North of Need

By: Laura Kaye

Chapter One
The cold scorched Megan Snow’s throat, made it hard to breathe.
Hard to think.
That was a good thing.
She tugged her scarf over her mouth, grateful for the expansive winter sky and crisp air, and set off on a trail walk. Four days alone in the cabin, and Megan was sure the walls were closing in on her. Outside, everything was bright and clean and open. Just what she needed.
She headed for the stand of trees off to the side of the house, hoping the snow might be more shallow under the thick canopy of branches that sheltered the woods. A creek sat a half mile in where, on warmer days, happier days, she and John had sometimes picnicked and made love. It would be iced over, of course, but having a goal burned off some of her restlessness.
Megan high-stepped through the snow until her thighs burned, gripping onto one tree after another. She tripped on buried branches and rocks until the trees were the only things keeping her upright.
Hugging a hickory trunk for support, she glanced back over her shoulder and groaned.
The clearly visible cabin mocked her progress. Most of the twenty inches of snow blanketing the wide field in front of the house had made its way to the forest floor, too. She wanted a distraction, but she needed to be smart, safe. Damn. She retraced her path to the cabin.
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But she wouldn’t go back inside. Couldn’t.
She grabbed the shovel from the covered porch of the story-anda-half log cabin and dug into clearing the front sidewalk. You know you’re going stir crazy when shoveling backbreaking wet snow counts as entertainment.
Her family was right. It was probably time to stop coming out here for the holidays. But she just couldn’t give this place up. Not yet. Not when it was the only thing she had left of him.
Nope. Not thinking about that.
Sweat trickled down her spine under her cotton turtleneck and thick fleece with each scoop-and-toss. Blonde curls worked their way out from under her hat and hung in her eyes. She didn’t mind though, because with each newly revealed foot of sidewalk, the ache in her muscles made it more and more difficult to wallow in memories.
The shovel hit something solid and kicked back against Megan’s frozen hands. She groaned as the shock of thwarted forward motion rocked through her wrists and elbows. Gravel from the driveway spilled from the shovel blade into the snow. Huh. She turned and looked behind her, surprised to find she’d cleared the whole length of the twenty-foot path.
Without once thinking of him. Of the anniversary.
Progress.
And proof that manual labor was her friend. There’d be no more sitting around with books or music or TV shows she couldn’t concentrate on. She’d just exhaust herself into a mindless oblivion.
She looked to her left, down over the expanse of shimmering white to the distant forest that marked their property line. To her right, her now-hidden driveway formed a curving path two-thirds of a mile to the main road and civilization. Shoveling that mess certainly would require manual labor, but Mr. Johansson would be up here with his plow as soon as the weather broke. How would she explain to him she’d tried to shovel it by hand? She imagined the confounded look on his craggy face.
So, what next? After returning the shovel to the front porch, she stood and surveyed the Western Maryland landscape. The low peaks North of Need 3
of the ancient Appalachian Mountains rose around her, the firs and hardwoods for which these forests were famous veiled by two days of nonstop blizzard conditions. The only sound besides her labored breathing was the occasional whistling of the wind through the snowburdened forest. For all Megan knew, she was the only person in the world. Sure felt like it, these days.
What to do?
God, I’m so lonely.
She sighed and shook her head.
The wind moaned. Then do something about it.
Heart pounding, Megan jerked around, her right boot skidding against a slick spot, pink scarf fluttering out around her like a ribbon.
Who’d uttered those last words?
No one, of course. The silence and stillness were complete, as was her isolation—exactly the qualities she and John had always loved about this place.
“Jesus, I’m losing it,” she murmured out loud, just to create the impression she wasn’t so alone. Her gaze returned to the snowy field in front of the cabin. Trimmed by a dense line of firs at the far edges, the clearing was big, clean, empty…
Do something about it, the mysterious voice had said. Oh, she’d do something about it, all right.
