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Prologue

Exhausted from his first month as an ophthalmology resident, Andy kneaded his neck.

“Here, let me do that,” Kingsley offered, kneeling on the couch cushion beside her husband. “I know it’s overwhelming, but you’ve never failed at anything. You’ll be excellent—just don’t imagine doing it all at once.”

Andy swiveled to smile at his wife. “I’m okay.”

“Not really. What’s bothering you?”

“It’s nothing.”

She worked at the knots in the core of his neck until he moaned softly. A wisp of a smile parted his lips. “I have great news.” She waited for his undivided attention and only proceeded when he finally looked up. “I’m very late. This time I may really be pregnant.”

Without turning, Andy patted the arms she had draped across his chest. “Are you sure? If that’s what you want, I guess I’ll adjust.”

Kingsley stiffened reflexively. “Andy, I know how you feel, but you won’t regret this. One little baby only replaces half of us.”

He eased away. Rising to his feet, he pulled her into a brief hug, and then released her. “I guess you’ve earned this.”

“Andy, I—”

She was tempted to lure him into deeper conversation, to coax some intimate dialog from him, but realized instinctively he had run out of words. On many levels, she appreciated his quiet, his introversion, his lack of bad temper—her visionary, bent on saving the sight of the world. He had been the one guy she’d dated who respected her mind and did not feel the need to compete with her on any level.

“I should go fill the gas tank,” he said, sidestepping the issue. “And we’re out of ice cream. You need anything?”

“I wish you wouldn’t go out. It’s pouring! Those old tires will never pass state inspection.”

Andy put on his jacket and a forced smile. “This time next week, that faithful old Subaru will be a recycled, tires and all. Who’d have believed it would make it through college and med school. Duct tape stock will plummet.”

“Take my car—”

“The Grammy mobile?” He shook his head at the mention of driving her old Lexus. “Bring you something?”

She shrugged. “No thanks.”

“Give me a kiss—mmmm. I love you.” He jokingly licked his lips and she melted.

She could have thrown herself at him, dragged him onto the couch, and torn into him, she loved him so much. But she had learned to let him initiate and allowed him to escape.

Andy ducked into his car, started the engine, and turned on the wipers that screeched in protest. He unearthed a towel from under the seat in case the defroster failed once again. Which it did. Scowling, he snagged the towel to wipe condensation from the windshield and tossed it nearby.

The engine stuttered as he backed from his space onto the deserted access road as black as his thoughts, past neighboring windows that pulsed bluish light.

Damn it, Andrew, what did you say and how did you say it? The least you could do is act supportive. She’s been there for you a hundred times over. Kingsley, who could have had anyone, done anything, gone anywhere. Hitching her wagon to my star, urging me onward, willingly giving me time and the space. The spotless apartment, the checkbook in balance, the meals on short notice—

He skidded his rust bucket onto the secondary road, the idea of children gnawing his brain. Six billion people crushing the planet. When would religious fanatics put a check mark beside repopulate the earth? When would right-thinking people prevail over crooked despots who seized wealth for themselves, leaving impoverished women to have dozen babies, hoping to raise one healthy adult?

Andy flashed to that volunteer trip, from which he had come home unable to sleep. He should research diseases or teach in a college. What good were glasses for people whose survival needs paled by comparison? Dad and Kingsley were right. He was entirely too sensitive, would be consumed by the futility of it all if he didn’t focus on one worthwhile project for which he was suited and trained. Nobody died in an eye doctor’s chair, and he could help developing nations if his trips were planned better.

He passed up the convenience store and the gas pumps, splashing instead onto the eastbound limited-access highway. Andy wished he’d been able to make her understand. She was articulate, he so tongue-tied. Why couldn’t he explain his huge mental block about having children? His mind shot to that remote village—enormous scared eyes, distended bellies, near-fleshless limbs, flies on children’s untreated sores as they lay on their death mats, too weak to struggle, too dehydrated to cry. He knew, deep down where he lived, that he’d been the wrong one to see it. His headaches were real, even though he suspected they were psychosomatic.

Ten miles later, he exited and crossed the overpass to enter the westbound highway. Rain pelted the windshield, demanding his utmost concentration.

One-quarter mile to the exit, right onto the overpass, back for the gas and the ice cream. He beat himself up a little bit further.

By the time you get home, you damn well better have the right thing to say. You know that she’s right. And how would you feel if she finally gave up? Left you for somebody better?

Deep in thought, he approached the exit ramp, noting the red light at the top of the overpass. He took his foot off the accelerator, letting momentum glide the car toward the top of the ramp. That would save the few drops of gas that he’s wasted on his self-deprecating detour. As condensation crept up the windshield, he started to grope for the towel that had slid to the floor.

From nowhere, fierce headlights blasted his mirrors. They seemed close enough to touch his back seat. Inexplicably, his car gained momentum. He felt a thud. And another.

What? Who? A much larger vehicle was pushing him toward the overpass. What the hell!

Panicked, Andy stood on the brake with both feet and prayed that the light would turn green any second. Still red! And a fuel truck was barreling across the overpass. He’d T-bone it if he couldn’t stop!

At the last minute, he cut a hard right, praying the overpass was wide enough to share the road with the truck.

Across the highway, an eastbound motorist had swerved onto the berm. Way to go, idiot, he cursed himself for the inattentiveness that had just caused him to miss his exit. Whose shitty idea was it to change exit numbers to mile markers, anyway?

His meeting had lasted entirely too long, and he’d been forced to follow show-moving chickens who couldn’t do more than forty in the rain. Where was he anyway?

