She sat up, stretching awkwardly, limbs bounded by the front seat and the spidered glass of the broken hatch window. Tanya was cold, so cold she no longer shivered. Her hands, hidden in the woolen wells of her gloves, were pale and grey, nails brittle. Her feet, should she decide to pull off the socks that clung to her skin, were turning black. She pulled them up to her lap and rubbed each foot vigorously, though it had been some time since she could feel them. Pointless, but stopping felt like giving up. She slid past the emergency brake to squat in the drivers' side floor board, relieving herself.
"Least it doesn't smell," she grunted. The seat felt damp, squishy and cold. The change focused her for a moment, brought her surroundings into view. Last time it had been solid, ice crackling under her weight. Was it from pee? Tanya wrinkled her nose, every part of her sixteen year old sensibilities rebelling with disgust.
Her stomach roiled, though with hunger or revulsion, she couldn't tell. She climbed back to her seat, pulling the shiny, emergency blanket back around her. It was a ritual by now. Tuck it under her legs and feet first, then snug it around her hips and up her back until just her head and one lonely arm were out. Tanya adjusted the edge of the blanket over her head and then pulled her arm under too.
It didn't feel warm, but it must be. Not dead yet, Tanya reflected, that counted for something, right? She wasn't sure. It didn't feel like much to be here and alive. The girl began to laugh, a harsh, breathy cough. She didn't notice.
Everything happened so fast in the crash. It didn't seem fair that afterward the world crawled by at a snail's pace as if to make up for that one, speedy rush. How long had she been here, in her car? Days? At least a week. More? Why hadn't anyone come yet? Daddy knew they were missing. And grandma. Her friends at school. People had to notice she and mom were gone. Where were the police? Tanya hoped they were out looking. They had to come. They had to come soon.
The girl shut her eyes tight, imagining a rescue party armed with flashlights and big, warm, orange coats. They were out there right now, she was sure of it. The shuffle across hard packed snow, the clink of shovels on ice, grunts and whispered words just out of reach. Tanya gasped as the car shuddered, a screech of metal on metal pealing down her spine. Her eyes flew open. They really were here!
"Help! I'm trapped!" Her raspy shout hurt, but she had to let them know. The crash of metal on metal came again and again, and the voices sounded so close. Tanya strained to understand. Had they heard her? Did they know she was inside?
Silence. Maybe they went to get more tools, the girl thought, curling tighter beneath her blanket. They would be back. Tanya counted her breaths. One after the other, dissipating into the dark. At twenty breaths she couldn't take waiting anymore.
"Please! I'm here! Help me!" Outside, she could hear the creaking of ice and the sound of sleet as it fell against the snow. Of her rescue, there was no sign.
"I'm trapped!" She flung off her blanket and scooted across to the broken window, pounding at the ice. It was wet and her gloves soaked up the freezing water. Tanya couldn't feel it, but she knew wet was bad. "P-please . . . oh God . . . please come - come back . . ." The girl began to shudder and sob.
For a moment, she thought she heard the voices again, but it was just the sleet crunching against the piled snow around her car. "I hate you," she sniffed, staring at the blank, white face winter gave her. "You . . . you tricked me."
It sounded odd when she said it. Tanya knew it did. But it sounded right too. The girl squirmed back into her blanket, thinking about it. Had the whole thing been her imagination? No. There was no way she imagined that shaking and squealing. I felt it in my teeth. It was winter. The ice and snow, the wind . . . it was mocking her.
Tanya struggled with the idea, trying to wrap her cold-numbed mind around it. She was so tired. If winter wanted to kill her, why didn't it just get this over with?
Half lidded eyes glazed over.
And the twins. . . I was mean to my brothers; do they know I love them? Do they miss me? Tanya rubbed her face. She didn't want to think about that.
What about my friends? Do they even notice I'm gone? Loneliness ate at her, made her chest ache. What would she give just to hear their voices again? To talk to someone and hear them reply? Tanya's phone was long dead. She took it out of her coat pocket, staring at its inscrutable black face. Her own eyes looked back in the dark reflection. She pushed the power button once. Again. Furiously, she pressed it over and over. Nothing. Still nothing. The phone slid back into the pocket.
