Before She Joins
“I’m not going to make it, am I?”
Her words billowed into the frosty air like smoke, as if there were a fire in her belly. She could feel the beanie down to her ears, and the heavy, vintage leather aviator jacket that was way too big for her. The soft acrylic of the beanie and the jacket’s fluffy sheep fur lining were keeping her alive, if not comfortable. The knees of her faded jeans were holed by wear, not fashion. Sadly, she wore no gloves, and naught on her feet but sneakers.
From the shelter of a battered old barn, she looked out across a wide snowfield to the crumbling brick chimney peeking out of the snow. Hard behind the ruin was the forest itself. Stately evergreens swayed in the breeze; emerald needles blanketed in white. Other trees stood naked, animated by the wind as their branches clawed the low gray sky.
The massive barn rattled in the gusts, its ancient timbers groaning. Part of the loft floor – their ceiling -- had collapsed into ground level.
A man towered over her in a high school letterman’s jacket and crowned with a magnificent cowboy hat. He also wore denim jeans and stood confidently in arctic boots. A military rucksack was on his back. His rifle was slung on his shoulder, and he bore a large handgun in a holster strapped to his thigh. In one of his leather-gloved hands he kept the rifle steady on his shoulder.
“Yeah Mandy, I reckon you’ll die,” he agreed, nodding. “But if you come back with me...”
“Come back with you?” Mandy snapped. “Why? So our gangster of a leader can hang me for stealing ‘his’ food?”
“Me and the Boss are tight,” Clive insisted. “None of the other Dogs have brought in half as many criminals as I. You must be punished... I mean, we obviously can’t rebuild civilization if we let people break the Law. But I’m positive I can talk him out of hanging you.”
“Clive, sweetie, I am not risking a long, tortuous, humiliating death on the chance that you might talk a drug lord out of murdering me!”
Clive deflated a little, and his eyes dimmed.
“Well Mandy, if you’re determined to go out on your own, I’ve got a pair of alpaca wool socks you can wear for mittens.”
“Cool. And my feet?”
“Boots made of plastic garbage bag and duct tape. Sorry. Best I can do.”
“Nice! So where should I go?”
“Other than home? The Family. Last I scouted they were holed up in a ski lodge about half a day from here. You can take the road, but you’d reach the lodge much faster cutting through the forest.”
“The Family?” Mandy asked, feeling a frown. “Aren't they a whacky religious cult?”
“You have two days’ rations,” Clive explained, “four if you stretch it. You can’t get anywhere else in that time. It’s home, the Family, or starvation. You decide.”
“Okay, looks like the Family. So... how do I get there?”
“Without known reference points, we imagine ourselves walking straight, when in fact we’re drifting, right-handed folks to the right, left-handed to the left. That’s how lost people end up walking in circles. But with a compass....”
Here, he patiently taught Mandy how to use a compass.
“But Clive, without your compass, how will you find your way home?”
“I’ve camped out in that house... that... used to be over there about a dozen times. I can find our place from here blindfolded.”
“But... you gave me all your food!”
“I set some snares yesterday on the way here. I’ll get a rabbit or a squirrel; maybe a cat or dog.”
“Wait!” Mandy cried, “You took the time to set snares and still ran me down?”
“You were slow as a glacier and left a trail a blind man could follow. Anyway, even if I catch nothing, I can make it two days without food. We’ve both done that.”
Soon after, the couple said their sad goodbyes, and Mandy set forth on her journey. She battled through knee deep snow for about 15 minutes before returning to the barn, exhausted.
“I’m not gonna make it!” she panted.
“No, I reckon you aint,” Clive quipped, smiling. “Relax babe; I’ll teach you how to make emergency snowshoes out of pine branches.”
But Mandy cocked her head, asking, “What about skis?”
“Can’t you make skis out of wood planks and rope?”
Clive scowled stressing, “That’s a terrible idea, Mandy!”
“Why? You know my grandmother used to work for a ski resort, right?”
“So, she would comp us free lift tickets. Our family would visit Grams for Christmas almost every year, and we’d all go skiing for a week. Remember when you broke your leg trying to race me on skis?”
“How can I forget?” came with an eyeroll.
