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Lake Tahoe, California
Near to tears, Jillian sat with her hands clasped tightly in her lap as her husband worked to keep the SUV steady on the narrow mountain road. Clumps of wind-driven snow hit the windshield almost faster than the wiper blades could remove them.
It wasn't supposed to be this way! None of it. She'd made her decision, and if she'd been able to see it through immediately, the worst would be over by now. Not waiting for them when they arrived back home in San Francisco. If only she could have found a way to free Brad and her from their commitment for the long weekend at the lake. But that had proved impossible. No excuse would have been good enough to miss celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of two of the dearer people in her life. And the resulting tension-filled days of pretense had been almost more than she could bear.
A strong gust of wind hit the car at an angle, jolting them first toward the rock cut of the mountain side, then, just as abruptly, releasing them to veer toward the opposing drop-off.
Jillian's heart plunged. She had no idea how deep the drop-off was, but instinct made her recoilonly to have Brad's elbow collide with her shoulder as he quickly corrected their course. A small cry escaped her lips.
"Sorry," he murmured, his apology as frigid as the outdoors.
Her emotions swung wildly as she rubbed her upper armfrom the desire to burst into tears at the futility of it all, to the sudden need to hit him back.
Other than his one brief announcement that he was taking a shortcut away from the stalled lakeside traffic, he'd sat there mute since they'd left Auntie Maureen and Uncle Ian's house. His silence hadgone on longer than that, though. He'd barely spoken since they'd left San Francisco. Not to her at any rate. To others at the party, sure, but only when they'd talked to him first, and at times not even then.
Jillian winced as she remembered her mother's sharp eyes following her and Brad's every movestudying the brittle way the two of them interacted when forced by circumstance to be near each other. The way Brad had drunk more than he ever had at similar social functions. The way she, under pressure of her own distress, had jumped in to cover his lapses, until her nerves had become so frayed she was terrified she might do something to embarrass herself, her parents and the lovely couple who'd gathered family and friends around them to celebrate their special day.
Another hard gust hit the SUV, initiating a similar swerve. Brad muttered an expletive as he again corrected their course.
"Maybe" She tried to speak, but her throat was so constricted she had to start over. "Maybe we should go back to the highway. This isn't It's not"
"Do you see a place for us to turn around?" he demanded, cutting into her words.
"Then don't make ridiculous suggestions. I'm having enough trouble as it is."
His clipped dismissal ignited her temper.
She gestured to the wilderness surrounding them. "I'm certainly not the one who put us here!" It had been ages since they'd passed another car, and that one, an SUV like their own, had been carefully making its way down the narrow road, toward civilization, rather than away from it.
"Oh, aren't you?" he retorted, every word rife with meaning.
Echoes of what she'd told him Thursday evening less than twelve hours before they'd left on this trip reverberated between them.
Jillian wavered but held her ground. "No, I'm not," she repeated. "The traffic on the highway was bad, but certainly not bad enough for us to abandon it for this."
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. "You told me this morning you wanted to go home," he said evenly. "You even made up a lie to tell everyonethat a contractor called to say there was a problem at a work site, and we had to leave early to deal with it. Well, I'm only doing what you want and I'm doing it the fastest way I know how."
"I'd rather get there alive, thank you."
Her reply brought the crawling SUV to a full stop.
"So now I'm trying to kill us?" he demanded, foot still on the brake.
Jillian focused on the windshield wipers. After twenty-seven years of sharing the same bed with Brad, the same home, the same life, she already knew that his jaw would be clamped, his lips pressed together and the single furrow between his dark eyebrows deeply etched. He was angry, but, as always, very much in control.
A part of herself she wasn't entirely sure she recognized urged her to egg him on. In all the time they'd lived together he'd only displayed a fearsome anger oncewhen his friend Johnny Banks had been beaten so badly that he'd lost partial vision in one eye. Brad had immediately gone after the people who'd done it, refusing to listen to her pleas that he not put himself in danger. Johnny needed him, he had told her. As Johnny always seemed to need him over the years since the two of them were children in the same Mission District neighborhood in San Francisco.
Her studied unresponsiveness did the trick. Brad rammed the gearshift into place and gave the engine more gas than he should have. Only when the snow tires skidded as a result did he back off to allow the SUV just enough power to resume its forward crawl.
She couldn't resist a small smile. She'd done it. She'd provoked him into something he wouldn't ordinarily do. Something he'd normally never do in such dangerous conditions.
The hollowness of her victory soon became clear to her. What significance did her little show of power have when the first thing she planned to do upon arriving home was to immediately call the divorce attorney a friend of hers had recommended to another friend a few months earlier?
No one besides Brad knew her plans. Not her mother, not their children. But it was what she wanted.
She wanted it more than anything. It was something she should have done years ago. Something she
Brad's sharp curse snapped her to awareness of the muted roar coming from outside. Her eyes automatically followed his, and what she saw made her blanch. A wall of snow was rushing down on them.
Jillian only had time to gasp "What?" before the SUV began to slip sideways.
"Brad?" she cried. "Do something, Brad!"
A glance showed her husband's contorted features as he fought the overwhelming force.
The passenger-side tires were first to lose purchase with the road, followed shortly by those on the driver's side. Almost as if in slow motion, Jillian felt the vehicle tip and begin to fall.
