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Broke Down

As the freezing, tempestuous wind whistled through the uninsulated crack in the passenger door of her older model Honda, Riley realized she had little choice. She was stuck here, hundreds of miles from her home, in her broken down little hatchback in the midst of a freezing February Minnesota blizzard, and it was quickly getting dark. She chastised herself for forgetting to charge her cell phone, because it died before she’d even pulled out of her own driveway, and she’d forgotten to bring her car charger.

She’d been in a terrible rush leaving her house, and as her eyes searched diligently for some semblance of familiarity through the rapid swirls of snow and wind, she worried. She had little idea of where she was, and she’d been in such a rush that she forgot her hat and mittens. And, to make matters worse, rather than a sound pair of warm snow boots, she instead chose to wear her canvas Tretorns--a mistake she knew she’d come to regret.

Riley began to contemplate her options. She had few, and she knew it. Her car battery was obviously dead, so it wasn’t as if she could turn on the heat and wait for help. She could either hope and pray that someone would come along to help before she froze to death, or she could get out and start walking, hoping to come across a house that happened to have someone home. It was Sunday evening, so that alone increased the odds of finding an occupied dwelling, but the odds were offset by the nature of this road. She broke down in a farming community, and from where she was stuck, she could see no lights in any direction.

God damnit, she thought to herself. Why do I always get myself into these kinds of messes? I’m such a fuck up! I don’t even have flares, do I? Of course not. We burned them last fourth of July, and being the stupid fuck I am, I never got replacements. Boy, would dad tear me a new one if he knew I was driving around without flares. Thank God I’m not living at home anymore. The old bastard would take my car away again.

She looked out into the bitter cold once more, and tensed up as she imagined herself having to traverse an unyielding plain of snow three feet deep, at least. Sure, she’d try to stay on the road, but she didn’t look forward to it. Black ice, for one. Plus, eventually, she’d have to stray off-road; the homes along this road, so far, were all set back far, far from the road.

Oh, fuck! she thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! I’m going to die out here, I know it! I can’t even see a goddamned house from the road. I’m going to have to follow each of these driveways up to some house far back off the road, and if it’s empty? Yeah, that’s really fucking great. With my luck, the house that’s finally occupied will have some crazy killer fuck in it, and no one will ever hear from me again. Why the fuck didn’t I charge my cell phone?!

The thought of falling unwittingly into dastardly, homicidal hands was more than enough reason to wait for someone to come along and help her. So Riley sat, still, in the dark as the wind picked up and began to shake her small, raggedy car to and fro. The crack in her passenger door was so wide that whenever the wind changed direction, she could feel a gusty chill sweep across her face, like a hand slapping her with bitter, unfettered cold. She tried to turn away from it, but it was intent to antagonize as it wisped across her scalp and prodded at the back of her neck like tiny needles. She checked her watch. It was 6:30 p,m. and now completely dark. The blizzard was just getting started; this much she knew because she’d heard her boss talking about it that morning while pouring his third or fourth cup of bitter black, stale coffee. S’posed to be a two-dayer, she remembered him saying. Fucking two-dayer. I will die out here and I will be frozen solid like a popsicle before someone finally comes across my stiff, dead body.

A good half hour must have passed before Riley’s thoughts finally drifted away from images of the egregious funeral her tiny, tacky mother would throw. The woman was eccentric, to say the least. Everything was an opportunity to garner attention. She imagined her mother throwing herself across the coffin, wailing out at God and everyone else for taking away her precious baby. Her precious baby. Right. She thought. Her precious baby she wouldn’t even allow to borrow money to get a better car. People will pity her, and they’ll never know it was all her fault.

This thought irritated her, but it was also the catalyst for her to venture out into the damp, dark cold. “I won’t give her the benefit of being the center of attention again,” Riley whispered to herself as she buckled up her coat, and searched around on the car floor behind her seat. She could have sworn she’d left a beach towel in there last summer. Maybe it’s under the seat? She almost cricked her neck trying to reach under the driver seat from behind, and as she was about to give up, her eyes gazed upward to the bench seat, where she saw a crumbled up old towel in the passenger side corner. Fuck yea. Thank god for small favors. Sometimes it pays to be sloppy.

