Inspired by a true story
From his seat Dan watched the other deputies and waited for briefing to end. It had been a long night of police calls in Immokalee—a sixteen-hour swing shift of domestic disputes, drunkards, and drug dealing. This landlocked town, tucked miles from opportunity, among Florida’s mangroves and muck, languished on the edge of the Everglades. It was unseasonably cold too——but even a record chill couldn’t keep Dan’s eyelids from melting to meet the red rims of his tear ducts.
“Brewster!” Sergeant Mason yelled. “You still with us?”
Dan swung his head around his neck as if expecting a pitch. “Yes sir.”
Dan worked too many shifts in a row, he knew that—but the Sherriff’s office needed him—just like the Army once did. And he wasn’t the type of man to let good people down. He glanced at his colleagues.
Jim was lean and freshly pressed—always on the hunt. He’d trust Jim to “have his six” if any call went South. Beside Jim was Bubba, a stout man with lollipop cheeks who ate too many 7-11 chili dogs and left the evidence on his uniform. What Bubba lacked in leadership he made up for with brawn. He handcuffed hard cases like “naked guy on crack in the park”. Carla was law enforcement officer of the year. She had to take a life last year to save another. Joe was “Mr. Procedure” until he lost his temper, but Sarge yanked everybody’s chain enough to ensure this was the best shift in Collier County. As a former Marine officer, Sergeant Mason expected efficiency and excellence.
It was 4am and still dark. The cold front waited outside where “season” in Immokalee meant something entirely different thirty-five miles away in Naples, Florida, where Dan lived—a mostly seasonal playground for the wealthy, where dinner out could cost more than a month of Dan’s pay. By contrast, immigrants descended on Immokalee’s vast commercial acreage like locusts, ready to pluck farm fields bare for a pittance. The pickers lived mostly like nomads, ten to a one bathroom shack, bent over from dusk to dawn seven days a week—but they worked hard, like he did—and he could protect what little they had—and he did. They still smiled too—something he found hard to do.
“Deputy Brewster!” The squad yelled in unison. He almost fell out of his chair. He must have dozed off. Briefing had ended.
“Brewster,” Sergeant Mason asked, “What road are you taking home?”
Every night on the job was different but this question never changed. If Dan stayed on Immokalee Road, he’d have better pavement but risk a longer commute when he got stuck behind the early morning tomato trucks—plus he’d have to manage the Curve of Death. If a truck rolled over, and they always did, cars backed up for miles. Jones-Mining Road would cut his time by twenty minutes but it split right through some of the blackest swampland in the Florida Everglades.
Jones-Mining Rd. was “no man’s land” and people said it was cursed, allegedly haunted by spirits of poor souls who went missing from here to Miami. It was true the Sherriff’s office pulled a body out of there now and then—usually a drug deal gone bad, an unfortunate hiker who’d lost his way or a bunch of kids in a car accident—which was the worst. When that happened, some of the deputies prayed together right on the spot. Dan never joined them. Dan believed in ghosts about as much as he believed in God, which wasn’t at all. He’d play it safe.
“Immokalee Rd,” he finally said.
Thick fog blanketed Immokalee just above Dan’s head. He shivered as he climbed into his cruiser—his breath visible like steam rolling over his hands when he rubbed them together. The steering wheel felt like a cold rock so he tugged practically unused black leather gloves over large caramel calloused hands. The hum of the cruiser warmed up his insides and off toward home Dan traveled. He wasn’t sure why, at the last moment, he made a sharp turn left onto Jones-Mining Rd.
Dan marveled that he’d just defied his own words. He barreled past the oil wells and alligators he knew were out there but couldn’t see. It wasn’t like him to say one thing and do another—to take a split second detour. He felt a twinge of guilt poke his gut. Did he just lie to his Sergeant? Dan would be upset if anyone on his shift did the same thing—might not trust them at their word anymore.
Traveling at 70MPH he felt his mind and his car begin to drift on the nearly straight track of bumpity-thump-thump road. He slightly jerked the steering wheel back on path, his heart trotting along. “I need to do something to keep my mind occupied,” he thought. “The lights. I’ll play with the lights.”
