Joan’s Counsel


I sat hunched over in the back seat, my arms folded across my chest. I promised myself I wasn’t going to talk to Ronnie Wolf, but I couldn’t avoid hearing him. His voice was loud and wild-sounding, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling to be heard over the wind roaring through his window, or to show me he wasn’t embarrassed about getting us sent to the principal’s office after cheating off my Civics exam.

Ronnie yelled about how glad he was that Coach Payne couldn’t fit us into the school van. Then he yelled that his dad’s vintage Buick was much better than the tin cans made today. My brother, Andrew, kept asking about the Buick’s maintenance, and Ronnie kept screaming the answers. Andrew had gotten his driver’s license four months ago, but I wouldn’t get mine until next year.

When the air circled my head like an arctic blast, I shoved my fists into my armpits to keep them warm. It was too cold for spring sports to be starting, but that’s where we were going—to a night game in Augusta. The All Saints team, on which my brother and Ronnie played, was pitted against the Augusta Devils, and I’d been roped into going because the boys’ sports reporter had mono, and Father Ryan, the faculty sponsor, said I had to be there if I wanted to continue as editor.

“Hey Ronnie, how about closing the window?” Andrew said, seconds after I realized my lower jaw was frozen into place.

“Sure, Gov,” Ronnie said, closing his window.

Andrew was the most popular kid at All Saints, and all the guys looked up to him. Having a popular brother made things interesting for me. I’m not exactly a great beauty—for one thing, I’ve got red hair, and for another, I’ve got a little limp. Anyway, it goes without saying that I wasn’t in Andrew’s inner circle. Because of him, though, I wasn’t in the basement either.

There were three groups at All Saints: the Elite, the Middle, and the Bottom. My friend Olivia and I were in the bottom of the Middle, which meant that no matter what, we couldn’t reach the top. The truth is, we were in constant danger of moving down. In January, when I wrote an editorial telling how much more money was spent on boys’ sports than on girls’, I was definitely in the basement. Next month Olivia, who’s half-Japanese, gave a Buddhist chant during religion class, and people actually stepped out of her way in the halls.

“Whoa!” Andrew yelled, when Ronnie turned onto the turnpike so fast the brakes squealed.

“Just got carried away in this baby,” Ronnie said. “It’s real loose. A bit like a loose woman, I guess you might say.”

Andrew’s neck turned beet-color, but Mr. Popularity didn’t say a word. A lot of the guys had begun talking dirty during the past year.

“Yup,” Ronnie continued, “Feels good pushing it.”

“Take it easy,” Andrew said. “Keep your mind on driving.”

“I wouldn’t mind giving that Olivia a few good pushes. She walks around school with that yellow nose stuck up in the air.”

“Shut up, you idiot!” The words burst out of my mouth with such force I couldn’t have held them back if I’d bitten off the inside of my cheeks. The boys didn’t even move.

I looked out the window to the line of apartments. We were climbing the six lane highway, heading up to Reservation Road. “You don’t like hearing about your girlfriend, Margaret?” Ronnie said, his voice sing-songing. “What are you two up to all the time, walking around like Siamese twins? You sure it’s all just normal girly stuff?”

“That’s enough,” Andrew said.

“Hey, Gov, I know she’s your sister, but she’s not exactly an all-around normal girl.”

“What’s gotten into you, Ronnie?” Andrew asked, turning to me with raised eyebrows, as if he was the most surprised kid at All Saints to learn what a jerk Ronnie Wolf was.

“Just relaxing,” Ronnie said, “with help from my friend here.” He reached under the seat and held up a half-empty fifth of vodka.

I slapped the back of Andrew’s seat, but he was already telling Ronnie that he couldn’t drive. “I’ll take over, just pull up there by that convenience store.”

“I’m fine,” Ronnie said. We were in the far left lane and cars were passing on the right.

“Forget the convenience store,” Andrew said, after we sailed past it. He was straining his neck to see when we could move to the slower lanes. “Just put the signal on to let them know you want to get over.”

“I’m okay, don’t worry,” Ronnie said, accelerating. He moved the car even closer to the center median, where three lanes of traffic headed toward us.

“Just get the signal on and give me the bottle.”

“No way!” Ronnie said, jerking the bottle, and with it, the steering wheel. To correct for heading too far to the left, he moved the car to the middle lane.

“Okay, no problem,” Andrew said, over the squeal of brakes from the car we’d cut off. “That’s good, Ronnie. Now ease yourself over. We got that light up there where we need to turn anyway.”

Ronnie jammed his foot on the brake but we were still a good distance from the light at Reservation Road. Instead of just letting the car slow itself so we’d creep to the light, he accelerated again.

“Slow down!” Andrew yelled. “Now!”

