Laurie trudged onto the white carpet outside the university. She hadn’t looked up from her phone yet to see just how much damage the snow had done, and was continuing to do. Excited students heading home for the holidays barged past her, crowing about their results and the fact that it was snowing.
Laurie was anything but excited. Her train home had been cancelled, leaving her all but stranded. She had tried to get in touch with her father, but he wasn’t answering her calls. It was so typical of him.
“I’ll sort something out,” she had reassured a concerned friend. An hour had since passed, though, and nothing had been sorted. A two-hour cab ride was expensive, while buses didn’t run far enough. She had an option to stay overnight on campus and head home on the morrow if the trains were up and running by then, but she wanted to get home as quickly as possible. She didn’t want to be the only student stuck here on Christmas Eve. Her confidence was collapsing, and she could feel herself starting to panic.
Her rosy cheeks began to ache as the cold winds began to gnaw at her flesh, turning her face to marble. It finally alerted her to the fact that the weather really was grave. She looked up from her phone; all around her was a vast, deep, impenetrable whiteness. Laughing girls were linking arms, supporting each other down the icily layered campus steps. Young men charged down them with gusto, daring their friends to race them. Some fell. Laurie didn’t notice anything. She had other things on her mind.
“I’m going to book you in for a biopsy,” her doctor had told her two days earlier.
“Okay. Is this a precaution, or …?”
“It’s just a precaution, honey,” smiled the doctor. “You’ve certainly got no risk factors, so I wouldn’t worry too much. Go home, enjoy your holidays, and we’ll get you in for early-to-mid January.”
The thing inside her left breast had been there for nine months, causing no problems at all. It hadn’t grown. It hadn’t changed or moved. It was dormant and still, incubating, waiting like a hobgoblin in a cage for its release before it could hollow out her beauty. She hadn’t worried about it all year. Now, though, it was playing tricks with her mind. Now that she had started to think about it, she was wringing out the beast within.
“What if it’s something?” she had asked herself after almost a whole year of ignoring it. “What if I’m done for?”
A snowball whizzed past her face, causing her neat brown fringe to flutter as she arrived at the bottom of the steep campus steps that lead out onto the road. She didn’t know where she was heading.
“Hey!” a young man cried out. “Hey, Laurie!”
She looked around. Jake Deeney was leaning on his grey, snow-coated Cadillac, his arms folded. Boyishly handsome, there was something threatening about Jake that everyone who met him agreed upon.
“He’s aass,” students said.
“He gives me the creeps.”
“He’s arrogant and conceited. Who does he think he is?”
He had unapologetically made himself an outsider at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. An economics student, he lived in his own world, made no attempts to make friends, and seemed to enjoy annoying people by being a smart ass.
People said that he had “issues”, and it was no secret that he had recently been arrested. For what, no one knew. There were Chinese whispers, of which Laurie was privy to, that he had sociopathic tendencies, and also that he had a lot of money. He wasn’t a stylish rebel without a cause that girls were drawn to; he was quite the opposite. He repelled women with his demeanour and his insensitive and frequently misogynistic comments.
A few, though, found him fascinating, and he had a small gang of nerdy whizz kids who looked up to him, retweeted him endlessly and watched his live streaming lessons on finance.
“I heard you need a lift home,” he said to Laurie, with a cocky grin on his face.
Laurie had spoken to him through friends on a handful of occasions, and he always made her feel uncomfortable with his stare that seemed to coldly lock onto her soul.
It wasn’t that he had said or done anything in her presence to make him disagreeable to her, but there was just something about him that put her on her guard. Perhaps her impressions of him had been prejudiced by all the shady rumours, but perhaps not. There was truly something alien about him that set him apart from everyone else. He was the antithesis of wholesomeness. Yet, he dressed sharply, looked neat and clean, and was undeniably handsome.
“I’ll sort it,” she returned. “Thanks.”
“You’ll sort it?” he asked, grinning mockingly. He looked up to the infinite grey sky and held out his hand. It piled up rapidly with snowflakes. “This is not even a blizzard,” he said. “This is bad, but it’s not a blizzard. We’re expecting a blizzard. This,” he continued persuasively, looking around him, “is only expected to get worse.”
He dusted the snow off his pink hands.
Laurie felt nervous around him. His protracted way of talking and explaining things made her feel uneasy. She didn’t care for a detailed weather report. He was mocking her, she could tell. To him, she was easy prey. She was stranded, which he knew, and there was no way she was going to get out of this situation easily, which he also knew.
“I live 4 miles from you,” he continued relentlessly. “I’ll drop you off on my way back. It’ll take two hours.”
He held out two fingers as he said this.
She looked down the road for as far as she could see before the sharp lines of the lane dissolved into soft, misty-white ripples.
