Roy is eighty years old. He moves and speaks slowly, and doesn’t hear well. One ear is dead, the other is constantly fuzzy. Sometimes he fails to hear the phone ringing, or people talking to him. On a gray morning in February, when a woman begins screaming, he hears it clearly. The sound cuts right through the static of his bad ear. There is something about a woman’s scream that demands attention. He struggles out of his recliner and slowly makes his way across the living room. Looking out the window into the parking lot, what Roy sees sends a chill up his back. It’s the girl from downstairs, the pretty girl who is married and expecting. She is kneeling in the snow, rocking back and forth and wailing, cradling her belly. Roy wonders what is wrong with her, knows it must be bad. He needs to help if he can. He shuffles back through the living room into the kitchen, cursing his slow gait. He picks up the phone and carefully dials 911. It takes a long time to explain what is happening to the dispatcher, and longer to make his way downstairs and out into the parking lot. He approaches the girl, Sarah, who is now weeping, covering her face with her hands. He is about to speak to her when he catches sight of what is lying in the snow at her knees. He stops, lifts a hand to his mouth, and closes his eyes.
When the paramedics arrive Roy has coaxed Sarah into the apartment building. She is sitting on the steps, still crying, eyes shut tightly. Her jeans are wet all the way down to the knees. She won’t speak, so Roy tries to explain what has happened. He gets frustrated at his slow tongue and finally just grunts, pointing into the parking lot. One of the paramedics walks out to investigate. He stoops down on the same spot Sarah was kneeling, then jumps up and runs back. “Shit guys,” he says, “There’s a body out there.”
the day before
Brandon woke up at noon. He rolled out of bed, shut the alarm off, then shuffled into the bathroom. He showered, turning the water as hot as it will go and letting it run to cold. After toweling dry he walked naked into the kitchen, made himself some toast for breakfast, then went into his office. He made a clear path to the desk against the wall by shoving piles of baby clothes and toys out of the way with his foot, then he booted up his laptop. He spent some time reading news articles and blogs online, checked his email, responded to a letter from his grandmother, then started playing solitaire. Every few minutes he checked the time. At three o’clock he got up and went back to the bedroom, where he rummaged through a pile of dirty laundry until he found his cell phone. He tapped in Sarah’s number and waited. She answered quickly, and Brandon smiled when he heard her voice. They had both changed so much since high school, but her voice always stayed the same. Over the phone she sounded just like she had when she was seventeen.
“Hey baby!” She said.
“Hey love,” said Brandon, how’s it going?”
“Good. Really good. I’m having so much fun!”
“How are you friends?”
“They’re all awesome. Man, I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last saw them.”
The spoke for a long time. Sarah did most of the talking, Brandon just sat on the couch and listened, responding when it was called for.
“So, how did they take the news?” He asked.
“Oh my Gosh, Brandon, you should have seen them, it was hilarious! They were totally shocked, and Tessa was like, pissed that I didn’t tell her sooner. I just about peed my pants it was so funny. They’re all super happy though. Ash asked about names, so I told her we’re thinking about Henry, and they all like that name a lot. They all wanted to start planning a baby shower, and that’s like the only thing we talked about the entire first day.”
“That’s good babe. I’m glad you’re having a good time. But hey, I’m sorry but I need to get going. I’ve got work in a half hour, so I should go put some pants on. I love you, say goodbye to Henry for me.”
“Tell him goodbye yourself.”
Brandon knew that she was holding her phone against her belly, so he said, “hey little man, how’s it going? Having fun in your momma’s tummy? I can’t wait to meet you next month.”
He found clean socks and boxers, then picked up the pair of work pants he had worn last night from the floor. He held the tan khakis up against the light and inspected them. There were no major stains so he pulled them on, making sure to check the pocket for his employee ID and his box cutter. He found a clean blue t-shirt and put it on, and his Gas’n’Grub outfit was complete.
He checked the time and saw that it was quarter past four. His shift started at four thirty, and it was a ten minute drive down the highway, so he finished getting dressed in a rush. He pulled on his leather jacket, a stocking cap, gloves, and threw a scarf around his neck. He grabbed his cell phone, made sure to put it in his left pocket so that the glass face wouldn’t be scratched by his box cutter, then headed out.
