The sky didn’t look like snow when he set out for town early this morning, but it was snowing now like it meant to go all afternoon and into tomorrow. It was coming down in dumpling-sized flakes, filling the windshield faster than the rusty wipers on his old Ford could clear them.
He had some chains back in the bed, but didn’t want to stop to put them on, afraid if he got down on his knees he might not be able to get back up. He had to think of such things these days.
It was already close to dark even though it was only a little after 4pm. Gerry leaned forward, nose nearly touching the steering wheel, his eyes squinting to make out the bend of the road from the whiteout before him. He took the next curve a little faster than he should have, anticipating the steep climb coming up after it. He would need all the momentum he could get to make it up the mountain.
Coming out of the curve the Ford fishtailed. Gerry steered into the slide, let his foot off the gas and resisted the urge to brake. The old pickup skated perilously close to the edge of the ravine and Gerry sucked cold air in through his teeth, holding it in his lungs, afraid to even breath. The vehicle slowed to a stop. Peering out of the side window, Gerry could see the thirty-foot drop below. Were he to open his door, he would be stepping out into nothing but air.
He sat gripping the wheel, his heart slamming around in his chest like a brook trout in a Styrofoam cooler.
What the fuck was that guy doing stopped in the middle of the road? Miller saw it all in slow motion before it actually happened. He hadn’t been going fast at all, but it didn’t matter. There was no braking on this shit, but he did anyway - instinct. His little Corolla became a bobsled, wheels locked, gliding down the snowy road directly toward the old pickup. For the last ten feet before impact, Miller’s eyes locked with the old man’s, their faces, mirror images showing the same bloodless terror.
The hit was nothing more impactful than bumper cars at a carnival, but it was enough. The old pickup groaned, as if in anticipation of the fall. It clung for a moment, two wheels spinning idly over nothing then it was gone. It dropped ten feet then rolled down into the ravine, the creaking steal and crack of timbers muffled by the snow.
Miller was out of the Corolla before it had even stopped sliding. He rushed to the edge of the road, fell to his knees and craned his neck to look down. Far below he saw the old truck lying belly-up, blue smoke rising out of the muffler. The comfortable buzz he had going all afternoon from drinking beers and watching the game over at Hank’s was gone – forcibly replaced by a truckload of adrenaline.
“Hey!” he yelled down into the emptiness. “Hey, are you okay?” He did not expect an answer – the old codger wouldn’t just stick his arm out and give him a thumbs-up. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” Miller leaned back onto his heals and put his face in his hands.
He stood, and dug into the inside pocket of his parka for his phone. He pulled it out but knew even before he switched the screen on. No signal. This side of the mountain, the eight winding miles before you got into town there was nothing, like a black hole. Surely someone else would come along soon. There were other people that lived up here. Miller sat back up and looked down into the ravine. He couldn’t wait. There was no time.
Five minutes later he was calf-deep in snow struggling to stay upright on the steep pitch of the ravine. The old truck’s engine was no longer running but he could see the ruby glow of the taillights below him saturating the snow the cherry red of the slushies he used to get afterschool at the Quick-n-go. Despite the cold, his face was slick with sweat. On his back he carried a small bookbag. He had removed his books, tossing them into the backseat. He stuffed whatever random things he could find into it, hoping something would be of use: couple of energy bars, a water bottle, the old Mexican blanket Bear slept on, a gray hoody, a coil of climbing rope. These were not lifesaving items, but they were all he had. Bear had bounded out of the car behind him, descended the slope with ease and was now waiting for him down by the truck.
The lab was whimpering and dancing around the driver’s side door. Miller dreaded what he was going to find when he reached her. As he approached the truck he took in the litter of objects scattered across the slope above it. There was a carton of milk, a dozen broken eggs, a spare tire, a red toolbox, a box of Cheerios. The items all poked out of the snow as if placed there for some demented commercial photo shoot.
