CYNWYD CASTLE BOOKS
LIBRARY - SHORT STORIES
(First published in Wordscape 6)
The sunshine state was delivering every promise made in the vacation brochures this March day of the school break. Cloudless skies looked down on white sand beaches shimmering in the noonday sun. Gentle Gulf breezes caressed the tanned and near naked bodies strewn haphazardly as far as the eye could see. No one noticed that all birds avoided a small stretch of Treasure Land waterfront.
The three year old girl in broad-brimmed, orange sun hat and matching swim suit was concentrating on the sand castle she had under construction. Her shapely young mother lay face down on a Disney patterned beach towel with crossed arms supporting her head and shoulders. Her skin glistened from protective lotion. She was in that semi-dream-state the fresh air and midday heat induces in northern snow-birds, as Canadian visitors are known.
Her reverie was shattered by a shrill, penetrating scream followed by loud, panic-edged crying. The mother barely had time to turn over before her daughter had hurled herself upon her, arms clutching for her protective and comforting embrace.
"What's wrong darling?" asked the startled mother.
"It bit me," sobbed the small one.
"What bit you?"
"The thing in the pail," she said, pointing a chubby finger toward the castle.
"Where did it bite you?" asked the mother, trying to extricate herself sufficiently from her daughter's stranglehold to make an examination.
"On my ankle."
The mother was becoming more apprehensive as the youngster's level of anxiety and upset showed no signs of abating. With some difficulty, she was able to grasp the child's left ankle and raise it to view. There was a dark dot from which an angry, bluish-maroon circle radiated. One look at the injury brought the mother awkwardly to her feet. She raced to the hotel about nine hundred feet away to summon medical assistance.
* * *
Sam, as his father before him, operated Browning's Beach Service. Their portable yellow cabanas and lounges stretched for five miles along the waterfront. He patrolled the beach during daylight hours in a battered old Ford pickup, managing rentals and checking tags for expires and free-loaders.
This day was special because his ten year old grandson, Zachary, was helping him. Someday the business would be his and already he exhibited considerable know-how and interest.
"Gramps. Here comes Mr. Garrison," said Zack, pointing to the black and white cruiser hastening down the beach trail. The patrol car braked in a cloud of sand beside the waiting duo.
"Hi Zack. . . . Sam, I need your help. We've been getting complaints of something biting sun bathers when they dig in the sand. Some have had serious reactions. One little girl almost died. It started about a month ago."
"Maybe I can help. Let me show you something." Sam retrieved a glass jar from under the front seat of the pickup. He handed it over to the officer. "I found it in a kid's pail. She must have dug it up. . . . Sure is weird. Never seen anything like it."
The officer slowly twirled the jar. The thing inside was the colour of speckled coral, about an inch long, with appendages resembling those of a crab, with an armoured articulated shell covering the back and a lighter coloured one on its underbelly. Apart from the octagonal black eyes glazed in death, the most unusual feature was the tail which was about the same length as the body and ended in a hollow, needle-like point.
"I gave it to a friend who works at the Florida Institute for Marine Studies. A week later he brought it a back and reported they didn't know what it was. It resembled a burrowing crab, but there the resemblance ended. They tested the tail for venom and found it highly toxic, saying that in large dosages it could be fatal. They asked me to keep an eye open for more samples."
"Did you find any?"
"Not yet. Too busy to go digging for them."
"Most reports we've had suggest the infestation is presently confined to about a half mile stretch along the beach. So far they haven't encroached to the east beyond the retaining wall and sidewalk in front of the waterfront properties. We're tracking the incidents on computer, and they're increasing. The city council has said no to any suggestion of a beach closure, at least for the moment. Bad for business. . . . Sam, if you've got any ideas, we'd sure like to have them."
"Let's go for a ride. I want to show you something," Sam said, motioning toward the pickup.
The three climbed into the front seat. The old pickup roared into life and took off along the rutted track of the service route. About a mile to the south, Sam wheeled the truck about and stopped. The trio got out.
"Notice anything strange about the beach here?" asked Sam, scuffing the surface with the toe of his boot.
"No. It looks the way it always does," replied the policeman, looking puzzled.
