In Thomas's world:
Thomas steps up to the plate with Chris.
And in Sheila’s world:
While driving her ambulance to answer an emergency call, Sheila encounters an accident in a flash flood.
Read episode #11 without commentary
After the story, I ask Chris to join me on the porch.
She shakes her head. “I have to work late,” she says. “A presentation needs polishing before the deadline.”
I doubt she’s telling the truth. She has acted stiff around me tonight. She has every right to, after last night. I was surprised to find her sitting on Natalie’s bed when I arrived to tell the story. I guess she did it for the girls. She’s become a regular, and they would find her absence suspicious.
We’re standing at the end of the hallway about twenty feet from the girls’ door. A curious pair of ears could hear our every word.
“It will just take a minute.”
Her eyes calmly study me, as if I’m interesting but flawed, as if she’s still trying to figure me out.
I want to kiss her.
I reach for her hand and step toward the front door.
I purposefully guide her to the sofa, the same place where we sat last night, hoping for a do-over.
She gives me a grim smile. She has low expectations.
“I’ve thought about you all day,” I say.
“No, you haven’t.”
“Actually, I’ve thought a lot about your nose.” I touch the tip with my forefinger.
She laughs without mirth. “It’s too big, I know, but I can’t afford the rhinoplasty.”
“Don’t you dare. It’s perfect.”
Her eyes have little faith in me. I fear she’ll stand at any moment.
“On a lesser face it might appear large,” I say, “but with your ears . . .” I caress an earlobe. “And your chin . . .” My fingers lightly touch her chin and then the side of her cheek. My thumb tugs on the corner of her mouth. “And your lips . . .” I kiss her. “Your nose is perfect.”
She pulls her head back. Her eyes dance across my face, and they are perfect, too. Golden. I’ve never seen eyes with such warmth and merriment and delight. I could stare at them all night.
“Would you say that part about my lips again?” she says.
We kiss gingerly. I’m afraid of spoiling the moment, but then she kisses harder. Her lips desire mine. My fingers comb through her hair, so thick, so curly. She caresses my side. The physical sensations, touch and taste and smell, merge with my emotions. They are one and the same, buoyant and hopeful. I am happy.
We break the kiss and lean back on the sofa. I put my arm around her, and she turns her face into my neck.
There is a chill in the air. I rub goose bumps on her arm. A whippoorwill sings its crazy song.
I haven’t felt like this in a long time.
It rained for twenty-four hours, a hard rain, drops that pounded the tin roof of the motor pool shed. A swirling wind drove the rain at crazy angles. Four girls played bridge at a round table. It had been slow all day.
“Anyone meet an American yet?” said Darlene, a brunette with big shoulders and a friendly smile.
“Not me,” said Sheila. The other girls shook their heads.
“They say Brisbane is crawling with them,” said Norma.
“My friend from home has met loads of Americans,” said Darlene. “She meets them at dances, and then they go for drinks or tea. They have the best manners, she says, and money to spend.” Darlene sighed and played a card. “I’d like to meet one. But I don’t suppose any will come to Tamworth. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“Go to Sydney on your next leave,” said Sheila. “You can stay with my parents.”
“Really?” said Darlene. “That’d be super. Hey, maybe we can all go.”
“Wouldn’t that be fun,” said Norma.
Things could change so fast. When Colin had first shipped out to England, everyone was worried about the Germans invading Britain. But a few weeks ago, the Japanese had taken Singapore along with more than a hundred thousand British and Australian prisoners. And then the Japanese had done the unthinkable, attacked Australia itself by bombing Darwin in the Northern Territory. Hundreds of civilians were killed. The war now threatened the homeland, and America had become Australia’s biggest ally.
Why wouldn’t they bring Colin back to Australia? The Japanese had invaded New Britain to build naval and air bases. They brought their bombers and fighters and warships. The 18th Brigade was needed here, not in the Middle East.
“Sheila, it’s your turn,” said Darlene.
Who had played what? She couldn’t remember. Did Norma have the trick?
The office door opened, and Millie popped out. “Sheila, you’re up—traffic accident on Johnson Street east of Manilla Road. It’s near Moore Creek.”
“Bye all,” Sheila said. She turned her cards face down and stood.
“Who would drive in this weather?” said Darlene. “No wonder they had an accident.”
“Be careful,” said Norma. “It’s black out there.”
“I’m always careful.”
Outside, the wind tried to blow her over on the way to the ambulance. The rain fell so hard she felt like she was standing in a waterfall. She crept toward where she had parked, groping the dark with one hand and holding her hat down with the other. She touched metal, the hood, and then climbed into the cab. The rain roared as it pounded the roof.
Her headlights hit a black wall ten feet in front of the grill. To stay on the road, she remained in first gear and turtled her way to the hospital.
