I knew the highway was no more than about a quarter of a mile farther and things would be better there. I was proud of myself for getting this far and sighed deeply as we snuck cautiously around the bend in the road and then slammed the brakes, slammed them so hard I thought my foot would go through the floor. Thank God we were going so slowly or we never would have stopped. As it was, Peggy Sue and I came to a halt about four feet from a man standing smack in the middle of the road.
He was visibly relieved to see us stop and also aware that I was too stunned to do anything. He approached the driver’s side and made the roll down your window motion. I had my hand over my chest making sure my heart didn’t jump out yet managed to lower my window.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Thank goodness you were going so slow. I couldn’t get out of the road, it’s solid ice.”
That’s when I noticed a Suburban laying sideways in the ditch.
“Is that yours?” I pointed to the vehicle.
“Yes, unfortunately it is. I’ve called but no one is willing to head out this way until this storm clears. At least it’s out of the road.”
“Well, I’ve been doing okay,” I said, indicating I was going to keep driving. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“No, my cabin is right up that drive,” he pointed to one of those hidden driveways. “I think you’re making a big mistake if you keep going.”
“Oh, I have to,” I said. “I really need to get home. My husband is…”
“Just put your car in park and get out for a minute. You need to walk up around the corner and check things out before making that decision.” He opened my door and I climbed out, looking up the road.
“I think I should move it…”
“No. If you move it you’ll end up in the ditch just like I did. Don’t worry. I think it’s too late for anyone else to be heading out. But you’ve got to see this.”
I abandoned Peggy Sue and trailed after this stranger, a little afraid of what I would see. He was right. There was no way I could keep going. A snow plow blocked the road, immobile because of the huge Ponderosa Pine pinning it down.
“Mike Grainer drives this plow,” I gasped. “Is he in there?”
“No, he got out. I sent him up to my place. He’s pretty shook up and there’s no way he can get home.” He looked at me and extended his gloved hand. “I’m Jason Braxton, by the way.”
I shook his hand with my bare one and shoved it immediately back into my pocket.
“Vicki Wallace,” I introduced myself. “I think I’m going to head back to our cabin. Obviously there’s no getting out tonight.”
“You seriously shouldn’t drive anywhere. How far back is your place?”
“Just about to the end of the road, about seven miles I guess.”
“It’s far too dangerous to go back.” Mike shook his head. “Look, I know you don’t know me but you’re welcome to stay at my place tonight. Mike’s staying too. At least you know him and you can call your husband and let him know where you are. I’ve had cell reception this afternoon. I also have everything I need to make my famous chili, so at least we won’t go hungry, and the wood stove works well. It’s warm and dry in the old place.” Jason’s smile was disarming and I realized I really didn’t have a choice, at least not a safe one. And I was sure Zeke would rather I stay put.
“Okay,” I smiled. “Just let me move my car somewhere and get my backpack.” Jason walked back to Peggy Sue with me.
“I think you should pull into my driveway just enough to clear the back end out of the road and leave it. Getting up my drive is impossible.”
Looking around, I realized he was right. We made it just up the gently slope far enough to be clear of the road when she began to slip. I got her stopped, in park, and set the emergency brake. Opening the back door I fetched my backpack, closed it up and locked the doors.
“Okay,” I was feeling a bit strange. I didn’t know this guy and I suddenly wondered if Mike were really at his cabin. What if he wasn’t? What was I doing? Yet what choice did I have?
Jason’s cabin was one of the old originals, a log structure I’ve always envied. Walking up the driveway was tough. The snow was a good two feet deep even though he’d shoveled it earlier in the day. I could tell from a distance the cabin was going to be absolutely charming with a wide covered front porch supported by thick peeler poles. Two wooden rockers were visible under the expansive eves and a huge row of fire wood was stacked against the house and around the corner. There were lights on inside and smoke coming out of the chimney.
“Oh, good,” Jason exclaimed. “I asked Mike to get the fire going. It’s the only heating source so I’m glad to see the smoke. The insert works well. It’ll stay nice and warm once it’s heated up in there.”
We stomped up the front steps, snow falling off out heads, shoulders, tops of our boots. Mike heard the footsteps and opened the heavy front door, surprised to see me.
“Vicki! Oh,no, you didn’t end up in a ditch too did you?”
