After the holidays, Gretchen had deliberately made of herself a recluse. She had been working all year on a novel, researching and making notes, outlining and plotting, and she was ready to put it all together.
After having taken most of December and half of January off, due to family obligations related to holiday celebrations, she explained her plan for a big writing push, and asked for some alone time. Her family was grudgingly obliging, agreeing to schedule video chats on weekends for the foreseeable future.
For the first time in a decade, she was glad she was single.
“Mom, please don’t do this.”
Gretchen paused in her packing and sighed. Yes, she was single, but she still had to contend with the children.
“Mallory, stop it,” she said. “The cabin is perfectly safe.”
“Sure, in the summer!” Mallory wasn’t giving up without a fight, clearly.
“Dad made sure everything was safe for winter, too.” Gretchen folded a thick sweater and tucked it into the suitcase. “I have a big generator, in case of a power outage. I have a big backup generator in case an outage outlasts the fuel in the first one. And there’s a third generator, besides. The caretaker has already made sure they are all full of gasoline. I have the fireplace in the front room and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. I have half a dozen heavy quilts. The freezer is full. The pantry is full. The grocery store delivers.”
“But it’s so far, mom! And the cell service is awful!”
“There’s a land line, Mal. Just stop! I’m going.”
“You could just write from here. We’ll leave you alone.”
“I always write at the cabin.”
“Not in winter!”
“Mallory Grace, you’re driving me nuts! Go tell your brother you did your best, and leave me be! I’m a grown woman, for God’s sake. I can take care of myself.”
Mallory, frowning deeply, flopped down in an easy chair, crossing her legs and folding her arms across her chest. “Wish you’d taken the house in the settlement and let Dad keep the cabin,” she huffed.
Gretchen rolled her eyes. “Your father never used the cabin. He doesn’t like to fish; he doesn’t like fresh air; he doesn’t swim—”
“I thought the cabin was his inheritance.”
Gretchen shrugged. “He didn’t want to buy me out of my half of the house. I didn’t want the mortgage payments. He didn’t want the cabin. Since I’m the one who always used it, he offered it in place of the house options, and it’s paid for, so I took the deed with a big old smile.” She zipped the suitcase shut. “Least he could do for me, the ass. And you already know all this!”
Gretchen started loading the Suburban, and Mallory tagged along, still griping. “It’s just so far! You can’t blame us for being worried, Mom.”
“I don’t.” Gretchen grinned as she inspected the interior of the vehicle. Getting deliveries from UPS was an issue at the cabin, so she had stocked up on toilet paper, facial tissue and paper towels. She was certain she’d have plenty; she was only one person, after all.
She drew her daughter into a long embrace, got into the SUV, and rolled the window down for one last goodbye. “Don’t you dare forget to water my plants!” she said.
“I won’t, Mom.” Mallory kissed Koko, Gretchen’s black Chihuahua-and-whatever-else mixed breed, and passed her through the window. Koko jumped into the passenger seat and settled herself on her blanket, curling into a ball of unruly curls. “You take care of Mama, Koko!”
Koko gave a noncommittal “woof”. Gretchen and Mallory giggled.
“You call the minute you get there,” Mallory ordered.
“The phone is on?”
“It’s on. Quit smothering me!”
“Turnabout’s fair play.” Mallory leaned in the window and kissed her mother’s cheek. “I love you. Be careful.”
It was cold. Gretchen wasn’t surprised, exactly, but the change between city and country in terms of temperature was always an…adjustment. She thanked her lucky stars for the caretaker; the snow had been cleared from the driveway and foot-path.
Inside, she found the place cozily warm. The caretaker’s wife had left her a prepared dinner on a plate in the refrigerator, and Gretchen popped it into the microwave to warm up while she brought in the last of her luggage and provisions.
Koko kept busy running back and forth, and as soon as Gretchen shut the front door, she squatted and peed on the welcome mat.
“Damn it, Koko!” Gretchen snatched up woman’s-best -friend and headed out the door with her, admonishing the pooch the whole time. Koko, undaunted, finished her business outside.
Gretchen put the mat outdoors to be dealt with later, and shut the door again.
They were in for the night, she hoped.
