Sharyn McCrumb

St. Dale

© 2005

To Jane Hicks-the voice in my headset

There are only three real sports: mountain climbing,

bullfighting, and automobile racing.

– Ernest Hemingway

Chapter I

Midnight in Mooresville

It was not the end of the world, but you could see it from there.

She was an educated woman with a career and a social position to think of, so she lived in fear that people would somehow hear about what had happened to her in April, 2002, on the road to Mooresville. A supermarket tabloid might shanghai her into the role of prophetess of a new religious cult, and people she didn’t even know would point and stare at her, and think she was a fool. The thought made her shudder. So she only told a few friends about the peculiar incident, and those to whom she did mention it heard it in the guise of a funny story, open to some logical explanation. Of course, Justine had accepted it without batting an eye. Had been expecting it, she said. But then Justine’s vision of reality was pretty much at right angles to everybody else’s anyhow. She herself had stopped trying to make sense out of it, because she had the terrible feeling that Justine was right, and that what really happened was…what really happened.

“It was not the road to Damascus,” she would say, invoking Biblical precedent, “because I had just come from there. Damascus. Virginia, that is, a little town on the Tennessee line, a couple of hours north of where I ended up that night, broken down on the side of a country road en route to Charlotte.”

It was not the end of the world, but you could see it from there. She had pulled over to the side of the road and flipped on the visor light to look at the map. Now the engine wouldn’t start, her cell phone had no signal, and the dark road was deserted. She hadn’t seen a house for miles. In this landscape of pine woods and barbed-wired pastures, streetlights were nonexistent, which was part of the problem. She must have missed a road sign somewhere back there when she got off I-77.

She was pretty sure she was somewhere north of the city, maybe in Iredell County, which wasn’t where she was supposed to be at all. By now she ought to be closer to the city limits of Charlotte, but the sky was dark-no bleed-in of artificial light from the sprawling city-so that was past praying for. It was her own fault, though. What kind of an idiot would have taken Justine’s advice about a shortcut in the middle of the night? Justine, for heaven’s sake, who could get lost in a revolving door. Now here she was, trying to follow a set of directions that were vague at best. (“Turn left after the yellow house, only I think they painted it.”) Oh, why had she listened? There wasn’t much traffic on I-77 in the middle of the night, for heaven’s sake. If she’d stayed on the Interstate, she’d be home by now.

Well, at least Justine had been right about that Oriental rug outlet in Virginia. It had been a great place, cheaper than any place she’d found in Charlotte. Of course, that was exactly the sort of thing that Justine invariably was right about. They called Justine “The Shopping Fairy,” because if you wanted designer purses, Italian tile for your bathroom, or an 18th-century American candle stand, Justine could tell you three places to find it and which one was the best deal. Just don’t ask her about more mundane matters, like how much to tip the waitress, the name of the Speaker of the House, or how to find Charlotte when it’s too dark to read road signs.

She ought to turn off the radio to save the battery, but Garth Brooks was singing “The Dance,” and she couldn’t bear to cut it short. Another two minutes wouldn’t matter. Later, Justine would tell her the significance of that song, marveling that she didn’t know it already, but she didn’t. That intersection of those two roads of pop culture was simply not on her radar screen. She had not been thinking about him. She was sure of that.

She had not been afraid, because she’d always considered country roads, even dark ones, infinitely safer than cities, and also because she didn’t see herself as the sort of person who was likely to be attacked by a crazed killer lurching out of the woods. Unfortunately, she was exactly the sort of person whose car broke down just when she became good and lost. She didn’t suppose Justine could be blamed for that. Now it looked as though she could either spend a long night in the car or ruin her Ferragamos hiking up a country road.

She had cast her eyes up to the closed sunroof of her Chevy and said to no one in particular, “Please get me out of this.”

She did not remember hearing the other car drive up. She had been too busy seething and working out the withering remarks about shortcuts that she would make to Justine the next time she saw her, while in the back of her mind she was trying to decide whether to walk or wait in the car until sunup.

The tap on her driver’s side window startled her so much that she dropped the useless phone. In the rearview mirror she saw a black car parked close behind her bumper, its headlights illuminating the scene so that she could see the shadow of the man at her car door. She lowered the fogged-up window, half expecting to see a baby-faced highway patrolman-certainly not expecting to see that eerily familiar face: mustache, sunglasses and all, (sunglasses?) beneath the red and black “Number 3” Goodwrench cap.

She was so startled that she said the first thing that popped into her head, which was, “I thought y’all’s headlights were just decals.”

He nodded. “Yep. Sure are.”

She glanced out the back windshield into the glare of headlights bright enough to illuminate the road. “But-”

“Your car died?” he asked.

She stared up at him, so detached from the experience that she found herself thinking, You’re one to talk.

He nodded, no trace of a smile. “Okay, then. Flip the hood latch and I’ll take a look.”

“Are you-”

But he ambled around to the front of the car without giving her time to finish and raised the hood while she peered out through the windshield, thinking that it was a good thing she was driving a Chevrolet. He probably would know how to fix it.

As he poked around in the engine, she sat there, her mind full of so many simultaneous thoughts that she forgot to get out of the car to actually voice any of them: I don’t think it’s the battery, because the power windows still work…Excuse me, sir, are you who I think you are?…Justine, it was him. Hat, white firesuit, everything. Of course, I’m sure! I saw his face plain as day in the headlights…Listen, I have half a tank of gas, so it’s not that…The Reverend Billy Graham, Dear Sir: Can dead people come back from heaven or wherever and fix

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