Minutes to Seconds
by K.R. Dounglomchan
Stephanie’s eyelids closed as she piloted her car down the curving highway towards home. Only three more hours to go. Her daughter, Valeria, was asleep in the backseat on their midnight sojourn; the deep vibrations of the rumble strips marking the edge of the road kept jolting Stephanie awake—the cup of coffee and cracked window had failed to do so. But the next part of the road contained no rumble strips and Stephanie felt her heart flutter and the ground raced towards her like she was falling in a dream. She woke up expecting to hear the comforting rhythm of her husband snoring, but was startled awake by the screech of her car careening through the splintered edges of a metal retaining wall.
“How much further you got?” Tim asked.
Stephanie yawned into the phone, “About four hours. But I’m tired of driving hun and Valeria’s getting sleepy. I think I’m going to stop at a motel for the night.”
“What? No, you can’t do that. We gotta be together for Christmas, as a family.”
“Valeria’s already opened her presents at Mom’s and we’ve got fourteen more Christmas mornings before she goes to college. Missing one of them won’t kill you.”
“That wasn’t the deal Steph. I wouldn’t have agreed to you spending this week at your Mother’s if you weren’t going to drive back for Christmas Day.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa” said Stephanie in her Spanish accent, “First of all, it is not my fault you had to work all week. Don’t you even put this on me.”
Knowing he’d gone too far Tim replied, “Babe, you know what I have to do as the battalion First Sergeant; there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m sorry, I just want to see my girls that’s all.”
Stephanie’s heart warmed to Tim. She thought of their little family cuddling on the couch as the smell of burning wood permeated through their home on Christmas morning. “Alright hun. I’ll keep going. But you’re going to owe me for this.”
The car sailed off an embankment and tipped hood first towards a tranquil moonlit lake. Stephanie shut her eyes and locked her elbows out on the steering wheel; she saw a flash of white light and a boiling pain roiled through her arms when the vehicle slammed into the water, churning ripples across the smooth surface. Valeria cried out. Stephanie had heard Valeria cry before but never this scream of unfettered terror as water began to submerge them. The car was dark; they were sinking, fast. Stephanie saw her phone, still in the center cup holder, illuminate a new text message from her husband.
“Calm down sweetie you’re alright! You’re alright. Please stop screaming honey!”
“Mommy! Mommy!” Tears ran down Valeria’s reddened cheeks.
Stephanie leaned back to unbuckle Valeria from her child seat but was arrested by the locked seatbelt across her ample chest. She pushed harder against the belt; harder again, but as she reached towards her daughter a seething pain overtook her. When she looked down to the source of her agony she learned the cause. Both radius bones in her arms were shattered and protruding from underneath her brown skin.
Stephanie looked down at her seatbelt button. As she tried to release the belt the pain surged throughout her body. She tried again, again, and again; only exacerbating the wounds. Panic gripped her. Stephanie’s breath became hurried as the water level rose throughout the car. The muddy brown liquid began numbing their legs as it crept up their pajama bottoms toward their chests.
Stephanie, wide eyed and trembling, looked through the rear view mirror and said, “It’s okay sweetie Mommy’s here! We’ll be okay, we’ll be okay!”
The water reached the center console and short-circuited her phone with the text message from Tim. In desperation Stephanie began mumbling in her native Spanish while she struggled in vain with the red seatbelt button that was now invisible underneath the hypothermic water. In the backseat, Valeria pulled her legs into her stomach and squeezed a Cabbage Patch Doll she’d gotten as a present. She already felt a kinship with the doll due to a close resemblance.
Michael was driving his truck when the car in front of him started veering onto the rumble strips. He’d become accustomed to erratic driving while leading convoys around Afghanistan. On this December night Michael thought the driver had consumed one too many glasses of eggnog. But when the highway turned sharply left, and the driver didn’t slow down, the car disappeared from view to begin its watery drown. He parked his truck on the highway’s shoulder and grabbed his emergency kit.
The first thing Michael noticed upon stepping out from the heated cabin of his truck was the cold night air on top of his head—a buzz cut hairstyle—with nothing more than blue jeans and a brown military t-shirt to protect him from the elements.
He dialed 911 and sprinted towards the point of entry; popping two flares from the emergency kit and staggering them along the blacktop. When he looked out into the lake the car was halfway submerged. There was a staccato burst of red brake lights from the sinking vehicle and Michael reasoned the driver was in shock.
”911 what’s your emergency?” The female dispatcher asked.
There was a trail of white vapor following every word he spoke, “This is Sergeant Michael Smith United States Army. I’m on Highway 20 and there is a car that just drove off the road and into a lake.”
”Okay sir. Are the passengers out of the vehicle? Are they okay?”
There were no light poles illuminating the twisting highway.
“From what I can see…that’s a negative. There are no passengers out of the vehicle at this time. It’s very dark out here.”
Michael heard a tic, tic, tic on the dispatcher’s keyboard.
