Mona held the door for the dairy truck driver, who was wheeling in a dolly filled with milk and cream, and then closed it against the rain. Leo, Heather, and Eli were huddled over the counter. Bodies at the hearth. People who belong to you, your friends, your customers. At the center of the tableau Heather’s pale hair lit up the scene, while her son Eli, with his adolescent sense of dignity, peered silently around from behind her, at the laptop on the counter.
“It’s coming down river,” said Heather.
Mona started. “What’s coming down river?”
“Ice! “ shouted Eli.
“But the whole river is ice.”
“They’re talking about an ice jam,” Heather said, voice hushed. “Saying it could hit the bridge.”
“The bridge?” She choked. The old covered bridge was as much a part of her landscape, of her life, as the river. She reached across Heather and turned on the scanner.
Heather and Eli argued about driving home while the scanner crackled with static. Mona stood at the window watching the river and twisting her finger around the end of her braid.
She had learned to drive a tractor when she was ten, and more times than not she’d be out in the barn with her dad, milking and mucking the stalls when her brothers were still in bed. She’d much rather be outside than in. Let her brothers stay in with her mother, Mona couldn’t stand the kitchen. She could build fences and fix engines, and Dad relied on her as he never did with the boys. It was tough, yes it was, but it sure did come in handy when she got the store. Not that she thought store-keeping would be all that easy, but sometimes it felt a lot tougher than all the farm work combined. It would have been nice to have a break once in a while.
Not that she would ever go back to the high and mighty Johnny O. Duval. Maybe her dad had been just an uneducated farmer, and maybe he’d been what they now called abusive, but nothing like Johnny O. And for him to think afterward that he could just saunter into her life and upset the apple cart whenever he had a whim…those phone calls…Whoa, Mona, she thought, that was the past, and you don’t need to go there.
“I won’t subject you to violence,” Heather was declaring in her thin but authoritative voice, “and right now the weather is violent. We’re staying here.” Eli skulked off to the back of the store as Heather pursed her lips.
Mona turned back to the window. Heather was so overprotective. If it were her kid, she’d have been home an hour ago.
A loud crackle and the voice of Mary Louise, the dispatcher, bleeped from the scanner. “Edson, come in.” Edson Perry was head of the FAST Squad, The First Aid Stabilization Team, first responders, they had been a fixture in Vermont towns for years.
“Man on river, man on river,” Mary Louise called, in that official-sounding monotone, as if a man on the river were an everyday occurrence.
Heather’s mouth dropped open and she looked at Mona. Mona turned up the volume. “Edson, do you hear me?” crackled Mary Louise, still in that monotone. Edson didn’t answer.
Mona picked up the receiver. “Mona here. Where’s the guy?” She was on the FAST Squad too.
“Wild Mountain Road, quarter mile above the bridge, according to motorist with cell phone.”
“Okay, let’s go, “she said, pulling on her boots and grabbing her parka from the hook. “Heather, can you cover for me?” she yelled as she banged out the door, leaving Heather nodding mutely at the counter.
She climbed into her vehicle, a silver four by four Ford, and Leo appeared with an armful of coiled rope. He threw it into the truck bed and scrambled into the passenger seat beside her.
When they reached the parked car, a gust of rain dumped out of the sky and then just as suddenly stopped. Edson’s red Chevy pickup was on the other side of the road, Edson standing on the bank, facing the river.
“Fucking imbecile!” Edson shouted.
While Leo hefted the coiled rope out of the truck bed, Mona peered through the fog. “Who is it?”
“Fucking Admiral Perry.” Edson pointed. She saw a dark shape, almost on the other side of the river. He was surrounded by water, standing on what did look like an iceberg. The little blue BMW parked beside them looked familiar. Oh yes, she’d seen it earlier today at the store. Could it be Frank MacFarland out there?
A siren wailed through the fog, and the Wild Mountain fire truck, lights flashing, pulled around the bend and came to a stop.
Cappy Gold, the fire chief, a small and hefty man in his forties, stepped down from the cab. He looked out at the river and back at them with quiet dark eyes, and in a soft voice started to give orders. Cappy and Edson fussed and fumed and finally agreed to extend the ladder out horizontally to where the man was stranded. They managed to release it and tilt it down, guiding its tip toward the river.
“I’ll go,” Mona volunteered. She was the lightest and nimblest person on the team. Cappy nodded. She strapped on a life vest, and then, taking one end of the rope, stepped onto the ice. She moved tentatively, slipped and caught herself, sprays of water splashing onto her head and parka as the river crashed into a massive hunk of ice beside her.
She searched the river with her eyes and now she could see him. “Oh, God,” she cried, “It isFrank. Frank MacFarland!” Not that anyone could hear her. She felt like screaming, and maybe like screaming at him. What an idiot. She didn’t know what she felt, but she was here, and now she had to go on. She stepped onto the ladder beside her and began to crawl toward Frank.
Frank, in a yellow slicker, marooned on his iceberg, waved his arms and pointed downriver. The water between them was roaring so loud, she couldn’t hear. Something about a moose?
“Okay, Frank, hold tight,” she shouted and waved to Cappy to steer the ladder to the right. The tip of it came to rest on the ice floe where Frank was standing, and when he started to come toward the ladder, he was limping and struggling to walk.
“Crawl, Frank! “she yelled.
Frank sank to his hands and knees on the ladder and started to inch toward her. “Good, Frank,” she shouted, “that’s it. You got it,” and tried to throw him one end of the rope, but it missed the mark and fell into the water. Well, maybe they didn’t need the rope. It was just an extra precaution.
By the time they made it back to the bank, Frank was red-faced and panting. He had a big goose egg of a bump on the side of his head. She gave him a hug, and his breath reeked of beer. He was saying something about a moose, but she wasn’t listening, because by this time the ambulance had arrived, and two paramedics were placing a stretcher on the crusty snow and situating him on it. Frank mounted a half-hearted protest but was obviously too beat to sustain much resistance. As the team fastened the straps on the stretcher, she called out, “Head injury, ankle injury.”
Frank sighed. “I hope he made it.”
The West Paris fire truck was parked behind the Wild Mountain truck, and now there were at least six other people standing around. As he disappeared into the ambulance, Frank gave her a sad-eyed smile. “Hey, Mona, I got you into an adventure after all.”
“Yeah, Frank, I guess you did.” She patted his hand. Idiot.
The rain had stopped, and as she walked back to the truck, she shrugged off her parka hood and shook out her braid. With his hair sticking up in mats and a monster of a purple contusion, his pants soaked and torn, Frank looked like some feral maniac, or like Gus, her old friend who a few years ago chucked his normal life and went up on the mountain to live like a hermit. But Frank, she thought, struggling to be more compassionate, was trying to rescue an animal, so he must have a good heart. And he did look kind of cute in the store.
Whoa, Mona, she thought, straightening her shoulders and lifting her eyes heavenwards, let’s not go there either. “Just my canoe and my fishing pole,” she declared, shouting into the rain.
The fog had rolled away now, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw something moving. On the other side of the river, scampering along the bank and leaping back into the trees – a baby moose.