The road was a narrow ribbon of white threading through dark pine forest that sloped several feet down below ground level. Little traveled, lovely, and treacherous. It looked like a glittering Christmas card, but the snow hid a layer of ice capable of sending the Taurus careening into the trees. One unguarded moment, one skid, would be sufficient to seal our doom.
We were far from home, about two hundred miles, and it was still snowing.
At my side, Leonora aimed her flashlight on the map and issued periodic warnings about black ice and sheer drops, while in the back seat, our rescue collie, Sparkle, slept, blissfully unaware of possible danger.
She was a remarkably good and trusting dog, coming with us quietly and settling on a fluffy blanket without a single backward glance.
I could see her still form reflected in the rear view mirror. Her nose leaned on the armrest, and her eyes were closed. Dreaming of a new home, I hoped.
Sparkle was gorgeous, a tri-headed white who had landed in an Ellentown shelter. No one had claimed her, no one inquired about her, and apparently no one looked beyond her muddy, matted exterior to see the luminous beauty within. No one except for the imaginative young volunteer who had named her Sparkle.
I skidded into the oncoming lane, which was fortunately empty, took a deep breath, and steered into the skid until I regained control of the wheel. That was close.
“Be careful,” Leonora said. “We don’t want to have an accident in this wilderness. I haven’t seen another car in an hour, and my cell phone is dead.”
“Don’t worry. I’m very aware. And alert.”
That was true, for all the good it would do if the Taurus failed to hold the road. “I have to say, though, this sure isn’t the easiest assignment we ever had,” I added.
It had seemed ideal and even fun this morning when we’d set out on the long drive north under a cold, clear December sky.
As members of the Lakeville Collie Rescue League, Leonora and I had inherited the responsibility of transporting collies from shelters all over Michigan to our president, Sue Appleton, in Foxglove Corners, who placed them in foster homes. Having administered to one too many abandoned dogs in heart-rending conditions, I’d tried to leave the League last summer, and Leonora followed my lead. Sue had lured us back with a promise of easy projects.
Because of capricious Mother Nature, this jaunt up north had proved to be anything but easy. As we’d left the shelter, a freezing rain turned the roads hazardous before changing over to snow. Still, it was worth the effort and stress, and even the danger, to give Sparkle the promise of a new life in a loving forever home. Even though it wasn’t quite the fun-filled winter adventure we had anticipated.
The windshield wipers made a valiant attempt to clear the windows, the snowflakes seemed to grow larger with each passing minute, and on the CD player the Yuletide Singers were dreaming of a white Christmas. I drove on.
After a while, Leonora said, “I’m dying for a cup of coffee, Jennet. The stuff left in the thermos is ice-cold. Let’s stop at the first restaurant we come to.”
I nodded, “Or hot chocolate. If we ever drive out of these woods.”
An image formed in my mind, giant-sized and enticing: a tall chocolate-colored mug of steaming cocoa topped with whipped cream. I held fast to it. Wondrous hot liquid sustenance. Our reward for braving the snows of the north.
~ * ~
We filled the gas tank in Standish and shortly afterward found a small rustic restaurant that resembled a log cabin. After walking Sparkle in an adjacent field, we left her in the car with the window cracked and went inside, choosing a window booth where we could keep an eye on her.
I took off my gloves, patted the snow from my hair, and coaxed it back into its original shape with my hand. How much more appealing the snowfall was from inside this cozy haven. The restaurant boasted a fireplace, although no one had started a fire. Ambience was everything.
We lingered over our hot drinks, getting warm and comfortable, and suddenly the miles ahead seemed more manageable. With luck we should arrive home with plenty of the day still left to enjoy.
Sue would be delighted with Sparkle. None of us had expected a white collie in good health who needed only a bath and brushing to make her presentable.
“I’m going Christmas shopping tonight,” Leonora said. “How would you like to join me?”
I spooned a dollop of whipped cream from the top of my cocoa and tasted it. “Oh, I can’t. I’ve been away from Crane and the collies all day, and I’ll have to cook dinner.”
During the school year, I taught English at Marston High School with Leonora while my husband, Deputy Sheriff Crane Ferguson, patrolled the roads and by-roads of Foxglove Corners. Then there were frequent claims on my time from the Rescue League, not to mention the thousand chores involved in keeping a household running smoothly. Sometimes it seemed as if Crane and I hardly saw each other.
