He was good. Too good to be true. Or was he?
Let me introduce myself, she said to the rear view mirror as once again she drove home from work in a snow storm. Hi, my a name is Loretta and I’m crazy. I must be! Who else but a crazy woman would sell her comfortable home ten minutes from her job as head accountant and buy another one an hour away? Make that an hour in good weather. Tonight it would be closer to an hour and a half, barring an accident. What was I thinking? I must have been crazy then, even if I’m not crazy now!
The farm house she bought looked so perfect when she decided to buy it. When she first looked at it, the daffodils were blooming and the maple trees were just showing their ‘baby hands’ leaves, The second look, the lilacs and old fashioned roses were in bloom and a robin had a nest on the front porch railing. The price was right, the seller was anxious and after her old place in Fayetteville sold, she paid cash. The bulk of the money for the new place hadn’t been from that sale, though.
A shadow crossed her face as she remembered the source: the insurance and lawsuit settlement. The three of them—Michael, their daughter Kelsey and herself—were involved in a car accident due to malfunctioning steering. Michael died instantly, mangled beyond recognition. Kelsey died the next day from trauma. Loretta was thrown clear, suffering cuts and bruises.
No amount of therapy had helped her find peace in the old neighborhood. The house reminded her, their well-meaning friends reminded her, even when they did talk about ‘it’ rather than clam up or ignore what had happened, everything was just another reminder that she survived and the rest of her family had died horribly. Finally she decided to just move away and start fresh. But she kept the job.
It worked almost too well—she didn’t get many calls from the old crowd because she had nothing in common with them anymore. But, she hadn’t made any new friends in the rural neighborhood she moved into. Apparently you had to have been born there to be accepted. Her attempts to make friends were seen as some kind of suspicious plot to take advantage of the locals. After several months of trying she gave up.
In spite of the loneliness, her life had fallen into a somewhat comfortable routine. Get up, go to work, come home, eat “Single Serving” dinners from the freezer, look at Facebook or watch what little broadcast television there was (no cable available this far out) and go to bed. Rinse and repeat. Once in a great while, she would stay in the city after work and catch a movie and dinner, but that meant driving home in the dark. If anything happened on the trip home… well, cell phones didn’t work on most of her route home.
She found that out the hard way—a flat tire on a narrow two lane road, no shoulder, no street light, and no way to call for help! She felt lucky there was a farm house within walking distance, where she could use the landline. And still she had to accept a ride to her house because the tow truck wasn’t coming before sun-up the next day! The car will be fine where it is until then, she was assured.
And so life went, predictable, boring—and lonely until late autumn. The leaves were in their gold and red glory when she first had The Dream. And oh what a dream!
A man comes to the house and knocks on the door, asking for directions to a specific family farm. He has no car, no motor bike, no vehicle at all, as if he’s walking. She can’t help him, she says: “I’m not from around here.” He is obviously hot, sweaty, and very good looking and friendly without being creepy. She offers him a drink of water and invites him in. He hesitates, but agrees. They start talking and everything clicks, he stays for supper. It begins to get dark out and she offers him a ride. He refuses: he points out that he doesn’t know where he’s going and neither does she. “Good point” she says. She hesitates to offer the couch but it’s been such good conversation, she does anyway. He tells her thanks but that won’t work for him. He needs to get where he’s going. And he moves to the door. She protests, gets the blankets and pillow, and in the end he beds down on the couch. She says good night. He smiles and says to her, “Sweet Dreams.” And the dream ends.
She’s had the same dream a dozen times now. The first time, she couldn’t believe it wasn’t real. In fact, she got out of bed, checked the couch, checked the linen closet for the spare blanket and pillow. There was no one on the couch, the bedding was right where it always was. But it was so real! She scolded herself, and got ready for work. She was late, but she didn’t care.
The next time she had the dream, she checked the couch, but didn’t bother checking the closet. But she smiled. It was so real, so… good! It really didn’t matter to her that it was ‘just a dream’. She made it to work on time!