She took the towel, folded in crosswise, and wrapped it around her head. I look like an old Jewish mother, she thought, and took it off, opened it back up, and wrapped it snuggly around her head once more. Better. As she gazed out at the fury of snow and wind as it assaulted her poor, dead car, she began to have second thoughts. Isn’t this how people die? Hyper—no, hypothermia, I think. With a blizzard like this, they probably wouldn’t even find my body until the snow thaws...

As if some mysterious, benevolent force could hear her thoughts and chose to grant her some reprieve, the wind suddenly died down, and the tiny flecks of frozen water that had previously slammed into her windows by the thousands now gently fluttered to the ground. It was now or never.

She threw open the driver side door, grabbed her purse, slammed the car door, and looked around. Nothing. No one, and no place to go. She remembered seeing a long driveway about a quarter mile back, and she quickly stepped across the mounds of slushy, dirty snow from previous plowing, to the safety of the tar road. But it was slippery, due to the accumulation of black ice, and she found she’d do better to walk slowly. This is going to take me forever. Fucking phone! She took her time, carefully considering each step as she inched further toward that old drive she recalled passing.

Every once in a while, the wind would kick up, and she could feel her eyelashes freeze to her skin as her eyes watered, the droplets of moisture flying back into her eyes as the wind swiftly changed direction. Her face felt so cold it began to seem hot and, in very little time, not only was the towel around her head soaked and heavy, but so were her canvas tennis shoes. Every step further into the freezing dark abyss became harder to take, and she began to realize her worst fear could easily come true: she could die out here.

Fingers numb, feet burning within her soaked bobby socks and heavy, slushy shoes, Riley gave into her puerile fear and began to cry. With each reluctant tear, her cheeks would tighten up as the moisture instantly froze across her red, irritated skin. She tried to wipe them away with her coat sleeve, but it only caused her face to feel rug burned. Now’s not the time to cry, save it for later, she told herself, but the tears kept coming.

Travelling that quarter or so mile back to the mysterious drive she remembered seemed to be taking hours, and with the blizzard beginning to again pick up, she began to feel helpless. She began to doubt herself as she neared where she thought she recalled seeing it; she was sure it had been this far back and, yet, the only thing visible was fenced farmland. Her legs and arms began to ache with cold and her stomach tensed up, causing waves of nausea to swarm through her like a hive of bees frantically fleeing from their broken nest. But just as she considered leaning against the fence until that sick feeling subsided, her frozen, achy ears picked up a sound. It was the sound of snow crunching, giving way to something heavy, and it was moving toward her. She turned back and, about a hundred yards away, a dark pickup truck was slowly crawling toward the main road on what she now realized was the driveway she’d been seeking.

Her survival drive must have kicked in, because before she knew it, Riley began running furiously toward the truck, completely unencumbered by the sloshy piles of amassed snow in her tracks. As she closed in on the distance between them, she saw the truck stop at the end of the drive, as it prepared to turn onto the snow-covered road in the opposite direction.

“Wait! Wait! Help ME!” she wailed, and as she sprinted toward it, one of her heavily soaked shoes flew off, and almost caused her to trip. “NO! Wait!!” she screamed, her throat scratchy and her voice frail, but she quickly pulled the heavy, damp towel from around her head and began to wave it like a matador.

It appeared to be of no use. Through the frenzied blanket of biting snow and freezing wind, she saw the driver pull out into the street, and begin to drive away. Her frozen sock-covered foot sunk deeply into the snow piled along the roadside, but she pulled herself into the center of the road and continued to wave at the truck furiously. And then, suddenly, just as Riley was about to give up, she saw the red of brake lights flash once, then twice, across the truck’s rear bumper, like a light bulb about to burn out, but then they lit again and stayed bright.

"Please! Help me!” she cried out again, and began to slow her stride as she approached the old, dilapidated, snow-covered truck. As she did, an older man stepped out from driver’s side and, as the truck’s cabin lit up with the interior dome, she could see a huge brown dog sitting in the passenger’s seat.

