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The Virgin of Small Plains: A Novel of Suspenseby Nancy Pickard
January 23, 2004
Abby Reynolds braked her truck on the icy highway, startled by what she imagined she saw off to the side of the road. That can’t be, she thought, as she squinted into the snow, trying to see more clearly. When the wind blew an opening in the blizzard, Abby realized that it was not a hallucination. It was not an impossible illusion sketched on the early morning air by the gusting snow. It was . . . good grief! . . . it was Nadine Newquist in a bathrobe, surrounded by swirling white, struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, as if she were determined to visit a particular grave on this particular morning.
My God! It was Nadine: the judge’s wife, Mitch’s mom, Abby’s own late mother’s lifelong friend. It really was Nadine, a woman who was sixty-three years old and speeding toward early Alzheimer’s at about the same rate that Abby’s pickup truck was sliding sideways on Highway 177.
What the hell was Nadine doing out there?
She was all by herself, in a bathrobe, for God’s sake, in a blizzard . . .
Abby pumped her brakes with a light touch of her foot, didn’t slam on them like a fool, but her truck started to spin anyway, going round and round on the two-lane blacktop like a two-ton skater on ice.
She let her steering wheel alone, waiting for it to stop spinning before she touched it again. Coffee sloshed out of her lidless thermal cup in its holder by her knee; the smell of it filled the cab of her truck. She could still taste her last sip of it, along with the fruit and cereal she’d had for breakfast—all of which was now threatening to come back up her throat.
With a shudder, the truck came out of the spin and started slid- ing sideways again, skidding in a long diagonal across the yellow line into the eastbound lane. A heavy drift of snow slowed it down and changed the direction of the slide, until it was going backward. The skid went on and on, picking up speed as it backed into the crest of a rise, then dropped down again, taking the bottom of Abby’s stomach with it. And still the truck stayed on the pavement, hemmed in by snow, avoiding the shoulders, the deep culverts, the barbed wire fencing beyond. People thought Kansas was all flat, but it wasn’t, and especially not in the heart of the Flint Hills. The roads in this part of the state were long and straight, but they soared up and plunged down like curved ribbons of hard taffy.
Abby felt a wild hopeful moment of wondering if her truck could somehow manage to slide its way safely all the way back into town on the wrong side of the road. That would be a miracle. As she sat helplessly moving back the way she’d come, like a passenger on a roller coaster in reverse, she looked up the highway to the west, hoping not to see headlights coming at her. That way looked clear. In this strange, slow motion, made to feel even more eerie and timeless in the swirling snow, she felt as if she had all the time in the world before whatever was going to happen in the next few moments happened. She felt strangely calm, even curious about the possibility of crashing, but she didn’t feel calm about Nadine out there in the snow.
She grabbed her cell phone from the seat beside her.
In the uncanny suspension of time, as her truck drew two long parallel lines in the snow on the highway, Abby realized she might be able to get out of her seat belt, throw open her door, and dive out. But if she did, what if her cell phone broke in her fall, or she hurt herself too badly to call for help? Then nobody would know about Nadine. Mitch’s mom could fall out there in the cemetery, be covered by snow, she could die . . .
If I don’t jump, I’ll crash with the truck.
Nadine . . .
Heart pounding, stomach queasy, no longer feeling calm about anything, Abby gave up the idea of trying to jump to save herself. Instead, she punched in the single digit that called the Sheriff’s cell phone. It was on auto-dial, because Rex Shellenberger was as long and close a friend to her as Nadine had been to both of their mothers, as close as Mitch had been to Rex and Abby, once upon a happy time, a long time ago.
“Sheriff Shellenberger,” he said, calm as toast. But it was his recorded message. It went straight from those two words to the beep, wasting no time for people in emergencies.
“Rex! It’s Abby! Nadine Newquist is wandering in the snow in the cemetery. Come help me get her out of there and take her home!”
She felt the truck veer left, and then felt it in her back and bottom first as the ride got rough and the rear tires slid onto gravel underneath snow.
Her roller-coaster ride, her trip back through time, was almost over.
Nobody would believe she had traveled so far on ice without crashing, Abby thought as the ride got rougher.
Panicked thoughts flashed through her brain, images without words. Should she call Nadine’s husband, Tom? No, the judge was a notoriously bad driver in the best of weather, and a veritable menace at the first hint of moisture on the roads. Everybody knew that. Nobody with any sense ever consented to step into a car if Judge Tom Newquist was driving it, especially if it was raining, snowing, or sleeting. She’d only get him—or somebody else—killed if she called him out in this storm.
Frightened, Abby looked out the windshield just before it tilted up toward the sky.
In that split second, she glimpsed Mitch’s mom again. Nadine’s bathrobe was a tiny slash of deep rose on white, a hothouse flower inexplicably set outside on a winter’s day. Abby knew the robe was expensive, soft and silky to the touch. She’d seen Nadine wearing it a lot lately, because she insisted on spending her days and nights in lingerie. It hardly mattered, since she didn’t seem to be able to distinguish night from day anymore. When the judge or the nursing attendants he hired to watch her tried to get her into other clothes, she fought them. Abby knew the robe was made of thin material. The body under it was also thin, with hardly an ounce of fat to protect Nadine from the fierce cold that wrapped around her now.
At sixty miles an hour, Abby’s truck hit the far side of the cement culvert with a crash that telescoped the exhaust pipes, flattened half of the metal bed, tore through the transmission, ripped out the gears, and shut the engine off. It was a ten-year-old truck with no air bags. Her seat belt saved her from being thrown into her windshield, but not from being slammed sideways into the window.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2006 by Nancy Pickard
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