Sharona came to with blood in her mouth, leaking up into her nose. The cold was intense, enough to dry her eyes and numb every appendage. Her head was cocked forward at a weird angle, something hard pressed against the back preventing her from moving into a more comfortable spot. Tree bark just outside of reach. Frozen ground, dead weed tufts, and roots were above her eyeline. Was it growing upside down?
She was upside down.
Sharona shivered. She twisted her feet, but they did not move far. The ski boots locked her ankles in place. Snow trickled down onto her chin from above. Where? What? Huh?
She’d gone off trail. It was dumb to even try a black double diamond, but Rhonda was always talking up her skills, and Sharona hated hearing about it, and so she’d tried to push herself, and—
Why was breathing so hard? She sucked a deeper breath, and something clicked in her chest, flooding pain into every nerve ending. Ow. Ow. Ow.
Memories trickled through the pain haze. Slaloming among the trees went well until something fell in her way and oh my God I’m going to hit it. Sharona veered left when she probably should’ve gone right and there was a tree she hadn’t even seen and she turned and fell and—
Oh no. A tree well.
The limbs on spruces and other conifers sheltered their trunks from snowfall. These tree wells or spruce traps were essentially an air gap, a space where less snow could be found. She’d gotten turned around and trapped, falling head first into this one. Along the way, she must’ve hit branches, ice, or rocks, busted her mouth and her chest. And she was stuck almost completely upside down, and no matter how hard she tried, there was no way to
wiggle . . .
out . . .
or . . .
get . . .
People died in these things every year.
Not me, she thought. Please don’t let it be my turn to die in a stupid spruce trap!
A look down—up—toward her waist told her she was packed in tight. She flailed with her arms, and got a bit of purchase, but whenever she pushed, that pain in her chest flared up again, forcing a scream from her mouth. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough air in her lungs to lend it volume. All that emerged was a banshee’s wail.
And she remembered her folklore: Banshees only scream when someone is going to die.
That just made her wail more, but who would hear such weak sounds?
From beyond the tree well, crunching sounds. Approaching footfalls. Rhonda. Had to be Rhonda! “Thank God! I’m stuck, and I’m so glad you found me. Get me out. “
The footsteps stopped nearby, but there was no sounds of digging. Not even Rhonda’s obnoxious braying laugh at her little sister’s predicament. Sharona said, “What you doing out there, taking pictures of my feet?”
Such pictures would be funny, she guessed, when she looked back on them and this incident in about fifty years. She’s be almost eighty then, and she could find the humor in her brush with danger. Those gray ski boots poking up from white dust, wiggling a bit as the spruce limbs trembled, and—
A mini-avalanche plummeted down into the tree well, packing around her chin like a frosty blanket. She scraped it off, dumped it aside. “Rhonda, what are you—”
Was it even Rhonda at all?
Another memory bubbled up from just before her crash.
The thing that fell in her path hadn’t fallen at all. It stepped out from among the trees, huge and hairy. Humanoid, but not quite human. The teeth were big and sharp and—what the hell was it?
Another bit of folklore occurred to her then. This was Sasquatch country. Or so declared placards around town. There was even a friendly looking cartoon of a grinning gorilla dude on the sign for the resort they were staying at. He smiled like a happy Looney Tunes character, throwing up both thumbs like some kind of team mascot.
But that was the cartoon. The thing she’d seen . . . the thing that made her veer left instead of right . . . had that been the real thing?
She heard breathing now. Heavy and masculine and terrifying.
A wind made the tree shiver. Or was it that the weird, heavy breathing making the tree sway so?
More snow dripped down atop Sharona, and she remembered why these things were dangerous. They were air pockets, but they were not quick replenishing ones.
Sure, trees took in carbon dioxide and expelled oxygen in contrast to the human body, which took in oxygen and expelled carbon dioxide. However, she would use up the oxygen of this tree well far faster than the plant could replenish it. She could choke to death like this.
Tears rolled up her face, soaking into her blue and white knit hat.
She batted at the snow, trying to find some leverage to exploit. Useless. She tried to find something she could cling to, pull on, and she found nothing but nothing.
Sharona cursed, and swung her fists like a frantic shadow boxer, but that only made the breakage in her chest hitch in that painful way once more.
Was the air really starting to taste funny or was that just her mind playing tricks. Exhaustion settled in along with numbness. Her eyes threatened to stay closed, as the idea of a nap took root. A nap would clear her head. No, it wouldn’t!
She banged the back of her head against the icy ground. Red glows burst behind her eyelids. At least it cleared the stupid away for the moment.
I have to get out of here if I don’t want to die.
