tagRomanceThe Warmest Winter, Day 01

The Warmest Winter, Day 01

byTooCleverByHalf©

They called it the "Blizzard of the Century," which most people ignored because it had been the third one that decade. But afterwards, they stopped using the phrase for a good twenty years. It wasn't that big a deal to Michael, except that now he had to clear off the solar panels on his roof. Nobody was around to help him, but that was the point of his winter retreats to this house. And maybe "had to" was too strong a sentiment. The generator would last, but he'd prefer to rely on the solar panels as much as possible. And now, if he didn't want to abandon that goal, he'd have to climb onto the roof and clear them.

Underlayer for warmth? Check. Pants, shirt, socks? Check. Coat, boots, hat, gloves, scarf? Check. Harness and rope? Check. Broom? Check. All set.

His bedroom, the master suite, had the balcony he used for rooftop climbs with the hook protruding from the overhang. The balcony was clear of most snow, thanks to the direction the storm was blowing. He rigged up the rope to the railing as well, and raised himself using the setup. People would ask Michael how he managed it, but halfway through the talk of why it was called a slipknot, or maybe about how pulleys reduce workloads, their eyes would glaze over. He'd then say the rest was magical elves and watch them nod. Twits.

Getting up was the hard part. Once on the roof, it was fairly easy. The accumulated feet of snow needed only a sufficient nudge to get the whole rooftop slab to slide down with a cotton crash on each side. The broom swept away the rest, and didn't scrape the panels like a snow shovel would. Michael wanted this over with quickly for a few reasons. Firstly and most obviously, it was really, really cold. Secondly, the weatherman had predicted the storm very well so far: eighteen hours of heavy snowfall dropping a few feet, about an hour or so of light snow, and then wintery Hell was going to break loose on the area for the next twenty-four solid hours. The first part of the storm produced white-out conditions, but the second half was going to take civilization to the cleaners. Until the storm passed, this was his last chance to clear the solar panels, and if he waited until the storm was over, there may have been too much to get rid of all at once. Besides, he'd invested the money in the snow boots and hadn't had a chance to use them yet.

He'd gotten the panels clear, and resisted the urge to stay and keep clearing them. He dropped back down onto the balcony, easier said than done, and dismantled his rope and pulleys. Once everything was stowed inside, he came back out to appreciate the scene before him. He'd paid a pretty premium to live here, so isolated from everyone else, in the house he'd helped design. The woodland surrounding his property was gorgeous, even bare-branched as it was in the dead of winter. The only tree in his actual front yard, though, was Old Greybeard, an oak tree he just didn't have the heart to cut down, it had so much character. Michael picked up his binoculars to see if the snow was doing any major damage to the crotchety old man.

He didn't bother looking at the branches- the only thing he could tell is if they were snapping off under the weight of the snow. So he scanned the snow around the tree for bits of grey bark.

"What the..." Michael refocused. It was a small, yellow smiley face, like the topper some people have on their car antennas... which might explain the large hill in the snow underneath.

"Oh, shit." Michael dropped the binoculars and raced inside, down the stairs to the foyer, where he had a snow shovel, rock salt, and the front door, the quickest way to the car outside. He was about to start, but then turned back and retrieved a hammer from his toolbox under the kitchen sink. Working furiously, he shoveled snow to the sides of the front door, where the porch had kept the snow from piling up against the walls. Every now and then, he salted behind himself. If his math was right, he could have as little as forty minutes before the second wave of the storm hit. Forty minutes to shovel three thick feet of snow in a path wide enough to move quickly and surely, get into the car, and help whoever was inside, after already being worn out by his exertions on the roof. If his math was correct again, the amount of snow on the car meant whoever was in it could have been there for hours, and if they weren't dead, they could be any second.

It seemed like a lot longer than it probably was before he reached the car. After clearing the window of the nearest door, the driver's, he looked inside. Three passengers, all unmoving, with their eyes closed. Michael frantically cleared the door. Was it locked? No. Good. The hammer wasn't needed. He opened it, first checking the woman in the driver's seat for a pulse and breathing. Slow, but steady on both counts. Hypothermic? Suffocated? Not that he could tell. He silently apologized as he reached over to check the woman in shotgun, then the woman in the back seat. The same.

