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.