Disclaimers- While the characters in this story may resemble some we know and love from a certain TV show, they are my own.
Violence - Not this time.
Subtext - You bet, but nothing graphic...
Sounds kind of boring so far, doesn't it?
About the story: You've probably never heard of it before, but Tupelo Oklahoma is a real place: http://www.pe.net/~rksnow/okcountytupelo.htm. Shamrock Texas is, too, and they boast a lively annual St. Patrick's Day celebration and Texas's tallest water tower. They also have a piece of the famous Blarney Stone located in Elmore Park. There is a truck stop located four miles east of Shamrock on I-40, but it's called the Longhorn, I'm afraid. Are you getting excited yet? Yeah, well, so much for the geography lesson. As far as I know, there is no East Bay Symphony. Thanks go out to Jill (not a doctor, but way cool anyway) and Ellen (the best editor I could have) for all their help as betas. I also appreciate the assistance from the wonderful members of the Bardic Circle and the Bard's Village.
This one is for Kate.
I welcome any and all feedback. My email address is: email@example.com
(A Work in Progress)
by Leslie Ann Miller
Dale gripped the steering wheel of her old Dodge pickup with white knuckles, trying desperately to maintain control on the icy highway. She'd hit the storm twenty minutes ago, but now the freezing rain was turning to snow, and her headlights were lost in a blinding flurry of white. Hello? If anyone is listening…I know I said I wished I was dead a few hours ago, but I take it back, now! Please, please let me get out of this okay!
While she hoped that the snow would provide more traction than the ice, it made it almost impossible to see. She couldn't even see the lights of the tractor-trailer she was following, and she knew the big truck couldn't be too far ahead. She kept her foot steady on the accelerator anyway, knowing that even with the sandbags in back, she had less traction than a regular car, and if she pulled over now, she might get stuck permanently.
"How did I get myself into this?" she groaned out loud, wishing she'd taken the advice of the service station attendant in Elk City. He'd warned her that a bad winter storm was making its way across the Texas panhandle. He'd suggested she stop for the night, but she thought she'd be able to make it to Amarillo. "I'm such an idiot!" At the time, the only thought in her mind had been to get out of Oklahoma, to get as far away from home as she could... Tears blinded her for the umpteenth time that day, but she thought bleakly that it hardly mattered now considering that the blowing snow made her vision effectively useless anyway.
The break in the snow came unexpectedly, and suddenly she could see the lights of the rig in front of her some quarter of a mile ahead, plowing along determinedly. She decided to speed up in the hopes of catching it while she could still see, so she might be able to follow its lights when the snow got worse, and she couldn't see the road as well. When her rear end fishtailed on the slick road, she panicked and instinctively hit the brakes, remembering too late that this was the worst possible thing she could do. The truck spun wildly, ignoring her desperate attempt to bring it under control again, and slid across the shoulder and plunged down an embankment.
Dale watched helplessly as she headed straight for a tree. She hit it with smashing force, and while her seatbelt caught her body before she slammed into the steering wheel, her face still hit the top of the wheel, knocking her senseless.
When she finally opened her eyes again, she wondered why her whole body ached and her face hurt. She felt a trickle of warmth running down her upper lip and tasted blood in her mouth.
"Oh, God," she groaned, gradually becoming aware of her surroundings.
She took a few deep breaths and tried to calm her rising panic. The front windshield was just beginning to freeze from the falling snow, so she knew she couldn't have been out too long. Only one headlight appeared to be working, but she could see that the driver's side of the hood was crumpled where it struck the tree. Snow was beginning to fall heavily again. The engine was dead and refused to start when she tried it.
Great, just great. There is probably one tree in the entire Texas Panhandle, and I, of course, managed to hit it. "This sucks!" she shouted at the dark nothingness surrounding her. Without the engine running, it was going to get cold quickly. She started to search her pockets for her gloves, then noticed the startling amount of blood staining the front of her coat. She grabbed a rag from under the seat that she usually used to check her oil and gingerly blotted at her nose.
Two days before Christmas, it's nine o'clock at night in the middle of nowhere during a winter storm. My nose is probably broken again, and in all likelihood I'm going to celebrate my first white Christmas as a human Popsicle.
She laughed grimly, wincing from the pain as she touched her nose. It felt like her whole face was on fire. On the bright side, at least I have plenty of cold stuff to keep the swelling down. Joy to the world.