What to do next. He thought for a second, then shut the door and ran back into the house, grabbing a coat from its closet. He unbuckled the driver, then wrapped her as best he could in the coat. Once she was clear, his hands were full, so he kicked the door of the car shut. Swiftly as he could without dropping her, and there were a couple close calls, he got her inside and laid her on the floor of his living room, just inside the front door on the right. Grabbing another coat, he repeated the ordeal for the shotgun passenger, and then the backseat passenger, checking their vitals as soon as he was done with each one. He grabbed the first-aid kit and the accompanying manual next to it. After running down the checks for hypothermia, he determined that the three women had escaped it by minutes if not miracles. He finally caught his breath. And then thought some more.

He looked at the clock, decided he had enough time, and then went back outside.

*****

Some time later, he woke up when a hand shook his shoulder.

"AHH!" he screamed, jerking back in surprise so hard he fell off his bed. He looked up at the person waking him. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"What?" said the woman, confused, "You don't... you aren't..." She started looking panicked.

"Wait, wait," Michael said, "I'm sorry. I just... didn't remember yet. It's been a long day. It's still today, isn't it?"

"You tell me."

Michael stood up and got his bearings. Right. He had finished up some details after saving the women, then came upstairs to sleep. Was he... no, he hadn't stripped nude, which was his usual for sleeping. His boots were still on, even. Himself sorted out, he looked at the woman.

She still had on her clothes from the car, ill-fitted to the weather, and her hair was a mess. She was shaking probably as much from lingering cold as from fear of her unknown surroundings. Michael saw it in her eyes. "Am I safe?" they asked. He took a breath.

"Let's try this again: Hello. My name is Michael. Your car stopped in my front yard. I noticed you after some time and got you out. You and your... friends?" She nodded. "You and your friends were close to hypothermic, but are fine. I used a little hot water on a few hands and ears, overall, but nothing major. After I got you in and made sure you weren't in medical danger, I put each of you into a guest bedroom, got as much of your stuff out of your car as I could, then came back inside. I then came up here, fell asleep, got woken up and made a perfect ass out of myself scaring someone who's already quite frightened. You know the rest."

"Look, I'd like to believe you. Really," she started, "But how do I know you're not some kind of psychotic sociopath?"

"For starters, if you thought I actually might be, would you really be stupid enough to ask me that question? Besides, how do I know you aren't? And psychotics are psychopaths, not sociopaths. Common mistake."

"Oh. Are you going to keep us here long?"

"No. The snow is. There's nothing but... hang on." Michael went over and looked out the glass balcony door. "There's nothing but four-foot-deep snow in every direction for at least twenty miles, and getting deeper. Even if you could handle the snow, the wind would sharpen an axe it's so strong. If you want to leave, I won't stop you."

"You're not going to try anything funny with us?"

"I'm assuming you mean 'funny' ironically if you're referring to rape, and no, I'm not. If you're not going to believe me when I tell you, you'll just have to see for yourself. You'll probably be stuck here for at least a week and a half. And may I point out that once your friends wake up, you'll have me outnumbered three to one? And would a psychotic sociopath of a raping axe murderer remind you that I mentioned both the accessibility of hot running water and that I got your stuff, including a change of clothes, out of your car and the bags are sitting downstairs?"

He was starting to get worked up. He could have killed himself, saving them. If he'd slipped and not been able to get up, he'd have been dead, and them. Some gratitude. he was trying to be a good host, but this woman's paranoia was starting to get on his nerves.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, "I'm so sorry. It's not your fault, I... I appreciate everything. I, We... we'd be dead if not for you. Thank you." Her face had fallen, threatening tears, but now she looked him in the eye, and her voice strengthened. "My name's Jennifer. Nice to meet you, Michael." She appeared to consider this for a moment. "Only my friends can call me Jenny."

"Nice to meet you, Jennifer."

"And you can call me Jenny, too." She smiled inwardly at the surprise on Michael's face.

"Uh, wow. Thanks. Call me Mike."

"Mike." She smiled. Mike couldn't quite place how that smile made him feel. It was like all of those 'thank-yous' you hope for when you do a good deed, but never get, were rolled into one and came out in that smile. "I'm going to check on Cassie and Ronni, then get that shower you talked about."

"I never mentioned a shower."

"I never said axe murderer."

"Fair enough. Down the stairs, on the left."

"Hmm?"

"Your bags."

"Oh. Right."

Wondering just what the blazes he'd gotten himself into, he went into his walk-in closet to change.

