By Dashiell Walraven
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Dude," a voice called to me through the haze of sleep, "C'mon Oliver, your dad wants you." I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. Eddie Parnell stood in front of me, wearing a robe and long-johns, trying to shake me awake. I grunted my acknowledgement and slowly sat up, rubbing my eyes. Neal was already seated at the edge of his bunk, pulling slippers onto his feet. Grinning, he leaned over and pressed the mattress down with his hand near his butt and let out a long, musical fart.
I snorted, not really smelling anything, and pretended to gag. Pinching my nose, I leapt from my bed, circling around to the back of the room to wake up Garrett. As I came around the center bunks, I saw Eddie standing there, transfixed, his jaw agape, blinking his huge, round eyes. I followed his gaze to Garrett, who lay on his back in his bunk, a very proud morning-glory jutting up from the jumbled blankets; a bead of clear liquid glistening like a rhinestone, at the gently pulsing tip.
"Garrett!" I barked, making Eddie jump, "Dad wants us for something." Garrett huffed out a sigh and turned in the bed, his stiff rod retreating out of sight as he did. I swatted Eddie on the butt, "C'mon Eddie, did Dad say what he wanted?"
"Uh, yeah," he blinked as he turned to me, "guess we got a shitload of snow last night, and all the guys gotta help dig out." Neal threw on a robe and followed us out to peer over the railing into the great room and survey the snowy scene beyond the windows. It wasn't quite as I expected. As I descended down the stairs, into the warmth thrown off by the fireplace, the room became darker. Gray snow covered all the first floor windows, blocking most of the incoming light. The power appeared to be out, and the adults were milling around with coffee cups, a moody quiet subdued the room.
"Whoa Nelly," Neal whispered at the rail above me, before coming down the stairs. My dad emerged from the kitchen, already dressed in his outdoor clothes. He motioned us boys over to him.
"Morning gentlemen," he intoned in his best naval officer voice, "As you can see we got a significant snowfall last night, so we have some things to attend to urgently." Whenever he addressed me like that, for some reason, I felt really important. I stood a little straighter and noticed the other boys following my lead. My dad looked over my shoulder as Garrett, his hair still askew from being awakened, came down the stairs, "Ah good, Garrett, I need you to do something."
"Uh, sure," Garrett said, his voice husky from sleep, "what's up?"
"Got a call from old Mr. Koslowski down the road, he and his wife are snowed-in and need someone to clear them out. Think you're up to the task?"
"Of course," Garrett shrugged, "I should probably take them some wood too."
"Good thinking, " Dad said, "let's get some breakfast into you boys; then you can grab some shovels and help the other men to dig us out."
We all dove into our plates of eggs, bacon and toast whipped up for us by my mother, before we thundered up the stairs to change into our winter clothes. While we ate, Dad cleared the rear door to the kitchen, and made a path to the barn. Garrett fired up one of the snowmobiles, attached the wood sled to it, piled on a bunch of wood, grabbed a shovel and motored off into the frigid morning.
As I came back downstairs, I saw my father talking to one of the men.
"I'm sorry," the fellow was saying, "but as a surgeon, I cannot do this sort of work. If I were to injure my hands, it would be to the detriment of my career." Dad did not look very happy.
"I see," he said calmly, the taut muscles in his jaw betraying his anger.
"Besides," the man continued, "I did not come here to work. I paid good money to spend time away and relax, and that is what I mean to do."
"As opposed to everyone else," my father was chewing his words now, I could tell he meant to say something else but was holding his language in check, "who appear to appreciate the gravity of the situation."
"I'm so glad you understand," the doctor said crisply, turning and ending the conversation. I felt Neal come stand next to me.
"Isn't that the guy from the shower?" he tapped my shoulder and whispered so that only I could hear. I nodded my head slowly, watching my father glower and steam; he clenched his fists so slowly I could hear his knuckles crack.
"Dr. Reardon," my father said with a slow burn, but the man continued to walk away. The doctor reached his room, entered and quietly shut the door. My dad looked at us, and must have read our expressions. "Come on gentlemen, rally the cadets and let's get this porch and parking lot cleared before I decide to do something rash."
Some of the other men gathered around my father, patting him on the back and talking in hushed tones. By the time Neal and I had gathered Eddie and a few of the other older boys, the men were already outside, digging away at the snow. As we followed one another out into the morning, the sunlight glared off of the white snow, making us squint. Wind drove the snow into swirling, abrasive gusts, stinging our cheeks and eyes, the cold air sometimes pulling the very breath from us as it whistled by. Each of us, with shovels in gloved-hands, attacked the snow with happy gusto. The snow, although dry and light, still presented a daunting task for our rag-tag bunch of boys.