“Come on, you know you want to,” he persisted, still grinning. “I’ve got Johnny Cash on CD and almonds.”
Laurie shivered, whether from the cold or Jake’s voice. She knew she had no other options. She thought back to the doctor and the lump in her bosom. It was not a good day.
“Okay,” she said quietly and reluctantly.
“Alright!” he said happily, nodding and smiling. He opened the door for her, and then made his way to his side of the car. A young male student with glasses asked if he could hitch a ride, too.
“Sorry, but this isn’t your lucky day, bro,” said Jake.
“Boy, this snow is really something, isn’t it?” asked Jake gleefully as he carefully edged his Cadillac up the road. His window wipers were battling away manly to deflect the constant white bombs that were growing ever thicker.
The radio was playing quietly. A hyperactive DJ, whose boisterousness made Laurie nauseous, was talking about the weather.
“You know, they say it’s going to get worse by this evening,” he said in a slick made-for-radio voice. “So unless you absolutely have to head outdoors, folks, you gotta stay inside this evening. It’s an evening for sitting in front of the fire and listening to Derrick The Fridge on 102.8 KKFM. Right then! To warm you good people up, how about some Ray Charles?”
“Good choice, Derrick, my man!” boomed Jake, snapping his fingers. Laurie noticed he was wearing two rings. “You like Ray, Laurie?”
She shrugged and smiled politely. “I don’t really know anything by him.”
“Oh, sure you do! I Can’t Stop Loving You?” he asked as he turned the volume up a little.
“I’m sorry?” asked Laurie briskly.
“Can’t Stop Loving You, it’s a classic. Mess Around? Don’t tell me you don’t know Mess Around? Laurie, come on, give me something here!”
Laurie wanted Jake to stop talking. The darkening skies were concerning her. Visibility was poor. She could barely see more than ten yards in front of her. She was surprised how Jake was able to even keep the car on the road. She was praying for the snow to stop, but Derrick The Fridge had just delivered the worst forecast possible. It was only going to get worse.
Velvet smooth strings were softly crackling from the speakers. This Ray Charles had a voice like warm chocolate that was comforting Laurie, but at the same time it was making her sad. He knew how to touch a nerve, did this Ray guy.
“When waking from a bad dream … don’t you sometimes think it’s real?”
Piano notes fell from the speakers like snowdrops into her lap. The music was so soothing and yet so wrenching. The last month had been hard for her. She had split from her boyfriend, got bad news from the doctor, and was certain that she had failed her exam.
“Remember, sunshine can be found behind a cloudy sky.”
She wanted to look out of the window, but it was impossible. It had condensed from the inside, thanks to Jake turning the heating up. All she could see was a cloudy greyness. What if nothing else existed anymore?
“If your heartache seems to hang around too long …”
“How long do you think it will take to get home?” she asked, shaking the lyrics from her head.
“From now? About an hour and 30 minutes. I know a shortcut, so we’ll be there in no time. Bet you’re glad you bumped into me!”
I didn’t bump into you, she thought. You were waiting for me.
“How did you know I needed a lift?” she asked.
Jake smiled. He didn’t answer.
Ray Charles hadn’t fully finished crooning when the obnoxious Derrick The Fridge started speaking over the top of the music.
“Competition time, folks! Now, since Christmas is just two days away, we’ve decided that we’re going to double down on our gift giving in todays show. That’s right, we’re not going to give one prize away to one person like on normal days; we’re going to give a sackful of prizes away to a sackful of people! I’m basically Santa Claus, baby.”
“If the prizes are anything like normal, they won’t be worth shit,” said Jake. “Yesterday, they gave away a washing machine for Christ’s sake.”
Laurie didn’t say anything. She knew that some people needed washing machines.
“Laurie, we don’t talk much on campus, do we? I’ve seen you around a few times, haven’t I? but we’ve barely talked. What do you study?”
He dove his hand into an opened packet of almonds on the dash and stuffed a few into his mouth.
“Nutrition? That’s cool. What’s that, like, because you want to be a nutritionist?”
“Awesome. I bet you could tell me a few things about my diet, right?” he said with a laugh. “Is it true that our skin tells us a lot about our diet? Like, if I have bad skin, it means I’m in need of a detox?”
Music started to play again. Derrick The Fridge had loaded up Dusty Springfield.
“I confess, I don’t have the best diet around. Look at me, I’m stuffing my face with nuts!”
“Nuts are good for you.”
“Is that so? Well, I guess I’m just nuts about nuts.”
Laurie didn’t like the way he said this. It was like he was acting a part. Nothing at all about him seemed honest or real. Surely he knew that nuts were good for him. Who didn’t?