*****

Boxers, t-shirt, jeans? Check. Much better. Mike had also washed up a bit. Sleeping in the warm house wearing his fluffy finest made him sweat a fair amount under all the layers, on top of the sweat of his exertions on the roof and in the yard. He felt better.

One more thing. Digital watch? Check. He checked the time. Three in the afternoon. He'd gotten the ladies and their luggage inside by noon, and the storm picked up again shortly thereafter. He had slept for about three hours before Jenny woke him.

He came down from his room just as another woman was coming out of a guest room. He recognized her as the shotgun-seat passenger. It was easy- she was the blonde, the other two were brunettes.

"Who the Hell are you?" she asked. Mike quickly raised his hands defensively.

"My name is Mike. You parked on my front lawn. I got you and your stuff inside. Jenny's fine and taking a shower now. Are you Cassie or Ronni?"

"Oh. Sorry. Veronica. Don't call me Ronni. Only my friends can call me that. And it's Jennifer, not Jenny."

"She said I could call her Jenny."

"Oh, I bet she did."

"Are all three of you this paranoid about men?"

"You try waking up in a strange house." Mike started getting agitated again.

"You would have frozen." His tone gave her a reminder of that all by itself. "You would have died."

"That doesn't mean you can call her Jenny."

From behind the bathroom door in the hall, they heard. "Leave Mike alone, Ronni, I told him he could."

"Why?" she demanded.

"He saved our lives, and our stuff. Your shampoo is safe." Veronica's eyes darted back to Mike.

"You saved my shampoo?"

"Was it in one of the luggage bags? Not loose in the car somewhere?"

"Yeah, of course it was."

"It's fine, Veronica. Downstairs, on the left." Veronica ran by with a quick "Thanks!"

She stopped abruptly halfway down the stairs.

"Call me V." Then she kept going. The bathroom door opened.

"She giving you a hard time?" Jenny asked.

"Nothing I hadn't seen before," Mike answered.

"Ouch," Jenny replied, still drying her hair with a towel. "I really am sorry about that. And as for Ronni, she's fidgety because of me. I... had a bad relationship recently so she's protective of me."

"Good friend."

"The best. Well, Cassie, too, the three of us."

"Speaking of, could you do me a favor?"

"Already? What is it?"

"I'd rather not do this a third time. Could one of you hold vigil with Cassie until she wakes up, to explain things?"

"Sure. Which room?" Mike pointed.

"I'm going to make some lunch. If Cassie's not up by the time it's ready, we'll all have it up in her room, if that's okay."

"Sounds great -- I'm starved! Hey, can you make an omelet?"

"Uh, sure. Why?"

"'Cause if the smell of an omelet won't wake her up, she's dead, pulse or not." She laughed- a bright, full laugh, that Mike couldn't help but join in. And then she walked off to Cassie's room. As she did, Mike noticed how well she cleaned up. She had a really positive energy about her. Well, if he was going to be cooped up in his house unexpectedly with someone, it could be worse.

Veronica seemed to chill out towards Mike as he made lunch. Nevertheless, she went through all of the girls' luggage to see "what got salvaged." She seemed almost disappointed that Mike had missed nothing. It turned out that the shampoo was a natural-ingredient recipe that Veronica had hunted for years to find, only to snag the last box before it was discontinued. She had made a personal vow that none of "the perfect shampoo" would be wasted, and that every time she washed her hair she would appreciate the stuff. She balked when she caught Mike's poorly-disguised grin at her enthusiasm.

"I can't help it," he said, "I'm a guy. I just can't seem to see shampoo as a priceless artifact."

"Someday someone's going to have to teach you about women."

"Fine," Mike countered, sliding the last omelet onto its plate, "I'll just have to settle for you."

Neither of them knew it at the time, but as they carried the plates upstairs, they both had the same thought: Now exactly why did I just say that?

*****

When they got upstairs, it turned out, Cassie was already awake and being updated. The moment she smelled egg, she smiled and held out her hands.

"I'm starved, gimme."

Proffering the plate, Mike said, "Bacon and cheddar was the best I could do. I don't have any Swiss, sorry." To Jenny, he explained, "Veronica told me." Jenny sat on the bed with Cassie, with Veronica taking the plush chair in the corner and Mike snagging the desk chair. Mike had to take another trip to get a round of orange juice, and came back up to see that conversation had resumed, between mouthfuls.

