by John Tipper
Sophie swung into the car park and killed the engine. She stepped out into a sideways blowing rain, hunched her shoulders and ran to the door. Kaleidoscopes of city neon glinted from the puddles.
Use the drive-through, Jake would say, but that was a slippery slope. You couldn’t have the burger and the burger lifestyle. Just like you couldn’t take the lift when there was time to take the stairs. At least, she couldn’t. Not if her body was to have any chance of producing a life.
Besides, the queue was too long. The alert said the bridge would close at ten, and the drive took thirty minutes on a good day. At night, in this storm, more like forty-five. Only eight precious minutes to spare and at least six cars in the line, most of them packed.
Her wet fingers smeared on the order screen, removing the mayo and the bacon, swapping salad for the fries. Water for the soda. Barely counts as food, her tastebuds sulked. It’ll be worth it, she replied, for what seemed like the hundredth time. Her arms cradled in front of her chest, remembering the perfect heft of her nephew Benji, the insistent, wonderful tug on the muscles in her back when Rebekah had first passed him to her to hold. Strange how a weight, an abstract thing, could offer such a promise of completeness.
Behind the counter, the cashiers and cooks wove back and forth in choreographed urgency. Two orders went to the drive-through window, then a third, and a fourth. Where was hers? Didn’t these people care that this was the only time for the next four months that Jake’s flight schedule would match her body’s? Couldn’t they hear the clock ticking?
She should have been back as planned, a steak dinner for Jake and pasta for her, a cold beer to fuel his fire and soften the antiseptic edges of it really has to be tonight, honey. Not queueing for just enough processed junk to stop the shakes from yet another evening of unpaid overtime.
Bag in hand, she dashed through the rain, fumbled the key and skootched into the car. The door blew shut behind her. She fired the engine and the radio sprang to life and the biggest storm in fifty years is what the experts are predicting crackled out from the speaker. The dashboard clock showed 21:15. Once the bridge closed, that was it. A detour to her sister’s and at least three nights on a pull-out sofa, waiting for the storm to pass while babysitting Benji and trying to mean the words I‘m so pleased for you while her insides curled with envy.
The wipers beat a furious rhythm as she pulled onto the highway. Cars hissed past as her speed crept up. Forty, forty-five, fifty. Daytime, she’d be comfortable at seventy, but she couldn’t risk it now. Not while torrents sluiced across the tarmac and passing trucks squeezed her tight against the concrete dividers. Not even with that’s right, every bridge from Newport to the top of the Sound echoing in her ears. She clenched the wheel and fought the slipstream of a mammoth eighteen-wheeler as it blew past.
The turn appeared. She swept off the highway and angled toward the coast. Limp strands of lettuce spilled out and tumbled to her lap as she juggled the burger and ran the math. Nine twenty. Five minutes to the gas station, another seven—make it ten in this rain—past that to the coast road. Then a lonely dash along Inlet Road, fifteen long minutes. Nine fifty. She could make the bridge. Sure, tearing Jake from a post-pizza coma in front of the TV wouldn’t be the most romantic way to frame the evening, but he’d come around. She swallowed a tasteless bite of burger and fumbled for the salad.
Orange lights sparkled in the edges of the windscreen and reflected from the wet tarmac. A trooper in a heavy raincoat and a wide hat stood in the road, looking about as miserable as anyone she’d ever seen.
She buzzed down the window and sucked a breath of wet air.
‘Where are you heading, ma’am?’ Up close he was impossibly young, as if a kid from behind the burger counter had switched uniforms and come out to stand in the deluge. Podgy red cheeks above a too-tight collar, pale eyes that blinked against the rain that blew in his face.
She knew in that instant, with a deeper certainty than she’d ever known, that high school was far behind. She and Jake weren’t sweethearts any more. They were a couple. Time didn’t stand still for couples. She had to get back.
‘Resolution Bay,’ she yelled into the storm.
‘That’s a no-go, ma’am.’ He gripped the brim of his hat, as if to assure himself of his authority. ‘The culvert’s washed out. You won’t even make the bridge.’
Sophie’s mind flew into overdrive, spinning a 3D map, familiar routes and farm tracks all lighting up.
‘There’s a back road,’ she yelled. ‘Past Casper’s. I can take that to Pike, cut a left and come out below the boatyard.’
‘Pike’s pretty low-lying. Could be flooded already. I’m not sure.’
She glanced at the clock: 21:32. Taking Pike would add another three or four minutes. Nine fifty-five at the bridge. Still possible.
‘Look, I want to get home, just like you.’ She smiled, that special big-sister smile Rebekah could never say no to. ‘If there’s any surface water on Pike when I get there, I’ll come right back.’
He glanced around at the edges of the night that lay beyond his strobe. 21:32 became 21:33. ‘Be careful,’ he said.
She pushed on through the gloom. The orange glow faded and she swung around a bend and on to Pike. A thin sheen of water covered the tarmac. Okay, there was a hint of a current pushing across from the ocean side, and okay, the level could rise quickly, like it did to those tourists who got washed away in the last storm. But tomorrow morning Jake would start flying again and he’d be flying at the wrong time every month until Christmas. She couldn’t let two inches of water stand between her and the chance of a family. She rolled forward and fought the tug on the wheel. The tyres fountained water into the absolute darkness on either side. The dashboard clock glowed 21:38 and her mind ran a tickertape of timings below the rain-splattered screen. The boatyard at nine forty-two, a dash along Inlet View, fifteen minutes tops, whatever the conditions, the bridge at nine fifty-seven. Cutting it fine, but possible. Just.
