Brian slung his skates off his broad
shoulders and into the trunk of his car, next to the other
assorted belongings he planned to take home to Sleepyside
over Christmas vacation: several medical textbooks, a duffle
bag full of clothes (mostly clean), the few presents he had
managed to buy in the little free time he had between his
studying and practical shifts.
I don’t know why I’m bothering with the
skates, he groused to
himself as he opened the car and took his seat behind the
wheel. I doubt if I’ll have any time for pick-up hockey
games or skating parties on the Wheeler lake. I
should have just brought my books home and not bothered with
anything else. Better yet, I should just stay at
school over Christmas break and try to catch up with my
He shook his head as he started the
car. Too late now, he reminded himself.
He’d already committed himself to driving Mart home for
Christmas. Besides, Moms knows I’m coming
home. I just can’t call her and cancel at the last
minute. I couldn’t do that to her.
Thinking of Moms brought back images of
previous Christmases at the Beldens’ cozy farmhouse Crabapple
Farm: warm, happy memories filled with fun and food and
family and friends. There was really nothing like
Christmas at Crabapple Farm.
So why am I being such a Scrooge now,
when I’m on my way there for the holidays? Brian asked himself as he backed the
car out of the parking space and away from his dorm at
Upstate Medical College onto the road that connected to the
nearby Environmental and Forestry School that Mart
It was a pointless question, and the
answer was so obvious that Brian didn’t know why he even
asked it. His first semester of med school had been
tough, tougher than he had ever imagined it would be, and it
definitely wouldn’t get any easier as time went on. He
had studied every waking hour for his finals, and yet he had
the feeling that he had barely squeaked by with passing
grades. And now I’m taking three weeks off for
Christmas break, he thought with a sigh. If only
I had those three weeks to work, uninterrupted, I could get a
jump start on next
Brian shook his head as he pulled up in
front of Mart’s dorm. He didn’t know what had gotten
into him lately. Maybe I’m just tired of all these long,
cold, dark, dreary days, he tried to convince himself. Or
make that short, cold, dark, dreary days, he
thought, remembering that today was the Winter Solstice and
the shortest day of the year.
He waved mechanically at Mart, who was
standing on the curb waiting, several suitcases, bags and
packages lined up on the sidewalk beside him. Brian got
out to unlock the trunk, eyeing Mart’s baggage as he did
so. “Think you have enough stuff?” he greeted his
“Not really. I still have some Christmas
shopping to do when I get home,” Mart answered as he joined
Brian at the back of the car. Peering into the mostly
empty trunk, he added, “I think the correct question is, ‘how
come you don’t have more stuff?”
“I haven’t done any shopping,”
Brian admitted as the two got to work, piling Mart’s luggage
into the little car. By the time they were finished,
the trunk and the back seat were both full. Brian
closed the trunk as gingerly as possible, hoping nothing got
crushed as he did so.
As soon as Brian had returned to the
driver’s seat and restarted the car, Mart spoke up.
“Can we stop at Burger King or Mickey D’s or something?” he
asked. “I’m starving.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “What a
surprise,” he commented, not making any effort to hide the
sarcasm in his tone.
“Hey, I haven’t eaten anything since
breakfast,” Mart defended himself, “and it took a lot of
muscle and energy to drag all this stuff out here.”
“It’s only 11 o’clock,” Brian pointed
out. “And you moved all that stuff yourself?”
“Well, not exactly,” Mart admitted, “I
did have a little help.” He thought it best not to
mention that the help had taken the form of six other guys
from his dorm.
Brian snorted anyway. “Can’t we
just get on the road and get it over with without making a
bunch of stops for food?” he asked.
“The trip home takes at least several
hours, possibly longer, depending on the weather,” Mart
observed. “I don’t see the big deal in making a couple
of short stops for food along the way.”
“Short?” Brian echoed derisively.
When Mart didn’t answer right away, he said in a firm tone, “We’ll stop for food after we’ve
put a few miles behind us.”
Mart sat in silence for a few
minutes. “What’s got your goat?” he finally queried.
“Huh?” Brian responded, his eyebrows
furrowing into a frown as he swung the car onto the exit ramp
leading to the highway.
“You’re obviously in a bad mood,” Mart
“What makes you think that?”
Brian asked, giving his brother a dark look. “I’m not in a
Mart held up a hand to signal Brian
that he was backing down in the face of his grouchy
expression, but as soon as Brian had turned back to the road,
Mart couldn’t resist adding, “Far be it from me to disagree,
but you’ve scarcely said a civil word to me since you first
pulled up in front of my dorm. I would think you’d be loaded
with Christmas spirit. Maybe this will help!” Unzipping
a pocket in the backpack stored at his feet, he extracted a
CD. “The Chipmunks,” he proclaimed, holding it up for
Brian’s inspection. “No one can listen to the Chipmunks
around the holidays and stay in a rotten frame of
mind.” He popped the CD into the player, and the sounds
of the Chipmunks filled the little car.
Christmas time is near; Time for toys and time for cheer.
We've been good, but we can't last; Hurry Christmas, hurry
Brian sighed. This time, he
didn’t even bother to argue with his brother’s words.
He knew his Christmas spirit level had plummeted to about
zero recently. In fact, he had to use every ounce of
restraint he possessed to keep from reaching out and snapping
Mart’s CD out of the player. He settled instead for turning
the volume down so low that the sappy critters’ voices were
barely audible. Mart made a face but for once didn’t
Brian sighed heavily. Normally, he
wasn’t a big fan of the Chipmunks, but their cheery song
would usually at least have produced a reluctant smile from
him. This year, though, it only made him feel
irritated, just as the decorations on his floor of the dorm
had…as had the carolers outside the dining hall, the
hastily-glanced-at cards and unwanted holiday newsletters
clogging his mailbox every day, and the constant barrage of
holiday specials playing on the TV in the lounge. He sighed
again. Despite his good intentions, he couldn’t resist
questioning Mart, “What’s so good about the holidays,
Mart twisted in his seat to stare
incredulously at his brother. “Are you serious?”
