Authors: Jolyn Palliata
Copyright 2012 Jolyn Palliata
Cover art by Steven Novak
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used factitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
This book is dedicated to my family and friends. Thank you for your unwavering support, and unconditional love. I am truly blessed to have the people I do in my life.
Twelve years old
Robbie all but pressed her small face against the glass of the car window as she stared in wonder at the landscape. Sure, she’d seen mountains before. In fact, at twelve-years-old, she was proud to claim to be a world traveler, although “world” by her definition was the continental United States, and nothing more. But she had never witnessed
mountains. The Green Mountains, her father had called them, and aptly named. Except for the misplaced patches of roughen gray meandering throughout, they were nothing but green. Green, towering, and beautiful.
“Robbie, honey, don’t look down. I don’t want you to get scared.”
She did just that despite—no…probably, because of—her mother’s warning, and thrilled in the dizzying heights they had already achieved. Route 108. Correction.
Route 108. That’s what Mom had read off the map when they turned, and just like the mountains, it was appropriately named.
“We should get to Smuggler’s Notch soon. We can stop there for the night.”
Robbie turned to her mom and smiled at the way she looked in the sunlight. She had a shock of dark auburn hair against pale skin, as Robbie did, and eyes so deep and green they could almost be mistaken as jewels, or so her father liked to say. Robbie loved it when Dad told her she was the spitting image of her mother. After all, he referred to Mom as an angel, and in Robbie’s mind, you couldn’t beat the comparison.
Her mom turned the map to one side as she angled her head in the other, and then turned down Led Zeppelin so she wouldn’t have to talk quite so loud. “Tomorrow we can head up to Mount Mansfield.” She trailed her finger across the busy, creased paper. “Not too far at all. And there’s plenty to do at the resort itself.”
“Look. I know we’re on vacation here—when aren’t we, really?—but I’m not paying anyone in order to appreciate nature. We’re capable people. We can head out on our own. Actually…” Her father slowed as they approached a wide dirt road, and hung a right.
“Bradley. Where are you taking us now?”
“We have time, love. You said the resort wasn’t far. Why not have ourselves a little excursion before settling in for the night?” He peered through the windshield at the sun-dappled canopy of leaves. “Plenty of light left in the day.”
Mom laughed, well used to his spur-of-the-moment treks.
It was one such trek that landed them in Vermont in the first place. And New York before that, and Pennsylvania before that. And so it would continue, Robbie knew, until money began to run short and they settled in, briefly, in some no-name city and low-rent housing. Just long enough for her parents to work and save, and hit the road again. How long had it been now? Three years? Four? Didn’t matter. Robbie loved the adventure of the road and never knowing what they would see, or experience, next. One thing she could never deny; she had definitely inherited her father’s adventurous, although reckless, nature.
“Dad, is the truck gonna make it through there?” Robbie eyed up the clusters of trees as the road narrowed, becoming more pitted and grooved.
“You would doubt the Magnificent Exploding Explorer?”
Robbie giggled and blurted out the next line of her father’s well-known little rant. “Hasn’t exploded yet!”
“MEE is tough enough to squeeze us through with no real harm. Don’t you worry, Peanut. Just enjoy the ride.”
Both Robbie and her mother squealed as he gunned it across a rut in the ground, pitching them into the air and slamming down with a gut-wrenching drop. Robbie looked over as she saw her mother grab the ‘hold on for your life handle’—she wasn’t allowed to call it what her parents did—and her eye was pulled by the gleam of a diamond-shaped yellow sign nestled in the trees.
“Dad—” She lost the air in her lungs as her father hit another nature-made speed bump with a relishing zeal, and nearly maniacal laugh.
“Bradley! We’ll knock ourselves unconscious if you don’t cut it out.” But her mother’s smile belied her scolding as she adjusted what she claimed were her John Lennon sunglasses.
Her father slowed, just a bit, as he cocked his head and scanned the road. “What’s that noise?”
Robbie’s mind raced with the approaching thunder and whispered what she had read on the sign. “Fallen rock zone.”
They trickled down at first, small pebbles pelting the roof and windshield like bouncing pieces of hail. But they were soon followed by rocks, then boulders. The noise was deafening the moment before they hit, before MEE pitched to the side and wrapped around the neighboring trees, before the windshield burst safety glass across her parent’s laps and the roof caved in. And even when it was done, darkness engulfing them and dust clouding around them, the roar still echoed in her ears.
The noise faded as her heartbeat took center stage, but she could still hear the metallic groan accompanying the shift in the stones, and the last remaining window burst into a shower of gleams and glitters in the narrow stream of sunlight piercing the black.
