Oddly, only yesterday I had talked to someone about something and I had a secret thought along the lines of "that creeps me out, it'd be the perfect beginning to a horror story." That I will eventually teeter on the edge of death has always horrified me. Will I struggle for life or happily let go?
Mind you, I don't read horror. It's not that I don't like it, but there are only so many hours in the day you know? So what follows is my ~1600 word take on the holiday horror challenge, and it may or may not actually be horror. It started out being holiday themed, but in the end it's only holiday related insofar as it is a foil to the dizzying highs normally associated with the holidays. I'm titling it The Ditch that Runs Parallel.
Cindy lost control of her Lexus SUV when it hit a patch of ice. She was an amateur photographer and, as a favor to her brother and his wife, was scouting for a decent location to take pictures for their family Christmas card. The mountain road that wound through the Cibola National Forest was steep, narrow, and winding. The road conditions deteriorated the higher Cindy drove, and at last she had decided to turn around. She hit the ice while performing a K-turn.
When she realized she had lost control, she felt panic. But she was at the same time struck by how wonderful the sliding felt. Slow and with beautiful inevitability, physics dictated that her car slid sideways and into the shallow ditch that ran parallel to the road.
Only two of her wheels dropped into the ditch but that was enough. Her two-wheel drive SUV was stuck. No amount of rocking the car helped. She was worried about the road conditions before she left and had brought a shovel “just in case” but no amount of removing snow or packing snow helped her tires gain the necessary traction.
“Please have bars, please have bars.”
She pulled out her cell phone. Two bars. She called the non-emergency police number.
The police operator sounded bored, “There’s nothing we can do, ma’am. I can give you the number to a towing company if you’d like.”
“There’s nothing the police can do? I’m stuck on the side of the road and my car is blocking part of the road.”
“Not something we can help with ma’am. Do you want the number or not?”
“Ok, give it to me.” Cindy jotted the numbers on the edge of a receipt.
She called the towing company, but the phone just rang. No one picked it up. There was no answering machine.
“Thanks for the number. To protect and serve,” Cindy fumed. She pulled her wallet out of her purse and flipped through a motley collection of cards. Finally, she pulled out her insurance card and made a call.
“Yes, ma’am, you’re covered for all roadside assistance.”
Relief flooded Cindy’s emotions. “I’m on highway 536, near mile marker 11.”
“Ok, I’ll contact our towing company and you should receive a text message in a few minutes that will tell you which company we’re using and when they’ll be arriving.”
“Ok, great. Thank you so much.”
Four minutes later Cindy’s phone buzzed with a text: “SOS Towing, Inc. is sending a tow-truck. Estimated time of arrival is 4:32pm. To cancel, reply to this text with the word ‘cancel’. Please call us if you need additional information 1-800-INSURED”
“Two hours?” Cindy texted her mother and then her boyfriend to let them know what was happening. “I guess I’ll just get to enjoy the mountain snow-scape for two more hours.”
But nature made its own demands. Cindy squirmed in her seat, becoming more and more uncomfortable. Soon she gave up resisting the need to pee and was out in the ditch squatting between the two open doors of her car. Once she had finished, she closed the doors and was walking back around to the driver’s door but she stopped short.
Somewhere it sounded like a child was crying. Cindy tried to pinpoint which direction the noise was coming from. Then through a thin line of trees she spotted two bright discs, one blue and one green, standing vertically in the snow. Next to the discs were two children. One of the children was lying on their back, clutching their leg.
Cindy called out to them, but they were too far away to hear her. Her cell phone said it was 3:03pm, so she trudged her way toward the children to see if they needed help. They were maybe a hundred yards away but it was not easy to walk through the snow. When Cindy entered the line of trees, the standing child looked up and started waving.
By the time she reached them Cindy was breathing heavily, “Are you guys ok?”
The hurt child was a little girl with mocha colored eyes. She wailed, “I fell and banged my knee on a rock.”
The other child was also a little girl with the same mocha colored eyes, “She’s ok. She’s just a wimp.”
“What are your names.”
The hurt one sniffed, “Athema.”
“And I’m Anna.”
Cindy smiled warmly, “I’m Cindy. It’s nice to meet you. Are you two sisters?”
Anna nodded, “We’re twins but we’re not the same. I’m not as wimpy as her.”
“Where are your parents?”
“They’re in the RV. It’s that way,” Anna pointed in the direction opposite from Cindy’s car.