The third time she woke up from the dream, she immediately knew no one was out there on the couch. But rather than get up and check, she rolled over and tried to fall asleep again, hoping the dream would come back—that he would come back!—and continue. But the alarm went off before she could fall asleep again. She was late to work that day and was not happy. Wine and cheese barely helped that night and the man of her dreams didn’t appear for another three weeks.
That next time, though, the dream was different.
His car broke down and can he use the phone? She says sure, gets him drink of water while he talks. She overhears that his name is Dan. The tow truck will be here 30 minutes, he says—after the driver has his supper. Dan is annoyed. Loretta offers to share hers–left over cold chicken. He politely refuses. “No, seriously, I made too much and it needs eating. Well, I mean, it’s not spoiled but…” She laughs and so does Dan. “If you take the first bite, I’ll eat some, too,” he finally agrees. She makes a salad to go with it. She thinks about wine but decides not to. They talk and find out they have common roots in the city, but they’d never met. They talk more. Common interests, common likes, and a growing attraction. It gets to the beginning of romantic, Loretta thinks. But then the tow truck shows up. It turns out the tow truck operator will only take cash and Dan doesn’t have that much. Neither does Loretta. They stand there, the three of them. Loretta and Dan look at each other. And the dream ends.
This time, when Loretta woke up, she seriously doubted herself. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t real. She tripped over the bed covers and almost fell out the window looking for his car or the tow truck. But of course, nothing was there. She rushed through breakfast and checked for tracks in the driveway. It rained the night before so maybe there would be some proof. But there was nothing there.
On the way to work—she was going to be late again, for all her checking! —she decided she needed to talk to someone about the dream. It was getting a little weird. She called her best old friend, who listened but then poo-pooed the whole thing.
“Obviously, you need to get out more! That wilderness is driving you crazy! You’re lonely,” she said. “Come to the Book Club this weekend—wine, cheese and the latest gossip!”
Loretta was irritated and said, “I’ll try,” knowing full well she wasn’t even going to try.
After that dream, there were no others for several days. The same routine continued, however—work, home, sleep—and the season passed in a blur.
Autumn was shorter than she remembered it in the city and winter brought roads that were far worse than just deserted like in the summertime. They were downright dangerous in winter ice and snow. A few of her co-workers took notice of her being late in the mornings and asked how she was doing, driving the long distance. “Some nights I stay with friends here in the city,” she lied. They talked to her about buying another car, something with four wheel drive. She refused at first. But after watching the commercials, she decided it might be a good idea.
What bothered her now was not the drive but rather that she ever bought the place! There was no way to sell it that winter and she couldn’t afford to rent an apartment in the city just for the winter. She decided to buy a small four wheel drive vehicle, stick out the winter and put the place on the market in the spring. It had been beautiful then, she remembered. Maybe someone else will love it.
Then the anniversary of the auto accident came. The horror of the accident on the city freeway, the fake sympathy of their friends, all of the memories brought Loretta to tears more than one evening on the drive home. She realized that selling the new place and moving back to the city wouldn’t even fix what was really wrong.
In mid-December, a major snow storm was forecast for the evening but it arrived right after lunch. Loretta left work early but she barely made it out of the city by four in the afternoon—two close calls on the freeway where someone spun out right in front of her and almost a foot of wet snow on the interstate. The temperature dropped and the fluffy flakes turned to blowing snow. By the time she got to her road, it was a full-blown blizzard.
She pulled into the driveway but even her SUV couldn’t make it up the incline of the driveway. She swore, pulled as far off the road as she could at the bottom of the driveway and walked up to the house. Loretta flipped on the lights but nothing happened. She realized that as she drove at a snail’s pace past the neighbor’s dairy barn, there were no lights there either. The whole neighborhood was probably without power. Dammit!
The house was chilly as she fumbled for matches and lit the burners on the gas stove. The only candle she could find was the one that sat in the middle of the table.