A tap on the frosty window by her ear nearly made her jump out of her skin.
"Hello? Anybody in there? Are you all right?" a man's voice called from outside. The beam of a flashlight shone through the window, and a hand tried to wipe the snow away.
Dale took a deep breath, hoping against hope that this would be a rescue rather than a rape - and wouldn't that be a fitting end to the worst day of her life - and unlocked the door. "Yeah, I'm here!" she said, trying to push the door open. It wouldn't budge.
"Are you hurt?" the man asked.
"Just my nose! I think I'm okay otherwise!" Yeah, right.
"Can you move to the other side of the truck? I don't think this door is going to open!"
Dale looked at the bags stacked beside her. Almost everything she owned in the world was stuffed into the space: her backpack, camping gear, textbooks, laptop, clothes, and her beloved teddy bear, Grizz, perched on the very top with his head scraping the roof. She could hardly see the door, much less reach it. "I can't get to it from here!" she shouted back. "I've got too much stuff on the seat!"
She watched as the flashlight moved around the back of the truck to the other side. A moment later a cold blast of wind rushed through the cab as the man pulled the passenger side door open.
"Jeez, looks like you’re moving!" the man said, poking his head in past Grizz.
"Yeah, well..." Dale muttered. "Can you get some of these things out of here so I can get out?" She grabbed Grizz, setting him on the dashboard, and jammed her hands into her pockets to find her gloves. She put on her hat and scarf and tried to get bundled up as the man began pulling her things from the cab. "Just a sec," she said, catching the laptop before he could move it. He’d cleared her backpack, so she took out some of her summer blouses and replaced them with the computer, careful to wrap it up in a towel. She zipped the pack closed and pushed it towards the man. "If you can get that out, I think I can follow," she tried to smile, but that made her nose hurt.
The man grinned at her sympathetically and pulled the pack out by its straps. Dale crawled across the seat, and, with the man helping her, managed to extricate herself. She stood up shakily, hoping her legs would hold up as the freezing wind buffeted her.
"How ya doin’?" the man asked, his voice raised to be heard above the wind, keeping a steadying hand on her arm.
Dale swallowed and nodded, pulling her hat down further as the blowing snow stung her exposed face. "I’m all right!"
The man gestured at her things scattered about in the snow. "Do you want to take any of this?" he asked. "You might be stuck a while."
She considered briefly and decided to take her pack. It had clothes and toiletries as well as her computer. "My pack!" she told him, reaching for the straps.
"Do ya want me to get it?" he asked, helping her pick it up.
Normally, she might have been offended by the offer – men always seemed to assume she was too small and fragile to carry her own weight – but it was tempting tonight. Her legs felt like noodles, and she was shaking from more than just the cold, but her pride wouldn’t allow it. She shook her head. "No, thanks, I can get it."
"Okay!" he said with a knowing grin. He held the pack while she shrugged into the shoulder harness and buckled the straps around her waist. He then began picking up her other bags and putting them back in the cab while Dale held the flashlight for him. When he was done, she locked the door and slammed it closed.
Dale slipped twice climbing up the embankment despite her good hiking boots and once caught herself painfully on her wrist and elbow. Each time the man helped her back to her feet and steadied her with an arm. She couldn't remember when she'd ever felt so weak and unstable. It's your nose that's broken, kiddo, not your legs! Make 'em work! When they got to the top, she looked around for the lights of a vehicle, but saw none.
The man looked at her through the swirling flakes illuminated by the flashlight. "We've got a bit of a walk! I saw you go off in my rear view mirror, but I didn't want to risk backing up. Can you make it?"
She realized he must be the driver of the truck she'd been following. A quarter of a mile ahead, wasn't that how far he'd been? A quarter of a mile... three blocks. I can do that! She nodded, not trusting her voice in the wind.
Dale’s face and ears felt like they were frozen by the time they spotted the lights of the truck up ahead, and she felt numb in both body and spirit.
"Almost there!" the man said encouragingly in her ear.
Five minutes later, Dale settled herself on the warm seat, one arm resting protectively on her backpack, thankful to be alive and in one more or less unfrozen piece. The driver pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and dialed a number.
