0 comments

Contemporary Fiction Drama

While the rest of the winter sports enthusiasts shuffle toward the mountain’s base, I crunch my boots in the opposite direction. He won’t follow me after our little spat, not with five inches of fresh powder on the slopes. The morning’s first tracks are too important to him.

A bus rolls by, pebbles crunching under the tires. The outside racks hold over a dozen sets of skis and snowboards. While the bus slows, brakes squeaking, I continue to put distance between myself and the buzzing energy near the mountain.

A quarter-size snowflake drifts down and lands on my eyelash. I shudder into my coat, turning onto an untracked sidewalk.

Alone. Fine by me.

It was just a stupid disagreement. I should have gone up the mountain with my boyfriend anyway, abandoned my plan, but the way he said—

Footsteps approach my back, the frantic pace belonging to someone fleeing a rampaging moose. Either this person forgot their lift pass at their rental unit, or my boyfriend realized that I, thirty-four-year-old Laurie, no longer stay prostrate like a cracked sidewalk. That comment he threw at me would have worked last month, but I made a decision on my birthday: no more relationship BS, not even on vacation. This solo journey proves I’ve learned. Grown.

I continue at the same pace, expecting the sprinting person to fly by me.

The steps slow. Huffing breaths reach my ears. A hand wraps around my waist, warming my heart. My boyfriend does care more about my feelings than the stupid fresh snow. Two seconds later, those fuzzies plummet through my toes.

The man beside me is not my Micah.

“Um, excuse me,” I say, “I think you—”

“Shhh. Give me your hat.”

I frown as he pulls me along like a stubborn dog. The man is several inches taller than Micah. Skinnier. He reaches a hand into his black jacket pocket and withdraws a small object. A blade clicks open. I gasp.

“Now,” he says, holding out his free hand for my hat. He secures the blade with his pinkie and ring finger. “Keep walking and talking.”

He presses me tight into his side while I scramble to remove my hat. He snatches it from my chilly fingers, puffing visible breaths into the air. With the hand still holding the knife, he tugs my purple and gray striped beanie over his dark waves. Together, we move farther down the sidewalk.

Away from prying eyes. Away from safety.

My thudding heart and imagination steal my voice. If this man desires a quick fling in the snow, I won’t oblige without throwing a few elbows and kicks. But a knife between my ribs doesn’t sound fun either. Thirty-four-year-old Laurie prefers unpunctured vital organs.

“Keep walking,” he repeats. “Act like you know me.”

Weird. His tone is clipped and strained like he’s in more trouble than I am. Not that I should care; the jerk is scaring me to death. I manage to keep my expression neutral and the jitters out of my voice.

“So, this isn’t a mugging?”

His eyes flick to me. “Lean into my shoulder and talk.”

I do so, forcing the first words I can think of past my trembling lips. “I was just, ah, going on a snow adventure.”

He throws a discrete glance over his shoulder, then drops his eyes to our feet. “In your snowboard boots?”

“I was supposed to go boarding with my boyfriend.”

The knife makes a comeback in my line of sight. “Tell me about it.”

He removes his hand from around me for several seconds, just long enough to tuck his shoulder-length locks up into my hat. I manage to steal a better glance at his face. My God, he’s just a kid. Eighteen, maybe. Freckles across his nose and wide eyes. I’m so shocked, I don’t even think of fleeing—not that I could lose him on the slippery sidewalks in my clunky board boots.

His hand wraps back around my waist, reminding me he wants a story.

“Well, we got up early,” I say. “We got breakfast before heading up the mountain at opening time, but it didn’t go that way.”

“That’s all?” Another quick glance over his shoulder.

“N-no.” I press my lips together. I don’t want to admit to a complete stranger—who currently threatens me at knifepoint—that I’m here because of a stupid disagreement.

He shakes the arm he has around me, and I jump. “The rest?”

If all he wants is a dumb lover’s quarrel story from some woman he doesn’t know, I have to suck it up and give it to him. Anything to make sure I survive this weird, frightening encounter.

“We only had fifteen minutes until the lifts open,” I say, keeping my eyes forward. “I told him I wanted to try to find the local little free library—”

“The what?”

As he says it, he removes his jacket in one fluid motion and chucks it into a pile of brush. His hand slides back around me. Now, I know he’s nuts. His long sleeve shirt smells of stale weed and alcohol, and he’s traipsing around with no coat in twenty-degree weather. Snowy weather. At least his head will stay warm in my hat. The jerk.

But he’s still breathing hard, eyes alert. On the run. If he’s dragging me into some kind of drug war, my little disagreement won’t entertain him. My breath catches, but I force out more of my mundane story.

“Little free libraries are small boxes scattered around towns and parks. People can borrow and return books without worrying about late fees.”

“So, it’s full of random mushy crap and self-help books?”

“Sometimes.”

