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Crazy Woman Christmas

By Renee Blare

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CHAPTER ONE
“Chester, leave him alone.” Devon James Dawson tugged the old border collie away from his young friend shivering on the seat. “He don’t need you lickin’ those stitches. Doc’ll have your hide—and mine.”
The last few mumbled words were lost as the dilapidated Ford plowed its way through the snowy city streets. He maneuvered a sliding turn into the Kum-n-Go and pulled up to the last pump. After running a hand along the dog’s silky fur, Devon plopped his old cowboy hat on his head. He shoved a shoulder into the rusted door. “Stay.”
The gusty wind drove the icy blend of sleet and snow into Devon’s face when he stepped from the truck. He hunched forward, a futile attempt at shelter from the brutal sting. “Oh, come on…” A quick flick of the wrist, and the green-handled pump slid into the open gas tank. Steeling himself against the cold, Devon waited while the truck filled with diesel. Even though he’d been raised in Wyoming, nothing prepared him for this type of weather. Yesterday morning, he’d fenced most of the northern pasture. It’d been a clear, forty-degree day with blue skies as far as the eye could see. Dawn revealed a blizzard as it descended from the mountains. Not much had improved throughout the day.
The nozzle clicked and he returned it to the pump. A punch with his gloved finger silenced the incessant beeping. If it wasn’t for the storm, he wouldn’t even stop for gas, but who knew when he’d get back to town. He brushed the snow from the top of the red gallon jugs in the bed of the pickup.
Devon finished filling the cans before plodding through the deepening drifts to the convenience store. The bell above the door chimed and a blast of heat slammed into his frozen cheekbones. He suppressed a groan of relief, blinking away the tears in his eyes.
“Hey, Dawson.” Pimples and pink hair greeted Devon from behind the register as he swept a glove across his face. The teenaged clerk lounged with a tablet in her hands and earbuds plugged into both ears. A periodic bubble exploded from between her painted lips, making communication difficult—not that she seemed interested in talking. Her eyes and fingers were absorbed with her device.
Devon grunted and made a beeline for the refrigerators at the back of the store. By the time he returned to the front counter, his arms were full. The milk crashed to the surface and he shoved it away from the edge. “Oh yeah…I almost forgot. Do you have any bread?”
The gum-popping and distant beat of drums shredded what was left of Devon’s patience, and he all but yanked the tablet from the teenager. When she didn’t move a muscle, he reached over and snapped his fingers under her nose.
Pink bangs flipped to the side and her narrowed gaze locked on his face. She snatched a bud out of one ear, “What is it, dude? Ready to check out?”
“Bread, Claudia, where is it?” Devon reeled in his irritation. He only needed to remember where the young woman lived—an old trailer, a hovel, on the south side of Buffalo—and his frustration evaporated as always. She peeked her head into church every so often but never stayed for long. In fact, she usually disappeared before service was over.
“Yeah, I’ll get it.” She unplugged from the digital world and stepped around the counter. “You better hurry or you’re gonna spend the holiday weekend in town. They’re talkin’ ’bout closin’ the roads.”
She disappeared behind the barren shelves, her spiked hair bobbing as she moved down the aisle. When she returned, two loaves of white bread joined his groceries and junk food. “Anythin’ else?”
“I don’t think so. Thanks.” Devon crossed one boot over the other while she scanned his purchases. A glance toward his truck revealed her blue two-door sedan buried beneath a blanket of white. “Are you going to make it home?”
Her fancy painted fingernails fluttered to a stop in mid-air. Startled hazel eyes lifted and quickly dropped back to the countertop. Claudia cleared her throat with a harsh cough as the small speaker on the machine beeped with his last item. She turned the credit card reader toward him and snapped open a plastic bag. “I’ll be fine.”
Devon paid for his groceries and slid a folded up twenty-dollar bill across the chipped Formica. After wedging it under the edge of the computer, Devon offered the independent young woman a crisp salute. “Stay safe and have a Merry Christmas.”
“You too.” Claudia shot a wink his way and worked the earbuds into her ears. A swipe of her finger on the tablet, and muffled drums resonated from behind the counter once again. “Laters.”
He opened the door, and the stifled reggae disappeared into the howling wind. Driving snow buffeted his body as he maneuvered toward the truck. Why did they put the diesel pumps a mile away? He drove a pickup for goodness sake, not a big rig. Besides, even car engines required it these days.
The door screeched open to reveal a barking dog and whining pup. Devon slapped at the snow on the seat with his hat and growled, “Move over, Chester. You too, Pistol.”
The dogs slouched in the seat but the thumping tails belied their forlorn expressions. A chuckle itched at his throat and his arms longed to hold the eager pups. But the weather wasn’t changing and neither were the roads. He started the pickup and blasted the foggy windshield with the defroster. “Hang on, guys. It’s gonna be a fun ride home.”
* * *
“Doggone it.” Bianca Kolceski sucked in a breath when the tires of her Prius connected with the strips carved into the edge of the highway. The brutal wind buffeted her small vehicle, causing it to shudder as the loud rumble reverberated through the car.