The orderly’s name was Reg, a small fellow with a big spirit. He grew up in the Northern Territory, not a hundred miles from Darwin.
“I should be in New Guinea,” he said, “not here rescuing some couple too stupid to stay home.”
“We belong to the army,” Sheila said. “We go where they tell us to go.”
“True enough,” said Reg, “but I still say it’s a misallocation of resources.”
The wind tried to shove the ambulance off the road. She fought the steering wheel and kept the engine in first gear.
“Can you see?” he said.
“Barely.” She gripped the wheel and sat high in the seat, her eyes glued to the windshield. For a split second after the wipers brushed the water away, she had a murky view of the paved camp road. How far to the turn? Pretty soon now. The wipers passed again, and the ambulance was pointed at a ditch. She jerked the wheel to take a left on Manilla Road.
Reg sat rigidly with both hands braced against the dash. “Not so fast.”
“I can’t go any slower.”
“Maybe we should stop and wait for a lull.”
“No, I can still see.”
They crawled. She didn’t worry about passing other cars. No one else was crazy enough to drive in such a storm.
After a mile, they turned left and crept along Johnson Street with their eyes straining to see through the deluge. Where was the accident? Millie had said Moore Creek. Had they passed it already? The landscape ahead changed. It seemed to move from right to left. What was that? A dull roar made its way through the windows. Oh, no. The creek.
“You see an accident?” she said.
A gust blew from the left and pushed the top of the cab. Thunder sounded from far away. Was this a cyclone or just a big storm?
She braked to a stop. There. The creek had risen and covered part of the bridge. She shifted into reverse and pulled back ten feet.
“What’s that?” he said.
The water rushed from the right. He peered through the windshield at the washed out creek.
“I don’t see it,” she said. But then a bolt of lightning revealed the car stuck in the middle of the bridge.
“Oh, jeez,” she said.
“Come on. Let’s get closer.”
She got out of the cab, and a man approached her from the left. He wore a bright yellow coat and said something, but she couldn’t understand him over the storm. She pointed to her ear.
“I called in the accident,” he said from three inches away.
“When they drove onto the bridge, the water lifted the car from the pavement, and it got stuck on the railing. They got out of the car . . . a man and a woman, but I only see the woman now, and the water keeps rising.”
A woman’s shriek wound its way through the rain. Sheila couldn’t make out the word . . . might have been help. Lightning flashed again. Thirty feet of rushing water lay between them and the car. Tall trees bordered the creek on both banks. To the left of the bridge, the torrent disappeared downstream.
“Come in the back,” shouted Reg. “So we can hear.”
The three of them climbed in. Sheila’s pants and boots were soaked clean through. Water dripped down her back. She wiped her eyes with her hand.
The storm pummeled the roof, each drop merging with a thousand others to create a constant pounding noise. But at least they could hear without shouting.
They did quick introductions. The big man’s name was Al, and his face was pale like he might throw up. “I would try to reach her,” he said, “but I’m not much of a swimmer.”
“I can’t swim at all,” said Reg.
“I can swim,” Sheila said. The woman’s shriek had stayed with her. She’d never heard a cry so desperate.
Reg shook his head.
“It’s lunacy,” Al said. “Even if you reached her, you’d be swept downstream on the return.”
She looked under the big man’s seat. A hundred feet of sturdy rope lay coiled at his feet.
“Not if you two pulled me back,” she said.
Reg guessed her intentions. “No. You can’t do it. I won’t let you.”
“We tie one end of the rope to a tree and the other end around my torso.”
Reg shook his head harder.
“You two keep the rope taut at all times. I’ll wade in upstream and make my way to the bridge. It doesn’t look deep.”
“Two or three feet,” said Al.
“When I get to her, I’ll tie her to me. With you two pulling, we’ll make it back fine.”
“Sheila . . . Sheila . . . Sheila,” said Reg. “I don’t feel good about this.”
“She’s stuck,” she said. “We can’t leave her there. We have to try. If I lose my footing, pull me back in.”
“You darn right we will,” said Reg. “We give this one shot. If you can’t reach the bridge, we’ll haul you back in and wait for the water to subside.”
They stepped from the ambulance, and a bright flash lit the bridge. The woman shrieked again. Sheila couldn’t tell for sure, but the water might have risen a few inches.
Reg tied the rope to a nearby tree. Al looped the other end under her arms and walked with her upstream. They scrambled past scrub bushes and down to the bank. The roar of the stream was constant. The wind poured rain into her eyes. Lightning flashed again, closer. The bolts came every few seconds now and helped her see the bank, and the roiling water, and the woman.
Al waded into the stream with her, his hand holding her upper arm. At first, the water was a gentle tug against her ankle. Her confidence grew. She could manage this. She only had to cross a short distance to the bridge.
