The winter storm started as a steady drizzle as Katie McGowan left Fargo on I-94 East, heading back to Minneapolis. She’d spent the last four days in Fargo, North Dakota, at the new branch office of Prairie Star Newspapers, reviewing the benefits package with each employee and completing the paperwork. On Friday morning, she’d left early to get ahead of the storm, but it quickly caught up with her.
“Why do we have to get bad weather on the same day I’m driving back to Minneapolis?” Katie complained aloud, her heart pounding like a jackhammer as she peered through the flapping windshield wipers. “This had better not mess up my holiday!”
She’d planned to spend the weekend with her parents and get into the Christmas mood by watching classic holiday movies and helping her mom bake fancy cookies. Mom and Dad were expecting her for dinner tonight at six o’clock, but the way things looked now, she might not make it back to Minneapolis until very late.
Oh, well, she thought, I’ll catch up on sleep after Christmas.
As blustery Canadian winds pushed into Minnesota, the drizzle turned to sleet then became a rippling curtain of solid white, limiting her visibility to the taillights on the vehicle ahead of her. Slippery conditions and blowing snow forced her to reduce her speed to forty miles per hour. At thirty-three, Katie had seen her share of bad weather and considered herself a pretty good driver, but she’d never experienced anything like this.
The Malibu began to slide toward the shoulder, as though being pushed by an invisible force. Snow scraped the underside of her car, causing her to grip the wheel with white-knuckled hands. Slowly, she straightened the front wheels and steered back into the grooves carved by the huge tires of the monstrous pickup truck ahead of her.
Buried deep in her purse, her phone began to ring, but she let it go to voicemail and concentrated on her driving. She couldn’t even glance away from the road much less reach across the seat and dig into her bag.
Through the blowing snow, Katie spied a large green sign that read “Alexandria, Exit 100” and let out a small cheer. Luckily, the truck ahead of her drove up the exit first and plowed a path for her. At the top of the ramp, she stared through the swirling white cloud, wondering which way to go. Though she knew the city of Alexandria well, the whiteout conditions disoriented her, causing her to lose all sense of direction. She desperately needed to find a gas station where she could pull in temporarily and call home.
At the top of the exit, the truck turned right. She glanced around, surveying her limited options. To her left, the road looked impassable, covered with at least a foot of snow. She decided to play it safe and follow the truck.
Straight ahead, Katie saw a snowplowing contractor clearing the parking lot of a large gas station. Breathing a sigh of relief, she veered her car onto the frontage road and drove to the station.
Her phone began ringing again. She parked under the shelter of the station’s canopy and tore through her purse. The caller ID displayed Prairie Star Newspapers. “Hello?”
“Katie, where are you? I’ve been trying to reach you for over an hour! Are you okay?”
“I’ve got a major case of the shakes, but otherwise, I’m fine,” she said to Marcey, the Executive Assistant to the Director of Human Resources at the newspaper office. “I’m in Minnesota now at a gas station in Alexandria. The snow is coming down so fast I can hardly see to drive, much less answer calls. How’s the weather in Minneapolis?”
“I’m so glad you’re all right! It’s starting to sleet here and the snow isn’t far behind,” Marcey said. “According to the weatherman, MNDOT is closing down I-94 at Alexandria because the wind is creating impossible driving conditions. You escaped just in time. The barricades are going up right now and the Highway Patrol is directing people off the freeway. It looks like you’re going to be spending the night there, but don’t worry, I’m searching the Internet right now for a hotel room for you.”
Katie gripped the phone. Spend the night here? No way! “Marcey, I can’t stay in Alexandria tonight. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve! Mom and Dad are expecting me for dinner and I have to stop at my apartment first to pick up gifts.”
“Hold on,” Marcey said, ignoring her plea. Marcey went silent except for the clickety-click of her typing. “Katie, I have a list of accommodations for the area and I’m working my way through it. I’d better get back to calling before everything fills up. Sit tight. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”
“Marcey, wait—” The line went dead.
Katie tossed her phone on the seat and stared out the window. This couldn’t be happening. She had to get home tonight!
Her stomach rumbled, prompting her to dig through her bag for something to snack on. She’d missed lunch an hour ago, so a Snickers bar and a half-empty bag of strawberry Twizzlers would have to do. She bit into a Twizzlers stick and called her mother. No one answered. She tried her father’s cell phone. That rang repeatedly, too.
“Where are they?” she said aloud in frustration, chewing on a mouthful of candy. Her parents had a bad habit of forgetting their cell phones at home or simply not hearing the phones ring if they were watching the news. Over the years, her father had gradually lost his hearing in one ear, but rather than wear a hearing aid, he preferred to crank up the volume instead. They were probably sitting in front of the TV right now, getting the latest updates on the weather, and wondering why she hadn’t called.
