II. The Decision
Noelle recuperated first. The pressure in her head escalated as the blood rushed towards her brain. She rubbed her eyes then reached towards her hip, exercising caution while unbuckling her seatbelt. She flipped herself right side up while bracing her weight on her elbows. The gentle hum of the engine had ceased. The scratching blare from Kim’s headphones had stopped. The creature was nowhere to be seen.
Her head throbbed as she sat on the inner roof of the car. Dizzy and lightheaded, she fought to regain composure. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back and tried to focus on her breathing. After a moment, the throbbing alleviated. Someone groaned softly by her side. Her eyes shot open and she immediately turned her attention towards Ben.
“Slowly,” she said as she reached towards him. “Slowly.” She helped him unbuckle his seat belt and get back into an upright position. His long legs made it a challenge. “That’s better. Anything broken?”
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Noelle held three fingers in front of Ben’s face. “You know the drill.”
His brown eyes focused hard on her fingers. “Three.” He looked past her hand and pointed towards her ear. “You’re bleeding.”
A patch of warmth trickled from her temple down to her jaw line. She swiped her fingers along the moist skin and stared at the darkness that colored them. Ben’s breathing became quick and shallow. Noelle followed his gaze to the back of the car and saw Kim lying unconscious among the bags and luggage. Resting flat against what used to be the roof; one of her legs twisted at an odd angle. Noelle scooted towards her. She reached in her back pocket and threw her cell phone at Ben. “Call.”
Ben fumbled with the tiny phone. He threw off one of his bulky gloves and flipped the mobile open, sliding his lithe fingers across the buttons. He held it up to his ear for a moment then thrust it back towards Noelle.
“It doesn’t work.”
She pushed Ben’s hand back. “Ben, I need you to calm down. Take a deep breath. Try again. We’re going to have to fight for a signal through these mountains.”
He nodded and dialed again.
Noelle pressed her fingers against Kim’s neck. “Her pulse is faint but it’s there.”
“I can’t be in here.” Ben pushed against Noelle and lunged for the driver’s side door as it was the only side free of snow. The door creaked open, its edge skimming the trunk of a tree. The scratch of fiberglass against bark was magnified in the silence of the snowy ravine. Ben crawled out, heaving in a lung full of crisp March air.
Noelle watched his feet pace back and forth in the still burning headlights. She removed the luggage that covered Kim and tried to wake her. Pulling a blanket from Ben’s bag, Noelle draped it over Kim’s limp form. Careful not to cause her pain, she tried to get a better look at her friend’s leg. Ben’s head popped back into the car. Noelle saw the tear trails that were left on his dark cheeks. He sniffled once then handed the phone back to Noelle.
“I can’t get a signal.” He was calmer than before. “I tried everything I could think of. We’re not high enough.”
She nodded and gestured for Ben to get out of her way. As she left the car, he crawled back inside. “Keep her warm.” Noelle dialed the emergency number and tilted the phone in all angles in hopes of catching a single bar. “Damn.” The phone’s LCD screen read 10:43 p.m. They had lost an hour. It had been two and a half hours since they left Dunmore and there was no sign of civilization. She walked uphill. Grabbing at the snow with her free hand as her feet slipped, she continued to hold the phone as high as possible. Struggling to climb, she made it back to the road and surveyed their options. Forward or back?
Sliding back down the ravine, Noelle turned her phone off and crawled back into the car where she found Ben trying to console a waking Kim. She fumbled around for the flashlight and flipped one of the visors up from the floor. Gazing into the mirror, she turned the flashlight on and shined it into each eye. Her pupils contracted.
She sat up again and began searching through the tousled luggage for her bag. Reaching around Ben, she tugged at a familiar strap but it was held under his knee. She tugged again but he would not budge.
“As always,” she muttered. “Move please.”
“What is wrong with you?” Ben turned towards her, a line of snot trailing from one nostril. He picked up Noelle’s bag and heaved it towards her head, just between the seat-backs. She said nothing. Unzipping the larger compartment, she dumped the contents of the bag around her.
From the pile she plucked spare batteries, three bottles of water, some snacks from the cooler, the flashlight from the floor and the map. She stuffed her purse inside and looked up at Ben who was staring back at her, brow furrowed.
“We can’t stay here.”
“Bullshit. I’m not leaving her here.”
“Don’t try to reason with me right now. I’m emotional.”
“Clearly. You’re acting like a twelve year old girl.” Noelle turned and began looking through more of the luggage.
“You’re acting like a cyborg. How can you be so calm?”
“What good will it do if I start acting like you?”
“Oh that’s nice. Suddenly it’s not okay to act human and show some emotion. Peter was right about you.” Noelle stilled her movement but did not give Ben the satisfaction of seeing her face. She went back to her search. “Aren’t you curious about what he said?”
“Not really.” She pulled a large flashlight from one of Kim’s bags. “Peter happened a year ago. I don’t care anymore. I wish you both the best.”
“Do you care about anything?”
“Only what matters.” She turned on the flashlight and shined it into Ben’s face. He raised his hands but she redirected the light and exited the vehicle.
“Where are you going?”
“To find help.”
Ben crawled out of the car and reached out for her. “Wait! Stop! You can’t do this, Noelle.”
“Look, right now we’re lost—in the middle of the nowhere. Do you know what else is out here?”
“I’m not in the mood for this conversation. You’ll just make me feel dumb.”
“Wolves. Bears. And whatever that was we saw on the road.” The hair on the back of Noelle’s neck prickled and she looked over her shoulder feeling suddenly alert at the memory of the creature. What was it? Where had it gone?
“What are you talking about?”
“That thing! That thing on the road. Don’t tell me you didn’t see it.”
