“Where did they say they’re going again?,” asked Laura.
I sighed. “Dad said he was going to put gas in the car and mom needed to use the bathroom. The one here’s broken.”
I studied Laura’s face, knowing she was close to tears. She never wanted to be too far from our parents. Even though we could see them across the street at the gas station, Laura was worried they’d abandon her and she’d be stuck with her big sister forever.
“Look,” I told her, pointing out the enormous, floor-to-ceiling window. “There’s dad next to the gas pump. And there’s mom running toward the bathroom. I guess she really had to pee.” That got a giggle out of Laura, but I could tell the waterworks were imminent.
“What if they leave us here?,” she whispered, the latter half of the inquiry nearly inaudible under her burgeoning whimpers.
“Laura, it’s okay.” I did my best to sound confident and authoritative; Laura needed to believe with certainty they’d be returning momentarily. Otherwise, I’d be left with a blubbering wreck as we waited for our food in the middle of a crowded diner. “She’s four,” I reminded myself. “You were scared of everything when you were four.”
My sister took a loud, deep breath and exhaled slowly. It’s a technique I taught her for when she felt sad or scared. A tear dripped out of her right eye and slid down her cheek. She wiped it away, but no others came. She stared intently out the large window at our parents, who were getting back in the car.
Our food arrived. All four of us had ordered some variety of grilled cheese. Laura’s was on white bread with American cheese, and she picked it up and started shoveling the thing into her mouth. I didn’t bother to tell her to wait for mom and dad before eating. I was hungry too. I picked up my cheddar on rye and took a bite.
Down the street, a gasoline tanker was making its way in our direction. It appeared to be going much faster than any of the cars I’d seen on that road as we sat there. Mounting dread formed knots in my viscera.
I don’t know what caused me to push my head back against the soft leather of the booth and press my face into its corner, but when the truck careened into the gas station across the street and exploded, shattering the thick glass of the diner windows, I was shielded from the majority of shrapnel and the blast of heat. Laura wasn’t.
By the time I’d collected myself enough to react, I saw the left side of my sister’s head was blistered and encrusted with glass. She stared at me, motionless, in obvious shock. Then her hand rose to touch the side of her face. The touch became a rub. Blood oozed out of her small palm as it was lacerated by the jagged edges. She looked to her right and picked up the grilled cheese that had fallen onto her seat, wiggled it slightly to get the biggest shards of glass off, and began to eat.
The ringing in my ears had drowned out the overture of hysteria playing around us. But, gradually, screams filled my ears. I ignored them. All I could do was look outside at the hellscape of fire and twisted metal. I saw our car. A Subaru station wagon. It was facing in our direction, but upside down and on fire.
I watched a shape crawl out of the driver’s side window. Its clothes and hair were gone. All it looked like was a figure drawn in red and black. Still, I was with it enough to know it was our father. He hobbled over to the other side of the car and pulled another figure from the wreck. Mom. She didn’t move. Dad collapsed to his knees in front of her, and after a few moments, turned toward the diner. I’d noticed Laura’s shock had worn off and she’d begun howling in fear and pain.
I tried to get her to calm down. It was an exercise in futility; even I was crying and near panic. I held her hands and babbled, “it’s okay, it’s okay.” In the corner of my eye, I saw movement. I jerked my head around to see dad moving toward the diner. He couldn’t run, but he was hobbling on what looked like half a left foot. As he got closer, I could see how horrifically injured he was. Laura noticed him coming, too, but didn’t recognize him whatsoever. She screamed.
Dad made his way to us as the wail of sirens grew louder. The details of his injuries became clearer with every awkward step. Despite being burned, he was sopping wet. Fluid dripped from hideous burns on his head, chest, and legs. He made it to our table and reached out, grabbing Laura. Laura twisted in his grasp and scratched his arm, gouging deep tracks in the destroyed flesh. He pulled her out and held her tightly.
I clambered onto the table and through the window and stood, stupidly, not knowing what to do or how to help. Dad’s voice wheezed out of his lipless mouth. Over Laura’s screams, it was hard to make out what he was saying. He clutched my sister against his oozing chest and, suddenly, she realized who he was. She abruptly stopped shrieking and merely whimpered.
Dad looked up at me and I got closer. He repeated what he said before, over and over, his voice gradually tapering into gurgling nothingness. “We’re still a family. We’re still a family. We’re still a family. We’re still a family.” I looked across the street at the motionless, charred figure next to the Subaru. Then I looked at dad, still cradling Laura despite having slumped over.
I gently took Laura from our father’s lifeless arms. She sobbed into my chest as I ran forward, across the street. I darted between blackened vehicles and unidentifiable wreckage. “Still a family,” I thought to myself, and closed my eyes. The emergency workers managed to restrain me before we could reunite with our parents in the fire.