The short warming trend was over and by noon the slushy snow would be solid ice. To the west, the gray clouds were lowering, and heavy snow was in the forecast. The breathless announcer predicted another foot, maybe two, and the temperature was already plunging.
Tommy Holloman finished his cornflakes and flipped off the radio. Mama was already on her way to work at Walgreen’s, and if he was going to walk the five blocks to school in time for the bell, he had to leave in the next twenty minutes.
The Holloman’s lived on the east side of town and their front yard bordered old Highway 39. In order to get to school, Tommy had to cross the highway, because the sidewalk was on the south side. On the north side of the highway, there was only the narrow curb and the sturdy barrier posts and cables that kept cars from plunging down the hill.
Tommy’s home was at the top of a hill that sloped steeply down to a small creek, and then up another steep slope to the other side. There was one other house next to Tommy’s and both were bordered by Farmer Connelly’s dairy pasture. During the winter, Farmer Connelly’s pasture was a favorite for sledding, but care had to be taken not to slide off the creek bank, because the creek was either rock hard ice or freezing water during the winter. Tommy’s mother made him use the Maple Street sledding area.
Highway 39 was also Mount Valley’s Main Street, so there was both town traffic and the local truck traffic to deal with when crossing over to the sidewalk. Tommy’s mother had walked him across for kindergarten and first grade, but with her new job at Walgreen’s, she had to trust Tommy to cross on his own. He was now in the third grade, and had successfully crossed the busy highway for a year, so his mother reluctantly trusted him to look both ways and take no chances.
Tommy enjoyed the walk to school, even on a day like this. It took him past all the Main Street stores, and whenever he thought he could get away with it, he stopped at the forbidden Ernie’s Novelty store to buy candy.
“You stay out of that nasty place, young man! Are you listening to me? That’s where all the riffraff hang out, and I don’t want you influenced by any of that. Now you mind me!”
Tommy loved his mother, and almost always obeyed her, but a third grade boy is naturally fascinated by sinners, and their chosen place of iniquity, so whenever he thought he could get away with it, he tasted the forbidden fruit Ernie’s had to offer .
Then of course, there was the witch.
She lived in one of the oldest and largest houses in town, also on Main Street, and right at the top of the hill. He could see the witch’s house from his own house, and his mother had long ago pointed it out to him. She warned him many times not to speak to the witch or have anything to do with her. His normally tolerant mother despised the witch although she never actually referred to her as a witch.
He had seen her many times, seated in the front porch swing, quietly rocking to and fro. She always watched him silently and intently, so he was scared of her. She had a large black dog that often barked at him, and he was also scared of the dog, so he always tried to hurry past.
The house was set deeply back into the trees, and had large windows that stared at him balefully. The old woman was not ugly as witches go, and she had no warts on her nose. In fact, she was actually rather pleasant looking, but all the kids said she was a witch and that the old house was haunted, so in view of that and his mother’s warning to never speak to her, Tommy stayed as far away as the sidewalk would allow.
Tommy glanced around to make sure all was in order before leaving. There were already some presents under the tree, and hopefully, Santa would bring him a new sled. The old one was probably repairable if someone knew how. His mother said his father would have been able to fix it easily, but he had been killed in an auto accident when Tommy was just a year old. He did not remember his father at all.
Tommy put on his coat and carefully locked the door. He was the only kid in his class that had a key to his house, and he was proud of that. He pulled the stocking cap over his ears and walked to the highway.
He looked carefully both ways, and noted the patchy sheen of standing water here and there on the pavement. In a few hours, if the forecast was right, that water would be treacherous ice. Seeing no traffic, he hurried across the street and headed for school.
The witch was nowhere in sight, but the windows silently watched him as he walked by. Just then, the big black dog ran around the side of the house, barking wildly, and slid to stop in the snow, just feet away. Terrified, Tommy stood very still, and was wondering what to do next, when he heard a woman’s voice.
“Come here Rex.”
It was the first time he had heard her voice, and it chilled him, although it was not the screechy voice he had anticipated. The dog whined for a moment and then retreated. Tommy did not turn around to see who called. He knew it was the witch, and she was therefore right behind him. He hurried down the sidewalk toward school.
The Great War was finally over, and most of the soldiers had returned from both Europe and the Pacific, so Christmas was once again a joyful time of year. The streets were decorated with Christmas lights and wreaths, and stores piped Christmas music from loudspeakers under their canopies. It was Tommy’s favorite time of year, but he secretly wished he could share it with the father he never knew.
Maple Street sloped steeply down to the north, and ended at the school yard, so it was always closed at the first snow so the children had a safe place for sledding. The recent warming period exposed patches of pavement here and there, so it was temporarily closed to sledding. But if the promised snow materialized, it would be ready for Christmas vacation, so Tommy looked hopefully at the gray skies as he made his way down the long slope of sidewalk to school. As he entered the door, the first lazy flakes began to fall.
Since it was the last day of school before Christmas vacation, school was scheduled to let out at noon, but by ten o’clock, the teacher was looking anxiously out the windows at the rapidly increasing snow. Then came the announcement from the principal’s office that all the rural children were to board the buses without delay and that all town children who walked to school were to go straight home.
The snow was falling more heavily by the time Tommy walked past Ernie’s Novelties, but there was still plenty of visibility, so he hesitated. He should go straight home of course, but what would it hurt if he stopped just for a few minutes? He could buy a Coke, and look through the new comic books for a few minutes. He talked himself into it.
When he walked back outside an hour later, the snow had become a blinding, blowing curtain of white, and he felt the first small pang of fear. But if he just followed the sidewalk, he reasoned, he would be fine. Just then, a police car appeared out of the gloom, its red lights flashing and siren blaring. It was headed down the hill. Then just as quickly, it vanished and the snowy silence returned.
