Fiction · 04/02/2014

are u still there?

I rubbed my eyes with clumsy numb fingers. The figure was still there when I peeked. It lumbered along the tree line, wraithlike in the falling snow. I thought, at first, that someone might have come to rescue us. A state trooper, maybe. But this was no state trooper. It stood taller than a man, with yellowed fur and long arms swinging at its sides. It could have been a polar bear on its hind legs, or an albino gorilla. Or, I was losing my mind.

I had been staring out the backseat window with Yuki’s text scrolling like a news ticker through my head. I had read it and reread it, parsing every word and running every possible scenario.

Something happening downtown. No one knows anything bc of snow. CALL ME.

It was the last thing to get through before the world went dark. Cell phones, GPS, even the emergency broadcast system. All dead. I didn’t notice it until the pile-up, when I tried to call my insurance company. I had shut my phone in the glove compartment when I got onto the highway, after it rang for the fifth time. Yuki. There was a call from her sister, too, demanding an explanation for my leaving. Clouds were just beginning to form, with the first flurries drifting past my windshield. That was three days ago. Three days without contact, with no way to know what might have happened to her, to everybody. All I knew now was what I could see through the snow — and even that was clearly suspect.

The creature stopped, cocking its head to the side like something spooked it; like the damned thing could hear me thinking. I ducked under the window, my heart pumping hot blood through cold veins. If I had eaten anything, I would have bricked my pants. The creature was gone when I looked again. A dark spot had appeared in the trees, arched like a doorway where the branches were knocked clear. They still trembled.

I climbed up front and turned the ignition halfway to start the battery. The car filled with radio static. Still no signal. The doors were snowed in, so I rolled down the window and punched out the snow-mold left behind. Hoisting myself through felt like being born again into the cold arms of a loveless mother. The snow was there to receive me, at least.

Snow. It fell from every direction, circling like bees, finding its way into my eyes, my ears, and down my shirt. It rolled across the ground like tumbleweed and howled like a phantom through the trees. I heard something else, too; or thought I did. I scanned the tree line. No sign of the creature. For now.

I pulled my arms tight around my chest and hurried down the long line of cars: the black sedan with its bumper still tangled in mine, the white Corolla driven by the elderly couple I’d been meaning to check on, the F150 with its ornamental testicles peeking out of the snow. In a minivan a few cars up, a woman sat with her head back against the headrest and her arm over her eyes while her two little ones laughed and threw toys in the back. An older kid, a girl, watched me through the glass. She moved her mouth like she was saying something, but I couldn’t hear. I leaned into the wind. The cars went on in both directions as far as I could see through the snow.

My thighs burned by the time I reached Josh’s Wrangler. Josh and I had met the day before when some of the stranded drivers got out to try and come up with a plan to get ourselves free. My main contribution to the discussion was a series of ill-received jokes, but Josh appeared to have some actual skills. He mentioned he was on a hunting trip when the snow shut down the interstate. He had gear in his trunk.

I wiped my nose with my sleeve and knocked on the window. Josh rolled it down. He wasn’t alone. The coed from a couple cars up was in his passenger seat with her coat off. Josh was bare-chested. He looked annoyed.

“Little busy,” he said. “What’s up?”

“I was in my car,” I said. The coed looked at me with her eyebrows raised, picking at her front teeth with her tongue. I don’t think she was wearing a bra. “I saw something. Out there, out in the woods.”

“Spit it out, man.”

“I saw some kind of creature. A bear maybe.”

“A bear?”

“I thought maybe you could track it.”

Josh sat up. The coed rolled her eyes and pulled her coat over her arms.

“What’d it look like?” Josh said.

“It was tall, taller than me. With white fur.”

“Like a polar bear?”

“Kind of.”

The coed snorted.

“Look, man,” Josh said, settling back into his seat. “I’m a little busy. Maybe later.”

The coed gave me a smug grin and waved goodbye as the window closed and fogged over.

“God he’s cute,” a voice said behind me.

I jumped and my feet slid out from under me, sending me onto my back. My head landed with a crunch in the snow. White flakes swirled in dizzying spirals around my head as wetness seeped through my jacket and the seat of my pants. A young girl leaned over me.

“Walk much?” she said.

It was the girl from the minivan. She wore a puffy white coat and green hat knit to look like a frog was draped over her head. She offered her hand but I waved her off and struggled to my feet.

“What are you doing out here?” I said.

“He’s hot, isn’t he?” said the girl. “Too bad Barbie got there first, huh?”

“I really wouldn’t know.”

“Come on,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “You weren’t trying to catch him with his shirt off?”

I gave her a look, but she only shrugged and brushed a snowflake from her eyelashes.

“Nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what I was doing.”

