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The rest stop was small and muddy, with only one other car parked at the far end. Spray and grit from the road had all but obscured the car's license plate and left the paintwork a nondescript khaki gray. Even the bushes were a dull brackish brown.
I poured myself a cupful of sludge-colored coffee from a thermos. It had the sickly aroma that only flask coffee has, but I closed my eyes and savored the comforting warmth. It had been a long drive south toward Boston, and the break was very welcome. When I opened my eyes again, I stared wearily out the rain-speckled windshield, rolling my shoulders back to ease the tension several hours of driving had left in my arms and neck.
As I peered out at the leaden sky, I felt a pang of jittery nerves, and I was uncertain whether I had made the right decision. The bubbly excitement I'd felt when I'd set out had gradually evaporated with the passing of the miles, leaving me feeling like a condemned woman awaiting the executioner's block. I gave myself a mental shake, pushing aside the shivery premonition that I should simply turn the car around and head back the way I'd come. I swallowed the last of the coffee. A chill had begun to steal up from the foot well and whisper across my shoulders since I'd turned off the ignition, and it was probably this that was causing my bad mood, or maybe it was simply the bleakness of the weather.
I started the engine again and left it running so that the heat crept gradually back through my veins. A truck sped past, throwing up sheets of filthy spray. The car rocked with a whoomp that made me tighten my grip on the plastic cup as I fixed it back onto the thermos and glanced around to check that all was well. The car was loaded to the ceiling with everything I had ever owned. Boxes, suitcases, potted plants, bedding, bags. Twenty-five years of accumulation was piled behind me.
A plaintive mewing came from the seat beside me, where the pet carrier containing my traveling companion, Mitsy the tabby cat, was sitting. I poked my fingers through the wire mesh and stroked what I could reach of her face, and she rubbed her furry cheek against my fingers with a purr. The touch of her warm body brought new confidence flooding into me. I could hardly believe I'd ever considered leaving her behind. Mitsy watched with huge soulful eyes as I withdrew my fingers and fumbled the road atlas open on the dashboard with renewed resolve.
"Looks like we've got a ways to go yet." I surveyed the map, following the route with my finger, tutting with irritation when I realized the highway I wanted went off over the page. I searched for the continuation of the route. "I knew I should have gotten a GPS," I told Mitsy with a rueful grin.
When I looked up again, I realized that the rain had turned thin and sleety-looking, almost like snow, and was driving hard against the windshield at an angle. "Time to go." I slipped the atlas down beside my seat and turned the windshield wipers on.
Nosing my car back onto the main road, heater humming, lights on, and wipers swishing back and forth, I found that the traffic had thinned out considerably. It was just as well, I thought, as the sleet was thickening into large flakes of snow and increasing in ferocity. Already the grubby grass in the median strip was becoming blanketed in ice crystals, and the fields and woods that flashed by were speckled with white.
Half an hour later, the world outside the car had become a white blur. Thinking I might find a bed-and-breakfast where I could take shelter, I left the highway and took a smaller road that wound between high hedges, which gave partial protection from the billowing snow. With headlights and wipers on high now, I inched forward, hoping nothing would come careering from the opposite direction, but it seemed that all other traffic had already found refuge; I had the road to myself.
Minutes stretched into what seemed like hours. My doubts returned with a vengeance, and I realized I was perspiring with anxiety, despite the cold outside. I came at last to a crossroads, but the open space exposed me completely to the elements, and my car shuddered beneath the onslaught of heavily falling snow. The tires slipped as they fought to gain traction on the snow-covered road. The flakes that fell against the windshield were huge, obscuring the signposts, disguising the countryside, and distorting my sense of direction.
Trying not to panic, I leaned forward, hands tightly gripping the steering wheel, and I looked at the street signs. Nothing seemed to make sense. Eventually I guided the protesting car left, down what looked like the wider of the turns. I hadn't gone very far before I began to doubt my choice. The drifting snow was collecting in ditches on either side of the road, making the road almost impassable--certainly too narrow to risk a three-point turn. For better or for worse, it seemed I was stuck with my decision.
I came eventually to a stone bridge that, if I hadn't been lost in a snowstorm, might have been quite pretty. Immediately after passing over the bridge, the road began to climb quite steeply, and the car's wheels spun and whirred as I inched forward.
"This isn't good," I told Mitsy through gritted teeth. "Not good at all."
Despite the muffled slowness of my progress up the hill, it seemed to me that everything inside the claustrophobic confines of my car was gradually gathering momentum, making everything feel suddenly intense and noisy. I had the headlights full on, windshield wipers battling away, and the heater blasting a clear patch on the inside of the windshield. The engine whined and protested as it labored up the steep incline.
I was getting desperate; if I could have thrust the car forward by sheer willpower alone, then we might have made it, but just below the summit the car faltered and began to slide backward down the hill. I floored the accelerator in a desperate attempt to regain control, but the wheels spun, the engine shrieked indignantly, the car lurched sideways as it continued its downhill slide, and after a few terrifying moments of gathering speed, we slewed to an abrupt halt with one back wheel jammed against a sapling at the opposite side of the snow-covered lane.
For a moment I was frozen with shock. The car was at such an angle that I felt I was hanging backwards and to one side in my seat. Reaching forward, I killed the ignition, and things were suddenly deathly silent. Giant snowflakes fell softly against the windshield, and then I heard a sharp crack followed by the tearing, grating sound of metal ripping wood.