"You're right. But notice, even though the Works Department tractor rakes the beach regularly, it stays pretty compressed. Sure, there are drifts where the lighter stuff piles up, but most of the beach is like this. No trouble driving on it. Let's get back in the truck."
The pickup headed back in a northerly direction. In about three quarters of a mile it stopped and the three disembarked. Again Sam scuffed the beach with his boot.
"This is just about where the infestation starts. See? The surface here is still compressed, but if we walk ahead five or six feet the texture of the beach changes."
Sam led George and Zack north up the tire tracks.
"Notice the beach material is darker here and less bleached by the sun. Also the ruts made by the truck are at least six inches deep compared with one inch where the Ford is parked now." Sam stepped off the track and his boots sank into soft sand. "See (pointing to his feet)? . . . Also, it's strange that birds avoid this area. Won't even fly over it."
"Are you saying these things are burrowing around under the surface and loosening up the sand?" asked George, his face furrowed in disbelief.
"I'm not sure what I'm saying exactly, but the whole area of the infestation is like this," replied Sam, noticing that Zack had headed back to the pickup.
"If what you are saying is true, there must be millions of those creatures down there. They've got to be multiplying like crazy. . . . My gawd, the three hundred complaints in our office could only be the tip of the iceberg."
Meanwhile, Zack had returned from the Ford with a shovel and had commenced to dig about twenty feet away in the direction of the Gulf.
"Sam, we can't let this theory get any publicity. If the newspapers or TV picked this up, we'd have a full blown panic on our hands."
At that instant, Zack shouted and jumped back from the hole he had been digging. "Come here! Quick!"
The two adults ran to his side and stared into the excavation. Their faces blanched. At the bottom of the two foot hole sat a thing about eight inches in length. Its eyes stared balefully at the three humans peering down at it. The tail waved threateningly.
"Watch," said Zack as he lowered the shovel to about six inches above the creature. The tail struck repeatedly at the face of the shovel with a series of loud dings, each thrust depositing a wet spot of venom.
Then, apparently the thing decided to retreat. In an instant it had disappeared into the wall of the excavation leaving only a drift of sand sliding slowly down the side of the hole.
"That thing is about eight times the size of the one in the jar. Could they all be growing that fast?" asked the startled policeman.
"It could partially explain the expansion of the infested area."
"None of our reports mention anything that big. The ones we've heard about must be babies. . . . My gawd, we could have a slaughter on our hands if the ones that size get aggressive. Did you see the amount of venom it pumped out? Lethal for sure."
"Yah, and what if the things are nocturnal? If they rest during the day and surface after dark to move about and feed, no one would see them because the beach is closed from one to five a.m. every night by City ordinance."
"That's not a very comforting idea. If they are secretly growing in numbers and decide to move beyond the beach where there is no curfew, the whole built-up area becomes especially vulnerable after dark. . . . We've got to get a handle on this situation before it gets out of hand, if it hasn't already done so." The police officer became silent and the furrows on his brow deepened.
Zack shovelled sand into the hole and tamped it down. Then, leaning on his shovel, he examined the faces of the two adults who were still staring at the site of the discovery. He felt his pulse racing with excitement. It was scary, but it was a real life adventure, far more thrilling than the TV horror movies he loved to watch. He was in at the beginning of something that he sensed was going to get much larger. Already he had heard things discussed which could set the City on its ear. He knew he should keep quiet while the two men contemplated their next move, but finally he could constrain himself no longer.
"Why don't we camp out on the beach tonight and see what happens? If they come out after dark, we could capture some like the Marine Centre wants, or maybe we could kill some. Get them mounted to sell to tourists. The kids would love them."
"Slow down Zack." said his grandfather softly, putting his arm around the thin shoulders.
"It's not a bad idea. Likely the only way we'll test the theory. If I went back to headquarters with a wild story based on speculation, they'd question my sanity. Zack is right. We've got to spend the night here."
* * *
The night sky was overcast with heavy black clouds and occasional breaks through which moonlight filtered dimly. They moved slowly west in response to some vagary of the jet stream, but at ground level the air was still.
