This is possibly the closest I’ve ever cut the holiday ghost story here! Kept you in anticipation though, didn’t it? Not only for the story itself but to see if the author is still capable of hitting deadlines. Barely, but yes! Go me!
For many years it was customary to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It’s a custom that I feel should come back into style! Here is this year’s installment. Enjoy.
It could feel like they were the only people on Earth if she thought about how isolated they were, but it was beautiful here. The little cabin was clean and warm and had a composting toilet, so no outhouse was a big bonus. The wood stove kept the small space toasty, sometimes a little too warm and they had to prop open the door. There was a generator that the owner had started before they got there and a single string of Christmas lights twinkled along the roofline to welcome them. Chris shut it down during the day and booted it up for a while at night so they could use the lamps inside and enjoy the Christmas lights outside.
It was everything Chris said it would be and she found herself able to relax for the first time in several weeks. The little cabin was a popular spot in the Alpine ski area, and they had booked the stay almost two years in advance.
It had been a dry winter so far, and even on Christmas Eve there was little snow on the ground, and Chris had decided they should take a walk. The woods were quiet, the only sound was their feet crunching the thin layer of frozen snow on the ground. On the way in, the ranger had warned them that there was some weather moving in and she could see the dark purple clouds rolling over the peaks when the valley below was visible from where the trail meandered close to the edge.
“You doing okay?” Chris asked over his shoulder.
“I’m good. It’s beautiful here,” she said.
“One of my favorite places. I’m so happy to share it with you,” he turned and hugged her with one arm and patted her lower abdomen with his other, “and this little guy.” Chris had grown up in the little ski town of Nevar, originally the Spanish term for ‘to snow’ but now pronounced without the ‘r’ roll, less than fifteen miles from where they were now.
Joanna giggled, “Who said it’s a boy?”
Chris shrugged, “I don’t care what it is. I’m just happy!”
A brief wave of panic washed over her. They’d been here before. Many times.
“I’m still a little cautious. I hope coming out here doesn’t turn out to be a problem.”
Chris put both hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Nothing is going to happen. This time the doc said your hormone levels are good. We’re fine.”
She smiled, “You’re right.”
“Of course I am! God showed us this path, he’ll see us through.”
Joanna nodded. They had taken an entirely different route with this IVF try. Chris had heard about a group that adopts frozen embryos no longer needed or wanted by the bios. It seemed like the perfect thing for them, morally and medically. Chris was convinced that if they did the greatest good with their desire for a child, God would bless it.
She wasn’t as convinced. She loved Chris for his faith, but she didn’t share it. Still, she couldn’t deny that there seemed to be something to it because this embryo had implanted, unlike all the others. She was almost to the magic fourteen-week marker and the risk for miscarriage would drop even more, but she wouldn’t let her guard down until she held a breathing, crying, squirming baby in her arms.
A strong gust of biting wind assaulted them whipping her hair straight up and into Chris’ face. They laughed, and he leaned in and kissed her. She thought that the world could not be more perfect and her heart swelled with love.
“Come on! There’s a waterfall just over this hill. This time of year it should be frozen and spectacular!” he said.
His enthusiasm won out over her cold nose, and she followed him up the trail. Tiny flakes of snow had begun to fall, and the icy blasts of wind made them twirl and dance, making it look like a winter wonderland.
Chris’ boot prints led the way up the small hill for her. She put all of her concentration on her feet, not wanting to slip. She had on excellent winter hiking boots, but she wasn’t going to take a chance of tumbling down. It wasn’t a big hill, but steep and she could not see past the summit. The drop to one side in a small area she would pass looked precarious, and she could hear the river rushing down below. She had to keep her small passenger safe.
Joanna had been thinking so hard about where to put her feet she hadn’t realized that the trail was suddenly virgin. She looked up to find Chris was not in front of her. He must have crested the hill before her, but when she reached the top the trail leading down was empty and the snow untouched.
Tree branches breaking off in the distance answered her.
“Chris!” Joanna turned every direction praying to catch a glimpse of his red down coat. She turned to go back the way she had come. Maybe he’d stepped off into the trees to pee, and she had missed him somehow.
Looking down the trail, she saw where the double tracks ended, and the single track began. No directional change. Chris’ footprints just ended right at the area with a steep drop, the spot she had been so worried about. A shot of ice went through her heart.
