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I opened my eyes.
When I first fell from the blissful darkness of unconscious into this icy hell, there was no pain. Oh, it would come – the deep-rooted, brain-numbing pain would sure as hell come – but at first, there was only a blurry haze. Gradually, memories drifted through the haze; not a single, smooth stream of memories, but flashes of images and sounds. Images and sounds and sensations that would be etched into my mind forever.
. . . The thick sheet of ice sliding, tipping, falling off the back of the semi . . . the windshield shattering as the ice bludgeoned through . . . the sudden wall of freezing white that overwhelmed my vision, blinding me . . . Maria screaming; a shriek so loud that it seemed capable of cracking glass and sending banshees fleeing in horror . . . the horrible screech of metal against metal . . . the ground and sky becoming one in a violent, twisting kaleidoscope of motion . . . the flash of pain . . . the cool embrace of oblivion . . .
Gradually, the haze lifted and I became aware of my surroundings. I was hanging upside down, my seatbelt locking me to my seat. One dimly-flickering headlight illuminated a tree-lined clearing blanketed in snow. The jagged edge of the shattered window briefly reminded me of the teeth of the lion I had seen at the zoo with my daughter Tina two months ago. The deflated airbag hung limply over the steering wheel.
I had only an instant to process these sights. For with full consciousness came the pain. The all-consuming, white-hot pain. It seemed to gain a tangible quality, to attain density and mass. It was a crushing pain that held me in an iron grip, so overwhelming that no mortal words could describe it. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t scream. I could only wait.
I don’t know how long I waited until the pain faded to an aching throb; it seemed like an eternity. My mind no longer in the clutches of the merciless agony, I remembered Maria. I looked towards the passenger seat, then instantly looked away.
God! Oh God! Her face! Dead; she’s dead. She has to be. My God, her face . . .
I felt vomit draining down from my stomach, choking me, the acidic bile burning my throat. Coughing out thick gouts of bile, I unhooked my seatbelt and fell to the floor, formerly the roof of the car. Vomit poured from my mouth, pooling on the ground.
With a final, convulsive heave, I stopped vomiting. Glass shards and pieces of broken metal dug into my arms as I turned to Maria. I put a finger against the underside of her limp wrist. Though incredibly faint, there was a pulse. I put my ear to her chest; each breath was a wet, rattling gasp. She was alive.
I looked at the clearing again. The wind had died down and snow fell lazily to the ground. The idea of lying on soft snow instead of a layer of glass and metal was very inviting. Brushing away the largest pieces of debris, I began to drag myself out of the wreckage.
More glass and metal pierced my arms and chest. My hands gripped the door frame. The jagged edge ripped into my flesh and blood began to flow. I grimaced in agony, but I didn’t, wouldn’t give up. My fingers, slick with blood and numb from the cold, slipped and I fell to my elbows. Finally, I had a firm grip and I pulled myself onto the snow.
Lying on my stomach, I felt the warmth of blood on my skin. And with that sensation came the obvious thought: I’m bleeding. I had to remove the glass and metal from my body. With great effort, I half-crawled, half-dragged myself through the snow to the working headlight. In the light, I saw the extent of my injuries and my heart seemed to flood with ice-water.
My limbs were covered with gruesome lacerations. Thin streams of blood dripped down my arms and legs, forming steaming pools of crimson in the snow. My head ached; I touched my forehead and my head came back crimson with blood. Pieces of twisted metal and glass jutted out from my body; some were small, but others seemed less like pieces of debris and more like the broken blades of wicked daggers. I gave those pieces a wide berth.
For what seemed like hours but was only about thirty minutes, I worked tirelessly to extract the smaller pieces of debris. I would tense my body against the coming jolt of pain, remove the piece, then use a torn-off section of my shirt to apply pressure and staunch the bleeding. Soon, a pile of glass and metal lay beside me. I felt relieved and laid my head back against the car. Exhaustion suddenly clouded my senses and I let sleep overtake me.
That was when the wind began to blow.
It came out of nowhere: a howling, unseen predator; a relentless beast with ice-tipped talons that gouged deep into my flesh. Half-frozen snow assaulted my skin like machine-gun fire. The cold whipped against my body, my tattered clothing offering no protection from the gale-force winds.
I could no longer feel my hands. I wrapped my arms around my chest, stuffed my hands into my armpits, tucked in my knees, and put my head down. But my attempt to ward off the cold was futile. The wind whipped against me. Clouds of breath were battered away by the fierce winds. The cold felt like fire; my entire body was burning. I screamed. I screamed because I was freezing to death, because I was in total agony, because I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. Why did I have to find myself in this situation? Why couldn’t I be sitting in my living room with my wife and daughter, huddling around the fireplace, watching the storm’s wrath from the warmth of our house?
