A Cold Winter Morning
The snow-capped mountain peaks of the Echos looked like they were on fire in the first morning light. In front of them, the still black forms of mighty firs stood guard over the little cottage tucked away at the end of the valley. Adelie leaned against the kitchen sink, rubbing her foot against her leg, waiting for the tea water to boil. A thick blanket of snow covered everything, and she could see the traces the wildlife had left during the night around the feeder in the garden. She couldn’t wait to get outside, to fill her lungs with the cold, crisp air. The kettle whistled, and she poured its contents into the teapot. Taking a cup from the deliberately mismatched collection on the shelf and sitting on the oven bench, she let her gaze wander around the little room. It was the polar opposite of her apartment’s smooth, polished environment in the Star City Complex. Instead of a non-stick, non-scratch, gleamy surface, the counter was made from oak wood, showing its age with dents and marks. It had that special soft touch that things only get through decades of use. A multi-coloured rug woven from scraps sheltered cold feet on the wooden floor. A willow basket held the firewood next to the black iron door of the oven. Every time she walked by, she could smell the wonderful scent of fir resin. The bottle green glazed tiles of the oven provided a much different heat than any high-tech environmental system could ever produce. Burning wood to feel warm seemed so archaic, yet she loved the blaze, the crackles and little explosions of resin, the fact that one had to stoke the fire to get it going again in the morning, the rise and fall of warmth in the rooms.
Adjacent to the kitchen, in what used to be the stable for a cow, she heard the gate creaking and Nate stomping the snow off his boots. He made sounds like a beached walrus while he peeled himself out of his clothes, muttering to himself as he fought with a stuck zipper. Grinning, she got up to fetch another cup from the shelf. With a lot of cold air, he finally entered the kitchen, only dressed in long thermal underwear and thick woollen socks, lovingly knitted by his mother. The practical attire couldn’t diminish the appeal of his body, as it was fitting snuggly. His cheeks and nose were red from the cold, his black hair stood up in every direction, and his blue eyes sparkled with mischief.
“Good morning! Where’ve you been that early in the day?” She greeted him.
“Morning, babe.” He snatched her around the waist and pulled her close, burying his icy face in the crook of her neck. She squealed, trying to push him away to no avail. Grinning, he kissed her full on the lips. “Mmmmh, warm woman.”
“Uuuuh, a snowman in nothing but sexy underwear.”
Her remark made him snort, clutching her closer, nuzzling her neck. “You’re the only person I know who says long johns are sexy.”
“Oh, no, no, no. They’re only sexy on someone with the devastatingly good looks like you have.” He smelled of fresh air and snow, and she grabbed him by his shirt before he could escape again. Waking up alone was only acceptable when she got a proper good morning kiss later. He wasn’t objecting; instead, he held her firmly against him, fingers curling in her thick cabled sweater.
“I see; it was a terrible mistake to abandon you. I woke up at half past four and couldn’t get back to sleep. Saw the light of the Storer’s farm twinkling through the trees as I used the bathroom and decided to get us fresh milk and eggs. I also stoked the fire before I left so you won’t be cold when you get up.”
“I noticed. It was very nice to come into a warm kitchen. A bit of consolation after finding you gone after I woke up. Tea?” She handed him the cup and sat at the old table, its wood top scarred from generations of use. She pulled up her knees and wrapped her cup with both hands, watching him store his loot, then sitting on the bench leaning against the warm oven like she did earlier.
“Man, it’s freezing cold outside. Heinrich said there’s a beast of a snowstorm moving in. It’s supposed to hit around noon.”
“I know; the weather panel is flashing a new warning sign every 10 minutes, and the barometer is dropping alarmingly fast.” She pointed at a digital display mounted discreetly into the wooden wall panels. “Do we need anything from the village?”
He shrugged, nipping at his tea. “I think we’re well stocked.” He got up and checked the pantry. “Yeah, we can survive a week off the grid if we have to.”
“Good. Luckily, we got the tree yesterday.”
“Yeah, it would be horrible if our silly little idea got thwarted by a freak blizzard.” He laughed.
Adelie cooked breakfast while listening to his singing under the shower. His deep voice carried well through the thin walls of the old cottage, and he was a good singer. He hit the wrong note sometimes, and she winced involuntarily. Still singing, he returned to the kitchen, now more appropriately but not less appealingly dressed in sweatpants and a long-sleeved henley shirt. She put the fried eggs and bacon on their plates, and he cut thick slices off the fresh bread he brought back from his trip to Heinrich and Lisa’s farm, their only neighbours and owners of the little cottage. The crust cracked promisingly, and the scent of fresh bread filled the kitchen.