Sam and Zack sat in the pickup snacking on diet cola and sour cream potato chips. They hadn't spoken for some time but there was no sign of sleepiness. Their eyes and ears strained to penetrate the darkness. The vague shape of the police cruiser was about two hundred feet in front. It was comforting to know that the big man was armed and inside even though he could not be seen. Thirty feet to their left, the outline of stored cabanas and lounges disappeared into the gloom in front and behind. During the infrequent breaks in the clouds the dim moonlight revealed a Gulf, flat like a pane of black glass. About a hundred feet to the right the humps of two beach vegetation projects cordoned off and signed PLEASE STAY OFF were dimly silhouetted against the security lights of the commercial strip of hotels and Gulf Drive shops. The vegetation on the humps stood motionless in the still air.
The hour was approaching one p.m. when the cruiser door could be heard opening and the interior light illuminating the husky officer as he slid out. He stretched and pushed the door shut. His flashlight could be seen weaving back and forth as he approached the truck.
Sam rolled down the window, " Pretty quiet so far. Care to join us in a junk food snack? Zack brought enough for a party of ten."
"No thanks. The wife packed a thermos of coffee and I've just finished off two bologna sandwiches. . . . You know, maybe we've been letting our imagination get the better of us; maybe the ground beneath us isn't crawling with weird creatures; maybe the large one was a solitary adult and the ones giving us the trouble are babies; maybe the soft sand has to do with some quirk in the water table. Anyway, nothing seems to be happening tonight. Nothing but the sound of a quickening breeze." Having said that, the policeman went silent, realizing the air was dead still.
"What the hell is that?" The policeman commenced to wave his flashlight toward the cabanas and lounges. Between them and the truck, the ground seemed to be in motion. He squinted to improve his focus. "My God, those things are coming out of the ground."
Before Sam and Zack could say anything, George started back to the cruiser on the run. He was about half way there when he seemed to stumble. He struck at his left side with the flashlight. In its erratically moving beam, things could be seen attached to his leg. He yelled some profanity and started running. Sam turned on the high-beams of the Ford and then switched them quickly off. The second or two they were on was enough to see the stocky man's legs covered with creatures viciously striking through his flapping uniform trousers. Blood could be seen spurting over the attackers as they crawled up his lower body. The flashlight flailed about for a few moments longer and then fell to the ground.
"Is Mr. Garrison dead?" asked the stunned boy.
"I don't know, son. Make sure the window is up tight on your side and the door is locked. We're getting off this beach right now." Sam reached for the ignition key and turned it. The usual noisy response of the old engine firing wasn't there. Instead, there was a sick whine from the starter as it tried to spin the fan clear of solidly packed things which had climbed unnoticed up under the hood. The battery died as Sam continued to turn the key on and off
"It's no use Gramps. The battery's dead. . . . We'll be safe in here until morning. Won't we?" The boy moved tightly up to Sam and pulled the old man's arm away from the key and draped it around his shoulders. He clasped both of his slender hands to his grandfather's gnarled one and pressed it to his chest. Sam could feel the young boy's heart pounding wildly.
In the beam of light from George's flashlight could be seen hundreds of things moving about, many larger than the one dug up by Zack. As they crossed the beam, they could be seen dragging lumps of blood-stained meat, some still in scraps of clothing. The flashlight moved and disappeared into the sand.
Sam was saying a silent prayer for his friend when he felt a sharp sting to his leg. He jumped and looked down. Some of the smaller things had crawled up beside the openings for brake and clutch pedals. The old man picked the thing off and stamped his foot down solidly. However, the hard shell resisted his effort to kill, and it turned to renew its attack.
"Get the screwdrivers out of the glove compartment," yelled Sam.
The boy leaped to obey.
Armed with the screwdrivers, they stabbed at the dozen or so intruders scuttling around their feet. The make-shift weapons worked if thrust between the two large plates atop the creatures. Soon the floor was littered with dead bodies oozing a thick green liquid.
"Zack, we've got to keep these things from getting in here. Take off your clothes and rip them into rags we can jam into the openings in the floor and under the dash board. I'll do the same on my side."
The boy hesitated and looked at his grandfather, "These are brand new jeans and T shirt."
"Don't worry, I'll buy you a dozen more when we get out of here. Now hurry."
