For a while all Thomas could do was wander from the slushy road to his wrecked car in the trees, then back out to the road. There was a numb shock to his mind. He couldn't quite believe the implications of what had just happened, let alone imagine what to do next. He had no cell phone to call for help. There was no one to call who could help right then, anyway. He was utterly alone in the silent, black moment.
The falling snow soaked through his shirt and snapped him back to attention. At least he had a solid stock of mountain gear in his crumpled Honda. He reached through a broken window and found a jacket and hat.
Someone will be along soon, he thought. This is the road to Yosemite National Park. It can't be deserted for too long.
The good thing was that the sounds of screeching metal and broken glass replaced the memory of his ex-girlfriend crying on the phone 36 hours earlier. His immediate future became very simple – find shelter and stay warm.
He discovered the passenger doors on the right side of the hatchback could still open. He excavated gear and broken glass to make a nest while he waited for help, which would likely involve a sheriff, a reckless driving ticket and a towing bill. He tried not to think about that, and how little money was left in his bank account. He wrapped a down sleeping bag around himself, crossed his arms, and held himself tight with a huff and a shiver.
And I ended up here because I didn't want to stay in Yosemite one more night and camp in this snowstorm, he thought. You've sure done it now, buddy-o. You fuck-up.
He punched the door of his dead car, but it wasn't enough to calm the emotion boiling over. He kicked the glove box in front of him, then punched the dash and the door and ceiling until his knuckles split.
I deserve to eat this fucking glass that's in my mouth right now, he thought, wishing he could silence his mind so that he could stop abusing himself. It's a good thing I don't have a gun in this car, because I might give myself what I deserve.
That very moment, 600 miles away in the desert of the Utah-Nevada-Arizona borders, Tom's mother was settling in for a hard night as well. She sat with her back against the wall of a little cave where the sandy rock had been carved out by water that no longer ran through the dry creek bed. Her right leg was elevated on a rock to ease the swelling of her broken ankle. Her body throbbed with pain. She tried to be grateful for her luck – she had a small backpack with food and water and extra clothes. And she still had some cigarettes and a lighter. She lit one, taking comfort in a long drag and the familiar orange glow of the smoldering tip that illuminated the undercut enough to cast vague shadows on the wall.
I should ration everything, she thought. She knew enough to know how bad her situation was. Who knows when anyone will notice I'm missing, and when or how they might find me. Her best hope was that a sheriff might investigate her abandoned, broken-down Oldsmobile on the road above, and hopefully notice her tracks leading into the canyon. But it'll be days before that happens. She took another long drag of tobacco.
She exhaled and watched the smoke curl along the brown ceiling of stone. What was that story my high school English teacher made us read, the philosophical one about man's perception of reality, how it might be based on shadowy images when he can't see anything else – 'The Parable of the Cave' – that's it.
Her life was flashing before her. Ethel often rolled her eyes whenever someone used that expression. It was so cliché, but now she knew the feeling. One day ago she was running away from her family with the wealth of a lottery ticket in her name, unsure how she would use her fortune. Now, all she wanted was to see her family again.
What I would give to have all my old problems back, she thought, shifting her position with a twinge of pain up her leg. She took another long drag that vaporized the tobacco down to the butt. She stuffed the ashy filter into the rock, took a swig from her canteen and zipped her jacket, unsure what she would do when daylight came. Dawn had never felt so far away.
A black night of the soul if there ever was one, she thought, focusing on a bright star that pulsed in the narrow strip of space that was visible between the distant canyon rim and the roof of her rocky hole.
The sheriff deputy knew what had happened as soon as she saw the car. Another dirtbag falling asleep at the wheel, or drunk, or both, she thought, turning on her hazard lights as she parked on the shoulder of the fresh-plowed road. The plow driver had seen the wreck and reported it over the radio, right around sunrise. The night duty officer was kind enough to pass it along to her as he checked out for the day.
"Unit 16 has visual on accident," she said into the radio. She ran the license plate number and was relieved to have it come back clean. "Unit 16 is proceeding on foot. Standby."