Why? The voice in my head replied; it was a cruel voice, the voice of conscience. Why, you ask? You know why. Because you needed to have some alone time with Ms. Maria Lopez, professional pole dancer and lap dancing extraordinaire. Because you agreed to give her a ride back to her trailer park. Because you’re an unfaithful bastard and it’s your own damn fault that you’re freezing to death. Your fault. Your –
“Shut up. Shut up.” I croaked, my voice barely a whisper. I sat in the snow and cried until my tears froze on my face. The wind died down again and I fell into a restless sleep.
Blinding sunlight woke me. I glanced at the alarm clock: 11 a.m. I looked around; I was the only one in bed. Grabbing my cell phone off the bedside table, I checked my text messages. There was only one: C U 2nite? 8 a.m.? Text me back. M.L. I replied with a quick message, saying that tonight would be good. Erasing her message, I pulled off my quilt and id my usual morning routine. Putting on sweatpants and a t-shirt, I went downstairs.
The aroma of fresh maple syrup reached my nostrils. I walked into the kitchen. Sarah was at the stove, pouring pancake batter onto a pan. I put my arms around her waist, my wife of nine years. I smelled her smooth, brown hair and couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about what I was doing behind her back.
But I didn’t feel guilty for long.
Sarah turned and looked at me, her arms around my neck. “ So you finally got up. Tina woke me up at seven. Fell off her bed again. We should get her that new bed we talked about. She is six, you know.”
“Good morning, honey.” I replied.
She smiled as she turned back to the pancakes.
I turned and lifted Tina into the air. She hugged me and I hugged her back. She was my one and only child; I would do anything for her. I put her back down and she ran back to the living room to finisher watching her morning cartoons. I sat at the kitchen table and Sarah handed me a steaming plate of pancakes before sitting across from me.
“Nothing wakes me up better than your homemade pancakes.” I said as we ate.
Sarah finished, got up, and walked behind me. Her hands caressed my chest. I put one hand in her soft hair and pulled her close to me. The smell of her perfume filled my nostrils; it was the same type I had bought Maria after her fifth outing.
“Oh, listen honey.” I said. “I need to work late today. The boss left me a message; he needs someone to cover for Dan. I’ll be home around nine, nine-thirty.”
“Well, drive slowly. There’s suppose to be a really bad storm tonight. Be careful.” Sarah said as she took my plate. She started walking into the living room when she stopped and came back to me.
“I love you, John.” She said.
“I love you too, honey.”
She moved closer. Her lips touched mine and I woke up in that damn clearing, cold and deeply alone.
The warmth of the rising sun helped me to keep my eyes open. The forest was silent. It was still cold, but nowhere as brutal as last night. I laid back against the car and closed my eyes.
I had to face reality. No one knew I was here. If the police were searching for me, they would look near all my usual routes home; Sarah knew them well. But I hadn’t been on any of those routes. The road to Maria’s damn trailer park had been miles away from all of them. There were no witnesses. For a mere instant, I considered the truck driver, but then common sense show down my impossible hopes. He couldn’t have seen me. Why did they say; if you can’t see the truck’s side-view mirrors, then the driver can’t see you. I sure as hell didn’t see any mirrors; I had been right behind him. That had been the only ay to follow the twisting mountain road through the swirling fury of the storm. And the screaming wind would have masked any sounds of the crash.
It was a hopeless situation.
And it’s all your fault. You know that, right? The voice of conscience had returned. That’s what happens to unfaithful bastards like you. You’re going to die our here. No more picking Tina up from school. No more late-night snuggling with Sarah. Definitely no more time with Ms. Lopez. You’re doomed. You’re –
“Shut up!” I screamed, more to vent my anger than anything else. Then I sat there, letting the hopelessness of my ordeal sink in. That’s when I heard it: a faint, beeping sound. I was confused for a moment, then my eyes widened as I realized what the sound was: the voice-mail alarm on my cell phone.
Someone had tried to call me.
“Sarah . . . “I whispered. I had totally forgotten about my phone, thought it had been reduced to nothing but torn wiring and crushed plastic. A jolt of energy surged through my body. I crawled on my hands and knees into the wreckage. There was no pain, no soreness, nothing. I reached the driver side.
I saw Maria and vomited into the snow. Her face – no, all her exposed skin – was black with frostbite. There was spots of vivid purple and dark crimson and yellow, pus-encrusted sores. Infection, my stunned mind said. Now she has to be dead. She couldn’t have survived the night without protection. Just to be sure, I felt her wrist. There was no pulse.
The phone beeped again. It was in the backseat. I reached through the gap between the seats and grabbed it. I crawled out, struggling not to look at Maria’s corpse, and leaned against the car. I pressed the voice-mail button and set the phone to speaker.
The automated voice spoke:
“You have four new messages. First message:
‘John, it’s me. It looks really bad out there. Call me soon.’
‘John, where are you? It’s ten-thirty. I’m really worried. Please call me.’
‘It’s me. It’s five past twelve. I’m with the police. They’re searching for you right now. Tina’s with me. We’re all very worried. The sheriff said that I should go home and get some rest, but I’m not. Your mother’s going to watch Tina, but I’m sleeping over at the station. Please call me. Please, John.’
