Richard Farris forced the storm door open against several feet of snow and was almost bowled over as Charlie fled the house. Greedy fingers of wind tore at his face making his eyes water while icy teeth nibbled his ears. Charlie, a one-hundred and eighty pound St. Bernard in desperate need of making his toilet, bounded away through drifts that rose to his shoulders, unaffected by the cold.
Ignoring the snow shovel standing sentry by the door, Richard slogged through the remnants of the drift that had been blocking the door and headed for the garage fifty yards away. Halfway there, the sidewalk beneath his feet had been scoured clean by fickle winds of all but a thin layer of ice. He stopped. Under a fast-moving sky where storm clouds and sunlight battled for domination, he turned a slow circle, surveying the property with wonder.
The landscape appeared as if painted by Dali. Icicles clung to every surface, windblown into tortured shapes that defied gravity, some pulled almost horizontal as if God had tilted the earth as they’d formed. Several trees in the side yard had lost branches. They lay in supplication on the snowy ground, a drift of twisted appendages. A sixty-foot pine that had stood on the property for as long as Richard could remember was now bent double; its trunk cracked and splintered wide, the jagged rent covered in a sheet of ice; an insufficient bandage for a fatal wound. Juniper bushes lining the edge of the property paid homage to a line of diamonds, refracting intermittent sunlight in multi-colored hues.
Richard whistled at the beautiful destruction.
Light tore through the sky like a flashbulb. A rumble, more felt than heard, followed. Reminded that Northwestern Kansas was experiencing but a brief respite from the storm that had been ravaging its amber waves of grain for the last three days, Richard returned to the task at hand.
He bulled through snow that was thigh deep in places, arrived at the garage, and delivered a kick to the door that freed it from a rime of ice clinging to the sill. Once inside, he flicked the light switch. The act, more habit than common sense, rewarded him only with darkness and served to remind him why he’d come here in the first place.
The storm had moved down out of the Colorado Rockies earlier in the week. On the first day it had brought snow; heavy, and fast accumulating. The National Weather Service had issued a Severe Winter Storm Warning for the states of Colorado and Kansas; local television stations posted school closings and event cancellations. Overnight, the skies dumped three feet of snow on Cheyenne County while temperatures plummeted into the teens.
The second day brought a warming trend from the south. The snow turned to sleet and ice and there were reports of Thundersnow; a rare and awesome spectacle of nature possible in this part of the country when there was a cold front with warmer air aloft. Lightning touched down in numerous locations leaving rural areas without power and prompting the Governor to declare a state of emergency. Winds increased as that day turned to night, howling up to sixty miles an hour, downing tree limbs and power lines. Reports of weather related accidents crowded the airways:
An ambulance transporting a woman who’d suffered a stroke had slid into the front of a jewelry store at better than forty miles an hour, killing the driver and lodging the bus in a gaudy display of gold and diamonds:
An elderly man traveling east on Route 36 lost control of his car in near whiteout conditions and rolled into a ditch. Unable to release his seatbelt, he drowned, his last gasps filling his lungs with mud and muck:
A young couple with a newborn had set their house ablaze with an outdated floor furnace. There had been no survivors.
Just past four a.m., long after Richard had grown weary of reports of death and destruction and gone to bed, the power plant in St. Francis sustained a massive lightning strike. Turbines blew as 30,000 amps of electricity traveling at 60,000 miles per second coursed through the station. Backup generators overloaded. Transformers within two miles of the plant showered sparks on the ground below like celebratory fountains. Four Kansas counties, as well as two in Nebraska and Colorado, went dark.
Richard, awakened in typical fashion by Charlie trying to lick the flesh from his face with a tongue the size of a man’s palm—and breath that would stop an enraged bear dead in its tracks— found that he too was without power. The house was bitter cold; the fire stoked the evening before reduced to dim embers. Shivering from the cold, as well as the image of he and the dog frozen solid in the house in parody of Jack Nicholson at the end of the film version of The Shining, Richard threw on some clothes and made his way outside.
The sky now resembled a rumpled grey blanket as clouds continued to bunch up overhead, gaining ground on an embattled sun and promising fresh snow fall. Occasional rumbles of distant thunder vibrating his nerve endings, Richard pulled the Mag-lite he kept by the garage door from its charger and clicked it on.
To the left, beneath shelves of motor oil, anti-freeze, and various and sundry hand tools, was Richard’s prize possession: a black 1970 Ford Mustang Mach One in near mint condition. Richard had purchased the vehicle for cash the prior spring. He’d driven it every day, making up excuses to get behind the wheel when necessary; high fuel costs be damned. For Richard, the car was the ultimate expression of the freedom he’d been denied for over ten years. For that reason alone, he’d hated to garage it, even in the face of the storm.
His palms itched to get behind the wheel.
“Not today, sweetheart,” he sighed.
To the right was a pallet of Iams Eukanuba and an old dresser that he might one day refinish, but used to store power tools and loose hardware in the meantime. Ahead of this were three fifty-gallon drums of fuel, an old-fashioned hand-crank rotary siphon, and the object of Richard current interest; a Generac electric start portable generator.
