Steve climbed through what used to be the front windshield. Shards of glass scattered out over the mud and melting snow, looking like gleaming chunks of peanut brittle. He stood and looked at everything around him. Rolling knolls of powder, the tall evergreen forest crowding both sides of the two-lane highway, drooping branches weighted with snow, the flipped over Ford Bronco, its rusted back end nestled on a drift just off the highway. Still morning hours, the shade from the dense canopy overhead gave the whole landscape a blue tint, turning deeper purple further into the woods, the same coloring as the wet asphalt. And above, the slow-swaying treetops scratched at a pale sky.
“Jesus, are you okay?” said a man wearing a worn-out cap, its brim splitting open in places. He walked toward Steve, his high black rubber boots sounding off, his truck idling a few yards away.
Steve looked down at his jeans, bent his knees. He felt his forehead with a gloved hand and looked at the glove. “I think so.”
“I was right behind you. You flipped over like a shit-out-of-luck turtle.”
“My brother,” Steve said, looking down the gradual slope of the highway. “He’s in front of me.”
“If you can walk, go sit in my truck where it’s warm,” the man said.
Steve moved quickly and climbed into the passenger seat. He took off his gloves and placed his colorless hands over the vents blowing out the hot, forced air. The stench of decades-long cigarette smoke had absorbed into the carpet and cloth bench seat.
The man in the worn-out cap squatted near the Bronco’s busted out windshield and peered into the vehicle. Then he walked back toward his truck, slowly shaking his head. He climbed in behind the steering wheel and gripped it like they were moving. “That roll cage saved you from getting squashed like a tortilla.”
“I was driving, slow, and my brother said the road was plowed, and then I’m upside down. Like that.”
“Black ice,” the man said. “You sixteen, seventeen?”
“Where you from?”
“I guess you don’t drive in icy conditions there much, huh?”
“I was helping out my brother.” Steve talked fast, as if detailing what had happened to a first responder. He explained how his older brother woke him when it was still dark out, needing his help picking up the Bronco a few hours away. Steve’s older brother wanted to restore the old SUV, which he got for cheap, but the owner needed him to be at his place at seven that morning, or else he’d sell it to another buyer. Steve had wanted to toast a few waffles before they left, but they didn’t have time. His older brother raced them out of town and soon climbed into a looming canyon of pines cut by the narrow highway. On the way back, Steve drove the Bronco because it was an automatic.
“Why wasn’t your brother following you instead of me?”
Steve pointed down the highway. “He was just up there. I saw his taillights.”
“I guess we can chase him down.”
Steve looked out the windshield.
The man added, “That rusted turtle’s not going anywhere, and it’s well off the road.”
“I could see him.”
“I didn’t see anyone in front of you, but we’ll catch him, if we can.” The man began driving slowly and coughed and then sped up. “Want one?” He lit a cigarette and offered one to Steve, who held his, rolling it between his fingers while staring out the windshield. “If you were my little brother, I’d been following you, especially since I knew you couldn’t handle black ice.” The highway dipped and rose again. Down another gradual slope, there were no signs of other vehicles far ahead. After a few more miles, the man blew out some smoke in exasperation. “He’s gone, gone, gone.”
“He drives fast,” Steve said. “We can stop at a pay phone somewhere. I’ll call my parents.”
“I’m going up 5, so I can drop you off in Redding,” the man said. He cracked his window and let the wind empty out the smoky cab and whip away the cigarette’s ash.
“Everything’s blue,” Steve said.
“Snow’s white not blue. Maybe you hit your noggin. Your vision’s damaged? Maybe you’re still in shock?” The wind took the cigarette’s stub, too. The man rolled up the window. “I’m messing with you. But you’ll see. Before long, with the sun moving high to noon, it’ll be so fucking white out you’ll have to squint.”
“I’m hungry,” Steve said.
“Yes, sir, so am I. I know a place off the highway some miles up that serves goddamn proper waffles, not those frozen, toasty kind.”
Steve looked over at the man and nodded. “Sounds good.”
Around a gradual curve, a car was coming from the other direction. A Camero. “Is that him? Looking for his cheap-ass deal?”
The Camero got closer. Steve bent over and rubbed at the top of his wet sock. “I think I banged up my ankle. It’s starting to hurt a little.” Steve remained bent over, rubbing his damp skin under the sock until the sound of the car passed by. When he sat up again, he said, “I think I can walk, though.” Steve didn’t bother turning and looking out the small back windshield. The man gave him a sideways glance. “Oh, no, that wasn’t my brother,” Steve said quickly.
“Sure,” the man said in a long drawl. “Well, I bet the fucker’s back in Redding by now, snoozing it up, right?” He smiled broadly. “But he’ll have to deal with that sorry-piece-of-shit turtle sooner than later, thanks to you.”
The sun rose higher in the sky and the shadows at the edge of the forest dwindled. Soon they pulled into the wet parking lot of the small diner surrounded by tall trees.
“You’re right,” Steve said. “Everything’s white now.”