(This is Chapter Two in a series. I invite you to read Chapter One first. )
Hearing no answer from my husband, I repeated my question. “Isn’t it kind of weird that there hasn’t been an exit forever?”
Crash glanced at me and nodded silently.
Ian piped up from the back of the van. “Yeah. That sign back there said, ‘Last exit for 250 miles’ so it’s going to be a while.”
I leaned over to look at the gas gauge. It was just above E.
Crash’s eyes said it all.
“How long ago was that?” he asked Ian with his eyes on the rearview mirror. His voice was calm and his words were measured, but I knew he was feigning control for the benefit of all the kids.
“Probably a half hour?” Ian responded.
“He said it out loud,” volunteered Mia. “But you guys were talking to Grandma, and you didn’t hear him.”
“OK. Thanks, guys!” I said cheerily, also feigning control for their benefit. ” Put your headphones back on or I’ll start playing… ummmm… classical music!”
I needed time to talk to Crash without alarming the kids. Ian and Mia got those headphones on in record time.
Crash grinned at me. “Nice,” he mouthed. “Way to kill a broad cultural appreciation…”
I was about to argue that there’s plenty of time for that, but I didn’t get a chance.
“Is everything OK?” asked Maddie, from the middle row of seats.
“Yep. Except for the fact that I told you to put your headphones on, and you haven’t followed directions,” I replied.
She put her headphones on, but I saw her turn her volume off.
“Crash, I’m putting the classical music station on, OK, because… ” I said.
Maddie scowled at me and turned her volume back up.
“So…” I began, with my hand casually placed in front of my mouth, knowing that Maddie was going to try to read my lips.
“We can’t make it 200 miles. So we have to turn back, right?”
“Yeah. I haven’t seen a place to do a U-turn in a long while. Have you?”
The median of the divided highway was at least 20’ wide. There were cacti and scrub bushes everywhere, not to mention broken glass, beer cans, and other litter.
“Let’s keep an eye out for a clear place to 4-wheel it across,” I suggested.
“Yeah…” Crash paused. “The last thing we need out here is a flat, though. And I haven’t seen another car or truck since we started looking for an exit.”
We located a spot that looked clear enough, and he made the U-turn.
Now going back the way we had come, I leaned over and looked again at the gas gauge, which was now firmly on E.
I looked at Crash. “Call it, Babe. Just keep going?” I asked.
“We won’t make it all the way there.”
“Alright. Then I’ll call for help,” I said as I reached for my phone.
I dialed, and got nothing but static.
“There’s no service out here!”
“OK, wait until we get closer to the exit Ian mentioned. There’s probably service around there.”
I looked out the passenger window, and Crash instinctively put his hand on my knee, knowing that I was trying to not let him see my frustration.
“Mom? Is everything OK?” Maddie asked.
I put on my best Mom smile and said, “Yeah, it’s fine, Baby.”
Three minutes later, the van chugged to a halt as Crash pulled onto the shoulder.
“And that’s all she wrote,” he said.
I scanned the vast horizons in every direction as the kids yanked headphones off and began firing off a series of questions.
“Why are we stopping here?”
“Is something wrong with the van?”
“Mom… you SAID everything was OK! What –”
Crash held his hand up.
They silenced immediately.
“We’re just taking a moment to enjoy the scenery,” he joked.
“Not funny, Dad…” said Ian.
“OK, I know. And I know that you actually all know what’s going on. You’re all really smart.”
Breaking his steady gaze into the rearview mirror, he turned around to face them from the driver’s seat.
He paused. “Now, I’ve seen your faces change with worry, and I’ve seen you exchanging glances with each other. You KNOW what’s going on. But we have to work together here. I need all of your cooperation. OK?”
They nodded in unison. From his car seat, Liam watched Maddie nod, and he nodded, too.
This was reason number 587 that I loved him – his ability to bring our children into one cohesive team during any time of need.
People never believe it when they see Crash talk to our kids and get this kind of reaction.
It seems so… I don’t know, “contrived” or something?
But he has had this talent forever. When both of our kids with different spouses were very young, he’d always been able to crouch down to their level and have an eye level conversation with them in quiet tones. They have always known that he will be calm and guide them with reason.
He can talk the craziest person off of a ledge, and our kids have benefited from years of this kind of careful, quiet coaching. The man practically walks on water sometimes. And I’m never more grateful for that than in times like this.