With everything finally inside, Gretchen doffed her winter gear and called Mallory and other family members to check in. No sense in getting anyone worried on her first day away.
After putting out food and water for Koko, she enjoyed her first meal in the cabin and went to bed early.
Mallory hung up the phone and announced to her family, “I don’t like it.”
Greg, her husband, rolled his eyes at her. “She’s a grown woman, Mal. She’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know what it’s like there in the middle of winter!”
“Neither do you.”
“Well, I’ve heard stories about the wind and snow blowing in off that lake.” Mallory didn’t appreciate being reminded that she didn’t exactly know what she was talking about.
“I’m sure your mother has heard the same stories and has a plan for dealing with it. She’s not foolish.”
Mallory sat down across the table from her husband and put her face in her hands. “I know I’m being nuts about this, Greg,” she admitted. “But I have such a bad feeling in my guts about it. I can’t explain it.”
Greg, no stranger to Mallory’s “gut feelings”, looked a bit alarmed. “What sort of bad, Mal? The ‘I’m worried because she’s old and alone’ bad, or the ‘I think she might really be in danger’ bad?”
“I don’t know!” Mallory shook her head vigorously, as if to clear cobwebs. “I’ve never been a good judge of that in the first place, and I haven’t ever felt like this about Mom.”
“So, call her once a day.”
“We all promised to call on the weekends only.”
“Well, that was a dumb thing to promise.”
“I know, right?”
“Talk to Grandpa and your brother. Either one of them would get away with calling whenever they want.”
Mallory giggled. “Especially Grandpa. Okay. I will.”
According to her father, there had been no snow in the city at all this week. At the cabin, there had been storms three days out of the seven she’d been here. The caretaker came by a couple of times to plow the driveway and shovel the path, so Gretchen had a clear shot to the main road if she needed to go anywhere.
She and Koko had established a loose routine of walks outdoors, and pacing indoors. For some reason, Gretchen was nervous as a feline on catnip. She had put up a big storyboard and it was plastered with post-it notes. The outline and the timeline were intact; the plot was plotted. All she had to do was sit down and start typing. But she couldn’t sit still.
Koko lay in front of the fireplace, chin on paws, and watched as Gretchen walked to and fro across the room. Once in a while she moaned piteously, as if expressing sympathy for her befuddled mistress.
Gretchen sighed. “Dad’s worried about me,” she told her furry friend. She sat down, stared at the screen of her old friend, word processor. “Hell, I’m getting worried about me, too.” She stood, paced to the kitchen, then back to the front door.
Koko’s head lifted. Her ears shot up. Was it time for a walk?
“Yeah, okay,” Gretchen agreed. She pulled her coat on. “Let’s try not to freeze this time, okay?”
Koko emitted a disdainful sneeze at the sight of her leash, but sat and obediently lifted her chin while Gretchen attached it to her collar. She wasn’t a particularly adventurous dog and rarely wandered, but there were critters out there that might want to make a tasty snack of the little dog, and Gretchen was taking no chances.
At the last minute, she grabbed her cell phone and stuffed it into the inside breast pocket of her parka. “Dumb,” she told Koto as they headed out the door. “Damn thing never works out here.”
Koko gave her a quizzical look.
If dogs could shrug…
Outdoors, Koko led Gretchen down the path, where she discovered a set of fresh rabbit tracks. It was a little off their usual route, but Gretchen didn’t see any harm in letting Koko have a little fun with a bunny hunt for a few minutes. They weren’t going to get lost, after all—they only had to follow their own footprints back to the path.
They zigged and zagged a bit, and the snow got deeper in spots that weren’t as sheltered from the trees. Gretchen was out of breath from breaking through the drifts. Koko, tiny thing that she was, walked on top of the surface, rarely sinking more than an inch or so. “Oh, to be skinny,” Gretchen sighed. “That’s enough, Koke. Time to go home.”
Koko tugged the leash a couple of time in mock protest, and then turned with her mistress to go back to the cabin. They had gone only a few steps back when a loud cracking noise sounded in the stillness and Gretchen found herself armpit-deep in a hole. “Auuughhh! What the hell?”
