Sarah smiles at nothing. She kicks off her gray Ugg boots one at a time, eases the seat back, and then leans into her side of the car. The heater is blasting, giving us a false comfortability, a pretend warmth, as we roll along next to aging piles of plowed snow.
Montana is brutal in the winter. This is the kind of cold that bites your skin and makes your bones ache. It’s the type of cold that makes you want to curl up into a ball and search for your own body heat, knowing deep within yourself that it isn’t really there, it isn’t really going to save you.
This place is a lonely one. Miles and miles separate us from anything in every direction. I don’t know where we are. Not really. I just know that hardly anyone drives the road we’re on. They wouldn’t have a reason to, either. There’s nothing out here except the cold, and the dark, and the sound of your own voice in your head.
Sarah and I are expecting a baby soon. I constantly wonder if I can be a good dad, or if I’m in over my head. The weight of it all suffocates me as Kurt Cobain’s voice sings “Heart-Shaped Box” through broken, scratched bursts of poor radio reception. I turn it up louder, loud enough so that I almost can’t hear myself think. I do this until Sarah mumbles for it to be quieted. She doesn’t like the noise. She doesn’t like a lot of things.
Sarah won’t see it, but I’m nervous about where we are, and what we’re doing. I just want to go home where it’s warm. I never asked for this. Not yet.
How long will it take? How long before they’re finally right about you?
We have more than enough gas to make it where we need to go, I’ve made sure of that. I look over at Sarah. She’s almost asleep. When she notices me staring at her, she becomes more alert and starts giving me that face she makes when she wants something.
“Tyler, I have to pee. How much further is it to the hotel?” she asks in that elongated, high-pitched voice I haven’t learned to resist yet. This is one of the things about her pregnancy. She has to pee all the time now, it seems like.
“It’s a couple hours away. Want me to pull over?”
“No, I’ll just hold it until we get to like a gas station or something.”
“There’s no gas station. The hotel’s the closest thing to us.”
Sarah winces as she pushes her legs together.
“Are you sure you don’t just want me to pull over?”
She shakes her head.
Ten minutes. That’s all it takes for her to surrender to her pain. “Okay, pull over. I can’t hold it anymore,” she says.
“Do you want me to help?” I ask without enthusiasm. I already know what the next few moments will entail.
“No! And don’t look at me,” she says. I’ll look anyway because I know she’ll need me soon enough. When I close my eyes, I’m gone, and the world keeps going without me. You can’t cage in the darkness forever. You don’t always get to dream, the earth just keeps on spinning, it doesn’t matter who’s in it or not.
Sarah tries for a moment, then quits. I turn the car off and go out to help her. In the silence, I listen to the air grappling with the frozen trees. Nothing else matters.
I help Sarah back into the car after she’s done. She’s so big now, I feel really bad about that. I do nearly everything for her now, almost to a fault.
I put the key in the ignition and turn it. There’s a short buzzing, then a clunk that makes my heart bounce into my throat. I try it again but yield the same result. I try a third time, knowing it won’t matter. Buzzzzz . . . clunk!
“Shit,” I say under my breath.
“Why won’t the car start?”
“I think it’s the battery,” I lie. I know it is, but seeming unsure somehow makes it less real in my head. I pop the hood to take a look. The metal sticks to my hands, ripping my skin as I pull away. I can’t do anything about the car, but I look anyway. I make it seem like there’s a plan.
Maybe if you stare at the engine hard enough it’ll explode. Or you will.
“Is it the battery?” Sarah asks from inside. I pretend not to hear her. When I get back in the car, she asks me again.
“Yeah, it is,” I say, withholding shivering.
“Well,” she asks, “What do we do now?”
“Grow wings and fly away,” I say, “I don’t know. Wait for someone to come by and give us a jump, I guess.”
Darkness falls, paralyzing everything in the absence of the sun which had glistened against the crispness of last week’s snow outlining the road. But now the light is gone, and there’s nothing to assure us we aren’t alone in our little bubbles of black silence as even the air is finally dead now, frozen, like everything else out here.
I watch for hours in both directions waiting for headlights. Sarah’s become so cold that I’ve given her the jacket I was wearing and wrapped her up in a blanket from the backseat. She continues to shiver anyway.
You are not good enough.This isn’t good enough, not for her, not for anybody. NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH.
As I rattle uncontrollably, I imagine a little boy in the backseat with his teeth chattering. His lips are turned a pale blue, and his lanky arms are wrapped around himself as he shakes. He looks at me through the rearview mirror and starts to mouth something that I can’t make out. His eyes are sad, alone, like mine only different. He doesn’t cry, he just sits there shivering, chattering away in my head.
