A Sneak Peek Into Life Beyond the Scars by Charity Freeland
“Mama, can I borrow the car tonight? Roseanna wants to go with her friends to the Mardi Gras dance at the high school. I thought Don and I could chauffeur—take them wherever they want to eat and for their pictures. Then we’ll take them to the dance, pick them up after, and have them home by eleven.”
Roseanna and I were sisters and good friends. Since I was two years older and could drive, I often took her friends and her places on the weekends. Even though I was a senior, and Roseanna was a sophomore, she was more popular than me, and I liked that I could be a part of her life.
“I guess so,” Mama replied, “but I thought Mr. Jimmy was going to run them around.”
“Well, this way, he doesn’t have to, and I would really like to do it.”
Zanna (our family’s nickname for Roseanna) and I got dressed for the dance. I put on my nice jeans and a short-sleeved, dressy blouse. I freshened up my makeup and checked the mirror. Pleased with how I looked, Roseanna and I were ready to go.
It had been raining since late afternoon, which was not unusual in Houma, Louisiana.
“Charity, Mr. Jimmy called and offered to drive. Why don’t you let him?” Mama asked, sounding uneasy.
“Don’t worry, Mama. I’m already dressed, and I’m happy to go.”
I called Don. “We’re just about to leave. I’m going to pick up Nikki first, and then I’ll come get you before we get James and Scotty.”
“Okay, babe. See ya soon.”
It was already dark outside when we climbed into the 1966 Ford Falcon. It had a bench seat in front, which was one reason Papa bought it; the whole family could fit. The other reason was its age. He enjoyed working on old cars.
When we picked up Nikki, Roseanne scooted to the middle of the seat, and Nikki slid in beside her. None of us buckled up.
“Roseanna, do you have any money for tonight?” I asked as I drove to pick up Don.
“No, I forgot to ask Mom,” she responded.
“I’ll just run by the ATM at Rouses and grab some cash then.”
We turned onto Martin Luther King Boulevard, a four-lane major road on the edge of town. We pulled into the parking lot at the grocery store, and I ran in to get cash.
On the way back to the car, I recalled a conversation from work earlier that day. I had been visiting with two friends, Beth and Tammy, on my break. Beth was a Christian lady in her thirties. Tammy was a few years older than me; she was married with two children and had one on the way. I don’t remember exactly how our conversation moved from babies to seatbelts, but I do remember stating matter-of-factly, “I don’t wear my seatbelt.”
“Seatbelts save lives. Do you know how many serious injuries happen because people don’t wear their seatbelts?” Beth asked. “Anyway, it’s the law. As Christians, we’re to obey the laws of the land. It doesn’t hurt to wear it, just in case.”
“Papa never wears his. He says it’s not illegal since we drive an old car that didn’t originally have any. They were installed afterward,” I explained.
Break time was over, and that’s all Beth said.
As I avoided puddles on the way back to the car, our conversation replayed in my mind. I didn’t want to disobey God, so I put on my seatbelt when I got back in the car. Being an older car, it had a lap belt like those on airplanes. You flipped one side up to release it.
Back on the road, I accelerated to the posted fifty mph speed limit as we chatted and sang along to the radio—“Hero” by Mariah Carey.
Suddenly, the steering wheel jerked to the left. It scared me as I had never felt the car do this before. If we went much further left, we would be facing oncoming traffic. I slammed on the brakes, causing the vehicle to hydroplane. We spun around 180 degrees on the wet road.
“We’re going to wreck!” I yelled as I felt the car sliding backward on the wet road into oncoming traffic.
A car struck us from behind, and the gas tank exploded when another vehicle smashed into the one that had hit us. Finally, we came to a stop, and I grabbed my door handle, wrenched it, and pushed the door open.
“I can’t open my door! I can’t open my door!” Nikki yelled.
The car had landed at an angle in the ditch. With the door against the ground, Nikki couldn’t get out on the passenger side. Flames engulfed the cabin of the vehicle. Roseanna climbed over the seat and out the broken back window, then she helped Nikki out the same way. She thought I was right behind her.
I tried to step out of the driver’s door, but my seatbelt restrained me.
It was a three-car accident on a busy road early in the evening, witnessed by a state trooper driving in front of us. Upon seeing the event unfold in his rear-view mirror, he flipped around, called emergency services, and was one of the first people on the scene. He approached the car and saw Roseanna and Nikki climb out. He saw Roseanna head back toward the car for me, caught hold of her, and held her back. “There’s nobody in there,” he insisted.
“My sister’s in there!” She screamed.
He held Roseanna in a bear hug to keep her from running into danger while trying to convince her to get into the arriving ambulance.
“I can’t get out!” I shouted.
“You have to get out!” Roseanna yelled at me.
Zanna looked back expectantly at the trooper holding her, hoping he had heard my words and would do something. He hadn’t and didn’t.
Onlookers tried to help, but they had to back up because of the heat. One of the ambulances arrived, with two others on their way. Flames surrounded me as I struggled to undo my seatbelt. I fumbled and pulled at the latch, but it wouldn’t disconnect. With fire all around me, I didn’t feel pain. I was on fire, but I didn’t feel anything except the determination to get out of there. Fast.
— Life Beyond the Scars, Charity Freeland