A snowstorm, a stranded stranger, no cell service, and the whole state at a standstill.
Part One: December 23, 2015
"This is a winter storm warning for Washington, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Aroostook counties. Stay in your homes except in cases of extreme emergency. Meteorologists estimate an accumulated snowfall of eighteen to twenty-four inches overnight, and there's no end in sight, folks. This storm is descending on our state like Boreas with a vengeance. Stay inside, stay warm, stay safe, stay tuned. We'll be right back after this commercial break."
Prim turned down the radio and listened. It was never this quiet, and the silence was loud. Power outages blanketed the countryside, and she mentally thanked her father for the battery-operated Sony he'd given her last Christmas.
She tossed another piece of madrone in the potbelly and waited for the kettle to boil. I wonder if climbing on top of the stove would warm me up? she thought, spooning powdered cocoa into her mug. My jammies are fire retardant, after all.
A soft Phloomph! made Prim jump. The spoon flew from her hand and clattered to the floor as the pane in the front door rattled against its frame. Snow. It's just snow sliding off the roof. She cursed herself for not having a dog.
"You should have a big dog or a gun, preferably both," her dad had said. "A single woman living alone in the country is an easy target. There are a lot of predators out there, Primrose, and the scariest ones walk on two legs. Trust me on this. I've seen more than my fair share."
Prim couldn't remember what she'd said in response ... probably something flippant like "Aye-aye, Officer Perlman" or mollifying like "Oh, Daddy, you worry too much. I am twenty-eight years old and perfectly capable of taking care of myself," punctuating the latter with a kiss on the cheek.
If that's true, why do I wish he was here with me now?
Prim padded to the door, pressing her ear to the wood. She held her breath, straining to hear anything on the other side. Nothing, just like I thought. She twisted the deadbolt, turned the knob, and opened the door.
The kettle whistled, and Prim jumped again. Jesus, I'm scaring the shit out of myself! she thought, lifting the cast-iron pitcher from the potbelly and placing it on the hearthstone. A gust of frigid air blasted through the open door, depositing an inch of snow across the threshold.
"Son of a bitch!"
Snaking her arm into the space between the wall and the refrigerator, Prim grasped the broom secreted away there. "Move back east, they said. There's no place like home, they said."
Prim froze, her heart drumming an erratic staccato against her thorax. Run! her brain screamed, but her body didn't obey. She felt as if someone had encased her legs in concrete, and all she could do was wait patiently for whatever happened next.
The words were barely more than a whisper, and the fear drained from her like consommé through muslin. She approached the door, broom poised over her shoulder and ready to swing.
"Hello?" she called, noting the waning daylight beyond the dooryard. "Is anyone there?" Her eyes scanned the knee-deep snow until she saw him--a blue mass in a sea of white. He'd fallen on his left side mere feet from the front door, his body wedged against the picket fence atop an ever-growing bank of snow. The hood of his navy parka obscured his face, and his jeans were girdled in ice.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Hang on!" Prim dropped the broom and scrambled for her Wellies. "I'm coming!" She shrugged into her Anorak, tugged on her mittens.
"You have to help me here," she said, scooping him under the arms and dragging him backward. "You're too heavy for me to carry. Can you stand?"
The man groaned, rolling in slow motion onto all fours. "Help ... help me up."
Prim draped the man's arm across her shoulders and stood. He was big, well over six feet, and she prayed his legs would hold.
"Just a little farther," she said, guiding him to the entryway. "The couch is right over there. I'll get you some warm blankets and a cup of hot cocoa. That's it. Good. Three more steps. Easy, now."
The man collapsed, shivering, onto the chesterfield. His beard was thick with hoarfrost, his lips blue and cracked. "Cold," he muttered. "So cold."
"You're hypothermic," Prim explained, grabbing an armload of blankets from the closet. Shaking them open, she draped four over the potbelly. "We need to get these wet clothes off, okay? We need to warm you up. Can you help me do that?"
