By Sharon Mikeworth

Carli methodically searched the kitchen for anything even remotely edible. There had to be something she could take with her.
     She looked into the refrigerator, hoping for something she might have missed. She had already been reduced to pouring ketchup on crackers and eating pickles straight out of the jar. But she was no stranger to making do. Her parents had made sure of that. She slammed the refrigerator shut and pulled open the pantry. There was a jug of spring water she had bought for emergencies long agoand this certainly qualified. She pulled it out and heaved it up onto the table. At least she wouldn't be thirsty.
     Finally she walked back over to the trash can and fished out the empty jar of peanut butter she'd tossed after finding it in the back of a cabinet. Mark had mostly likely been the one to put it back there instead of throwing it out. She had forgotten about thathow he could be slack occasionally. She spent so much of her time missing him and wishing him home that she forgot sometimes about his less endearing habits.
     Using a butter knife, she meticulously scraped every bit of peanut butter left on the sides and bottom of the jar until she had enough to spread a thin layer on the two stale heels she found in an otherwise empty bread bag. Then, to the sandwich and water, she added the last of her saltines, a small package of Kleenex, a flashlight, and just in case, a book of matches and a pocket knife of Mark’s.
     She stared at the pile on the table and felt a little silly. Probably she wouldn’t need half of it. The walk was only about twelve miles or so. But still, it was better to be safe than sorry. She used to hike a lot with her friends from college before she married Mark. She had worked her way up to a pretty strenuous ten-mile hike, and this wasn’t much more than that. All she had to do was go up the back road they lived on until she hit Jenkins Bridge Road, then continue on down to Highway 11 and follow it until she reached downtown. There was an old convenience store right at the edge there that miraculously still had a pay phone she could use.
     She sorted through the supplies she had gathered, hoping she hadn’t forgotten anything. She couldn’t believe it was actually coming to this. Suddenly overwhelmed, she dropped down into one of the chairs. She couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around the situation. There had to be a better way. She looked over at the phone, but she knew it was useless. The power was still off, and would be off for God knew how long, which meant the cordless was out too. She should have called for help when she had the chance.

Things had started to go wrong when she'd driven into town to get a few items at the Piggly Wiggly.  But really, if she were honest with herself, the problems had started way before that.
     She drove the old Volvo Mark left for her whenever he commuted to work. He always took the newer SUV, saying he needed the more dependable vehicle since he traveled so much. The Volvo had been a little hard to start and she suspected it was the battery. Winter was in full force now and there had been several freezing nights recently. She would have to get the battery checked when Mark came home. Her mind tried to shy away from the thought, but it came anyway: What if he didn’t ever come home?
     In the beginning, for a long time, he had returned every weekend, and then it became every other weekend, and now he came maybe once a month, preferring to stay at the little apartment he rented close to his job.
     The parking lot was nearly empty. Only a few other souls had been willing to brave the cold this morning. On the way over the announcer on the radio had said it was only supposed to reach a high of twenty-five.
      She pulled her coat tighter about her as she climbed out into the buffeting wind, and hurried to the entrance.
     The warmth of the store was a welcome relief from the freezing cold outside. She waved to the familiar redheaded form of Andrea, one of the cashiers, grabbed a cart, and headed down the first aisle.

     As usual she got whatever she wanted without constraint. One of the things she enjoyed about being married to Mark was the ability to go into a store and choose anything. Not like when she was still living at home. Money had been so tight they'd always had to be very careful about what they bought, adding everything up as they went along so her mother could be sure to have enough when they checked out.
     After getting the staples she needed and a few other things, Carli grabbed a half gallon of milk, a carton of juice, and then threw in a bag of her favorite chocolates and headed to the checkout lane.
     Her debit card wouldn’t go through.
     "I'm sorry," she finally told Andrea after trying it three times. "I don’t know what the problem is." Mark always deposited money into the account for her each month. It had to be an issue with the card. I'll have to call the bank when I get home, she thought.
     “I guess I can write a check.” She went to pull out her checkbook and realized she didn’t have it. She knew where it was, too; it was in the desk drawer in Mark’s study, where he had put it after paying some bills the last time he came home. She usually brought it with her, just for situations like this, but she had forgotten.
     “I’m afraid I don’t have my checkbook with me,” she said. This was beginning to be embarrassing. She glanced around and was dismayed to see that the line behind her had grown to five or six people, staring at her expectantly, some of them shifting around impatiently.
     “Maybe you could try a smaller amount?” Andrea asked helpfully. Her voice was kind, and Carli was grateful.
     Carli looked at everything and tried to decide what to put back. She would just get whatever she absolutely couldn’t do without. She pulled over the toilet paperGod how humiliatingthe bread and peanut butter, and the coffee. She absolutely had to have her coffee. Then the sugar, and a few other things. The heck with the milk, I can drink my coffee without it if I have to. Andrea finished clearing out the register and started totaling everything up. At the last minute, Carli threw the bag of chocolate over defiantly. It would either go through, or it wouldn't. 
     This time with the total only being a fraction of what it had been before, the transaction was approved. Carli grabbed her bags, said, “Thank you” over her shoulder to Andrea, and practically ran out of the store.
     There was one horrible moment when she thought the car wasn’t going to start. Some of the other customers were starting to come out and were glancing over her way as she tried it again. Perfect, she thought, but then the engine finally caught, and she hurriedly backed out of the space, avoiding looking at anyone as she left the parking lot.
     After she got home, she called the bank and was stunned to hear that the usual monthly deposit had not been made. She immediately picked up the phone and tried to call Mark.
     “Rogers, Ballard, and Brannigan, how may I direct your call?”
     Carli recognized the cool voice of Tiffany, the new receptionist hired just a few months before. Right about the time Mark had stopped coming home as much. Carli put a stop to that thought almost as soon as it formed. She wasn’t ready to go there just yet. “Hi Tiffany, this is Carli Miller again. Is Mark available? I really need to speak to him.”
     “Just a minute, Mrs. Miller, I’ll check.”
     The phone clicked in Carli's ear as she was put on hold.
     Tiffany came back just a few seconds later. “I’m sorry, but he is in a very important meeting right now. Do you want to leave him a message?”
     “Yes, please tell him to call me as soon as he can.”
     “All right, Mrs. Miller.”
     “Thanks, Tiff …” she started to say, but Tiffany had already hung up. She put the phone down, her face burning.  No matter how many times she talked to her, Tiffany never lost that impersonal and sometimes borderline rude manner with her. She couldn’t help wondering if Tiffany had deliberately hung up on her.
     Over the next week she kept trying to reach Mark to no avail. Each call was met with the same impervious attitude. The last time, she had all but accused Tiffany of not giving him the messages, and Tiffany had assured her that Mr. Miller certainly was getting his messages and as to why he was not calling her back, she could not say, and Carli had slammed the phone down in frustration.
     After that, things just went from bad to worse. Her groceries were all gone since she hadn't been able to stock up on her last visit to the store, and the car wouldn’t start at all now. And where would she go if it did? She had no money, and no one but her Aunt Tilly that she could turn to. And she couldn’t bring herself to call and hear “I told you so” just yet. Tilly had never liked Mark and couldn’t understand why Carli would waste her college education and throw away her career to move out in the country and become a housewife. Carli wasn’t eager to go back and admit she had made a mistake marrying Mark and quitting her job. Things could still be fixed if she could just reach him. Couldn’t they?