Back to the high-stepping routine, Megan trudged out into the front yard. Any spot would do, she supposed, so she stopped and mashed two mounds of snow into a sticky white ball. The lull in the storm had allowed the temperature to creep up into the high twenties, so the snow was good packing quality. She rolled the ball over the powdery surface, intent on making it as big as she could. After a while, the thing started to fight back when she pushed, but she wanted the exertion. Digging her toes in, she fought for every additional inch in diameter until, finally, she was done.
She stood with snow-crusted gloves on her hips and admired her work. “That’s one big ball ya got there.” She sniggered, then shook her head.
Now, for the next two. She set about the packing-rolling-grunting 4 LAURA KAYE
process again until she created a sizable middle and the head. Lifting them into place proved a challenge, but with a lot of grunting and a few choice expletives, she lugged the heavy masses where they needed to be.
“Now, to transform you from androgynous snow person into my snowman.” Megan jogged back to the house and didn’t even worry about tracking snow inside. Moments later, she reemerged with an armload of supplies she dumped at the foot of her creation.
“First, we gotta give you a face, mister.” Emptying the bag of buttons on top of the flannel shirt, she sorted through with glove-thick fingertips. She wanted bigger ones for the eyes, and found two. She frowned. They weren’t the same color, but she wouldn’t be able to tell from a distance. She plugged the biggest navy and chocolate-brown buttons into the face as eyes. A light brown button made a cute nose, and a row of mismatched reds made a friendly mouth.
The red and white plaid flannel shirt was a big don’t-even-let-yourthoughts-go-there, but she couldn’t allow the poor guy to go without clothing. Besides, she had a closet full of them. She wrapped the soft fabric around the middle section. The snowball was wide, but the shirt closed. After all, he’d been a big guy, hadn’t he? She tugged off her gloves so she could do up the front, then trudged to the oak tree on the corner and snapped off two branches. With cold, shaking hands, she threaded the twigs through the flannel sleeves until Snow Man was inviting her in for a hug. She finished him off with a blue tartan wool scarf and a thick black knit beanie she stretched down as far as possible.
Standing back, Megan admired her work. He was the best snowman she’d ever built. Tall. Well proportioned. Handsomely attired.
“Now I’m not alone.”
Inspired, Megan fished a dry pair of blue gloves from the supply pile and collected more snow, beginning again before her brain could assess and refute her pronouncement. She packed, rolled, and liftgrunted until another, somewhat smaller, snow person stood beside the first. Back at the tree, she broke off more branches and gave the second person arms. She slid her soaked-through pink gloves on the end of each stick, then wrapped her own matching pink scarf around the snow North of Need 5
woman’s neck. Perfect.
Hands on her knees, Megan rested and struggled to catch her breath. Her lungs burned with the frigid air, her lips chapped and cracked. Her body ached from the heavy lifting. Definitely the route to a decent night of sleep. God, how she needed that. She plunged into her third creation.
The temperature dropped and the biting wind picked up. Big, wet snowflakes fell in a heavy blanket, darkening the afternoon sky.
Her flagging energy and the deteriorating conditions made the work harder, and this snow person ended up much smaller. On her knees, with wet gloves and cold hands almost too numb to do the job, Megan set its little head in place.
Breathing hard, she staggered to her feet and studied her afternoon’s labor with her hands on her hips.
She’d made a snow family.
A snow family. A snowman, a snow woman, and a snow child.
A sob tore up her throat and echoed into the stillness. What the hell was she thinking?
She stumbled, gasping at her own stupidity. The emotional scab ripped open. Hours of effort came undone. Her boot stuck in a deep drift and tripped her. Her body fell hard at the base of the snowman and her breath whooshed out. The sobs choked her as she crawled to her knees and slumped against the man. She yanked off a glove, needing to touch something he’d touched, something that had been his, but her frozen fingers could barely feel the soft cotton of John’s favorite cabin-wear. She buried her face against the worn material. He’d been gone too long to be able to smell him on it, but that didn’t keep her from inhaling deeply to try.
“Why did you leave me?” she wailed, her tears soaking through the cold shirt. “Why?” Her fists curled into the flannel. “I need you.”
The wind swallowed her words and carried them away. John was gone. And they’d never have a family of their own. They never even had the chance.
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