Today I’m sharing one of my short stories from Perspectives, the first book in the Mind’s Eye Series. My mission was to write a story based on the below photograph, taken by Martin David Porter.
Cold As Ice
Cold. Bone deep and paralyzing. The frigid wind has sucked all the moisture from my eyes. When I blink, my lids scrape like sandpaper across my eyes.
I’ve been walking for hours. Farmland is like that. You can go miles between homes. Endless stretches of nothing but land and not a person in sight.
The ground is frozen solid. Ice crystals crunch beneath my feet as I traipse along. I’m not dressed for an outing in this winter wonderland, but at least I’m not wearing my Jimmy Choos with the five-inch heels. My boots, though, are more fashion statement than practical. The three-inch block heels don’t offer much traction. Once, about two miles back, I lost my footing on a patch of ice and went down hard on my ass. On the bright side, the snow immediately seeped through my linen pants, numbing the pain.
Is it possible to get frostbite on your ass?
I’m doing my best to focus on the positives. If I’d been trekking through snow-covered mountains, I’d be in a far worse predicament. I love the mountains, with their peaks and valleys. But I only love them in the summer, when everything is green. I don’t ski. And I don’t like snow.
I frown at the frozen branches of the brush alongside the road. Pretty as a postcard, providing you are sitting in a warm room looking at said postcard. Up close, it’s not so appealing.
My rental car broke down about four miles back. I should have been better prepared. I’m smarter than this. Or so I thought. Today proves the exception to the rule. I don’t know a thing about cars, other than how to drive them. Smoke had billowed out from under the hood and streamed up over the windshield. The engine sputtered and coughed. Then everything went quiet and the stupid luxury car rolled to a stop. I found cursing while furiously stabbing the start button with my index finger did nothing to correct the situation. The sun was at least an hour from rising, which meant a quick rescue from a passerby was unlikely. At the time, this six-mile hike to my destination didn’t seem so completely absurd. I’m a city girl. What do I know?
Now I’m wrapped tight in my Burberry Trench coat, shivering, zigzagging across this empty road in search of the sunny spots. While this $2500 coat is mad stylish, it’s not made for sub-freezing endurance. The sun has risen, finally, and helps thaw the frozen edges of my ears. Sometimes we have to be thankful for the little things.
My iPhone is back at the hotel, sitting on the antique desk in the corner of my room. A lot of good it does me there. Though I’m not sure who I’d have called if I’d had the phone with me. I’m in the middle of nowhere. I have no family here. No friends. I flew in yesterday to do this one job. In and out. No big deal. Or so I thought.
My flight from LA had been delayed two hours because of ice on the runway in Des Moines. That should have been my first clue to postpone this Iowa job. But, no. I take pride in my chosen profession. I go where I’m needed, when I’m needed.
Maybe I should start refusing jobs in frigid winter climates.
I’ve never been one who is easily spooked. Walking along this desolate road by myself in the predawn darkness didn’t scare me. I’m a realist. It’s highly unlikely I’d come across a serial killer or rapist hiding behind a frozen tree in the early-morning hours, on this back road, in this small town, in the middle of nowhere Iowa. Some people have a hairline trigger on their panic button. They freak out over the silliest things. Not me. I was once precariously dangling over the edge of a cliff, and I admired the breathtaking beauty of the view before pulling myself back up to safety. This makes it all the more bizarre when a noise in the distance has me stumbling over my own feet in a fit of panic.
What the hell is that?
The frenetic howl has me rooted to this spot, as if my feet have decided on their own that it’s not safe to go any farther. I can’t see anything beyond the line of ice-coated trees. I yank my hands from my coat pockets and stand ready to do battle. It occurs to me how ridiculous this is. Do I expect to fight off a werewolf?
Just when I’ve convinced myself the noise had been a trick of the wind or my overactive imagination filling up the silence, I hear the rabid barking of a pissed-off dog. Then a howl that sets my teeth on edge.
Not a wild dog. A wolf, maybe?
I tell my feet to get moving, but they don’t obey my command. The frenetic growling starts up again. Angry. Territorial. Then it comes to me. Coyotes. I’d seen a clip about them once on some animal show, and I remember the sounds were like something from a horror movie. Judging by the noise, there is more than one out here and they are not happy.
I might have been better off facing the random serial killer.
Moving backward, I cross the road into the shade, away from the high-pitched growls and howls. Without the sun to keep the chill at bay, I instantly feel my body temperature drop ten degrees. Despite having kept my hands deep in my coat pockets, I can barely feel the tips of my fingers. Warming up is essential if I expect to do my job properly.
I flex my fingers continuously as I walk along, trying to work the blood flow for warmth. A lone howl sends a shiver up my spine. I keep moving, mindful of the coyote calls in the distance.
Finally, I turn a corner and I’m on what passes for the main road here. My destination is just shy of two miles north. I know that because I drove this route four times yesterday, to ensure I knew the way. My habit of excessive preparation isn’t always necessary, but it has saved me a time or two. Today it likely kept me from getting lost and freezing to death.