She remembered when it still worked. That was on the first day.
Tanya slid the phone out, hands shaking. Mom was unconscious, still breathing in the passenger seat. Blood oozed from the side of her head, a chunk of icy stone jutting through the window on her side. She needed help. A hospital, a doctor.
The battery mark was at half full. It might work. Emergency . . . she dialed, bare fingers ghostly in the blue light. Nothing. Daddy then, she thought. It had to let her call her Daddy. She pushed his name, watched the screen. Dialing, it said. Dialing.
Error, no signal
Angry, Tanya threw the phone across the car. It made a hollow sound as it hit the glass. She glanced at her mother, worried, but the woman didn't stir. For a moment, the girl was glad to not be in trouble. Mom would lecture her on how much the phone cost, tell her she was careless and ungrateful.
Lost in memory, tears slid down Tanya's face. Mom. "I didn't break it," she said aloud. Mom didn't move. Hadn't moved since the accident. Miserable and overwhelmed, Tanya fell asleep. What else was there to do?
In dreams, she sat on the couch with Mickey and Mikey. Why in the name of all things holy had her parents given them matching names? It was such a stupid, cliche thing to do with twins. And the brothers were nothing alike. Mickey was a chubby, cuddly boy with curling blonde hair. He was Tanya's favorite of the two and now he sat leaning against her while they watched one of his stupid cartoons. He wore a content grin, and she poked him just to remind him she was his mean big sister.
Mikey's legs stretched across Mickey, his feet squarely in Tanya's lap. He was taller than Mickey, and thin as a rail. He had straight blonde hair so short you could see his scalp. His ears poked out on both sides. Tanya called him Dumbo sometimes, just to tease. He needed it, really. Kept him from getting too cocky. He loved soccer and ice hockey. And this stupid cartoon. It was one thing the twins agreed on.
Tanya smiled, the smell of little brothers and home filling her nose. Mom was making dinner. Tuna noodle casserole probably, and Dad was in the basement fiddling with his models. Any minute, Mom would call them for supper. Mikey would say he wasn't hungry, and Mickey, just to tweak his brother, would shut off the tv. She did and he did, and Dad yelled at them as he came tromping up the stairs.
The dream cradled Tanya until cold and discomfort woke her again, a muscle cramp in her calf this time. She flexed and rubbed her leg until it went away, and then leaned over to the rear passenger window to chip at the ice and snow for a drink. The car emergency kit had a Houdini, which was a tiny hammer for breaking out car windows. It also had a sharp, curved edge for cutting seat belts and a flashlight (long dead) on the end. Useless for escape from this white tomb, but just right to get a finger-tip sized frozen sip. Tanya held the ice in her mouth, savoring the flavor of dirt. It tasted. That was something.
A tiny rivulet of water ran down the shattered window corner to the edge of the back seat, disappearing into the crack. Water. Tanya stared at it, thinking furiously. Water meant it was melting. The snow was melting! She grabbed up the tiny hammer again and flung herself at the ice.
The small dent widened in a flurry of tiny white and grey chips, but to her cold-numbed hands, the wall there was as solid as ever. After several minutes or was it hours Tanya lay back, exhausted and breathing heavy. You could barely tell she'd done anything. The girl stared balefully at her nemesis and the ice stared back.
"I hate you." To that, it had no reply.
Something was moving outside. Tanya held still, eyes wide, breath held. It didn't sound like before. It was softer, a scuffling step. Her ears strained for confirmation that this was real. Whispers and creaking branches, yes, and there the slight slush of something moving nearby. The girl stared at the roof, focused. It was probably some animal, something free and alive. She heard it scurry from one side to the other again and again. In her mind's eye it was a squirrel (or a fox?) with a bushy tail. It darted here and there, looking for food, digging at the snowbank.
Her fingers gently stroked the damp ceiling, gloves leaving bits of crusty black dirt on the grey fabric. "I would kill to be you," she told it. The wind answered with a shushing whisper, "We know, we know . . ." Tanya nodded. No surprise there; who wouldn't want to be wild and free instead of trapped in this metal tomb. Trapped and alone.