“Well, I’ve never worn snowshoes, but I’ve skied plenty. Seriously Clive, skiing is the only way I can beat you. You even cook and clean better than me!”
“Babe, modern skis have a breakaway plastic binding. That way if you get into trouble, the ski will come off your foot without twisting your ankle or breaking your leg. Out here on your own, even a sprained ankle might be fatal.”
“I want skis!” Mandy pouted.
“Fine! I’ll make you some skis. And you can have this pistol with the thigh holster, too. I’ve got a box of ammo...”
“I won’t be tempted to take a human life. Keep your stupid guns.”
“Are you seriously going out there unarmed? Mandy, what if some...”
“I said ‘no’, Clive!”
Clive made skis of planks from the barn and poles of sticks from the forest. Then he tied rope “slippers” on the “skis” for Mandy to slip her “booted” feet into. Then he gave it one last try.
“Please come home Mandy,” he begged. “I can talk the Boss out of the hangin’. Come on, we both know you won’t make it out here. I want our marriage to survive. But if you leave me now... I reckon I’ll never see you again!”
Mandy abruptly hugged her husband ferociously, and then gave him a long, groping kiss. And yet....
Clive grasped the forward brim of his cowboy hat between thumb and forefinger, then nodded, “Happy trails, ma’am.”
She skied cross country through the woods, stopping frequently to re-shoot the compass at another target so she could stay on the heading her husband had given her. The skiing produced such body heat, she almost took off her wool-lined jacket. Mandy had to tighten the rope “slippers” often, as they kept working loose from her skis. More than once, she considered tying her feet securely to the planks just to be done with it.
After hours of skiing, she emerged from the wood onto a path too wide for anything other than a snow-covered road. Her heading was supposed to have taken her straight to the ski lodge! She looked up and down the road; one way led to possible food and shelter; the other to almost certain death. Eventually, Mandy decided that since she was right-handed, she must have drifted too far right. To compensate, she followed the road left.
That road soon emerged from the forest into an open area dominated by a sprawling, two-story building high on a steep hill. A sign beside the road identified the ski lodge. She’d made it!
Suddenly, two people on horses rode out of the woods from behind, their mounts plowing through the powdery snow. One was an older woman on a brown mare, the other a much larger man – Clive’s size – on a brawny black stallion.
“I’m Jolene,” announced the female rider. “This here’s Edgar.”
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” sang Edgar. He wore a yellow beanie yet grasped the forward brim of his non-existent cowboy hat between thumb and forefinger as he nodded at Mandy.
The skier put her hands up in surrender announcing, “Hello! My name is...”
“Don’t much care who you are,” snapped Jolene. “We don’t have food for Strangers.”
“Well, that’s not true now, is it?” Mandy replied.
“You want me to believe you have no extra food, yet you’re keeping at least two horses alive.”
“Why you little...”
Edgar cut off Jolene’s retort, noting, “That ring on your finger. I’m guessing if your husband were still alive, he’d be here with you. I’ll give you three days’ rations for it.”
“Why Edgar,” crowed Mandy, feeling her smile. “Only someone with plenty would even think about trading food for jewelry!”
“She’s got a smart mouth on her,” Jolene growled, her horse nickering as it bobbed its head.
“She’ll do,” her partner declared, reining in his restless, snorting mount. “Look here... um...?”
“Look here, Mandy. We’re supposed to ask where you’re from, what you can do for us, and how you’ve survived. But you’re from the Drug Lord’s camp, yes?”
“Where I’m from is my business. I'm no hooker, and I won’t kill for you. But I’ll do literally anything else you want. All I ask in return in enough food to live and a warm place to sleep.”
Edgar dug into a saddlebag and brought out a box wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, and small enough for one hand. He then leaned down to offer it to Mandy.
“You want to join the Family? Then take this to our Chief, Justin Goodkind. Big, burly dude with crimson hair, and a bushy red beard to go with it; you can’t miss him. He’s in the lodge.”
“Sure,” Mandy agreed, accepting the package. “But... you can’t deliver it yourself, because...?”
“The Prophetess had a Vision that a Stranger would show Chief 'The Way',” Jolene sourly expressed. “I personally don’t put much stock in the Prophetess. She dang near got us all killed, and not for the first time. But the Chief believes every word that comes out of that witch’s mouth!”