When Brandon opened the front door of the apartment building the cold struck him like a slap in the face. Holy shit, he thought, where did this come from? The winter had so far been unusually mild for Minnesota. There was little snow and temperatures were staying well above zero. He guessed that today it was at least ten below, easily the coldest day of the winter. I hope this shit isn’t here to stay. He held his scarf up to his face, a shield against the biting wind, and walked down the parking lot. When he looked up and saw his truck he stopped in dismay.
“Oh,” he said. “Damn it.”
His truck was tilted weirdly, leaning forward and down. The tire on the front passenger side was completely flat. Shit, I really don’t need this now. He was going to have to change the tire, which would take at least twenty minutes, and he would be late for work. He walked back to the apartment building, stepped inside, took out his cell phone and called the Gas’n’Grub assistant manager’s office.
“Hey Mark, this is Brandon. Hey listen, I’m going to be a bit late today. Yeah, yeah, I know she’s going to be pissed, but what can I do? I’ve got a flat tire. I just need to throw the spare on, and I’ll be on my way. It’ll take like twenty minutes. Hey, could you just cover for me until I get there? Thanks man, I really can’t afford a week of probation. Alright, I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
He put the phone back into his pocket and thought, shit, it’s a grocery store. The world’s not going to end if I’m twenty minutes late. He wished there was some better job available and that he could tell the Gas’n’Grub to find some other sucker to cut open boxes of freight and stock the shelves. But there was nothing else; it was a recession, and jobs were particularly sparse in rural areas. He sighed and shook his head. His sinuses began to run, loosened up by the transition between cold and warm air. A bead of snot hung from the tip of his nose and he wiped it away, scowling at the smear of mucous left on his glove. Of course my tire would go flat today, he though, the coldest damn day of the winter.
There was a spare tire mounted on the tailgate of his truck, and a jack and tire iron underneath the passenger seat. Brandon picked up the jack and inspected it, wondering if it would do the job. He had never actually used this jack before; it was a cheap little thing, a stand in until he bought a better one. He shrugged. The packaging said it would lift a small truck, and mine’s not that big; it should work. He tossed the jack down beside the flat tire and pulled the spare tire from the tailgate. Removing the nuts from the flat tire was easy, and he set them, one by one as he removed them, on the hood of the truck, cursing when the last one rolled off. It bounced on the ground and rolled underneath the truck.
The little jack moved only a fraction of an inch at a time and raising the truck took longer than Brandon had anticipated. He was going to be more than twenty minutes late. He pulled the flat tire off of the brake disc and threw it into the bed with a little too much force. The truck wobbled, and for a sickening moment he thought that it was going to lose its tenuous balance and fall off of the jack. It didn’t. Brandon sighed in relief. He was about to mount the spare tire on the disc when he remembered that one of the nuts was still under the truck. Shit, shit, shit. The wind was roaring in his ears and his face and hands were beginning to hurt. His toes were already slightly numb. He just wanted to get this shit done and get out of the cold. At least the Gas’n’Grub was always warm. He bounced up and down on his toes a few times and rubbed his arms, hoping to stimulate some extra body heat. Then he climbed down to his hands and knees and peered under the truck. The nut was far back, almost halfway. He lowered himself to his belly and reached for it, coming up short. He grunted, annoyed, and shifted a little closer. When he raised himself to move forward his shoulder struck the bottom rim of the truck, just barely upsetting its precarious balance. It began to lean forward, imperceptibly at first, millimeters at a time, but with exponentially increasing speed. Brandon’s whole arm was underneath the truck, and just as he closed his fingers around the nut there was a sharp cracking noise of splitting metal. The jack, too light and thin, meant for smaller vehicles, twisted and bent. The truck bucked forward and Brandon had time to think, oh, my God, no. Then the weight of the truck kicked the jack away, and it fell to the ground, landing on Brandon’s upper arm, crushing muscle and fat, tearing through skin, and breaking the bone clean in half.
