“No. No. No,” said Zack as he pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. The ancient car responded sluggishly, a full second passing before the engine vibrated with a purr that made his foot go numb. The bald tyres spun, trapped in a sheet of ice and snow that coated the road and the lone vehicle.
The storm sagged against the windshield as the wipers tried lethargically to keep up, leaving large, frosted streaks with every swipe. With each pass, the ice crystals grew denser, coating the wipers with budding globs of ice.
Another burst of wind battered the side of the car, fluttering against the door and buffeting the tiny cracks in the vehicle. A trickle of cold air brushed against his chilled knuckles, and a shiver cascaded though his body.
The vehicle lurched closer to the ditch that had disappeared into the blizzard’s cloud. The tyres caught, edging sideways in a frozen rut. He jerked at the steering wheel, but there was no response as he was buried deeper in the drifts.
Zack’s heart pounded as he lost control of the wheel and the engine sputtered. But he barely noticed as the car lurched into a stall or as the air got even colder through the flimsy heating vents. The storm was the furthest thing from his mind.
It had happened again. And, of course, it had chosen the moment when the biggest snowstorm of the decade was blowing its way across the lakes. The radar had probably gone from red to purple then black while he’d driven with no destination in mind.
The roads had been relatively clear a few hours before, when he had fled to his car, putting it straight into second gear before he even had his seat belt on. He had hit the highway, flipping a virtual coin to choose the exit he’d take before the heavy flakes had started drifting down from the grey sky.
He shuddered. His darkness—his curse—the thing had haunted him for as long as he could remember… It always seemed to choose the worst moments to rear its ugly, jealous head. This had to be one of the top five of all time, though.
He had tried to keep moving. He’d tried to leave before he could put anyone else at risk.
But he’d been sucked in by another pair of sweet blue eyes and a soft voice that had promised him a good night. That night had turned into a stream of great weeks and gentle touches that had him coming more consistently than he ever had.
The sex had been fantastic, if not a little bit soft, more often ending in his mouth or his hand—and not somewhere better, tighter and hotter. His nights hadn’t been cold in an empty hotel bed or on a couch that he had claimed during a stranger’s party. He had started to look forwards to waking up in the morning and seeing someone other than himself in his bed.
Then it had all gone wrong. One word and a spurned rejection, and his past had caught up with him with the force of a starving tiger. He’d staggered as he’d felt the blood drain from his face.
He had fled before anything could happen to the man who he had almost started to like. If he’d had the opportunity, he could have developed full-blown feelings, which were more dangerous than his curse.
He’d grabbed everything in sight that belonged to him, leaving more behind than he’d taken. His socks and underwear were lost beneath the bed and in the basket of laundry, but he hadn’t had the time to retrieve them. They weren’t the worst things that he’d ever left behind.
He’d had run to his ancient Honda, breathing hard by the time he had tugged the door open. As he’d sped away, he’d left another chunk of his past behind him, the sweet memories tainted by his bitter curse. The traffic had steadily thinned, until he was the only car in the midst of a forest that seconded as a snowy hell.
His trusty Honda was only five years younger than him and had more problems than he did, which was saying a lot. Its most recent issue was that it apparently couldn’t drive through more than two centimetres of fresh snow.
He fumbled with the key, glancing out into the bleak stretch of swirling snow as he tried to start the engine yet again. Stomping on the gas, he waited for the RPMs to climb into the red zone before popping the clutch and putting the car directly into second gear. First gear didn’t exactly work, and on ice, it was its own death trap.
There was a shuddering jerk that had relief flooding his gut, until the car rocked once and stalled back into silence. The dials dropped and the fuzzy radio station faded until the barest hint of the country song vanished under the sound of the wind.
“Shit,” he said as he slammed his hand against the steering wheel. It shuddered, barely holding on to its rigging after his repeated abuse. He could imagine the wheel finally tumbling off as he merged lanes on a highway doing one-hundred-and-thirty-five kilometres per hour. I’m lucky like that.
His palm ached from the hit and the cold that was steadily seeping into the car, but it didn’t stop him from slamming the wheel a second time. His thumb caught the edge of the horn, but the blaring sound was swept away on the wind.
The temperature inside the car noticeably dropped another few degrees, and his breath turned into a misty fog that coated everything it touched. The car’s heater was lukewarm at best, and without a working defrost, ice had started to crust on even the inside of the windshield.