Mom was here, at least. The girl looked over at her mother's slumped figure, dark hair sticking out at odd angles. She wouldn't want anyone to see her like that. Tanya patted down the stray locks, trying to ignore the spongy give of the skin beneath. "I'm not all alone," she told the body. It didn't reply. There were days Mom did. Days when Tanya lived half-asleep and had entire conversations with the dead.
"What's for dinner?" she would ask. "Pizza," Mom would say, grinning. Mom always smiled now, her pale eyes dancing in the dim light. "Pizza and ice cream?" Tanya would ask. "Whatever you want, honey."
Pizza. They'd been going out for pizza the night of her accident. A dinner with her parents and the twins; Grandma Vicki and Nana were coming too. Tanya loved pizza. Especially with mushrooms. The twins hated mushrooms, so she always got that pizza all to herself. Mushrooms and spicy sausage, or mushrooms and pepperoni. Her stomach clenched and roiled with hunger and Tanya quickly pushed thoughts of pizza away. Dangerous, those.
"This is so lame." Turning sixteen and spending your birthday with your family. "Lame," Tanya said again as if repetition would make her point.
Mom frowned, "It's one night. You hang out with your friends all week."
"Grandma doesn't even like me. She's mean," the girl insisted.
"She likes you," her mother replied. "She's just old and everything hurts. It makes her snippy. Besides, I have it on very good authority that she went above and beyond on your birthday present this year . . ."
"Above and - what did she get me?" The girls glanced at her mother.
"Watch the road, Tanya."
The girl sighed heavily. "I'd rather go out with Jeff and Liz. Presents or no presents."
Mom got that I'm-about-to-ground-you-for-life look. "Drop it, Tanya. Tonight is for family. You can see your friends later this weekend."
She knew she should let it go. She wouldn't win the argument, but she just couldn't drop it. Tanya wanted to show off her new wheels, a sweet four wheel drive in silver and white, with grey interior, a dock for her phone, and custom plates. It was so fucking awesome. "I can see my family this weekend too," she whined. "It's just one night, mom!"
"Oh Christ, Tanya!" That was the last thing mom said.
There was a deer in the road, black eyes glinting red with reflected light. Tanya jerked the wheel, panicking. White and black spun. Then dark and silence. Just like now.
The girl leaned forward, touching her mother's shoulder. It was cold and the flesh gave slightly under her finger. Dried blood mixed with the flower pattern on her mother's shirt. Mom's favorite shirt. Gently, the girl stroked the fabric. The edge was beginning to fray, loose white threads sticking to the glove.
Hunger pulled Tanya away from her mourning. She wasn't sure how long she'd been sitting with a hand on mom's shoulder, but her arm prickled with pins and needles as she settled back against the seat. The floorboard was littered with snack wrappers. Birthday goodies that never made it to the restaurant, debris from an emergency kit: protein bars and beef jerky, and the smeared remains of her cake. Blue frosting still stained the door and part of the seat from the crash. The girl laid flat, pushing her head close to the stain, and licked it. There wasn't any flavor left, but she still chewed and sucked at the upholstery for a while.
All it did was make her drool. So gross, Tanya thought, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. She had some jerky left, maybe. Down in the litter on the floor, or still in the glove box in front of mom. She needed to save it but she was so hungry. If she didn't eat now, there might not be much later to worry about.
Tanya leaned down to shuffle through the trash on the floor. She slumped down into the gap between the seats as a wave of dizziness turned her world around. Her heart raced in her chest, and her breath felt short as if the air were running out. Tanya's arms trembled as she tried to push back up into the seat, and a perverse nausea gripped her. She swallowed back the bile with a whimper.
This wasn't the first time, but it felt like it was getting worse. Tanya squeezed her eyes shut so tightly that her vision bloomed in brilliant colors, aching and comforting all at once. Wrapped in that inner expanse, her breathing slowly steadied. She might have slept like that. Tanya wasn't sure, but when she opened her eyes again it felt like hours had passed.
