Planning to Live

by Heather Wardell

  • Literary (Genre) Romance
  • Literary (Length) Long (3000+words)

Thirty-something Rhiannon is an obsessive planner and goal-setter, but somehow nothing she achieves ever seems good enough to her. Determined to lose forty pounds for her best friend's August wedding, Rhiannon flees her parents' house in a Christmas-day blizzard to avoid the temptation of all her favorite foods, but her car skids off the deserted road into a tree. Unable to escape the car, with her leg trapped and bleeding and her cell phone out of reach, Rhiannon is at first certain she'll be rescued and writes notes to her friends and family to pass the time. As the weather cools and her condition deteriorates, though, she recognizes the possibility that her life might be over. Interspersed with increasingly desperate escape attempts, her letters become deeper and more heart-felt as she comes to see what really matters in life. Purchase at


Chapter One

My eyes open to a blurred whiteness, and I blink, confused, until it resolves into the airbag beneath my cheek. Images rush into my mind, scrambled snapshots of my car skidding off the icy road and plunging into trees and darkness, and I jerk upright and grab for the door handle.

Huge mistake. My stomach lurches below my suddenly kilometer-a-second heart and my brain seems to twist and spin in all directions at once.

I collapse onto the airbag and take slow deliberate breaths to force back the panic and nausea. In, hold, out, hold, repeat. At first it dizzies me even more but I persist, counting the breaths in my head and focusing on the numbers, and begin to regain my much-needed control.

Once I reach twenty, I cautiously sit up and run my mind over my body. My head's not spinning any more, and my pounding heart and churning stomach are settling down. Nothing else is clamoring for my attention.

Relief fills me, soothing my insides even more, along with amazement at my luck. I could have been badly hurt, but I've escaped without a scratch. Not wanting to spend another moment in the car, I undo my seatbelt then open my door and swing my legs around to get out.

Unbearable pain rips through my left leg, and the whiteness rises to claim me again.

Chapter Two

When I come to I don't even consider moving. Instead, I rest on the airbag and try to understand. I'm still entirely in the car, so my legs obviously didn't move before I fainted. But why not? And what hurt so much? Even with my head down I'm shaking and dizzy, and my whole body's whimpering in sympathy with the fading but still all-too-present pain.

I'm too afraid of another burst of that agony to move, but I eventually realize I'm shaking at least partly because the car's full of cold air and swirling snowflakes, so I gather my strength over several breaths and push away from the airbag.

Once I'm sitting upright and not too dizzy, I pull the door closed then repeat my self-assessment. Considering one body part at a time, not letting myself jump ahead to what I know already, I move both arms then check my head and torso. Some soreness where my seatbelt lay across my chest and hips but nothing seems serious. My right leg works fine. I knew it would.

Both wanting and not wanting to know, I focus on my left leg, which throbs with a sickening sensation somehow both achy and sharp at once. After a few deep breaths to calm my nerves, I take one more and make myself give a tentative pull as I blow out.

Though I can feel my muscles straining, it's like my foot's nailed to the floor. The only response to my efforts is the return of the vicious pain, more tolerable because I'm expecting it but still far too strong. I stop pulling and the pain begins to recede, although it might only be disappearing beneath my rising panic. My leg won't move. Why?

Throwing myself forward against the airbag, I push my hand down my calf until I touch the car. Far sooner than I should have.

I snap myself up again, ignoring the dizziness the sharp movement causes. I can't see much through the windshield, a crazy quilt of broken glass, so I peer out the side window at my car's front corner. It's crumpled against and around a huge tree, leaving my foot and leg the meat in a car sandwich.

No sandwiches for me. Too many carbs. Giggles rise and shudder through me at the inanity of remembering my diet at a time like this, and soon I'm laughing hysterically and then I'm sobbing. The pain and fear and shock are taking over and I can't hold it together.

Until I slap myself across the face.

The spark of tingly pain clears my head a bit, and I take a deep breath while I can.

