Lost

*

The snow came thicker and thicker, spurred by the wind, filling the air and blanketing the ground in endless layers of heavy white down. The world as she knew it had been dissolved by the storm. Now there was nothing but snow, a seamless space of white. Its edges were all tactile, the hurl and suck of the wind, the bite of the ice. The girl did not feel it.

Flakes that yesterday had fallen thick on her eyelashes, gentle and wet, now it ripped at them wifth tiny frosty darts. She barely blinked.

The resonant whining of the wind came from an alien world, piercing through your soul on its way to another dimension. She didn't hear it.

Though she had no coat, she didn't feel the cold. She didn't feel hunger, or fear, or peace. All she felt was the firmness of the buried road beneath her feet. The long straight road was the only thing whose existence hadn't been wiped out by the storm. To either side, the snow was bottomless.

If the solidness of the road hadn't met her feet with each step, she might have been forgiven for believing nothing existed at all. Perhaps that was why she kept walking.

*

From the refuge of his overheated, sweat stained cab, Darren thought it was a ghost at first, a daydream punishing him for not phoning Maisie before her bedtime, tonight of all nights. But he'd acted instantly, instinctively anyway, as anyone would when faced with the apparition of a small child before their moving vehicle. He turned the wheel, the truck reacting sluggishly. If he turned too hard the frozen ruts would catch and tip him, but he turned enough to miss her. Groaning and hissing, the truck eased to a stop some 20 metres down the road. The storm writhed around them. The girl glowed in his brake lights, standing there bathed in red like some seventies horror movie.

She waited stiff-like as he walked up to her; a little doll in the middle of the road in an ice-storm.

"You alright, kid?" he asked eventually, calling across the wind. Of course she wasn't alright. What were the odds of finding a normal, happy kid, all on its own out here? But it'd been an automatic thing, asking like that. Her strange, stiff, other-worldliness had hooked into his thoughts and thrown him for a moment. And the wind shoving at him was making it hard to refind his balance.

Darren's pants gathered tight behind his knees as he crouched in front of her. He took in her frost nipped cheeks, her slow, shallow breathing. He carried her back to the cab without another word.

The slamming door shut out the storm, sealing them into the warmth of the cab. Even then, safe, she didn't make a sound. The wind retched snow at them, beating on the other side of the windows, keening its loss, but the truck ground forward regardless.

Darren flicked her frowning glances as he drove. The glitter pom-pom key-ring Maisie had made him last year swung from the rear view mirror as he coaxed the mammoth truck up through the gears, into the headwind. Snow charged the windscreen and fell to its death beside the wipers. The girl didn't move. Leaning forward, he cranked up the heat.

His thoughts whirled like the snow trapped outside. What the hell was a tiny little girl like this doing out in the middle of a snowstorm? Did someone just abandon her like a dog at the side of the road? But she didn't even have a coat. Surely not even the sickest bastard would dump her without a coat.

Had she got lost? There was nowhere near here to get lost from. Had she wandered off? But from where? There'd been no cars on the road – no one was crazy enough to drive in this storm. Except him.

But he had serious money riding on this delivery. And serious life threatening repercussions if he didn't deliver. Who was he kidding: life threatening didn't tell the half of it. It was not a mere threat. It was as outcome as inescapable as the cold. You could keep it at bay, hide away from it, hole yourself up. But it didn't make it any less real.

All things considered, the storm was the perfect cover. No one would see him the entire trip. There wasn't a soul on the road. Hell, even the cops were snug in their donut shops for the night. The only ones who could be stupid enough to be out in this were fucking stupid tourists and-

Tourists.

He looked again at her bright new winter clothes, her red polar bear sweatshirt. Tourists.

He swore and hit the leather of the steering wheel hard. She jumped, and stared harder at the glovebox.

"Sorry," he muttered. The corners of her lips creased and flattened. He didn't notice.

