The Dead of Winter

by Christopher Walder

I was headed home from work, my head reeling from the day’s events that had transpired. The cold winter sun hovered in the empty pale sky as I paced to my vehicle. My boss’s unsympathetic words continued to ring in my ears: “Connor, we’re going to have to let you go.” Over the last year, my hours had been gradually cut due to the state of the economy and outsourcing of the company. They had been getting rid of all employees with seniority, or those who were on the brink of getting their pension. I happened to be one of those people. I had been with the company since I was eighteen years old, and I was only a couple of years away from receiving an annuity. Now at forty, I was being forced to start over.

The engine of my ninety-six Ford Explorer droned down the deserted stretch of highway as I thought about what I was going to tell my wife, Monica. Staring through the grimy windshield at endless frozen barren fields, I tried to find anything to keep my mind occupied. Reaching into the pocket of my denim shirt, I grabbed my soft pack of Marlboro 100’s and brass Zippo, pulled out a cigarette and placed it between my lips, and with one flick of my wrist lit the stogie. Ronsonol and the stale stench of smoke wafted throughout the vehicle, as good ol’ Johnny Cash’s voice kept me company. With every puff of my cancer stick, I found myself becoming more relaxed. Although my body was becoming comfortable, my mind was uneasy. Thoughts stuttered through my mind as they choked on the smoke.

I couldn’t help but think about the house and my children. My home was on the verge of foreclosure, since we were behind on payments, and with Christmas just around the corner I wondered what Monica and I were going to do for our children—and whether or not we would have a home to celebrate it in. My thoughts became more frantic. I lit up one smoke after another, hoping it would asphyxiate them.

After an hour drive and ten cigarettes, I found myself less than a few minutes from home. The thick haze of smoke burned my eyes as I turned into the driveway. The force of the turn jerked the death stick from my mouth and sent it tumbling down the front of my shirt. With every bump of the cherry, fiery rain sprayed across my jeans and poured onto the cracked leather seats. Eventually the dense vermillion ember became wedged underneath my crotch and foam cushion. My eyes darted from the windshield to the worn seat, while I desperately fumbled to find it.

In my momentary lapse of judgment my foot slipped off the brake and slammed onto the accelerator. The engine roared and was immediately followed by a sickening thud and plastic shattering, as the SUV abruptly jolted. Without hesitation I stomped on the brake and the tires skidded across the gravel, bringing the vehicle to a sudden halt. Uncertain of what had just happened, I scowled over my shoulder to see what I had hit, but dust and smoke consumed the weathered SUV, making it impossible to see.

My frustration hit its flashpoint and turned to anger. In a fit of rage I flung the door open.  “Goddamn kids better not have left their bikes in the driveway,” I grumbled. “How many times do I have to tell them?”

The loose gravel crunched beneath my work boots as I made my way to the front of the vehicle to assess the damage. When I arrived, a gulf of frigid air lifted the veil of darkness that surrounded the Explorer. Chunks of gravel pierced my hands and knees as I got down on all four to search for what I had struck. Expecting to find a bike wedged in the undercarriage, I was shocked when I found nothing. Hesitantly I began to back up, when I noticed the broken headlight on the passenger side. Slowly I inched forward until I noticed something hanging from the single shard of plastic. There, swaying on the jagged sliver was a piece of pink fatty flesh with stray blonde hairs thrashing in the wind.

I reluctantly peered around the side of the vehicle. My heart crept into my throat. Goosebumps crawled up my flesh, causing every hair on my body to stand on end. Fear overtook me; I was afraid of what I would see. Then I noticed her mangled body lying motionless on the cold winter ground. It was my oldest girl, Katrina.

My heart pounded as I raced over to her nine-year-old body. Memories flooded my mind like the tears in my eyes. I thought about how Monica and I adopted Kat, when she was just a year old. She had perfect blonde hair and big brown eyes, and the first time I held her I felt what unconditional love was. Although we didn’t share the same blood, she was my precious baby girl. Now as I cradled Kat’s limp body, her once vibrant eyes remained shut and scuffled beneath her eyelids. Her golden hair appeared maroon in the fading sunlight. Tread marks were visible across her distended belly. I knew what I had to do. I had to get her to the nearest hospital two hours away.