Brian nodded, knowing he was being
unnecessarily grumpy. Nevertheless, he kept his eyes fastened
stubbornly on the road ahead of him, avoiding his brother’s
“What’s not good about the
holidays?” Mart asked. “Exams are finished
for the semester, there are no more middle of the night fire
alarms in the freezing cold, we have
tons of presents to look forward to… ” He ticked off the
items on his fingers as he listed them. “Then there’s
Moms’ mouth-watering roast beef, complete with steaming
popovers, delectable gravy and mashed potatoes, and green
bean casserole. Her delicious cranberry bread and apple
pie, not to mention cherry pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie…”
“Enough!” Brian stopped him. “Is
food all you ever think about?”
“Well, all that food is definitely
worth thinking about,” Mart said, rubbing his stomach in
contemplation. “But it’s not the only thing I’m looking
forward to, if that’s what you’re wondering. There’s
also the fact that there’ll be no studying for almost a
month; I’ll be sleeping in my own cozy bed at Crabapple Farm,
minus the lumpy dorm mattress; I’ll also be seeing the other
Bob-Whites, especially Diana, and…oh, yes, speaking of Diana,
seeing her in her hula recital tonight is a highlight among
all the things I’m looking forward to about the holidays.”
“Hula recital?” Brian’s eyebrows
rose in surprise. “It’s the middle of winter. I
don’t think the temperature’s gotten over twenty degrees in
the past week.”
“Well, they don’t have the recital outside,”
Mart guffawed. “And didn’t you hear? The Lynches
have booked a condo in Hawaii for the spring break. I’m
still hoping they decide to invite me along.”
Brian bit his lip, barely resisting the
urge to answer, Good luck with that.
Mart must have had some idea of his
brother’s reaction, as he defended himself, “Di’s parents
“Yeah, but would they trust you in
Hawaii with Di in hula skirts and teeny, tiny bikinis?” Brian
“Not sure,” Mart mumbled in
reply. Then a grin flashed across his face as he
admitted, “I’m not sure I’d trust myself with her in
Hawaii in hula skirts and teeny, tiny bikinis.”
Brian grinned back and chuckled for the
first time since Mart had seen him that day. Mart
figured he’d try to make his brother’s good mood last as long
as possible. “Honey’s going to be in the recital,
too.” Brian didn’t react as enthusiastically as
Mart would have hoped, but at least the grumpy frown hadn’t
returned to his face.
“Is Honey going to Hawaii, too?”
Brian asked, in what to Mart seemed like a suspiciously
Given Brian’s present mood, Mart
decided to keep his observations about Brian’s level of
detachment to himself. “I don’t think so,” he replied
instead, “but Di talked Honey and Trixie into taking the
lessons with her.” He glanced at his brother, wondering
why he hadn’t heard about the girls’ hula lessons from Honey.
Do they even talk? he
“I can’t believe you haven’t
heard about this before,” he ventured. “I know you’re
out of touch, but don’t you ever talk to any of the
“You know I haven’t had time for any of
that,” Brian said. “I’ve talked to Moms and Dad every
Sunday night, and that’s about it.” A gleam appeared in
his dark eyes as he added, “Apparently, our parents don’t see
hula recitals as quite as important as you do.”
Mart laughed. “Probably not,” he
agreed. As Brian’s face once again took on a somber
look, he frowned. “Seriously, bro, you need to lighten
up. If you don’t lose this attitude, you’re really
going to put a damper on the holidays. And I, for one,
don’t plan to let that happen.”
Brian’s lips twisted into a reluctant
grin. “And just what do you plan to do about it?” he
“Whatever it takes,” Mart answered
promptly. He thought for a minute. “Isn’t there
anything about Christmas that you’re looking forward to?”
“Well…sleeping,” Brian said.
Mart rolled his eyes. “Anything a
little more festive than that?” he prompted “Haven’t there
been any Christmas parties or concerts or anything at your
school lately? We’ve had tons of them over the past few
“There have been,” Brian stated, a
certain moroseness creeping into his tone. He didn’t
want to tell Mart that these were just the kinds of things
that he had found irksome and tiring lately. Instead,
he obediently racked his brain, trying to think of a holiday
activity he had actually enjoyed. His mind swept
rapidly over the past few weeks, back to the Sunday after
Thanksgiving when they had lighted the big tree in the main
courtyard of the college.
As darkness fell over the campus, most
of the students gathered around the tall pine that stood in
the center of the courtyard, its dark silhouette barely
visible against the black sky. The icy air clung to
Brian’s cheeks and nose and fingers as closely as mosquito
netting to a sweaty beekeeper. He shoved his hands deep into
his pockets, though, and welcomed the frostiness against his
face; a biting, awakening change from the over-warm, stale
air of the library, where he had been studying all afternoon.
The students huddled in groups of twos and threes and fives,
talking and laughing and glancing at the tree every few
minutes. A brass quintet was assembled in front of the
tree, playing Christmas songs with more gusto than
After a few minutes, the college
president and his family appeared, all waving good-naturedly
at the crowd. The little band stopped playing, thinking
perhaps that the president wanted to give a speech.
Instead, he took his young grandson by the hand and walked
over to pick up a cord near the tree, indicating a switch on
it. The little boy had obviously been rehearsed in the
procedure, as he nodded, excitement shining in his
Brian smiled as he watched the boy flip
the switch, until a sudden burst of illumination swiftly
shifted his attention to the tree itself, its brilliant
display of multi-hued, vibrant, twinkling lights replacing
the previous darkness. A hush came over the
crowd, and Brian gazed up, savoring the sheer enjoyment of
those few seconds of quiet splendor before a cheer came up
from the crowd, and the brass quintet began fumbling its way
through their own very unique version of “O, Christmas
Brian smiled again at the memory.
He glanced at Mart, noticing that his brother was watching
him carefully. “Well?” Mart questioned.
“The tree-lighting ceremony in the quad
was pretty impressive,” Brian admitted.
Mart pounced on his words like a
famished feline springing on a particularly plump
mouse. “Ah-hah! I knew there was Christmas spirit
somewhere under all that grumpiness,” he
“Don’t get too excited,” Brian said
dryly. “That tree-lighting ceremony took place nearly a
month ago, and since then, any positive feelings toward the
holidays have pretty much flown out the window.”
“No, they’re still there,” Mart stated
positively. “We just need to find a way to bring them back
to the surface.”
Brian shook his head. “Before you
start devising any crazy plans…” he began.
