He couldn't find it, couldn't find it anywhere, and she was getting more and more agitated with every passing moment. The late-morning sun crept a few more degrees toward noon.
"Just get a goddamn hacksaw or something! I have to pee!"
"I'll never cut through it with a hacksaw! Just let me think!"
"You've been fucking thinking for twenty fucking minutes now." Her voice darkened, her complexion kicked into a deeper shade of red: about a heartbeat away from purple.
Bill felt panic setting in, couldn't think clearly. He dropped to his knees and peered under the sofa bed for the fourth time, scattered more dust-bunnies across the floor.
Great, just fucking great, he thought as he dug through the shoes, sent them flying this way and that across the room like a dog digging holes in the sand. This wasn't fun any more. His head was starting to throb and Candice wasn't helping him think.
"They're going to be home any minute Dear," she said in a singsong voice.
"Will you just shut up!" He screamed at her without thinking, regretted it immediately. He sat on the carpet with a dull thump.
"Sorry," he said, looking at the floor.
"Me too!" Said Candice. She jerked her arm, hard, and the cuffs clanked against the iron frame of the sofa bed, tightened another notch on her wrist. He looked at the cuffs, then back at her, then back at the cuffs, then back at her. Her lips, drawn close and tight, began to quiver. Her eyes widened, blinking at him in slow motion. Bill felt a belly laugh coming on and bit his lip but it just exploded out of him and then both of them were red-faced and all but choking.
"OK," he said between gasps, "I have an idea."
"I hope so," she returned, wiping away tears with her free hand, "or we have a lot of explaining to do."
"Bloody idiot!" John said under his breath as he jammed the brake pedal against the floor, sending the little red car careening into the curb. Vicki dug her fingernails into the dash – for a brief moment eye-to-eye with a truckload of chickens – and made a grab for the packages spilling off the front seat. An instant later they were buried by a wave of puke-brown road slush. The wipers and motor died at once, and through a tiny hole in the frost that covered the passenger-side window she watched the truck disappear into the storm.
John turned the key in the ignition; a sickly, dying 'whir-klunk' from the motor, then silence.
"Bloody hell," said John, sinking back into the well-worn seat with a sigh. He ran his fingers through his thinning, ash-blonde hair and reached into his empty pocket, looking for a cell phone that was still charging back at their farmhouse. "Bloody hell," he repeated, "if Saint Nick gifts that idiot one thing for Christmas I bloody well hope it's a cunting driver's license."
Vicki picked the final package off the floor, dried it on the seat and positioned it on the top of the neat little cardboard box pyramid she'd constructed between them.
"That will need to be re-wrapped then," she said.
"We could walk back," said John, rummaging in another pocket. He produced a gold cigarette case and clicked it open – turned the ignition key once more. Click. And again – click click.
"All we have left is last year's wrapping paper," said Vicky.
"Look, we're going to have to walk," said John, his cigarette dangling from his lip. He fished a box of matches from another pocket, struck one on the dash and lit his cigarette. "We're not that far away."
"And last year's paper doesn't match this…"
"Fancy a smoke?" he asked. He offered the case to his wife, rubbed at the windshield with the sleeve of his jacket. Vicky plucked a cigarette from the case, tucked it between her lips.
"And I'm not leaving all of this to be stolen," she said. John offered the end of his match. She took his hand and lit her cigarette, her green eyes staring up at his profile. "I won't, you know."
"Well that's it then," he said. "We'll just sit here and be covered."
"You don't have to be snippy."
He bit off the terse reply that trembled on his lips. This wasn't her fault. He sighed, buttoned his overcoat and reached under the seat for the ice-chipper.
"Well, I'll clean this lot off the windscreen and hope," he said. He leaned over and kissed her. Her lips were cold.
"Don't hurt yourself, John," she said as he opened the door. The wind roared into the little car, carrying flakes of snow that danced in the air and wet the seats. Vicki dusted off her packages and sat, smoking, watching her husband do battle with the ice on the windscreen.
"Look," said Bill, "I don't know where they are, and there's not much we can do about it." He jerked the poker from its stand beside the hearth, jabbed at the fire. A knot exploded and he jumped back; sparks swirled up the chimney. The knots in his stomach exploded too, and he tried to slow his breathing but it wasn't working. The place was cold in spite of the fire; the power and phones had gone dead just after sunset several hours earlier. John's cell had died too, just as he'd dialed the police for the fifth time. They'd told him not to worry, that their friends had probably been forced to stop because of the weather, that all of their cars on the road were on the lookout for stranded motorists. John's gut instinct told him another story – and he was having a hard time pushing it out of his mind.
