As Cold As Ice
CJ pushed her booted feet into the snowshoes thinking about what Rick would have to say about this. Shaking her head in an attempt to free her mind of the thought, she bent down and grabbed the left foot strap pulling it back over itself to secure it in place. Unfortunately, the thought continued to cling to her brain like an abandoned cobweb even as she fastened her right foot. However, after she found the pair of snowshoes in the closet of her rented cabin, no one was going to stop her from exploring the Green Mountains before leaving Vermont.
Stepping outside in the crisp pre-dawn hours, she gracefully glided on top of the snow as her poles drove down to pierce its crusty layer. She marched with determination as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The stillness of night was disturbed only by the prick of her poles and the rhythm of her breathing. A slight breeze blew snow from the branches above powdering her ski-capped head with pristine flakes.
As she wound in and out of the trees, her mind floated from work back to the present each time a new wildlife track appeared in her path. She identified fox, deer, rabbit and then some large fresh track she hoped wasn't a bobcat. Her brow furrowed as Rick's voice resonated in her head. "Do you really think this is a good idea being out here all alone in the middle of the night?"
That's why she neglected, well really omitted, telling him the night before what she had planned. She knew she'd get a lecture about being safe and situationally aware in the elements, let alone unnecessarily worrying him. She figured she could tell him all about it after the fact. Save them both the unneeded stress and consternation. She felt so practical when she was logical. Of course, it was CJ Reece logic, quite different from the norm.
Focusing on the landscape to dispel his voice, her eyes caught movement thirty yards away. Caged by trees, she stopped to focus her sight. An owl appeared flying directly at her. CJ's breath caught as her eyes widened. The owl's wingspan was at least four feet; so large her body tensed, afraid it would tackle and attack her.
She was about to duck down when the owl floated up into a tree only ten yards in front of her. Sitting quietly on its perch, the owl rotated its head in all directions searching for prey. CJ forced herself to take deep deliberate breaths. Once she realized she wasn't the owl's intended target, she calmed herself and stood studying it. Amazed, she took off her gloves and pulled her phone from her heavy jacket. Activating her camera app, she zoomed in on the night creature.
The ice crystals on neighboring branches nestled beautifully around the great horned owl's body. CJ framed her picture and clicked. When the click activated her camera, the flash burst. CJ's head snapped back. Her brilliant blue eyes popped open surprised by its brightness. The owl took flight and vanished in the dark sky. She stood, sorrowful, for a moment; she had never intended to disturb it.
In the distance, her eye now caught new movement. A cabin porchlight was on; she hadn't noticed that before. She could make out a woman standing there who jolted, staring in CJ's direction. Because of the brightness of the porchlight, CJ didn't think the woman could see her. Now CJ could make out the figure of a man shielding the woman as he moved her back inside the cabin closing the door with quick resoluteness.
That's odd. CJ thought.
Then, the entire cabin sparked to life with lights flooding its inside. She heard loud voices. The door reopened in urgent fury and two men stepped out onto the porch, wearing shoulder holsters, brandishing guns.
Oh my God! What's going on? Who are those guys?
Thrusting her phone into her pocket, her fingers fumbled with the zipper. She slid her gloves on pulling them in place with her teeth. She stepped to the side of a tree to hide her five foot seven inch frame. She heard their footsteps drilling on the porch.
Suddenly, a large light illuminated and began scanning the area in which she hid, throwing shadows of trees all around her. A fog light from a lighthouse wasn't as bright. She felt the light boring through the tree into her soul even though she was blocked from sight. Pressing her body hard against the trunk, she held her breath thinking that would make her skinnier than her already one hundred twenty pounds. She could hear the men's voices debating with each other, but CJ couldn't make out what they were saying. The light continued to pan around her.
The minutes dragged on with CJ's pulse pounding in her throat, her heart beating through her jacket. She swallowed, closing her eyes when the light finally extinguished. Feeling as if she got caught in a deadly game of ring-the-doorbell-and-run, she peered slowly around her tree. The cabin porchlight now out, equaled the playing field for both lines of sight. She could only make out dark figures moving with purpose down the cabin steps. She heard the roar of engines and saw headlights pop on.
It didn't take long for CJ to realize once they saw her tracks, they would have a direct path to her location. She began dancing around like an upside-down marionettist. Her poles–the strings, the branches above–her puppets. She crashed snow down from the tree branches to cover her tracks while keeping her feet in the tree wells to prevent creating new ones. She concealed about ten yards of tracks as the sleds' lights loomed larger, closing in.