“No, Mike. I almost ran Jason over, but my car and I are safe.” Zeke and I had known Mike for years and I welcomed his comforting hug. “You better call that man of yours.” Mike said. “I know he’s worried about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“He called me about ten minutes ago and asked if I’d seen you. Apparently he’s been trying your cell phone but he hasn’t got an answer.”
“Oh, no.” I quickly stepped out of my snow boots and hung my down jacket on the rack by the front door. I took my backpack and fished out my cell phone, standing close to the fire. It was warming up nicely in the cabin. I took a good look around as I placed my call. Old cabins like this were fascinating.
Zeke was just as upset as I expected him to be, yet relieved I was safe and off the road. He spoke with Mike too, making sure he was alright and asked his opinion on the road conditions. It was finally settled; the three of us would stay put and ride out the storm. Things were supposed to clear up by morning. I would call him then.
In the mean time, Jason had ground beef and onions sizzling in a fry pan and other chili ingredients set out on the counter.
“Would you like some help with that?” I offered.
“You know, I have this down to a science. You and Mike make yourselves comfortable. I’m going to get this all in the pot and then I’ll show you around my humble abode.”
Mike and I sat by the fire in two rickety yet lovable rockers outfitted in big soft pillows and fuzzy blankets. I was instantly comfortable, grateful to be in this lovely old place instead of stuck with Peggy Sue out on the road or in a ditch somewhere. We talked about the snow plow and how Mike just managed to escape serious harm.
The aroma of Jason’s savory chili caused my stomach to grumble loudly and Mike and I laughed. “Just exactly how I feel, too,” he smiled. It was so good to have an old friend there. Mike’s wife had passed away a few years before and we all missed her good nature and gentle spirit.
“Okay,” Jason set the lid on the big pot. “Let me show you around.”
The cabin turned out to be larger than one would think. I was assigned the bedroom tucked behind the main room, on the far side of the back door and laundry space. A small bathroom was conveniently located right next to it. The room was called “the rose room” named so by Jason’s sister, because of the feminine décor. I was secretly thrilled to have such a cozy room and my very own toilet.
Mike would sleep up the back staircase in a dormer style room with four queen size beds of which he could have his choice. He would be sharing the antiquated hall bathroom located just down the hall with Jason. Jason, of course, had the master suite, a room slightly larger than the one I’d be staying in, yet housing a beautiful small rock fireplace in the corner. There were built-in cabinets lining the hall and a spacious extra room with a huge closet, large window looking out toward the lake, and a work table filed with fly tying supplies.
“My hobby,” Jason announced with a smile.
We descended the steep narrow staircase and wound our way back to the kitchen and main room. Jason pointed out the pantry hidden behind a curtain that slid open and closed on a rod, an antique stove his grandmother used to cook on that was now decorated with dishtowels and pots and pans, an old fashioned ice box used for outdoor cooking and barbeque supplies, and told the history of the big round oak table, decked out in names carved into the surface by family and loved ones over the years. If I had to spend the night in a strangers home, I was glad it was this one.
As it turned out, Jason’s chili was mouth-watering and robust, satisfying the demands of our empty stomachs. Full, warm, and exhausted we bid each other good night. I was happy to be in the rose room. Some of the heat from the main room reached the back of the cabin, making it comfortable and welcoming. I was glad I wasn’t upstairs. It was cold and damp up there.
I used the restroom then snuggled up tight in the cozy bed. It wasn’t long before I drifted off, sleep taking me away easy as a thief in the night – which was just about what happened!
It was 2:25 a.m. when I heard some thumping around, possibly in the kitchen. I’m sure of the time because I checked my cell phone hoping it wasn’t morning yet. I was so tired I had to remind myself where I was, and through my foggy head decided what I’d heard was probably just Jason putting wood in the stove or something like that. I started to drift back to sleep when I heard it again, this time it sounded as though it were right outside my door.
Remembering there was a back door through the tiny laundry space, I decided he was heading outside for wood. But then I remembered him and Mike bringing in a good supply earlier and Jason saying it was sure to last us through the night and most of tomorrow.
I was waking up now and curious about what was going on but I didn’t want to leave the warmth of the bed. The back door squeaked softly and closed very softly. Nice of him to be so quiet, I thought. Nice of him to be so considerate.
There was a footstep, a pause, then a few more steps. A floor board squeaked and the footsteps stopped. About a minute later there were a few more soft steps and a pause. I could actually hear what sounded like breathing outside my door which gave me the creeps. What was he doing?