Slowly, carefully, Prim removed the man's clothing while he held a throw pillow over his groin to maintain some semblance of dignity. "You're cyanotic," she said, draping one warmed quilt over his head and twisting another around his torso. She mummified his naked body with the rest of the bedding, tucking it tightly around him. "There's no electricity and I can't call out on my cell. The cell towers must be covered in ice or something, or maybe the lines are overloaded with calls. My nearest neighbor is a mile away and the roads are impassable, so you're stuck with me for the time being. Lucky for you I'm a nurse. I have wood heat, food, water ... we'll be okay here until the storm blows over. Can you cough?"
He furrowed his brow over closed eyes, then produced a half-hearted cough.
"Good. You can swallow. One cup of hot cocoa coming right up."
"Thank you for opening the door," he croaked. "I wasn't sure you could hear me calling for help so I threw a snowball at your door. I don't think it even came close, though. It wasn't much of a snowball."
"So that's what that was." Prim stirred the chocolatey drink, squirting a spiral of Reddi-Wip on top. "It came close, all right. You scared the crap out of me."
"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you. Don't think I'd've lasted much longer out there. It's really coming down."
"With no end in sight, according to the radio."
The stranger shimmied into a sitting position against the rolled arm of the couch. "You've got a radio? One that works?" he asked, taking the proffered mug.
Prim nodded. "Battery-operated. Only able to get one station from the city. So far they've still got signal, but who knows how long that'll last. They estimate eighteen to twenty-four inches overnight."
"Yeah, we could sure use His help right about now, huh?" Prim smiled.
The man leaned closer, a look of deep concentration on his bristly face. "I'm sorry, but ... do I know you? You look so familiar."
Prim gazed at him over the rim of her mug, squinting to get a better look. "I don't think so; it's hard to tell for sure with all that fur. My name is Primrose, but everyone calls me Prim. I grew up here, so you've probably seen me around. Moved away when I was eighteen and just moved back this summer."
"Ho-ly shit," he said, the words sounding like three words instead of two as he collapsed back into the sofa cushions like he'd been kicked in the solar plexus.
"What?" Prim stood, her nurse mode in high gear. "What's wrong?"
"Prim, it's me. Eli."
Part Two: July 3, 2004
"I can't believe you're moving away!" Prim cried, shrugging her shoulder when he tried to comfort her.
Eli winced as if she'd hit him. "It's my dad. He's got a job offer in Bangor. It's a really good offer. More money, better insurance, and with Mom getting sicker she needs to be closer to the city. They want to try an experimental treatment, and she needs to be there four days a week. It's in her lymph nodes and liver. She's terminal, Prim. This is her last chance. And Dad's a fucking mess. I don't think he'll do very well without her. We gotta try."
Prim wrapped her arms around herself and doubled over, folding in on the pain that threatened to rip her apart. She squeezed her eyes shut, clenching her teeth so she wouldn't say anything she'd regret. I'm never going to see him again. He's moving eight hundred miles away and I'm never going to see him again.
Eli placed a tentative hand on her back, and Prim collapsed to her knees. He knelt beside her and held her while she sobbed.
"I'm a terrible person," she said.
"No, you're not. You're one of the kindest people I've ever met." Eli stroked her hair, resting his chin on her head. "I'll come back for Christmas break, and again on spring break. Maybe you could come stay with us after graduation. We'll have all next summer together."
"I am a terrible person. Your mom is dying and all I care about is myself."
"I'm not leaving your life, Prim, just this town. I'll write every week and call when I can."
"I had this fantasy of us graduating high school together and traveling the world for a year before picking colleges. I never imagined any version of my future without you in it. We've been peas and carrots since kindergarten. Potatoes and gravy. Milk and cookies."
"Crackers and cheese." Eli smiled.
"Cake and ice cream."
"Peanut butter and jelly."
"Cool Ranch Doritos and sour cream."
Eli laughed. "Well, I don't know about that one. How about bacon and eggs?"
"Spaghetti and meatballs."
"Popcorn and butter."
"Salt and pepper."
"Burger and fries."
"Pizza and beer."
"Hmm." Eli scrunched his face in concentration. "Nope, I got nothin'. You win."