Soon the two were perspiring freely in the enclosed safety of the pickup cab. The things could be heard clattering about the outside of the truck and under the hood.
The two huddled together, their senses straining for any indication the truck cab had been breached. Outside, the dark clouds thickened and what little moonlight had managed to filter through before disappeared. Only the dim lights from Gulf Drive provided any ray of illumination . . . and hope.
Sam was silent, staring out the front window at the horror he knew was out there but couldn't be seen. Zack had his head turned toward Gulf Avenue and the silhouettes of the commercial buildings.
Suddenly he stiffened and whispered from a throat unnaturally dry, "Gramps, there are now three humps where there should be only two."
Sam tensed and turned to where the boy beckoned. There were indeed three rounded silhouettes raised above the level sand where previously there had been only two mounds of beach vegetation projects. As they stared, their naked bodies frozen in fear, the mound in the centre began to grow. Soon, it dwarfed the ones on either side.
"It's coming this way, Gramps," whispered Zack as a shudder vibrated his meagre frame.
"I know. Stay quiet and maybe it'll pass us by"
The shape grew larger by the second, and the reverberations from its claws hitting and sinking into the sand to firm footing could be felt through the chassis of the old Ford. The vibrations grew stronger until the creature straddled the silent truck. The thick scaly trunks of its legs could be seen as black shapes against the distant lights of the commercial strip. The shadows seemed to rise without end, towering over the vehicle. The monster stood motionless and silent. In the truck, the boy and the old man held their breath and hoped their pounding hearts wouldn't give them away.
The deathly quiet was shattered by a crashing noise on the hood of the truck as the tail of the creature struck, punching through the metal as if warm cheese. The first strike was followed by a second one to the cargo area. The heavier metal punctured almost as easily, but the added resistance caused all four tires to explode like the simultaneous firing of as many shotguns. The noise was deafening in the cab but didn't phase the thing standing high above.
The final strike of the monster's tail penetrated the roof of the cab, flooding it with caustic, life-erasing venom. The gigantic thing moved to the side and with a few movements of its powerful claws scraped a hole large enough to hold the remains of the truck and its lifeless occupants. With a flick of its tail, it rolled the battered hulk into the excavation, pushing in sand and smoothing it. The police car was given the same treatment.
With the intruders to their territory out of the way, the things headed to the water and foraged until just before daybreak when they returned to the beach, each burrowing in to sleep until the next night. The queen mother returned to the beach vegetation projects and buried herself.
* * *
A state-wide search for Zack, his grandfather and officer Garrison failed to provide any clues to their mysterious disappearance. They remain open cases in police files.
The white sand beach of Treasure Land continues to record complaints of things biting sun bathers. In addition, incidents are occurring in increasing numbers to the east as the infestation spreads in the direction of undeveloped wetlands in the centre of the Florida land mass. News media continue to carry stories speculating as to the origins of the hazardous crustaceans. Some writers suggest that there might be a classified government laboratory specializing in genetic engineering on creatures of the land and sea, and one of the more lethal varieties has escaped. Others blame it on a possible leakage of radioactive materials or toxic waste from industrial operations resulting in monstrous mutations in native crab species. Meanwhile, government authorities and research facilities seem unable to agree either on the scope of the problem or appropriate solutions.
Only the dead seem fully aware of the growing danger of the things below, . . .
(First published in Echoes in the Wind)
On a clear night, the lone yellow light from the dirty square window on the weathered plywood fish hut would have been visible from Cynwyd Castle, four miles away on Jacksonís Point, Lake Simcoe. This night it was impossible in the heavy snow being hurled about by the roaring Arctic wind. Inside, it was as warm and as cozy as it ever gets in a fish hut.
In an unzipped, oil stained skidoo suit, the smaller of the two silent figures, a smouldering cigarette dangling from nicotine stained fingers, slouched back against the cold wall staring at the unmoving tip up whose monofilament line dropped vertically into the dark unknown. At the hole closest to the door, a hulk of a person in a scruffy, navy blue parka leaned forward, jigging the line up and down in the pristine eighty foot depths.