I have this sudden mental picture of coyotes hovering over my still, lifeless body, fighting amongst each other for that first tasty morsel of my frozen skin. The ensuing bloody mess would make for an interesting contrast to all the white surrounding me. My remains would be abstract art.
The cold, endless white surroundings have left me with morbid thoughts. Fortunately, the howling has stopped. Either the coyotes are quietly stalking me or they’ve moved on. I’m holding out hope for the latter.
I’ve managed another thirty feet of progress when a new noise disrupts the silence. This time it’s the low thrum of an engine and tires crackling over the hardened snow. I turn and, a moment later, an old farm truck comes into view. It’s approaching slowly. The driver is probably sizing me up, this stranger out wandering in the early morning. I know I must look a wreck. Red, runny nose. Blotchy skin. Dirty, wet spots on my taupe slacks. A five-foot-five, one hundred-twenty pound shivering mass.
The truck pulls alongside me and stops. The driver, a middle-aged farmer wearing a brown Carhartt jacket and a mesh cap adorned with the logo of a seed corn company, lowers his window and tosses me a smile. He must have determined a frozen female dressed in city clothes wasn’t a threat. Or maybe he thinks I’m a high-priced call girl working the neighborhood.
“Mornin’,” he says. “A little chilly to be out walkin’.”
“My car broke down a few miles back.” I offer him my best helpless female smile. “I’ve been walking for hours.”
The smile works. Or maybe he still thinks I’m a call girl. Either way, he invites me into his truck. I climb into the passenger seat and immediately hold my hands out to the vent blowing heat straight at me. I utter a contented sigh that probably sounds too much like a sound an actual call girl would make.
The farmer is watching me with interest. “You ain’t from around here,” he says. “City girl?”
“Yes. I’m from LA.”
“No kiddin’? What brings you out this way?”
I want to tell him it’s none of his business. City people don’t ask personal questions of strangers. Then again, they also don’t stop and offer strangers a ride. I suppose I should be polite and endure the interrogation. I give him a vague answer. “Business.” Then I use my charms to distract him. “You saved me from freezing to death out here. I don’t think I could’ve gone another step. You’re my hero.”
He blushes. “Right place at the right time. That’s all.”
His foot is still on the brake. I want to tell him to drive the damn truck, though that might be considered rude.
“Excuse my lack of manners,” he says. “My name’s Phil.”
I assume the ensuing silence is where I’m supposed to speak up and provide my name in return. I really miss the city. “Alyssa,” I say. “Thank you for stopping, Phil.”
“My pleasure. Where you headed?”
“Just a couple miles down the road.”
He watches me, waiting, apparently, for me to offer more detail. I notice that Phil has hairy knuckles. And he’s still not driving.
“You mean the Tanners’ place?” he finally asks.
I was hoping we could find some way around this. Phil is nobody to me, but he’s somebody to other people. Maybe he’s a father, a grandfather. A husband. A best friend. Maybe he dressed up as Santa last week and delivered presents to kids stuck in the hospital for Christmas.
Or maybe he’s just an asshole.
Either way, I don’t like to stray from my business plan. And Phil isn’t part of my plan. So what to do?
“Yes,” I tell him. “Leon Tanner is expecting me.”
“No kiddin’? Old Leon and I have known each other nearly forty years. We went to school together.”
“That’s interesting,” I say. It’s not.
“You say you’ve got business with Leon? What kind of business, you don’t mind me askin’?”
I do mind.
The heater has finally thawed my fingers. I stuff them back in my coat pockets. “I’m an insurance agent,” I say.
He waits. I don’t say anything else, and he doesn’t drive.
“Insurance?” he mutters.
He gives me that look, the one that says he’s questioning the validity of my words.
“I’m sorry, Phil,” I say.
“We might’ve been able to work around this if you’d just driven the damn truck.”
His eyebrows knit together and his nose wrinkles. He’s either working hard to figure this out or he’s constipated.
I bring my hand out of my pocket. He doesn’t see the taser, but he feels it. A fleeting moment of panic passes behind his eyes before they flutter wildly. His body convulses. His foot leaves the brake and the truck starts to roll. I take my finger off the trigger, wriggle my leg over his, and jam my foot on the brake. Then I slam the gear into park and sigh. Complications irritate me.
I reluctantly push open the passenger door and climb out of the truck. The biting cold feels especially cruel, since I’d only just begun to warm up. Phil almost falls on top of me when I pull open the driver’s door. He’s unconscious, which will make this easier for him and harder for me. Phil isn’t all that tall, maybe five-eight or -nine, but he’s got a lot of extra meat. Must be insulation for these cold winters.
By the time I drag him out of the truck, through the brush, and dump him on the edge of more endless farmland, he’s beginning to stir. I don’t wait for conversation. The blade in my hand is small, only four inches, but it does its job. I roll him onto his side, away from me, not because I don’t want to face him but because I don’t want to get covered in blood spray. Then I slice, quick and efficient. He gurgles, brings his hand to his throat. But it’s too late.
A moment later, I step back and let him slump onto his back. The blood had arced and danced through the air, creating that same abstract image of red on white that I’d been thinking about earlier with the coyotes. It really is beautiful.