He walked to the top of the hill, and was preparing to descend when the solid white curtain suddenly thinned out somewhat, and he could dimly see the wrecked cars strewn all across the road and sidewalk in front of his house, and blocking his path. Then the scene disappeared again in the heavy snow.
He pulled his coat closer and felt for the sidewalk. He had begun to walk again when he looked up and was stunned to see the witch directly in front of him facing the other way as she tried to peer down the hill at the accident. The big black dog stood by her side, but whirled suddenly and barked at Tommy. At that the old woman turned, and seeing Tommy, held her arms out to him, saying something he could not hear above the wind. Terrified, he looked for an escape, and seeing no other way, darted across the highway and over the guardrail.
He was now on the same side of the highway as his house, and all he had to do was go down the hill and back up the other side. The only obstacle was the creek, but he told himself that it was probably frozen over. He began to stumble over the drifts and down the hill.
He finally reached the bottom of the hill, gasping for breath. If going downhill was that hard, what would it be like going up the other side to his house? He looked down at the creek, and was gratified to see snow piled up on its surface. That meant that there was a layer of ice, but was it solid? The only other choice was to go back up the hill where the witch might be waiting, and that was out of the question. He climbed down the creek bank and gingerly stepped out on the ice with one foot. It seemed to be solid, so he stepped out fully with the other foot and began to carefully walk across.
He was almost halfway across the eight foot expanse of ice when he heard the ominous creaking. He froze in place, and for a moment, he thought he was safe, but then the thin ice simply gave way and plunged him into the dark water.
The shock took his breath away as the freezing water instantly penetrated his clothing and his muscles were almost paralyzed by the terrible cold. It felt like a thousand icy, painful needles. He found that he could barely move, much less swim to shore, and his wet clothing was threatening to pull him down. Only his arms spread out across the remaining ice were keeping his head above water. He tried to call out to the men who were attending to the accident on the highway above him, but all he could manage was a croaking whisper. He suddenly realized that he might never see his mother again, and that thought was unbearable. Strangely, he was not afraid.
The cold was quickly robbing his mind of the ability to think, and he was losing consciousness when he heard someone close by calling out frantically. It sounded like a woman’s voice. Then he heard a nearby splash and felt warm breath on his neck as he was suddenly and roughly jerked away and almost swept under the freezing water. Then he knew no more.
”His vital signs are good, considering, and he seems to be coming around. There, by golly, his eyes are opening. I think he’ll be just fine now.”
He recognized the voice of old Doc Wilson, and when he opened his eyes, the doctor was smiling down on him.
“These kids can take a real beating and come right back. Yes sir, they surely can.” He patted Tommy’s head, picked up his bag and left.
The room was pleasant enough, with high ceilings, wallpaper, and pictures of people that Tommy did not know, with one exception. It was a picture of his father. His mother had the same picture on the wall at home. Then he drifted off again.
Later, he felt a rough, warm tongue on his face, and the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the grinning face of the big black dog. Then he saw the tearful face of his mother, and to his astonishment, she was embracing the witch!
“He’s awake, Julie.” It was the voice of the witch, soft and low. “Go lie down, Rex. He doesn’t want to play with you right now.”
Tommy spent the next half hour explaining to his mother that the accident was why he left the sidewalk and ended up falling through the ice. He did not mention the witch, whose real name he learned, was Emma. He also learned that Emma and Rex, the big black Labrador retriever he always feared, followed him down the hill and witnessed the fall through the ice. Emma called for help to the men who were working the accident, but when she realized that they might not make it in time, she ordered Rex, who was already intently watching the boy in the water, to fetch, which he happily did, pulling Tommy to the bank where the men fished him out.
Then Emma turned to his mother. “Now I have a question of my own, Julie. I want to know why you have shut me out these past seven years. I don’t even know my own grandson.”
Tommy was stunned. The witch named Emma was his grandmother? He looked to his mother for confirmation, but she was staring at Emma.
Julie lifted her chin in defiance. “I am grateful for what you did today, but I can never forgive you for David’s death. It was on a night very much like this one that he was killed running an unnecessary errand for you. I know, because I asked the pharmacist, and he said your prescription could have waited until the next day.”
“That’s true, Julie, but why are you blaming me?”
“Because you sent him to pick it up! You knew he would do anything you wished.”
“But I didn’t send him.”
Julie stared at the older woman. “Then who did?”
“The phone rang while I was in the bathtub, and David answered it. I suppose he thought I needed that prescription, because when I came downstairs, he was gone. I would never have sent him on such a night. You, of all people, should know better, Julie”
Her voice softened. “I raised him to be considerate of others, and he always was, so I suppose you can blame me for that much.”
For a long time, Julie stared at her hands silently. Finally she shook her head slowly and spoke in hushed tones. “No, I can see now that you are to blame for nothing and that I have been very unfair. I made foolish assumptions and therefore I have wronged you all these years, so now I must beg your forgiveness.”
The older woman rose and put her arms gently around Julie. “Grief can blind us, Julie, and I too have suffered greatly over David’s loss. There’s nothing to forgive, my dear.”
Tommy sat up in the bed. “You’re my dad’s mother?”
Julie sat on the bed beside him, and took his hand. “No, Tommy, your daddy was an orphan. Your grandmother is a very kind woman, so she took him in when he was just a baby and raised him, although he was never legally adopted. That’s why he loved her so much, and that’s also how I met him. You must forgive me for not telling you sooner, but I was very angry. You see Tommy, Emma is my mother.”