★ ★ ★ ★
Image by Maksym Sirman
Len and Mabel were parked on the road’s shoulder. Or at least, what Len approximated for it when he finally pulled to the side and cut the engine once they could no longer see anything but curtains of snow swirling crazily in the glow of the car’s headlights. They’d been sitting in complete silence for several long moments since neither could get cell reception out there in the middle of nowhere, their phones mute in their laps. They hadn’t seen a dwelling or another vehicle in either direction for over an hour. Except for the tiny, momentary clouds of their breath, it was pitch-black.
Finally, Mabel hissed, “Shortcut, my ass.”
Len pinched the bridge of his nose, though it was too dark for her to see it. He mumbled, “GPS said it would save fifty minutes. It was just a little snow storm then. How the hell could I know it would turn into this?”
Mabel let out a grunt. “You’re a stubborn fool. You were a stubborn punk when I was stupid enough to marry you forty-three years ago, and now you’re a stubborn, old dolt.”
Len’s own snort came like a small explosion. “Don’t even get me started on you.”
The wind whistled louder. They sat listening to it, stewing in their own juices, until Mabel said, “Turn on the heat. I’m freezing over here.”
“Can’t waste gas.”
“For a damn minute.”
She heard him give another snort, but he turned the key in the ignition. It made a click, and a grinding sound followed. Len tried again with the same result. Mabel heard the heel of his hand bang against the steering wheel. “Shit,” he hissed. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means we’re not going anywhere. Car won’t run.”
They each fumbled with their phones again, waving them about some more before lowering them slowly to their laps in defeat. The wind beat against the car in long, powerful gusts, rattling the windows.
“Okay, genius,” Mabel said. “What do we do now?”
Len clenched his jaw, staring straight ahead into the nothingness, then used exaggerated noises to lower his seat back and zip his coat to his chin. “We hunker down.” He tried to keep his voice even. “Get some shut-eye until this blows over and we can see what’s what.”
“We can’t do that. We’ll freeze to death.”
She heard him turn away and stretch out in his seat. When he sighed deeply, she reached over and smacked his shoulder. “You go ahead and sleep, you old fool. I’m going to see if I can get cell reception outside.”
He heard her release her seat belt and adjust her girth. Her door opened, the blizzard screamed inside, then the slamming door muffled it again. Len yanked up the collar on his coat and made tiny shakes of his head. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on slowing his breathing. He knew better than to attempt to change her mind; she had no sense when she got like that. No matter what it was like outside, she wouldn’t be back until she was good and ready, and on her own terms. He blew out another long breath.
* * *
Len awoke with a start, disoriented, blinking rapidly. The wind scraped the antennae against the hood of the car. It took him a moment to get his bearings, to remember where he was. He sat up, jerked around, and felt across to the empty passenger seat next to him.
He whispered, “Mabel?”
Len said her name several more times into the darkness, louder each time, with no response. A clammy chill crept up his spine and his heart began to hammer. He threw open his door, lurched outside, and shouted her name. The whirling snow had grown even thicker, the wind whipping in shifting directions. He stumbled around to the other side of the car and used the flashlight on his cell phone to illuminate the area outside her passenger door. The snow there had become shin-high and looked as if it had never been touched; when he swept the light around the surrounding area, the drifts were equally deep and pristine.
Len fought through the wind and sheets of snow, his forearm shielding his eyes, shouting Mabel’s name into the din. He managed thirty or forty feet in all directions, but found no footsteps or signs of Mabel anywhere. Gone, vanished. His movements became frantic, his flashlight’s beam flickered weakly, his toes and fingers grew numb. Somehow, he found his way back to the car, yelled for her one more time, then clambered inside into its relative stillness. Len cupped his hands and blew fiercely on his fingertips so they could function enough to try his cell phone again, hoping to call hers, but there was still no reception. His shoulders slumped: the thin bar on his home screen showed that he was almost out of power, and she’d had their recharging cord in her coat pocket.
A huge gust of wind shook the car, followed by a loud sizzle and pop. His head snapped up in time to see a power line crossing the road ahead crackle bright like a Fourth of July sparkler as it fell through the night’s black drape, then blinked out. Just as suddenly, an image of Mabel as a young woman the evening he’d met her at a USO dance flashed into his mind: shy, reticent, so lovely. Now she was out there alone somewhere in the blizzard. The cell phone fell from his hand, clattering onto the floor mat, and Len began to weep. The howling outside intensified, as did the one inside him. He wrapped his arms around himself and leaned forward at the waist. Another power line further up the road sizzled, popped, and dropped, but Len had squeezed his eyes shut tight and saw nothing of it, hugging himself, rocking back and forth, back and forth, in the frigid darkness.
William Cass has had over 250 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He has received one Best Small Fictions nomination, three Pushcart nominations, and his short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was recently released by Wising Up Press. He lives in San Diego, California.