“Let’s forget about burgers and fries,”
Brian’s mouth dropped open. Those
were the last words he ever expected to hear his brother utter.
“Huh?” he questioned in surprise.
“We can grab some cold cuts or
sandwiches at a deli or someplace,” Mart said with a nod.
Brian could tell that for once there
was more than just food on Mart’s mind. “And?” he
encouraged his brother to continue, despite the misgivings
that were already beginning to spring up in the back of his
“We’ll head up to Catskill Park,” Mart
declared. “It’s not far out of the way,” he added
quickly before Brian could object. “We can have a
picnic and maybe take a short hike.”
“That’s crazy!” Brian shook his
head at the way his brother’s thought processes
operated. “And what does hiking in the Catskills have
to do with Christmas spirit?”
“You need to get outside and feel the
air on your face to put all thoughts of school behind you,”
Mart explained. “That’s what being at that
tree-lighting ceremony probably did for you.”
Brian had to admit that Mart had a
point, but there were still way too many things wrong with
the plan, as far as he could see. “Moms is expecting us
home,” he said, voicing the one foremost in his mind.
“And I don’t have boots with me. Plus, there’s snow in
the forecast this afternoon,” he continued with a worried
look at the sky.
“The sky’s perfectly sunny and clear,”
Mart scoffed. “The snow’s not due ‘til later, and we’ll
only take a short hike. We’ve done that without boots
tons of times.”
“Easy for you to say, since you have
boots on,” Brian kidded with a glance at Mart’s feet.
He sat silent for a minute, thinking about the proposed hike.
He knew it was probably a bad idea, but he found himself
turning it over in his mind with a certain amount of
pleasurable anticipation. “We do know parts of that
park pretty well,” he finally conceded. “We’ve hiked
there often enough.”
“Sure!” Mart agreed
happily. “And you can call Moms from wherever we
stop and let her know we’ll be a little late.” He
pulled a map out of the glove compartment and
enthusiastically began to chart a course to the park on a
road that would have an acceptable place where they could
stop for food.
Brian only half-listened to his
brother’s comparison of the benefits of fried chicken versus
Italian grinders. Their plan seemed crazy, but he
couldn’t help feeling a little happier thinking about
it. He even reached out and turned the volume back up
on the Chipmunks CD. Maybe the little guys aren’t so
bad after all.
Brian drove the heavily-laden little
car carefully through the village where they had stopped to
pick up lunch and west toward the Catskills. He glanced
at Mart, who was rummaging through the bags of food they had
bought. “We’re almost there,” he reminded his
brother. “Can’t you wait a little longer?”
“Just making sure that everything’s
still there,” Mart retorted.
Brian returned his eyes to the road,
taking in the clouding skies in front of him with a worried
look. “Maybe we should just eat while we’re on the
road,” he suggested uneasily. “I can still cut back to
the highway from here without much of a problem.”
Mart followed his brother’s gaze.
“Just a few clouds,” he said, but Brian didn’t think he
sounded wholly convinced. A few minutes later, as they
were turning into a back road leading to one of the park
entrances, wet flakes began to appear on the windshield.
“Great! Just what we need,” Mart
grumbled. “I should have known the weatherman couldn’t be
right for once.”
“Yeah, it kind of puts a damper on your
idea for a picnic, doesn’t it?” Brian rejoined in a wry
tone. His expression softened, though, as he took in
his brother’s disappointed face. After all, Mart had
been doing his best to cheer him up, and it wasn’t his fault
that the weather was intervening unhelpfully. “We
can drive up a little further and at least eat our lunch with
a view,” he said in what he hoped was an encouraging tone.
“Yeah, I guess it’s the best we can do
at this point,” Mart agreed glumly. “We certainly can’t
eat outside with stuff coming down.”
The bumpy road quickly became covered
in snow, and the small car skidded a couple of times on the
way up the low hill they ascended to get to a scenic spot for
picnicking. Brian let out a sigh of relief as he pulled
into a parking spot. “We’ll have to eat quickly and get
right back on the road,” he commented as he pushed his seat
back in an effort to stretch his long legs.
When he had graduated from college the
previous spring, Brian had finally had to face the fact that
his old jalopy wasn’t going to accompany him to medical
school, or in fact, anywhere else. Despite every effort
at tinkering by himself and Tom, her ancient, overworked
engine had given out, never to start again. It
was a sad day when The Queen had to be towed away to the
junkyard, but Brian had taken some comfort in the fact that
the other Bob-Whites had seemed almost as sad to see the end
of the loud, unreliable, beat-up old car as he had. He’d
never forget how Trixie and the others had sacrificed to help
him get his pride and joy of a car, and it was somehow
fitting that they had grieved with him when he eventually had
to say goodbye to it.
The fact had remained, though, that he
had needed another car, and since he still had med school to
get through and wasn’t quite ready to get stuck with a car
payment, he had chosen another older car. This time, it
was what he considered a classic: a 1973 AMC Hornet in great
The BWG girls had promptly dubbed the
new, old car “The Queen Bee” and before long, Brian had found
himself almost as attached to the Hornet as he had been to
his old jalopy. On longer trips like this, though, he
wished the car wasn’t quite as compact, wistfully thinking
about the roomy sixties’ styling of his old jalopy.
Well, at least The Bee doesn’t cost me
a fortune in gas, he
reminded himself, as he took a sip of his coffee, savoring
its warm, milky sweetness. He reached out for the sandwich
Mart gave him and took a good-sized bite.
“This is good,” he commented in
surprise. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was
until I started eating.”
“You doctor types don’t take
enough time out to take care of your sustenance and beverage
needs,” Mart said.
“It’s lucky I have you to worry about
all that for me,” Brian said with a grin.
Mart returned his grin, nodding at his
brother’s quiet way of his expressing his thanks. When
Mart took out the candy bars that he had bought for dessert,
though, Brian shook his head.
“We really need to get going. If
you want chocolate, you can have it on the road.”
Brian moved his seat up to its former
position and pulled on his gloves. Mart rubbed his
hands together. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said, “and it
will be good to have the heat back on.”
Brian pulled his gloves back on and
fastened his seat belt before turning the key in the
ignition. He and Mart exchanged glances as there was no
answering purr of response from the engine.
