- a Christmas romance -
When the wind tore the steering wheel from her hands and made the Jeep skid across the frozen road, Joanna lifted an eyebrow and maneuvered it back with a gentle push of her gloved palms. The Jeep’s headlights pierced through the absolute darkness around her, showing a mass of snowflakes. They blasted at her with such speed, she felt as though she was rolling backwards instead of forward.
The music coming from the radio created a stark contrast to the howling world outside, beguiling her into a world of beauty and fun. The announcer’s voice echoed through the car. “This is Conran Dark’s latest song called Dance With Me, a song which has hit the TOP TEN within twenty-four hours of being released and has stayed at the top position for an incredible . . . “
Joanna frowned and changed channels. Experienced though she was, she preferred not to be distracted by a human rattle while she tried to nose her way through a snowstorm on Long Island.
Another vicious slab of wind pushed her Jeep to the side as though an invisible giant had rammed into it. Joanna snatched her hand back onto the steering wheel. “This is not the right moment to be fiddling with the panel, Joanna,” she told herself as she righted the Jeep back onto the road.
From the corner of her eyes, she scanned the trees to her left. She was glad to see them, as they were a clear indication that she was still traveling on the road and had not started to drive across some snow-covered field without noticing it. On the other hand, the wind had whipped up to a steady beat and was by now strong enough to topple one or two of them over. If that should happen while she was anywhere near, things might turn out to become unpleasant – to say the least.
Maybe I should have stayed at old John’s house. She pushed the thought away. How many times had she returned from a difficult foaling in the middle of the night without any problem? She knew her four-wheel drive Jeep was strong enough for any weather; besides, she was well equipped with a shovel, rough doormats and anything else needed in an emergency. She had even put the snow chains on the wheels before leaving old John’s farm, feeling as if she was overreacting. After all, it was only two days after Thanksgiving, not the middle of winter. Though the weather could fool you.
They had just announced on the radio that the temperatures hovered around zero, an all-time low for the season. Still, she only had half an hour to go before reaching Stony Brook, and she should make it in spite of the storm.
The wind roared louder now and formed the snowflakes into clusters hitting the windshield. It sounded as though her very presence on the road was a personal insult, as though the giant who had tried to toss the Jeep into a drift was now angry enough to shout at her with the full power of his lungs. “My, what fancy thoughts, Joanna.” Her voice sounded mocking but strangely lost inside the Jeep.
A white bulk appeared in the middle of the road. Joanna frowned. What was it?
She hit the brake with care to prevent a skid and slowed down until she came to a full stop. It looked like a harmless mount, a dung-heap, maybe, with a sort of rectangular shape that reached up to her knees. It was submerged in snow.
But why was it in the middle of the road? It couldn’t be a dung-heap unless it was a very energetic one that had decided to go for a walk in the middle of a snowstorm. Joanna smiled at her thoughts and unfastened the safety belt.
Leaving the motor running, she opened the door, slipped out of the car, and trudged through the heavy snowfall. The icy cold slammed into her like a fist. She gasped for breath and hunched forward. Her feet slid ankle-deep into snow. She fought the raging storm until she reached the mount and could touch it with her outstretched fingers. When she tried to grasp whatever it was the snow covered, her hand sank deep into the snow. Joanna frowned. She bent forward and used both hands to brush away the thick cover of snow. A metallic frame appeared, bent, out of shape. A metal box? Who left a huge box in the middle of the road?
The wind whipped up her hair and twirled it around until she couldn’t see anything but white flakes and brown strands of hair in a wild dance. Impatient, she brushed it back and tried to tuck it beneath the hood of her winter coat, but it always slid back. Where was the headband that had been holding it back?
Exasperated, Joanna shoved her hair underneath her hood once more and continued to dig the box out of the snow. She worked her way along the side until she reached a sort of door. At that instant, she recognized it for what it was, and her heart froze.
A cage to transport animals. Had someone abandoned an animal? Nonsense. She shook her head. If you want to get rid of a pet, you don’t throw the cage into the middle of the road. She bent forward and peered inside, but it was too dark to make out the interior. Part of the frame was dented in a way that showed it had been battered on the side. It must have fallen from quite a height. Joanna frowned. Maybe from a pickup truck? But who would leave his dog or cat in a cold metal cage on the open bed of a truck?
