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Snow at Twilight
by Nick Young

     He tried to move as little as possible, shifting only enough to wrench free his right hand which the fall had left partially pinned underneath his backside. The pain in his left leg was excruciating, sending blinding white light pulsing behind his tightly closed eyes. The leg was grotesquely twisted and broken. He knew without looking that the fracture was compound and he could feel he was losing blood.


     Opening his eyes and turning his head slowly he saw the sky above, darkening, the angle of the sun slanting very near to the horizon. There was perhaps an hour of light remaining. He wondered if that much life was left to him.


It began to snow, a sifting of fat listless flakes. Through the haze of pain his memory flashed on a snow globe his mother had long prized—tiny Currier and Ives Christmas carolers gathered beneath a street lamp, silent mouths open wide amid the swirling blizzard. He winced and let out a low moan, one that carried as much despair as agony.


     The unyielding granite wall of the fissure pressed hard against the left side of his face. It was a cold reminder that in a heartbeat his life had pivoted irrevocably. Such an event was no longer either an abstraction or a fiction’s plot device. It was an errant step on a mountain trail he had traversed before, a small patch of friable rock. His footing lost, down he plunged, thirty feet until trapped by the narrowing vee of the crack. And as he struggled to raise his right hand— almost surely broken—to brush the falling snowflakes away, he silently cursed his folly.


     It was to have been a late-afternoon hike, just above the tree line for twilight pictures of the rising late-October moon, then down and home. He was no back country tenderfoot: he had made the trek before, more than once; but this time he allowed his judgment to be clouded by hubris. He would forego anything he did not deem vital. For such a short trip, this time he would take only a bottle of water, a handful of trail mix and a camera. Nothing more. The cell phone that could have been his salvation he had locked in the glove compartment of his Jeep a mile down the mountainside. There would be no rescue—there could be no rescue. His wife would not grow worried until well after sunset and it would be hours more before a search party found him. By then he would be gone, bled out or frozen.


     So now, with each throbbing stab from his shattered leg, he could see before him with great clarity what most men are not privy to—the imminent coda of his life. In the crepuscular light he marked the snow’s quickening descent. He thought of his parents, relieved that neither of them was alive. His mother, especially, would have had her heart broken to know her son had died so young and in such circumstances, mortally injured and alone on a mountainside.


     He was her first-born and she had idolized him as the pride of the family—from his glory days as a star athlete and student in high school through law school at Yale, marriage to a beautiful, intelligent woman, two great kids embarking on their own lives in the world, partner in a fine law firm, the respect of his peers. At the age of fifty, he’d had the world knocked.


     All thrown away.


     As his life ebbed with the light of the day he was brought through the pain to take stock of himself. Yes, there were his many successes, what the righteous among his parents’ church- going friends would term “blessings,” but he knew there was deep within him a singular, poisonous moment that he could neither erase nor atone for, a sin that ate at his core during his darkest hours of self-doubt and loathing. And he knew that he would soon leave this world with the stain still on his soul.


     It was a beautiful, mild day in early September, one that brought a respite from the summer’s oppressiveness. He always remembered that clearly—the sunshine, the gentle breeze stirring through the branches of the big willows that flanked the family farmhouse. He was eleven years old, just home from school and ready to ride his bike up the road to the next farm to play baseball with the neighbor boys. His father was in the fields, his mother at the kitchen sink preparing the evening meal when he spotted the dog slowly trotting up the long gravel lane leading to the house. He’d never seen the animal before. It appeared to him to be a border collie, with mangy dark-brown fur, its head hung down and tongue out. As it angled off the driveway and up toward the front of the house, he leaned his bicycle against the wall of the garage and quickly followed.


     His mother had also seen the dog and by the time he reached the porch, she was at front door trying to shoo it away.


     But it wouldn't go. It backed up a step or two with each wave and shout, then moved closer again. He could see by the dog’s matted, dusty coat that it was not someone’s indoor pet. His mother had brought with her a broom, opening the door enough to try to push the dog back and send it on its way. But it would not leave, instead sitting back on its skinny haunches and looking at his mother with pleading eyes. It was clear it was hungry—for a bit of food and a small measure of human kindness.


     He called out to his mother to give him the broom, and when she handed it to him, he began to swat at the dog in an attempt to force it off the porch. Still, it would not go, bearing up under his swings, by circling around and beginning to whimper. For a reason he never fathomed, his mother found this amusing, chiding him to stop harassing the poor animal while snickering at the same time. This caused to well up within him a delight and he renewed his blows, turning the broom and using the handle to beat the dog. The poor creature’s distress, its pitiful yelps, only fueled his mother’s mirth and his inchoate fury. At length, after landing several hard blows, the dog retreated, ran off the porch and back down the driveway.


     He handed the broom to his mother, who made a small show of her displeasure with him, but her insincerity was thinly veiled and he quietly reveled in the satisfaction his act—and her response—had given him.


     The dog did not return, and through his youth he gave the episode no thought. But as he grew into manhood, it returned, shadowing his dark days, rising up to haunt his dreams.


     Now, as cold and pain gripped him, he saw the creature again—hungry and tired and lonely, asking so little yet receiving only brutishness.


     Why had he succumbed so readily to cruelty? Why?


     Clouds had drifted over the moon as it edged past the lip of the crevice, casting down a dull ivory glow. The snow was falling heavily. No longer did he bother to brush it from his face but closed his eyes and wept.

Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than thirty publications—journals and anthologies. His first novel Deadline was published in September. He lives outside Chicago.

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