"Bill, I'm scared." Candice used her free hand to pull the blankets close around her neck. A hacksaw and a notched pair of wire cutters lay on the floor next to her clothes, a testament to Bill's futile effort to free his wife from the sofa bed. He threw more wood on the fire; it hissed and spat as the ice melted off and dripped into the bright orange embers. He dropped the poker into its holder and sat on the bed next to his wife.
"Look," said Bill, "I'm sorry about this."
"It was my idea," said Candice, staring into the flames, "We shouldn't have been going through their things anyway. I just saw the cuffs and…" she trailed off, managing a half-smile.
"And it's all fun and games until someone loses the key," Bill finished for her. "You know I love you, don't you?"
"I know. I love you too - and I have to pee again?"
"OK," said Bill, "I'll go and get it."
He gave her a hug and left the room, returned with another paper cup. At least they'd figured out a way for her to relieve herself, though she made him leave the room during the act. She felt bad enough he had to carry it to the bathroom afterwards.
When he got back from the bathroom the fire was burning higher, filling the room with a new rush of heat. In his hand a bottle of Merlot and two glasses.
"You really must love bedpan duty," Candice said with a wry smile, "but I could use that right about now." He poured and offered, she accepted and he got into bed next to her. They snuggled for a while in silence, sipping the wine and listening to the crackling of the flames.
"It's too bizarre," he said, setting his glass on the coffee table.
"How an email friendship leads to the two of us, meeting someone for the first time, spending Christmas halfway around the world."
"Don't forget the handcuffed to the bed part," said Candice. Bill slipped an arm around her, brushed the hair out of her eyes. She lifted her chin, their lips met: soft, comforting, a moment of forgetfulness. She reached for him, her hand under the blankets, his flesh awakening to her touch. When he entered her the world went away, leaving only the two of them; little gasps and cries and finally, sleep.
John wrenched the car door open and fell back into the driver's seat, slammed the door shut after him. His breath crystallized in the damp air, adding another layer of fog to the inside of the windscreen. He could feel his moustache crackle and split as the ice began to thaw. Vicki sat huddled against the other door, shivering in the damp blanket he'd found stuffed in the boot next to the spare tire. The temperature had dropped with the sun; he'd been hours working in the wind, chipping ice from the motor until his hands were numb and useless and the plastic chipper had finally shattered in the cold. His wild hope: that the wind would be enough to dry the motor, and that the battery would somehow recover enough of a charge to turn it. It wasn't much of a hope – but he needed something to hold on to. Hope of a passing motorist and a last minute rescue had long since faded: the last vehicle they'd seen was the truck that had almost killed them – or maybe it had killed them. They'd never survive this storm without heat. He pushed the thought out of his mind and nudged Vicky awake.
"I'm going to try it again," he said. She stared back at him in silence; he reached for her hand. It was cold, trembling, weak; a gust of wind rocked the little car and she cried out, her eyes wide, pleading.
"I love you Vicky" he said, and turned the key.
Candice opened her eyes, unsure of her surroundings. Her arm, stiff and sore, was twisted above her head. She winced, heard the clack of the cuffs and remembered where she was. She blinked in the firelight, tried to clear her vision – but it seemed like an impossible task. She pulled herself into a sitting position, felt pins and needles race up her arm and shoulder, felt the heat of the room, like an furnace, baking the sweat-soaked blankets to her naked body. Her eyes grew wide.
He mumbled, turned over in his sleep. She struck him with her free hand, hard across the face.
Bill sat up like a shot, knocked the wine bottle off the coffee table. A widening, maroon stain crept across the carpet. He began to choke, smoke filled his nostrils and burned his eyes as he stared in disbelief at the wall behind the fireplace. Black clouds billowed from darker paneling, rays of orange light painted the walls in mad shadows and demon-shapes and the wall burst into bright orange blossoms that kissed the ceiling and rolled across the floor like a beast out of Tolkien's darkest dreams.
He leapt from the bed, tearing the blankets with him, beating at the flames like a madman, heedless to his own peril.
