This is not how I wanted to start my long-awaited weekend away. I’m standing in the entryway of Cassie’s house, fuming. Like always, she isn’t ready to go. I knew this was going to happen. I don’t know why I bother to rush to make it anywhere on time when Cassie is involved. My foot taps of its own accord, restlessly waiting.
Jill is smart: she stayed in the car. She’s probably playing a game on her phone, not letting Cassie’s lateness get to her.
“Are you ready yet?” I call out into the house, disgusted.
Cassie finally comes around the corner pulling a huge wheeled suitcase. In her other hand, she drags a smaller bag that matches the larger one to a tee. I try to suppress my eye roll at the ridiculous amount of stuff she’s taking for a two-day trip to the mountains.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Cassie scolds. “Winter clothes take up more space.”
I’m too aggravated to care how much stuff she’s taking; I just want to get on the road. I didn’t mention to her that she doesn’t need to wear her entire ski outfit now, considering we aren’t skiing until tomorrow.
Cassie’s trendy high-heeled boots click on the pavement behind me as she pulls her luggage along. Small patches of old snow litter the walkway. I open the back of my mother’s Ford Explorer, and we shove her bags in. Rather than get into the car, Cassie goes back to the house.
“Where are you going?” I ask in a huff.
“I still have one more thing to get,” Cassie calls back to me, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
I move to the side of the truck and yank the door open. Jill is in the backseat. The clicks of her thumbs hitting the buttons on her phone and the happy music from the game she is playing are the only sounds in the car. I want to slam my head against the car window repeatedly to release my frustration, but I refrain from doing so. Instead, I cross my arms tightly across my chest and purse my lips shut.
Another five minutes later, Cassie comes traipsing back along the walkway carrying another bag. I am absolutely dumbfounded as to what she couldn’t possibly live without for the next seventy-two hours.
I wait in my seat while Cassie loads her final bag into the back of the Explorer. She opens the passenger side door and gets in. I clap.
Jill laughs and Cassie shoots me an ugly glare. I twist to put the key in the ignition and pull away from the curb, thanking the heavens that we’re finally on our way. My praise is short lived because only minutes into our merge onto the highway, it starts.
“Turn down the heat, Lib; I’m starting to sweat,” Cassie chides as we coast along, headed for New Hampshire.
“No, I’m cold. Take your coat off,” Jill whines.
I press down on the accelerator to move us forward faster. I really want to crush it flat to the floor, but I hold myself back, keeping my level head. A speeding ticket would only make this car ride worse.
Despite our occasional bickering, the three of us have been friends since childhood. We are very different people, but even so, we have remained close for many years.
We take a weekend every winter to head up north and breathe the fresh mountain air. Well, that’s how I look at it, at least. Cassie looks at it as meeting men of the mountain variety. Jill doesn’t care where we go or what we do; she just wants to get away from her controlling parents.
This year we are trying cross-country skiing. Jill’s uncle recommended an area off the beaten path that is supposed to have top-notch cross country skiing. Since the ski house we are staying in belongs to him, we are taking his word for it that Mount Carter is the “in”, place.
Jill’s family has money. They are mostly stockbrokers. Her family has done really well even in the economic depression we are currently in. The saying, having money doesn’t buy happiness is all too true. Jill’s family is testimony to that.
The highway bottlenecks into a two lane road that zigs and zags through mountains heavily coated in white. In years past, we have run into trouble with navigating through heavy snow in a car, so I borrowed my mother’s SUV. The roads here in New Hampshire can be treacherous and the weather relentless.
“How much further?” Cassie asks. “I think I’ve sweated off about five pounds.”
“Ugh, don’t be so dramatic. Why don’t you crack a window and hang your head out like a dog?” Jill quips.
Cassie quickly flips her head around to send a revolted glower at Jill. “Why you little…” she flames back.
“Enough,” I warn, cutting Cassie off. “No more fighting or I will turn this car around.”
I can perceive the sarcasm that Cassie is gearing up for as she sucks in her breath to speak.
“Gee whiz, Mom. You’re no fun.” She pauses only briefly before she adds, “Hey, do you think we’ll meet a lot of guys this year? You know, because we’re going someplace new.”
“No clue. We’re staying near some closed down slopes. I think we’ll probably see less people,” I offer.
“Good, maybe that means everyone will have their teeth,” Cassie says.
Jill giggles at Cassie’s statement “You’re terrible.”
“I try,” Cassie grins mischievously.
“What do the directions say to do next?” I ask. “We’re at a fork in the road.”
“Go right. Stay on this road for three miles.”
The farther we travel, the more the miles stretch out long and deserted before us. All you can see is white intermixed with the green of pine trees and the brown of their trunks. The trees provide a sharp contrast to the stark white of the freshly fallen snow. There are no houses, businesses, or toothless people in sight.
We come to a stop at a black iron gate, uniquely intricate with swirls and spikes. A brown box sits on a post; I roll forward to meet it.
“You have to buzz for us to be let in,” Jill says. I press the button on my door and the window goes down. I press the black button on the brown box and a male voice drowned in static asks, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, we are staying at Gary Vickson’s house,” I yell into the speaker.
“Pull up please,” the faceless voice instructs.
The hum of the electric gate warns of its movement and the metal doors swing out soon after. I press the gas to move up to the guard building.
“Impressive,” Cassie coos, whistling in approval.
A very small building about the size of an old-fashioned outhouse sits by the entrance. A handsome man steps out of it dressed regally in a navy colored uniform. My heartbeat picks up.
“Can I help you girls?” he smiles welcomingly.
For the first time in my life, I am speechless. He blinds me with his dazzling white teeth, a chiseled jaw, and a mop of beautiful dark hair. Jill comes to my rescue by leaning forward from the backseat.
