The interior lights of the liquor store went dark as Kelli pulled her Jeep into the parking lot. She glanced at her watch. Barely five o’clock. What was Mike thinking, closing this early on a Friday night? Kelli jumped out and clutched her collar against the howling wind that whipped her long hair into wild tendrils. She pounded on the door.
“Come on, let me in!” she shouted. The storm drowned out her voice, and Kelli pounded harder to catch the attention of the person inside. A violent gust yanked the handle out of Mike’s grip when he cracked open the door. Kelli stumbled into the dim interior and brushed back her bangs.
“Geez Kelli! What the hell?” asked Mike. “I was just about to go home.”
“Darrell wanted me to grab some beer while I was in town. I didn’t know you were planning to close early.”
Mike gestured at the clouds scudding across the dark sky and said, “In case you haven’t noticed, Sis, there’s a storm coming. Anyone with half a brain is hunkered down somewhere safe to ride it out.”
“This will only take a second,” said Kelli.
She strode past the half empty shelves of the liquor store towards the beer cooler and stopped short. There was nothing left except for a couple of cases of light beer.
“Aw, crap,” she muttered under her breath. She turned around and yelled, “Have you got anything else in the back? Darrell hates this light stuff!”
“Storm warnings are good for business,” answered Mike. “I was pretty much cleaned out by mid-afternoon.”
Kelli grabbed the two cases of ‘Lite’ and brought them to the till.
“Are you sure it’s worth getting those?” asked Mike. “Darrell was in here stocking up not long ago.”
“Might as well,” said Kelli. “I’m here anyways. Better safe than sorry.”
Mike leaned forward, resting an arm across both cases.
“I can’t believe Darrell sent you out for more beer in this weather,” he said. “What’s going on with him? Are you okay?”
“He didn’t send me,” Kelli protested. “I came into town for emergency supplies and dog food for Daisy.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Darrell’s going through a rough spot, but we’ll work it out,” Kelli replied.
She dug in her pocket for cash and tossed it on the counter. Mike handed the bills back to his sister.
“Keep your money. Use it to stay in town until the storm blows over,” he said. “Or better yet, come stay with me and Cindy. We’d love to have you.”
“I can’t,” said Kelli.
“Why not?” asked Mike.
“Daisy hates storms, she’ll be frantic without me. I need to get home, that’s all.”
Kelli grabbed the beer and avoided her brother’s gaze while he unlocked the door and held it open for her.
“I love you, Sis. Call me if you need anything at all.”
“I will,” Kelli promised. “After the storm.”
The click of the deadbolt behind her sounded unusually loud. Kelli sensed a moment of dead calm in the parking lot, like the atmosphere holding its breath. She looked up just as a streak of lightning tore open the blue-black sky and the flash imprinted a jagged purple image on her retina. The first hard drops of rain pelted down as she ran to her vehicle. Kelli fumbled with the keys and tossed the beer in the back beside the dog food. By the time she slid into the driver’s seat, her hair lay plastered across her face in soggy strands.
Kelli searched her pockets for a tissue and found the bills Mike had refused to take for the beer. She stuffed them deep into her jeans and hoped Darrell wouldn’t find the money before she could stash it away. She rested her head on the steering wheel for a moment and thought about taking Mike up on his offer to stay in town for the night. Things with Darrell were bad, worse than Mike suspected and one look at the sky told her it would be a rough drive home, but she did not have a choice. She could never leave without Daisy and right now the dog was at home.
Kelli closed her eyes and whispered, “Oh God, what should I do?”
The sky answered with pounding rain, punctuated by lightning that lit up the security bars on the liquor store windows. Kelli turned the key in the ignition and pulled away before Mike realized she was still sitting there and came out to check on her.
Wind gusts buffeted the Jeep, and driving rain overwhelmed the wipers. Kelli stayed to the middle of the road where the headlights illuminated just far enough ahead to keep her out of trouble. She felt a mixture of relief and dread as she neared the turnoff for Cooper Lane. Almost home. On-coming headlights caught Kelli by surprise. She veered right to avoid a collision and skidded in gravel and water at the edge of the road. Her hands gripped the steering wheel to stop them from shaking and Kelli took deep breaths to suppress the urge to freak out. She felt like screaming, and almost did, when the other driver suddenly appeared at her window.