“Girl, what in tarnation are you doing out here this time of night? And where the Dickens is your other shoe? Are you mad or something?” As she got closer, Riley could see that the man must be in his sixties or seventies. He had a kind, worn, crackled face and wore a thick, down plaid hunter’s jacket, a pair of overalls underneath it, and a fur-lined hat. His eyes shined brilliant blue, almost even purple, as they reflected the red of the rear brake lights.

“No, no…I know. It’s so cold! My car broke down back there, and I didn’t expect it!” she cried out, trying to catch her breath.

“Well, I don’t supposed anyone expects it, little Miss.” The man said flatly. This irked Riley, but she knew she needed this man’s help more than she’d ever needed anyone’s, so she bit her lip and closed her eyes in an effort to choose her words carefully.

“Sir, I’m not from this area. I’m from Chaska, down near the Twin Cities—“

“I know where it is, Miss. You’re not in Russia, you know.” What is with this guy, anyhow?

“Right, sir, you’re right about that. Um…I was wondering if you could give my car a jump?” She was sure to remain polite, though her lips trembled and her frozen bare foot felt like it would surely soon fall off.

“Miss, you look terribly cold, and my wife just made a big pot of soup that’s gonna still be warm. Why don’t you come back to the house and the Missus will get you dry, warm and fed first.” He said this as he took off his coat, wrapped it around Riley, and walked around to the passenger side door. “I don’t bite, and neither do Oscar here,” he laughed as he opened the door and addressed the large dog waiting for his return. “Oscar, we gotta get you into the back, boy. We gotta friend’s gotta take your seat for a bit.”

The dog barked only once, perhaps an objection to being forced from his warm, cozy seat into the shocking cold of night, but he quickly jumped out and stood next to his owner.

“C’mon, now, boy. In the back.” The man lovingly directed the dog to the back and pulled down the gate of the pickup’s bed. “Used to be I could pick ‘em up and put him in there, but he’s just too big now, and I’m just too old.” The dog jumped up into the back, sat down in a thin blanket of snow, and seemed to pout to his master solemnly, but the old man was not having it. “Quit that, Oscar. This is a gentleman’s duty.” He said as he raised the gate again. He then turned to Riley and frowned. “Are you gonna get in that truck or are ya gonna freeze to death, girl?”

Riley quickly scuttled over to the passenger side door and hopped in. She could hear the slush of her wet clothing smack against the seat, and she looked over at the old man, who was already seated and ready to go.

“Good thing I have them leather seats,” he laughed, and soon, the truck wobbled its way back toward the man’s house. “How old are ya, now?” the man asked as house lights came into view further down the gravel drive.

“Um, nineteen, sir,” Riley squeaked, and she tried to clear her throat, but all this did was cause it to burn terribly.

“Nineteen, huh. You look a lot like the Missus when I first courted her. She was a beauty, I tell ya what,” he said as he looked her up and down. “You’re kinda thinner, I’d say, but she’s gonna be amazed to see you. Gonna think she seen her own ghost.” This made Riley rather nervous and, as her lips couldn’t help but tremble, she began to wonder if the old man knew why. “You’re damned cold, ain’t ya? Don’t worry, Miss, my Missus will get ya fixed up right.”

Looking out her window, Riley could make out the frozen fields of snow, undisturbed and glistening against the faint light of the waxing moon. The snow was still coming down, but it had once again slowed, and seeing the sparkling blanket stretched behind the old wooden fence made her think of Christmas Eve.

“This is beautiful out here,” she said softly, but the old man seemed not to notice. “How much land do you own?” she said louder, just in case he was hard of hearing.

“Three hundred forty acres,” the man smiled. “Used to be over five hundred, but my daddy sold off a bunch before he died for my momma. I was the only son, so it come to me.”

As they pulled up to a brightly lit white two-story farmhouse, Riley began to feel more at ease. “I’m sorry, my name is Riley. What may I call you, sir?”

“You can call me Bob,” the man said matter of factly, then added, “Just don’t call me late for dinner.”

Oh, that joke, she thought. Wow, old guys are just never very cool, are they?

