Do you know the reason for the season?
College student Austin Emerson is just trying to make it to his sister’s for the holiday break. He didn’t count on his car’s transmission failing, his ride taking off to Vegas with his gas money, or what the weather forecasters are calling the snowpocalypse. With his options dwindling, Austin takes a chance with a stranger’s number from the campus ride share. It’s only a nine-hour drive, what can go wrong?
Taciturn Maddox Brennan has his own reason for driving from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Flint in the middle of a snowstorm. One he’s not willing to share. When the storm of the century leaves them stranded at a motel, neither one is prepared for their developing closeness. What will happen when the plows make it through? Will they go their separate ways, or will they find there’s more than one reason they were brought together this season?
Maddox burst out laughing and Austin spun toward him in surprise. His attention caught by the difference Maddox’s wide, uninhibited grin made to his usually somber expression, and the way it brought him closer to the lighthearted man in the photograph.
“Sorry. Sorry.” Maddox’s laughter died, but the more approachable manner remained. “Couldn’t help myself. So, with hours ahead of us, what’s your major?”
Austin tentatively smiled back, surprised at the attempt at conversation after Maddox’s inhospitable greetings. Food must have put him in a better mood. Austin had worried about Maddox’s reaction to his blurted confession earlier, but no big deal. He settled against the soft, leather seat, safe and protected from the heavy snowfall, and felt a little of his doubts fade.
“Optometry. At least, the pre-optometry program,” Austin corrected himself. The city lights disappeared behind them, and Austin reflected on how easy it would be to get lost. Everything around them, including the road and shoulder blended into a deceptive, horizonless sea of white.
The only indication they stayed on the highway were the tall, reflective markers on the side. The snow continued to defy gravity, the swirling flakes trapped in the beams of light from the headlights and creating a hypnotizing, chaotic tunnel effect. And what a visual representation of the way his life had been lately.
“What does the pre mean?”
“It’s like pre-med. My bachelor’s focus is pre-optometry course work, and once I graduate, I’ll have another four years in a college of optometry.” The length of study still ahead sometimes felt daunting, but knowing he would impact people’s lives in a positive manner kept Austin going.
“What brought you to Houghton?”
The question was a fair one. Despite the school’s excellent reputation, the extreme weather took its toll on all but the most determined. “My dad used to bring me here snowmobiling before my folks called it quits,” he answered. “We took trips across the Upper Peninsula. The bridge in town always fascinated me. I even did a paper on it in elementary school. Did you know it’s the world’s heaviest and widest double-decked vertical lift bridge?”
He kept quiet the part about how the trips had ended when his dad remarried, and maybe, he decided to get his degree here to feel closer to his father.
“There’s a lot to love,” Maddox agreed. “Nothing quite like Michigan’s Copper Country.”
Austin yawned, soothed by the soft music and the low rumble of Maddox’s voice. The temptation to nod off and stop thinking grew stronger with each passing mile, but he wanted to ask a few questions of his own.
“How about you?” he asked Maddox. “Are you a graduate? Is that why you are on the ride board?”
Dissatisfied by Maddox’s lack of forthcoming information, Austin pushed a little more. “Did you grow up here then? What’s waiting for you in Flint?”
Austin covered his mouth as another yawn escaped. He pulled off his jacket, hoping to dispel the extra warmth lulling him into drowsiness.
“I don’t expect you to entertain me, you know.” Maddox flexed his fingers on the steering wheel, his focus steady on the road ahead of them. “The ride will take just as long if you’re awake or asleep.”
Austin flicked a glance over at Maddox, relaxed in the driver’s seat. He seemed at home, as if he’d logged hours behind the wheel, and was unaffected by the way the fierce winds rocked the cab of the truck.
He ticked over the knowledge he had gleaned about Maddox Brennan so far. The total wasn’t much, and what he did know, gained by sheer nosiness. But basic manners and personal safety aside, no matter how interesting Austin found Maddox, they weren’t there to get to know each other.
“I’m not much for falling asleep in cars.” Austin lied. Poorly, going by Maddox’s disbelieving huff of air.
“You just keep telling yourself that. You look as tired as I feel working tow duty on New Year’s Eve.”
Austin played with the cuff of his flannel shirt. “Your last name’s Brennan, right? You own the repair place in town?”
“How do you know that?” Maddox turned his attention away from the freeway, his dark eyes boring into Austin with a laser-like intensity.
“Saw the side of the truck.” Austin gestured toward the glovebox. “And I snooped. Sorry.”
Maddox tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, counting out the seconds while Austin held his breath, waiting for his response. “I guess I can’t blame you for being curious.” Maddox scrubbed his hand over his head. “I’m not some kind of weirdo. I haven’t done this before.”