We turn another corner. Silent condos and rental properties loom around us, painted in earth tones. Motion catches my eye, the scrape of metal against concrete. A man shovels snow four driveways away. I could try and scream, but that means I might take a knife to my throat and bleed out before reaching a hospital.

Thirty-four-year-old Laurie isn’t a fan of staining the beautiful snow red either.

My captor turns us down another path that leads around a quiet building. Only one set of footprints, heading toward the mountains, is visible on the sidewalk. They end in about twenty paces. A path with several inches of untouched powder stretches out in front of us; a desolate snow field lies beyond.

“Okay,” he says, “so how did you end up ditching snowboarding for a library?”

As we walk, side by side like close friends or lovers, I can’t help but feel that this kid doesn’t want to hurt me. His nostrils flare, and his head swivels at every corner.

This time, my story flows like hot chocolate out of a machine at the mountain’s base.

“My boyfriend didn’t want to miss out on catching the first few runs. He said ‘you always do this when I want something,’ so I left him standing outside The Lazy Elk with no explanation of where I was going.”

And that action alone insured I won’t be found. Stupid me. Even if Micah came looking for me, he wouldn’t know where to find me. Unless he followed my—our tracks. I throw a glance over my shoulder, but my captor shakes his head.

“Keep going. Just to the bus stop at the edge of town.”

So, that’s it. I’m his cover. The people after him are looking for a solitary kid in a black coat and no hat. Certainly not no coat and a feminine hat.

“What did you do, steal something?” I ask. “I won’t judge if you promise not to hurt me.”

He clenches his jaw. “I’m not in your story. Keep talking. What’s wrong with what your guy said?”

That proves it; my life isn’t in serious danger. He’s just as rattled as me.

“Everything was wrong with it. Only jerks try to make you sound like you’re always the bad guy.”

We turn left at the next fork. The snow rises to our sides like we’re walking through a trench: the product of plowing the powder to the walkway’s edges all season. Visibility is low here. The kid relaxes his shoulders and his grip on me. He removes his hand gradually and plunges both hands into his jeans pockets.

I blow out a breath. “Anytime someone uses absolutes to explain my behavior, it makes me feel like crap, you know? Of course I don’t always do one thing or another. Micah doesn’t either. The statement is belittling.”

The kid’s mouth tightens at the edges, but he doesn’t speak.

“My dad used to say things like that. ‘You’re always off in dreamland,’ or ‘you never listen when I talk.’ The classic one was ‘I always know best’ which was also a load of crap. I hate it.”

He frowns, nodding like it makes perfect sense. “Kinda ballsy of you to leave your guy like that.”

“Not really. I’ve never had a problem being alone.” I kick a ball of ice, watching it skid ahead of us into a wall. It sticks there, its final resting place until warm Spring air transforms it into a puddle. “Besides, what could happen to me in this sleepy ski town?”

My morbid joke earns me a cocked eyebrow. Perhaps an almost smile. Crazy as it sounds, I don’t want to leave this kid drowning in his circumstances, whatever they are. Something or someone made him desperate enough to invade a stranger’s life. And if I’ve learned anything from watching my mom tolerate my dad’s crappy comments, it’s that everyone has reasons for their actions.

Mom stayed with Dad because divorce would have meant no food on the table. I walked away from Micah to show him I won’t take his condescending tone and condemning absolutes anymore.

Listening and inquiring go a long way. If Micah had just let me speak, we could be riding the lift up by now.

But…I’m not sure if listening to this kid works in this predicament.

“That’s really it?” he asks. “You bailed on the mountain to go to a book box because your boyfriend was an ass.”

“Yeah, guess I did.”

When he puts it that way, it does sound dumb. Proving a point probably wasn’t worth squandering the less populated morning. An hour from now, the lift lines would lengthen, filling with families and beginner skiers.

“The stop is less than half a mile away,” he says, his voice lower. Guilty.

This kid doesn’t have the heart to do what he’s doing. I can’t help trying to extend a metaphorical hand to him again.

“You’re the most considerate kidnapper I’ve met, letting me in on your plans,” I say, letting a smile form on my mouth.

“I’m not kidnapping you. Just borrowing.”

The trail leads us around another bend. We walk beside a frozen pond where a magpie lands on a fallen tree branch. Its familiar screech fills the silence.

“Hey,” the kid says, “is that box thing it?”

My eyes follow where he points. No knife lingers in his hand. Sure enough, a little yellow box with a wooden roof and glass door sits to the side of the trail. An untouched snowdrift reaches halfway up the pole. I place a hand over my heart. The book I want to deposit sits against my chest in an interior pocket.

Would it be weird to ask him to wait? His posture has relaxed, and he stopped looking behind us several minutes ago. I may never have found this library if he didn’t guide me. The coordinates on the free library website aren’t always accurate.

But I know nothing about this kid or who he’s running from; I keep my mouth shut.

Get to the bus stop. Don’t get stabbed.

