The pass was closed: to begin with. There was no doubt about that. The ceaseless rain in the city — just a thirty-minute slide down a serpentine river of a highway — was white-out snow in the midnight mountains. Police trucks crossed the road. Their searing lights, blue and red, painting a disco’s worth of pulse on the powdered trees off the shoulder. Officers in puffy ski parkas, holding orange-coned traffic flashlights, turned cars down the turnabout, onto to the westbound lanes, away from the pass.
Ramon watched a Prius go that way, sliding and spinning its wheels before finding traction and trudging off. Then, more successfully, a Tesla Model 3. What fool tries to best the pass at any time the winter in these kinds of cars? He bought the Jeep so that there was never a question of getting over — he made this trip at least once a month, and never saw it closed like this. Especially on Christmas Eve when so many wanted over the hump.
He pulled up near one of the officers, turned off the music, and rolled down the passenger window — Stella’s collar jangled as she shook off sleep and hopped from the back into the passenger seat, her black-lab tail whipping bruises into Ramon’s arm. She sniffed the piercing alpine air.
“She’s friendly,” Ramon cried out to an officer, approaching with a bit of hesitation. A hand got pulled out of an oversized glove, and yanked down a balaclava to reveal a smile. The officer pressed her hand across the threshold of the window, and Stella gave it a cursory sniff, before leaning up to lick the officer’s face.
“Harsh night to pull this duty,” Ramon said. “Hope you’re getting holiday pay.”
“What a sweet girl,” said the officer, scratching Stella around the collar, and, Ramon noted, leaning in a bit to look around the front seats of the car.
“We really need to get over,” said Ramon.
“Funny, I keep hearing that,” said the officer. “But that isn’t going to happen.”
“I’ve seen it worse than this,” said Ramon. “I’ve got chains.”
“Five wrecks tonight, already. It’s like a Zamboni came through before the snow hit. It’s a solid sheet on the road up above.”
“Damn,” said Ramon.
“Best to turn around.”
“That is not really a viable option for me,” Ramon said.
“Well, like they say at the lodge, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” She gave Stella an appropriately rough scratch on the head.
The police trucks had enough clearance between them that he could drive through. They probably wouldn’t give chase, they had to stay behind and make sure no one else was idiotic enough to try it. But, they would phone his plates ahead — there’d be someone waiting for him on the drive down.
“All right. Thanks, officer,” he said.
She made a kissy face at Stella, then pulled the mask back up before turning away. Ramon rolled up the window and, waving, went the way the police directed.
Stella, sensing the moment of excitement was over, looked to Ramon. He motioned with his head to the back, and she lazed over, into the soft bed he liked to put out for her when they drove.
He pulled onto the access road about a half-mile down from the turnabout. He could take it around Chorus Hill to where it intercepted Nicholas Pass, the one the higher capacity freeway replaced so many years back.
Sometimes, Ramon liked to drive that way on nice Summer days when he had a bit extra time to kill. It was gorgeous — a classic two-lane highway that switchbacked its way up and down, hugging sheer cliffs that rock-falled their way into evergreen valleys. Made him feel like Cary Grant driving through a Hitchcock film in a white convertible.
Almost nobody drove Nicholas Pass in the winter, so the police won’t be blocking it. In any car other than the Jeep, he wouldn’t think of it. But, going slow, he could make it. Might add two or three hours onto the drive at the pace he imagined, but he’d make it, all the same.
The snowfall was steady enough that the high beams did more damage than good, but the foglight helped, and the road here was lined with tall trees, so it was easy to keep to the gully.
He had the music low, but then switched it off to better concentrate on the road. A few times, he felt a bit of drift or slip, but it was nothing the chains couldn’t handle.
It was almost peaceful, no other lights, no other people, no other cars, just him, a little pregnant Mary on the way to find an inn. He started singing Christmas carols to Stella, and she howled once-or-twice to join him.
They passed through Luckton, which was literally a gas station and the Luckton Diner, established 1943. The diner had holiday lights strung around the outside, but was otherwise dark and obviously closed, as was the gas station.
Around a few bends, the road went more-or-less straight for a ten miles or so, at the end of the stretch it joined the Nicholas Pass highway for the start of the climb. Taking advantage of the lack of curves, Ramon put the pedal down and gained good speed.