“Are you okay?” yelled the man.
Kelli relaxed when a flash of lightning lit up the police officer’s hat and rain-soaked yellow slicker. His patrol car lights blinked blue and red on the far side of the road. He tapped on the window with a heavy flashlight and Kelli rolled it down a crack.
“Ma’am, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” answered Kelli. “I’m sorry, I didn’t expect to see anyone else out here.”
“Me neither,” answered the officer. “At least not headed in this direction. I’m going to have to ask you to follow me back to town. The road ahead is already flooding.”
“I’m only going as far as Cooper Lane,” said Kelli. “My family is waiting for me to get home with some emergency supplies. They’ll be worried sick if I don’t get back soon.”
Kelli hoped the officer would assume she meant food and bottled water for a loving husband and kids, not beer and dog food. The policeman shone his flashlight at a reflective sign up the road.
“That’s it! Cooper Lane,” said Kelli. “You see? I’m so close that it’s safer for me to go home than turn around and head back to town.”
“Okay, just go straight home and stay off the roads until the weather clears.”
“Thank you officer,” said Kelli. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of going anywhere else tonight. I wouldn’t be out here now if I hadn’t had so much trouble finding what I needed. I mean the stores were running out of everything.”
Kelli realized she was blathering on unnecessarily when the officer gave her a suspicious look.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
His flashlight beam played over the passenger side and across the back seat of the Jeep.
Kelli smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m just a bit shook up by that near miss we had.”
The officer waved her on, but Kelli noticed that he watched from his cruiser until she turned onto Cooper Lane. Halfway up the narrow road, muddy runoff washed over the gravel. Kelli slowed the Jeep to a crawl but kept going, the only thing that mattered was getting back home to Daisy.
Darrel knew, didn’t he? The instant she signalled to the dog to head out to the Jeep with her. He knew that she intended to leave, to drive away and never come back.
The storm warnings had cancelled work and Darrell began drinking early. He seldom allowed Kelli to go anywhere on her own, but that afternoon she had used the one ploy that still worked. Kelli moved a case of beer outside, hidden in plain sight amongst the stacks of empties, then she sat down and waited until Darrell got up to grab another can.
“You better slow down, or you’ll run out,” she said.
“I got plenty.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Kelli answered. “I suppose you can get more in a day or two. Maybe three. You’ve got enough beer for three days, right? Maybe four?”
“What the hell are you talking about? This storm ain’t gonna last four days.”
Kelli played with the fringe of a throw pillow as Darrell stood over her. If she seemed anxious to leave, he would catch on.
“I’m sure you’re right,” Kelli replied. “Unless the roads get washed out, but they’ll get fixed in no time, a week or two.”
She watched Darrell go back to the fridge. He did a quick inventory and cursed.
“I need more beer!”
“You just said you had plenty.”
“Don’t you tell me what I said.”
“Okay, fine. See, that’s what I thought,” Kelli had replied. “So go get more beer, and maybe some groceries and dog food while you’re at it. If we’re going to be stuck here for a week, we’ll need more milk and bread too. I’ll make a list.”
“Go get your own damn groceries.”
“I’m not going out in that weather,” Kelli countered.
Darrell flung his keys across the room and they bounced off the cushion beside Kelli. She assumed Darrell meant to hit her with them, but his aim was off. He dropped into his overstuffed chair, popped the tab on his beer can and glared at her. Kelli sighed, gathered up the keys and slowly shuffled to the closet to grab a raincoat. She casually reached to the back of the closet where she hid cash in the ripped lining of an old jacket. There was more money hidden in the bedroom, but Kelli decided it was better to get away quickly, before Darrell changed his mind. She hesitated, then held out her hand.
“For the beer and stuff.”
Darrell dug out a couple of bills.
“Bring back the change.”
Kelli nudged Daisy with her toe on the way to the door and the dog got up to follow her out to the Jeep. So close, but even in his drunken state Darrell had noticed that nudge. He staggered to his feet and grabbed the dog by her collar.