“You are a Stranger, Mandy,” Edgar explained. “You will show Chief the Way, just as his beloved Prophetess foretold.”
“And this package. It’s... 'The Way'?”
“Yep” claimed Edgar as he reached into his saddlebags again, this time producing a thick rectangle of brown plastic.
“Military ration with a flameless heater activated by water, so you don’t need fire for a hot meal. This is for you Mandy, and you get two more once you complete the mission.”
Mandy was suspicious, but she already knew what an MRE was, and three of them were a lot of food! As she slipped the MRE into an inside pocket of her flight jacket, she decided to play Jolene and Edgar’s game for as long as the food kept coming. Meanwhile, the riders bounded back into the forest.
It took a while for Mandy to trudge up the hill on improvised skis. But as she neared the lodge’s front double doors, a man with a rifle suddenly stood up from the top of the building.
“Hold it right there, Stranger.” he warned. “Someone’s coming out to frisk you.”
Mandy was about to ask about Chief when a group in winter gear burst from the entrance. They were a big man with red hair including his bushy beard, flanked by two much younger women. Mandy felt a pang of jealousy; to her eyes, the women were beautiful, certainly more so than she.
“Chief!” Mandy cried, and she dug the brown paper-wrapped box out of her jacket pocket and extended it toward the man. The other hand, she raised in surrender. “I’ve uh... I’ve come to show you The Way!”
“Which Team is on Security today?” one of the women snarled, drawing a pistol from a holster on her full, child-bearing hip. “They know Strangers have to be escorted to the Lodge!”
“Relax, Liz,” spoke Chief soothingly. “She’s unarmed. And look, a Stranger! Remember the Prophecy?”
“Whatever Dad,” Liz moaned, rolling her eyes even as she aimed her gun with both hands right at Mandy. “You and your Prophetess! Melody, I’ll cover this girl while you get the package.”
“Yo Chief!” hailed the man atop the roof. “I haven’t seen Jolene or Edgar all day.”
“It’s okay Matt,” Chief replied, “They’re always back by sundown.”
Mandy wondered how anyone on that roof could have possibly missed the riders. Meanwhile, Melody plucked the little brown parcel from Mandy’s sock-swaddled outstretched palm.
“This is The Way huh?” Melody huffed, clearly unimpressed.
She delivered the package to Chief, who tore the paper and opened the box, unveiling the prize.
“A smartphone?” Liz whined. “They’re useless! Not like you can call...”
“No calls, but they can still play music and take pictures!” her father exclaimed. “And they have calculators...”
“I bet there’s games on there, too,” Melody added. “Thanks... lady.”
Before Mandy could state her name, the phone rang. Really. Everyone was thunderstruck: eyes and mouths wide in unmitigated awe.
“Someone’s calling!” squealed Melody, eventually.
“But... but how!” Liz sputtered. “That’s impossible! The infrastructure...”
“Answer it Daddy,” Melody urged. “Answer it!”
“Hello?!” Chief hollered, phone to his ear, face beaming with rapturous joy. “Can you hear me now? I’m... my name is...”
There was a loud, high-pitched “pew” as the smartphone blew apart in Chief’s hand, right next to his head. The man sank to his knees, and then fell on what was left of his face. There he lay, unmoving in virgin snow splattered by crimson. A dirty gray haze smelling of gun-smoke lingered over him.
For a few awful seconds, no one spoke. They just stood there, gawking in silent horror. But then Liz knelt beside her father, put her hand on his neck, and asked, “Daddy?”
“Why, lady?” mewled Melody. “What did my Daddy ever do to you?”
At this point, Mandy decided to be somewhere else. Maybe this was a dream, and if she ran long enough, she’d wake up. She turned, and while racing downhill on skis, something snapped through the air by her head.
“No!” she heard Melody shout. “We need her alive! We must find out who else is involved!”
“Get Ski Patrol!” howled Liz. “Get the dogs!”
Mandy zipped into the woods, determined to make it back to Clive. Sure, she might hang, but a probable death was preferable to a certain one.
About the author
Timothy was raised on a farm in rural Mississippi. His experiences have since taken him all around the world. He now teaches at local university, where he urges his Students to Run the Race, Keep the faith, and Endure to the End