Christmas Eve in the Adirondacks, and the snow was coming down hard, big fat flakes that reflected the light from my headlights into a sparkling display. The flakes were swirling gently toward the ground, since the night was perfectly still, but the motion of my truck made them stream past the windshield in a mesmerizing rush, like that computer screensaver that was so popular a few years back.
This thought reminded me of my own computer and monitor, firmly belted into the back seats like a pair of precious children, and from there my thoughts turned once again to my thesis, and to the mountain of work that awaited me over the next two weeks.
It had all happened so suddenly: I was a typical lazy grad student, finishing up my Ph.D. research at a leisurely pace and just starting to think about writing it all up, and then, out of the blue, I get offered a great job. A dream job. Just one catch: they need me report to work in less than a month, Ph.D. certificate in hand. I had reluctantly decided that my only hope of writing a 200 page dissertation in such a short time was to seclude myself in my parent's cabin, away from the distractions of the holiday season.
The truck shimmied and started to slide off to the right as I hit a deeper snowdrift, and I reluctantly slowed down again. For the first time, I admitted to myself that I was getting nervous about the snow. I still had several miles to go, and the last stretch of road, a long private driveway, was going to be very hairy. I turned on the radio to search for a weather report, twisting the dial several times before finding anything but static.
"...power outages throughout the area have put police,
fire, and rescue services on full alert. Once again, the
National Weather Service predicts additional accumulations
of up to three feet by morning for most of the southern
Adirondack region. Police are cautioning people not to go
out onto the roads for any reason..."
That was just great. I turned the radio off in disgust, deciding to concentrate fully on driving. As long as I didn't slide off the road, I should be fine. My four-wheel-drive truck was designed for just these sort of conditions, if you could believe the commercials, and once I got to the cabin I would be set for days. Surrounded by a cocoon of snow, there would be nothing to distract me from pounding out my thesis.
Something caught my eye off the right, outside of the bright cone of my headlights. A yellowish glow, apparently coming from the ground near the treeline. I drove for another few seconds while my brain processed what I had seen, and then I swore out loud and carefully braked to a stop.
After grabbing the flashlight out of the glove compartment, I hurriedly got out of the truck, feeling like I was wasting precious time. It was well after sunset, and the combination of the snowstorm and the distance from any civilization created a suffocating blanket of darkness and silence that city dwellers never experience. I swung the flashlight back and forth as I jogged back along my own tire tracks, hearing my heart pound in my ears.
Then I saw it: a diffuse yellow glow coming from under a large, rounded drift of snow. The car had probably gone off the road within the last few hours, and it was already completely buried, only its headlights giving any clue as to its presence.
I scrambled down off the roadway and found myself wading through chest-high drifts as I approached the eerie patch of glowing snow. There was something sticking up a bit from the rest of the shape, and when I brushed the snow away I saw it was a tire. Wonderful: the car was upside down.
Working quickly, I dug down into the snow along the side of the car with my hands and feet, exposing a door and then a window of what appeared to be a late model sports-utility vehicle. I lay on my stomach, leaned down into the hole I had just cleared, and shone the flashlight into the window. An upside-down face, as white as a sheet, was inches away on the other side of the glass, and I was so startled that I let out a high-pitched shriek.
It took me another five minutes to clear enough snow away from the door to wedge it open. The person, whose age or gender I hadn't yet determined, was hanging upside down, firmly belted into the driver's seat. I wormed my way into the car, almost losing my flashlight at one point, and determined that there was only the one occupant.
"Are you all right?" I shouted, feeling like an idiot. No response. 'Are you alive' was more to the point. The face looked chalky and stiff, and the eyes were half open and staring straight ahead unresponsively - the close resemblance to a corpse couldn't be ignored. On the other hand, the car didn't appear to badly damaged so it seemed likely that the belted-in person hadn't been injured in the original accident.
I fumbled for the seatbelt release, and quickly discovered what the situation was. The woman (yes, I had decided the person was a young female) had fastened her belt with the release button facing inward instead of outward. No big deal, unless you get happen to get flipped upside down. The weight of her body against the belt had made it impossible for her to press the button, and so she had dangled here helplessly, like a side of beef slowly cooling inside a meat locker, as the snow buried her car.
My fingers quickly grew numb as I tried unsuccessfully to reach the button, and a wave of panic and claustrophobia started building inside me. Finally I stopped, took a few deep breaths, and realized what I had to do. I put my hand on her stomach and pushed upward, taking enough of the load off the belt so that finally, with a feeling of triumph, I was able to pop open the release. The body then fell on top of me, flattening me against the roof of the car and knocking the wind out of me.
Under much different circumstances it might have been funny: my moment of success immediately followed by an easily foreseeable pratfall. I wasn't laughing, though. I rolled the body off me and inched my way back out the partly-open door, dragging the victim along feet-first behind me.
By the time I staggered back to my own truck with the woman awkwardly slung over my shoulder there was six inches of snow on it. Using the surge of strength that desperation conveniently provides, I opened the passenger door and positioned the woman inside. Then I ran around to the driver's side, started the engine, and turned the heater on full blast.
Driving slowly, I made it to the turnoff leading up to my parent's cabin without incident.
"Here goes nothing," I said out loud. I aimed the truck at the narrow opening and gunned the engine to plow through the large drift left by an earlier snowplow. Once I made it onto the winding driveway, I found the traction better than I had expected. Concentrating fiercely, I swung the truck along the path, anticipating each turn as much as possible so as not to lose valuable momentum. If I had to stop, it was unlikely I would be able to start up again.
Just when I was starting to feel optimistic, I felt the truck sink into a patch of softer snow. My speed dropped, until I was just crawling along, and then there was the sickening whine of tires spinning with no traction.
"Fuck!" I pounded the steering wheel in frustration. The inside of the car was sweltering now, and I felt a bead of sweat run down the side of my face.
"N-N-N-ow what?" Despite the chattering teeth, the voice was calm, with a hint of humor in it. Normally I would have been intrigued.
"Jesus! That's twice you've startled me. How long have you been awake?"
"I-I-I'm n-not sure. A few minutes, I g-guess. Y-You seemed so int...intent on d-driving, I d-didn't want to bother you."
I took a closer look at my passenger: a small white face, with pink spots of color just appearing on her cheeks. Short brown hair, brown eyes. Probably very pretty, when she was above room temperature.
"Well, this is the end of the line," I said. "We won't get out of this drift without a shovel and some daylight to see what we're doing."
"W-Where are we? A-Are we going to die?"
"Die? No, I don't think so." I took a closer look out the window, and realized we were closer to the cabin than I had thought. "It's only about a quarter of a mile farther. I think I can carry you from here."
"M-m-my hero." Her smile was sweet, and unexpectedly wide, like Julia Roberts. Then her eyes closed, and her small body seemed to slump down into the seat. I summoned to mind what I knew about hypothermia, and realized she wasn't out of the woods. Literally or figuratively.
The cabin was originally built by my great-grandfather in the 1920s, and it has been a work in progress ever since. What started as a rustic two-room shack has been expanded and updated by each succeeding generation, and the current version is a comfortable four-room structure with indoor plumbing and electricity. I carried the unconscious woman (who's name I hadn't yet gleaned) up to the porch and managed to unlock and open the door, causing a huge drift of snow collapse into the kitchen. To my relief, the electricity was working.
After laying the cold, limp body on the couch, I quickly built a fire in the Franklin stove, filling it up with prime, dry oak. I waited until it was roaring and crackling cheerfully, and then I adjusted the flues to let the stove heat up and went into the bathroom to find a thermometer.
.... There is more of this story ...