Prim jumped, thrusting her arms in the air. "Victory is mine!"
Eli knuckled his red eyes and cleared his throat. "I'm really gonna miss you."
Eli was true to his word, writing every week without fail. She called him every Sunday, and his mom seemed to be getting better. "She's not in remission, but she's eating again and putting on a little weight. Dad's happier and a lot let stressed, but we all miss you. Mom says it isn't the same without your 'sweet pixie face' in the house."
"I miss you guys, too." Prim smiled and closed her eyes, savoring every syllable of every word. It was great to hear his voice, but it made missing him even harder after she hung up. "Give them a hug for me, okay? And Christmas is only eight weeks away. Remember your promise?"
"I remember," he said. "I'll be there. Better get me something good."
But he wasn't there. Eli's mom passed away the day before Thanksgiving. After that the letters and phone calls were few and far between, eventually dwindling away to nothing by the time Prim graduated from high school. She tried to call him in August to wish him a happy birthday, but all she heard on the other end of the line was, "We're sorry; you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again."
Seems I was right after all, she thought. I'm never going to see him again.
Part Three: December 23, 2015
"So I started CSU in Sacramento that fall. I spent most of my downtime in Mendocino. A friend of mine owns a beach-front vacation home there--well, her parents do. I fell in love with the place. It's so beautiful, Eli, and the temperatures are perfect. It's got that small-town feel I missed so much. Anyway, I graduated and got a job in Fort Bragg ten miles away and that's where I stayed until this summer."
"What made you move back?" Eli asked, taking another sip of his beer. "This is really good, by the way. Maine Beer Company puts out some great ale."
"Agreed." Prim took another pull straight from the bottle. "I moved back because Mom and Dad aren't getting any younger. It's getting harder and harder for them to do things on their own, and the winters here are brutal, as you know," she said, gesturing toward the window. It was still coming down--huge downy flakes the size of quarters accumulating on the ground in lazy, sweeping heaps. "I couldn't live with myself if something happened to them--if I could have done something to help and didn't because I was thirty-five hundred miles away."
"They still living in the same house?"
"Yeah, they'll never leave that place. Bought it right after they got married and have been there ever since."
"That's nice--that you moved back for them, I mean. I think that's nice. Nobody does that anymore, you know? Everyone's all spread out, separated. Isolated. Family's all there is, Prim. It's all that matters."
"Why'd you move back?"
The statement was so unexpected, so direct that she sat wide-eyed, unable to respond.
"After we lost touch my life was never the same," Eli continued. "I dropped off the radar to take care of my dad. He sort of fell apart after Mom died. He started drinking.... He wasn't able to work. Hell, he barely got out of bed, and even then it was only to drive to the liquor store for more booze. I went to school during the day and worked half the night seven days a week to make ends meet, but how much does a seventeen-year-old kid make, right? Five bucks an hour doesn't add up to much. I was able to keep food on the table and the electricity on, but that's about it. They shut off the phone and cable pretty quickly. A year went by before Dad was able to hold down even the most menial jobs. Manual labor, you know, seasonal stuff. He finally drank himself to death in oh-nine."
"I'm so sorry, Eli. I didn't know."
"Yeah, well...." Eli fidgeted with his beer, peeling off the label in one unblemished piece. "I was too embarrassed, too ... damaged to call you, then too much time passed and I couldn't. I didn't have the right to do that to you, but when they eliminated my position due to budget cuts last month I thought, why not move back to Presque Isle? There wasn't anything left for me in Bangor, so I sold Dad's house, packed my shit, and here I am."
"Last month? How long have you been here?"
"I just pulled into town tonight, actually. I figured if you weren't already here you'd eventually come home, even if only to visit your parents for the holidays. Then my car hit the ditch about a half mile down the road. I just kept walking until I saw a house. What're the odds, huh?"
Prim looked at him, this man she'd known so well eleven years ago but could have passed on the street yesterday with no recognition whatsoever. The boy he'd been was hard to see under all the scruff, but his eyes were the same gingerbread brown they'd always been. They were soft and kind, and they shined when he looked at her. She scooched off the loveseat, settling on her haunches between his feet.
