Laura fantasized about how good it would be to have her life snatched away in some dramatic fashion. Her car sliding off a patch of ice on a two- lane road, wrapped around a tree near some lonely Nebraska farm or over the embankment of the Platte River would work perfectly.
No one would know that she wished for it to happen. Her life insurance would pay up although she didn’t know who to leave it to with her husband divorcing her, her being estranged from their two daughters and her elderly mother dying, all in the space of one terrible year.
But the problem with an accidental death was that it was …. accidental. You couldn’t really be sure if and when it would happen. She needed a backup plan if fate didn’t cooperate.
Here, Laura was at a loss. But there were a few requirements for taking her life and they were non-negotiable.
First, it must be quick. She heard stories about Roman soldiers slitting their wrists and Samurai warriors disemboweling themselves. That wasn’t going to work. Laura knew herself. She’d probably do the thing halfway, get cold feet, dial 911 and end up in the Psych Ward.
Second, it had to be neat. She hated messes. When they were married, Jack called her the Neatness Nazi and, although she hated the name, she had to admit it wasn’t too far from the truth. It was one of her many compulsions.
Finally, it had to be painless. Her daughters claimed she was a hypochondriac, but Laura knew better. She could feel a headache coming on two days before it arrived, a toothache a full week before it occurred. At those times, she would load up on pain medication and take to bed in anticipation of the dreaded event.
Given all these requirements, Laura hit upon hypothermia as the best plan. Just drift off to a numbing, peaceful sleep: no pain, no blood.
This was why she was driving over county roads, sixty miles from her home in Grand Isle. It was mid-January and the winter winds were blustering out of Manitoba. The afternoon, though, was sunny and not terribly cold, if you considered five above zero as moderate, which most folks in Nebraska did.
She knew she was feeling sorry for herself, but she wondered if anyone would even notice her death. Jack had sprung the divorce on her after twenty-eight years of marriage; he finally admitted to having multiple affairs for the last ten. But at least he possessed the decency of not telling her about it until their daughters were out on their own. The kids, estranged from her for years, had shockingly taken his side, arguing that she had driven him away with her hypochondria and compulsiveness, depression and bad moods. Then Laura’s mother, the only person in the world who unconditionally loved her, had withered from cancer and died.
Laura never felt more alone. If she chose to die, she figured she came by the right honestly.
It was her third time out this week. Today, she was north of Grand Isle, near Blair. She knew she was being compulsive about it, but none of the places-- Sidney to the south, Alliance to the east-- seemed right. She wanted someplace desolate enough where no one would find her and with good, black ice so she could go over an embankment and end ass- up in some farm ditch, her back tires spinning in the air. Then she would cut the motor, rest her head against the window and let the cold do its work.
The only problem was that it hadn’t snowed for three weeks and the roads were so dry that she could see the yellow line in the middle and the faded white stripe along the shoulder. This wasn’t going to work.
Laura saw a sign up ahead: Entering Ogala National Grassland. She remembered reading about it in the Travel section of the Star-Herald. The paper had listed it as an underused local gem.
The place was virtually endless, nearly 100,000 acres of wild prairie taking up a big chunk of the northwestern part of the state. But what Laura remembered most was the odd way it was managed; grassland designated as wilderness but at the same time available for ranchers to graze their cattle. Being ranchland, it was fenced off, but cattleman had to agree to allow hikers on it as long as they closed the gates behind them.
The thought of being an inconspicuous speck on thousands of acres of pure prairie appealed to Laura’s sense of unimportance. She pulled her car as far over to the shoulder of the road as she could and got out.
It was cold, and the winds bounced off the tabletop land. But instead of thinking about freezing to death, she gathered her coat around her small body and put on her gloves and stocking cap. Her long, hair, which had turned almost completely from brown to gray, stuck out. After Jack left, she gave up the monthly do-it-yourself dye jobs as a lost cause.
She started walking, looking back every five minutes, making sure to keep the car in her line of sight. Every time she looked, it grew smaller. Still, she knew as long as she could see it she wasn’t lost. All she needed to do was turn 180 degrees. Then, she could return to her car and continue with her master plan.
She walked a few hundred yards and turned around again. The car was gone. Maybe she had climbed a hill. She didn’t remember going up or down an incline. But the monotony of the prairie had a way of fooling a person. No problem. She would retrace her steps to where she last sighted the car.
