PROLOGUE: DECEMBER 19
Dan walked down Wright Street with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his coat. It was getting cold and the wind sliced through his body like a dagger. Already, the sawhorses stood, blocking the doors of the buildings. The perfect guards . They all solemnly repeated the same message in black and white.
It was the second day of winter break. No appreciable snow had fallen yet, but some was in the forecast. Dan gritted his teeth and squinted into the wind whistling through the buildings. It was odd, not seeing anyone on the quad, or on the streets. It was if everyone was dead and he was the last man on Earth. The thought appealed to him.
The six block walk to his hall left him numb and the heat of the building hit him like a solid wall. The heat hurt his face as he was unwillingly defrosted. He trudged up the eight short flights of stairs (four stories) and went into his room.
John was almost ready to go . All of his belongings were stashed inside his closet except for a crate of things he was taking home with him. Dan’s things were still scattered around the room which now looked much larger than before.
“Have you changed your mind?” Dan shook his head . John had been trying to get him to take the bus back to Chicago with him for two weeks, but Dan refused each time he asked. He didn’t want to be with John for the four hours it took to get home. Instead he was going with a few of his friends in a couple of days. One had a car and it was only going to cost him a couple of bucks for gas. It was cheaper and would be more enjoyable than a bus ride. Either way, there wouldn’t be anything at home except arguments. Dan was in no hurry to leave.
John picked up his crate and gave his farewell. Dan shrugged and closed the door behind him. He was alone again. He flipped on the TV and scanned the channels. Nothing but commercials and Christmas crap, even on the cable stations. It was disgusting. He grabbed a beer from his stash in the closet. Supposedly, the Administration had carefully selected roommates for their compatibility. Dan had never met anyone as opposite of him as John was. It was true they were both from Chicagoland, they both were in LAS, but beyond that, they had nothing in common. John was one of those people that studying came first. No music, no TV, no nothing, He actually memorized the Fight Songs. Dan had to be careful with his alcohol stash because he knew that John would rat on him to the RA if he found out about it. He was so clean, like someone out of “Leave it to Beaver”. Dan washed away the memories with more beer. Soon he was fast asleep . The TV was still on, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”
It was a blizzard. Snow swirled around as Dan shoved in boxes and other items into the trunk of Jeff’s old Plymouth Horizon while the two others tried to get the car started. The hood was open and snow was trying its best to bury the engine. Steve kept wiping it away as best he could. He looked the car over with what he hoped was a professional eye, actually he had no idea what he was doing. He adjusted the wires to the spark plugs and leaned around the car.
“Try it now” he cried. Jeff turned the key and the car exploded into life. Dan closed the hatchback with a slam that made the car bounce on its shocks. He jumped into the passenger seat and Steve shut the hood and climbed into the back.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Steve, brushing the snow off his coat. Jeff stomped on the accelerator and they were on their way. The snow was getting harder making it difficult to see the road. Steve crawled onto route 57 much to the dismay of Dan.
“Jesus Christ, you’re only doing forty miles an hour! What the hell? There’s nobody on the road!”
“Just shut up, all right?” he yelled back defensively. “I want to get home in one piece and this road is terrible.”
“Well, hurry up, okay?” echoed Steve from behind. Dan rolled his eyes and turned around.
“You have no right to complain, dumb fuck , you and that stupid scooter of yours.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jeff from behind the wheel. “What the hell are you going to do with it?”
“I don ‘t have a car like some people. I need to get around,” he replied. Dan started to laugh at an image of Steve sitting on his little Honda scooter in the middle of winter in Chicago. It brought tears to his eyes.
“Hey man, don’t laugh at me. What are you gonna do with all that booze? Your dad will kill you if he finds it -“
“Who says I’m taking it home?” retorted Dan pulling out a quart of some form of hard alcohol. “Want a drink, Dumbfuck?”
One hour and forty three miles later, it was time to switch drivers. Dan jumped into the driver’s seat and blew on his hands.
“Damn, it’s cold out there.”
“Freeze your balls off, Pilgrim,” cried Steve before dissolving into a fit of giggles. Dan slapped the novice drinker around and hoped the kid didn’t throw up. Dan threw the car in gear and returned to the road. The snow was blowing all over now and every once in a while, the road would disappear up ahead in a wave of white. Behind them, the road had completely disappeared. There were no other cars going either way. Dan wondered for about the hundredth time why he was going home. Because if I don’t, Dad’ll do something stupid like cut off the money or something, He had no choice.
“Hey, get me another beer,” Dan commanded.
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” asked Jeff slowly. “You’ve had quite a bit already -“
“Who are you, my mother?” Jeff sat in silence and Dan drank the beer. A few more miles past and a few more cans of beer were drained. The roads didn’t seem as bad now, Dan figured they were getting close to Kankakee, the halfway point between Champaign and Chicago. It seemed like it was taking forever to get back –
“What are you doing?” screamed Steve. Dan looked up and cursed. They had gotten off the highway. He hadn’t been paying attention and now they would lose more time. The worst part of it was that he couldn’t blame anyone else. Dan hated that feeling. Roaring down a farm road, he looked for a place to turn around. Suddenly, a driveway appeared from out of the snow. Dan turned the wheel, too sharply. The car began to spin.