Her winter drive back to Dallas had spun into a nightmare. Blowing snow obliterated the sky and her ability to distinguish road from ditch, at times wiping the hood from the map. She flipped the wipers on high and crouched over the steering wheel. Squinting out the ice-covered windshield, she attempted to locate the elusive center line. “I can’t see a thing, Mimi.”
Brown and white fur curled in tiny ringlets around the little cockapoo’s snout. She lifted her head and stared at Bianca with soulful eyes.
“I know, baby. I’m trying.” Bianca gave her a rub and punched at the screen of her GPS. “Come on…work.” What good was the thing if it froze at the first sign of snow? “I am on the blasted interstate, right?”
Tall reflector poles swaying against the powerful gale and the rumble strips turned into her only guides as she worked her way along the impossible passageway. Mimi’s whimper mirrored the panic climbing in her own throat. She adjusted her sweaty grip on the steering wheel. “Hush, sweetie.”
Bianca searched for the linear posts through a quivering blanket of white and listened to the crunch of her tires. The snow rolled in a sheet—bright, brighter, and brighter still—against the pale afternoon light.
Mimi’s piercing bark snapped her brain from the mesmerizing kaleidoscope of white. She scratched the pup behind the ears. “This sucks. I’m sorry. We’ll go back.”
Slowing to a crawl, Bianca hunted for an exit or any spot to turn around. A hysterical giggle trembled in her chest. She cleared her throat, effectively squelching the panic welling in her bones. “Keep it together, Bee.”
Joy spiked through her when the blanket thinned for a brief moment and she spotted a large green sign on the right. She jumped upright in the seat, but then growled. The problem? Snow obliterated most of the writing. Was it Creek something in one mile or two? And what did the small sign below it say?
What difference did it make? Anywhere was better than this. Bianca stomped on the accelerator, only to ease off when the front tires spun. “Who lives in a place like this?”
A yellow marker flashed from the edge of the highway, and the blurry exit beckoned to Bianca. She braked, turning right toward the narrow sliver of a path. The tiny car skated sideways on the slick asphalt, only to be swallowed by a cloud of white.
The groan of the Anti-Lock Braking System smothered her cry. Sinking her teeth into her bottom lip, she cranked on the steering wheel, but her compact car didn’t respond. Instead, the perplexed vehicle plowed its way into a snowbank. The front end dropped with a solid thunk into the drifted-in drainage ditch.
Bianca sat, unmoving, for a moment and struggled to breathe. No air bags. She brushed her hands over her face and stared at her shaking palms. No blood. Her shaky exhale steamed the driver’s side window as she surveyed her new predicament. Good job, Bianca.
She noticed a piece of wood in the distance, followed it upwards, and flinched. Icicles hung from the crossbeams of the electrical pole. Even the old fence posts running tandem with the interstate seemed from another time or place with their tumbleweeds trapped in the wire.
Mimi whined from the cluttered floorboard, and Bianca gasped. “Oh, baby, come here.”
Bianca endured a thorough licking while she brushed chips, cookie crumbs, and popcorn from the dog’s curly hair. Cradling the pup to her chest, she scowled at the pile of garbage covering her laptop case. Well, at least her seat was clean.
Another swipe of Mimi’s tongue across her nose made Bianca blink. She giggled and gave her a kiss. “Don’t scare Mama like that.” She rubbed Mimi’s soft fur with her chin and stared at the blowing snow outside her window. “Should I try to back out?”
Bianca settled the tiny dog on the passenger seat and shoved the car into reverse, but when Mimi began to growl, she paused. “What’s wrong with you?”
The cockapoo pawed at her hand now resting on the gear shift, her nails tearing at her tender skin. “Ouch, stop that.”
Mimi’s bark resounded through the car, and she scrubbed the pup’s chin. “Here goes nothing.”
Muttering and mumbling, Bianca stretched her arm behind the seat and gripped the headrest. The accelerator bucked beneath her foot. A second later, the tires sunk deeper into the snow and spun. She switched gears, rocked forward, and tried again. This time, burying the Prius to the axels. The engine sputtered and died. Bianca buried her head in the steering wheel with a moan. “We’re not going anywhere, baby.”
* * *
The back tires slid again. His low whistle bounced off the icy windshield, and Devon squinted through the haze enveloping the truck. “This is nasty, fellas. Where are the plows? This is nasty.”
The old beater labored and groaned as it broke through the drifts. Devon’s calloused hands clenched around the wheel when the four-wheel-drive skated across a bridge. Chester barked. “Yeah, I hear ya. Don’t worry, old boy. I’ll get us there.”
But the collie didn’t seem to notice his words. Instead, Chester reared up on the dash, his claws digging into the vinyl. A deep whine came from the dog’s chest and he barked again. Pistol roused from his drug-induced stupor and gazed out the passenger window as if to investigate his buddy’s complaints.
The sign to Crazy Woman Creek Road, now covered with snow and ice, materialized and then disappeared in a puff of white. Devon tapped his brakes, sucking in his breath when the tires didn’t grip. He cranked on the wheel. “Whoa, they need to lay down some gravel.”
Another bark brought his attention to Chester, and he followed the dog’s intense gaze out the windshield. “What in the world…?”

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