There’s a spot of blood on the dog’s right ear.
Scout, Sheila’s pride and joy, is so unnerved by her erratic driving that his little body flits about only long enough for her to notice the red dot in her rear view mirror, but not long enough for her to snatch him up and examine where the blood could be coming from or whether or not it belongs to her. Her hand is still bandaged and gripping the steering wheel tightly brings about a slow throb that’s exacerbating her already heavy breathing. She tells herself that if anything happens to her, she won’t meet it with fear, but she couldn’t bear it if something happened to the twelve-year-old terrier whimpering in the backseat of her beat-up Buick Century.
The car had over two hundred thousand miles on it and surely less than fifteen before the engine gave up its heart and left her on the side of the road. Like any delusional old car lover, Sheila told herself that the next destination would be the last, but that she’d get there safe and sound. The sputtering and grinding that she met with whenever she tried driving the car over fifty miles an hour or kept it idling outside the gas station while she waited for her boyfriend to get off work was drowned out by whatever station the radio could still pick up in the late hours of the night. Darren picked up any overtime he could, because Sheila couldn’t find a job even in the middle of a labor shortage. She had a bad back and a laid back attitude that often presented itself as willfulness or disdain. When Darren would get in the car after doing double shifts, he would comment on how the car seemed to lurch rather than run, and Sheila would simply turn up Sting on the radio as he sang about an obsession that looks like love.
Darren was in the middle of a twelve-hour marathon day when Sheila started feeling a sharp pain in her left side. It was early in the evening on a snowy Tuesday and the forecast had called for a Vermont crippled by snow for the next few days. Darren had even suggested sleeping at the store overnight, but Sheila insisted the Buick could make the drive just as it had the past four winters. The plan was for her to take a short nap on their tattered orange couch while Jeopardy sat on mute in the background, but the stabbing in her side caused Sheila to rouse abruptly which led to even further aggravation of the sudden affliction. She couldn’t remember which side the appendix is on, but this seemed like something more sinister than a wayward organ. She remembered her grandmother talking about the day her husband died. How she’d been at the grocery store picking up lamb chops for dinner when suddenly she had an urge to pick up a can of string beans and hurl it at the store window. It was a sudden and forceful rage, and when it passed, she knew her husband was gone even if she didn’t know how. Years later when Sheila was visiting the frail woman at an assisted living facility, her grandmother would tell her that some connections are so entrenched the loss of one end creates a chasm in the other. That’s what it felt like as Sheila grabbed her car keys.
Something was wrong with Darren.
Her phone had barely any battery left, but it wouldn’t matter anyway. They lived off the highway near the wind turbine farm where there was no service for miles. When Sheila wanted to call her mother to cry about her back and how helpless she felt, she had to go all the way to the grocery store near the highway. Usually by the time she got there, all the pity had left her, and she would simply phone to ask after her father who was still using the breathing machine at night and could only hold down soup and clam chowder.
In hindsight, allowing Scout to come along was a mistake, but the terrier always went with Sheila to pick up Darren and something about having another living thing with her made her feel better, even if that creature was only a bit bigger than a loaf of bread. The little guy ran alongside her as she tried to find the right key to lock the door--relics of past apartments that she’d forgotten to dispose of still hung on her keychain and she could never locate the one that locked the front door to her apartment when she was under duress. The anguish in her side was still growing as though it was trying to escape her body, and when she finally secured the door, she turned only to trip over a brown package on the front step, sending her straight down to the cement.
Scout began barking, and try as she might, she couldn’t calm him down. Her breath had left her. The agony was rippling through her as though it was scanning her form looking to invade wherever it could. She willed herself to get back up and saw that her hand was bleeding. She couldn’t drive this way. Back into the house she went with Scout scurrying behind her. There wouldn’t be any band-aids in the bathroom. She and Darren never prepared for emergencies. The best she could do was a dish towel and several layers of duct tape before rushing back out the door. This time she didn’t even bother to lock it.
Outside the car, the snow is assaulting the windshield with enough consistency to render the wipers nearly redundant. Sheila has made this drive a hundred times, otherwise she would give up and try to recall one of her lost prayers from childhood. Scout alternates between whimpering and barking, and she sees that the spot of blood on his ear doesn’t appear to be moving, but that’s the most she can make out in between glances in the mirror. More than a second with her eyes away from the road, and they’d both wind up in a ditch.
It takes twice the time, but Sheila manages to make it to the gas station intact. She lightly pushes Scout back as he tries to leave the vehicle with her, and she runs into the store nearly slipping again on the icy spot in front of the door. This was her first inclination that something was wrong. Darren would have salted that down an hour ago.
Inside, nothing seems amiss. The potato chip display is fully stocked. The digital bell announces her arrival just as it always does. She even sees the cards laid out on the counter letting her know that Darren is in the middle of a game of Solitaire.
So where is he?
She checks the back first. He’s not in the office or in the employee restroom. She can’t find him in the cooler behind the sodas or in any of the aisles. Sheila goes back outside to make sure he didn’t try to leave for some reason. There are no tracks in the snow, but had he left more than ten minutes ago, they would have already been covered up anyway.
And why would he leave?
Where would he go?
The straining in her body had drifted up to her throat. She was having trouble swallowing. A look over at the Buick showed Scout jumping from the front seat to the rear and back again. Darren’s camera was still on the dashboard next to a half-eaten bag of pretzels.
Sheila ran back into the store and behind the register where a small television screen showed her surroundings in bluish grey and static. She had worked with one of these when she was managing the Wendy’s over in Scovie, and she thought that if she could rewind, she’d see where Darren went before she pulled in.
When she went looking for the rewind option, she noticed something in the corner of the screen. A head--but not her head. Long blonde hair that was in need of a cut.
Was the tape already rewound? Was there a delay?
She touched the screen and the pain in her side flared outwards so much that she had to grab the counter to keep from doubling over. When she looked back at the screen, there was Darren. This time he was facing the camera. His face was expressionless. The static poured down once like water causing Sheila to scream in frustration. It was only momentary. There was Darren again. This time smiling. Waving at her. Eyes wide as though something were holding them open against his will. Another round of static. Now he was no longer alone. Scout was next to him. That couldn’t be possible. Scout was still outside in the Buick.
Sheila abandoned the screen and ran outside. The car was gone.
How could it be--
The wind beset her. The spot where she’d parked the car was already covered over with one layer of snow--maybe two. That much time couldn’t have passed already. Yet when she looked down, the accumulation was up to her shins. She turned around to go back inside only to see that the gas station was boarded up. The windows cracked in web formations. A sign on the door reading “No Business.”
Signs don’t say that, she thought. They say--
Another burst of pain brought her down this time. The bandage around her hand turned bright red as she plunged it into the white all around her.
She wanted to look up. There was no grace here on earth. That was something her grandmother had imparted to her once. If you find yourself in great pain or despair, you must look up, because you won’t find hope on the ground. Sheila willed herself to look up. In the middle of the storm, there was an opening where she could spot a suggestion of light. Not a star, but something that would like to be considered a star.
Another light appeared next to it, and the two lights grew as they cut through the small circle at the top of the blizzard and made their way down. They were the warm assailment of vintage headlights. Sheila wanted to flag them down. These headlights that were determined to battle their way through the tyranny of the tempest. Her lips cracked. She stopped feeling anything but the precipitation on her eyelashes.
Miles away, a dog barked, but she couldn’t hear it.
All she could hear was a man singing to a woman who didn’t want to be sung to. A woman who simply wanted to breathe on her own.