Ronnie hit the brake. Luckily, the car to the right decided to continue through the yellow light, so when he began making the turn, he didn’t ram into anyone.

“That’s it. Pull the car over,” Andrew said, “I’m driving.”

“The hell you are.”

A grove of baby pines grew on either side of Reservation Road, and it was getting dark. Posts with reflector lights stood every eighth of a mile, marking the curves. I held my hands over my mouth while Ronnie continued weaving from one side of the two-lane road to the other. In some corner of my brain, I told myself Andrew would do something to save us, but short of reaching over and pulling the wheel, I didn’t know what he could do.

After Ronnie managed to roll down the window and lean his upper body against the door, Andrew slid to the center of the seat. “It’s all right,” he said, his voice soft. “There’s hardly any traffic here. Slow down. I want to drive.” Just then, Ronnie pitched the empty bottle out the window. For an instant the sound of shattering glass made me think we’d been hit from the back. “Okay, take it easy,” Andrew said.

Ronnie moved the car back to the right. Then he eased the brake pedal down and brought the car to a stop. “I got to piss,” he said. When he got out, Andrew slid into the driver’s seat.

“Let’s leave him,” I said.

“We can’t. But he’s not getting behind the wheel again. I promise you that. There’s nowhere to turn around up here. I’ll have to go on to the deer paddock to turn. We’ll take him home, then call the coach and tell him we can’t make it. We’ll think of something.”

“Okay,” I said, a second before Ronnie opened the door on the passenger’s side.

“So the big Gov is gonna drive,” Ronnie said.

Andrew put the car into gear. A fog had fallen onto the road and it was getting darker as we moved deeper into the nature preserve.

Just when I started breathing normally, Ronnie reached over and pulled the wheel. Andrew, who had both hands on the steering wheel, was able to hold on, but not without having the car veer onto the shoulder. “Stop it!” Andrew yelled, shooting out his right arm.

Ronnie reached for the wheel again, and Andrew brought the car to a stop. He slid toward Ronnie, and with both hands and the full weight of his body he pinned Ronnie’s arms to his sides. Ronnie kept struggling, but Andrew was growling between clenched teeth. “Keep your goddam hands to yourself, or we’ll leave you here.”

Andrew’s voice was so deep and snarly he sounded like a bear.

“It’s okay, Andrew,” I said, more to calm myself than to reassure my brother. “It’s all right.”

While Andrew was still breathing in this scary way, Ronnie began throwing his head about, using it as a weapon to get free.

A strange thing happened then, something so weird and powerful I can’t even explain it. All I can say is, I was compelled to move. It was as if I’d been given a suggestion under a hypnotic trance, and I had to take action. I slid along the back seat and let myself out of the car. Next, I climbed into the driver’s seat and put the car into gear, even though I didn’t know how to drive. Without looking behind me, I bumped onto the road, staying close to the line of trees on the right.

“Just hold him,” I told Andrew. “When we get to the deer paddock we’ll throw him out.”

Andrew’s back was all I could see. The bouncing in the seat had stopped, but heavy breathing came from both boys. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said, over and over. My hands were holding the wheel so tightly the muscles in my arms were shaking. I accelerated to feel more in control. The road was dark but the center line was still visible, and I had no trouble keeping the car to the right of the line.

I actually heard the truck before I saw its light coming toward me from around a bend. “It’s okay,” I said, as the truck pressed down on us. Its lights were bright but I held the wheel steady, and as the truck drew closer, I lifted my foot off the pedal. The sound of the truck’s engine was deafening. “Thank you, God,” I whispered, as the car shook in the truck’s wake. Three minutes earlier the truck would have run us right over.

It must have been the shaking that threw me off, because after the truck passed, instead of finding the brake, I hit the accelerator and pulled the car to the left then the right.

That was all I knew until I found myself leaning against a ten-foot post that held the heavy wire fencing of the deer paddock. The car was twenty yards back, its one undamaged light shining into the woods. The other light and the whole right side of the car were mashed into a large oak tree, the last big tree before the gravel parking lot began.

I had a vague, dreamlike memory of getting out of the car, and I could see that the driver’s door was open. The back door on the driver’s side was open too, and while I couldn’t clearly remember walking to where I now found myself, I knew I had. My left foot, bare of the blue canvas shoes I’d been wearing, was embedded with stones. I tried to bend my knee to lean forward, but the pain in my shoulder made me groan.

I must have groaned a long time without knowing it because when I stopped, my throat started throbbing. I turned my head to where four large shapes moved toward me. The shadows, like monsters in the ray of the headlight, came closer. It was only when the first shape touched the metal fence that I saw it was a deer.