The snow let up, and he flicked on the brights, the high beams showing a corridor of trees, standing tall around him, laden with white powder, slumping under the weight of their burden.
A ways past Luckton, in a slight downward grade, he saw the figure in the road. At first, he thought it was some trick of the light, and then perhaps a snowman or some kid’s prank. He slowed the Jeep, controlling his skid, and avoided the figure. He passed it, sliding, shuddering as the car worked to stop, and saw it was a man. A flash of eyes, gray hair, lines on his face, mustache. Old. Steady as hell, he didn’t even flinch. The Jeep shuddered and halted about ten yards past the figure.
“Stay,” he said to Stella, and he opened the door and stepped out into a foot or more of snow on the road. The cold overwhelmed his senses immediately.
“Hey!” he yelled at the man, who was turned towards him.
“Hi,” the man said. Ramon couldn’t make him out in the dark, but he could see the man’s breath rising above him like he were smoking. There was no other sound but the engine, and the voices.
“I almost hit you,” said Ramon. There was nothing, here. No driveway, no lights in the trees. He wasn’t by some estate, or home. Where the hell had the man come from?
“I see that.”
“You drunk or something?” The cold was biting Ramon’s hands.
“No,” said the man.
“What the hell are you even doing?”
“Well,” said that man. “That’s a fair question.”
“Jesus, it’s cold. Come get in the car and let’s talk there.”
Ramon climbed back in. Stella was on her feet, watching. The old man crossed behind the car, Ramon could see the red brake lights splashing up his torso. The passenger door opened, and the man started to get in.
Stella growled, low and light. The man stopped, half-in, half-out, and looked back at her. He was even older than Ramon thought, Eighty, maybe? Gaunt, long face. Looked like he came from the desert, maybe a cowboy or something.
“Easy,” said Ramon to Stella, and she licked her chops and whined, but did as she was told.
The man sat all the way in the chair and closed the door.
“It’s warm in here,” the man said.
“You were standing in the middle of a pitch-black road on a snowy Christmas Eve.”
“I was,” said the man. “You caught me.”
“Uh, okay,” said Ramon. Was this man a runaway? A patient somewhere? Was he suffering from some kind of dementia?
“Where’s your home?” Asked Ramon. “Do you need me to take you home?”
“I live in the city,” said the man. “I haven’t been up here years. Many, many years.”
“You know where you are?”
“I know exactly where I am.”
“How did you get here?”
“Now, that part’s a little hazier.”
The man seemed confused. “Say, I think I’m gonna double-back to Luckton, and we can call somebody, right? I think that’s the best plan.”
“Fine,” said the man. He had a big wool coat on, smelled like wet sheep. He stripped thick leather gloves off, yellow working gloves, and held his fingers by the heat vents.
Ramon turned the car around. Where the man had been standing, he saw a little flurry of footsteps, but none leading to them or away from them. He pulled out, and saw the Jeep’s tracks, heading to him, his past self going in the opposite way.
“What’s your name?” He asked the man.
“Dallas,” the man said. “Call me Dallas.”
“That where you from, originally?” Asked Ramon.
“Near enough,” said Dallas.
“How long were you waiting in that road for someone to just come along?”
“Long enough,” said Dallas.
“Do a lot of public speaking, do you?” Said Ramon.
“I’m sorry?” Said Dallas.
“Just not the chatty type, is what I’m saying.”
“Ah,” said the man. “No. Nobody’s every accused me of being chatty.”
“How about storytelling? You got a story, like what the hell you were in that road?”
Ramon had asked the question staring out the windshield, but when the man didn’t respond, Ramon glanced over. Dallas was turned, looking full at him. A kind of appraising look.
“You believe in fate?” Dallas asked.
“Not really,” said Ramon.
“You got any food?” asked the man.
“Sure,” said Ramon. “What does that have to do with fate?”
“Nothing, I’m just hungry,” said that man. “I tell stories better with food in my belly.”
“Behind you, in the cooler.”
“Your dog doesn’t like me,” said Dallas.
“Nothing personal,” said Ramon. “She doesn’t like anybody that freaks me out.”
“I just mean I don’t want to reach back and startle her.”
“Sure, fine,” Ramon said. He pulled the Jeep to a stop, and reached back. Stella sniffed his hand, and nudged him. He opened the cooler, and pulled out a roast beef sandwich he packed up for when he got hungry. He also grabbed his thermos from the well behind the seat. Handed both to Dallas.
