Former partners Paul and Cathleen meet by a frozen pond in northwest Montana for a tragic annual ritual; by Nathan Driscoll.
"Wait Paul!" She secured her thick blue beanie over the blonde bun underneath. "It's hard to see out here, you know!"
"C'mon Cathleen!" Paul's deep voice roared back through the maze of trees. "Don't tell me you've forgotten where it is!"
"Of course I haven't," she said to herself. "Asshole." Her strides grew increasingly labored as the snow deepened, and the running shoes around her feet had decided to join the fun and rub in a blister on each ankle. She once knew better than to trust such wretched excuses for footwear, but too many years in Yuma, Arizona could make a woman forget what winters in northwest Montana did to unprotected limbs. She rubbed her bare hands together in an attempt to keep them functional.
Sporadic rows of tree trunks became Cathleen's only available navigation, some of which had fallen victim to overgrowth and were now covered in snow. Past dusk, grounded snow in the distance and snow on tree branches in front of her nose blended into the same frame. She couldn't discern the difference and received a face full of powder the few instances when she guessed wrong.
"Can you see it yet?" She spit out a pine needle from one of her run-ins with a branch.
"Yes, I see it! C'mon!"
Rusty whistles of a gray flycatcher fluttered down from the upper forest canopy like one of the countless snowflakes. Calls of longing the bird sent forth while flapping about, calls to chicks Cathleen figured had been killed by the bitter cold. She knew that flycatchers harboring a late hatch rarely had children left by the time the snow had melted enough to entertain a thirsty mouth.
"Sorry sweet girl," she said to the empty nester above while honing in on the icy forest ahead. The trees were more and more scarce on the slope now gently angling downward. Devoid of much feeling in her hands or feet, she soldiered on. The sky was now fully dark.
"There you are," Paul said as she limped up to him. "'Bout time." His triple chin coated in stubble was poking through his long brown hair tipped with frost, and his keg for a stomach stretched the fibers on his jacket. The eyes Cathleen used to fall into were now overtaken by a mess of a man who was busy fishing for the flask he'd stored in his pocket.
"Can you put that away please?" Cathleen asked as he pulled out his small alcohol-filled prize. "At least until after we flip the coin?"
"Well isn't this a change." He took a swig from the flask, and the scent of ripe hundred-proof whiskey filled the space between them. "You're asking me to stay sober when most years you're the one stumbling out here for the coin toss. Tell me, is this you talking or 'Ricky' talking?" He threw up a sarcastic pair of quotations with his index and middle fingers.
"It's not Ricky. The fact that Ricky doesn't drink plays no part in why I stopped. It's poison, Paul. I finally see that."
"Ricky doesn't drink." Paul scoffed, chuckling after every word on his way to another sip. "The guy's a fucking heater salesman who lives in hot ass Arizona. Up here, though, heaters aren't enough. You need a little of the ole liquid blanket." He shook the flask. "Or don't you remember, honey?"
"Don't call me that. Jesus." Cathleen kicked out a hole in the snow with her running shoes.
Paul downed the rest of the flask. "How about this. We can wait to toss the coin till I sober up if you'd like. I'm used to the cold, and I'm not the one with a flight back to Yuma tomorrow. The pond's not going anywhere."
Regardless of the snow, Cathleen knew well where the pond was. The clearing in the trees behind Paul, the abrupt dip inside the circle of treeless woods one hundred feet in diameter, was sorer to her than the sorest thumb. The rigid snow piling on the ground bled into level accumulation over the frozen water deep enough to hide the bottom even in the absence of ice.
"You know what," she said, studying the pond. "Let's just get on with it."
"What? You don't want to stop and enjoy this night air? Might as well have a little fun since you're supposed to be skiing right now anyway." Paul giggled. A man soaked in alcohol. "I can't believe you told him your yearly trip to Montana is for skiing with your high school gal pals. And worse I can't believe he bought it."
"Why wouldn't he buy it? Besides, how else was I supposed to explain this?" She removed her beanie and yanked her coat collar downward to reveal the scar that meandered down her neck from the bottom of her ear. The red, pencil-width scar contrasted with her pale flesh.
"Good god," Paul mumbled, stepping back. "I forgot how bad that was. It looks like Freddy Kruger had a go at you, not a jagged piece of ice."
She reapplied the beanie and felt the coarse scratch of her collar as she pulled it back up. "It still hurts too," she said, fixing her blonde hair around the rim of the hat. "Three years ago, and it hurts like the day it happened. And look at you over there without a nick."
