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Sarah groaned, her forehead resting against the curve of the steering wheel. She opened an eye and peeked at the dashboard. Yup. The ‘check engine’ and the battery light were both still glowing. That was bad. Sarah didn’t know much about cars, but that had to be bad. She slumped backwards against the seat, shielding her eyes from the glare of the late summer sun. Fifteen miles. That’s all she needed. Fifteen more miles and she’d have been in town. Instead, she was stranded on the side of some barely-paved rural route to nowhereville. It was as if even the car knew where they were headed and didn’t want to arrive there any more than she did.
Nowhereville was actually Chesterville; half rural, half suburb, all nowhereville. A place she’d spent the better part of a decade avoiding at all costs. There was only one thing strong enough to pull her back to this unholy armpit of the world. Her mother’s voice at the end of the phone, uncharacteristically shaky, telling her that her beloved Auntie-El was in hospital.
It was some years since she’d been back. She’d lost count. The route still felt familiar, like something from a recurring dream. A necessary dream, as she drove down the roads on autopilot, the acidity of fear in her stomach. Without warning, the car had lost power and she’d coasted it to a shuddering, clanking stop, just managing to park on the gravel shoulder. Okay, maybe not without warning. The ‘check engine’ light had been showing for the past week, but she could have sworn that the battery light was new!
Why now? Why today, when she needed so desperately to be there? She took a deep breath, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes to hold back the sting of tears. Oh Auntie-El, please be okay, she thought. Taking a deep, steadying breath, her hand searched through the contents of her purse, pulling out her shabby old cell phone. She flipped it open and tapped her thumbs against it impatiently as it slowly flickered into life. Damn. No signal. Nothing. Damn! She clicked the phone shut and tossed it back into her bag, suddenly full of a very sinking feeling.
Auntie-El would die. She’d die and Sarah wouldn’t be in time to say goodbye. She could feel the panicky sobs threatening to rise up and choke her. She had to clench her eyes shut and just breathe. Breathe slowly, until the sensation passed. No. She would not fall apart. She would stay calm. She would find a way out of this. She would get to the hospital somehow.
Popping the door open, she stepped out onto the rough asphalt, the heat instantly rising up through the bottom of her flimsy sandals. Why hadn’t she dressed more sensibly? Sun dresses and sandals were fine for a Friday afternoon in the office, but not for being stranded in the middle of nowhere. She leaned back against the bumper of the car, staring glumly at her feet. How many miles could she make it hiking in them before her feet were in shreds? She pushed herself up, shading her eyes, rising onto her tiptoes to stare into the distance. The undulating road disappeared over the next low hill, a stand of wind-break trees blocking her view. Not even a farmhouse in sight.
She ducked into the front seat and fumbled for the lever that released the hood. Maybe if she looked inside? But staring at the intricate tangle of wires, hoses and fans did nothing to enlighten her.
Resignation sat like a stone in her gut. She nodded to herself and bit back a harsh laugh. So this was what she got for staying away for so long. As if the universe was somehow making her pay for trying to escape from it all. The truth was, there was no escaping. And she was trapped, a tantalising fifteen miles away from a dying woman who had defined her childhood.
At first she dismissed it as her imagination. But what was at first just a far-off rumble was very suddenly a truck engine coming up behind her. A battered pick-up truck that pulled in on the shoulder some way ahead and slowly backed towards her.