The lights flickered a few times inside the log cabin before the power finally went out. The sudden darkness felt inevitable to Nella; she had expected a storm of this magnitude to rip away tree branches and blow them into the power lines.
She held her breath and starting counting. After five seconds of silence, Nella reassured herself there was enough wood to keep the stove cranking all night to keep the animals warm. She had plenty of batteries and kerosene, at least a dozen gallons of water. And she could always boil water and heat soup on the woodstove. Then, at the count of twelve, the backup generator reluctantly chugged to life, coughing and sputtering like an old diesel truck that hadn’t been started in a while.
Nella breathed a sigh of relief and continued on with her chores. She moved the squirrel cages from the unheated barn into the mudroom, where she kept an interior enclosure, and set up their nest box. She put down soft blankets, fresh newspaper, piles of leaves and twigs, a bowl of clean water and some nuts and greens. Then she lugged a few heavy tree branches that she had previously trimmed into the cage. Both squirrels were Eastern grays — they tittered at her as she lifted them into their new lodging; she could feel their warm rodent bodies squirming in her hands, their heartbeats speeding like tiny trains. They were both recovering well from puncture wounds. She would release them soon, perhaps in another week or so if the weather broke.
She had just finished feeding the feral kittens when she heard a vehicle fishtailing up her steep driveway. Odd that someone would drive all the way out here in these conditions, at this time of night. To her snug little cabin, perched on a pine-covered hill beneath an acre of black sky. Two below and blowing snow. Wind gusts to sixty. The kind of cold that burrows deep into your bones and stays, even when you’re inside, standing in front of a crackling fire, dressed in a bulky sweater, fleece-lined jeans and steel-toe boots.
Nella kissed the moist nose of the female orange tabby, her favorite, who was also the runt, as it latched onto her pinky finger and eagerly suckled it.
“Aw, so sweet. Such a sweet little boo.”
Nella gently pried her loose. Feral kittens sometimes exhibited this kind of suckling behavior, and she believed it was due to their early, abrupt weaning. A mother cat with warm, full teats, bursting with milk, suddenly and irrevocably gone. Nella’s fingers were a poor substitute. She tucked the kitten into the soft little bed with the others, petted them gently, and closed the door to the wire cage. Thankfully, they were a solid month old now and could eat on their own.
It wasn’t exactly kitten season. Not this late in December. Almost January. Winter litters were rare, but not unheard of. Nella knew that feral cats cycled year-round and could have litters any time of year. Not long ago, she had clambered into a restaurant dumpster after someone called to report the mother cat had been struck by a car. Nella tracked cat prints in the snow and followed the kittens’ frantic mewing beneath pizza boxes, stinking bags of garbage and a bent bicycle tire to rescue them.
Nella moved to the front room, parted the thermal curtains and rubbed her right palm against the frosted windowpane. Timmy stirred from a drooling sleep and jumped down stiffly from the couch. Fourteen and blind, old for a Lab, but his hearing was still decent, and he thumped his tail in anticipation of company. He shook his head, whipping strings of saliva into the air. A thin rope of drool draped across his nose.
A Jeep, with a headlight out. That meant it must be Stacia Withers, who was exactly one half of the entire police force for their tiny town. She knew Stacia loved that old Jeep, despite the windows that leaked no matter how hard she tried to seal them. It had belonged to Stacia’s late father, and she wouldn’t part with it. Even now, with all the rust on the undercarriage, its value was more than just sentimental – it was safer than her patrol car in this kind of weather.
Nella glanced at the grandfather’s clock in the corner of the room. Well past nine at the height of a raging Nor’easter.
Something was definitely up.
Nella waited until she saw Stacia’s imposing figure looming at the front door before pulling it open. Behind the freezing blast, Nella noticed she’d left the Jeep running.
“Geez, Hedges. Don’t you ever answer your damn phone?” She glanced down at Timmy, who was whining, and patted his gray head. “Hey, boy, remember me?”
“Not much signal up here, even on a good day. And the land line’s out.”
“But your generator’s purring like a kitten.” Stacia bustled past Nella and shook the snow off her coat. Unbuttoned the top buttons. She was still wearing her uniform. So, this was business, then. Timmy sniffed Stacia’s legs and started to bark.
“Hey! Enough, Timmy.” Nella shrugged at Stacia. “He’s getting old. Little senile.”
“Aren’t we all. Nose still works, though.”