”Okay sir. I have emergency dispatch called and on their way.”
“Roger that. I’ll be standing by for instructions.” It was then that Michael’s ears picked up the high-pitched shrieks emanating from the sinking car.
“Sir, we need your exact location. Can you tell me where you are?”
Michael didn’t respond; he stood transfixed and stared out into the lake. He had heard shrieks like this before—those shrieks turned his patriotism into pacifism and his dreams into nightmares.
”Sir, are you still there?”
The dispatcher gave Michael orders he wouldn’t hear—he continued to focus on the shrieks in his head. The child smiled innocently, so sweet, but she could not have known the fate she was to meet. He recalled the child’s black hair in a snarled mess that ran down behind her crème colored dress.
I’ll never forget her. She was such a pretty little mess.
“Sir, can you hear me?” The dispatcher asked again. Michael heard these words in some distant part of his head, but his thoughts were too focused on this memory of a convoy mission filled with dread.
They had strict orders not to acknowledge the Afghani locals as they drove through the hostile village. But the child on the side of the road was like a single rose in a land filled with rugged brown decay and Michael thought this gesture would surely make her day. From the gun turret of the Humvee he waved and gave the smallest nod of recognition; the child’s face blushed—she had no premonition. The girl extended her arm in an excited wave to Michael.
Why did I look at her? I knew better than that. If I could travel in time I’d take it all back.
Out of the corner of his eye Michael observed a decrepit old man approaching behind the child. His pants were sagging off his thin waist; the excess fabric waved behind him in this country filled with waste. Michael assumed the old man would scold the child for waving to American soldiers, but the old man’s intentions were much, much colder.
If only I had stopped the driver sooner. I could have done something.
Michael noticed a shovel gripped by the old man’s whitened knuckles for what was to be a malignant purpose. When he reached the child the old man said no cruel words. He simply reared back with the shovel and thwacked her across her tiny skull.
The child crumpled to the ground; she let out a shriek of terror—the shrieks that echoed in Michael’s head—and then the old man straddled her to continue the nightmare.
With each swing of the shovel her face caved in further; blood streaked across the road.
”Stop! Stop the Humvee now!” Michael cried out.
“We can’t!” The Private replied. “We can’t do it! We have our orders!”
”Stop the fucking Humvee now! That’s your order!”
The private stopped the Humvee. Michael disembarked from the turret and ran towards the child. The old man stood up from the girl’s body to square off with Michael. He swung the shovel at him. Michael jumped back. The old man smiled a toothless grin. He swung the shovel at Michael’s head. Michael ducked and charged head-first towards the old man’s chest. They fell to the ground in a tangled heap. Michael could smell the sour odor from him. The old man’s calloused hands were caked with blood and brain matter. Michael straddled the old man and grabbed him by the throat. He pummeled his nose, eyes, jaw. The old man curled up in feeble resistance. Michael let out a primordial scream into the old man’s face. Michael stood up and unholstered his sidearm. He pointed his weapon at the old man’s bruised and bloodied face.
“What are you doing? Stop it Sarge!” The Private yelled. “Put the gun down. Please.” Michael lowered his sidearm. The old man, writhing in pain, managed to smile and laugh. Michael looked at the girl’s limp body; her chest rose ever so faint. He walked towards her and knelt down. He cradled her face in his arms. Her crème colored dress was stained red like the rose she had been. Michael ran his bloody fingers through her snarled hair. He wept as she died; he died as she wept.
“Sir, where are you at on the highway?” the dispatcher said. “We need to tell the rescue teams where you are.”
He let the phone slip out of his hands and the dispatcher’s voice called to him from a faraway land. Michael climbed down the embankment and jumped into the frigid lake. His teeth chattered together as he swam out to where the car lights jaggedly cut through the black liquid. Michael took a deep breath and dove down to find what he’d lost.
The arctic water rose beyond Stephanie’s breasts. Valeria, still in her carseat, released the two shoulder straps holding her in place, but was unable to release the black latch across her chest. She raised her arms above her head to slither out the bottom of the carseat, submerging herself under water. She swam towards the front seat and surfaced dripping wet onto her mother’s lap.
Valeria wrapped her arms around Stephanie’s neck. Stephanie whispered into her ear, “Baby I love you so much. Mommy’s sorry. I’m so sorry.”
They both tilted their heads back to inhale precious gulps of air through chattering teeth. The car finished its descent and reached the muddy lake bottom with a soft thud. All was still. The only light illuminating their plight came from the car’s headlights which began to flicker and dim. Valeria took one final breath before the cabin was engulfed in water. The tips of their brown hair floated and touched the top of the car.
Stephanie’s vision began to narrow. Her eyes closed. She thought of their recent summer vacation on the shores of Ocean City, New Jersey. Stephanie, despite her hydrophobia, found herself content to sit on a beach towel, absorbing the warmth of the sun, and listening to the crash of waves breaking across the Atlantic Ocean. These days had been the happiest of her life. She remembered watching Tim build a city of sand castles only for Valeria to do her Godzilla impression and stomp out his masterpiece in a matter of seconds. Stephanie laughed at the look of bemusement on her husband’s face.