Harry rose stiffly, heel-butted his cigarette on the slushy floor and in a straddle position over the hole made an exaggerated version of a giraffe attempting a halftime stretch in an outhouse.
Laura, who outweighed her spouse by over a hundred pounds, raised her head and shook it disapprovingly, "Careful clown. If you fall in, donít expect me to go in after you."
Harry chuckled with a noticeable smokerís rasp as he envisaged his wife trying to dive into the hole to rescue him. "Cripes, I didnít know they made shoe horns that big."
"The only thing big around here is your mouth." With that, she bent forward and whipped a handful of water in his direction.
The smile on Harryís face diminished and for an instant, he considered reciprocating, but he knew from past experience that he nearly always came out of their playful competitions the loser.
"Shift back dear. I have to go out and water the petunias," said Harry as he sidestepped toward her.
"Oh you and your weak kidneys. If you didnít drink so much, you wouldnít be freezing the joint all the time. Come on. Make it snappy."
An observer of the exiting procedure in the cramped environs of the ice hut undoubtedly would have found it more hilarious than the giraffe routine.
It wasnít long before the door reopened and Harry stepped in. He didnít have to pull the door closed; the wind did it with a force which shook the small building.
"Brrr. Good to get the hell out of there. Itís a storm and a half. Lot worse than before."
Then in his practiced Cagney voice, he said, "Well you old fart, why donít you have a short snort." In his normal voice, he answered, "Thanks. Donít mind if I do. How about you sweetheart?" He waved the mickey in her direction.
"You know what the doctor said about mixing pills and drinks. Strictly verboten," she answered, sounding annoyed.
"I still donít think a small nip would hurt. Probably improve your disposition." He laughed and after a considerable swallow turned his attention to the tip-up.
As if on cue, his line started to slowly rise and fall. Harry grabbed the wooden horizontal gently and felt the bated three hook spreader being move down below as something disturbed the live minnows. He sensed a sudden change in the shifting of the bait and pulled up sharply. The hook set and Harry could feel the solid tugging of the unseen fish as it struggle frantically to rid itself of the thing in its mouth.
"Itís a good one," Harry exclaimed as he hauled in the line hand-over-hand. The seconds seemed like minutes as the eighty feet of mono began to accumulate in large loops on the floor.
Laura felt excitement growing in her. No matter how many times she went fishing, the magic of the moment never diminished.
As the head of the white fish broke the surface of the water, Harry yelled, "Itís a dandy. Quick, the net."
It was over in an instant. The fish broke free and dropped into the waiting net. Laura could feel her heart beating fast and a slight tightness in her chest as the squirming seven pounder resisted Harryís efforts to remove it from the tangles of the mesh.
"Itís not an award winner, but more than your basic keeper. Open the door and Iíll throw it out into the freezer."
Laura shifted slowly over to the exit and pivoting at the waist, put both hands on the rough planked door and pushed. It was like trying to move a brick wall, but it opened. The fish went flying out to the snow covered ice and the door crashed shut again. The torrent of snow that entered, plastered the entrance and Laura.
Harry immediately noted that his wife said nothing as she brushed off her clothes. It wasnít like her. A fast quip about how he always got the best and warmest seat in the hut, etc., etc. would have been in order, but she said nothing.
"Are you OK dear?"
"Yes, Iím fine. Just getting a little tired. Must be past my bedtime." She leaned back and commenced jigging, the line rubbing back and forth on the wooden edge of the floor opening. It wasnít the way.
Harry rebated his hooks and lowered them into the water, being careful to keep the coils on the floor from twisting or knotting as foot by foot the wet line slid over his fingers and into the depths. All the time, he sneaked sidelong glances in Lauraís direction. He sensed something was up, but he knew better than to bug her if she was feeling tired or ill. He continued lowering his line until the slack told him that the bated spreader was in position, He set his tip up on the upright and adjusted the horizontal balance. He leaned back and lit up a cigarette from a crumpled package.
The next twenty minutes dragged by slowly for the duo without words as though both were concentrating on their fishing lines and the sounds of the wind and hissing propane heater.