I’d be happy enough with even a rattle
or a clang or even
the sound of a small jet taking off like my old jalopy,
Brian thought to himself as he closed his eyes and said a
small prayer before turning the key again. This time,
there was a small growling noise, followed by nothing.
“Um, Brian?” Mart queried, his
voice sounding loud and harsh in the resounding
stillness. “You did replace that old battery,
Brian looked down at the steering wheel
in disgust. The car had been famous this past summer
for stalling at the most inopportune moments, and he had kept
promising to replace the battery whenever another person was
inconvenienced by it.
“I just haven’t had time for
anything lately,” he said weakly. “I always keep the
jumper cables in the trunk and ….” His voice broke off,
realizing how far out in the middle of nowhere they were and
the unlikelihood that they would see another car on this
“Those jumper cables won’t do us a damn
bit of good now,” he said, banging his fist on the steering
wheel in frustration at himself for getting them into this
situation. He didn’t even have any emergency supplies
in the car, other than a small first aid kit he kept in the
Both men were quiet for several long
moments, as they contemplated their situation.
“How long of a hike do you think it is
back to the nearest house?” Mart asked. “Two or
“More like eight or ten,” Brian
estimated. “And it’s snowing hard now.”
Mart bit his tongue, barely resisting
the urge to answer, “No kidding.”
Brian reached for the door
handle. “Hand me that first aid kit out of the glove
compartment,” he said decisively, “and I think there’s a
little flashlight in there. I’m going to get an extra
sweater and a pair of socks out of the trunk for each of
“I’ll take the candy bars and what’s
left of the coffee,” Mart said. “Just in case.”
“Just give me one of the bars and the
rest of my coffee,” Brian instructed. “I have an old
sleeping bag and possibly another blanket in the trunk, so
you should be able to keep warm enough. You may have to clear
the snow from the exhaust pipes from time to
time.” He cursed himself for not giving in
to the almost constant pressure to get a cell phone. He
knew Mart didn’t have one either.
“Huh?” Mart looked at him blankly.
“You’re staying here.” Brian got
out of the car and slammed the door shut, for the minute
effectively drowning out all of Mart’s objections.
Mart sat stunned for a few seconds,
before quickly springing out of his seat and joining his
brother at the back of the car. The snow blew wetly and
heavily into his face, but he ignored it. “You’re not
doing this, Brian,” he protested harshly.
“Try and stop me.” Brian’s reply was
just discernible over the howl of the wind. He fumbled
around in his duffle bag for a few seconds and then banged
the trunk lid down. He sauntered back to the front of
the car, stamping his feet in the snow before getting back in
and pushing his seat back once again. Leaning
over, he began unlacing his sneakers. Mart joined him,
and he threw an extra sweatshirt and pair of socks to his
“Brian, you can’t go out there alone,”
Mart began. “In fact, maybe neither of us should
go. Someone must come out here from time to time.”
Brian snorted derisively. “You
think forest rangers patrol these roads in snowstorms?”
“Well, they might,” Mart said unconvincingly
as he kicked off his boots and began pulling on the extra
Brian shook his head. “We can’t
afford to take that chance,” he said grimly. “We could
freeze to death sitting and waiting. The only solution
is for one of us to go for help.”
“For both of us to go for help,”
Mart corrected. “It’s dangerous enough for one of us to
be wandering around in a snowstorm looking for some sign of
civilization. At least, with two of us, we stand a
Brian grunted from the exertion of
trying to retie his sneakers in the small confines of the
car. When he finished, he took a deep breath.
“Look, Mart,” he said, his words quietly enunciated with
tight control. “There’s no sense in both of us risking
frostbite walking around in this weather. I know I can
make it if I just keep to the road. Just sit tight and
wait.” He yanked Mart’s backpack from its spot by
his feet, unzipping it and dumping the contents
unceremoniously into the backseat. Wordlessly, he began
stuffing the flashlight, first aid kit, an extra sweat
jacket, and a couple of candy bars into it.
“Hey!” Mart yelped in protest,
but his voice died out as he realized what his brother was
Brian ignored him as he reached into
the back for his old sleeping bag, dumping it into Mart’s
lap. He then slapped his car keys into Mart’s
hand. “There’s a small penlight on the chain,” he
said. “You’ll have to make do with it. I’ll need
the bigger flashlight.”
Mart started to nod in response, and
then shook himself. What was he thinking, agreeing to
Brian’s plan? As Brian again reached for the door
handle, Mart grabbed his arm. “Brian, let me go,” he rejoined
Brian paused for only a fraction of a
second before shaking his head. “I got us into this
mess,” he said. “And I’ll get us out of it.”
“That’s not true,” Mart argued
angrily. “I’m probably more responsible for this than
you are. I was the one who talked you into coming up here in
the first place. You just wanted to go home,” he
reminded his brother.
“Yeah, but I was the one stupid enough
not to have my battery replaced after the car stalled out or
didn’t start how many times?” Brian berated
himself. “Five? Eight? Fifteen?”
“You know it was only about three or
four times,” Mart argued, hating the look of self-reproach on
Brian’s face. As Brian pulled the handle to open the
door, he tried his final argument. “I have the
boots. Let me go,” he pleaded, his voice deep and
“Stay here!” Brian ordered
impatiently. Realizing how harsh his voice sounded, he
turned back to his brother once more. “I shouldn’t be
gone too long,” he said, his voice husky. “But if I’m
not, don’t take any unnecessary chances. You should be
able to ride the storm out with the sleeping bag and all the
clothes in the back.” Without giving Mart a chance to
answer, he jerked the car door open, jumping out quickly and
slamming the door decisively after him.
Mart hesitated for just a few seconds
before stuffing the rest of the candy bars and the car keys
in his jacket pocket and zipping it shut. He pulled on
his hat and gloves and looked around the little car before
pushing himself out of the car and into the cold, blowing
whiteness. He ignored the look his brother gave him and
the command which he couldn’t quite hear but assumed was
something like “Go back!”
“I’m going with you,” he yelled back,
“and there’s nothing you can do about it, so deal with
it.” He put his head down and his hands in his
pockets and stubbornly trudged along in the snow next to his
It seemed like they had been walking
for hours, but Mart had no idea how much actual time had
elapsed; he wasn’t wearing a watch, and there was no point in
asking Brian. It would slow them down and use needed
energy to stop and shout at each other long enough for Brian
to understand Mart’s question and for make out his
answer. So they both just kept slugging
wordlessly through the heavy, wet snow.