“Chris!” She tried to strain her ears against the growing wind.
She inched back down to where Chris’ footprints ended and peered down the embankment. The snow was disturbed as if someone had sledded down it. She peered harder and saw a glimpse of red through the thick trees.
“Oh my God! How did you get down there?”
“The wind. A big gust knocked me right off my feet!”
“Are you, okay?”
“Well. My ankle is screwed up, and I ended up in the river.”
“Yeah, my feet are wet.”
She wasn’t as avid an outdoors person as Chris, but she knew what that meant at this temperature. Panic threatened, and she placed her hand over her womb.
“Okay. What do you need me to do?” Joanna asked trying to sound calm and in control.
“Don’t try to come down here. I’ll try to come up to you.”
She could hear him grunting and see trees being pulled and snapped. Suddenly, he shouted out in anguish.
“Chris? Oh my, God! Are you okay?”
He let out a frustrated growl, “It’s my ankle, babe. I don’t think I’ll be able to climb out on my own.”
“What?” a lump in her throat kept it to a squeak.
“Go back to the cabin, babe. Call 9-1-1.”
“No! I can’t leave you out here!”
“You have to.”
“Chris, are you sure? Can’t you find a way up?”
“It’s not that, babe. I think I broke my ankle and I can’t put any weight on it.”
She choked back a sob.
“You can do it, babe. Go back and call 9-1-1.”
“What if I come down and help you up?”
“Jo. Baby. It won’t do any good if we are both stuck down here. You have to call 9-1-1.”
“Oh, God. Okay. I’ll be right back! Right back, honey!”
“Okay, babe. I’ll be here!” he chuckled.
The snow had picked up and was falling in large continuous clumps. In places, their footprints were beginning to be covered over. The wind slapped her face and pushed back against her progress. Her heart was racing, and she thought about the tiny being in her womb. Could he feel her panic? Was she scaring him? She was scared enough for the both of them. Please, little baby, hang on!
By the time she reached the cabin, the snow was coming down like a blanket, and she had to lift her knees to step through the new powder. Snow had built up around the door, and she had to struggle to pull it open.
“Why does this freaking door open the wrong way?” she shouted to the forest. Grunting, she yanked hard feeling the muscles in her back, thighs, and abdomen strain.
Wait. She wasn’t supposed to lift anything. Did this count as lifting? She managed to get the door open wide enough for her to slip in. She tried to pull it closed, but the snow had clogged up the threshold, and she left it.
She yanked her wet gloves off as she ran to the little couch where she thought she had left her cell phone. When she realized it wasn’t there, she shrieked out of frustration and desperately began throwing couch cushions onto the floor.
Trying to calm her mind she chanted, “think, think, think.” She tried to visualize herself and when she had last had her phone. “Oh yeah!” A mental picture of her rinsing a coffee mug at the sink popped into her head.
Joanna rushed to the little kitchenette. The phone was sitting next to the sink just where she had left it. She pressed the button to wake it up and stabbed in her security code. The phone vibrated in response, wrong code.
She screamed at the phone and tried again. This time it came to life, but wouldn’t be for long. The battery was showing only ten percent life left. Thanks to the ski resort of few miles away, she had three bars.
She dialed 9-1-1.
“This is 9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
Sobs strangled her voice.
“Hello? This is 9-1-1,” the woman sounded friendly as if this were the neighbor calling to invite her for coffee.
“My husband has fallen down an embankment and broke his ankle,” she choked out.
“Okay, Ma’am. Who am I speaking to?”
Blood roared to her head, nine percent life left.
“We are at Devil’s Gate. We rented the cabin here. He’s fallen and got wet in the river. He can’t get up the hill alone! My phone is gonna die, and I don’t know how to start the generator to charge it!”
“Okay, Ma’am. I’m dispatching Mountain Rescue now. Is he conscious?”
“Yes. But he’s wet and broke his ankle. It’s snowing hard here and cold!”
“Yes Ma’am, I understand. What’s your name?”
“All right, Joanna. I’ve got to make a few other arrangements. Can I call you back at this number?”
“Yes, but like I said, it’s going to die.” She began crying.
“It’s going to be all right. Stay calm Joanna.”
“I…I’m pregnant,” she didn’t know why she blurted that out.
“How far along?”
“Almost fourteen weeks.”
“Are you having contractions or bleeding?”
“No. No, please just hurry.”
