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"Lady, are you all right?"
She looked through the glassless window into a stranger's concerned face and heard an uncertain laugh emerge from her mouth.
"Yeah. Can you believe it?"
"No," he replied frankly, a grin tugging at his lips. "You ought to be in about a million pieces, lady. This has got be the luckiest day of your life."
"Tell me about it." She shifted slightly adding, "But I can hardly move, and I can't reach the door handle. Can you get it open?"
The stranger, a middle-aged man with the burly shoulders that come of a lifetime's hard work, yanked experimentally on her door. "Nope. There isn't a mark on this door, but it's been compressed in the front and back, and it's stuck tight. We're gonna need the Jaws of Life, sure enough. Don't worry, thoughthe rescue squad and paramedics are on their way."
Distant sirens were getting louder, but even so she felt a chill of worry. "I had a full tank of gas. You don't think"
"I don't smell anything," he reassured her. "And I've worked in garages most of my life. Don't worry. By the way, my name is Jim. Jim Smith, believe it or not."
"It's a day to believe anything. I'm Joanna. Nice to meet you, Jim."
He nodded. "Same here, Joanna. You're sure you're okay? No pain anywhere?"
"Not even a twinge." She looked past his shoulder to watch other motorists slipping and sliding down the bank toward her, and swallowed hard when she saw just how far her car had rolled. "My God. I should be dead, shouldn't I?"
Jim looked back and briefly studied the wide path of flattened brush and churned-up earth, then returned his gaze to her and smiled. "Like I said, this seems to be your lucky day."
Joanna looked once more at the car crumpled so snugly around her, and shivered. As close as she ever wanted to come...
Within five minutes, the rescue squad and paramedics arrived, all of them astonished but pleased to find her unhurt. Jim backed away to allow the rescue people room to work, joining the throng of onlookers scattered down the bank, and Joanna realized only then that she was the center of quite a bit of attention.
"I always wanted to be a star," she murmured.
The nearest paramedic, a brisk woman of about Joanna's age wearing a name badge that said E. Mallory, chuckled in response. "Word's gotten around that you haven't a scratch. Don't be surprised if the fourth estate shows up any minute."
Joanna was about to reply to that with another light comment, but before she could open her mouth, the calm of the moment was suddenly, terribly, shattered. There was a sound like a gunshot, a dozen voices screamed, "Get back!" and Joanna turned her gaze toward the windshield to see what looked like a thick black snake with a fiery head falling toward her out of the sky.
Then something slammed into her with the unbelievable force of a runaway train, and everything went black.
There was no sense of time passing, and Joanna didn't feel she had gone somewhere else. She felt...suspended, in a kind of limbo. Weightless, content, she drifted in a peaceful silence. She was waiting for something, she knew that. Waiting to find out something. The silence was absolute, but gradually the darkness began to abate, and she felt a gentle tug. She turned, or thought she did, and moved in the direction of the soft pull.
But almost immediately, she was released, drifting once more as the darkness deepened again. And she had a sudden sense that she was not alone, that someone shared the darkness with her. She felt a feather-light touch, so fleeting she wasn't at all sure of it, as though someone or something had brushed past her.
Don't let her be alone.
Joanna heard nothing, yet the plea was distinct in her mind, and the emotions behind it were nearly overwhelming. She tried to reach out toward that other, suffering presence, but before she could, something yanked at her sharply.
"Joanna? Joanna! Come on, Joanna, open your eyes!"
That summons was an audible one, growing louder as she felt herself pulled downward. She resisted for an instant, reluctant, but then fell in a rush until she felt the heaviness of her own body once more.
Instantly, every nerve and muscle she possessed seemed on fire with pain, and she groaned as she forced open her eyes.
A clear plastic cup over her face, and beyond it a circle of unfamiliar faces breaking into grins. And beyond them a clear blue summer sky decorated with fleecy white clouds. She was on the ground. What was she doing on the ground?
"She's back with us," one of the faces said back over his shoulder to someone else. "Let's get her on the stretcher." Then, to her, "You're going to be all right, Joanna. You're going to be just fine."
Joanna felt her aching body lifted. She watched dreamily as she floated past more faces. Then a vaguely familiar one appeared, and she saw it say something to her, something that sunk in only some time later as she rode in a wailing ambulance.
Definitely your lucky day. You almost died twice.
Her mind clearing by that time, Joanna could only agree with Jim's observation. How many people, after all, survived one near-death experience? Not many. Yet here she was, whole and virtually unharmedif you discounted the fact that the only part of her body that didn't ache was the tip of her nose.
Still, she was very much alive, and incredibly grateful.
At the hospital, she was examined, soothed, and medicated. She would emerge from the day's incredible experiences virtually unscathed, the doctors told her. She had one burn mark on her right ankle where the electricity from the power line had arced between exposed metal and her flesh, and she'd be sore for a while both from the shock that had stopped her heart and from the later efforts to start it again.
She was a very lucky young lady and should suffer no lasting effects from what had happened to her; that was what they said.
But they were wrong. Because that was the night the dreams began.