Sharona had so many reasons to want to live. There was cousin Delonn back home, who still needed to be gently kicked in the butt until he popped a ring on his far too patient girlfriend’s finger. There were Momma and Poppa getting up there and Rhonda wasn’t about to step up and take responsibility for their health and well-being. There was the MBA program she desperately wanted to get into. There was . . . There was a thousand and one reasons not to die out here in a tree well. No. Make that a million and one reasons . . ..
Something banged on her boot. The heavy breathing got a little heavier. Closer, maybe? Definitely more excited. Was the Sasquatch playing?
Oh Lord, please don’t let me die like this. Pain in my neck and in my head and in my chest and with some heavy breathing pervy bigfoot live acting knock-knock jokes on my uncomfortable boots—
Hold up. Were her skis still connected to her boots? There were supposed to be safety releases that made them pop free when she toppled, but the damned levers or springs or whatever were on these rentals got jammed with dust and crust on the green and blue slopes. They’d probably gotten clogged up nice and tight on this black double diamond trail. One was probably still connected. Maybe both. If she could whip it like a blade, maybe it could coax whatever was pushing in on her space—a sasquatch, girl; we all know it’s a damned sasquatch—away.
Sharona first imaged the ski whipping around like a helicopter blade or the plastic cord on a weed eater. Insane and stupid. Then, she pictured reality, the ski turning through maybe ten degrees, back and forth and oh, so pathetic. That wouldn’t solve anything!
Still, she had nothing else to do. Sharona struggled with her arms and wobbled her feet, trying to work herself loose or in the very least irritate the intruder—
A hoot of surprise followed by the crunch of retreating foot falls crunching snow came from beyond the snow bank. Whatever she’d done, had it worked? She wiggled a little more, glad to have one accomplishment.
Whatever was out there snarled and bounded back toward her, banging her feet and shoving them deeper into the snow, forcing her head at an even more awkward angle.
Too much more, and I’m going to break my neck! Then again, what was one more broken bone?
Then, the efforts changed. Instead of punching or hammering or whatever, hands grabbed her boots and yanked. She slid up into the snow, her head no longer at the awkward angle. Sasquatch had to be one strong mother to be doing what it was doing. Of course, her left leg felt like it was going to rip out the socket. The right was just going to dislocate. She wailed some more, blood running into her eyes, now. Tears and crimson streaking up to soak her knit hat and the hair beneath.
Sharona’s neck stopped hurting as she slid up into the snow. Her last view of the tree was of the lines in the bark forming into dozens of tiny frowns. Then, the world turned white and frosty. The snowpack squashed against her face and crushed her lungs. The sounds of her dragging body and the angry huffing breaths were the only sounds.
Finally, she popped free of that the ice and snow caked around the tree, and something big and hairy dragged her up through the air and slammed her down against the ground. The snow was still in her eyes, blinding her to all but the shadowy outline of the furious thing until it leaned in and spread its jaws wide enough to eat her face. Fangs poked into her temples and round cheeks.
There was nothing cartoonish about this creature, nothing cute. It was feral, horrible, and its breath stank of ketones. But it did not bite.
In a flash it pulled up and turned away, looking at something far off. It froze in place, and she blinked away enough of the snow to see the thick brown fur covering its humanoid body, the long arms with hands squeezed into fists, the massive fangs pushing between its lips, the jaws distended like a snake’s ready to swallow prey whole. With a clack, those jaws righted themselves and swung shut. Then, the thing whirled around and darted out of sight, moving faster across the snow than she would have believed possible.
The wind carried familiar sounds. “Sharona,” it said. “Sharona.”
She lay there, weary and wailing but drawing in fresh air. Each new breath cleared the fuzz from her head just a little more. Soon, the wind changed its sound and turned into her sister’s voice.
Sharona had no voice of her own remaining, so she raised a single hand and waved it as wildly as she dared. Soon, Rhonda and a gaggle of others arrived, one sister kneeling beside the other, grabbing onto Sharona’s hand, saying, “Oh, thank God we found you!” like it was her mantra.
The rescuers carried her away, and before she left, Sharona tried to memorize what the area looked like, but it was too snowy, her tree one coniferous among others, one spruce among a horde of them. Try as she might, she never found it again.
The damage was extensive: left leg broken, three ribs cracked, one of her vertebrae chipped. Sharona’s skiing days were done.
She told her story to whoever would listen, and they received it with gentle, placating smiles. Who would prefer her outlandish account to the far more noble and empowering story of a suffering woman managing to beat the odds and drag herself out of a spruce trap? No one, of course.
Soon enough, she stopped saying her truth out loud, but she never stopped believing it. Never once.
Daniel R. Robichaud lives and writes in Humble, Texas. His fiction has been collected in Hauntings & Happenstances: Autumn Stories as well as Gathered Flowers, Stones, and Bones: Fabulist Tales, both from Twice Told Tales Press. He writes weekly reviews of film and fiction at the Considering Stories (https://consideringstories.