Chapter Eleven

"Isn't this better than football?"

The four college buddies, their two respective mates, and one reluctant sister, were sipping ice-cold beers, seated in the hot tub that was built for at least twelve. The cable had gone out, just as Steve and Peter had sat down in the entertainment room, for the first of many games.

Steve couldn't really answer Alison's question. He was crushed. A fall Saturday without college football, was like, well, a fall Sunday without professional football.

"He'll survive," Paige said.

Six/sevenths of the group wore bathing suits. Paige had on her dark green and white striped bikini, Steve a baggy boxer-type suit in vivid yellow and red plaid. It looked like a warning sign, but Paige wasn't about to tell him that. Alison wore a conservative one piece, Peter had on jeans cut-off at the knees, with lots of little blue-stringed fringes handing over his bony kneecaps, and Mark, a Speedo, skin tight, and so brief, with his slight gut hanging ever so sexily over the elastic waist band.

Greta wore a two-piece, bright red, ordered right out of a Victoria's Secret catalog, as well as a piece of jewelry which definitely caught Paige's attention. It was a thick, cherub-covered crucifix -- gold, measuring maybe two inches in height and covered with minute, hand-carved details -- which Greta wore on an antiqued gold chain around her neck.

"It's my good luck charm," she explained when Paige asked. "My great-grandmother's. She gave it to me right before she died. I never take it off."

"Greta was always the favorite," Felicity recalled sarcastically.

Unlike her sister, Felicity hadn't packed a bathing suit, and now wore only cotton panties and a tank-top, much like what Paige had worn to bed the previous night -- before they too ended up with Steve's shorts down in the quicksand pit of fitted-sheet hell.

But, unlike Paige's underwear, Felicity's were white. And the moment she stepped into the water, the moment the cotton got wet, it dissolved.

Well, almost. It might as well have.

Instead, it clung, it emphasized -- it drew bright yellow highlights across her privates -- it complimented -- goddamn, did it compliment -- everything the good Lord had seen fit to bless the twenty-year-old with.

And judging from the drop-jawed looks on the faces of the men -- hell, even on the face of Alison -- the good Lord had given Felicity the mother load. Even a navel ring, and six tattoos, only two of which were covered by the transparent cotton, couldn't begin to hinder her raw, youthful charms. In fact they seemed to accentuate, like battle scars, tender reminders that she was only human.

"Can you believe we're actually here?" Alison asked, leaning her head back against Peter's shoulder. "That this place is all ours?"

And suddenly and simultaneously, the four college friends burst into the bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, bad English accents and all: "Son, one day all of this will be yours. What the curtains? No, not the curtains!"

Everyone laughed, sipping their beers, letting the whoosh of the jacuzzi jets pound against their flesh.

"So, Peter," Paige asked. "Steve tells me you're an antiwar protestor. Should I see if we have you on file in our computers?"

"I was only arrested once," Peter said, proudly. "At a rally protesting the Gulf War."

"He's a pacifist," Alison explained to Greta and Felicity.

"That's cool," Felicity said.

"So, no hunting for you," Greta said.

"I've never touched a gun in my life," Peter said. "Never will."

"Really," Paige said, looking at Steve. It explained why he asked her to leave the Smith & Wesson at home. He should have told her.

"Pacifism has some very strong roots in Montana," Peter said. "Makes me proud to be living here."

"Let me guess," Paige said. "Jeannette Rankin?"

"Bingo," Peter said.

"Who?" Steve asked.

"Rankin is from Montana," Paige explained.

"Missoula," Peter said.

"She was the first female member of the House of Representatives," Paige continued. "One of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement."

"Way back in 1917, when Congress declared war on Germany, Rankin was the only opposing vote," Peter said. "And because of it, she lost her next election."

"But this is where it gets good," Paige said. "Rankin finally gets reelected in 1940. A year later we're entering a war with Japan, the house vote: three hundred, eighty-eight to one."

"Rankin?" Steve asked.

"Yeah," Paige and Peter both replied simultaneously.

"That's a true story?" Mark asked.

"Every word of it," Peter said. "Knowing she comes from my state makes me feel proud."

"Listen to him, my state," Alison said.

"I'm surprised someone hasn't made that into a movie," Mark said.

"Aren't you about overdue for another book?" Steve asked.

"More than overdue," Greta said, shooting her lover a look.

"I've retired," Mark said, not feeling the need to explain that great reviews didn't pay the rent, and that great characters weren't concocted, but born. He took a long gulp of beer, and said, "Next subject."

It was Felicity who shrugged and spoke, turning to face Paige, asking, "How did you and Steve meet?"

