My short story from the Holiday Collection, Part 2.

Read Part 1 HERE

The Darkest Night

I followed the Mayor’s wife out of town. The icy road curved steeply upwards for what felt like miles as I slowly tailed her little sports car.

It wasn’t snowing again—yet. But in between the Christmas songs on the radio, the deejay was giving up to the minute reports on the storm that was blowing in. From the way he was going on, Sarah was a hero for making me get off the road.

The clouds opened to my right, and a full moon peeked through. My heart stuttered as I realized the road we were on hugged a cliff—there was nothing between my car and a sudden drop except a flimsy metal fence.

I slowed, awed by the sight beyond that fence.

The ocean spread into a murky horizon, lit by the light of the moon. The water was choppy and black—a frothing sea of white-caps. How easy would it be to jerk the wheel and let the ocean swallow me? My next life had to be better than this one.

In an instant, the moon was swallowed by the sky and the ocean was gone, taking with it my feeling of helplessness.

Sarah turned down a nearly hidden driveway. A few yards into the trees, she pulled up to a small metal box and her gloved hand extended from her car window. She tapped on the box a few times, her brake lights bright on my windshield, then the lights dimmed and she moved forward.

The trees formed a tunnel over the small driveway. We crept forward, and I punched the radio off so I could listen to the blanket of snow crunch beneath the tires. It was the sound I made when I ate ice cubes. It made me smile.

Sarah’s house appeared at the end of the tunnel, the trees giving way to a vast, open space nestled firmly against the edge of the cliff. Strategic spotlights illuminated the three-story brick home, highlighting the golden shutters and the foot-long icicles hanging from the gabled eves.

I parked behind Sarah’s car and shut off the engine, focusing on a couple of deep breaths in the silence. Grounding and centering during ritual is not nearly as important as doing so when one is on the verge of fainting from overload.

Only when my hostess and her three-inch heeled boots were standing in the snowy driveway did I grab my satchel and step from the car.

She led me up the snow-covered steps, my boots sinking in over my ankles. We were met at the door by a ridiculously handsome, smiling man.

“Who’d you bring home this time, Sare?” he chuckled, stepping back to allow us into the foyer. He winked at me, patting me on the shoulder as he ushered me inside and shut the door. “My wife is good at bringing home not only stray pets, but stray people too.” His chuckle, and the affectionate peck he placed on Sarah’s cheek, showed it was in good humor.

“Larson, this is Mena,” Sarah said, handing over the food bag. She unbuttoned her puffy coat as she told him, “I found her finishing up dinner at the Diner.”

Larson was a big guy—nearly a foot taller than my 5’6” with broad shoulders and a wide smile. He hooked the bag over one flannel-covered arm and shook my hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Mena. Welcome to our home.”

“Mena has just driven in. From Kentucky,” Sarah said, bending down to greet a small white terrier that came streaking into the hallway.

Larson was better than his wife at ignoring the giant blemish on my face. “Oh, yeah? Long drive, that. We were going to sit and eat dinner in front of some bad reality TV, but I bet you’d like a shower and a bed, huh Mena?”

It was only at the thought of a hot bath and a warm bed that exhaustion finally settled over my bones. I was weary. I let my shoulders sag. “That would actually be wonderful.”

Sarah’s eyes were concerned as she placed a small hand on my arm. “Follow me, Mena. I’ll show you to your room.”

* * *

Nothing awoke me. Not the heavy, wailing wind that nearly shook the place from its foundation, nor the banging of the loose shutter from the back of the house—both things were my lullaby as I drifted to sleep. I sank into the cocoon of the featherbed in the Mayor’s guest bedroom and I slept the best sleep I’d had in years.

I awoke to a world of white outside the window. The snow had stopped, but what was left behind was a wonderland. What should have been bushes were mounds of gleaming white; what was a lamp post by the front door was a snowy arm reaching from the depths of the ground. It was beautiful.

I shed Sarah’s soft cotton nightgown and dressed in a clean pair of cargo khakis and a dark blue thermal shirt. I didn’t bother with shoes—where was I going to go? My car had been eaten by the weather.

Sarah and Larson were both seated at the kitchen table with identical mugs of steaming coffee. The latter had one hand on his coffee and the other holding the drooping edge of what must have been yesterday’s newspaper up to the light. Sarah was nestled on the cushions of the bay window surrounding the table, one knee tucked under her chin as she read from a hardback book. She looked like an angel, haloed by the brilliant white that only snow can create.

Both of them glanced up with broad smiles as I walked in. Sarah hopped to her feet, but I waved her off.

“Sit,” I told her. “Just point me in the direction of the mugs and the coffee.”

She chuckled, curling back into her seat. “Over on the island. I’ve already set out a mug for you. There’s cream and sweetener in the two ceramic containers.”

“Did you sleep well, Mena?” Larson asked, returning to his paper.

I pulled the pot from the coffee maker and poured a generous cup. “Yes, I did. Thank you very much.”

They were silent behind me as I stirred in a spoonful of sugar—the real stuff, not the induces-cancer-in-lab-rats stuff—and added a dollop of cream. I carried my mug to the table, taking the end seat across from Larson.

Sarah gestured to the basket in the center of the table. All manner of sweet morning pastries were piled inside. “Help yourself. There are so many flavors in there, you’re bound to like something.”

“Thank you,” I said, encompassing everything in general as I swiped a jellyroll from the top. I gave Sarah a wry grin. “For making me stay here.”

She laughed. “Of course. I couldn’t let you keep going.”

“Where are you headed?” Larson asked, a disembodied voice behind the newspaper.

I stared into the flat surface of my coffee where a tiny, dark Mena stared back. Her eyes looked haunted, her cheeks too thin… Gods, I could even see the bruise in my coffee reflection. That miniature Mena dared me to spill my guts, tell the world—but I just wasn’t sure I was that strong.

“Canada,” I finally answered. When I looked up, Larson had appeared, his face concerned, and Sarah was eyeing me.

“Where in Canada?” she asked. The corner of Larson’s lip quirked.

I crossed my arms over my chest. I hadn’t thought beyond crossing the border. When I was in middle school, I had loved the name of one of the provinces. It was pretty much the only one I knew, so I pulled it out and said, “Saskatchewan.”

Sarah and Larson exchanged amused looks. “That’s on the other side of the continent.”

My shrug was insolent. “Yeah.”

They didn’t dig any farther, thankfully.