"The worst thing you can do is go to sleep."
|For crying out loud, it's April, Bill thought as he drove through a swirl of white. Where did all this snow come from? He managed to dodge one snowdrift, only to plow headlong into a bigger one and skid sideways. He held the steering wheel in a death grip and barely kept the car from sliding into a ditch.
Bill was driving from Chicago to Seattle to attend his brother's wedding, wishing that he had flown there with the rest of his family. The road trip had been fun until he had driven into this icebox otherwise known as North Dakota. The fifty percent chance of snow predicted by the weather station had amounted to almost six inches in the past two hours. The wind was a howling demon, driving the newly fallen snow across the desolate prairie.
Bill was used to snow but he didn't have much experience driving in it. He was an artist who worked from his home. When the weather was bad he either stayed indoors or took the bus. He had never experienced the full force of a monster like the one raging around him now.
"The storm system extends across the southern half of North Dakota and much of southern Montana," a voice on the radio said. "Travel in this area will become more difficult throughout the day and motorists are asked to use extreme caution."
"Thanks a lot buddy, but I already figured that out," Bill said as he guided the car around another snowdrift. "It doesn't sound like I'll be driving out of this mess any time soon."
He hated the thought of sitting in this godforsaken place waiting out a blizzard. His brother's wedding was only three days away. Maybe he could drive north and circle around the storm.
The moment that thought occurred to him he saw an exit marked "Highway 25 North". He wondered if abandoning the interstate highway for a two lane country road was a good idea, but he took the exit. It couldn't be any worse than what he was driving through right now.
An hour later, Bill had driven approximately twenty miles. The visibility was near zero and snow covered the road like a blanket. Bill peered through his windshield at a totally white world, feeling like he was inside a snow globe that was being shaken by a maniac. He could barely make out a sign that read "Center 2 miles".
Center of what? he thought. It's more like the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly the car began to jerk, cough, and sputter. Bill pushed down harder on the accelerator, but the car slowed down and died. He cranked the key repeatedly but the engine refused to start again.
"Damn!" he yelled, slamming his fists down on the steering wheel. "This can't be happening!"
He pulled out his cell phone, only to see "no service" blinking on the viewscreen.
Bill's heart began racing as he looked out at the frozen hell around him. He had not met a single car since he had turned north and there were no farms or buildings in sight. Images of himself buried in the car under a mountain of snow poured into his mind.
That town is only two miles away, he thought. I can walk two miles. Anything would be better than sitting here waiting to be buried alive.
Bill wasn't ready for the biting cold that assaulted him the moment he stepped out of his car. He was wearing the warmest coat he owned, but he may as well have been out there in shorts and a t-shirt. The wind stole his breath and drove snowflakes into his face like tiny darts.
As he walked into the white emptiness, he tried to distract himself from the cold by thinking of a painting he had been working on before he left home. The subject was a garden with flowering trees, green grass, birds, and people enjoying the sunshine. How he wished he was there now!
The wind bit through his layers of clothing and went straight to his bones. The snow stung his eyes and tears streamed down his face. The storm sucked every bit of energy out of his body as he walked. He had no idea how long he had been walking, but he was exhausted enough to have gone at least ten miles. He turned and looked for his car but it was no longer visible, swallowed by the white void.
Which way is the town? he asked himself as he searched for landmarks that were not there. Am I still on the road?
He tripped over an obstacle hidden under the snow and fell into a drift.
So tired. I'll just lie here and sleep for a minute before I go on. I'm really not that cold any more. The snow is nice and soft and...
The snow vanished and he was in a room he hadn't seen in almost twenty years. Posters of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman covered the walls. He was lying in bed covered with a red and blue flannel comforter his grandmother had made for him when he was six. He pulled the comforter over his head, delighting in its soft warmth..
"Billy, time to get up!"
"Aw mom, just a few more minutes?"
Someone grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard.
This voice was not his mother's. He awoke and found himself back in the snowdrift with a pair of blue eyes blazing at him.
It was difficult to determine the girl's age, because her face was partially covered by a red wool scarf she had wrapped around her neck and tied at her throat. A few stray brown curls peeked out from under the hood of the shapeless black coat she wore. She shook him again.
"Mister, you have to get up now!" The bossy tone of her voice reminded Bill of his older sister. He hated this girl for taking away his nice warm bed and bringing back the snow.
"So tired," Bill murmured. "Go 'way. Lemme sleep."
"No! The worst thing you can do is sleep. If you fall asleep, you'll die. Let's go!"
The girl grabbed the front of his coat and pulled him to his feet. She wrapped her arms around his waist and held tightly to keep him from falling.
"You're strong," Bill muttered drunkenly.
"I'm a farm girl," she replied.
"Who are you?" he mumbled.
"My name is Hazel. Come on, it isn't far."
"I cand walg innymore."
"Yes you can. I'll help you."
