A young man is dealt a hearbreaking blow on Christmas Eve with the loss of his wife, while fifty miles away another family faces a fate just as terrible. Her final gift could be their salvation, but for the wintery nightmare that separates them...
The Traveler and the Thief
There's an image of death people know. Dark and foreboding, he is a tall specter wielding a terrible scythe with which he comes to reap your soul. He is clad in a black robe, a hood casting shadows over his visage, and you are thankful it is. For deep within the darkness, a cold grinning skull stares out at you with empty eyes; he has come for you and there is no escape.
We live decades fearing it. That day. The thought of it, that this nightmare creature had just swept into the hospital, reached out its fleshless hand and plunged it into Faye's very being to rip away everything she was... no. She had been given the news. Six months, one month. A day. After the first time, we grieved, we went through those stages they talk about, and we got to acceptance. And after that, we were ready for six months. And then she held on for another year. And we were ready for one month. She held on again. When it came, she had no fear, because she knew.
No, death is not the grim terror waiting to pounce. He is a simple man, with a gentle face and a gentle voice; he walks behind you your entire life. On his shoulder is a large bag, and with each step you take, he takes what is intangible about that step -- your feeling at that moment, the deed you had done, the deed that was done to you, or the one that wasn't -- and he places it gently into the sack. And some time in the course of your journey, this man, your fellow traveler leans forward and whispers in your ear, "Let me lead." When that time comes, you may hesitate, you may hang on for a while, but it comes. And he has been preparing: each moment he has saved, you will see and it will be all you need in the adventure he will take you to.
Out there, that night. Of all nights, that night. There I was, the sound of the dogs barking, the harness straining, the sled creaking. No glow of a star guided me, just the glow of the GPS and the trust my own sense of direction. Clouds hung low, but they only threatened so far. I knew what had hit North Conway, and I knew it was sweeping up the notch. The AMC lodge at the Crawford Depot was in view now, Saco Lake coming up on my left. I knew that there was something waiting for me ahead, and prayed it would let us make it down the long, steep road just past Mount Willard. But it was the face people feared.
It was there three years ago to steal our son. It tried to steal Faye that same spring night. And there, on a night that I would have been telling him to get to sleep fast so Santa could come, it was trying to steal another. Death, the real death, was not the one I cursed as the first snowflakes fell, cresting that hill. The imposter and the thief, the demon hiding itself in the shadows wanted that girl's life tonight too. It wanted to keep Faye's gift from her. And if I dared challenge it, if my team dared continue, it was showing me just what it intended. The sheer drop to my right, the roads slick from the two cascades on the left. I couldn't see either; just a curtain of white.
A flicker of light caught my eye, and I looked down. The guiding glow from the GPS showed a battle to punch through the oncoming cloud cover. I turned it off; it was best I not trust it now. The wise men had a star, but I didn't think anyone would call what I was doing wise. Santa had Rudolph, but none of the dogs had glowing noses, just wet ones. But it was what I carried -- not gold and spices, not toys for all the children in the world-- that convinced me, not that I could make it through, but that I had to make it through.
But the thief was not going to give up. Before me it placed not all the demons of Hell but the very depths of Perdition itself. The barren chill of the storm bit at me. The driving snow blinded me to anything beyond Odin's and Freyja's upright and alert ears. The wind plunged my world into a silent world where only its harsh roar was given voice. This was the deepest level of Dante's journey, the frozen plain of Cocytus wherein were frozen the damned souls of the greatest betrayers. Focusing all the senses that I could on the road ahead, knowing that time demanded we keep moving, I coaxed the dogs forward. I'd read the Divine Comedy. I knew Dante's next destination.
He had touched the lowest places, and had nowhere to go but up.