Emma struggled to avoid skidding toward the evergreen trees close to the pavement as snowflakes slanted across the country road that wound through the woods where she’d played as a child. When she’d worked as a nurse, she learned some of the veterans she cared for lived in these same woods. She wondered how her patients especially the ones with artificial limbs could survive the winter months here.
The snow obscured her vision but she thought she saw movement at the side of the road. She gripped the steering wheel, fearful of spinning out. Had she imagined it? At seventy-eight, she knew she had to monitor her eyesight regularly and her last check-up had been fine. There it was again. She could barely make out the two figures trudging along the breakdown lane through the slush and ice. How could they see her or the roadway with the wind whipping snow into their faces?
Even in a blizzard, she wasn’t going to offer a ride to strangers. No point asking for trouble. Decelerating for safety so as not to skid into the couple, she glanced away from the snow-covered road just long enough to realize one of them had the shape of a heavily pregnant woman. The man held an arm around her but she still looked as though she hesitated with each step.
She slowed to a stop not far from the couple. Perhaps they owned the car she’d seen abandoned on the shoulder about half a mile back. Leaning across her car, she opened the passenger side door and gasped as icy air rushed into the car. The young man smiled at Emma. Snow clung to his jacket and jeans. He couldn’t be more than twenty-one or –two.
“Where are you going? Can I give you a ride?” Emma said.
“We’d really appreciate that. We live a couple of miles up the road. Could my wife sit in the back and put her feet up? She’ll take her boots off.”
The young man opened the back door and assisted his wife into the car. Emma waited for him to climb into the passenger seat.
A chopping blow knocked her hands off the steering wheel. The man reached across and turned off the engine. Oh My God, she was trapped with no one to help her. How could she let this happen? Emma tried to grab the key so she could jab it in the young man’s face but something thick and soft was pulled tight around her face. The woman laughed as Emma struggled to breathe.
“At least we didn’t have to wait so long this time,” the woman said. “You were a genius to think of the baby bump.”
Emma struck out with both fists and connected with an unshaven cheek.
“Bitch,” the man said.
Whatever covered her face was pulled tighter. Rough hands grabbed her right arm and yanked it to the side and backward. Emma heard the bone snap. Pain paralyzed her.
“Enough, Grandma. My arms are getting tired holding this pillow,” the woman said.
Emma heard the man get out of the car. Twisting and turning in her seat, she grasped the woman’s hands and wrestled to pull the pillow off her face. The man opened Emma’s door and dragged her onto the road.
Emma noticed the woman’s smile of triumph as she dropped the pillow onto the back seat. She’d used it as a baby bump, as a blindfold, and to obstruct Emma’s breathing. Once out of the car, the woman tried to pull Emma’s hands behind her back. Emma kicked backward and managed to free her uninjured arm. The man slapped her face hard. She fought to keep her balance. The woman grabbed Emma’s arms and secured her wrists with duct tape. Waves of stabbing pain radiated to Emma’s right shoulder and wrist.
The man tied a scarf so tightly over Emma’s eyes that it irritated them.
“You lived too long.” The man pushed Emma forward.
Stumbling in the snow, she counted her steps. It might help to know how far they made her walk. Emma still had strong legs because she’d been active all her life but she doubted whether she could outrun the young couple. She had to conserve energy.
“What do you want?” Emma asked. “Money?” She’d used most of her cash but she had a credit card.
“We take what we want. Check her pockets.”
By the amount of force used, Emma guessed the man gripped her in a choke hold. Afraid he’d strangle her if she struggled, she still felt a rush of anger as fingers probed the pockets of her jacket and pants. Finally, the man let her go and pushed her to her knees.
“Nothing except a tissue and a piece of candy,” the woman said.
“Everything’s in your car. Plus keys to your house.”
A job well done his tone implied. Snow numbed Emma’s skin. She heard an engine start. As though she were a rag doll, she was picked up and dumped astride what could be a snowmobile. Sandwiched between the two young people, she felt the vehicle jump forward and the motor’s vibrations shoot down her broken arm as they sped uphill.
“This is a lot easier than the sled we used for the first one.” The woman’s voice faded in and out. “No one will ever see our snowmobile behind all those trees. You think of everything.”
The wind hurt Emma’s teeth. She’d lost her hat in the scuffle beside her car. Her ears ached. At last, the vehicle spun and stopped.
Hands shoved her, knocking her off the snowmobile. Emma fell hard, her right arm under her. Snow muffled her cry of pain.
Emma struggled to sit up, to escape the wet snow on her skin. With her wrists tied, she had to push on her knuckles and kept falling back. What did they plan to do with her now—break more bones?
“Bitch was a lousy mother, would’ve let us go if she could’ve got away with it.”
Emma heard a hint of sadness in the man’s voice.
“Your classmates, the ones who put the puppy’s half-eaten body in your locker at school weren’t your friends and they still aren’t.”
“They didn’t kill it. Mom did.”
Emma shivered. The woman sounded as though she’d do whatever the man wanted. Emma couldn’t drive a wedge between them. What did the woman see in him? He obviously had issues. In Emma’s experience, men who hated their mothers rarely made considerate lovers.
“I drop out of school to get a job to help her and the second I’m fired, she kicks me out. I should’ve iced her years ago.”
“I know people who can help you with a place to live and a job,” Emma said.
“Shut up.” The hate in the woman’s voice made Emma recoil. “Let’s get out of here. She’s history.”
The snowmobile started up. Struggling to free her hands, Emma heard the chug of the engine diminish until there was nothing except the howl of the wind and the splat of wet snow falling into more snow. Pain in her broken arm dominated her thinking. She couldn’t give in to it. She bit into her numb lower lip.
