Sleep left him in an instant, frightened off by the opening of his bedroom door. Chad rubbed his eyes and squinted at the silhouette in the doorway. His heart lurched into second gear. Who was this stranger in shrouded fluorescent mist? He was dressed in the costume of a mountain man. A coonskin cap topped his long unkempt hair, and a fringed rawhide coat hung from his tall lean frame. His features, like his purpose, were unclear.
"Who are you?" Chad asked in a voice that didn't sound like his. "What do you want?"
"Prepare yourself for an important journey," the hollow voice said, and the form instantly dissolved. Darkness rushed into the vacuum of his exit.
Chad threw his covers back and dashed across the floor. He frantically threw the door open. The figure was gone, leaving only the faint smell of pine trees and wood smoke.
Chad crept down the hallway. The carpet tickled his arches with warm assurance that reality had returned. He peered into the family room where the Christmas tree flashed its alternate colors. The floor under the tree was packed with presents. Chris and Amanda would be delighted in the morning. Morning? What time was it? He glanced at the iridescent hands of the mantle clock. Two a.m. It was already morning. A steady gas flame burned in the fireplace. Central heat kept the house warm, but Mom and Dad liked that fire for some reason.
After one last hungry look at the presents, he turned to his room. The mountain man had been nothing more than a dream as he woke. And yet, he had seemed so real. Chad slouched back to his room. "Important journey, huh?" he said under his breath. The only important journey he could think of was the ski trip forbidden by Dad. All because of a stupid history test. What difference did it make how people lived two hundred years ago? No skateboards, no TV - it was boring stuff.
He closed the door behind him and felt his way to the bed. His big toe found the bedpost with sharp accuracy and he swore under his breath. Empowered by the forbidden words, he said them again - this time with more emphasis. He smiled as he crawled into bed, in spite of his aching toe. He was a sophomore - old enough to choose his own words. Contrary to what Mom and Dad thought, sixteen was old enough to give him a few privileges too - even if he was only a few weeks into it. All his friends had a car, and their parents didn't have a cow every time they mentioned dating. How was a guy supposed to have any fun stuck at home all the time? It was a good two miles to the mall - an easy walk, but how would that look?
He pulled the covers up around his neck. Maybe he had something good under that tree this year -something besides clothes and a cassette player. Maybe a boom box with a CD player or maybe a DVD player for the TV in his room. That play station was getting worn out. Maybe.... Somewhere in his Christmas list he fell asleep.
He woke several hours later to a gray dawn. He pulled back the curtains, but a dense fog clung to the ground. He dropped the curtain and groaned. Another dull Christmas. Why couldn't it at least snow?
A loud thump at his door suggested that everyone was waiting on him. He glanced down at his flannel pajamas and shrugged. He'd shower and change later. Right now there were presents calling.
He jerked the door open. "OK, OK, I'll be there in - He gasped as he stared at the scene before him.
The mountain man sat huddled on a chunk of wood in front of a stone fireplace. Bark was peeling from the log walls. Some of the mud had fallen from between the logs, allowing the wind to enter with an icy whistle. The dirt floor was strewn with leaves and pieces of bark. The only window was covered with some kind of dark woolly animal hide. It was a dismal room, lit only by the fire.
The door slammed shut behind him. He swung around, grabbing for the doorknob, but a rawhide strip hung from the plank door. Cold air swept through the cracks, leaping through his pajamas and clinging to his skin.
Of course, it was a dream. He jerked on the rawhide strip and the door swung open. A blast of cold air hit him in the face, robbing him of breath. At least two feet of snow covered the ground and large flakes fell silently as he watched. The snow was so heavy that he could barely see more than a few feet.
"Shut that door!" A voice boomed behind him.
He slammed the door shut against the cold and stared at it in numb silence. He closed his eyes tightly, shivering as he crossed his arms. What in the...? He stared down at the ragged clothes on his body. Where were his warm flannel pajamas?
"Wake up!" He shouted. If he couldn't wake up, maybe someone would hear him and shake him awake.
"You are awake, son." The voice spoke behind him again. This time gently.
Chad turned and stared at the man. "No. This is just a nightmare."
The man shook his shaggy head slowly. A mustache and flowing gray beard covered the lower part of his face, but the dark eyes gazed at him sadly. "This is no nightmare." He pointed a bony finger at a small pile of wood. That's all there is. When that's gone…." He shrugged. "That's how much time you have to figure it out."
Chad blinked. "Figure what out?"
The man walked around Chad and opened the door. Without another word, he left the cabin and closed the door behind him.
Chad grabbed the rawhide and jerked the door open. "Figure what out?" he shouted into the wind. The man had vanished without even so much as a footprint in the snow.
Chad slammed the door shut again and stared at the feeble flames in the fireplace. He slapped his face and gasped at the sharp sting. He was awake! But how could this happen? Where was he, and what puzzle did he have to figure out before the woodpile was gone?