"Shut up," Paul said. "Last time I checked, I've won the coin toss five times to your four. And every win of this toss leaves a mark, some that can't be tamed with a well placed scarf."
"On that we agree." Cathleen looked beyond his robust body to the pond then back down at the earth she'd uncovered with her foot. Memories flooded in of spring thaws and watching the snow give way to green and brown. There was such beauty in the way life slowly crept back over the area after being unshackled from ice. No two thaws were ever identical, and part of the fun for her had been finding the nuances that made each one special, a new flower here, a new nest there. Spring had always been her favorite season.
"So no ring yet huh?" Paul's question pulled her attention back to him. He was glaring at her left hand and the naked second finger.
"What happened to just getting on with the toss? Your lips stay zipped all day, and now that we're out here freezing you turn into Mr. Chatty?"
"It's the booze talking," Paul said, patting his enormous stomach. "I was just curious, that's all. Haven't you been dating for a year and a half? And you live together? Might be bout time for a ring, though I wouldn't expect too many carats from a heater salesman."
"Understand something," Cathleen said. "Ricky and I are none of your damn business. I come back here every year for the coin toss, not to update you on my love life. I'm happy now, happier than I've been in a long time. That's all you need to know."
Paul released a low belch from the pit of his gut. "That finger looked a lot better when it used to have a nice, shiny ring on it, don't you think?"
"Oh, grow up child. Now where's the coin?" She stepped forward to begin patting down sleeves and fishing through pockets to locate it. Paul didn't stop her, instead trying to shake out the final drops from his empty flask.
"And what about kids? Are you ever going to try?"
She paused the search and treaded back into the holes she'd carved three feet away. "I can't believe you just asked that, drunk or not," she said. "I would never break that promise. Sophie was all I needed, all I'll ever need."
"What'd you say?"
"She was it for me?" she said in a high, shaky pitch, confused at the need for clarification. "It's true, but you already knew that. And so does Ricky, don't worry."
The silver flask hit the snow with a gentle crunch. "You said her name," Paul said. "You haven't used her name out here in years, maybe ever."
Cathleen nodded slowly. "Like I told you, I'm in a good place. I've found a great person to talk to down in Yuma. They've really helped me a lot."
"Man," Paul whispered. His breath increased in pace, drawing itself in and out three times more quickly than the moments prior.
"Paul, are you okay?"
"Fine." He gasped between breaths. "Just hearing you say her name..." His hyperventilation complimented the song of the solitary gray flycatcher that had found a branch above his head.
"It's all right," Cathleen said. She again closed the gap between her and Paul, who was now bent at the waist, plump hands resting on his knees, however she offered him a pat on the shoulder as opposed to a tireless search. His jacket was soft, what she could feel of it through the numbness.
"I'm sorry. I just... I just." Paul's words became more strained as an onset of emotion gurgled its way into his throat. "God damn it why am I doing this right now? Fucking booze gets me every time."
"You don't look well," Cathleen replied. "You know, coins can be flipped just as simply in the early light as they can be in the dark. There's always morning, and like you said, the pond's not going anywhere." She refrained from feeling too much, but it was impossible to block every tinge of sadness at the sight of him.
"No," Paul said between gasps, bent further, showing only his back. "It has to be tonight. You know that."
Cathleen moved past reserved taps on his shoulders and began rubbing his back with her knuckles. The aggressive expansion and contraction of his rib cage took her hands for a ride. "I think we'd be forgiven for waiting. Let's go back to the house, and I'll whip up some hot coffee for us." Sensation was inching into her hands the more she rubbed his jacket.
"Heads or tails." One of Paul's open palms left the comfort of his knee, and in it was a circular piece of metal, a quarter.
"Put that away, Paul. Let's just..."
"Heads or tails," he repeated.
Cathleen sighed, letting the air leak out of her chest and turn to fog that swirled around her nose. "I don't want to call it. Not now."
"Fine," he said. He stood upright and backed away from her. "I'll call it. Tails never fails." A ping preceded the quarter's aerial act. It danced, spinning the way a gymnast would until Paul grabbed it and pressed it to the back of his other hand. He then removed the top hand.
"What does it say? Heads or tails?"
He brought the coin up close to his face. "What did I tell you," he said, still looking at the coin. "Tails never fails." He walked over to show off the result. Sure enough, the eagle carved into the tail half of the quarter was there to greet them.
"Tails," Cathleen said with another sigh. "It had to be tails."
