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Snowbound: Day 1

by Dianne Kochenburg


           
          Monster snowflakes drifted through the sugar pine and cedars that lined the path leading to the lodge. Sidney Bryson knew that path even though it was nearly obliterated by several inches of the powdery snowfall. It crunched beneath her feet in the timeless melody of coming winter. She marveled once again at the mystery of snow, its graceful descent from the clouds, its silent beauty in competition with the towering forest. It was October, a little early for snow. She'd seen snow like this before in October, one day here and then next day melted by the autumn sun.

          It was a quiet snow. The sky was gray and dark, heavy looking, but it didn't feel like a storm. No birds were about, no chipmunks skittering along the ground. The trees stood still today. No branches rustling together, no pinecones smacking the trail. The only sound was her boots, crunch, crunching along.

          The path to the lodge was cemented in her memory. She could feel the familiar roots and rocks underfoot as she tramped along. She should have taken the road to the lodge. It was quicker. But she wanted one last walk in the woods, one last smell of pine bark, and one last peek at the lake, now shrunk from its spring-thaw shoreline. It was time to say good-bye to their summer cottage again.

            Inspiration Point marked the midway of her short journey. She stopped for breath and surveyed the lake and cottages dotting its perimeter. She could see their own among them, finally shuttered and sealed against this early winter snowfall. They were the last of the summer residents to leave as usual, putting it off as long as possible. Closing day at Goose Lake was long past for most folks. The bulk of them closed up right after Labor Day. But Sidney and Matt liked to stay on now that they were retired, well semi-retired. Her husband, Matt, still worked a couple days a week and commuted back and forth, but he didn't have to fight the weekend traffic any more. She could just make out Matt moving back and forth between the cottage and their jeep, loading the last of their belongings for the trip down the mountain. 

Behind her on the snowy path she noticed her waffled boot prints begin to fill in even as she stood watching them. She pulled her scarf more tightly around her throat and turned once again toward the lodge. She'd phone her daughter and then tell Beth and Sam, the innkeepers, that they were finally ready to head out.

            She hurried on to the lodge and stomped up the wooden steps leading to the front entrance, and after stopping first to shake off the snow, she pushed open the heavy oak door. The indoor warmth greeted her. It smelled of old fires, pine boughs and dust. Familiar, homey.

            "Hello! Anybody there?" No answer. "Beth?  Sam?  Anyone? It's me, Sidney"

             Still no answer. 

            Sidney peered around the hallway and then over to the information counter. A hand-printed sign greeted her "Sorry we missed you. We'll be right back." Sidney had seen the sign before. But she knew this time it was meant for her because there wasn't anybody else left at the lake as far as she knew. The lodge stayed open until the last summer resident left and then closed up for the season. The four of them had had dinner together last night, a quick meal at the lodge to use up the leftovers and say good bye until next year. They were probably somewhere else in the big empty lodge doing last minute chores too.

 This was a special time of year, quieter and somewhat lonely now that the others were gone, but with that tension of winter looming. Sometimes they could still use the cottage well into December before the snow closed the road and forced them to call it a season. They would just listen to the weather forecasts and play it by ear. This snowfall was unexpected.

            She sighed. She didn't have time to look for Beth and Sam. She reached over the far side of the counter and found pencil and paper. She scribbled a note to them saying she'd been by and that they were on their way down the mountain now. She checked the time. Three-thirty, time to be on their way. Matt would be packed and waiting for her. 

            She walked back towards the small grocery and supply area. Nobody there either. She glanced at the meager rations left on the shelves. Maybe there were some snacks for the trip home. She picked up a can of mixed nuts, a box of crackers, a six-pack of Snickers bars and some apples. They probably wouldn't taste as good as they looked, but if they got hungry on the road, they'd do. Sometimes the road trip home took longer than usual, especially during the first snowfall of the season.

            She tallied up the groceries and bagged them herself. She figured they came to just under ten dollars, so she left a ten dollar bill with her note and added a line that she bought some stuff for the trip home. Then she wished them well and signed off.