“Okay, Joanna. Help is coming. Stay calm.”
The line disconnected. Seven percent.
She could not just sit here. She could lower blankets, dry clothes, and a hot thermos to Chris. She put a pan of water on the stove and began bundling some of his clothes in the tartan blanket off the back of the leather sofa.
Her phone rang. Six percent.
“Joanna, this is Alpine County 9-1-1,” the same neighborly woman. “I have Alpine County Search and Rescue on the line.”
A new voice broke into the conversation. “Hi, Joanna. My name is Robert. We are getting a crew together right now. I don’t know if you are aware, but we are in the middle of a major storm here. It might take us some time to get up there, but I have some guys on snowmobiles that will be headed your way shortly. You said he got wet?”
She could hear Christmas music and kids in the background. Robert must have been celebrating Christmas Eve.
“He fell in the river. I’m sorry to take you away from your family,” her voice broke on the word family.
“It’s no problem.”
“I was going to lower blankets and dry clothes to him.”
“Are you at the cabin?”
“How far to him?”
“Um. I don’t know. Maybe fifteen minutes.”
“Joanna, I think it’s best if you stay at the cabin. It’s getting dark, and the last thing we need is to have to find you too. Wait there for my guys, all right?”
“But he’s wet!”
“I understand that. The best thing you can do for him now is to get dry clothes ready and wait for us, okay? For now, we better get off the line because I know your phone is almost dead. Just hang tight.”
They disconnected. Five percent.
She slumped down on the couch cushions. The wind whipped in through the open door, and she shivered. If she was cold, how much colder was Chris? How long before hypothermia set in? She walked across the little room and yanked the door the rest of the way shut. She’d give them ten minutes, then she was going back to him.
She paced from the couch to the front door. Helplessness began to take root in her heart. It had taken them at least twenty minutes to drive from the main road to the cabin. No one was coming. Not anytime soon.
She put her hand over her womb, “We are going to go get Daddy.”
Using the word daddy made her think about the couple they adopted the embryo from. The Parker family had a rough go. The husband was diagnosed with cancer only two years into their marriage, and his treatment would likely leave him infertile. They had chosen to freeze several embryos for future use with the hope he would survive his diagnosis. He hadn’t, and the wife decided against using the embryos on her own. Mrs. Parker couldn’t destroy them, however, and donated them to the embryo adoption group.
Joanna squeezed her eyes tight. Chris’ God would certainly not let this little one loose two daddies, would he? Surely He wouldn’t let this little one who had waited so long to be born not make it. She bit her upper lip and thought about that for a few seconds. No, she was sure He wouldn’t, at least she hoped so.
She opened the small closet by the front door and began yanking out all the items to see if there was something that she could use. It was almost as if God approved of her plan because she found climbing ropes and a harness. She put the items in the blanket with the clothes and used the climbing ropes to tie it into a bundle.
The little pot of water had almost boiled away, but she poured what was left into their big green thermos and dropped a tea bag in before tightly twisting the lid shut. Digging in a kitchen drawer, she found a notepad and paper and scribbled a quick note. She rifled through the cupboard under the sink and found a working flashlight and a big garbage bag to keep her couch blanket bundle dry. With all of her finds she was more convinced that God was directing her rescue mission, she would not fail.
Joanna put on heavy ski gloves that she had found in the closet and slung her pack over her shoulder. It was almost ten pounds at least.
I’m not supposed to be lifting. Please God, if you are there, help us. Don’t bring us this far to leave us now.
She pushed the door hard against the snow that had piled up outside of it. Wind and snow blasted into the small opening and stung her face and eyes. The snow had been coming down in a steady stream and she sunk down half-way to her knee when she stepped out into it.
The sun was completely blocked out by the clouds and snow, but she knew it was almost ready to drop behind the mountains to the west. To the east, the sky was already an inky black. She needed to hurry.
The trail was not visible under the snow. She had to guess where it was based on the spacing of the trees and a couple of times she veered off and had to reset. It was tough going plowing through the snow, and she wished she had snowshoes. Her watch told her she had been walking for at least twenty minutes and should be close to where Chris had fallen, but nothing looked familiar. She knew the snow would change the way the terrain looked, but she felt like she was too far from the river. Maybe she had gone way off course and not realized it.