"That's enough," I say out loud, and the shock of my own weak and wobbly voice is more sobering than a slap could ever be. I never sound like that. I can't let myself sound like that.

After a few more breaths I repeat, "That's enough," and am pleased with my calmer controlled sound so I keep talking, letting my own words soothe me.

"It's okay. There you go, see? Good girl. No more freaking out. You'll be fine. Sure, you're stuck, and that's scary, but you're all right. Call Dad and..."

I trail off as I look down at the passenger seat where I always leave my cell phone. Nothing there. My eyes scan forward and I see its metallic silver self, glimmering in the faint twilight through the trees, at the car's far corner.

I drive a white Tiburon. It's not a big car. Sandra calls it my go-kart, which is unkind but somewhat accurate. Still, it's a long stretch from where I am to where the phone is.

Assuming it's not broken.

Panic bubbles in me again, like a pot coming to the boil, but I turn off the heat by simply refusing to accept it could be broken. Not possible.

I lean hard to the right and reach for the phone.

Not even close.

I try leaning forward first and then to the right. Under and around the airbag. I even try to pull my right leg over the center console and reach with that, though I know there's no chance. Even Gumby would have trouble reaching that phone with one of his big flexible green feet, and since I haven't done yoga for months I am no Gumby. Every movement sends pain shuddering through my trapped foot, but I can't give up. I need that phone.

After five minutes or so, though, I take a break, try to breathe away the fresh pain in my leg, and make myself think. The phone is apparently not an option. What are my options?

If my car had satellite GPS, and the access to emergency services that goes with it, my unreachable phone would be only a minor inconvenience. But most of my driving is in downtown Toronto, except the occasional three-hour trek north to my parents' place, so I'd decided to upgrade the car's CD player instead. Which isn't much help at the moment.

What would help, a lot, would be freeing my leg, so I take off my mittens and feel around beneath the airbag. When my careful inspection finds nothing I can push away, I take a deep breath and pull back against whatever's holding me. Again, nothing but that disgusting pain and no movement.

Trying to ignore the pain, I pull and pull from every angle I can find until I'm panting and afraid I'll be sick, then admit defeat. I am trapped.

Should I try starting the car? I can't imagine driving with my leg pinned beneath I-don't-know-what, but I also can't bring myself to leave a possible escape method untried so I reach past the big golden "R" keychain I found in my Christmas stocking this morning and take hold of the car's key.

The key turns in the ignition but there's no response. The tree must have crushed the engine, or at least messed it up. I hit the horn, then hit it again and again even though the only sound is my increasingly panicked breathing.

I am out of options.

Wait, no, I'm not. Excitement floods me, washing away the terror. My laptop. My little laptop that goes everywhere with me, and has a wireless internet connection. I could email someone to come help me.

I reach behind my seat where I always keep my bag. It's not there. I twist around frantically, the pain slapping me again as I jerk my leg, and look into the back seat.

The bag is upside-down on the passenger side floor. I think it's within my grasp.

Don't be out of reach, I plead. Don't be don't be don't be.

I reach back slowly, afraid to lose this hope too, and realize I'm muttering, "Don't be don't be" out loud. I pinch my lips shut to stop the words, then take a deep breath, blow it out, and reach.

I don't quite believe I've grabbed the bag until it's on the seat beside me. My hands are shaking so badly I can barely retrieve and open the laptop, and the few moments the tiny darling takes to boot up seem like forever.

Good news: it's not broken.

Bad news: it can't see any networks.

I refresh and re-refresh the empty network list, trying to keep my mind equally blank. Then I close the laptop gently and slide it back into my bag. I even do up the zipper.

Then I start to shriek.

"Mom Dad Andrew Sandra Bill Ruby someone anyone please God help me I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared I'm sorry I'm scared I'm not ready help me."

I'm pounding on the car door and flailing and jerking in my seat like I'm being electrocuted and the thought that my foot might somehow slip free makes me flail more even though the pain makes me shriek more, and I shriek and flail and pound and shriek until I catch sight of myself in the rear-view mirror.