"Oh mighty eagle," Paul said, kissing the quarter. "You've done me a great service. I really needed a win this year."
"Needed it? This is your third win in a row. What are the damned odds of that?" Cathleen folded her arms, tightly digging her hands into each armpit.
"About thirteen percent, give or take."
"Shut it, smartass. It's not fair, not fair at all."
"Fair has nothing to do with anything out here. The coin does as it wishes."
"Fine," she said, unfolding her arms. "Well, I guess I'm happy for you and your thirteen percent. Shall we proceed then and get this over with?"
"Let's," Paul answered, grinning, smitten with the rush of victory.
Cathleen again lagged behind on their walk around the perimeter of the pond to locate the chest nestled under a massive tree on the other side. When left to flounder beneath winter camouflage, the chest took the form of any other rock or natural feature. Once she reached the tree, Paul wiped a sturdy arm across the snow-laden top to reveal the wood along with the metal hatch keeping it sealed. The hatch had rusted and stiffened, though not enough to dissuade him from jarring it open. He thrust his arm inside, grasping at the bevy of worn rope like a man wrangling a den of inanimate snakes.
"Are you ready?" he asked, extracting the wad of rope, working out some of the kinks.
The storm had passed, and the darkness gained a bit of clarity with the sudden lack of falling snow. The gleam in Paul's eye contrasted with the rope in his hand and dense tree trunk behind him jutting up toward the sky. The pond waited on their immediate left, taunting them under its white insulation.
"Ready," Cathleen said. The untangling of the rope was far more expedient after she began pitching in. Now wrapping the rope around Paul's waist, she powered through the smell of whiskey and body odor for another glimpse of those eyes. They were absent of fear.
"Tails never fails," he said, smiling.
"Sorry, had to say it one more time."
"And what if the ice doesn't break, huh?" she asked. "It's colder than usual out here. The ice could be thicker than in most years."
"If it doesn't break, just wave and tell me you'll see me next year," Paul replied, still donning the grin. "And come back and see me in a year's time, what's left of me at least. I doubt anybody would ever find me out here."
"Probably true," she said.
"Thanks for the help, by the way."
She fastened the bowline knot she'd tied in front near his belt buckle, a knot that was simple to tie yet difficult to undo. "Of course. You've done the same for me. Now go make her proud." She crouched and grabbed the end of the rope lying in the snow.
"I will." Paul wasted little time hoisting himself onto the lower branches of the giant tree, piles of snow shaking loose with every new hold he achieved. He was covered in the stuff and could've been likened to a polar bear clawing upward and inward toward the trunk. Arduous breathing leaked from the tree, not from his distress but from his exhaustion.
"You okay?" Cathleen called up to the man now twenty-five feet off of the ground.
"Jesus Christ," he answered between crackles of branches. "Forgot how hard this was. How could an eight year old have done this? We never did figure out how she made it up here."
"Never," Cathleen whispered, holding her gaze on the gray pants draped over his broad backside. The body of the rope began to rise off of the snow while she kept a hold of the end. There were abrupt tugs here and there, moments when the rope would get snagged between branches, but she was able to maneuver around them with relative ease.
Not only had the clouds stopped dumping snow, but they'd also departed and created a rarity for Montana that time of year. Fresh starlight wasn't often seen in January, yet there it was, shining on Paul as he reached the largest branch, the one that had always been long enough to jut out over the pond. Forty feet up at minimum, he stood on the branch capable of holding his weight. From Cathleen's vantage point, the man dwarfing two hundred pounds took the form of a miniature, of a doll, as if all of it was make believe.
Paul moved further out onto the branch, nearing the point where it would snap under him. For the sixth time in ten years, he was suspended above the snow-covered ice of the pond. "Hey babe!" he shouted.
"Yes!" Cathleen ignored the pet name.
"Is the rope ready?"
She followed the path of the rope with her eyes as it V-lined up the tree. There were no snags, no tangles, just a smooth path to the top. "We're good! Good to go!"
"Sophie!" Paul yelled with special force. "Daddy loves you baby!" He leapt from the branch into open air while much of the snow he'd accumulated on the climb flew off. The descent was prompt, roughly two seconds of free fall before the loud cracks of bone colliding with ice. Then followed the splash, alerting Cathleen that the ice had indeed broken.
The rope tightened in her hand and nearly slipped out. "Shit," she said, revamping a weakened grip. The whooshes of moving water billowed around the hole in the ice, possibly due to more ice coming loose, disturbing the pond's surface. Paul wasn't visible, and the rope remained taut like it was attached to a rock making a run for the bottom.