Officer Dudley took a final sip of hot coffee and opened her door. The cold snapped at her face before her black polished boot sank into the fresh snow. A car whipped by, barely moving over to give her extra space. The wake of air stirred the snowflakes that were drifting down from the trees, glittering in the sunrise. The rush of air pushed her along and the flakes wet her cheeks, which were already red from the nip.
I hope this car is abandoned, she thought. It's so much easier to deal with that way.
Trisha Dudley's adrenaline perked to see a body in the car as she approached. She instinctively put her hand on her gun, as she was trained to do. Shit. There was no telling what might happen next. He might be dead. He might be dangerous. He's probably neither. The thoughts mashed through her mind all at once as she analyzed the situation.
"Looks like a rollover. Be advised, there is someone in the passenger side. Unit 16 is approaching and will attempt to contact," she clipped into the radio.
Thomas woke to footsteps wading in the snowdrift next to his car. There was a tap at the glass by his head before he could see who it was.
"Sheriff's office. Sir, can you hear me? Do you need assistance?"
Thomas stirred under the frosty sleeping bag. His neck was stiff and it hurt to breath through his mouth, with all the dry cuts in the back of his throat.
"Hi, yes," he tried to say, but it was more of a faint croak.
"Sir, are you OK? Can you open the door?"
Thomas nodded, still worming around to bring his body back to life and face the cop. He dreaded what was to come but was grateful the night was over.
Trisha's heart calmed down to see a greasy but normal-looking, responsive young man before her. She could tell by the gear in his car that he was a climber.
Another Yosemite pilgrim, she thought as the bearded, dark-haired face turned toward her to reveal his pale blue eyes. Handsome, was her next thought, but she pushed it quickly out of the way and got down to business.
"I have to give you a ticket for reckless driving but I can call a tow truck and give you a lift into town," said the female officer.
Tom nodded with a heavy sigh. It's not like my life is over, he told himself.
"At least you don't have alcohol on your breath," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "It would be much harder for both of us if you did."
She gave him a smile that restored a small sense of hope. She was pretty. She was about his age, with straight blond hair pulled into a ponytail, and round, brown eyes. Tom couldn't help but smile back.
"Got any water?"
"Sure. I can take you to the station and get you something hot to drink, too, while you make some calls."
The optimism was short lived. He left another message on his mom's answering machine – "Mom, it's me. Please pick up if you can hear me. I got in a car wreck last night ... Are you there? Hello?" – and then called his middle sister. He wasn't particularly close to either of his sisters, but Teresa was closest in age and most likely to empathize.
"I haven't talked to Mom in a week," she said. "I don't know what's going on. She definitely seemed more aloof when I talked to her."
"Well, I'm stuck in Bumfuck, California, without a car. Can you help?" Tom pleaded. Options were dwindling.
"I'm sorry, brother. It's too far away for me right now with the baby, and Lance is working late these days. Sorry."
His oldest sister, Liz, was next to refuse a hand or a nickel.
"I'm traveling on business," she said. "It's lucky you even caught me between flights. Call me later, though. Gotta go."
He didn't even get to ask her if she'd talked to Mom.
Trisha felt bad for the young, thrashed man shriveling up by the phone in the waiting room. It was the end of her shift and she had some more bad news.
"You don't have to go home but you can't stay here," she said. "Do you have a plan? There's a motel down the street. It's a little seedy, being close to the jail and all, but it's probably better than where you slept last night."
"I don't have any money. That tow bill maxed my credit card."
"Sorry," she said, and started to walk away, then paused.
It scared her how quickly her police training could be over-ridden, for in that moment, a sentiment from her Sunday school lessons as a little girl took hold of her better judgment.
"Thomas, I shouldn't do this, but you can crash on my couch for a day or two if you really have no one else," she said, regretting it instantly as Tom looked up. He saw a shy grin, but it was actually an expression of unease. He returned the look with a shy nod as his eyes fell to the floor.