In life, tests of love and chances to grow it don't end with 'I do's' at a wedding. As folks who are, or have been, married can attest . . . that's really just the beginning. The outward dramas may not be as exciting or intense going onward in life from that festive day. But the meaning certainly deepens as challenges, both little and big, are faced and dealt with, hopefully together.

Sometimes though, something serious strikes — and love is both tested and redefined, affirmed and even discovered anew.

My thanks once again to Disney's Pixar Animation Studios for creating and owning the movie CARS and its characters. Some other characters are making a repeat appearance from 'Real Champions' and are my own creation, so far as I know.

There are of course spoilers here, both from the original CARS movie and from the previous 'Real Champions' story. Fair warning.

And Mater's globe-trotting, big screen adventure is just regarded as another of his tall tales 'round these parts. You'll see why as the story progresses, but there can always be the possibility of future truth in even the tallest of stories.

Enjoy!

Norwesterner


" . . . WAY TO GO, STICKERS!" Sally yelled on the crew radio as Lightning came in first across the finish line once again amid an almost defining roar from the crowd around the stadium. "WE'RE PICKING UP RIGHT WHERE WE LEFT OFF FROM THE LAST RACE!"

"All because of my Crew Chief!" he assured as he rounded the turn past the finish line and tried to look back for her. "Gotta love that Sal of mine!"

"Love my Lightning!" Sally assured.

Lightning started to turn his attention back to the track ahead. But there was now no track in front of him . . . just a straggler racecar limping along the backstretch, trying to finish.

Bang! Suddenly Lightning found himself airborne before he even knew what had happened. Then the infield grass was strangely coming up towards him. He felt himself spinning wildly, and then everything went black.

— — — — —

"Where's Lightning?" Sally asked her crew, dismounting from her crew chief's platform. "He should be here on Pit Row by now . . . and why is the crowd suddenly so quiet?"

Then, she happened to glance up at the big screen. Time suddenly stood still as she realized it wasn't just any wrecked racecar that was on that screen.

It was Lightning.

Sally didn't have time to scream. She just tore off out along Pit Lane and around the track, instinctively knowing it would be the fastest way to find him. The sight of him began to emerge on the infield grass as she rounded Turn 2. Sally didn't hear a thing except the beating of her own engine. When she slowed and reached his side, time and the sounds around her resumed.

"Lightning . . . Stickers . . . talk to me, sweetheart!" Sally said with a steadiness that surprised even herself.

There was no response from him. As the medics began to arrive, Sally quickly looked around to see how much of him was spread around. Fortunately, he still seemed to be intact. She could not see his engine lying out in the field, which would have been a sure sign of death.

But as she looked at his front, she could see his roof was seriously dented, along with much of the rest of him. His windshield was also shattered and his eyes were closed. Then she looked along his side. With a chill, she realized his frame and chassis were bent.

Finally, in the grass behind him, she saw a glint. Sally briefly went over and picked it up with a tire. It was his license plate and gold frame, the one she had given him on their wedding day.

Sally briefly closed her eyes and shook her hood, refusing to accept the ominous meaning that such a symbol could hold for their future now. She wanted to put it right back on him, but medics were now surrounding him, so she tucked it under her hood for the moment. As she motored back, one of the medics tried to prevent her from returning to his side.

"Sorry miss," the medic said, "you can't come any closer."

"I'm his wife," Sally replied with a determined calm, " . . . and his crew chief. I want to be at his side, now."

"Yes, m'am," the medic obediently replied as he moved aside.

The grass around him was becoming stained with his oil and fuel, as medics were getting him onto a mobile lift now so they could get underneath him and stem the leakage of his vital fluids. Sally could see they knew what they were doing. The medics were attaching diagnostic cords. She could now hear an intermittent but steady beeping. Lightning had not left her yet.

"M'am, we need to get him to the hospital," a medic beside Sally informed her. "He's critical, but stable enough for transport."

"Yes, of course," she said, numb but focused. "I'll follow."

Sally now saw the rest of their crew, as well as some of their friends, gathering around beyond the cordon of security cars.

"He's alive," she yelled gently across to them. "We're off to the hospital. Take care of things here, and then join us as soon as you can. I'll call Mack on his truck phone if anything changes."

As Lightning's battered form was placed on a lift-bed tow truck for transport, the entire stadium remained silent. Sally took this in as she briefly looked around, realizing how much every other car around them cared. She dialed a number she knew on her mobile phone.

"Broadcast booth, director's assistant here," a voice answered.

"This is Sally McQueen," she responded. "I just want to let everyone know Lightning is alive, and we're on our way to the hospital."

"Misses McQueen, would you mind if we encouraged you to repeat that on air and on speakers around here?" the assistant suddenly asked. "It would mean a lot to everyone."

"Sure," she replied somberly but calmly.

"You're on," the assistant replied.

"Everyone," Sally's voice now boomed across the stadium, dispelling the long silence, as her image now appeared on the stadium's big screen, as well as live on television. " . . . This is Sally McQueen. I just wanted to give you all the encouraging news that Lightning is alive. He's seriously injured, but we have hope. I want to personally thank you for the support you're giving us, even right now. We're on our way to the hospital, and with the help of our friends in the media, I will see to it that you all are kept informed."

Sally looked around the stadium as she concluded, "You are all family to Lightning and I. We will return. Thank you!"

A surprising cheer went up from the assembled crowd. Sally gave a tearful smile and wave in acknowledgement as she began to leave the track following behind Lightning onboard the tow truck.

"You hear that, Stickers?" she said tearfully to him as they left. "That's for you, my love. We just made a promise to them . . . and we're not gonna let 'em down."