It was colder when Carli awoke the next morning, the temperature having dropped during the night. She squinted blearily at the bedside clock. Only 7:15—still early. She pulled the covers tighter and turned over and tried to go back to sleep. But after a few minutes, she gave it up and hauled herself out of bed.
     The hardwood floor felt like ice on her bare feet. She quickly put on a pair of thick socks, and made her way to the kitchen, pausing to bump up the thermostat on the way. She was reassured by the familiar thump and rush of air as the furnace kicked on.
     She filled a kettle and put it on to boil. She was out of coffee, but she did have a few tea bags left. She looked out the window while she waited for the water to heat. The sun shone down on the glistening layer of ice coating all the trees from yesterday’s freezing rain, and the ground was lightly covered with last night’s snow. As she watched, the wind blew a dusting of white up and across the yard.
     After she made her tea, she moved into the living room and clicked on the television. The familiar form of Bill the meteorologist filled the screen.

   “Good morning! And it’s a bitterly cold morning. So far the temperature has only gotten up to around fifteen degrees. It should warm up as the day goes on, with a high expected of around thirty-five. But with the strong wind blowing in from the northeast, it’s still going to feel pretty cold. And there’s a chance of more snow late this afternoon or early this evening, with a possible accumulation of two to five inches. The low tonight is expected to be well below freezing with a wind chill factor of …”

     She lowered the volume, and then sat sipping her tea, worrying, grimacing slightly at the taste. She was out of sugar. Along with everything else. With all the ice, and now more snow, she was bound to lose the power. It was holding for now, but it had been known to go out and stay out for as long as three or four days at a time before the familiar truck with the red EasternEnergy logo finally trundled its way down the long back road she lived on. She didn’t know what she would do if that happened. The electric furnace was her sole source of heat. They had an old kerosene heater out in the shed that they used for emergency heat but there was no kerosene to put in it. She made a mental note to add it to the endless list of things to be taken care of when Mark got home.
     When she'd finished her tea, she got up and went back into the kitchen, put her empty cup in the sink, and leaned against the counter. The situation was getting dire. Surely a person couldn’t actually freeze or starve to death in this day and age, could they? She could see the headlines now: Abandoned Wife Dies of Exposure and Starvation in Own Home. She gave a low laugh. Now she was just being melodramatic. She could call Aunt Tilly if she absolutely had to.
     She left the kitchen and went back into the living room and opened up the coat closet.  The Carhart jacket she had bought Mark still hung in the back where he had placed it after wearing it exactly once. She pulled it off the hanger, slipped it on, and shoved her feet into an old pair of hiking boots she loved too much to get rid of. Then she stomped back through the kitchen and out the back door, where she immediately skidded on the ice and almost fell. She caught herself on the handrail and took a few breaths to steady herself, and then gingerly descended the remaining steps. Her legs felt like they were going to go out from under her. She knew she hadn’t been eating right, but she was weaker than she had realized.
     She picked her way slowly across the yard to the spot where she had planted her little garden that past spring. Things had been so different then. After closing on the house in late January, she and Mark had moved right in and then spent several wonderful months getting the house ready and filling it with furniture they found second hand at yard sales, auctions, and estate sales, thrilled with their finds and pleased with their frugality. Mark wasn’t exactly cheap, but he hated wastefulness and enjoyed a good deal when he could get it. Carli hadn’t minded. She'd enjoyed the time spent with him, walking hand in hand, looking carefully over each piece, occasionally stopping for a leisurely lunch to toast themselves on their resourcefulness. It had been a wonderful spring full of sunshine and promise.
     Now the garden was dead, everything long since died back in the freezing cold. She kicked at the dirt around the neat little rows and winced as her boot struck the frozen ground. The only thing that remained was a few decimated plants she hadn’t gotten around to clearing out yet.
     After a minute, she went back into the house and was still trying to figure out what to do, when the decision was taken out of her hands. As she was considering making another cup of tea and trying Mark again, the light cut out over the kitchen sink and the furnace kicked off with an unmistakable winding-down hiss.

