f the cold didn't kill her, the slippery ice on the sidewalk surely would, thought Lucy Stone as she stepped out of the overheated town hall basement meeting room into a frigid Monday afternoon. January was always cold in the little coastal town of Tinker's Cove, Maine, and this year was a record-breaker. The electronic sign on the bank across the street informed her it was five forty-five and nine, no, eight degrees. The temperature was falling fast and was predicted to sink below zero during the night.
Lucy hurried across the frozen parking lot as fast as she dared, mindful that a patch of ice could send her flying. Reaching the car, she made sure the heater was on high, and waited a few minutes for the engine to warm up. While she waited, she thought about the meeting she had just attended and how she would write it up for the local paper, the Tinker's Cove
The topic under discussion was improving toilet facilities at the town beach and quite a crowd had turned out for the meeting. In her experience as a reporter, only dog hearings excited more interest than wastewater issues and this meeting had been no exception.
Of course, people had been complaining about the inadequate facilities for some time; a group of concerned citizens had even entered a float in the Fourth of July parade as a protest. The parade theme had been “From Sea to Shining Sea” and the float depicted the town beach strewn with sewage. The ensuing controversy had prompted the selectmen to address the issue, but there was little agreement on the solution. The budget-minded had favored continuing the present Porta-Potties, the cheapest option. Installing earth closets, the eco-friendly option, had brought out the tree-huggers; the business community, which depended on tourist dollars, had lobbied for conventional toilets, which would require digging a well and putting in an expensive septic system.
This was going to be fun to write up, she thought, as she shifted into drive and proceeded cautiously across the icy parking lot and onto the road. In addition to the cold, they had recently had a big snowfall, so the road was lined with high banks of plowed snow. It was hard to see around the piles of snow, so Lucy inched out into the road, hoping nothing was coming.
As she drove along Main Street, past the police station and clustered stores, past the Community Church with its tall steeple, she thought of possible opening sentences. She'd driven this route so often that her mind was wandering and she was halfway through her story when she cleared town and the landscape opened with harvested cornfields on both sides of the road. The winter sunset was fabulous, the sky a blazing red that took her breath away. She couldn't take her eyes off the gorgeous color that filled the sky and was barely paying attention to the road when a large buck leaped over a snowdrift, landing right in front of her. She slammed on the brakes and skidded, hanging onto the steering wheel for dear life and praying she wouldn't hit the animal, when the car fishtailed and slammed into the snowbank on the opposite side of the road.
Heart pounding, she caught a glimpse of brown rump and white tail bounding unhurt across the field, and sent up a little prayer of thanks. Then she shifted into reverse, intending to back out onto the road. Pressing the accelerator, she heard the dismaying hum of spinning tires. Climbing out of the car, she found the front end deeply imbedded in the snow and the rear tires sunk up to the hubcaps in soft slush and realized she wasn't going to get out without help.
The sun was now falling below the horizon, the sky was a deep purple, and the road was deserted. She got back in the car and reached for her cell phone, remembering she hadn't charged it lately. Indeed, when she flipped it open, the screen blinked
and immediately went dark. She was only a bit more than a mile from home, but in this frigid weather she didn't dare risk walking. Her best option was to stay with the car and keep the engine running. Unfortunately, she'd been running close to empty for a day or two, too busy to stop and fill the tank.
It was just a matter of time, she told herself, before her husband, Bill, would wonder why she wasn't home and would come out looking for her. Or not. He might figure she was working late, covering an evening meeting, in which case they'd probably find her frozen body the next morning.
Perhaps she should write a note, letting her family know how much she loved them. Then again, she thought, perhaps not. What sort of family didn't come out and look for a missing member, especially on a night when the temperature was predicted to go below zero? She thought of Bill, who habitually watched the six o'clock news, and her teenage daughters, Sara and Zoe, probably texting their friends, all in the comfort of their cozy home on Red Top Road. Didn't they miss her? Weren't they worried? They'd be sorry, wouldn't they, when she was on the news tomorrow night.
Local woman freezes to death. Family in shock. “I should have known something was wrong,” says grieving husband.
A tap at the window startled her and she turned to see a smiling, bearded face she recognized as belonging to Max Fraser. She lowered the window.
“Looks like you could use a tow,” he said.
“It was a deer,” she said. “He jumped in the road and I swerved to avoid him.”
“Doesn't look like the car's damaged,” he said. “You were lucky.”
“I'm lucky you came along,” said Lucy. “I don't have much gas and my cell phone is dead.”
“I'll have you out of here in no time,” he said, signaling that she should close the window.
Max was as good as his word. In a matter of minutes, he had fastened a tow line from his huge silver pickup to her car. She felt a bump and heard a sudden groaning noise and all of a sudden her car popped out of the snowdrift. Max looked it over for damage and listened to make sure the engine was running okay, and when she offered to pay him for his trouble, he looked offended.
“Folks gotta help folks,” he said. “Someday maybe you can help me, or pass it on. Help somebody else.”
“I will,” promised Lucy. “I certainly will.”
Next morning, Lucy was writing her account of the meeting when Corney Clarke popped into the
office, like a glowing ember leaping out of a crackling fire and onto the hearth. Her cheeks were red with the cold, her ski parka was bright orange, and her stamping feet sprayed bits of snow in all directions. “This is big, really big,” she exclaimed, pulling off her shearling gloves.
Phyllis, the receptionist, peered over her harlequin reading glasses and cast a baleful glance at the melting puddle of snow. She drew her purple sweater across her ample bust and shivered. “Mind shutting the door? There's an awful draft.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Corney, pushing the door shut with difficulty and setting the old-fashioned wooden blinds rattling. “It's just I'm so excited about my big news.” She paused, making sure she had the attention of Ted Stillings, the weekly paper's publisher, editor, and chief reporter.