“I study economics myself,” he said. “I’m just passing the time at uni, maybe see if I can pick up a few things I don’t already know. I’m a trader by trade. I’m not a pro yet, but I will be. Yep, I’m gonna make me a lot of money, Laurie.”
He took a right turn. Through the windshield, she watched smiling kids have a snow fight on the pavement. She thought back to when she was seven, when the day before Christmas Eve was an exciting, giddy time.
“I’m looking at making 7% annual returns on my money,” continued Jake. “7% might not sound like a lot to you, but it’s all about the bigger picture, the long term. 7% returns each year adds up to a lot of money. It’s accumulation, Laurie.”
Good for you, she thought. She turned to look out of the passenger window, but was again met by cold, grey resistance. She was barricaded in by ice. The kids receded into the distance. Straight ahead was a long, lonesome stretch of road.
Two hours had passed and night had well and truly fallen like a spectral crow. Jake’s powerful headlamps helped Laurie see that, after an hour or so of roaming through sparsely populated roads, they were now were driving through dense, snow-drenched woodland.
Derrick The Fridge had passed the controls over to Luke Gallagher, Milwaukee’s most famous disc jockey. Luke had a warmer personality than Derrick’s, but his voice offered Laurie little comfort right now. Worse still for her, the radio signal had become shaky and kept cutting out intermittently. Laurie didn’t want to lose her last contact with the outside world. Her phone had already given up.
“How are we tonight, guys?” asked Luke. “Excited for Christmas, I hope? You bet we got some great fun and games for you tonight.”
“How far away are we?” she asked Jake, who hadn’t said a word for what felt to her like at least fifteen minutes.
“Not far.” He grabbed another almond and shoved it into his mouth. He was focused on the road ahead. He was no longer smiling, but looked almost vexed, as though something was troubling him.
“Where are we?” she asked.
Jake didn’t answer, which she took as meaning that he either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell her. She had never been driven home this way before, so she didn’t know the roads that were coiling like snakes. Because her view of anything was limited, she had no orientation points to reach out to. All she had seen for the last hour or so were tall trees that lined the thin roads. For all she knew, they had been going around in circles and the trees she was seeing now were the same ones she had seen some twenty minutes ago.
“Do you even know where we are?” she asked.
He scratched his chin. Laurie had never seen him look agitated before. She was alarmed.
“You don’t know?”
“Look, it won’t be hard to get back on track. It’s this snow, it just threw me off a little. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. I’ll sort it.”
Elvis Presley was singing Heartbreak Hotel to them as the car ploughed into the void through the snowy tracks. The radio signal was getting weaker. Elvis cut out momentarily, giving way to static radio noise, before returning.
Laurie didn’t know what else to ask that could possibly put her mind at rest. What other questions were there? She was sharing a car with a stranger who had taken them into remote, wild roads, and who said they were as good as lost amid the thick, snow-white darkness. That was, apparently, all she needed to know. More disconcertingly for her, she hadn’t seen the reassuring headlamps of another car for at least thirty minutes.
“Though it’s always crowded, you could still find some room.”
Feeling cold, she pulled her jacket collar up over her chin and folded her arms tightly together. She hadn’t seen Jake turn the heating down, but maybe he had done it when her thoughts were taking her someplace else. His hands were pink, and his breath was vaporising in the air. Was he freezing them to death?
“Fuck,” he muttered when he realised he’d eaten the last of the almonds. He turned to look at Laurie and smiled warmly. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. I remember this road now. We’ll be fine.”
Laurie didn’t feel comforted at all. She had an urge to touch her breast, to feel the incubated monster inside it. She thought about Kevin, her ex, and how much she still loved him.
“It’s just this damn snow,” lamented Jake. “I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”
Laurie didn’t know whether he was fooling her or not.
“What’s everyones funniest Christmas memory?” asked Luke. “We’re giving away prizes for the ones that get Marie chuckling the most!”
The weak radio had lolled its tongue and given up entirely. The Cadillac was slithering through the yawning white maze with trouble. The snow was deeper, and the spidery trees had started to bare their teeth. Laurie could feel their branches reaching out to her, as though they were trying to touch her skin or, worse still, kidnap her. She didn’t know whether Jake was lost, or whether this was all part of his plan.
He had admitted to her that he had no idea where he was, but that he was working on getting them back on the main road. Whatever that meant. She hadn’t seen a main road for hours, and still all she could see were the fork-tongued trees that were collected together fortress-like. There was no animal life around, no signs of human habituation, and no other cars. The snow was still falling heavily from the infinite darkness above onto this, the playground of Satan.
“Where are we?” she had asked repeatedly.
Jake didn’t have an answer. Eventually, he sternly requested that she stop repeating the same question.
How can we be lost? she pondered. How can Jake have got us lost?
