2020 – August
The bridge loomed ahead of them, a two mile span of low-slung elevated roadway leading up to a sudden rise. Weathered, streaked with rust, and just wide enough for two tractor trailers to pass without kissing sides, hopefully.
Otto gripped the steering wheel and took in a deep breath. Bridges aren’t usually a problem for him, but he’s never been a fan of narrow two-way roads. Give him a sweeping curve of asphalt running between cotton and soybean fields and he’ll unchain his inner speed demon for a minute or two at a time, but the one time he lost control and spun out on an unexpected gravel patch was enough to make him appreciate having a wide, level shoulder. And right there: A black streak of burnt rubber underlining a fresh scab in the side of the jersey barrier, fifteen feet above the choppy water. That is his nightmare.
Otto spared a glance for Nikki and pulled a half smile before locking his eyes on the bridge again. “Fine. I just hate this bridge.”
“You want me to drive?” she asked.
A genuine offer, but not one he could take. “You’re too anxious to drive right now.”
Her brown eyes narrowed and darkened above cheeks turning to pink. “Hey, buddy. I’m a better driver than you.”
“I’m not going to argue that point, but I’m serious. You need to relax before you… dammit.”
He nudged the black F-150 as close to the barrier as he dared and gritted his teeth as a flatbed carrying half of a house roared by.
“Anxious much?” she teased after the flatbed had passed.
“Not as much as you,” he replied.
She twisted herself into the corner of the bucket seat, leaning against the B column and hiking her bad ankle up into her left knee. “So tell me why I’m so anxious,” she grinned as the white and rusted framework of the bridge whipped past her window.
There she went, digging into his brain again.
Otto gritted his teeth and spoke through the strain of keeping his eyes on the road and the steering wheel pointed straight ahead. “I’m not saying you’re having a panic attack right now, but just think of your baseline anxiety. We’re living through a global pandemic, in a nation sliding ever closer to fascism, riding in a car with a nail in the tire…” He spared a glance for the tire pressure monitor on the dash and was relieved to see that the rear-right indicator was still reading at exactly one point less than the others. “… because my camper died on us going over another bridge.”
That had been two days before. She had been driving at the time. Fortunately, Nikki genuinely is a better driver than Otto, or most other people. She’d coaxed the thirty foot RV to the side of the road and kept the kids contained until James showed up to take them back home, while Otto dealt with the towing and insurance companies. With plans suddenly altered, Gerry had picked up the kids for their vacation the next day and now, after hashing out their options, Otto and Nikki were driving to her parents with the truck packed to the roof.
“So let’s count it off.” Otto held up one hand and ticked the points on his fingers, “Pandemic, fascism, nail, dead camper, kids with your ex, and, to top it all off, we are on our way to help with your dying father.”
“You’re forgetting the animals.”
“Of course!” He jerked his thumb at the rear seat before putting his hand back on the wheel. “How could I forget a rat, a rabbit, and two dogs. I’m just glad we decided to leave my diabetic cat home with the boys this time.”
“Sure does sound like a lot.”
Otto mmhmmed his agreement and leaned back into the seat, feeling relief as the road at the foot of the bridge opened up into a divided highway again.
“At least talking about it got us across the bridge.”
He shot her a glance. She was drumming her fingertips on her knee and giving him her best “I got you” grin.
“I’m not wrong about you,” he muttered,
“No, you aren’t,” she agreed, smile fading. “But I have to keep going. I have to be there for him.”
“I just… wish James could come too,” she said.
“You and me both. This is going to be a rough couple weeks without him around to cheer everyone up.”