‘John, it’s me. It’s six-thirty. If you’re listening to this, I want you to know that I love you. The sheriff keeps telling me that you couldn’t have survived the night in the storm, but I know he’s wrong. I just do. Please come home, John. Please come back to me, to Tina. She needs you. Please. Tina misses you. So do I.’
There are no more messages.”
The phone went silent. With tears in my eyes, I listened to the last message again and again and again, until I knew every word by heart. Please come back to me, to Tina. She needs you. Please.
I made my decision.
“Hold on, honey. I’m coming.” I said aloud.
I meant with every essence of my being.
Yes, go to your family. The voice said. They need you more than that corpse does. All can be forgiven. You can be the man that you once were. Go to your family.
Slowly, I stood up. Luckily, the damage to my legs and feet wasn’t too severe; I could still walk. I looked up at the fifty-foot slope that led up to the road. It was steep and covered with snow and ice and sharp rocks. I felt a sick feeling deep in my gut, but I ignored it. I had to get to my family.
I tore two strips of cloth from my shirt, wrapped them around my hands for grip, and walked to the base of the slope. It seemed impossibly high and forbidding, like Mount Everest or K2.
Please come back to me, to Tina. She needs you. Please.
I began the ascent.
It started off easy, but then the slope curved upwards and I had to use my hands and feet to climb. Hidden pieces of metal and glass pierced my hands. I gritted my teeth and pushed on. My limbs were sore and numb, but I pushed the pain to the back of my mind. I was halfway up.
Then the wind started to blow again.
It blew stronger than before, hammering me with what seemed like hurricane force. The air grew bitterly cold and I no longer had the side of the car to protect my back. The wind lifted my shirt and lashed against my bare skin.
I looked up through half-closed eyes. I was at the top. The guard rail, bent and twisted, was three feet away. I reached for it.
My ankle twisted as I slipped on a patch of ice, covered with snow. My feet fell out from under me; my face hit the rocky ground. My outstretched fingers touched the metal rail – I was so close – before I tumbled down the slope.
I rolled head-over-heels, banging against rocks and debris. Pain ripped through my body. With crushing force, I slammed into the wreckage of the car and flipped off into the snow.
I was back where I started.
A tidal wave of pain washed over me. Total agony; a steel-vice grip of inescapable torture. I lay in the snow, my back arched, my legs folded, my fingers curled inward. My breath came in ragged gasps and my chest burned with every icy intake of air.
The pain faded away. I took a deep, painful breath and stood up, determined to climb the slope.
My ankle twisted again.
This time, I screamed. I fell to the ground, clutching my leg. I screamed until I could scream no more and then I pounded the ground with my fists until the skin was raw and bleeding. My ankle was broken. I couldn’t climb the slope. I was too weak. I had failed. Failed my wife, my daughter.
No, you haven’t failed them. The voice said. You have the strength, the will to go on. Just dig deep inside yourself.
If I couldn’t walk up the slope, I would drag myself up. I would drag myself until my arms became too weak to move and my fingertips peeled off and my nails snapped. I would drag myself twenty miles back to my living room to see my family again, to gain a chance to redeem myself.
I put up one arm after the other, digging my fingers into the thick snow and packed dirt, pulling myself up the slope. With Herculean effort, I dragged myself upwards, over the metal and glass and jagged-edged rocks. I felt no pain, no soreness, nothing.
Finally, my fingers curled around the guard rail.
I dragged myself up and over the rail and onto the snow-covered asphalt. I sat against the undamaged section of the guard rail and rested for a moment, scanning the road side for something to compensate for my broken ankle. A long, sturdy branch lay on the shoulder. I grabbed it and used it to pull myself onto my good foot. Using the branch as a makeshift crutch, I began to walk.
The snow began to fall harder. The wind lashed against, increasing in intensity with every passing second. I pushed on, one step after another. The cold was like a vacuum, sucking all the warmth and strength from my body. Twice, I fell to my knees. Twice, I got back and kept going.
With a mighty gust, the wind knocked me off my feet. I lay there, the snow pouring down. I gritted my teeth and began to crawl. I kept low to the ground to conserve body heat. My knees and elbows were rubbing raw.
Soon, I could endure no more. I lay on my back, the endless waves of snow burying me. I shivered violently. I knew that I was dying.
I began to cry.
Please come back to me, to Tina. She needs you. Please.
“I tried! I tried! I tried . . .” I wanted to scream, but couldn’t. My throat was too frozen to scream. I could only weep. My tears froze to my skin.
I closed my eyes. Slowly the snow claimed me. As blackness clouded my vision, as the world gradually ceased to exist, I heard Sarah’s voice one last time.
I love you, John.
“I love you too, honey.” I managed to whisper. And with a smile of atonement on my face, the blackness flowed over me like a shroud and I knew no more.