            Just inside the door stood the public phone. She had to use the land line at the lodge because her cell didn't work at the lake. No service here yet. She wanted to call the kids and tell them that they were leaving. She'd been putting off that call for some time now, hoping they'd be home when she phoned. She dialed the number and waited as it rang. The answering machine picked up. Her son-in-law's familiar voice explained how to leave a message. Uh-huh.

            "Hi kids. It's nearly four on Saturday. We're ready to hit the road. We'll write you when we can. Don't worry about us. Bye for now."

            The kids, her daughter and husband and their little ones, knew their agenda so Sidney didn't have to go into detail. Maybe it was just as well she didn't talk to them. They might have been worried if they found out it was snowing already.

Sidney and Matt weren't going straight home. Instead, they were catching a steamer that left tomorrow evening from San Francisco. It would take them around South America stopping at all the major ports along the way. They usually went on a cruise sometime during the winter. Not the love boat cruises that the old folks took. They preferred small tramp steamers with just a few passengers and an indefinite timetable. They'd been on these journeys before, but they usually took off on them after the holidays. This year was going to be a little different. They had planned for this trip for years, it seems. All those exotic places were waiting for them.

 Their bags for the ship were in the back of the jeep. The jeep would go into storage near the dock, arrangements had been made in advance. They would drop off the cat this evening at the kennel. Everything was orchestrated, but there was plenty of leeway for them to get down the mountain. It was only a six hour drive into the city. They had a motel reservation for tonight and they'd go aboard sometime tomorrow afternoon.

            Sidney took one last look around, hoping that she'd hear the familiar voices of Beth and Sam one last time before they left. Ah well. She'd see them again next spring. She pulled the door closed behind her and started her tramp back to the cottage. She took the road this time to see how it looked. Several cars or trucks must have been by. Their tracks were evident in the snow. They had melted a path for them. No worries if they could leave soon.

                                                                *

            "Hi, Hon. I'm back." Sidney carefully picked her way down the winding driveway and into view. Matt was leaning into the back of the jeep arranging the luggage as she strode up. He straightened at the sound of her voice and turned to her. She detected a slight irritation at the corners of his mouth as he peered over the tops of his wire-rimmed glasses at her. Snowflakes caught in his steel-gray sideburns. He was wearing his favorite Giants cap and his Forty-niner warm-up jacket.

            "There you are. You about ready?" he asked, tilting his cap and squinting at her.

            "Yeah. I called the kids. They weren't home so I just left a message." 

            "Good. Well, we gotta get going. I was getting a little worried about you. This weather’s closing in, so the sooner we get outta here, the better."

            She glanced at their A-frame cottage. Shutters were in place. He had removed the deck and porch railings and stacked them neatly under the overhang next to the wood pile. The kitchen door stood ajar.

            "Okay. I'll take one last look around." She headed for the door that led to the kitchen. Once inside, the cottage seemed tomb-like with the windows all blocks. Tiny slivers of light penetrated through the sides, just enough to guide her into the kitchen. She spotted her paperback on the table. She picked it up. He'd packed the luggage that she'd piled in the corner. Next the bathroom. It was clear. Lights out. Shutters tight against the one small window. The kitchen was tidy. The fridge was packed with canned goods and was turned off. Coffee grounds sat in an open bowl to keep things from molding. Dried food supplies were sealed tightly against mice invasions and packed in the shelves.

            Everything looked right. Safe for another winter. She wanted to lock in the smells of home so it would be just they left it when they got back here again next June. She pulled the door behind her and double locked it. Matt was already in the jeep, engine idling. She slid into the passenger side and fastened her seatbelt as he put the jeep in gear and started up their steep driveway towards the road. She turned to the backseat where he'd placed the cat carrier.

            "Wait! Where's Toast?"

            "Huh? I thought you got her." 

            "Nope. I thought you --"

            “Damn!” He eased on the brakes, jerked the jeep into reverse and they started back down the driveway. He slowed as they neared the side steps and Sidney opened the door as the jeep came to a halt.

            "I'll get her. Maybe she's in the house." She jumped out. The snow was piling up at the edges of the driveway, and alongside the tree trunks that stood beside it. "Ah, hand me my purse. I'll need the keys."

