The shrill ring of the phone caused Gina to jump in her seat. She fumbled for the receiver, almost dropping it twice, before bringing it to her ear.
“Hello, welcome to Solergeni. You’re speaking with–”
“Gina!” Rob’s voice barked down the receiver, making her jump again. “Where’s that delivery boy? The Demo’s in an hour.”
“Yes. Sorry, sir. Um. He hasn’t come yet to pick up the–”
“What? What do you mean he hasn’t picked it up yet?”
“Well, uh, I’m still wait–”
“He’s meant to be here already. I need to set up for this thing. How are we going to sell this product, if we can’t show people that it works?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Well then, do something, Gina! Fix this.”
“Yes, of cour–”
The line went dead before she could finish. Gina put the phone down for a moment, then dialed the number for the courier. He didn’t answer, so she left a message, but she couldn’t bring herself to call Rob back. She was spared the trouble. A moment later, the phone rang again. Gina jumped, but answered it quickly, hoping it was the courier returning her message. It wasn’t.
“Gina. Is he on his way?”
“Dammit, Gina! I told you to fix this. Can’t you do anything?”
“No, I mean, yes. I’ll–”
“Sort it out!” He was gone again and Gina put the receiver back down slowly.
Her eyes went to the clock on the wall. The demo was in an hour; that was just enough time to make it across town, but only if the courier arrived now. She looked out the window hopefully, but saw no sign of his van.
Standing up, Gina grabbed her jacket and purse. Rob wanted her to fix things. Fine, she would fix them. If the courier wasn’t going to show up, she’d take him the stuff herself. The box of product and all the demo gear sat by the door, ready to be collected. Gina picked it up, struggling to wrap her arms around the awkward size, and still maintain her balance, but she managed to get out the door to across the lot to her car. The box only just fit in the back of her beat up old Corolla, but in less than five minutes, she was away.
Fresh snow piled up either side of the road, clogging the gutters and making everything blindingly bright. The road itself was mostly clear, but still slippery, as Gina found out when she rounded a corner a little too fast. There wasn’t time to slow down, though. She bounced around another corner and stomped on the brake as red tail lights appeared in front of her. Gina stretched up in her see to see past the car in front. All the cars had stopped, the lane was completely blocked.
Gina slammed her steering wheel and turned the car in a sharp U, zooming back the other way and up a side road. She made several more turns, only half sure of where she was going. She usually made the trip to and from work via the same route each day. The side roads were unfamiliar to her. Her cell phone began to ring, and she didn’t have to look at the screen to know it would be Rob. She let it go to voicemail and drove as fast as she dared. He would be angry that she ignored his call, but he would forget that when she arrived with the items he needed. She couldn’t be far off now.
She rounded another corner and screamed. A white car, almost invisible against the snowy backdrop, appeared in front of her. Gina wrenched on the wheel and her car jerked to the side. Its tyres hit a patch of black ice and she felt the vehicle slip out of her control. She pulled on the steering wheel, but the car continued to slide. The nose hit a bank and the whole car slammed to a sudden halt. Gina was thrown forwards, her seat belt snapping tight across her chest, but not quick enough to stop her head smacking against the steering wheel.
Gina leaned back, dazed. She blinked twice, then her eyes slid closed and she slumped.
* * *
When Gina opened her eyes, the sky outside was dark. There were no street lamps to light the road, and not even any houses to throw some small glow over the area. Her car was freezing and she shuddered suddenly. She looked around, confused, before remembering the crash, and her reason for being on the road in the first place. Fumbling in the dark for her phone, she checked the time. 10pm. Gina whimpered. She thought about calling Rob, but there was no signal on her phone.
She reached for the keys to try and restart the car, but then a sound came from outside. Gina froze, eyes peering through the darkness. The sound came again; voices. Male voices. Angry male voices. She couldn’t make out their words, but it was clear they were fighting. Her heart jumped and she jammed the locks down on the doors. The voices grew louder, slurred beyond recognition. Gina saw shapes moving in the darkness outside. With a yelp, she flicked on her headlights. One of the bulbs was smashed and buried in the bank, but the other flared up, illuminating three men, staggering around. The two bigger ones appeared to be delivering a beating to the third. As the light hit them, they pulled back and raised their hands to shield their eyes. One shouted something and started forwards. Gina squealed and thumped down on her horn, blasting it. The two attackers turned and ran, but when the third tried to follow them, he fell to the ground, one arm wrapped around his stomach.