I hope Brian can tell if we’re keeping
to the road or not,
Mart mused, ‘cause I sure as hell
can’t. He wondered what his older brother was
thinking about on their seemingly endless hike. Mart
himself had been doing anything he could to keep himself from
concentrating on how cold his feet were and how much they
were beginning to hurt. Hey, at least I know they’re
not frostbitten that way, he thought, chastising himself
for complaining, even in his thoughts, when he had heavy,
sturdy boots in and Brian only had sneakers. I
wonder how his feet feel, Mart speculated. He’d
probably just keep walking on; even if they were so numb he
couldn’t feel them anymore ‘cause one thing Brian has never
been is a complainer, he thought loyally.
He kept walking, going back to quoting
Shakespeare to keep his mind occupied. He had gone through Macbeth,
Hamlet, and Julius Caesar and had finally resorted
to Romeo and Juliet, but he found that quoting the
famous Shakespearean romantic tragedy made him think too much
of Diana. Of course she’s always worth thinking
about; there’s no doubt about that, he thought as he
pictured her in the gown she had worn during the famous
balcony scene of the play. But Diana made him think of
love and warmth and good things, and thinking about those
things made the snow and cold and the endless hiking almost
unbearable. He focused his mind deliberately away from
Diana but was stumped on what else would occupy his mind
enough to keep him going. He didn’t really know any
other Shakespearean plays well enough to quote for any length
Mart’s mind darted back to the Poe
course he had taken last semester at college. He had
become fairly conversant with the author. But isn’t
old Edgar Allan a little morbid to be quoting in these
wondered. But his mind was already racing ahead, coming
up with Poe quotations.
“Sleep, those little slices of death.
Oh, how I loathe them.”
“To be thoroughly conversant with a
man’s heart, is to take a final lesson in the iron-clasped
volume of despair.”
And even worse:
“Deep into that darkness peering, long
I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to
Stop that! Mart ordered silently, further
willing himself not to even start thinking about the terrors
of The Cask of the Amontillado and The Tell-tale
His thoughts were interrupted as he
walked right into a snow-covered tree branch. Damn!
he told himself, another Poe quote
coming all too readily to mind: “I have great faith in fools;
self-confidence my friends call it.”
Mart swiped impatiently at the branch,
feeling a scratch across his cheek as he did so. Must
be one of those pain in the neck holly trees with the prickly
leaves, he thought. But wait a minute, what were
“Brian!” he bellowed, straining to make
his voice heard over the wind and wondering if his brother
noticed that there were quite a few trees around them.
They must have gotten off the road somehow.
Brian turned around. He took just
a quick look at Mart’s face before nodding in reply to his
unspoken question. “I know we’ve gotten off the road a
little,” he yelled back. “But I think I saw a light in
the trees back there.” He turned around and continued
trudging through the snow.
Mart didn’t answer. What was
there to say? All he could do was follow along after
his brother and hope that what he saw really was a light in
the semi-darkness of the storm. Because if it wasn’t,
they were definitely getting further and further from the
The two brothers plodded along again endlessly.
One foot in front of the other again and again and again and
again. Mart was too tired to distract himself with any
more quotes; in fact, he was too tired to think of much of
anything. The wind had died down a little, but it
felt colder; the quiet air seemed to have a sharp edge to it.
“It’s starting to get dark,” Mart
commented to his brother. His voice sounded hoarse and
scared even to his own ears.
Brian swung his upper body around to
observe Mart. “Are you okay?” he
Mart merely nodded, too exhausted to
bother with a spoken reply.
“It is getting dark,” Brian
commented. “It’s the shortest day.”
Mart just stared at him blankly.
“Today’s the shortest day of the
year,” Brian repeated.
Mart finally grasped what his brother
was saying. “That’s right. It’s the Winter
“Yup,” Brian said. “The shortest
amount of daylight in the whole year is today.” His
pronouncement sounded fatalistic, and Mart felt that his
brother’s statement didn’t call for a reply.
They plodded along in silence for a few
minutes more until Brian stopped short. “Can you see
it?” he asked.
What did he mean? Mart felt slow and stupid.
He looked around, not able to see much of anything except the
whiteness against the darkening sky. He squinted his
wind-and-snow-weary eyes into the trees ahead. Was
that really a light, or was he
Brian nodded encouragingly. “It
really is a light,” he answered Mart’s unspoken
question. “I’ve been watching it for a while now.
Sometimes it seems like it’s going to flicker out, but then I
see it again. I don’t think it’s moving, or I would
have lost it by now.”
A house, then? Mart scarcely dared to hope.
Brian resumed walking, and Mart walked behind him, his
spirits considerably raised. The light couldn’t be
far away now, could it?
Mart imagined a little cottage with a
warm fire. Perhaps there would be a little old lady who
had just made cookies and hot chocolate. Or maybe some
soup. Mart could almost smell it cooking.
He took a deep breath, and all that reached his nose was cold
and wetness, but he felt a little warmer inside.
Without warning, Brian let out a yell
and fell over. Mart stopped himself from falling onto
his brother just in time. He swallowed hard and somehow
found his voice. “Brian? Are you okay?”
There was a muffled groan in response,
but Brian dragged himself slowly out of the snow,
ineffectively brushing at the snow on his clothes as he did
so. “I tripped over something,” he said. “Maybe
an old log or tree branch.”
“Maybe it’s a stone wall,” Mart
said. That might mean they were getting closer to the
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Brian
cautioned, squinting into the distance. “The light
still doesn’t look very close.”
Mart nodded, trying not to sigh at the
thought of more slogging through the wet snow. He
glanced at Brian’s feet but couldn’t make out his sneakers;
they were so covered with white powdery wetness. “Are
you okay?” he asked his older brother.
He could just make out Brian’s nod in
the growing darkness. “Yeah, I seem to have lost one of my
gloves when I fell, though,” he said. He stooped down
and felt around in the snow. After a minute, Mart
joined him in the search. He saw something dark against
the snow. That must be the glove. “I think I
found it,” he told Brian.