He sat on the chunk of wood, resting his elbows on his knees as he stared at his worn boots. He lifted one foot up and poked his finger through a hole in the bottom. He didn't have any socks on. His pants were made of some stiff rough material, faded and worn. The shirt under his threadbare jacket was scratchy and full of holes.
And the lesson was...he should be thankful for the clothes he got for Christmas? He glanced around, but no magical transformation took place. A log snapped in the fire. He stared at the glowing embers until his eyes burned.
His stomach growled in protest. He clutched his coat closer and shivered. Right now he should be opening presents. Mom would have breakfast ready as soon as the presents were open. Was that it? He should appreciate the things he had. Yes. That had to be it.
"I don't need presents," he said without conviction. "I just want to go back to my family."
He waited breathlessly for a long time, but nothing happened. He let out his breath and stood, swearing fervently. This time the words brought him no joy - no sense of power. He fell to his knees, clasping his hands together as he gazed upward. "God, please forgive me."
A wolf howled outside and the fire snapped again. "Please help me out of this," he added. Surely God was the answer. He was being punished for his foul language, right?
But nothing changed. He was still hungry and cold. The flames were getting smaller. He eyed the tiny woodpile. If he let the fire go out, how would he start it again? He threw one of the logs into the fire and jumped back as the sparks darted toward him.
Maybe if he fell asleep, he would awaken in his room. This couldn't be real. It had to be a nightmare. He curled up on the floor, his arm under his head and his back to the flames. Sleep. That was the answer.
For a long time he lay awake, but finally he slept. When he woke, he was in his room, but it was cold. Neither his flannel pajamas nor the blankets stopped the cold wind. He opened his bedroom door and the hallway lay before him. Even the carpet was cold. The heater must have stopped working. That would explain the cold dream.
"Mom, Dad," he called as he entered the family room. The tree twinkled brightly in the cold room, but the fireplace no longer offered a comforting flame. No presents lay under the tree. He let out a sigh of relief. It had all been a nightmare - right down to the presents under the tree. As he stared absently at the tree, the door swung open behind him. The cold night air slapped him awake.
He woke in the cabin. The door had blown open, allowing snow to float into the room. He jumped up and slammed it shut. He slumped against the door. Had his entire life been a dream? Was this reality? It was a ridiculous thought. But then, so was this situation. He shivered. Hunger gnawed sharply at his stomach. What lesson was he expected to learn before he could leave this miserable cabin?
The shivering became worse and his teeth began to chatter. A quick look at the fire revealed it had burned down to coals. How long had he slept? How long would the remaining fuel last? He placed another log on the red coals and watched anxiously as it darkened and finally burst into flames. He clutched the ragged clothes close to his body and seated himself on the chunk of wood. Only three more logs remained, and then his chair. How much longer would they last?
The wolf howled again - long and lonely. Was the wolf hungry and cold as well? What else roamed out there in the snow...other than a ghostly mountain man? His stomach growled again. Would he starve or freeze first?
"Think!" He said sharply. "What am I supposed to figure out?" But the answer eluded him. The wind forced its icy fingers through the cracks in the cabin. It would be warmer if he could plug those holes. American pioneers had used mud mixed with sod. That part he remembered. In the corner was a small pile of straw. He frowned. But no water - only snow. He searched around the cabin until he found a tin can. He hated to open that door again, but the only water around was in that snow. He pulled the door open and heaped the can with snow. Slamming the door shut, he placed one of the logs in front of it to keep it that way. He sat the can of snow beside the fire and waited.
Eventually the snow melted, leaving the can less than a third full of water. He pulled a piece of loose bark from the walls and scraped some dirt into a pile. Tossing some of the straw in the pile, he then poured the water over it. He mixed it with the bark until it was thick and sticky. Piling it on the bark, he proceeded to poke the mud into the holes between the logs with his fingers. His fingers were numb with cold by the time he used the last of the mud, but the room seemed to be a little warmer.
He filled the can with snow and melted it four more times before he had all the holes plugged with mud. The little room was beginning to feel warmer. Maybe he had flunked that history test, but at least he'd remembered something useful.
Another hour and another log, but he was still no closer to solving the puzzle. He was still hungry, but not as cold. He eyed the rawhide hanging on the door. Would he be forced to boil the nutrients out of it in water as the Donnor party had done when they were trapped in the mountains? At least it would be better than nothing. He grabbed his can and headed for the door. The can was dirty, but maybe he could clean it with snow.
Outside, he dug into the snow again. He filled the can several times and wiped it out. It was cleaner. Shoving the can into the snow again, he felt something hard. He dug into the snow and found a stash of hickory nuts. Yes! He filled the can with snow and his pockets with hickory nuts.
Inside the tiny cabin it was warm. He placed the can of snow next to the fire and used two rocks to break open the hickory nuts. The nuts tasted delicious and they calmed the growling in his stomach. After drinking the warm water from the can, he felt much better. What else was hidden under that snow?
It seemed prudent to stay inside the warm cabin, but how long would the fuel last? Maybe he could find some branches under the snow. They would be wet, but the fire would dry them out. It beat sitting around while all the wood in the cabin burned.
