The car wouldn't start! Of all the places— of all the weather conditions— of all the times— this has got to be the worst. I thought as I sat behind the wheel of our Mazda 3. I looked over at my wife and saw the worried expression that revealed her inner turmoil.
"So, what do we do now?" Emily Sanders, my dear wife, said as she stared through the windshield at the billows of snow falling before her eyes.
"I’ve already tried calling Triple-A, but we’re out of range,” I assured her.
“Have you tried the kids? They can get someone out here to help us.”
“Yes, of course, I tried their numbers as well. No luck; the same problem as I had in reaching Triple-A. We’re on our own, dear. We need to make the best of it.” I attempted to sound confident and in control, but after 25 years of marriage, she could read the inflection in my voice. She knew I was worried too.
“Why did your Mother want us to drive out here in these mountains today, of all days?” Emily scolded. “The weather report warned us of this snowstorm. Of course, you knew better, didn’t you?”
“Now, this is my fault,” I said, glaring at her. “We haven’t seen my mother in three months. She practically pleaded with me to come up here for a visit. What was I to do?”
My wife sighed deeply as she mulled over what to say. “I’m sorry. I suppose you’re right, Harold. I agreed to go, as well. We’re equal in blame. I guess we’ll have to walk to get help.” Emily was not only a reasonable woman but a loving wife and mother. I adored her.
“At least we’re both dressed for the weather.” I looked over at Emily in her fur-lined black overcoat. Under which, she wore brown slacks and matching fur-lined boots. I wore my favorite London Fog wool coat and hiking boots. We pulled on our leather gloves, donned our caps, and exited the car. Before leaving, I made sure the flashers were on so no one would ram into the Mazda.
“Fat chance anyone would hit us up here. We’re probably the only ones dumb enough to drive in this weather,” Emily said with tongue in cheek.
“Well, just in case.” I looked around us and calculated our predicament. The snow was at least a foot deep, and it wouldn’t be until morning before the plows were sent up here to clear a path, maybe even longer. Tall evergreens lined both sides of the road, and the boughs were weighed down with the freshly fallen snow. It wasn’t over yet. The large flakes continued to fall and smoothly covered the road. Fortunately, a full moon sent beams of light down onto the road and helped illuminate our pathway ahead.
“I must admit,” Emily said as she gazed at the terrain. “It is a very picturesque setting to freeze in.”
“That’s the attitude we need. Laugh in the face of death,” I said with a chuckle. “Actually, it isn’t all that cold.” I took off my ski cap and felt comfortable without it.
“I noticed that as well. It’s quite warm under the circumstances,” my wife agreed. “There may be a house close by with a landline. We need to get moving.”
“Well, let’s go find it.” I held Emily’s thin hand and led her down the road. We continued to move forward. I knew no homes were in the other direction; I would have seen the lights as we drove past. The road curved easily to the right and straightened until it again bent to the right.
My mother’s cabin was miles ahead and in the mountains. It was too far to walk, but once we found a phone, I also needed to call her. She’d be worried sick by now. We trudged through the deep snow while holding on to each other for safety. It was exhausting, but we were able to make good progress.
“This is certainly beautiful country,” Emily said as the large snowflakes accumulated on her flaxen hair. She’s a tall, athletic woman with long legs, making it easier for her to tramp through snow drifts.
“Yep, almost like a Christmas card,” I smiled as I brushed the snow from her hair.
“Look here.” She stopped abruptly and looked down at the side of the road.
I joined her and was stunned to see what she had found. Footprints of a child walking along the side of the road. “They’re barefoot!” I said.
“Why in the world would a child be out here? Walking barefoot!” Emily was astounded. “We need to follow them and find this child before it’s too late. They’re fresh prints; he or she can’t be that far ahead of us.”
The footprints were going in the same direction, so we continued and kept our eyes on the prints buried in the snow. About fifty yards from where we first saw the tracks, they veered into the thick woods east of the road. “I don’t like this,” I said quietly. “Something is wrong here.” I felt an eerie shadow form above and around us. It was like being watched from afar. I felt vulnerable to this shadow.
“Of course, there’s something wrong. A child is lost out here,” Emily said with a grain of sarcasm.
“No, no, there’s something else. Something I can’t explain.” I stood facing the wooded area where the prints were leading us. A sense of foreboding crept over me. “Something unworldly.”
“Oh, come on, before you call Steven King into this. Let’s find the kid and return to what we were doing.” Emily was becoming impatient. She marched off into the dark woods, and I reluctantly followed her.
We wove through the fir and the pine trees as we kept our eyes glued to the footprints. They were so fresh that I could have sworn the child was just a few feet away from us. It was as if the child was playing games with us. However, I knew there was something else going on. I was about to tell Emily I had had enough and we should head back to the road when we broke through the forest and onto a rocky ledge. We stood on a large outcrop of rocks that overlooked a frozen lake below. The footprints ended once we reached the rocks, and we expected to find the child right there.
The moonlight was unobstructed by the tall trees, so the frozen lake and the land around it could be seen well. “There he is!” I shouted as I pointed to a large rock about twenty yards from us. Emily saw him as well. He appeared to be about ten years old, a blonde, skinny kid with a big smile. Incredulously, he was wearing nothing but a swimsuit.
Emily shouted over to him, “Little boy, come over here. We can take you to your home.” She waved frantically while he moved towards the edge of the rock. Still smiling, he dove off the stone into the lake. Instead of hitting the ice, he vanished from sight.
We couldn’t move. Emily and I felt a fearful grip that froze us in place, not from the ice or snow about us but from the impossible occurrence we just witnessed. We stared at the spot he should have hit on the frozen lake and saw nothing.