He reached down quickly to pick it up
but dropped it again, confused by its heaviness.
“What is it?” Brian asked, a confused
expression crossing his weary face.
“I don’t know,” Mart answered.
Brian reached down to where Mart had
dropped the glove, looking up with surprise when he lifted it
“What is it?” Mart questioned.
“It’s a glove all right,” Brian
answered soberly, “but there’s a hand in it.”
“A hand?” Mart echoed
weakly. “As in a corpse?” Fear clutched at him,
and he cursed himself for ever thinking of Edgar Allan Poe in
the secluded dark countryside.
Brian attempted to laugh, but the sound
was bitter and hollow. “It would have to be a pretty
warm corpse if it is one,” he said grimly. He bent over
the hand again, apparently feeling for a pulse.
“It…that is, he or she, is alive,” he said. “The pulse
is faint, but it’s definitely there.”
The pounding in Mart’s heart slowed and
he let out a huge, relieved breath before he realized that
finding a live body in the snow when they didn’t even know if
they could get to shelter safely wasn’t much better than
finding a corpse. We could all be corpses before
long, he couldn’t help thinking morbidly.
“Mart!” Brian said sharply. At
the sound of Brian’s voice, Mart snapped his head and
attention back to his brother’s actions was doing.
Brian was kneeling in the snow and reaching out to the prone
figure; heedless of how wet his jeans must be getting in the
slushy snow. He shrugged the backpack off his
shoulders. “It’s a girl…or woman,” he commented,
pointing toward the person’s head.
Mart could just make out long, black
strands of hair against the whiteness of the
snow. His heart skipped a beat, as Di came into
his mind. It’s not Di, he told himself
impatiently. Di is thankfully many miles from here
safe and warm in Sleepyside. He shook his
head. He had to focus and concentrate on the here and
now. “What are you going to do?” he asked his brother.
“I’m not sure,” Brian answered.
“Get the flashlight.” Mart fumbled in the backpack
until he found the light and held it so that Brian could
see. The future doctor had taken off his gloves and was
probing the girl’s head and shoulders with gentle, steady
hands. As he touched her left shoulder, the girl cried
Startled, Brian and Mart both moved
back reflexively. Brian was the first to recover, and
with a sheepish shake of his head, he moved back to examine
the girl more closely.
“Look here,” he said, touching the
girl’s shoulder again, and then holding up his hand.
Mart’s eyes widened. “Blood?” he
echoed. Suddenly he felt dizzy and like he was going to
be sick all at once. “Wh-wh-what happened to her?”
Brian shook his head. “I don’t
know,” he answered. “She may have been walking in the
woods on her own and fallen, or a something may have fallen
“Or I could have been shot.”
Brian and Mart both jumped at the sound
of the girl’s voice. “Shot?” they asked in unison.
“Yes,” the girl answered, her voice
faint but steady. “Actually, just grazed with a bullet,
“But…but….but…” Mart was
uncharacteristically fumbling over words. “Why were you
“I don’t know. Hunting season is over,
you know,” the girl answered weakly. “But I think it
was a hunter or poacher, just the same.” She closed her eyes
from the effort it had taken her to speak and leaned her head
back onto the snow. Brian winced and lifted it back up,
maneuvering himself so her head was now resting in his lap.
“Don’t try to talk,” he said.
“We’ll try to get you fixed up and back….where you came
from,” he finished lamely.
The girl’s answering nod was barely
“I’m Brian and this is my brother
Mart,” Brian went on. “We’ll do what we can to help
“I’m Holly,” the girl said feebly.
“Save your strength,” Brian advised
her. He turned to Mart. “The first thing we need
to do is rig up some kind of bandage. He looked
around. “These are the times when I wish people still
carried handkerchiefs,” he said regretfully.
“Or girls wore slips when they stopped
by woods on a snowy evening?” Holly attempted to joke.
“Slips?” Brian echoed, a puzzled
expression on his face.
“Isn’t that what heroes always did in the
movies?” the girl asked, bravely trying to smile. “Tore
up the girls’ slips to make bandages? Or maybe it was
the girls who tore them up to bandage the heroes.” She
closed her eyes again as if thinking about it caused her head
Brian chuckled quietly, and even Mart
managed a grin. “I’d think you were pretty crazy if you
were wearing a slip outside on a night like this,” Mart said.
“We’ll have to make do with what we
have,” Brian said, wishing he had put more extra clothes into
the backpack. All he had was the sweatshirt, and he
hated to rip that up. He wanted Holly to put that on;
she was very cold and wet from lying in the snow, and he
wanted to do everything he could to decrease the amount of
shock from which she was suffering.
Well, he’d just have to do the best he
could. There were some bandages in the first aid kit,
probably not enough to cover the wound tightly enough to
completely stop the bleeding, but maybe it would be enough to
get them by until they could get her to shelter and,
hopefully, a doctor. That’s the important thing
right now, he thought, forcing himself to shift his cold,
wet body so he could begin bandaging.
It took longer than it should have, and
Brian knew it was a clumsy, pathetic attempt at a bandaging
at best, but it would have to do. When he was finished,
he gave in to the temptation to close his eyes for several
seconds, as he tried to will himself on to the next step of
getting the three of them to shelter.
Perhaps he sat there longer than he
thought because he was startled out of his reverie by a nudge
from Mart. Brian shook himself determinedly. He glanced
down at his patient. Holly’s eyes were closed, and she
had remained quiet through the entire bandaging
process. Whether she was unconscious or merely asleep
Brian wasn’t sure. He sent up a silent prayer as Mart
reached into the backpack and pulled out the extra
sweatshirt. The two brothers worked in silence,
managing to get the now-soggy garment over the girl’s head
and her good arm into one of the sleeves.
Brian nodded when they were done.
At least the sweatshirt was fairly big on the girl and would
provide a little more warmth than her sodden coat and
sweater. He cleared his throat. “I guess we’d
better get going.”
Mart started to get up, but Brian
touched his arm. “Wait,” he instructed, carefully
shifting the dark-haired girl onto Mart’s lap. Willing
his numb feet and legs to move, he managed to stand. He
took a couple of tentative steps, sending thousands of pins
and needles shooting into his snow-drenched feet. He
bit his lip hard and forced himself to ignore the pain as he
bent down to lift up the girl.
