“No. No. No,” said Zack as he pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. The ancient car responded sluggishly, a full second passing before the engine vibrated with a purr that made his foot go numb. The bald tyres spun, trapped in a sheet of ice and snow that coated the road and the lone vehicle.
The storm sagged against the windshield as the wipers tried lethargically to keep up, leaving large, frosted streaks with every swipe. With each pass, the ice crystals grew denser, coating the wipers with budding globs of ice.
Another burst of wind battered the side of the car, fluttering against the door and buffeting the tiny cracks in the vehicle. A trickle of cold air brushed against his chilled knuckles, and a shiver cascaded though his body.
The vehicle lurched closer to the ditch that had disappeared into the blizzard’s cloud. The tyres caught, edging sideways in a frozen rut. He jerked at the steering wheel, but there was no response as he was buried deeper in the drifts.
Zack’s heart pounded as he lost control of the wheel and the engine sputtered. But he barely noticed as the car lurched into a stall or as the air got even colder through the flimsy heating vents. The storm was the furthest thing from his mind.
It had happened again. And, of course, it had chosen the moment when the biggest snowstorm of the decade was blowing its way across the lakes. The radar had probably gone from red to purple then black while he’d driven with no destination in mind.
The roads had been relatively clear a few hours before, when he had fled to his car, putting it straight into second gear before he even had his seat belt on. He had hit the highway, flipping a virtual coin to choose the exit he’d take before the heavy flakes had started drifting down from the grey sky.
He shuddered. His darkness—his curse—the thing had haunted him for as long as he could remember… It always seemed to choose the worst moments to rear its ugly, jealous head. This had to be one of the top five of all time, though.
He had tried to keep moving. He’d tried to leave before he could put anyone else at risk.
But he’d been sucked in by another pair of sweet blue eyes and a soft voice that had promised him a good night. That night had turned into a stream of great weeks and gentle touches that had him coming more consistently than he ever had.
The sex had been fantastic, if not a little bit soft, more often ending in his mouth or his hand—and not somewhere better, tighter and hotter. His nights hadn’t been cold in an empty hotel bed or on a couch that he had claimed during a stranger’s party. He had started to look forwards to waking up in the morning and seeing someone other than himself in his bed.
Then it had all gone wrong. One word and a spurned rejection, and his past had caught up with him with the force of a starving tiger. He’d staggered as he’d felt the blood drain from his face.
He had fled before anything could happen to the man who he had almost started to like. If he’d had the opportunity, he could have developed full-blown feelings, which were more dangerous than his curse.
He’d grabbed everything in sight that belonged to him, leaving more behind than he’d taken. His socks and underwear were lost beneath the bed and in the basket of laundry, but he hadn’t had the time to retrieve them. They weren’t the worst things that he’d ever left behind.
He’d had run to his ancient Honda, breathing hard by the time he had tugged the door open. As he’d sped away, he’d left another chunk of his past behind him, the sweet memories tainted by his bitter curse. The traffic had steadily thinned, until he was the only car in the midst of a forest that seconded as a snowy hell.
His trusty Honda was only five years younger than him and had more problems than he did, which was saying a lot. Its most recent issue was that it apparently couldn’t drive through more than two centimetres of fresh snow.
He fumbled with the key, glancing out into the bleak stretch of swirling snow as he tried to start the engine yet again. Stomping on the gas, he waited for the RPMs to climb into the red zone before popping the clutch and putting the car directly into second gear. First gear didn’t exactly work, and on ice, it was its own death trap.
There was a shuddering jerk that had relief flooding his gut, until the car rocked once and stalled back into silence. The dials dropped and the fuzzy radio station faded until the barest hint of the country song vanished under the sound of the wind.
“Shit,” he said as he slammed his hand against the steering wheel. It shuddered, barely holding on to its rigging after his repeated abuse. He could imagine the wheel finally tumbling off as he merged lanes on a highway doing one-hundred-and-thirty-five kilometres per hour. I’m lucky like that.
His palm ached from the hit and the cold that was steadily seeping into the car, but it didn’t stop him from slamming the wheel a second time. His thumb caught the edge of the horn, but the blaring sound was swept away on the wind.
The temperature inside the car noticeably dropped another few degrees, and his breath turned into a misty fog that coated everything it touched. The car’s heater was lukewarm at best, and without a working defrost, ice had started to crust on even the inside of the windshield.
He turned the key again as he popped the car back into neutral and pushed the clutch to the floor. He shivered as another gust of wind cut into the Honda. His thin jacket was best suited for balmy fall days, but it was the only one that had been in sight as he’d scrambled to leave. His toes were numb in his sneakers, and his hands? Well, he was afraid to look at them, because he wouldn’t be surprised if a few fingers were already missing. His gloves had been one of the many things that he had left behind, and his hands had been aching since the snow had started.