     “Oh, shit." The power was off. She felt like crying. This was just too much. She had no idea how long it would be out. And it would be getting cold soon with the furnace not working.
     She grabbed the phone to call Mark again. She couldn’t understand why he wasn’t calling her back. She found it hard to believe that he would just ignore her completely. She knew they had problems, but it wasn’t anything they couldn’t work out, surely. Obviously he wasn't happy living so far out and having to commute to work, but he was committed to their marriage and loved her. Didn't he?
     Carli thought back to their last conversation. It had not gone well. She had called him, upset about him not coming home like he should, and when he'd tried to talk and explain, she had ridden over him, unwilling to listen. She'd gotten more and more upset, crying and going on about the things that needed to be done around the house, and problems with the car until finally he had broken in and spat, “For Christ's sake, Carli, I married you—I didn’t adopt you!”
     She had been shocked into silence and had quietly hung up on him without another word. He was right, of course. She had been acting like a child, calling him at work carrying on, probably embarrassing him in the process. But part of her was also angry and hurt at his callous indifference and the inference that she was like her mother.
     He would have to talk to her now; this was an emergency and he couldn’t continue to avoid the situation.  She picked up the handset, started to dial, and realized there was no dial tone. She had forgotten. The phone was a cordless and relied on electricity to work.
     She put it back down and went into the bedroom to get her cell. She dug it out of her bag and turned it on, not sure how much charge there would be.
     The battery was almost dead. “Dammit!” Why hadn’t she charged it? But maybe there would be enough to get a call through. She quickly dialed Mark’s office.
     Tiffany answered as usual, and Carli was in no mood to play games. “Tiffany, this is Carli, let me speak to Mark.”
     Tiffany started in with the familiar “I’m sorry but Mr. Miller is unavailable. He's—”
     “This is an emergency, I need to speak to him right now.”
     “Well, I’m sorry Carli, but I can’t help—”
     “Put him on the damn phone, NOW!”
     Without another word Tiffany put her on hold.
     And left her there.
     “You BITCH!” She finally ended the call. She didn’t have time to sit and wait any longer. The battery could die any moment.
     She would have to ask Aunt Tilly for help. There was no way around it.
     The phone beeped and displayed “low battery” as she was jabbing at her contact list. "Come on, come on." She held her breath as the phone began to ring on the other endand then it cut out. The battery had completely died. Crying out in frustration, she hurled the useless phone down onto the bed.

Later on that afternoon, after getting herself somewhat under control, she forced herself to take stock of the situation. She paced back and forth, worrying and looking out the windows. She should have called Aunt Tilly when she had the chance. Now she would have to walk to a phone to call her. Technically she could probably wait it out until the power came back on, but how long would that be? She was basically out of food and it was going to be getting really cold come nightfall. She was already starting to feel a chill from the furnace being off since that morning. She had no way to heat the house. She wasn’t sure if she actually could freeze to death, but she didn’t want to risk it.
     She couldn’t stay there any longer the way things were. She had to try and get to a phone.

Carli stared at the supplies she had gathered on the table and prayed for the lines to be repaired so she could get a call out. She was giving it until the morning and then if the power wasn't back on, she was leaving. It was too late to go that night. It would be getting dark soon and the temperature would drop. With the residual heat left in the house and a pile of blankets to keep her warm, she would be fine until the morning, when she could get a fresh start.
     As the sun went down and the light faded, she lit candles. The wind rattled the windows momentarily and blew a spattering of sleet across the glass. Shivering, she decided she better take a shower while there was still hot water. A coldness had begun to settle into the house, and it could be a while before she got a chance to take another one.
     The water had only cooled slightly and still felt good. She scrubbed her skin and luxuriated in the warm water.
     Afterwards she towel-dried her hair, wrapped the towel around herself, and grabbing the candle she had brought with her, went to find something to wear.
     As she was pulling open a drawer, she accidentally bumped the dresser and one of the necklaces hanging on the jewelry box slid off and fell to the floor.
     Carli stooped to pick it up. It was the one her father had given her not long after he left. He'd shown up a couple of days before Christmas while her mother was gone working the night shift at the doughnut shop, the only job she had been able to find. In her entire life Carli didn't remember her father ever giving her anything he had bought personally before.
     She absently fastened the silver and turquoise necklace around her neck and thought back to that night.
     They had sat in the living room …. 

     The box was wrapped expertly in pretty pink and silver holiday foil, no doubt by the clerk he had purchased it from. But still, she was touched that he would make such an effort. After all, she wasn’t a child anymore, expecting a visit from Santa. She was fifteen years old.
     "Merry Christmas," her father said, smiling at her.
     “Thank you,” she breathed, gazing at the beautiful necklace. She immediately unclasped it and put it on. She didn’t ask him if he was staying. She knew he wasn’t. And she didn’t ask him what he would be doing for Christmas. She really didn’t want to know.
     In the days following the separation, he had talked with Carli endlessly it seemed, agonizing over his decision to leave. He had wanted absolution. She had reluctantly given it to him, finally, telling him that of course it was all for the best, and that she understood. But she hadn't. She had just wanted an end to it all. Nothing she could say would have stopped him anyway. And she had wanted an end to all the endless fighting, and her mother's endless tears.
     And now he was here with presents to alleviate his guilt. Or maybe he did care. She pushed the thoughts aside and opened her other gift. It was gourmet chocolates, which he knew she loved. She impulsively leaned over and gave him a hug. He was her father, after all, and he was trying. She felt the sting of tears threatening and tried to hold them back. 
     “It’s going to be all right, you know,” her father told her. 
     But of course it wasn’t.

