He was on a highway he didn't know, in a state he'd never been to, between cities he'd never heard of, surrounded by what should have been corn but was something else. They looked like a crossbreeding of sunflowers and roses, enormous heads of petals enclosing a face full of giant seeds. The sky was purple, and the sinking sun was just a crescent on the horizon. There was a life behind him, a wife who was no longer his, though no children because she had, secretly, prevented their very possibility.
A frost began to form on the edges of his windows. A chill seeped through the cracks and seams. He cranked the heat and it poured from the vents. The cold creeping in seemed to combat it, like soldiers on a battlefield a hundred and fifty years ago. A white mass like a cloud bank rolled out of the sky and a wind gust shook the body of the truck. It was all he could do to hold it in his lane. A shriek filled the air, low and constant, building until it was the only sound to be heard.
Somewhere ahead, a new life awaited. He could have stayed, watched Jessica move on and perhaps marry again, maybe even have children. That would have been something akin to waterboarding. It would have filled his mind, for their lives had become so entwined that neither had friends of their own, their families merging into one cohesive unit. They regularly ate dinner together, held parties in each other's homes, spoke and messaged often. One of his cousins had even married her sister. There was no place he could exist where she would not emerge with consistency. So he had taken himself out of the picture, to ease pressure on the families as well as himself. He held no ill will toward her side, and wanted his to hold none against her.
The field of sunflower-roses ended on an exit and he took it. The sign indicated places of food, lodging and gas. There was a storm coming, and he wasn't sure he'd ever seen anything like it. He could feel it's energy, the way you could just before a lightning strike. And it was getting more than chilly. His heater was pumping at it's limit and still that cold was winning. He thought of the last time he had seen Jessica. They had been on the porch discussing the weather. Sweat poured from his forehead and she was complaining of her sticky clothes, if she didn't get inside soon she was going to faint. They had left without their keys, only realizing it when they tried to drive away. Kyra was on the way with the spare, but she lived twenty minutes away. So they had been trapped in a sense, forced to face each other after so long avoiding such contact.
The first building, a Shell station, was devoid of activity. There were no cars at the pumps nor inany of the spots along the building. He tried the door but it was locked. The place was dark, the shelvesfull. He knocked, but no one came. He turned to the rest of the little piece of the world he'd pulled into. The cold had more than crept in now, it was inside of him, like it meant to freeze the very blood in his veins. There were no vehicles in sight. He could see clear across the road to the Denny's and the Super 8, but both had empty lots. No one moved. Standing there, he realized it was more than that, no thing moved either. There was an American flag at full mast but it just hung there, like a lifeless corpse left as a warning. He moved closer, and as he approached realized it wasn't dangling, as it would if there were no wind, because there was, it cut across his cheeks, burning like a liquid flame. The flag wasn't moving because it was frozen.
He spun, backing slightly into the flagpole. There wasn't a single bird to peep his movements. There were no distant sounds either, the way there always were when you made your way off the interstate, the low hum of sixteen wheels running over asphalt or pavement. The drone of lanes of traffic moving steadily along to their various destinations.
Hurrying back to his truck, he drove on, not back to the highway but continuing on the two-lane in hopes of finding refuge from the cold, and just maybe someone to explain the desertion of the businesses just beyond the exit, places which surely saw enough patronage to support round-the-clock service. Still that cold remained. Worsening. His vents were directed at his face but he couldn't feel their warmth at all. Instead, the chill which had begun only ten minutes ago was now a frost, clouding his windows and sinking into his hands until he almost couldn't get them off the steering wheel.
The first intersection came only minutes later. There was a sign which had an arrow pointing toward the town of Hyberia. It had a population of less than 2,500. That was good enough, and it was only five miles. He thought he could make it five miles, but put his foot down anyway. The truck growled but kind of sputtered before really getting up on it's hubs. He went from 50 to 70 and leveled out at 85. If he got pulled over maybe the officer could explain what was going on, and why it was so ungodly cold there. And getting colder by the minute. He had it in his mind that if he didn't find refuge soon he would freeze just like that flag, and the truck would just go on until it veered off the road or came head on with something it couldn't drive through.
