After the Thunder Rolls Away
Rural Texas, June, early Saturday morning, just past one
Revolving red and blue police lights spun in the star-filled night sky, casting eerie, split-second shadows on the two-lane highway and the girders of the narrow bridge. In the distance, the thwack-thwack of a helicopter grew louder. Police barricades closed the bridge on the far side and on this one, the one where Adam Neely sat sideways in the driver’s seat of his late-model sedan, his right foot tapping on the asphalt and his head in his hands, the barricades held back people he knew but whose names his muddled mind couldn’t now recall.
The sheriff’s department and highway patrol were doing their best to send the onlookers on their way, to get them to back up and turn around and go home via the county road that added five miles to their trip back into town. Five miles to discuss what they hadn’t seen while he sat here and adjusted to the new reality of what he had. He knew law enforcement were doing their best, just as the ambulance crews who had clambered down the embankment thirty minutes earlier were doing their best as well. They had to be doing their best. Because if they weren’t, then the friends–and people who had teenage sons and growing businesses quickly left the status of clients for an insurance agent–the friends he knew were in the car at the bottom of the river bank, those friends hadn’t a prayer.
Adam felt his wife Sarah’s touch on his right shoulder. She swiveled in the passenger seat and tried to hold him across the console. She was too heavy for that nonsense, for stretching her sixty-one-year-old grandmother’s body to fit across a car seat, even if the doors were open, the summer breeze cooling his skin while the situation made him burn from the inside out. But Sarah needed comfort and he knew she didn’t care what she looked like. She reached for him. The people in the car at the river were her friends, too.
Reluctantly, he pushed himself back into the car, lifting his left leg at the knee. He turned toward her. In the red and blue lights, the tears sliding down her cheeks resembled the tracks of a melting snow cone. “Are you sure it was them?” she asked again, as if he hadn’t already answered that question when he’d limped up the embankment as she’d finished her cell phone call to 911.
“Honey,” he started, sighed. “It had my insurance sticker on the bumper. I still have the photos on my digital in the back seat from when Mark brought it by this afternoon. How many new Jags do I insure everyday?”
She nodded. “Those poor boys.” She fidgeted some more, then opened the glove box and searched for her signature peppermint.
“We’ll help all we can. Besides, you’re just thinking the worst. They may not be dead.”
But that was a lie. Better to have said, ‘they may not all be dead.’ The best he’d seen of the car before he stepped into a hole and wrenched his left ankle was the rear sticking skyward, the nose half in the slow-moving river, a tree under the carriage. There wasn’t any movement in the car, and he had faced an awful choice: be stuck at the water’s edge, unable to get back to Sarah and calm her, keep her away from the thing on the road, or climb out while he still had a handhold on the brush, climb out before his ankle swelled up and he was useless as a guide to the help that surely was on the way to them. And if Sarah hadn’t found a cell signal… he couldn’t let himself think of that. He had left the silent car with the smell of gasoline and the fates of two families tied inside and gone to Sarah.
The helicopter roared into view. Adam and Sarah looked out the windshield as the chopper hovered near the bridge. A tapping on the car roof broke the spell.
“Mr. Neely.” The highway patrolman squatted inside the open driver’s door. “Are you okay, sir? You weren’t involved in this, correct?”
Adam shook his head. What an idiot he must appear, staring out the window as if he’d never seen a helicopter before, a vacuous look on his face if his matched Sarah’s by half. A long night turned even longer and now this kid asking him… Adam took control of himself with a deep breath.
“I’m fine. Just twisted my ankle, like I said. We’re just…” he looked at Sarah, at her glazed eyes, “we’re just stunned.”
The young man nodded. “We’re going to bring them up now and transport them to Dallas as soon as the chopper lands. I don’t think there’s anything else I need from you tonight. We’ll be calling tomorrow to finish up. You can leave now. You know how to take the back road?”
Adam nodded as he watched the chopper, a red cross painted on its tail, set down as lightly as a dragonfly. Medics jumped off and met the ambulance crews. Two stretchers appeared.
“Officer…” Sarah broke Adam’s reverie as she leaned over his back and snagged the young man as he was rising, “how many can be carried on that helicopter?”
Adam clenched his eyes against the answer.
“But there are four people in the car.” Sarah’s voice became a whisper.
“Yes, ma’am. There were four in the car.”