During the overnight blizzard, snow blew and drifted onto the porch running the length of the lodge, filling it up to the roof line. As we boys chipped away at it, we created little avalanches as the snow from above collapsed down upon us. The smaller boys would run away squealing as snow filled their collars and stung at their necks. Neal, Eddie and me all roared with laughter at that, and conspired to cause those little snow slides to happen again and again.
Making a game of it made the work go that much more quickly, and by mid-morning, the porch had been thoroughly cleared. As we made our way through our task, the men tackled the parking lot and footpaths to the various out-buildings, and up to the other cabins, including down to the beach and to my little hunter's cabin up a ways from there. The driveway to the main road still remained to be done, but my father decided to tackle that after lunch, since the roads would not be cleared by the state crews for a while anyhow.
During our toil outside, my mother marshaled the girls and youngest boys, along with the other women, to bake Christmas cookies and boil up hot chocolate. We could smell the cookies and chocolate through the door as we stomped around and brushed one another to get the snow off. Our faces ruddy and glowing from the bracing air outside, we huddled around the fire and enjoyed the sweet cookies in our mouths and warm mugs in our hands.
The phone rang in the kitchen, and my dad sprang up to answer it. Even with the power out, it always seemed like the phone worked. Rarely, the phone line would go dead, but only if a tree or limb had come down on it. Most of the time, however, it could be depended upon. I didn't pay much attention, but when dad slammed the receiver down on the hook hard enough to make the phone bell jingle, I looked up. He came into the room, bent over to a couple of the men, and then whispered to Mom, who nodded with an unreadable expression on her face. Two men and my dad pulled on their winter gear again and exited out the door.
"Mom, what's going on?" I asked. She looked at me for a moment before she replied.
"They're just going to help out a neighbor is all," Mom said, reassuringly, "nothing to be concerned about." She smiled and returned to her conversation with the women around her.
"Who's up for a snowball fight?" said Eddie, jumping up and sloshing the last bit of his hot chocolate on his pants. A chorus of "me-me-me" went up from the younger boys. So, we divided ourselves up into four teams, each composed of about five or six boys and girls. I took one group, Neal another, with Eddie and Lizzie-B taking the other two. A moratorium was declared for the first half-hour as each group set about reconnoitering and claiming a plot of land, to build our fortifications. Shortly afterwards, snowy hell broke loose as boys and girls lay siege on each other's wintry fortresses.
Roaring battle cries, my little soldiers let slip the dogs of war upon Eddie's hapless team, quickly overcoming their meager defenses. Rather than banishing them to the sidelines, I felt that by incorporating them into my team, we would be an unstoppable force. The vanquished team quite readily agreed to this new arrangement, and together, we set out to secure our final victory. While a few of us scouted out the other two teams, the remaining ones rebuilt and reinforced our battlements. In spite of looking, we didn't see the other two teams, but did see evidence of a mighty skirmish down by the frozen lake, where they had established their beachheads. Several mittens and hats lay amid the trampled ruins of two snow forts, like hacked off limbs on some Siberian battlefield.
When screams and battle cries arose from our own encampment, I saw the folly of leaving my companions, we rushed back to find our comrades under full siege. The air, thick with snowy ordnance, glistened and sparkled in the sunlight as delighted giggles and belly laughs echoed through the woods. Picking up a firmly packed snowball, I pelted Neal squarely. He clutched his chest and let out an agonal, if melodramatic, gasp and fell backwards in slow motion, onto the soft snow. The pitched battle raged on for nearly a half an hour.
Neal and Lizzie-B had apparently joined forces in the same way Eddie and I had, making both groups fairly evenly matched from the outset. My great military scheme to meet victory fell, along with the rest of us, as we simply wore each other out. We called it a draw, and started to trudge back to the lodge, reasonably assured that the fire and more hot-chocolate waited.
Through the whine of the wind in the trees, came a noise that caused me to stop dead in my tracks. All the wind and snow throughout that entire winter could not have conspired to chill my soul more than the sound that met my ears just then. A snowmobile engine buzzed in the distance. Through the trees I could hear the motor screaming as it tore up the road at full throttle.
"Oliver, what's up?" Lizzie came up and stood beside me.