Eli leaned forward, a nervous smile accentuating the fine lines around his eyes. "What're you doing, Perlman?"
Prim reached out, cupping his shaggy face in her hands. "I've missed you, Eli Wolfe," she said, holding his gaze. "You are the best friend I've ever had, and not a day's gone by that I didn't think about you."
Eli cleared his throat, tucking a strand of espresso-colored hair behind her ear. "I missed you more."
Prim snorted. "You always have to one-up me, don't you?"
"Can't let some scrawny girl beat me, can I?"
Prim rose to her knees. Eli exhaled sharply, his breath quickening with anticipation as she leaned closer.
"You might look different," she breathed in his ear, "but I remember this."
Eli gasped when she slipped her hands inside the blankets, shuddering as her arms encircled his waist.
"It's like muscle memory. I've done it so many times I don't even need to think about it. I know what you like." Prim kissed the hollow of his neck, tickled the length of his collarbone with her tongue, nibbling gently at his flesh. "I've never loved anyone the way I loved you, Eli." She speared her fingers through his hair and climbed to straddle him. "I've missed you, Eli Wolfe."
Eli lowered his head, nestling his face between her breasts. "Okay, you win. I can't beat that."
Victory is mine! Prim smiled, feeling truly happy for the first time in as long as she could remember. "Oh, I think you can, and I'm going to give you a chance to show me just how much you missed me."
Part Four: December 24, 2015
"It's a Pinsonian wonderland out there today with most counties across eastern Maine blanketed in another foot and a half of the white stuff. The folks up at Bigrock have never been happier than they were this morning with twenty-eight inches of fresh powder. It's still coming down, but it appears the worst is over. Maine Power says service has been restored to fifty percent of the homes with reported outages, and the rest should have their electricity back on by evening. Meteorologists expect two to three inches accumulation throughout the day with sunny skies by mid-afternoon. The plows are working overtime, so be careful out there. Stay warm, stay safe, stay tuned. We'll be right back after this commercial break."
Eli turned off the radio and tugged on his boots. Prim slept peacefully, and he didn't want to wake her. He stooped to grab the label he'd peeled off the beer bottle the night before. It read "A Tiny Beautiful Something." Yes, she certainly is, he thought, stuffing the label to the bottom of his pants pocket.
By the time he finished shoveling Prim's driveway the power was back on, so he peeled and grated a few potatoes, grabbed a pound of bacon from the deep freeze on the back porch, and set aside some eggs for scrambling.
Prim sat and stretched. "Coffee. I need coffee."
"You still take it black?" Eli asked, pouring her a cup.
"Black as the Devil's heart."
Eli smiled, handing her the mug. "Storm's over. I wouldn't recommend driving anywhere just yet, but the plows are out and your driveway's shoveled. You can at least check your mailbox without eating shit."
Prim choked, covering her mouth to keep from spewing coffee everywhere. "Spoken like a true poet," she said, standing to embrace him. "Thank you for shoveling my driveway." She slipped her hands under his shirt and up his back, pulling him closer. "Oh, you're so warm. Something smells delicious. What're you cooking?"
"Bacon and eggs."
Prim smiled. "That's what we are, Eli. Bacon and eggs."
"Biscuits and gravy."
"Fries and ketchup."
"Cool Ranch Doritos and sour cream."
Prim stepped back, beaming. "What's this? Don't tell me you've converted?"
Eli traced a thumb across her bottom lip. "I have to admit they're a damn good combo."
Prim sucked his thumb into her mouth and smiled. "What shall we do today, Mister Wolfe?"
"Boy, I don't know, Miss Perlman. The roads are impassable and it's Christmas Eve. What do you suggest?"
Prim stepped back, unfastening the top button of her pajama top. "I think you should open your Christmas present."
"Did you get me something good?" Eli asked, stepping closer.
Prim lowered her arms to her sides. "What don't you take off the wrapping and find out?"
3,286 words (according to Microsoft Word). Prompt not included in word count.