“Are you crazy?” Mart
asked. “You can’t carry her.”
“I have to,” Brian answered
Mart scrambled to his feet. “Bri, let me,” he protested. “You
only have sneakers and…”
“Let’s go.” Brian cut him off in
mid-sentence and stalked in the direction of the faint light.
He stumbled slightly under Holly’s weight but managed to keep
himself upright. To his relief, Mart didn’t protest but
walked wordlessly next to him, the two brothers continuing
their seemingly endless trek in the wet, cold darkness.
“I was hoping Holly would be awake
enough to direct us to her house,” Brian said after a few
minutes, grunting to get the words out under the weight of
the girl in his arms. “But I guess with this stuff
coming down, she wouldn’t even know which direction we were
“At least the wind has died down a
little,” Mart commented.
Brian tried to smile at his brother’s
effort to look at the bright side but gave it up as taking
too much energy. It’s not like he can see my face,
anyway. He glanced at the sky, which was pretty close
to completely dark now. The end of the day, he
thought, for good or for bad. For the shortest
day of the year, it certainly seemed endless.
Mart’s thoughts must have been running
along similar lines. “It’s pretty dark,” he said,
“It must be close to five o’clock,”
Brian managed to get out.
“Probably about four-thirty,” Mart
corrected. “I think the shortest day of the year in
this part of the world ends between four and four-thirty…more
accurately about twenty past five.”
Brian didn’t bother to reply.
Were there any inane facts his brother didn’t know?
As if in answer to his question, Mart
stated, “All around the world, there are celebrations of
Winter Solstice in different religions and sect:
Christianity, Paganism, Judaism; they all have holidays and
traditions in December which probably originally took place
because of the dearth of sunlight at this time of year.
In China, for instance, they eat dumplings on what they call
“dongzhi.” He paused. “It
translates roughly in English to ‘extreme winter,’” he
supplied helpfully. “The dumpling tradition began in
the Han dynasty. An ancient physician ordered them to
be made to cure chilblains and to be distributed among the
poor to keep them warm.”
Brian thought as he trudged slowly along. That’s a
new one. I’ve heard of people in the early part of the
nineteenth century keeping baked potatoes to keep their hands
warm, but dumplings??? You wouldn’t think they’d keep
warm for very long. Although wouldn’t mind a hot
dumpling or two right about now.
He was still struggling under the
weight of the girl, and he dropped a little behind Mart as
the two walked along, Mart still talking about the Winter
Solstice. “In many places in the United States, they
hold revels around the time of the shortest day. The practice
started in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
“At Harvard,” Brian concluded.
“At Harvard,” Mart agreed. “It
probably derived from the ancient ritual of dancing to make
the sun return so another new day would arrive. In
Cambridge, they have fiddlers, clog dancers, Morris Men…”
Mart’s voice droned on and on.
Brian felt he should have been irritated by his brother’s
usual overzealous spouting of essentially useless
information, but instead, he felt grounded by the steady
sound of his brother’s voice. He followed after the
constant buzz of conversation, somehow managing to put one
frozen foot after the other. He could barely feel his
feet now, and his arms were beginning to feel numb, but he
kept on in slow, trudging steps toward the increasingly
closer light, lulled into repetition by the sound of his
As they drew nearer to the light, Brian
slowly became aware of a dark shape in the sky around the
light. It must be a house, he told
himself. Just keep going a little further.
He was barely aware now that Mart had taken to reciting
“And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow
Fitting, Brian thought. It sure seems like
it’s been centuries in this snow white world.
Mart’s voice continued.
“…Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen.”
The light really does look like candles
in the winter trees,
Brian said to himself, his brain feeling slightly
fuzzy. He took a step closer to the house, and his feet
suddenly gave way beneath him. He dropped full-length
onto the snow, still clasping the mysterious girl in his
arms. He just managed to roll away from her, but then
found he couldn’t go anywhere further. He stretched
out, laying his head on his arm.
“Brian!” Mart turned around, groaning
at the sight of his brother and Holly sprawled out in the
snow. He bent over the dark-haired girl. “I’ll
carry her now,” he assured his brother. When Brian
didn’t answer, he nudged him with his foot.
“I’ll just stay right here,” Brian
muttered to himself.
A look of panic crossed Mart’s
face. “You can’t just stay here,” he protested, giving
his brother a stronger kick. Brian still didn’t
move. “Get up!” he finally ordered in exasperation.
“There’s no school today; it’s
Saturday,” was Brian’s mumbled response.
Mart shook his head. Somehow, he
had to get his brother to wake up and get out of the
snow. He thought for a few seconds before yelling,
“Moms is making pancakes and sausages,
and we’re all going skating on Honey’s lake.”
“Sausages?” Brian echoed. He
opened one eye, and Mart took advantage of his
half-alertness, taking his arm and pulling his brother to his
“Geez, I didn’t think you ate much, but
you must have gained ten pounds since you started med
school,” Mart managed to grunt under his brother’s
Brian leaned on him for a minute as he
looked around at the bleak scene. “The nightmare’s all
coming back to me,” he groaned. His eyes focused
blearily on his brother. “And you said Moms was making
pancakes and sausages,” he accused. “That was cruel.”
“It got you up, didn’t it?” Mart
Brian swore under his breath.
“Let’s get going.”
“I’m taking Holly this time,” Mart
declared, picking up the girl before Brian could object.
His brother started to protest but
changed his mind and nodded instead. Brian stamped his
feet in the snow, wincing in pain every time they connected
with the ground.
Mart took the lead this time. “I
don’t think it’s far now,” he said encouragingly, and as the
little group continued their journey toward the light, he
somehow managed to continue reciting the poem he had started
“And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight.”
As Mart’s voice died into silence,
Brian imagined that the lines of the poem coursing through
his weary limbs, bringing them closer to safety. He
felt he could hear voices echoing behind him, guiding his
steps through all the frosty ages.
And then, suddenly, the light
increased, and somewhere in the back of his cold-numbed
brain, Brian realized that a door had opened.
The weary travelers quickly hobbled the
few remaining yards to the house and were at long last
welcomed into light, warmth, and safety.
A few hours later, Brian and Mart sat
across from each other, comfortably ensconced in armchairs in
the sitting room of the house. Their arrival earlier
had been heralded by much confusion.