"Yeah, this is John Kissling, I called a little while ago about a wreck on I-40... Yeah, yeah, I got to her okay... Just one person. Hit a tree at the bottom of a slope. Well, she's pretty shook up, and she's got a bit of a bloody nose, but I think that's about it. Her truck's not going anywhere, so I thought I'd drop her off at Charlene's place... Uh-huh, no, I don't think you need to send anyone tonight. All right, will do." He looked at Dale. "I'm talkin' to the Shamrock Sheriff's department. They want to know your tag number."
Dale nodded, more to herself than to John. They probably wanted to know so if someone else reported the wreck, they wouldn't send anybody out looking for her. She told him the license number, and he repeated it carefully to whoever was on the other end.
When he was done, the trucker turned off the phone with a beep and turned to Dale. "When I called ‘em before, they said it would take a while to get someone out here. Apparently there's been a big wreck twelve miles west of Shamrock, and most of their folks are off in that direction. Weather's real bad. Guess the highway patrol has closed most of I-40 across the panhandle, now. Heard they closed it at Elk City about half an hour after I went through."
"I can't thank you enough for helping me," Dale said earnestly. "I was really lucky you saw me. "
The burly man grinned at her. "No problem. Shamrock's a few miles ahead. I was plannin' on stoppin' at the Four Leaf Truck Stop. They've got a wrecker and a good mechanic. Should be able to pull you out soon as the weather clears."
Dale nodded, wondering if there would be anything left worth repairing. And if she couldn't repair her truck; what was she going to do? Trapped for life in Shamrock, Texas. Oh, well, couldn't be any worse than Tupelo, Oklahoma. Fa la la la la, la, la, la, la!
"Unless you need me to try to get you to the Shamrock hospital?" John asked thoughtfully, looking at her face with a frown.
Dale shook her head. The last thing she wanted to do was add a medical bill onto whatever it was going to cost to get her truck fixed. "I’ll be fine," she said glumly, wondering if she could even afford to pay the deductible on her car insurance.
"Okay," the trucker shrugged. "If you're going to pick a place to get snowed in, Charlene's place is as good as any."
Fifteen minutes and a few miles later, Dale found herself being helped out of the cab of the huge truck now parked beneath the brightly lit sign of the Four Leaf Truck Stop, proudly displaying the bright green image of a four leaf clover still visible through the heavy snowfall. The truck stop was a sprawling complex with a huge truck island, gas station, repair shop, trading post, and restaurant. It was fairly crowded with holiday travelers, all apparently stranded by the storm.
Dale shivered as she shouldered her backpack and tramped through the deepening snow beside John as he headed for the restaurant.
Warm air hit her face along with the cheerful strains of "Jingle Bells" as John pulled open the restaurant door. Dale stomped the snow off her boots on the doormat and looked around for a place to sit. Now that she was someplace safe and warm, she realized she was exhausted. Several of the customers looked up at her curiously - probably because of the blood covering her face and front - and she was dismayed to note that every single one of the seats was already filled.
Beside her, John grunted and caught the arm of a passing waitress. "Where's Charlene?"
The waitress smiled, then noticed Dale. "Oh gosh, sweetie, what happened to you?"
Dale tried to smile, forgetting how much that hurt, and ended up grimacing instead. "Slid off the road...and...uh...I think my face hit the steering wheel."
"You poor thing! Charlene's over in the Trading Post. The motel is full, so she's setting up some cots in back for two couples with small children. But you look like you could use a place to take a load off, too. Why don't you go on over and introduce yourself." With another smile and a nod at John, she headed for a table, water pitcher in hand.
"Come on, youngster," John grinned down at her. "Let's go find her."
"If you want to stay here, I'm sure I can make it on my own," Dale said, not wishing to inconvenience him further.
"Don't be silly." He pushed open the door again and held it open for her. "I got you this far, I won't turn you loose until you're in Charlene's hands. She'll know what to do for that nose of yours, no doubt."
Dale hated being fussed over, but she didn't want to offend the man who had very probably saved her life, so she allowed herself to be escorted through the bitter cold to the Trading Post.
The front entrance displayed a "CLOSED" sign, and it was locked, so John led her around to the back entrance. He tried the handle, and it opened. Cautiously, he poked his head in. "Charlene?" he called.
Dale heard a muffled voice answer from within, and John grabbed her arm and pulled her through the door behind him.
A silver haired woman wearing an apron came around a corner, a worried expression on her face. When she recognized John she smiled broadly. "John! Heading home for Christmas?"
