It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. As I rounded the last bend in the trail, the wind picked up in my face. I put my head down, determined to glide my skis right to the van. I pumped my arms until they burned as I maintained my balance, soaring in the tracks I had laid down on my way out. My core was sweating under all my layers, but my fingers, toes, and face were numb. I couldn’t wait to feel my seat heaters.
The van was perfect for our skis, bikes, kayaks. We had bought the minivan shortly after we got married, four years ago. We both wanted a lot of kids; I wanted at least four, and Travis wanted six, so splitting the difference we had agreed on five. A minivan seats seven – voila. I chose the colour, bright red. I wanted to be visible on the road, none of that grey road-coloured paint that everyone else was going for these days.
Squinting against the blowing snowflakes, I glanced up to check my distance from the van. It looked like only 200 meters, but my body ached. I decided to count my breaths – find the rhythm of breath, pull, glide, one, breath, pull, glide, two, breath, pull, glide, three, … Counting breaths, like I did when I tried to birth Oliver.
Stop it, focus on the breathing, the numbers. Isn’t it possible to enjoy a ski without thinking about him? I pumped my arms harder, appreciating the pain that I was able to feel, grateful for my body.
I hadn’t planned on coming to these trails today. In fact, I had told Travis that I was going to our usual trail. But then as I was driving, I remembered Sara mentioning this other spot that was flatter and less busy. She was right, and I would have to bring Travis next time. One hundred meters. Breath, pull, glide, forty-seven, breath, pull, glide, forty-eight, …
Travis was making his famous chilli tonight and I had the appetite for it. He usually served it with three blobs on top: shredded cheddar, cilantro, and sour cream. Thinking about that big, warm, bowl with the crusty bread on the side made my mouth water. Breath, pull, glide, eighty-nine, breath, pull, glide, ninety, …
I made it to the van feeling like I gave it my all, like I couldn’t have done one more pull or glide. I earned my chilli tonight! I clicked my skis off and dropped my poles in the snow. The wind whipped my cheek like a slap, and I huddled beside the van, digging in my right pocket for the keys. Gone.
My stomach lurched, and it wasn’t from hunger. I always put my keys in my right pocket. I knew that I wouldn’t find them in a different pocket with the same certainty that I knew the sun would come up tomorrow. Nonetheless, I checked my other pockets. I searched every pocket in each layer. Nothing.
I must have dropped them somewhere in the snow. They might have well evaporated. I would never find them in all this deep snow.
My deepest layer was soaking wet with sweat, and the thorough search for the keys turned my dampness to ice. I quickly zipped up my layers against the cutting wind.
My next thought was to call Travis. But looking in the window of the van, I could see my cell phone in the cupholder. I’d have to break the window. I thought about it for a second, what would Travis think? Would he understand that I thought it was best, in this situation? Or would he come up with some other way to get out of this, without breaking the window? There were no houses around, I was in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t going to walk to a phone, that would be dangerous. It was much too cold to go wandering when I didn’t know where I was going.
I considered it highly unlikely that another trail user would show up, given that it was just getting dark. I thought it even less likely that Travis would find me here. I doubted that he even knew about this place. He would wait a while, knowing how much I love to ski, and then he would try calling. I wouldn’t answer, but he would keep trying, thinking I wasn’t paying attention to my phone. After a while, he would get worried, and he would drive to the usual spot. My van wouldn’t be there, and then his stomach would turn. Would he have to wait 24 hours to report me missing? I wondered. In any case, I had to rely on myself tonight.
I decided that my only option was to break the window and get in the van. I had to call Travis. I grabbed the closest thing, my ski pole, and aimed the base of my pole right for the corner of the passenger window. With the biggest and straightest thrust I could force, I rammed my pole and made perfect contact. The window remained intact. I tried again, in different places along the frame of the window, but it wasn’t working. I turned the pole around, thinking that the handle would hit a larger surface area, but still, I couldn’t break it.
