This story is by Sherrie L. Stewart and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
My fingers froze to the metal handle of the motorhome door. I felt as foolish as one of those nine year olds that accepts the dare, licks a steel light post, and his red, white, and green tasseled sock cap becomes a freakish Christmas ornament until the warmth of breath and saliva releases the frostbitten tongue. It had been twelve below zero all day and lots colder now that the sun went down. I knew better than to go without heavy gloves. My husband and two sons had been loading the box trailer with our tools and furniture since breakfast. I had packed the motor home with clothes, blankets, food, and our important papers.
“Never again,” I muttered as body heat loosened my hand magically from the door.
Inside the motor home, I stood cradling the square, brown box containing my beloved china; the flaps taped with duct tape to keep the fragile pieces safe. The silver-edged white cups and saucers, plates, salt and pepper shakers, along with various serving dishes had been purchased for 39 cents each at the local grocery store every week until the entire set gleamed in my old hutch. So much lost or left behind, but not my china. Finally, I wrote CHINA on the top of the box with a black marker and set it just inside the door.
I scanned the camper, wondering how a decade of building a life could be crammed into twenty-two feet of motorhome. The trip to our new life in Michigan had begun in Texas, paused in Las Vegas for about a year, continued up to and over the Continental Divide, hesitated in wondrous Yellowstone Park, pushed past Mount Rushmore, and then rolled onto the ferry boat trip across Lake Michigan to the state shaped like a mitten. We were on an adventure and quaint northern Michigan had seemed like just another stop to catch our breath. But we became planted here on the tip of the first finger of that mitten state just a mile off the shore of Lake Huron.
Our farm had grown from twenty acres with a trailer crouched on it into a 120 acre hay farm with two barns and twelve Appaloosa horses, some beef cows, and the old Holstein milk cow named Gertrude. The garden combined with the hunting and fishing filled the freezer every year. The work was hard because building a home for our family was so important. We constructed a two story house where the old trailer had sat and had almost finished it when fate gave us a push. Our life began to slide downward. Problems piled up around us like snow drifts from Michigan’s infamous lake effect blizzards. Eventually, the problems kept piling up higher and higher until we couldn’t see over the top anymore.
Never again,” I said to the blankets and pillows as I rolled and stuffed them against the windows of the overhead bunk for insulation. Texas never had snow and cold like Michigan’s. For the first couple of years, we played in the white wonderland, learned how to ski, ice-fished on the frozen lakes, and even drove yellow snowmobiles along the beautiful trails in the thick woods. But the wonderland had turned treacherous over the past few years.
Two winters back, we had gone to a friend’s funeral in Missouri and driven back in a blizzard. A lone diesel truck had blazed a trail for us as we moved north toward home on a desolate highway. Glowing tail lights guided us through the driving snow for hours to a truck stop just south of Saginaw. The warm restaurant smelled of hot coffee and hotter chili. Booths held tired truck drivers and exhausted families taking refuge from the relentless storm. Snow crystals exploded against the restaurant windows and drifted along the behemoth Kenworths and Peterbilts. Would we be able to find our Chevy when the sun rose in a few hours? A shiver of dread shook me as I realized that this trip to a friend’s funeral could have ended in our own.
We arrived home about noon the next day. The roads had been plowed, but we had to shovel through six feet tall piles of snow before we could get into the driveway. So it took some time to realize that we had no electric power. My husband Bob started a fire in the wood stove first thing to warm up the house. One of our neighbors had seen our return and came over with an empty plastic milk jug in one hand.
“Can I get some water from you?” Ray asked holding the plastic container out in front of him. “My well’s froze. “
“Sure.” I took the jug from him as he stepped inside and joined Bob and the boys in the living room by the wood stove.
“Nothing coming out of the faucet!” I yelled at them from the kitchen.
“Let me get this fire going and I’ll go down in the basement and take a look,” Bob said.
“There’s no electricity. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” I said, returning Ray’s container.
“Electric went out yesterday. The storm, eh. The well froze last night. You know, ‘cause the heat strip was off,” Ray explained.
“Well, if we can get the manual pump working I’ll send one of the boys over with some water.”
“Thanks, that’d help. Another storm’s comin’ in tonight, eh? Supposed to get some more snow.”
Ray adjusted his wool cap and pulled on his heavy mittens and parka hood as he slipped out the back door. He hunched his back against the bitter cold, walked briskly down the road, and then disappeared behind the white wall made by the county plows. Northern Michigan was so pristine and serene, and yet so treacherous. The snow sparkled on the evergreens creating a wonderland, but a man could slide into a crevice and freeze to death in that frigid beauty in just a few hours.
We slept in the living room by the wood stove that night.