Ben shook his head. “I thought we slipped on ice and you lost control of the vehicle. You said it yourself. It was a shitty car.”
“You didn’t see it?”
“No and from the sound of your voice I’m glad I didn’t. What did it look like?”
Noelle looked away and tried to collect her thoughts. “I’m not sure how to describe it.”
Ben looked up towards the road, daring himself to catch a glimpse of something that had long vanished. All remained dark, still and silent. “Was it a bear? A wolf? What else would be out here and large enough to scare you?”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t an animal. It had skin, not fur or feathers; grey skin, like ash.”
She closed her eyes and tried to see more but decided to shake the image from her head. “That’s all I remember for sure. It happened so fast. I saw its body, then its eyes reflecting the light from the car.”
Ben nodded absentmindedly, disbelieving her description. He chalked it up to fatigue and imagination. “Right. All the same, I don’t see anything now. Maybe we’ve been in the car too long, needed some fresh air. Either way, I think we should stay put.”
“I’m sure any wild life out here would love a nice warm meal. We can’t stay here. If we stay, we die. We have no transportation. It’s freezing outside and we have no means of communication to the outside world. We have to get Kim someplace warm so she can rest. At least until sunrise. Then we can figure something else out.”
“They say if you’re lost you should stay put if you want to be found.”
“So we should sit here and do nothing? Sorry. Going down without a fight cramps my style. Besides, who’s going to come, Ben? We’ve been driving out here for hours. Do you recall seeing any other signs of life other than the trees?”
“What if we leave and someone comes?”
“I don’t know. What if? What if? Do you live your life by ‘what ifs,’ Benjamin? Who’s going to see us down here anyway? How about this—what if someone does find us and they turn out to be some mass murdering psychopath? What if aliens beam us up into their spaceship?”
Ben frowned and rolled his brown eyes.
“Well, you never know,” she mocked, doing her best impression of his voice. “What if no one comes but you insist that we stay so we do and I freeze first because I’m the smaller one and you’re just left here with a dead body and a half-conscious person with what looks to be a broken leg. You’d just take your chances and wait for someone who might not ever come?”
“Stop antagonizing me.”
“I’m not antagonizing you I just want you to listen to yourself.”
“You’re being a pessimist. You’re overreacting.”
“I’m overreacting? I’m being realistic. Use your head, Benjamin. Here’s one—what if we walk farther up this road and get help? This road has to lead somewhere. Ever think of that? I’m going up the road. You can stay here in the dark or you can come with. However, if you stay I’m not sure whether that would double our chances of being found or make things worse. You decide your fate but I’m leaving.”
“What about Kim?” Ben asked, almost pleading. “We can’t just leave her in the car. She can’t walk on that leg. No way.”
Noelle softened. “Are you able to carry her? I can help you get her out from the car but-”
“-Yea. She’s light.”
“Okay.” Noelle set the bag down in the snow. She crawled back into the car as Ben opened the back door.
“Hey guys,” Kim said. She sounded sleepy. “What’s the plan? It sounded pretty intense out there with all the raised voices.” She tried to smile but it looked more like a grimace.
“We’re going to get you out of the car.” Ben brushed a stray lock of platinum hair out of Kim’s eyes. “Noelle says it isn’t wise to stay here like sitting ducks.”
“We’ll head farther up the road. It must lead somewhere. We could find a shelter for the night. Maybe a phone? Or at least a signal.”
Kim nodded. “Makes sense to me. You were always the sensible one.”
“Kimberley Oaks, ever the optimist,” said Ben with a smile. Noelle noticed that he seemed more relieved once Kim was onboard with the plan. “Don’t worry. We won’t make you walk. I’m going to carry you.”
“All right. How do we want to do this?” asked Noelle.
“I’ll support her upper body. Kim, let me know if you need to rest or if you’re uncomfortable.”
“I can’t be much more uncomfortable than I already am. The initial shock is wearing off.”
Noelle retrieved her bag from the snow and rummaged through it again. “There should be some Aleve in here somewhere. I know it isn’t much but it’s all we have for now.” She pulled out a rattling bottle and removed the plastic cap.
“Anything is better than nothing,” said Kim as Noelle dispensed a few pills into her gloved palm and handed them to her. Kim swallowed them dry. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Let me know if we need to stop or if Noelle can readjust your leg, okay?”
“Thanks, Ben.” She smiled through the pain. “Sometimes I think it’s such a shame that you don’t like women. You’d be a great catch.”
Within a few moments, they extracted Kim from the vehicle and she snuggled against Ben’s heavy coat as he lifted her into his arms. Noelle draped one of the blankets over her. “Anything is better than nothing,” Kim repeated, noticing Noelle’s frown.
Noelle tugged her hat down over her ears and secured the scarf more securely around her neck. Keeping the flashlight beam in front of her, she turned and began to tread uphill towards the road with their bag of supplies slung over her shoulder.
“Noelle, wait,” Ben hollered.
Noelle turned back and noticed that his attention was drawn towards the tree line in the distance. She looked up and saw a faint light hidden among the barren canopy along the mountainside. It was stationary yet too large and low to be a star.
“Do you see that?” he asked as he passed Noelle.
“Yea,” she said disbelievingly. She looked towards Kim but the young optimist had lost consciousness again. “Whatever it is we have to find it. She could have internal injuries. Should we allow her to fall asleep?”
“I’m not sure,” said Ben as they made their way back to the road, every step being one of caution in the heavy snow. “What do you think it is?”
Noelle shook her head. She was already out of breath from the steep incline. “A house? What else would be all the way out here?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Copyright © 2015 Regina Bethory. All Rights Reserved.
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Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.