In The Bleak December

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Elizabeth Becka Lansky


The gas pump handle felt like dry ice, even through her gloves. Nina switched hands and noted with unease the first flakes of snow, turned pink by the setting sun.

It was Friday, December 21st, and she was on her way to a Christmas party in the Rockies. A group of old college friends were gathering at a mountain retreat, the snowy forests were breathtaking, she was beautiful in a red velveteen dress. Now if she only had something to celebrate… she left the car and headed for the dingy but warm station, digging out a credit card. A few minutes later she was on her way.

Route 78 was a two-lane, meandering path through deserted hills, deep forest on one side, hollow valley on the other, both turning white. Generations would pass before urban sprawl affected this area, Nina reflected, driving carefully; an earlier rain had turned to ice.

The scenery gradually melted to a vast darkness. There were no houses, no other roads, no lights.

The old Mustang’s heater couldn’t keep up with the plummeting temperatures. She knew the windows were tightly closed but a slight noise came from somewhere; the faint whisper of a wind leak, almost like the sound of cloth brushing against itself. She shivered, wiggled her cold toes.

The darker it got, the harder it snowed. The swirling patterns caught by the headlights made her dizzy. The tires weren’t so much moving as sliding across the icy asphalt and they lost control entirely over fifteen miles an hour. The thirty remaining miles would take forever at this rate, inching around every curve.

How had Tony found this place? He wasn’t from Montana and she had never thought of him as the outdoorsy type. But cardiology paid well and he probably needed a tax write off. At least her old roommate Paula would be there.

She thought of the note Tony had scribbled at the bottom of the invitation: Please come. You had a life before marriage and you’ll have one afterwards.

As if. Just because he had parted amicably with little flower-child Lydia did not mean he understood the slightest thing about Nina’s divorce. For one thing, hers wasn’t amicable. Not at all.

The road curved sharply around a stand of pine trees and she swerved to keep the car in her lane. Not that it mattered much—she hadn’t seen or passed another vehicle for the past fifteen miles.

The wind sound whispered in the back seat again. With a start, she realized that she had had been fighting the road for at least two hours, maybe three, and was already late to the party. She dug out her cell phone to check the time, but the glowing screen said only, “No Signal.”

Did she even want to see them? Tony—and Paula and Cheryl, for that matter—had never hidden their opinion that her husband had been overbearing, crushing her into nothing more than a housekeeper, negating her personality until there was little left of the bouncy, confident co-ed. They all thought she was better off without him.

So did she, but still… who made Tony the All-Knowing Master of the Universe?

That brushing cloth sound again. Maybe she should stop and check the windows, she thought, glancing at the rear view mirror.

There was a split second of blinding light, and she stamped on the brake just as she saw the figure. Her car slid to a tenuous stop in the middle of the road.

A beat-up Chevy had come to rest in a snowdrift, headlights facing the wrong way. Its occupant was making a hasty, sliding beeline for Nina. She tensed.

It was a girl, clearly illuminated by stranded car’s headlights—long, flyaway hair, an ankle-length coat which flapped open to reveal a bulging stomach. She could not have been more than eighteen, and was at least seven months pregnant.

Screw caution, Nina thought in the time it took to reach over and unlock the door. The kid will freeze to death out here.

“Drive!”

The girl thrust her overlarge form into the passenger seat with surprising ease, and sobbed. “We have to get out of here! Drive fast!”

“What—what? Don’t you want to—?”

“He’ll kill me! Please, lady, just drive!”

Infected with panic, Nina drove. The back tires spun, caught, propelled them forward. She checked the mirror but saw nothing except the abandoned car, headlights blazing, door hanging open.

After a slow five hundred feet the girl controlled her gasping sobs.

“What happened?”

“He was hitting me. We went off the road. He’s trying to kill me so I won’t have this baby. But I’ve got to have my baby,” she wailed.

“What’s your name?”

A sniff. “Carly.”

“I’m Nina.”

The girl turned toward her, breathing on her fists. “Thanks for picking me up. We would have froze to death out there.” She was pretty enough, with fair skin and rosebud lips that covered slightly askew teeth.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, I think I’m okay. I bumped my head on the window, but it don’t hurt much. Nothing compared to what he’s done to me before.”