He nodded and turned to pull Dale to the front. "Charlene, this is…" he stopped, realizing she’d never told him her name.
"Dale," she supplied on cue, hugging herself as if that might help her warm up. "Dale Philpot."
"She went off the road about five miles back, and you can see she’s made a mess of her face," John continued without missing a beat. "She didn’t want to go to the hospital, and I promised the sheriff’s office I’d deliver her into your good hands."
Charlene laughed and wiped her hands on her apron. "You’re just looking for an excuse to pester me, John, but this time I forgive you." She looked Dale over with a critical eye.
"Really, I’m fine," Dale said, miserably. "I…I just need someplace to sit down and warm up more than anything, but I can do that in the restaurant…"
"Nonsense," Charlene said with a frown. "You’re shaking like a leaf, and no wonder. Did you lose consciousness when you hit your head?"
"I… I think so. Maybe," Dale said uncertainly.
"You really ought to go to the hospital," Charlene said.
"No!" Dale said equally firmly. "Really, I’ve broken my nose before; I know how to deal with it."
"It’s not your nose I’m worried about," Charlene said. "I have two sons who played football and a daughter who played lacrosse, so I know concussions aren’t anything to mess around with. Do you have a headache?"
Dale nodded. In fact, her whole head was throbbing so hard it was a wonder nobody else could hear it pounding.
"You need to go to a hospital," Charlene repeated, cocking her head with a frown.
It wasn’t exactly a stare down, because Dale continued looking at her boots, but she was painfully aware that Charlene was frowning at her speculatively.
"Very well," the woman finally conceded. "I can’t force you to be sensible, but I am sending you to my house."
Dale’s head popped up at that, and she began to protest, but Charlene held her hand up to stop her.
"No ifs, ands, or buts about it, young lady. There’s a good chance you’ve got a concussion as well as a broken nose, and I need someone I can trust to look after you. I’m not going to have you pass out somewhere on my property where you might not get help right away." She smiled to soften her tone. "Besides, you need someplace warm and quiet to spend the night, and this is not the place to do that."
"But…!" Dale began.
Charlene shook her head. "What did I say? No buts!"
John squeezed Dale’s shoulder. "Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, youngster."
He sounded so much like her father that tears filled her eyes. She knew when she was defeated. "Thank you, Charlene," she said quietly.
A phone call later, and Charlene’s son, Lance, arrived to pick her up in the Four Leaf Truck Stop tow truck. He brushed the snow out of his short, sandy hair as Charlene introduced him to Dale.
Dale gave John a hug and thanked him again for rescuing her, and then Charlene was ushering her back out into the cold with Lance. "And don’t forget to bring back those extra cots," she told him on his way out.
Lance laughed and helped Dale into the cab, then climbed in behind the wheel. He grinned at her as he pulled out of the Trading Post parking lot. "So, Mom’s taken you under her wing, eh?" he asked.
His grin was infectious, and Dale found herself trying to smile back at him, despite the pain. "Yeah, I guess so. I must look pretty pathetic, huh?"
"Looks like you’re going to have a couple of nice black eyes in the morning," he nodded. He whistled as they pulled away from the lighted truck stop, heading away from the highway. "Damn, can’t see a thing, can you? Good thing I know the way!" He glanced at her again with a reassuring smile. "It’s only about a mile down the road. I have to get back to the Stop after I drop you off, but my sister, Augusta, is there. She’s visiting for Christmas, but I’m sure she’ll help get you settled in. Ummm… she can seem a bit…aloof, sometimes, but don’t let that bother you. She’s got a heart of gold. And if she gives you any trouble, just remember that when she was six, she decided to go visit Mom at work by riding her pony all the way from the house to the Stop, and she didn’t have a stitch of clothing on! Created quite the stir, let me tell you."
Dale chuckled at the thought of a child showing up naked on a pony at the busy truck stop. Then she started to wonder why he would tell her such a story. What did he mean by "aloof?" Lance and his mother were two of the warmest people she’d ever met.
She felt no small amount of trepidation when the truck finally pulled into a long driveway leading to a mid-sized, one-story house being slowly buried in the snow.
"Here we are!" Lance said cheerfully.
Oh boy! Dale thought to herself sarcastically, wondering if it might not have been preferable to take the human Popsicle option over spending time with the "aloof" sister who warranted a warning to strangers. Here goes nothing.
continued in part 2