Footprints and drops of blood in the snow lead into the forest, away from where the expensive car was parked. The mountain road to the ski lodge had been harrowing, but the drive paled next to the unexpected turn of events. 

Upset in ways never-before experienced, the young man tracked Carol into the forest. His legs became weary from trudging through the eighteen inches of snow. Yesterday, the snowstorm finished with a misty rain. Midnight, dry air accompanied with frigid temperatures descended on the forest, forming a slick, icy topping. 

Dressed for the ski trip with Carol, Matt punched his foot down to crack and plunge his boot into the virgin crust. At first each step, a labor of rise and stomp, rise and stomp, required his full attention until his mind wandered off. In a dream state his ambulation became mechanical. 

Working hard to keep up with Carol, he was driven to make all this right again. He had to. Everything in his life had been working out. Becoming a junior partner in his law firm fulfilled goals Matt set for himself in high school: graduating law school, landing a job, and succeeding in his profession. His new car, his new girl fell nicely into place.

Matt daydreamed of Carol in a wedding dress walking down the aisle, remembered her in her bikini on the beach where they met, and believed he felt her touching him. Tucked safely in his suitcase was his hope for a bright future, an engagement ring for the gorgeous woman who had ridden next to him in his new BMW. He imagined the two of them sitting next to a fire, the snow falling outside, and he would propose.

This morning before they left the city, Carol sat so gracefully in her nightgown at the breakfast table, smiling at him as she sipped her coffee and chattering about their getaway. Last night was the first time she agreed to stay over. It had been a perfect evening. Until the unexpected outburst in the car, Matt had been so sure of her feelings, of her values. After four months of being a couple, he thought he knew her.

This weekend would have finalized the next milestone in his life, an engagement to Carol. Now what? One phone call and his foundation trembled. Matt wasn’t used to losing control over his life. Laboring on through the unfamiliar expanse, even his grasp of reality was in question. 

The bloody wadded-up paper towel dropped to the ground, a crimson blotch on the pristine satin at his feet. Before his eyes, crystals hung suspended in the air. Pushing through the icy gemstones made his face wet. With each thrust forward the frosty curtain parted and a glimpse of her stayed ahead of him, unattainable. Her willowy form beckoned him, not with jeans and a tight sweater, but with flowing, wispy filaments blown away from her body by the wind. 

He stretched his right arm out to almost touch the image, but his rise and stomp were too slow. Matt’s blood-streaked face had to be what was frightening her, making her run away. Trudging on, he spotted her again and lunged for her but fell. His face hit the ice hard, cutting his cheek, which burned and felt raw. 

Shocked out of his trance, he turned on his side to pull his feet out of the ruts made when he fell and tried to get to his knees. His hands pushed him up to all fours. He crawled forward, momentarily suspended on top of the layers of frozen precipitation until his snow-laden gloves slipped out from under him. 

Splayed out on the cold, solid surface, the girl looked down on him. This time she was real, wearing a white down jacket and gray snow pants. Her platinum locks blowing away from her face. Her eyes held the same distress he saw earlier in the car. He cried out, “Carol, stop. Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Matt’s urgency to rise, to touch her before she fled, caused him not to notice the steep slope below him. As he rolled onto his side, he caught sight of the drop off. But, it was too late to stop the momentum of his turning over.

Without traction his body rolled out of control down the ridge, brambles tearing at his clothing, his nose, his left eye, spreading blood. His tumble ended abruptly when his left side whacked into a tree. Pain shot through his chest. He tried to take a deep breath but gasped and could only manage short, shallow gulps of air. 

Panic set in. His head spinning from the pain he felt with each breath, Matt realized he had no idea the direction from which he came. In a couple of hours, night and the low temperatures would be upon him. Alarmed that he would not be able to find the road in the dark, he patted his pocket for his cell phone. It dawned on him it was on the charger in the car.

Matt decided he needed to get up. As he shifted his body, the pain cut him in two. He squeezed his eyes shut to gather the strength to try again. Lying still next to the tree, questions without the comfort of answers blanketed his mind. Would Carol help him? Could she help herself? Did she know he was hurt? Why had she been so inconsolable?

His body began to shake uncontrollably from the panic, aided by the cold. When he looked around, the wispy vision returned through the slits of his eyes, which he opened wide to see her better. The snow blowing off a fir tree, swirling downward into an opening, created the illusion.

Sleep—a temptation to forget the pain and snow piled on his body—was calling to Matt. He pulled his stocking cap over his burning face and resolved to get up in a few minutes. To distract himself from the pain, he replayed the scene in the car. He needed to figure out why Carol had reacted so strangely.