Miller made his way around the rear of the truck and approached the driver’s side door. From what he could tell, the cab of the truck had not collapsed, as he would have expected. The dog was on him now, her eyes wild, her jowls working. She was like a desperate mother trying to tell him everything, trying to tell him what he should do.
“Easy girl,” he said pushing her down and out of the way so he could get to the door. On his knees he tried to see through the window but it was no good, the thing had shattered into a thousand tiny pieces that clung together.
Miller got close enough to the window and rammed his elbow into it. The glass crumpled inward easily, making a hole big enough for him to get his gloved fingers in. He pulled hard and the ruined window came out in mostly one piece. Warm air radiated out of the cab carrying with it a smell like mothballs mixed with sunbaked vinyl, old leather and brill cream. It was a familiar, old-man smell, but out of place here at the bottom of a snowy ravine. Miller reached into the cab.
Gerry was having trouble breathing. The seat belt that saved his life was now threatening to take it away. He was hanging upside down, the belt holding him in place, cinched around his neck. His equilibrium was wildly off after the half dozen rolls down into the ravine so it took some time to register the fact that he was actually upside down. With nothing but a snow bank in the opening that was once his windshield, he had no visual reference to get his bearing. He got some relief by using both hands to pull the belt away from his throat but he was too weak to manage this for long. Just as he was beginning to evaluate his narrow field of options, he heard the dog. A moment later the window was busted in and he was face to face with a boy.
“Hey Sir, Sir, are you okay? Can you hear me?”
Gerry wanted to respond, but found no words when he opened his mouth.
“I’m going to get you out of there, okay?”
Gerry nodded slowly, his eyes wide and unblinking.
Seeing the angry red welt across the old man’s neck Miller decided the first thing he had to do was free him from the belt. Using his teeth he pulled off his right glove and dug his hand down into the front pocket of his jeans to retrieve his pocketknife. He pulled out the blade and reached for the belt.
“I’m gonna cut this okay?”
Gerry nodded again.
Miller tugged on the belt, getting a firm grip on it just below Gerry’s chin. He proceeded to saw at the cloth of the belt above Gerry’s head, knowing that once free, the old man’s weight would be transferred from the belt to him. He feared he would not be able to hold him up and the old man’s head would crash down into the ceiling of the cab. It didn’t take but four or five cuts and the belt ripped apart. Miller dropped the knife, held fast to the belt with both hands, slowly paying out the slack and lowering Gerry onto his shoulders.
The old man was now lying at a precarious angle across Miller’s lap and his eyes were closed, his breathing, ragged.
“Hey, sir, can you hear me? Are you in pain?”
Gerry did not respond, but his eyelids fluttered. He made a low guttural sound and heaved suddenly upwards. Vomit spewed out across his chest and beard. Miller recoiled, not so much from the surprise, but from the smell. He stayed present, though, remembering a CPR class he took in high school – KEEP THE AIRWAY CLEAR.
He helped the old man onto his side so he wouldn’t choke on the vomit. It was impossible to tell in the dim light, but it looked like there was blood. VICTIMS OF RECENT TRAUMA WILL BE IN SHOCK AND WILL NOT BE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE THEIR CONDITION. KEEP THE PATIENT STILL AND CONSCIOUS.
Gerry’s coughing turned into wheezing. Miller patted him firmly between the shoulder blades and the old man’s choking subsided and he settled down, swallowing hard and moaning. After a moment, Miller realized he was not moaning, but trying to say something. He turned him as gently as possible back into his lap so he could see the old man’s face.
“My wife… have to get to my wife,” Gerry said between labored breaths. “Needs her medication.”
“Okay sir, I understand. I’m gonna do everything I can to help you.”
“Sick, she’s sick. Needs her pain medication.”
“Okay, I hear you, but first we have to see about you,” Miller leaned closer, trying to get the old man’s eyes to focus on his. “What’s your name sir?”