The town sign was large, a piece of carved wood reading Hyberia: The Only Place to Weather the Storm. It may have said something else but he didn't have time to catch it. Soon after, a small gas station appeared, a place which reminded him of the filling station in Mayberry. It may have been deserted, and he actually thought that was just the case. Beyond the station more of those rose-like flowers. It might have been the area's money crop, except they weren't like anything he'd ever even seen in magazines or on TV. If they existed anywhere else, no one was buying them. It wasn't a wonder why, there was very little aesthetic appeal, and he didn't even want to think about eating the seeds from that foul plant. Just the thought made his throat convulse. A cold shock burst in his chest and the breath went with it, reverberating from his body. It took a moment to get his lungs full again, heaving as he gripped the steering wheel. It felt like ice in his hands, or was that just the temperature in general? He couldn't decide because his brain was just then somewhat deprived of valuable oxygen.
As if on it's own, his foot pressed harder on the pedal and he was going a hundred, passing those red flowers at a clip too great to even see them, merging it all into a massive blur on either side of the road. His ears were numb, and his nose, and the tips of his toes too. All of a sudden he became aware ofjust how much of his body he could no longer feel. His chest and hips were still there, but the rest was just a bunch of appendages attached, like the hoses and attachments on a vacuum cleaner, useless things he could no longer communicate with. It was almost the way he had felt with Jessica in the last months of their marriage, as though she were once something he could effortlessly talk and listen to. They had seemed so connected then, so singular. How they could ever have separated he would never know. He didn't want to think about it deeply enough to figure it out.
As the flowers gave way to a small parking lot he whipped the wheel and aimed the truck at the building there. Higginson's Delicatessen and Grocery. He didn't bother with such niceties as parking spots and instead slid to a stop, almost into the red-brick wall. He threw open his door and tumbled out. His grimy hands hit the pavement and stuck, like licking a pole. For one terrible moment he was sure that was it, whatever was happening was going to happen to him and that would be the end, but his hands peeled away from the ground, a bit of blood splashing the dark surface. He didn't feel it, or give himself time to wonder how bad he'd just fucked his hands, if he didn't get inside soon, those hands wouldn't matter anymore anyway.
He slammed into the glass doors. They didn't budge and his heart shot into his throat. He pushedand shoved and kicked. He turned toward the waning day, and saw what was coming. It was a wall of pure white, the clearest void of color he'd ever seen. The way some clouds looked on very clear blue days, but this was deeper somehow, like the complete opposite of a massive sinkhole. You thought you could see things in that darkness, and you could definitely hear them. This, though, this whiteness you could feel, down in the very fiber of your bone and muscle. It was coming for him, and it would fill him to bursting, it would sink down into him and form crystals of ice and expand every organ and bit oftissue until he exploded like a can of soda in the freezer.
He spun, out of breath completely now, numb to his core, moving by fear alone, pushing and slamming and pulling now at the door and it opened toward him with ease. For a moment he just stood there, confused, until he felt something like ice on the back of his neck. Lurching, he stumbled into the store and fell onto his hands and knees, sliding onto his face as his bloody hands slipped out from under him. An already the encapsulating warmth washed over him, as though there was a space heater hanging just above him.
For longer than he could tell or calculate, he just laid there. The floor was even warm, like one of those rich people's bathrooms. The lights above were dark, the only light that of the whiteness outside, falling in through the single door he'd escaped through. His hands began to sting and to burn. He would have to find some disinfectant and some gauze. As he sat up, he realized that door had been an exit. PUSH was very clearly stated above the handle. On the outside, he knew, it would read PULL.
He got up and turned toward the store. It was mostly dark, the shelves like ghosts emerging from their unseen realm. It was just a humble little shop, no bigger than a McDonald's or Subway. There were two registers. It crossed his mind to wonder why the place was unlocked and unattended, and then it crossed his mind to search the register, but thought better of that. Just what he needed, a robbery charge to go with the divorce and his near-death experience. Near freezing-to-death experience.
Everything outside was white, and he thought of that movie The Mist. He hoped that wasn't what he had found himself facing. As he watched, ice crystals began to form at the edges of the glass. They seemed to build one on top of the other as they spread, moving inward like ants, ants devouring some piece of food dropped onto the ground. He thought that if he kicked that glass it would shatter, and that cold would find it's way in.
