Nick Eldridge lives alone in a tiny house on the bank of a trout stream in western Colorado. While he enjoys material success as a nature writer, his memories are drawn back to his senior year of high school, to the girl Ceilidh O’Connor.
It’s been almost 30 years since Nick has last seen or heard from Ceilidh, but not a day’s gone by without her entering his mind.
One day a blizzard strikes, screaming down from Canada. A car has gone in the ditch on the highway a mile from Nick’s house, and out of the howling wind, a distant figure from the past comes to Nick’s door.
Friday October 9
The weather forecast had called for snow, and sure enough, it started on Friday afternoon, big fat flakes drifting down out of a gray sky. By nightfall, the wind had picked up, and the snow turned hard and gritty, blasting sideways against my cabin windows. No matter – I had a big stack of firewood, a full LP gas tank, and plenty of food. My cabin isn’t big, just a front room, a tiny kitchen, a tinier bathroom, and a bedroom – but there’s always been just me, so it’s always been big enough. “Bring it on, Mother Nature,” I called into the wind when I went out for an armload of wood.
That’s when I saw the headlights coming down the highway.
Not too many people drive down my stretch of state highway at the best of times, and certainly not during a blizzard. The road always turns icy in these kinds of storms, and sure enough, the headlights wavered as the car skidded – right into the ditch about a quarter mile down the road.
The mountains have a code, just like the sea, so I went inside, got my parka and my big searchlight, and went out to help. My old green Bronco started right up, but I had a heck of a time getting the front hubs locked – they were half-frozen. By the time I got them hammered loose, I looked up to see a parka-clad figure walking up my drive, face turned away from the wind, a small overnight bag clutched in one hand.
I couldn’t see anything other than a parka, a pair of blue jeans, boots, and a expanse of darkness in the hood’s opening. “Come on in – it’s warm inside,” I shouted over the wind. “I was just coming down to see if you were all right. Is there anyone else down there?” The figure’s head shook.
We went inside. I took a moment, stomping snow off my boots, and turned around to greet my unexpected guest. She had her back turned, and was just taking off her parka, letting a cascade of deep brown hair fall out of the hood. She turned and smiled at me, her eyes shining brilliant green in the light.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “I was afraid I’d freeze! I never guessed there was a house out here.”
“I, uh, guess you’d like to use the phone,” I stammered. It couldn’t be – could it?
“Yes, please,” she beamed. I showed her to the phone on my little desk in the front room. She picked up the handset, listened, turned the phone off and on again, and then frowned. “No dial tone.”
“Phone’s kind of iffy way out here,” I told her. “Storm may have taken the lines down. Do you have a cell phone?”
“I tried it when I went in the ditch. No signal.”
“My name’s Nick.”
She didn’t answer. Her back was turned to me, and she was standing very still. When she moved at last, she turned around, holding a framed portrait of a young, green-eyed girl in her hand.
“Nick Eldridge,” she said at last.
“How’ve you been, Ceilidh?”
There were a few streaks of gray in her hair, but the lopsided smile was still the same. “Nick, Nick Eldridge, who’d have ever thought it, after all these years?” She laid the picture down and came over to hug me.
“How long has it been?” she asked. I thought a moment. “Twenty-eight years, four months, and eighteen days,” I answered, and we both laughed.
“You’ve got my senior class picture on your desk? Nick, it’s been almost thirty years!”
“For old time’s sake, I guess. Who wouldn’t keep a picture of their best friend from high school? Please, sit down!” I scrambled to move a stack of magazines off my battered old couch. “Sorry about the mess – I don’t get many visitors out here.” We sat down facing each other.
“So, what do you do out here?” Ceilidh asked, breaking a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“Ever heard of Owen Bradley?”
“The writer? I’ve heard of him, nature and outdoor guides, right?”
“Yes.” I picked up a copy of my latest, Colorado’s Secret Wilds, and tossed it to her. “That’s me. It’s a pen name.”
“Nick, that’s wonderful! You’re famous!”
