Paramedic Stephen O’Malley drove north from Chicago the night of June 25th, leaving behind life as he knew it. The wipers pushed rain off the windshield, but even on high they could give a clear view of the road for only a few seconds with each sweep. Cars ahead were visible as red diffuse taillights, which occasionally brightened as drivers their touched brakes.
A semi-truck with trailer rolled passed Stephen, its tires throwing up water in a sheet across his windshield. For several seconds he was effectively blind as the wipers struggled to shove the water off. As the deluge cleared Stephen saw the semi pulling over into his lane. The trailer crossed too far and went a few inches into the edge of the roadside. Gravel peppered his car. Stephen quickly slowed as much as he dared given the traffic behind him to avoid the accident the truck driver risked with that abrupt move.
He didn’t want to die on a stretch of highway tonight. One funeral in a day was enough. It had been overcast at his sister’s graveside this morning, and by the time the O’Malley family dinner was breaking up tonight a heavy drizzle was in the air.
Stephen reached down and changed the radio station, looking for talk radio and a distraction. He wasn’t going to think about the cemetery plot or that oak casket he’d helped carry from the church to the waiting hearse and then to the graveside. Even with the weight of the casket, it was impossible to hide the fact his sister Jennifer had died a shadow of herself after losing her hard-fought battle with cancer.
Wind gusts struck the driver’s side of the car. Stephen spotted a blue exit sign advertising gas, food, and hotels and turned on the blinkers. He needed a break. If he planned to drive all night, he would need a full tank of gas and something cold to drink at some point. It might as well be now.
He chose the gas station with a store and a canopy over the pumps. He topped off the gas tank at an even eight dollars, checked his oil and fluids, and then walked toward the building to pay. The place was deserted but for one other driver paying at the register and the sound of a radio announcer listing sports scores.
Stephen walked the aisle near the window and picked up a few items. As the door chimed behind the driver walking back outside, Stephen set the windshield wiper fluid, brake fluid, a can of oil, and roll of paper towels on the counter. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The man at the register fighting with the mechanism to get a new roll of paper inserted merely nodded. Stephen wasn’t hungry, but food would help keep him awake. He picked up a bag of nacho chips, thought about a candy bar but knew it would just leave him with a sugar high. He stopped at the self-serve counter in the center of the store located beneath a spinning sign advertising chili by the pint. He could hear Jennifer reminding him about the inevitable heartburn as he moved past the kettle.
He had a choice between a Polish sausage spinning on a heat rack that looked like it had been there for hours or a cold deli sandwich that he couldn’t identify. He slid open the cover and used tongs to pick up the polish. He stuffed it in a hot dog bun. Onions, pickles, and hot mustard made the meat disappear. A store special included a drink for an extra fifty cents. He tugged a large blue cup from the stack and set it under the dispenser, was generous with the ice. The Diet Pepsi was sputtering with air, so he combined it with regular to fill the cup. At least the plastic lid fit. He tucked a straw in his pocket.
The clerk rang up the items as Stephen added a newspaper to the stack.
“It’s a bad night for driving. They’re saying this rain will get worse before it gets better.”
Stephen pulled bills from his wallet. “At least it’s less traffic.”
He pulled change from his shirt pocket. Among the coins were green M&Ms. They tumbled into his hand and for a moment Stephen simply looked at them. He rubbed his thumb across the chocolates, turning two of them over. Ann’s son Nathan had been sitting on his lap after dinner having M&Ms for dessert, the child providing a welcome distraction from the solemnness of the funeral meal. Nathan had been picking out the blue ones to eat and had been sharing the green. Stephen hadn’t even realized. You’re so precious, little man.
Stephen slipped the M&Ms back into his pocket. Jennifer would have been pleased to know that Ann had brought her two children to join the dinner. Life went on. For the boys it had been a meal where they had to be on their best behavior, but they hadn’t grasped, nor should they have, the reality of death and the loss it brought. That empty chair at the table where Jennifer had once sat haunted Stephen throughout the meal. The boys’ presence had indeed been a welcome distraction.
Stephen accepted the receipt and nodded his thanks.