Dan decided to challenge himself to a game. He turned on his red “flashers” and turned off his headlights. He could see the road just fine—and it was sort of boring, so he turned on the white strobe lights on each side of his car and clicked the flashers off—and surprisingly, he could still see okay, but it was more of a challenge so he sat a bit straighter and leaned forward, slapping his cheeks for a jolt. How funny it was, he thought, to turn the swamp into his own personal disco.
The flashing lights soon annoyed him. He rolled down his window. A blast of cold air punched his face as he positioned his fog light, tilted it skyward, and clicked the button on—which beamed into the low clouds and made a huge UFO-like circle that bounced off the fog above his car and engulfed him. He turned off the strobes. The brightness of the fog light actually made driving more difficult, like racing through a spotlight, and forced him to slow down, yet he could still see the gray road rolled out ahead, the only path back to civilization and his bed.
Dan thought about light and what a fantastic invention it was—how it kept monsters away and made people feel safe or less alone. But then he thought about how light could be a curse too. How something as harmless as a cigarette light could snuff out life—or that a blast from an explosive, might be the last light some people ever see. So maybe light wasn’t so great after all, Dan thought—maybe light was like God and people gave both of them way too much credit.
There was a slight bend in the road, which he knew about as well as his right arm, so he switched off all of his lights for just a second. The darkness swallowed him up and seemed to take on a deadening, eerie sound, which surprised him a little, because he never thought of darkness as having any sound, and now he couldn’t see a thing except for his dash panel and the small flash of a “Bob’s Barrier” reflector from the periphery of his right eye as he passed.
Strange, he thought. Dan didn’t remember any construction way out here. He also didn’t like this darkness or its disquieting, restless quest for peace rising like swamp gas from miles of endless sweet grass on each side of him, a trap with only one anemic strip of road back to comfort. He pushed his headlights on.
“Oh my God!”
Dan swerved to avoid missing the ghostly, outstretched white arm of a woman reaching up from the ground toward the passenger side of his car. Instincts made him press the brakes too hard. His cruiser slid on the damp pavement, scattering small pebbles in every direction until it skidded sideways with a screech. It came to rest ten yards from where he’d let out a scream, which sent an owl on an old cypress tree into a flapping frenzy and caused some roosting egrets to squawk their displeasure.
Dan peered into the rearview and passenger side mirrors but saw nothing. His breath rose and fell like the windblown sweet grass outside. Cold sweat slowly trickled from his hair down his neck. He wasn’t in Iraq. He was in Florida. He pinched his cheeks. A ghost? His hands shook. He took a deep breath. He and the car were okay. It couldn’t be a ghost. He didn’t believe in that sort of stuff. He unlatched his seatbelt and slowly wrapped his hand around the door handle. Stepping out of the vehicle and into the fog he walked back toward the construction barrier—but it wasn’t a barrier at all—and the flash he’d seen, not a reflector, but the flashing lights of an almost upside down truck tailgate peeking out of a ditch.
“Help me,” a weak female voice said.
He pushed away visions of gravely wounded soldiers on the desert floor, so far from home—the Army chaplain with his limbs blown off, the one he spoke with about God right before the guy got sucked out of the back of the truck and riddled with shrapnel, after they’d hit the IED. Dan was the only survivor—uninjured too. No God would let that happen—let those four men and women die in that unforgiving sand pit without getting to see their families, loves, or country one last time—without getting to say goodbye. He couldn’t help them.
There she was, half in, half out of the ditch, ejected ten feet through the windshield of her vehicle, disheveled and scantily clad in a sheer white blouse, her skin a white-blue glowing hue in the unusual thirty-degree weather, and covered in thousands of pieces of splintered glittered wind shield glass. Dan immediately jerked off his coat and threw it over her.
“Naples Oscar 1838, Signal Four India, with severe injury, Jones Mining Rd. three miles south of Immokalee Road,” Dan said into the portable radio attached to his uniform.
“Eight Alpha twenty-one, fifty-one,” Carla said.
“Eight Alpha twenty, same traffic,” Bubba responded.
“Eight Charlie Ten, fifty-one,” Sergeant Mason said.
The Calvary was coming.
“My boyfriend,” the woman said as she began to cry and cough. “Is he dead? Is my boyfriend dead? He stopped groaning a while ago. I tried to keep him awake. I really tried. I kept talking to him.”