Really, it was one armpit—her right arm was free, simply because she had been holding onto Koko’s leash. Her other arm was trapped against her side. The hole was tight, and she couldn’t feel the bottom.
Koko inched her way over to her, kissed her nose and whined. “Baby, I think you saved my life.” Gretchen carefully moved her arm, hand still gripping the leash, and pushed Koko away from her face. She wiggled her feet, just to confirm to herself that the bottom of the hole wasn’t within her reach. God only knew how deep it might be.
The lake was close by, and she was grateful that this hole wasn’t filled with water. She concluded that she was above the water level, and that was good—as far as it went. After all, she was still stuck in a hole.
Her phone was in her inside breast pocket, but it was out of reach in her present position. Left arm tightly caught between her side and the side of the hole; right arm outside; holding her in place and keeping her from falling any further. It would be easiest to grab the phone from that left side pocket with her right hand, but she was no fool. She wouldn’t risk losing the only anchor she had. Getting it with her left hand would have been a task under the best of circumstances, and now seemed impossible, but she was going to have to try.
First, she decided she’d better get her feet set somewhere, so she pushed her toes forward until she encountered the side of the hole, reflecting that it wouldn’t be quite so hard to do if she’d lose about twenty pounds. Of course, she might have slid right down the hole in spite of her arm if not for the added tummy…
“This is so stupid,” she whispered.
Koko whined. She pushed her little face against Gretchen’s cheek; her eyes were full of tears. Gretchen stroked her head. “It’s okay, girl, we’re going to get out of this mess.” She kicked forward with her right foot, tapping a shelf into the side of the hole that she could use to brace herself with. Carefully, she inched her left leg up as much as she could with a knee-bend and tapped a second shelf into place. “I’m building some steps.”
She was starting to shiver, and noted that her little dog was doing the same. She knew she had to hurry if they weren’t both going to freeze, but she also knew she was going to have to be very careful. Cautiously, she pushed with her feet, and decided she needed to dig her shelves deeper. It wouldn’t do for the soil to collapse under her weight—she could fall in deeper, even with an arm-hold outside the hole. She kicked lightly and rotated her feet. “I’m a drill, Koko,” she said, trying not to let her teeth chatter. Once that started, she didn’t think she’d be able to stop it.
The leash was looped around her wrist, and for now she intended to keep it that way. But if this went on too long, she would let go so Koko could get away.
Her feet drilled into soil slowly—the ground was frozen less solidly at this depth, but it was hard going. Every half inch or so gained, she carefully tested her weight against her foot-made “steps”. She was terrified that the dirt would break off under her feet.
There was no way to know how deep the hole was. How far would she plummet if she lost her tenuous grip?
Finally, she felt stable enough to start moving her left arm. She got her hand against her thigh and began wiggling it up to her waist. Using her thumb, she pushed the hem of her coat down so she wouldn’t end up with her hand underneath and it and trapped. Ah! Here was the zipper. She walked her fingers up her belly, between her breasts and up to her neck, keeping her elbow pressed firmly to the side of the hole so she wouldn’t slip.
As she moved, it became increasingly clear that she wasn’t going to be able to get her hand inside her jacket to pull out her phone. She also didn’t have much hope of turning it on trying to press buttons through her heavy coat. She pushed her left foot into its makeshift step and slowly straightened her leg, lifting herself just a little higher and using her right elbow to leverage herself up. Her right foot was dangling again, and she bent her knee carefully and got it up higher than the left. Then she started the step-making process again.
When both feet were well-seated once more, she walked her left hand up her neck and face, millimeters at a time. Koko sat staring into her face, in an eye to eye posture they’d never been in before. Her eyes were anxious and hopeful, and Gretchen thought her own eyes probably looked the same.
She was really frightened about thrusting her arm up out of the hole. That elbow pressing against the side was oddly reassuring. She worked to push her feet deeper into the soil, praying for stability. She pushed up on her toes, which raised her only slightly. She pushed her right arm out as far as she could and brushed snow away from the turf.
Koko, in a surprisingly helpful move, lay down across her forearm, adding a little weight. “Good girl, baby!” Koko’s tail thumped.
