Brian didn’t see the truck until they were almost upon it. If it hadn’t been for the trailer lights burning through the persistent snow, he might have gone right on past without noticing it, preoccupied as he was with keeping the Civic on the road. But, a line of yellow pips appeared in the left corner of Brian’s vision, and he watched as the dark form around it resolved into a semi truck, beached in the dip of the median. It had jackknifed. The cab listed on the incline, its headlights scattering into the cloud of snow.
“Shiiiiiit,” Brian said.
“Should we stop?” Anna said. She was in the passenger seat, leaning over the dashboard to get a better look.
“I don’t think the guy’s out there,” Brian said. “I can’t see him, anyway.”
“He could be down below the dashboard, or in the back where the bed is.” Anna tracked the trailer’s lights, her head on a slow swivel.
“I don’t think the car’s going to do much good towing a semi.”
“He could be dying.”
Brian urged the car on.
It wasn’t that Brian didn’t want to help. The snow wasn’t coming down strong, but southbound gusts were whipping up the powder already on the ground, carrying it across the flat Iowa landscape and throwing it in bursts into the path of the Chicago-bound traffic. Brian had almost spun the car when the first front hit, startled into a swerve by the sudden blank. The gust had been momentary, and in the following clear he almost resumed a normal speed, until a second whorl blew in and startled him again. They’d traveled like this for the past half-hour, in alternating fits of calm and blindness. Brian kept the car in the low thirties with his hazard lights on. Other drivers continued to barrel past in the left lane, seemingly unaware of their own unseeing. Brian didn’t want to be on the shoulder when one of those maniacs inevitably hit a bad patch doing seventy.
They’d been in Kansas for the weekend, Brian and Anna. Anna’s parents, a pair of Ukrainian expats, lived just outside Lawrence. Her father, Yuri, had been a nuclear physicist in the Soviet Union, and following its collapse the US government quietly relocated him and his pregnant wife to the States. Though Anna was born shortly after they got off the plane and would only know her homeland through sporadic trips, she still considered herself a citizen of Ukraine, and could be heard rapidly code-switching between Russian and English whenever her parents called.
That first night, while Anna helped her mother clean the dishes after a dinner of latkes and chicken Kiev, Yuri produced a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses from the sideboard. He returned to the table, poured a shot for himself, then placed the second glass in front of Brian. He reached across the table with the bottle, but stopped midway. Something had occurred to him. Yuri set the bottle on the table and looked at Brian.
“There is a saying,” Yuri said. He held a fist in front of his chest, as though clutching something. “The distance between what I offer,” — he then extended his arm toward Brian, with the palm open and upward, — “and what I give is very great.”
They were quiet for a while after they passed the truck. The snow lifted, and Brian could see a line of cars up ahead with their hazards on, all riding in the wake of a bi-level semi carrying golf carts. Brian attached himself to this convoy like a lost soldier falling in with a passing regiment on the march. They continued like this for a couple miles, speed low, wary. Brian hit the radio, and an announcer squawked about euphemistic “distressed real estate.” They passed more stranded cars, discarded at odd angles on the side of the road. Anna stared out the window in that way that suggests an oncoming fight. The air continued to clear, the grey horizon pushing further and further up the road. Snowcapped silos appeared in the peripheral distance, hollow, awaiting the spring’s grain.
Anna turned from the window. She grabbed her pack of cigarettes, opened it, counted the contents, and snapped it shut, as though inspecting the clip of a pistol.
“I just,” Anna said, “I just don’t understand what kind of person doesn’t stop to help.”
The visibility was almost complete now, and one by one the cars began to break off, gunning it around the semi in a loud, showy way that implied they hadn’t needed its help in the first place. Brian took a kind of cruel pleasure in knowing they would all be in separate ditches within the hour.
“Any other situation, and I would,” Brian said, finally. “But, you just don’t stop, not when it’s like this. We could get stranded ourselves, or someone could hit us from behind. It’s just not worth the risk.”
“So, if it was me, I’m sitting there in the driver’s seat with broken legs and my blood soaking into the floormats, you wouldn’t stop to help me?” Anna said.
“Of course I’d stop if it was you.”
“So why am I so much more important than anyone else?’
“I don’t know, maybe it’s because you’re my girlfriend.”
“It could be anyone in those cars, really. Friends, family.” Anna pointed out the window. “Look, we just passed your mom. She’s not looking good.”
“Just drop it, okay?”
So Anna did, momentarily. She pulled a lighter out of her jacket and rolled its flint with her thumb. Brian looked at the rattling golf carts and wondered whether the snow would ruin their upholstery. Soon, the truck driver became impatient, and, with a burp of black smoke, the cab and trailer charged ahead, city-bound.
