Somewhere in the deep woods of North Carolina. A two-lane highway. The middle of the night. It’s dark outside.
Thomas is driving with his windows down because his AC doesn’t work. The gust coming from the window helps him think. He is on an all-night drive back to his hometown. His dog, Rascal, sits beside him.
He’s left Houston forever. His girlfriend dumped him for his best friend. A guy Thomas might have even asked to be his best man. When he discovered the affair it was the worst double betrayal of a lifetime. It was like being stabbed from both sides.
So he’s bitter. He’s angry. Thomas does not believe in anything good anymore. The world is out to get him. There is no such thing as love. People are inherently bad. Santa Claus is a jerk. The Easter Bunny is evil incarnate. And there is nothing sacred in the sky. Nothing whatsoever. The sky is empty.
This is not Thomas’s best year.
So he is going home with his tail tucked. He quit a comfortable job at a great company. He left his apartment and took his most basic belongings.
Two-lane highways in the Carolinas are vacant in the midnight hours. They cut through hilly, tree-filled valleys like a ride at Six Flags. Sometimes you’re lucky if you pass one or two cars at night. Some highways are poorly lit, others don’t even have reflective dots in the middle of the road. Old rural routes can be dangerous.
Here comes a pair of headlights. The two lights are rocketing down the center of the highway, careening straight for him.
Thomas honks his horn. The lights don’t change course. They’re traveling seventy, hogging up the whole highway, riding the middle line.
In a microsecond, Thomas runs through his options. Veer right? No, there’s a steep embankment. Left? Nothing but big trees. He’s a dead man, that’s what he’s thinking.
So he lays on the horn.
The lights get closer. Thomas can see the lights are attached to a semi truck that is racing toward hell in a hurry.
No time left to think. Thomas either dies in a head-on collision or dies twisted against a pine trunk, engulfed in flames. He jerks right. He aims his steering wheel for the embankment and slams his brakes.
The last thing he remembers is the weightlessness. It is an odd feeling, floating like this, above the earth. A loud boom comes next. The car hits the ground hard enough to fracture steel. He hears Rascal making loud cries. He sees the trees rushing up at him.
The young man blacks out.
He’s unconscious for what feels like years. His mind is in some other place. It is a place where he is just sort of “there.” He can’t explain it. He says it’s almost like being suspended in the the ocean, with miles of water above and below. You’re not sure where you are, you’re just—you know—out there.
He hears things. It sounds like music. Or is it singing? No. It’s speaking. But he can’t hear what the voices are saying.
“Thomas!” the voices shout. “It’s gonna be alright. We’re here.”
When Thomas comes to, his vision is dim and he can’t see much. He is being removed from his car by arms. Two sets of arms. He catches a glimpse of strangers. It looks like they’re wearing brown overalls, like welders, or maybe steelworkers. They know his name.
“You’re okay, Thomas! You’re alright! We’ve got you.”
That’s all he remembers. And he can’t even be sure about this, either.
What he can be sure about is that somehow, a passing truck finds him lying outside his car while it is burning. Thomas is all alone. No witnesses. Thomas also knows that, somehow, he has sustained no injuries except a concussion. Not even a scratch on his cheek.
Rascal is gone.
Two days later Thomas revisits the scene of the accident with his mother and father. He sees the charred spot where it happened. Blackened earth. Scorched trees. He finds some of his scattered belongings in the woods. A bobblehead figurine. A pack of cigarettes. Old books.
The shock is finally wearing off and it is all hitting him at once. Although he is still confused about what happened—which is why he hasn’t told anyone about his rescuers. Who were those men? Why did they leave? How did they know his name? Is he going crazy?
That’s when His mother hears something.
She leaves Thomas to follows a sound through the woods and arrives at a rundown house on a dirt road. The place has a fenced-in yard with junk everywhere and old outbuildings. And dogs.
She knocks on the door. An old woman answers. The lady says that a few nights ago a stray showed up in her backyard and started eating food from her cat bowls. She shooed him away, but he wouldn’t leave.
Rascal is sitting pretty. Completely unharmed.
Thomas’s mother brings the dog to her son. Rascal sees Thomas and the dog is immediately airborne, sprinting forward like a college linebacker after the pizza guy. The animal slams into the young man, knocks him onto his back, and bathes Thomas in puppy saliva.
Thomas is on his rump, holding Rascal, staring upward at the clouds. He begins to cry. Because there in the deep woods of North Carolina, off the little two-lane rural route, Thomas decides that he was wrong.
The sky is not empty.