Brandon heard a thump as the truck fell, a small sound that belied the violence and force of the event. Almost simultaneously he heard an audible crack as the bone in his upper arm snapped. A wave of pain washed over his body and his mind, erasing all of his thoughts, like writing in sand, and replacing them with white hot agony. The bottom rim of the truck was rusty and sharp and sheared through his leather coat sleeve, cutting deep into the flesh of his arm. He screamed, long and loud, clenching his hands into fists and kicking the ground. His instinctual reaction was to pull away, hoping his arm would slide out from under the weight. The truck was too heavy, and another wave of pain blasted through Brandon’s mind. His eyes lost focus, the world started to spin, and he thought he was going to pass out. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he gritted his teeth, trying to hold back another scream. He was completely trapped by the weight of the truck, pinned against the snow covered asphalt of the parking lot.
He couldn’t feel anything in his arm but pain, and was unsure if his left hand was functioning at all. He could move his right arm freely, but his body was held down. He kicked his legs frantically, gasping for breath and sobbing like he hadn’t done since he was very young. He struck the ground with his right hand and cried out, venting his hurt and anger in hoarse bursts. The tears on his face mixed with snot and dripped from his chin. He groaned, a physical expression of emotional trauma; pain, frustration, mostly fear. He could not think clearly, but one idea stood out in stark focus; he was irreparably damaged. He was going to be a cripple after this, and how could he take care of his son? Unable to muster any energy or clarity, he laid his face down on the icy ground and closed his eyes, panting heavily. The pain was coming in rolling, throbbing waves, cresting and diminishing. At each peak he squeezed his eyes shut tightly and whimpered, waiting for it to abate. The black behind his eyelids became a gray fog, the world started to spin again, and Brandon passed out.
When he came to a long time later he was unsure where he was or why he hurt so badly. He opened his eyes and saw gray. It took him several moments to remember that he was lying, belly down, on the parking lot of his apartment. The white wall in front of his eyes was the layer of packed snow and ice that coated the asphalt.
Pain still emanated from the tremendous pressure that lay on his cut and broken limb, but it was now a slow and dull pulse. He tried to move and found that he couldn’t. He could lift up his head and see in front of him the red brick siding of the apartment building, a few covered windows, the glass door. He could look to the sides, but to his left all he saw was the truck, and to his right there was nothing, just an expanse of open, empty lot. The wind was blowing, stronger than before, kicking up a cloud of snow. He wondered how long he had been out, and noted that all of his extremities were painfully cold. He tried to wiggle his toes and felt them moving slowly, like they were half frozen already. His fingers were a little better but his face, where it had rested against the cold ground, was entirely numb. He took hold of his scarf and pressed it against his face, trying to thaw the skin. He was breathing heavily and the scarf was soon wet with exhaled moisture. When his lips and cheeks warmed up they began to hurt. He stifled a moan, and tried to think clearly about his situation.
Oh God, oh God, please, he thought. It was the closest thing to a prayer that had crossed his mind in years. Please help me. It was impossible for him to pull free, and trying would just cause more pain and injury. His only hope was to be found. The apartment was located on the edge of a small town and behind the parking lot was nothing but a line of spruce trees and an open field. The nearest houses were across the street on the other side of the building, out of view. Someone in the apartment building would have to step outside or look out their window and see him. The wind was blowing and if he tried to shout for help it would drown his voice out before it carried fifty yards. Maybe someone in the apartments had a window open, just a crack, to have a smoke or get some fresh air.
Brandon lifted his head as high as he could, grimacing at the pain that every movement brought, and shouted. His throat was raw from the cold and his cries were hoarse and painful. He shouted until his voice gave out.
“Hello! Can anyone hear me? I need help! Please help me! Hello? Anyone? Help!”
He watched the side of the building, checking each window, hoping to see someone looking out at him. There was nothing. Most of the windows were covered or dark. Shit! Damn you people, look out your windows! He shouted again. “Help! Help! Please God, help me!” How pathetic, he thought. I’m going to bleed out here, twenty yards away from my own apartment. He turned his head, straining his neck in an attempt to see the extent of his injury. He say the disc brake resting on the ground just a few inches from his face and thought, Christ, what if that landed on me? His arm was cut deeply and blood was flowing out and pooling around his shoulder, staining the snow. The wound wasn’t bleeding as freely as he had expected, and he wondered if the cold was actually helping him. Good, he thought, maybe I won’t hemorrhage to death in a parking lot. He smiled, a grim little quirk of his numb lips. Every cloud, silver lining and all that. His face was numb despite the scarf. He lay on the ground and waited, listening to the wind and watching the windows. There was no movement inside. It was darker than it had been, and Brandon became conscious that time was passing. He wondered how long he had been trapped, and how much time was left before the sun went down.