“I told you something was all wrong here,” I stammered.
“Did you see the boy?” A deep voice came from behind us. We both jumped and nearly fell off the rocks. We spun around to see a bent elderly man saunter from the woods. He was holding an ax in one hand and dragging a small fir tree through the snow in the other. He wore a long dark coat that reached the snow on the ground. It was open from his midsection to his chin showing a plaid shirt below it.
“Where did you come from?” I shouted with a tremor in my words.
He smiled and lifted the ax to his shoulder. “The boy’s always out here. Sure loves the lake. Likes to swim, that one does.” He chuckled as if what he was saying was common knowledge to us. “Just about every day, he’d be out here.”
Emily looked at me with fear in her green eyes. My eyes must have mirrored the same look. Our backs were to a frozen lake, and in front of us was a crazy man holding an ax. “We just want to find a phone and get back home. We don’t want any trouble,” she stammered.
“You’ll not find any trouble here,” he said casually. If you want a phone, get back on the road and look for one. I doubt you’ll find one, though.” The old man threw his head back and laughed heartily. He turned, brushing the snow with the hem of his coat, and returned to the woods. He floated through the trees and faded from sight.
I pointed to the snow-covered ground where the man was just standing a moment before. Emily looked down at where I was pointing. We both recognized that the snow was not disturbed in any way. “The old man stood here in the snow and left no tracks. How is that possible?” I asked, knowing neither of us had an answer.
“It isn’t possible,” Emily whispered. We both backed into the woods, found our footprints, and followed them back to the road. We broke through the edge of the forest onto the familiar road and felt a sense of relief.
The road seemed to be our anchor to reality. Until we looked to the side of it and saw that the snow was smooth. The child’s prints were gone.
“I never believed in ghosts before,” Emily said with a quivering voice. “How else can all this be explained? Harold, what is going on?”
“I have no answer,” I confessed. “We’ve got to get to a phone before we go nuts.” I grabbed her arm and maneuvered her forward on the road. It circled to the right again as we trudged on. The snowfall had weakened, and the moon was partially hidden by the trees and wisps of clouds, but we were still oddly warm as we continued. The night grew darker as each minute passed. The road became more forbidding than when they had started.
Within a half-hour of pulling ourselves through knee-deep snow, we began to hear voices. We stopped and stood perfectly still. Not knowing what to expect after what we had experienced earlier, we just stood and listened. At this point, the road was so dark that we couldn’t see any further than twenty feet in any direction. Fear overcame us both as we stood frozen in place. The voices grew louder than a moment ago. Emily squeezed my hand hard enough for it to hurt. The voices became more distinct and were coming closer. We could hear two male voices and two female voices. I couldn’t discern their words, but they sounded jovial and non-threatening. They were merely a few feet away from us.
Out of the darkness emerged the owners of the voices. They came into view as the elderly man had faded from view. Emerging from the darkness, four young people, wearing windbreakers and tennis shoes, stepped forward. All four were smiling and acting giddy. They seemed to be on a spring-time walk through a park. The four appeared to have no awareness of the snow around them. They stopped in front of us as they came forth from the darkness. The foursome looked at Emily and me as if we were a rare species of animal.
“Hello,” beamed a pretty brunette girl. “It’s a lovely day for a walk, isn’t it?”
“Yes, we love hiking these hills,” a young man, about twenty-five, added.
“Do you live close by?” Emily asked, to my surprise.
“Oh, we live around here,” the other girl said, giggling as she glanced at the others.
"Do you have a phone we can use?” I asked.
“No, no phone,” the brunette answered. “We have no use for them here.”
The others thought her comment was funny and started the annoying giggling again. A tall red-headed boy added, “Just keep following the road; you’ll find out.”
The four young people continued their walk again. They stepped around us and continued their indistinct conversation. Within seconds, they faded into the darkness, and their voices disappeared into the wind.
“Follow the road,” Emily said. “We’ll find it. We’ll find what? What the hell were they talking about, Harold?”
“They were about as cryptic in their conversation as the ax-man was.” I looked down at the snow and, as before, saw no footprints! “We’ve got to find that phone and get back to normalcy.” We nearly ran through the foot-deep snow in search of that normalcy. The road was darker than ever. The tall trees obliterated the moonbeams that helped us so much earlier. Our visibility was now down to just inches. Dread overcame us, and sheer panic pushed us on. The depth of the snow meant nothing to us as we plunged into the darkness. Our lungs were at the point of bursting. All we wanted was a way out of this hell.
I stopped, almost collapsing from exhaustion. My arm was outstretched when I grabbed Emily as she almost passed me in the black night.
“What is it?” she panted.
I caught my breath and pointed ahead. “There are lights ahead. Maybe someone has a phone; maybe they can help.”
We both looked ahead. The snow was coming down again and almost obliterated our view. However, we saw two flashing lights on the rear of a car. We sighed with relief as Emily and I walked to the car.
“Some other poor slobs got stuck out here like we did,” I said, smiling.
“Maybe they were smart enough to stay put and call for help,” Emily said. “The car is completely covered over with snow. They must have broken down some time ago.” Emily observed as she approached the rear of the car.
“Hello, the car!” I shouted. They didn’t move. Emily ran ahead as I called again, “We need some help. Is someone there?”
Emily was beside the passenger side and brushed the snow from the windows. She stared into the car. Her drawn face was covered with a blank look.
“What is it?” I asked. She gave no answer. I wiped the snow from the driver’s side and looked inside. The sight explained all that we experienced that night. The dead bodies of Harold and Emily Sanders sat frozen and cuddled together in their 2007 Mazda3. I turned my head in the direction we came in. Motioning for Emily to look as well, we both saw no footprints in the snow.