The trip to the cabin was the longest of Jeri’s life. Even with snowshoes, he grunted and wheezed as he muscled his way through deep drifts. Sweat tracked down his back as the wind tore at his clothes, his breath turning his scarf into a frozen filigree. He dared not stop, not even for a moment.
Full night had descended by the time Jeri struggled to the front of the cabin. The windows were dark, and when he didn’t smell wood smoke, his heart began to race. He banged on the door. “Bobby!” In a panic, he used his mittened hands to clear the snow that had piled in front of it. “Bobby?” he called when he finally dragged the door open. “Bobby?” The cabin was like a black cave; it felt empty and stank of sick and something sour. Another burst of fear flared in the pit of his stomach. “Bobby!!”
“Err,” came a muffled voice from beneath a pile on the cot.
“You okay?” No answer. Jeri rushed over to the bed and found Bobby face up underneath an old burlap sack, still in his snowsuit. Up close, he was rank. “You alive?” Jeri shook his shoulder and received another grunt. “Let me find some light and get the fire started; it’s freezing in here. How long you been here, man?”Jeri asked as he reached above his head, fumbling blindly for the battered old lantern hanging from the rafters. “Here it is.” He stumbled over to the table, groping for a box of matches. He held the now-glowing lantern over his friend, and his stomach did a flip-flop. One of Bobby’s eyes was swollen shut, dried blood caked his cheek and he lay in a puddle of vomit. An almost-empty quart of whiskey glinted from under the cot.
With shaking hands, Jeri started a fire in the converted five-gallon-drum rocket stove, then filled a big pot with snow and placed it on the grill. “Hang on, buddy, I’ll getcha cleaned up and warm.” Jeri didn’t know how he was able to tend to Bobby without having to throw up himself. Man, he hated puke. He pulled Bobby’s shirt off, used the burlap sack to scoop up the worst of the mess, then threw it all outside. The snow was really starting to come down. He hurriedly unpacked the supplies and filled the toboggan with more wood before dragging it all inside.
As the fire roared in the stove, the cabin quickly warmed, and Jeri added more snow to the near-empty pot of water. Bobby hadn’t moved the whole time, and Jeri put a hand on his friend’s skin; it was still cold. He dragged the cot closer to the fire and used the growing amount of warm water in the pot to clean the blood off Bobby’s face. Afterward, he draped the snow-dampened sleeping bag over the rafters to dry before arranging it over his sleeping friend.
Jeri cracked one eye open as grey morning light seeped in through the small window. Bobby stood with his hands to the stove, his breath hanging in heavy clouds.
“You okay?” Jeri struggled to sit.
Bobby turned, his face lost in the shadows. “Been better. When did you get here?”
“Last night. You sure were out of it.” He pointed at Bobby’s face. “You fall?”
Bobby shook his head. “Nope. The old man.”
“Oh,” Jeri said in a small voice.
Bobby touched the tape on his cheek. “You bring bandaids?”
“Electric tape. From the shelf.” Jeri pointed at their junk ledge.
“It’s really snowing out there,” Bobby said. “Had a hard time getting the door open. We’ll have to build a roof over it.”
“We got all those pallets,” Jeri suggested.
Soon, they were eating bacon and eggs and drinking hot chocolate. Even though he claimed to be starving, Bobby ate sparingly, still a bit green from the day before. All morning, they played cards and read to each other from their favorite novels. In the afternoon, they decided to cut the tip off a small balsam and prop it inside a bucket and make Christmas decorations out of old tinfoil. That evening, they heated the turkey with all its fixings.
“I can’t believe you stole an entire Christmas dinner,” Bobby said as drops of gravy glistened on his chin.
“Rescued an entire Christmas dinner,” Jeri corrected.
Bobby snorted. “Well, that’s one way of looking at it.”
“I’m not kidding. It don’t matter, ‘cuz as soon as my mom got home she would’ve chucked the whole thing in the garbage and cooked three TV dinners instead.” He gave Bobby a look. “We don’t eat used food in this house,” he said, mimicking his mother.
Bobby’s mouth fell open. “You serious? She would have thrown all this out? It hasn’t been touched.” He gaped at the mashed potatoes, stuffing and turnips resting inside the tin roaster that still held most of a twenty-pound turkey. “There’s enough food here for a week!”
“Swear to god,” Jeri said and held up a hand. “We don’t do leftovers in our house.”
Despite its rocky start, it was the best Christmas either boy ever had. They laughed more than they’d ever done and when the storm eventually blew itself out, they spent several hours digging paths to the latrine and the wood pile.
“We’d better go home,” Jeri said as he warmed himself beside the stove.
Bobby looked up from the book he was reading. “Why? We have enough food to last for a few more days and we got lots of fire wood.”
“Our parents are probably worried.”
“Maybe they’ve got a search party looking for us right now. You want someone to find this place?”
Bobby tossed his book and rolled to his feet, giving the door a quick glance as though any second it would bang open. “Maybe you’re right. ’Sides, we can always come back.”
Silently, the boys packed up and prepared for the trip home. “What do you want to do with this?” Jeri asked, holding up the leftover whisky.
“Dump it. I ain’t ever drinking again!”
Jeri looked at the brown liquid in the bottle. He thought about when he had stepped into the cold, black cabin that felt like death and was filled with a smell that made his gorge rise. “Let’s make a pact,” he said. “Me and you, we don’t ever drink. Not ever.”