"I'm going crazy." She said it aloud, just to hear the words. The voice that came back to her ears sounded like a stranger. Stranger, Tanya thought. Could time make you into someone you didn't know anymore? That idea, once planted, ate up her thoughts. After a long internal debate, Tanya sighed. "Who else would I be?" Her unfamiliar voice mocked her. Finally, she heaved herself up between the front seats and peered into the crooked rearview mirror.
The face that greeted her brought little comfort. In the dim light, her eyes were dark pits sunk into a face as pale as the ice and snow surrounding her. Tanya's hair no longer shone, but hung limply to the sides of her face like worn thread. Her chin, lips, and cheeks were dirty and crusted. She wasn't sure how she'd gotten so dirty just living in the car, but it was disgusting. The girl scrubbed at it with a gloved hand, smearing dirt around until there was enough on the glove to wipe onto the driver's seat. It didn't help much, but it made her feel slightly more civilized.
The open glove box called her attention before she could wriggle back into the rear seat. Food. It would probably be better to find the last package of jerky she had open, if there was any of it left. Better, yes, but she'd almost passed out trying to find it once already. Tanya shrugged. It wouldn't be so bad to have two open packs. She pulled out her trusty emergency tool, flipping it around to the bladed side. Her hand trembled.
Tanya ignored her shaky limbs, gingerly reaching past her mother to grab at the food, peeling back the wrapper with slow solemnity. It stuck to the meat for a moment before she was able to get it clear. The girl sliced a strip off the larger chunk of meat, and then covered it again. It wasn't a good idea to chew on the whole piece. She wouldn't be able to stop herself from gobbling it down in one go.
The dried meat felt spongy in her mouth, probably from sitting in the damp car. Tanya didn't look at it much; staring at the food only made her nauseous. Jerky was not a favorite. In fact, she didn't eat meat very often, at least til now. Now, that was all there was. Eat or die, like it or not. Her jaws popped and cracked noisily as she forced them to chew. The meat had almost no flavor. It was cold and tough and resisted her teeth.
The racket neatly covered another sound.
It didn't register at first, that soft surrender of solid to liquid.
As the steady sound penetrated, Tanya turned this way and that, looking for the source.
There! From the roof just over the console, water beaded on the fabric, swelling slowly until it's own weight pulled it down to plop on the dashboard. The girl reached a hand toward it, lurching awkwardly across the emergency break. Dampness spread through the glove and onto her cold-numbed fingers. The damp seat, the rivulet from the broken rear window and now this. The ice was melting. Melting.
Elated, Tanya let out a hoarse shout, trembling with excitement. She blacked out.
She dreamt of her father coming to her rescue, brothers in tow. Mom woke up and together they all went home. It was what she wanted, the sum of every wish; the dream promised that everything would be ok, a memory of the future as inevitable as the past. Beside the sleeping girl, her mother's body lay unmoving, no rise and fall of breath, no tell-tale twitch of the eyelids. Water and fluids began to thaw beneath her, soaking the seat as rot set in, chasing out the cold.
Tanya woke, sore, joints creaking like an old woman's bones. She shoved herself into the back seat, taking time to rub her feet and hands. It didn't seem so pointless today. The dripping water sounded a steady beat in the front seat, and the ice in the windows pearled and sweated moisture. The crack above the back window seemed wider and brighter to the girl, and she spent most of her daylight hours staring at it, imagining her rescue. Soon, the wind promised, soon echoed the crackling ice.
The car sat in a deep ravine shrouded by dry brush falls and old pine growth. The snow and ice piled high around it slowly began to thaw, revealing its treasure in silvered edges and smoked glass. Along the highway above, life went on as usual. News stories about the tragic disappearance of a local girl and her mother had long since passed from headlines to search items in the browser. The rescue parties had disbanded, though the occasional poster stayed up in town. One hung near the cash register at the pizza joint Tanya loved. Another was plastered on her locker, where friends left her notes, goodbyes, and prayers.