            Matt reached behind the seat for her purse and handed it over to her. She rooted around and found them. She jangled them for Matt to see before pocketing them and heading once more back into the cottage. The snow was nearly hiding the porch steps. She had no hand railing to guide her so she carefully stepped up the stairs using her same footprints from the previous trip.

            She opened the kitchen door and called, “Here kitty, kitty." No answer. That didn't surprise her. She reached for the light switch and then remembered that Matt had turned the electricity off at the main switch. She flipped it back off and called again. This time Toast answered with a faint meow.

            "There you are. Come here, you. We're leaving. I guess you knew that."

            Finally Toast entered the pool of light that filtered in from the open door. Sidney picked her up, feeling the soft warmth of her sleepy fur. Toast started purring hello as she tucked her into her coat. Then she reached around, locked the door, pocketed the keys, slung her purse over her arm, and carefully descended the steps with the cat wiggling under her other arm. 

            "Matt! Can you get the carrier out of the backseat. She's real squirmy."

            Matt jumped out and opened the passenger door. He leaned into the back seat to get the cat carrier. As he did, the jeep began to move slowly down the driveway. Matt reached around between the front seats and made a grab for the emergency brake. He missed it.

The jeep began to pick up speed. Matt, half inside the car, tried to push himself out, and grabbed the frame between the doors. He hung on, trying to slow it down. He dug his heels into the snow, holding the jeep and crying "Whoa! Whoa!" as if the jeep had suddenly become a wild pony trying to break away from him. 

Then the front door swung wide open and caught a tree trunk. With that, the jeep sailed around and the door slammed into Matt. He struggled to free himself, setting the jeep into an even faster motion down the steep driveway. His feet slipped out from under him as he tried again to stop the car. Then the door suddenly jerked open again and as it did, Matt fell away and landed hard on the ground.

The jeep skated along the snowy ground heading towards the lake. Directly in its path was a circle of small volcanic rocks made into an outdoor fireplace. Its back wheels bumped over the rocks and into the pit where it finally came to rest.

            “Matt!” Sidney cried out, dropping the cat as she started down the driveway to where he was sprawled. “Are you okay?”

            He nodded, still watching the jeep. He tried to get up, but couldn't.

            “It’s my leg. Gimme a hand up, Sid.” She braced herself and linked her arm with his and helped him to his feet. He winced and shifted his weight to his left foot. “I think my foot got run over. It feels funny. And my knee too. What the hell just happened? All of a sudden the jeep just started moving. I couldn't stop her."

            Sidney shrugged her shoulders. "God that was scary. Are you sure you aren't hurt" she asked, trying to keep the anger and fright out of her voice.

            "I don't know but we're sure lucky we put that fire pit right there. Otherwise, we'd be watching that car driving itself right into the lake, before our very eyes." He shivered and tried to straighten up. "Maybe I can walk this off. Let's go take a look at it."

             Sid helped Matt and together they approached the jeep. "Huh, engine died. Guess that's to be expected." Matt said, looking into the front seat. "Well, whatdaya know. I guess I left it in neutral. I don't usually do that when I get out of the car. That's why it rolled so easily."

            "You were in a hurry?" Sid suggested.

             "Suppose so. Well, let's see what we got here. If I can drive it out of this pit and over that slick spot on the driveway, and we get her back up there by the porch, I could maybe fix these doors so they'd stay shut. Then we'll pick up that damned cat and be off." Matt hobbled around the jeep, looking at the tires and the damaged doors, shaking his head and muttering.

            He slammed the back door as best he could, pulled himself into the front seat and turned the key. The engine started up. He smiled at Sid. Then he pulled the front door closed and tried to roll down the window. No luck with that. "Shit," he muttered. He put it in gear and gave it some gas. The jeep shuddered, as the wheels started to spin and then there was a loud crunching sound, followed by a screetchy noise. "God damn it to hell in a hand basket!" Matt sputtered. "What now?"

            He turned off the engine and struggled out of the jeep. Then he went to the back end of the jeep and looked under it. A puddle of pinkish fluid was slowly spreading onto the snow. "Well, what next. Would you just look at that." He slammed his fist into the jeep and roared with self-inflicted pain.