The weekend in Lawrence had been awkward for Brian. Though he’d understood from their phone calls that Anna and her parents fought regularly, he had no idea that they would not only continue to fight in his presence, but with a persistence and energy that made him think they were somehow showing off. The three had an easy way with fighting, casual even, and they whiled away the two-night stay arguing over Anna’s drinking habits, the safety of Chicago’s public transportation, and the conflict in Gaza.
This family dynamic, revolving around the immediate and unfiltered airing of grievances, unnerved Brian. Of course, his parents had their own spats, but his takeaway from this was to avoid conflict at all costs. He became adept at ignoring injustices and insults, and cultivated a habit of only sharing his opinions when he was certain they matched the ones of those around him. In this way, Brian hoped to glide through life well-loved, free from conflict, and roundly approved. He began to realize the impossibility of this shortly after he started dating Anna.
“It’s pretty clear now,” Anna said, and it was true; almost an hour had passed without a significant gust, and the clouds had thinned, revealing a washed-out moon that was rapidly fleeing for the horizon.
“Yep. We should make it back in one piece,” Brian said.
“Yep,” Anna said. “Wonder if you can say the same for everyone else.”
“Jesus Christ, Anna,” Brian said.
“Do you think things just go away if you don’t pay attention to them?”
“You’re not taking this seriously. You’re not taking me seriously. You think if you shut me down long enough you won’t have to actually talk about this.”
“What’s there to talk about?” Brian said.
Anna gave him a hard look. Then, she said, “pull over.”
“What?” Brian said.
“I want to smoke a cigarette, pull over.”
“Smoke in the car.”
“Outside,” Anna said.
Brian exhaled through his teeth as he guided the car toward the shoulder, along the edge an empty field. Anna’s door was open before they came to a full stop. Brian hit the four-ways, and Anna vaulted out of the passenger seat and slammed the door. He watched as she walked into the field, stopping only to raise the lighter to her mouth before continuing on. Then, a gust of wind hit the windshield, and she was gone.
The wash of grey was complete, as though the car had been submerged in cement. Brian felt at once claustrophobic. He laid on the horn, hoping that Anna would follow the sound back. She didn’t, or couldn’t. The snow battered the windows with such a rage that he feared they might shatter. Brian watched the passenger window, waiting for the press of Anna’s hand against it. Still, she failed to appear. Tentatively, he opened his door. The air crashed in at him, but he pushed into it and out of the car. Brian felt his way around the hood. The beams from the headlights died only inches into the cloud. He found his way to the edge of the road and stepped into the field. The emergency lights lit the snow in front of him in a lurid orange, but after only a few steps the light and the car were lost to him. Brian continued on. He wished now, with her so far away, that he’d gone with Anna. Why was he so hesitant to follow her?
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the wind died out. A last wave of snow passed over Brian’s body, and as it cleared, he could see Anna, only a few yards ahead. He went to her.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Brian said. Anna smiled, but said nothing. Instead, she offered him the last of her cigarette.
Brian told the story of the whiteout many times, but didn’t truly think about that night until much later. It was at a party for an old friend, a towering historian from Alaska. Anna wasn’t there; she hadn’t been a part of Brian’s life for almost five years. In the months following the snowstorm, Brian’s aversion to conflict had gradually morphed into withdrawal, followed by coldness. He had not meant to be cruel.
The party was winding down. They tried to play a game of “who am I?” with slips of paper stuck to their foreheads, but the guests were tired and full, and the game failed to hold their attention. The name on Brian’s slip, which he failed to guess, was Pushkin.
Once the others had left, Brian and the Alaskan sat for a while in the living room, talking. The Alaskan was getting married in a few months. He was caught up in a nervous excitement over this that Brian found exhausting.
After a while, the Alaskan produced a joint from a cigar box under the coffee table. He lit the joint and took a drag, then held it out to Brian. Brian looked at it for a moment. Then he said, “You know, that reminds me of a saying,” before raising a fist to his chest.
Brian left a while after. He hadn’t expected to stay so late, so long past sundown. As he stepped out of the house, the November wind brushed past him, as though rushing to catch the open door. The chill took him back to that night on the highway. He tried to guess at who had made it home, and who had stayed out there, stranded. He thought of the snow, and the cold, and of Anna, lost in the distance between what he had to offer and what he had to give.
Andrew Hicks is a writer located in Chicago, IL. His fiction has appeared in Existere, The Chicago Reader, and Chicago Literati.