Tourists, he was thinking, tourists, who couldn't read the signs in the sky, who weren't connected to the local social networks, who had their noses stuck in a guidebook when the radio alerts came up. Maybe they laughed the warnings off. Maybe they'd driven through snow before, and thought they could make the next town in time. Maybe they were wrong. An image of a car stuck deep in a snowdrift burned in his mind's eye. The brake lights jammed on with the leaden, dead weight of the inert body folded on top of it. Brakes applied too quick, too late. Their red life-glow fading and fading until they were covered by swiftly falling snow.

They were out there somewhere. The drivers, whoever they were. Her parents? Maybe her sisters... but even if he could spare the time, he knew he'd never find them. By now, they'd be dead anyway. It was a miracle he'd found the girl in time. As it was she was half frozen and…

She didn't even have a coat. He couldn't bear that.

He paddled an arm in the compartment behind the cab and dragged out his, pulling it around her.

He couldn't keep her. He couldn't even stay with her. If anyone saw him… No. His instructions were clear and didn't leave room for babysitting children orphaned in snowstorms. He was cutting it fine as it was, with the headwind pushing at him since Yellowknife.

"You're going to be ok, you know?" he murmured to her, trying to make up for the security he wished he could provide.

Her eyes fluttered his way, but like butterflies, never quite landed on him. He felt she was somewhere else. Maybe stuck on the cold stiff faces of her parents. Stuck hard like a stick in a frozen stream, no chance of moving til the thaw. He had to get her somewhere warm.

Goddam. His neck arched with the frustration of it. Poor kid was probably in shock. He needed to help her. But he couldn't take her with him. They'd kill her. And he couldn't just abandon her. But he had to. God fucking damn. This is the last fucking trip. I don't care how good the money is. I gotta be able to live my life, without… but he didn't even dare think of the consequences of disobeying his bosses. If he didn't deliver, if he was late, if they thought he'd talked to the cops; he would be dead. Simple as that.

The truck pulled on into the night, disappearing into the snowstorm.

*

A groaning lost in the howl of the storm signified the large truck pulling to a laborious halt at the edge of the roadhouse. The building itself was lost in the swirling white. But this was as close as he could come. Any closer and he'd risk being seen. Darren got out of the cab, the shock of the cold making his lungs feel brittle, like ice crystals were forming and stabbing the delicate tissues already. He struggled around to the passenger door and pulled the little girl down, making sure his jacket was wrapped around her tight.

"I'm real sorry, little one. I wish, I…" His mouth closed, tight and thin as a thread. He wrapped her hand around the thin blizzard line leading towards the building and whispered close and warm in her ear.

"Feel that line?" He could see her exploring the texture of the bounding string through her glove. She nodded. "Good girl. Follow it home, sweetheart. Don't let go. Just… just follow it home." He gave her a little push, and obediently her feet tripped forward, the line feeding through her tiny gloved hand. He watched as long as he dared, then dashed back into the guilty warmth of the cab and drove and drove and drove.

So it came to be that Christmas came early for Maylene and Theodore Gerard that year. At half past midnight, they were still awake, listening to the calming murmurs of the radio in their hand-knitted reindeer sweaters. The electric heater glowed apricot orange by their feet, reflected on the shiny messages on the hanging line of greeting cards from their long grown children. The slow warmth melted the scent of the pine tree in the corner til the air grew thick with it.

Even cocooned away in their lounge room, they were still conscious of the blizzard raging outside by the slight buffeting of the building and the alternating whine in the background of the radio broadcast. At first, they assumed the knocking noise belonged to one of those categories too: a sign broken free and banging in the wind, an inconsistency in the AM transmission. But the knocking continued. At last Theodore roused himself to investigate.

And so it was that they found a little girl on the doorstep of their roadhouse. Theodore thought it was the whisky at first, one too many whilst whiling away the blizzard bound Christmas Eve. But the girl was real alright, an oversized jacket wrapped around her like a dressing gown, and the blizzard line trapped so tight in her hand they had to cut it to get her inside.

And still she didn't let go. The man had said. The man had said it would take her home.


AN: This is for La Campanella's December Writing Contest. The prompt is: asofterworld dot com forwardslash index dot php?id=16