Looking over my shoulder, I realized with horror that the spindly snow-covered tree that had stopped my car's descent was splintering under the weight of the loaded vehicle. At any second it could give way completely and the car would continue its slide toward the bridge I'd crossed at the bottom of the hill, or worse, plunge toward the swollen river itself.
Mitsy broke the silence by howling piteously beside me. The long heartfelt yowls jolted me back into action. I shifted carefully in the precariously wedged car, unclipped my seat belt, and reached for my coat, which was on top of the pile on the backseat, but the car groaned and trembled with the movement, and I turned quickly back and sat very still, my hands clasped in my lap. The car stopped moving.
After a moment I resolved to try again, and inched my fingers toward my cell phone, which was on the seat beside the cat box, but my shaking hands only succeeded in nudging it onto the floor, where it fell with a clunk and slid under the seat, out of reach. Holding my breath, and very carefully, so as not to upset the balance of the car, I reached sideways with my right hand and lifted the handle of the pet carrier, easing the box over onto my lap. The change in weight caused the car to tremble and creak, but it didn't move. With my other hand I tried slowly pushing open the driver's door. It seemed incredibly heavy, as the angle of the car meant I had to push upward and out at the same time.
With the carrier lodged between the steering wheel and my chest, I shoved harder at the door, using all the strength in my arm and shoulder. For a moment I thought I wasn't going to be able to move it, but then it swung back; the car bucked against the tree with the sudden movement, and immediately snow rushed in, stinging the left side of my face, arm, and leg. The tree creaked against the metal of the car, protesting and cracking under the weight, and suddenly it gave way altogether and the car broke free.
For a split second the car seemed to teeter in midair. With a mighty heave, I dragged Mitsy's carrier off my chest and made a desperate leap from the vehicle just as the door swung down again. The crushing weight smacked heavily against my temple as I dived for safety, knocking me half-senseless. I landed awkwardly in cold, deep snow. Somewhere in my befuddled brain, I was vaguely aware that the car was sliding backward. It rolled away from me down the hill, snapping small trees and twigs as it went. I watched, stunned, as it slewed sideways, missing the narrow bridge, and launched itself backward with a last suicidal plunge into the fast-flowing river below.
Full consciousness returned with the realization that I was huddled in deep snow on the shoulder of an empty road with what sounded like a cat's mewing ringing in my ears. My head hurt and my jeans and sweater were soaked through. As I shivered uncontrollably, a mixture of bewilderment and fright flooded through me; I had absolutely no idea who I was or how I had come to be here.
My mind felt sluggish and my stomach tightened with fear as I sat up and stared around me, blinking through snowflakes that were landing thick and fast on my face and lashes. I reached up to brush the cold wetness from the long hair fringing my face, and my hands came away sticky with red clotting blood. So this body was injured, I thought numbly, but why, how? What was I doing way out here freezing slowly to death in the snow?
A cat meowed again somewhere nearby. Looking around, I saw a plastic pet carrier lying close by. So I hadn't imagined the sound; there really was a cat. But what had I been doing out in the middle of nowhere in such weather and with a cat in a box?
Blinking away the moisture that was collecting on my lashes, I peered through the billowing snow, looking for any possessions that might belong to me, but apart from the partially buried cat box, the freshly fallen snow was empty of clues.
Snow beat against me, freezing on my face as I struggled unsteadily to my feet. I knew I had to get moving. Straining my eyes through the blizzard, I felt a momentary rush of hope. Could that be a cluster of buildings? I wasn't sure, but . . . yes, wasn't that smoke rising from a chimney in the distance? After drawing in a cold raggedy breath, I swallowed hard, trying not to cry. Maybe the cat and I--whoever I was--could make it there.
It was eerily silent in the snow. Taking a deep icy breath, I tried to pull myself together. I couldn't leave the cat to freeze, so I fumbled to pick up the carrier, and started gingerly up the hill, slipping and sliding in inadequate boots, until I reached a footpath, ankle-deep in snow.
Soon I could no longer feel my toes. My head was swimming, and my breath was coming in short gasps, clouding the air in front of me as the snow continued to batter me--little pinpricks of icy cold stinging my cheeks, eyes, and hands like tiny bullets. Every so often an overhanging twig would snatch at me, unloading a torrent of fresh snow down my neck. My nose was running, my eyes tearing, and I was shivering so violently that my teeth were no longer chattering but crunched together in a permanent grimace. Every step was a challenge now, every breath an agony, and the weight of the cat seemed to be wrenching my arms from their sockets, creating a dull ache across my back.
And then, as I tried to shift the weight of the carrier slightly, my frozen feet shot from under me, and I pitched sideways into the snow, landing with a crash on my right side. The cat box rolled away from me into a bank of deep snow on the edge of the field. It hadn't gone far, but I was too cold and too exhausted to do more than drag myself to where it lay on its side in the thick snow and hunch my body over it.
Snow hammered against my back. I ran an icy finger along the mesh of the cage and I felt a wet nose press against me. I wondered vaguely if I should try to undo the catch on the carrier to let the animal go free; maybe then it would have a better chance of survival than it had trapped here with me. But I didn't seem to have control of my hands anymore, and it was just too much trouble when all I wanted to do was rest my aching head on the pillow of cold white softness and sleep. . . .
As I closed my eyes, a feeling of peace washed over me. I knew I shouldn't sleep here in the snow, but it was so comfortable with my head resting on my arms across the box, like floating on cotton wool. I couldn't feel the cold anymore, just a gentle emptiness. I dreamed that there was a tunnel ahead of me, somewhere where I would be safe and warm . . . warm and safe.
From the Trade Paperback edition.