“Ge…ge…ge Gerry. My name’s Gerry Franklin.”
“Okay Mr. Franklin,” tears suddenly sprung into Miller’s eyes and his throat was choked with a knot of nameless emotion. It was like an attack and he wrestled to settle himself. Finally, he said, “I’m Miller Townsend and I’m gonna get you out of this. I’m so sorry Mr. Franklin, I didn’t…”
“S’okay boy, it’s okay,” Gerry cut him off, sucking in through his teeth as he tried to move.
Miller suddenly became aware of how twisted up Gerry was and knew, despite what he remembered: DON’T ATTEMPT TO MOVE AN ACCIDENT VICTIM FOR ANY REASON, that he had to try to make him comfortable. The old man was bent over at an uncomfortable angle with his lower legs tangled up in the lap belt above.
“I’m gonna try to make you more comfortable and get your legs free, okay?”
Gerry nodded slowly, closing his eyes. Miller reached up over his head and wrestled with the belt, eventually having to use his knife to cut it. When he did, Gerry’s legs swung free and collapsed down to the roof of the cab like the limbs of a puppet. Gerry wailed in pain, holding his stomach. He rolled slightly to one side away from Miller, gasping for breath.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Miller muttered like a prayer, reaching out to Gerry but afraid to touch him.
After a minute Gerry settled and began to breath normally again. He was trying to roll back over onto his back but Miller’s knees were in the way. Miller quickly scooted back to make room and bumped into the dog, which, he just realized had been in the cab behind him the entire time.
He had to get help. It would be dark in a matter of minutes and with the roads like this, no one would be venturing back out. The snow was still falling steadily. His mind ran suicide sprints back and forth between his limited options: leave the old guy and try to go the eight miles down into town in his Corolla with bald tires or stay here, try to make the old man comfortable until someone drove by.
“I’ll be right back,” he told Gerry, not knowing exactly what he intended to do. He scrambled out of the truck’s cab through the broken window.
“My Marilyn, Marilyn needs her medication,” the old man called after him.
Miller took a deep breath in the dying light and blinked through the falling snow up at the canopy of bare branches above then he crouched down, looking back through the broken window, “Okay Mr. Franklin, I won’t forget about your wife. Just give me a second to figure this out.”
He strained to see up the embankment to the road above but he could not see more than a few feet in front of him. He was on his own here. Nobody was going to turn up and figure this out for him.
He had to get help. There was no other way. He reached down for his backpack, unzipped it and pulled out Bear’s ratty old blanket. Back in the truck he gingerly wrapped the blanket around Gerry’s torso. Miller removed his wool hat that Aunt Jean had knitted him for Christmas last year and put it on Gerry, pulling it snug around his ears. He remembered his sweatshirt, pulled it from the bag and wrapped around the old man’s neck and face like a scarf. He paused for a moment, looking at his hands, then pulled his gloves off and worked them onto Gerry’s boney fingers.
“Mr. Franklin, I’ve got to go and get some help for you, but you’re going to be just fine until I get back. I’m leaving some energy bars and a bottle of water here, by your right hand, okay? Okay? Can you hear me?”
“Marilyn, Marilyn needs her medication.”
“Okay Mr. Franklin, I’m going to take it to her. I saw the bag from the drugstore lying outside in the snow. She’s gonna be okay and you’re gonna be okay.”
“Thank you son, thank you.” Gerry reached out and grabbed Miller’s hand and squeezed it. Gerry's eyes were searching, looking into the boy. Miller could not hold his gaze, but nodded quickly and offered a close-lipped smile.
"I'll be back," Miller said "and don't worry about Marilyn, just rest easy."
It took a long time to make it back up the embankment; even Bear struggled and slipped continuously. It was full dark when Miller made it back to the little Corolla and scraped off the two inches of newly fallen snow covering the windshield. He cranked up the old car, flicked on the lights and took a deep breath as he squinted out at the suggestion of a road ahead of him. He cut the wheel hard to the left away from the drop-off, released the emergency brake and dropped the car into second gear. The little car started to roll slowly, cutting back toward the center of the snow-covered road and down the mountain.