Crash took another deep breath and locked eyes with me. I didn’t want to hear his next words, but I knew they were coming.
“I need to walk to the gas station, which is a long, long walk from here.”
“I’m going with you!” proclaimed Ian.
“Me, too!” volunteered Mia.
I smiled. Good kids. But hell no.
Crash echoed my sentiments. “That’s great teamwork! But no, I need you to stay here with Mom to keep Liam safe. And… It’s going to be a long while, so you’re going to have to be tough for me.”
Crash patted his backpack of water bottles and energy bars and a flashlight. He had a long-sleeved shirt tied around his waist, and a ballcap on his head.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he promised the kids. “Your job is to wait without whining, keep Liam happy, and do whatever Mom says. Are we clear?”
All heads nodded in unison. Liam didn’t need a cue from anyone. He nodded, too, not knowing what he was agreeing to.
I watched the love of my life walk away, far ahead of the windshield of our van.
I wiped away the tears and looked back at the kids. They were all in tears, too, but trying not to show it.
Well, except for Liam, who apparently needed a diaper change.
“OK! I’m going to change Liam! It’s going to be a smelly one, so I will invite you all to stretch your legs while I do this.”
The kids’ jaws dropped.
“You need to stay on THIS side of the van, not the driver’s side. You need to stay on the pavement or gravel.”
“But what if we have to pee?” asked Ian.
“Well… YOU, Mr. Man, can stand on the pavement and aim pretty far out. Unless you want to risk meeting a rattlesnake when you step off the pavement.”
Ian opened his mouth to object, but both girls were already protesting.
“Girls, we have large drink cups. You can crouch right next to the van and use them.”
“Or… you can risk the rattlesnakes.”
“Or pee your pants. You choose…. I’ll go outside with you when you’re ready.”
I put the newly-changed Liam into the driver’s seat so he could stretch his legs.
He began his usual dance with the steering wheel, clueless to the tension that was building for all the rest of us.
“That kid has no rhythm,” said Ian.
“Yes he does! He’s on the downbeat!” said Maddie.
“Or the off beat…” offered Mia.
“That’s some kind of syncopation that he’s got going on,” finished Ian.
“DA!” yelled Liam.
The girls echoed, “DA!”
This went back and forth a few times until Liam stopped dancing and pointed his chubby little finger at the windshield.
“DA! DA! DA!”
I looked toward where he was pointing, and I saw a tiny speck on the horizon.
Crash had disappeared from view almost a half an hour ago.
Surely we hadn’t been waiting long enough for him to get all the way to the exit. But the speck was getting closer, and it did move like Crash walked.
But unlike anything I had ever seen before, the figure walking toward us was completely enveloped in a storm. The storm seemed to be following the figure toward us.
I squinted hard, but couldn’t see a red object like a gas can.
Suddenly, everything went white-out blank, and we heard a tremendous CRACK.
I looked up and found that the storm behind the figure had traveled to us faster than the tiny object on the horizon.
The sky turned dark green and then blacker than night.
The kids screamed, and that made Liam cry.
There was no way that I was going to be able to wrangle him into his car seat, so I just grabbed him and held him tight.
CRACK again, with complete white-out and screams, followed by blackout and torrential rain.
Over and over and over again, this sequence repeated.
Our children were terrified, Liam’s fingernails were digging into my neck, and all I could think of was what my husband was facing out there alone as he trudged toward us — if indeed, the figure was Crash.
This went on forever. I was sobbing, and so were the kids.
And then there was a loud rap on the windshield.
We all froze.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Except for the names of the characters, nothing in this story has been altered. The sequence of events is (fairly) accurate.
The next chapter will also be completely true, although it will leave you somewhat incredulous.
My friends, I invite you to GUESS at the main events in the next chapter. One of these is true.
- It was Crash. He had flagged down a tow truck, gotten a ride back to the van, but no one had noticed because they were all hysterical.
- It was Crash. He had been struck by lightning. He survived to make it back to the van, but was experiencing a seizure due to the shock.
- It was Crash. He had seen the van get struck by lightning. He didn’t want to discharge any static buildup by grabbing a door handle.
- A complete stranger was rapping on the windshield.
Please use the Comment section to make your guess!
Hint: If you don’t see a place to vote or comment, scroll ALLLLL the way down to the bottom of this page, past other people’s comments. There it is!
Thank you for reading!
Chapter Three will be posted — when I have 20 readers’ guesses!