Finally, Laura set her fishing rod on the bench beside her. Reaching inside her parka, she retrieved a small plastic bottle and shook out a tiny white pill. Replacing the bottle in her inner pocket, she picked up the tablet carefully and placed it under her tongue. Then she leaned back, picked up the rod and reel continue jigging as before.
Harry was aware of his wifeís heart problems. Although the medications seemed to have her condition under control, both knew that at some future time, she would likely need some intrusive procedures. In the meantime, she was following the doctorís advice not to worry and get on with life.
Harry had misgivings about the ice fishing venture, especially overnight. There had been a brief argument, but in the end she won. Lauraís view of the good life always included an element of risk.
About ten minutes later and without any comment, Laura began to reel in her line with no effort to give the spoon any action. Part way up, the rod was almost jerked out of her hands and the tip was pulled into the water in spite of her tightened grip. The line unwound from the reel with a hum as it angled off to the left of the hole. Gradually she managed to gain control and turn the fish from its course away from the hut. As it turned, the line went slack and she commenced to reel in as fast as possible. When she could feel resistance again, she turned to Harry and said, "Take over, will you?"
Astride the hole, Harry reeled in the fighting denizen, but his eyes were on his beloved.
She said softly, "Land him. Youíre dead meat if he gets away."
In the dim light of the hut lantern, it was impossible to be certain, but to Harry his wifeís face had taken on a grey, putty-like tone. He reeled in as fast as he could. Almost as if the fish sensed the urgency of being landed, it ceased to struggle and was pulled quickly toward the light source of the hole in the ice. When it came into view, Harry, in one continuous coordinated motion, raised the rod, grabbed the nearby gaff hook, swung it into position and yanked the lake trout onto the floor. It was one of the fabled lunkers, well over thirty pounds, but it was of little interest to Harry.
He put his face close to Lauraís and whispered, "Is it bad?" She nodded.
"Iím going out to start the truck Will you be all right for a few moments?"
"Yes. Donít worry, the pills always take away the pain. But get you lazy ass moving," she said and smiled. But Harry knew that she was downplaying the seriousness of the situation.
The blast of cold air and snow which engulfed Laura when Harry exited seemed to help. She leaned back and tried to force her mind to control the pain coursing through her chest and arms. She was determined not to add to Harryís concern by screaming out.
It seemed like hours before the door was wrestled open and a familiar snowman stepped into the doorway.
"Had trouble getting the old banger started. Had to use Spray Start in the carburetor. Are you hanging in OK?"
"Not bad, but hurry. Leave everything," she said and then to take the edge off her husbandís anxiety, added, "Take the fish."
With strength born of necessity, the two staggered to the door of the truck and with much pushing and pulling managed to get the stricken woman inside. Then, Harry retrieved the now frozen white fish and the still quivering lake trout and tossed them into the back of the pickup.
Harry checked to ensure the four wheel drive was engaged before shifting into drive. The truck moved ahead slowly, the knobby tires clawing into the drifting snow. Windshield wipers clicked back and forth against the
lashing snow. However, even with the yellow fog lights on, visibility was as close to zero as white out conditions produce.
Anyone who fishes Lake Simcoe in winter will acknowledge their gratitude to the commercial fish hut operators who set route markers of evergreens upright in the ice every three to five hundred feet from shore to offshore clusters of huts.
In his mindís eye, Harry knew approximately where the closest evergreen was in relation to their hut. He drove slowly into the white wall of swirling snow. Visibility varied from zero to three to four feet. He broke the silence with an excited, "There!" pointing ahead and slightly to the left. The truck barely missed the tree bending animatedly in the wind.
"Thatís good Harry. Just find the next and the next and weíll soon be out of here." Her voice was barely audible over the roar of the wind and the growl of the old engine.
Harry turned off the dashboard lights to enhance the limited effectiveness of the headlights. As a consequence, he had to rely on his wifeís movements and speech to inform him of her state of consciousness.
The thin man gripped the steering wheel hard as he hunched forward scanning intensely for the next marker. The lake was crisscrossed by patchwork tracks of cars, Bombardiers, Skidoos, ATVís (All Terrain Vehicles) and innumerable trucks. There was no guarantee that the trail he seemed to be following was the road to shore.
