Friday, May 18, 2012

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I wrote this story for a class assignment while I was getting my masters at the U. of Northern Colorado in stinky Greeley. I say "stinky" because of the nearby cattle pens, hundreds and hundreds of them, and did it ever get ripe on hot summer nights. We were supposed to write a commercial suspense story like the ones in the Alfred Hitchcock Magazine. The teacher thought it was clever enough to submit to such a pulp magazine. I did, but they didn't, accept it, that is. Ah, well, rejected again.

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He crouched in a cluster of low brambles twisted and snarled by prairie wind, leafless now, but still adequate to hide him. His breath clouded around his head in the frigid air. Only moments earlier the sun had gone down, and now the landscape around him was obscured in the growing darkness and falling snow. It looked like a scene on the moon--desolate except for a line of bare cottonwoods along the road two or three hundred yards to his left and the occasional bushes in shallow arroyos, flat except for low hills and pockets as the land undulated toward the horizon. Immediately to his right was a deep ravine, dropping sharply nearly a hundred feet to a dry streambed. Meanwhile, the snow continued to slant down in the driving wind.

His heart was still pounding, but he was no longer gasping for air, and for the first time he realized how cold the wind was. His footprints leading to his hiding place were nearly gone now, wiped clean by the drifting snow. He looked to his right and could just see the sharp edge of the ravine and the darkness beyond where it tumbled to the stream bed below.

Think, you idiot! he shouted mentally. There had to be some reasonable explanation for what had just happened. His shock was beginning to diminish, but he still couldn’t figure out what was going on. His thoughts went back the few hours since his wife Betty had told him about her mother. Such a short time ago.

There had been repeated storm warnings on the radio that morning, but she’d insisted they had to go see her mother. She was dying, Betty said. And that was one of the things they’d fought about in the car. His mother-in-law lived nearly ninety miles to the west, ninety miles of the most desolate country imaginable--ranches widely scattered, magpies and jackrabbits and occasional range steer the only life one might see for miles at a time. Under the best of conditions it was a rough trip, but with a blizzard coming out of the northwest, it was insane.

“But I’m positive your mother wouldn’t want us to risk it, not with a storm coming up. I mean, she’s not actually dying, is she? It isn’t like this is the first time she’s dragged us out there for one of her imaginary illnesses.”

His wife shot him a look like a rattlesnake strike, and then her eyes shifted back to the road. “Look,” she said through clenched teeth, “I only know what she told me. And maybe this time she really is dying. We’re already nearly halfway, so why don’t you just shut up about it and let me drive, okay?”

She’d insisted she drive the first forty or fifty miles, or until the weather got too bad. Now she was apparently finding it more and more difficult as the snowfall became heavier and visibility worsened. She was hunched over the wheel concentrating on the road, but the anger between them was over more than just this trip or the storm or the tension of the driving. This had been a year of hostility--anger unspoken, anger spoken--and more and more loudly as their arguments became increasingly vicious. Their marriage wasn’t working.

Now that’s the understatement of the year, he thought. He’d tried to make it work. And he guessed Betty had too, at least at first. But not lately. Divorce had not yet been mentioned by either of them, but he’d been thinking of it more and more often, and he was sure Betty had also. Well, at least they didn’t have any kids to screw up, he thought as he stared out at the snow streaming diagonally across the highway ahead of them.

He noticed how tense and nervous she was as she worked at keeping the car on the road. The highway wasn’t icy, but if you weren’t paying attention you could lose track of where you were. The road was only two lanes, and the ditches were now snow-filled so there was always the chance of not noticing a curve and driving right into the ditch.

He checked the mileage, forty-two miles, and they were alone on the highway. They’d met a few east-bound cars just after they left town, but for the last thirty miles they’d seen only one car going east and none going west. Now the snow was beginning to pile up in drifts, small diagonal ridges running across the road ahead of them, the snow hissing along the newly sharpened edges of the drifts. The whine of their snow tires was softened and accompanied by a muffled bump whenever they crossed one of these ever deepening drifts. Forty-two miles, halfway there. No turning back beyond this point, he thought. God, how he hoped they didn’t get stuck out there in that desolation. The country was bad enough in the summer, but in the middle of a winter snowstorm it was madness.

The silence between them continued.

Then: “You want me to drive now, Betty?” She flinched as though he’d struck her, his words so apparently unexpected in the tension and previous silence.

