Jerking the folded sheet of paper from under the magnet and unfolding it, my hand shook in anticipation. What now?
Gone skiing with Eric. See you soon,
The stark emptiness of the kitchen closed in on me. I stood there, unable to digest the content of the note. I read it again. Skiing? She doesn't ski. Eric? Something vibrated inside of my ear.
"Hi," the voice was cheerful.
"Hi," I said, trying to sound just as cheerful to the mother of my children.
"Is Janie there? I have something to tell her?"
"Ah ... no, she's gone skiing."
"What? Janie doesn't ski, why did you let her go? What time is it? When did she leave? Who did she go with?"
"Eric, she went with Eric, she left a note on the refrigerator," I said, answering the only question that I knew the answer to.
"Eric? The boy she's been seeing?"
"That's what the note says, Eric."
"Its five fifteen p.m., that would make it eight fifteen there, are you just getting home? You are, aren't you? I knew I shouldn't let her go live with you."
"We've been getting along fine for over a year now," I reminded her. "It's just since she met the boy that things have changed."
"You'll have to find her, where did she go? Call her, NO, I'll call her. You just find her; don't let her stay overnight with that boy." Helen ranted and I let her, dialing Janie's number with my cell-phone while half listening to my former wife, half not.
There was no answer. Helen heard me leaving a voice mail message, asking our daughter to please call us back, adding that her mother was also worried about her being away over night.
"Find her, bring her home!" Helen ordered before abruptly hanging up on me.
I read the note again. Where would they go? There were slopes on the outskirts of our town, far too crowded with college kids on a Friday night, all the way to Canada. 'Canada, ' I thought. A tickling sensation entered my ear again.
"Dad? Didn't you see the note I left? It's on the refrigerator?"
"Janie, where are you?"
"We're on our way to North Conway. Eric's family has a ski-lodge there."
"North Conway? That's two hours from here." I said, thinking, 'at least it isn't Canada.'
"Yeah, I know, we had a problem with the car, otherwise we would be there."
"Janie, where are you now, I'll come and get you."
"Its okay, Dad, we're almost there."
"Tell me where this place is, I'm coming to get you," I said, letting my voice become harsh and sound urgent.
"Dad, relax, everything is fine. There's no reason for you to come get me," I heard my daughter scold me for becoming agitated.
"Janie, give me directions and... ," there was a click and dead air.
I dialed her number and got voice mail. "Janie, I'm sorry I sounded off, please call me. I've got to know where you are."
The phone rang, it was Helen again. She did most of the talking. I wasn't able to tell her where our daughter had said she and Eric were headed. Not that I didn't want her to know. She admonished me for not paying attention to our daughter's needs and ridiculed me for never being there for her, even for having to work long hours.
"We had a problem with the ice, it wouldn't freeze and there's a hockey match tonight," giving her more information than she needed. It was then that I decided not to give her the name of the town Janie had told me they were heading to. Helen would tell the local police it was a kidnapping and make matters worse than they already were.
It all started when our older daughter got married. I bought a plane ticket and went to give her away. After five years, Helen treated me like a stepchild. I stayed in a motel and only saw my daughters twice during my three day stay. While talking to Janie at the reception I got the idea for her to come east to college, at the small school where I work in southern New Hampshire. As my dependent, Janie's tuition would be next to nothing. Living in my condo would save on room and board, cutting college expenses to a plane ticket once or twice each year to visit her mother. To my surprise, she jumped at the idea. Also to my surprise, Helen let her come, even agreeing to supply spending money.
Shedding the burden of child support, I was able to buy the condo near the college. I took the smaller bedroom to give Janie study space in the larger room, complete with its own bath and walk-in closet.
Everything went smoothly her freshman year. Despite my erratic work schedule, we spent time together and during the course of the school year, renewed our relationship as father and daughter. It was when she met the kid, Eric that things changed. He is a football player in his third year. They met at the clinic where Janie works part time.
"He should have had one of the trainers look at that," I told Janie, knowing how strict they were about player's medical treatment.
