Original Fiction by
M y sister is an explorer. I am a book nerd. So when we moved to the back country of northern Vermont in the winter of 1978, both of us were very happy.
Jasmine, at twelve, loved to trek through the Vermont wilderness, while I was content with my endless quest for adventure through books. What better place to live when you love to read and you can’t go outside because of the cold? We were each in our own favorite worlds until our parents decided it wasn’t safe for Jasmine to wander the wilds alone. She needed to go with someone—that being me!
So, on chilly winter mornings, Jasmine and I packed our supplies and headed out. Jasmine grabbed her coat and stuffed an apple in her pocket; that’s all she needed. I was weighted down with my hat, scarf, insulated boots, and a walking stick. And, of course, my knapsack, stuffed with bags of trail mix and other assorted essentials—a heavy load for a slight-of-build eleven-year-old.
The main road in front of our house was paved, but we didn’t have to walk very far before exiting onto a remote lane where gravel and mud straddled both sides of a mound of weeds. As the snow grew deeper with the winter, sometimes the only landmark on that trail was an occasional dead weed poking through.
Our favorite destination was a large lake, part of which pushed under the tracks of a wooden railroad bridge. Looking down the rail line, those tracks seemed endless until they merged together into a single, distant pinpoint. The tracks were on slanted wooden stilts, 20 feet above the water; the only way to cross them was to step or crawl board by board to safety on the other side. Under the tracks was a marsh with murky water where cattails clustered together. Looking down from those tracks, it looked like we’d be impaled on those brown cattail spikes should we be unlucky enough to fall.
When we were both safely across we would wander along the lake, exploring every inch. Every broken bush or downed tree was examined to discover the lay of the land. Was there a muskrat den? Could we find an old snakeskin? Was there anything in that nest of twigs high above our heads? My sister wanted to build a tree house and stay overnight the following summer. But for now we settled for a lean-to made of sticks and an old blue plastic tarp.
I have always loved listening to the soothing sound of the water lapping against the shore. Being near the water calmed me, but the thought of going in scared me. I was terrified of not being able to touch the bottom and not knowing what was in the water with me. Even when the lake was encased in ice, I felt uneasy walking on the surface. I liked reading about adventure in books, not actually participating in them.
Jasmine always felt invincible. Impetuous, she loved the unknown. She was drawn to that icy lake, while I stood back with trepidation. After bouncing rocks on the ice, sending them skidding far across the surface, she decided to test it. She took a first step, one foot on the edge of the ice.
I reached out and grabbed the hem of her coat. “You can’t go out there! It’s not safe! What if you fall in?”
“Don’t worry about me, Lilly.” She faced me, hands on her hips. “The rocks didn’t break the ice, and besides, I can swim.”
She forced me to pull my trump card. “I’ll….I’ll tell mom!” It was my worst threat, even though I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad. I just hoped I was scaring her as much as she was scaring me.
Jasmine stomped down on the dark ice and slid her foot forward. Soon she was grinning with both feet flat on the ice. Before I could protest again, she pushed off and spun in a circle, bits of ice crystals flying through the air. Waving her arms crazily she started to run even farther away from me—and safety.
“Come out here, Lilly,” Jasmine laughed. “This is so much fun. When we come again we’ll bring our skates.”
Suddenly, loud cracking noises shattered her laughter. Long jagged cracks streaked away from beneath her feet. Jasmine’s eyes locked on mine just before the ice gave way and she plunged in the frigid water.
For a moment, I could only stare at the black hole where Jasmine had gone under. She was just there and now she wasn’t. I spun around searching the forest, certain in my mind that someone else must have seen my sister disappear.
Just then, like a rocket lifting off for space, I saw my sister pop up through the water and gulp greedily for air. She clawed at the surrounding ice and tried to pull herself out but slid back into the water. Each time she surfaced, she screamed for help.
“Hang on!” I yelled, “I’m coming.”
Think, I told myself. Hadn’t I read about something like this?
I needed a rope. My wrist survival bracelet, made from lightweight cords used in parachutes! Quickly, I untied the cords and unwound them from my wrist. I ran for a branch by the pond and tied the cord to it.