            "We're in trouble now, Sid. I think that was the transmission that just sprang a leak. This is a Jeep, for Chris sake. It's not supposed to lose its transmission crawling over a little rock pile."

"Come on, Matt. Let’s go inside. It's cold out here. We can work on this tomorrow.” 

"God, I'm sorry, Sid. I don't now how this could have happened. What a mess."

They slowly made their way to the porch, where Toast was waiting for them, meowing softly and hovering against the back door.

            “So, how did it get so slippery here, Matt? It looked like a skating rink. The jeep just floating like that.”

            "I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Oh, wait a minute. It must have frozen. That’s where I hosed down the shutters earlier today."

            Sidney looked skeptical. “You hosed down the shutters?” Her voice was rising. Calm down, she told herself. It really doesn't matter now, whatever it was.

            “Yeah. They were filthy with spiders and dust. I didn’t want to put them up dirty. So the ground got wet and then froze, I guess. Must have been what happened,” Matt said, shaking his head. He looked at her and smiled. He was something of a neat-nik, especially when it came to the cottage. He was always checking for cracks in the floor, and boarding up or screening up something against their steady summer invasion of forest pests.

            The wind suddenly picked up and swirled around them. She unlocked the door and the cat was the first one through it. Matt slowly made his way into the cottage. He hobbled through the darkened kitchen and then felt his way over to the couch that sat before the empty fireplace. It was totally dark except for the waning light coming through the kitchen door.

            She quickly helped him get his boots off.  "Where does it hurt?" she asked him again. 

            "I'm not sure. It’s probably nothing, just a little sprained foot. I’ll be fine in a minute."  He was shivering and his teeth were chattering. She quickly got a blanket from the closet and threw it over him.

            "I'll get the electricity back on and warm up this place. You just rest."

            He nodded, closing his eyes.

            Oh, my god, where to start, she thought, taking a deep breath. The cat was underfoot, meowing and pleading. She shooed it away and headed for the porch. The circuit breaker box was just outside the door. She lifted its cover and reset the main switch and then all the individual switches. She looked down the driveway at the jeep in the fading light. Their stuff was in it. She wondered for a minute whether to go unpack it. First she'd see to Matt. Warm up the place. Heat some water. Make some tea. 

            She flipped the switch and the kitchen flooded with light. She ran to the bathroom and reached under the sink to the water main and twisted it on. She'd done these things so many times in the past that it was nearly automatic. She turned on the tap in the sink and the water coughed and gurgled to life. Okay. Next, she went over to the water heater in the bathroom and flipped the switch to start it. She looked around. What next? The teakettle stood on the stove as usual. She ran it full of water and set it to boil on the stove's back burner.

            "How are you doing," she called out as she headed over to the living area. His eyes were closed but he was still shivering. Probably he was coming down from a big adrenalin rush. Yes, that was probably it. Nothing to worry about. He'd calm down in a few minutes. Just gotta get the place heated up a little. There was a small electric heater in the wall next to the couch. She flipped the switch to high and it buzzed into life. Soon its coil would be glowing red and the small fan would push the warmth out into the room. He nodded.

            “If you’re okay, I’m going to run back to the lodge and get Sam to help us. They were still there. Okay? Matt?”

            “Okay. that's a good idea. I’ll just sit here for a minute.”

            "Good. I'm heating water for tea. I took the whistler out so you can just leave it on."

             He nodded again. "Be careful."

            "I will. Don't worry. I'll be back in a minute." She sighed.

            Sidney dashed outside and started up the steep driveway toward the highway. The drive wound through a small stand of young pines that obscured their cabin from the road. She heard the car before she saw it. Sam and Beth. She ran even faster, waving her arms and yelling. Before she got to the top of the drive, their car sped past. They didn't even see her.

           She stood there watching the car lights disappear. Well, that's that, she thought. Now we're really the last ones here. So many thoughts running through her head. Matt. The jeep. There was so much to do. She couldn't remember the first aide drills. She'd have to look at his leg, see if he had broken bones. Maybe it would come back to her. Maybe she'd get their cottage opened up again, spend the night and they'd figure it all out in the morning. Matt would feel better then.