When his whining became incessant, Nella led Timmy to the bathroom and softly closed the door behind her.
“Get you something? Tea?”
“Got anything stronger?” Nella searched her friend’s face and saw she wasn’t kidding. All nerved up. A quiver on her lips. Glassy eyes, spiderwebbed with red, like a windshield about to shatter. Nella recognized the look. Stacia had been pumping adrenaline for a while now, and was headed for a crash. Her fingers trembled as she pulled off her cap and unwound her Irish plaid lambswool scarf. Nella had rarely seen her like this. Stacia had a reputation in town as being a genuine bad-ass. Hard as granite bedrock.
But it seemed that something had shifted deep beneath her tough façade.
Stacia teared up. Shadows beneath her eyes, dark as trenches. “Bad one. Accident. Out on Route 10, by the rest area.”
Nella caught a whiff of something coming off Stacia’s clothes. A wet, metallic smell, like rusted pipes, with an undertone of darkly sweet, overripe fruit. She grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from the oak liquor cabinet, poured some into a glass. Handed it to Stacia, who downed the shot. “Another?”
Stacia shook her head. “Can’t.” She paced about the room, looking for something else to steady her nerves, to order the chaos. She studied Nella’s framed antique map of the Upper Valley, traced a shaky finger from the Vermont border, across the Connecticut River, through the forest, over the mountain range and then all the way down to the upper tip of Lake Sunapee, where the bottom of the frame forced a hard stop. She looked back, let her gaze drop to Nella’s scuffed work boots. “Real bad.”
Stacia’s whole body shuddered. “I was parked at the rest area. Saw it happen. They just… came out of nowhere. Flew right across the road. Then…skidded on ice. Slammed into the curb and flipped. Twice. Even though we’ve got…fucking plows and sand trucks everywhere.”
“But if they didn’t have four-wheel drive –”
“–they didn’t.” Stacia sucked in a breath. Held it. Let it out in quick little huffs, as if she was exhaling cigarette smoke. “Could barely tell from the wreckage it was silver. Front of it…was engulfed. A trucker stopped. Had a fire extinguisher with him and put the flames out. But it was too late. The operator looked to be…male, deceased at the scene. Passenger was observed to be…possibly female, she died as we tried to resuscitate her. Both of them looked to be…somewhat young. And the little one –”
“Yeah, well, that’s the thing. See, the little one…she was in the back. Strapped into a seat. Somehow, she survived it, all of it, the crash, the skid, the flipping over, the fire, just a little bit of a thing, not a scratch on her. A bloody miracle, if you ask me.”
“Oh, wow!” Nella felt her heart accelerate with this sudden good news.
“Yeah.” Stacia’s smile looked disjointed in the low light. She turned and peered out the window for a long moment, as if to check to make sure the Jeep was still there. Her breath melted the frost into glistening tears.
“Thank God, she made it. Poor thing, though, she must be inconsolable.” Nella said.
“Andy Nicoloro. He was there. He checked her over good. Said he didn’t see a mark on her, near as he could tell.” Andy. Another graduate of Stanbury High. Nella recalled his dark good looks, jet black ponytail that trailed down his back. Guitar player, talented. A year ahead of them, Class of ’99. Her first crush back way back in fifth grade. She hadn’t seen Andy in years, but she’d heard he’d recently become a paramedic and joined the fire department.
“Did he transport her? Dartmouth-Hitchcock?”
“No.” Stacia went silent for a moment. “There was no reason to. Like I said, she was completely…untouched.” She stared at Nella. “Anyway, the Staties arrived and shut it all down. North and Southbound traffic. It’s nuts out there. Quite the scene. And so much snow. Plows can barely keep up.”
“Were they locals?”
Stacia shook her head, sighed. “Not even close.”
Nella thought about her younger brother, Stephen, stuck in a hotel in Denver. She had been irritable with him when he had called her last night to tell her his flight had been cancelled and he wouldn’t be home in time for New Year’s. But now she was glad he was somewhere safe. Those poor young people, with their little girl. Out driving in a blizzard, trying to make it home to be with family. Maybe they had driven a long distance and weren’t very far from their destination. Perhaps they got lost in the storm. Perhaps they were simply unprepared for the treacherous conditions on slick, mountain roads.
So tragic. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her sweater.
“So – where…did he take her?”
Stacia’s guilty look gave away the answer. “Oh, no—”
“–didn’t know where else to go.”
“Grafton County must have some kind of shelter? Social services?”