“No!” she said too loudly. “No, I’ll . . . I’ll drive for just a little longer. Then you can take it the rest of the way.”

“You sure you’re all right? You sound like you’re about to explode.”

“Yes, dammit, I’m all right! Can’t you just shut up and let me drive?”

”What a wonderful trip this is,” he mumbled. This must be what hell is like, he thought, an eternal snow storm with him trapped in a car with a woman he didn’t even know any longer, doomed to drive forever across western South Dakota screaming at each other.

He turned on the radio and tried to find some news, but the static was so bad he couldn’t find anything worth listening to. A weather report would only confirm what he could see for himself--that it was stupid for them to be traveling in this weather. The whiteness of the snow as the flakes rushed into the windshield was hypnotic. He gave himself to the feeling and closed his eyes.

He was dreaming. He dreamed he was driving down a steep mountain road. He was alone and the road was impossibly narrow and rutted and strewn with boulders. He was driving in the half-light of dusk and was finding it harder and harder to see the road. It kept getting darker. And then the windows began to fog over, and the more he tried to see where he was going, the more the light shut down and the fog rolled around and into the car, like a heavy cloak muffling the light and his movement. He couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open, his eyelids drooping more and more, and he felt the danger as the car careened down the hill in its cocoon of darkness and fog.

He was jerked awake as he felt the car swerve and begin to slide sideways. Before he could register what was happening, the car slid hard into the snow-filled ditch. The impact of car and snow and ditchside threw him left into the steering wheel and he felt a sharp pain as his hand encountered the wheel and doubled back under his weight. Whump of snow and screech of metal and then it was over.

He pushed himself back onto the seat, wincing at the pain in his wrist. Stupid! Stupid! That would teach him for not wearing his seat belt. His wife, who was wearing hers, was still holding the wheel, staring straight ahead through the windshield.

“You okay?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said tiredly, without her previous anger. “Yes, I’m okay,” she said again, not looking at him, staring forward, seemingly fascinated with the whiteness outside.

Nothing wrong then, he thought. Nothing, that is, except they were stuck in a ditch in the middle of a frozen hell. He knew without looking there was no way to get out without help. And there could be no help unless he could somehow find a ranch or a farm to call a tow truck. He doubted if anyone would be crazy enough to come out in the middle of a storm to pull them out of a ditch. No, there would be no help until a county snow plow happened to come by. And if the storm continued much longer, even the plows wouldn’t be out until the next day or whenever the storm eased. A night in a cold car then. They had plenty of gas, but it would still be a long, cold night between the spaced running of the motor.

And his wife just sat behind the wheel, silent, staring forward.

His anger was slow in coming, but now the pain in his wrist and the frustration and futility of their married life all seemed to boil up and come together in this one stupid situation. He wanted to smash his fist into the window. Even the pain would be better than the bitterness he felt.

Just as his anger was about to erupt, a man appeared along the road. He was so surprised he forgot his anger. The man came up to the car and Dennis lowered the window.

“Man, am I glad to see you. I know you must think we’re pretty stupid to be out here in this weather, but we . . .”

The man only nodded as he opened the rear door and got in. Dennis turned in his seat and stared at the gun in the man’s hand.

“Wh . . . what is this?” he stammered. He glanced at Betty, but she gave no sign that she noticed anything . She was gripping the wheel and looking straight ahead.

“Hey, babe,” the man said. “I’d about given up on you.”

“All right, all right, Harry!” Betty replied in a strained voice. “Just get him out of here and get it over with.” Dennis looked from one to the other, his eyes wide with disbelief. He tried to say something, but nothing came out. This had to be some kind of crazy joke.

“Okay,” the man said to him. “Take your coat and get out of the car.” Dennis felt the gun prodding him in the back, but his mind refused to function. In his shock he automatically did what the man said. Even the icy cold of the wind didn’t rouse him. He stood in the snow and put his coat on as the man spoke to Betty.

“You sit tight till the storm blows over. The highway crews should be out in the morning, and they can’t miss you.” The man continued to watch Dennis as he bent to the window. The gun never wavered. “Just keep the motor running about half an hour at a time. Then off till it gets too cold, then half an hour again. You’ll have plenty of gas. Take care and I’ll call you in a week or so.”