She reached for the door to open it, but the small shift of her weight caused her feet to slide to the side. With a yelp, she pitched forward and fell against the sharp corner of the dented frame. Something tore, and a sharp pain seared through her shoulder. “Dammit!” Joanna reared back, sudden tears forming in her eyes. She inspected the tear in her new winter coat. A corner of the fabric had caught on the edge of the box and the whole front of the left sleeve had been torn off when she fell. She could already feel the cold creeping through the gap.
She turned back to the cage. Due to her fall, the bent door stood wide open. Now she could see the broken lock. The cage was as empty as an ice cream saloon in winter. No doubt the animal had escaped right after the fall, and then the wind had blown the door shut again.
She checked the area around the cage, but the snow had long since covered all traces. Don’t worry. Animal have good instincts. It has probably gone into hiding hours ago.
She bit her lips. Her knees trembled with pain. The long day and night caught up with her, the chilly hours in the stable, fighting for the birth of the foal, her full weight on her knees until she couldn’t feel her feet and her hands anymore.
“Get a grip, Joanna.” Her lips felt stiff as she said the words. She bent forward and pushed the cage from the street, using only her right arm. Every move hurt, and when she gave the cage one last shove, the world darkened at the edges, like an old picture losing color, and bright stars shot through her vision. She closed her eyes. “You can’t faint now.” Her voice didn’t sound as firm as she wanted, but it gave her something to cling to.
She returned to the merciful warmth of her Jeep and closed the door by reaching with her right arm across herself and pulling it shut. There. She opened the coat and and inspected her shoulder. At least her thick sweater was unharmed, and she could see no blood. Still, it hurt with every breath she took. No doubt she would have a huge bruise tomorrow. With a shudder, she buttoned up the coat again and took a deep breath. Had the storm gained in force? She peered through the windscreen.
Two trees further down, the avenue ended, and open land stretched out in front of her. No mark to cling to, nothing to get a direction. I might not reach home tonight. Her heart sank. What are my options? She could return to old John. Joanna checked her watch. Two AM. Under normal circumstances, getting back to Old John’s was forty-five minutes. However, with the storm going on, things were different. Home was closer, but could she still reach it in spite of the masses of snow coming down?
Joanna frowned. What about other houses nearby? There was Allard’s place, but the farm was at the end of a steep decline, and she didn’t feel like slithering straight into their living room, Jeep and all. What else? Her memory drew a blank. Most of the houses were vacation homes and closed up for the winter.
She shook her head and accelerated with care. I just have to stick to the road. That didn’t sound too difficult, did it?
Twenty minutes later, she was shaking from concentrating, and cold sweat covered her forehead. Three times, she had lost the road and sunk deep into snow. The four-wheel drive had screamed in protest as she reversed, but each time, she had made it. Desperate, she scanned the horizon for a light. She was past caring who she woke up, as long as they had a house with a working radiator. She had lost all sense of direction and only had a hazy idea how far she had come. The Jeep rattled and groaned as the wind shook it. It started to feel like a foreign thing, not like the machine she knew and trusted.
Her foot slipped; the Jeep jumped forward, hit an icy patch, turned in a tight circle. Joanna’s heart constricted. The Jeep slithered off the road and fell into a snow bank with a thud. Joanna banged her head against the window pane. For an instant, she lay stunned, too shocked to move. The acrid taste of copper seeped into her mouth and made her nauseous. With a trembling hand, she cut the ignition and tried to raise herself. Half the windscreen was covered by snow. The other showed nothing but black nothingness. She swallowed. Her lip seemed to have stopped bleeding, but the taste of blood remained. With stiff fingers, she released her seat belt, pulled herself up with the help of the steering wheel and slid to the passenger side. She pushed the door open with her foot and climbed out in slow motion. Her shoulder hurt. Her head hurt. Everything inside her trembled.
The wind tore at her torn coat and whipped the hood from her head again. Joanna looked around. The world was a mix of black and white, though the white only showed as lighter patches in the dark. The Jeep lay on the side, its nose buried deep in snow. No way could she get it onto the road again. Fear constricted her throat and made her breath come out in shallow gasps. She could not keep the car running for the rest of the night, to keep herself warm. Though she had the blanket. Where was it anyway? It had to be in the back, where . . . Joanna’s heart stopped for an instant as she remembered. She had used it during the weekend . . . and had forgotten to put it back in the vehicle.
The phone! She had to call emergency – for what it was worth. They could hardly send a helicopter in the middle of a blizzard, and if her Jeep didn’t make it, she didn’t know what car would. But at least people would know where to look for her. Joanna limped back to the car and reached for her handbag. She had to take off her gloves to switch on the phone and the cold bit into her fingers like an angry dog. She pressed the button to unlock the screen. Nothing. Joanna blinked and tried again. Nothing at all. “I can’t believe I forgot to charge it.” Her lips felt frozen. She dropped the phone inside her handbag again and hurried to put on her gloves to protect her icy fingers.