The radio hit a strong patch and a smug dry voice was saying stay safe, Mike, we’ll be back in an hour for an update as somewhere out in the storm Mike hunkered down. The rain bruised the windscreen; she didn’t need Mike to confirm the weather. But it wasn’t a time to be alone. She hit the CD button and the deep rich sounds of gospel music filled the car. One of Jake’s CDs. Not her first choice, but she couldn’t fumble around for something else right now.
More lights appeared ahead, strobing red and blue. Her headlights threw a blinding glare off a police cruiser that stretched across the road.
She slowed to a halt. A fire truck manoeuvred in the glow beyond the cruiser. A skeletal outline loomed in the distance, past the truck. The bridge.
A gaunt figure approached. Same raincoat, same hat. She buzzed the window again.
‘Good evening ma’am.’ An older man, not a boy in a costume. Taut, weathered skin, high cheekbones. A smattering of grey in his neatly trimmed beard.
‘Officer, I need to get home to my husband.’ She glanced at the dashboard. ‘I’ve got three minutes until the bridge closes.’
‘I’m sorry ma’am. That’s not possible.’
‘But the bridge is right there.’
‘A tanker’s gone off the road. There’s a fuel spill. It could go up at any moment. You’ll have to go back.’ He didn’t need the uniform to give him authority. It came off him in waves. Dignity, confidence, quiet humility. He could have stood there in farm overalls and he’d still be in control.
She’d come so close. Her hand fell to her stomach, her pointlessly flat, toned stomach.
The strobe lit fine creases at the corners of his eyes. Suddenly his composure made sense. ‘Sir, you served, didn’t you?’
He looked at her for a long-measured moment. Curtains of rain lashed through the air.
Finally he nodded.
‘Iraq?’ she asked. ‘The first Gulf War?’
Another nod. ‘Did your husband?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘He’s a coastguard pilot. He’s needed here.’
‘But I did. Two tours, Afghanistan. I’ve pulled people out of a burning Humvee. One made it, one didn’t. I’ve seen what fires do. And I’m not afraid.’ A deep breath. ‘But what I’m terrified of right now is that tomorrow Jake flies off, and so does our last real chance to have a child. And that’s all that kept me going out there, the thought that when I got back, I could bring a child into this world. Don’t deny me that. Please.’
He stared at her, no judgement in his gaze. Just the slightest constriction of his pupils, a hint at thoughts being weighed.
He glanced over his shoulder towards the bridge. Then back to her.
‘You go now, and you go fast. Don’t slow down, don’t rubberneck. Keep going till you clear the bridge. Understand?’
She nodded and nosed past his cruiser. Pressed on the gas and felt the wheels bite and kept her gaze straight ahead, fixed on the bridge. Two hundred yards. The car picked up speed.
Dazzling light struck the rear-view mirror. The car hit a pothole, bounced up, and the light fell away.
She sped on and the struts of the bridge solidified out of the storm, aging girders that threw back her headlights. The barrier was dropping with infinite slowness, but she had plenty of time.
Jake, I’m coming home.
Again the light dazzled her, closer now, the mirror a solid blinding beam. She grabbed for the mirror and torqued it down. The voices on the stereo blended together, the deep rich bass and a beautiful harmony that swam through the words. It wasn’t two voices; it was three and now four and now twenty, a whole choir reverberating through the car. The sweetest piano cut through the air. The drumbeat echoed a lifetime of rhythm. There must have been a hundred voices, each beautiful and clear and utterly distinct.
Light flashed in her eyes as the car spun around.
Jake, you’ll have a child, but it won’t be mine.
You’ll be a great father, and I’m so happy for you.
The tall trooper straightened up from his vehicle. A dishevelled form slumped on the backseat behind the grilled window. Rain whipped at the bulk of a nearby ambulance.
A paramedic appeared from the side of the ambulance, pushing a trolley, chased by a howling wind.
‘Guy nearly killed me when he crashed through,’ the trooper said.
‘It’s the same thing, time after time,’ the paramedic said. ‘The drunk walks away, and the victim pays the price.’ He nodded at the trolley. ‘You know her?’
The trooper stared over at the bridge at the wreckage of the car. ‘In a way.’ His gaze fell to the trolley, to Sophie’s face, so clear and calm and full of peace, unlike any other he’d seen on the job. ‘I do know this: she was going home.’
He bent and lifted the corner of the blanket that the wind had blown free. ‘I tell you something,’ he said, laying the cloth back over her face. ‘I’d say she got there.’
John Tipper has spent much of the past twenty years as an aid worker in conflict zones. Always an avid reader, he turned to writing as a way to process some of the experiences he was involved in. Over the years, he’s been drawn to people who somehow stay positive in the middle of horrific situations, and he aims to reflect that in his writing.
After completing the NZWC Basics of Creative Writing Course in 2020, he found himself in a critique group which mainly writes historical romance, despite being an aspiring thriller writer himself. He credits the hours spent critiquing outside his genre with giving his writing more life.