Ancient hinges groaned stubbornly as she opened the door. A quaint mountain cabin seemed a drastic understatement. Aged red cedar, warped by more than one hundred years of extreme weather, whined against her efforts to push it open it.
“Well,” she said, “at least no one can sneak in, Mabel.”
She set down the large cooler containing her groceries. Running her fingers along the wall, she flipped a lone switch. Nothing.
“Fabulous,” she said flatly, then scanned the room, eyes adjusting slowly in the fading light before moving further inside. Spotting a lamp in the far corner, she carefully padded across the floor, wary of obstacles. Fortunately, the lamp worked.
With just enough light remaining, she finished hauling in her things, then shut herself in for the night. Taking another look around, she found Mabel curled into a sizable ball on the floor, and shivered. Good heavens, she thought to herself. It’s freezing in here.
She was surprised to find logs beside the hearth, even more so the lighter on the mantel. Laying the kindling in the firebox, she got to work and soon she had a fire going. Given the underwhelming size of the cabin, it should quickly warm. The extra light afforded her a better look around. Also underwhelming.
Sitting on the bed, she wilted, shoulders stooped. What was she doing here? It was late and far too dark to pack up and drive back. The farther out she drove, the more abandoned the area felt. Who thought this was a good idea? A snore from the floor drew her from her thoughts.
Mabel was asleep, perfectly content. Figures.
Standing, she crossed the room, and slid the latch on the door. Then, she unzipped her suitcase and grabbed a pair of sweats. Given her luck so far, she was not optimistic about the bathroom situation.
It was a small, but surprisingly well-appointed bathroom boasting a toilet, tub, and sink. There were clean linens. That was certainly an improvement.
Quickly, she changed her clothes, stuffing her feet into a fresh pair of socks. The fire was blazing and the room was far more comfortable than before.
The cooler still needed unpacking, but she was spent. The thirteen hour drive had done her in.
Turning down the bed, she was further pleased to find the sheets crisp and clean, with an insulated blanket under a thick downy quilt. Climbing in, she pulled the covers up and sank down into the inviting mattress.
Soon, she was joined by Mabel, who stretched out and buried her nose.
“Well, Mabel, I’m not really sure what to tell you, old girl. I hope we don’t come to regret this little adventure.”
She was met with silence. She’d better get used to it, Mabel her only companion for miles.
“Let’s just get some rest.”
She patted the dog’s head, then tried to sleep. Tried, being the operative word. Peaceful sleep was something which had eluded her for the last several months. Dreams filled with angry flames licking at her skin, hot and vicious, had left her brittle and unsteady, quick to snap at others. She regretted what she’d become. The last year had thrown one punch after another.
Rachael Pine was an up and coming television journalist for a news station in San Francisco. Recently promoted from mornings, she was well on her way to the evening anchor’s desk. Her fiancé, Craig Davies, was a junior partner in a San Fran publishing house. Power couple, they had been called in the society pages. More like powerless now.
It had been nearly ten months since it had all crumbled, like a house of cards. A grease fire in her beloved junior one bedroom had not only destroyed her on camera career, but it was destroying her life.
Burns to her face, neck, and hands had taken months of surgery and therapy to treat. Hyperbaric, hydrotherapy, skin grafts had all brought major improvements to the scarring which marred her appearance. Two procedures remained, revisions to her hand and hairline. Though her body healed, her mind was still a wreck.
Vanity. That was a part of it. Hers was an on camera career. She had to look her best. There were hair and makeup people to see to it that she did. While on medical leave, a younger, newer reporter had stepped in, and Rachael feared she would get comfortable.
Moving into Craig’s guest room had made sense. They would eventually live there together anyway. He wanted to take care of her. He stayed at her bedside while she was hospitalized, drove her to every appointment, taking time off to be with her. His devotion made it all the harder to suggest they call off their engagement.
He was crushed. She was rattled. He said nothing had changed. She just couldn’t see how. He begged her to take some time before deciding. She agreed, if for no other reason than she adored him and couldn’t stand to see the look in his eyes when she tried to end things. More than that, however, she couldn’t stand herself for putting it there. She simply wasn’t herself anymore. There was no confidence, no drive. The fire had changed the way she saw herself. She felt weak, vulnerable, exhausted by scars that went much deeper than her skin.
She finally drifted off and her sleep was, blessedly, devoid of dreams. Mabel woke her just before dawn. Rachael remained in bed until her bladder demanded she get up. Pulling back the covers, she shivered. The fire had long since died.
When she returned from the bathroom, she got it going again. Next, was unpacking the cooler before her food spoiled. Opening the fridge, she found a number of items already there. Apparently, the caretaker had been there. She added her own things and turned to take a better look around.