“I'm listening,” said Ted, leaning back in his swivel chair and propping his feet on the half-open file drawer of the sturdy oak roll-top desk he inherited from his grandfather, a legendary New England journalist. Like practically every man in town, he was dressed in a plaid shirt topped with a thick sweater, flannel-lined khaki pants, and duck boots.
Lucy typed the final period and turned around to face Corney. “This better be good,” she said. Corney, an interior designer who wrote a monthly lifestyle column for
Maine House and Cottage
magazine, was always pitching stories, looking for free publicity.
“Oh, it is,” said Corney. She took a deep breath and paused dramatically, then spoke. “Chanticleer Chocolate was voted âBest Candy on the Coast.' ”
It landed like a bombshell, and for a moment there was stunned silence in the newspaper office.
“You mean ... ?” began Phyllis.
“What about ... ?” murmured Ted.
“Talk about an upset!” exclaimed Lucy.
“That's right.” Corney gave a self-satisfied nod. “It's the first time since the magazine began the Best of Maine poll that Fern's Famous Fudge hasn't won.”
“Fern's Famous is an institution,” said Phyllis.
Lucy nodded, thinking of the quaint little shop with the red-and-white striped awning that had stood on Main Street in Tinker's Cove since, well, forever. The business was started by Fern Macdougal, who needed a source of income after her husband was killed in the Korean War. She started selling her homemade fudge through local shops, eventually buying her own place as the little business took off in the nineteen fifties when tourists began flocking to the Maine coast. Fern's Famous, with its big copper kettle and marble counters, was a must-see and nobody passed through town without picking up one of the red-and-white-striped boxes of fudge or salt water taffy. Nowadays, Fern was in her nineties, but she still kept a sharp eye on the business, which was run by her daughter Flora Riggs, who had added a catering service to the company, and her granddaughter Dora Fraser, Max's ex-wife.
“Now, Ted,” said Corney, turning to the reason for her visit. “You have to admit this is a big story. And it just happens to tie in very nicely with the Chamber of Commerce's
Love Is Best on the Coast
February travel promotion.” Corney, as they all knew only too well, was chair of the Chamber's publicity committee.
“Whoa,” said Ted, raising his hand. “February travel promotion? Are you crazy? This is Maine. I don't know if you've noticed, but there's two feet of snow on the ground, the temperature is fifteen degrees, and the forecast is for, surprise, more snow.”
“Sleet,” said Lucy. “We're supposed to have a warm spell. Global warming.”
“Either way, snow or sleet,” said Ted, “it's not exactly picnic weather.”
“Maine is beautiful every time of year,” said Corney, “but winter is my favorite time. The snow is so beautiful ...”
“It's treacherous,” said Lucy. “I barely made it home alive last night. If Max Fraser hadn't come along, I'd be headline news this morning. I got stuck in a snowdrift when a buck jumped in front of my car, out by those cornfields.”
“There's a lot of deer out there,” said Phyllis. “They eat the corn the harvester missed.”
“You've got to be careful in the snow,” said Corney, “but the town does an excellent job with the plowing. And you have to admit, on a day like today, when the sun makes the snow sparkle and the air is crisp, it's just a little bit of heaven here in Tinker's Cove.”
Corney had a point, thought Lucy, thinking of her antique farmhouse on Red Top Road and how pretty it looked covered with snow, especially at night when the windows glowed with lamplight. Of course, the snow made it impossible to keep the house clean inside. Her daughters, Sara and Zoe, were constantly tracking in snow and mud, as did her husband, Bill. Even the dog added to the mess, rolling in the snow and shaking it off as soon as she came through the door. The kitchen floor was littered with boots and shoes; the coat rack was loaded with jackets and scarves and ski pants. Hats and mittens and gloves were spread on the old-fashioned radiators to dry.
It wasn't just the constant sweeping and tidying that got her down in winter, it was the way the house seemed to shrink in the bleak months after Christmas. The walls seemed to move in and the furniture grew larger. Every surface became cluttered with projects and busywork: the fishing reel Bill was repairing, the scarf Sara was knitting for the high school Good Neighbor Club, Zoe's rock display for eighth-grade science.
Going out for a meal or a movie, even a shopping trip, was the obvious cure for cabin fever, but it wasn't easy. It took a lot of determination to get anywhere. First you had to layer on all those clothes, then you had to shovel your way to the car, which might or might not start. Once you were on the road, you had to be constantly vigilant, watching for slick spots and creeping slowly through intersections made blind by enormous piles of snow, and you had to remember to start braking well in advance of every stop sign. Once you reached your destination, you had to hunt for a plowed parking spot and then you had to watch your step when you got out of the car because the sidewalks, even when shoveled, soon became slick with ice.
None of that seemed to bother Corney, who was listing the advantages of winter. “Sleigh rides in the snowy woods,” she said, prompting a snort from Phyllis.
“Endless shoveling,” complained Ted. “Heart attacksâdid you see the obits last week? Three old guys, in one week.”
Corney ignored him. “We have all these romantic B&Bs with canopy beds and fireplaces... .”
“Fireplaces are awful messy. Wood chips, twigs, even leaves, and then there's the ashes. Filthy,” said Phyllis. “And that stuff jams up the vacuum.”
“Hot toddies and cocoa with tiny marshmallows,” said Corney, as if she were raising the stakes in a poker game.
“The stink of wet wool,” countered Lucy.
“Tree branches coated in ice, sparkling in the sun,” said Corney, laying down a few more chips.