The following is an excerpt from “White Plains,” a novel by David Hicks based in Southwest Colorado
2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Literary Fiction
Lake City was an early Christmas card. Over a foot of fresh snow had fallen, and it was sure to be worse up Slumgullion. Flynn slowed through town, following the tire tracks of others who had come before him and were now safe inside their warm homes.
Flynn lost the last of the tire tracks at the southern edge of town and began his ascent up Slumgullion through the unplowed snow. With his hand clenching the stick shift he drove up the switchbacks, dreading what he might find on the other side of the summit. The snow was falling like a surrealist’s dream. He had no money for a motel; if he got stuck, he’d have to spend the night in his car again.
As he continued to climb toward the summit, Flynn was plunged into darkness. At first he feared that his remaining headlight had gone out. But then he realized that the snow was higher than the grill of his car. He was plowing up the mountain.
He gripped the wheel with both hands. In the deep darkness, the color of the snow had changed. What had been an enchanting white was now a ghastly gray. He nudged the gas pedal forward, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. It was insane, he knew. He could easily drive right off the cliff. But turning around would be dicey. Plus, Casey was expecting him.
Flynn plowed through the darkness to the summit, and once the road leveled off and he saw a bit of light on the snow in front of the car, he got out and high-stepped it to the front, his legs sinking like posts into the deep snow. It was only up to his grill now. He brushed off the headlight and got back in the car.
On his way down Slumgullion, the heat directed onto his wet legs, he took his time. The snow banks on the side of the road, from previous plowing, acted as guardrails, and the fresh snow on the road embraced his tires, keeping them straight and true.
At that moment, Casey was probably sitting on the couch with Sage, her loyal companion, watching the Weather Channel. She was content to be by herself, as long as someone was on their way home.
If Flynn were to continue past the turn-off to her ranch, he’d be in New Mexico before midnight. It would be warmer there, too. And he would have all kinds of options. He could head east through Texas, then Tennessee, then north for two days up to Binghamton, where he could take Rachel to court, win custody of his children, and start a new life together with them, a life in the woods. He smiled to himself, then felt his throat close up.
“Natty,” he said. “Janey girl. Don’t forget your dad.” The car hummed through the snow.
From Slumgullion to Spring Creek, the snow stopped falling, and there was less and less on the road until he hit Spring Creek Pass, where the pavement was actually visible in stretches. But a tremendous wind now shook the car. He had expected this: a week earlier it had blown so hard that it had pushed the Sidekick sideways across the ice and spun it around, facing him back the way he had come.
Past the Oleo Ranch, it started snowing again, a different storm, coming at him low and hard from the side, harsh and icy. The pavement was slashed with drifts, like enormous yard line markers on a narrow football field. Flynn blasted through the first three drifts, finding them deeper than they looked. He rounded a curve in the road and saw more ahead, much longer and wider, twenty or thirty feet from beginning to end. He accelerated, counting on the momentum of the car to get him to the other side. One by one he plowed through, feeling the wheels slide sideways as he did.
Back in Grand Junction, it was probably about fifty degrees and calm. Here it was near zero, and howling bad. Flynn cracked open the window and the car rocked with the incoming gale.
The seventh snowdrift was at least five car-lengths long, and Flynn slowed to a halt before it. There were no good options. He could try to blast through, or sleep all night in the car and risk death by snowplow in the morning. The curve in the road behind him meant that the plow would have little time to see a stopped vehicle shrouded with snow.
Flynn went in reverse until he was back against the drift he had just gone through. Then he accelerated, hoping to power through the next one as he had the others. But after hitting the front edge of the drift the car shuddered to a halt, the rear wheels spinning. A few attempts at forward movement only spun the wheels further into the ice. The car skidded sideways, then back, sideways, then back, until Flynn finally stopped trying.