Highway patrol and the state police held a theory on the disappearance, filing it as an abduction. Though the case was not closed, the detective assigned knew the two women were dead and gone. He explained the 48 hour rule to a sobbing father and two frightened boys, his wide solemn face conveying sympathy he could no longer feel. Uniformed officers were still looking for leads on the state's borders, and Tanya's life story took up a small corner on a desk, gathering dust with all the other folders featuring the missing and the lost.
The thaw revealed unsightly cans, bottles, and broken glass mixed with nature's detritus on the shoulders of the scenic mountain road. A crew, five men in hooded jackets and orange vests combed the slushy gravel with steel pick sticks and black trash bags, shivering in the chill breeze. They were volunteers, some there for court ordered community service and some out of city pride. Hunched and shivering, they went about the task with a dull sort of determination, pausing only to sip coffee from a steaming thermos.
Tanya woke to the sounds of booted feet shuffling through filthy slush. In the dim car interior, she sat stock still, listening. Low voices coughing, cursing. A crude joke. Was it all in her mind? Another trick played on her by the winter spirits to crush her hopes? Shaking, she lifted herself to her knees to poke at the solid white sheet of ice on the passenger side that now dripped endlessly into the back seat. It still felt as hard and cold as it always had.
The guttural laughter outside sounded closer. Were they laughing at her? Tanya shivered violently, gloved fingers sticking to the ice as she jerked her hand away.
"It's not funny!"
The laughter outside stopped. And then, "Did you hear something?"
The voices had never done that before. Her heart fluttered with excitement, vision tunneling. Tanya took a moment to steady herself before she shouted, "I'm in here!" The words came grinding out, breathy and harsh.
"There it was again!"
"I didn't hear anything . . ." A creaking shift in the snow on the car roof, a heavy thud.
"There's a car here. Look."
Tanya beat at the ice in the window, numb hands clawing at its slick, unyielding face. Her dirty gloves left streaks of brown and red as her skin split and bled. "Here! Please, I'm here!" There was no sign that they heard, voices retreating.
The girl's arms began to tremble and shake, too heavy to lift, but she kept trying anyway. There were people outside, she was sure. Real people. Warm tears seeped from the corners of her eyes as her pain seared limbs began to fail and drop. "No . . . no, please. Don't - don't leave me alone again."
Chest aching with need, Tanya counted each breath, struggling to build up the energy for another go at the ice. Real or no, she wouldn't let this chance go. She cast around for the seat belt cutter with its jagged edge, and grabbed it up from between the front seats. It felt so heavy, as if the small red, plastic handle was made of lead. The steel blade was blackened and covered in filth. Disgusting. Tanya couldn't remember what she'd gotten on it.
The car rocked and shook with an impact, knocking the girl on her back, head bouncing against the plastic armrest. Tanya tried to call out, but her breath felt caught in her chest. The pounding came again and again, and in the windows, the ice began to crack. Blinding white light gleamed through. It hurt, but the girl couldn't look away. Spots of color danced in her watery eyes. Sunlight, so pure it burned away the fear that was eating her heart. Please god, let this be a rescue and not another dream, Tanya prayed, hoping her silent thoughts made their way through to heaven.
She screamed when the ice fell in through the broken window, shards sharp and cold falling against her exposed face. Had she any strength to scream, that sound would have summoned armies. Her rescuers heard the gasp and hastened their digging. Tanya could hear them grunting with effort as they shifted the muddied snow away from the car door.
"You ok, hon?" One asked, peering in through the window.
The girl nodded. She wanted to thank him, to beg them to hurry, but her throat was tight and sore, and her chest felt leaden. Words were more than she could manage. The man seemed to understand. He gave her an encouraging smile and went back to work.
"Wonder how long she's been in there," the other man speculated. Tanya wanted to tell him. I've been here forever.
"Awhile," the smiling man answered.
Winter could not hold her, the girl thought, watching her white prison disappear one shovelful at a time. Each thrust into the slushy grey mass produced a sullen protest only Tanya could hear, as if it growled "no, no." I'm escaping you, she thought victoriously. She brushed the ice shards off her chest with a shaky hand. Freedom.
The men pulled the door open, shoving away the last of the slush with a groan. The smiling man leaned in and wrapped his arms around her. He lifted Tanya as if she weighed nothing, cradling her against his chest. The girl clung to him. He was so warm, so solid. She buried her face in his shoulder, overwhelmed.