Dan looked around in the dark but didn’t see another person. That wasn’t a good sign. If there wasn’t noise coming from another passenger, it usually meant they got further ejected or stuck in the car and likely died upon or soon after impact—but it was protocol to always treat bodies as if they were alive in front of survivors—to keep the scene calm and to give them hope against their own injuries.
“How long have you been out here?” He asked.
“Since about midnight,” she said.
“Don’t try to move. I won’t go far. I’m going to find your boyfriend.”
The woman tightly gripped Dan’s uniform shirt before she released him. “Please tell him I love him and I’m sorry.” She was so cold.
Please tell my mom I love her.
I’d take a bullet for my country.
It’s dark Dan. I’m so cold.
Don’t forget to pray, soldier.
Dan trudged into the thick cold muck up to his knees in burs, swamp water, and weeds toward the nearly upside down truck. He shined a light inside expecting to see a mangled male corpse. It was empty. Not good. Dan found the young man about twenty feet away, his knee blown out to the bone. It looked like a scooped out bowl of Jell-O. The man’s arms were stretched out at each side, his face pointed toward the sky, eyes closed, wearing nothing but a thin pale blue t-shirt, faded jeans and one boot—the other lost to the swamp, having been blown from his foot, just like he’d seen soldiers lose their boots—and their feet, in Iraq. Unbelievably, the boyfriend had a “barely there” pulse and for some reason this guy hadn’t yet ‘bled out’. This man should be dead, Dan thought.
“Naples Oscar 1838, this Signal 4…yea… send EMS pronto, we now have two passengers with massive injuries.”
It wasn’t long before Jones Mining Rd. swarmed with Collier County’s finest doing what they do best. Names were taken, reports written, and most importantly, two lives saved. Dan leaned against the hood of his car, ignoring the wet chill that crept up his legs, and the sleep he craved.
Sergeant Mason approached. “I thought you said you were taking Immokalee Rd. home?”
“I thought I was too,” Dan said, a feeling of guilt seeping into him.
“The lady wants to talk with you before the ambulance takes her away,” Sergeant Mason said. He briefly scanned Dan. “You’re on PDO for a week. Good job.”
“No ‘buts’ deputy. You have a paid week off and that’s an order.”
“Yes sir,” Dan said looking down at the crumbling asphalt beneath his feet. What the hell would he do with all that time to think?
Dan walked to the back of the ambulance where the injured woman looked more colorful and comfortable on a gurney, an IV hooked to her arm as paramedics monitored her vitals. She smiled when she saw Dan. “Thank you for saving us. God bless you. He sent you.”
“I don’t know about that ma’am,” he said politely.
“He did,” she said. “I had all but given up after bein’ out here for hours—so I prayed to God. I prayed that if he meant for me to live to send me a sign. All of a sudden, red lights appeared in the swamp. Mercy me, I thought it was the devil himself comin’ for my soul. So I prayed harder for God to send me an angel—cause I done some things I ain’t proud of, you know? Then it was like a battle out there—angels and devils clashing like angry lightening before this huge circle of white light as bright as God hisself shined right over me in the clouds, almost swallowed me up. God sent you.”
Dan tried to hide his laugh and he did a pretty good job. He didn’t want his Sergeant to know he’d been playing around with the squad car lights. The lady eyed him suspiciously, somehow sensing his disbelief, and then she got real serious.
“We were out here for hours. Not a single car passed by. But I did see some Army soldiers. They looked over me and said to hang on ‘cuz you was comin’.”
A pale pink sky gave way over a hammock of cabbage patch palms as a sliver of sun crested on the Eastern horizon. A chill ran through Dan from his head to his boots. Four American bald eagles circled overhead and swooped above the crash scene, riding an incoming warm front to rest on a tree just off the road next to Dan’s car.
“Well, would you look at that,” Dan heard Bubba say. “Never seen ‘em so up close before.”
“I just read about Eagles yesterday,” Carla said as she and Bubba stood side by side, their backs to Dan. “The Miccosukee claim they’re spirit messengers.”
The injured woman winked at Dan just before the doors to the ambulance closed. Dan choked. A single tear slid over his right eye to slowly drift down a cheek. He couldn’t explain, logically anyway, why he, a decorated soldier and deputy, decided at the very last moment on a detour from duty. Maybe, just maybe, the swamp, the desert, and God weren’t as remote and cruel as he thought they were yesterday.