“Bob, something’s hack, hack, hack wrong.” I reached across to shake him, but he was already up. “What’s going on?”
The room was full of smoke. The taste of creosote greased my mouth and burned my eyes.
“Wind’s blown the stove pipe off, I guess. Backdraft. Boys, get up. Now!” Bob already had the flashlight’s circle of light pointed out the open window.
“Leave this window open. I’m headed upstairs.”
“Boys, Timmy, Bobby,” I screamed. They stumbled out of their sleeping bags and pulled on their boots and coats over their long johns. That took a few minutes in the dark. The wind whipped in through the window and ice crystals pricked our faces. But the smoke was clearing. Bob had opened a window upstairs and the smoke was being sucked up the stairway.
“Bobby, get up here and bring some gloves,” Bob yelled.
The boys and I stumbled upstairs following the light that splashed uselessly across the steps. The upstairs window on the north side of the house gaped open. Bob hung out as far as he could trying to rejoin the pipes.
“Give me those gloves. Must be blowing 50 miles an hour out there. Hold the light.” He shoved the flashlight into my free hand.
“What happened?” I chattered out the words, forcing the sounds past frozen lips.
He pulled on the gloves and leaned out the window. I tried to reach over him to give him as much light as possible. It was useless. He pulled himself back through the window and slammed it shut. A thick coat of powdery snow covered the unfinished floor.
“That ought to hold for the night. Blowin’ so hard It’s a miracle we’ve got any pipe left at all. Should’ve finished that brick chimney before winter. Let’s get that fire started again.”
The fire roared by the time we got downstairs.
“Go back to bed, boys,” Bob said,shutting the open window and slumping in his worn, brown recliner. I added more wood to the stove and orange light jumped across the living room floor.
“Think it’ll hold?”
Bob grunted. Then muttered, “Hope so.”
“Can we get some sleep? Think it’s ok?” I Looked at the boys and thought maybe we should sit up. Even though the entire incident had taken less than an hour, exhaustion had set in. Stabbing at the fire one more time with the poker, I prayed silently for a little mercy for my family. My shaking hands closed the heavy metal door and then pushed the curved latch into place.
“Come lay down,” Bob whispered from the sleeping bag.
Suddenly I shivered. “My gown’s wet,” I told him, “I’ll sit by the fire and it’ll dry in just a few minutes.”
I pulled an oak kitchen chair over to the wood stove, lifted my feet up into the seat of the chair, and wrapped the tail of my damp flannel gown around them. The snow pecked at the windows as the wind shook the branches of the old apple tree standing near the corner of the house. In spring, the scent of apple blossoms filled the room. In the fall, we feasted on juicy, red fruit plucked from heavy branches. Now, the tree rattled like an old skeleton walking through the yard. A log shifted in the stove, crackled and hissed. I jumped from the chair. But the fire was fine and the house quiet. After a while, I climbed into the warmth next to my husband.
Sunlight streamed through the windows the next morning, and I tip-toed into the kitchen to make coffee. No electricity, stupid. And no water. Then something out the front window caught my eye. The blizzard had dumped two feet of snow. A flood of white surrounded the house up to the window sills.
“You know, there are places where God never intended man to live,” I had told Bob as I added an oak log to the wood stove, “and I think this is one of them.”
Bob spent 18 hours that day on our bulldozer clearing the road back to the barns and the woods to bring out more firewood. The temperature plummeted to 36 degrees below zero, and he had to stop when the diesel fuel turned to jelly in the fuel lines. The electricity was out for another two days and the well took an additional four days to thaw enough for water to pump again. Finally, a gas crunch and two flooded harvest seasons forced us to give up our farm.
So we had saved what we could, welded the front end of a Ford van to the back end of a wrecked Holiday Rambler trailer to create this motorhome, sold our collection of nine Edsels for scrap, and auctioned the farm equipment. We cried together when my Appaloosa mares were loaded into a stock trailer going to a new home in Indiana and when we gave our milk cow to Ray so he would have plenty of milk for his kids.
Today, we packed a decade of our life, tools, furniture, important documents, and photo albums, into our old Chevy four wheel drive truck, a twenty foot box trailer, and homemade motorhome. Our little caravan pulled out of the driveway at the farm about midnight. Bob led with the truck and trailer. I followed with the motorhome. The mood was somber, leaving behind ten years of sweat, achievements, hopes, and heart aches. Unsure where to go, we headed south.
As we crawled away over piles of drifted snow, I took one last look at the life left behind. Whipping snow hammered the windows of the dark house, filled the tire tracks, and buried a square, brown box discarded on the front porch. I wiped my wet face with the back of a mittened hand as the whiteness covered the black letters on that box, ‘CHINA.’