"There's another one in there," the other man said, shrugging out of his coat. He draped it over Tanya gently.
"Mom," the girl rasped.
"It's her mom," the smiling man said.
The other man crawled into the car, coatless and already shivering. Tanya could hear him scooting around, the scraping sound of his jeans on the fabric on the seats. He'd barely gotten in when he moaned, a guttural sound of distress. He backed out of the car, sides heaving, eyes wild with an animal panic.
"What is it?" The smiling man clutched Tanya tighter, patting her back as if she were an infant.
The other man shook his head, face twisting. He leaned to the side and vomited noisily. The girl was gently set down in the snow a few feet away.
"Ok, I'm gonna check." Atop the embankment, the other men watched, trading worried glances.
The smiling man ducked his head into the car and crawled between the seats. The smell was horrible, a mix of sweat and blood, sewage, and the stench of rot. He began to smile, blaming his friend's weak stomach for the reaction. As he eased into the front, the smile melted from his face, lips pressed together to hold back his own instinctual shout.
Tanya's mom lay in the passenger's seat, corpse limp and bloated. Her face was stained with dried blood from a head wound, and her shirt matted with the same. Her legs were spread at an odd angle, uncomfortable for the living but of no concern to her anymore. The denim on her left side had been cut raggedly and peeled back from the thigh. There, the flesh was hacked away, strips of it missing. Fat and muscled sagged away from the wound where rot robbed it of resilience.
The smiling man backed out slowly and turned to face the girl. She stood propped against the snow bank, shivering in her borrowed coat. Brown runnels of dried blood marked her chin and chest. Her wide blue eyes were unfocused, but she smiled at him as he approached. Her dazed grin faltered as she noticed his expression.
"What . . . what . . " she stuttered. Tanya didn't understand why the smiling man was looking at her so strangely. Like she was a specimen, something dangerous and odd. Her voice wouldn't obey her, couldn't finish the question.
"She ate her. She ate her mother," the other man said in a strangled voice. Smiling man nodded.
The men up top were shouting down questions; their phones were out and their voices pierced the air suddenly seeming too close, too chaotic for Tanya. What were they talking about? The girl stared up at her rescuer, confused. In his face she saw sorrow and accusation. She ate her mother. The words took themselves apart in her mind, shredding the sounds to nonsense. Ate. She ate.
Her mother's jeans parted easily beneath the curved edge of the emergency tool. White skin dotted with blonde hairs, rough beneath her fingers. Mom didn't shave often in the winter, which Tanya thought was gross. Revulsion at the thought of putting that skin into her mouth shook her resolve. Nausea roiled her stomach, and the girl nearly gave up on the idea. Maybe it would be better to die here, than to eat. Almost, but the desire to live was stronger than disgust.Tanya's eyes went wild. She flailed away from the smiling man and shoved the borrowed jacket to the ground. Too weak to run, she collapsed in the snow. It was dirty and grey, flecked with gravel from the road. The girl stared at it as the men lifted her away, eyes as blank as winter ice.
The meat of Mom's leg yielded less easily than the denim that first time. The blade pressed against the skin, creasing it. Then it split in a wide, red grin. A tiny pearl of blood beaded in the corner of the wound. Tanya was surprised there wasn't more. She'd imagined it spraying out, slasher film style. It's just like the steaks at the grocery store. It was so hard to cut that first piece. To force it to her mouth. Just meat. No different than the beef jerky she'd finished.
She chewed and swallowed, then cut more, her mind creating a buffer for the act.
This isn't real.
She struggled feebly as they carried her up the hill, mouth shaping words she didn't have the strength to voice. Tanya knew this was just another trick, another delusion. A nightmare her tired mind gave form in the dark, silent recess of her wrecked car. The girl shut her eyes, but the empty face of ice and snow stayed with her, reassured her. The voices of the men were soon replaced by the howling of wind and the patter of sleet on piled snow. Branches creaked and groaned with their wintry burden and Tanya sighed. At this rate, spring would never come.