By Paige Wyatt
The lonely stretch of Highway 74 is as close to a lover as Dani has known. It’s always there for her when she’s lost her way– a strong presence for as far back as her memory goes. The dark asphalt and faded white lines are a welcome sight at the end of a weary day, an embrace in the chaos of every storm in her life.
Dani clutches the handles of her motorcycle, a recent purchase despite the warnings of her grandmother. “At least take a jacket,” Granny had called before Dani left. “It looks like rain.”
Lightning claws at the sky, and the wind slaps Dani’s hair across her neck. There’s a service road with a pull off near the corn field in a half mile–the perfect place to put on her jacket.
Thunder. She counts the second as she rounds a turn and another streak of lightning paints the horizon a wash of electric purple. If she weren’t thirty miles from home, she’d be more appreciative of the light show, but rain buffets her helmet in warning. When she finally pulls over, the count between the lightning and thunder is down to three seconds. The storm clouds rear, a snake ready to strike, as Dani dismounts Aileen. She unzips her saddlebags and pulls out the leather moto jacket, a relic she found at a vintage store years ago.
The jacket doesn’t make it to Dani’s shoulders. Lightning reaches down to the open field, longing to touching Dani’s damp skin and filling her bloodstream with electricity. She becomes one with the current and collapses.
Darren’s hands are the difference between life and death. He takes his job as a paramedic seriously, finding comfort in this liminal space. “I’m the opposite of the Grim Reaper,” he once told a class of third graders on career day. “I save lives.”
Usually, he can save them. He and his partner, Charlene, dial into a shared consciousness. Their goal: stabilize the patient and keep them alive.
This call is different. A twenty-four year old woman lies on the side of the road, immobile in the wake of a lightning strike. He and Charlene get to work, but their rhythm is off. The sky opens up around them, the smell of burning flesh filling the space between the rain. Darren can barely see, the headlights of the ambulance only doing so much against the downpour, and Charlene’s voice fades on the wind.
They lift the woman into the ambulance, and as soon as they’re out of the storm, they take her vitals. “Looks like a cardiac arrest,” Charlene says after checking the woman’s pulse.
Darren has the defibrillator ready before Charlene asks. “Clear,” he says as Charlene lets go of the patient. He brings the defibrillator paddles down onto the woman’s chest, waiting for the shock of life to flow from his hands into her heart, but just as it should eject, the ambulance dies.
“What the–” Charlene says as they are suddenly plunged into darkness. “Did we just get struck, too?”
“No,” Darren says after a beat. “We would’ve felt that. Lantern.”
Charlene turns on their camping lantern and Darren puts the defibrillator down. “Starting chest compressions.” He places his hands on the woman’s sternum and pushes, years of training taking over as he follows the familiar rhythm.
“Operator, our ambulance has lost power. We need a backup at mile marker 16 on Highway 74 East,” Charlene says into her cell phone. “We have a woman struck by lightning here.”
Darren continues chest compressions as Charlene ends the call and turns her attention back to the patient. She presses her fingers against the patient’s wrist, holding her watch face up to keep time. After another round of compressions, she shakes her head. “Compressions aren’t working and she isn’t breathing.” She pulls out a breathing bag and places it, pumping oxygen into the woman’s body.
Too much time passes. Darren watches as his hands fail him and the veil of death descends between him and the woman. She’s gone.
The doors to the back of the ambulance swing open, a side effect of the storm that rages outside. A shadow hovers in the doorway. Darren squints at the lantern’s light, expecting to see the backup paramedics.
A woman’s face is thrown into sharp relief, worry lines around her eyes and indenting her forehead. She looks as though she’s stepped out of an old photograph with her high neck, black dress and dark hair swept into a bun. “Step aside, please,” she says, her voice full of authority. “I need to touch the girl.”
“Ma’am, we’re paramedics working with a patient,” Charlene fires back. “Please give us some space.”
The woman shakes her head, her eyes flickering like the lightning outside. “I must touch the girl! I can save her!” she shouts.
The air changes as the woman moves closer, a spark of hope replaces the despair Darren felt just moments ago. “Hey, Charlene, let’s let her do it.”
“Seriously?” Charlene tilts her head.
Darren steps back, leaving space for the woman in black to enter the ambulance. “Come up,” he says, offering a hand.
Gathering her skirts, the lady ignores his hand and climbs into the ambulance like she’s done it before. Darren watches her carefully as she rolls up her sleeves, his eyes trained on her long, graceful fingers. They remind him of his hands. The hands of a healer.
“All beings of the highest good,” the lady in black whispers, “guide my hand and heal the child. Bring light from above to touch her heart. Let me be the conduit.”
The lady presses her fingers into the patient’s chest as she closes her eyes, repeating the prayer again, this time louder and with more fervor. She brings her other hand to rest on the patient’s head, whispering something Darren can only tell isn’t English. He’s reminded of when his father took him to the Pentacostal church where the preacher would lay on hands and speak in tongues. Her intensity lies in the passion behind what she says instead of how loud she speaks.
The call of an ambulance echoes in the wind, and soon the red and white lights momentarily blind Darren and Charlene as the backup stops behind their dead ambulance. On instinct, he shields his eyes with his arm until the moment passes.
A gasp. A cough. The patient takes her first breath, and Darren’s eyes adjust to the new light as he sees the woman open her eyes. Alive. Impossible.
He turns to thank the lady in black, but she is gone. The door to their ambulance swings in the wind like no one was ever there at all.
**Author’s note: This story was inspired by a true event. Read about it here.