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  —William Shakespeare

  Part I


  Life is a gift that must be given back,

  and joy should arise from its possession.

  It’s too damned short, and that’s a fact.

  Hard to accept, this earthly procession

  to final darkness is a journey done,

  circle completed, work of art sublime,

  a sweet melodic rhyme, a battle won.




  An entire world hummed and bustled beyond the dark ramparts of the mountains, yet to Lindsey Harrison the night seemed empty, as hollow as the vacant chambers of a cold, dead heart. Shivering, she slumped deeper in the passenger seat of the Honda.

  Serried ranks of ancient evergreens receded up the slopes that flanked the highway, parting occasionally to accommodate sparse stands of winter-stripped maples and birches that poked at the sky with jagged black branches. However, that vast forest and the formidable rock formations to which it clung did not reduce the emptiness of the bitter March night. As the Honda descended the winding blacktop, the trees and stony out-croppings seemed to float past as if they were only dream images without real substance.

  Harried by fierce wind, fine dry snow slanted through the headlight beams. But the storm could not fill the void, either.

  The emptiness that Lindsey perceived was internal, not external. The night was brimming, as ever, with the chaos of creation. Her own soul was the only hollow thing.

  She glanced at Hatch. He was leaning forward, hunched slightly over the steering wheel, peering ahead with an expression which might be flat and inscrutable to anyone else but which, after twelve years of marriage, Lindsey could easily read. An excellent driver, Hatch was not daunted by poor road conditions. His thoughts, like hers, were no doubt on the long weekend they had just spent at Big Bear Lake.

  Yet again they had tried to recapture the easiness with each other that they had once known. And again they had failed.

  The chains of the past still bound them.

  The death of a five-year-old son had incalculable emotional weight. It pressed on the mind, quickly deflating every moment of buoyancy, crushing each new blossom of joy. Jimmy had been dead for more than four and a half years, nearly as long as he had lived, yet his death weighed as heavily on them now as on the day they had lost him, like some colossal moon looming in a low orbit overhead.

  Squinting through the smeared windshield, past snow-caked wiper blades that stuttered across the glass, Hatch sighed softly. He glanced at Lindsey and smiled. It was a pale smile, just a ghost of the real thing, barren of amusement, tired and melancholy. He seemed about to say something, changed his mind, and returned his attention to the highway.

  The three lanes of blacktop—one descending, two ascending—were disappearing under a shifting shroud of snow. The road slipped to the bottom of the slope and entered a short straightaway leading into a wide, blind curve. In spite of that flat stretch of pavement, they were not out of the San Bernardino Mountains yet. The state route eventually would turn steeply downward once more.

  As they followed the curve, the land changed around them: the slope to their right angled upward more sharply than before, while on the far side of the road, a black ravine yawned. White metal guardrails marked that precipice, but they were barely visible in the sheeting snow.

  A second or two before they came out of the curve, Lindsey had a premonition of danger. She said, “Hatch ...”

  Perhaps Hatch sensed trouble, too, for even as Lindsey spoke, he gently applied the brakes, cutting their speed slightly.

  A downgrade straightaway lay beyond the bend, and a beer distributor’s large truck was halted at an angle across two lanes, just fifty or sixty feet in front of them.

  Lindsey tried to say, oh God, but her voice was locked within her.

  While making a delivery to one of the area ski resorts, the trucker evidently had been surprised by the blizzard, which had set in only a short while ago but half a day ahead of the forecasters’ predictions. Without benefit of snow chains, the big truck tires churned ineffectively on the icy pavement as the driver struggled desperately to bring his rig around and get it moving again.

  Cursing under his breath but otherwise as controlled as ever, Hatch eased his foot down on the brake pedal. He dared not jam it to the floor and risk sending the Honda into a deadly spin.

  In response to the glare of the car headlights, the trucker looked through his side window. Across the rapidly closing gap of night and snow, Lindsey saw nothing of the man’s face but a pallid oval and twin charry holes where the eyes should have been, a ghostly countenance, as if some malign spirit was at the wheel of that vehicle. Or Death himself.

  Hatch was heading for the outermost of the two ascending lanes, the only part of the highway not blocked.

  Lindsey wondered if other traffic was coming uphill, hidden from them by the truck. Even at reduced speed, if they collided head-on, they would not survive.

  In spite of Hatch’s best efforts, the Honda began to slide. The tail end came around to the left, and Lindsey found herself swinging away from the stranded truck. The smooth, greasy, out-of-control motion was like the transition between scenes in a bad dream. Her stomach twisted with nausea, and although she was restrained by a safety harness, she instinctively pressed her right hand against the door and her left against the dashboard, bracing herself.

  “Hang on,” Hatch said, turning the wheel where the car wanted to go, which was his only hope of regaining control.

  But the slide became a sickening spin, and the Honda rotated three hundred and sixty degrees, as if it were a carousel without calliope: around ... around ... until the truck began to come into view again. For an instant, as they glided downhill, still turning, Lindsey was certain the car would slip safely past the other vehicle. She could see beyond the big rig now, and the road below was free of traffic.

  Then the front bumper on Hatch’s side caught the back of the truck. Tortured metal shrieked.

  The Honda shuddered and seemed to explode away from the point of collision, slamming backward into the guardrail. Lindsey’s teeth clacked together hard enough to ignite sparks of pain in her jaws, all the way into her temples, and the hand braced against the dashboard bent painfully at the wrist. Simultaneously, the strap of the shoulder harness, which stretched diagonally across her chest from right shoulder to left hip, abruptly cinched so tight that her breath burst from her.

  The car rebounded from the guardrail, not with sufficient momentum to reconnect with the truck but with so much torque that it pivoted three hundred and sixty degrees again. As they spun-glided past the truck, Hatch fought for control, but the steering wheel jerked erratically back and forth, tearing through his hands so violently that he cried out as his palms were abraded.

  Suddenly the moderate gradient appeared precipitously steep, like the water-greased spillway of an amusement-park flume ride. Lindsey would have screamed if she could have drawn breath. But although the safety strap had loosened, a diagonal line of pain still cut across her chest, making it impossible to inhale. Then she was rattled by a vision of the Honda skating in a long glissade to the next bend in the road, crashing through the guardrail, tumbling out into the void—and the image was so horrifying that it was like a blow, knocking breath back into her.

  As the Honda came out of the second rotation, the entire driver’s side slammed into the guardrail, and they slid thirty or forty feet without losing contact. To the accompaniment of a grinding-screeching-scraping of metal against metal, showers of yel