The car key turned under his hand, jingling with the other attached keys and mementos that he had picked up on his travels. There was a tiny metal sandal that he’d picked up in a beach town and an iron sun from a gift shop that he’d found in the middle of nowhere. The rest were worn, their edges smooth from their constant motion. He kept them close, so he wouldn’t have to look back and remember.
The key turned, with the promise of escape and a hint of heat. Silence. Not even a putter from the flooded engine. His gut churned as a shiver racked his body. It was so freaking cold, and according to the last clear announcement on the radio, the storm was just getting started.
He grappled with the horn, pushing the button as hard as he could. There had to be someone close by who would come to his rescue if they heard him honking. People in the city might not have looked twice, but he was pretty far into the wilderness, on the only road that probably ever saw a plough in winter. People were different out here—lonelier.
The button clicked under his palm as the battery finally gave out. The same battery had lasted him twenty years, so, of course, it would choose to fail him when he was about to lose his toes.
Zack took a shuddering breath as his vision blurred and his heart sank. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to keep the warmth from escaping. Perhaps everything was finally catching up with him. Freezing to death wouldn’t be the worst way to go. He’d seen worse before—so much worse. His stomach clenched as memories fluttered to the surface of his mind. He tried to push them away before he could retch.
“Look at the snow. Just look at the snow,” he said, holding himself tighter as he tried to focus on an individual flake in the whirling mass—anything to leave the flashes of his past behind.
Beyond the window he could see bits of the forest through the gaps in the gathering ice on the windshield. The road was nearly invisible, with no tyre tracks except his own behind him. Even those were almost gone now.
A green bough fluttered in the wind, dumping its heavy load onto the ground below it. A bird fluttered from the branch, battling against the wind as it took off. For a moment, it looked like it would lose the fight and be tossed into the nearest tree trunk. It pumped its wings faster, finally triumphing over the storm.
There were no hydro lines along the road or lamp posts that would guide a traveller along at night. It was a tourist’s nightmare. He cursed himself, wondering if he should’ve taken the other fork in the road that had probably led along a path that was closer to the city.
A smudge of colour caught his eye as it flashed along the very edge of the trees. The trunks grew close together, dark and foreboding within the mass, and their limbs danced and swayed in the wind, dumping the snow back to the earth with each pass. There was so much movement that he wondered if he had imagined the blur.
He squinted and leaned closer to the window, trying to make sense of it through the fluttering snow. It could have been a deer. He’d already seen a few along the way, looking ready to jump out at his car and double his insurance. Or it could have been a bear, given how far he’d come, although he’d only ever seen them on television. The dark beacon had looked too small to be the creature he’d seen on Planet Earth.
He spotted it again as the wind stilled and the blizzard cleared for a moment. It moved through the snow with a fluid grace that could only belong to an animal who could survive a harsh winter. Nothing battered or beaten lived in this cold, and no predator could thrive without hunting in the perpetual storm that was February.
It grew closer with every loping step, until it seemed larger than what he imagined a bear would be. It was fast, too, cutting through the drifts as if it weighed nothing. Zack knew how hard it was to walk through snow that deep, which was why he usually avoided it at all costs. That, and he really didn’t want to get his too-tight jeans wet.
Zack scrubbed the inside of the window with his nails, bits of ice stinging his numb fingertips. His breath frosted it over again, until everything blurred.
It could have been a dog with how dark the colouring was, but he’d never seen a dog that big. A bear would definitely make more sense, but according to the television, bears hibernated in the winter.
The ice on the window thickened into an opaque crystal as he pressed his forehead against it, desperate to see what was coming. It was running at a pace that was hardly possible over the covered ground, gliding over the snow without seeming to disturb it at all.
A bubble of fear simmered in his gut as he pictured a bear breaking through his window with its massive, clawed paws. He was small enough that he wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight, but there was still enough meat on him to make a decent meal, he supposed.
He took a deep breath, closing his eyes to try to ground himself. The wind around him paused, the car going suddenly still and silent. He snapped his eyes back open, looking through the tiny gaps from his fingertips. There was nothing but the dark tree trunks capped with pure white.
The seat creaked as he freed himself from the seatbelt and lifted himself to his knees, pressing against a strip of clear glass. He blinked, rubbing his eyes to remove the imagined fog, but nothing appeared. The snow was undisturbed, except for the partially covered ruts from his own tyres. There were no footprints, and no animal was out in the wind.
I’m officially losing my mind.