Had the wet snow weakened the duct tape? Moving her body like a clumsy beached walrus, she used her frozen fingers to search beneath the snow for a young shoot or a sharp rock she could use to cut the tape. By the time she located a prickly low shrub, she no longer felt her fingers. Looping her wrists over a short branch, she pulled away from it, gasping as her right arm throbbed. Crying aloud, tugging with all her strength, she split part of the tape. She dragged her good hand free and pushed on it until she sat upright.
Her head bent forward so far that her chin almost rested on her chest, she waited for her breathing and heart rate to slow. The young couple might have left her to die but Emma had no intention of letting that happen. She needed only one hand to push off the blindfold. She had no flashlight and darkness pressed in around her. All her bones ached from the freezing temperature. Her struggling had made her perspire. She couldn’t feel the skin on her face and ears. Icicles made her hair heavy. She knew the danger of losing head heat.
She leaned against the shrub. If the prickles stuck in her skin, she didn’t feel them. Bending her knees, she tensed her leg muscles and dug her feet into the ground beneath the snow. With the help of her good hand and arm, she staggered to her feet. She took a step and stumbled as her legs shook. What was wrong with her? She’d lived in the Northeast all her life and knew cold. If she didn’t move, she’d die of hypothermia. But which way? Trees packed close together yielded no clues to help her pick a direction.
Her feet sank into deep snow. She knew the part of the woods close to where she’d stopped to pick up the young couple. The dense canopy of overhead branches blocked out moonlight so she couldn’t see the time on her watch and had to guess how long she’d spent on the snowmobile. They’d driven uphill so, whether the couple had taken a direct or diagonal route, she knew she would eventually hit the narrow clearing where fire had destroyed all the trees or she’d reach the lake. If she arrived at the clearing, she’d travel west until she found the lake. Hunters made camp close by. Buoyed by the hope she wasn’t completely lost, she stepped forward.
The first time she stumbled, she put out her right hand to save herself and cried out as the ragged ends of her broken bones jammed against each other. She had to keep moving and used her good hand to push against tree trunks to gain extra momentum. Something plopped rhythmically into the snow—she froze. Had to be paws, not feet. Prey animals sought out the vulnerable. She imagined a wolf with hot, smelly breath sinking its teeth into her neck. Teeth breaking through the skin would hurt but what about when they reached muscle and bone? Snow hid any sticks or small rocks she could use as a weapon. The bite of a hungry animal could immediately cut off her air supply and blood to her brain, certainly a better death than being mauled and eaten alive.
The sound of movement through the snow receded. She heard only the wind and the rattle of ice on pine needles. Thick branches helped shield her a little from the falling snow. Trying to ignore the icy water in her boots, she imagined the orange-red of a blazing fire and the smell of roasted chicken.
Tears caused by the wind stung her cheeks. Her throat hurt and she had to take short breaths. Was this how life would end for her? Alone and so cold? As a nurse, she’d become familiar with death. She’d lived a full life. Perhaps she’d been luckier than the young couple that abandoned her. She shrank from believing people could be cruel for no reason. That would be like giving up on years of trust and hope. But she’d been stupid to offer a ride to strangers, and now thought how easy it would have been to dial 911 and gotten them assistance. The woman with a pillow stuffed under her jacket had reminded Emma of her daughter, the reason she stopped. A sentimental trusting old fool, Emma had to pay for her mistake. A pain in her side made her bend forward. She was so tired. She pulled back her shoulders. Giving up so soon, a voice whispered in her head?
She called out to her daughter and grandkids. If only she could see them once more. She leaned against a tree trunk. A long time ago, she’d realized she had to die to make room for other generations. She thought of young soldiers destroyed before they could enjoy peace and of children suffering illnesses that stunted their growth and stopped their play. Memories of what life had given her flooded her brain. Perhaps she was overdue for death but she never imagined it would be like this.
She pushed away from the tree trunk. As though they’d lost bone and muscle, her legs trembled. Her lungs burned from the cold. She made herself take another step, then another, the uneven ground jolting her spine. Eventually she’d drop into the snow. How could a seventy-eight year old heart keep up with the demands she placed on it?
At the edge of the lake, she dug beneath the snow with her boots, reached sandy dirt, and used it to cover the soles of her boots to provide traction. She took a step onto the ice and instinctively tried to raise both arms for balance but her right arm hung limply at her side. There was no possibility of her walking the distance around the lake. She kept her head down, focusing on where she placed her feet. How could the cold make her stomach and bowels hurt so much?
She thought of her husband, a good man who’d died too soon. She had no idea whether she’d see him when she died but now she felt his presence. Voices she remembered from long ago whispered but she couldn’t make out what they said. Her knees started to buckle and she had to hold her injured arm to her body because it wouldn’t break her fall. She heard a whooshing sound behind her but her neck hurt too much for her to turn her head. Without trees to lessen its power, the wind scoured her exposed skin. Using her one good hand, she struggled to pull up the back of her jacket to shield her ears and face. The shrieking of the storm and the swirling snowflakes took away her hearing and vision. She had to keep going towards the cabin she remembered close to the lake.
“Okay, Ma’am. You picked a real bad time for midnight skating.”
The human voice broke through her semi-consciousness. She smelled whisky breath and sweaty clothes. Someone picked her up, placed her gently on what felt like a sled, and wrapped course-textured blankets around her. There were two of them. One pushed and the other pulled a rope tied to the front of the sled.
“You’re vets who live in the woods,” she said.
“Don’t you dare tell anyone where we are or they’ll come around with social workers and priests.”
“When I worked as a nurse, veterans told me about your camps in the woods.”
“We’ll take you to the nearest emergency clinic,” the man with the thick beard and long hair said. “But we won’t be staying for the introductions.”
Emma reached out with her good hand to touch the man pushing the sled. “Thank you.”
“No problem. You’re the second skater we found this week.”