After a nearly sleepless night spent huddled under three blankets and a comforter, Carli got up as the first gray light of dawn began filtering in through the window.
     Teeth chattering slightly, she tore the comforter off the bed and wrapped herself in it. She had known it would get cold, but it was even worse than she had imagined.
     She shuffled into the kitchen and flipped the light switch on the wall even though she knew it was useless, and as expected, nothing happened. The power was still off. She pulled out a chair and sat down, shivering. She was freezing; it was so cold she could see her breath. And no power meant no tea. She didn’t know when she had been more miserable. She felt positively immobilized by the cold.
     Sometime after the sun had risen all the way, she finally managed to get up off the chair, and went to see what the weather was like. She wrestled the big front door open and squinted at the sunlight pouring in. Not a cloud in the sky. It had snowed during the night, but not as much as Carli had feared. It didn’t appear to be much deeper than it had been the day before, and it was already starting to melt a little around the edges where the sun was hitting it.
     She shut the door, determined more than ever to get going. She didn’t think she could take another sleepless, frigid night. She did some quick figuring in her head. If everything went right, even if the weather slowed her down, she could probably make it down to the store at the edge of town in about six hours, maybe less if she was lucky.
     Forcing her sluggish limbs to move, she went down the hall and into the bedroom to change into warm clothes.
     She dressed in layers, starting with jeans and a tank top and ending with her light jacket under a heavier coat, then pulled a knit hat down over her hair, and stuck a pair of gloves in her pocket.
     Quickly, before she could change her mind, she packed the supplies she had gathered the day before into a backpack. The main thing was water and she had that. She looked around the house one last time and spotted her throw blanket draped over the back of the couch. She grabbed it and stuffed it into the bag too, just in case.
     Three steps from the door, she paused. Just how was she planning on calling Aunt Tilly? Collect? Reversing direction, she went back to the bedroom to get all the coins she had along with a few dollars she had stashed in her purse she could always get change for.
     She was heading out the door a minute later and about to pull it shut behind her when she heard the sound of a dog barking in the distance. It didn’t sound that close, but it made her think. What if she ran up on a stray dog, or God forbid, a wolf? Were there even wolves in this area? She turned around and moved back through the house once again. She needed some kind of protection.
     In the back of the nightstand drawer on Mark’s side of the bed, the .32 caliber he insisted on keeping for protection lay inside, undisturbed. Carefully, she made sure it was loaded, checked the safety, and stuck it into the waistband of her jeans. Next she opened her purse back up and pulled out a small can of hair spray, found the lighter she'd packed, and then placed it and the hairspray together in one of the side sections of the backpack.
     Now she was ready.
     She heard the dog again as she crossed the front yard. Thankfully, it sounded a little fainter this time. Her closest neighbors were Sandy and Dennis, several miles away, and as far as she knew, they didn’t have a dog. Which meant it probably was a stray.
     Despite the gun, she felt exposed and vulnerable as she started down the long driveway. She looked around and spotted a fallen branch lying on the ground at the edge of the woods. She walked over, picked it up, and swung it experimentally through the air. It seemed strong enough. It might do the trick.
     Feeling better now, she started off at a good pace and was soon making her way along the old back road they lived on. It hadn’t been paved in years and was mostly made up of gravel and tar patches here and there over countless potholes. Most of the snow had melted off the main part of the road, but there was still some along the side and in spots of shade where the sun hadn’t reached.
     By the time she made it down the old back road and up onto Jenkins Bridge, she was starting to warm up. She stopped for a moment to slide the backpack off her shoulder and remove her heavy coat, hat, and gloves. Then she moved off to the side of the road and sat down for a minute on the edge of an old log for a few sips of water. There was still no sign of the dog she'd heard earlier. The only other living things she had seen so far had been birds and a few squirrels. She checked the watch she'd dug out and put on. She had plenty of time before it got dark, but she had a long way to go. She stuck the water bottle back in the pack and stood up.
     After walking for the next hour, Carli was starting to feel it. She considered herself to be in pretty good shape, but lack of food and sleep were taking their toll.
     She stopped again as she came up on the road leading to Sandy and Dennis’s place. She decided to take a slight detour and see if her neighbors were home. She didn’t have to tell them about her problems with Mark (although they would probably guess something was up); she would just tell them her power and phone were out and her car wouldn't start. She could use their phone or get them to give her a ride.
     When the house came into view, she took off the backpack, removed the gun from the waistband of her jeans, placed it inside the pack, and left it and the stick behind a tree.
     As she got closer, her heart sank. There were no cars parked out front.
    She went up on the porch and knocked anyway. After a few moments she knocked again. She waited another minute, hearing nothing, and decided to try around the back. She walked around the side of the house, climbed the steps to the back patio, and peered through the sliding glass doors. The dining room beyond was empty. She rapped her knuckle against the glass and yelled, “It's your neighbor CarliIs anybody home?”
     After trying the sliding doors and finding them locked too, she sat down on the steps. She wasn’t about to actually break in. Sandy and Daniel wouldn’t understand the seriousness of the situation and definitely wouldn’t understand her busting in just because her power was out. But if she could find a window open she might be able get in and use the phone without their ever even knowing. If they came home, she'd just have to explain.
     All the windows were locked and she was about to give up, when she lucked out. There was a one left closed but unlocked in the downstairs bathroom. Hoping Sandy and Dennis would forgive her for this if they ever found out, Carli dragged an outside chair over, climbed up on it, and pushed the window up.
     “Hello? Anybody home?” She didn’t want to surprise someone and end up getting shot.
     Taking a deep breath, she hooked her leg over the windowsill and maneuvered herself over and into the bathroom. She quickly searched the house, and as expected found nobody. She immediately went in search of a phone and found one on the end table beside the living room sofa. It was a cordless and the screen was blank, but she picked it up and listened anyway. Nothing. She reached over and tried the lamp switch. Still nothing. Their power was out too.
     That was probably why Sandi and Dennis weren’t home. They had undoubtedly left to stay at a hotel until the power came back on. Now Carli just wanted to get out of there before anyone came back and discovered her.
     She started to leave the way she came in and then paused. She was so hungry and she didn’t have much to eat. She went back into the kitchen and looked around for something they might not miss. On the kitchen counter there was a cookie jar full of Oreos. She grabbed a handful of these, stuffed one in her mouth, put the rest in her jacket pocket, then looked around some more. After opening several cabinets, she found some cans of tuna. She took one of those, along with a can of soda out of the fridge and an almost full pint of brandy from the couple's alcohol stash under the bar. She crammed the brandy into the waistband of her jeans, and feeling like a criminal, went back into the bathroom, dropped the tuna and the soda out the window as gently as she could, and climbed back out it, pulling it shut behind her.
    After stashing the brandy and the tuna in the backpack, she opened the soda, holding it out while it fizzed, took several swallows, and hurried toward the road.