The question caught Paige off guard. She felt strangely defensive, had never really discussed their first date before. Had never been asked. It was . . . private, and . . . God, she wasn't even sure how to describe it to herself. But the night had most assuredly left an impression, one that tickled her fancy, one that turned Paige on whenever she thought of it, yet one that depressed her still, to no end.

"Yeah," Alison said, suddenly glaring at Steve. "How come you never told us?"

"What's the big secret, Steve-O?"

"Well," Paige said finally.

"Exactly," Steve said. "Well . . ."

"Uh-oh," Mark went.

"It was . . . sort of . . . a case of . . . well, mistaken identity," Paige explained.

"Meaning?" Alison asked, her interest certainly piqued.

"Shall I?" Paige asked, glancing at her lover.

"Go ahead," Steve said.

And Paige dove into the story.

It sounded like fiction, as the words left her mouth. Like a fairy tale, or an old Irish legend. She left out only the most intimate details, which really accounted for about half the tale, as well as the Prince Charming particulars which had brought her to the bar in the first place, but nevertheless hit the high points, the happy points, only the happy points -- she had to focus on the happy points -- and ended with a riveting bang.

Alison and Greta actually applauded.

"Good line," Mark said to Steve, once Paige was through.

"Thank you," Steve said, bowing his head.

But it was Felicity's reaction which interested Paige most. Felicity was smiling, seductively, lost in thought, but not really. When she spoke finally, there were tears in her eyes, which she quickly brushed away.

"I do that all the time," Felicity said, her voice soft, yet choked with emotion. "But the next morning, no one ever wants to know the real me."

Chapter Twelve

"That snow could kill you."

They were in the basement now. Elliot walking about, admiring Goop's handiwork, his precision, his wham, bam, thank you, ma'am rhythmic way of going about his business.

"This could kill you," Elliot said. He waved his right hand around with a Vanna White flourish. "The snow just provides a little chill."

"That was more than a little chill," Goop said. "I just about froze my nuts off."

"Somehow I can't imagine that," Elliot said.

The basement of the Lambert Ski Lodge was from another world, as if the Crypt-Master himself, or perhaps the Mummy or Dracula, had designed themselves a perfect little mountain retreat.

The vast, low-ceilinged space looked as if it had been avoided and ignored for decades. A few thousand square feet of dust and mold-covered junk, lit sparingly by mostly-burnt-out bulbs hanging from between the cross beams.

Elliot pointed into one corner. "Very nice," he said. "If I didn't know what I was looking for."

"If you didn't know what it smelled like," Goop said, making a face.

They walked over to a partitioned-off section which housed the furnace, the fuse box, the electric meter, and connecting points for the telephone and cable system. It was like a mini-control center. Houston, we have a problem. And any problem with the lodge could be traced right there.

Goop examined all of the wires. He scratched lightly at his chin, then spoke, without ever facing Elliot. "I assume tonight promises more of the same excitement?"

"The excitement's coming, my friend," Elliot said. "Be patient."

"Not my strongest virtue."

"Nor mine."

Exhaling loudly, Goop pulled a pair of wire cutters from his back pocket. He reached up to a bundle of wires entering the lodge from somewhere outside, and began separating each from one another. He didn't exactly feel like getting electrocuted. He also didn't want to spend the next thirty-eight hours in the dark.

"Get an extra bottle of wine," Goop said, scrunching up his brow, narrowing his search down to one of three wires.

"Tonight you can drink as much wine as you'd like," Elliot said. "As long as your ready to go on Monday morning."

"Ready?" Goop said, eliminating one of the choices, now down to two. "At five-forty-five on Monday morning, I'll be sitting in the foyer with my coat on. Counting off the seconds."

Chapter Thirteen

"What kind of idiot are you?"

Liana had just pushed open the door from the kitchen, and was entering the great room, a cup of steaming hot tea in her hands. She caught Vivian screaming into the wireless phone, pacing about the great room. And Bob, seated on the sofa furthest away, his Martin acoustic guitar in his lap. He had been strumming furiously, but stopped the moment Liana entered the room.

"Sorry," Liana whispered to Bob.

He waved the interruption off. "Just work. She's like that all the time."

Vivian's smiled tightly at Liana, who had walked over to the picture window, then she continued her tirade.

"Now let me get this straight," Vivian barked into the receiver, turning, her eyes locking onto Bob's. "Before the store opened, you punched out two hundred tickets. You sell six of them. And now, hours later, it's sold out, and you're sitting on forty-five hundred dollars worth of tickets . . ."

Vivian suddenly pulled her ear from the receiver.

The abrupt pop was so loud that she ran the tip of her index finger into her ear, half expecting to find droplets of blood, or pieces of her shattered ear drum.

She pressed the off button, and turned toward Bob. "The sonofabitch hung up on me," she said.

