I'm learning a few awkward things about my fiction-writing style.
1. I'm far too fond of commas and of clauses stacked upon one another like Jenga blocks.
2. Though no kind of drinker otherwise, I've finished off both Darwin's bourbon and his whiskey in the course of this writing.
3. I need to stop writing until 3 am. After November, I mean.
The bracing chill, after the stifling atmosphere of the packed church, shocked me, and I realized that I was still holding onto his coat. He was watching me curiously.
“Thank you,” I said, straightening up and smoothing my hair, which had escaped from the last of the hairpins in the struggle to get out. “I... I’m grateful, and there’s no way for me to repay you.” I had remembered where I had parked, and now I tested my foot on the stairs as I leaned on the brass railing.
“You’re welcome,” he replied, and I could feel his eyes on me as I limped cautiously down the icy steps, favoring my wobbly ankle. “Will you be all right?”
I turned my head to reply, but there were so many answers that could be given to this question I had not heard in so long, and so much riding on my being “all right”, that I could only stare mutely at him. My breath was beginning to rise in shuddering gasps and I clamped my lips tight and clutched the rail. For the second time that evening he seemed to hesitate slightly, then he strode abruptly down the stairs to me. With a decisive motion he slipped his arm under my shoulders and guided me briskly down to the parking lot.
“Where are you parked?” he questioned shortly. His spurt of action cleared my head and focused me.
“Against the wall in the back.”
We made a rapid pace against the intensifying bombardment of the tiny snowflakes.
“Who is Emma?” he asked after a moment.
“My aunt. My great-aunt. I live with her. She has Alzheimer’s. She must be out in the cold, and I have to find her quickly. She could freeze to death in this weather...” My voice trailed off as I paused to regard the cars parked two and three deep.
“Which one is yours?”
I gestured at the old green Toyota trapped against the wall, not just double but triple parked. We stood silently for a moment. Then I let out my breath and headed for the gate.
“Wait,” he called. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll walk home,” I asserted. “I don’t live far away.”
“But your foot...”
“Is better. Thank you.” I crunched on with determination, calculating the fastest route home on foot.
“Stop,” he demanded, seizing my arm and catching up to me. “You can’t walk home in this weather.”
“My aunt is already walking in it!” I spat at him, pressing on against his effort to detain me. He placed himself squarely in my path. The rising wind lashed my hair into wild curls which whipped across my eyes. I shoved it back and piled it against my head as I faced him.
“You’ve already been much too kind,” I stated with all the determination I could muster, “but you don’t have to concern yourself. I need to go, please.”
“Seeing as I’m missing Christmas Vigil for this, I might as well consider myself involved already,” he said firmly. “How can you help your aunt by trudging slowly through the snow and making yourself sick? You need to find her fast. Let me drive you.”
I fought down my first unreasonable instinct to refuse his offer. “Yes, of course,” I snapped. We hurried back up the parking lot, the man keeping a stride ahead of me. His brown hair faded to yellow as we passed under the harsh glare of a street light, and he pushed it out of his eyes in an echo of my own struggle against the wind. Suddenly ashamed of my lack of graciousness, I swallowed and sighed, “Thank you. Again. I seem singularly ineffective tonight.”
“You don’t have to do everything yourself, you know,” he answered, with the same hint of amusement he had displayed when I was about to jump off the pew.
“Often, I do,” I answered in all seriousness, and with a sidelong glance at me, he checked his rejoinder. Instead, he unlocked the passenger door of a small silver car and held it open for me. I slid in and laid my head weakly back against the rest, closing my eyes and willing the rising panic in my stomach to calm and dissipate. My willpower achieved nothing but the slam of his door jolted me out of my inanition, and the manner in which he peeled out of the parking lot was positively cathartic.
As we sped through the empty streets, I gave him directions to Emma’s house. He looked at me oddly, but said nothing. We rode in silence while I exchanged frantic texts with Peggy. It had been twenty minutes since I’d first received her message. Emma had not been found yet and Peggy was ready to call the police. She was on her home phone with her husband John, who was driving an opposite route from the one that would bring us home from church. I had to refrain myself from pressing on the imaginary passenger-side accelerator to hurry us along. I searched the dark shadows between each street light hoping to see Emma walking, fearing to find her fallen.
“Look,” the man said urgently, and I too saw a figure moving slowly down the sidewalk, huddled against the wind. She wore a bulky sweater and a scarf over her head, but over her thick elastic stockings were only slippers. We pulled over swiftly and I leapt from the car screaming, “Emma!” The man, close behind me, wrapped her in his coat. I flung open the car door as he rushed her to the back seat, and then I pushed in beside her and placed my own coat over her legs.
“Emma, Emma, what were you doing?” I cried, chafing her hands between my own. “You’re almost frozen, what were you doing?”
“Hi, honey,” she croaked. “It sure is cold out.”
I thought I heard a choked laugh from the driver’s seat.
“This is nice,” Emma chattered, looking around the interior of the car. “Howard has done well for himself. You tell him to take me home now.”
“Where were you going?” I pressed. “What were you trying to do?”
“The folks never came over,” she explained as we covered the short distance home. “I couldn’t find Peggy’s house with the big tree. You remember Peggy? She’s my neighbor, but I can’t find her tree.”
“That tree blew down in a storm three years ago,” remarked the man unexpectedly, as we pulled in Emma’s driveway. Peggy flew out of her house, and I could see her bawling into the phone as we bundled Emma out of the car and into the house. Peggy and the man hustled her to her bed while I seized every blanket I could carry, including Emma’s electric blanket, and tossed them over her. Peggy seemed to take the man for granted.
“I was getting so desperate, I was going to call you next,” she babbled to him as she rattled around the kitchen making hot drinks. “You two get under the blankets with her and keep her warm. The more body heat, the better.”
He and I pressed ourselves on either side of the uncomplaining Emma and eyed each other over her shivering body.
“This is my aunt Emma,” I said smoothly, all embarrassment at the whole situation finally suppressed, “and my name is Emma too. Emma Trapnel.”
“I’m Martin Harriman,” he replied evenly. “Peggy is my aunt.”
“Aren’t we cozy?” murmured Emma contentedly.