Love at First Snow

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Merry effing Christmas.

Blake Daniels plunked his butt down on the front steps of his rustic cedar home, elbows on his thighs, hands clasped in front of him. He didn’t give a shit that the six inches of snow and ice on the steps froze his ass through his jeans. The snow might be pretty, but it was terribly out of place here in the San Juan Islands and he was determined to ignore it.

Yeah. Bah, humbug.

Once, Christmas had been his favorite time of year, a time to celebrate with family and count his many blessings. Yeah, once. Now it was a mixture of melancholy memories and painful realities.

Blake stared at the surprisingly wintry scene around him. Heavy snow bent the boughs on the cedar trees nearby. Christmas lights twinkled cheerfully on his neighbors’ homes. Every once in a while laughter from inside the closest house echoed off the water and drifted up the hill, but that only made his chest clench with pain. In the distance, Chinook Channel churned with water so black and angry a Washington State ferry bound for the ferry landing rocked and rolled. He’d bet his best pair of skates they would shut down the ferries for the night after this sailing.

The storm added to his dark mood. He couldn’t explain why he tortured himself every year by returning to this house. Maybe he kept hoping he’d find what he’d lost. Maybe it was good old-fashioned denial. Maybe he was just plain nuts.

Early this morning he’d walked onto the San Juan Island ferry in Anacortes, Washington, to spend his Christmas the same way he’d spent the last four: by himself on this remote island with just ghosts for company. Not real ghosts, but recollections from his past. The scent of his mother’s gingerbread cookies in the oven. Christmas music played by his sister on the piano near the window. A college football game on in the den. His father and youngest brother arguing over whether or not the Seahawks would make the playoffs. His older brother building a raging fire in the fireplace. They were all things he’d taken for granted, assumed they’d always be there. If only he’d taken that same Christmas Eve flight four years ago, he wouldn’t be the one left alone to pick up the pieces. He’d be in a watery grave with his parents and siblings, none the wiser and a whole lot more peaceful. There were worse ways to go, like dying a slow death inside every day while going through the motions of a life he no longer knew how to live.

For as long as he could remember, his family had flown from all parts of the country to spend the holidays at their vacation home on Madrona Island here in the San Juans. Then came the fatal night their chartered floatplane crashed into the frigid waters of the Straits of Juan De Fuca. His sister had texted him at takeoff to let him know they were in the air and would see him soon. A few hours later, completely unaware of the tragedy, Blake arrived and wondered where the hell everyone was.

It had been snowing then, too. He’d texted his sister first. No response. He’d called her cell and actually got through, but the phone went straight to voicemail. Next, he tried both brothers and his sister-in-law. Same result. His parents didn’t have cell phones. To quote his dad, they’d lived without them for sixty-plus years and didn’t need them now. Frustrated and wondering if they were playing one hell of a joke on him, he’d called the floatplane company. He hadn’t expected an answer and didn’t get one, but he left a message with contact info. He then spent a sleepless night pacing. With no internet access, no late-night ferry service and spotty cell phone reception, he couldn’t do much but wait for morning. Staring at the snow.

A county sheriff knocked on his door at six a.m. One look at the man’s face and Blake knew. He just knew. Two days later he’d walked onto the ice and played hockey because only on the ice could he possibly forget.

Only, he couldn’t forget. Even though hockey was all he had left, he couldn’t get his game back. He bounced from NHL team to NHL team. Coaches scratched their heads, frustrated at how to get through to him, how to get back the player they’d drafted. Teammates avoided him as if he’d caught some contagious disease. Friends expected him to recover and move on. But how does a guy move on from something like that?

Now he didn’t even have hockey. L.A., his third team in a year, had cut him a week ago, and so had his limelight-seeking girlfriend. He’d never been a huge star, but he’d been a good defenseman, the guy a team could depend on to replace a starter, a steady, straight guy who avoided the limelight and just did his job. Yeah, that’d been him. The guy who’d rather read books on the team plane than play cards or video games, rather have a quiet meal than go out and get drunk, the guy who’d longed for a nice girl rather than a groupie—until everything changed four years ago. Lately he’d bounced from meaningless relationship to meaningless relationship. His latest girlfriend Candy—that name should’ve been a clue—had dumped him like yesterday’s bread for an up-and-coming rookie.

So far, not one team had contacted his agent to pick him up. At thirty-four he should have a few good years left, but he’d lost his edge and run out of second chances. He was tired of forcing a desire that didn’t exist, too. In some ways, walking away from the game would be a relief, but what the fuck was he going to do with the rest of his sorry-assed life? He’d never contemplated his future without hockey any more than he’d contemplated it without his boisterous family.

Blake stared at his size-thirteen feet and heaved a big sigh. The weight of the grief he’d denied for four years settled on his shoulders like a concrete yoke. Snow fell softly around him. He buried his face in his hands and listened to the silence.

Mew. Mew.

Blake lifted his head and looked around. The snow muffled most sound, but he heard it again, a pathetic little cry like that of a cat or a kitten.

Standing, he held the railing so he wouldn’t crash down on his ass on the icy steps. He scanned the snow-covered yard but only saw one set of footprints leading to the cabin. His own.

“Kitty? Kitty?” Blake stood absolutely still, listening.

A tiny gray kitten appeared, dragging a useless leg, its hair matted and caked with ice crystals and snow. Malnourished and shivering, it managed few more steps toward him before collapsing in a pitiful heap.

A life-long animal lover, Blake was on the kitten in two strides. He cradled the kitten in his arms, amazed the poor creature was still alive. The kitten gazed up at him with eyes yellower than a sunflower, and a small piece of Blake’s heart cracked open.