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            The trees by the road blazed with the reds and golds of early autumn. Ahead, people were burning leaves, sending dense clouds of smoke drifting in the air. Julie Landis lowered the car window and breathed deeply. She loved fall, loved the smell of burning leaves.

            A sudden strong gust came up, pushing a cloud of smoke and leaves across the road. She leaned forward, trying to see. Something was in the road ahead, a dim outline, moving fast.

            Her view cleared. She saw a black poodle running across the road dragging its leash. It was followed by two little girls in bright jackets giving chase.

            Panic shot through her. No chance to stop in time! She could cut to the left—no, the girls were running and darting and she would hit one or both. On her right she caught a glimpse of the deep ravine. She’d have to risk it.

            Braking, she clutched the steering wheel and turned sharply to the right. She braced as the car skidded, tore through shrubbery, barely missed a tree, bounced a few times, and plunged. She screamed and she felt an eerie sensation of suspended power as the car left the ground, floated in space, and plummeted.

            Then came a breath-stopping thud and a moment of intense pain. The car shuddered several times and lay still. Julie slipped into a silent blackness.

            Thumping sounds. People running. Excited voices. Warm fingers probed at her neck.

            “She’s alive.” The man probed again. “Can you hear me? An ambulance is coming.”

            She moaned, wanting only to lie still, to give in to the terrible pain in her head.

            Sirens wailed faintly somewhere down the road. People were talking nearby. A woman’s shaky voice broke through.

            “I saw it, I was right there. The two little girls ran in front of the car. The woman turned the car straight toward the ravine. Did it on purpose.”

            The sirens grew louder.

            “If she hadn’t gone off the road, she’d have hit those kids for sure.”

            A siren cut off. Doors slammed.

            “Good thing her car hit a tree. She could’ve gone all the way down … ”

            “Was she speeding?”

            “Didn’t seem to be.”

            A new voice, a man’s, very loud. “Move back, everyone back.” A hand on her arm. The same voice, softer, very close. “Can you hear me, ma’am?” 

            She tried to answer, but couldn’t.         

            Again, softly, “Can you hear me, ma’am?”

            At a pinch of her arm, her eyes flew open. A young man was leaning over her through the open window. “We’re paramedics, here to help you,” he said. “Can you tell me where it hurts?”

            “My head.” He directed a bright light into her eyes. She blinked, then took a deep breath.

            Suddenly she smelled a strange odor … what was it?

            Gasoline. The car was going to explode. She would die, trapped inside!

            She tried to tell him. “Gasoline … fire …”

            “It’s okay, don’t worry,” he said. “Firefighters are standing by with charged hoses, right up there.” 

            She closed her eyes again.

            “The little girls are okay,” he said.

            Another siren cut off.

            With firm yet gentle hands, the paramedic took her pulse. She found the touch of his hands oddly comforting.

            Deep voices murmured in the background. The paramedic placed a blanket over her, saying, “Ma’am, we can’t open the door, so we’ll have to force it open. It’s going to be noisy, but it won’t take long. I’ll be right here with you.”  

            Men approached, wearing helmets and goggles and carrying tools. “We’ll start the machine in just a minute,” the paramedic said, slipping protective material between her and the door, then putting on a helmet and a face guard. Julie closed her eyes and braced herself. Moments later, metal tore and crunched. She thought her head would explode.

            Finally there was a space where the door had been. The paramedics applied a rigid collar to her neck, slid a board under her, eased her into position, and strapped her in.

            “All set. We’re going to the hospital.”

            She felt the board being lifted.

            “Too steep here,” the paramedic said to the others.

            “Over that way,” said another paramedic. “It’s farther, but not steep.”

            “Let’s go.”

            The board jiggled. She winced, pain shooting through her body with each jolt.

            Finally they eased her inside an ambulance. She felt a sting as a needle slipped into the back of her hand.

 

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            In a small, first-floor apartment on Chicago’s northwest side, a young man watched the evening news. He had a rugged face and dark eyes, and strands of his longish brown hair poked inside the collar of his blue work shirt.

            He leaned forward, listening intently to the newscaster’s words. “ … after the dramatic rescue, the woman was taken to the hospital. We have no word yet on her condition …” 

            He got up and paced the floor, hands clenched. The newscaster continued, “… her heroic action … risked her life to save the two young girls, who were not injured in the

incident … ”  

            “Crap! That damn broad again!” he muttered. “Always sticking her nose into something!” 

 

                                                                   *  *  * 

 

            Several miles to the east, the TV in a third-floor apartment was tuned to the same station. A young man with a small scar on his lower left cheek half-listened, half-dozed, as a name from the past drifted into his consciousness.

            Julie Landis. He sat up and frowned, shaking his head, as if to block out the newscaster’s words.

            Pounding his fist against his thigh, he stared at the screen.

            “Police are commending the woman for her heroic action … ”

            Heroic action? Julie Landis? That lying, all-time number-one bitch? Now a goody-goody do-gooder? No! Damn it, she’s fooled everybody again!

            His eyes dulled and narrowed. Lips taut, he spat out her name. Julie Landis. Over and over, in a flat voice. “Julie Landis. Julie Landis.”

 

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