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Merci Carson sucked in a fear-filled breath as the car she was a passenger in swerved on the icy country road. The jumpy view through the windshield fed her panic. Her stomach clenched. She braced her hand on the dashboard.
The driver, Lorelei Frank, gripped the wheel and pumped the brakes. The car fishtailed. Lorelei over-corrected. Both girls screamed at the same time as the car veered off the road and wedged in the snow. Lorelei killed the engine, let out a heavy breath and pressed her head against the back of the seat. "That was really scary."
Merci sat stunned. She pried her fingers off the dashboard and waited for her heart rate to return to normal. "I wonder how badly we're stuck." She took in a deep breath and rolled down the window. Frozen air hit her face as she leaned out for a view of the front wheel. This high up in the mountains, there was snow almost year round. Still, it felt unusually cold for March. "It doesn't look that bad. Maybe we can back out."
Lorelei clicked the key in the ignition, but the engine didn't turn over. Her hand fluttered to her mouth. "Oh, no."
"Try one more time. Wasn't the engine still running when we got stuck?"
Lorelei nodded and reached for the key. She clicked it back and forth several times. Each time Merci felt as if a vise was being tightened around her heart. The bleak winter landscape only made her more anxious. If they couldn't get the car started, who would come to help them? The last car they had seen was right before they had turned off the highway to take Lorelei's shortcut.
"This is my fault." The deep crevice between Lorelei's eyebrows gave away the level of guilt she must be wrestling with. "I've only taken this road in the summer. It's almost spring, I didn't think the snow would be such a factor."
"It's okay." Merci hoped she had been able to hide the encroaching fear from her voice. Lorelei had been kind enough to offer her a ride to her aunt's house in Oregon for spring break after her own car had broken down finals week, two days before she needed to leave. After a stressful quarter, Merci had been desperate to see her Aunt Celeste. She patted Lorelei's hand. Playing the blame game wouldn't get the car on the road again. "You were only trying to get us there faster."
"Let's try one more time." Lorelei's hands were shaking as she reached to turn the key in the ignition.
Merci held her breath.
Please, God, let the car start.
Nothing. No engine noise. The car was dead.
Lorelei pulled the key out of the ignition and sat back in her seat, staring at the ceiling while she bit her lower lip. "We must have damaged something when we went off the road."
Merci pressed her palms together. They were stranded, but they were not without hope not yet. They still had options.
Merci took her cell phone out of her pocket. She stared at the purple sequined cover. Who could they call? They were seven hours away from the college and six away from her aunt's house in Oregon.
Lorelei combed her fingers through her short blond hair. "I'm not sure where I put my phone."
If she called her aunt, she could look online for them and find out if there was a tow truck in this area that could come to get them. "I've got some charge left on mine." She flipped it open. The "no service" message flashed in front of her.
Lorelei sat up and looked at her.
Merci tried to ignore that sinking feeling in her gut. She closed the phone and responded in a monotone. "The mountains must be blocking the signal." Nobody was going to come for them.
Both women sat staring out their windows, not saying anything for a long moment.
Merci said a quick prayer and mustered up some optimism. She wasn't giving up that easily. "Let's see if we can dig the car out of the snow and then figure out why it won't start." She didn't know much about cars, other than how to put gas and oil in, but they were running out of options.
Lorelei's expression, that mixture of fear and despair that caused her forehead to wrinkle, didn't change, but she shrugged and said, "Okay. What else can we do, right?"
"Exactly." Merci pushed open her door. Strong wind assaulted her before she could get her hands into the sleeves of the lavender dress coat she grabbed off the seat. She let out a breath. The chill cut right through her even after she put the coat on. Rolling the window down had only given her a taste of how cold it was. They'd been insulated in the heated car.
The dark clouds in the sky indicated that a storm was on the way. Bad weather was not what they needed right now. They would have to work fast.
Moving both their suitcases out of the way, she checked the trunk for a shovel. Empty. Okay, so Lorelei didn't believe in bringing tools with her. Maybe it had been her responsibility to make sure they were better equipped for emergencies. Lorelei was at least four years younger than her. Because she had paid her own way through college by working a year and going to school a year, Merci was older than most college seniors. Her own car had everything she needed for any kind of emergency, but it wasn't running. She knew about being prepared in the harsh Northwest winters.
She closed the trunk and walked around to the front of the car where Lorelei kicked snow away from the driver's-side tire. Merci pulled her gloves from her pocket. The snow didn't look that deep, and only the front tires were stuck. The back tires were still on the road.
