Chapter One: A Swerve to the Right
Nora was fairly certain she had learned all there was to learn about interstates. They were straight, they avoided most of civilization, and they were largely devoid of intelligent drivers. It was with much celebration that she graduated from her education on I-94 in Middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin and started her education on highways.
It turned out Wisconsin highways were an even shorter lesson: they avoided all of civilization. For twenty minutes she saw no one on the road. There were trees, and sleeping towns that passed over the space of a single radio commercial, but not a single soul out this early in the morning. She was the only person crazy enough to be up at five in the morning, and probably looked it with brown hair escaping from a half-assed bun on top of her head and dark circles under her coffee-manic eyes as she barreled down the highway.
It didn't matter. Music was her only real company at that point. Nora entertained herself with tone-deaf renditions of the classic rock songs that crackled on the van's radio until she drove into a forested area and the station dropped out.
"I don't suppose either of you know some good songs, do you?" she asked her cargo.
On this particular occasion in her job as a glorified shelter pet cabbie, said cargo was a rather dopey-looking miniature pinscher named Khan and an old racing greyhound who didn't actually know his name but responded well to baby talk. They were enjoying the extra space in the back of the van now that she'd let them loose for a bit. Khan cocked his head at her but the greyhound didn't even lift an eyelid while he snoozed on her pillow.
"Yeah, I didn't think so."
At the start of her journey there had actually been fifteen dogs and three cats crated in the large van. The trip began two days earlier in Georgia, with an evening load-up of the rescued pets after a last-minute check by the veterinarian to make sure they were all fit to travel. Nora had bounced up the coast to West Virginia first, mercifully ridding her of the four yappiest dogs and two of the cats. The last cat and two more dogs were delivered in Kansas, and from there she'd swung north to Chicago. Now she had her last stop in southern Wisconsin and then she could sing off-key to her heart's content and no one could lift a paw to stop her.
"Just you wait, you two. You'll be going home with someone in no time and get to run around in all this nothing." She took in the dreary fields and vast plains. "So much running in nothing until you go home and snore like kings on someone's waterbed. And I'll get to sleep in a real bed tonight instead of in the back of the van with you guys. Doesn't that sound nice?"
Khan began whining so she reached back around the mesh pet barrier to scratch behind his ears. "Yeah, I thought so. But we're almost at the shelter."
Around six in the morning the fields gave way to sparse industrial buildings and a few little houses before the country road transitioned to fluorescent-lit streets. She found the shelter tucked behind a bank in a commercial area in the center of town. Dogs barked at them in a run alongside the building when she pulled up and a middle-aged woman waded through the sea of wagging tails to greet her.
"No problems, I hope," the woman said, her breath fogging in the cool morning air. She was in a t-shirt and shorts and Nora shivered at the thought from the comfort of her heavy sweatshirt and jeans. Early fall in Wisconsin was far colder than anything she was used to in Georgia.
"Nope, nothing of note. Both slept most of the way up here. This one-" she pointed at the pinscher "-is a little sweetheart who wanted nothing more than to crawl onto my lap the whole time."
The woman laughed and Nora handed over the paperwork for the dogs, helped bring them into the shelter, surreptitiously warmed her hands by the coffee machine, and headed back to the now-quiet van. "So," she said to the silence. "I could check in now and head home tonight or I could take a nap and say I arrived late and head back tomorrow." The van echoed 'head back tomorrow' and she took it as a sign.
Nora made a quick stop for a doughnut and some orange juice at a gas station then drove outside of town. On the way in she had passed a park-and-ride and she drove back there now. Nora scarfed down her food and climbed into the back where she had set up a sleeping bag and a cot mattress to cover the hard van floor.
The shelter she worked for was not-for-profit, meaning it did everything as cheaply as possible. That left accommodations sparse for her trips and also ruled out the possibility of transporting the animals by airplane. Thus Nora passed out on the floor for a few well-earned hours of shut-eye.
The steady plink-plonk of raindrops on the metal roof woke her from a dream about naked people laughing around her as she froze to death. Nora shivered awake and checked her watch. It was now one in the afternoon and she hadn't checked in since the night before. She fumbled in her purse for her cell phone and dialed up work.
"Nora! It's about time," Mark, her boss, exclaimed on the other end. His voice crackled as a sullen roll of thunder sounded and she realized she only had a couple wavering bars here. "We were starting to worry."
"No, I arrived just fine," she told him. "I, uh, had some weather to deal with but everyone's accounted for and I should be on my way in-"
"Oh, no, stay there for a day. I insist. You've got a wall of storms stalled over the area right now. Probably going to be lousy conditions for a while." Mark paused for a moment and she heard the click of the keyboard. Nora slipped out of the sleeping bag and looked around for her shoes; she muffled a curse when she smashed her toe into one of the plastic crates stacked around her.
"You still there?" he asked and she grunted in the affirmative. "There's a motel off the highway that's pretty cheap. If you've got some cash, I'll pay you back when you get home. I'll text the address to your phone. Enjoy the rain," Mark laughed a goodbye and she echoed it before hanging up.
Outside, heavy black clouds roiled in the sky. Thunder shook the van, promising a more powerful storm would be there shortly. Go figure this would happen the one day she happened to be in town.
Nora shrugged, working a little of the soreness from her back. Hey, if she got a free hotel (okay, motel, but that was still better than the van) stay out of the deal, all the better.
"Go ahead and pour on me, sky," she muttered, pushing the key into the ignition, and the van shuddered to life with the sound of an auto repair jingle.
The downpour arrived at the same time as the motel address. Nora put it into the GPS on her dashboard and carefully pulled out of the parking lot.
The roads were shallow rivers at that point; it wasn't much water, perhaps a half inch or so, but it covered every bit of the road. The van's windshield wipers worked furiously at the pouring rain but it was a losing battle. Visibility diminished to a couple of meters at best, and Nora decided it was time to pull to the side of the road in defeat.
A large dark figure darted across the road.
Nora slammed on the brakes. Wide yellow eyes met hers for a fraction of a second before it bounded into the high grass on the other side of the road. Another dark blur ran in front of her and she heard a horrible thud as she skidded to a sideways stop. The van lurched on the shoulder for a second then slid all the way into the ditch.
She sat, stunned, for a long moment with her hands on the wheel. Nora gaped at the rain streaming down her windshield and the angry clouds beyond. Then the ominous thud echoed in her mind and she fumbled with her seatbelt, pushed open her door, and struck out into the storm.