Halfway House

fiction by John Smistad

Halfway House

Josh fought the ruthless blizzard like grim death, battling to navigate his snowmobile through the dense backcountry of the Idaho panhandle wilderness. The clandestine escape from his frat’s weekend camping depravity wasn’t the “sanity break” he’d intended.

Did he do something with that girl from the tavern last night? Josh can’t remember. He was so wasted. He just hoped it wouldn’t be like the last time. Or the time before. He barely missed paying the price for that one. But it sure cost the frat a shitload to save his ass.

Josh knew there should be a couple hours of daylight before pitch blackness consumed the frigid winter evenings of the Kaniksu National Forest. But it was already dark. The towering Douglas firs seemed to gang together, forming imposing timber barricades, as if he were being funneled.

A rock flew at his face, splitting his visor. Josh jerked his handlebars, scraping his leg against a protruding tree stump. He looked down to see his pants ripped, blood squirting from the punctured skin of his calf. The engine convulsed in spasms. His mind flashed to a hideously frozen Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The snowmobile lurched to a bone-jarring halt. Exhausted, injured, and hopelessly lost, Josh had never been more afraid.

He could die tonight.

Suddenly he saw it up ahead. A beacon pierced the night.

“A light! Hell yeah! Thank you God!”

In the distance stood a cabin. The light shone from a window.

No vehicle. The lake’s iced over so no boat access. But somebody’s gotta be inside.

Josh staggered against the angry blizzard. His bloody leg throbbed with pain. Falling helplessly, repeatedly, he summoned what precious little energy he had left to get up and continue. With his strength nearly gone and on the verge of passing out, he finally reached the door. Collapsing against it, he slammed his fists on the lacquered wood planks. A porch lamp flashed on. Slowly the door opened. Josh limped back a step. There in the dim glow stood an elderly woman.

“Come in, boy,” she beckoned.

Josh hobbled into a narrow front hallway. A candle burned in a teacup on a small table. He tried to make out the design. Flying angels? Dancing devils?

A potent fragrance permeated the tight space. Hazelnut? Almond? No. Stronger.

The woman helped remove his soaked boots, gloves, and outerwear. “Follow me,” she said, leading Josh into an adjacent kitchen.

The cabin was tiny, spare in both furnishings and decor. Aside from an old icebox and stove in the kitchen, there were no modern conveniences evident. The setting seemed suspended in time.

Josh looked closely at the woman. She was quite old, yet statuesque and pretty, with long gray hair gathered into a precision-braided ponytail. Her eyes were a beautiful liquid brown. A black leather belt passed through the loopholes of faded jeans, into which was tucked a red and white plaid logger’s shirt.

The woman smiled at Josh. It made him feel comforted. Her voice, though soft, filled the cabin. “You’re bleeding. I’ve got disinfectant and bandages. Let me help you sit down on the bench by the dining table. We’ll get you patched up.”

After cleaning and dressing his wound, the woman turned her attention to Josh’s appetite.

“You must be starving. I’ve made sandwiches. Got ’em in the fridge. Turkey, lettuce, and real mayonnaise.” She gave Josh a wink. “With my own special touch. A sprinkle of cinnamon.”

“Sounds great to me.” Josh chuckled. “That apple and bottled water for lunch didn’t exactly stick to the ribs. So do you live here by yourself.”

“I sure do. Always have. It’s a place suited for one.”

She gazed out the kitchen window. Something in the night seemed to draw her attention.

In barely more than a whisper, she added, “I don’t expect I’ll be here much longer, though. Just not sure yet which direction I’m headin’.”

The woman glanced over at Josh. Their eyes locked. Something passed between them. The moment unnerved him.

Josh demolished the sandwich in seconds. It was delicious. The woman served him another. And another. The dash of cinnamon made the meal even more satisfying.

“I am super lucky I found this place. I got lost somehow. My snowmobile is bone dry of gas.”

“Well, there’s plenty of fuel in a can out in the shed. What you need now is a good night’s rest. The spare bedroom ain’t much, but the cot has fresh sheets. I’ll bet this whiteout lets up by dawn. We’ll have you off and runnin’ in the morning.”

Josh thanked the woman for dinner, bid her goodnight, and shuffled off to bed. He was out cold as soon as his head sank into the feather down pillow.

The next morning, the snow had stopped and the sun was out and shining in a clear blue sky. Josh woke from a dead sleep. It was the soundest night’s rest he’d ever had. He rose to find his clothes dried by the fire and folded. A lumberjack’s spread of sausage, eggs, fresh fruit, and coffee was laid out on the table. There was a brown paper bag on the kitchen counter, stuffed with signature sandwiches.

The woman wasn’t there. Must be filling the snowmobile with gas. Putting on his boots and coat, Josh headed outside to meet her. He turned the knob on the door. It didn’t open. He tried again. It wasn’t budging. He pounded on the wood, calling out for help. No reply.

Josh noticed a sheet of stationary pinned to the door. He snatched it and read the handwritten message.

“I am on the journey I have so desperately been praying for. Now it’s your turn, Josh. May you soon follow.”

In that instant the teacup caught his eye. Demons were dancing. The scent of cinnamon overpowered.

Recoiling, Josh thrust the note to the floor. Rushing to the front of the cabin, he pressed against the picture window and looked out at the lake. Violent winds thrashed the trees. Deafening howls reverberated like screaming. Snow descended in viscous swirls. Darkness swallowed the sun. A storm for the ages had begun.

Josh knew it would not end.   

John Smistad is a published author of short stories, poems, essays, and movie reviews. He lives and loves with his family and cat in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. He is the fiercely proud son of a native Norwegian dad. (He loves his mom, too.)

This article originally appeared in the December 28, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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John Smistad

John Smistad is a published author of short stories, poems, essays, and movie reviews. He lives and loves with his family and cat in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. He is the fiercely proud son of a native Norwegian dad. (He loves his mom, too.) You can follow him as on his blog at thequickflickcritic.blogspot.com.