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UH-OH! A volley of raindrops, each the size of a quarter, pelted against the windshield.
In the spirit of fun and freedom, we’d ignored the signs along the way — the winds picking up, telephone lines and trees swaying dangerously, skies darkening and rain falling in musical interludes of Beethoven’s Fifth — staccato to legato, mezzo-forte to fortissimo — the allegro had been completely skipped.
The classical rhythms of nature were in complete contrast to the oldies CDs we’d been singing and laughing to as we exchanged funny stories from our past. “Remember the May two-four, at the cottage when we took a keg down to the dock,” said Phil laughing before the punch line. “A little hoot of the owl scared the shit out of Sammy. The guy falls into the water and his wife has to jump in to rescue him. Epic.”
We hardly noticed the minutes turn to hours and daylight turn to dusk as we motored along the I-95 in search of magnolias, mint juleps and key lime pie.
Debbie, having taken a pill for motion sickness, was soundly sleeping in the back seat, beside me. Carl, who was riding shotgun beside Phil, could sleep through anything.
All the fun seemed redundant now — the oldies, an annoyance as Phil switched off the music to concentrate on the road. I caught his eyes in the rear-view mirror. No words needed.
Fear gripped us both. The rain was so intense we knew it was no ordinary storm.
He scanned the radio to find news and weather. There was nothing but static. “Crap,” he said under his breath. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand then twisted his head from side to side.
“Where do you think we are?” I asked him.
“I’m guessing Virginia somewhere near the North Carolina state border.”
We passed a highway sign reminding us that the next service center was 50 miles. Thank God we’d been diligent about keeping the gas tank topped up.
Phil adjusted his six foot-four frame in the seat a couple of times and turned the CD player back on low. The music broke the silence within our coffined world.
The visibility was now zero — window wipers rendered useless.
The monstrous winds roared and rattled us, even though we carried a heavy ballast of luggage and golf clubs.
Normal road indicators became vague and intermittent as highway lights disappeared; tail lights of vehicles ahead disappeared; headlights from behind disappeared; there were no highway lines; there was no shoulder; and finally there was nothingness.
Driving too fast could plow us into the invisible car ahead and driving too slowly would place us in the path of the phantom behind us. Pulling over was also out of the question and any wrong move was a potential deathtrap — to us and any other motorists who were stupidly on this highway with us today.
Phil held tightly to the steering wheel as he manoeuvred through the perpetual carwash; nerves jagged as he took on the elements that threatened the precious cargo he carried — his soon-to-be wife and best friends.
We were clearly at the crossroads of destination and destiny.
Shaking, I crossed myself and invoked the mercy of all the angels and saints I could think of — including the soul of my dear grandmother who was most certainly an angel and a saint and, my grandfather — who was in a different place, purgatory at best. At that moment, I forgave him all.
I held my chest to contain my heart and swallowed several times before I could find conversation light enough to demand limited or no driver response. I just needed to let Phil know he wasn’t alone as he sat on the edge of this ride through hell, knuckles white as he clutched the steering wheel. Mine were white in sympathy.
I had great respect in Phil for many things. I could now add raw courage to the list. He was able to keep the vehicle fairly steady but there were a few times the van veered — the movements sudden and jarring.
With eyelids closed and still in a stupor in the front passenger seat, Carl stirred then mumbled, “Hey, what’s going on? Want me to drive?” But each time, he nodded off again before hearing a reply.
The music continued to ground us and keep us alert. Paul McCartney came on next. His words resonated.
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary . . . And in . . . she is standing right in front of me. There will be an answer. Let it be.” We hummed along.
And then — like a curtain rising — the rain stopped. There was an eerie stillness; an amber light glowing like a halo around us with no visible atmosphere beyond. Yet, we could still hear the sound of raindrops somewhere in the distance. Were we trapped in a globe ball?
Peeking through the haziness, the taillights of a large transport suddenly appeared before us. We both let out a sigh of relief. Phil followed the path of light that came to rest at a nearby truck stop.
My hand reached out to grasp him. His shoulder wilted as I found my voice. “Thank you,” I whispered.
The others came alive.
From one, “The rain’s stopped. Good, I need to stretch.”
From the other, “I’m starving. Key lime pie would taste so great right now.”
Phil and I locked eyes.
We welcomed the chance to breath, shake out the tension and regain some composure before heading back to the vehicle.
As we walked towards it, Carl insisted on driving next. “Oh, what’s a little rain?” he joked.
The wipers did their job for the remainder of the drive south into Charleston.
Before long, we pulled into the parking lot of the Marriott. The hotel lobby was dimly lit and empty. We approached the front desk. The concierge, a gentle looking giant of a man watched us in disbelief — his jaw dropped and eyes widened. He jumped up from the chair he’d been comfortably resting in and shook his head. “Where’re you folks from and how in heaven did ya all get here?” he asked.
“From Canada, on the I-95,” Debbie said, grinning proudly.
“It’s impossible.” He threw his hands into the air and pointed outside. “You would have had to drive right through the eye wall of a hurricane!” He shook his head again and looked at Phil with knowing eyes. “Bourbon, anyone?”
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