Pony, MT by Gretchen Kamps

December 4th, 1992

 

It was a smooth drive along Interstate 90 until the storm started rolling in.  In fact, the drive was almost too perfect.  After all, Anna wanted material to inspire her and there’s absolutely nothing exciting about a smooth, uninterrupted drive down the highway.

 

After driving over 900 miles from St. Cloud, MN to Montana, the early December weather finally became typical.  The storm hit with no warning, and within 10 minutes Anna was white-knuckling the steering wheel of her 1987 bright red Honda Civic.  The cassette tape playing in the tape deck was still blaring Journey, but she had stopped screaming along to it.  It gets dark after dinner this time of year, and she thought it better to focus on the road.

 

Glancing at her dashboard, she noticed she had a 1/2 a tank left.

 

“Thank God,” she said, “I might want an adventure, but I don’t’ want to die in this storm”.  The young brunette nervously chuckled at the thought of talking to herself. Maybe this is the story she was yearning for: Aspiring author goes insane while searching for inspiration.  

 

Shortly after the storm began, the conditions of the drive worsened, and it was if a white wall appeared just before her car, with the snow falling rapidly.  Letting her foot off the accelerator, Anna decided to take an exit in search of a hotel or a truck stop at least.  She had been driving for nearly 14 hours and with only short breaks the exhaustion was finally hitting her.  Not to mention she hasn’t eaten since lunch and that was several hours ago.

 

The highway she traveled on now was two lanes, and in poor condition.  She immediately regretted taking the exit, but then reconsidered; it could be destine: an adventure.  The 25 year old had lived a white-bread kind of life.  Parents that doted on her, sent her to private school, college all without asking anything in return other than accommodating that life.  Maybe they didn’t ask for much in return, but they couldn’t accept her choices to go against that grain.  Escaping her humdrum life with every chance she could, Anna dove into books, sneaking out of school to see R-rated movies, choosing a major in college they hated: English.  But it was never enough.  She yearned to explore, see things, find things, meet new people.

 

She continued to drive at a careful speed but was re-energized by the prospect of adventure and started screaming along to Journey once again.

 

With the Journey album coming to a close, she reached to insert a new tape.  Glancing at the clock, Anna did a double-take.

“Oh my God, how long have I been dr…I..I could’ve sworn I saw a sign for somethi….Goddammit there’s not even a place to turn around!”  She let out a frustrated guttural grunt and turned the heat in the car up to full blast.  

 

Looking back to the road, Anna could barely make out a store in the distance, she hoped it was a motel, her eyelids were getting heavy.  As the building grew closer, she squinted her eyes in strain to make out the outline, it was smaller than a motel, but bigger than a car.  Suddenly the white wall lifted and to Anna’s horror, it was no building at all, it was a male Elk, bigger than any horse she’d seen.  And he was standing right in the middle of her lane.

 

A panicked scream escaped her lips she made a hard swerve to the left and an even harder swerve to the right to correct her turn. Before she could stop she drove off the highway, and the car stopped with a mighty force.

 

Her body slammed into her seat belt, pushing the air out of her lungs, making her gag and gasp just as her airbag deployed into the left side of her face, stinging it with the hard fabric.  

 

Anna frantically pushed the air bag away and down, coughing and wheezing with tears running down her reddened, sore cheeks.  Each time a tear slipped from her eye, it stung and burned like nothing she’d experienced before.  At first, she didn’t know what was happening, because she wasn’t crying.  It was an uncontrollable, bodily function, her eyes weren’t crying – they were running because they had been open when the airbag had slapped across her face.

 

After successfully pushing the airbag aside, she unbuckled her seatbelt and tried to look around.  It was after 8pm by now and there were no streetlights.  Only the moonlight could guide her to the surroundings.  Looking carefully and slowly around her, she saw that all along the right side of the car was black, not even moonlight shone through.  The windshield was partially visible and it looked like the drivers door was exposed.  By the angle, Anna knew she was in a ditch, probably a shallow one.  Not only that, she was half buried in a snow bank.  She moved her head to the left, looking out she saw the head of the Elk along the highway. If she wasn’t so angry, she would have appreciated his beauty.  