Walking took less strength than arguing with her, so Bill took one halting step, then another. Hazel put her arm around his waist and supported him as the two of them made their way through the icy wilderness. She was wearing boots that looked too big for her, but she never lost her footing. Her red scarf was the only colorful thing in the dead white world. Bill stumbled along, growing weaker with every step, but Hazel refused to let him stop.
"Look," she said, pointing. "We're almost there."
Ahead, barely visible through the driving snow, was a light. It hadn't been there two seconds ago. Where did it come from?
Bill's head began spinning crazily as Hazel dragged him toward the light. As the world changed from white to black, the last thing he heard was her voice. "Don't go to sleep! Don't go to sleep!"
"William. William, wake up."
Bill felt warm sunshine on his face as he opened his eyes. Once again, he found himself in bed, but this was not his childhood room. The sunlight streamed through a window framed with ruffled white curtains. He was in a four-poster bed covered with quilts and blankets. He pinched himself, afraid that he would wake up in a snowdrift.
"I'm sorry to wake you, but we've been worried about you." The speaker was a woman standing beside his bed. She was about fifty with short curly blonde hair and warm brown eyes. A big red-haired man in a plaid shirt stood beside her.
"Wha--Where am I? Who are you?" Bill stammered, still half asleep.
"My name is Anne Fischer and this is my husband Frank," the woman said. "You found your way to our farm in the storm yesterday. You were unconscious on our front porch when we found you. We called 911 but the weather was too bad for the ambulance to go out. The doctor told me what to do for hypothermia and frostbite. I think you have mild frostbite on the tip of your nose, but that's all. Are you feeling okay?"
Bill sat up and rubbed the tip of his nose. It was slightly numb, but other than that he felt fine. He noticed he was wearing flannel pajamas that were too big for him.
"We had to get you out of your clothes because they were soaking wet," Mr. Fischer explained. "My wife washed them for you. I hope you don't mind that we looked in your wallet for your driver's license so we would know your name."
"I don't mind at all, "Bill said. "Thank you so much for everything. I had better get back on the ro--," He slapped his forehead. "My car! It quit on me during the storm. It's still sitting beside the road."
"Not any more, it isn't," Mr. Fischer said with a smile. "My boys and I went up and dug it out of the snow as soon as the road opened up. We towed it back here and put it in my garage to warm up. It probably stopped because the gas line was frozen. It should be fine as soon as it warms up."
"I don't know how to thank you for everything you have done," Bill said, his voice breaking. "Your family saved my life. If your daughter hadn't found me and brought me here--"
Mr. and Mrs. Fischer looked puzzled.
"We don't have a daughter. The only children we have are two sons," Mrs. Fischer said pointing to a shelf where photographs of two smiling teenage boys were displayed.
"But there was a girl," Bill insisted. "She found me in a snowdrift and helped me find my way here."
"We heard a noise on our front porch and found you lying there," Mr. Fischer said. "No one else was there. What did she look like?"
"She was so bundled up that it was difficult to tell what she looked like," Bill said. "Oh, but she told me her name. It was one of those old fashioned names. Hannah, no Hazel--that's it, her name was Hazel."
The Fischers looked at him with expressions of confusion, fear, and wonder. Mrs. Fischer went to a bookshelf in the corner and pulled out a large red book. The title of the book was "History of Oliver County, North Dakota." She flipped through the pages and pointed to a photograph.
"You'll probably think I'm crazy, but I have to ask," she said. "Is the girl who brought you here?"
It was a black and white photograph, but Bill would have recognized those eyes anywhere.
"It's her," he said. Then he noticed the caption beneath the photograph.
April 11, 1904-March 15, 1920
Now it was Bill's turn to look confused. He turned back to the book.
Hazel and her younger brother and sister were students in a one room school near Center, he read. On March 15, 1920 they were lost in a blizzard on the way home from school. When they were found the next day, the younger children were alive but Hazel had frozen to death. She kept her brother and sister warm by opening her coat and lying on top of them.
Later, as Bill drove toward the interstate highway, the same area he had thought of as hell the day before now offered him one delightful winter scene after another. Children had snowball fights and made snow angels, glittering icicles hung from fence rails, and frost-covered trees surrounded a peaceful blue lake. Each of these sights would find their way into his paintings someday.
He thought of the painting of the garden that waited for him at home. Now he knew it needed one major addition. He would place Hazel in the center of the painting wearing a long white dress, with warm sunlight shining on her face. He would never sell this painting, but would keep it to remind him of the angel who made it possible for him to see another sunny day.
Author's Note: Hazel Miner was a real person who died as described in this story. A monument to her in Center, ND reads "To the dead a tribute, to the living a memory, to posterity an inspiration." I have never heard of anyone encountering her ghost, but she has been called the Guardian Angel of the Prairie. It's easy to imagine her watching out for winter travelers who run into trouble.