She had been trudging along steadily for a while. So far there hadn’t been any traffic, not even Sandy and Dennis coming home to check and see if the power was back on. 
As she walked, her thoughts were on Mark and the problems with her marriage. She was thinking about her parent's breakup, too. Her mother had been emotionally as well as financially dependent on Carli's father and had been devastated when he left her. He had been a selfish, immature man and had constantly made her mother miserable with his thoughtless spending and irresponsible ways. But despite his inadequacies, her mother had been devoted to him. And he had repaid her devotion by beating her down and making her old before her time with worry and then leaving her. A year later he had been killed in a car accident after having one too many beers at dinner, and a few years after that at the age of forty-eight, looking at least ten years older, her mother had suffered a heart attack and followed.
     Carli was so engrossed in the past, she didn’t hear the pickup truck until it was almost on top of her. She jerked a look back over her shoulder when she finally noticed, and saw it was still a little distance away. But she could tell that there were two men and they had already spotted her.

     She could hear ACDC screaming “Highway to Hell” from their radio as they rode up behind her. She kept walking and didn’t look at them, moving a little more off the road. She thought of the gun and remembered she had left it in the pack. And, she realized, she had forgotten the stick and left it lying beside the tree at Sandy and Dennis’s. Great.
     She glanced over as they pulled up even with her, trying to stifle her unease. They were dressed in camouflage and had a rifle mounted in the rear window.
     “You need a ride, little lady?” the driver called out as they rode alongside her. She glanced over again and got a better look at them. The guy in the passenger seat was young with longish black hair and was holding a beer in his hand. The driver, who appeared to be slightly older, had a ball cap turned around backwards on his head and was leaning forward, staring at her intently through the passenger window.
     When she didn’t answer quickly enough, he repeated a little louder, “I SAID, you need a ride?”
     She guessed they had probably been out “hunting” the night before and were probably just now heading home. From the looks of them, there had been a little less hunting and a lot more drinking.
     “No thanks, I’m good.” She tried to keep the nervousness out of her voice and started moving a little faster.
     “What are you doing out here all alone anyway?” The driver was now gunning the engine aggressively and then letting off, still keeping pace beside her.
     This was not good. With no one around to see or care, there was no telling where the situation might lead. The truck was barely moving now, and Carli knew that if he wanted to, the guy on the passenger side could open his door and grab her easily. And she didn't have a hope of outrunning him.
     There was no way she was going let them get their hands on her if she could help it. She crossed over the shallow ditch that ran alongside the shoulder and moved almost into the edge of the trees. She wasn’t at the point of running yet; she just wanted to put a little distance between her and them.
     This time it was the black-haired passenger who yelled out. “Wassa matter, you afraid of us?”
     She didn’t bother to answer. At this point, they were just plain harassing her. She made ready to run. She looked back at the men in the truck and saw they had pulled over to the side and completely stopped. When she heard the unmistakable sound of the truck’s idle change as it was shifted into Park, she took off.
     “Stop her, Ray!”
     “Don’t say my damn name, Earl,” the guy in the passenger seat yelled as he jumped out.
     Carli ran as she had never run before. She crunched through piles of leftover melting snow and ice, dodging trees and jumping over logs in an effort to get far enough away from them. She only needed a minute. She spotted an old dry creek bed up ahead and saw her chance. She risked a glance back over her shoulder. The men weren’t in sight, but she could hear them laughing and crashing through the trees behind her.
     She quickly jumped the three feet or so down into the ravine carved by some long-ago stream and jerked the backpack off her shoulder. She ripped it open and pulled the gun out, thumbing off the safety. Holding the gun in her right hand, she grabbed the bag with her left, and started moving as fast as she could, keeping her head down and pulling the bag behind her. She stopped a little farther down and peeped over the edge. She couldn’t hear them now. She realized why as she peered through the trees. The two men, apparently named Ray and Earl, were standing not far from where she had jumped. Earl was holding his finger to his lips at Ray.
     She dropped back down and tried to quiet her breathing. She needed to make her move now before they got any closer and discovered her hiding place. She took a deep breath, rose up, and took careful aim. Moving the gun slightly to the right (she didn’t really want to hit either one of them), she gently squeezed the trigger. The gun bucked hard in her hand, the sound deafening in the still forest, as the bullet glanced off a tree to the right of the men, tearing off a chunk of bark and causing both men to jump.
     “SHIT FIRE, IS SHE SHOOTING AT US?” one of them screamed. It sounded like Ray.
     Carli didn’t wait around. Firing the gun had given her position away. Trying to stay low, she ran as fast as could along the old creek bed. She stopped again, climbed up the bank at a more manageable spot, and dove down on the ground by a spot of undergrowth. She could just see the top of Earl’s black hat in the distance. They were heading away from her, back toward their truck. She fired the gun again for good measure, this time into the air, and was rewarded with them letting out another yell and moving faster. She stayed down and crept after them, unwilling to let them completely out of her sight until she was sure they were gone. She followed them at a distance until she saw them exit the trees and start down to the road.
     She could hear their voices faintly as they moved away: “Damn woman’s crazy,” and “Screw this, let’s go get some more beer, she done ruint my buzz.”
     She let her breath out in relief when she heard the doors slam and then the engine roar as they pulled off. The sound slowly dwindled away into nothing, and she finally relaxed.
     She waited another minute, then walked back to the creek bed and started following it in the other direction, unwilling to stay in the same place in case the men came back. After a little ways she stopped, not wanting to get too far away from the road, either.
     The bank was steeper here and she had to lean almost completely back, her boots sliding beneath her, as she made her way down.
     She searched around until she found a good-sized flat rock, dragged it over and under a tree that had fallen across the ravine, sat down on it, and tried to collect her thoughts.
     Those men had scared her. Maybe they hadn’t meant any harm. Maybe they had just been drunk and fooling around, but she didn’t think so.
     She drank a little water and rested a bit, then pulled out the now smashed peanut butter sandwich and ate it along with a few saltines.
     By the time she finished, her eyelids were starting to droop. She could hardly keep her eyes open. She didn’t want to start walking on the road again yet anyway until she was sure the men were long gone, so she pulled her bag over, and still sitting on the rock, lay over on her side. It was lumpy and hard but she was so tired she didn’t care. She just needed to close her eyes for a bit.
     Within minutes she was asleep.
     As she slept, the sun disappeared behind a cloud and a strong breeze sprung up and rushed through the trees above her. And still she slept on, unbothered, protected from the wind where she lay.
     The temperature dropped steadily as the day wore on and was hovering right below freezing when she finally jerked awake.
     “OW!” she cried out involuntarily. Her body was stiff and aching from sleeping in the cold in such an awkward position.
     She rubbed her neck and looked at her watch. Oh no. She had been asleep for almost three hours! She quickly flung her pack over the top of the bank, fought her way up, and stumbled through the trees down to the road.
     She had slept too long and she needed to get a move on. She really didn’t want to risk walking in plain sight, but she knew she would make much better time on the relatively flat, even pavement. She looked at her watch again as she hurried along. She had a little over two hours of good daylight left.
     The wind had picked up and now blew steadily against her face, cutting into her arms through the thin jacket. She stopped long enough to put on her heavier coat and hat, and got moving again.
     She was not going to make it before dark, and the weather could take a turn for the worse, too. The wind died back off for a minute, and as if Mother Nature had read her mind, it began to snow—delicate white flakes falling all around her.