Wind whipped the bag as he stepped outside. He turned his shoulder into it and walked to his car. The trunk of the car rose with a little force. Stephen stored the supplies for his car in the cardboard box with his jumper cables, flares, and tire puncture kit. He tossed the roll of paper towels on his jacket. The Emergency Medical Services patch on the left jacket sleeve had come up in one corner, and the EMS logo on the back of the jacket was ringed with florescent orange tape rubbed nearly through in spots. The jacket was there out of habit, rather than need. The leave of absence from his paramedic job was open ended. His boss had been trying to avoid accepting his resignation, and Stephen had conceded the theoretical possibility he would change his mind.
He had spent a lifetime rescuing people. And all the last months had left him with was the certain knowledge he couldn’t carry the weight anymore. He didn’t want his pager going off. He didn’t want to have to face another person injured, bleeding, and trying to die. Stephen slammed the trunk. He was done with the profession that had been his career for the last decade.
He parked near the exit so he could note gas and mileage and the date. Where was he going? He picked up the Polish, crumpled the wrapper, and tossed the cellophane into the plastic sack on the passenger side floor. He picked up the map. He studied it in the dim light of the overhead bulb. He was driving north, with no particular plan except to be out of the state by morning. Any road going north would accomplish that. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t even have a good answer for why he was leaving. He just wanted some space. The decision had been coming for years.
What would his family be saying right now? He’s hurting, give him space, let’s call him tomorrow. Kate O’Malley had nearly strangled him when she asked him not to go, or to at least let her come along as a navigator.
The bond between the seven O’Malleys went deep. At the orphanage where they had first met, family had been nonexistent. They had chosen to become their own family and had decided on the last name O’Malley. With the death of Jennifer there was an undercurrent of fear that the bond between them would change now in unpredictable ways, would not hold. And maybe he was the first sign of it breaking.
He was thirty minutes away from family, and he was already wondering what he was doing. He rubbed the back of his neck. He could turn around and go back. The O’Malleys wouldn’t pry that much, just swallow him back into their fold and do everything they could to help him.
He couldn’t go back. He loved the O’Malleys—he just didn’t think he could handle being around them for the next few months. He was the odd man out, for they were all couples now and he was still unattached; they had all come to recently believe in God and he didn’t want to explore the subject. They said Jennifer was in a better place and talked about heaven as if it was a real place. Maybe it was, but it didn’t change the fact that Jennifer was gone. And he desperately wanted some space to deal with the grief.
He pulled back onto the highway. He was going to drive and see the country until he found a sense of peace, and if it took a year, that’s what it would take.
The flashing lights in the rearview mirror caught his attention first: the blue and red medley bright in the rain—and then the sound of emergency sirens reached him. Stephen pulled to the right. The word ambulance written backwards on the front of the vehicle to be readable in his rearview mirror grew larger.
The vehicle rushed past.
Ten minutes later highway traffic began to slow, and then a traffic jam began, both lanes of cars showing brake lights. Stephen eventually reached the spot where a cop using flares, traffic cones, and his parked car was directing traffic to the left lane. The parked ambulance, lights still flashing, angled in ahead of a fire engine crowding the right lane.
There was a smashed car in the ditch and within view a tipped over trailer broken free from a semi. Through the rain he could see the firefighters working on an extraction of a passenger in the car. Remove the window before you force that door. The frame was crumpled to the B-Pillar that went from the undercarriage to the roof and provided structural support for the door frames. If the firefighter popped that door before he took care of the window they would be working to do an extraction while kneeling in shattered glass.
Stephen didn’t act on the fleeting thought that he might stop and offer help. He knew what to do, and they probably did too. And if they didn’t—they had to learn somehow, and most rescue skills came from hard-won experience. He couldn’t rescue everyone in the world who got into trouble. He’d tried. The burden of it had nearly killed him.
The cop finally signaled his lane of traffic forward. Stephen made one last assessment of the wreck as he slowly passed by. In another lifetime he’d written the book on vehicle extraction. The paramedics were bringing in the backboard; they were about done. Once the victim reached the ambulance, he would be rushed to the nearby trauma hospital and would have a good chance of making it.
Stephen turned his attention back to the road. He was done with the profession of paramedic, that fact would just take some time to get used to.
He owed Jennifer. She’d asked that he be happy, settled, and at peace with life. With great passion, her smile, and her zest for life, she had pushed her version of a solution, encouraging him to settle down with Ann, to accept faith in the God she loved. He hadn’t been able to believe as she’d longed for, and she hadn’t lived long enough to see him settled down with someone even if he’d been inclined to do so. He had let her down and he had to live with that hurt. Jenny, I already miss you something terrible. Why did you have to die?
