CHAPTER 1

 

“Mommy!”

 

Another swirl of wind rocked Marcie’s Dodge Caravan so violently that it almost left the road. Her stomach clenched. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel.

 

“Mommy!”

 

“It’s alright, honey.”

 

Only icy patches from Tuesday’s isolated snowfall remained as she cruised beneath the shadowy overpass at McCaslin Boulevard. It had come and vanished the next day as was usual for the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

 

Ahead, however, black clouds slithered over the Front Range. Another storm closed in and, from the looks of it, an ugly one. With each passing second, the skies grew darker.

 

It now seemed unlikely she could outrace the tempest home.

 

She scanned the white numerals on her speedometer. Fifty-five, a safe speed, and one that would allow her to go unnoticed by Boulder County’s well-mannered traffic Gestapo. Recognizing that haste not caution should be her top priority, she pressed the gas peddle to the floor.

Another powerful gust, another uncertain plea from her daughter.

 

“Look at the cows, sweetie,” Marcie said, trying to distract her child by pointing to the herd in the Louisville pasture trotting toward shelter to escape the approaching winter storm.

 

Her eyes left the road for a mere second. A nanosecond. Long enough, however, to miss the sheet of ice, blackened by the tire-worn macadam beneath Highway 36 that lay in wait like a highwayman for an unsuspecting traveler.

 

Without warning, the wheels of the Caravan lost traction. The rear of the vehicle snaked forward at the same instant that turbulent clouds swallowed up the landscape, turning it from gray to black. Black skies. Black ice.

 

Blood pounding in her veins, Marcie turned into the skid. Distorted images of her surroundings flashed before her eyes at rapid eight-millimeter speed like scenes from a Fellini film. The rear end of the vehicle whipped to her right, then side-winded on her left. She wrestled the steering wheel in the opposite direction. Despite her determination the Caravan refused to respond to her direction. A violent tailspin whipped the vehicle a disorienting three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. She froze.

 

“Mommy!” Her daughter’s voice sounded far away.

 

From the vortex of her wildly whirling universe, the rat-a-tat warning of her vehicle traversing the rippled roadway berm scampered across her consciousness. Tires exploded. The sound of metal on pavement pierced her ears.

 

A large roadway sign, anchored by telephone-pole pillars, appeared briefly in her line of sight welcoming University of Colorado Buffalo fans to Boulder. Her vice-like grip on the steering wheel intensified. She rammed the brake peddle into the floorboard. In the panic-filled moments of wondering if the Caravan would hit the sign, the vehicle left pavement and lurched into an airborne somersault.

 

Black sky. Winter-browned grasses. Truncated buildings.

 

A crashing blow pounded the top of her head, sending shock waves of pain cascading down her spine. We’re dead, she thought.

 

Jewel’s screams orchestrated the phantasmagoria of things seen and imagined.

Somewhere between the pangs of fear, the crunching of metal, jolts of pain, and vertigo, her baby’s panicky shrieks suddenly stopped. An ebony void swallowed up her horror.

 

The ensuing stillness was without measure.

 

Psssht.

 

Psssht.

 

Psssht.

 

Marcie’s first cognitive connection was that of the sizzling splat of antifreeze on the engine block. The noxious smell burned her nostrils and turned her stomach.

 

She blinked, perplexed at her unfocused gray surroundings.

 

Kettledrums pounded in her head.

 

A warm, coppery taste flooded across her tongue. Futile attempts to swallow elicited only a gagging response. A gurgling sound amplified with each arrhythmic heave of her chest.

 

Her thoughts muddled, she peered up at the cold, dark space looming above her. Her eyes seemed to have sunken into deep wells within her skull. Pinholes of muted light flashed in front of her eyes, settling on her face in ephemeral dabs of iciness. It was snowing, she realized. Snowflakes played against the warm stickiness that enveloped her.

 

When the outline of a crumpled metal car door materialized overhead, memories, like unwelcome interlopers, crept into her brain.

 

A whisper of her daughter’s name slithered into her awareness. As she voiced her cloudy thoughts, the gritty crunching of broken teeth and slurred, blood-soaked mumblings rattled in her ears. “Jewel! Dear God, Jewel!”

 

Her senses awakened with the subtlety of a jackhammer. The numbness afforded by stupor having dissipated left her body racked with pain. The seatbelt that pinned her to her seat felt like it was cutting her in half. Convulsing in agony, she managed to focus her eyes downward toward the passenger’s side of the Caravan, which now rested like a felled bull-elephant on the ground.

 

A warm stream of blood poured from her head, down her face, across the bridge of her nose, splattering on whatever lay below. “Jewel. Jewel, honey,” she mumbled in garbled words almost indiscernible even to her own ears.

 

Reality faded in and out with pulses of suffering.

 

Then, there were voices and beams of light jetting in front of her eyes.

 

“Is everybody all right in there?” Marcie heard a man’s voice call out as her eyes struggled to adjust to the light.

 

Behind the first voice, a woman said, “Do you see anyone, Tim?”

 

“Jesus H. Christ! Don’t look, Shelley,” the man said, but not before in her last moments of consciousness Marcie spied the torn and bloodied remains of the child who had been her salvation. Shuddering, she strained her reach. She felt the touch of fabric and with her last ounce of strength clamped it in her grasp. The world evaporated into a sensory vacuum.

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