“Don’t worry. I know we’re not going very fast, but there’s no way he could catch us.” Unless he got that Chevy out of the snow. “I’m not from around here,” Nina went on, trying to soothe. “Where should I take you?”

“I don’t know,” the girl said in quiet despair, nibbling at her cuticles, pausing only for furtive glances out the back window. “I haven’t got anywhere to go. My folks won’t take me back. His folks won’t speak to me. I don’t have no friends.”

“How about the hospital? Or the police station? You could file a report.”

“I’ve filed reports. It don’t do no good. Last time I spoke to a cop he came home and took a beer bottle—one of those long-neck kind, and—”

A few more details and Nina cried: “Okay! Okay, Carly, I’m very sorry. I wish I could help you, but I’m just passing through. Is there a town coming up?” She didn’t mention Tony’s house. No way was she showing up there with Carly in tow.

Carly thought for some time. “There’s Barton,” she said finally. “It should be another ten miles. It’s at route 38.”

“Okay.” And you’re going to the police station, Nina thought. Whatever they can do for you will be more than I can. She retrieved her cell phone, wishing she could talk to Tony. No Signal.

“Thanks for picking me up,” Carly said again, digging a mint out of her pocket. “It’s awfully nice of you.”

“That’s all right.”

“You’d probably be a great mother. I won’t, even though I’m going to try real hard. But you’d be good. Do you have kids?”

“No,” Nina smiled absently. The lines on the road were not visible. There were no other tire tracks, not even Carly’s, though she had to have come that way. “It’s not something I was ever interested in.”

“You weren’t?” Carly asked, her voice disproportionately incredulous. She gaped at Nina. “You don’t want to have children?”

“No, not really.” Body heat had warmed the Mustang, despite that wind-leak sound.

“I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to have a baby if they could.”

“I mean,” Nina amended, “it’s a wonderful thing, just not for—”

“It’s a sin not to have children,” Carly finished darkly.

Nina gulped. This is ridiculous, I saved this kid’s butt and she’s all but holding a hot poker to my face. “Well, I’m divorced,” she offered. “So I can’t now, very well.” She didn’t add that it was only since last month.

She waited for Carly to say that divorce was a sin, too, but the girl just stared, her face intensely suspicious. Finally, she said, “Have you ever been pregnant?”

“Carly, really, this isn’t—”

“Have you?”

“No,” Nina said. Where the hell is Barton? Her eyes flicked to the rear-view mirror, half-waiting for the Chevy’s headlights to come up behind them.

“You’re not pregnant now?”

“No,” she said, more surprised than annoyed. “Definitely not. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m very healthy,” Carly said flatly.

Nina turned the heat down, and changed the subject. “Who is this ‘he’ you refer to? Your husband?”

“He didn’t marry me. He’s just my boyfriend. He don’t want no baby either.” She fell silent, turning now and then to look out the rear window.

Nina watched a flash of color in the snow ahead, a piece of blue. A mailbox, with two bedraggled balloons and a hand-lettered sign reading “Nina, turn here.” Tony’s house.

No. She felt sorry for Carly, but she was not taking responsibility for the girl one minute more than was strictly necessary. Carly needed a battered women’s shelter and years of counseling, neither of which Nina could provide. Besides, she gave Nina the creeps.

Why? Because, if not for an accident of birth, she could be you? You could be the one with an eighth-grade education, fleeing an abusive ex-boyfriend, with nowhere to go? Is that why you’re in such a hurry to get rid of her?

Whatever.

They passed the mailbox. If Carly noticed it, she said nothing.

Another hour passed, in near-silence. Nina began to regret her decision to spend the entire evening driving through a frozen wasteland with a mad ex-boyfriend possibly in pursuit. The road was endless.

“Turn here,” Carly finally said, pointing to a narrow road which branched to the north.

“Is that the way to Barton?”

“Yes.”

Nina turned, and drove for another hour, watching the gas gauge slide. If only the sun would come up, she found herself thinking, at least I could see where I am. I might be nowhere, but at least I could see.

“There he is!” Carly burst out, grabbing the wheel and giving it a hard jerk. Before Nina could scream the car slid in a sickening descent over the shoulder and down the steep hillside. Nina’s head hit the steering wheel.