She stopped walking and looked around in every direction, trying to get her bearings. Everything was white. Silent. The snow had stopped. The sky was growing ever darker, and soon it would be pitch dark. Her breath came in little misty clouds.
“Hey!” a man’s voice called. A man, not Chris.
“Hey! I’m over here! Are you with the Search and Rescue guys?”
“Come this way!”
“Which way? I can’t see you!”
She headed in the direction she thought the voice was coming from.
“Keep coming!” he shouted.
She stepped through some trees and could plainly see the trail. She had veered off by fifteen feet and was headed away from the trail. She would have been hopelessly lost herself if the rescuer hadn’t found her when he did.
She still didn’t see anyone, but she saw a faint light up ahead. Behind the light, she could just make out the silhouette of a man.
“Oh man! Thank God you’re here!” she gushed, and she moved as quickly as she could toward the light.
As she grew nearer the light flickered and faded out. The man must have gone over the side to get to Chris. She realized she was right at the washout where Chris had fallen.
“Chris!” she shouted.
“Chris!” she fell to her knees and leaned as far over the edge as she dared.
“Jo! I’m here!” he sounded like he had been sleeping.
“I’m here! The rescue team is here! Are they down there with you?”
She looked around and didn’t see any sign that anyone had gone down this way. Maybe they had to find a better route.
“I’m going to lower a pack to you, okay? Will you be able to grab it?”
“I think so.”
She lowered the trash bag bundle to him. He had to strain but eventually got a hold of it.
“I can’t…I wont beable to putadryboot on my ankle,” his words were slurring.
“It’s fine, honey. Can you put on the sock?”
“Hey! Hey, you guys! He’s right here!” she shouted as loudly as she could. “Chris!”
Where the hell was that rescue guy?
“Can you put on the harness?”
“I doono,” his words were getting more jumbled.
That could only mean that hypothermia had set in. He didn’t have much time left. She’d have to act, now.
“Christopher! Put that damn harness on and click the carabiner in! Do you hear me? Do it now!”
She heard the jingle of the various clips on the harness, and she knew he was putting it on. She looped the other end of the rope through some trees as best she could.
“Are you ready? Me and the baby are gonna pull as hard as we can, but you’re gonna have to help us! Do you hear me?”
“I wonletu down,” he said.
After several minutes of yanking, grunting, screaming, and pulling she saw the top of his head over the edge of the trail.
“Keep coming, honey! Almost there!”
“I caan go anymooore,” he sobbed.
“No, baby, no! Just a few more feet! You can do it!” she couldn’t let go of the rope to help him.
Suddenly he flopped up the last bit and lay on the trail, his legs still dangling off the edge.
Joanna dropped the rope and ran to him. She hugged him for all she was worth. He had one dry sock on, and his other foot was bare. The ankle was misshapen and various shades of red and purple.
“I told you you could do it!” tears streamed down her face.
“I dinnnt. Someone pusssshed meee from behind,” he said.
She peered over the edge. No one but the steep ravine and growing darkness.
“Joanna!” someone shouted from a distance.
“Over here! Over here!” she jumped up and looked in the direction the voice had come from.
Four men in black ski pants and read coats pushed up the hill towards her.
“Hey, Joanna! It’s me, Robert!”
“Oh my God! Robert! I’m so glad to see you!” she sobbed.
Robert got to her and held his hand out. Behind the headlamp, she saw a weathered but kindly face and a warm smile. “I thought you were gonna wait at the cabin.”
“Well, when we got to the cabin we found your note saying you had headed back out, but the wind had blown snow over your tracks and we would have had no idea which way you went if not for your friend.”
“My friend?” she said, shaking her head.
“Yeah, the guy at the cabin. He told us which way you went.”
She had no idea what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter. They were safe now.
They checked Chris over and put a temporary splint on his ankle. Then they loaded him on a stretcher and began to make their way back to the cabin, a man on each corner. Joanna followed behind.
She could hear the generator for the cabin running as they approached and caught glimpses of the string of lights along the roofline through the trees.
“Looks like your friend got the generator going. Oh, yeah, he wanted me to tell you that Parker makes a good first name and you’d know what that meant.”
Her mouth dropped open, and her hand went to her lower abdomen, “That’s the last name of a man that I know of who passed away. My husband and I, well, he left us something really important.”
“Well, your friend thinks it’ll make a good first name,” Robert said.
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and get a miracle or two.
Until next time, Never Turn off the Lights!