I caress Sarah’s hair softly as she sleeps. It’s so blonde I can barely see it in the dark; the moonlight reflecting off of it whenever it’s able to peek through the clouds.
After a while, I see headlights in the distance and my heart begins to race. I kiss her on the head and say, “I’m gonna flag this guy down.”
She doesn’t say anything.
I stand in the oncoming lane waving my arms like a madman until the pair of headlights materializes and an old pickup truck stops about ten yards in front of me. A tall, slender man gets out of the rusted vehicle. His hair is long and greasy, and his eyes are big and bulging like a fish’s.
“You folks need help?” the man asks over the rumble of his decaying diesel engine.
“Yeah, we need a jump if that’s alright?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he says, as he gets back in his truck. He pulls it in front of our car so that the hoods face each other. “You got jumper cables?” he asks when he steps out again. This man moves slowly, cautiously, walking in almost perfect silence with each step. His eyes reflect the darkness back at me like big, black orbs.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll grab em if you wanna pop your hood real quick.”
I connect the cables to my battery first. The man watches me intently and then switches his attention to Sarah. He doesn’t think I can see what he’s doing, but I do; I pretend not to notice anyway. Sarah’s an attractive woman, and a lot of men look at her, but the way he’s doing it is unsettling to me. This is different; there’s a hunger in his eyes, the look of a starved wolf stalking wounded prey.
You want to say, Don’t fucking look at her. You want to crack his skull with your fist and watch his brains seep into the frosted pavement—but you don’t. You don’t because he’s your only way out—he’s their only way out. So you just keep it to yourself, this little secret that whispers in your ear from the inside of your brain and the bottom of your soul.
I go to connect the cables to his battery, but he insists that he do it himself.
“Is that your wife?” he asks.
“Well, she sure is pretty.” He takes his time connecting the cables so he can talk. “When’s she due?” He stops what he’s doing and looks back at me for an answer.
“Uhm ,” I say, “about three weeks. Her due date’s the 27th.” I don’t know why I’m telling him this, it all makes me feel so stupid.
“Oh, a Christmas baby, how exciting. Boy or girl?”
“Ya know,” he says, “I’ve kinda got a thing for blondes. I guess that means it’s your lucky day.” He chuckles, patting my shoulder to assure me of his innocence.
You want to wring his neck with your frozen fingers. You want to shatter his yellowed teeth with your knuckles and the point of your elbow—but you don’t—you just feel the numb tingling of your face burning against the crisp, stabbing air.
The man goes to connect the last cable, and as he stands bent over, I see what my brain can only register as a gun. My heart races now, melting the feeling of hardened, icy skin on my cheeks. My frigid hands, useless in their numbness, begin trembling in the way the last leaves of autumn do, clinging to branches against the blast of fierce, hostile wind just to stay alive a little while longer.
“Wanna hear a joke?” the man asks out of nowhere.
“Not really. I just kinda want to get my car started and get the hell out of here, ya know?”
He goes on anyway. “Whaddya call a bear with no teeth?”
“A bear . . . with no teeth . . . What do you call that?”
He waits about ten seconds for me to answer before I finally put my palm out as if to say, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Then, triumphantly, he says, “A gummy bear!” He chuckles with his mouth closed as if he were amused with my confusion and dissatisfaction. I shudder.
“Well I’m gonna go try to start it up . . . ” I say in an unsuccessful attempt to break the tension, “if you wanna give it some gas.”
“What’s wrong, Tyler?” Sarah asks as I close the door.
“Nothing. It’s fine. He’s just kind of weird.” I furiously turn the key. There’s a short rev, and then nothing. I try again. Nothing.
She asks, “What do you mean by ‘a little weird?’”
I don’t know how to answer, so I just ignore her, I just focus on turning the key, on the vibrating sound buzzing from the car.
“Tyler, what do you mean when you say—”
“No, no, no. Shit! You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I say after another try, putting my hands on my face in defeat. Sarah doesn’t speak, but her breath rattles in and out like the noise from the car. I look at her belly as if waiting for the baby to move. But he doesn’t.
All you are is a failure. You probably would have disappointed him anyway. Just like you disappoint everybody else.
You want to cry, but you don’t. Not now. Not ever. You just eat it. You swallow it until it disappears into your black, miserable pit. You force these things down your throat until you look rough and abrasive on the outside like your father, and his father, did. Then you spend your time trying to fill that void with something—anything it takes—to make it all go away. But it doesn’t go away, no matter how much time you spend alone, no matter how much you pretend not to care about anything. And after a while, you start to die, and your son finally sees just how fragile you were all along, how much you wanted it to be different, how much you wanted to cry the whole time.
But you don’t cry. You don’t cry, and neither does he.