“Very romantic!” she said, bitterly. Where’s that man when you need him? As Loretta walked through the living room on her way to get a blanket to wrap around her, she realized there was a wood stove in the living room, the Ben Franklin kind with doors that opened like a fireplace if you wanted to. The previous owners said it worked just fine, but she’d never used it.
Now would be a great time to try it! she thought.
She found some wood in the woodshed—it was there when she bought the place. With that and some old newspapers she managed to smoke up the room before the fire went completely out.
Just as the last of the paper turned to ash and fluttered up the chimney, a four-wheel drive pickup truck pulled into her driveway and two men jumped out. Laughing and talking, they tromped up onto the porch and knocked on the door so hard that a picture fell off the wall next to it.
“Who’s there?!” It scared her and she hesitated to answer.
The handle turned, the door swung open and two men, red faced from the wind, snow in their beards stomped in. They were dressed in Carharts and work boots, the taller one with a graying ponytail trailing behind his hat. The wind that followed them in blew out the candle on the kitchen table.
“Everything alright here? My name’s Bill and this is my buddy James, Ma’am. We live in the double wide trailer down the road. We’re checkin’ on all the neighbors, making sure everybody’s got heat and whatever else they need for tonight.” His prepared speech done, Bill noticed the mix of terror and relief on Loretta’s face. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Sorry to bust in on you. Just not wanting anyone to freeze to death tonight.”
When she didn’t answer right away, he looked around and asked again, “Everything alright here? We smelled smoke outside.”
“I… yes. I’m just not used to people opening my front door and walking in. I haven’t been living out here long,” she added.
“You got heat for the night?” Bill either didn’t hear well, or wasn’t used to talking directly to a woman. He kept looking around, and finally asked, “You got a man here to take care of you?”
I took a step back. One hand went to cover my throat.
James blushed bright red. “He didn’t mean it like that! Just wondering if…”
“No! No, I understand. And no, I don’t.” She realized they were just two men honestly trying to do good. “And I appreciate you coming by. The kitchen stove is all I have for heat or light right now. There’s a woodstove in the living room, but I’ve never used it. I tried making a fire but it went out.”
“Let’s take a look,” Bill said, relieved to have something to do.
The first thing he did was knock on the stovepipe, which made no sense to her, but she kept quiet.
“Stovepipe is safe, but no telling about the actual chimney. You said you never used the stove before?”
“No, never needed it.”
The two men built another small fire with paper and fiddled with a small handle that stuck through the stovepipe. Loretta hadn’t noticed it before. This time smoke seemed to go up the chimney instead of billowing out into the room. James went outside for a look and reported that the chimney seemed to be doing its job.
“The storm is supposed to let up in an hour or so,” James said, looking at Bill. “But the electric won’t likely be back on til tomorrow. She’ll need some wood before morning.”
“Yeah. We still have some in the truck?”
“Wait! I don’t have any cash!”
Both men looked at her and snorted.
“We didn’t come here looking for money, ma’am. We’re you neighbors! What’s the sense in letting you freeze to death while we sitting toasty with plenty of wood to spare? And what? Come spring, we’re gonna ask if we can hunt turkey on your land? What kind of neighbors would that be?”
Without waiting for an answer, Bill turned to the other man, “Bring some wood in while I make a place for it.”
James went out and came back in with a huge armload of wood. A second man followed him in with an armload of wood so high Loretta couldn’t see his face. Bill took the wood from James two pieces at a time and crisscrossed them carefully in a stack next to the stove, not too close to it. He ignored the other man, who finally dropped his armload of wood on the floor and turned to go.
Two things happened at the same time then.
First, as the wood hit the floor Loretta looked over at the man who dropped it. It was Dan!
Second, she fainted.
She woke up on the couch, feet propped up, with the blanket over her. Bill was fussing with the fire and James was sitting a few feet from her looking worried. He’d brought a kitchen chair in but jumped up when Loretta sat up. “He’s the EMT for the Fire Department—top notch!” Bill explained over his shoulder.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You fainted,” James said. “I can’t see any reason for it. We picked you up, put you on the couch and covered you up!”