"Its okay dad, I did a good job, even the trainer said it would heal just fine."
"Wait a minute, how do you know what the trainer said?"
"Eric came back to thank me," Janie said, smiling smugly. From that day on, everything was Eric this and Eric that. Eric began to come around, for help with one of his classes, so they said.
"Jocks have access to tutors," I said, "you're taking on too much responsibility, patching him up, now you're helping him with a class, I don't want you to get into trouble with the administration."
"Relax pop, everything's cool," Janie said, slapping me on the shoulder. She was so cute I couldn't help but smile and try to ease up on the subject.
Now she was on her way to a ski-lodge with Eric hormones and I had an ex-wife on my ass, because of my 'poor parenting skills.'
If I start now, I thought, I can get to North Conway by eleven. I'll go gas up, then come back home to check for messages. While pumping gas into my truck I got to thinking, I don't know where this place is, what if I get lost? I'll stop and ask the police. Ask them what? Where the Eric hormones' ski-lodge is? What's his last name, anyway?
Borden, Eric Borden, that's it, I'll call his parents and get directions. That may save time in the long run. Janie had said they lived west of Boston but she hadn't said what their names were. I would go home, get on the Internet and find them. How many Bordens can there be? Narrowing that down to west of Boston, I came up with 21 telephone numbers.
Between no answers and busy signals the first 10 calls yielded two households with sons named Eric Borden. One was age 3, the other one was age 52, neither available to come to the phone. The eleventh number belonged to N. Borden.
"Mrs. Borden? I'm looking for Eric Borden, age 20, he attends school..."
"What's happened? Is he all right? Who is this, please?"
"Mrs. Borden, I'm Nat Tucker, your son is a friend of my daughter, Janie. They are fine as far as I know."
"Mr. Tucker, why are you calling?"
"Mrs. Borden, your son and my daughter are on their way to your ski-lodge in North Conway and I..."
"Ski-lodge, we don't have a ski-lodge. We have a summer cabin on a pond, near North Conway. Who said it was a ski lodge?"
"That's the message I got. I spoke to my daughter on the phone, she said they had had car trouble but they were back on the road, before we got cut off."
"I'll call my son; I'll get to the bottom of this."
"Perhaps it would be better if your husband..." buzz ... the line had gone dead.
I walked around the house, thinking what to do next, waiting for news from Mrs. Borden or Janie. Even Eric, I would like to speak to him. From my room I collected a flannel shirt, long-johns and high boots with two pairs of heavy socks. The door to Janie's room was open. I peeked in. It looked like a hurricane had hit it. Various articles of clothing were strewn on the bed and on the floor, half opened draws had clothing sticking out and her desk lamp had been left on.
It dawned on me that the telephone was not going to ring, Mrs. Borden had not asked for my number. I called the number, the same voice answered.
"Perhaps it would be better if I discuss this with your husband?"
"Yes, sorry, I wasn't thinking, I'm a little upset, I'm sure you understand?"
Her voice was soft with concern, "I understand; I'm upset too."
"Did you reach them? What did your son say?"
"There was no answer, his phone must be off," her voice was stained, sounding weak and far away.
"Tell me where your cabin is, I'm going up there," I said, hastily reaching for Janie's note which I had crumpled and thrown on the table. I would write the directions on the back.
"Do you know North Conway?"
"I can find it, I have a map," I answered, anxiously waiting for her to explain how to get to their cabin on a pond.
"You'll never find it on your own; it's way off the road."
"Mrs. Borden, just give me the name of the road, the police will be able to direct me," I was getting impatient. Checking my watch, "shit, it's already 9:30 ... sorry," I apologized for my language.
"The road doesn't have a name; it would be too complicated to explain, even to the police."
"Try me, I'm good with directions." I was getting agitated, the minutes were ticking by.
"I'll come and show you the way; it will only take me..."
"Nonsense," I cut her off, thinking that she was at least an hour and a half away.
"Yes, Mrs. Borden?"
"I'm on my way, my son may be in danger, tell me where we can meet."