That’s when a chill ran up my spine and I felt a hand on the door knob. I know that sounds strange but I swear I felt it. The door cracked open just enough that I could see a shadow of a man in the door way. I held my breath. He closed the door.
You’re such a drama queen, I told myself. He was just making sure you were alright.
Why wouldn’t I be alright? Why would I need checking on? My mind wouldn’t shut up.
Okay, fine! I told myself in a huff. Go see what’s up.
I’d gone to bed fully dressed in jeans, sweater, and socks, so I easily slipped out from under the covers, turned on the little bedside lamp and opened my door. It was quiet now, no sounds or movement. I decided he’d probably gone back to bed, yet by this time I was fully awake and wanted to take a look around.
There was a nice glow from the fireplace insert gently lighting the hall. I paid a visit to the restroom then headed for the kitchen and main room. It was lit by the flames of the steady fire. The room was warm and welcoming. I took a seat in one of the rockers and wrapped the blanket around me, checking things out. Whoever it was, Mike or Jason, they’d apparently gone back to bed.
Staring into the low burning flames worked like a tranquilizer. They danced around in colors of orange, red, amber and tiny flickers of blue now and then. I wondered what caused the blue. I stretched my neck, turning my head from side to side, and that’s when I saw it; a slight, barely noticeable movement of the curtain covering the pantry space. Then nothing.
Did I imagine it? Was I just tired? As these thoughts played around in my head, the curtain tweaked. Just a little tweak. There wasn’t a fan blowing around to cause a curtain to move. Could heat cause it to move? A mouse?
I got up slowly, knowing I’d never go back to my room until I was satisfied that the movement behind the pantry curtain was caused by nothing more than moving air.
I clutched the blanket around me tightly, taking small quiet steps until I found myself standing face to face with the curtain. It was just a curtain. It was just a pantry. Maybe I needed to see if there was any tea, something to help me go back to sleep.
I reached out my right hand in slow motion then pulled the curtain to one side. There he stood. Tall. Huge piercing black eyes boring into me. Black hair stuck out in every direction, he was unshaven. He smiled a rotten tooth smile and took a step towards me. That’s when I noticed the knife in his hand. He slowly and deliberately lifted it, all the while smiling.
I felt myself shaking, all of me shaking. I tried to scream. I was screaming my lungs out on the inside but couldn’t for the life of me get it out. Gasping for breath I tried to force the air out of my lungs, tried desperately to scream. Scream. Scream.
Nothing. Suddenly, I jarred myself backwards and crashed into one of the wooden kitchen chairs. The back of the chair hit the table top and toppled to one side, causing another chair to tip over. Although it wasn’t a terrible crash or anything, it was enough for Mike to holler down in a groggy sleepy voice.
“Hey, Jason? What are you doing down there, man?”
No voice. I couldn’t answer. But the voice upstairs caught the full attention of the intruder. He took one last look at me and bolted for the back door. He didn’t slam it. I barely heard it close. I still couldn’t scream. I could hardly breathe.
I was slumped on the floor with two toppled chairs and I still couldn’t utter a sound. My insides were exploding yet I couldn’t move, couldn’t make a squeak, couldn’t catch my breath.
My chest ached from lack of oxygen when I finally inhaled a huge breath of air and filled my empty lungs. I opened my mouth and screamed. Nothing. No sound. Just screaming my lungs out on the inside. There were tears running down my face, yet no sound. But I could finally breath. I picked myself up from the floor, shaking so hard it was difficult to walk.
I made it to the big old rocker and nearly fell into it. The huge cushions engulfed my, hugging me tenderly. The blanket was still clutched around my shivering self. The fire still glowed. I was alive. I fell asleep.
It was five a.m. when I woke with a stiff neck from sleeping in the chair. The fire was dying down. The chairs were still on the floor. The curtain was still pulled back from the pantry.
I rose cautiously, stretched and tried out my steps. Better. Not nearly so shaken up. I upturned the chairs and put them in place, pulled the curtain closed and decided to put a few logs in the insert so it would be nice and warm when the guys got up. Then I folded the blanket and draped it over the rocking chair and went to bed.
On the way I locked the back door. I crawled gratefully under the covers, thanked God for sparing my life, checked the time on my cell, and fell sound asleep.