At night, driving – along the Coast, especially – that’s when she felt it. Freedom, coursing through her like the wind that ravaged her hair. Alone was best. To revisit the day, to look ahead, to put it all back where it belonged.
Lately, Cleo couldn’t get her footing, couldn’t remember what she stood for. The values her father had instilled – from the dinner table to the pulpit – clashed with the heady swirl of life on campus. And though her thoughts lined up patiently, waiting to be sorted, she was distracted tonight and gave herself instead to the sounds of the darkness and the rush of the wind, warm as breath on her suntanned skin.
As she sped across the causeway unobstructed, oncoming traffic formed a necklace of headlights before her. Funny, that such a line of cars was leaving just as the weekend was getting started. Twilight reflected in the colors of the bay, foiled against a stack of purple black clouds at the horizon.
Her phone buzzed. With one hand on the wheel, Cleo rummaged in her bag and seized it just as it stopped. She studied the number and then cast it onto the passenger seat with a sigh. Maybe this was a mistake, meeting up with Dad at the beach house. She’d left a thousand things undone at school, barely three weeks into her semester.
But it was their ritual, this annual pilgrimage. And though she was hours later than planned, Cleo knew her Dad would be waiting. And so she rushed down the coastal highway, oblivious to the growing darkness.
As she approached the inlet, a sudden flash of lightning lit up the scene before her, revealing a menacing shelf of clouds bearing down on the thin strip of land. She noticed the wind in the trees then, and, just as suddenly, felt a force pushing against the car as she left the land and drove onto the low concrete span. Thunder echoed all around her, and in the half light, Cleo noticed a ghostly froth of angry swells pushing into the channel.
She was suddenly afraid. The storm was too big for her, and she was utterly alone. A cry escaped her as a bolt of lightning shot earthward just beyond the bridge, followed instantly by a deafening boom. Then the rains came. She sped up, longing to get past the channel and onto land. To the other side and to safety.
The phone buzzed again, and she grabbed it. “Dad?!” she called, too loudly.
“Cleo, where are you? The storm has taken a turn toward land!” Her father’s deep voice was an anchor.
“I – I’m at the inlet.” The wipers on high were barely moving the torrent of water off the windshield. She slowed, searching in vain for the white line at the shoulder. She could feel the wheels losing traction at the tap of her break.
“I need you to pull over and wait until I can get to you!” he commanded.
“I can’t stop here. I’m on the bridge, crossing the channel.” Her voice caught in a sob. Though she had closed the windows at the first sign of rain, her fingers felt sticky wet.
Another rattling thunderbolt shook the car, and she dropped the phone. To her left, it seemed the ocean had taken over the shallow waters of the inlet. With each flash of lightning, she saw the swollen breakers flooding the landscape. Pounding against the bridge’s sturdy frame. Somewhere off in the distance, a blur of emergency lights flashed.
A jag of lightning – so close she could hear the sizzle snap of energy – skewered a loblolly pine on the beach below her, followed seconds later by a piercing thunderclap. Cleo’s whole body shook. She closed her eyes tightly, only for a split second, but it was too late. The car, skating across the pooling water, smashed into the concrete guardrail, sending sparks into the darkness. Her body lurched forward into the steering wheel.
When she woke, there was blood on the windshield. Dazed, she squinted into the darkness, trying to make out the scene before her. Yellow circles from the headlights lobbed at unnatural angles, cross-cutting the darkness. In growing horror, she watched the ocean’s surge as it reached the lowest span of the bridge ahead. It wouldn’t be long until the rising tide would reach her tiny car. As the situation riveted her back to reality, every fiber was on high alert, quaking with fear. Is this what it felt like to die?
“Please help me,” she pleaded.
A sudden light filled the car’s interior then. Perhaps someone had come for her! Cleo tried to turn, to search for her rescuers, but a stabbing pain in her shoulder arrested all movement. Falling back into the folds of the airbag, she shut her eyes again, exhausted. Her head ached and a ringing in her ears closed off the sounds of the battering wind and thunder.
When she opened them, her mother sat beside her in the passenger seat, smiling expectantly. Cleo blinked hard. How hard had she hit her head? It was her mom, alright, but a younger woman, before those last devastating years that had claimed her life. Cleo sat up and leaned warily toward this very real figure. In her amazement, she forgot the pain.
“Hello, precious!” cooed her mother, in that familiar Carolina drawl. Oh, how Cleo had missed that voice!
“Mom?” Cleo whispered weakly. “I miss you so much.”
“You are never alone, my sweet.”
Cleo started to cry. “Dad and I, we planned to celebrate your birthday tomorrow… but the storm – it’s too big for me. I need you, Mom!” Why did you leave me all those years ago?
Her mother’s smile never faded. “You are strong, Cleo.”
“I don’t feel strong,” said the frightened girl. “I’m afraid.” And with sudden conviction, she asked, “Have you come to take me with you?”
Her mother laughed then. “I came to help you remember.”
“To remember who you are.”
The bridge shuddered and let out an unearthly groan. Cleo’s gaze shifted to the danger in front of her. Her mother reached over and took Cleo’s hand, and a peculiar warmth flooded through her.
“When you were very young,” her mother was saying, “your father and I took you here to Pea Island to swim.” She paused, gazing serenely to where the storm surge now covered the beach. “I almost lost you that day! A big wave took you under while you were playing in the sand. And when your daddy pulled you from the surf, do you know what you said?”
Cleo shook her head. “I don’t remember at all.”
“My tiny three year old, with the wisdom of the ages, proclaimed – It’s okay, Momma. I wasn’t alone. Jesus held me.” She nodded. “He’s holding you still , darlin’ You don’t have to be alone.”
The light grew brighter as Cleo studied her mother’s face. “He will never leave you,” Cleo’s mom said again, kissing the small of her daughter’s palm. Whiter and whiter the light became, until the blinding purity overwhelmed Cleo, and she shielded her eyes.
Then it was gone, and as Cleo dropped her hands, so was her mother. Instantly, the sounds of the storm came rushing back into the car, but another sound was now discernible in the distance. A siren was closing in, until Cleo could see flashing red lights reflecting on the shiny wet surface of the road. The strong beams of the ambulance illuminated the rising water level – now inches deep beneath her car – as the truck sloshed alongside her vehicle. Turning gingerly toward her window, Cleo gazed up at the anxious face of her father as he jumped down from the truck and pulled open her car door. His scratchy beard, wet with tears, found the pillow softness of her cheek.
“How I prayed God would keep you safe until we got here!” he whispered.
Cleo looked up into his eyes and smiled tenderly. “It’s okay, Daddy. I was never alone.”