But it still wasn’t there. She grew afraid. Had she drifted off course? And how far? She could walk back in the direction she came but when she came to the fence, how far would she be from her car? Out here, being just a few degrees off could mean miles from where you wanted to be.
She might freeze in this place. The grassland was so huge and sparely used that no one would discover her body before the vultures. Was that such a bad thing? Maybe this was the way it was supposed to be.
Still, Laura hated the idea of the circumstances of her death being snatched from her. So little of her life seemed under her control. Couldn’t she at least call the shots of her death? This wasn’t the way she wanted to die.
She took out her cell phone to dial 911. She felt like an idiot but at least an idiot who would be found alive.
There were no bars showing. That made sense. She was in the middle of 100,000 acres of prairie.
Other people might have panicked, but Laura prided herself on her ability to think clearly. She turned again and began to walk. If she couldn’t go back, then going forward might lead to someone’s farmhouse where she could get help.
Laura squinted into the late afternoon sun. She thought she could make out a fence in the distance and some sort of building.
She walked another two hundred yards. It was definitely a building, maybe a barn, but if she was lucky a house.
After another quarter mile and she knew it was a house. She was thankful, then worried. What if the owners weren’t home? She could freeze to death on the doorstep waiting for them to show up. Wouldn’t that be a welcome home present for the owners!
As Laura neared, she saw it was a church. This was worse. Today was Wednesday. The place was probably open only on Sundays for services.
She exited the grassland through a gate and walked across a gravel road. The building was pretty much as she expected a rural Nebraska church to look: wood and clapboard, painted white with a small cupola- shaped bell tower at the top. It was square and plain and had a leaded glass window. It was difficult to judge the age of the building, but it looked old. The place looked in need of scraping, sanding and a good paint job. She found it odd that there was no sign telling its name and denomination.
Laura tried the front door. It was locked. But there was a beat-up, Honda parked in the rutted dirt driveway. Someone might be in the building after all.
She walked around to the back. There was a small cemetery behind a wrought iron fence with about thirty, worn gravestones. The place seemed well kept.
She went up to the wooden back door and turned the knob. It was unlocked.
“Hello? Is anybody here?”
A man’s voice called from a far room. “In the kitchen! Bring in the coffee urn and paper plates, will you?”
A man appeared drying his hands on a dishtowel. He was probably in his mid sixties with thinning white hair, thick eyebrows and a short-cropped beard. He wore jeans, old-style sneakers and a University of Nebraska sweatshirt.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said without looking up. “ I was beginning to worr…”
He stopped. “Unless my eyesight is beginning to fail me like every other part of my body, you’re not Katherine.”
Laura took off her gloves and blew on her hands. The warmth of the building felt welcoming after the piercing cold of the grassland. “No, sorry I’m not. My name is Laura Grundson.”
The man extended his hand. “Well, welcome, even if you’re not the chairman if the refreshment committee. I’m Howard Larson.”
Laura took his hand. It was wet, like he had been doing the dishes. “Thank you, Mr. Larson. I seem to have become lost hiking in the area. Are you the caretaker of the place?”
He laughed. “Call me Howard. And it’s worse than that. I’m the pastor. You look like you’re freezing to death. Come and warm up.”
He led her into a kitchen in dire need of remodeling with a graying, linoleum floor, a single well-worn sink and an apartment size electric range. He offered her a chair from a dinette kitchen that had seen better days.
“Can I offer you something to warm you up?”
Laura sat and tried to warm her numb fingers. “I’m not much of a coffee drinker,” she said.
“Neither am I,” he said. “I was thinking along the lines of bourbon.” He took two Styrofoam cups from the cabinet. “You in?”
She laughed. “Sure. But I have to say you’re one odd clergyman.”
Howard poured a drink for each of them. “It’s sacrificial bourbon. You didn’t know Jesus was a drinking man?”
Laura smiled. “I think I missed that part in Catholic school.”
She took down the liquid in one gulp, the alcohol burning her mouth and throat. He poured her another.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Its for medicinal purposes only.”
He sat down across from her. “You were lucky to find us. We’re getting ready for tonight’s bible study group. Any other weekday and you’d find the place locked up tight.”
She drank more slowly, the feeling coming back to her extremities. “Yes, I guess I am fortunate.” She looked around the room. “What denomination are you anyway?”
“Guess you don’t know much about rural Nebraska. Most of our parishioners are buried in the cemetery back there. We take anybody still alive and willing to drop some money in the collection plate.”
He emptied his cup. “Actually, you’d be surprised to know that we represent all three main monotheistic religions.”