As they stepped up onto the front porch, Riley began to get excited at the thought of warm clothes and a hot meal. The house was decorated just as she’d expect it to be, with post-war kitsch and homemade doilies displayed on outdated oak furniture. As she stood in the wood-floored foyer, dripping and cold, Oscar the dog pushed past her, threw her a condescending glance, and trotted slowly out of the room.

“Stay there,” the old man told her, and followed the dog into another room, calling out, “Mitzi. We got company, Missus!”

A plump, robust woman soon came into the room, dressed in a bright flower-print dress with an apron tightly tied around her rolling waist. For Riley, it felt as if she’d stepped out of the real world and back into the fifties.

“This is my wife, Mitzi, ummmm…Riley, you say it was?” 

“Yes, Sir. Good evening, Ma’am.” The girl chattered, her teeth grinding together in an effort to abate the cold that held tight against her skin and bones.

“Oh, my goodness, come child! Let’s get you out of those terrible clothes! You can tell me what happened while I get you some jammies, ‘kay?” This instantly comforted Riley, and she nodded quickly as she followed the woman up the stairs. As she was led down a narrow hallway, they passed a brightly lit room with its door slightly ajar, and Riley was sure she saw a young man lying on a bed with a book in hand.

“That’s my grandson,” Mitzi said knowingly, “But let’s get you cleaned up and dried off before we take you to meet him.”

The woman had a wonderfully kind, nurturing air about her, and went far to comfort and assure Riley in her vulnerable state. She led the girl to a spare bedroom, decorated with forest green floral-print wallpaper, tatted doilies carefully set across old oak furniture, and a white crocheted bedspread neatly tucked around a full-size bed with an old oak headboard.

“This is my daughter’s room….well, it was, anyhow,” Mitzi said as she pulled out the top drawer of the oak dresser and started to search it. “She died thirteen years ago,” the woman said, giving Riley a weak smile, and then handed her a neatly folded pair of flannel pajamas. “These might be a bit big for you. Samantha was a bigger girl, you know, but these ought to do.” The two women were quiet for a minute, and Riley took the opportunity to glance around the room.

“This room is lovely,” she said, pushing her wet hair out of her face. “Thank you for being so kind.”

“Oh, no need to thank me, dear. Just doing my Christian duties. The bathroom is all the way down the hall and to the left. That’ll be, if you turn right coming out of this room, you just go all the way down and it’s the last room on the left. There’s some soap and I’ll get you a comb. You can take a bath if you like, to getcherself warm, and I’ll bring up some tea for you.”

The thought of a bath was heavenly. Riley thanked the woman, who quickly hobbled out of the room. She took off her coat and one shoe, peeled off her socks, and looked around for a place to put it all. As she began to hang her coat on a coat hook inside the closet door, a tall, slender young man came in with some towels.

“My grandmother told me you’d need these, and to get your coat so she can wash and dry it for you,” he said, and put the towels down on the bedspread. He sat down next to them and began to look her over. “You look awful!” he exclaimed, which, as one might imagine, rubbed Riley the wrong way. Of course she looked awful, she nearly froze to death!

“Thanks.” She mustered a fake smile, then turned away from him. She took her coat off the hook and handed it to him. “I guess you need this.”

“I don’t need it, Mitzi does.” He corrected her.

What is this guy, Captain Obvious? She thought, and rolled her eyes.

“What happened to you? Why are you all wet and messy?”

Wet and messy? Really? You try getting stuck out in that weather and see how you look, you asshole! Riley fought the urge to go against her better judgment, but in the end her anger relented. 

“My car broke down.”

“That sucks. Don’t you have a cell phone or something?”

Why won’t this guy give up? “Sure, but my battery died and I forgot my charger,” she said defensively, and turned away again.

“Guess your luck sucks, huh?” he laughed, and she swiveled around quickly to snap back at him. But as she did, she saw him, really, for the first time, and the twinkle in his eyes caught her off-guard. She realized he was trying to flirt with her. Her body instantly went from wet and chilled to, surprisingly, somewhat hot and bothered.

“Um, the bathroom, it’s, uh, where?” she stammered, and he smiled knowingly. He ran his large, slender hand through his wavy, shoulder-length hair and sat back.