The deer stood still for several seconds before moving along the fence toward the car wreck. I was staring at them when I first heard the persistent chirp of crickets, so steady the individual sounds gave way to a roar. Other animals were making noises, too—crunchy sounds, clicking sounds, high ear-tingling sounds. After a while I realized that the chattering noise was coming from my teeth. Later still, I noticed my body was shaking violently, causing the wire fence to clatter down the line.

“Joan,” I whispered, but I don’t know if I said her name before or after I saw my patron saint. Joan of Arc was there, dressed in armor, sitting on a white horse and holding a skinny red banner. She didn’t speak, or at least I didn’t hear her. Still, it seemed she was sending me a message.

“What is it?” I managed to ask.

Joan remained on her horse, looking down. It wasn’t a still picture like a photograph. The horse shook its head and moved forward so that its tack made jingle bell sounds. The saint, her hair in a bowl cut, had a loving expression on her face. She tilted her head so the hair over her right ear fell away from her face.

“What?” I said again, because despite her calmness, it was clear Joan was trying to tell me something. The expression, “Keep your own counsel,” came to me. That same expression—or rather “A girl who keeps her own counsel”—had been under a picture of Joan of Arc in the book I’d been given for my Confirmation. I could see those words clearly. In the fifteenth century, Joan, a country girl who couldn’t read or write, knew enough to keep her own counsel.

I took several deep breaths, never taking my eyes off her. She smiled slowly and her grin grew wider. I noticed her dimples. When her smile faded, her lips became sealed together.

The wail of an ambulance cut through the air. I turned to see where it was coming from, and when I looked back, Joan was gone.

In the next minutes the woods began to light up. There were flashing lights and loud static sounds. Men and women were calling to each other. The sounds came directly to my ears as if the noises were being piped into a funnel and the funnel was pressed to my head.

“The passenger’s dead,” a man’s voice said. “The driver’s still breathing.”

For an instant the sound of gurneys clattering reminded me of trays crashing in the school cafeteria. In a matter of moments someone would know the terrible thing I’d done.

“The doors came open on impact,” a woman’s voice said, just as a second ambulance came screaming down the road. More voices filled the air, along with radio static and the rattling of metal.

“It looks like the passenger’s head impacted with the pillar post,” a different man said. “The other boy, the driver, slammed into the dash and mirror.”

In that instant I knew Ronnie was the dead passenger.

“There’s a young girl over here,” a woman’s voice said. “Call for the other unit.”

I looked up as a woman in white pants bent down to me. “She’s in shock,” she said. Two men ran over and began wrapping me in blankets.

“It’s all right, Sweetie,” the woman said.

I closed my eyes, not opening them until the third ambulance came. This one pulled up to the gravel, and I was lifted onto a gurney. In that moment of being lifted, I began to cry. “I can’t leave,” I said, feeling there was a clock ticking inside my chest. It was growing bigger and louder with each passing second.

“It’s okay,” the woman said. “We’re taking you to Mercy Hospital.”

“No,” I shouted. “Is my brother all right?”

“Was he the driver?”

I hesitated, but I knew what I was being asked. “Yes,” I said.

“I won’t lie to you. He was hurt pretty bad.”

Before they’d lifted me, I’d felt that what had happened wasn’t real. I hadn’t thought, as people always say they do after terrible events, that it was a dream. I was too aware of my own wakefulness to believe that. It was more as if the scene had been played out as a kind of possibility. While in a certain sense it was real, it wasn’t a part of real time.

“You’ll be all right,” the woman said. “I’ll stay with you.”

“Don’t go,” I yelled, as the ambulance door slammed shut. “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” The words echoed in my head as we left the gravel and moved onto the road.

It was strange how just then I thought about my Earth Science class and how we’d learned that the earth’s surface is made up of these huge plates that shift around in different directions. As the plates push and crunch against each other, the rocks and mountains rise up and create a fall line that determines which way the water will flow.

When the ambulance picked up speed and the siren began to wail, I understood that what had just happened had shifted the plates in my life. It was too early to know where the rocks and mountains would settle, and too early to say which way the rivers would flow. But I knew the water would follow a different path from the one it would have taken before we turned onto Reservation Road.

“How are you doing?” the woman asked, patting my shoulder.

I looked at her but didn’t answer. I wasn’t going to say anything. I pressed my lips together and prayed for Joan’s guidance.

Kathleen Ford has published over 30 short stories, appearing in Redbook, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, and elsewhere. Two stories won PEN Awards for Syndicated Fiction and another was published in Cabbage and Bones, an anthology of stories by Irish American women. Her first novel, Jeffrey County, was published by St. Martin's Press. For the past several years Kathleen has been writing about Irish maids and the soldiers of World War I. She teaches adult ESL in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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