It was hot--the kind of heat that wrapped around a person, threatened to suffocate, threatened to choke. Hot, with leaden, overcast skies that seemed to promise rain, but it had been overcast for days and they hadn't seen a drop.
Nicole Kline was just outside of town when she flipped on the radio and heard the weather report. A storm was coming.
Not the ideal day for a run into town, but it was either suffer the heat or suffer the frustration when all she found for dinner was Cheetos and frozen ground beef. If she had paid attention to the weather before they had left home she would have suffered the Cheetos, the frozen ground beef--and her younger brother's griping.
Instead of trying to make the thirty-minute drive back to her home in the hills, she decided to grab her groceries then go to her dad's and wait it out there.
She made it in and out of the store in under twenty minutes. As she walked outside with her infant son, Jason, perched on her hip, she glanced up at the sky. The sight of the thunderheads piling up overhead made her wince.
Her brother, Shawn, bumped her shoulder with his. "Come on," he said. "We're going to get soaked if we wait around too long."
She made a face. "We're going to get soaked anyway." She chucked her son under his chin and smiled at him. Not that he was at all worried about those clouds.
The scent of rain hung heavy on the air.
Looks like the farmers are going to get the rain they want and then some, Nikki mused as she secured the straps on the baby's car seat. After she finished securing Jason in his seat, she went around to help her brother finish loading the groceries into the back of the SUV.
Flattened drops of rain splattered the hood of the car as she slid into the driver's seat. Then Nikki glared at the skies as the clouds burst, dousing the parking lot under a deluge of water.
"Don't sweat it, Nik," Shawn advised. "We can just wait it out at Dad's."
She sighed. That had been the plan anyway, not that she had told Shawn. Her brother and her father were on the outs for some reason, which was why Shawn had been spending the past few weeks at her place.
She could hear Jason jabbering to himself from the backseat.
"Dogs, dogs, dogs," he chanted over and over while he played with a tattered stuffed mouse and chewed busily on the remaining ear.
At least that was what she thought he was saying.
Flicking Shawn a glance, she ordered, "Put your seatbelt on, will ya?"
Rolling his eyes, he fastened the lap belt and drawled, "Yes'm." He gave Jason a look in the mirror, circling his finger at his temple. The baby laughed and clapped his hands before launching into a long and detailed jabbering monologue with his friend, Mouse.
Hazel eyes squinted, Nikki stared through the windshield, blocking out the noise of the rain and her son's jabbering. Even though she drove with the lights on, she couldn't see much more than fifteen or twenty feet in front of her.
Twenty minutes passed and she still wasn't at her dad's. The store wasn't even ten minutes from there, but that was under normal driving conditions.
Growling with frustration, she snapped, "I can't see a damn thing in this!"
The rumble of thunder edged closer. Lightning flashed.
"You're almost there, sis. It's just up there."
She spotted the turn off as Shawn spoke. "Almost there, fella," she said as Jason started shrieking, "Eat! Momma, eat!"
"Just a few minutes, Jas--"
Neither Shawn nor Nikki saw the other car. It came flying around a curve fast--so fast--and hit them from behind. She was thrown forward. Blinding pain sliced through her head and a loud, thunderous crash filled her ears.
A blaring noise rent the air, but above it she heard a baby's panicked, startled cry.
From the passenger seat next to her, Shawn swore viciously, grabbing for the door handle.
"Jason!" Her voice was garbled, choked. Blood filled her mouth and a red haze clouded her vision.
Instinctively she slammed on the brakes, wrenched the steering wheel to the right towards safety. Off to their left was a steep drop off--
Another jolt struck her SUV, throwing her back. She was pinned against the seat by her safety restraint as the world started to spin before her. Above the roaring in her ears she heard thunder and the screeching sound of metal against metal. Then all was silent.