“Take a right, go to the end of the hall, and it’s the last door on the left. Need help?”

 Help with what?! He was grinning like an idiot, and it really sort of irked her…but only sort of. “No, I’m fine, thank you.” She hissed, only half-serious, and left the room with all the intention and grace she could muster.

The bathroom was small and musty-smelling, but otherwise immaculate. There was an old-fashioned white claw-foot tub in the corner, and garish light teal tiles covered the walls, framed out by outdated floral print wallpaper at eye level. To Riley, it felt like walking into an old drained swimming pool, but one with dusty rose-colored bathmats and toilet covers, which also happened to match all the neatly hung towels. A dusty rose-colored shower curtain was suspended from a rounded rod attached to the ceiling, and she could see tiny flecks of paint had fallen from around the brackets. She began to run the tub water, then peeled off her pink cotton oxford shirt. Once undressed, she submerged herself into the warm water slowly, and finally sat back. It was a god-send to feel warm water on skin that was just wet and cold, and she sunk down into it slowly, until only her head remained above the waterline.

After a long soak, Riley finally drained the tub and began to dry off. As she went to put on the flannel pajamas that Mitzi gave her, she realized she had no underclothing to wear under them. Once on, the pajamas hung on her like tacky drapes; they were so over-sized, she wondered if the woman hadn’t given her the son’s or father’s pajamas by mistake. She gathered her wet clothes and began down the hall, but as she neared the man’s room, she slowed down and tried to peer into it nonchalantly.

“You can come in if you want,” he called out to her. “No need to glare.”

What is with this family?!

“Uh, I wasn’t. I was going to thank you for the, uh, towels and stuff.”

“Yeah, okay. Mitzi said to leave your wet clothes in the tub.”

Riley turned to return to the bathroom, but before she could step away, the young man was behind her, pushing past her as he grabbed her wet clothing. He nosily inspected it as he walked toward the bathroom and, as he did, he found her bra and underwear bundled up inside her jeans.

“Oooh, nice!” he said, turning to show her what he’d found. Riley turned a deep shade of red and ran down the hall to grab her clothes. But he held them high in the air, away from her. He was at least six feet three, and he laughed as he taunted her. “Settle down! They’re just underwear. It’s not like you have anything worth hiding…or do you?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she loudly whispered and, sensing her anger was genuine, he let his arm down enough for her to grab her clothes.

“What are you, frigid?” he laughed as she stumbled past him to the bathroom. “You know, all I have to do is go in there when you’re done and go through them again. Not that I’d want to.”

“Then why’d you say it?” she snapped. He'd pushed her to the limit, and she went off like a firecracker.

“Huh? What do you mean?” he asked, somewhat perplexed by her emotional response.

“Why would you say that, if it wasn’t something you’d do?” she demanded, and he backed away from her, cheeks suddenly aflush. “Are you really that much of an asshole, or are you just really, really bad at flirting?!”

He could say nothing. He turned, walked back into his room, and closed the door.

It didn’t take long before Mitzi was back, at Riley’s door with a tray of soup, tea, bread and cookies.

“Here, dear. Get snuggled warm in the bed, and we’ll get you fed,” she said cheerfully. “Oh, dear, I do hope you aren’t allergic to down. The mattress is filled with it.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, thank you,” Riley said as she climbed beneath the covers. Mitzi handed her a cloth napkin, and motioned for her to tuck it into the “V” of her pajama top.

“So you don’t spill any on Sammy’s P.J.s.”

Once the tray of food and tea was settled and balanced on Riley’s lap, Mitzi sat down on the edge of the bed, causing the entire mattress, as well as the tray, to tilt slightly toward her.

“Oh, goodness. Not as slim as I was once!” she laughed, and pushed the tray straight again. “Pop says in the morning he can take you up to the service station to get a tow. We serve breakfast seven sharp, so I hope you aren’t a late sleeper.”

“No, ma’am,” she said as she blew on a spoonful of hot minestrone soup.

