Cold: A Courtney Short Story
If you follow my other blog, you know that I feature flash fiction every Thursday as part of a writing group I’m in (The Spot Writers). This week, I was inspired by the extreme cold–and my task of keeping the pipes from freezing. We were supposed to write a story about a character’s reaction to an intruder. I added a bit of a spin, making the intruder the cold. The story features Courtney and follows her continuing journey to be a better person.
by Val Muller
“Don’t forget to leave the sink dripping,” Mom said.
Dad smiled. “Wouldn’t want the pipes to burst.”
“And if anything happens, call Belle or Cassie. They know we’ll be gone for the night, and we’ve asked them to look in on you.”
“I’m in seventh grade already. I can take care of myself.”
“Seventh grade isn’t that old, young lady. Remember, no going out. Let the dogs out once or twice, but that’s it. And no visitors.”
Mom jingled her keys. “And Dad will be back around noon.”
“Got it.” Mom reached over for a hug. Moms always did stuff like that. “Have fun at your conference,” Courtney added.
Finally, finally, they left. Courtney watched them from the front window. She couldn’t wait. She had the entire night planned—a movie marathon coupled with a chat session with her friends. And she could text Dave all night, too. She was finally being treated like an adult.
But that was all. She was turning over a new leaf. Her parents finally trusted her, finally un-grounded her. So no sneaking out, no inviting anyone over. Just watching movies with the volume as loud as she wanted, eating whatever she wanted, and having the peace and quiet of being away from her brother.
It would be…like being a grown-up. It was going to be awesome.
And then, when Dad returned in the morning and saw the house was still standing the dogs were fed and happy, her parents would trust her even more. Never too early to start thinking about driving—only a few years away!
The kitchen sink was set to drip—last year the pipes had frozen along the outside wall. They hadn’t burst, luckily, but there were so many stories in the news with this recent cold snap. It was breaking records and pipes–and it was the reason they were letting Courtney stay by herself. She was supposed to keep the taps dripping and the thermostat turned up. And, in case anything happened, she knew where the main water shut-off was, and she had her parents’ cell phone numbers memorized. Mom’s presentation wasn’t until the morning, so she could call them whenever she wanted. After that, Dad would answer.
Not that she would need to call either of them. She was in seventh grade now.
She settled into the recliner—Dad’s recliner. She set up Mom’s laptop on the end table, plugged in her phone charger, opened a bag of popcorn, and pulled a blanket up to her chin. Breaking small rules didn’t matter. Dad would never know she was eating in his chair, and Mom wouldn’t miss her laptop tonight. She smirked and broke one final rule. “Come on, Sapphie,” she said to her dog. “You can sit up here with me.”
Sapphie took a running leap without even thinking, burrowing into the forbidden comfort of the recliner. Adam’s dog yelped and hid under the couch. “Poor Zeph,” Courtney said. “Too bad Adam couldn’t have taken you to his sleepover.”
Courtney shoved a handful of popcorn into her mouth and pushed “play” on the DVR. Sapphie wagged her tail, vacuuming up the popcorn as it spilled on Courtney’s shirt.
The first movie started playing just as a text from Dave came in. Courtney signed onto Facebook and posted on her friends’ walls. She didn’t have to worry for once about a parent peeking over her shoulder. She could talk about whatever she wanted, using whatever language she wanted to, and she didn’t even have to use commas! She giggled; she could even fart right there in her father’s recliner and no one to reprimand her.
It was everything she expected, everything she hoped. Living like a grown-up was awesome.
Halfway through the bag of popcorn and the movie, the microwave oven beeped. The lights went out.
Sapphie and Zeph barked in alarm, sensing her tension. She picked up her cell phone. The pale moon outside did little to light the way.
“It’s okay, dogs,” she whispered. She hoped.
“Power out,” she texted to Dave.
“Yeah, me too,” he responded. “Sux. Guess I’ll go hibernate until it comes back on. Gonna get cold with no heat.”
And he was gone, just like that.
And then Courtney shivered. Cold with no heat. With no heat, how would she keep the pipes from freezing? In the kitchen above, she heard the refrigerator turn on. Why weren’t the rest of the lights coming on, too?
Then she remembered: Dad had wired their generator to come on automatically to run the refrigerator. She thought about calling Mom and Dad. They hadn’t been gone that long. Maybe they would come back. Besides, this was Mom’s conference. They had already talked about Mom going by herself and Dad staying behind. Maybe he could come back now.
She looked at her list of contacts, ready to push the button for Dad’s phone, but she shook her head. Sure, she was only in seventh grade, but that was pretty old. She could handle this on her own.
Outside, the wind howled. She must not have heard it over the movie’s volume, but it was raging. It pressed against the windows, making them creak. It lashed against the shutters and whipped through the trees. She remembered being a little kid, all wrapped in a comforter in bed and hearing these same noises. How comforting it had been all those years ago, wrapped up tight with Mom and Dad downstairs to protect her.
Now she was on her own. No one to protect her—and assigned to look after the dogs and the house. And all those chips on her shoulder.
She ran up to the kitchen. The faucet was still dripping. That’s right—water and phone lines were on a different system than electricity. She remembered Mom saying something about that. She pulled the faucet, making the stream of water more steady. Less chance of freezing that way.
But what about the plunging temperatures? A quick trip outside with the dogs proved that the wind was bringing with it a cold front, an arctic blast whose icy grip reached into the ground and into pipes and water lines and skin.
Courtney shuddered and hurried back inside. She touched the exterior kitchen wall. It felt cold. This was no good. She picked up her phone again, ready to call Dad.
But no. She could handle this on her own. If the refrigerator ran off the generator, then certainly a space heater could as well. Some of the sockets in the kitchen still had to be electrified. It was only a matter of finding which ones…
* * *
The next morning, she awoke to the sounds of dogs barking. They scampered happily down the stairs as Courtney sat up. Her sleeping bag pooled around her, and she looked up at the kitchen sink. It was still dripping. The space heater was still spinning, directed at the cabinet under the sink. She’d stayed up most of the night, checking the pipes and making sure the space heater wasn’t about to catch on fire. It was the most exhausting night she’d ever spent. She must have dozed off right around sunrise.
The clock on the microwave blinked, letting her know the power was back on. She looked up in time to see Dad coming into the kitchen.
“What happened?” he asked. “Did you sleep in the kitchen?”
Courtney rubbed her head and shrugged. “Power was out,” she said. “Had to keep the pipes from freezing.”
Dad helped her up, and she trudged upstairs to shower.
“I’m proud of you,” Dad called up the stairs, “working so hard to protect the house.”
“Yeah,” Courtney whispered to herself. “Be proud all you want. Being a grown-up stinks!”