She had no way to know how long she’d been unconscious. Chilled through to the bone, she was alive only because the car was still running, heater blasting away, fighting the cold air from the open passenger door. She started to move, slowly.

The driver’s side of the car pointed uphill, so she slid out the passenger door, plunging her frozen feet into snow up to her calves. Damn women’s shoes.

There was a small circle of visibility around the car where the snow reflected the glow of the headlights. The Mustang didn’t seem damaged, but nothing short of a wrecker was going to move it. The snow at her feet was a mass of shoeprints, boots big enough for a man, moving frantically in all directions.

“Carly?” she called. Her voice disappeared into the forest.

Had he caught up with them? How? They had changed roads… was it just another car and Carly panicked? Did it stop? Did it take Carly, and leave her?

She opened the trunk, pulled on sweatpants, socks, and boots. The night was near-silent around her, only the soft roar of the wind through the pine trees and the occasional call of a night animal. She turned the car off, doused the lights, retrieved her purse and useless cell phone and turned straight into someone standing behind her in the night.

“Carly!”

“He’s here,” the girl whispered. “I lost him in the woods. Let’s go. Careful touching me, I’m bleeding.”

“Go where?” Nina demanded, even as they began the ascent to the road.

“Shhhh. Anywhere. We have to keep moving.”

“Carly—”

With surprising strength the girl pulled Nina along, helping her until they stood on the slick asphalt. Starlight bouncing off the snow gave the road a vague shape, but it was still too dark to see tire tracks, skid marks, any sign that another car had been there, or was still there. They began to walk.

“Why are we going back to 78?” Nina whispered.

“We’ll never make to Barton. It’s uphill all the way.”

Nina didn’t argue. She had no strength for anything except putting one foot in front of the other. Their only option was to keep moving, keep from freezing. The road was just as slick on foot as it was in a car. They walked for hours.

“We’re not going to make it,” Carly said once.

“Yes we will. When the sun comes up, we can see if there are any houses around. It will be all right, Carly.”

Hours later they reached 78 and kept walking without comment.

Nina knew dawn was coming when she could see her feet against the snow. And Carly’s large boots.

She looked at the girl clinging to her arm. And looked again.

“Carly—”

The girl kept walking.

“Carly,” Nina insisted and stopped, shivering. She was staring at the girl’s midriff.

Somehow, Carly wasn’t pregnant any more. Under the coat, her belly was as flat as Nina’s.

Carly looked. Her anguished screams rocketed through the forest, face awash in fresh tears. She clasped her hands to her stomach and keened. “My baby—”

“What happened?”

“He took my baby!”

Nina was no doctor, but she was pretty damn sure that no one could walk all night, with no signs of distress, immediately after a miscarriage. Unless that person had never been pregnant in the first place.

She shivered even more violently. Who the hell was Carly? Who was this girl who was now wiping her face, calming down, saying, “But I have to have a baby.”

“Carly—”

“I’ll have to take yours.” There was an open pocketknife in her tiny, gloved hand.

Nina stumbled backwards, nearly slipping on the icy road. “I’m not pregnant!”

“That’s what you said, but that was just to throw me off. I know it. No one wants me to have a baby. My folks said I can’t. The doctor said I can’t. But I will.”

This is what it comes to, Nina thought. I’ve been running away from shadows all night, and it was right next to me.

There was a distant rumble and a car rounded the corner; the headlights blinded Carly. Nina slipped and fell. A figure approached, a silhouette in boots and a hat.

“Now, Carly,” he said. “What’s going on this time? And put that knife away.”

The trooper helped Nina up and offered her a place in his car, next to the heater. But that was too close to Carly, caged in the back seat. She’d rather freeze.

“She said— her boyfriend—”

“Carly hasn’t ever had a boyfriend, ma’am. It’s just her imagination. You sure you ain’t hurt?”

Another car drove up, a sudden traffic jam in the desolation. But this one wasn’t a trooper. It was Tony, and she was damn glad to see him.

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Elizabeth Becka Lansky is a struggling suspense novelist. She works for a small Florida police department but remembers the deep cold of northern winters, as well as her life as a trace evidence scientist at the Cleveland, Ohio, Coroner’s Office. She writes a column, “Forensic Science for the Mystery Writer” on Suite101.com. She can be reached at lisabecka[at]hotmail.com.