“Look out!” screamed Steve. Something hit the windshield making a crack in the safety glass. The car collided with a snowbank. Jeff was silent in the back. The accident seemed to put him in shock. Steve was silent, his eyes wide and frightened. Dan regained his wits and put the car into reverse. They turned around.
Steve looked over at him. “Where are you going?”
“I’m turning around so we can get out of here.”
“We better stop and check.”
Dan was getting angry now. Steve was such a wimp. “Why? It was just some stupid animal -“
“Animal?” Steve looked at him with incredulity. “That was no animal…” Dan’s blood drained from his face as he replayed the accident in his mind at a slower speed. Steve finished.
“I think you hit a kid.”
The boy lay in a crumpled heap about twenty feet from the accident site. Steve rolled him over and put his fingers to his neck. Dan stood over him, impatient but a little scared.
“I can’t find a pulse…” Steve put his head to the boy’s chest. There was no heartbeat or breathing. Steve swallowed hard, suddenly sober once more. He moved away from the body and looked up at Dan.
“I think he’s dead.” Dan said nothing, but began edging away. Steve stood up, but couldn’t move any farther.
“Let’s go,” said Dan.
“He’s dead! Let’s get out of here!” Dan was really scared now. Steve just stared at him, still unmoving. The boy was at his feet, unmoving as well.
“Come on!” He dragged Steve to the car. They jumped in. Dan slammed on the gas and the car fishtailed out of the driveway. They got back on the interstate and drove in silence. Jeff was the first to speak.
“Was he -” Steve nodded solemnly. Dan grabbed another can out of the back and opened it with a loud hiss.
“Christ! You’ve just killed someone and you’re still -“ Dan whirled and punched Steve in the mouth. Blood speckled the window. Jeff sat silently in the backseat, watching and trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t aggravate him further.
“Dan, maybe I should drive -“
“No! I’m fine!” he shouted. “You just sit back and enjoy the ride.” Jeff sat back and put his seatbelt on, still watching Dan warily. Dan squinted at the road but his lack of visibility remained. Suddenly, off the road he saw a form. Thinking it was a hitchhiker, he pulled into the right lane to get a closer look.
It was the boy he had killed.
Dan slammed on the gas and the speedometer shot past 85. Jeff tried to grab the wheel and Dan fought with him for control of the car, but neither of them could keep it on the road. The car tumbled and everything went mercifully black.
Dan recovered consciousness and couldn’t figure out where he was. Gravity was wrong. He was being held tightly. He reached out.
“Mom? Are you here?” No answer. Dan opened his eyes and looked around. He was still in the car hanging from his seat belt. There was a pain in his leg and something was blurring his vision. The car was lying on its side about two hundred feet from the shoulder. The wind was blowing in where the windshield had been and snow was already covering the bodies of the others.
Dan crawled out of the wreck and looked around. The land was flat, like most of Central Illinois and with the snow, it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sky began. There was another form lying in the snow near the car. Curious, Dan limped towards it. It was Steve ‘s scooter. It had been thrown off before the car rolled and it was undamaged. Dan picked it up and looked it over. He was about a hundred miles from home, but this looked like his only hope. All he wanted to do was get home now. It was strange. He remembered when he hadn’t wanted to, but now it seemed imperative that he get home.
The scooter wouldn’t start without the key. Swallowing, he staggered back to the car and took the keys from the dead man’s pocket. Looking around the car, he found a six-pack. Dan grabbed that too, he would need something to keep him warm.
The scooter hummed along the highway at nearly fifty miles an hour. Dan was cold, but it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He was sleepy more than anything else. It was hard for him to keep his eyes open, but Dan knew he had to. The miles melted away and Dan’s spirits began to lift. All that had happened today seemed like a dream. Dan laughed a bit and opened a beer. Everything would be all right. He was on the Eisenhower now, almost home. Suddenly, the scooter quit. Dan pulled it over to the shoulder. He was out of gas. Screaming, he threw the useless machine to the ground and started on foot. In minutes, the scooter was buried by the snow.
The Eisenhower was deserted. Dan thought back and realized he hadn’t seen a car the entire day. He looked up and saw the exit sign. He only had a couple of miles now. He was tired, but he wasn’t beaten. He would get home.
Off the expressway, down route 83 into his subdivision, down his street to his house. Dan sighed with relief. He could hear Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, how he loved that song! It was an elixir that gave him a heady thrill.
Dropping his last can in the snow, Dan ran up to the door to knock, but his hand went through the door. Dan stared and pulled his hand away, finally beginning to understand. He turned and saw the boy again and he wasn’t afraid anymore. The boy was beckoning him and this time he obeyed.
Dan’s parents were watching the end of “The Bells of St. Mary” when suddenly his mom turned off the TV and went to the door.
There was nobody there.
“That’s strange,” she explained. “I thought I heard someone calling.”
“It was only the wind,” said his father, closing the door. “It was only the wind.”