James rattled on, explaining his techniques and reasons while Bill nodded approvingly.
“’Parently, you took one look at that load of wood and it just made you keel over!” Bill commented, grinning.
James cut in and began asking her about medications and medical conditions. He ended with “You aren’t pregnant are you?”
Loretta ignored the last question.
“Where’s that other man?”
The two men looked at each other, then at her.
“We’re both right here, ma’am. It’s just the two of us,” said James.
“There is no other man,” Bill began to blush. “The two of us, we, uh, share a house…”
“…down the road. You mentioned that,” Loretta cut in. “But there was a third man—he brought in a second arm-load of wood.”
“Yes! Bill? You told… it’s James, right? You told James to get wood and James, you did. And another man came in behind you, with a second load of wood.”
“Uh, Ma’am, there’s only me and Bill. Not trying to spook you or anything, but… yeah… only me and Bill. I brought two loads in,” said James. “Maybe you hit your head a little hard? Saw double?”
Loretta was angry now.
“No, dammit! There was a third man!” She stopped just short of telling them about the dream and that the third man was the man in her dreams.
Bill cleared his throat. James looked over at him and said, “You sure you want to…?”
“Yeah.” Bill was still squatting in front of the stove. He looked over, his face level with hers, and for the first time, he looked her full in the face.
“Was it… did you… his name Dan?”
“Yes! But you two didn’t talk to him. You didn’t even acknowledge him!”
Bill stood up quickly and James shook his head.
“There’s just two of us tonight, Ma’am. I do have a few more questions…”
“There’s nothing wrong with me. I had my annual physical last month. What about Dan!?”
There was a short, uncomfortable silence. Then Bill began telling her about how well the fire is doing and that she shouldn’t add too much wood at once. James added that she should keep the blanket away from the flames.
It was all bullshit. Loretta knew they meant well and they were just avoiding talk about Dan. Finally Bill got to the end of his instructions about the fire and asked her if there was anything else.
“Yes. Who is Dan?” I persisted.
Bill’s face got hard. James took a step closer and put a hand on Bill’s arm. Bill shook it off.
“Dan was a friend of ours a couple of years back. Real good friend. Good guy but a little out there. We used to cut and sell firewood together. He’s… He took off, doesn’t live around here anymore.” James paused. “Bill? You want to add anything?”
Bill looked away, still stone-faced.
They were suddenly in a hurry to leave, but James wrote both his cell and their land line number on an envelope that Loretta pulled from the trash.
James hesitated at the door.
“Anything goes wrong,… anything… something scares you or seems strange, give us a call?” He finished in a rush of words. “One of us can be here in five minutes.” He looked intently into my face.
She wasn’t exactly sure what he meant but she agreed.
“Read me back the numbers.” He hesitated. “Just to make sure you can read them.”
She did. And then the two of them tramped out across the porch, down the steps, back through their footsteps that were almost obliterated by the blowing snow. In the driveway, their truck was still running, lights on high beam, wipers intermittently sweeping snow from the dark windshield.
As they opened the door and climbed in, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter were crooning:
Storms never last do they, baby?
Bad times all pass with the winds. Your hand in mine steals the thunder,
You make the sun want to shine.
The window rolled down and James waved. She waved back. James still looked worried and mouthed “Remember!” and Loretta nodded.
She went back to the stove, poked the fire a little and tried to make sense of their reaction to Dan. Why wouldn’t they even talk about him? Why was Bill so angry about him? Had he died? But it didn’t sound like that. Gone crazy, maybe? Done something to them? What happened that they would say he was ‘not around anymore’?
Loretta shook her head. Crazy country folk! The fire had warmed the living room and she decided to sleep on the couch. As she drifted off, she felt the radiated heat of the stove on her face and hands. No wonder people out here put up with the mess and trouble of having a wood fire.