 

Anna put the car into park, and tried to start the engine.  It sounded, for a brief second, like her reliable Honda might be turning over.  But, the engine died before it truly start.  The same thing happened each time she tried to turn the key.  After a heart crushing few minutes she again looked outside to the highway, at the only window visible – though the falling snow had already begun to restrict her view.

 

Wait, is this even a highway? It looks abandoned.  Like an ally between two separate forests.  Anna could feel her anxiety level rising, her pulse quickening.  

 

“I’m alone.”

 

Not quite alone.  The devil in Elk’s clothing was there.  He seemed to be stalking her.  He just stared.  Anna knew better than to leave the car, who knows what that Elk would do.  Plus, she hadn’t seen a car on this highway since she took the exit, there was no where to go.  No one to flag down for help.  Her body ached for her to close her eyes, to finally sleep.

 

Stretching her arm above her, she clicked on the dome light.

 

Anna took a very deep breath, wiped off her tears, and reached for her bookbag in the passenger seat.  She screamed in pain unexpectedly and her body became tense. That airbag damaged more than her face, it seemed.  Her neck could no longer rotate with ease.  She tried again, to reach for her bookbag – this time more slowly.

 

Pulling her backpack zipper open, carefully, she wrapped her fingers around what she was searching for: her notebook.  Anna’s notebook was her security blanket.  She carried it with her always, jotting down little phrases, funny jokes, observations.  It was more than just a diary, it was a part of her.

 

She opened to the first page in the book and read over her notes, her material.  She smiled at her memories, reliving them. After reading through each page, nearly half the book was filled, she finally reached the last page.  Shivering, Anna took her hair down from the ponytail and wrapped her long straight hair around her neck, “Never thought of hair as a insulator..”  She pulled her collar up, for the first time, she noticed her breath turning to an icy fog and she exhaled.  Glancing at her watch, she realized it had been over an hour since the crash.  She looked to her left once more, she could no longer see outside.  The falling snow had covered her window completely.  

 

She carefully turned to the next page in her notebook, the blank one, and withdrew her pen.

 

I wanted inspiration.  I wanted an adventure.  I left my, let’s face it, dead-end horrible job, so that I could explore.  Saving everything my parents had given me, selling the name brand clothing, the stereo, the furniture.  I did it – all right.  God my parents would be rolling their eyes…something of a hobby for them…if only they could see me now…  Just another reason we haven’t spoken in two years.  Of course something like this would happen.  Is this the end of my story?  Is this what I set out to do?  If it is, I’m going to leave with my notebook.  So that when they find me, they can see that I had possibilities.  I could have gone places in this world, made a difference.  

 

Anna closed her notebook, tucked it inside her coat, zipped up.  She noticed more now, than before, how she shivered.  Tucking her hands in her pockets, the aspiring writer slowly closed her eyes and allowed her body to sleep.

***

“Hey!  Hey miss!  Miss ya wit me!  Open yer eyes, Miss!”  A gruff, low voice boomed in Anna’s head.

 

She felt a rush of frigid cold wind snap her in the face and opened her eyes abruptly.

 

“Louise!  Louise!  She’s wakin’ up!” the same voice barreled through her ears and droplets of spilt splashed across her face as his enthusiasm peaked.

 

Anna’s eyes were starting to come into focus and she attempted to wipe the spittle from her forehead while Louise came tromping through the snow like it didn’t faze her one bit.  

 

“Oh Lord thank JESUS!  Girl, we was so worried fer ya!  Elroy, Jesus Christ, git er in the truck an warm er up!  Whatchu think, we’re havin’ a party?”  Louise barked out.

 

“Allright…allright..” Elroy began mumbling under his breath.

