Just an hour ago Derek’s wife Candy felt normal, her arm snaked under his on the sofa as they watched CNN. Now she was seated next to him in his silver Honda, her head lolling, her eyes shut tight, her teeth clenched when she wasn’t blowing out pockets of air.
“Candy? Just hang in there, baby.” The digits on his watch read 11:50 p.m.
Their first child kept knocking on life’s door, his impatience a declaration of war against Candy’s resolve.
“Derek, please! Jack it up!” she hissed.
“I’m going sixty-five on a fifty-five, Candy!”
Derek regretted his outburst. He forged a smile and touched her cheek. She nodded, her lips pursed. The flimsy A/C proved no match against the sweltering mid-August heat. The hospital was a mile away. It’s when the two-lane blacktop merged onto a bumpy road that Derek began cursing his insistence on taking that ‘short-cut.’ No traffic lights, he had assured her.
Now the car was flanked by an unending blur of trees, and at night the vista seemed different, foreboding.
Derek imagined Candy’s excruciating pain, but he dared not put foot to the pedal like an Indy 500 racer. He always feared losing control of his ripened vehicle.
“Oh, God!” Candy shrieked. He swung his head towards her.
“Baby, come on now. We’re almost there.”
When his eyes turned back to the thruway his gut churned.
Fifty yards ahead a white U-Haul cruised along like the road belonged exclusively to its owner. Derek honked his horn. Several seconds passed. The truck sustained its languid pace. Candy doubled over, gripping her stomach, the thin seat belt straining below her bathrobe-covered breasts. Derek honked again. No response. The guy up ahead was either deaf or had chosen to ignore him.
Derek thought the latter.
“Hang on, Mommy.” he said, and zoomed past the driver, cutting him off while shooting him the finger.
From his rear-view mirror Derek caught the driver’s response: the same obscene gesture.
How childish, he thought.
The driver’s pale forearms looked thick under the moon-lit patch of sky. Derek hit the accelerator. Sixty…Sixty five…nearing seventy now.
Then, as if the Demon of Fate had pulled his name out of a hat, Derek heard a familiar bang followed by a flapping sound. His timeworn Honda shuddered and bumped. He recognized the sign. Flat tire. He sighed.
In the middle of all this.
He slowed to a stop and pulled onto the shoulder. “What happened?” his wife of eighteen months asked, between gulps of breath.
“Don’t panic.” he said. Sure as death, the left tire had blown. The U-Haul rumbled past him, the bearded face behind the wheel stretching into a grin.
“Animal!” Derek shouted, watching it disappear.
He fished out his cell phone and punched in 9-1-1. It made a buzzing noise, then silence. He tried again. No go.
What gives? Bad area?
Candy’s contractions intensified. She struggled out of the car and slithered into the rear seat before Derek could react. On her back, she spread open her chubby legs. Derek frowned. Oh, God, please, not here.
He had once turned away from the sight of a woman giving birth, full-frontal, right there on the TV screen. He glanced down at his wife’s throbbing vulva. Any moment now. No time to ponder. “Derek!” was all she could muster. He stooped under the door, his hands trembling, and as he did so the U-Haul suddenly emerged from the curve and reversed towards him. The driver, short but burly, climbed out, gripping an object in his hand. The adrenaline of combat spread through Derek’s veins like a renegade ink spot.
The man loomed closer, his baseball cap askew. Derek tensed as the man flashed a light on his face.
“Here I am, road warrior,” the man croaked. Candy’s overripe groan cut into the night. The driver trained his flashlight towards the sound.
“Jesus!” he breathed.
Derek pounced on the flicker of humanity in the man’s eyes. “Please, can you call 911?”
“That won’t do no good. Not in these parts,” the man answered and slogged back to his truck. Derek stared at the receding silhouette. “Bastard.” he muttered.
He resumed his crouched position. Candy kept puffing like on auto-pilot.
“I’m here, baby. Can you push?” He felt like an idiot.
A rolling noise. He looked up. The truck had backed up and the driver jumped out, ran to its rear, and rolled up the gate. A swing-out of a ramp followed.
“C’mon, help me carry her inside.” he shouted. Derek frowned and thought of eggshells. The men locked shoulders as they peered into the darkness where Candy lay. “Lady, can you lower your legs so we can-” Candy understood and obeyed.
The tandem carried her into the truck ‘s maw where a mattress lay among a roped collection of assorted furniture. Derek would stay by her side. “I know a short-cut to the ER,” the driver said. “No traffic lights. Get you guys there in five minutes, okay?” He pulled down the gate. Derek now conceded divine will to a stranger, a man who just moments before had become his enemy.
The driver’s name was Angel Morales, age 40. He waited outside the maternity ward from where Derek emerged. “I can’t thank you enough, Angel.”
“How is she?”
“Fine. It’s a boy.
“Good.” An awkward silence followed. They shuffled in place.
“Were you really going to hit me?” Derek asked.
“I was ready to take your head off.” Angel said, evenly. “My wife divorced me. Wanted a child I couldn’t give her. Big issue with her, having a child. She won’t adopt. We fought. She threw out my stuff. I was a walking time-bomb, dude.”
Angel never smiled when he said this. He hung his head and walked away.
Derek blew a kiss at the receding figure.