Reluctantly, I suggested an all-night service station out on the highway. I gave her my cell-phone number and gave her a description of my truck. "See you soon," she said.
"Shit," I had an hour and a half to kill, more if she got lost. I hadn't gotten her cell- phone number and she hadn't told me what kind of car she would be driving. "Shit!"
I called an assistant to tell him I was leaving town for a few hours. I made coffee and filled a thermos. Then, with plenty of time on my hands I filled another thermos with hot chocolate, remembering that Janie has always liked hot chocolate.
The telephone rang; maybe Mrs. Borden was calling to say she was on her way.
No such luck. It was Helen.
"Haven't you left yet?" Now that's a dumb question, I thought.
"I'm waiting for Mrs. Border. She said I wouldn't be able to find it by myself."
"Na ... than ... iel! Why are you waiting for her? She lives in Massachusetts!"
"I told you, so she can show me where the place is. But ... How do you know where she lives?"
"Because I talk to my daughter, unlike you, apparently," Helen said, speaking in 'reprimand, ' her favorite language.
"Did she tell you she went there for Christmas?" I asked her, thinking, 'while leaving me at home, alone.'
"Yes, I heard all about Eric and what a lovely home they have."
"I've heard that too," I said, thinking, 'that's all I've heard for the last month."
"Call me when you find her," Helen said, a sound of distress in her voice, making me feel sorry for her. "Better still; give me your cell phone number. I'll check with you."
'No, no, no, ' I said to myself. Bad idea. But, still sorry for her being 3,000 miles away from her daughter, who may be stranded on a desolate road, and helpless to do anything herself, I relented.
Having the number and feeling secure, she gave me one more shot, "he's probably fucking her senseless right now."
"Nice," I said but Helen had hung up the phone.
At eleven p.m. she hadn't shown up. I waited in my truck with the engine running, watching every car that pulled off the highway and under the lights. It was a cold but clear night. A foot of snow had fallen a few days before but the roads were clear. A few minutes after eleven, a white SUV parked in front of my truck, the dark shadow of a female looked my way.
She sat there, watching me.
"Mrs. Borden?" I had made the first move, getting out of my truck and walking around to her door.
She lowered the window. "Yes, Mr. Tucker?" She greeted me in a pleasant but restrained voice. The fog from our combined breath drifted up into the night.
"I got permission from the station owner for you to park here, we'll take my truck."
"I would prefer to drive."
"I have four-wheel drive and a full tank of gas," I countered.
"I have four-wheel drive. I'll gas up while you lock your truck." There was finality in her voice that I hesitated to counter. She had rolled her window up and was backing toward the pumps. There was nothing for me to do but shut off my engine and lock my truck. As an afterthought, I went back for a small tool chest, a flash light, and the two thermoses.
I warned her twice about black ice on the road. Although the road was clear there were spots where below freezing temperatures had frozen a thin residue of moisture.
She drove the big SUV like a race car, lapping every other car on the road. Her gloved hands gripped the leather-bound steering wheel with authority. She caught me sneaking peaks at her. I told myself I was only looking to make sure she was awake and alert. A tall woman, she wore corduroy slacks under a heavy parka and I suspected a sweater. Short brown hair framed a round face, un-mistakenly Eric's mother. There was a determined look on her pursed lips, like a racecar driver, out in front of the other racers.
I noticed her glance at me also. Except for my two warnings about the unseen, very deceptive ice, we drove in silence.
Helen called. I told her where we were, saying it would be at least another hour before we arrived. In a congenial tone she told me she had tried Janie's number several times, it was still shut off.
"They're probably fucking as we speak," she said in a matter of fact way.
"You don't know that," I answered, defensively as if I thought otherwise.
"At least she's on the pill."
"She is? How do you know?"
"A mother knows these things. Unlike you, I talk to my daughter. Have you been nice to Nancy?"
"Yes," I answered, thinking she must be speaking of Mrs. Borden, my companion.
"We have a lot in common."
"Her man took off, the same as you did," she spat out the words, taking pleasure in giving me a shot while knowing I would not respond.