He flipped open the armrest and extracted his new Garmin, a birthday present from his techie kids who were determined to bring him into this millennium. By the time he could figure out how to use it and just where the hell he was, he’d lose another half hour. He grabbed a Pennsylvania map from the glove compartment and opened it to his approximate location. Aw, hell! The next exit was ten miles away. Add to that ten miles back and another ten to the exit he had just passed and the distance to his destination—he glanced at his watch. Has to be a better solution.

Condensation fogged his windows, further decreasing his visibility. He powered all four windows down and up, the bristly fibers improving visibility. As he assessed the highway through the open driver-side side window, he noticed an idiot driving erratically in the far westbound lane.

A car that looked like a Buick sedan was tailgating a compact. Both cars pulled onto the exit ramp, so close together that little guy might have been towing big guy.

As they approached the top of the ramp, neither car slowed. Through driving rain that smeared his view, the motorist could see a red traffic light cut through the torrent. He powered down his window for a better look. “Slow down! Stop! You’re going to get hit!” he screamed through the distance as the Subaru smashed into a truck with a horrible crash. The motorist reached into the back seat for his briefcase, fumbled it open, and grabbed his phone. “Come on! Come on! Come on!”

An eternity later he saw it. Low battery. He was about to jump from the car when a fireball exploded on the overpass. Simultaneously, he caught sight of that same Buick. Had the driver made a U-turn and driven back down the ramp? What the hell—

Tires squealing and smoking, its driver floored the Buick back onto the highway and sped west, spraying a water-wall in his wake.

“Coward!” the motorist screamed into the storm.

Flashing red and blue pinpoints that materialized from the east must be two squad cars. Help was en route. A second later, a third responder flew past the motorist and made a U-turn through the grass median a quarter mile beyond him.

An awful realization occurred to the motorist: There wasn’t a blessed thing he could do, and he’d had a couple of beers. And he’d be stuck here for hours with the overpass ablaze. The police would stop traffic on both sides of the highway, trapping motorists between exits.

Before the situation could escalate, he made a snap decision. After a quick U-turn, he drove west, wrong-way on the inner berm for a few hundred yards, and used the emergency connector to access the far westbound lanes. As he righted his car on the highway, he looked into the rearview. The entire area surrounding the overpass was engulfed in flames.

Shaken and unable to drive any farther, the motorist exited at his first opportunity. He passed up the pumps, even though he needed gas, and parked in front of the truck stop’s diner. He sat, willing his heart and his blood pressure to settle. Finally, he eased out of the car, the drenching rain cooling his sweaty face.

Inside the diner, to his right, were booths occupied by various good old boys enjoying a hearty country meal. To his left, a connector led to a store where over-the-road truckers could buy anything from snacks and CDs to hand tools and condoms. He pulled a tri-county map from a rack and a cold beer from a fridge. He unfolded the map.

“Y’all lost?” the sixty-something cashier asked, nodding at the map. She had tired eyes, wiry gray hair, and entirely too many pounds for someone so short.

He pointed to a small dot on a hairline road. “I need to go here without getting on the highway. Had enough of this rain.”

“You’re in luck. Take the secondary at the end of the gas pumps, turn right, and go about two miles. Turn right at the traffic light. You can’t miss it. Oh, and don’t let the cops catch you with an open bottle of beer.”

He chugged what was left and dropped it into the recycling bin. As he exited the diner’s double glass doors, he passed a huge man in the first booth by the window. “Done,” the guy was saying into his phone. “Meet me tomorrow with the cash at—” He flicked a glance at the motorist and shielded his face and the phone with one beefy hand.

The motorist hurried to his car, circled to the pumps, and chose the one with the clearest visibility to the diner’s exit. As his tank filled, he noticed a navy Buick parked near the door. A brave man, he thought, would look at the front bumper, check out the license, and call the cops. But he felt anything but brave. He did not want to get involved. Besides, there must be a thousand navy Buicks on the road, a favorite of guys like the man in the booth who don’t fit in a VW bug.

Maybe he could snap a picture of the license plate without being noticed. He withdrew his old Canon PowerShot Digital Elph from his pocket, pressed the on button, and swiveled the zoom button to its max. He was secreting the camera close to his body when the man in the diner exited and loped toward the Buick. The big man glanced toward the pumps just as lightning tore through the sky. At that precise moment the motorist took a shot.

The big man ducked into the Buick, starting the engine and the wipers simultaneously. Mr. Motorist busied himself, returning the gas nozzle and screwing on the gas cap, while averting his face and trying to look normal. When he dared steal a look, the Buick was lost in a curtain of spray, heading west.

Kingsley felt a stab of pain and, going to the bathroom in hopes she was wrong, realized the stork would miss them again. She tried in vain not to cry, but she sobbed. She hated that Andy would be relieved, but she’d pitch it again, only better. They were, after all, still quite young and he wanted her to concentrate on her banking career. She mopped her eyes, blew her nose a third time, and took pills against the inevitable onslaught of pain.

Curled on the couch, she eventually dozed as the prescription painkiller took hold. Time slithered by. She lost all track.

In her dream someone was knocking. It sounded faint and grew in persistence, finally too loud to ignore. Groggily, she untangled herself from her afghan and went to the door. A hostile wind nearly blasted her backward.

“Mrs. Ward?” Two uniformed officers, one young, one older, began to say something she couldn’t quite grasp. The smell of wet hemlocks beside her front stoop, the bite and the dampness of the onrushing wind, their solemn faces, and the feel of strong hands that kept her from falling all blurred together. The screams, she realized later, must have been hers. Andy was not coming home.

©2017 Nancy A. Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

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