Zora cursed her decision to veer off the main highway in favor of taking back roads. She hated sitting in traffic, and because of construction the three-lane interstate had been narrowed to one and the speed reduced to half. She'd gone five miles in an hour. With the aid of her road atlas, Zora had taken the first exit she'd come across. Big mistake. At least by now she would have been past the construction part instead of traveling through Bumfuck, Egypt.
It didn't help that she'd drunk a sixty-four ounce cup of cola she bought at her last pit stop. Three hours ago. Her bladder was strong, but she was pushing her luck. It had been a couple hours since she'd last seen civilization or gotten a proper cell phone signal. Hoping to God she'd see a sign of the main highway soon, she grabbed her map. Zora eyed it and frowned. Nothing seemed to match up. Had she taken a wrong turn? She knew she was somewhere in Tennessee, but which part was anyone's guess.
Zora tossed the map aside, flipped off the overhead reading light and hit the steering wheel in frustration. "Dammit."
Could things get any worse? Nothing had been going right for her since she'd recently buried her Nana. Selling the house and closing the little shop they'd run together had been equally crushing, but there was no way she could have stayed in Covington anyway. The town she'd considered her haven for the past ten years was no longer safe.
Now she had to start all over again with very little money to her name. The hospital bills and estate taxes had been crippling. She didn't realize it would be such an ordeal driving from the tiny North Carolina town she'd adopted as her home to Ohio.
Zora had hoped to make it to Kentucky by nightfall and find a cheap hotel to catch some shuteye, but the sun had set a long time ago. At least Christine, as she'd dubbed her twenty-year-old, temperamental, gas-guzzling vehicle, was riding smoothly though the fuel gauge was getting dangerously close to empty. As if the car had read her thoughts, it began to make a sputtering sound. Zora groaned. Now wasn't the time for her car to give her 'tude.
She caressed the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. "Come on, baby, just a little farther."
The thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, especially in the mountains of Tennessee, sent a shudder coursing through her body. Maybe it was her imagination, but she was sure she heard banjo music playing in the distance. This was the kind of region where running into a group of hillbillies who were fond of 'purty' mouths was more than a possibility.
It was pitch black outside without a star in sight and the road was barely visible even with her brights on. Her day had been shitty enough after getting a late start on her trip and receiving a speeding ticket before she'd crossed the North Carolina state line. She was irritable, sweaty, restless and in dire need of a meal, a hot shower and a warm bed. This journey couldn't possibly get worse.
As if some twisted fairy of bad luck could hear her internal lament, it began to rain, and not just a light drizzle but a torrential downpour, making what little visibility there was nonexistent.
Zora slammed her palm against the steering wheel. "Shit!"
In normal circumstances she would have pulled over to the side of the road, but Zora had no clue where she was and as a lone female out at night in the middle of nowhere, she had no intention of doing so. Easing her foot off the pedal to reduce speed, she trudged ahead.
She released a sigh of frustration as the rain pelted her car like tiny rocks. The inside of her windshield was starting to fog up because of her non-functional defroster. Taking one hand off the steering wheel, she reached forward and wiped away some of the cloudy condensation. Her momentary lapse of concentration on the road caused Zora to swerve the car.
Zora's heart plummeted to her feet as she gripped the wheel firmly with both hands and managed to straighten the wheels out.
"That was close," she muttered to herself, again silently cursing the circumstances that brought her here.
Even though she'd reconnected with her cousin Bernice, who'd invited Zora to stay with her, it wasn't quite the same. She'd had family and a purpose in Covington and the thought of starting over again was scary.
The eerily high screech of tires across a slick plane brought Zora out of her silent musings as her car skidded to the right side of the road.
She whispered a silent prayer for the rain to subside at least enough for her to see where the hell she was going. God obviously wasn't listening because it started to hail. She thought the rain had beat down on her car pretty hard before, but now it sounded as if her vehicle was being pelted by stones. Great. Even if she wanted to, there was no way she could continue on like this. She'd just have to suck up her misgivings and pull over. She'd only be out here long enough to wait out the storm, which hopefully wouldn't last too much longer. Easing the wheel to the right, Zora swerved Christine toward what she assumed was the side of the road.
Her car crashed into a large object, causing her head to snap forward. The sickening crunch of her car sent her heart plummeting. Shit! Shit! Shit! What the hell did she just hit?
Zora was thankful she wore her seatbelt and Christine was an older model made of much sturdier material than its newer counterparts. The collision could have been much worse. As much as Zora wanted to drive away, she couldn't do it without at least making sure she hadn't killed someone.
"Please let it be an inanimate object. Don't let it be a person," she chanted, rubbing the stiffening sensation in her neck.
Without turning the ignition, she undid her seat belt and got out of the car. Rain and hail hit her skin like needle pricks, soaking her within seconds. Zora shielded her face as she walked to the front of her vehicle.
Seeing the victim Christine had claimed made Zora wish she'd hit a person. It was an animal--a bear. Slowly making its way to a standing position was the most massive creature she'd ever seen. It wobbled as though trying to find the ground beneath its feet. Zora wasn't crazy enough to stick around to help or be its midnight snack.
With a squeak, she raced to the driver's side door, grateful she forgot to close it and that she'd left the engine running. From the way the bear had gained its balance, Zora figured it would be fine, but there was no guarantee she would be if she waited a second longer. Slipping back into her vehicle and yanking the door closed, she shifted the gear to drive. She slammed on the gas with every intention of maneuvering the car around the bear. In her panicked state, she didn't take into account the slickness of the road.
Her car hydroplaned, turning a three-sixty.
"Aaaaaahhh!" She screamed until her throat was raw. Desperately trying to gain control of the vehicle, she clutched the steering wheel for dear life and pumped the brakes frantically. This only served to send her spinning off the road and down a steep incline. Brief moments of her life flashed through her mind like moving pictures, and Zora was certain she was going to die tonight.
She jerked the wheel to the side in one last desperate attempt to stop the car's progress. Nothing. The car crashed into a tree. But this time, she wasn't wearing a seat belt.