by Darrell Petska
Einar dreamt of snow sifting like flour through his evergreens—until a pounding at his door jolted him awake. His old joints objecting, he groped his nightstand for glasses and a flashlight and padded barefoot across his cold cabin floor.
He let in a young woman, breathless and shivering from the falling snow.
“Call the police! Hurry! I need help!”
“Here now,” he said, flicking on a light switch. Late teens. Hair and shoulders covered with snow. No coat—
“No! Shut it off! Your yard light, too, or he’ll guess I’m here!”
Switching off the lights, Einar guided her to the sofa with his flashlight and wrapped her in his old throw blanket. “Who will? What’s happened?”
“This guy—Cameron. He locked me in his basement and I couldn’t leave. You have to call the police!”
“I’m afraid there’s no phone service back here in the woods.”
“We need to get help!” She choked on her words. “He hurts me.”
Her distress left him no doubts. “My pickup is in the quonset. I’ll warm it up and drive you into town.”
She clutched his arm. “He’ll figure it out! He went somewhere, but he’s never gone long. Your yard light showed through the woods—”
Einar drew the blanket around her knees. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.”
He pulled on a parka over his pajamas, slipped into some boots, then took his keys from a hook and opened the cabin door.
Headlights veering into his driveway turned Einar around. He shut the door and flipped the lock. “What does he drive?”
“A pickup. Black.”
Peering past the curtain of his living room window, Einar watched a pickup draw near the cabin, then stop. Its driver remained in the vehicle and left the lights on.
“We’ll move to the bedroom. If that’s him, maybe he’ll just go away.”
Her breathing grew ragged. “He won’t. He’s got guns.”
Einar helped her to a seat on his bed, then crossed to his closet where he withdrew an old, double-barrel shotgun and a couple rounds of birdshot. “Just in case,” he said, dropping heavily beside her.
“Let’s wait and see.”
The pickup’s headlights illuminated the cabin’s front. Einar listened closely for any sounds. The pickup door slammed. Steps crossed the wooden porch.
Einar rose stiffly from the bed and took a position just inside the bedroom door.
Brusque knocking followed, then a harsh voice: “Hello? Anyone there?”
Einar glanced toward the bed. She was no longer on it. He searched the shadowy room until he spotted her, curled in a corner on the floor.
The front doorknob rattled. “I’m a police officer. Open the door.”
“Don’t! That’s him!” she whispered loudly. “He’ll kill us!”
A heavy weight struck the front door—a foot? And again.
Einar could stay quiet no longer. “Go away! Please! I’ve got a gun.”
The man didn’t respond, but kicked once more at the door.
Einar drew a deep breath, cocked his shotgun and leveled it at the living room window. Its blast reverberated through the cabin, and the battering at the door ceased.
The bedroom’s one window could be a vulnerability, Einar realized, so he gathered the young woman from the corner and led her to his closet. “You’ll be safer in here.”
From the closet Einar pocketed more shotgun shells, then returned to the bedroom doorway, which commanded views of the bedroom window as well as those in the cabin’s main room.
A clanking arose from the pickup, then footsteps upon the front porch. Moments later, gasoline fumes wafted through the shot-out window. Einar’s heart pounded, realizing the fellow’s intentions.
Just beyond the front door, their assailant shouted, “I know you’re in there. Burn in hell!”
Einar felt they had nothing to loose. He pointed the shotgun at the front door, drew a full breath—and fired. Following the gun’s discharge, the headlights from the man’s pickup filtered through the shattered door. Shortly after, the flicker of flames sprang up across the porch.
Einar rushed back to the closet. “We’ve got to get outside.”
They moved together through the dark to the bedroom window. Einar opened it and pushed out the screen.
“I’ll go first, then help you out,” Einar said, having her stand ready with his shotgun. His arthritic hips prevented him from hoisting a leg over the windowsill, however, so he fetched a footstool from the closet. Using that, he managed to slide a leg outside, but the rest of his body tumbled along after it. He fell in a heap onto the snow.
She reached down toward him. “Are you OK?”
Einar wasn’t sure. The leg and hip he’d fallen on ached, also his shoulder, but feeling no great increase of pain, he slowly dragged himself to his feet.
The young woman handed Einar the shotgun and climbed out the window on her own, clutching the blanket. Einar ushered her through drifted snow to a dilapidated tool shed, tugged open the door, and eased the young woman inside. He remained outside, standing watch in the snow as flames infiltrated his cabin.
The sky about them began to glow in reds and yellows, the falling snow disappearing as it descended toward the fire. Feeling almost sick to his stomach, Einar grieved at the sight, less for the cabin and his possessions but more for the labor of years the fire so easily erased.
The heat intensified, causing Einar to back away against the shed. The cabin roof sagged, and the walls began to lean inward. Slowly, sections of the roof gave way, sending sparks in all directions.
Eerie creaks and hisses accompanied the crackle of flames, punctuated by a series of loud pops—the remaining shotgun shells in his closet. When he could stand to watch no longer, he squeezed inside the shed as well.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, lightly touching his shoulder.
Once the roof fully collapsed and the walls fell inward, the flames quickly reduced the remaining structure. Einar lost track of time as his mind wandered through a forest of memories associated with his corner of the woods.
He dared not linger too long with his memories, however. He gazed across the burning mass of wood, trying to spot the man’s pickup. Stiff from the confined space, Einar hefted his shotgun and emerged to the snow. Cautiously circling the glowing rubble of his house, he saw the man’s pickup had gone.
Feeling too weary to traipse back to the shed, Einar called, “All clear. Let’s get my pickup.”
She hurried to his side, pausing with Einar over some drops of blood nearly obscured by snow. “He must have caught some of my birdshot!”
He slid open the quonset door, helped the young woman into his pickup, then crawled behind the wheel, keeping the shotgun beside him.
His old pickup sputtered, then roared to life. Slowly Einar drove into the snowy night, following the other pickup’s tracks along the wooded drive. As they reached the county road, Einar saw red taillights jutting from the opposite road ditch.
She tensed. “It’s his.”
The pickup’s motor was still running, steam pluming from its tailpipe, but its cab was almost on its nose in the ditch. Einar pulled onto the county road, pausing for a glance at the wrecked vehicle. The driver-side door hung open. The man lay face up in the snowy ditch. He wasn’t moving. His shirt was bloodied.
Conflicting emotions swept over Einar. That his shotgun must have led to the man’s apparent demise bothered him less than the knowledge that such evil had taken place so close to Einar—without his even knowing. Einar’s aged body ached, and he had suffered a great loss, yet seated beside this young woman, he felt curiously excited, as if events had given him an opportunity to rethink his life going forward.
As he drove, she turned to him and touched his shoulder again. “Thank you…I don’t even know your name!”
“It’s Einar. Norwegian.” He smiled a little.
“I’m Layni—Laynis, actually. I’m so sorry about your house.”
He took awhile to answer, imagining what she must have endured.
“We’ll get through this. Right?”
Still wrapped in his old blanket even though the pickup’s heater was on high, she turned to him again.
“What will you do now?”
“After the police are finished with us? I’ll get a motel room and sleep.”
“And then…I’ll want to know that you’re OK.”
She began to say something, but stopped, instead leaning her head lightly against his shoulder.
Einar drove slowly, carefully, down the snow-covered road.
“Once tonight is over,” he said to console her, “things are bound to brighten up. It can’t snow forever.”
She breathed quietly, evenly. She had fallen asleep.
* * *
Darrell Petska‘s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Loch Raven Review, Right Hand Pointing, Potato Soup Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, Nixes Mate and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (eight years a grandfather), and longer as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.