Near the exit door she stepped around the puddles of slush the best she could, but the cold and slippery tile had few clean patches left to step on. Opening the heavy door, the outside chill did not hit her right away. The time spent in the cozy restaurant had heated her body like a charcoal brick – each human body connecting and keeping each other warm. Her body retained this heat as she walked down the cleared sidewalk, admiring the twinkling lights of the holiday decorations.
When she reached the end of the walk and stepped into the shadows of the parking lot, she felt no comfort from the street lights. The charcoal glow that kept her warm as she walked down the sidewalk was already gone. She felt the frigid air settle deep into her winter coat, covering her with a blanket of cold. She regretted wearing the pants she had on, some type of nylon blend. The cold was easily passing through the fabric, chilling her legs to the point of numbness.
After unlocking the minivan’s doors with her electronic key, she paused to look up. Glorious stars sparkled brightly in the cold, cold, blue-black night sky. The moon shimmered. This, the way the sky looked, was the beauty that she associated with the frightening sensation of deep dense air in her lungs, making her every breath a struggle against the heavy cold air. Beauty and fear; hope and despair.
The van started up on the second attempt. She was lucky the thing still ran at all. It wasn’t much to look at: a 1997 white-with-rust Plymouth minivan with both rear hubcaps missing. There was a deepening crack in the windshield from when a rock had hit the glass.
Inside the minivan was not any better. The van had a malfunctioning electrical panel and every warning light on the dash blinked incessantly until after the engine had been running for about two minutes. After that, the dash lights magically went out. Tom had a mechanic look at it, but he couldn’t find anything wrong, so they learned to ignore the problem with the lights, forgetting all about it.
In addition to the panel malfunction, the passenger’s side window no longer went up or down. If Tom or Serena forgot to warn friends and family not to use the window, they would be forced to drive with the window open until they could safely stop. One person would then hold the close button while another person stood on the other side of the door, pressing firmly down on the window until the window started moving upward. This procedure often took several minutes.
These quirks she had learned to deal with, as long as the van still ran. But now she was worried. Why hadn’t they kept up with the maintenance issues, or pressed harder to get the electrical panel fixed? She would have a hard time buying another vehicle if this one failed, and she couldn’t risk interacting with a mechanic to fix the minivan if it failed, if it was even possible to resurrect it. All she could do was hope that the minivan would hold up for as long as she needed to use it.
Serena adjusted her seat as far forward as she could. She had forgotten to adjust the seat after Tom had driven the van, which made the twenty mile trip to the restaurant like driving a go-cart, her leg extended its full length to reach the gas pedal. Long gone was the little red car she had when she and Tom were first married. Now she shared the mini-van, or at least she did when life was normal.
She sat for a second or two and noticed that her breath formed a perfect cloud in the ice-box interior of the van. The heater was chugging away but she didn’t feel any comfort from it yet. She continued to obsess about the mini-van, and how the crack on the windshield looked slightly longer than it was the last time she studied it; scarcely feeling the cold steering wheel with her bare hands, until she remembered the fleece-lined driving gloves she had in her coat pocket.
She put her gloves on, slowly, concentrating on each finger as it went inside the gloves. Enough already! Pull yourself together and get out of here! She gripped the wheel with determination, put her foot on the pedal, now within a comfortable leg-reach from her body, and drove the van out of the restaurant parking lot.
There was no turning back. Farther and farther she drove, past suburban housing developments with their hundreds of tasteful white Christmas lights lining identical roofs on identical houses, past vacant department stores bearing illuminated icy parking lots, past gas stations with a surplus of frozen cut pine trees leaning against quick-stop stores, and past banks displaying the current outside temperature of -17, not including “wind chill factor”.
After a long stretch on the freeway the steady blur of traffic lights, holiday lights, street lights, and headlights tapered off. Serena slowed to the 30mph speed limit to meet up with the wreath-lined streets of the small town of Cannon Falls, Minnesota, which was a frequent pit-stop for truckers driving between the Twin Cities and Rochester. The town, with a population of around 4,000, had benefited from media attention after former United States President Obama selected Cannon Falls for a town hall meeting stop on his tour of the Midwest states. The presidential stop helped The Old Market Deli become a tourist attraction, due to its framed photographs of the former president ordering a “Tom Turkey” sandwich. To this day, the chair he sat in was marked with duct tape.
As she reached the only traffic light in the town, she stopped in front of a multicolored canopy of Christmas lights draped across the intersection. She studied the lights as she waited for the light to change. She could almost hear the crackling of ice crystals as the lights swayed. She tracked the rocking motion of the lights with her eyes, eyes dry and bloodshot from fatigue and the hot air from the minivan’s heater. She willed her eyes to stay open. She looked in the rearview mirror. Her green eyes had so much red around them that Serena thought, I have Christmas eyes. Oh no, I’m getting slap-happy. I need to snap out of it. I still have twenty miles left to go.
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