            She made her way once again down the driveway. The snow was still falling but now that the wind had picked up it was drifting and swirling. And it seemed colder than ever.

            The electric heater had begun to warm the room. Matt was sitting where she had left him. She reported the bad news. Beth and Sam were gone. She just missed them by a few seconds. Matt just looked at her shaking his head. "Could our luck get any worse?"

            "Are you feeling better?" She asked, ignoring his comment.

            "Maybe a little." He nodded. "I think I'm okay. Just need a little more time. I just wiggled my toes. They only hurt a little."

            "Well, that's good, but we're in a fine kettle of fish now."  Her grandmother's Irish words of alarm came to her as she prepared to take a good look at Matt's injury. "Can you get out of those jeans so we can take a good look at your leg?"

            Matt seemed a little confused. He thought about her request for a few minutes, just looking at her. Then he stood on his good leg and started to undress.

            "Here, let me help you." He undid his jeans and sat back down while she pulled them off. His  foot looked okay, maybe a little swollen. His right leg and knee were both red and he jumped when she touched them here and there. But she couldn't see anything bad, no blood, no bones protruding. Maybe he'd be okay just like he said.

            "I think I better get you an ice pack. Put it on your knee, just in case."

            “An ice pack? I’m nearly freezing as it is.”

            “Well, I don’t know for sure but I think that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

            “If you say so. But I could sure use a drink, Sid.” She headed for the kitchen door with a plastic bag.  She gathered snow into balls and filled the bag. It would work okay.

            "Here," she said, returning with the bag that she had wrapped in a dish towel.  "I'll put this on your knee. Maybe it'll help the swelling." She placed the dish towel over his knee and then gently laid the snow-filled bag on it. He jumped again as she adjusted the towel. "Does anything else hurt?" She touched his other knee but he didn't respond. That was good. She looked him over, checking for torn clothing, blood, scratches. She didn't like seeing him in pain.

            This wasn't like him. He never hurt himself. Never complained about aches and pains. Never broke a bone, never sprained an ankle, never even hit his thumb with a hammer. Now this!

            "Yeah. My arm," he said, "when I do this." He reached up a little and then grimmaced.

            "Well, then, I guess you better not do that." He tried to smile at the old joke.

             "Let's get something to eat, get some rest. Maybe things will look better in the morning."

             "Yeah, maybe you're right. In the morning, we'll be fine." He smiled and maybe she just imagined it, but it sounded like he just heaved a sigh of relief. "You know, I still don't know what happened. The same pictures keep running round in my head. I was reaching for the cat carrier and all of a sudden, it just started moving. There was nothing I could do to stop it. The water in the driveway must have frozen. I didn't know it was that cold. I'll be okay tomorrow. I'll take some Tylenol. Get some sleep. Then we'll take another look at the jeep in the morning. Maybe it's not as bad as..."

             "Yes, dear. We'll figure it out tomorrow. You get some rest now. Worry about it in the morning. I'm going to heat us some soup. Do you want something else right now?"

            "Yeah. Tylenol. And a brandy."

            "Okay. I'll get 'em."

            By the time she had the soup in bowls, Matt was dozing. She didn't want to wake him so she took his bowl away and refrigerated it. She made herself a cup of tea from the used tea bag and dumped some brandy into it. She decided to sit up during the night in case he needed her. If the storm quit soon, maybe the snow would be melted off by tomorrow. Maybe he'd feel better tomorrow. Maybe somebody would come along and help them. Maybe they'd even make it to the dock in time to catch the steamer.

           She settled into the easy chair next to him and got out her paperback, the cooling tea on the table beside her and Toast in her lap. The small table lamp lit her book. It could be any summer night by the looks of the two of them, except that there was no view of the sunset from the front window. It was shuttered tight and the cold crept into her bones as she prepared for the night ahead. She pulled the comforter around her and the cat climbed into her lap. She drifted off  to sleep without even knowing it. 

Go to: Day 2


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