Robbie’s breathing was laborious; small puffs of oxygen and dust, inciting a riot of coughing fits to ache in her chest, and tears to well up, stinging her eyes. She fought to calm herself, to try and filter her breathing through thinly-pulled lips. Isn’t that what Dad taught her? When they were flying across the hard-packed plains on dune buggies? Try not to breathe in the dust, he said. Can’t be good for the lungs, he claimed. No. It was her shirt. She held her sleeve to her mouth, and breathed through it. It helped. It worked. Dad knew. He always did.
The beating in her ears slowed and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” wavered through the gloom to clear her head and bring her careening back to reality. Driving. They’d been driving. And then…not. It was hard to see. Why couldn’t she see? Trying to focus, her eyes kept catching the particles swirling in the air, a mist of dust glowing in the sun’s beam. It was like looking through a light brown fog.
“Ro—” Her dad coughed, sputtered, and tried again. “Robbie? Gail?”
“Dad. I’m here. It’s… I’m here.” Her words were muffled by her sleeve, but he seemed to hear her regardless. She strained to see him through the gloom.
“Peanut. Are you hurt?” He adjusted in his seat, twisting with a pained grimace. “You hurt?”
“No. I don’t think so.” She looked down at herself for anything obvious, and then to her dad as the dust began to settle and the sunlight did its job. “Blood. You have…” She reached for his forehead.
“Bumped my head is all. Don’t you worry about me. Gail?” He took her mom’s arm and offered it a light shake.
“Gail? Come on, love. Snap out of it. Ride’s over now.”
She didn’t move. Wouldn’t move.
“Mom?” Tears leaked, streaking down her overheated face. “Dad, wake her up. Make her wake up!”
“Gail? You hear that? Peanut says it’s time to get up now. And I agree.” Even Robbie could hear the fear in his voice.
Robbie’s breath held—may have stopped altogether—as her dad pressed his fingers to her mom’s throat, to her wrist. With a choked sob, he linked his fingers with her mom’s and hung his head. He made no sound, none at all, but his shoulders heaved and shook.
Terror clawed through the shock to burn a trail in her chest, and Robbie knew—as well as she knew her own name—that her mom was already gone. The scream that tore from her lungs was feral and vicious, the tears a torrent down her small dirt-streaked cheeks. Her dad snapped out of his grief to reach for her, calm her, and soothe her. She didn’t know how long she hollered and denied, but when she was done, she found herself on the floor of the backseat, arms wrapped around her father’s.
“Peanut? You with me?”
She mumbled an acknowledgement.
“I need you to do something. Can you do that? Can you do something for me?”
She nodded, pulling away.
“I can’t move, Peanut. I’m stuck in my seat, so I need you to get us those blankets.”
She blinked, but other than that, didn’t move. For a moment, all she heard was a line from “Kashmir”, the never-ending song looping over and over.
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land.
Stroking her cheek with the one hand that could reach, her father locked on her vacant eyes. “Peanut. I need you to listen to me.”
She nodded again.
“You feel that? The air’s getting in now, nice breeze. So, that’s good. Fresh air, right? But it’s got that bite to it, the cold. You feel that?”
She glanced to the exposed window.
“That’s right, Peanut. That’s where it’s coming from. Now we have to stay warm until help arrives, you hear? I need you to get those blankets out of the back. You should be able to reach them. The back end isn’t caved in, but be careful. Be very careful.”
She stared a moment longer, then slowly turned to crawl up on the seat.
“That’s right, Peanut. Take it slow. Slow and easy.”
Her small fingers found and fisted the first blanket she encountered, and then pulled free a second, and then a third. Slumping back to the floor, she looked up at her father. “I got the blankets, Daddy. I got Mommy one too.” She froze like a rabbit caught in the gaze of a predator when she saw her dad’s tears well up. Don’t move, and nothing will happen. Don’t say anything, and everything will be all right. She didn’t know what to do. All she knew was her daddy was crying—her rock, her protector, was crying, breaking. Weak.
“I’m okay, Peanut. I’m okay.” He knuckled the tears off his face and offered up a pitiful smile. “You did good. You’re taking care of Mom. That’s a great idea. We’ll cover her up, keep her warm.” He shuddered, muffling a moan as he maneuvered the spare blanket over her mommy, and then simply slumped back, eyes closed, the color draining from his face.
“Just resting a minute.” He opened his eyes. “There, all better. Wrap up in that blanket now.” He began covering himself with the third and stopped midway.
Robbie kneeled to help, concern for her dad now blossoming as her latest worry. “You’re bleeding again. There.” She pointed to his side where the blood spread through his shirt, and then touched the stain with her fingers. They came away wet.