My own insanity stops me cold, terrifying me almost more than my situation. I don't panic. I never panic. I plan and I organize and I execute and I evaluate and I stay calm, damn it.

I hold my frantic gaze in the mirror and don't let myself flinch away. I look into my eyes and tell myself it'll be okay, and I say it again and again in my head and out loud until I start to believe it. I will be fine. I'll get out of here. I even manage a smile at the image of my dad teasing me for being a "lousy woman driver" as Mom and I shake our heads in outraged unison.

I might have to wait a while, but I'm okay. Stuck, but not in immediate danger. It's not that cold, and my coat's warm. Someone will see my tire tracks going off the road. Help will come. Of course it will. Besides, as the song says, "Only the good die young."

A little voice somewhere inside picks up the word and whispers, "I'm going to die? Alone?" Since Bill's death, my greatest fear has been dying alone. No one beside me, no way to say goodbye.

"Easy," I say out loud, as if calming Ruby during a vet visit. "Take it easy."

Deep breaths and a little more self-soothing pull me back together and I reach for the laptop again. Might as well work to keep my mind occupied while I wait for help.

My fingers brush against an unfamiliar hard object in my bag beside the water bottle Mom gave me. Unfamiliar, and then achingly familiar, and my eyes are already filling with tears as I pull out one of Mom's kitchen containers, stuffed with several of her big chocolate chip cookies and a note.

"I know you said you couldn't eat these but I couldn't send you home without a little treat. I think you look beautiful, honey. Merry Christmas! Love, Mom"

While my parents ate turkey and mashed potatoes and my mother's delectable stuffing, I choked down a nasty little vacuum-packed diet-plan-approved flavor-deficient turkey dinner. Condemned prisoners get better food for their last meal. Not that I've had my last meal.

My mom thinks I look beautiful. So did Bill. Andrew's made it clear he feels the same way. Even Sandra keeps telling me I look better than I think I do. But in my eyes I'm never good enough. And look where it's landed me.

Misery overwhelms me, and I let a few tears slide down my cheeks. Others join them, and I'm revving up for a good cry but then pull myself together and wipe the tears away with my mitten. I'm being ridiculous. Sure, this isn't how I wanted to spend Christmas night, but I left my parents' place in a blizzard and now I'm paying the price.

The irony of my mother secretly giving me the cookies I fled the house to avoid is not lost on me, and I certainly won't eat them. I have exactly four months until the dress fittings for Sandra's wedding, and I will not ruin my best friend's pictures by being the fat bridesmaid. Been there, done that, wouldn't have fit into the t-shirt.

My mother means well, of course. She really thought I'd be happy she made and bought all my favorite candy and cookies for our Christmas together, and I managed to pretend delight so I wouldn't hurt her. But she and Dad, with their hyperactive-hummingbird metabolisms, could never understand how food can scream so loud in my ears I can barely hear anything else.

Not lucky enough to inherit their lean physiques, I instead got the 'conserve fat at all costs' body of some long-ago relative who faced constant famine. I don't face famine, though. All I face is the prospect of being two hundred and seven point six pounds for the rest of my life. Which is unacceptable.

So I left their house after dinner, despite Mom's fears of night-time winter driving, and headed to my tempting-food-less apartment. But after two particularly scary skids on the icy road, I changed my mind and turned around to go back. And a few minutes after that, I lost control.

Resolve fills me. No eating those cookies. I'll wait here until I get rescued, and then I'll continue with the diet program. Even though it hasn't worked yet. It will. It has to.

I need a new counselor there, of course, but I'll go in next week and say I can't work with Joel any more. I won't admit what happened, but they'll probably know. I'm sure I wasn't the first one. Then I'll tighten up my eating even more, maybe work out twice a day sometimes instead of only once, and I will lose forty pounds by Sandra's wedding and everything will be great.

It's a good plan. I just need someone to come find me. Someone will. I'll be saved. How could I not be?

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Other Works by Heather Wardell

Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo

Go Small or Go Home

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