"Something's wrong Lizzie," I said, the pit of my stomach feeling cold and empty, "nobody ever goes that fast on a snowmobile around here."
"Why not?" Neal asked, "sounds like fun to me."
"Too many trees and hidden stuff in the snow around the lake," I explained, shivering, "it's crazy to go that fast, unless..." I bounded through the snow towards the lodge, calling for my mother at the top of my lungs, my bewildered companions following. Mom appeared that the door almost immediately.
"What is it, Oliver," she cried, "what's wrong?"
"Listen!" I said, collapsing to my knees in the snow, "do you hear it?" My mother cocked her head to the air and I could tell she picked up the sound as well. Her face set itself into a visage of grim determination.
"Oliver, take the others inside please," she said very sharply, "do it now." I didn't move, but Neal and Lizzie started to herd the younger children back inside. Some of the kids cast sidelong looks at me, obviously concerned, but I was too frightened to take much notice. The sound of the straining snowmobile was getting closer and I knew it would break through the clutter of trees soon. I stood up and watched transfixed. "Oliver," Mom shouted, "get in here now!"
I saw the rooster-tail of snow before I saw the machine come barreling down the road. I recognized my father as he turned up the driveway, the look on his face beneath his goggles and hat was stony. He pulled up to the lodge and dismounted in one fluid movement and disappeared inside, not bothering to shake off any snow. Standing in mute terror, I knew something awful had happened and I didn't know what. In the distance, I heard another snowmobile, its motor not running as wide open, but still moving at a good clip. Inside, I heard my father pounding on a door and yelling.
"George Reardon, you open this door you son of a bitch and get out here now!" Children inside started to weep and cry; numbness settled into my belly as I watched the second snowmobile turn up the drive and approach. My heart sank as I recognized Garrett's snowmobile, with the firewood sled attached; only, Garrett wasn't driving. A deep howl arose from my chest as I recognized Garrett's supine, snow-suited form on the sled, two men hunched over him and hanging on for dear life themselves.
"Noooooooo!" I screamed, my voice a white cry of terror, "GARRETT!" As the snowmobile pulled up next to the lodge, I floundered through the snow to get to his side. The men dismounted the sled and stood up, brushing snow, pine needles and twigs from their bodies and faces. I skidded to a stop next them, and saw Garrett lying still on the sled. His legs looked odd, two streams of dusky blood ran from his nose, down the side of his face where it pooled in an ear. A gash rose from his eyebrow, into his matted and bloodied hair. I stopped breathing for a moment as I looked at his waxy complexion. Garrett looked pale and dead; I frantically looked for any signs of life. Slowly, I sank to my knees and collapsed onto him; he felt cold and limp.
There was a rush of activity around me, muffled, frantic sounding voices. A woman screamed, but it wasn't my Mom. It didn't sound like her and she'd never do that. As I clung to Garrett's still body on the sled, I refused to let go. Eventually, strong arms pulled me away from Garrett and I watched the doctor wade through the snow in his stocking feet to kneel and press his ear against Garrett's chest. He shouted to the others,
"Come on, we have to get him inside, but for God's sake be gentle." Four men linked their arms beneath Garrett and lifted him into the air, carrying him inside as his head lolled back and his mouth sagged open. My mom put her arms around my shoulders, guiding me in after them. My father directed them to one of the empty rooms. I saw Neal, Lizzie and Eddie seated near the hearth with all the kids, looking stunned and perplexed; some of the women comforted the younger ones. Lizzie stood, walked over and embraced me, followed by Neal, who did the same from behind. I put my head on her shoulder and quietly wept.
My father paced outside of the room for a minute or two, muttering oaths to himself. My mom tried to calm him down but he would have none of it.
"Goddammit!" he declared, "I shouldn't have sent him out alone like that." Mom shushed him, and he did get quieter, but I could hear him castigating himself for being so "fucking stupid". Eventually, he walked over to me, his face looked miserable and I broke away from the others to fall into his strong embrace.
"He's dead isn't he?" I sobbed into his shoulder.
"I, uh..." his voice faltered, "I think probably so, Oliver." The words fell onto my ears with a dull thud. Suddenly, the room felt all empty and echoing. I pushed away from my father, looking around to the shocked faces of the others, looking back at me. I saw Lizzie's mom, clutching her chest, and some of the younger children, tears streaming down their faces. Bolting up the stairs, I ran to the bathroom, where I promptly vomited into the sink, then slowly collapsed to the floor.