"Paul!" she shouted toward the hole fifteen yards away, shuffling closer to the pond's edge. "Come up!" Her order was answered by another crack, a spurt of water, and a pair of flailing arms. Paul emerged and blew a misty cloud from his mouth while continuing to thrash. "Paul!" she shouted again, anchoring her feet on the slope, yanking on the rope.
"Not yet!" The frantic scream didn't stiffen her arms, as she pulled with her entire might. "I said not yet!" Paul cried. There was true, unfiltered agony in his voice.
Now instead of battling dead weight, Cathleen was stuck in a game of tug of war with Paul tugging on the other end. "Okay, fine," she said. "Let me know when you want to come out of there." She took a seat on the bank, fiddling with the rope in her lap while listening to the commotion.
"Oh God! Oh my God!" Each passing second brought with it a worsening of Paul's condition. "My legs! I can't feel my legs!" He'd been in the water for over two minutes.
Cathleen watched him and remembered the clenching before impact, the pain of ice when it tears into flesh, and how that pain vanishes once the water envelopes everything. The water was the worst part, so cold that one could literally feel the meter of their life force draining inside them. In water that cold, extremities begged you to suck in a few gulps and end the anguish, but there was a sensation on top of pain she recalled that few would ever understand. Peace, the peace of a mind convinced in some capacity that justice was being served.
"So Paul, do you want out yet?" she asked after another minute, dullness in her tone.
"Yeah, yeah! Get me out of here, honey! God damn it help me!"
She was lazy in response, cracking her knuckles and stretching her shoulders before getting up. She leaned back and let her weight do must of the work, as it didn't take much of a heave to extract Paul once he was a willing catch. Paul, freed from the water, crawled through the snow toward her, grunting and snorting. He knocked her back down to the snow and buried his head in her lap. His body trembled violently from head to toe.
"How, how, how could we?" he asked through the shivers, looking up at her. "How could we leave her and her friends out here alone?" He again buried his head in her lap and bawled, putting pressure on her thighs. "They didn't know any better. Sophie loved to play, go on adventures, but her friends couldn't save her. We could've."
Cathleen didn't have a comforting word that hadn't already been given ten times over. "I know," she said. "I know." The water dripping off of Paul's face carried such chill that it even stung her numbed fingers.
"She was in there." Paul grabbed at her sleeves. "We let our b-baby go through that. May we rot in hell."
"How are your legs feeling?" She combed the span between his waist and feet. "Uh... Paul." It couldn't be missed, the sight of his right foot cocked sideways in the wrong direction, undoubtedly snapped at the ankle.
"I killed her!"
"Paul," Cathleen said. "You need to calm down."
"I killed my daughter!"
"Paul, your leg."
"And you killed her too." Paul reared up from her lap using his rickety arms for support. His lips were blue, cheeks pale, and nose beet red. "You killed her, and then you left me here to rot in a house a mile away from where she died you bitch."
"What'd you just say?" Cathleen aggressively clutched his face.
"B-B-Bitch," he said, shivering once more. "You killed Sophie. Now leave like you always do. Go on. Get out of here!"
Shoving Paul off of her, Cathleen stood without so much as a word about daughters or broken limbs. Those ill-equipped running shoes went to work to carve a dry hole in the winter floor before she trudged over to the wooden chest. There were twigs and firewood at the bottom wrapped in plastic to avoid dampening along with matches and lighter fluid. She pulled the lot of it out and hauled it over to her makeshift fire pit.
"Forgive us baby," Paul said, rolling in the snow.
Cathleen silently went about stacking the twigs under a teepee of small logs, ensuring that the configuration wouldn't fall and douse itself in the adjacent snow. Once the structure could stand, she poured lighter fluid into its center and lit a match. The fire was ablaze in a flash and spewing warmth to the immediate area.
"Come back," Paul whispered, sobbing uncontrollably. "Don't leave me here alone."
The rest of the forest was silent aside from his weeping. Cathleen checked the starlit treetops for the gray flycatcher, but it had flown off, probably to slumber and wait for its next chance to produce a hatch. She didn't look at Paul, instead stepping away from the fire toward the waning footprints they'd made on their way in.
"Don't leave me," he said. "Please."
"See you next year," she said, keeping her eyes forward. She walked into the trees and through the forest toward the house, listening to Paul's cries fade further into the distance.