The cabin was small, one room plus the bath. There was a bed with a nightstand. On the opposite wall was the kitchen, such as it was. A stove, sink, and refrigerator, with a cabinet overhead. A rocking chair and a desk under the only window completed the furnishings. It was very spartan, but clean. She could be grateful for that, at least.
Pulling out a change of clothes, she dressed and bundled up. She was eager to explore and Mabel needed to go out.
Stepping outside, she again shocked by the bitter cold. Mabel didn’t seem bothered by it, and dove nose-first into the snow. Looking around, Rachael saw ponderosa pine, gnarled and dried, laden with snow. The mountains of the Owyhee rose on the edge of the horizon, its shadow looming over the valley. It was desolate, nothing or no one for miles. Rounding the house, she found a tree stump, complete with axe, one pile of wood and a second of disassembled boxes.
She walked along the road stretching before the cabin. Snow crunched under her feet, her thick socks and boots keeping her feet dry and warm. Sunlight glinting off the snow sparkled like diamonds. It was beautiful, she thought. Next time I’ll grab my camera.
Rachael was bundled up against the cold. Mabel was not. They soon bounded back into the house, leaving her boots by the door. Coffee was in order.
There was no coffee maker, only an old percolator. It took some doing, but she figured it out. She took her cup and sat in the rocking chair, Mabel on the rug at her feet, enjoying the fire. Closing her eyes, she let the warmth from the fire, and the coffee, drive the chill away. She felt rather accomplished. She’d laid a fire, taken a hike, made coffee old school. All of which had taken less than an hour. What the heck was she going to do for the next month?
The balance of the day was spent reading, hiking with Mabel, taking pictures, and trying her hand at cooking on the old stove. When night fell, there was a fire burning low as she tucked herself into bed. She’d managed to fill a day. One.
Her days found their own routine. Daily walks with Mabel, learning to cook new and more ambitious meals on the stove, and making a record of her time there. The bathroom, she found, made an acceptable dark room. If she ever managed to salvage her career, perhaps a report on her time in the Idaho wilderness would interest someone. Snow-covered mountains, frosted firs, Mabel on the hunt, were all featured in black and white photos strung up across the countertop.
She wrote detailed descriptions of her little corner of land, in daily entries at the small desk under the window. On the coldest of days, it afforded her a brief escape while she stayed inside by the fire. Rachael found she enjoyed those days more than she first dreamed possible. Those, she spent in a pair of sweats, her hair piled high atop her head, feet stuffed into a pair of cozy socks.
One thing she had noticed right off, was the lack of mirrors anywhere in the cabin. She could well imagine that was by design, and wouldn’t put it past Craig to have requested it. Bless his heart, he was trying, and she had to admit it did make a difference, not constantly seeing her own marred reflection. She didn’t need the reminder. Without dwelling on the events of the last several months, she managed to turn her focus outward. As quiet and deserted as this place was, she didn’t feel lonely. Mabel was her constant companion, yes, but there were also deer and elk and red tailed hawk. The silence could be deafening, leaving her alone with her own thoughts. When she could no longer avoid them, she put them on paper.
There was fear, humility, self-pity, and a sense of disconnect. Her fear had caused her to build walls, keeping out the one who loved her most. Those same walls, however, kept her locked up inside. Why Craig kept trying to knock them down, she’d yet to figure out. Craig. He’d love this place.
Craig was all about nature and animals and mountains. He’d be in Heaven. She could understand it. Nature undisturbed by noise or traffic or garbage, was striking. It wasn’t something she’d experienced in the city. Maybe she’d bring him back here one day. Perhaps it would even make an ideal honeymoon spot. That was the first time she’d thought in terms of one day in months. She’d pushed those thoughts aside, choosing instead to focus on what she’d lost. Maybe it was time to dig deep and sort all that out. After all, wasn’t that why she’d agreed to come out here?
Donning her coat and hat, she whistled for Mabel and they headed outdoors for their daily hike. They had gone a little farther each day, exploring the area of thick trees between the cabin and the mountains. There were large rocks and frozen streams amid the snow-covered trees. She and Mabel climbed over boulders and skipped over brooks, snapping pictures as they explored.
As the sky turned grey, they turned back before the snow could fall. Mabel, on the scent, dashed ahead in search of prey, and Rachael hurried after her. She lost her footing and her boot slipped on an ice-coated boulder. She landed hard on her backside, her boot wedged between two large rocks. With her other foot, she kicked at the rocks in an attempt to free herself. Removing the boot was an option, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to walk without it.