Again he ventured outside the cabin, struggling through the deep snow. The wind had died down and it was no longer snowing. In fact, it looked like the sun might even start shining. Strange, but he no longer felt cold. Maybe it was because the wind wasn't blowing.
Ahead he saw what he was looking for. A branch sticking out of the snow. He pushed through the snow and dug the branch out. It was large, but he managed to break it into pieces. He dug around in the snow until he had an armload of fuel. How long would it last? He carried the branches back to the cabin and placed them beside the fireplace. The fire had burned down, so he added another log. Only two left, but they were lasting longer now. The branches he had found would give him more time - time to think. A few more branches and he would come back to the cabin. Not that it would help. What he needed was a hint or two. Where did that Old Mountain Man go, anyway?
Again he plunged through the snow, this time venturing farther from the cabin. The sky was clearing and the mountain scenery was beautiful. If only he had a pair of ski's. He climbed a hill and looked down into a valley. The frozen edges of the lake glistened like lashes around a dark blue eye. Dad would love this place. The thought brought a sudden homesick pang. He had to find the answer.
Further searching turned up more branches and another stash of nuts. At least he would live for a while longer. He turned back toward the cabin, following his tracks in the snow. He reached the top of the hill and stood staring at the cabin below. It wouldn't be a bad old cabin under different circumstances. He took a step forward and his foot slipped in the snow. He fell and slid down the hill on his back, clutching the precious branches all the way down. At the bottom, he stood, brushing the snow from his clothes. He grinned. If he had time, he'd try that again - without the branches, though. He made a face. Only he didn't have the time. Already the sky was getting dark. It would be cold tonight, so he'd better get inside the cabin.
He built the fire up with sticks and added another log. Supper was another can of warm water and some nuts. It wasn't much, but it kept the hunger pangs at bay. At least he would be warm and dry tonight. Maybe after a little sleep, he could figure out that puzzle.
He curled up with his back to the fire and used his arm for a pillow. For a long time he lay awake, but exhaustion finally claimed his mind in sleep. Immediately he began to dream again. The Mountain man stood over him, smiling.
"So you finally figured it out," the man said.
Chad frowned up at him. "Figured it out? I still don't know the answer."
The man nodded. "You have the answer. It's the question you don't understand."
Chad stared at him. "Then what is the question?"
The man grunted and sat down on the block of wood. "What do you need to be happy?"
Chad sat up. What did he need? The old man was wrong. He still didn't know the answer. He shook his head slowly. "I don't know: what?"
The man chuckled. "Today you were happy when you slid down that hill. You were content with a handful of nuts and a can of warm water. What more did you need?"
Chad scratched his head. He could think of a ton of things, but what he wanted most was to go home. That sounded a little selfish, though. Maybe if his family were here...he caught his breath. "Someone to share all this with?" he asked.
The man shook his head. "Happiness isn't what you have. It's what you do with what you have. You could have sat here and waited until all the wood burned up, but you didn't. When you fell down that hill, you could have cursed your luck, but instead you found the joy in it." He patted Chad on the head as if he were a puppy. "Yes Chad, all you need to be happy is a good attitude. All the other things are wants."
As Chad stared at that grizzled old face, it faded from his vision. The old man was gone. The smell of pine trees and wood smoke faded as well. A peaceful feeling engulfed him a he slept again
When he woke, he was in his bedroom again. He threw back the covers and inspected his clothes. Pajamas, a warm bed, a warm room...finally he had escaped the nightmare. When he opened his bedroom door, the smell of fresh baked cinnamon rolls lured him to the family room. Mom and Dad were watching Chris and Amanda open presents. As usual, they would wait until their children had finished opening their presents before they opened their own.
Dad glanced up as Chad entered the room. "I was beginning to think you were going to sleep all day."
Without a word, Chad strode to the tree and picked up two packages. He placed them carefully on the laps of his parents. "These are for you," he said. They glanced at each other with a puzzled expression and then began opening the presents.
Chad paused for a moment, absently watching them. "I had a dream last night," he began. "An old man with a long white beard and…."
"Was it Santa?" Chris interrupted excitedly.
Amanda ceased her frantic unwrapping and fixed her gaze on Chad. "Well, was it," she persisted.
Chad frowned. Santa? Did Santa always wear a red suit and deliver presents through the chimney? Was he a childhood fantasy, or was he nothing more than the spirit of Christmas?
Chad shrugged. "I guess it probably was."
He knelt and picked up a present addressed to him. How could he explain the dream? Had they ever dreamed something so real that they wondered if it was actually a dream? Had it been a dream or visit from a guardian angel? Perhaps it had been a message from God. Could it have been nothing more than his conscience? After all, nothing had happened that he didn't already know. He had simply never put it all into that perspective before. It had only been a nightmare - and yet, things seemed different this morning. Never before had opening presents been so peaceful.
He smiled as he opened the present. It didn't matter what was inside. Whatever it was, he'd make the best of it.
This story can be purchased in the collection of short youth stories "YOUTH YARNS."