She thought about the evening she had wrapped herself and Valeria in a beach towel. They watched the setting sun change the color of the ocean from purple and red to dark blue while Stephanie brushed the snarls out of Valeria’s wet hair. With every breath she took, she remembered the faint aroma of the remaining sun block on their skin.
Michael cut his hand on the crumpled hood of the car. He swam to the driver’s side window and pounded on it in slow motion. There was no response. Through squinted eyes, he was able to see the hazy silhouette of a woman and little girl in her lap. With the water pressure equalized he opened the driver’s side door with ease. The little girl wrapped her arms around his neck without any prompting, but when he tried lifting the woman she wouldn’t budge. With reactionary thinking, a skill honed by fourteen years in the Army, he realized something must be holding her to the seat. He recalled the irrational use of her brakes, reached across her chest and found her seatbelt still buckled in. He pressed down on the red button and freed her from the seat. Michael bear-hugged the woman; the child continued to hold onto his neck sandwiched between the two of them. Expending his last bit of energy, he swam with one free arm and kicked his feet to propel the trio to the lake’s surface. An older grey haired couple, standing next to the mangled retaining wall, covered their mouths and gasped when Michael broke the surface of the water.
Michael swam the trio to the shore and handed the girls to the older couple. Valeria, who had held her breath, was suffering from hypothermia and shock. Stephanie’s skin was pasty white. She wasn’t breathing. Michael climbed up the steep embankment and latched his lips to Stephanie’s. Breath, breath, breath. One pump…two pump. Breath, breath, breath. One pump…two pump. Stephanie coughed up mouthfuls of water and gasped for air. Michael fell back in exhaustion on the highway’s shoulder. He turned over to his side and filled his burning lungs with the intoxicating night air.
The older gentleman squatted next to Michael and patted him on his soaking wet t-shirt. “My God young man. You’re a damn hero for jumping in that there water. I caint believe you got em’ both out.” Michael grimaced weakly at the compliment.
“Is that your there truck a little ways down the road?” asked the older gentleman.
“Yes, it is.”
“So you was just following them ladies when they ran off the road?”
“Praise the Lord. An angel sent from heaven, that’s what you are.”
The older gentleman’s wife came running back from their car and covered Michael, Valeria, and Stephanie with blankets. Michael wrapped the blanket around his shoulders like a shawl and took slow, deep breaths to calm his heart rate.
Valeria, sitting next to her mom, pointed towards the lake and cried out, “My sister! My sister! She’s still in the cawr!”
Her words reignited the screams in Michael’s head. The older couple was aghast to see the shivering man discard his blanket and swim back into the freezing water.
“Stop!” The older gentleman called after him, “I can see the flashing lights! They are almost here. You don’t have to do this! It’s too late!”
Michael heard nothing but the screams in his head as he swam back out into the lake and dove underneath the water for a second time to search for Valeria’s fictitious sister. Amidst the commotion, Stephanie muttered that her daughter was only talking about a Christmas present, a Cabbage Patch Doll.
Michael kicked and pulled with his arms and legs in the same way he had done as a child while diving to the bottom of a swimming pool to fetch rainbow colored rings. He grabbed hold of the open door, pulled himself into the car, and felt through the front seat. Pushing further into the car, his hands searched through the backseat and found nothing but a maze of floating toys and clothes. He reached towards the floor and felt something familiar. At his fingertips were pigtails dancing in the water. He wrapped his hands around a handful of yarn hair and realized this wasn’t Valeria’s sister but only a doll. Michael’s lungs yearned for air. Running out of oxygen, on the verge of unconsciousness, he mindlessly searched through the cabin.
Michael began to feel calming wisps overtake his body. It was as if his blood had been transfused with a warm cup of coffee. He abandoned his frantic efforts to relish this unknown feeling. He found himself walking on a dusty runway, having just arrived at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Over his shoulder—a few steps behind—were his boys, his soldiers.
A goofy, pimple faced soldier was bragging to his friends about his exploits in Baltimore, “I know what that dime piece looked like. I’m telling you guys that girl I danced with last night was a ten! At worst she was like a nine.”
An older Private chimed in, “Dude you must have been drunker than shit. That girl was a butter face!” For the first time in months Michael didn’t hear the screams of the young girl on the side of the road. His ears were filled with the joyous sound of his soldier’s ignorant, exuberant, and youthful laughter.
The aurora borealis would paint the sky purple and red that night. Michael was at peace in the halls of Valhalla.
K.R. Dounglomchan has written editorials that have been featured in the Clovis News Journal, Portales News Tribune, and Air Force homepage. He has served in the Air Force eleven years and has deployed four times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. You can follow his blog at https://medium.com/@KRDounglomchan