It continued to snow lightly for the next half hour and then stopped as the wind picked up again and the temperature dropped even further.
     After realizing she wasn’t going to make it before nightfall, she had decided to keep walking until she got there, but now she was starting to have second thoughts. She was already freezing, and it was just going to get worse. She had thought all the exercise would keep her warm, but she had underestimated the strength of the wind.
     And worse than the cold, was the sense of disquiet she was feeling. The forest around her had filled with shadows as the sun began to go down. She had the distinct feeling that something or someone was watching her. She tried to tell herself that it was all in her mind but several times she thought she heard something moving through the trees. She tried to ignore it, but as the darkness came on fast, she became sure she was being stalked.
     She had just stopped and got out the flashlight, when she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. It was big and practically right on top of her.  She just barely managed to stifle a scream and frantically dug for the gun. She ripped it out just as a large black dog stepped out of the trees onto the road in front of her.
     Carli’s heart jumped into her throat and started slamming uncontrollably. She held completely still, knowing the worst thing she could do would be to turn her back on it and run. She thumbed the safety off the gun and slowly lifted the flashlight and pointed it at the dog. Its eyes seemed to glow red in the beam. She couldn’t tell what kind of breed it was, but it was big.
     “Easy boy,” she murmured.
     At the sound of her voice, the dog began to bark loudly. Carli shifted uneasily, not sure what to do. It was probably the stray she had heard earlier that day, and it had obviously been following her.
     The dog stopped barking at her slight movement and began to growl low in the back of its throat. Carli took a step back, and the dog tensed as if ready to spring. Envisioning the dog going for her throat, she finally lost all control and panicked, clumsily fired the gun in the dog's direction, and for the second time that day, ran like hell.
     Expecting to feel the dog leap onto her back at any moment, she dodged and weaved back and forth through the trees trying to look behind her and run at the same time. She finally halted her panicked flight and turned in a circle, shining the flashlight all around her, searching for the dog.
     The gun had probably scared it, but she doubted it had gone far. She kept circling, trying to figure out what to do. She heard the crack of a twig breaking not far from her and whirled around.
     “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” she repeated over and over as she stood panting, trying not to freak out. The light from the flashlight barely penetrated the almost complete darkness. She squatted and lay the gun down on the ground, then reached around and pulled out the small can of hairspray from the side pocket of the backpack. She dug the lighter out and flicked it on. Holding the tiny flame out, she sprayed it with a jet of hairspray, and flames erupted and shot out in a stream nearly two feet long. She let go of the button on the lighter, and the fire immediately went out. Turning, she started walking in an ever-widening circle, using the makeshift flamethrower, shooting flame out every few seconds.
     “Yeah!” she yelled. She figured the more noise the better and began to roar “GIT!” and “GO ON, GET OUT OF HERE!” at the top of her lungs while spraying fire in every direction.
     That should do it.
     She put the can and lighter in her coat pocket and slid the gun back into the waistband of her pants. Sweeping the flashlight left and right, she began to search back the direction she had come.
     While she was running from the dog, she had noticed the vague outline of a small building. She followed her footsteps until she found it. It wasn’t very big. Possibly an old hunting shack? It was so old the tin roof had collapsed. The walls had fallen in leaving only the backside standing, barely holding up a corner of the collapsed roof.
     She propped the flashlight up and went to work, kicking and pulling at the old half-rotten wood and then dragging it over to a small clearing she found near a fallen tree. The tree had snapped close to the ground and landed across another one, leaving the trunk angling up from the ground to the top of the tree it had crashed into.
     It was slow going because she had to watch out for rusty nails, but finally she felt like she had enough.
     She didn’t have much kindling, only a few small branches and twigs, and some of the wood was damp and she was afraid it wouldn’t burn well, so she doused it with a little of the brandy. Thank God she had brought it. The flashlight was starting to dim. Trying to hurry, she got out the tissues she had brought and wrapped one around a long stick and lit it with the lighter. Holding the homemade torch out in front of her, she walked over and tossed it down on the pile of wood. There was a tremendous whoosh as the brandy ignited and the old planks burst into flames.
     She stood close to the warmth of the rising flames and had a few more sips of the brandy.
     The tin roof was actually in two pieces. Being careful not to cut herself on the edge, she wrenched one loose and dragged it over. She propped the metal piece up against the trunk of the half-fallen tree at an angle close to the ground, creating a slanting roof. Next, using the light of the fire, she gathered planks and branches and stood them up on either side of the metal piece, leaving the front open like a sort of lean-to.  It wasn’t great, but it would keep her out of the worst of the weather.
     She crawled inside for a minute and then climbed back out. She needed something to get her off the ground. She found several boards that were roughly the same size, dragged them into the rough shelter to serve as a crude floor, and went to work building the fire back up. She had deliberately made the firepit not inside but a short distance away from the lean-to, knowing she had no good way to vent the smoke and that the branches could catch.
     Even with the fire going, the shelter was still too cold.  Edging around the flames, she searched in the immediate vicinity until she found some rocks and piled them on the other side of the pit to warm up and hopefully reflect some of the heat.
     While she waited she sat close to the fire and had a few more drinks of the brandy. It burned going down but warmed her stomach up nicely. She was actually quite proud of herself. The snow had started back while she was working and was coming down hard now, and she was glad she had made the shelter. Hopefully the blaze would keep the dog away, too. She would just hole up for the night, and then in the morning she could walk the rest of the way.
     Later she moved a few of the now hot rocks inside, burning her hands through her gloves a little in the process, and arranged them around her. With the heat from them and both her coats and the brandy, she was starting to feel right toasty.
     She settled down and popped the top of the small can of tuna she had taken from Sandy and Dennis’s and ate it with the rest of the saltines. For dessert she had the Oreo cookies she had stuffed in her jacket pocket. She washed it all down with a little water and more brandy.
     After she finished eating, she pulled out the throw blanket, and using the backpack as a pillow, covered up and lay down.
     She didn’t get much rest throughout the night—she had to keep throwing wood on the fire and swapping out rocks—but a little before dawn she managed to fall into an uneasy sleep …