Sometime in the middle of the night she heard someone knocking on her door again. The fire had almost gone out and the room was dark and chilly. Loretta wrapped herself in the blanket and padded to the door. She opened it a crack to see who it was. A man in tee shirt, jeans, and sneakers stood there. Snow covered his beard, his shoulders, and bare head. There was ice in his mustache from breathing hard. Loretta was speechless for a moment.
He nodded and tried to smile, his arms wrapped around himself for warmth.
“You’re… you’re real! You’re here! What are you doing out there?!” she said, pulling him inside.
He was shivering so hard he could barely talk.
“They t-t-threw me out-t-t. S-s-s-aid I was getting f-f-friendly with the wrong p-people. I’m s-sorry to b-bother bother you like this.”
“Oh my god! Dan! Come in!” Loretta was furious. Good Neighbors, right!
“Here!” She wrapped Dan in the blanket and led him to the couch. She tried to poke up the fire, but managed only to burn herself on a coal.
“Ouch! Oh, ouch! Dammit!” Loretta stood and Dan jumped up and came over to her. He took her hand in both of his, examining it. He bent his head down then, and gave it a ‘kiss better’.
He looked up. Their faces were so close. He leaned in and his lips touched her lips. His arms, blanket and all, wrapped around her. They kissed. Passionately. Deeply. She felt his body through her nightgown. It was real. He was real and warm and strong. And he was really there and he held her through her pain.
Finally, it got so warm inside the blanket, he let it drop.
“Come on! Let’s go!”
Loretta didn’t understand. She didn’t want to go, didn’t want him to go or to let go.
“Come!” Dan said and headed to the door.
“But… it’s so toasty here!” She looked around the room. The crackling of the fire, the soft lamp light—the lights had come on again!—the lingering taste of his kisses on her lips. It was all so perfect.
He came back to her, put his hands on her upper arms, looked deep into her eyes and says, “Come. It’s time to go.”
Still she didn’t understand, but Dan added,“ Trust me. Come!”
He opened the door and walked out onto the porch.
Loretta looked through the door. The snow was gone, it was spring already.
“I must be dreaming,” she thought, and sighed.
“O.K.” she said to Dan, but she knew this would probably end the dream. They never got out the door in the other dreams.
Dan jumped down off the porch and turned, laughing.
“Come on! We made it out!”
She walked to the door and turned to look around the room. It was so warm and inviting to stay. Except her hand still hurt. In fact, the burn seemed to be hurting worse.
“Come! The stream isn’t far and that will cool it off!
By now, Dan was standing on the other side of the road, smiling, motioning for her to come. She hesitated on the porch, looked back into the house. Her whole life was in there. But the man of her dreams was standing, calling, ready to … to what? To begin an adventure she’d never been on before?
“Wait for me!” she laughed and ran to him.
They held hands as they walk across the field toward the creek.
The fire truck arrived moments later, the pumper truck and several of the neighbor in their private vehicles right behind.
James and Bill were there, suiting up as they ran to the porch, knowing it was too late, but unwilling to give up. The front door stood open, and the two of them looked through—flames seemed to be everywhere.
James bent double to stay under the smoke and plunged into the front room long enough to look around. The stovepipe had fallen out of the chimney and lay on the floor. The couch was empty, the blanket on it melted black and dripping onto the carpet. There was no sign of the woman.
He burst back outside, his hair and suit smoking with heat. He rolled in the snow to keep from bursting into flame. Several of the others circled him, helped him up, slapped snow on some of the melted places.
“Well, still got time to save the structure! Let’s go!” shouted the Captain.
Bill looked at James.
A thousand miles away, a newlywed couple moved into a farm house that needed a lot of work. But they were happy and hard working and would no doubt make their dream come true, him with his woodcutting business growing rapidly, her with a job of accountant for him and for several small businesses nearby. Even with one hand badly burned, she was happier than she’d ever been. She could do this forever.