But Christmas recess was only three weeks away. Everything would be different then.
“That’s okay.” A teasing twinkle appeared in Leonora’s eye. “I’ll look for your present.”
“We’ll go another time,” I promised and drained the cup. “Now let’s head on home.”
~ * ~
As we drove south, the snow turned to flurries, then to rain. I was able to drive somewhat faster. The precipitation washed the white color from the landscape until we were passing monotonous rolling countryside under dreary skies. Barns and three-board plank fences and farmhouses built far back from the road, leafless trees— the landscape had gone from Christmas-card enchanting to boring.
Sparkle, awake from her nap, quietly drank in the scenery.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll have snow for Christmas,” Leonora murmured.
“There’s still time,” I said. “You know…”
“We’re just minutes away from the River Rose Collie Kennels.”
“Almost home. At last.”
“I’d like to drive by the place,” I said. “It won’t take us too far out of our way.”
“Why?” she asked. “Isn’t it deserted?”
I didn’t have a reason. “Just a whim.”
Who knew what inspired it? I hadn’t thought about River Rose in months.
Once a thriving collie kennel that housed champion blue merle and tricolor collies, the fortunes of River Rose had changed when its owner, Rosalyn Everett, disappeared, leaving her dogs to fend for themselves. In other words, to perish with no one to provide food and water.
Several days later, Rosalyn had returned, claiming she’d only been gone for a few hours, grocery shopping. She appeared to believe this. By this time, her absence had been discovered and her beloved collies rescued.
Shortly afterward, she vanished again.
That was one of the strangest happenings in Foxglove Corners, which was known for bizarre and inexplicable mysteries and an occasional wandering ghost.
“Rosalyn has been gone for a long time,” Leonora said.
“Since last summer.”
“River Rose will be overgrown with weeds. There won’t be anything to see.”
“I’m just curious,” I said. “You’ll still have enough time to go shopping, and I’ll be able to get a dinner together. Besides, it’s stopped raining.”
She sighed. “Let’s do it then.”
I made a right turn, taking us away from our planned route into a lightly populated area. We drove past festive houses with colored lights outlining their gables and illuminating the shrubbery. Before long we reached the country road that led to Rosalyn’s house.
River Rose Collie Kennels.
The sign swayed in a light wind, dripping and dispirited. Nobody had taken it down. No one except Rosalyn Everett had the right to do that.
But no prospective collie owner, ignorant of the River Rose story, would look for a puppy in the desolate structure that appeared out of the gathering fog. The property was steeped in a deep country silence. The dogs were all gone.
Rosalyn’s attractive yellow ranch house was obviously vacant. It had a dull yellow shine in a monochromatic background. Windows revealing abandoned rooms, curtains no doubt gathering dust, an accumulation of dried leaves blown into a corner of the porch. Nothing stirred except the phantoms of another day and memories.
The place looked the same as it had when I’d last seen it. Behind the house, a treed lot sloped upward into dark woods, and the clouds hung low over the treetops.
“How utterly depressing,” Leonora said.
“I didn’t know River Rose in its heyday, but I hate seeing it like this.”
I brought the car to a stop. “If Rosalyn came back, she wouldn’t recognize her home.”
“Well that’s likely going to happen. Now we’ve seen it. Shall we move on?”
I nodded and started the car, taking one last look at the house. I’d been inside it once with Sue Appleton. Rosalyn had asked me to help her solve the mystery of her own disappearance. Although faced with irrefutable evidence, she clung to her story and swore she had no knowledge of her whereabouts during those lost days.
I’d failed her.
Beside the house a shape appeared. It was a collie whose silvery gray coat was dappled with dark patches. Standing still, it pierced me with a gaze so intense I could almost feel it from inside the car.
Then it was gone.
My voice came out as a whisper. “Leonora, did you see that?”
Leonora frowned. “See what?”
“Alongside the house,” I said. “Next to the spruce tree. It isn’t there now.”
“All I see is the spruce.”
I moved the gear to Park and opened the door.
“Wait!” Leonora cried. “Where are you going?”
Knowing me, Leonora should also have realized that was a futile question.
“To find the dog,” I said.