I creep out of the car, poorly concealing my frustration. “It’s . . . it’s not working,” I sigh.
“Well,” he says. “It’s gettin’ real late. Gettin’ colder too. You guys better ride with me someplace, dontcha think?”
“I dunno, man. I don’t wanna put you out like that. Maybe we can just try it again? Maybe give it some more RPMs or something?” I say this as calmly as I can but quiver internally, wrought with anger, fear, and disappointment. I could probably overpower him. If I had to. I could probably do all of the things I keep playing over and over in my mind. But he’s so tall that his thinness almost makes him more imposing. The man is sharp, streamlined. He looks like a tarnished blade.
“Oh, I don’t think that battery’s gonna work again,” he says with a smirk. “You better just get a ride with me. It’s no trouble at all really.” He won’t stop smiling his grimy, chewing tobacco-stained grin.
I look back at Sarah, then back at the man. What do I do?
Either choice you make will be the wrong one. Every choice you make is wrong.
I choke something into my nothingness.
You want to scream, you want for this to be a bad dream, but when you wake up, he’s still there, and the chill of the cold invites you to sink into its numbness forever like a lover you wished you’d taken long ago.
It must’ve been a while since I said anything because he starts talking again. “You said you were having a boy, right?”
Through clenched teeth, and balled fists hardened by the slicing of the air, I answer, “Yes.”
“That reminds me of another joke. What’d the buffalo say to his kid when he left?”
I shut my eyes as tight as I can to hold back tears, but I don’t cry. I don’t dare. I say in almost a whisper, “What?”
I finally look at him, and with the saddest, coldest smile I’ve ever seen he says, “Bi-son.” He lets out another chuckle like before, a maniacal, bloated noise from his throat. It’s as if his insides were knotted up to try and escape the blistering frost. “You really should come with me. You need to think of your wife and your boy.”
I rigidly shake my head.
“Come with me,” he says. “Don’t let them suffer.”
“We’re not going with you.”
“Listen to me. You’ll die out here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do,” he says. “Seen it many times.” He starts walking toward me. “I can’t just let you stay out here like this.” He stops just in front of me, towering above as the dusting of new white powder begins to collect in our hair.
“I think you should leave me alone.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Don’t need to be such a hardass. I’m tryin’ to be a nice guy ya know.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask. “A nice guy?”
“Look man, I don’t know what yer problem is. I’m really just tryin’ to help you out.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“I think you do.” The man wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and then bends down, stooping to my level. “Know what I think?” he says, “I think you don’t know what the hell yer doin’. You don’t know nothin’ about anything. Don’t know nothin’ about bein’ out here, don’t know nothin’ about bein’ a dad. Shit.” He pauses. “You don’t even know what you’re doin’ with a girl like that either—”
I shove the man hard, “Get in your fucking car! Get in your fucking car and drive away!” I shove him hard again, “I’ll fucking kill you!”
He doesn’t listen. Instead, he comes toward me, and I take that swing with my fist that I had been envisioning all along. My knuckles connect with the side of his nose, shattering it. Blood rockets from his face as he stumbles on a piece of uneven, iced-over road and falls backward.
You want to finish him off. You want to unleash everything on him, unload all the misery and hatred you’ve stored up. Only you don’t— you don’t because deep down you know that he’s right.
The man touches his fingers to his nose, wiping away the blood that continues to drain from his nostrils. He looks shaken, scared, like a dog that had just been beaten. “You know what you just did, right?” he says, almost smiling as he picks himself up off the ground.
I keep waiting for him to pull the gun on me, waiting for him to end this.
“What would your son say, huh? What about her?” he says, pointing to Sarah. I say nothing. I have no words because I don’t have the answers for any of them.
“SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP!” I say this in tears . . . because I am afraid, because I wish it could be different—it’s just not.
The man obeys without saying another word. He gets in his truck, and his headlights vanish into the darkness as he motors away. I wipe my tears away, I suck it up, I act like none of it matters. Then and only then do I head back to the car.
I throw my arms around Sarah when I get back inside, squeezing her tightly as if to keep her from floating away.
“Tyler! What’s going on?” Sarah is crying now. I hate when she cries. I never know what to do.
“Everything’s gonna be okay,” I say, shivering violently. I shut the door and blow into my lifeless hands.
Sarah won’t stop crying.
Surely there would be another car soon. Surely there had to be somebody coming. In the back of my mind, in the little part that whispers little secrets you don’t want to hear, I was bombarded with the fact that it was only getting later.
I just hold Sarah in my arms against the bitter cold of the car now. All I can do is wait.
attends the University of Oregon. He is majoring in journalism. “The Cold” is his first published work.