Jeri gave him a grave look. “Seems to me booze hasn’t done either of our families any good. Guessin’ it wouldn’t do us any good neither. Seems to me you’d be dead and I’d be all alone now if I hadn’ta found you when I did. We should do a blood pact right now and maybe…”
“Maybe it’ll save us a whole bunch of grief,” Bobby said, finishing his sentence.
On the way home, with a matching pieces of black electrical tape on their palms, they concocted a story to tell their families: how they were caught in the storm, how they got trapped but managed to survive in that old boarded-up apartment building on O’Brien. Jeri imagined how this crisis would help bring him closer to his parents, and pictured them crying and hugging him with relief. When he arrived home, he took a deep breath to prepare himself for the theatrics. He opened the door and stomped the snow from his boots onto the mat.
“Jeri, honey. Try not to be so loud, Mommy’s got a headache.” His mother lay wrapped in a blanket on the couch with the TV turned to a soap opera.
He blinked into the darkened room. “Where’s Dad?”
“Having a nap. Would you be a good boy and get Mommy a cup of tea and an aspirin?”
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. Jeri’s mother groaned. “If it’s Barb,” she called out, “tell her I’m feeling under the weather.”
It was Bobby. “Do you want to go back out?”
“Meet me outside in a half-hour,” Jeri said.
Bobby showed up carrying a battered leather case with a wilted red ribbon tied to the handle.
“What’s that?” Jeri asked.
“A pair of binoculars. The lens is broke on one side, but the other side works great. Old Joe gave it to me.”
Decades later, more years than either man wanted to remember, Bobby’s hair had gone completely white and Jeri’s head had grown a lot more forehead. The two Lone Pine boys lounged outside on deck chairs watching Eva Lake turn from grey to pink to blue in the early morning light. Retirement stretched before them in all its promising glory. Years ago, when they had finished apprenticing, and in honor of their old friend, they had formed a construction company and named it Joe and Sons Contractors, known to locals as Old Joe’s Contracting. The thriving business was now in the hands of the boys’ children, and fishing now loomed large in their future.
A small tousle-haired girl wandered out of the house clutching a messy peanut butter and jam sandwich in one hand and a battered case in the other; these days, it was more duct tape than case. “Morning Grandpa. Morning Pops,” she said as she crawled onto Bobby’s lap.
“Morning, Sunshine,” Jeri said. He’d been ‘Pops’ to Bobby’s only granddaughter since almost the minute she could speak.
“Morning, Squirt. What do you have here?” Bobby asked.
Squirt shoved the remaining sandwich into her mouth before struggling with the lid. She pulled out a pair of scuffed binoculars. “’Noculars,” she said. Her eyes shone. “But I can’t get them to work.”
“Wow, I haven’t seen those in a long time. Where did you find them?” Jeri asked.
“On the bookshelf. Can you fix them?”
Bobby chuckled and settled the little girl more comfortably on his lap. “One lens was broken even before I got them. Here, put them up to your eyes. Now close your left eye and open your right one wide.” He moved her fingers to the dial. “Can you feel this? Move it until the lake focuses.”
“Nope, it’s still broke. Wait, let me move it the other way. Nope…no…hey! I can see. There’s a loon!” She sat up with a start. “Look, Grandpa, look!” she said, handing him the binoculars.
Bobby peered into the eyepiece, a smear of peanut butter now on his cheek. “Looks like that loon’s a mama.”
“Let me see, let me see!”
Giddy, the little girl slid off Bobby’s lap and charged over to the railing, settling the binoculars on top. “And there’s a papa too! I’m gonna go show Sandy.”
“I thought you and Sandy weren’t speaking to each other?” Bobby said.
The little girl turned and grinned. “Grandpa, she’s my best friend. We never don’t talk.”
“Tell your mother where you’re going,” Bobby called as she charged down the steps.
“Aw, she’s still sleeping, Grandpa. You tell her.”
The men watched her hurry along the front path. Just before the beach, she kicked her shoes off and hid them inside one of the planters on the side of the trail, then sprinted out of sight. They grinned at each other.
“Remember how we were going to become spies?” Bobby said.
“I can’t believe you still have those things. Where’d you find them?” Jeri asked.
“The summer after we gave the cabin to Amy and I came home from college, I took a wander over to see how things were holding up. The girls had already painted the inside pink and added purple furry pillows to the cot. I found them outside with a bunch of other crap they were throwing away, so I saved them.”
Jeri laughed. He’d taken similar trips to the cabin and remembered being appalled by the girly changes. His wife, Sarah, would have approved of the decorating scheme; his three daughters, even more so. “You ever think about where we’d be if we didn’t find that glade and become obsessed with building the cabin?” he asked.
“I’ve thought about that a lot over the years,” Bobby confessed. “More than likely, we would’ve ended up working in one of the mines.” He paused. ” And when they shut down, we probably would’ve had to move out west. I wouldn’t have liked that.”
“Me neither,” Jeri said.
Bobby stood and held his hand out for Jeri’s mug. “More coffee?”
“You even gotta ask?”
On his way into the kitchen, Bobby stopped and studied an old strip of wood he’d salvaged from his derelict family home. It looked pretty ratty on the otherwise pristine doorway, but it was one of his most cherished possessions. On it, lines were marked all the way up, with the names of his children and the dates of all of their growth stages written beside them. But as he peered closer, he could still see four faded lines and the names Amy, Bobby, Gale and Phil, and for a moment, remembered when they had all been a family.
Photo from Flickr – some rights reserved
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