Portable being a relative term, the unit took up a large amount of space in the two-car garage. At over four feet in length and almost three wide, the large orange and black machine would generate 17,500 watts of power to the house and garage for over eight hours on a single tank of fuel. The fact that it sounded like a Mack truck idling in a bathroom was irrelevant.
Richard checked the fuel level and gauges. Satisfied that all was well, he pressed the starter. The engine roared to life without hesitation. Fluorescent lights mounted on the ceiling blinked and clicked as their ballasts warmed. The garage was soon bathed in their cold but reliable glow. His reflection peered back at him from the Mustang’s windshield. He needed a shave. Reddish two-day old growth crept across his chin and up his cheeks, skirting an inch-long scar beneath his left eye before reaching his blonde, brush cut—a matter of convenience rather than style—hair. He was thirty-nine years old last May, but the bitter cold made his often-battered body feel closer to fifty.
As he turned to leave the garage, he tripped and fell over the dog.
Richard had no desire to have fifty pound bags of dog food torn apart and spread about the garage. So thinking, he’d made a point of teaching Charlie to wait outside whenever he found it necessary to come in here. This lack of obedience was unusual for the dog.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Richard said, his voice muffled by the roar of the generator and the fact that he was face down on the floor.
Charlie didn’t answer. Just put his cold nose against the back of Richard’s neck. Richard swatted at the offending nose, missed, and pushed himself to his knees.
“Out! You know you’re not allowed…” he began, then noticed a blue something dangling from the corner of Charlie’s mouth.
“What’s this?” Richard asked. The dog relinquished the object at Richard’s urging.
Richard examined it.
It was a mitten. About the size a child would wear.
There was blood on it.
“Where’d you get this?” Richard asked.
Charlie sat. Whined.
The blood on the mitten was fresh.
“You found someone out there?”
Charlie stood. Pranced a little, and shot out the door. He paused outside, looked back and barked.
Charlie, pausing every few yards to look back and ensure Richard was still behind him, led Richard towards a stand of trees and brush on the back corner of the property, several hundred yards from the garage.
Richard’s pants were soaked through with snow in minutes, his legs numb before he’d made half the trek. The temperature was dropping rapidly, the wind gusting. While he’d been in the garage clouds had claimed victory over the sun. The sky was now a dark and angry shade of grey.
Richard dipped his chin into his collar against the cold. His cheeks and ears were burning. He yearned for a scarf or a ski mask.
“There better be someone out here,” he grumbled.
He meant nothing of the sort. If someone were out in this weather, incapable of getting to shelter on their own and having to rely on a dog to raise assistance then they were in real trouble. Better that Charlie had found nothing more interesting than an odd mitten left in the thicket by a forgetful child.
But there was an air of urgency in Charlie’s antics.
And fresh blood on the mitten.
Lightning crossed the heavens in a whip stroke. Thunder roared in reply. Richard increased his pace, closing on the tree line. Charlie waited beneath an old pine that sheltered smaller vegetation. He was whining again, his agitation showing in the sweep of his tail. Then he disappeared into the foliage like a shadow before the sun.
Richard brushed limbs aside and pushed into the scrub. There was a depression here, about twenty feet across, clear of all but a light dusting of snow and some branches that had succumbed to the weight of the ice. Densely intertwined tree limbs had caught and held most of the storm’s fury as efficiently as a canopy. That couldn’t last, though. He could hear the groaning and occasional pop of stressed timber overhead.
It was warmer here, too, out of all but the strongest gusts of wind. Richard had played here as a boy. It had at various times been redoubt against invading Apaches, a Vietnam jungle, and the bridge of a starship. An old tree, fallen long before Richard’s birth, had served as barricade, backstop, and once, the plank of an old pirate ship. It now sheltered a child sized form curled on one side, all too quiet and still on the cold, hard ground. Charlie sniffed around the hood of the pink parka the child wore. Pink that was stained with a wide swath of blood from the middle of the back to the hemline.
“Oh, Jesus,” Richard said.
He knelt, rolled the girl onto her back and pulled back her hood. Black hair spilled out, framing the face not of a child, but a woman in her twenties. Her skin was bronze; a natural, year-round tan. Her nose was somewhat flat, a trademark of some people of Pacific Island descent. She was petite, but not, as Richard had feared, a young girl. The fading light and her position—as well as his own expectations—had conspired to deceive his senses.
“Hey,” Richard coaxed, placing his fingers to the woman’s throat. He was rewarded with a pulse, thready and weak, but there all the same. She didn’t respond, however, and Richard thought fast, unsure of her injuries and uncertain if carrying her was the best course of action.
Several small branches broke free from the canopy above, tumbling to earth, carrying large clots of snow behind them. One of them landed on Richard’s shoulder with a wet plop. A stroboscopic burst of light followed closely by thunder decided him. He gathered the woman into his arms and, Charlie leading the way, carried her back to the house.
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