 

Before Anna knew it, her arm was thrown over Elroy’s shoulders and she half walking/half being dragged to the largest black truck she’d ever seen.  This was no truck, it was a truck on steroids. Looking down she wondered why her ankles were so cold.  The snow was nearly up to her knees at the high points of drift, and she was wearing tennis shoes.  It never occurred to her to pack boots.

 

Elroy’s hand had the strangest combination of warmth and callus she’d ever felt.  It scratched her wrist and felt like fire against her icy cold skin.  Elroy was a tall man, about 6 feet tall and in his 70s.  He stunk of stale cigarettes and had very large features.  His nose, jaw, mouth were huge, but not as huge as his hairy ears which hung down to practically his shoulders.  His eyes were a little sunken in with the loose skin of old age covering his eyelids.  Elroy’s face and neck were riddled with sun and age spots.  The friendliest feature about him was his large potbelly.  Big potbettys on older men always reminded Anna of Santa Claus.

 

Louise opened the passenger door and Elroy pushed Anna in by putting two hands under her bottom and heaving her up to the seat.  

 

The blasting heat from the truck felt as though 10,000 needles were poking and twisting into her skin, over her entire body.  But, what stung the most, was the left side of her face.

 

“What’s yer name, there?” Louise spoke softer now.  Anna hadn’t realize she was in the truck with her until she said something.  She turned to Louise in the driver’s seat slowly, and realized that her body was shaking.  Every part of her body was trembling.

 

Now that she was facing Louise, Anna was finally able to look upon her.  Louise was in her 70s, she thought, same as Elroy, though if the smell of cigarette smoke was an indicator she was probably younger and had just prematurely aged.  Louise had what looked like medium-length badly died blonde hair tucked under a red plaid hunters hat, with ear flaps to keep warm.  Her eyes were kind, but seemed worried and her lips were snapped tightly together in a non-nonsense kind of way.  She was taller than average, probably 5’8’’ and a little husky, with what looked like a lifetime of muscle under those bulky winter clothes.

 

“I…I’m…” As Anna began to speak, stuttering out words and she breathed, she realized why the left side of her face hurt so bad, her left eye was half closed.  It was swollen nearly shut.

 

“M…My ey…eye…it’s”  Anna began.

 

“Ya, it’s not pretty but nothin’ broken.  Damn airbags don’t do a lick a good, ask me, I bet you’dabeen fine wit out it.”  Louise interrupted, but stopped herself when she looked back at Anna’s confused eyes.

 

“M….My n…ame is Annamarie B..Brennen. Anna.”

 

“n what in God’s name ya doin’ out here so far from anythin’?”

 

“I came b..because I wanted..” she paused when she realized how ridiculous her reasons for a cross-country trip would seem.  “I….I guess was looking for a… f…fresh start.”

 

“What, and you chose here, Pony?”  Louise choked out a laugh and suddenly her expression grew solemn.  “You shoulda picked any other place than Pony.”

 

***

 

Louise scooted over to the middle seat so Elroy could hop in the driver’s side and drive the truck, finally, out of this godforsaken weather.  Anna’s skin wasn’t stinging quite as bad and she felt her head dip, and she nodded off into warm slumber.

 

“She ain’t stayin’ wit us, Louise.  We can’t git involved.  We was planning on finally leaving soon…we can’t git involved.” Elroy said in a hushed tone.

 

“She’s just a young girl, she coulda died out there.  She’s lucky she ain’t frostbite!  What if they git there hooks in er, El?  Ya know how they are.”  Louise’s voice was agitated and distressed.  “Ya know,” speaking with soft sorrow, “she’s about Hank’s age..or…she’s about how old he’d be now i..if..” Louise choked of her last words and sighed deeply while she seem to regain composure.  “Let’s at least take her home with us and get her some hot food and warm clothes before we drop er off.  We can’t send her out wit no boots or hat or nothin”.