Laura couldn’t suppress her shock. “You have Muslims out here?”
Larson laughed. “No; Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. The Baptists split off years ago over the issue of drinking and dancing. The conservatives started their own church. What we have are the Lightfoot Baptists.”
Despite her depression, Laura liked this man. She imagined him listening to his parishioner’s troubles, guiding them through their crises.
He finished his whiskey and put his cup on the table. “So, tell me, why do you want to die?”
Laura gasped. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard the question. “Why are you so unhappy with your life?”
She wondered if he was some kind of mind reader.
“What makes you think I am?”
“Don’t try to kid a kidder,” he said. “I’ve been a pastor most of my adult life. I’ve baptized people, married and buried them. I’ve seen it all and I know the signs.
“But if you want further evidence,” he continued, “I’ll use the process of deduction. I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. So, let’s review the facts. Woman from the city….”
“Wait, “ Laura interrupted, “what makes you think I’m from the city?”
“Not all that difficult to figure out. Look at you; fashionable slacks instead of jeans, shoes instead of work boots. A coat that a farm wife wouldn’t wear during the workweek. No, you’re from the city.”
“Suppose I am. But how does that make me want to die?”
“Like I said, a stranger from the city, miles from home, late in the afternoon, has something pretty heavy on her mind. Now, factor in that she gets out of her car and begins wandering in the National Grassland with the temperature near zero. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out she isn’t all that keen on life.”
Laura put down her cup. “All right. I admit that I have been thinking about my demise. But what business of it is yours? I mean, it’s pretty crass to bring up the topic on our first meeting.”
Howard poured himself another shot. “I don’t mean to be rude. But I am a pastor. I’ve seen so many people die that I’ve lost count. But most of them were from natural causes or the odd accident. I could attribute it to or blame it on God depending on what type of mood I was in. But purposefully putting your life in peril is something else. So, if I can save your life by being pushy, excuse the expression, but what the hell?”
Laura didn’t know why, but she trusted this man. “I just don’t have all that much to live for, that’s all.”
“You dying of cancer?” he asked. “Have an inoperable brain tumor? Bank foreclosing on your house?”
Laura laughed in spite of herself. “No, nothing as dramatic as that.”
“So, then, what’s your beef?”
It’s just I’ve lost all the important people in my life in a very short amount of time,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know how to carry on all alone.”
“Fair enough.” Then he leaned forward toward her as if ready to share a secret. “But, what about those Three Musketeers bars stuffed in your kitchen drawer? You want your survivors to find those and know you went off your diet?”
“Wait, how do you know…?”
The pastor smiled. “Come on. Not much mystery there. Everybody has stuff squirreled away, things they don’t want people to find after they’re gone. It’s why our mothers always told us to wear clean underwear in case we got into an accident. It could have easily been one of those tabloids about Elvis’ alien love child from Jupiter. I just figured you for a candy bar hoarder.”
“Well, just so you don’t think yourself too perfect,” she said, “they’re Snicker’s Bars, and they're in my desk.”
Howard shrugged. “I stand corrected. But you know what I mean. It’s like any magic trick; a lot less mysterious once you learn how it’s done.”
He leaned back and folded his hands. “The point is; you’re not happy and you think you’ll never be happy. Given that line of thinking, I can’t say I blame you for wanting to die.”
Laura felt about to cry. “That’s not very helpful. I thought you were supposed to talk people out of killing themselves.”
“I don’t have The Answer,” he said. “If I did, I’d be at St. Peter’s Cathedral. Look around. Does this look like Rome?”
“Still,” Laura said, “is that the best you can do?”
“Maybe not.” He stood up. “You up to going outside for a minute?”
Laura was surprised at the question. “Why? You forget, its cold outside. That’s why I’m inside.”
He laughed. “I realize that. But it’ll be just be for a minute.”
The pastor put on his coat and led Laura out the back door and down the steps to the cemetery. He opened the metal gate; it’s rusty hinges objecting to the intrusion.
“Take a look at the history of this church. There are more people out here than in my congregation.”
Laura looked at a row of headstones; worn, almost unreadable with dates ranging from the late 1800’s to the early 20th century. Some had lived nearly a hundred years.
Many more had died in childhood or early adulthood.
Howard spoke quietly. “It’s the story of pioneer life. Children dying of diphtheria, women in childbirth, men from farm accidents”
Laura grew angry. “Is that why you brought me out here, to show me how hard their lives were, how easy mine is? To show me how soft I have it and how I shouldn’t complain?”