Leaping away from the area in her snowshoes, she looked like an albatross trying to gain flight. Unbalanced, she landed from tree well to tree well. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the sleds arriving to the area where they had first shone their light. She managed to put another thirty yards between them before they arrived at her original spot.
Her legs propelled her one last time into a new tree well. She slumped down its trunk, hunkering in a three-foot drift, her head poking out above the snow. Her eyes could see the headlights of the machines bouncing around in opposite directions circling the area. Fireflies on hormones had nothing on these two sleds.
She pulled her legs into her body; she had her snowshoes upright as if she were going to press pedals. She placed her poles on her lap, her gloved hands twisting them tightly to use as a weapon if it came to that.
The high-pitched screech of the snowmobiles stopped and settled to low idles. As quiet snow began to fall again, she lifted her head one more inch above the drift. Wiping the errant flakes from her eyelashes, she could see the riders next to each other with their machines facing in opposite directions. Even though the riders' lights weren't pointing at her, her body froze in fear.
The riders hadn't removed their helmets, and CJ saw one man nodding as the other one appeared to be giving orders. He was pointing away from CJ's location and back toward the initial trail she took that got her in this present situation.
They found my other tracks. That's going to take them right to my cabin! What do I do now?
While her mind raced through options, she heard the rev of the engine of the man listening to the orders. He stood up, nodded one final time as he whipped the machine around the man in charge. His light briefly shone on CJ. She ducked below the drift. After the light passed, she lifted her head again and saw the rider heading away toward her initial tracks. The other rider accelerated toward the cabin leaving CJ to his back.
She pushed down on her snowshoes mushing the drifting snow and sprang from the tree well. Her initial steps got caught up in her snowshoes, tripping her, and sending her flying face-first shrieking into the snow. With her arms behind her, she lifted her head and coughed out snow. She gripped the poles and dragged them over her head as if making an inverted snow angel. She planted them in the drift four feet below. Digging them in harder, she managed to lift herself to a leaning position on one hip, her knees slightly in front of her. Hands still gripping the poles, she brushed the snow off her arms and body as best she could. She wiped snow from her face with the back of her gloved hands, poles dangling around her head.
Glancing back in the direction of the cabin, she yanked her ski cap further down to secure it on her head. She saw the man slide the sled to a stop at the bottom of the porch. He jumped off and with a swift stride, marched up the cabin steps. He banged on the cabin door and it opened. CJ didn't see anyone except the man as he shifted through the entrance and brusquely closed the door.
Panting, CJ placed the poles next to her sides and thrust them toward the earth. She pushed herself back and up to her feet. Once steady, she yanked the poles from the snow. A translucent baggy dangled from the end of one of her poles. Her arm shook it in erratic fits attempting to purge the pole of the trash. When it didn't drop from the pole, CJ held the pole up and with her other hand snatched it off the end. Examining it more closely, she realized it wasn't trash but a moisture proof pouch with a note and usb port in it. She clutched it and worked to unzip her jacket pocket with her gloved hands while the poles banged against her body. Unsuccessful, she opted for stuffing it down the neck of her jacket.
As she trekked off, the snow fell more heavily, dampening sounds, and creating an eerie quiet. Her breaths came in short, choppy bursts piercing the deafness like a paper cutter. Realizing she had lost valuable time, she picked up her pace, this time taking elfish steps.
She calculated she wasn't more than fifteen minutes from her cabin based on the loop she had planned from the map prior to heading out early that morning. She knew the rider was backtracking from her route which would take him longer even if he was on a sled. She felt she could beat him if she didn't get caught up in her shoes again and could keep the snow off her face. She took the back of one of her gloved hands and wiped fresh snow from her eyelashes.
Maintaining a steady pace, her mind cleared to a murky puddle. She attempted to grasp the seriousness of her situation.
What did I stumble into? What do I do when I get back to my cabin? What if he beats me back and is waiting for me? Should I go in another direction? All these questions swirled around her brain as the snow fell harder.
Making good time, she decided to continue her way to the cabin, certain she could make it back before her pursuer. She came up on a small hill. When she crested it, in the distance was her cabin with a warm light glowing inside. The one she had left on for her return. The sky still dark, peppered snow. She couldn't tell if anyone was at her cabin. She continued forward. She stopped ten yards from the door not seeing any motion. Surveying all sides of the cabin she could see, no snowmobile or man lurked. Checking behind her, she gasped.