“Good. I serve a hot breakfast every day, because it’s the only way to start a day off well.” She smiled at Riley, and then looked down at her own hands. “I guess you met Robert, didn’t you?”

Riley realized that, though the older man went by ‘Bob’, she must have been referring to that annoying young man she’d just tussled with. “Your grandson?”

“Yes, dear. He's very shy,” she replied, ”not at all like his mother.” She was quiet for a minute. “That would be Sammy. She died when he was just seven. He also gets nervous around pretty young girls, you know. He’s only had one real girlfriend, so I think he just needs practice.”

He ain’t practicing on me! She thought, but quietly struggled to seem interested in what the woman was saying.

“He seemed like he was nice,” Riley lied. She certainly didn’t want to offend the very people who saved her by implying their grandson was a freak.

“Well, I’m glad you think so. I think he is lonely.” Mitzi rose off the bed, and it snapped back up suddenly, causing the tray to almost tip off Riley’s lap. “He may ask you to play a game or something. I’d appreciate it if you would.”

“Sure, no problem,” Riley replied, and returned to her soup.

“Good night, darlin’” the woman said, and turned to leave.

“Thank you, Mitzi.” Riley called after her, and the woman waived an arm up above her shoulder and disappeared through the doorway.

------------------------------------------------------------

She’d barely gotten through half of her soup when Robert came slinking in and sat down just where his grandmother had been moments before.

“So…what did she say?” he asked, pretending to be relatively uninterested.

“Your grandmother? About what?” Riley asked, contemplating how much she should actually reveal.

“Your car. My granddad helping you with it, or…whatever.” He said, as he reached down to pick off a piece of the crust of her bread.

“Oh, uh, just that he’ll ride me up to the station tomorrow.”

“Yeah, okay. That makes sense.” He said, playing with the small piece of crust he’d torn away. He transferred it back and forth between his palms, then let it slip through open fingers to the floor. He was quiet for a moment, and Riley debated continuing her meal.

“Oh, yeah, go ahead. Sorry.” He motioned her on. He sat silent again, as if trying to choose the right words, and finally adjusted himself back onto the bed. “So do you have a boyfriend or something? I guess he misses you.”

What’s this? He’s trying to find out if I’m single? He’s so awkward…..But it’s kind of cute! Riley thought to herself, and a slight smile escaped her previously rigid mouth.

“No, I don’t. I’ve been on my own for almost a year,” she said between spoons of soup.

“Oh, really?” he asked, trying to be nonchalant, but still never looking directly at her. “I had a girlfriend for six months, but she went off to college and then we broke up.”

“Did she break up, or was it mutual?” Riley asked, though she figured she knew the answer.

“No, no, it’s was totally mutual!” he said defensively, and then sat quietly for a moment. “No,” he finally admitted. “She broke up with me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, and she realized at that moment that she meant it.

“Well, uh, you know. She met a lot of guys and then she came home for Christmas and didn’t like that I was still a, uh, you know…” he trailed off, then looked away quickly.

“A…what?”

“YOU know,” he insisted, then relented. “A virgin.”

“Really?” Not that she was necessarily surprised about it, but there was something sweet about his nervous admission.

“Well, yeah. I mean, she was going to be my first. I loved her, you know? I thought it’d be nice to wait.” He felt embarrassed, like an idiot for saying it that way, and the man in him decided to rise and defend his ego. “I mean, you know, I could have been with lots of girls here, but, uh, you know, I was trying to wait for Jenny.”

“Her name was Jenny?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s a nice name.” She smiled her warmest smile, hoping to lighten the mood, then asked, “So what kind of games do you have to play?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Mitzi said you might want to play a game later.”

“Are you serious?! Fuckin’ A, she loves to make me look stupid!” His brows furled; he was obviously irritated, and it was Riley’s fault.

“No, it wasn’t like that,” she assured him. “She just figured since we are close in age that you could keep me company, I bet.” Hopefully, he would believe this and cool off a bit.

“Yeah, okay. I can see her doing that. She’s always thinking about those things.” His mood lightened. “Do you play chess?”

“Uh, not really. But maybe you can teach me?”

“Sure, let me go get my chessboard.”

(to be continued)

 

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