The road to the Ruskin Drive-In is arrow straight and pitch black. There is nearly no light pollution as it races through swampy mangroves and protected wet lands. Just after the turn off Us Highway 301, it bumps over a set of rail tracks which were originally built by Henry Flagler in the 1880’s. The line has been in continuous use connecting the Tampa Bay area to all points north and south. Freight trains, loaded with goods rumble through the small community and vanish into the night.
Terra made her way back to her car. The hard packed earth of the Ruskin Drive-In was as familiar to her as the smell of her freshly bought popcorn. Milk duds rattled in their box as she shifted to sip at the frosty cold Coke. Ahead, she could make out fading back bumper of the 2010 Chevy Silverado. The second Friday of the month, for 10 years, rain or shine that truck pulled into space F12 and parked. She always parked in space G11. He brought his own food. She had watched his reddish blond hair fade, the sideburns turning dull gray. She saw his skin weather. She assumed by his nearly constant tan that he worked outdoors. She watched the paint fade on his red truck. She wondered if he noticed time creeping up on her as well.
Robert glanced in his mirror. The woman from G11 was wandering back from her routine snack bar run. He shook his head, for ten years she’d been buying the same overpriced snacks. He glanced down at his homemade dinner. Grilled salmon steak and asparagus from his garden. His thermos held an ice cold rum and coke. He watched her until she moved parallel to his window he nodded to her as he always did. His routine, her routine, this odd bond between strangers. He had often thought of introducing himself. He often played out their meeting in his mind. How would her voice sound? Guess at her name. The fantasy was cliche and boring. He smiled to himself, and turned his attention back to the screen.
Terra had occasionally been caught at the unguarded railroad crossing after the movie let out. The blur of the rail cars reminding her of the blinking start of films before cellulose was replaced with digital media. Tonight, as she approached, the lights of the crossing did not indicate a delay as she sped along through the salty air, her window down and her radio up. She glanced left, then right just in time to see the flash the train’s headlight and slam on her brakes. Her car skidded and dove toward the mangroves that lined the road. Terra’s vision blanked as airbags deployed as the car plowed into the trees. A few seconds passed before Terra realized she’d wrecked. Hot steam blew up through the engine compartment. Water seeped through the doors. The headlights illuminated beneath the water line. The spike of a branch pierced the windshield. Terra unbuckled and gingerly clicked on her flashers. She searched for her phone to call for help, only to see it on the passenger floor under two inches of water. Dazed, she turned toward her open window and was blinded by a light.
Robert, a couple miles behind, had watched the taillights of little Ford careen off the roadway. The heavy laden train, oblivious to the event, never slowed. He was on the phone with 911 as he rapidly approached the wreck. He slammed the truck into park, grabbed a flashlight from his glove box and was talking with the operator. He balanced carefully on flimsy roots as he approached the driver’s door. Through the open window, he met the dazed gaze of the woman from G11. Blood flowed from her forehead and nose, she was in shock, but she was moving. He moved the light from her face and reached to unlock the crumpled door.
His baritone Florida drawl was describing their location. His tanned and rough hands wrenched the driver’s door open and carried her over the mangrove roots. He lay her down in front his worn red truck and updated the 911 operator. Kneeling beside her he relayed her answers to various questions. He applied pressure to a cut over her eye and handed her his bandanna to stem the blood from her nose from running into her ears.
He paused from his well-practiced first aid. He looked at her, as if for the first time. “Oh, hey, I’m Robert. I’d say nice to meet ya, but…” His voice trailed off awkwardly.
Terra looked at the chivalrous man from F12. “I’m Terra. I’ve seen you.” Terra gingerly pointed back forth between them, “You know, F12…G11. Thanks for helping.” She glanced over at her car, now half submerged, it lights sputtering. In the distance they heard the sirens approaching.
Robert gently turned her chin back toward him to continue to triage. “Keep your head still.” He placed his warm hands on either side of her face. “I’m glad I’m here, Terra.” Nodding to her car he glanced down at her with a wry smile, “I think that’s going to put a dent in your popcorn, soda, and Milk duds budget.” He smiled softly. “I can make dinner for two.”