He put his gloves on and got out. The icy wind annihilated his face. Three high steps brought him to the rear of the car. He chipped off the ice on his tail lights, dug out the snow from around his rear tires, and saw that even if he had remembered to put a shovel in his car, he wouldn’t have a chance. The ice under the tires was solid and thick, and his wheels had worn two wide and deep grooves. He stepped back to the car, grabbed a couple of shirts from his overnight bag, and shoved them under one tire, then jammed his dirty canvas jacket under the other. For the next hour, he tried repeatedly to get himself out of his icy trap. He ruined his shirts and jacket, but the car didn’t move an inch.
He sat in the driver’s seat. He had a half a tank of gas. Sitting in idle, even all night long, would probably use only a quarter tank. He would be all right . . . until a truck came around the curve in the morning and slammed into his snow-covered car. He tried to calculate how far the walk would be to the Oleo Ranch, but then he remembered that around here, that’s how people lost their toes. The tips of his fingers already throbbed under his gloves. He took them off and held his hands to the vents.
After a while, he pushed back his seat, took off his wet hiking boots, socks and pants, and changed into his jeans, dry socks, and the Dr. Martens he had worn to teach earlier that day. He dropped the heat down to low, directed it onto his feet again, and settled in. The weather didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that he should have moved to Grand Junction by now. The weather was just waking him up, that’s all. It was teaching him a lesson, again and again, one he had yet to heed.
It was 8:03 p.m. There wouldn’t be another vehicle all night, not in this storm. At the first sign of daylight he could hike back to the Oleo Ranch and see if anyone was home; but for now, he’d be safe in the car. Or could the drifting snow clog the exhaust pipe? Would that be possible, or would the exhaust continually melt it? He got out again, ducking into the screaming wind, and used his hands to dig out a trench around the pipe. Then he fought his way back into the car, took off his gloves, removed his Dr. Martens, and changed his socks again. He got his sneakers from his gym bag and put them on. He stared at the rearview mirror, half dreading, half hoping for, headlights. Within minutes the snow would build up again over the exhaust pipe, but the heat from the pipe would probably continue to melt it. He cracked open the passenger window, just in case, then opened his own about an inch as well. The wind whistled and ripped into the car, rocking the vehicle. He slouched down in his seat, wrapped a sweatshirt around his neck and mouth, tugged down his hat, and closed his eyes. In the fabric of his sweatshirt, he smelled the Gunnison River and Escalante Canyon, where he had hiked on Wednesday.
He wondered what he would do if his kids were in the car with him— Nathan in front, Janey in the back. He was glad they weren’t there; he was glad they were safe with Rachel, who always took good care of them. She was a good mother—that much he could say about her. She loved them to death. And she had a stable life. Right now, considering the condition he was in, he had no business daydreaming about being their custodial parent.
At 3:17 a.m., Flynn awoke to stillness. The fuel gauge had barely moved. The snow had covered his driver’s-side window, but the storm had passed, and it had been more bluster than bite: not much accumulation, but the wind had blown a great deal of it against the car.
He tried to open his door, but it wouldn’t budge.
He put on his hiking boots, now dry from the heat vent, clambered over to the passenger seat, and stepped out the door on that side to check the exhaust pipe. As soon as he did, he saw a streak of cosmic dust slicing across the sky. He watched, shivering in the sharp cold, as several bluish-white meteors streaked in unpredictable curves, one slicing off to the south, another to the north, all originating from the same domed area to the east, in the hook of Leo. Then a pause, then many all at once—some darting, others taking four full seconds to streak and dissipate. For a long time Flynn watched the meteors, his bare head lifted, his mouth open. My god, the kids would love this. He felt for the first time the actual movement of the earth through space, and understood that it was ceaselessly surging forward, blasting its way around the sun. Any pause, any stasis, would mean instant death.
Before he got back in his car, Flynn checked the exhaust pipe, and brushed the snow off the tail lights so an encroaching plow would see them. Then he glanced up once more to watch the meteors, but they were almost too beautiful to bear.
He got in, took off his boots, and put his sneakers back on. Nobody in White Plains would ever witness such a sight, for as long as they lived. Nobody.
Flynn had been living in Colorado for almost a year. That feeling he used to get, when he would fly in on weekends to visit Casey, was with him all the time now. He had thought it was in her, but it wasn’t. It was in the land.
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