He turned the key again as he popped the car back into neutral and pushed the clutch to the floor. He shivered as another gust of wind cut into the Honda. His thin jacket was best suited for balmy fall days, but it was the only one that had been in sight as he’d scrambled to leave. His toes were numb in his sneakers, and his hands? Well, he was afraid to look at them, because he wouldn’t be surprised if a few fingers were already missing. His gloves had been one of the many things that he had left behind, and his hands had been aching since the snow had started.
The car key turned under his hand, jingling with the other attached keys and mementos that he had picked up on his travels. There was a tiny metal sandal that he’d picked up in a beach town and an iron sun from a gift shop that he’d found in the middle of nowhere. The rest were worn, their edges smooth from their constant motion. He kept them close, so he wouldn’t have to look back and remember.
The key turned, with the promise of escape and a hint of heat. Silence. Not even a putter from the flooded engine. His gut churned as a shiver racked his body. It was so freaking cold, and according to the last clear announcement on the radio, the storm was just getting started.
He grappled with the horn, pushing the button as hard as he could. There had to be someone close by who would come to his rescue if they heard him honking. People in the city might not have looked twice, but he was pretty far into the wilderness, on the only road that probably ever saw a plough in winter. People were different out here—lonelier.
The button clicked under his palm as the battery finally gave out. The same battery had lasted him twenty years, so, of course, it would choose to fail him when he was about to lose his toes.
Zack took a shuddering breath as his vision blurred and his heart sank. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to keep the warmth from escaping. Perhaps everything was finally catching up with him. Freezing to death wouldn’t be the worst way to go. He’d seen worse before—so much worse. His stomach clenched as memories fluttered to the surface of his mind. He tried to push them away before he could retch.
“Look at the snow. Just look at the snow,” he said, holding himself tighter as he tried to focus on an individual flake in the whirling mass—anything to leave the flashes of his past behind.
Beyond the window he could see bits of the forest through the gaps in the gathering ice on the windshield. The road was nearly invisible, with no tyre tracks except his own behind him. Even those were almost gone now.
A green bough fluttered in the wind, dumping its heavy load onto the ground below it. A bird fluttered from the branch, battling against the wind as it took off. For a moment, it looked like it would lose the fight and be tossed into the nearest tree trunk. It pumped its wings faster, finally triumphing over the storm.
There were no hydro lines along the road or lamp posts that would guide a traveller along at night. It was a tourist’s nightmare. He cursed himself, wondering if he should’ve taken the other fork in the road that had probably led along a path that was closer to the city.
A smudge of colour caught his eye as it flashed along the very edge of the trees. The trunks grew close together, dark and foreboding within the mass, and their limbs danced and swayed in the wind, dumping the snow back to the earth with each pass. There was so much movement that he wondered if he had imagined the blur.
He squinted and leaned closer to the window, trying to make sense of it through the fluttering snow. It could have been a deer. He’d already seen a few along the way, looking ready to jump out at his car and double his insurance. Or it could have been a bear, given how far he’d come, although he’d only ever seen them on television. The dark beacon had looked too small to be the creature he’d seen on Planet Earth.
He spotted it again as the wind stilled and the blizzard cleared for a moment. It moved through the snow with a fluid grace that could only belong to an animal who could survive a harsh winter. Nothing battered or beaten lived in this cold, and no predator could thrive without hunting in the perpetual storm that was February.
It grew closer with every loping step, until it seemed larger than what he imagined a bear would be. It was fast, too, cutting through the drifts as if it weighed nothing. Zack knew how hard it was to walk through snow that deep, which was why he usually avoided it at all costs. That, and he really didn’t want to get his too-tight jeans wet.
Zack scrubbed the inside of the window with his nails, bits of ice stinging his numb fingertips. His breath frosted it over again, until everything blurred.
It could have been a dog with how dark the colouring was, but he’d never seen a dog that big. A bear would definitely make more sense, but according to the television, bears hibernated in the winter.
The ice on the window thickened into an opaque crystal as he pressed his forehead against it, desperate to see what was coming. It was running at a pace that was hardly possible over the covered ground, gliding over the snow without seeming to disturb it at all.
A bubble of fear simmered in his gut as he pictured a bear breaking through his window with its massive, clawed paws. He was small enough that he wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight, but there was still enough meat on him to make a decent meal, he supposed.
He took a deep breath, closing his eyes to try to ground himself. The wind around him paused, the car going suddenly still and silent. He snapped his eyes back open, looking through the tiny gaps from his fingertips. There was nothing but the dark tree trunks capped with pure white.