      … and dreamed she was back in her mother’s house. The house she had lived in as a child. She drifted alone through the dim, empty rooms and down the long hallway, passing by her mother’s bedroom and into the house she shared with Mark. And in every reflection and mirror she saw not herself, but her mother. Her mother’s thin, worn face. She kept looking and looking, and everywhere she saw only her mother … her mother … her mother …

     Carli jerked awake, sitting up abruptly and almost banging her head in the process. The fire had nearly gone out. Trying to shake off the vestiges of the dream, she grabbed a piece of relatively dry wood from the dwindling stack and threw it on the dying embers. It caught after a moment, and she lay back down, still thinking about the dream. Well, I’m not my mother. She turned over on her side, wrapped the blanket tighter, and tried to go back to sleep.

The sun had long since risen by the time Carli awoke again. She crawled out, her head pounding from the brandy the night before, and gazed at a winter wonderland. Sleet and snow had fallen heavily during the night leaving the bare branches on the trees encased in sparkling ice and the ground covered in a blanket of white. Carli squinted up at the bright cloudless sky. At least it probably wasn’t going to snow again any time soon.
     The fire had gone out, and Carli shivered in the cold morning air. She crept back into the shelter and dug out the jug of water. Her mouth felt absolutely disgusting. There was only a little icy water in the bottom. She drank what was left, swishing it around in her mouth. She would have to melt some snow.
     Pieces of the dream she'd had came back to her. In the clear light of day, her thoughts seemed to sharpen and focus. Her marriage to Mark had been a mistake. Deep down she had known it from the start. She'd known it the first time she had visited his little city apartment and went with him to his company’s annual party.
     She had not fit in with the capable, slightly sophisticated crowd and had felt out of place among the other women in their short skirts and professional blazers. Someone asked her early on what she did for a living and after she mumbled some sort of reply, she had been politely ignored. By the time dinner was over, even Mark had noticed. In the car leaving, he had been quiet and thin-lipped. She had been an embarrassment to him.
     And then she had pushed for the house in the country and chosen not to continue her career. Making herself emotionally and financially dependent upon her husband—just like her mother. And, truthfully, that was when they had stopped having anything to talk about. There had been that one memorable discussion between them when she'd tentatively broached the subject of having children and he had immediately shot it down and insisted they wait, then ...
     Shaking herself out of her thoughts, she bustled about building up the fire and scooping up snow in the plastic jug. As proud of herself as she was for building the shelter and surviving the night, she had no urge to repeat the experience. She held it over the flames just long enough to melt the snow without burning the plastic, capped it, and stashed it away. After gathered up the rest of her things, she kicked some snow on the fire, and started back through the trees.
     Her boots sank into the white powder as she worked her way down to the road. It wasn't long before her boots and the cuff of her jeans were soaking wet and freezing and she was pushing her way through the snow and ice on numbed feet. The snow-covered road was untouched, and she didn’t see any evidence of traffic until she finally turned onto the more traveled Highway 11, where she encountered tire tracks cutting through the snow heading into town.

