait," Peggy yelled, and then she instinctively grabbed Amanda and started after her. She shouted at her several more times to no avail. It appeared she was headed over the landscaped hills at the end of the lot and whatever lay on the other side of them.

Peggy keeps running. As she did she suddenly found herself smiling. She had the sense that she had been freed from something that had bound her for years. Finally now she knew. It wasn't Mark's fault. It wasn't her fault. He did nothing wrong, neither did she. It was energizing, she picked up speed to the point that Amanda had trouble keeping up.

As she watched, the girl left the end of the parking lot and started to scale the landscaping hill. She nearly reached the top when she slipped and fell flat on her face in the snow. Aided by her slick plastic smock, she slid on her stomach back down to the bottom of the hill.

She lay there for several seconds, making Peggy wonder if she was hurt, but then finally she sat up, put her head in her hands and sat there crying, apparently resigned to wait there for her punishment.

Peggy and Amanda walked up to her slowly, not sure what would happen next. "Please don't call the cops!" she pleaded, head still in her hands. "I got a three year old at home I can't go to jail."

"Don't worry about that, I'm not calling anybody," Peggy assured her.

"You ain't gonna call? Really? Oh, God bless you lady," the girl shouted as she rose to her feet and stumbled toward Peggy, stretching out her arms for a hug.

Amanda broke free of her mom and backed off, but Peggy stood still and let the girl hug her.

The girl squeezed Peggy tight, "You must hate me!" she bellowed through her tears, "but it was an accident, I didn't mean it, please don't hate me," she sobbed.

Peggy was surprised that she wasn't feeling any anger at her at all. She wasn't hugging the girl back, she just sort of stood there taking hers, but it felt like the right thing to do.

"I don't hate you," she stated loudly over the girl's tears. "I'm just so happy to finally know what happened; you don't know what it's been like to live without knowing…." Peggy found herself tearing up, and slowly wrapped her arms around the girl's soggy back.

"Mom, are you o.k.…?" Amanda whispered as she looked up at her mother's stressed face from behind the girl's back. Peggy reached down and grabbed her fingertips. "I'm fine baby," she whispered back through her tears. And in fact she felt better than fine, she felt released from a huge burden, as she watched the fog rise off the snow around her, it seemed one was lifting inside her.

They stood in the rain and talked. Peggy invited her back to her van and the girl sat with them and talked a while. " I asked my P.D. last week if I could get in trouble and he said too much time had passed, I didn't have to worry 'bout that no more, so when I seen you comin' something said now's the time to tell it."

"I'm glad you did," Peggy smiled, reaching across the front seat console and grabbing her hand, "maybe I can get some rest now."

"Yeah, me too," the girl said, squeezing Peggy's hand, "I guess I better get back to work," she said, cracking the door to head back toward her bell-ringing.

Then turning back toward Peggy, she softly bit her lip, and said "There was one more thing," she paused before continuing, "…that gal that was in the car with Mark, I never heard what happened to her,… do you know?"



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