The seat creaked as he freed himself from the seatbelt and lifted himself to his knees, pressing against a strip of clear glass. He blinked, rubbing his eyes to remove the imagined fog, but nothing appeared. The snow was undisturbed, except for the partially covered ruts from his own tyres. There were no footprints, and no animal was out in the wind.
I’m officially losing my mind.
A loud knock sounded directly behind him, pushing a small scream through his lips. He slapped his hand over his mouth, muffling the noise as it battered his ears in the small space. He whirled around in his seat, his heart pounding as he spied something on the other side of the car. Whatever it was, it blocked the entire passenger-side window with its bulk.
The knock came again, a booming slam against the fragile window. It sent a shiver up his spine and straight to his core. How had anyone found him so fast? The road was deserted, and no one should have been able to hear the scream of his horn over the wind.
It could still be a bear. They were probably smart enough to knock. They could outsmart bees, for Christ’s sake.
After a third knock, he stretched over the centre console to move closer, folding his legs up to his chest one by one so he could slide into the opposite seat. A muscle in his side twinged from the stretch, worse than any awkward position he’d been manhandled into.
The ice was thinner on this side, and he could see the outline of a dark shape but no details through the crystalised fog. It could have been anyone, or anything, but the knock was too loud and too annoying to ignore.
The handle was stiff as he pulled it, bracing against the wind as it surged again. The gust curled around door, ripping it from his grasp and flinging it wide with a crunch of metal. The shadow stepped back as the squall cut into the car with the strength of an iceberg, stealing the breath from his lips and sucking the remaining warmth from his limbs.
The shadow moved back into view, leaning down to peer at his prone body. It was nearly as wide as it was tall and took up the entire doorway, thankfully blocking the majority of the cruel wind.
Zack was able to get his first real look. It was completely covered in thick, dark fur, the strands clumped together with clinging snow and ice. He couldn’t see a face, but his imagination created one for him, with snarling teeth that were whiter than the snow.
Zack’s heart raced. It had to be a bear. Why did I open the door for that?
He took a deep breath, choking on the scent of wet fur, so similar to that of his childhood dog, Max, when he’d wandered out into the rain. It also brought him a strange sense of calm that he hadn’t expected. It, at least, was familiar.
He gasped as gold eyes pinned him. They weren’t yellow or jaundiced, but a glowing gold that almost seemed to resonate as they stared at him, unblinking.
He swallowed, his mouth dry and his throat clicking. It wasn’t a bear at all—or even an animal. It was a man. He was covered in furs like some sort of reincarnated caveman, and his face was shadowed beneath a thick hood. His eyes were the only thing Zack could see through the gloom.
“Are you okay?” the stranger asked as he leaned into the car, blocking more of the wind with his bulk. His eyes weren’t just gold, they were molten, drawing Zack in and stealing his breath. The scent of pine and woodsmoke clung to him, beneath the film of wet dog. His hands were wrapped in rough-looking leather that was cracked from either age or overuse, but the rest of him was hidden beneath the dark furs.
“I’m fine,” said Zack, trying to keep his voice even. His heart was still thundering, but he could breathe again. An alarm was blaring in his head, and he suppressed the urge to reach for his keys. The car wouldn’t start anyway.
He gripped his hands into fists to resist pushing the stranger away. He had to get out of there. He didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.
A glint of white caught the light as the stranger pulled his lips back over his teeth and a low chuckle reverberated from his broad chest. “You don’t look okay. This storm is going to last for a few days, and it’ll take even longer than that to get the roads cleared. You shouldn’t be out here in the first place. Are you an idiot, or are you just trying to get yourself killed?”
The gold eyes narrowed and Zack’s heart beat so hard that his vision swam. The insult didn’t matter to him, even though it made the hair stand on the back of his neck. It didn’t matter to him, but it would matter to his curse.
The last time someone had called him an idiot, they’d ended up with two broken wrists. Zack had started running shortly after—once every offhand and cruel remark threatened the people close to him.
Zack tried to look past the man’s bulk to the threats that could be looming from outside the car. The man could freeze in the storm, or a tree could collapse on top of him. It would seem like an accident…or a coincidence. It was always something that could happen to anyone who was unlucky enough.
He clenched his eyes shut and gripped the seat, waiting for the man to be maimed or injured. He knew it would happen quickly and without mercy. It always did.