“I’m Gary Vickson’s niece. We’re here for the weekend.” The runway model posing as a guard for the small-gated community nestled amongst the snowy mountains smiles even deeper at me. He looks down at a clipboard I didn’t even realize he was holding because I was so fixated on his beautiful face.
“Yes, I have you down on my sheet.”
He leans against my door and his close proximity rattles me. His long finger points up the street. I flush. He is talking, but I can only try desperately to listen. Cassie laughs at me as I stare at him trying to focus on his directions
“Go straight up the hill and take a left. The cottage is number fifty-three. The place should be ready for you.” His face turns my way again and my flush turns into a full-blown beat red blush. Having blonde hair and fair skin is a curse. It makes me even more easy-to-read. I wish I could hide behind dark olive skin and lush wavy brown hair like Cassie does. The fact that he is still speaking pulls me out of my thoughts.
“I’m Neil. If you girls need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy your stay.” He leans back, but I don’t move the vehicle. I am paralyzed.
“Uh, Lib? I think we can go now,” Cassie says, making fun of me. I shake off my daze and pull away from Neil. Finally finding my wits, I navigate up the street.
“Well, he was mighty fine. What do you think Lib? He’s got all his teeth.” Cassie is not the type to let go of an opportunity to razz level-headed me. So I do what I always do – roll my eyes and ignore her.
It didn’t take long for me to forget about the handsome guard with all his teeth. The neighborhood was gorgeous.
Cassie did her typical word drag. “Fan-cy!”
“Ummm, yeah.” Jill says staring at the accommodations from the window of the car. “I could live here all year!”
The cottage is more like a midsize house: definitely not a typical vacation home. The front is peaked in the middle and painted a warm yellow. A small balcony juts out from the second floor. The house is snuggled amongst the piled snow. This place was meant to be more than a winter retreat.
The walkway and driveway are shoveled and maneuverable. Other houses on the street are also well kept and picturesque against the mountain backdrop.
“Awww,” Jill says thoughtfully. “They look like little gingerbread houses lined up with white frosting.” Jill always sees everything as ice cream and shiny balloons. That’s what I love about her. And that no matter how bad things get, Jill always finds a silver lining.
We jump out of the car and rush to the front door. I stamp the excess snow off my boots in the foyer as we make plans to split up and check the house out.
“Look at this kitchen!” Cassie yells out to us. “I really wished I cooked!” The kitchen is gourmet-chefed out with stainless steel, granite, and mini decorative hanging lights.
“This bedroom is totally mine,” Jill calls from upstairs.
I follow her upstairs to see, my curiosity getting the better of me. A huge master bedroom with its own mammoth bathroom takes up the entire second floor. The walls are painted beige with white trim and there is an elaborate bed smack dab in the middle of an enormous wall across from French doors. The doors reveal breathtaking mountain views from the balcony.
“This is awesome!” I squeal. Cassie comes into the room to join us.
“Can we just stay in all weekend?” she whines. “That TV downstairs is bigger than my garage at home.”
Jill walks to the glass doors to absorb the view. “That’s Mount Carter,” she informs us, pointing.
A knock sounds at the door.
“Who’s that?” Jill asks, her eyes bug out in fear.
“How am I supposed to know?” Cassie mocks.
“What is someone doing here?” Jill asks rhetorically.
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t we answer it?” Cassie says with her trademark sarcasm.
“What if it’s a serial killer?” Jill replies. Her lip curls and she sucks it between her teeth nervously.
I take the lead, as usual, and I head back down the stairs to the front door.
“Will you stop!” Cassie says angrily. “Serial killer? In the middle of the day? In a gated neighborhood? Seriously?”
The knock sounds again, louder. I make it to the foyer and swing the door open. On the step stands Neil in his yummy, I guard the whole neighborhood, uniform.
“Hi. I thought you might need some help carrying your luggage into the house.” The sides of his mouth curled into a megawatt smile.
I grasp my composure in attempt to hold onto it.
“Oh. Thanks,” I answer and send a glance up the stairs at Cassie and Jill. I swipe the keys off the kitchen counter and follow Neil to the car.
“So, what are you girls going to do here in the mountains?” Neil asks while lifting Cassie’s heavy luggage from the back.
“We’re trying cross country this weekend for the first time.”
“Yeah,” he says as he carries two bags at one time. “Cross country is great.”
I take a couple of small bags and trail behind him, but he moves aside for me to go ahead. Jill and Cassie pass us on the walkway as they go to get more stuff. I show Neil to Cassie’s room, and he places the suitcase on the bed.
“This is such a nice house. It’s one of the better ones in the area,” Neil comments as another great smile forms on his face.
“Yeah, it is,” I acknowledge.
“You always, always, always, take too much stuff, Cass,” Jill chastises. “How long do you think we’re staying? A month!?”
Jill and Cassie can be heard in the hallway, arguing. Typical!
I want to bury my head in my coat and hide in embarrassment.
“I want to make sure I have a selection to pick from.”
Cassie begins a lecture. Oh, no!
“Maybe if I brought only a couple of things I wouldn’t feel like wearing any of them.” Cassie gets animated and her hands find her hips. “I’d be thinking, shit! I wish I brought this or I wish I brought that.”
Jill shakes her head in annoyance and hoists up another large suitcase that, of course, belongs to Cassie.
“I’ll grab that for you,” Neil says taking the bag from Jill.
“Thank you, Neil,” Cassie says pointedly. “That is very nice of you to come over here and help us.”
“Well, I noticed how loaded the back of your vehicle is. I figured you could use a hand.”
“Thanks,” I say softly.