Gone Too Long
Pulling her pink scarf tightly around her neck, Corah Halgren squinted her emerald-green eyes to mere slits. She could barely see much farther than her own freckled nose as the snow was falling heavier and faster by the minute.
The blustery wind whipped blonde curls across her forehead and raw, red cheeks. Low tree limbs had snatched away the young girl's toboggan as she quietly trailed after a long-legged fawn.
Ragged breath expelled in long white puffs. Corah ran the back of a mittened hand across her dark eyelashes. "Don't cry now," the seven-year-old said aloud. "Don't you dare cry." She was afraid her lids might freeze shut if she did.
The fawn had skittered off into the pine, back to its mother's warmth and protection. Corah realized she was lost as she emerged from the woods. Which way was the cabin? So much white; so much quiet.
Blinking hard, Corah tried to think. Had she turned left or right back there? Hadn't there been a big rock somewhere?
Her teeth began to chatter and a tinkling, cheery laugh escaped her chapped, blue lips. A small black bird screeched, flying haphazardly toward gray clouds.
"I lost my front tooth this morning, Bird," Corah screamed. "How will the Tooth Fairy find me?"
Daddy had been so excited. He couldn't wait to take her and Mommy camping. He had talked about chopping wood, ice fishing and even fighting bear. She knew he was joking about the bear.
The wind howled. Corah wrapped her arms around her slight torso. Daddy HAD been joking, right? Her brows knit together as she began to slog through the heavy snow, slipping, falling, pulling herself forward once again.
She was cold. So cold. The cold seeped through her suede boots. She was certain her toes would snap off and rattle around like hard little marbles, greatly hindering her return home.
Stopping to catch her breath, Corah suddenly felt exhausted. She needed to rest; just for a moment. Dropping onto her haunches, she formed a mound of snow into a makeshift pillow, placed her hands behind her head and closed her eyes. As the snow turned to a pelting sleet, Corah was pathetically unaware. Her body was painfully numb.
"She's been gone too long, Raley." Ava Halgren's chin quivered as she clutched her husband's arm. "It's getting dark. When are they going to be here?"
"Soon. Soon, I hope," the nervous father gazed out the frosty window, willing his daughter's safe return.
Ava paced the hardwood floor in front of the stone fireplace. "We're city folk, Raley. Corah doesn't know how to take care of herself out in the elements." Tears streamed down her pretty face.
Touching the cold windowpane with bare fingertips, Raley mumbled, "I bought that book about how to read a compass. I should have taught her."
"But she doesn't have the compass with her so what good would it have done?" Ava rubbed at her knuckles until they started to bleed.
Sweeping his down coat from the back of a wooden chair, Raley rummaged through its deep pockets. As he felt the object of his search, he grinned, flung the coat over his shoulder and opened the cabin door.
"Stay here in case Corah comes back," he instructed. "The police and a search party will be here soon." He slammed the door behind him, skidded across the porch and trudged through the now knee-high drifts of snow.
The rescue dogs barked and howled. They had somehow caught a scent despite the swirling chaos of wind and wintry mix.
Corah thought she was hallucinating; a part of her brain, the rational part, frozen with fright, exhaust and hunger.
Strong arms lifted her and held her tightly, attempting to shield her from the weather and further harm.
"Daddy?" she said weakly. A shimmering blackness folded in upon the white.
Ava sobbed as she enveloped her unconscious daughter in a patchwork quilt and gently placed her before the crackling fire.
"She needs medical attention, of course. We have an ambulance on the way." A tall, slender gentleman who identified himself as Officer Mostin explained. "I think she'll be okay, though."
Scanning the man's ice-blue eyes, the question need not be asked.
"We found this about fifty feet from her." Mostin handed a small silver compass to the grieving woman.
Raley Osgood Halgren has never been found.