He took one breath, then two, sinking deep into his core until he could hardly feel the cold. The shivering that racked his body ceased, and the ache drained from his fingers. Maybe his curse would take him this time, too, and put him out of his misery.
“Okay, now I know you aren’t okay.” The stranger’s voice came again, so low and quiet against the rumble of the wind. Zack opened his eyes and met the glaring gold. He was watching Zack as if there were no storm around them at all—as if it were just the two of them in the world and they had nothing to fear.
Zack looked down at his trembling hands, the ache rushing back into them as he stared in disbelief.
The stranger was still alive. How is he still here, looking at me like I have three heads? He should be on the ground, twisted in some unimaginable way for the simple crime of calling Zack an idiot.
Zack reached for the stranger, tangling his fingers in the rough furs. They were stiff and coarse beneath his frozen nerves and so cold that it made him shudder. A clump of ice crumbled in his hand, and the pieces slipped down the sleeve of his jacket like tiny razor blades.
“How?” The word caught in Zack’s throat as a sob tore from his chest. His vision blurred and his breath caught. It isn’t possible.
“Here… Let me help you. I won’t hurt you,” said the stranger, speaking slowly as if Zack would try to run at any moment. His bulk blocked the rest of the wind, and the scent of pine, smoke and something else peaking as he leaned close. He wrapped his arms around Zack’s waist and half-lifted, half-dragged him from the seat.
The fury of the storm beat at Zack’s face, blinding him and bludgeoning his ears in a whirling roar. He tried to cry out as the needles of ice sharpened on his skin, but the sound was torn away. He could hardly breathe, even as his lungs begged for air.
He could never have imagined that winter could be like this. Winter for him meant sitting by a baseboard heater and looking through the window, complaining about the snow and the cold. It was about wearing so many layers that he looked like he had indulged in too many Tim Tam Slams, and it was about a perpetual howling wind that cut through the naked trees and narrow buildings.
This wasn’t winter. It was an icy hell.
Zack’s feet sank into the snow as the stranger tried to right him, and cold spilled over his old sneakers that had seen too many days. The tight green laces did nothing to protect him from the slithering crystals that slid up his pants and along his ankles, making his bones throb in protest. His feet were soaked in seconds.
The stranger’s grip disappeared, and Zack fell against the Honda’s unforgiving frame. It was the lightest shade of blue that would meld with the sky as he drove along on a fresh summer’s day. Now, the same blue looked as frigid as his fingertips.
His face thudded against the roof as he lost his balance, his feet slipping on snow and ice as the taste of copper burst over his tongue, deep and rich, like sweet pennies. He thumped back into a drift, a spurt of fluff rising as he landed.
“Shit. Okay then,” said the stranger as he hauled Zack back onto his feet before lifting him from the ground. He didn’t even grunt or show any strain at all. He simply lifted him as if Zack weighed nothing, as if Zack were a child and not a man.
The man turned and started to walk, each step taking them farther from Zack’s car and his only real safe haven. No matter what had gone down in the world, he’d always had his car to get away. Leaving it behind was like leaving his best friend, but he couldn’t say anything, not when he was trembling so hard.
The man’s feet glided over the snow, hardly sinking into the crunching powder and barely leaving a mark between the blowing drifts. His breath was silent, only a whisper of fog that filtered from his hood before it was swept away.
Zack had never been swept off his feet before, but now that the danger had seemed to pass, he was definitely on board. The stranger’s body was hard and strong, his hands large and firm where they gripped under his legs and around his shoulders. Zack wasn’t quite sure where to put his hands, or if he could even grip them, given how numb they felt, so he held them against his chest.
They moved down an unploughed road that had drifts that looked like they would be up to his waist. There was barely enough room for a small car, and each side was blocked by impenetrable forest. The trees themselves were thick with curled bark that was wounded from age. It was no wonder that he hadn’t even noticed the lane. It didn’t look like it had been travelled for the entire winter.
Zack’s eyelids sagged as his adrenalin finally started to fade, causing him to relax into the stranger’s chest. There had to be something different about the man. He was the only person Zack had ever met who had been able to resist the power of his curse.
He snuggled into the warmth of the furs, shielding himself from the blowing snow that covered the man’s footprints almost as fast as he could make them. Hopefully, he could still find the lane when it came time to leave. But right now, he just wanted to be warm again.