The sun was no longer out, covered by a blanket of heavy clouds that had rolled in as the day progressed, and the temperature had dropped. A cold wind blew relentlessly, and by the time she topped the last hill and spotted the store up ahead, she was exhausted, cold, and miserable. Her feet felt like chunks of ice and her face was wind-burned, her lips chapped and cracking. She had drunk all of her water and had been forced to pick up chunks of snow and ice to relieve her parched throat. What little food and liquid she had consumed over the past couple of days had done little to compensate for the enormous amount of calories her body was burning from all the exertion and trying to stay warm in the numbing cold.
     She made it to the edge of the parking lot and heard a car approaching slowly through the melting slush behind her. She spun around and just had time to recognize the driver as Andrea, the cashier from the grocery store, when less than thirty feet from her destination, all the stress, exhaustion, dehydration, and exposure finally caught up with her and caused her to do something she had never done in her life—and she fainted dead away.

She woke up in the hospital. She tried to sit up, protesting she was fine, and was gently pushed back down and told in no uncertain terms that she was in no shape to go anywhere. The doctor came in and pronounced her dehydrated and hypothermic. After telling the nurse to admit her for the night, he closed her chart and left.
     Carli was sipping water through a straw when Andrea pulled aside the curtain and sat down in the one chair. "How you doing, girl?"
     “Better now. Thank you so much for helping me. They told me you called nine one one.”
     “Yeah, I saw you collapse and … if you don’t mind my asking, what happened? Did your car break down?”
     “Something like that.”

The next morning Andrea was back with coffee and doughnuts. “I got them from the bakery at work, and they’re fresh,” she said, placing the fragrant grease-spotted bag on Carli’s tray and handing her a cup.
     Carli was touched. An idea began to form in the back of her mind. Andrea had stayed the day before until visiting hours were over, and Carli had learned that she lived alone in a small house a few miles from her job at the Piggly Wiggly. She had no boyfriend at the moment, and Carli suspected she was lonely.
     Carli had just taken a sip of her coffee when the door to her room burst open and in strode Mark. She was so surprised she almost dropped the cup. Someone must have seen him listed as next of kin on the computer and called him.
     He stopped at the edge of her bed. “For God’s sake, Carli, what have you gotten yourself into?” He stood over her, handsome as ever, staring at her in apparent vexation. “Do you have any idea what I had to go through to get here? I had to leave an important client in the middle of a meeting!”
     She stared at him in disbelief. What he had gone through?
     “Mark, I tried to call you several times. The car broke down, and the power went out—” She broke off as his cell went off. He held up a finger and turned around and walked back out the door, bringing the phone up to his ear. Before the door swung shut, Carli heard a nurse murmuring something to him. He apparently went downstairs and outside to talk because he didn’t come back right away. Which was just as well, since she didn’t really have anything else to say to him. There was no point.
     “Wow, he’s a piece of work,” commented Andrea.
     “Listen, Andrea, there’s something I want to talk to you about before he gets back.”
     After running her idea by Andrea and working out a few details, Carli finally made a call to her Aunt Tilly, who agreed to wire Carli some money on the condition that she get up to see her with some lengthy explanations as soon as she recovered somewhat.
     Mark came back just as she was hanging up the phone. “Come on, the doctor is going to release you soon, you can get up and get dressed now.” He started pulling the covers back on the bed. He still hadn’t shown the least bit of concern about what had happened to her. He had probably heard an abbreviated version and thought she had overreacted and somehow caused the whole thing herself, which she basically had, when you got right down to it. Maybe he had loved her at one time, or maybe he hadn't, but either way, she was nothing but a nuisance to him now.
     Andrea stood up. “I’ll just be right outside, okay?” she said, and quietly slipped out the door.
     “Mark, we need to talk, I’m going to—” Carli began, but he talked over her.
     “We can talk on the way back to the house; I need to hurry up and get going."
     Carli pulled the covers back up. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
     “I’m going to be staying with Andrea for a while.”
     “You’re going to be staying with Andrea,” he repeated.
     “Yes, she has an extra bedroom and I’m going to be staying with her until I get a job and get on my feet.”
     “Come on, Carli. Don't you think you’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion?”
     “Am I? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m sitting in a hospital bed.”
     He had the good grace to flush. He started to say something, but she held up her hand. “I know. I know that this is partly my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed to move out here when I knew I would have to leave my job and you would have to commute."
     “You can do something about it without leaving like this.” His voice softened a little. “Let’s go back to the house and we can talk about it.”
     Carli considered it, but something was broken between them now. Or maybe it had never been whole, but she knew there was no way she was going back to that cold, lonely house, with or without him.
     “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t go back there,” she said firmly, her eyes never wavering from his.
     His gaze flicked to the greasy bag on the tray and then back to Carli. “So what are you going to do, make doughnuts for a living?”
     She lifted her chin. “If that’s what it takes.”
     “Fine,” he said after a long moment, and walked out without a backwards glance.  Carli watched the door swing shut and knew she had made the right decision for once.

Later as she was getting ready to be wheeled out of the room, one of the nurses walked in and handed her a small plastic bag. "Almost forgot to give you your jewelry."
     Carli thanked her and opened it up. She reached in and pulled out the necklace her father had given her. She had completely forgotten she had been wearing it.
     She looked up at Andrea waiting for her by the door and smiled. Her father had been right. Everything was going to be all right.

July 2008