She leaned over to roll up the window and her eyes met Dennis’s. She looked away. No hate there, only guilt and shame. Dennis could think of no reason for her to be doing this to him, whatever it was she was doing. He’d have given her a divorce if she wanted one.

The man forced him to walk along the highway until they came to a dirt road leading off into low hills. There were cottonwoods and bushes along the road, and Dennis noticed a Bronco parked among them. The deep snow make it difficult to walk, and Dennis stumbled and fell several times. He was coming out of his shock and he now realized what this probably meant. They were going to kill him! But why? They couldn’t possibly get away with it.

They had turned off the road and were going down a slight decline. Visibility was barely forty feet now, and patches of weed and bramble loomed out of the swirling whiteness like strange animals crouching in the snow. The ground under his feet was uneven, and the depth of the snow made walking treacherous. The man stepped on a hidden rock and sprawled forward in the snow with a grunt. Jim, without thinking, bolted down the hill.

He ran without thinking or caring, without knowing where he was going or what he would do when he could run no farther. He ran through swirling snow. He ran until his breath was ragged and a pain in his side made his continuing impossible.

Exhausted, he fell among the leafless bushes which grew in a shallow gully leading to the edge of the ravine. He lay face down, his head across his arms, unaware of the cold as he gulped air.

He recovered. His breathing slowed.

He was rested now and he was beginning to make some sense of the apparent senselessness. The running had cleared his head and he was no longer thinking in the vacuum of shock. There could be only one explanation. Betty didn’t hate him. Hate wasn’t her motive. The root of this evil was the oldest evil of all--money. Just after they’d gotten married, he’d taken out a mutual life insurance policy--straight life on each of them for $250,000 with a double indemnity clause which brought it to a nice half a million. Plenty of motive there. And the man, Harry, had to be a lover, someone she’d met in the past year who’d talked her into this plan, or who’d been talked into it by Betty. But how were they going to make it look accidental? Why did they have to get him out in this no-man’s-land in the middle of a blizzard? He tried to put himself in their place. If he were trying to make his death out here look like an accident, how would he do it?

And then he saw it. So simple. He almost laughed, but it wasn’t at all amusing. Harry wasn’t going to shoot him. He would lead him out away from the highway, rap him on the head, and then throw him in a gully, or more likely this same ravine he was hiding beside. Break a few bones and a head maybe. If he wasn’t dead when he hit bottom, he’d freeze to death by morning. It was simple all right. He could just imagine the explanation when someone finally found him: “This guy drives his car in a ditch and then wanders off in the night looking for help and gets lost in the snow. They never learn--you gotta stay with the car. Poor guy. Musta walked right over the edge without ever seeing it. Tough break. But I hear his wife’ll make out all right. Half a million bucks’ll dry a lotta tears.”

It took just seconds for these thoughts to run through his mind, but he was so engrossed he didn’t hear the man come up behind him. The gun was cold on his neck.

“Okay, wise guy, get up. And don’t even think about running away again.” Dennis knew what had to be coming. The shallow gully he was in led downward to the right. The man told him to start walking, and he prodded Dennis along with the barrel of the gun. Dennis picked his way carefully and as slowly as he dared without angering the man. When he felt the proximity of the ravine edge, felt it rather than saw it in the nearly total darkness, he gauged his step to bring him within three feet of the edge. Then he threw himself down and to the side and kicked his leg backward as hard as he could. He felt the shock of contact with the man’s legs, and the man tumbled past him and fell with only a single brief scream. The push could have come only at that instant, and Dennis had guessed right.

He got to his feet and stood for a moment looking down into the hidden depths of the ravine. There was nothing he could do for the man. It was too dangerous to try the climb down in the dark and snow. If Harry wasn’t dead from the fall, he would just have to wait until Dennis could take his Bronco to find help. That is, if he’d left the keys in it.

He turned away. He was exhausted. His nerves had been screaming ever since their crash into the ditch, and finally it was over and he could let down. It was very dark as he started back up the hill through the driving snow. The dirt road . . . out on the highway . . . the car slowly clearing through the snow.

The motor was running as he opened the door and Dennis immediately recognized the odor. The snow had drifted tightly around the car, holding it like a cocoon. For nearly half an hour the exhaust fumes had leaked up into the car . . . out of the hole in the torn muffler, held by the snow beneath the car until the carbon monoxide finally found its way up through the tiny air spaces in the car’s body.