Isla liked to play a little game while driving on Highway 4 to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas. She zigzagged her eyes between telephone poles and farm fence posts until her head hurt. The car window was an endless stream of canola fields blanketed with snow and open skies.
“How much longer?” She asked.
“Three more hours, kiddo.” Her dad glanced at her in the rear-view mirror from the driver’s seat. In the passenger seat, her mom didn’t bother looking up from the newspaper unfolded across her lap.
Isla was bored. The drive from Stony Plain to Rosetown was long and flat.
“Amy, wanna play eye spy?” Isla twisted uncomfortably to look at her big sister in the back row.
“No.” Amy rolled her eyes. Amy was two and a half years older than Isla and never let her forget it.
Isla hmphed and turned back around. She scratched a heart into the frost on her window and continued her eye Olympics over the fields.
Isla wished they could’ve stayed home. Her grandparents’ house smelled funny, like cigarette smoke and dried rose petals. It smelled like old people. She didn’t understand why her grandparents never came their house in Stoney Plain for Christmas. They always had to go there.
Going to Grandma and Grandpa’s meant going to church. Isla hated church. The wooden pews were cold and uncomfortable. She didn’t like having to shake hands with complete strangers and sing-song the call and response, “Peace be with you. And peace be with you.” The men gripped her hand too hard, and the women’s hands were either cold and papery or hot and moist. There were never any kids sitting nearby to shake hands with; they were all in Sunday School. Mostly, she felt like a liar. They didn’t go to church at home. Why did they have to pretend to be churchgoers in Rosetown?
In Isla’s experience, God seemed to be more about what you can’t do than anything else.
When she slept over at Stacy McKenna’s house on a Saturday, she was dragged along to church on Sunday. Everyone got to stand in line and have a piece of bread. When Isla tried to line up behind Stacy, Mrs. McKenna looked down at her and told her, “No dear, you stay here.” Isla sat by herself on the bench while the entire congregation lined up. She hunched over, hoping no one would notice, but a single child on a church pew stands out like a single hair on a plate of spaghetti.
Catholic church in Stony Plain and protestant church in Rosetown bled together into one unknowable and frightening entity for Isla, like a math test for which she had no answers.
Isla pressed her face against the cold window and looked up at the wide blue prairie sky. They rolled past a stop sign and Isla leapt over it in her mind when she felt her weight shift hard to the left. Her hair floated up as if she was underwater. She heard the crunching of tires on snow.
The van spun in slow motion.
No one screamed.
The vehicle slid into the ditch onto the side of the road and came to a stop.
“Can we do that again?” Isla broke the deathly silence with a giggle. She was wide awake now.
Nervous laughter filled the car.
“Is everyone okay?” Dad asked. Mom unbuckled and turned around to check on Isla and Amy.
A chorus of “yeahs” filled the van.
Mom looked at Dad. “Black ice?”
“I think so. Jesus Christ.” He looked at the kids, shook his head, and slowly started driving up and out of the ditch.
The Highway spin became the main topic of dinner conversation with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins that Christmas.
“A Christmas miracle,” Grandma called it. “Praise Jesus.”
“You’re damn lucky to be alive,” said Isla’s Uncle Brett, before adding, “What kind of snow tires are you using anyways?” All three uncles and Isla’s grandpa and dad proceeded to go outside to inspect the van’s tires.
It was an okay Christmas. Isla only had to go to church the one time and it looked more festive than usual. Red poinsettias decorated the aisles and other kids were there, let out from Sunday School for the holiday sermon. She got a pair of white leather cowgirl boots from Santa and a sweater from her grandparents. Her sister gave her a bottle of nail polish and even helped Isla apply the sparkly pink paint.
Still, Isla breathed a sigh of relief when it was time to say goodbye. Her grandma hugged her tight in the entryway and whispered in her ear, “I’m so glad you came to visit us. I love you so much.”
“Me too, Grandma,” said Isla as she relaxed into her embrace. But she still thought their house smelled funny.