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Justin Walker smashed his foot on the brake pedal, but the truck’s tires spun on the slick road. Muscles bunched in his forearms while he fought the steering wheel for control. Sweat beaded on his forehead despite the chill of the truck’s air conditioning.
Dense mountain foliage lined one side of the winding country road while a sheer cliff loomed in the darkness on the other side. Neither held much appeal for a place to stop, but with Newton’s First Law in charge, he was more or less along for the ride.
His heartbeat pounded in his ears. Hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel and the brake pedal wedged to the floor, a harsh expletive repeated itself over and over in his mind as the cliff drew closer and closer.
Lightning lit up the dark abyss of the valley below. Tall pines seemed to claw up at him like demons from hell scratching to rise to the surface. Or to pull him under.
Branches from a fallen pine scrapped against the metal of his truck’s front fender while the rain and wind whipped around him threatening to throw him over the ledge. Then like out of a movie, the truck slowed until, with only a few feet to spare, it slid to a stop at the edge of the deep void.
Eyes still transfixed on the black expanse before him, Justin released the shaky breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Prying his long, lean fingers from around the steering wheel, he willed his body to relax as well, but his relief was short-lived.
A bolt of lightning had given only a flash of warning before sending the tree tumbling towards the road. He’d caught the descent out of the corner of his eye, but the driver of the car in front of him didn’t appear to be as lucky. Throwing open his door, Justin ran towards the small sedan smashed against the collapsed tree.
The cold rain soaked his clothes and plastered his hair to his head. It streamed down his face, blurring his vision, but he didn’t care. Sprinting across the short distance between the stopped vehicles, he tore his attention away from the crushed passenger’s side of the car. Tree branches protruded through the car and out the broken front windshield while steam from the crumpled hood hissed in the cold and driving rain. It’d be a miracle if anyone survived that kind of damage.
Through the shattered window, he made out the slight form of a woman hunched over the wheel. Her hair shielded her face from his gaze, but did nothing to protect her in the collision with the tree.
Justin shuddered. Rangers knew what it meant when you weren’t properly protected and during his time in the desert, he’d seen the evidence of many soldiers’ misfortune too many times to count. The muscles in his stomach tightened as those ghostly images invaded his thoughts. Every muscle taut, vibrating with tension, he battled to keep them at bay, but the lingering smell of gunpowder assaulted his senses and the escalating sounds of the storm around them echoed with sounds of mortar fire.
Too late, his mind taunted over and over. The torment of another failure ripped through him like a machete slicing through the underbrush. His lungs ached with every breath he drew. His blood ran like icy sludge through his veins and shivers scratched with sinister claws at his spine.
“I’m so sorry.” As he whispered, he touched her forehead cautiously, but jerked his hand back when she cringed at his touch.