Suddenly the dark shape of a marker passed several feet to the left. Harry smiled. If their luck held out, they would be on shore in less than ten minutes. If he headed directly to the ambulance unit in Sutton, they would have her in Emergency in the York County Hospital in Newmarket in about forty-five minutes. Although the paramedics didnít have the sophisticated ambulance to hospital radio hookups of Toronto, they did have the training, basic equipment and drugs to deal with heart arrest and other symptoms of heart problems.
Less that two minutes transpired before Harry was certain he had strayed from the ice road. After the first two markers, there had been none. He was lost. It was impossible to keep the vehicle going in a straight line. Each time he hit a snow drift, the truck would veer one way or the other and his efforts to steer back on course sometimes caused the vehicle to spin in a circle. He cursed his lack of foresight in not having brought a compass.
Laura hadnít moved for some minutes and Harryís yells to her hadnít brought any response. He didnít dare stop. Time was the enemy and his only strategy was to get off the ice as quickly as possible. Blindly he pressed forward, adjusting his direction by instinct.
About three minutes later, the old GMC crashed into a pressure ridge. The truck ran up the slope of broken ice sheets and tilted downward to a bone rattling stop. Although the front wheels were in the water, the frame of the pickup appeared to be caught solidly on the edge of the jagged ice. The engine was still running.
The jolt brought Laura to consciousness and she exclaimed, "What the hell was that?"
"Itís the pressure ridge to the west of Georgina Island. There isnít another like it in the area. The mainland is off to the right," he answered. "Iím going for help. Iíll leave the motor running and you should be warm enough Ďtill I get back. Has the pain gone down some?"
In the beam of the flashlight he could see her nod. "OK, I wonít be long," he said.
Harry pushed open the door and pulled himself along the side of the truck to the back and then slid down the west side of the ridge to the flat ice. He struck out in a southeasterly direction with the wind pushing at his back and frigid drafts finding their way under his upturned collar and pulled down tuque.
* * *
Laura had been drifting in and out of consciousness for some time. Although the pain had lost its sharp edges, she knew the problem hadnít gone away. Sheíd taken more nitro tablets than any doctor had ever sanctioned, but she knew that the drug was keeping her alive. In the reverie of semi- consciousness, her mind had begun roving over her past life with Harry when suddenly she was brought to alertness by a slight movement of the vehicle.
She pushed down on the door handle. The lock released and the door opened to admit a blast of cold air and snow. It felt good.
At that moment, the GMC lurched forward and slowly crunched further down into the open water of the fissure. Laura pushed the door wide and it immediately jammed against the jumbled ice. Realizing that the truck might plunge into the freezing water, she pivoted to place her feet on the rough ice of the slope and pulled herself out of the sinking vehicle. There were sufficient rough edges to the piled ice to allow her to gain footholds and move back to the safety of the flat frozen lake.
Although the constriction in her chest had not gone away, the buffeting of the frigid air seemed to ease the critical internal problem. She knew that she couldnít make it to shore. Her only hope was to stay alive until help arrived.
* * *
Harry plodded step by step through the deepening drifts, hoping to keep in a straight line. Veering to either side could result in his walking along or away from shore. He tried to keep the unreliable wind at his back as he moved forward like an automaton lunging into the blinding snow. Suddenly the shin of his right leg banged against a raised obstacle and he fell face down onto the rough planks of a small dock.
He had made it to shore. But where? He pushed to his feet. There would have to be a building or cottage nearby. Then he saw it, the hulking outline of a stained wood sided building. It was in darkness.
The exhausted man stumbled along side the house to the road. Out of the gloom appeared a street light in a halo of yellow. He turned right. The road was already drifting in and would soon be impassable to traffic if in fact there were any permanent residents on it.
Harryís strength was ebbing fast. His face and wrists were beyond pain. Miniature ice sculptures covered his eyebrows and moustache and snow was packed around the folds of his skidoo suit. If he fell he knew that he might not get up.
He had passed a number of street lights and darkened houses when he saw lights coming toward him. Soon he could discern the flashing blue lights of a township plow. He stood in the centre of the road and waved his arms slowly.