Larson seemed surprise. “No, not at all. In fact, exactly the opposite. Read the headstones, not the dates, but the inscriptions. People mourned every one of these folks; they were connected to kin and community. They may felt threatened by outside forces, illness, wildfire, drought, and crop failure. But they faced those hardships together. They didn’t feel alienated and alone.
“It’s different today,” he continued. “We have more creature comforts but we despair that most folks don’t give a crap if we live or die. We’re afraid that our kids will just sell off the house and give our things to the Goodwill.”
He looked into Laura’s eyes. “It’s that feeling that makes you to want to die.”
Laura was getting cold again. “So, what should I do?”
Larson shook his head. “I don’t know. I could give you the stock sermon about life being sacred but it would just be a load of crap. Then I could haul out the guilt trip
about you disappointing God. But to tell you the truth, I can’t tell if God doesn’t give a damn or if he just isn’t very bright.”
Laura had never heard anyone, no less a clergyman, talk like this, “Now I’m sure you’re going straight to hell,” she said. “ You’re the pastor. You can’t really think that.”
“I don’t know what to think,” he said.
He paused. “Let me ask you a question. When you were a kid, did you ever wish for a particular Christmas present and get something completely different, something you didn’t even want?”
Laura thought for a moment. “Of course,”
“Even though you dropped lots of hints to your parents about what you wanted?”
“Why do you think that happened?”
She thought back to her childhood. “I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t get the hint or maybe they didn’t have the money. Maybe they thought I’d be better off with something else.”
“Have you ever come right out and told God what you wanted?”
Laura nodded. “Yes, lately very often.”
“Get what you asked for?”
“Bingo,” said the pastor.
“What are you getting at?” Laura asked.
“ I don’t know. Maybe, God is as clueless as your parents. Maybe, he has a memory like a sieve and keeps giving the wrong life to the wrong people. Or maybe he figures you’d be better off with something else, something you might not even want.”
“Or maybe he doesn’t exist,” Laura said.
Howard nodded. “That too. All I know is there’s only a finite number of gifts. You got yours. What you decide to do with them is your business. But you have to know by this time that, unlike Macy’s, there’s a no-return policy.”
He shivered in the cold. “It’s late and you may not believe it but you’re going to be missed. We either have to find your car or call for help. Do you have any idea where you pulled over?”
Laura mentally retraced her steps. “Well, I headed due west after entering the grasslands and I don’t think I got that far turned around. I didn’t hit any other roads until I came to the one in front of your church. That, and I parked right next to the ‘Welcome to the ‘Ogala Grasslands’ sign.”
Howard nodded. “Taylorsville Road. I know just where you are.” He zipped the parka.
“Let’s get you back before it gets really cold.”
They left the cemetery and got into his car. Laura had to wait while Howard got inside and pushed open the stuck passenger door. He started the balky engine and from the rearview mirror Laura saw a cloud of black smoke come out of the exhaust.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said. “But this heap is on its last legs.”
Howard laughed. “Maybe. But I don’t believe much in the new cars being made these days. Besides, if it ain’t broke… well you know the rest.”
They drove, mostly in silence. “So, what are you going to do?” he said. “You got a plan or are you just going to keep driving over these county roads until you run out of Good Samaritans?”
Laura hesitated. “I don’t know. I need to do some hard thinking.”
He turned on Taylorville Road. “Good,” he said. “It’s always good to have options.”
Off in the distance, she could see her car. It wasn’t hard to miss with the two emergency vehicles nearby, their lights flashing.
“Lord, what’s all this?” she said.
“It appears like the cavalry’s out looking for you. I’m not surprised. Probably some farmer passing by in his truck saw your abandoned vehicle and called the State Police. They called the EMT’s. They probably figure you’re lost and freezing to death in the grassland.”
He looked over to her. “Guess that means someone cares about you.”
She looked out the windshield. “All it means is that they’re doing their job.”
The pastor stopped the car a hundred yards from the emergency vehicles. “Maybe, maybe not. You can’t tell for sure if you don’t give people a chance.”
Howard turned off his headlights. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to let you off here. I have to get back—remember, I’m still waiting for Katherine to show up with the coffee urn. The last thing I need is answering questions and filling out forms for an hour.”
He took her hand across the front seat. “Whatever you decide, do it with a full heart.”
Laura held back a sob. In a quick motion she leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Maybe it was inappropriate to kiss a pastor, but she didn’t care.
