Tuesday, December 26, 2023

December Vignette - Sagittarius the Zodian

Posted by: Linda Mooney



            Embeth hurried down State Highway 5, thankful that the road was practically deserted even though it wasn’t quite nine o’clock. The wind was already picking up, signaling the storm front rolling in. When it arrived, the temperatures would dip into the teens and drop more than a foot of snow. The last thing she wanted was to get stranded out in the middle of nowhere overnight.

            If there was something to be thankful for, the sky overhead for the time being was crystal clear and bright. The moon was three-quarters full and on the wane. It was one of the reasons why she loved living out here. No city lights to blank out the panoply of stars.

            A mailbox loomed in the distance. She noticed the name ARCHER on the side when she passed it. “Three more miles,” she told herself. “Then I’ll be home sweet home.”

            The blowout almost threw her into a state of panic. Embeth wrestled with the steering wheel as she pumped the brakes, hoping to keep the truck on the road. She felt the wind spin her around before pushing her off the tarmac and into the ditch where her pickup landed at an angle that was still somewhat right-side-up.

            It took her several moments for her heart to stop racing as she continued to grip the wheel, her eyes wide with shock. She knew the truck could easily have rolled end over end and landed upside down. The windows could have blown out. She could have been seriously injured, in spite of her wearing her seatbelt. A hundred possibilities that didn’t occur rushed through her until she was finally able to get a grip on herself and take deep, slow breaths.

            She was sitting at a hard slant. The driver’s side door was jammed against the culvert’s slope. Experimentally, she pressed down on the accelerator to see if she had any sort of traction, but other than rocking a little, it was clear the vehicle wasn’t going anywhere soon.

            She reached for her purse but it wasn’t there. Turning on the interior light, she found it wedged underneath the passenger side floorboard. After some struggling, she managed to retrieve it, but her cell phone wasn’t inside.

            Adrenaline continued to flood her system as she pressed her forehead to the seat. “Calm, girl. Calm down so you can think straight. You know the phone has to be in here someplace.” Then she remembered she could call out to it. “Hey, Bailee! What’s the temperature?” There was no answer, and she didn’t have to guess why. “Just my luck, I’m in a dead area.”

            A shooting star suddenly arched high above her, brightening the cab’s interior to where it almost seemed like daylight. It quickly dimmed, leaving her in the semi-darkness.

            “Think, Emmie, think. You’ve read about what to do if you get stranded.” Closing her eyes, she took another deep breath. “I have to preserve heat, but I can’t keep the engine running. I have to turn it off and only turn it back on at intervals. That way the battery will last and I can manage through the night.”

            There was no way she could trudge the three or so miles to her place. On a calm night, it wouldn’t be a problem. But with this storm coming in, the exposure alone could kill her.

            Turning off the engine, she also shut off the headlamps. On one hand she knew she’d be nearly impossible to spot if someone happened to drive past her. But on the other, she hoped she’d be able to see their headlights before then and flash hers to alert them.

            Wind gusts continued to rock the truck. The vehicle squeaked and shuddered like a trapped animal. Embeth undid her seatbelt and tried to get comfortable while also being able to keep an eye on the road.

            She must have dozed off when another intense light blazed overhead. Staring at it, she could almost imagine it was an arrow gliding across the heavens, leaving a fiery trail behind it.

Tightly bundling her jacket around her, she listened to the sound of the wind, and eventually the patter of snow as the first flakes started hitting the glass. By that time the cab’s interior was becoming unbearably cold. Reaching up, she was about to turn over the engine when a man’s face suddenly appeared over the side of the windshield, illuminated by a flashlight. Embeth screamed in fear.

The man threw up his hands, fingers spread. “It’s okay! It’s okay! I’m here to save you!” he yelled so she could hear him above the rising wind.

It took her a moment before she recognized him, or thought she did. She was about to mention it when he called to her, “Can you start the engine?”

Despite her gloves, her fingers felt stiff, nearly unresponsive. Still, she was able to turn the key to the old pickup. There was a grinding noise, but the motor failed to start.

The man shook his head. The fur trim around his hood jerked haphazardly across his face and forehead. “I think your engine stalled!” He gave the door a hard tug. “There’s no way to get you out on this side. Can you climb over to the passenger side door?”

