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I promised myself I’d never forget the din of birthday wishes that surrounded Mike that evening, or the joy that filled me when watching his interactions—laughing and talking as if nothing in life were amiss.

The party broke up around six, but I stayed on, gathering up Mike’s cards and gifts to take home, as we knew the hospital would not be responsible if any of them should disappear.

The surgeon stopped in a few minutes later, along with a nurse, and began to remove the cast on Mike’s leg. I hesitated to watch, but a quick peek showed me it was only a clean bandaged stump, no blood-soaked gauze. They unwound the wrappings, checked the incision, then rewrapped with clean dressings and applied a fresh cast.

"Looks good," the surgeon said. "The pathology report should be back on Monday. So I’ll see you then, Mike."

"Thanks, Doc." Mike waved a hand at him as the doctor left the room.

"Sounds good, from what the doctor said." I glanced at my watch, then returned my attention to Mike. "If you don’t mind, I think I’ll head for home now. It’s going on seven, and I feel worn-out."

"I’ll bet, honey. You’ve had a long week. Go ahead and go."

"Okay. I should be there by nine … I’ll give you a call."

I planted a quick smooch on his cheek, then lugged his gifts—including a huge box containing a remote-controlled racecar kit—out to my car. I locked them into the back of our little yellow wagon and headed for I-5. Within a half hour, the haunting new rattle was back. It became louder and louder as I passed through Lynnwood, sounding like a couple of aluminum cake pans tumbling around inside a clothes dryer. Yet the car ran just fine.

I checked the instrument panel. The temperature was up and climbing. I was savvy enough to figure that the unwelcome rattling might be a failing water pump. Oh God, what do I do? I pictured myself sitting alone alongside the freeway all night with no way to let Mike know. He would worry. The dog wouldn’t get fed. What if some uncouth character came along? How could I …

As if he were there with me, Mike’s words of racecar experience came through loud and clear, "Turn the heater on high, full-blast, drive as fast as you can to get more air into the engine ..." I complied, my steaming little wagon racing past car after car, then quickly returning to the outside lane each time. When the sign for 164th street loomed large ahead of me, I decided to chance getting help at a gas station I knew was just beyond the off ramp. The temperature gauge continued to climb while I quietly cursed the drivers that crept along ahead of me. "Hurry up, damn it! Move!"

I drove into the station as the attendant was turning off the lights, closing up for the night. I pulled up next to him and stopped, turned off the engine and got out.

"I need some help!" I exclaimed, surely exhibiting some signs of panic.

"What’s the problem, ma’am"?

"I think the water pump went out."

"Well, I can’t help you with that. It’s after eight o’clock, and I’m closing-up."

"Please, could you at least call a tow truck for me?"

He did. "They’ll be here in twenty minutes or so, ma’am." He finished shutting off lights and locking doors, then left me with my ailing vehicle and weary self. Oh God, help me get through this.

I sat locked inside my car for a good twenty minutes, maybe more. Finally, a big white rig lit-up like a Christmas tree pulled up behind me, its booming diesel engine shaking the ground like a small earthquake. A man in coveralls jumped out and came to my window. I rolled it down three or four inches so I could hear him.

"You summon a tow-tuck, lady?"

"Yes, I did."

He handed me a business card, which I read quickly and got out of the car.

"Where we going?" he asked.

"Oh … Burlington, I guess. To the Jidosha dealer up there."

"Okay." He made a radio call, to his dispatcher I presumed, then turned his truck around and lowered the end of the flat bed and pulled my car up onto it, piggyback.

The driver offered me to ride in the tow truck with him, which I did. We reached the dealership a bit after nine, where he lowered my wagon off his truck next to the service entrance. He accepted my credit card to pay the tow bill, and made sure I had a proper copy of the invoice to submit to our insurance company.

That done, I asked if he would mind taking me and my stack of boxes to the Burger-King in Mount Vernon on his way back. I remembered having seen a pay phone there.

Graciously, he agreed, and helped me move the birthday presents from my wagon into his truck. Next I filled out the dealership’s after-hours key-drop envelope, slipped my ignition key inside, and dropped it down the slot. I climbed into the waiting tow truck.

On the way to Mount Vernon I searched my purse for quarters, pulled out every one I could find, and slipped them into my jacket pocket—ready to make a call.

I thanked the tow truck driver for helping with my packages and getting me to a pay phone. I looked up the number for our neighbors—the folks who had warmly welcomed us to town and helped get the too-tall trees felled from our corner lot. No answer. Drat! I didn’t know any other soul to call. I found only one number for a taxi company in Mount Vernon and called. He’d pick me up in twenty minutes.

So I waited beside the phone booth, watching teenagers pop in and out of Burger-King with boisterous displays of energy and chatter. A few looked me up and down, settling their gazes on the stack of birthday presents next to me. I smiled at the ones who did, hoping I looked more confident and purposeful than the worn-out hag I felt like this night.

Before long an old, mud-splashed, maroon station wagon slinked up to the phone booth and parked. A wiry, middle-aged man, bordering on unkempt, got out and approached me.

"You waitin’ for a cab?"

"Yes. Are you it?" Didn’t look like a cab to me—no sign on the doors, no light on top—nothing.

"Yep. I’m it." He gestured toward my packages. "These yours?"

"Yes, they are."

Without another word, he opened the back seat door of his wagon and began loading the presents.

"Thank you." I grabbed a few of the smaller packages, and took them with me when he opened the front door on the passenger side and offered me a seat. I took it, holding what packages I had on my lap.

"You’re goin’ to Woolley?" he asked.

I confirmed the location with the name of our cross streets.

My tension returned when he turned off the main roadway and headed east down a side street. Where was he going? This was not the way I knew to get home. He rounded a corner onto a desolate road. My tension turned to fear.

I slid the boxes casually off of my lap, between him and me, and clasped my fingers around the handle of the door. Dear God, give me courage. "Does this road go to Sedro-Woolley?" I asked in my best fearless voice.

"Yep. Sure does. You never been this way before?"

"No. Never have." My hands were cold now. If I have to, I thought, I’ll jump out of the car. To hell with the presents!

He turned another corner, onto another road that curved first one way and then another. I gripped the door handle tighter. My heart began to race. God, please let this be the way home.

"I like to take the back roads when I can," he said. "Keep off the highway."

A few seconds later I realized we were paralleling the highway into Sedro-Woolley. Soon he made a sharp left toward it, crossed the railroad tracks and waited at the stop sign for traffic to clear.

My tension eased as he drove into town, following my directions right into our driveway. Thank you God, for getting me home safely.

"Looks like somebody is expectin’ you," he said, noticing the light on inside our house—a light turned on each evening by an automatic timer.

"Yes," I said. "Somebody is waiting." I paid him, picked up my packages and said goodnight. I felt a tad guilty about telling a little white lie until I thought of our dog.

Yes, the dog! He’d be waiting to welcome me with his typical terrier exuberance—my second bright spot in this unforgettable day.

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