The Road Ahead
© 2019 CR Britting
A cold November rain beats on the windows as I sit in the fast food place, frustrated because I'm having a hard time with my novel. I've put my hero in a dangerous situation; a terrorist missile has hit his plane, and, with an engine on fire, he's trying to get the aircraft on the ground before the fire reaches the fuel tank.
I've been staring at the blinking cursor on my laptop for quite a while, trying to come up with a creative solution to the problem, when a strange sound forces its way into my consciousness. Glancing up, I see a woman sitting by the window, maybe fifteen feet away. Her hands are on the table, curled around a cup of coffee, and she's looking outside, into the rain. She's about thirty, dressed in sweats and Reeboks, her brown hair pulled back in a short ponytail. A black leather jacket lies on the seat next to her.
She must've sensed me looking at her, for just then she glances in my direction. Surprised and a little embarrassed at getting caught, I turn back to my laptop. I can't help thinking about the forlorn look I'd just seen on her face and the tears running down her cheeks.
Why is she crying? I wonder about it, but I'm a believer in minding my own business. After all, you never know what Pandora's box you might open if you get involved in some stranger's private woes.
I try to help my hero avoid a fiery death, but my concentration is broken. I end up staring at the blinking cursor, thinking about the woman. My mind comes up with all sorts of explanations for her tears, but I keep my eyes locked on the screen in front of me.
Another minute goes by. Then I hear that choked sound again and, before I can stop myself, I glance up. The woman is wiping her eyes with a small handkerchief. I force myself to look away, but somehow I feel drawn to her, to her need, whatever it might be.
Fifteen seconds later, I stop next to her table, my pulse pounding, still not sure if I should get involved.
"Excuse me, ma'am. Are you all right?"
She looks up at me through her tears. "I'm fine, thank you."
Her eyes return to the table, and I try to decide what to do next.
"Would it help to talk?" I ask.
She doesn't even look up. "Please, just leave me alone."
"Yes, ma'am." I turn away, embarrassed at making such a fool of myself.
When I get back to my table, I sit down in the opposite seat, facing away from the woman and her troubles. I spin the laptop toward me, and try once again to return to my story, feeling like such a klutz for getting involved.
Finally, with an effort, I pull myself together. I manage to get my hero on the ground, but the runway is covered with ice, and the plane skids out of control toward—
Movement catches the corner of my eye and when I glance up, the woman is passing my table. The leather coat is pulled tightly around her and she stares straight ahead as she walks toward the exit.
"Good luck, ma'am," I murmur as she disappears into the rain. I return to the laptop, but all at once I feel the urge to pray for her. The words are simple, but sincere and when I finish I feel a sense of relief, as if I've done what I'm supposed to do.
A further five minutes and my hero manages to keep from smashing the plane into the snow bank. It's a good stopping place for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll—
A shadow falls across my computer and when I look up, I'm startled to see the woman standing next to me. Her eyes are red from her tears, but she doesn't look quite as forlorn as she did earlier.
"Oh, hello," I say, somewhat at a loss for words. "Can I help you, ma'am?"
"I, uh," she says, twisting the handkerchief in front of her. "Well, I just wanted to apologize for being rude to you earlier. I'm so sick of men trying to pick me up. I thought you were just another one."
"I could see you were in some distress, ma'am."
"I..." she begins. "I...Do you mind if I sit down for a moment?"
"Help yourself," I reply, gesturing to the seat across from me.
I quickly close the laptop and push it aside, curious as to why she came back. When I glance up, she's seated across from me, and I get a good look at her face for the first time. She's not wearing any jewelry or makeup, and her hair is soaked from the rain. Even so, she has a pleasant face and when a hint of a smile touches her mouth, I sense there might be a nice person behind all those tears.
"I think God wanted me to come back here," she says.
"What makes you say that?" I ask, surprised by her words.
"I was about a mile down the road, when this feeling came over me, that I should drive back and talk to you."
I smile. "Well, after you left, I prayed for you."
Her eyes widen. "You did?"
"That's right. I prayed the Lord would help to ease your troubles and that He would let you know He cares for you. I guess He heard my prayer."
"It was the strangest thing; I've never felt that way before."
"Would you like to tell me why you were crying?"
Her tiny smile disappears and for a moment she is silent. "No," she says finally, looking down at the table. "I don't want to talk about it. It hurts too much." Then she takes a deep breath. "But I need to tell someone or else I'll go crazy."
She glances back up. "You seem like someone I can trust. Can I? Can I trust you?" Her face is now full of fear, as if the world depends on my answer.
"Yes, ma'am, you can," I reply. "And you know what? The Lord is here, too."
"He is? How do you know?"
"There's a verse in the Bible that says when two or more are gathered in His name, He's with them. I prayed for you. You felt His presence. He's here, listening to your heart."
She looks down at her hands and for another moment she is silent.
"I lost my husband and my two girls in a car accident. They were killed by a drunk driver, on a rainy night like this one. They had gone out for some ice cream; the drunk ran a red light, hitting them broadside."
She glances back up, tears streaming down her face. "It happened one year ago tonight."
I stare at her, my heart torn at her words and the grief she must feel. What can I say that will have the slightest chance of helping her?
"That's awful, ma'am. You must have loved them very much."
She nods, wiping her cheeks with the sodden handkerchief. "Brad and I had only been married for six years. I loved him so much, and we did everything together."