“No,” I said, starting back toward my car. “Sorry to disappoint.”

She followed.

“I know,” she said. “I heard you guys talking.”

I looked at her, in her marshmallow coat. She wasn’t shivering. I was about to lose my teeth and she could’ve been warming herself beside a fire. I remembered an informercial I saw before I left — new polymer fiber coats. Body heat never gets through. Yuki wanted to order one for me. Every year, she was on my case all winter about the way I dressed. Worried I’d get stranded somewhere and freeze to death.

“Your mom’s probably worried,” I said. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

You shouldn’t be out here. Not with that jacket.”

“Soon as the snow stops, somebody’s going to come. We just need to get back to our cars and stay warm.”

Snow slid under my collar and down my spine. I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked faster.

“I saw it too,” the girl said.

“What?”

“I saw it too. The thing.” She looked away and lowered her voice. “The polar bear, or whatever it was.”

I laughed and shook my head. I never should have left my car.

“I know you saw it,” she said. “I heard you. My mom didn’t believe me, either.”

I stopped and turned to her. She bit her lip.

“I don’t know what I saw,” I said.

“Are you going to go look for it?”

I was going to look for it. Josh and I would go, with shotguns or crossbows, or whatever he had in the Jeep. He’d show me how to shoot and we’d walk back dragging our trophy behind us. That would make an impression on the group.

“No,” I said.

“Whatever.”

The girl started walking away, but stopped and turned around. “You really should’ve worn a better jacket,” she said. “It’s the end of the world, you know.”

She said something else, too, but her voice was lost in the wind.

Back in the car, I powered up my phone and watched it look for service, the little animated spokes turning endlessly. I turned it back off to conserve what little battery it had left. I curled up in the front seat, thinking about Yuki’s text and hoping she was ok, wondering what she thought of me if she was. As I drifted off, my thoughts were filled with terrible things: burning buildings, frozen bodies, and strange creatures in the snow.

+

Words drifted past my car with the wind. Voices talking loudly nearby. I curled up tighter, cold and irritated. Whatever was going on, no one invited me. Probably assumed I froze to death in my dumb-ass jacket, or that I’d been eaten by an imaginary snow monster.

A spotlight lit up the snow casing around my car. I sat up, hitting my head on the rear-view mirror. They’re here, I thought. I shielded my eyes and groped around the floor for my backpack so I’d be ready to bug out. I hoped whoever had come for us brought blankets, maybe even coffee. I could almost smell it.

I turned the ignition. Static still poured from the radio, so I shut it off. The cab lights flickered as the window descended, its motor groaning loudly. Climbing out was difficult. My hands and fingers wouldn’t cooperate, so I pushed against the window with my elbows and crumpled onto the snow. It was no longer far to fall.

I looked around for helicopters, tractors, plows, but found only the same stuck cars. The spotlight was nothing more than the headlights of a truck parked behind me. I cursed and adjusted the straps of my backpack, cursing again as my hands scraped against the nylon.

The voices that woke me belonged to a group huddled a few cars up, next to the minivan where I first saw the girl with the white coat. I was going crazy trapped inside my car, so I started trudging through the snow.

The temperature had dropped and many of the cars were running their engines to keep warm. They still had fuel. I was the only idiot to fall asleep the first night with his engine running and his heater on full blast. The elderly couple’s Corolla was among the few that remained off. It was buried on one side, but the still shapes of the old woman and her husband were visible through the driver’s-side window, outlined by the glow of headlights. I wanted to stop to catch them breathing, but I kept moving.

“ — It’s been snowing all day,” Josh was saying when I approached. He stood against the van with the others in a half-circle around him. Two small pairs of eyes looked out from inside, red and wide from crying. Their mother was collapsed on the shoulder of one of the other women.

“All those stories,” said a woman in a red hat. “Were you making it all up?”

“There’s nothing to track,” Josh said, throwing up his hands. “Look around.”

The mother buried her face and sobbed.

Josh was getting a nice grilling by the other drivers, but something more was clearly going on. My teeth were chattering so hard I could barely get the words out to ask.

“A kid’s gone missing,” said a tall man I hadn’t seen before. “A girl.”

“Her name is Abby,” the mother sobbed. “Abigail.”

“Nobody’s seen her since the afternoon,” Josh said. He gave me a strange look. “What’s with the backpack?”

“Nothing,” I said, shifting its weight on my shoulders.

Josh asked what Abby looked like. The mother wiped her eyes and breathed sharply. She described her daughter’s height and hair color, the shape of her nose, the way she smiled… then she was crying again, unable to continue. Everyone stood there, looking at each other, blowing into their hands and rubbing them together. Endlessly clasping and unclasping.