The creek grew deeper, to her knees, and the pull of the water became much stronger. Al stayed with her, clearly not wanting to let go of her arm.
She shouted. “Stay with Reg. Keep your hands on the rope so you can pull us in.”
He scampered to shore and grabbed the rope.
She nudged her left foot along the creek bottom inches at a time and dragged her right foot along behind it, never wanting to lose contact with the earth. The water rushed around her thighs, so strong, trying to pull her downstream. She leaned against the current. Twenty feet away, the woman clung to the railing. She held an arm toward Sheila.
The water was up to Sheila’s waist. It ripped her shirttail free from her pants. She lost her hat. The bridge was a few feet away, and she stretched her arms toward it. The woman turned her head down river and yelled again.
Sheila’s left foot lost the ground, and she lunged for the railing, the water dragging at her torso. She scrambled up the bridge, and the water receded to her knees. Lightning flashed. The woman’s eyes were big, dark, and terrified, as if she’d given up hope.
Sheila lifted her right leg over the railing and clenched it between her thighs. She looped the rope under the woman’s arms, but the woman shook her head.
“My husband!” She peered downstream. “He swam for help. I can’t see him.”
Sheila tied the rope across the woman’s chest, and then the woman clutched her. She shouted in the woman’s ear, “I need you to help me. We’re tied together.”
The woman shook her head, too scared. Sheila hugged her around the back and pulled.
“Come on! Walk with me.”
The water had risen farther and nearly reached the top of the railing. The rain blocked the view of the shore. The rope felt loose. Were the men still there? A lightning flash showed Al standing in the water with Reg behind him.
They made it three steps, and then the woman’s feet lifted from the bridge. Sheila held the woman in her arms for a mere instant, and then the water carried them both away.
Water was everywhere, everything, stronger than the strongest wave. She floated, the woman still in her arms. She closed her mouth and eyes, and then the rope caught. It strangled her across the chest. All the air left her lungs. She lost her grip on the woman. Sheila kicked, trying to find the bottom, but her legs were pulled downstream. She grew desperate for air and tried rolling on her back, useless. The water held her in a tight grip.
Was this the end? Death could come quickly. A patient had told her his buddy died in an instant, never knew pain or fear or anything. Just gone.
Her knee bumped something, a rock. It hurt. And then her hand was dragging on the bottom. The rope dug into her back, and she passed out.
Reg was laughing. Al breathed hard like he’d run a long race.
Sheila was lying down. The storm continued, only softer; the raindrops made pings on the hood of the ambulance.
Reg laughed again, giddy.
“Look,” said Reg, “she’s going to be all right.”
She tried to get up.
“No.” He pushed her down by the shoulders. “You rest.”
Her chest burned as if the rope still held her, but they had removed it.
“Where is she?” said Sheila.
“Right here,” said Al. “She’s sleeping. The rope tried to cut you in half, but she had an easier time.
Reg couldn’t stop laughing. “I thought you were gone,” he said. “It’s a good thing we had Al.” He slapped Al’s arm. “He’s strong like an ox.”
“You saved her,” Al said. “You saved her.”
“No. You two saved us.” She felt a little stupid. She’d nearly drowned herself and the woman.
“The water’s above the bridge now,” said Reg. “It dragged the car downstream like a toy boat.”
Sheila stayed in the hospital for two days. The rope had scorched a clean line under her breasts and around her back. The doctor said the scar was permanent but would fade with time.
Norma brought her a letter from Colin.
The air is hot here. I’ve had little time to eat, let alone write. Vast swaths of the nearby lands are dry and dusty, and I imagine this place as more desolate than the moon. But sometimes I find the starkness so beautiful I can scarcely breathe. The cotton fields run forever, and the sheep dot the hills like tiny clouds in a pale green sky. I hope we can come here someday when no one is fighting, so we can enjoy the people and the food in peace.
All the lads wish you the best. They used to kid me about you, but now they never tire of listening to my stories. They beg me to read your letters aloud, but I keep those to myself.
When I’m not talking about you, I’m thinking about you. I think about you and the land, always you, always the land. I miss you almost as much as the calls of the kangaroos at sunset.
She whooped and jumped from the bed. On his last furlough, he had devised a simple code to get a message past the sensors. If he ever referenced the calls of the kangaroos, it meant he was coming home soon.
She would see him. Somehow. Some way. They would meet and marry and be together once more.
END OF EPISODE # 11
About the Storyteller
Pat lives in Austin. He likes to cook dinner with his wife, listen to any kind of good music, and take long walks in beautiful places.
Pat is the author of four Joe Robbins novels and a college crime story titled Only Yes Means Yes. You can find Pat’s work on Amazon under his author name Patrick Kelly. Learn more about Pat’s writing at his website:
Please like, comment, and share with your friends.