Jasmine had managed to haul herself halfway out of the water, but she wasn’t yelling anymore. Her face was ashy gray.
I slid the branch toward my sister, but it was too short. I needed another few feet.
Jasmine had started slipping when it hit me: I was that extra few feet. Lowering myself onto the ice, I stretched out my full length. When I pushed the branch toward her, it bumped her arm.
“Wrap your arms under the branch like we do when we bring in firewood.” I had to yell it several times before Jasmine moved.
“Hang on. I’m going to pull you out.”
Her weight pulled me toward her on the smooth ice. I flailed my legs and felt a rock at the edge of the shoreline. Pinning my feet behind the rock and hoping it would not pull loose, I yanked on that cord with all the adrenaline in my system. The cord went taut. Jasmine was almost out when the ice cracked and she sank back in. But she was now a couple feet closer so I wrapped the cord tighter around my hands and pulled harder.
As Jasmine came closer, I was able to wriggle back to land, sit down, and brace myself solidly behind the rock. A few more tugs and she was out. I hugged my sister close. “Please don’t die,” I pleaded to her and whoever above was listening.
We stumbled to the only shelter available, our lean-to. By then Jasmine was shaking uncontrollably. Dumping my knapsack I searched for the spare sweatshirt, sweatpants, gloves, and wool socks that I had packed. Jasmine could barely move her arms and legs as I pulled off her wet clothes and put on the dry ones I’d brought. I found my stash of hand warmers, and stuffed them under her arms, in her socks and anywhere they would fit. Before I pushed her feet back into her wet boots, I placed plastic bags over her dry socks. Finally, I wrapped her in my metallic, waterproof, rescue blanket crafted by NASA.
When I could do no more to help my sister I sat next to her and hugged her tight. I had to warm her before we could leave, but most of all, I had to calm myself. Jasmine was shaking so badly that she didn’t seem to notice I was crying against her shoulder.
Taking a deep breathe, I forced myself to pull away. I quickly wiped my eyes and looked at my sister. Her lips were blue.
“Take me home, Lilly.” she whispered. “I’m so cold.”
I knew I could do it. I was the dependable one. I was the one everyone counted on.
“Let’s go.” I threw what I needed in the knapsack. Anything that was wet or added extra weight, I left on the ground.
Jasmine got up very slowly. I turned her toward me and placed my hand under her chin. “I can’t do this unless you help me. Can you do that?” She nodded and reached for my hand.
We turned and headed out of the woods. I tried to follow our previous path where the snow wasn’t so deep. Jasmine stumbled a few times but we managed to keep moving. I knew the rough part would be crossing the railroad bridge.
We sat down on an exposed tree trunk and eyed the wooden tracks ahead. I kept picturing Jasmine practically skipping across those tracks, pointing out the turtles, fish, and even a snake or two. Now, I was just hoping to crawl across and not fall in.
“OK, we can do this.” I tried to sound confident and convincing.
I decided the safest way to cross would be to sit on my butt and scoot along. I went first, my back toward the far end of the bridge; my front facing Jasmine. She sat with her back against the front of my coat. I wanted to be as close as possible to her.
First I slid forward, then it was her turn. By the time we reached the middle of the bridge our pants were soaked. Inside my head, a voice screamed that we’d never make it.
“We’re doing great,” I told her, even though this was taking forever.
A slight vibration rippled along he metal tracks. Keep going, I told myself. Slide, pull, slide, pull. I stopped. The vibration was getting stronger.
I tried to twist myself around to see behind me, but with Jasmine against me I couldn’t turn very far. Even through my gloves, I could feel the rails vibrating. An engine rumbled in the distance.
I could get up and run to the end of the bridge, but I would have to leave my sister behind. If we both jumped into the frigid water, my sister still wouldn’t make it, and I could not swim. We slid as fast as we could.
The sound was now so loud that I didn’t even try to look. I wrapped my legs around my sister and held her tight.
“Hey, are you okay?” a man shouted behind me.