“It’s New Year’s Eve. And with the storm, everything’s closed.”
“No, but the beds are full from all the flu and RSV. And she’s not…sick. Besides, I told Andy where I was bringing her and he agreed. Said you’d know what to do.”
“Why don’t you just keep her with you? It’s warm in your Jeep, right? I take care of animals; I don’t know the first thing about child trauma.”
But really, she did. Back when Stephen was four, that terrible night Aunt Jenny tearfully told them that their parents froze to death while hiking up the summit of Mount Lafayette. At eleven, Nella barely understood what death was, at that point had only seen a neighbor’s dog that died; one day it was alive and breathing and catching sticks and the next day it was laying on the ground, stiff as cement, with empty, staring eyes. But Stephen was way too young to understand. That heartbreaking mix of fear and confusion on his face was still imprinted in her memory, as he rocked back and forth in the driver’s seat of his pink and purple Little Tikes Princess ride-on truck, the one that had been hers before she outgrew it; it still had the shiny gold crown on the roof, the smiley-face eyes on the grille; Stephen’s chubby hands fiercely gripped the steering wheel, and he sobbed uncontrollably as Nella tried to comfort him. Warm them up, Nell-nell. Warm them up. Melt the ice. Make them warm. The image of Stephen’s face, his bulbous tears, his innocent pleas, it still triggered her, even today, three decades later. Her little baby brother, so proud of him, though, her pride and joy, all grown up now, Stephen M. Hedges, M.D.
“Sure, you do. Kids are kids no matter what they kind they are. Look. My shift is over in a couple hours. I’ll come back to help.” Stacia backed away with her hands up. “Thanks, Hedgie. I’ll repay you for this. Somehow.” With one hand on the door handle, Stacia paused. “Wait till you see her, though. Beautiful. Face of an angel.”
“I’ll help you bring her in.”
“Nah, I got it.”
Nella took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She thought of all the lost and injured animals she cared for, every day. She was licensed to rehabilitate wildlife and small mammals. But she also served as local animal control. She’d fed the kittens with a dropper every two hours in the daytime for the first several days. Besides the squirrels, she was also tending to an injured porcupine, and a raccoon with a broken leg. Plus, her own Timmy. He needed a lot more care now that he was an elderly dog. She didn’t do it for the money – heck, no one ever got rich in her line of work. It was a calling. Something she had always done. So really, she told herself, providing a warm bed and some comfort to a traumatized child couldn’t be much different than helping a lost or injured animal, could it?
Nella groaned and shoved a couple extra logs into the woodstove.
The door opened to a scream of wind. Nella turned to see Stacia stooping with the weight of the child in her arms. She moved to help her, but Stacia scowled, clasped her closer, suddenly protective. “I’ve got her. She seems heavier than before, though.”
Nella nodded. The waning adrenaline was probably causing muscle fatigue. Under the heavy blanket, Nella sized the child at about twenty-five pounds, maybe two years old.
Still a baby, poor thing.
But so still. She should be squirming, crying. “Why’s she so quiet?”
Stacia shifted the bundle to a more comfortable position as she awkwardly removed her coat. Sat down in one of the chairs, started rocking the child softly in her arms. “Sound asleep.”
“Are you sure, Stace? ‘Cause what if it’s concussion, that wouldn’t be good for her to fall asleep–”
“—she’s fine. Relax. Look, I’ll show you.”
Stacia gently lowered the blanket and let it fall to the floor.
Nella gasped. Her eyes froze on the dark, fur-like sheen covering the child’s entire back and its two rounded, furry ears at the top of its head that reminded her of Batman and her mind screeched wait! not a child! not a child! as she stared at its muscular, sinewy back and the strange, motherly way Stacia was clutching it, looking down at it with such adoration in her eyes, her face flushed with love, such pure, unadulterated emotion — but it’s not a child! — what could Stacia be thinking, had she lost her mind, it was a—
“–Bear! You need to…call Fish and Game! I’m not licensed for bear! You need to…to bring the cub down the road to Ben Kilham’s place, he’s the expert on them, not me.”
Something just didn’t add up, though. The young couple had a bear cub with them? Strapped into a seat? And it really didn’t look like any of the other bear cubs she’d seen, and over the years she’d seen a lot of them in this part of New Hampshire; they looked so darned cute and cuddly, but not this thing; the fur on its back was really long, with a silvery tint, more like badger fur, and it had a thin, hairless neck. And its pear-shaped head seemed too big for its body.