"It's not worth a coronary," Bob said, strumming lightly again, watching Liana as she stared out the window. "He probably thought he was being resourceful."

"Resourceful is having an extra fifty copies of the new Eric Clapton CD in stock, when his tour rolls through town," Vivian explained. "Stupid is punching out two hundred Smashing Pumpkins tickets in Columbus, when the show is a hundred and fifty miles away in Cleveland."

Bob laughed. "I didn't catch that part."

Vivian turned her attention back to the portable phone. She pressed the talk button and waited for a dial tone . . . and waited . . . and waited. She hit off, then tried again. But nothing. She looked over at Liana, "The line's dead."

"I'm always having problems with that phone," Liana said. "There's a wall model, one of those nice old fashioned kinds with wires, and a rotary dial, in the kitchen. Let's try that."

A moment later, she, Vivian and Bob were standing in the lodge's kitchen. Liana held the receiver to the wall-mounted telephone to her ear.

"Nothing," Liana said, shaking her head, pressing the switch hook button a few times -- still nothing. Hanging up the receiver, she turned to the paying guests, and shrugged. "The lines must be down."

"Great," Vivian said. "When will they be up?"

"Look outside, Vivian," Bob said.

"Why? Is there a phone booth out there?" she asked, her voice giving away her anxiety, her strain.

Bob put his arms around her shoulders and led her out of the kitchen, and up toward their room. "Trust me," he said along the way, "The stores will survive without you."

Liana watched after them as they walked away.

So tense, Liana thought. As if every little detail were life or death. As if concert tickets or some stupid song or if the cash register didn't balance to the penny actually mattered in the grand scheme of things.

She shook her head sadly, poured herself another cup of tea, then went out to the great room, where she'd cozy up on an old Stickley chair, right by the fire, throw an old quilt over her legs, and finally finish that John Grisham novel, while she had the chance.

Liana looked about at the details of the room. Her favorite room actually. She would miss it. The fireplace -- the biggest, warmest fireplace she had ever seen. Or maybe it just seemed that way, once you got in from the Montana cold.

And she'd really miss the chair, with its leather cushions from the turn of the century, so faded, and crinkled, but still soft, well-oiled over the decades.

Liana stood, and walked over to the picture window -- it towered above her. Twelve feet high, by twenty feet across. No drapes, no shades, no venetian blinds. Why would anyone ever want to cover that view? Not that there was much to see now, but normally . . .

The snow capped Rockies by day, so eloquent, so eternal, and that night view which shook her soul. The sky so completely black -- black like Elvis Presley's hair -- and clear, like the conscious of a newborn. With stars like a string of pearls, broken in the heat of the moment, finally still against the discarded black velvet cape.

Or the Northern lights, screaming meanies of oranges . . . and greens . . . and blood reds . . . and . . .

"Oh, God!" Liana gasped and focused her attention.

Out the window, over at the near end of the driveway, a shape moving, struggling against the violence of the storm. A man. Moving toward the lodge. Slowly. Another step closer. Another. Another.

Turning, Liana screamed toward anyone who could hear. "There's someone out there," she cried. "We've got to help them."

The stranger fell to his knees. He was up to his waist in snow, swimming in it, drowning. He wrestled against the winds, the blinding sleet, and flakes which could chokehold him, freezing his lungs until they could no longer function.

Standing, finally, he managed to make it another step closer. Was there someone who could help, was there anyone? Or had life ceases as he once knew it?

Liana turned back, reached up and pressed her palm against the icy-cold glass. This time she whispered.

"We've got to help him," she said.

Chapter Fourteen

"I just heard someone scream."

Paige jumped from the bed. The voice. She couldn't recognize it, other than to say it was female.

She pulled on the most available clothes -- jeans and one of her black tanks -- then reaching into her purse, she retrieved the Colt Mustang Pocketlite. It was probably nothing, she thought, but still, just in case.

It was the noise of Paige slamming shut the door that finally woke Steve from his post-hottub, post-beer bash slumber. He opened his eyes, sat halfway up, managed to grunt, then looked around, before raising the sheets over his head, and finishing his afternoon nap.

Paige dashed down the second floor hallway, and stopped at the landing. Holstering the gun in the front waist band of her jeans, she scanned the great room, her eyes being drawn to the foyer.

The front door of the lodge was open, the wind smashing it repeatedly against the wall. Snow was blowing into the room. Huge flakes, hard bits of ice, clung to the floor, moving farther and farther inside the great room, a crawling carpet of frigid death.

Felicity emerged from her bedroom. Running to Paige, she saw the grip of the gun protruding from her waist band, and asked, "What in the name of Kurt Cobain is going on?"