A thump from the darkness. He whirled, but it was murky still, no more than edges and vague shapes. “Hello?” he said, and told himself that was a stupid thing to do. If it was some criminal, or monster – No, he shut that thought off immediately, a storm so cold it formed ice in seconds, on pretty much any surface, that was one thing, he was not going to entertain the idea of monsters.
Something answered him. Some thing being the only way he could describe it because there were no words, only a few guttural mewls like a little animal struggling into the world. He moved into the darkness toward that sound, telling himself this was how all the stupid white girls died in horror movies and slasher flicks, but too curious to stop his forward progression. He heard something else, like water dripping, and realized that his hands were leaking onto the floor. He wiped them on his shirt and pain flared into his wrists and arms. Yeah, he was going to have to deal with that soon.
The mewling came again, so much closer yet no more intelligible. It could have been a puppy ora deer or some unimaginable freak of a thing no one had ever seen before. But of course that was more ridiculousness. There were no monsters or creatures scurrying through the darkness. Whatever it was, he'd likely come across it before at one time or another, his fear addled brain just hadn't recognized that sound yet.
Out of the darkness, something did come crawling, but it was no monster or horrible creature or anything else he'd been scaring himself with. It was a baby. It saw him and sat back on it's butt. It was half-wrapped in a blanket, and had on a onesie with little paw prints like a pup had trekked all across the thing. The baby had bright blue eyes and starkly blond hair. It cocked it's head.
“Hi, little baby,” crouching as he moved a little closer, “where is your mommy? Or your daddy, I guess. That seems more likely, leave it to a man.”
The baby reached with one clutching hand, as if wanting something. He looked down at his own neck and found the bandanna he had been wearing, in case he should need to go into a place requiring coverings. He untied and offered it. The baby snatched it away and smiled. It made a giddy little yeeing sound and started swinging the kerchief from one side to the other.
He finished closing the distance and picked the baby up, careful not too get too much blood on it's clothes, wondering if it was a boy or girl, and asking again where it's mommy was. If the baby knew, it wasn't saying, though it didn't take long to find out. Just a few feet away was the entrance to the little grocery. The door was held slightly open by an arm, the PUSH stark just beside it. He could just see a woman's face through the white haze building on the glass. Her other hand was firmly locked around the outer handle. As he watched, those crystals moved up her arm, forming even more rapidly than they had on the glass. Almost the way an animal will switch meals when a meatier prey presents. Through the space provided by her arm, the cold was creeping in, forming it's little crystals already on the magazine stand just inside the door. He knew what he had to do. If he didn't, that ice would continue spreading, and their warm little cave would no longer be much of a haven. In fact, it would be a tomb.
He took the baby to the registers and placed it in the space between them. “Stay here, little baby, you shouldn't see this. I shouldn't do it,” he mumbled turning back toward the entrance and the woman who had tried to reach the safety the other side of it provided. The woman who had thought to save her child even as the cold crept into her. How much of her had frozen before she had gotten it to safety? How difficult that must have been. He had only felt the first wave of that chill and his mind had nearly shut down.
He found the magazine rack almost completely white. He wondered if it would spread from there or if it needed the chill from outside to maintain itself. If he got the door closed, would that be enough to keep them from freezing as well? The only answer that mattered was, that it didn't matter, because if he didn't close that door, that woman's efforts would be in vain, and so would his own. So as much as he did not want to do it, he lifted his foot and kicked that door as hard as he could. The woman's arm didn't severe so much as shatter. Like a meat Popsicle, it hit the floor and burst into frozen red chunks.
The door closed and the magazine stand began to thaw, though he could tell it would be quite a while before the pages of the periodicals there would come apart, if they ever did. Before those pieces of what had once been a hand and part of an arm could start to look like what they now were, he faded back until the whole scene was obscured by the comforting black of lightlessness. He found the baby, still between the registers, and sat down to wait for the storm to pass. He hoped it would be quick, but if it wasn't then at least they would have plenty to survive on. Pulling the baby into his lap, he reveled in it's warmth, and hoped the little guy, or gal, was enjoying his as well. For a while, that was all there was going to be. Maybe all there would ever be.