Anti-Rant: Last Night in Sweden
14 hours ago
Book Excerpt: For 10 minutes, Alice searched for a road sign or motel. She couldn’t see anything and she was beginning to despair. Traffic slowed to a crawl.
At first, it was only a suggestion of trouble: a cluster of distant blinking tail-lights; little or no on-coming traffic. Then, as she approached the exit, she saw it: a chaotic tangle of cars ahead and the urgent rush of hooded people waving at her to stop, while others scrambled to help. A red flare blazed in the center of the road; the distant scream of sirens cut into the eerie howl of the storm.
Fear surged. She tapped her brakes and slowed to a crawl. As she approached the pile- up, she saw the devastation: an ugly mass of cars knotted and melted together. Some were twisted sideways, car parts strewn along the road, others were beaten and punched, windows shattered; a brown SUV had flipped over entirely and was lying off the shoulder of the road on its top. Men were frantically trying to open the jammed doors.
A heavy man wearing a dark blue coat and red ski cap waved at her to stop, then hurried over with the look of desperation on his face. She rolled down her window and he shouted at her, as fat snowflakes blew in.
“You have to turn off! You can’t get through here!”
“Is anyone hurt?” Alice asked.
“Yes, Yes. It’s terrible. Get off the road!” He pointed to his left. “Over there. There’s a road. Take it.”
“Is there any place to stay around here?”
“I don’t know! Get off the road, Now! Clear the road for the ambulances!”
Alice rolled up her window and carefully angled toward the exit, aware that her hands were sweaty and shaky, her legs twitching. Through her rearview mirror, she watched ambulances arrive at the scene and saw the wide sweep of their red domes stabbing into the night. She was profoundly sad, deeply sorry for the people injured in the accident.
The road before her was narrow and dark. There were no street lights, no signs and no cars in front or in back of her. It eventually led to a lonely two-lane highway, where snow, driven by a stiff wind, was gathering in tall drifts, piling up against tall pines and white birch trees. In the distance, her headlights revealed the silhouette of a solitary leaning barn that would be lucky to survive the night. Everywhere she looked were ominous smudges of moving shadows.
Not knowing which direction to go and feeling trapped by nature, Alice took a chance and turned left. Within minutes, she was completely isolated. She turned on the radio to comfort and cheer her, but no matter which station she selected, she got white noise. She turned it off, wiped her damp forehead and reached for her cell phone. This was an emergency and in an emergency she could call the local police and ask for help. They could at least tell her where the nearest motel was.
She couldn’t get a signal. She kept trying, but the phone wouldn’t connect. “Think of your options, Alice,” she said aloud. She had an emergency kit in the trunk—some candles, a bottle of water and some matches. She also had a flashlight in the glove compartment. “If worse comes to worst, you can stay in the car¾wait until morning, when you can see,” she said aloud, trying to comfort herself with the sound of her own voice.
But what if the storm didn’t subside? And from the looks of it, it was just getting started. She glanced at her gas gauge: over half a tank. That was good. No problem. That would be enough. Surely she would eventually find a house or some place where she could stop and spend the night. But the further she drove, the more desolate the landscape became; the more she felt she was being swallowed up by darkness.
Fifteen minutes later, her heart was thumping in her ears. She was edgy and tired. She was completely alone. She had not passed a single car and none had approached her from the other direction. How could that be? How was it possible not to pass a house, not to see another car, a truck, something?
She reached for the phone and tried again. Nothing. No signal. She cursed and tossed the phone. It bounced off the seat to the floor. The further she traveled, the deeper the snow and the more difficult it became for the tires to find traction. Her hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that they hurt.
When the man darted out in front of her, she slammed on her breaks. The wheels locked and the car slid right, out of control. She screamed. The car spun in a crazy circle, finally coming to rest on the opposite side of the road, facing the opposite direction.
When it stopped, Alice was still gripping the steering wheel, puffing air, stunned and confused. She suddenly remembered the man and quickly recovered, fumbling to release the seat belt, shoving the door open and stepping out, coatless. She’d changed into comfortable travel clothes before leaving the shop, but as snow swirled and the wind gusted, she was instantly aware that the red woolen sweater and blue jeans were not going to keep her warm. She shielded her eyes from the attacking flakes, as her brown loafers sunk into deep snow and her face registered the shock of frigid impact. Where was the man?! For warmth, she wrapped her arms tightly around her body.
Then she saw him, a large man in his 70s, hatless, with a cinderblock head, broad chest, angry-looking black spectacles and a ferocious, hawk-like gaze. He walked toward the glare of the headlights. He had a grandfatherly menace about him, and a stiff awkward gait. His dark overcoat flapped in the cruel wind; his thin gray hair was whipped up and wild. He stopped about 10 feet away, shoved his hands deep into his pockets and hunched his shoulders forward. Alice stepped back, noticing his iceberg eyes and pallid skin. A little scar above his right eyebrow added a sinister quality.
Alice finally found a small voice. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah... no thanks to you,” he said loudly, in a scratchy voice. “You almost hit me! You were driving too damned fast!”
Alice shivered in the wind. “I was barely going 30 miles an hour. You ran out right in front of me!”
“You’re supposed to reduce your speed in bad weather.”
“I did! I did reduce my speed. I always reduce my speed in bad weather,” she said, defensively.
He pointed to her car. “Then why is your car out in the middle of the road pointing in the wrong direction?”
“Because you ran out in front of me!”
“A man can’t feel safe taking a leisurely walk, without some out-of-towner trying to run him down. I ought to call the cops on you!”
Sudden anger gave her new strength. “Great! You do that. Call the cops! I am completely lost and haven’t seen a house or a car in miles.”
The old man shook his head and barked out a laugh. “Unbelievable. You don’t even know where the hell you are.”
“Look, I’m not going to stand out here arguing with you in the middle of a blizzard. I’m lost, I’m freezing and I’m scared. I need to find somewhere to stay for the night.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place, instead of babbling on like some silly goose?”
“Because you didn’t give me the chance!”
He scratched his head. “I know where you can stay,” he said, and then started toward her car. Alice backed away and watched as he tramped to the passenger side, yanked the door open and slid in, slamming it behind him. Alice stared in disbelief. She turned in a circle, her toes feeling like little popsicles. She didn’t have a good feeling about this. Who would be out walking in the middle of a blizzard?
She was chilled to the bone. Her teeth began to chatter. She couldn’t very well ask him to get out in this weather, could she? She sighed, resigned but shaky.
She eased in behind the wheel, not closing the door behind her. The man narrowed his eyes at her.
“You going to drive with the door open?”
Still reluctant, Alice closed it, avoiding the man’s eyes. The engine purred. The heat felt good on her wet feet and cold face.
Alice tried for an easy, non-fearful tone. “So... you’re from around here?”
Alice slowly put the car in gear. “You said you knew a place where I could spend the night?”
“Yep,” he said, not offering more.
“Is it close by?” Alice asked.
“Yep,” he said closing his thin mouth tightly.
Alice placed her hands on the steering wheel. “Which way?”
“The way you were going before you tried to hit me.”
Alice looked away and rolled her eyes. Applying the gas, she made a slow, careful U-turn and urged the car back into the right lane. She started off into the uncertain night, stealing occasional glances toward her passenger. He gave her the impression that he had no particular destination in mind and was in no hurry to get anywhere.