Her use of the departed Nirvana frontman's name in a Christ-like expletive manner immediately made Paige feel old. Not a feeling that she liked, or was used to.

"Don't know yet," Paige said.

Paige moved slowly down the staircase, across the thick wooden planks of the great room's floor, and over into the foyer. She glanced out the door, and caught sight of Liana, Peter, and Alison, and between them a frozen stranger, something clenched in his hands.

They were in the driveway, walking past the snow-covered four-by-fours, now nothing but tremendous mounds of white, helping the stranger, moving him one difficult footstep at a time, toward the lodge.

"Who's that?" Felicity asked. She was standing behind Paige, peering not over her shoulder -- she couldn't have reached -- but around her.

Paige stepped forward into the frigid cold, hoping to help.

The first blast of wind caught her off guard. As cold as she expected it to be, it was that a thousand times over. She had never felt anything as frigid. It was dry ice-like, so cold it burned her exposed skin.

How could anyone survive in this weather? Paige wondered. And why would anyone want to?

Paige made it as far as the edge of the front porch, then stopped in her tracks. Her clothing was immediately drenched and frozen, and feeling as if it were on fire. She pulled at the cotton of the tank top, but it was rigid, it cracked at her touch.

"Get back in here!" Felicity yelled. "You'll freeze to death."

Wanting to help, but unable to go one step further, Paige reluctantly stepped back into the lodge.

Vivian and Bob were standing now with Felicity. They watched the scene with interest.

"Look, Bob. How cute," Vivian said, motioning toward the butt of Paige's pistol, "She's playing cops and robbers." She smiled at Paige, and asked in a voice normally reserved for children, "Are you a good guy or a bad guy?"

Paige shot Vivian a look that actually sent shivers down the older woman's spine.

But it was Felicity who spoke what was on both their minds. "Fuck you," she said.

The frenzied breathing of Liana, Alison, and Peter diverted their attention back to the front door.

The threesome staggered in with the stranger. He was holding onto a knapsack, clutching it to his chest, as if it contained the secrets of life, as if it warmed him somehow.

They moved him right up close to the roaring fire.

The stranger groaned loudly. "Thank you, God," he muttered, his lips frozen shut. "Thank you."

The guests of the lodge surrounded him, helping as he pulled off his soaking wet gloves, and his goggles, his hood, then his jacket, which, though waterproof, was wetter than the gloves, and tossed them aside.

A recognizable life form suddenly became visible.

He was slender, that much was immediately evident. A little over six feet tall. He gasped again, placing the knapsack down beside his feet, and holding his hands out toward the fire, moving a little closer, shivering, as if breaking the grips of a fever, and coming back to life.

Then he pulled off his face mask, and it was Felicity who gasped . . . gasped, smiled, and said, "Well, hello there."

The stranger smiled back.

And what a gorgeous smile it was. A thick-lipped mouth full of straight pearly whites, stretching out on a tanned face with high cheek bones and a strong, square chin. But it was the hair which most definitely had Felicity's flames on high. Reddish, straight, and long -- past the halfway down his back point -- tied into a loose ponytail.

"Hi," he said to her, his eyes darting around taking in the faces that surrounded him.

"He's alive," Liana said. "I thought you'd be frost bitten from head to toe."

The stranger stretched. He wiggled almost every extremity. "I seem to be okay," he said, his tone a little surfer-dude-esque. "I think."

"You got a name?" Felicity asked.

"Yeah," the stranger said, holding out his hand to her. "Shane. Shane Foster."

"Felicity Lindfors," she said, shaking his hand.

Introductions were made all around, but it was finally Paige who, after shooting Vivian another of those to-kill looks, asked, "What the hell were you doing out there?"

Shane shrugged innocently. He had already noticed the gun. As had Peter, who swallowed back his trepidation, and realized Paige's position. It was part of her job, he kept telling himself. Part of her job.

"My ride broke down," Shane said, "'bout two miles due east. Got this old Ski-doo, but the valves are shot. I figured she had another season in her, but I guess I figured wrong." He looked at each of the faces. "I know the territory around here pretty well, and remembered this place. Thank God." He shook his head, "It was a bitch walking west."

"Right into the storm," Liana said, looking at the young man's face.

Shane caught her staring, and held her look for a moment. He licked at his chapped lips, touching them with his fingertips, pushing the circulation back into them, his cheeks, the rest of his face.

Finally Shane turned and looked at Paige. He gazed into her, through her, his eyes intense, suddenly brimming with life and vibrancy. He found her, well, so immediately and incredibly enchanting, so beautiful.

And he spoke now in a voice that was unexpectedly stronger and more confident than any of them could have expected.

"It was like boxing God," Shane said.

SNOW BLIND 2004 Gorman Bechard - All Rights Reserved