“Oh I didn’t know there was any camping allo—,” Cindy’s voice dropped two octaves and to a whisper, “Oh my god. Girls we need to go find your parents. Keep as quiet as you can.”
Cindy was looking back towards her SUV and crouched in the place where she had gone through the tree line was a scraggly cougar. Motionless, it stared at them with its great blue eyes.
Athema protested, “It hurts too much to walk. Why do we have to go?”
Cindy summoned strength she didn’t know she had and picked the little girl up. She grabbed Anna’s hand, “There’s an unfriendly cat near my car. We need to let cranky cats have their space so it’s time to go and let him be alone. Do you girls see him?”
Both girls nodded.
“Good, Anna I’m going to be carrying your sister. Since you’re the brave one, I want you to keep an eye on the unfriendly cat and tell me if he comes any closer. Can you do that, Anna.”
Anna put on a brave face and nodded again.
“Ok, let’s go.”
“What about our sleds?”
“We’ll come back later for those.”
Cindy hefted Athema higher up on her shoulder and set off in the direction of the girls’ parents. “Anna, what’s the unfriendly cat doing?”
“He’s watching us. I think he’s laughing.”
“Don’t say he’s laughing, how far are your parents?”
“Kind of far, our RV is in the trees.”
Cindy followed the tracks the girls had made on their way to the clearing where they were sledding. After a little while she asked, “Do you see the cat, Anna?”
“Yes, he’s following us. But he’s staying far away.”
Cindy pushed forward with more energy. The cold was beginning to seep into her jeans, but her muscles burned and she could feel sweat soaking the t-shirt under her coat. She let Anna’s hand go for a moment to fish her cell phone out of her pocket. No bars. 3:49pm. Panic took hold in Cindy’s heart but she locked the panic away so the girls wouldn’t see it.
On they trudged and soon the light was draining from the sky, “Anna are we close? We need to find your parents before it gets dark.”
“Oh yes I recognize the trees now. We’re close.”
“What about that cat?”
“He turned around a little while ago. I don’t see him any more.”
“That’s good, he needed some cat alone time. You guys are doing really good, I’m going to tell your parents and they’re going to be so proud of you.”
And with that they stepped into a little clearing with flat ground. On the far side was an old RV.
Cindy looked around, “How did you guys get here? I don’t see any roads.”
Anna looked puzzled, “We’ve always been here. We live here.”
As they approached the RV, Anna ran ahead, flung open the door and danced inside. Cindy followed Anna inside, and set Athema down once they were inside.
The RV was dark. There was no heat. The inside was falling apart. The only indication that anyone lived in the RV was four sleeping bags that were laid out next to each other on the floor.
“Where are your parents?”
“They must be out, don’t worry they’ll be back!” Athema danced around, giggling. Her knee was apparently feeling better.
Cindy sat heavily down at a grimy table. She hadn’t realized how tired she had become. Or how cold. She flexed her hands, which were stiff and very pale.
“Is there any way to turn on some heat? How do you guys stay warm?”
Anna giggled, “You’re funny, we don’t need heat! Besides, Papa hates it. He makes us hide from it in the summer.”
Cindy was so frightened she laughed. Her tow-truck would have arrived by now. She didn’t know what the driver would do when he found her car empty. She hoped they would see her tracks and call for help.
“Look, there’s Papa!”
Looking out the door Cindy saw two thin shadowy figures emerge from the trees and drift into the clearing towards the RV.
Athema became serious, “Anna, we have to hurry. Papa isn’t going to be happy. She's too warm!”
The little girls yanked off their mittens. Athema grabbed Cindy’s right hand. Anna grabbed Cindy’s left hand. The little hands were like icy vices sucking away Cindy’s warmth and energy.
The little girls were surprisingly strong, but Cindy kicked the girls off and burst out of the RV. As she did, the shadowy figures turned around and drifted back into the woods. The girls picked themselves up. They were not hurt and trailed behind Cindy as she scrambled back along the path that would take her back to her car and, hopefully, to help.
The girls sang, “Take our hand! Take our hand! Come and play with us!”
Cindy remembered their icy grips and shivered. Adrenaline flooded her bloodstream and she tore back into the woods, crunching and sliding down the trail. Silently, Cindy made a solemn promise to herself that she would not stop moving until she reached her car. But there was something about their hands that made Cindy want to hold them again. Those tiny hands held the vague promise of an inevitable beauty not to be believed.