He was able to creep around the first switchback, only losing control of the car once. The snow was so wet that the Corolla’s tread-less tires might as well have been the steel rails of a sled. Moving into the second, steeper curve, Miller felt the vehicle start to slip sideways and he cut the wheel quickly but it was no use, the ton of steel just plowed forward towards the outer edge of the curve. In a panic he whipped the wheel back the other way and pumped the break. The car’s backend swung back the other way, putting Miller in a slow spinning slide. He mashed down on the break hard, the wheels locked and the Corolla slipped sideways across the road, away from the drop-off and into the deep ditch against the mountain. He was stuck.
Gerry lay very still in the darkness of the truck. All the heat from the engine had dissipated and he could no longer hear the tick of the metal cooling as it contracted for the last time. His eyes had adjusted and he could make out the familiar interior of his old truck, albeit upside down. He reached up and traced the long tear in the upholstery of the seat, remembering how he had yelled at eight-year-old Jesse for the damage done by his hunting knife and how he had struck him hard in the back of the head with his open hand. His son had cried silently all the way back to the house and did not speak to him for two days. Marilyn had been so angry with him for striking the boy. Gerry wonders if it was that day that he began to lose his son. After that day, something had fundamentally changed in Jesse’s eyes, in the way that he looked at his father. But that was nearly thirty years back now, when the truck was still new. They had had a good run, he and that truck -- longer than most marriages today.
The young man had tried to cover the broken window with some plywood that had been thrown from the bed of the truck, but fingers of cold were working their way in around it and the steel roof of the truck under him was like a mortician’s slab against the snow beneath. His body was shivering and his teeth were chattering so hard that he did not even hear Miller and Bear making their way back down to the truck. He tried to breath as shallowly as possible to avoid the lightning rod of pain from his broken ribs. The smell of his vomit was still strong even though the young man had tried his best to clean it up with some snow and an old rag before he left. The embarrassment it caused him was far worse than the unpleasant smell itself.
A blast of snow whooshed in above his head and startled Gerry until he realized that the young man, Miller, was back with the dog and had removed the plywood.
“Ok, we’re all set,” Miller said, clambering back into the truck with an armload of groceries.
“Huh? What do you mean? What about Marilyn? How did you make it up the road so fast?”
The old man’s pained face was ghostly pale and he was shaking visibly in the cold light from the LED keychain Miller shown down on him. “Um, yeah. No problems. I made the call to head up to your place to drop off Mrs. Franklin’s medication instead of trying to get back down into town. Figure you and I can sit tight and weather this thing ‘til somebody comes by.”
Gerry’s face relaxed into an easy smile and for the first time Miller could see a younger man in there, beneath the heavy lines and salted stubble. “That’s good, boy. Bless you.”
Gerry’s heavy brow furrowed again and he raised up slightly, “How was Marilyn, you didn’t give her cause to worry did you?”
“No, no, of course not. She’s resting fine with the pain medicine and I told her I’d get you home real soon.”
Gerry nodded several times and lay his head back down.
“I’ve got some things to do out there to get us comfortable until help comes along. You be okay for a few minutes? Can I get you some water?”
The old man nodded slowly without opening his eyes.
Miller wasted no time when he got back outside. He had always been a big fan of adventure stories and had read all about climbers getting stuck in avalanches. He decided he needed to improvise a snow cave so he fell to his knees in front of the truck’s windshield and began scooping armloads of the wet snow and packing it against the ruined glass. He worked at it until his jeans were soaked and freezing and his forehead was slick with sweat. In half an hour’s time he had entombed the cab of the old truck and using some scraps of plywood, rigged up an A-framed tunnel outside the broken passenger-side window.