The rumbling noise had stopped and I heard feet crunching toward me on the rails. As I turned my head someone knelt down beside me and helped me sit up. My sister didn’t respond.
“No, I am not okay,” I sobbed, my tears hot against my frozen cheeks. “I thought you were a train.”
“A train? Oh, my snow machine. Hey, what’s wrong with your friend? She looks bad.”
“My sister fell into the lake. I’ve got to get her home. Please help us.”
“You slide toward me so I can step over you. My name’s Joe. You’re both going to be fine.”
He kept talking in a soothing voice, as he helped me maneuver Jasmine. He owned the land and had seen our footprints in the snow. Our tracks looked fresh so he swung by to see who was out here.
Joe leaned down and put his hands under Jasmine’s arms. He braced himself and pulled her to a standing position. She looked small and limp as Joe lifted her into his strong arms.
When he reached the snow machine he sat her on the seat against the back bar.
“Jasmine, can you hear me?” I shook her slightly. “Wake up.”
She blinked her eyes and asked for mom. Joe smiled and asked me my name.
“Lilly.” I looked at this strange vehicle. “I’ve never been on one of these machines before.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve been driving a snow machine since I was younger than you. Climb behind your sister and wrap your arms around her. When I turn left you lean left, and when I turn right, you lean right. Think you can remember that?”
“Well, I’ll try. What if we fall?”
“If something happens, just scream at me.” He handed me a helmet. “Put that on Jasmine.”
When I had a good grip on my sister, Joe moved that snow machine—or the snow monster as I thought of it.
It had short skis in front, and a track on the back that looked like it belonged on a tank. And the noise! As we picked up speed and started to hit bumps, I felt myself lifted up and then dropped back down on the seat. The trees were flying by way too fast and the snow swirled around us, pelting me in the face. I promised myself that I would never ride one of these things again.
Joe leaned back in the seat, pushing Jasmine tight against me. I was pressed against the seat bar with Jasmine snug in the middle. Even though I did not like the ride, I did feel safe with Joe.
The trees started to thin and I recognized the dirt path to the main road. The snow machine started to slow. I could see our house.
The engine noise echoed loud against the house as Joe maneuvered the snow machine within a few feet of the front door. As soon as the engine quieted, I saw my parents peer from the doorway. My dad was still in his robe holding a cup of coffee, looking curiously at the snow machine. I knew he always wanted one. My mom’s expression was more serious—like she was thinking of the punishment we deserved for riding on such a thing, especially with a stranger.
Joe slid off the seat and picked up Jasmine. Dad threw his coffee cup in the snow and ran in his slippers. Mom was not far behind.
“Jasmine fell in the lake. And that’s Joe, he saved us.”
“Fell? How?” Dad yelled.
I was a little afraid just then. Dad never yelled; that was Mom’s job.
“Jane, get the car! We’re taking her to the hospital,” Dad said.
Joe looked down at my father’s feet. “Why don’t you open the car door and I’ll hand her to you then. You might fall in your, um, slippers.”
Dad, just then, seemed to remember he was in his pajamas. “Okay. Good idea.”
Joe drove with Mom upfront beside him. I sat in the back with Dad, who held Jasmine on his lap.
At the hospital, Jasmine was rushed into the ER. Her body temperature was low, but she was going to be okay. Later that day, in a patient room and with an IV running, Jasmine was awake. I sat beside her, wearing the scrubs they’d given me to wear because my shirt and pants were so wet. My parents were both still in their pajamas.
“Hey, are you all going to stay with me?” Jasmine said, smiling. “You’ve got your pajamas on.”
My mom managed a smile, and Dad laughed a little.
“Joe saved you,” I told Jasmine, wondering if she remembered the ride on the snow machine at all.
“No, Lilly,” Joe said. “You did. You’re a real survivor. How you’d know how to do all that stuff?”
“Books,” I shrugged. “See, she’s the explorer and I’m the book nerd.”
That’s all anyone had to know.
Doris J. Snader lived in Vermont during her early 20s, and now resides in Pennsylvania. As a child, she helped rescue a friend from the creek near where she lived, which inspired this story. This is her first published work of fiction..