“Hot cider in there,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Dallas. He unwrapped the sandwich from the wax bag, and started eating.
Ramon gave the Jeep some gas. The tires spun, but then caught. Watching the road, the snow swirling and soft, the tracks from where he passed before now nearly hidden by new fall. That version of him, hell-bent on getting over the pass, not imagining he would soon be turned around, with a passenger, no less.
Dallas pulled a crust off of one slice of bread, and without glancing back, dangled it between the seats. Ramon saw Stella creep forward, in the rear view, and gingerly take it, retreating to her bed as she gulped it down.
They were quiet, the man eating, until they reached Luckton. Ramon pulled off into the gas station, then checked his phone for service. Nothing. No phone booths anywhere anymore. He put the Jeep in park. Turned off the wipers.
“What am I supposed to do with you?” He said to Dallas.
“Take me to the city, I guess.”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m going the opposite direction.”
“I’m afraid I don’t think that’s wise,” said Dallas, taking the last bite of sandwich. He took the thermos, and poured steaming cider into the plastic lid. “The way is shut.”
“You drive that way, you’ll hit either be blocked by a road covered in avalanche remains, or you’ll get hit by one yourself. Or, you’ll drive off the road, maybe get clocked by a falling rock. You could fall asleep at the wheel, or get snow-blind and go straight on a hairpin right off a cliff. There are four dozen way to die on that pass tonight.”
“Nice of you to care, but I know the pass. I’ll be fine.”
“What about your pup?”
“Guy like you, sure it’s okay to take some chances. But you want to gamble with your pup’s life? That the kind of dog parent you are?”
Stella’s snout, as if she knew she were being talked, came up between them. Dallas made a clicking sound with his mouth, and she looked at him, head turned. She sniffed at him, then looked to Ramon, who gave her a pet.
“How about we just find a place to take you, okay?”
“Sure,” said Dallas. “Sure, that’s a good idea. I’d appreciate a ride back to the city.”
“Dallas, I’m not going to the city.”
“You take me to the city, you can be back here in an hour. Drive over the pass, if you feel like you can make it. I won’t be in the road again to stop you, you can be pretty sure about that.”
“No offense, pal, but when when did you become my problem? I got enough of my own problems without being responsible for some old timer who just appears randomly in the middle of some dark road, okay?”
Dallas nodded, listening. “Well, to be fair, I don’t think it was so very random.”
“What, are you the ghost of some guy who died on the pass, and have come back to warn me off or something?”
“Like Corker Prine, you mean?” Said Dallas.
“Is that a name?
“Yeah. He was the son of industry, Prine Lumber?”
“Corker was just about twenty-two or so, and he wanted to be with his fiancee and her family for Christmas. He was driving this very road, 90 years ago tonight. He was like you, thought he could make it over the pass during a snow storm. They didn’t find him until the Spring thaw, at the bottom of a ravine. Drove right through the guard rail.”
Stella began to sniff in earnest at Dallas’ coat arm, luxuriating in it, taking her time.
“So, Dallas, are you Corker Prine?”
“Oh hell, I’m no ghost. But Corker was the first to die in the snow on Nicholas Pass since the old wagon train days. Some say he haunts it to this day. Depending on your version of the story, he either comes out to warn fellow foolish travelers, or jumps out to scare them so they join him in death. Some say the reason he got knocked off the road was an avalanche caused by some of the patches his Daddy’s company left up the hill when they cleared it of timber. Those folks say Corker got what was due to him.”
Something drew Ramon’s eye. A light on a string at the diner flickered, then popped out. The rest of the strand after it went, too. It sent a shiver down Ramon’s spine.
Ramon put on the wipers, put the Jeep in gear, and started driving out towards Nicholas Pass.
“Sorry, Dallas. I gotta get over the pass tonight. I’ll find someone to take care of you when we get where we’re going. Get you on a plane or bus back to the city.”
“Be much easier if you just took me back to the city.”
“Be a lot easier for me if you weren’t in my car.” Ramon gunned it, and the Jeep drifted before catching. Ramon tried to keep in the path of the first time drove this way tonight, the tracks coming back at him again. Ghosts of two previous Ramon’s driving this godforsaken road.
