Her winter jacket, Fila realized with a start. She wasn’t in Afghanistan, she was in Montana. In a truck, with Ned. She was…
The memory of their crash swept over Fila and she squirmed again, trying to put together the sequence of events. They’d slid over the side of the track, landed hard on the nose of the truck then tipped over altogether. She was hanging upside down, still strapped into her seatbelt, her thick winter jacket slipping up over her chin, her right arm pinned inside the straps of the seatbelt.
She had to calm down. Thrashing would only make it worse. She wiggled the fingers of both hands, then fumbled with her left hand to reach up and undo the jacket’s zipper, high up over her face. She finally succeeded in unzipping it enough to allow cold fresh air to reach her nose and mouth. That was better. She could see a little, too.
Although that wasn’t an improvement. The ceiling of the truck had buckled and now lay just inches from her face. To her right, the passenger side window had shattered. The shape of the frame was all wrong and she knew there was no way the door would open.
“Ned?” she croaked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Ned? Are you there?” Her jacket blocked her view when she turned toward the driver’s seat. She moved her head around, pushing the hood aside with her jaw and free hand as best she could. Finally, she spotted a crumpled shape that lay sprawled against the other side of the cab in a position that didn’t seem possible for a human body to take. “Ned? Ned!”
He didn’t move. She looked once more at his broken body and understood.
The accident had killed him.
She was alone.
A cold, hard lump of tears filled her throat but Fila swallowed them back. She knew how to conquer tears in a time of crisis. They got you nowhere in the little village where she’d spent her captivity. They didn’t feed you or protect you from the cruel sidelong looks of the other women. They didn’t clothe you when the wind howled around your shack or protect the skin of your fingers when you broke the ice in your washbowl at the beginning of another day.
First she must get free. Then she could face this new disaster that fate had thrown at her.
She realized that she was muttering one of the ancient protection prayers the village women often repeated. Well, why not? She needed as much protection now as they ever did. Her free hand searched for the seatbelt buckle and released it.
Remembering too late that it was all that held her aloft.
She hit the top of the cab with a hard thump that stung her scalp and shoulder. Claustrophobia gripped her as she realized how badly the cab had been crushed by the fall of the truck. Her only recourse was to slide out through the window where the glass had shattered. Muttering thanks for the thick protective cover of her winter coat, she did so slowly, wriggling and twisting until her body was free and she could extricate her legs.
Fila flopped back in the snow to catch her breath and felt the first kiss of snowflakes touch her cheeks and nose. Staring up at a leaden sky between Lodgepole pines, she realized the snow and the cold were now her enemies again.
Sitting up quickly, she moaned as the world tipped and tilted and the blood rushed in her ears. She braced herself against the cold ground until she’d regained her equilibrium and then crawled on all fours to the other side of the truck. The driver’s side window was shattered as well, and she carefully cleaned away the shards until she could see inside. She hesitated before touching Ned. Knowing he was dead and seeing the truth of it were two entirely different things. She’d come to care for him deeply. She thought she might love him. She’d counted on there being enough time to learn more about him—and to master her fear of relationships. If she was honest she’d hoped someday they would be together.
She should have known better than to depend on there being that kind of time. Life changed in an instant—when you least expected it. Blink and the ones you loved were gone. Blink again and your own life hung by a thread. Fila blinked the sting of tears from her eyes, not that they’d fall. Not now when she needed to see clearly. She owed it to Ned to sit vigil by his death. To be a witness to it, so she could relay the circumstances to his family when she made it back to the ranch.
If she made it to the ranch.
She pushed that traitorous thought away. This was Montana, not Afghanistan. Ned had a cell phone. She’d make a phone call and someone would come and get them.
She touched Ned’s face, turned toward her where he lay on the ceiling of the truck cab, one leg curled under him, the other heading in an unnatural direction. His face was still warm, of course, but not as warm as she would have liked.
She put her hand to his cheek. Comforting the dead.
The stubble of his beard scraped her bare fingers and she drew a breath. She should have touched him more when he was alive. There’d been nothing to fear from this man; she saw that now.
Something feathered against her wrist and Fila froze. Air from the window? A breath of wind? She dipped her fingers to his neck to test his pulse. Nothing.
She pressed harder. Felt the thready rhythm of his blood pulsing through his veins.
Fila drove her head and shoulders through the window frame to get a better look. She held her hand under his nose. Yes, that was another breath.
Gulping back an aching sob, she plunged her hands under Ned’s body as best she could, gripped his jacket and pulled.
It took long minutes to get him out of the truck. At one point he nearly woke. He tossed and turned his head, muttering unintelligibly. Fila tugged again, his broken leg jounced, Ned yelled and went unconscious.
Once he was free of the truck, she fished out the keys, slipped her own long jacket off, pushed and rolled and pulled at Ned until she’d laid him atop of it and used the sleeves to pull this makeshift sled along the ground. He slipped off of it again and again, until she had the idea of looping the coat-sleeves under his armpits. Still, she estimated it took nearly a half-hour to get him to the front door of the cabin. She thought she’d never get the large man up the three front steps and over the threshold and by the time his head hit the plank floor inside she was too far gone to worry about being gentle.
She manhandled him into the living room as close to the woodstove as possible then searched until she found newspaper, kindling and matches. She’d learned to start fires under worse conditions, so she was able to start one here without too much trouble. She fiddled with the flue until the fire drew well, and sat next to Ned to catch her breath.