“Did you sleep well?” He asked as they sat down to eat, brushing a kiss on her nape.
“Yes. I always sleep like a rock when we’re here. It must be the mountain air and the quiet. Didn’t even hear you leaving. Why did you wake up?” She leaned over and kissed his cheek, and he rubbed her back.
“I don’t know. Too much of your yummy punch yesterday? I just had to go to the bathroom, and afterwards, I was wide awake.”
She chuckled. “Well, if you had that much of it, it was good that I didn’t put any wine in it.”
“Maybe that was the mistake. If I had been hungover, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of trekking two kilometres through the snow just to get eggs and milk.”
Adelie laughed, pushing a dark brown curl behind her ear. “I’ve got to remember that. So, we have to batten down the hatches, freak storm thing moving towards us.”
He scratched his head. “What d’you think?”
“We should expect the worst. We should check the barn to see if any useful utilities should be transferred to the stable. If it’s going to snow as much as they say, we’ll find ourselves belly-deep in white stuff tomorrow, and if we need anything, then we’re in trouble. We should check if we have enough firewood. Charge all power cells. Speaking of power cells, the ACE should move into the barn, and its power cube should move into the house. I’ve read some mission accounts that pointed out they don’t like icy conditions.”
“Naming it All-Conditions Explorer clearly is a marketing ploy, then. I agree; we should move the power cube into the house. I don’t want to be stuck here longer than planned.”
Soon, she found herself in the yard, wearing a thick parka with a fur-trimmed hood, watching Nate brushing the snow from the ACE. The sun broke over the mountain ridge and flooded the little valley with bright light, and ice crystals glittered in the fields behind the barn. The sky was blue, and not a single cloud was to be seen. The quiet before the storm, she mused, watching her breath forming white wisps in the bone-chilling cold. To her relief, the ACE’s engine purred instantly to life as she pushed the button.
The ACE was a four-wheeled vehicle with oversized tires resembling monster truck wheels without the hubcaps. It weighed just under three and a half tons and had an armour shell designed to deflect small arms fire. The cabin had enough room for two passengers and their luggage. From the outside, it looked as though no one would want one; on the inside, it was comfortable and strong enough to take them through any terrain. Adelie smiled as she remembered their last adventure in the ACE, driving through the rugged mountains and crossing treacherous rivers.
She circled around the cottage yard and then drove past the little red house with its white window trimmings and hipped roof, reaching low to the ground. It was tiny, just two rooms, but plenty for two people. It had quickly become their refuge during semester breaks, a place to unwind and recover from the rush and stress at Westerhaven Space Force Academy. Heinrich and Lisa always loved to accommodate them.
The big old barn stood in a field near the cottage. Nate had pushed open its doors, a gaping black hole in the red exterior. The snow crunched under the ACE’s tires as Adelie slowly drove over the uneven ground. When Adelie found a space to park the all-terrain vehicle inside, Nate popped open the hood to get to the cold-sensitive power cube. He unhooked several cables and then pulled out a blue glowing cube. “Sheesh, this thing is heavy.”
“Heavy car, heavy battery.” Adelie shrugged, then rummaged around the barn to see what other helpful stuff she could find while he was busy with the cell. After they had tightened every loose bit they could find around the house and carried everything that might come in handy in an emergency from the old red barn into the small stable built to the side of the little cottage, they sat down on a rickety bench next to the front door to enjoy the sun.
“Deceptive weather. Sunny, and the snow looks so beautiful against the blue sky. If I wouldn’t know better, I’d suggest we go for a walk.” She said, leaning against the warm wood of the wall behind her and closing her eyes.
“True. But look, you can see the storm moving in rapidly. It’s like a grey wall rushing towards us.” Nate nudged her with his elbow, and as she followed his pointing arm, she saw it too: A menacing and fast-moving cloud, swallowing peak after peak. With regret, they got up and went back into the stable. Nate eyed their wood supplies with a worried look. “You think that’s enough?”
Adelie rubbed her nose. “I believe so, yes. But if it makes you feel better, I can help you carry more from the barn. You can split it in here should we need it. But let’s hurry; the wind is already picking up.” She wedged a small piece of wood under the gate to keep it from falling shut and followed him to the barn. The wind rushed through the tree tops, swaying them dramatically against a darkening sky, sending down clouds of snow. It was only noon, but it felt like the sun was about to set. Together, they carried four big logs into the stable, leaning them against the already cut and neatly piled pieces of firewood. Snow was now falling so heavily that they had trouble seeing. The wind caught the gate as Adelie wanted to close it behind them and slammed it forcefully shut. She pushed the bolt in place and said: “Can’t tell you how happy I am that we’re inside.”