I had not taken off. The divorce had been her idea. Feeling injured, I had escaped to the other side of the country, abandoning my parental responsibilities. To Helen, I had taken off, only visiting the girls once each year.
A sudden swerve, followed by a foot being applied to the brakes, briefly, wisely released, another swerve to the other side of the road, missing a passing car by inches, over correction of the steering wheel, another tap on the brakes, a bridge abutment coming at us, our lives passing before us, another swerve, braking, braking hard, tires squealing, skidding to a stop, the SUV shook in place before squatting down in its own ruts, the engine having cut itself off.
My body jerked uncontrollably. Slowly, my senses came back. First, I heard the traffic on the road, headlights guiding the way. I smelled fear, mixed with the smell of leather-covered seats. I felt immobile, wilted, molded to the passenger's seat.
I heard a series of gasps, faintly coming from the direction of my companion.
I unfastened both seat belts and took her into my arms. Her breathing was halted, causing the faint gasps and little jerks of her body. After several minutes I heard her lips make a smacking sound like she was trying to say something.
She pulled away and sat back in her seat. "My name is Nancy, please call me that," she said, holding out her gloved hand for me to accept.
"Please call me Nat," I said, smiling. She smiled back, clutching my hand in hers.
She suggested that I drive. We had come to the stop on the meridian strip, too close to the barrier to open the driver's door. "Don't do that," she said when I opened the passenger's door. "We'll do it this way." She put the center seat down and slid onto it. "Now, climb over me." We changed places with minimal body contact and got under way again, me driving.
"You don't happen to have a cigarette?" Nancy asked. We both laughed.
As she began to calm down, Nancy became talkative, being very hard on herself for being stubborn, not listening to my advice about the black ice. There was an easiness about her, like she was comfortable being in my presence. No longer in a rush to get to our destination, she cautioned me to stay within the speed limit.
Nancy was a fifth grade school teacher. Her husband, Peter, had remarried and was starting a second family. Because of Eric's football scholarship, Peter had stopped making child support payments. Although contrary to the divorce agreement, Nancy had let him slide.
She told me of her concerns. It was not, as was my suspicion, that her son was alone with a girlfriend. She was angry at him for taking the keys to the cabin without her permission. He knew there were no electricity, no heat and no water in the cabin this time of year. There was a small generator used for lights and to pump water during the summer months but the pipes had been drained for the winter. A small propane stove was used for cooking. "But we're probably low on fuel for the generator and propane both. It's best not to have flammable materials around," she lamented.
"Isn't there a fireplace or stove," I asked, thinking of Janie catching her death in the cold.
"There's a fireplace that we use to dry out the cabin in the late spring but it's not to be used this time of year. Besides, there's no dry wood, I'm sure."
"Why is the fireplace not to be used?" I asked.
"The structure is not insured for fire in the winter. The road is a private way and not plowed out. The fire department can't get in and the insurance company refuses to sell me fire insurance."
One other thing came to mind, bathroom facilities. I didn't ask.
She wanted to know about me and was surprised to learn that I was not a professor. Eric had told her that I worked at the college. She apologized for assuming.
"As the head of maintenance I get mistaken for a professor all the time," I joked.
I told her what Helen had said, that Eric was probably fucking our daughter senseless. I went on to say that my ex-wife was probably seeing a parallel because we had been the same age when we started dating. I had been a 20 year old junior and she a 19 year old sophomore. We got married and our first daughter was born the following year. I got a job at the school; Helen had to drop out.
"Do you think that's what they are doing, having sex?"
I couldn't answer her directly. What did she think? What did she take me for? "It's just that she's so small next to him," I said, musing to myself.
I looked over at Nancy. What was she saying?
"You saw them together, she's only 5'7", didn't you think she looked small next to him, he's what, 6'4"?"
"I haven't seen them together, where did you get that idea?"
"Sure you did, at Christmas, you were home when they came for Christmas?"
We looked at one another. Nancy put her hand to her lips; her eyes had suddenly gotten very big. "He came home for two days, but said he had to go back to school to catch up on his class work."