A tiny and haphazard-looking log cabin appeared out of the haze. It was a small and simple one-storey that had been carved out of logs stripped of their life and their bark. It was nothing like the beautiful identical logs that made up the cabins he’d seen before in magazines. This was rugged, like someone with no construction experience had attempted their first DIY and had managed to pull it off.
Smoke rose from the rough chimney, tossing the sweet smell of burning wood around the tiny clearing. It was the same scent that clung to the furs that were pressed against his cheek. The porch was unshovelled and heaped with snow, and the windows were dark and ominous.
It was unlike anything Zack had seen during his travels. He’d also never been half-kidnapped by someone in a snowstorm. Why couldn’t it have been a billionaire who had happened upon him on the road? Probably because they would have mobile data and weather reports, so they wouldn’t be out in the first place.
They crossed the threshold like a married couple, and Zack half-expected to be tossed on a bed and ravaged. He wouldn’t have even minded at the moment. It would get him dry and so much warmer than he was now, and his standards weren’t exactly high after looking for new places to stay for years. The stranger had beautiful eyes and was as strong as hell. Those were two out of the three boxes that Zack wanted checked for a good lay. Most days, he only required one.
A wave of heat engulfed him as the stranger stepped inside the cabin then closed the thick wooden door, locking a latch that rattled harshly in the wind. Prickling struck Zack’s face first, before singeing his fingers and toes. The snow that had gathered on his hair melted and poured over his face to drip on the scraped wood floor beneath them.
The cabin was simple on the inside, too, almost shockingly so. Zack had lived in small places before, if rent prices had run too high to cover with the odd jobs he took to avoid touching his trust fund. But he had never had to subject himself to something this depressing. Even the nights that he’d slept in strangers’ homes hadn’t been quite so bad, because he knew that at some point he would be sleeping in a real bed again.
There was only one room—one perfectly square room that encased everything that someone needed to survive. The walls were stark wood logs that had something stuffed between them, keeping the wind and light at bay. The roaring fire flickered in an open hearth that had no barrier between itself and the rest of the room. It looked like the biggest fire hazard Zack had ever seen.
To the left of that, there was a kitchen that would have fit in a tiny home catalogue, with a single silver sink and a cupboard above and below it. Beyond that was a bed that was little more than a box spring and mattress on the floor, covered with a fur blanket that looked similar to what the stranger was wearing.
But beside the bed was the worst part of it all. There was a toilet and a small shower only feet from the front door and the bed. There were no walls separating them from the rest of the cabin—and certainly no door. The shower didn’t even have a curtain. It was just an expanse of white over a tiled slab floor that had a drain in the centre. And is that a watering can hanging from a hook at the top where a showerhead should be?
“It’ll be best if you take your clothes off before you sit in front of the fire. Everything is soaked from the storm, and there’s still a chance of hypothermia if you sit around in something wet.” The stranger made it sound like it was the most natural thing, to strip down naked in front of someone he didn’t know. This isn’t a club or a frat party.
Maybe it was natural for a man who was missing the ‘room’ in bathroom?
“I…” Zack paused, not sure what to say as he was lowered slowly to his feet. He dropped his hands he was using to hold on to the furs. He wasn’t sure if he should thank the man, slap him or follow his directions.
“There should be some clothes by the bed that are clean. They won’t fit you, but they’ll be dry,” said the stranger, cutting off Zack’s whirling thoughts.
His feet were truly aching now and starting to throb in time with his heart. The idea of getting naked sounded better with every chunk of snow that melted and wicked into his jacket. It’s not like he was bad off in the looks department, but he was very cold. He looked down at his groin. There wouldn’t be much there to look at if the stranger watched him undress.
He looked around the cabin once more, searching for anyplace he could hide his dignity. Even a curtain would do, since there wasn’t a door in sight except for the one that led outside. The windows were bare. There wasn’t even a rod above them.
Who the hell is this guy? Even preppers have curtains.
He looked up from his internal debate as the door swung open again, snagging the heat from the room and chilling the water that had started to warm on his skin. The stranger took two steps out of the door, looking back over his shoulder with his eyes flashing in the blinding storm.
“I’ll get your car off the road, so it doesn’t get wrecked by the next plough.”
The door slammed, and the storm retreated to the warmth of a crackling fire and the freezing dampness of his clothing. His shivering started again, and his teeth chattered so hard that he thought he might chip one.
He looked at the door, staring after the stranger and trying desperately to understand. Under the layers of sodden clothing and shivering skin, something bloomed in his chest that he hadn’t dared feel since he had been a small boy with ambitions of taking on the world.