She got out of the car. It didn’t seem possible, but it was colder than when she had made the trek across the grassland. The wind whipped so raw that she couldn’t catch her breath.
Howard made a broken U-Turn and drove off. Laura watched as the car belched a huge plume of oily smoke out of the exhaust. She doubted whether the clunker would make it to the next model year.
She walked toward her car. A state trooper, facing in the other direction, was huddled up against the cold talking on his radio. An ambulance was nearby.
The trooper turned and seemed surprised to see a woman walking in the cold. That was definitely not something that the locals did on county roads at six in the evening in the middle of January.
“This your car?” he asked.
“Lady, what in the devil are you doing out here on foot this time of the year?
She felt stupid. “I was taking a walk and got lost. It’s not that big of a deal.”
The trooper shook his head. “It is around here. Besides, you must know a whole lot of folks who live out this way”.
Laura was puzzled. “No I don’t. Why do you say that?”
“Because we received something like eight 911 calls reporting your car abandoned and the driver missing. Folks were worried that you’d frozen to death.” Laura was embarrassed. Multiple 911 calls from perfect strangers. Her plan was to die quietly, without fanfare, not to have half the township looking for her.
She decided not to tell the officer about her suicide plans.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “And you’re right, I would have frozen to death if I hadn’t come upon a kind pastor at his church across the grassland on the next county road.”
The officer was clearly surprised. “How’s that?”
“A Pastor Larson at a nearby church. Luckily, he was in and the church was open. He was cleaning up and getting ready for a bible study meeting. He helped me get warm and then drove me back to my car.”
The trooper turned and called over to the ambulance. “Hey Billy, come over here a minute, will you?”
A tall, young man dressed in an EMT’s uniform ambled over. “This our missing hiker?” he asked.
“Yeah” the trooper said. “She says she got lost and wandered across the grassland until she came to the Methodist Church on County Road 400. Says that a pastor named Larson helped her and then drove her back to her car.”
“Damn,” the EMT said. “That doesn’t sound right.”
Laura was getting annoyed. And cold. She wanted to get back in her car and turn the heater on.
“What’s so odd about wandering into some old church and getting help?” she demanded. “I’m sure it happens all the time.”
The trooper turned back to her. “Maybe,” he said. “Only problem is that church has been abandoned for thirty years. And Howard Larson died fifteen years ago.”
Laura opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.
“Look, Miss,” the EMT said. “You’re obviously suffering from hypothermia and that can set a mind to experiencing strange things. I think we better get you to the hospital so the doctors can examine you better.”
Hypothermia. The method that she decided was going to end her life. Had it saved her?
She felt fuzzy, like the whole day had been a dream. Maybe the exposure to freezing temperatures had made her delusional. Could it be that when she lost sight of the car she simply walked back in the direction from which she came, coming out of the grassland and walked up the road to safety?
Laura knew that the cold could do weird things to a person’s mind; slow it down, make it see things that weren’t there. Had she simply wanted comfort so badly that she conjured up this mind-reading pastor who seemed to care for her despite of all her faults? Had she invented a source of comfort that didn’t exist, a separate reality that existed only in the reaches of her subconscious?
But she felt sure that the church, the Pastor, the bourbon, the cemetery, all of it was real. She remembered what Larson had said about people sometimes getting the wrong gifts. She wondered if this was an example. A church closed thirty years ago open today and staffed by a clergyman dead fifteen years. Did this occur for her benefit? Was she supposed to wander into the National Grassland, get lost and find the place? Or had she stumbled into someone else’s story, someone else’s’ reality? Maybe, she was simply nuts. She wondered if she would ever know for sure.
Laura looked at the EMT who was waiting for an answer. It was clear that the guy thought she was delusional. She was sure that any examination would be more
psychological than physical. She had no intention of trying to explain herself to psychiatrists in some hospital.
She was too exhausted to answer a litany of accusatory questions. All she wanted was to get in her car and drive home. Tomorrow, she’d face her life again and sift through possible plans of action.
But that was tomorrow. Tonight, she wanted her warm house and the Snicker’s Bars stashed away in the back of her desk. She might call her elder daughter in Oregon, the younger one on the east coast. Maybe, if she felt unusually bold, she’d call her ex-husband.
They’d be surprised to hear from her. Probably, they’d be annoyed. She didn’t care. That would be their problem, their issue.
All she knew was that she was damn tired of going through all of this alone.