The call went to voicemail. “Hi, Dad,” she said, “this is the first chance I’ve had to check my missed calls this morning. Don’t worry. I’m okay. I made it as far as Alexandria, but it looks like I’m stuck here overnight because the Highway Patrol is closing down the freeway. My boss’ assistant is booking a room for me right now. Tell Mom I’m sorry I can’t make it for dinner. I’ll call her when I reach the hotel. Bye.”
Katie disconnected the call and sat staring at the snow dancing across her windshield in swirling gusts. She didn’t want to stay here overnight. She didn’t want to be stuck in this town! Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the Snickers bar. When upset, eat chocolate!
I need to get back on that freeway and be on my way.
A couple of minutes later, Marcey rang her back.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Marcey said. “Which one do you want first?”
“I could use some good news about now.”
“Right! The good news is, I found you a first-rate hotel and the only rooms left were the king suites, so you’re going to spend the night getting the royal treatment.”
“What’s so bad about that?” Katie stuffed the last bite of the Snickers bar in her mouth.
She heard Marcey draw in a deep breath. “...it’s at Lakewood Resort.”
The candy bar stuck in her throat like a glob of sugary cement. She swallowed hard. “I can’t stay there. You know that. Please find me something else.”
“Believe me, I would if I could,” Marcey said, her voice threaded with regret. “I’m so sorry, Katie, but that’s the only hotel left with anything available in the entire city. All of the less expensive accommodations went first and the others filled up after that. There were only two suites left at the resort when I called and the other one is most likely gone by now, too.”
Katie’s heart began to slam in her chest. “I-I can’t do this. You know that’s where...where Josh...”
The scene came back with startling clarity; the grinding howl of snowmobile engines, the explosive crash of metal on metal, the screams...Josh airborne then his lifeless body crumpled in the snow...
“I know it’s hard to go back to the place where Josh was...had his accident, Katie, but you have no other choice.”
“I have an emergency kit in my trunk. I could pull into another hotel parking lot and keep the car running to stay warm.”
“Katie, that’s unthinkable! What will you do to keep warm once the gas runs out? And that’s not your only problem.”
Distracted by the crash scene blaring in her head, Katie barely heard Marcey’s words. “What do you mean?”
“What will you do when you have to use the bathroom?”
The words “use the bathroom” forced her to focus. It would be tough to sit in a cold car with no food, watching the snow pile up as her only entertainment, but the thought of not having any “facilities,” as her dad would say, gave her pause. A hot shower and something good to eat sounded wonderful right now, just not at Lakewood Resort!
“You can do this, Katie. It’s been two years since you’ve last seen the place.” Marcey paused as if to give her a chance to think it over. “Maybe going back there is just what you need.”
Though Marcey would never be tactless enough to say the words, the implication of what she really meant came across loud and clear. Going back to Lakewood Resort will force you to face Josh’s death, finally, and move on with your life.
No way, Katie thought stubbornly. She’d vowed never to come back to Lakewood Resort because it had caused her too much pain. I don’t want to deal with that now—or ever.
A sudden gust of wind rocked the Malibu. She checked the gas gauge. The needle pointed to the halfway mark. One-half of a tank would not last long in this weather. She could brave the storm and fill up here, but even a full tank wouldn’t get her through the night. She stared across the parking lot, knowing she had to get going and the longer she procrastinated, the worse it would be once she got back on the road. The area the snowplow had cleared already had an accumulation of new snow.
Katie let out a deep breath. “Marcey, are you still there?”
“Of course I am. I’m not hanging up until you promise me you’re going to take that room at the Lakewood Resort and be safe.”
She went silent for a few moments, mulling it over. “This is not fair,” she said in a grumbling voice. “I’ll drive over there and give it a try, but I’m not guaranteeing I’ll stay.”
“Wonderful! Do you need directions?”
“No. I’ll use my cell phone GPS.”
“Great! Look, I have the weather report on my monitor and you need to leave now. This storm is turning into a slow-moving blizzard and the longer you wait, the more dangerous it’s becoming. Get going before the police have to form a search party to find you.”
“Okay,” Katie said, becoming alarmed at the prospect of getting lost or worse, ending up in the ditch. “The Lakewood Resort can’t be far from here, but I have no idea what condition the roads are in over there by Lake Darling.”
“Drive carefully and call me as soon as you arrive. If I don’t hear from you in twenty minutes, I’m going to call 9-1-1!”
Katie hung up and got busy pulling up the directions on her phone. As soon as she drove out of the lot and turned onto the main road, her car began to slide, but she reduced her speed and kept moving. She drove toward the freeway and risked a glance as she passed the northbound on-ramp, hoping the Highway Patrol hadn’t closed the barrier yet.
She gasped when she saw red and blue flashing lights from a half-dozen squad cars on the freeway below. It looked like a semi-truck and trailer had jackknifed across the southbound lanes. Vehicles filled both sides of the ditch like piles of snow-covered dominoes. Headlights beamed like beacons through the blowing snow from cars lined up waiting to be detoured onto the exit ramp once the tow trucks had cleared through the drifts to open a temporary lane. Frightened, she focused straight ahead and kept on going, passing a roadblock of police cars closing off the southbound entrance to the freeway.