“She was wearing a white coat,” I said. Everyone’s eyes fell on me. It gave me a chill, even in the cold. I turned to Josh. “I saw her. After I talked to you. She said she saw the — “ I tried to think of what to call it, “ — the bear.”

“A bear?” someone said. Everyone started talking at once.

“She went out there?” cried the mother, pointing to the woods. She lunged at me and the tall man had to hold her back. “You let her go out there?”

“I told her to go back to her car,” I said, backing away. “I told her to go back to you.”

It took several minutes to calm the mother and get her into the van. She agreed only after Josh promised to lead a search for her daughter. I watched her pull her kids under her arms, occasional sobs still shaking her shoulders like hiccups. Her eyes remained on me when I turned away. I could feel them on the back of my head.

Josh grabbed some gear from his trunk. An electric lantern, two rifles and a thick orange coat. Nothing as exotic as I had imagined. I volunteered to go with him. He looked me over, my hands in my armpits and my teeth jackhammers in my mouth.

“You better stay,” he said. I tried to protest, but erupted in a fit of coughing instead.

The search party suited up and headed into the woods, the glow of Josh’s lantern spilling through the trees. They called the girls’ name, but the snow muffled their voices. Soon, they were out of earshot. I waited a few minutes before stumbling back to my car. I’m not sure how I managed to climb inside.

The window crawled up out of the door with a pitiful drone and slowed to a stop halfway. I tried the cab light — dead. Snow drifted in through the open window, coating the passenger seat. I jammed my hands into my armpits and rested my head against the door, watching the trees, waiting for Josh to return with Abby. He had to.

I powered up my phone, trying to keep myself awake. No new messages. Only Yuki’s text. What a fool I’d been to believe I didn’t need her, that it was Yuki holding me back. That I could ever be anyone without her. The words I said to her the night I left ran through my mind on a loop; the accusations I made, the way her face fell and her voice became so quiet. I started typing, wiping away flecks of white that smeared across the screen. I wanted to tell her about the creature, about Abigail. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, to speak to her one last time. My fingers were stiff and lifeless. I could only manage a few short characters, words that would likely never reach her:

are u still there?

I hit send and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, she was there: Yuki. No, not Yuki — Abigail, standing at the edge of the woods, hands in her coat pockets. Like she was out for some fresh air. I let my phone drop to the floor and pulled myself up on the window to call to her. My hands slipped and my face hit the glass. Flashbulbs popped across my vision, spreading out and fading in the darkness. The world slowly returned to focus, but something wasn’t right — the girl was much too large.

Abby’s coat changed; its smooth, white surface unraveled, whipping about in the wind. Her shoulders grew massive. Her arms dropped to her sides, long and ape-like. Her nose flattened. Her lips swelled like sausages, cracked and grey. Her face became the face of the creature. It scanned the road, eyes moving from car to car and back again, glinting in the fringes of the headlights. Watching us. Waiting for the cold to do its work.

A faint glow appeared in the woods, and for a moment, the creature was lit from behind. It was thinner than I had realized, its fur matted and patchy, draped over skin stretched taught over bone. Yellowed-white, dark stains up to its elbows. Mud from digging, or blood. Soon the light moved on, and the creature withdrew into the darkness.

A few car lengths up, a man emerged from the trees, holding the lantern. Another man followed behind him, then another. One by one, the search party returned. Josh was the last to arrive. He was alone.

I struggled through the half-open window, kicking wildly, pushing off from the steering wheel. My feet were clubs, blunt and unfeeling. I landed on my wrist in the snow. I heard a snap but felt only a slight pressure. Something like heat spread down my arm to my elbow. I climbed to my feet and called to Josh.

“You didn’t find her,” I said, shouting over the wind.

“I tried,” Josh said. He tilted his chin toward the sky. “The fucking snow.”

I wanted to hit him, to shove his pretty face into a snowdrift. Expert tracker, seducer of good-looking coeds, would-be savior of scared little girls. I shook my head and turned toward the trees. A disturbance remained in the snow where the creature entered the woods, like an afterimage on the back of my eyelids. Josh’s voice swirled around me in the wind. Calling my name, telling me to stop. Telling me to go back to my car until the snow dies down. The snow was never going to die down — I understood that now. My car was a tomb. I took a step forward, and another, my feet swinging at the end of my legs, alien and lame. I forced my way through the branches, splitting the flesh of my hands. My jacket was ensnared, so I cast it aside. I opened my mouth to call her name; the wind whipped in, around, and out again, leaving me breathless.

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Refe Tuma is a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominated writer with stories in Literary Orphans, Bartleby Snopes, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. Refe’s first book, What The Dinosaurs Did Last Night, will be published by Little, Brown and Co. Fall 2014. He goes by @RefeUp on Twitter if you’d like to say hi.