“Well, not really. Owen Bradley is famous. Good old Nick Eldridge is known around here as some odd old hermit that lives in a cabin on the Uncompaghre. I’ve come a long way from Prairie Ridge, Minnesota.”
“I’m really very happy for you, Nick. Do you ever get back home?”
“Not since Mom passed away. And you? What have you been up to the last twenty-some years?”
“Oh, nothing that exciting. First medical school, then a horrible internship, a worse residency, and now I’ve got a practice in St. Paul.”
“Sounds exciting enough to me. So, it’s Doctor O’Connor now, then?” I knew better, but I had to ask. I could swear Ceilidh blushed before she answered, even though I’d spotted the ring when she took her coat off.
“Well, actually, it’s Doctor Ross,” she said, looking down for a moment.
Why are you looking away from me now, Ceilidh? I thought to myself – at one time I’d known her better than I knew myself. How much could change in almost thirty years?
A lot, I had to admit. Still…
“Anyone I know?”
“Ryan Ross,” she smiled now, looking at me with a faintly defiant air.
“Well, that’s good news!” No, it isn’t. “How is Ryan? Last I knew he was all hot and heavy with, oh, who was it? Beth English, wasn’t it?”
“Back at Prairie Ridge he was, yes. But Beth stayed in PR, and Ryan went off to Iowa, like me, and since we knew each other already, we just took to hanging around together – we were driving home on weekends together, and so on.”
“And the rest is history?” I teased her, but gently.
“Yes,” she answered, “the rest is history. We had our twentieth anniversary last year.”
“Kids?” Please say no. I’m not sure why that thought popped into my head.
“Tom’s seventeen, Ann’s fifteen.”
“And you said your life wasn’t exciting!” I laughed. “Sounds pretty exciting to me! Two teenagers, an M.D., your own practice! So, what brings you out here to the middle of the Uncompaghre anyway?”
“Well, that’s a long story. I was in Durango for a conference – the Third Annual Mountain Medical Conference – and I decided to get away to spend a little time by myself when the whole thing wrapped up. I was actually heading for Vail when this hit.”
“You were taking the scenic route, coming up here through Montrose, weren’t you?”
“Well, sure! I’ve only been to Colorado one other time. It seemed like a good idea until this snowstorm hit. I guess I should have listened to the weather report.”
“First rule of the mountains,” I chided her. “Always know what the weather is supposed to do, especially in the winter. It gets pretty wild out here.” I realized I’d left her an opening.
“So, what are you doing out here, all on your own? Don’t you have a family, Nick?”
“Yes, you!” She reached out to poke me in the chest.
“No, Kaye,” I answered, retreating to an old nickname I’d used for her, way back in high school. “No family. No wife, no kids, no girlfriend. Mom passed away the year I left for college.”
“Well, that’s it. If you recall, Dad disappeared when I was fifteen. Mom was the only family I had.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, both of us a bit uncomfortable. So many years, so much water under the bridge. Ceilidh had gone so far, and I had gone, well, into myself. I’d retreated into a tiny cabin in the Rockies, making my living writing about rocks, trees, and birds under an assumed name. I was just an anonymous hermit alone on the Uncompaghre.
We talked about Colorado, about the mountains, about Ceilidh’s practice, about my books, until it was quite late. The fire burned down to coals as we sat there, talking oh-so-seriously about things neither of us really wanted to discuss, avoiding the questions we both really wanted to ask.
After some debate, I managed to persuade Ceilidh to sleep in my tiny bedroom, while I made myself comfortable on the couch. “I sleep here lots of nights anyway,” I lied, “It’s closer to my desk, anyway, in case an idea hits me in the night.” The bedroom is only a few feet away from the living room, of course, but Ceilidh was polite enough to leave that unsaid. Without further ado, we said our goodnights, and I lay down to stare at the cabin ceiling until well into the small hours.
My first love, the only girl I’d ever really loved, had just walked back into my life after almost thirty years, thanks to an early Colorado blizzard. But way back then, I’d never been able to tell her how I felt.
What was I going to do now?
It was past three before I finally fell asleep.