The GPS led her across town, directing her turn by turn until she reached Lakewood Lane, but she couldn’t let her guard down until she drove through the guest parking lot into the circular entrance at the Lakewood Resort and Conference Center.
Her stomach fluttered with dread. The last time she had stayed here, she’d departed in an ambulance with Josh and never returned. She’d buried him a few days later, exactly two weeks before Christmas. Thankfully, she’d had the love and support of her parents to help her get through the holiday that year and every year since. She couldn’t imagine spending Christmas without them.
She slid to a stop under the Porte cochére and stared at the massive brick and stucco building. Pine boughs, red velvet ribbon, and multi-colored lights dressed the large windows spanning the front. A pair of snow-covered wreaths hung on the double doors of the entrance. The bell captain came out to greet her, dressed in a black jacket and fur cap. A gust of icy wind and snow swirled around her as she lowered the window, causing her to shiver.
“We’re fully booked, Ma’am, but due to the blizzard, we’re allowing people to take shelter in the lobby. Do you have a reservation?” The nametag on his jacket read “Ron.”
“Yes, I do,” Katie shouted, squinting to avoid getting snow in her eyes.
“May I assist with your luggage?”
She pressed the trunk release. “I have one bag.”
“Just give the bell desk a call when you get into your room and we’ll deliver it.” Ron handed her a ticket for the suitcase and pointed toward the guest parking lot. “You’ll have to find a spot in the open area, I’m afraid. Valet parking is full.”
She raised the window and waited for him to remove her bag then stepped on the gas. But the car didn’t move forward. Instead, the front wheels spun on a patch of ice, making a loud whining noise. Then the car simply slid sideways.
Ron reappeared at her window. “The valet can give you a push. Unfortunately, I only have one on duty today and he’s busy helping someone else right now, so you’ll have to wait your turn. When he comes back, I’ll have him assist you.”
A horn blast forced her to turn around and look through the back window. Several cars had lined up behind her, waiting for her to drive on so they could drop off passengers and bags under the shelter of the canopy. The guy behind her made a rude gesture and laid on his horn again.
Katie leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and groaned. Could this day get any worse?
Ryan Scott sat at the Sportsmen’s Lounge in the Lakewood Resort and nursed a cold beer while he stared idly at a basketball game on a large TV mounted on the wall. A heavy-set bartender with curly red hair and matching beard stood on the other side of the counter, attempting to coax small talk out of him. The nametag pinned to his long-sleeved navy polo read “Red.”
“How about this weather? Gonna be nice cruising on a fast sled once the wind dies down.”
“Yep.” Ryan took a sip of his beer and watched seven-foot basketball players dancing across the TV screen.
“You own one?”
Ryan pulled his attention from the game long enough to glance at the guy. “Snowmobile? Yep.”
Red leaned against the bar with his palms spread on the counter. “Whatcha got?”
“Uh-huh.” The bartender grinned, his deep blue eyes sparkling at the mention of a Polaris. “So, you like trails.”
“Pretty much, yeah.” Ryan didn’t mean to be rude, but no way did he feel like making frivolous chitchat. He’d come up here from Minneapolis to be alone for a few days and deal with the shock of his parents’ sudden, vitriolic divorce. Their decision to cancel the family Christmas gathering and instead leave town on separate vacations had deeply hurt his sister. It simply angered him. His parents had put up with each other for the last forty years. Why couldn’t they have stuck it out two more weeks for their family’s sake? He understood why they’d decided to split up, but disagreed with their timing.
I’m never getting married. If it has to end like this, who needs it?
Ignoring his moodiness, Red reached under the counter and pulled out a glass bowl of snack mix, setting it in front of Ryan. “Are you stranded by the blizzard or staying here for the holidays?”
Red looked puzzled. “Huh?”
Ryan drained the last of his beer and pushed the bottle away. “If it wasn’t for the fact that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, I’d be out on my sled right now.” Across the room, a two-story wall of windows provided a magnificent panorama of the lake, but today the view amounted to tornado-like clouds of white. “Until the storm lets up, I’m sitting around, wasting a perfectly good weekend.”
“You could say that.”
A gray-haired guy walked into the bar, late fifties, dressed in a purple and gold jacket with the Minnesota Vikings logo on the chest. He stopped next to Ryan, but his attention focused on Red. “Hey, there’s a woman outside in a blue Malibu who could use a push,” he announced loudly. “She slid on some ice and now she’s blocking the entrance.”
Ryan slid off the barstool and grabbed his jacket, eager to answer the call. He didn’t much care for the idea of pushing a car through a blizzard, but it sure beat sitting here while Red pestered him with a million pointless questions. He jammed his arms into his jacket and started for the door. No one followed, not even the guy who asked for volunteers. Whatever. Given his present mood, he didn’t need any help.
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