She nodded when in truth she was doubtful. Still, she managed to brace her knee on the center console and unlocked the other door by hand. The guy appeared on the other side of the vehicle and opened it. Embeth reached up to him, and he hauled her out of the cab. She was able to catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a horse before he wrapped her securely in a heavy blanket.

“Just get comfortable. I’ll have you back at my place in no time.”

Back at his place? She didn’t question him but snuggled into the blanket’s folds as the man led the horse down the road. Or rather, along the side of the road.

“Wh-where’s your car?” she asked, peering up at his strong profile. He’d tucked the flashlight inside the blanket with her, enabling her to see him. Yet there was no illumination to show the way. “Are we on a h-horse?”

He grinned. “You could say that. By the way, my name’s Wright, like the brothers who flew the first airplane.”

“What’s your first n-name?”

His chest was solid and warm. Perfect to cuddle against. He must have sensed her feelings and cradled her closer. “That is my first name.”

“Why didn’t you come in a vehicle?” she asked.

“Roads are too slick.”

Then he was out in this weather on a horse?

She was aware of them passing a gate. In the flashlight’s faint glow, she caught the name ARCHER on the side of the mailbox. The one she’d passed earlier.

Wright took her up the short drive and straight inside his house. It was warm and brightly lit. Taking her into the living room, he bent over the back of the sofa to lay her on it. “I’ll only be a minute. Make yourself comfortable.”

Embeth slowly unwrapped herself from the wool blanket and sat up when it hit her. They hadn’t gotten off the horse, but came straight in. He rode it inside the house?

Wright entered from another door, without the horse. She assumed he’d come from the kitchen. He held two mugs, one of which he handed to her. “Have some hot chocolate. It’ll chase away the chill.”

She eyed him over the rim of her cup as she took a sip. She’d only seen him a few times. Random incidents and spottings. Then she remembered she hadn’t given him her name.

“Thank you. By the way, my name’s Embeth.”

“Glad to finally meet you,” he admitted. “I’ve seen you pass by several times. You bought the old Ackerman place, right?”

“Actually, it’s my grandfather’s place, on my mother’s side. My last name is Fields.”

“Let me guess. You inherited it?”

She snorted. She got the feeling she could be truthful to this man. She couldn’t explain why. Same way she couldn’t explain how she knew he wouldn’t hurt her.

“I got tired of living in the city, with the high cost of living and all the crime. Thought I’d give my grandparents’ place a try.”

“So you’re not a farm girl?”

She grinned. “Hardly. Between my inheritance and my writing, I manage to get by. I’m happy here.”

“What do you write, if I may ask?”

Embeth snorted. “Crime novels.”

His eyebrows went up. “Wow. Under what name? Maybe I’ve read one.”

“Right now I’m working on my Fallow Fields series under the name E.M. Strother. Strother was my mom’s maiden name.”

She was surprised to see his expression of amazement. “I just finished ‘Beneath the Fallow Fields.’ That was pretty damn good. You had me guessing up until the last chapter,” he confessed.

“Thank you.”

After another minute or two of comfortable silence passed between them, she set her mug on the end table.

“Want more?” he offered.

“I’d like some answers, if you don’t mind.” She tried to keep her voice low and even. She didn’t want to irritate or make him angry at her. Not after he’d gone to all the trouble to save her.

He crossed his legs from where he sat in an overstuffed chair. “What would you like to know?”

“The truth.” Wrapping her arms around herself, she faced him. “I’m grateful you saved me. I really am. I don’t think I would’ve lasted the night out there with this storm blowing in. But how did you find me in that culvert?”

“I was passing by and spotted your headlights.”

“How? That’s what confuses me. My place is farther down the road. I know I’d already passed your cutoff when my tire blew.”

“I told you. I spotted your headlights before you went off the road.”

“How?” She studied him. “You saw me crash?”

“No, but I heard it.”

Embeth shook her head. He sounded truthful, but it still didn’t add up. “Wright…”

He sat up and placed his mug on the floor by the chair’s leg. Turning to her, he gazed at her with a guarded expression on his face. “If I tell you the truth, you won’t believe me.”