"We've got to get out of here! Now!" he screamed, and turned to look into Candice's wide and panicked eyes. The handcuffs. The goddamned motherfucking handcuffs!
"Bill?" Her voice was small, trembling, barely audible over the roar of the flames and the hammering of his heart. He stood frozen, unbelieving. This wasn't happening. He dropped the smoking blanket and raced to her side, grabbed the hacksaw from the floor and attacked – but the blade slipped over the hardened steel and the fire began to eat into the carpet and he screamed in rage and frustration and hacked at the little piece of chain and the blade failed, snapped in two. He dropped it to the floor and pulled at her arm, trying to wrench her hand through a hole that was just too small. She screamed and her blood ran red over the shining silver metal. The heat tried to peel the skin from their bodies and the smoke reached for them with black and deadly tendrils.
"Bill," she said, somehow calm – resigned. "You've got to get out of here."
He pictured himself running from the house, alone; he pictured himself, years from now, grey hair and lines on his face, staring out the window, her dying screams still echoing through his heart.
He wrenched at the sofa bed, felt his tendons quiver and strain; pain exploded in his arms and he felt something pop but he kept on, a glazed, mad look in his eyes and smoke in his lungs, burning. His vision turned to gray as Candice struggled to her feet and tried to help – but it became like a frenzied game of twister: arms crossing arms and legs tangled and bodies falling in a heap only to struggle once again to their feet before another fall to the floor. The sounds of choking filled the room, louder than the roar of the flames that leapt into the Christmas tree – eating it from the bottom up. Finally they began to tug in unison - and the sofa bed began to move, inch by inch across the carpet that rolled into a ridge under it's feet – but move it did – away from the fire, closer to the hallway that led to the outer door. Then Candice fell and didn't get up again.
Bill fell next to her. His breath dragged over his tortured throat in ragged gasps. He cradled his wife's head to his chest, rocked her back and forth, sobbing and choking. He closed his eyes and waited, hoped the smoke would finish them before the fire.
Somewhere, as if from far away, he heard hurried footsteps, felt a blast of frigid air wash over him and he struggled to open his eyes. He felt his body rising from the floor and managed to force open his eyelids and peer through the smoke. It was John: covered in frost from head to toe, his long coat stiff with ice, his hair matted, wet, and dark.
"Vicky, can you move her?" John cried.
"No," answered another voice, "She's been cuffed to the davenport!"
"Bloody hell!" said John, who dropped his helpless burden and began to fish through his pockets. Bill lay in the entranceway - the cold, arctic air entered his lungs and his body erupted, wracked with spasms of coughing.
"Right then," said John as he dragged a lump of frozen keys from the pocket of his overcoat, "it's on here somewhere."
Bill looked on in wild amusement. He keeps handcuff keys on his key ring? Then everything went black.
Candice woke for the second time that evening, wondering where she was. A gentle rocking motion, a roar of wind and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She opened her eyes, saw the inside of the ambulance and remembered. Bill lay across from her, unconscious, an oxygen mask strapped to his face.
"It looks like you're both going to be fine, you're lucky," said the man sitting between them as he slipped her mask back into place. "Just try to relax and breath, we're on our way to hospital."
She rubbed her wrist; found it tender and sore, wrapped in a bandage. She lost consciousness again, wondering how Bill had managed to get her free of the handcuffs.
The Constable almost ran his patrol car into the truck that lay on its side across the road. The storm was one of the worst he could remember, and he'd barely seen the wreck in time to brake. He radioed for help, but cautioned the dispatcher not to hurry. The driver was beyond help: half out of the window, pinned between the vehicle and the road. A single, blood red icicle hung from his blue and white lips. He stared into the lights of the patrol car with glazed and frozen eyes. All around, little lumps in the snow and feathers in the headlamps, dancing a silent dance with the flurries.
A few yards away lay the second vehicle, crushed and blackened. The fire had melted the snow as it fell, and the dying flames made the wreck look like a bizarre ice sculpture: translucent tendrils gripped the twisted metal like a surreal, Geigeresque fist. Just before he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the road, the officer picked a small, red wrapped package form the snow: "For our new friends from across the pond," read the neatly printed tag, "Happy Christmas Bill and Candice."
Copyright ©2001, Veragem. All rights reserved. Not to be reprinted or re-posted in whole or in part without the permission of the author.