The utter silence of the world around them came as a stark contrast to the turbulence seconds before. Even though all movement had stopped, Brad continued to grip the steering wheel as if their very lives depended on it. His heart thundered; air rasped in and out of his lungs. He could barely believe the avalanche was over. That somehow the SUV had managed to stay upright, and that their sideways slide down the precipice had ended without them crashing into anything substantial.
He turned to share his elation with his wifeand saw that she was crumpled in her seat, her body still, her head set at an awkward angle against the passenger window.
"Jill?" He breathed her name, his voice unsteady as fear again took hold of him.
He reached for her, but the seat belt prevented him. Impatiently, he freed himself, then freed her, before easing her into a more comfortable position.
"Jill honey" He smoothed dark strands of hair away from her face. "Honey, wake up!"
His urgency must have penetrated her insensibility. Her eyelids fluttered opened and she stared at him blankly. "What?" she murmured. Then her body instinctively stiffened. "Oh, my God! I thought "
Brad managed a wry smile. "I thought we were goners, too, but we're not." He watched as she gingerly touched the right side of her head just above her ear. "You must have hit the window," he said. "Here look at me." He caught her chin between forefinger and thumb and tilted her head back to check her pupils.
As always, the warm caramel color of her eyes made him marvel. He'd never seen another human being with that rich golden shade of brown until he met her.
"Stop it," she said, and pushed his hand awayrejecting him, rejecting his ministrations. "I'm all right. I don't need your help."
The raw pain of the past three days reasserted itself in full force. How could he have thought, even for a moment, that because they'd come so close to death, they might somehow return to what they'd once been? That what she'd told him on Thursday night could somehow be erased?
He sat back, arms crossed, and did his best not to let her spot how deeply her most recent rejection had hurt him. When he spoke, the offhandedness of his tone surprised him. "I have a feeling that before this is all over, we'll both need a lot of help."
"And whose fault is that?"
"Oh, it's mine. It's always mine." He knew this response would irritate her.
"In this instance, yes. I wasn't driving the car."
"Yes yes, you're right."
He cocked his head. "You want me to disagree?"
She turned angrily away from him and, judging by her reaction, paid dearly for it. Almost before she'd stopped moving, she groaned and touched the side of her head.
Brad muffled a sigh. He shouldn't have baited her, not even as a salve for his injured feelings. His bullying had only made the situation between them worse. That is, if it could get any worse.
And now they had to deal with thisstranded off road, in the middle of nowhere, in what was fast becoming a significant snowstorm.
Even though the SUV hadn't rolled over, it listed slightly to the right and pressed against a pileup of snow. The drift was at least as high as the roof, if not higher; impossible to tell since nothing was visible through the passenger windows except snow. Even a portion of the passenger-side rear window was buried. The remaining windows were clear. At least one good sign. They wouldn't have to dig out.
From the limited amount he could see through the blowing snow, they'd stopped on relatively flat land close to a thin strip of trees. In fact, it could have been the trees that prevented them from sliding farther down the mountainside.
Gauging where true ground lay beneath them was impossible, because only the snow-laden upper branches of the conifers were visible. Some of the snow was fresh, both from the present storm and the junior-grade avalanche that had swept them down to this point. The snow beneath that, however, most likely was buildup from previous storms.
Brad crooked his neck to look back over his shoulder, trying to locate the road above. No luck From memory of their slide, he estimated they'd plunged down a fairly steep slope, maybe some forty or more feet. Not good news if they wanted to get out of there anytime soon.
He turned back around, intent on reviewing everything he knew about survival in a snowbound car. Which didn't amount to much, just the basics: stay with the car, husband your resources
At least the windshield wipers were still swishing, doing their best to keep pace with the accumulating snow. The windshield wipers
He gave a start.
The wipers could operate on battery power without the engine running, but he had no memory of switching the motor off.
He quickly checked that the gearshift lever was in neutral, then pressed his foot on the accelerator. Sure enough, the engine responded. It had been running all this time.
Cursing himself for his stupidity, he immediately turned the key. It was bad enough that he hadn't thought to conserve fuel. What was worsemuch worsewas that, since the tailpipe was on the rear passenger side undercarriage, in all probability the mouth of the pipe was plugged with snow. The running engine could have been filling the car with carbon monoxide. Death by asphyxiation was the last thing they needed.
"Why did you do that?" Jill asked, frowning. "The engine may not start again. We can get back on the road, can't we?"
"Uh no," he replied. "I don't think we can."
"This is four-wheel drive, isn't it?"
"Then put it in four-wheel drive and get us out of here."
"I can't," he repeated.
Her frown deepened. "Why not? If we get on the road, we can work our way back to the highway and then drive back to the lake house. We should've known a big storm was on its way."
"Don't you mean I should have known?" he countered.
"I didn't say that."
"You thought it."
"Well, then, yes," she admitted. "You should have known. You're the one who drives all over these mountains for fun. Not me."
In the summer. Brad gritted his teeth to keep from saying it. Instead, rallying every ounce of forbearance he could muster, he reiterated evenly, "We can't. We can't leave this spot. We're stuck."
Her beautiful eyes widened. "Stuck?" she echoed.
Only then did she seem to truly absorb the precari-ousness of their situation. As he had, she performed a quick inspection of their surroundings. "How far off the road are we?" she finally asked.
"Best I can tell, anywhere from forty to fifty feet. I can't actually see the road"
"And we can't move," she interrupted. It was more statement than question.
"We're caught in a drift. But even if we somehow manage to get out of it, we could easily end up sliding farther down the mountain."
She gave a small shudder. "But
surely someone will be clearing the road, and we can flag them down."