His cell phone began to vibrate in his pocket. Shit! Thought Brandon, Christ I’m an idiot. He had forgotten about his cell phone. It was probably Mark calling to find out why he was so late. Brandon used his teeth to pull the glove off of his right hand. He lifted his body as high as he could and stretched his arm down, struggling to reach his pocket and his phone. It hurt tremendously but Brandon grimaced and kept on, thinking that the pain would be worth it if he could get his phone and call for help. His hand was on the outside of his pocket and he could feel the phone vibrating. It stopped. He couldn’t quite manage to slip his fingers into the opening of the pocket. He raised his hips and twisted his legs to bring it closer, groaning at the pain in his arm. Tears shrouded his vision. Yes! He thought, as two of his fingers slipped just inside the lip of his pocket. He twisted more, stretched his arm just a bit further. The pain was becoming unbearable, his vision was starting to blur and he thought he might pass out again. I’m so damn close! He cried out in frustration and collapsed to the ground. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” He shouted out loud. He couldn’t get his fingers far enough into his pocket to get a grip on the phone. It started to vibrate again, Mark calling a second time. I wonder if this is an excused absence? He tried a few more times to reach the phone, stretching his arm until he thought his ligaments would tear, but it was no use. His wrist didn’t bend enough, or his fingers weren’t long enough. The only result of his efforts was more pain in his crushed arm. Sweat beads formed on his brow and ran down his face, pooling in the corners of his mouth. He felt sweat on his back as well. He knew that was bad. Living in Minnesota for most of his life Brandon had learned a little about exposure and hypothermia. He knew that sweating was a cooling mechanism, and that it was going to accelerate the speed at which his body temperature dropped and hypothermia set in. That was when he began to be seriously concerned that he might not be found. He began to pay more attention to the temperature, wondering how cold it was and what would happen if he were trapped out over night. His toes had gone completely numb and he began to wiggle them and frantically kick his legs, trying to stimulate blood flow. He shouted again as he watched the light grow dimmer, and watched the apartment windows. He prayed that he would see someone looking out, and wondered why no one had left the building in such a long time. It’s the damn cold, he thought. It’s all old people living here, except me and Sarah, and they never go out when it’s this cold. No one is going to walk through that door. No one is going to find me. He was growing desperate. He tried, once, to lift the truck with his own strength, reaching across with his right hand and pushing up on the rim. There was no effect, but the rusty edge cut into his exposed palm and he cursed the truck.
He was starting to feel cold all over his body now, deep inside, and he was shivering. He thought about all of the stories he had heard of people caught outside in blizzards. All the people who survived managed to either find shelter or just keep warm by constantly moving. It was the ones who stopped moving, the drunk people who lay down and fell asleep that were found stiff and frozen the next morning. He tried to keep kicking his legs and swinging his arm around to generate warmth, but after a few minutes he was too exhausted to continue. He thought that being pinned against the cold ground was the worst part of his situation. The snow and ice and frozen asphalt were leeching away all of his warmth. He wondered what time it was. He started humming a song to himself. Time passed. The sun, shrouded by clouds, drifted through the sky, lower and lower, closer to the horizon. The light faded, the temperature dropped. Brandon’s eyelids began to flicker closed.
The street lights in the parking lot buzzed to life, casting an orange glow over the scene. The electric hum startled Brandon. He jumped and his eyes fluttered open. He had been asleep. Oh God, oh no. Please help me, please Jesus, help me stay awake. He lifted his head and checked the windows again. His movements were becoming sluggish and slow, as if every part of his body was twice as heavy as it should be. He was shivering more violently than before, his teeth clacking audibly together. His entire body was growing numb, and he couldn’t feel his feet at all. I’m going to lose my toes if I survive this. I guess that’s not the worst thing that could happen. A thought occurred to him, something that made him want to chuckle and grimace in horror at the same time. What would happen to his junk? He shifted his body, rubbing his groin on the ground, trying to stimulate some sensation. Can you get frostbite on your dick? He started shouting again. “Help me! Can anyone hear me? Help me, I’m dying!”