"So, let me get this straight- we happen to stop right in front of the only house in a twenty-mile radius?" Cassie was saying. "How'd we manage that?"

Mike swallowed quickly to respond. "There's only one way in or out for all that distance. Once you were in the park, the road took you straight here."

"The what?" exclaimed Veronica.

"I have special permission to use the exterior service road to the national park as, basically, my really long driveway. I let them know when I'm coming, and I only use it a couple times a year, a half-dozen at the most. My question is how you got past the gate."

"I knew it!" said Cassie excitedly, "I knew we weren't on a regular road!"

"Then why didn't you say anything?" Jenny asked, but not harshly.

"I don't know," Cassie said, "Oh, god, this is all my fault, I should've said something, so we'd turn around!" She started tearing up. Jenny immediately pulled her into a hug. Well, after making sure no omelet was to be a casualty.

"No, it's my fault," said Veronica, "I was navigator. I screwed up the directions."

"And I should have asked for them," said Jenny, "No one forced my foot to the pedal when we started getting lost. There's plenty of blame on all of us."

"Wow, is it really so bad here?" Mike asked, smiling, "Did I burn the omelet?" The ladies all started laughing, and Mike was thankful. He could handle a woman crying just fine. Despite what Veronica thought, he did have some experience and had learned a few things. But three at once? When so much else had happened that day? Too much.

The ladies turned and smiled at him warmly. Jenny and Veronica both did so with a glance, then the moment was over as they went back to their omelet. Cassie, however, looked right at Mike for the first time, with an intensity in her expression that mildly startled him. If he hadn't been in a position to see her lips move, he wouldn't have been sure she'd actually said it, it was so soft:

"Thank you."

He smiled back. Only a creep would have been able to resist it.

"Tell you what," Mike said, standing up, "I've got the lunch dishes to do, and when you ladies are ready, come on downstairs and I'll give you the tour." He grabbed what dishes were empty and left the room.

As soon as his footsteps faded down the stairs, Cassie let out a shaking sigh.

"I thought we were dead. I thought that was it, that we were going to freeze in the middle of nowhere." Jenny and Veronica swooped in, and the girls hugged out in minutes what would have taken hours to discuss.

"You had us so worried!" Jenny said, still giving her friend a half-hug. "You were the last to wake up."

"You were worried?" Cassie smiled. "Are you sure? 'Cause I'd have been distracted by the hero of the day."

"He's okay," said Jenny, "But come on, sisters before misters! You know that."

"You haven't thought about it, have you?"

"What?"

"What he had to do. Shoveling all the snow, carrying us in, one at a time, three trips, carrying all of our stuff in, who knows how many trips, and still checking our vitals and carrying us each up a flight of stairs, three trips. That, ladies, is a lot of strength, but more importantly, a lot of stamina, and most of all, more considerate than I could imagine. Our stuff? The man brought in our luggage, in a blizzard! Mike, whatever else he is, is a keeper."

They looked around at one another.

"Dibs!" They all said it at once.

"Okay, okay," said Jenny, "The usual rules?"

"Yeah," said Veronica, "We can all pursue him individually as we choose, but never in front of the others. Whoever he ends up with, he ends up with. Sisters before misters. Besides, this'll help us weed out the savior complex."

"Why would we need a savior complex?" Cassie said, "He's cute! And, like I said, sta-mi-na..." She sang the last word, letting it hang in the air.

"Come on," Jenny said after a moment, "He can't be perfect. Besides, he's waiting to give us the tour. We'll make sure we know where all the closets are and check them for skeletons later."

"Easy for you to be so chipper," Cassie said, getting up with increasing steadiness, "You got a shower. Wait, he has hot water?"

*****

The ladies all came down at once, just as he suspected would be the case.

"Okay," he said, "It looks like you'll be here for at least a week and a half. So, this is the kitchen. Help yourself. If you don't know where something is, just ask. Out in front" --from here on it became a walking tour -- "is the foyer and the stairs, both up and down. To the right of the door, the living room, which has the fireplace and your bags. Behind that, the dining room. On the other side of the foyer is my office, which you should probably ask before going into. It's not exactly private, it's just a mess. The front porch is a wraparound, turning into the back deck at some point. I wouldn't recommend either until most of the snow melts off. Off the kitchen the other way is what they call a 'family room," but think of it as the informal living room. It's where the TV is. The regular one, anyway."

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