In the opening section of Nicole VanderLinden’s “In The New Year,” an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Elle and her nearly-twelve-year-old Tuck are involved in a minor traffic accident, a “terrifically slow crash,” skidding over an icy patch in the road. In many ways, Elle’s life seems to mirror this crash, an unavoidable collision in slow motion: her marriage is over; her new small house appears to be haunted; and now, in this new year, a string of disappearances, including a metal rooster named Featherstar, which had sat near her mailbox. This new year crashes into being: follow along below.
Three, she liked to tell her students, was a difficult number in literature—two bonded and one outside, for better or for worse. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, with that poor wife in the attic. Dracula and Mina, tepid Jonathan Harker sucking the blood from the story. Cinderella and her awful stepsisters. The rule of three, she liked to argue, was compelling not because it created harmony but because it called forth conflict. It told you who mattered most. Even in the holy trinity, she would tell her students, can the spirit really compete for story with the father and the son?
The year crashed into being. This was before the disappearances, the pets and the girl and the house. That morning, on New Year’s Day, Elle drove to the grocery for black-eyed peas, because she’d realized that she hadn’t done anything for her son for the new year, no ball drop on the TV or glitter glasses made of numbers or even a simple countdown the night before. She hadn’t had a good reason for letting the night be ordinary, other than that she’d seen enough holidays by then. So. Black-eyed peas, even though they lived in Iowa, to mark a year that, God willing, would be an improvement on the last.
Tuck had woken up as she took her long coat off the hook by the door, and she threw the coat over her sweatshirt and told him to hurry, that he could come along, and they crept out to the beat-up Civic she’d bought the previous fall to show her ex-husband—Tuck’s father—that his money didn’t matter anymore. It was mid-morning, yet the street was hushed and church-like, the air around them solemn and still, or perhaps it was the collective heaviness of their neighbors’ hangovers. The morning had a tang to it, gritty. Like the abandoned railway cars at the edge of town, hulking in some kind of wait.
“Can we get cupcakes?” Tuck asked.
“What for?” Elle said, digging in the pocket for her car keys, regretting her question at the moment of its leaving her mouth, because of course Tuck would want cupcakes. He would want them, because today was his half-birthday. Eleven and a half, nearly a dozen years of Tuck.
It was hard sometimes, remembering that she was supposed to sell her kid on the world.
“Mom,” he said. “That’s mean.”
The previous day had been warm for the Midwest, and the resulting slush had frozen hard in the night. All around Elle and Tuck, watery impressions sat fixed now in dirty glass, iced, a tiny-scaled Pompeii. Tire tracks, solid little lagoons at the ends of driveways. She caught Tuck’s arm when he nearly fell twice on the thick glaze that coated their sidewalk, by way of apology. “Careful!” she said, steering him over the ice. He’d tried to bring his device with him, a Christmas gift from his dad, but Elle hated the thing and so made Tuck leave it behind. The sun, though bright and clear, felt farther away than it had ever been, another thing generating cold, not even clouds to blanket them from above. They shuffled to the car in the driveway, and Elle wondered dimly if it would start. She shut out the part of her who missed the Volvo she’d lost in the divorce.
But the car did start, and they set out for Gary’s with the defroster blasting chilled air onto the windshield, webbed with frost crystals—Elle had forgotten to buy a scraper. Loose change frozen in the console and something about all this metal making her sad.
It was a prescient feeling, this sadness, because on their way back from Gary’s, a single can of peas and a dozen mini cupcakes in the back, Elle crashed her car into a stop sign, and her front bumper nestled itself into the iced-over snowbank that lined the road. Her tires were mostly bald, and she’d braked too quickly. It was a terrifically slow crash, more a grinding than anything else, and Tuck had time to say, “Mom, you’re going to hit that pole,” and Elle had time to reach her arm across her son to hold him back at his chest and mutter, “Fuck.” The sound rang out across the neighborhood in a slam, but still, no one was out. For while, they simply sat.
Elle reversed the car, turned the wheel, tried to reverse again, but there was nothing, just the shrill rub of tires on snow, going nowhere.