“Drive safe,” he had yelled from the porch, and she remembered Darrell’s smirk as he dragged Daisy back into the house. He knew she would come back for the dog.
Almost home. Kelli held her breath as she crossed the narrow wooden bridge which spanned a deep ravine before the final turn toward the house. Kelli hated the bridge but Darrell refused to replace it with something safer. He intentionally drove across it at full speed to scare her. A blinding bolt of lightning and simultaneous crack of thunder startled Kelli as she reached the far end of the bridge. She jammed the gas and the Jeep lurched forward across the road and slammed into a tree. The wipers swept away rain and pine needles.
Kelli waited for her heart to quit flip flopping and swallowed down the bile threatening to erupt over the steering wheel before she climbed out to assess the damage. Flashes of lightning revealed a smashed headlight and a new dent in the bumper. Darrell would be furious but there was nothing she could do about it. At least she was safely across the bridge and with a little luck, the Jeep would get her home. Kelli glanced back at the ravine. Something looked wrong. She ran to the back of the Jeep, moved the cases of beer onto the road and dug around for a flashlight they kept under the rear seat.
Her hands trembled as the beam of the flashlight played over the empty space. The bridge was gone. A huge pine, split by the lightning, had knocked it into the gap below. A few seconds sooner, and she would have been swept away too. Kelli stumbled back to the Jeep. It bumped and skidded as she reversed back onto the road and drove the last stretch home with only a single headlight to show the way. Daisy followed Darrell out onto the porch when Kelli pulled up to the house.
“What the hell did you do to my Jeep?” Darrell sounded more angry than drunk. A bad sign.
“I almost went off the road. I hit a tree,” said Kelli. “I almost died crossing the bridge.”
Almost died. Kelli doubled over and vomit splattered in the mud. She could not talk. Almost died. Darrell grabbed the keys from her hand and pushed past her to check on the Jeep. She heard him curse as he tossed grocery bags and the sack of dog food out of the back of the vehicle.
“Where the hell is my beer?”
Kelli wiped her mouth and turned back, confused. It took her a moment to remember. The beer was still down by the ravine. She had unloaded it to reach the flashlight.
“Oh my God,” she gasped. “I forgot, it’s down at—”
The backhand blow caught Kelli by surprise. She staggered backward, landing in the mud.
“You stupid bitch!” screamed Darrell. “I send you to town for beer and you come home with dog food! I should kill you!”
“I’ll go back and get it,” Kelli cried.
“Do you really think I’m going to let you do that?” said Darrell. “You want to steal my money, my dog, my car. You’d leave me stranded out here with nothing.”
“No! I would never do that.”
Darrell raised his fist and Kelli scrambled past Daisy to get away. She held her breath and waited for the next hit. Behind her, a low growl rumbled from Daisy’s broad chest and Kelli turned to see the dog, teeth bared and looking rabid in the pouring rain. Daisy lunged and Darrel retreated to the far side of the Jeep to the open driver’s side door. He started the Jeep with a sickening grind of the ignition and Kelli staggered to her feet to haul Daisy out of the way as the vehicle bucked and stalled. The engine revved again and Kelli wondered if he actually had the guts to run them over. Daisy lunged towards the jeep and nearly hauled Kelli down into the mud again. Kelli braced herself, but instead of the thud of impact, she felt the spray of gravel and grit as Darrell threw the Jeep into reverse and spun a tight circle.
“Where—?” But Kelli knew. Beer first, revenge later.
Darrell paused just long enough to crack the driver’s side window. “That freakin’ dog is going to learn her lesson as soon as I get back.” Except that he had pointed at her when he said it, not the dog.
Kelli knew what she had to do. “Don’t be an idiot, Darrell. The roads are closed. You’ll never make it to town.”
Darrell gave her the finger and the smile that said she could not tell him what to do. The Jeep’s tires sprayed a rooster tail of mud as he sped away. Kelli watched the beam from the single headlight disappear around the bend toward the ravine. “Be careful on the bridge,” she whispered.
Rain dripped down Kelli’s face as Daisy’s nose nuzzled her hand. “It’s okay,” she said, looking down at the dog. “We’ll call Mike in a couple of days. After the storm is over.”
Hermine Robinson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.