I crouched down to hide from the wind. This was turning serious. If I couldn’t get away from the wind, I’d be dead in a few hours. I looked around for something else to use to break the window, a stick, or a rock, but everything was under the snow. I knew I wasn’t getting in the van.
My feet were now achingly cold, and my fingers weren’t far behind. It was getting darker, and the snow seemed to be falling horizontally from the blowing the wind. And then I remembered an old sugar shack about a kilometer back. It would be shelter. Maybe I could make a fire. A sugar shack would have a stove.
I threw my skis on and with the wind at my back, followed my trail for the third time. The snow was falling so thick that I could barely find my tracks. Even so, I looked for the keys as I went, hoping for a miracle. I went slowly, not wanting to sweat again and risk the dampness, plus I was exhausted. My toes and fingers paid the price, and by the time I made it to the sugar shack, frostbite had set in.
The shack was rustic, and even when inside, I could still feel the wind blowing through the one-inch cracks in the walls. The tin roof had a big hole in one corner and a pile of snow was accumulating over a big wood stove. I looked around for anything that I could use to make a fire or to wrap around me for extra warmth, maybe an old horse blanket. But all I found were a few tin buckets with holes in them, some nails, and some empty mason jars.
My goal was to get out of the wind and huddle up in a ball for warmth. I might have to get up and do some jumping jacks periodically, but I could do this. I had been through harder things than this. Oliver. That was much harder than this. Forty-two hours of natural labour followed by an emergency C-section that left us childless and me barren. If I can recover from that, what’s the big deal about spending a cold night in a shack?
I chose the corner opposite the stove, which was the most out of the wind. I used the best bucket to carry snow from the stove area to my corner, and I stuffed the snow in the cracks.
It worked! I had successfully blocked the wind in my corner. I celebrated my little victory with some jumping jacks and noticed that I couldn’t feel my feet. I was beyond the pain stage of cold, and that was bad. I didn’t want to look at my feet and risk having them more exposed to the cold. Instead, I curled up in a ball against the wall, tucking my feet under me, and thought warm thoughts.
I thought of being home with Travis in some parallel universe, telling him about my ski as we sat down to enjoy his chilli. Then in this universe, I thought of him driving around, worried sick looking for me. I’m sorry, Travis! I thought of a time we were lying in bed together doing the crossword with our coffees spilling, laughing. I remembered our bike rides together on the trails, sweating in the heat as we discussed philosophy. Or the time we pulled our kayaks over to a secluded spot and we made love in the grass, completely exposed in the bright sunshine.
He had wanted six. I couldn’t even give him one.
An ache ripped through me like no cold wind could, and I curled up tighter. I could almost feel him lying behind me, spooning me with his body to keep me warm, shielding me from the world.
He didn’t leave me. He was my rock through it all. I don’t know where he found the strength, or what I would have done without him. He’d never leave me. I knew that with the same certainty that I knew the sun would come up tomorrow. I just needed to make it until tomorrow.
I drifted off to sleep, feeling so safe in his arms, wearing a satisfied smile across my face.
They found the van the next day. They couldn’t rule out foul play, that I had somehow left in a different vehicle, so it took another day before they found me in the sugar shack. It was too long.
My body was discovered in the darkest corner of the shack, stuck in the fetal position, my lips still curled in a smile.
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Thank you for your comments. I wanted her to make it home, too, but then I thought I would end it similarly to The Match Girl, death with a smile. I was going to make her have a vision about her dead son, Oliver, but then as I was writing it changed to the husband. Funny how that happens sometimes, this one seemed to write itself. But yes, such good advice to write what I know. Thank you again, for taking time to comment.
Oh, I was so hoping she'd make it home! Very realistic story; there was no point at which I thought it couldn't happen that way. Good use of details; clearly you're a skier. I couldn't write this, not being one; smart to choose something you know well. I will follow your work, Ginger; can't wait to see what else you create!