We knew. A cramp went through my gut and took up residence there. Janie left the day after Christmas, saying she was going to spend the rest of school vacation at Eric's house. My daughter had lied to me.
"The cabin," we said in unison. Then we fell quiet, lost in our own thoughts.
Nancy directed me through the village, up and down hills and through snow covered roads. We made a sharp turn onto a narrow road.
"It's two miles on this road. You'll see our road on the right."
It was slow going. The SUV plowed through the ruts, made by repeated thawing and freezing, shifting to lower gears when we hit patches of freshly fallen snow.
I stepped on the gas, nudging the big car off the road, parking next to Eric's small hatchback. Nancy carried an overnight bag. I carried my tool chest, the thermoses and two gallons of water, which she had thought to bring.
We hiked the half mile through drifted snow, following the tracks of our children, made a few hours before. The hard walking made me lose some of the anger which had been brewing inside me since discovering Janie had lied to me. Finding her safe was my only objective. Nancy was breathing hard but there was little I could do to assist her, being weighted down like a pack mule.
Stumbling our way, falling and cursing, we made our way through the thick woods, guided only by the dim light of my flash light. Coming to a clearing, we saw a thin stream of smoke making its way into the dark sky. Nancy grabbed my arm for support, gasping for air. She gave me a brief hug before turning back toward the cabin. I felt a snow flake hit my cheek, then another.
The fire was smoldering but no heat was being generated from it. Remains of a late supper cluttered the floor in front of the fireplace. A small radio lay next to an empty coke can. Stubs of two candles were on the mantle. I lit one of the candles and turned off my flashlight, wanting to conserve the batteries. Off the large room were two doors to other rooms, both closed. The only sound was the flicker of the candle.
Nancy took my flashlight and opened one of the doors. Turning to me and pointing to the open door, she nodded to me before closing it. She went to the other door and soon returned.
"They've got all the blankets," she whispered, a forlorn look on her face.
"There's no wood to burn?" I asked her.
"We didn't prepare for this, it looks like he's been trying to burn green wood," she shrugged.
I tried to get Helen on the phone but couldn't get a dial tone. I turned the phone to off, telling myself that I must conserve the battery.
Nancy offered me half of a sandwich from her overnight bag. We drank a cup of hot chocolate and tried to decide what to do. It was nearing 2:00 a.m. We decided to get some rest and wait until morning, thinking that the situation and what to do about it would be brighter in the light of day. The question at hand was how we go about getting some rest. Looking around the room I did not see a single piece of furniture that looked comfortable.
"Come with me," Nancy said, leading me by the hand to the second bedroom. "We'll put your coat and my coat over us. Our body heat will help."
There was one thin blanket over the sheets on the bed. Nancy spread my coat on the blanket and covered it with her own. We took off our boots. I offered her one of my spare pairs of socks which she gladly accepted.
"Please turn the other way," she said. I did, shivering as I removed my pants, leaving my socks and flannel shirt on.
"I loosed my bra so it won't bind me if I get to sleep. But don't get any ideas," she laughed as she dived under the makeshift covers.
"I should have thought to do that," she said, upon seeing my long-johns.
"This should help," I said, throwing my pants on top of the two coats.
It felt strange, crawling into bed with the mother of my daughter's boyfriend, a woman I had met under very tense and trying circumstances only a few hours before. The sheets were like ice, making me shiver as I felt Nancy's back snuggling up to me.
"Well?" she said as if she was speaking to one of her fifth graders, "aren't you going to put your arm around me?"
Clumsily and unintended, my hand landed a little high, briefly.
"Oops, sorry," I said, lowering my hand to the area of her tummy.
"I won't hold it against you," she giggled. Then turning, our lips touching.
"Now let's get some sleep, goodnight," she said, covering my hand with hers.
"Goodnight," I said, hoping she couldn't feel my stiffness against her butt.
"If I wasn't so pissed at my son, if circumstances were different..."
"I know," I answered, shivering, feeling only the warmth of her hand on mine.