I lower my hand but keep the box in my peripheral. He stops me in front of it, peeking inside.

“Looks like mostly old lady stuff,” he says. “That building back there is an assisted living place.”

I waste no time sliding the door’s latch open. Eight books rest inside: six paperbacks and two hardcovers. Romance, knitting, and a woman’s autobiography about serving as a nurse overseas. Some ancient historicals. I unzip my jacket. The kid jumps back, brandishing his knife again.

“What are you doing?”

I pause with my hand halfway in my coat, watching him. The look in his eyes isn’t threatening. It’s wary. Expectant. He’s used to people turning on him. That expression clenches my heart.

“Relax,” I say, “I have a book I wanted to leave here.”

He focuses on my hand, but he lowers his knife. “Okay. Fine, but hurry up.”

He returns his knife to his pocket, still watching me. I pull the paperback out of my coat, then zip it up before the snow gets in. The book’s cover sparks an idea. I brought this book from home so I could drop it off somewhere different than my local little free library. I wanted it to travel far, to end up in many hands so it can help others as much as it helped me.

Perhaps it was meant to be here; perhaps it was meant for him.

“Do you read?” I ask.

He shakes his head, peering down the pathway in the direction we came. No one’s there, and only our tracks mark the trail.

“This book helped me,” I say, cradling it to my chest. “It’s about someone who learns to define and weed out toxicity in their life. Relationship patterns, bad habits, self-defeating thoughts, all kinds of things. This is why I couldn’t let the ‘always’ from my boyfriend’s comment slide earlier. I deserve better, and now I know it. Sound interesting?”

“Not really,” he says, but the pinch beside his eye is curious. His tilting head tells me more than all his combined words; we share some strong similarities. The pain of feeling belittled is common ground.

I reach the book toward him. “How about something to read on the bus?”

He gives another glance behind us, his nostrils flaring. “Fine, but we have to go.”

The book slides out of my gloved hands and into his bare, pink fingers. I walk with him in silence, no longer a prisoner. Twice, I catch him staring down at the cover. I doubt he’s used to receiving gifts.

“Actually,” he says, stopping and turning toward me, “I can manage from here. Thanks for, uh, you know…”

I smile at him. His long lashes catch the snow blowing out of an overhead branch. He doesn’t bother brushing them clean. With the book in his hands, his entire demeanor is lighter. Pleasant almost. If one book can do that, what about a little encouragement?

“This whole thing doesn’t make you a bad person,” I say. “Don’t let other people’s words define you. They’re crap.”

He stares at me, puffing a few breaths in and out. Finally, he smiles. “Right. Sure.”

The last thing I see is his back as he jogs toward the street. The book sways in his hand, and a few dark waves peek from underneath my hat. Guess I gave him two gifts. Maybe I’ll pick up his jacket on the way back, sell it online, and call it even.

I turn and stroll back the way we came. Thicker snowflakes drift down around me; I pull up my hood. Below me, two different sizes of footsteps are the only proof of our encounter. Soon, the snow will cover them over. It dawns on me, just how amazing the last twenty minutes or so were. I didn’t take a knife, didn’t get violated. In fact, I handled the situation with a mostly clear head.

A piece of advice from that book floats through my mind: No one makes you do or feel anything. Only you can give them that power. Don’t.

I may never know what that kid’s deal was, but I wish him well. Maybe that book will help him. Or maybe he chucks it in the trash before he boards the bus. I smile and shake my head. Either way, it’s up to him now.

The library comes into view around the corner, a mute witness of our little exchange. I stop in front of the box. Showing that kid a little grace went a long way. Maybe I could do the same for Micah.

As if on cue, I hear a voice call my name. He’s a bright blue and black blur of snow gear jogging in my direction. I turn and sigh, waiting. Micah skids to a stop in front of me, a wrinkle between his hazel eyes.

“Hey,” he says, panting, “good thing you make distinct tracks. I, uh, guess you found the library.”

“Guess I did.”

Poor guy, he tends to fumble apologies. He better hurry and give me one, or I’m walking away again. Forget that he chased me over a mile through the snow. Thirty-four-year-old Laurie knows she doesn’t deserve callous comments. Micah better know this by now, too.

He scratches his ear, hidden under his favorite sports team beanie. “I don’t think I did so great earlier.”

“Nope, you didn’t.”

“So, about what I said, I’m sorry.”

I nod and wait. This is usually the part where he stifles his apology in a slew of lame excuses. “I was just caught up in the excitement” or “The coffee hadn’t kicked in yet.”

But he says nothing more, just gives me a sheepish smile and extends his gloved hand. My insides melt like the snowflakes hitting his cheek. I place my hand in his.

Guess thirty-four-year-old Laurie picked a good one after all. He learns and grows, just like me.

We walk back toward the mountain, stepping over two sets of footprints facing in the opposite direction.

March 17, 2023 22:28

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

0 comments

RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.