“Look, kid, I want to be here about as much as you want me here, but for whatever reason, here I am. You want to hear my story? Fine, I’ll tell you. I read Dickens tonight, like I’ve been doing every Christmas Eve since I was a kid. I go to bed. I have a dream some old friend comes and visits me, shows me some crap from my past when I was a nicer man. Then, I get told to wait for the ghost of Christmas Present, and next thing I know I’m standing on a dark road in the middle of the night. I hear an engine, and then see lights cresting the hill, and there you were, right on me.”
Ramon laughed, a kind of bitter sound. “I thought you said it wasn’t a ghost story.”
“Oh no,” said Dallas. “I said I wasn’t a ghost. This is definitely a ghost story.” Dallas patted his knee, and Stella did her best to climb into his lap, putting her torso and front legs onto him.
“How is that?”
“Used to be an old ski resort off Luckton. I worked it in the 50s for years. One Christmas Eve was so rainy we all got sent home. I decided to drive over Nicholas Pass to surprise my Mama.
“I get near the peak, and there, standing in the middle of the road is a man. Just like when you saw me, except he was on the pass, right at that hairpin corner before the peak. I pulled to a stop, nothing else to do, and was about to get out of my car to talk to him like you done to me, when he disappeared. Poof, just gone.
“And a moment later, a shelf of snow fell on the road, right there in front of me. Right where I shoulda been. I would have been buried, or pushed off the road. I saw my death right there. But for that man standing there, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”
“And you think that was Corker Prine?” said Ramon.
“Don’t know who else it could’ve been.” said Dallas
“You think he’s a benevolent kind of ghost? Come back to help people from getting killed on the pass?”
Dallas shrugged. “What do I know? I’m just telling you what I saw.”
“So, if you hadn’t gotten in front of my Jeep, I would have made it fine over the hill. Or, old Corker would have appeared to me and kept me safe.”
They were almost to where Ramon had first seen Dallas in the road.
“Do me a favor and stop the car,” Dallas said.
“Just let me out.”
Ramon laughed. “I’m not gonna let you out in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm.”
“Let me out, I’ll be fine. I just know I’m not supposed to go over that pass. You gonna do it, that’s between you and your pup here. None of my business anymore. I tried to get you to stop and you said no. Fine. I’m not gonna be a party to it anymore. Your funeral.”
“Suits me,” Ramon said. He began to slow down.
“I’m gonna take your thermos with me. You make good cider. It’ll keep me warm.”
“Fine,” said Ramon. The car came to a stop.
Dallas gave Stella few good pets. “You try to convince him, now,” he said.
He opened the door and stepped out. Walked around the back of the Jeep, the brake lights splashing him red, like before, then he walked to about the spot he originally was standing when Ramon found him.
Ramon could see Dallas’ breath, again like smoke, rising from him in great plumes. He was a silhouette against the falling snow.
Stella whined. Ramon motioned with his head, and she got back in her seat, but whined again.
“You know what’ll happen if we don’t make it in time for opening presents,” Ramon said. He turned and looked at her. The Jeep idled. The hot air from the vents shushed. She looked right back at him, impatient, eyebrows pursed. Obviously of a set opinion. She yelped, annoyed.
“Fine,” he said. "Fine. You win. Stay.” Ramon opened the door and stepped out into the cold.
“Hey!” He called out to Dallas. But Dallas was not where he was a moment ago. Ramon ran over, but Dallas’ footsteps lead from the Jeep to a circle of indented snow in the middle of the road, no new tracks leading away from it, just a small circle where he had been standing.
Ramon looked around. “Dallas!” He cried out, but there was nothing. Just snow, falling from above, late on Christmas Eve. Just his own breath, making clouds as he exhaled. “Dallas?”
The engine of the car purred, exhaust bluming from the tailpipe. It cast red behind it from the brake lights, staining the snow. Before the Jeep, the headlights illuminated a long cooridor of tall-standing trees, and a cut valley of road between them, frosted in untouched snow. That way, Nicholas Pass.
But the way was shut. The pass was closed. Nothing could be done about it tonight. There was no doubt about that. It was Christmas Eve in the mountains, and somewhere behind him and somewhere in front of him, there was a line in the sky: above it, powder white. Below it, an earth soaked with hard falling rain.