A stand-alone story, first published in The Maverick, Show Low AZ.
Glaring sunlight intruded on Alec’s dreams. He rolled over, willing himself to go back to sleep. Then the phone jarred him up and out of bed. He dragged the quilt behind him as he dashed to answer it.
“Santa got me skis!” The young voice was bursting. “Did you get my present?”
“Yes, I’m opening it now,” lied Alec. The present had been opened as soon as it arrived.
“Do you like it?”
Alec smiled, looking at the misshapen blob of clay. “It’s wonderful. Did you make it yourself?”
“Yes! It’s a pen holder. We made them at school.”
An older voice in the background said, “My turn, Honey,” then “Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, you too.” The tears in his throat annoyed him.
“Thanks for the check.”
“Figured Santa could use it,” Alec replied gruffly.
“That’s for sure . . .”
That was all they had to say; there was more than one kind of distance between them.
Alec tried to shrug off the holiday blues by making himself a real breakfast – eggs, sausage, and pancakes with real maple syrup. When they were a family, she always made coffeecake on Christmas morning.
He dawdled over his food, staring out the window, watching the jays, and then he took his time cleaning up. Dishes washed, dried, put away. Counters and stove-top wiped clean. He even swept the floor.
Still morning, he thought. No one else will call. Maybe there’s enough snow for a ski up on the mountain – only got out once last year.
Alec pulled his cross-country skis and poles out of the garage, then rummaged through closets until he found his boots and special wool socks. He decided to wear his heavy coat. He’d probably be too hot, but he didn’t push himself the way he used to.
It was past noon as he headed out of town.
The railroad tracks were too open; the wind had blown them bare. He kept driving, looking for the wooded trail he’d hiked last summer. Finally he found it – at least the map painted on the large wooden board looked familiar.
It was sheltered, and enough higher to have gotten more snow.
There were no other vehicles at the trailhead, but the path had been skied on sometime in the last couple days – since the last snow. He put on his skis and started awkwardly. After a few minutes, the rhythm came back to him and he started moving right along. At first the trail led up steeply. He unzipped his coat and was still sweating, but it felt good.
I’ll be fine as long as I keep moving, he thought.
He was glad when the trail looped around and headed downhill. But it was steep, and the light was getting tricky as the sun sank into the trees. He’d forgotten dusk would come earlier on this side of the mountain. He had to slow down.
His shirt clung to him like an icy glove. The trail was getting harder to follow. Going around a curve slowly, he nearly fell when his right ski grabbed a rock. He paused.
I could break a leg and freeze to death out here, he thought. But what difference would it make? No one would miss me; no one would really care.
Suddenly the hair on his body bristled, pushing the wet shirt away from his skin. He looked around in the dusk, but couldn’t see anything. Yet every nerve was tingling. He didn’t dare risk falling by going too fast, so he skied with his poles swinging broadly.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing…” He bellowed out Christmas carols to frighten off whatever was out there in the dark.
Suddenly, he saw bright light ahead. As he got closer he saw a truck sitting at the trailhead, its headlights on his car. Happily, Alec glided into the parking area and released his skis. He heard the truck door open.
The voice sounded friendly, but panic gripped Alec when he looked up to see a large man standing with his back to his truck, holding a long-barreled gun pointed in his direction.
“Man, I’m glad to see you,” said the stranger. “Pulled over ‘cause I was nodding off, then I seen them big cat tracks all around your car and figured you were a goner. I’ll just stand by here ‘til you’re ready to go.”
Alec stowed his gear, got into his car, and started it up. He rolled the window down as the man got into his own truck.
“Thanks,” he called, grateful to be alive.
“No problem. Merry Christmas.”