His shouts were quieter than they had been, and the wind was stronger. It was almost full dark. The only light was the orange glow of the street lights. His thoughts turned to his wife, his beautiful Sarah. He wondered where she was. He wondered if he would ever see her again. The thought that he might not survive this event became, for the first time, a real possibility. His face contorted into a mask of grief and he began to weep. His tears were not of pain or frustration or fear, but from mourning. He realized, for the first time, that he might not get to speak to his wife again, or hold her. No one was going to find him, he was going to lie outside all night, broken and bleeding, and probably die. His ankles were itchy. He shifted his legs around, trying to scratch the sensation away with his shoes. He thought about Henry, his unborn son. He would never get to meet Henry. He would never get to read books to him, or show him how Mars was a different color than the other stars. The itch spread from his ankles to his toes and the soles of his feet. He began to squirm in discomfort, legs writhing. He used his left foot to push his right shoe mostly free, then kicked it away. He reached under his body with his free hand and started to unzip his jacket. Why is everything so hot? I’ve got to get this damn jacket off, I can’t breathe!
Somewhere in the middle of town a car peeled out, tires squealing against pavement. The sound was unexpected, unwelcome, and its intrusion into his silent world of introspection shocked Brandon briefly back to his senses. He opened his eyes and realized what he was doing, that he was now missing both of his shoes and was trying to pull his coat off. Oh my God, he thought, this is it. This is the end. Please help me God, Jesus, please don’t let me die.
A thought flashed through Brandon’s mind. He had heard stories about situations like this. He remembered hearing, not long ago, about a rock climber trapped under a boulder. The climber had managed to escape somehow, had gone home to his family. Brandon gasped, eyes widening. He was breathing heavily, not shivering anymore, which he knew was a bad sign. He had little time left before his organs began to shut down, but now he knew that he could do it. He could get free. He had had the means of releasing himself the entire time, right there in his pocket. He reached down, slowly and carefully, into his pocket. He had to guess whether or not the box cutter was in his grasp, because he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. He extracted it and brought it up to his face, a little rectangle of dull steel. He pressed the bottom tab against his chin and the blade popped out of its protective sheath. The blade, a small wedge of razor sharp metal, gleamed orange. He smiled and thought, this is it baby, this is how I get free. I’m coming home all day, Sarah baby, okay? I’m gonna get home, and gonna have a boy, a truckle, and the seasy horses, and we’ll sleep in the garden… He was becoming delirious. He could feel control of his own thoughts slipping away, and knew he had to act immediately. He grasped the box cutter firmly in his fist, reached across his chest and plunged the blade into the flesh of his right shoulder. The blade was sharp and it cut cleanly through his thin leather jacket and through his skin. He moaned at the pain, but it seemed dull, muted, far away. He pulled the blade down, slicing through muscle and tissue. Blood pumped freely from the open wound, and what little body heat he had left evaporated in the cold air. He sawed the blade back and forth, cutting deeper into his own flesh, wanting to scream. He held an image of his wife and son in his mind, and bit down on his tongue. He pulled the blade down again and it connected with bone. In his hypothermic stupor Brandon didn’t understand that, without a tourniquet, cutting his arm would just kill him faster, and he hadn’t counted on the bone. The blade of the box cutter was never sharp or strong enough to cut through bone.
His last effort to save himself had been futile. He was exhausted, cold beyond the point of shivering, beyond the point of pain. He let go of the box cutter and laid his head down, resting his forehead on his arm. There was no pain anymore, just numbness.
He thought about his wife, Sarah, with her beautiful eyes and dark hair, her gorgeous smile that spread across her entire face, her sweet voice that sounded just like it had when she was seventeen. He thought about Henry, his son, and wondered what he would look like. He wondered if Sarah would find Henry a new dad, someone to take care of him and do the things that Brandon should have done. He closed his eyes. He waited. He wondered what death was going to feel like.
He was getting warmer, and the world was getting brighter. He was in a different place now, a room with lights and heat. He was rescued. He was with Sarah, and he went home with her and he saw his son and he held them both and he kissed them both, and he was happy, and the light started to fade, and he fell asleep. He was smiling. He was dead.