Tears silently slid down his cheeks. He wiped them away, too tired to be angry that the emotions were getting the upper hand tonight.
He pulled out a bottle of aspirin from the glove box and popped the top with his thumb. He dumped two aspirins into the palm of his left hand, popped them in his mouth, and grimaced at the taste. He picked up the soda. The sides of the cup were sweating and the paper was getting soft. He took two long draws on the straw to wash down the tablets.
His phone rang for the fourth time. Stephen looked over at it. He had a feeling the caller wasn’t going to give up. He picked it up and flipped it open with one hand. “Yes?”
Meghan’s voice was like the brush of angel wings over a bruise, a tender balm to a painful hurt. His hand tightened on the steering wheel, and he automatically glanced at the rearview mirror to make sure he could slow down without causing problems for someone driving too close to his car. He dropped his speed another five miles. “Hey there, beautiful.” She’d been at Jennifer’s visitation last night, her seeing-eye dog leading the way.
“You were on my mind and I took a chance you’d still be up. It sounds like you’re on the road somewhere.”
“Just driving, thinking.” He knew she’d understand what he didn’t say. There had been nights when she walked out of a shift as an ER nurse to find herself not sure she wanted to go home, let alone go back to work. He’d often played checkers with her on the ambulance gurney while he listened to follow up on the patients he’d brought in.
If anyone had the right to complain about life, it was Meghan. She’d run away in her own way for a year after the accident took her sight. She’d retreated to live with her parents, told friends not to visit. She’d gone away to lick her wounds, and when the year was over she’d come back still blind but at peace, with no signs of how hard the transition had been. He envied the strength in the lady. If Meghan could adapt, so could he. Jennifer was gone. He had to live with it.
“How far are you planning to drive?”
“Until sleep says find a hotel.” He changed the radio station he was listening to. “I took a leave of absence from work.”
She let that sink in. “That might be good.”
He rolled his shoulder. Good, bad, it just was. He didn’t have the emotional energy to handle the job right now.
“Are you driving through rain? The storm is getting close here.”
“Wind-driven rain,” he confirmed. “Where are you staying?” She’d come into town for the funeral. She must still be in the area.
“I borrowed keys to my grandparents’ vacation place in Whitfield.”
Whitfield...he finally placed it on his mental map. She was about twenty minutes northwest. The storm must be tracking her direction.
“I have a love-hate relationship with storms.”
He heard the tension in her voice. “I know,” he said gently. About all she remembered from the night of her accident was the bright lightning and the loud thunder. The majority of the prior week, most of the following two weeks, had been wiped out of her memory and never came back.
She didn’t say anything else. “You okay, Meghan?” He was reluctant to get pulled into it tonight, but it was the fact that she wasn’t asking that drew the words out. At twelve Meghan Delhart had been a girl with reading glasses, her nose often in a book, and a habit of mixing up her Bs and Ws when she tried to speak fast. She was one of the first friends he made from the neighborhood around the orphanage, an endearing friend in an embarrassing kind of way. He hadn’t realized until he spotted her across the room last night just how much he missed her.
“I will be when this storm blows over.” He heard her turn her radio to match his station. “I’m going back to Silverton tomorrow. Dad is coming in to pick me up.”
He wasn’t surprised she’d come into town on her own; she had always had a fierce independent streak. “Do you want to go tonight? I’ll give you a lift if you like.”
“I don’t need rescuing.”
He smiled. “Maybe I do.”
She was quiet a minute. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Stephen promised.
“Then yes, I’d appreciate a lift. I’m already packed, and I’m not going to be sleeping with this storm overhead.”
Stephen turned on the car blinkers. He picked up the map to figure out how to get off this highway and over to her area.
“Would you like coffee or tea?” Meghan asked.
“I’d love a cup of your tea with honey and cinnamon.”
“It will be waiting. I’ll turn on the lights for the driveway and leave the back door unlocked. Come on in so you don’t get drenched.”
“I’ll be there shortly.”
He set down the phone. Meghan had talked him out of running away once before. He doubted she could do it again, but he at least wanted to say how much he appreciated her coming to town last night for the visitation. They were friends and destined to always be just friends. He wished he’d been smart enough to make it more when he had the chance.
His life was littered with if only’s.
He would see Meghan, give her a lift home, and then go on with his drive. If he let himself start grieving, the past the pain would never end. One of those if only’s had left Meghan blind.
THANK YOU FOR READING THE PROLOGUE