I rushed to the hatch of my SUV, flung it open, and urgently searched for the winter emergency kit. Probing through the debris of crumpled cigarette packs and empty pop bottles, I eventually spotted the red duffle bag. Hastily I hurled the contents of the bag toward the passenger seat. Clothes, water bottles, and flares rained throughout the vehicle until I found a blanket to wrap her fragile body.

The beating of my heart brutally pounded against my sternum with every weary step I took towards Kat. Her body remained motionless. Every breath she drew became more desperate. The crevasses of my face became a riverbed for salted shame as I knelt by her side and began bandaging her tiny frame with the soft blanket. She remained still like a newborn while I carried her to the hatch of the beat-up Explorer and gently placed her in the bed of the vehicle. Before I snapped the door shut, I bent over and softly kissed her forehead.

Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I hopped into the driver’s seat. The ignition whined and squealed with every torque of the key. Frustration mounted my shoulders. “Goddammit! Start!” I slammed my fist into the steering wheel. “Please!”

Just as I said it, the engine turned over and began to sputter and whine. Placing my hand on the gear shift I threw it into drive. I made a U-turn, tires slipping on the loose gravel. A cloud of dust lingered in the rearview mirror as I headed down the rural roads.

A seemingly never-ending barbed-wire fence raced alongside my SUV. I only had mile markers and memories to help pass the time. With every second that passed, my eyes became fixed on the Timex clock in the center of the dash. The faded green numbers seemed to hesitate to change. I had to force myself to keep my eyes on the two-lane road ahead of me; the silence was driving me mad.

Amid the quietness came a sudden noise.

What is that?

Thump. . . thump.

I checked each of my side mirrors and only smooth asphalt was rapidly rushing by. Thump, thump, thump. Do I have a flat? My foot eased on the brake and I merged onto the dirt shoulder.

When I exited the vehicle, I immediately checked the tires on the driver’s side, only to see they were full. As I made my way to the passenger side, I noticed the noise again, but more rapid and frequent. THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP.  The Explorer began to severely shake, and I darted to the hatch. I slowly reached for the handle and twisted it. The door gradually opened and unveiled Kat’s body shaking uncontrollably, while coffee-ground colored foam spilled from her mouth. I became frozen in fear.

As I stood there in horror, the vibration of my cell phone startled me. I ripped it from my pocket. “Monica” flashed across the screen. I quickly placed the phone back in my pocket and slammed the hatch shut. Within a matter of seconds, my phone buzzed again. This time I decided to listen to the voicemail.

“Connor,” she said with worry in her voice. “There’s a severe winter warning going on and—well I just wanted to let you know. Jack and Layla haven’t seen Kat, since they went over to play with the neighbors. I know—how she likes to go exploring, but—but I’m just worried.” The phone trembled in my palm. I debated what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to call her back and confess, so I got back into the vehicle and headed toward the hospital.

With the accelerator mashed to the floor, the Explorer screamed down the highway into the waning daylight. After a few miles of desolated land, there stood a lonely sign with bold white letters:Angel Falls National Park – 10 Miles.” As we approached the exit, Kat started to regain consciousness. Whimpers and cries of agony filled the vehicle and began permanently etching themselves into my mind.  Her screams pierced my eardrums. Ten feet from the exit I pulled over to the shoulder. I needed out of the vehicle immediately.

The cold air burned my lungs as I clasped my hands together and pleaded for an answer to what I should do.  I knew it was more than an hour to get to the hospital. With my prayers unanswered, I found myself at the back of the vehicle examining Kat’s condition. As I looked at her beautiful face, she opened her eyes and stared into my soul. She attempted to speak and couldn’t, but her eyes spoke for her. They begged for mercy as I shut the hatch.

My hand traced the steel exterior of the SUV.  Every dent, paint chip, and piece of rust marked my time around the vehicle, until I found myself hunched over in the driver’s seat. Tears began to free-fall from my eyes. I became overwhelmed and found myself lying over the center console weeping uncontrollably on the passenger seat. Reluctantly I raised my head, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a dull black case among the mound of clothes I had hurled to the front of the vehicle earlier. I snatched it up and unzipped the bulky case. The contents were rapidly revealed as the Smith and Wesson .38 special flopped onto the passenger seat. My eyes ascended from the wooden grips of the weapon to the rearview mirror.  As I watched her labored breathing, my only option became more evident.