The plow was moving at a reduced speed because of the poor visibility and when the driver spotted the snow covered figure, he brought the large truck to a stop within feet of a collision. The person bathed in the headlights of the plow didnít move and the driver got out to determine the problem.
When Harry was safely in the warm cab, he explained the crisis in a voice strained with fatigue and distress. The driver was immediately on the radio to his dispatcher. Emergency forces were summoned and in less than fifteen minutes, the police rescue unit complete with amphibian ice/watercraft on a trailer was parked behind the plow.
When Harry described the location, the officers knew exactly where the pressure ridge was and in a flurry of efficiency had the rescue unit off the trailer and warming up, its huge propeller swirling snow with a powerful whine.
Harry insisted on joining the policemen in the rescue attempt and eased inside to the back bench of the small cabin. The air boat was soon moving across the frozen surface, skimming over snow drifts and wind blown ice. Within minutes the powerful headlights and sweeping searchlight picked up the pressure ridge and the driver turned the craft to follow it in a northwesterly direction. As they slid over the ice surface, Harry peered anxiously out the frosted side window which he kept cleared with his mitts.
Although it seemed like forever, it wasnít more than ten minutes when the officer in the passengerís seat shouted over the roar of the engine, "There! I see something."
The deafening sound of the engine eased as the accelerator was released. The spotlight picked out the dim outline of the rear of the pickup truck. It was almost vertical in the air. The cab had slipped nearly out of sight into the waters and only the rear wheels and frame were caught, preventing it from submerging entirely.
"My God," moaned Harry. "I left her in the cab. Thereís no way she could have survived." He lowered his head into his hands.
The police got out and climbed the sloping ice ridge to direct a flashlight into the interior of what remained of the cab above water.
"The right side door is open and I donít see anyone inside," yelled one of the men over the howling wind.
They returned to the amphibian and the driver said, "Your wife isnít inside. She must have got out before the cab went under. She canít have gone far. Weíll spread out and search along the ice ridge to the southeast. Weíll go three abreast, four feet apart."
Harry took the position closest to the jumbled ice and for most of the time was part way up the slope. They moved slowly kicking snow piles and anything which might be other than a natural formation.
About twenty feet past the partially submerged GMC Harry kicked at a sizable drift and was rewarded by the feel of something softer than ice and more substantial than snow. He dropped to his knees and with both hands began scooping away the drifted snow. The shape of a parka hood came into view. The police joined him and the body of the stricken woman was quickly uncovered.
The two officers put their hands under the arms and hoisted the body erect. Harry brushed away snow caked on his wifeís face. His words were unintelligible to the officers in the noisy wind. The men leaned the torso back and Harry picked up the feet. It was a struggle, but the trio managed to carry Laura back to the ice craft and get her inside.
In the overhead light of the cabin, they were able to see the face clearly. Suddenly the ice incrusted lids quivered and opened.
Harry exclaimed, "Sheís alive. Thank God."
He removed his gloves and place his hands on the blue grey cheeks of his beloved. They had the feel of deep frozen ice. As the warmth of his body flowed into hers, her lips parted, she smiled and then, as if she knew that the situation was under control, eye lids slowly closed over tired blue eyes.
While Harry was concentrating on his wife, the driver turned the amphibian around and headed quickly toward shore in a direction that he knew would take them directly to the marina at Jacksonís Point. The other officer radioed headquarters, arranging for an ambulance and medical help to be there when they arrived.
* * *
Several weeks later in York County Hospital where Laura was recovering from the angioplasty procedure and the amputation of three toes on her right foot, she reviewed her ordeal with her husband.
"When I was on the ice and could feel the hands of death on me, I entered a place which I know was the passageway to Heaven. The chilling cold disappeared and I could feel the warmth of brilliant lights of the new place to which I was going. Ahead I could see family and loved ones who had gone before, waiting with arms outstretched to welcome me. It was then that I thought I could hear your voice telling me not to go. I knew I couldnít leave you. I had to go back. The cold returned when I felt the jolt of your boot kicking at my waist."
"Well my love, you made the right decision. But Iím not sure whether it was me that brought you back or the three fish that I retrieved from the back of the old truck. . . . You can bet that as soon as you get home, weíre gonna have the best damn fish fry we ever had."