“How do you know that? You don’t know me at all,” she countered.

“You’re right. I don’t. But I can sense things in you that make me believe I can trust you.” He bowed his head for a moment, as if to center himself, then looked back at her. “Embeth, I’m a Sagittarian.”

She gave him a confused look. “A Sagittarius?”

“Sagittarian,” he corrected. “Like the zodiac…sort of.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There’s not many of us. Maybe a couple of thousand scattered around the world. But we were…are…the inspiration for the sign in the zodiac.”

Embeth softly chuckled. “I’m not an astrologer, but isn’t Sagittarius half-man, half-horse?”

A slow smile crossed his handsome face, when she remembered the horse they’d ridden back here. He’d kept her bundled, she thought to keep her from becoming more chilled, when in fact…

“You didn’t want me to see you were a, what? Centaur?”

Wright leaned back in his chair. “I saw your truck’s headlights in the distance. I was watching you when I saw the taillights suddenly disappear.” He gestured to his body. “My Sagittarian body is more resistant to this weather. I changed and went looking for you. I was afraid you might have run off the road.”

“How did you find me?”

He grinned. “I shot an arrow into the air.”

Embeth blinked, recalling the line of fire arching across the sky. “The meteor. It was you. Both times?”

“Once I realized you’d wrecked, I went back to grab my coat and a blanket. I’d hoped you’d only be able to see me from the waist up. It was a chance I was willing to take. And, yes, I shot a second arrow overhead in order to find your exact location.” He tilted his head. “You believe me, but you still don’t believe me.”

“You have to admit it sounds a bit farfetched.”

He nodded. “That’s what I thought you’d say. Excuse me for sec.” Getting up from his chair, he went over to the doorway leading to what she thought was the kitchen. He kept his head in view but hid the rest of his body from sight. “This won’t take long,” he promised, and she heard the sound of what she assumed was him undoing his pants.

His head bowed slightly, then there was an odd clomping noise. Wright continued to watch her as he stepped through the doorway, into the living room.

Embeth stared in shock but no longer in disbelief at his equine half. He’d kept his long-sleeve denim shirt on, but she could tell his human half ended at the hip.

“If you want to, you can come over and pet me,” he half-teased.

She got to her feet and made her way over to him. Removing her gloves, she stroked the unbelievably soft hide. The hard muscle underneath. “Your fur is brown, like the hair on your head.”

“What? You were thinking we were all blond Palominos?”

He was teasing her again, and she discovered she liked his good-natured attitude. “Well, yes.”

He watched her examine him. “In case you’re wondering, we’re not born this way. We look human until we’re about twelve to eighteen months old. That’s when we begin trying to transform.”

“It’s a good thing. I dread to think what the doctors would think if you came out of your mother looking this way.”

That made him laugh, and she found herself liking the sound of it.

“Embeth?” He reached out and took one of her hands in his. “I’m trusting you with my deepest secret, but I know I have nothing to worry about. I’ve been wanting to meet you. I’m sorry it had to be under these conditions.”

“I’m not,” she confessed. “I’m glad you saved me. I’m glad you trust me. I’m glad you…” She wanted to say more, but words failed her.

He gave her fingers a squeeze. “You’re welcome to spend the night. Tomorrow morning, we’ll call the tow company to come get your truck out. Hopefully, it won’t be too difficult to fix.”

“I had a blowout.”

“But there could be more damage since you went into the culvert. Don’t worry. We’ll get it all straightened out.”

She stared up into his big brown eyes and smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Archer. I accept your offer.” And anything more you might suggest in the near future, she silently pledged.

He let out a breath as if relieved. “Great! Now, I haven’t had supper. Have you?”

“Come to think of it, no. I was planning on making a sandwich when I got home.”

“How do you feel about pancakes? I’m hungry—”

“As a horse?” she interjected, earning more laughter from him.

“I was going to say I was hungry for pancakes, since I sometimes have breakfast for supper, but your analogy is quite fitting, given what we’ve just discovered,” he admitted with wide smile.

“Pancakes work for me. Show me the kitchen.”

“It’s right in there. I’ll join you shortly. I need to put my pants back on,” he said, adding a wink.

Giving him one in return, she smiled and went to get started on their meal.

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