Gretchen dug her fingers into the grass and dirt as deeply as she could manage. She sucked in a cleansing breath and blew it out. Koko let out and encouraging yip. Gretchen thrust her left arm up and out, and threw it wide to catch herself if she started to slide down into the hole.
Her steps held. Now, arms akimbo, she hung there by both armpits. She felt sweat slide down her forehead and blinked hard. How is heaven’s name could she have worked up a sweat in this freezing weather? “You know what, Koko? Bodies are weird.”
Koko watched anxiously, still laying across her arm. Gretchen tried to pull herself up, but she wasn’t quite up to the task. “Damn it. I’m so out of shape!”
She sighed. Time to make another step, she decided. This time, she drew her knee up higher, feeling a little more confident now that she had both arms to hold herself up. She still didn’t think she could get to her phone; if she expended too much energy on the effort and managed it, and then got no reception, she was sure she would be too worn out to do anything else.
“Not worth it,” she told her little dog. She would feel the creature’s trembling. It was much too cold for them to be out this long. Koko was a short-haired breed. She needed to hurry.
Kick; twist; push. Kick; twist; push. A couple more steps and she started pushing the ground with her elbows. She was making some progress, but the higher she got her feet, the harder the frozen soil became.
She started kicking backwards with her heels, working on foot-holds front and back for more leverage. Heel; toe. Grunt; groan. Push; pull. She used her elbows to dig in and pushed with her shoulders. Inch by inch, she got her upper torso out. She cursed the arthritis in her wrists—if not for that, she could do a literal push-up. “God!” Gretchen yelled in frustration.
She was able to reach her phone, finally.
No signal. She left the useless thing on after dialing 911, and tossed it on the ground, just within reach. It could connect—anything was possible.
She pushed the loop of the leash off her wrist. “Go home, Koko,” she said. “Run, baby. Find someplace warm.”
Instead, Koko moved close to her and pressed herself against Gretchen’s neck and chest. Gretchen pushed the little dog into the front of her coat. They were both shivering violently, and the teeth-chattering she’d been dreading began.
She fanned her arms over the ground like she was making a snow angel. She decided to embrace the width of her hips—they were likely saving her this very minute. She leaned back a bit and pushed with her elbows and shoulders and toes. She wiggled—carefully. She kicked her toes into the soil as hard as she was able. “One…step…at…a…time,” she gasped.
Koko licked her neck and whined.
“Yeah, me, too.”
But she was really making progress now—finally. It took a few more minutes, but she finally pushed herself up and out. She rolled away from the hole, Koko leaping out of her coat and out of the way.
She lay panting in the snow, and then pushed herself up. With her first shaky step, she crushed her phone. “Screw it.” She picked up her dog and trudged back to the cabin.
Half an hour later, Gretchen and Koko sat in front of a roaring fire, still shivering. “We never speak of this,” she told her beloved pet. “Mallory would never let us out of the house again.”
By noon the next day, Gretchen was packed and ready to go. Koko jumped into the Suburban with unseemly enthusiasm.
When they arrived at the house, Gretchen called Mallory and told her she was home.
“You’re back? What happened?”
“What do you mean, what happened?” Gretchen gave Koko a guilty look and shook her head.
“I know you, Mom. The book can’t be done already!”
Greg called out: “She had a bad feeling, Ma!”
“Well, that’s just silly.”
“Is it? What happened, Mom?”
“Oh. Well,” Gretchen sighed dramatically, “you were right.”
“Wait—let me get this on tape,” Mallory cried. “What did you say?”
“You were right, Mal. Cabins are for summer.”
“Eek!” Mallory giggled. “You heard that, right, Greg? You’re on speaker, Mom.”
“Whatever. It’s not like you can’t be right once in a while, Mallory.” Gretchen rolled her eyes at the dog, and hoped the story of her early return would go no further.
She knew she could be dead right now, and Koko, too. But no one else needed to know it. She was fine.
Miracles happen every day.
Now if she could just finish the damn book.
It’s a new year, and Writers Unite! is off and running with new Write The Story Prompts.
If you’re wondering how I know how to get out of a hole–that’s a moose adventure for another day. (True stories that could still get me grounded, don’t you know.)
For a good time, check out Write The Story tales here: https://writersuniteweb.wordpress.com/