A feeling she had never known rose inside her and threatened to overwhelm her. Panic. Hysteria. Stay calm. She clenched her fists and scanned the horizon. If she could find a vacation house somewhere, she could break in, get the radiator going, and survive the night. If only she could . . . She locked the Jeep out of habit and scrambled through the snow until she reached a harder underground that maybe defined the road. The snow blew into her eyes with tiny ice-darts. It hurt. She blinked, turned her back to the wind and checked the area once again. There! Wasn’t that a light? She stared so hard, her eyes seemed to freeze. Maybe it was a mirage – if such a thing existed in a desert made of snow. Probably not. Or it was a bad spirit, guiding her into nothing, leading her to her sure death. She could already see the headlines in the Stony Brook Chronicle: “Veterinarian frozen in blizzard after difficult foaling. The foal is all right.” She shook herself and blinked again. The light was still there. Whatever it was, she would try to reach it. It was her only chance.
As she had no idea where the road led, she decided to make a beeline for the light. If she had to scramble over something, so be it. She gave her Jeep one last, longing look and took off in grim determination. At first, she seemed to make good progress, and the light was there all the time. But then, the rough surface below her started to bog, and she fell knee-deep into snow. She pushed herself up and continued, but her feet started to feel as though they were encased in cement. The world had become a solitary, vicious place. She heard nothing but the howling of the wind and her rasping breath as she fought her way through the snow. Joanna lifted her head once again, wiped the snow from her cold face and looked for the light.
It was gone.
I won’t make it. The thought, rising hot, in a panic, came out of nowhere. They say people without a compass or orientation walk in circles. She bit her lip and marched on.
Stay calm. She tried to press her panic back into the tin where it had come from, but it had gotten too large to be contained. You can always tell if you’ve been here before by your own footprints. Her internal voice sounded as cheery as it was false.
Unless you walk in circles with changing diameters. Then you won’t know. The defeating voice inside her mocked.
Joanna tried not to listen to her inner voices and marched on. Though she was going as fast as she could, she could feel the cold threatening her, creeping through her torn jacket, sliding down her back with icy fingers. Walk on. Don’t stop. Her muscles stiffened from exhaustion, and her legs started to tremble. How long have I been walking? Twenty minutes? More? She didn’t dare to check the time, knowing it would cool out her body even more if she took off her glove. Walk on. Don’t think. Walk. Joanna forced herself to continue for what seemed an eternity. Don’t look for the light. Just go on. You will soon see it again. Her throat became parched, and her body started to tremble from exhaustion. When she couldn’t resist anymore, she lifted her head once again and scanned the horizon, squinting against the wind. Nothing. The light is gone. Fear closed her throat. I’m all alone. I will die out here.
Her foot hit nothing, and she tumbled headlong into the snow. She tried to protect her face by landing on her arms, but the impact seared through her injured shoulder with a dull pain that made her cry out. Tears sprung from her eyes and froze on her cheeks.
Get up. Her inside voice lashed out like a whip. Get up now.
She clenched her teeth and forced herself into a kneeling position, then rose with an effort that cost her every ounce of will she possessed. Where was the light? She stumbled forward, lost, crying like an abandoned child now.
Come on. One more step. She kept her head bent and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. When she hit something hard, she crumbled into a heap with a cry of pain. A tree? Have I run headlong into a tree? Her hands felt the obstacle in front of her. She peered through the dark, trying to make out what it was.
A wall. A sob broke from her. She was too exhausted to get up, so she continued on all fours, following the wall. A wall means a house. A house means people.
Unless it’s a vacation home. The destructive voice inside her stabbed at her. You’ll never manage to open a door or window, exhausted as you are. Her mind turned numb with fear. She crawled around the corner, every move an effort.
A door! She pulled herself up, braced herself against the door frame and managed to locate a bell. With trembling fingers, she pressed it.
The house is deserted. She pulled off her glove and clenched her teeth as the frost bit into her hand. She brought up her other hand and guided her arm to keep her shaking finger still. It seemed like an eternity, but finally, she managed to press the little button once again.
She heard nothing.
Joanna’s knees buckled. She fell onto the steps in a heap. They’ll find you frozen stiff in front of this door.
The door opened and a mix of warmth and light spilled out.
A man’s gruff voice said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Couldn’t you find another place to collapse?”