Lorelei leaned over to examine the car tire. "Sorry, I should have brought a shovel."
"You must have a bucket or some kind of container in the car. If so, then we'll need something to create traction like sand or kitty litter." As cold as it was, they weren't going to last very long before they had to return to the car to warm up. Without the ability to run the heat, even that survival tactic wasn't going to do them much good for long.
"I don't think I have either of those, but I can look for something to shovel with." Lorelei returned to the car's backseat to search.
Merci crossed her arms over her chest. She stared at the winding path the car had taken though blowing snow had already drifted over some of their tracks. It was too far to walk back to the main road that way. Besides, didn't all survival shows say to stay with your vehicle? Anxiety knotted her stomach all over again. Had it come to this already, thinking about how they would stay alive? Just moments before, they had been singing along to one of Lorelei's CDs.
The graying sky indicated that more snow was on the way. This time of year, it got dark early. They had maybe a two-hour window before darkness and colder temperatures meant they would be huddled together and freezing in the car. They had to get out of here.
She leaned down and pushed away the snow with her gloved hand. Working at a frantic pace, it took only moments before she was out of breath. Fighting the wind drained her strength, and her face felt like it had been dipped in a block of ice.
Oh, God, we need help or a better idea about getting this car moving.
The car door slammed, and Lorelei let out a yelp that sounded almost joyful.
Merci pushed herself to her feet. Up the road in the direction they had come, headlights shone. Merci breathed a sigh of relief. Sometimes God took forever to answer prayer, and sometimes He answered on the spot.
The car pulled ahead of them and came to a stop.
A man in a leather jacket and thick sweater got out of the driver's side. "What seems to be the problem here, ladies?" The man's dark black hair was cut short and slicked back. The huskiness in his voice gave away a smoking habit.
Lorelei rocked from heel to toe. "Boy, are we glad to see you. We got ourselves stuck and now the car won't start."
A second shorter, broader man dressed in a puffy orange down coat got out of the passenger side. He looked to be in his early twenties and had long wavy hair. The stringiness of his hair indicated that a shower was a couple of days behind him. Duct tape covered two holes on his oil-stained coat.
The taller man walked toward them, addressing Lorelei. "Why don't you ladies warm up in our car? I've left it idling. We'll see what we can do."
"Oh, thank you," Lorelei gushed.
Treading through the snow, Merci followed Lorelei. It seemed a little odd that the guy had pulled out in front of them instead of stopping behind, and the men had a greasy unwashed quality that was off-putting. But what did she care? She needed to get beyond her own prejudices. God had sent help; that was what mattered. Besides, these men were their only hope of getting back on the road. She slipped into the backseat while Lorelei occupied the front passenger seat. The car was toasty warm.
Lorelei took her gloves off and laced her fingers together. "This was a stroke of luck."
To Merci it was an answer to prayer, but she didn't know Lorelei well enough to know if she would understand. They had only had a few classes together and lived in the same dorm.
From the backseat, Merci turned around to see what was going on. One of the men had popped the hood, which blocked most of her view. She couldn't see where the tall man in the leather jacket was. From this angle, it was hard to tell, but it looked as if the trunk was open, too. He'd figure out soon enough that there wasn't a shovel in there. Guilt washed through her. It wasn't right for her to just sit here. She needed to get out and help.
Lorelei had put her earbuds in and closed her eyes. No need to disturb her.
Merci pushed open the door and stepped outside. As she walked to the back of the car, she heard the car door open. Lorelei must be following her.
Merci saw that the man in the orange coat had unzipped her suitcase and was rifling through it. Lorelei let out a loud gasp behind her.
"Stop stealing our stuff," Merci screamed at the men.
Did they intend to rob them and leave them here to die? What kind of people would do something like that?
The man reached into his coat and pulled out a gun.
"Just back off."
Merci froze in her tracks, focusing on the barrel of the gun. Intense fear made it impossible for her to scream.
The other man pushed open the door of the backseat, stepped out and absorbed the situation. "No way man, it wasn't supposed to go down like this," said the tall man in the leather jacket.
"Yes, put the gun away." Merci's voice trembled uncontrollably. She felt as if someone was shaking her spine from the inside.
"We'll give you whatever you want," said Lorelei. "Just don't hurt us."
The short man placed his finger inside the trigger guard.
In the pensive silence, snow fell softly on Merci's head in sharp contrast to the tornado of fear raging inside her. Would her next breath be her last?