She takes a deep breath. "Tracey was four and Angela was three. They were such a joy, so bright-eyed, and so eager about everything. They loved tea parties and we had such a good time, the three of us. When Brad came home from work, the girls would drag him on the floor and wrestle with him. I loved the way he played with them, every bit the father I hoped he would be."
The words pour from her, like water bursting from a dam, and I can't help but be touched; not just at the words, but also at the love I feel in them. To have that love snuffed out so suddenly, to wake every morning without the sound of young laughter, to lie in an empty bet at night...
All at once, I catch a glimpse of the agony she's gone through the past year.
"Until today, I was doing a little better," she continues. "Brad and I had some money saved. It was to go for our first house, but it has kept the bills paid. Both our families have helped, too."
She looks up at me. "Do you recall that movie, 'Top Gun', about the navy pilots, with Tom Cruise?"
"Of course. It's one of my favorites."
"It was one of Brad's favorites, too. Remember how Maverick's friend, Goose, was killed in a flying accident?"
"Sure. Maverick's commander told him he had to let his friend go. He had to get on with life."
She nods. "That's right. But Maverick had a hard time doing that and that's just the way I feel about my family."
"Still, the advice is good. Getting on with life helps you to heal."
She takes another deep breath. "I know. I've gone back to work and I'm taking a class two nights a week."
"Sounds like you're doing better."
"I was, until tonight. I was cleaning out a desk drawer and I found some pictures we'd taken only a month before the accident. While I was looking at them, there was a crack of thunder and the lights flickered. The exact same thing happened the night my family was killed."
She looks outside, into the rain. "I was in the kitchen that night, cleaning up the last of the supper dishes. I heard a crack of thunder, and the lights went out for a few seconds. It wasn't five minutes later that the police called. I had to drive through the rain to get to the accident and I found the side of our van crushed like a tin can. I watched them lift out my girls, then my husband. It was terrible. When it was over, I drove home to an empty apartment, wishing that I had died with them."
We sit together in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. A flash of distant lightning touches the horizon. Not long after, I hear the faint sound of thunder. The storm is moving on, a reminder that our lives lie in the future and not in the past.
"You may have wanted to die that night, ma'am," I say to her in a quiet voice, "but you didn't. You lived, and although it's been hard, you've made it work, one day at a time."
She glances back at me, a tiny look of hope on her face.
"Tonight, you had a little setback," I continue. "But answer me this: Other than tonight, how would you compare your life in the last few weeks, with how you felt right after the accident?"
"It's better," she replies, thinking about it. Then the corners of her mouth turn up a little. "Well, a lot better, actually."
"See what I mean? You’ve got a road stretching ahead of you. You'll have some bumps along the way, but you've made a really good start. The key to healing your spirit lies in looking ahead. When you have something to look forward to, life is worth living." I shrug and smile, to make the statement a bit less profound. "At least, that's the way it works for me."
"You must be a philosopher," she says, a real smile touching her face for the first time.
I laugh. "Nope. Just a guy putting one foot in front of the other as I go through life." I point at her. "Same as you."
"Maybe so," she replies, "but I appreciate what you said. It wasn't until just now that I realized I am getting better."
"When's your next class?"
She blinks in surprise at the unexpected question. "My next class? Why, it's tomorrow night."
I laugh. "Then you've got something to look forward to, don't you?"
"You're right," she agrees. "And that reminds me, we have a test, too. I forgot all about it."
She slides to the end of her seat. "I better get going. I've still got some last minute studying to do."
"Bet you'll get an 'A'," I say with a grin as she gets to her feet.
"I hope so," she replies, zipping up her coat. Then she offers her hand. "Thank you so much for helping me."
I take it. "You're welcome, milady. Good luck to you."
I watch as she steps into the darkness and I'm reminded of Job, a man from the Bible who lost everything. Yet the Lord restored it all to him and more besides. I close my eyes and say another prayer, thanking the Lord for giving me the right words to say to her and asking Him to fill her cup to overflowing.
I head out to the car, my own heart lifted from giving something of myself to a stranger. That's when I realize that I never asked her name.
Six months pass and once again I'm sitting in the fast food place, on a wet, rainy night. My novel is finished and I'm doing some final proofing before I start sending out the query letters. Seems like there's always something to change, to squeeze that last five-percent from the words I've written.
I lean back to stretch and I see a pretty woman in the glassed-in area between the two entrance doors. She's wearing a long overcoat and shaking the water off of her umbrella. It reminds me of another rainy night and I wonder about the woman I met and how she's doing.
The door opens again, and a man joins the lady. They make a nice-looking couple. I return to my laptop, hoping to complete the proofing by my self-imposed deadline. I've only been working for a moment, however, when a shadow falls across the keyboard. I glance up and the couple is standing at my table, her hand through his arm.
"Hello," the woman says with a smile. "Do you remember me? My name is Eileen. You helped me one rainy night when I needed someone to talk to."
I stare at her, amazed at the transformation. Her hair is longer than I remember it, but the despair I had seen on her face is gone, replaced by a glow that can only be the result of health and happiness.
"Why, yes," I reply, recovering from my surprise. "It's good to see you again."
She gestures to the gentlemen with her. "This is my friend, Andrew. We met in that class I told you about so long ago. Could we sit down for a moment?"
They do, and as we talk I remember Job, another person who thought he'd lost everything. It occurs to me that where there is life, there is hope, and where there is hope, the road ahead is what we make of it.
Part of this story is true. It was a cold November evening and I did write it at a local fast food restaurant, a place I go several nights a week with my laptop. Eileen and her tragedy are fiction, but the words of comfort are real, and the Lord was kind enough to help me write them.