Gina released her horn, her breathing heavy. Her eyes scanned the darkness beyond the reach of her headlight, hoping the men wouldn’t come back. There was little to see. Clouds blocked the sky, snow covered the ground. To either side she saw only the dark trunks of trees. She didn’t remember any forested areas near town. Her gaze turned back to the third man, still on the ground. He tried to get up again, but it was clear he couldn’t walk. She bit her lip. She knew she shouldn’t get out of the car. This clearly wasn’t a safe part of town. But nor could she just abandon him. She could call an ambulance! Gina grabbed her phone again, before remembering there was no signal. She tried dialling the emergency number anyway, just in case, but the call didn’t go through. Maybe she could go and get someone, instead.
She tried to start the car, and after three failed attempts, the engine finally came to life. Gina reversed, carefully, back onto the road, worried at first that her car would be stuck, and sighing with relief that it wasn’t.
The man seemed to have given up on standing, and was now attempting to crawl across the frozen ground. Gina bit her lip again. He was a stranger, and she was alone. But he was alone too, and it was snowing outside. If she left him, he would likely freeze before help could get to him. Pulling up beside him, Gina turned the car off and hopped out. The blast of cold air that hit her nearly knocked the wind out of her. She was instantly shivering, as she hobbled over to the man, in heels that were not built to deal with icy ground. It took her a moment to realise she wasn’t walking on tarseal.
“Um, excuse me.” She stopped short of actually touching him. “Uh. Do you need a ride?”
The man rolled onto his back and looked up at her. He had several cuts on his face that were already starting to swell.
“Miss, you must run. A beast stalks these woods. It heard it roar.”
“What? No, just, look, just get in the car, please. You need to go to the hospital, and I probably do, too. So I’ll take you, okay?”
He stared at her like they didn’t speak the same language, then his eyes followed her hands to the car.
“Just get in the car, okay?” She opened the door and motioned inside again.
Eventually, he seemed to understand, and began pulling himself towards it. Gina grabbed him under one arm and helped him up. The stink of beer on him was almost overpowering. She took small comfort in it, telling herself that if he did turn out to be a psychopath, he was probably too drunk to hurt her.
Once he was in, she ran around the car to jump back in the driver’s side and start the engine. The man jumped, his arms flailing as it switched on.
“What demon?” he shouted. “You’ve put me in the belly of a terrible monster.”
Gina chuckled. “Bloody hell. You’re completely smashed, aren’t you?”
He stared at her again, but seemed to calm down.
“Do you know how to get to the hospital from here?” Another blank stare. “Right.”
She followed the road for another ten minutes before they reached a group of shops and houses. Most were dark, but one building had a lamp on the porch. Gina pulled over.
“I’m just going to ask for directions. Stay here, okay?”
He didn’t reply, so she took that as a yes, and hopped out of the car again. Fingers tucked into her armpits, she ran up the front steps and banged on the building’s door. A glance at the orange lamp told her it wasn’t a bulb, but an actual flame. The door opened, and Gina was greeted by a middle-aged woman in a dressing gown, carrying another little flame lamp.
“Hi, um, I’m a bit lost, sorry. I crashed my car and I’m trying to find the hospital.”
The woman’s eyes widened as she took her in. “My dear, what are you doing? You’ll catch your death out here.” She grabbed Gina’s arm and pulled her inside.
Gina tried to protest, but her voice was drowned out by the drunk, stumbling out of her car and collapsing on the pavement with a loud groan.
The woman gasped. “Jonah. Jonah, fetch the physician. Brian, help me.”
Two young men rushed down the stairs. The younger of the two — he couldn’t be more than fifteen — sprinted down the street, boots crunching in the snow. The older one approached the drunk and grabbed him under the arm, heaving him to his feet with surprising strength. The woman took his other arm, even though it wasn’t really necessary, and together they brought him inside.
“Oh, Rolf,” the woman clucked. “Fighting again? When will you learn to hold your tongue around men bigger, and drunker, than you?”
“Um. Should I just–?”
“You wait right there, dear,” the woman said. Gina nodded meekly and tried to disappear into the wall.
The younger of the two boys arrived back with an older man in tow. He took one look at the drunk sprawled across the table, now snoring slightly, and set down his bag. The woman busied herself with lighting lamps — each one by hand, with a long match — before turning back to Gina.
“Now, what’s your name, dear? Call me Margaret.”
“Uh, Gina. I–”
“All right, dear. Don’t you worry now. Physician Aldrich will take care of Rolf, and then he can take a look at that bump on your head, too. Why don’t I set up a room you?”
“Oh, no. I can’t stay. I have to get home. My phone’s got no signal, and my boss–”
“Nonsense, dear. You can’t go out in this cold. At least stay until the morning. I insist.”
“Oh, um. Okay,” Gina mumbled as Margaret bundled her towards the stairs.
Continue: Part 2: Cold As Ice