What the –? Was this a child wearing some kind of costume?
Nella fought a wave of dizziness and sat down heavily. She grabbed the bottle of Jack and pulled a long swig. Wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. I am overtired. I am hallucinating. She forced herself to take a deep breath. Rubbed her eyes.
“Oh, God. Stace…”
Stacia was gently bouncing the creature on her lap, making cooing noises at it. The rotten prune scent was even stronger now. A distinct, overwhelming stench. Nella breathed through her mouth to keep from gagging. She could see some kind of clear substance bubbling from the creature’s ears and sliding in rivulets down the back of its head. Snot? Saliva? Cerebrospinal fluid? Something worse? Oh fuck!
Stacia seemed oblivious to it; her face was lit up, enraptured. “Who’s the sweetie pie? You’re my sweetie pie. My giggly-wiggly little Boopsie. Such a silly little willy head.”
“Stacia! That’s not…that isn’t…a child.”
As if in protest, a strange growl issued from the creature, deep and wet and guttural. Nella jumped in her seat. She heard Timmy’s scratching against the bathroom door becoming more insistent, his nervous whine increasing in pitch.
“There, there now, my sweet baby goo! Was that your widdle belly? Baby’s tum-tum must be hung-gwee.”
“You said it was a car accident. With people.”
“Such a wootie patootie!” Stacia kept bouncing the creature as she glanced over, squinted her eyes at Nella. “Never said people. Never said car. Said it flew across the road. Nope, didn’t look like a car to me, nohsiree, not one bit.” She beamed at the creature, who was becoming more animated now, moving its head up and down and sideways, wiggling like a bobble head. It looked like the fur was only on its back and ears. Its head was smooth. Nella could see it had long, wiry arms, thin wrists. Its skin was a dusky gun-metal gray, mixed with green and blue. A blend of hues; it reminded her of the colors of the ocean. It began exploring Stacia’s chest with very elongated fingers, leaving a trail of mucus-like discharge on her dark navy shirt.
“Heard a clap of thunder. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see something flung from the blizzard, like a shiny, flat rock being skimmed across the road at a low angle.”
Nella felt a buzzing in her ears. If she stood up, she knew she would faint. Stacia sighed with pleasure, enjoying the touch of the creature. It reached one finger up to Stacia’s lips and draped a string of ooze there.
Stacia licked her lips. “Damn, she’s beautiful.”
Nella cleared her throat. “You need to leave. Both of you.”
“I only came here because I thought you’d know what to do. You, with all your experience taking care of…living things. I thought you’d feel a twinge in your heart for this little one, who lost both her parents, orphaned so young, just like you were. But clearly, I’m the one doing all the work here while you just sit there all prissy.”
A heavy gust of wind slammed against the windows. Timmy let out an extended howl, followed by a fit of barking. The creature’s ears started to vibrate.
Stacia’s glassy eyes went wide in a look of exaggerated surprise. “Dog-gee? You hear the dog-gee? Wanna see the widdle pooch?”
The creature held onto Stacia’s chest as it turned its head toward the barking. Nella caught a side glimpse of a narrow, aquiline nose covered with shimmery blue hair. It made another growling noise, but this time it sounded oddly like “Gheee.”
Nella jumped to her feet. “No!” Timmy would stay in the bathroom, he was safe there, he was her baby and she wouldn’t let the creature get anywhere near him. As she took a couple of deliberate steps forward, it suddenly craned its neck, as if it had finally just sensed that Nella was there, and it slowly started to turn, twisting its large head on its ropy neck, and just before it presented its full face to her, Nella braced herself for the revulsion, but the incredible jolt she felt instead was so totally unexpected, a completely overwhelming burst of joy! as she finally saw the shimmering gray-green scales on its face, its enormous, glistening onyx eyes, moist and dewy-soft, and its delicate gray lips, as soft as fruit, she was certain she had never seen anything so beautiful; it all made sense now. All at once, everything in her life made sense. Nella felt her heartbeat racing, her face flushing. She stood there, in utter rapture, watching as the precious little creature turned back to Stacia, used its long fingers to deftly pluck the buttons from her shirt, watching transfixed as it moved aside the cotton fabric to expose Stacia’s bare flesh, its movements so beautiful, so tender, watching as it firmly latched on and sweetly began to suckle.
Nella continued to watch. She couldn’t possibly bring herself to look away.
It was all just so natural.
Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.