Only a few miles to the ski lodge, Carol took a call that lasted less than a minute. Keeping his eyes on the slippery road did not allow him to see her reactions as she listened on the phone. His only understanding of what transpired came at the end of the call when she said, “You can’t do that? I’ll return immediately.” She slammed her phone down on the dash and let out a scream like an injured animal. The outburst nearly caused him to lose control of the car as the electrical shock of her shriek went through him.

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked, his voice cracking.

“Turn around. I have to go back,” she demanded.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” he said, not daring to look anywhere but straight ahead. The road was becoming steeper with curve after curve. 

Carol yelled at him, “It’s none of your business.” Matt could not reply, stunned by her caustic tone and refusal to share the problem with him. Throughout their time together, she had never acted toward him with anything but sweetness, never a cross word, always even tempered. None of this made sense. 

Shouting, she insisted, “Let me out, or I’ll jump out.” She began tugging wildly at her door handle. As soon as he found a decent shoulder, he slowed the car, trying not to use the brake. Her thrashing around calmed as they pulled over. 

He looked at her. Carol’s eyes were like a cornered feral animal, frantic desperation in her voice.  

“Turn around. Take me back.” 

He grabbed her arms above the elbows, to calm her, to get her to talk to him. “There is no reason to be so upset. I can help. What is it?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Turn around, or I swear, I’ll get out.” 

“It’s freezing cold. There is nothing here but forest. Talk to me,” he said, squeezing her arms with the hope his touch would allow her to trust him.

She wrestled with him until he let go, not knowing how to help her. Grabbing her phone, she turned to open her door and said frantically. “I’ll find my own way home.” 

When she moved to get out, he grabbed her left hand to stop her. Carol struck him with her phone, causing a cut on the thin skin covering the eye socket. A stream of blood flowed down his cheek. He unfastened his seatbelt and clumsily grabbed sheets from a roll of paper towels to press against the cut and stop blood flowing from his brow. Matt followed her, taking long strides, hoping to stop her before she went too far into the woods. 

 Remembering how she lashed out at him stung him more than his painful ribs and the cold pressing on his body. Matt felt like a fool, building a fantasy life around this young woman who had either lied to him or was nuts. 

Motivated to push through the pain, he gathered his courage and rose using his elbow and twisted away from the tree’s trunk until he was swallowed by the dark realm of unconsciousness.

 

WARMTH . . .  something tickling his nose . . . a truck’s motor running . . . intermittent flashes of red and blue lights. Through fuzzy lenses he thought he was entangled and thrashed to get free. 

A red haired, freckled woman hovered above him. Her hands gently held his shoulders as she said, “Lie still. You’re in an ambulance. There’s a good chance you have some ribs broken, but we won’t know until we get some x-rays. Do you know your name?”

“M . . . a . . . tt” escaped slowly from his lips, as his dried-out tongue peeled away from the roof of his mouth.

“Do you know where you are?”

Moun . . . tains. Carol? Where’s Carol?” 

“She’s outside, waiting to talk to you. She’s the one who called 911. I think she’s in a hurry to leave.”

The paramedic opened the door, stepped to the head of the gurney, and said to Carol as she stepped in, “Only a minute, we need to get him to the hospital.”

Carol kneeled down and said, “Matt, one of the troopers is going to take me back. My son’s father took him from my parents’ home.” 

Matt’s face twisted in confusion, “Son?”

“He’s three and lives with my parents. His father is crazy. He doesn’t have custody. I can’t wait any longer. I have to go. I have to find my son,” she said, visibly shaking.

His voice raspy, he implored, “Why?”

Carol’s finger touched his lips like a feather to quiet him. Their eyes met, hers fierce with fear, his wounded. She stood and turned away, facing the doors she hung her head and said, “Matt, I am sorry. You had your whole life mapped out. Mine . . . is chaos, always has been. I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want it to end.” She pushed the doors open and stepped down. He watched his dream girl disappear into a state trooper’s SUV.

The medic closed the doors and prepared for the trip to the hospital. Bumpy jolts, a wide turn, and a smooth take off with sirens blaring helped Matt feel his life had resumed, no longer stuck in the freezing woods. His injuries were not on his mind, the pain meds were taking care of that. He was thinking about the cost of believing in someone and how distrust casts a long shadow that comes with the brightness of day and darkens in the night. He stared at the back windows on the doors where he watched Carol walk away and realized it was no longer day.

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