An older man stood in the doorway in a
faded red-plaid shirt, motioning them into the kitchen.
“Come in quick, before all the cold gets in, and the warm air
gets out. I don’t know why you boys are out walking
this late in a snowstorm anyway. Crazy fool hikers,
always losing there way and ending up on my doorstep…”
The man’s rampage broke off short as he
finally took in the girl in Mart’s arms.
“Holly!” he exclaimed. “Well,
I’ll be! What in tarnation…”
“Is there someone I can put her
down?” Mart interrupted him, just as Brian broke in
with, “Is she your daughter?”
“In here,” the man said, gesturing into
a comfortable sitting room. “And no, she’s not my
daughter; she’s my neighbor’s daughter.” The man
watched as Mart laid Holly carefully on the couch, his faded
blue eyes widening as he took in the blood on her
shoulder. “What happened to her?” he asked, his tone
“According to her, she was shot,” Brian
“Shot?” The man managed to
infuse the short word with a host of incredulity.
Brian nodded. “She said the
bullet just grazed her shoulder,” he explained.
“Damn fool hunters,” the man
groused. “They don’t care where they shoot, or whether
it’s the legal season or not, or who gets hurt; all they care
about is snagging a three-point buck.” He turned back
to Brian. “What was she doing wandering around in the
snow on a night like this, anyway?” he asked.
“I don’t know, sir, but do you think we
could call an ambulance? I don’t know how long she was
out in the cold before we found her, and she’s lost some
“I can call one, but I don’t know if
they’ll be able to make it out here in this storm,” the man
answered. “Marion!” he
Both the Belden brothers jumped.
The man noticed and grinned at them. “Just my wife,” he
said. “No cause to be nervous.”
Brian nodded. “We’ve just had
quite an experience getting here…” he began but that was as
far as he got before a compact little woman, presumably
Marion, came shuffling into the room wearing a housedress and
a pair of ratty old slippers.
“What is it, Howard? What’s all
the shouting about? And who are these boys?” She
looked at Brian and Mart with suspicious eyes.
“These boys found Tom Watson’s daughter
in the snow. Seems she was hit the bullet of one of
those crazy deer hunters.”
“Of all things!” Marion
exclaimed, glancing to the prone figure on the couch.
She disappeared through a door and reappeared with what
looked like a doctor’s bag. Then, she sat down by
Holly and unhesitatingly began removing the bandage from Holly’s
“Do you think you should do
that?” Brian cautioned.
Marion gave him a glance. “What
are you doing standing around in those wet things?” she asked. “You’ll get
pneumonia.” Her gaze dropped to Brian’s feet.
“And get those sneakers off and put your feet into some tepid
water quickly.” She turned her attention back to Holly.
The woman shook her head, as her
practiced fingers continued to remove the girl’s
bandage. “Get those things off him,” she ordered,
motioning to her husband. “And those wet jeans too.”
Brian backed away. “I can do it
myself,” he said hurriedly.
“Make sure that you do then,” the woman
commanded. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t lose your feet
to frostbite, wandering around on a night like this in those
Brian opened his mouth and then closed
it as quickly. He didn’t have the strength to argue with
Marion, and he knew she was right about the frostbite.
Howard gestured the boys into a bedroom
where they could take off their wet things. “I’ll get you
some dry clothes and run a warm bath so you can both soak
your feet in it.”
Brian absent-mindedly nodded his
thanks, his thoughts still on the injured girl in the next
room. “About that bullet wound,” he said to
Howard. “I’m a med student at UMC in Syracuse, and maybe I
should supervise the bandaging your wife’s doing.”
Howard cackled gleefully in
response. Taken aback, Brian and Mart wondered if the
little man was quite sane. Seeing their doubtful
expressions, though, his face became a bit more
serious. “You may be a med student, but my wife’s an
MD. I’ll just get those dry clothes for you.”
He shut the door with a resounding
click as he left as if to say, “There! That’ll teach you to
judge a book by its cover.” Brian and Mart had
exchanged sheepish smiles before turning to the task of
taking off their sudden, snow-crusted shoes and clothes.
That had been several hours ago, and in
the ensuing time, the girls’ parents had been called and had
proceeded with Howard and Marion to the nearest hospital in
their four-wheel drive vehicle. Brian and Mart had
soaked their painful feet for the required amount of time and
called Crabapple Farm to let their family know they were safe
Marion and Howard had fussed over them
before leaving for the hospital, putting cushions behind them
and blankets over them, and left a tray of sandwiches and hot
chocolate sitting in front of them.
Brian looked around the simply
decorated, homey room with some satisfaction. The
couple’s Christmas tree was small but cheerful with strings
of multi-colored lights as well as a collection of various
silver bell ornaments. There was a manger scene laid
out on a side table, and the fireplace mantle was decorated
with sprigs of holly and evergreens. He sighed in
Mart looked over at the sound of his
sigh. “It’s cozy, isn’t it?”
Brian nodded. “It seems weird to
be in Howard and Marion’s house when they’re not here,
though. They don’t even know us.”
“I guess they trust us.”
“I guess so,” Brian agreed. The couple
had called a little while ago to let them know that Holly was
going to be all right, and she wouldn’t even need surgery. He
suspected that they had brought Holly in from the snow had a
lot to do with why Marion and Howard were now trusting them.
He glanced at his brother, decked
out in a plaid bathrobe and pair of short striped pajamas
that obviously belonged to Howard. He hid a grin and
refrained from commenting, thinking that the red long johns
and old sweater that he was wearing probably didn’t look any
less ridiculous. “Do your feet and legs still hurt?” he
asked his brother instead.
“Yup,” Mart answered. “Do yours?”
“Like hell,” Brian
responded. The two grinned at each other.
Brian yawned, trying to stay awake enough to continue the
conversation. There were a lot of things he still
wanted to say to his brother, but he just couldn’t seem to muster
the strength. He looked at Mart and saw his eyes close,
and then gave up with a smile and closed his own.
He was surprised to hear the sound of
Mart’s voice a few seconds later. He tried to
concentrate on what his brother was saying, but the words
just drifted softly over him as he relaxed in the warm,
cheerful room and let sleep overcome him.
“This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.