 

“I ain’t saying it again, Louise.  We can’t.  You go on and we’ll make a quick stop home for couple things, but she ain’t comin’ inside.  We can’t git involved in this business again.  Ya know how they are.  We can’t. We need to just drop er off.”  Elroy stayed firm in his words, even through the whisper. “If she was big enough to set out on her own, she’s big enough to handle herself here even against…” Elroy’s words trailed off inaudibly.

 

Anna was frightened to open her eyes.  She’d listened to this exchange and was worried what their plans were with her.  Where they going to leave her in the middle of a field?  Drop her at a police station?  She suddenly realized all her belongings were back in her car – she didn’t have her backpack!  She had to go back, she HAD to.  

 

She continued to let them assume she was asleep while they all stopped back at, what she could only assume, was Elroy and Louise’s house. Anna waited for a few minutes after they pulled away from the house. She began to stretch, in effort to look like she had just woken, and yawned.  “Where are we?” Anna said drowsily.  Looking around, she saw they were approaching a town.  It looked like a ghosttown, actually.  Nearly every building looked either abandoned and boarded up or in serious violation of city codes. “Wait, where are we going?  I need my things.  Did you get my things?  We need to go back, you’re taking me back, right?”  As Anna spoke her voice became more and more frantic as her fear level rose, and at the end she was out of breath.

 

“I’m sorry sweetheart, but even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t know where yer car is.  The snow’s long covered that up.  Won’t be seeing that city car til the thaw come April.  But me and Louise got ya some warmer stuff than that fancy coat you got on, it’ll help you out some.”  Elroy keep his eyes on the road.  His voice was stern, but there was regret behind them.

 

Anna was stunned.  What can she do now?  She had exactly $47 in her jeans pocket and the rest was in her car.  Her driver’s license, her address book…everything to her name was in that car.  The only “out” would be to call her parents.  And, after not speaking to them in two years, this was not how she was going to make her grand entrance, how she was going to prove them wrong, show them that she was a success.

 

“What happens now?  Where are you taking me?” Anna began to wonder what she knew about this couple, they could be taking her anywhere.  She only knew their first names.

 

“We’re dropping ya in town.  Only thing open at this hour is, well, Pony Bar.” Louise spoke with reluctance.

 

As Louise mentioned the hour, Anna quickly looked at the clock radio.  It was nearly midnight.  Anna reflected on the fact that she dozed off in her car over three hours ago.  That means it had been over an hour – perhaps even two before someone found her.  At that moment she realized how very close to death she actually was, and how lucky she was to be alive.  Suddenly every moment felt precious, every breath felt sweet.

 

Elroy slowed the huge black truck and stopped it abruptly about 20 yards from what looked like Pony Bar.  The only reason Anna thought that though, was because there were snowmobiles and trucks parked in front of it, and there were lights on inside.  There was no sign, labeling the building as “Pony Bar”.  

 

Louise handed Anna some heavy duty winter boots.  

 

“You don’t have to do this.  But…but I greatly appreciate it.  Thank you, thank you very much. You both saved my life and I’ll be forever grateful.”  Anna meant the words she spoke, even though she wished they would help her more.  She slipped off her tennis shoes, and slipped on the boots.  Luckily, Louise was only a size or two bigger than her in feet.  Louise passed her a plastic bag of what looked like wool socks, gloves, a couple hats, a scarf or two, and what she guessed was long underwear.  Anna was very appreciative for these items, but silently wondered how the long underwear would fit as she was a good 4-5 inches shorter than Louise.

 

“Whelp.  Here ya go, Anna.  There’s a pay phone….and better yet booze in there you can take advantage of.  Just….ya know…just be careful and don’t be so goddamn trusting.”  Louise face read worry, but she quickly turned back to the road, away from Ann. “Glad the boots fit.”  

 

Anna opened the truck passenger door and slipped out.  She grabbed hold of the plastic bag and paused, looking back at the elderly couple.

 

“Take care, girlie.”  Elroy said, putting the truck into drive as he spoke.

 

Anna shut the door and watched the large black truck pull away and kept watching until it was out of sight.

 

***

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