I was halfway home—somewhere near the part of Illinois they call “Farmingdale,” which could accurately describe 90% of the state—when I realized I’d made the wrong call. The cold pre-dawn fog wrapped around the eighteen-wheelers. I risked a glance as I passed, wanting and not wanting to see if the drivers were actually asleep at the wheel like I imagined. I began to watch, rather urgently, for a rest stop. It was sleep or die at this point.
At last, I found an off-ramp descending through the trees to a nearly empty lot. I left the engine running and heat on. I reclined, pulled my red puff-coat over my face, and passed out.
When I peeled my eyelids open an hour later, the darkness and desolate parking lot deterred me from going in to use the bathroom, so I ka-chunked my seat upright and veered onto the highway.
No sooner had I crested the on-ramp when I felt the unmistakable thunk-a thunk-a thunk of a flat tire. Bracing myself, I shoved my hands into a pair of stretchy gloves—the kind I keep in the glove compartment in case of emergency, and then emergency strikes and I realize they don’t actually keep my hands warm—and stepped out into the arctic to retrieve the lug wrench and spare from my trunk.
When I saw the tire, my heart jumped up into my throat. A long, narrow slash marked a diameter on the outer surface. Not deep enough to pop the tire in the parking lot, just enough so that it would give way under the strain of acceleration.
I was back in the car with the doors locked faster than you could say “Died of heart attack before assailant ever arrived.”
A police car whizzed by, unaware or uninterested in my plight. I took a breath and decided I’d better call my mom and tell her goodbye and I love her and not to read my journals after I’m dead.
My mom was pretty gracious in the way she yelled “You haven’t called the police yet??!”
Well, duh. Fuzzy-brained with fear and sleep deficiency, I’d completely forgotten to call 911.
Not that I would know what to tell them. “Um, hi, I have an emergency? Yes, I’m right by the brown barn in the winter-dead cornfield in the middle of Illinois. No, I don’t know which rest stop. No, there are no mile markers.”
Meanwhile, another cop car flew by in the far left lane. Are you kidding me?
“Okay, Mom, I’ll call now. I’ll keep you posted.”
I started digging around the floor for my car charger. When I resurfaced, my eyes met an unwelcome sight in the rearview mirror. A sleek gray car was pulling onto the gravel behind me.
Two men climbed out of the car, thin shadows in the smoky cold light of almost-morning. I mouthed wordless prayers that were probably at least part profanity and fumbled with the phone jack.
The figures approached. Puffs of exhaust obscured my view. The phone charger dropped impotently to the floor. My gut tightened around my organs. My hands hovered midair, pulsing and numb all at once. My breath failed. Nothing moved but my heart. A palpable throb–throb–throb filled the car.
The shroud of fog dispersed and two dark profiles stood by my window. Still as ice, I rolled my eyes laterally to meet them. I was surprised to discern kind faces and—my eyes dipped downward—National Guard uniforms.
With lingering trepidation, I cracked the window.
“Flat tire ma’am?”
I nodded, wide-eyed and voiceless, though I began to feel my blood flowing again. They encouraged me to remain in the warm car and, though I’d normally refrain from sitting in a car that’s literally jacked up on one end, I needed no persuading. They hoisted the car and swapped the tire with remarkable speed, considering the metal lugs must have been frozen tight on their posts, and I scanned the passing traffic for suspicious looking drivers. The taller Guard member rapped on the trunk and held up the shredded tire.
The smack of the trunk closing signaled their departure. I opened the window far enough to blurt out a “thank you” not nearly as profuse or eloquent as all the versions I rehearsed in my head the rest of the way home. They raised their hands about waist-height in understated waves, and hunched along the icy stretch between my car and theirs.
My head fell forward in a great sigh of relief. When I lifted it again, the gray car was gone.
My head could not have been on the steering wheel for more than ten seconds. The roads in Illinois have the curvature of a yardstick. There’s no way they could have driven off that fast. I shook my head and pulled into the right lane, driving gingerly on the spare.
As my cortisol levels subsided and the drive became monotonous again, real life seeped back in. I began to feel hungry.
“Mom?” I was at a table at Charlie Parker’s Diner, picking at a blueberry crumble muffin. “You’re seriously not going to believe what happened.”
I finished my story and cupped my hands around the now tepid coffee mug. The more I replayed the scene in my memory, the less I found myself able to reconcile the sudden disappearance of that car with any earthly explanation.
I tapped my finger to the plate to get the last muffin crumbs and beckoned the waitress for my bill. She cocked her head toward the other end of the restaurant. “Somebody already paid for ya, sweetie.” I asked her if I could thank my benefactor but she said they’d already left.
A half-smile took over my face on the way to my car. I was absolved of my need to understand. Whether natural or supernatural, angels were watching out for me that morning. I decided that’s enough.
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