He was, by all accounts, a maverick who never got things wrong. That is one thing she had gleaned about him from others: He was infallible and never got things wrong. Or, at least, that’s what he wanted people to believe.
“I’ve seen him take professors round in circles,” a friend had told her.
As such, she couldn’t make it up in her frenzied mind whether he was leading her on a merry dance of death, or whether he was genuinely lost.
The car continued to plumb greater depths of the woodland. The landscape was unchanging.
He made an effort to keep both their spirits up by playing his Johnny Cash CD and talking to Laurie about music and his guitar lessons. But her answers to his questions were often monosyllabic and killed the conversation. Just talking made her lips shiver.
“Bet you wish you hadn’t bumped into me now,” he said with an ironic smile, which she thought was loaded with meaning. It added to her feeling of claustrophobia and panic. She insanely wanted to escape and run away. Maybe she’d stumble across a farm house and a kind family. Wandering around the roads at night seemed like a better idea than remaining stranded on this insane carousel.
“I just want to get home,” she said.
“Don’t we all? Christmas is a time to be home, right.”
Laurie wasn’t even thinking about Christmas. She didn’t care about it. All she wanted to do was get home and go to sleep.
Sleep. That was something she had thought about during the journey, but she reasoned that if she slept, she might wake up gagged and bound somewhere.
Jake kept one hand on the steering wheel and flicked through his phone with the other. It was the first time Laurie had seen it.
“Can I call my dad?” she asked.
“No signal,” he said dismally before putting it back in his pocket.
What intrigued Laurie was that he seemed calmer at the moment. After briefly growing irritable earlier, he now seemed in control of his emotions again. Moreover, the way he was driving suggested to her that he knew exactly where they were now. He was weaving along the roads without giving anything a second thought, and he had picked up some speed.
Speed, thought Laurie. Shouldn’t they be running out of fuel soon?
“I didn’t want to alarm you,” said Jake. “We’ve got about an hour of gas left.”
The radio flickered into life briefly. Elvis Presley was playing again.
“We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”
It quickly died, as though it was just a spirit returning from the ether before realising it was in the wrong place. It didn’t want to be here of all places.
Laurie cupped her hands together and blew onto them. She noticed that Jake’s fingers were still pink. They looked frozen.
“I gotta pee,” he said suddenly.
Urinate. It hadn’t even crossed Laurie’s mind. Neither had food nor drink. Her mind had become as empty as the landscape.
Jake pulled the Cadillac over, kept the engine running, before excusing himself. Laurie was left alone. The radio kept flickering in and out of consciousness. Growing pissed off with its uselessness and crackled sounds, Laurie switched it off for good. She could hear Jake’s heavy footsteps in the deep snow, followed by the rustling of branches. Eventually, the sounds stopped, leaving only the thrum of the car engine.
What a mess, thought Laurie, who didn’t even know whether she was going to live or die within the next few months. She refused to touch the thing in her breast, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
That’s as long as a pregnancy.
Her lump was as old as a newborn.
She thought about Kevin and their final argument during which he had ended it all.
“We want different things,” he told her.
Seconds turned into minutes before she realised that Jake hadn’t yet returned. Maybe he was having a dump. Or maybe this was all part of his game. Maybe this was the part of the story where he goes missing.
She was growing nervous. Now that his seat was vacated, she missed having him next to her. Although he had driven them both to the edge of madness, he was at least driving them somewhere.
Hurry, she thought to herself. She wanted them to get moving again.
She exhaled and watched her breath sail through the air like a plume of smoke.
More minutes passed and still there was no sign of him. Annoyed and worried, Laurie bravely stepped out of the car. The glacial winds quickly hit her and she struggled to see a few inches past her face. It was still snowing heavily.
“Jake!” she shrilly called out, piercing the evening stillness like an arrow.
The only sound continued to be the throb of the engine.
She carefully walked in the direction Jake had taken and called out his name again.
No sound was returned.
“If this is all part of a sick joke, Jake …” she cried before tapering off. Her voice had become hoarse, rash with emotion. She was nervous, exhausted, cold and frightened.
She returned to the car and tried to warm up. More maddening minutes passed by, and still Jake didn’t return. Laurie got out again and tried to look for him among the thickets. Without a torch, without any light source at all, she struggled in vain, calling out his name, slipping in the snow, and feeling her scarlet cheeks turn to ice.
Again, she returned to the car, where she inhaled and exhaled quickly. She was breathless and terrified.
Without any warning, the engine cut dead, and the headlamps shut off. Only the white of the snow kept her from being plunged into total darkness, but the landscape was rearing its evil head.
She thought about her breast. It was all she could think about. It was all she was ever going to think about. She was suffocating.