He fought the empty falling feeling in his gut and tried to keep his mind busy with solving the problem, but it was no use. Miller thought of Katy and how they had fought yesterday. He thought of how upset his mom would be if he froze out here. He was all she had. He thought of all the things he would never see – hell he had never seen the Pacific Ocean.
Back inside the cab it was a muffled silence so complete it felt like the time he had a double ear infection as a kid. Scavenging outside for dead wood he had found some old packing quilts and a half-empty gas can. He gently moved Gerry long ways in the cab and improvised a bed out of the musty quilts. He coaxed Bear to snuggle up next to Gerry and she nestled in, but her eyes followed Miller’s every move, ready to jump and follow the minute he meant to leave.
Gerry seemed peaceful lying there with Bear. His eyes were closed, but his right hand gently patted the dog’s side. Miller had no idea what condition the old man was actually in and he had no way of knowing. High school CPR had its limits.
“Bear, you stay, staaay,” Miller said firmly eyeing her back down. “I’m just going out to gather some wood. Stay. Good girl.”
Outside it was still coming down hard. Miller didn’t have to wander far to find dead wood, but breaking up pieces small enough was a challenge. He made three trips back to the mouth of his improvised snow cave and dropped each armload. Miller realized he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but there was a primitive imperative to make fire – to beat back the cold.
Back in the truck, reaching through the passenger side window, Miller touched the third of the five remaining matches in the book he found in Gerry’s glove compartment to the crumpled grocery bag he had sprinkled with gasoline. The small teepee of twigs ignited quickly, filling the cab with acrid, fumy smoke. Coughing, Miller did his best to fan the smoke back out the window, but quickly realized he needed to improvise some kind of flu to draw it up and away. He let the small flame burn down, so he could crab walk his way out of the little plywood tunnel. Once outside, he made some quick changes to his original design, first pulling the A frame apart where the boards leaned together and then packing a thick channel of snow between them, leaving a fist-sized hole in the middle. As he packed and molded the snow with his shivering hands, he couldn’t help but think of all the snow days in his childhood when he and Tommy Flannigan had spent hours building snow forts in the pasture behind his house. They would work tirelessly for hours, ice-balls weighing down their toboggans, their raw, red noses running and their feet numb. They took it very seriously. In their imaginations they were building palaces of ice with expansive rooms for entertaining, and caches of snowballs for ammunition should their castle ever come under attack. In the days that followed, when the roads were cleared and school reopened, they would walk past the field on their way to the bus and see all their work reduced to these sad, lumpy masses surrounded by patches of muddy snow and grass.
Back inside the cab, he rekindled the fire and this time the smoke rose in a beautiful column up through his handy work. Miller fed the fire carefully, knowing he had to both ration the wood and avoid melting the tunnel too quickly. The warmth was intoxicating and a peaceful smile played on his lips as he massaged his hands and gazed into the flames.
Bear whimpered behind him and Miller was shaken from his daze. He turned to see the dog was nosing the old man’s face and shifting nervously from one paw to the other. Miller had never seen a dead body before so it was beyond his comprehension and yet somehow, it wasn’t. The CPR class had not covered this possible outcome but there had been no need. Death was as obvious and natural as breathing. It’s simply what happened when breathing stopped, no more, no less.
Miller studied the old man’s face, now blank and peaceful. He thought of Mrs. Franklin. She had died two or three years back. He remembered seeing her obituary in the paper. She was his second grade teacher, very proper and a bit stiff, but he had a memory of her warm, wrinkled hands, how they had guided his to form his first letters. He also recalled, with fondness, the spearmint scented halo her careful words left hovering around him when she knelt by his small desk. He hoped they were together now.
After a time, Bear came over, settled and leaned into her master. Miller scratched her behind the ears then turned back to the fire and stoked it - the promise of heat. In his shimmering eyes, the flames licked up towards the small opening he had made to the sky.