Releasing December 22nd at MLR Press
Shifting through the Snow #9
By Laura Baumbach
A large dose of Christmas shifter magic, and a little Elf love, help Daniel recover from a devastating year.
Christmas is only a few days away. New Year’s Eve, with all its terminal finality, would, thankfully, bring an end to Daniel Sherman’s traumatic, pain-filled, empty year. Its seem like an appropriate time to bring everything in his world to a close. Spirit broken, Daniel’s plan is to enjoy maybe his last holiday in the icy cold of his beloved wilderness. It would be a comfort to end his days wrapped in the peace and solitude of the mountain — If only he didn’t feel like he was being watched, a feeling he’d had since his accident. Maybe adventure wasn’t out of his life yet.
The darkening Montana sky was a midnight-blue ocean filled with rolling snow clouds, the dark rivers of gray separating puffs of dirty white. They billowed and rolled like silent thunder signaling the coming storm.
Pushed by the constant weather reports that a major snowstorm was threatening to shutdown the mountain for days, Daniel Sherman hurried to his home tucked into a secluded valley. Light flakes were already drifting down from high above.
Being snowed in was exactly what he wanted. Home, in his cozy, quiet cabin, where he could think and evaluate his life. Thirty-two years of adventure and discovery, most of it spent alone, shared only with a few friends and the occasional short-lived relationship. His need to be a solitary creature defined a lot of his life choices. This Christmas season, there were hard decisions to be made. Snowed in alone in the place he loved the best was all he could ask for the holidays.
Leaving his four-wheel drive in the attached barn, he made his way into the cabin, a few groceries on one hand. With Christmas only a few days away, he planned a quiet holiday. A simple dinner of some of his favorite things, some wine, maybe a lot of wine, and a large dose of reflection. He paused in the kitchen, juggling the grocery bags, to answer his cellphone. He didn’t recognize the number.
“Hey, Kyla.” Daniel couldn’t keep the surprise from his voice. Kayla was his cousin. They were pretty close until his recent climbing accident last year. He rarely talked with her now, mostly because he didn’t answer her calls. The holidays made ignoring her harder to do. He sighed and forced a cheerful tone into his voice. “I thought you were heading to Denali for the holidays. They are expecting beautiful climbing weather for the next week I hear.”
“Daniel! I was worried you wouldn’t answer. I’m using Roger’s phone. He’s here with me. We thought maybe you might like to join us?”
Letting the grocery pile on the kitchen counter, Daniel stood in the fading twilight, snow melting off his boots, tiny droplets of water forming in his beard as the captured snowflakes in its dark brown growth melted. Roger was Kayla fiance. Nice guy. Fun loving, talkative and loyal. Roger loved Kayla as much as she loved the man back. She did well.
“In Denali?” Daniel didn’t think he could be around all that good cheer and optimism right now. Out of nowhere, a shiver tingled down his spine. Daniel shrugged his shoulders to shake it off and looked around the interior of the small cabin. He slowly walked from the kitchen to the living room, glancing at every growing shadow and corner. His gaze lingered on the decorated tree, drawn there by a glimmer of something reflecting the last of the light through the windows. He caught sight of a tiny smiling face beaming out of the tree and he relaxed. “I’m not up to flight that long yet, Kayla. But thanks for inviting me.”
“Well, it’s not just for the holidays, Daniel,” Kayla giggled, speaking to someone beside her in hushed tones before adding, “I was hoping you would be my witness.”
“Witness?” Daniel slipped his coat off his shoulders and hung it up on the hooks by the front door. Swiping the knitted hat off his head, he ran his fingers thought he dark brown waves to repair whatever mess the cap had left behind. “To what?”
“My marriage? Roger and I have decided to finally take the plunge!” Her voice was like a smile in the air, bright and beaming. “We’d both like you here. Say you will, Dan, please.”
“Kyla…,” Daniel closed his eyes to hold back a sudden urge to shed a few tears. He was truly happy Kayla had found someone to spend her life with that matched her lifestyle and personality so well. Despite his joy for her, a part of him was crushed at the realization he’d never have the same thing in his life. Not now.
“Just tell me you’ll think about it.” She had always been able to cajole him into seeing things her way all their life. “It’s two whole days away.” As if that was long enough for him to figure out his whole life and get on with it all.
“A Christmas Day wedding?” Maybe appealing to her practical side would end the conversation. “I’ll never get a flight in time, Kayla.”
“I made you a flight reservation.” Suddenly, Kayla was the take-charge woman he knew best. Her words were firm, leaving little room for argument. “A courier is dropping off the ticket at your cabin today by eight. I had to pay extra for that, so make sure you’re there!” He could almost see her finger wagging in his direction. She tone softened and she was almost whispering, “Please, Dan. For me. You are all the family I have left. Think about it?”
He could hear the tears in her voice, feel her pain from the old wounds of the sudden loss of both their parents over the last few years. Being an only child from parents that were also only children sucked at times like this. How could he be there for her, to help push away the shadows of loneliness when he wasn’t sure he could survive his own growing darkness?
“I’m happy for you and Roger. I am.” Daniel studied the growing twilight folding in around him. “But I don’t think I’d be–.”
“Please?” She sniffed and playfully added, “For me? How can I name my first born after you if you don’t even come to my wedding?”
“I’ll think about it, Kayla. I will.” He slipped his boots off by the door, replacing them with a well-worn pair of fleece-lined moccasins. The cold was being to leech into his limbs. His left hip ached, the scattered bones still healing even after a full year. He braced himself with one hand on the wall, regaining his balance. He wasn’t sure if it was the actual cold he felt or his own depressed state of mind. Either way, he needed to get off the phone without disappointing Kayla.
“I promise.” He smiled, hoping some of its forced cheer would make its way across the phone line. “Tell Roger I said congratulations. To both of you. You deserve all the happiness in the world. I mean that.”
“You’ll make us happy by coming and being a part of our special day, Dan.” She sounded hopeful, but unconvinced. That was for the best right now.
“Bye, Kayla.” He went to disconnect the call, but then raised it again to add, “I love you, kiddo.” Just in case he didn’t get another chance to say it to her again.
“Love you, too, Dan.”
He cut the connection, letting memories of their childhood days and past holiday celebrations when their parents were still alive flood his thoughts. Christmas was always a huge time of year with impromptu tree decorating parties, cookie bake-offs between their moms, and epic snowball fights with their dads. Both their families had been athletic and into outdoor sports. That was where he had discovered his love of mountain climbing. So much so, he’d make a lucrative career out of it. For Kayla it was a consuming hobby, for Daniel it was his life. A life he couldn’t be a part of anymore.