Soon Mabel was back at her side. When she was finally free, she hoisted herself up, braced against the surrounding trees, and limped her way back to the cabin.
Once inside, she sat on the end of the bed and removed her boot. Her foot had already begun to swell, and a gash ran halfway up her leg. Fabulous. She could move it, but it was uncomfortable. She took a deep breath and wrapped her mind around what needed to be done.
She retrieved a bottle of water from the fridge and worried that her supply of food was dwindling. She would have to think about that later. Grabbing a towel and the first aid kid from the cabinet, she tossed both onto the bed.
Carefully stuffing her foot back into the boot, left the cabin again in search of the cardboard out back. Topping it with snow from the front of the house, she covered it with the towel. After pulling up her pants leg, she sat on the floor, rested her leg on the towel-covered snow and brought up the sides of the cardboard, securing them with her boots. Leaning back against the bed, she washed down a couple of capsules.
The remainder of her day, she spent tending to to her leg, icing and elevating. It certainly could have been worse, but it still hurt like the devil. Tears threatened, and she shook her head, as if to chase them away. Rachael was done with tears. The longer she allowed them, the more frustrated she became with herself. She used to be stronger than that. In the beginning, just after the fire, she could justify her tears, as well as in the following months. Now, however, they had grown tiresome.
Instead, she hobbled about the cabin, spending the next few days reading and writing, finding ways to stretch her groceries. She processed her photos, imagining them alongside her journal. They would make a fine article at some point.
When Mabel sniffed at the door, Rachael would let her out. The dog had become familiar enough with the environs to schlep about during the day, then return again each evening. Rachael missed her daily walks, but passed the time propping up her leg and immersing herself in her writing, which had taken on a new depth. No longer did she simply put her days on paper, but how she felt about them. She wrote of the accident that precipitated her downward spiral, and thus the time away at the cabin.
She wrote about Craig, his devotion to her, his unceasing pursuit of her heart. She considered it rather brave on his part, that unswerving fidelity. When he said his love was not altered just because her appearance was, he meant it. She could see that now. Was she brave enough to accept that love? That was the question.
The snows began to thaw and Mabel spent more time galavanting. One afternoon Rachael heard her scratch at the door, and pulled it open. There, she found a large crate, which she pulled inside. Lifting the top, she found a fresh supply of food, a stack of empty journals, and a pile of mail addressed to her. She made a circuit of the cabin and, seeing no one, she went back inside.
After putting away the groceries, she dug into the mail. Much of it could be trashed, but there was a letter in Craig’s familiar handwriting, which she set aside, and a letter from the station. That was the one she was dreading. It could hold the end of her dreams. Even with all of the revisions, she didn’t look the same.
She slid her thumbnail under the flap and opened the envelope. Unfolding the letter, she began to read and was stunned at the contents. A job offer. At the station. She could stay. Director of the evening news. It was not on camera, but it was a real offer. She could continue to write and investigate. They wanted her back.
Exhaling, she laid the letter aside and opened Craig’s. It read quite differently, but still the same. There was still a place for her. He wrote of his pride in her struggles, not just over the past year, but over the past several weeks. How? He was moved by her grit and determination in meeting each obstacle, each task with fortitude. He wanted her to see just how brave she could be, just how much she could still achieve when it was required. He was waiting for her and hopeful that she would see the beauty in herself that he had never ceased to see. That though she had been forged in fire, she had been made stronger than ever.
Could she define beauty the way he did? Reexamining her time there, she looked at what she’d been able to do there alone. From learning to build a fire, cooking on the old stove, developing pictures in her makeshift darkroom, she had persevered. When she might have given up on her very first day, she stayed. She became at home with the solitude, friends with the silence, and made peace with her own demons.
Two weeks later, she packed up her belongings to return to the city. As she began the task of loading up her car, she found Craig leaning against the passenger door, beaming at her. Instantly, she was in his arms, confused, but delighted.
“What are you doing here? Where did you even come from?”
Framing her face in his palms, he pressed a kiss to her brow and smiled.
“I’ve been here all along, watching over you. There’s another place nearby. You never noticed, but Mabel did. She stopped by each day. I’ve been here, Rache, in case you needed me. Look at you. Eight weeks, and you’ve taken care of yourself. There’s nothing you can’t overcome. Do you see that now?”
In shock, she shook her head. She’d been by herself, but not alone. It was everything he always tried to be. He was there to help, but not take over. His love hadn’t changed, just as he’d said.
She kissed him soundly, much to his relief.
“Let’s go home,” she firmly said. “We’ve plans to make. It’s time.”