They had gotten plenty of snow that year in Glausbury,
the small New Hampshire town where Paul had spent all the boyhood
years he could still remember, and the snowdrift he had chosen was
what they used to call “a doozy”. It was one of the dump sites that they
used for extra snow.
Too much snow on Willow Ave? Snow banks so high they're a
safety hazard? Don't you worry! We'll just send down Mr. Smith and
Mr. Jones, or whomever, with a bucket-loader and a dump-truck to
move some of that snow to the end of Plum Road, the dead-end around
The result? Streets like Willow Ave were made safe while Plum
Road wound up with a huge mound of snow. It was snow fort Heaven
for a child.
The thing was, ten-year-old Paul had to sneak by old Mr.
Pratchett's place, last house on Plum Road before the snow storage lot.
Mr. Pratchett, of course, was a mean old man, and not a big fan of
When they played in the lot in the summer Mr. Pratchett's
immaculate lawn was always out of bounds. Pratchett was said to have
eyes like a hawk, and he apparently had little to do but keep a close
watch on the neighborhood kids. Anything that landed on his property,
be it ball, bat, glove or cap, would trigger the old man's explosive
scramble across the grass to snatch the offending object, yell at them
vehemently, then take the item back into his house, never to be seen
again. "If it hits Pratchett's lawn, it's gone!" they used to say on those
In the winter he was even worse. All the kids wanted to play in
that lot. Covered with snow mounds, some of them larger than the
houses the children lived in, it was the perfect terrain for snow wars and snow forts. Big ones. Mr. Pratchett would have none of it. As soon
as any enterprising children attempted to lay claim to a building site on
“snow mountain”, out he would come. Hooting and hollering, arms
waving, brown stubs of teeth bared in a fierce if crooked grin, he
would erupt from the house wearing a threadbare red and black flannel
coat with a matching hat jammed hurriedly on his head, ear flaps
bouncing as he ran stiffly down his driveway.
The old man's battle-cry: 'You there' in his heavy Maine accent.
The kids didn't know the accent was from just the next state over. To
Paul and the kids he grew up with it was a strange, foreign sound that
only made Mr. Pratchett all the more frightening.
“You thaya! You get outta thaya with your shovels! G'won, you go
play somewhere's else! You thaya, I see you! You can't hide from me!
You git to movin', and you do it right now!”
Terrified children would scatter in all directions, running with the
awkward, no-kneed lumber of the snow suited and bundled-up. They
strained for speed lest Pratchett, chasing behind with his own
stiff-legged gait, actually catch hold of them with his gnarled and
It was like being attacked by a rabid scarecrow.
Young Paul, however, had a plan. He just waited until the old man
went off to the store on Saturday morning, and then he went in solo.
Quietly. No crowd, no crew, no muss, no fuss. He took a Paul-sized
plastic snow shovel his mother had bought for him at the A&P, a
wooden-handled trowel he had “borrowed” from his mother's
gardening shed, and a Sno Blok maker. Really just a cubical plastic
mold, the Blok maker didn't work very well since it was hard to get the
packed in snow to slide back out in a state of snowy brickiness, but he
always had hope.
With this construction equipment in his arms, he checked Mr.
Pratchett's driveway for the old man's wooden-sided station wagon and
found the way clear. Moving with as much alacrity as possible while
suited up for snow-play, he made his way to the back side of the
biggest mound, and started in.
The digging was a little easier than he had anticipated. The snow
was heavy and wet due to a couple of recent warm days, but a little softer than he had thought when he had planned this caper. He made
headway quickly for a kid working alone, cutting a rough tunnel shape
with the trowel to loosen up the snow, before switching to the shovel
to dig and scrape the passage clean. In short order he had a hole almost
a body-length straight into the hill. He had figured on making himself
at least one full room within that hill, and he paused now to catch his
breath and decide what to do next.
To the left, he decided. He'd dig to the left, and start to widen the
tunnel into the room he was looking to make, and then eventually turn
to the right and finish the job properly.
He stabbed the trowel into the wall to his left, then twisted around,
reaching back for the shovel. His questing fingers found the handle,
and pulled it into the passage and up toward his head. It got stuck
about half-way, wedged with the handle against the ground and the
shovel blade stuck in the snowy ceiling.
He gave an impatient yank on the handle and the blade sliced
sideways through the soft, wet snow. As he brought the shovel into
position to be of use, the first chunk of loose snow slapped into his
What the heck? he thought, more annoyed than anything else.
His annoyance only lasted as long as it took for the next three
hunks of snow to land on him, another on his back and two on his legs.
These were bigger, the one on his back almost big enough to knock the
wind out of him. The snow was loose, but wet and heavy, and the
amount on his legs was pinning him down. He reflexively started to
kick free and back out of the tunnel.
Oh no, is this a cave-in?
Suddenly, with nothing more than the slight hiss of snow sliding
on snow, the ceiling came down.
His legs and back were pinned, the weight pressing him down, flat
on his belly. It had been dim in the hill, his own body blocking most of
the light coming in through his tunnel. Now the light was completely
cut off by at least two feet of snow. He flailed about in the icy dark,
searching for the shovel, the trowel, anything that might help. He
heard someone calling, and for a split second he thought someone was
coming to help, telling him to hold on. The voice he was hearing was his own, he realized. Garbled cries of panic, not an actual word among
His hands found the shovel and pulled it toward him, but he found
he couldn't use it. With the great weight of snow pressing his chest flat
to the tunnel floor, his arms were thrust straight up from his shoulders,
and there wasn't room in the narrow passage for him to spread his
elbows, never mind spin the shovel about to aim at the snow above
him. He twisted and turned the tool, but no matter what he tried the
handle would gouge into one wall as the blade fetched up against the
His cries shortened to gasps.
In desperation he began to stab over his head and backward,
thrusting the shovel's handle into the snow pinning him to the Earth.
All he could hear were his short explosive breaths rasping in his throat.
In the darkness his eyes widened as he realized he couldn't take a deep
breath. Not even a full one. Just shallow, terrified panting.
The snow! He thought. So heavy...
His lungs worked faster as individual breaths got shorter. He
stabbed wildly with the handle. The straight piece of blown plastic
poked hole after hole in the mass of snow resting on the back of his
shoulders and neck. He tried to yell, to scream for help, but just
couldn't get enough air into his lungs to add any volume to that
horrible whistling rasp. Tears ran down his face, mixing with snow
falling from his jabbing shovel as he kept thrusting, trying desperately
to relieve the massive pressure bearing him to earth and allow himself
just one full breath!
That was when he rest of the ceiling, weakened by his thrashing
shovel, collapsed. He managed to turn his face to the side, but the
snow came down all around his head, pressing it down, crushing his
ear to the ground. Covering his face. His lungs pulled, straining for air.
His open mouth filled with snow, ice crystals stippling his throat with
each attempted inhalation, the cold thrusting shards of glass into his
Bursts of light sprayed across his vision like fireworks. At first
they made him afraid, but as he saw more of them, red, green, the
brilliant blue of an electric spark, he found them beautiful. They were
beautiful! The cold was gone. He'd forgotten about the cold until it wasgone, but now that it was he was filled with a wonderful, comfortable
warmth. A warmth that made him sleepy.
Hands grasped his legs, iron fingers wrapping around his shins
and lower calves, and someone pulled! The Paul-sized shovel slipped
from unfeeling fingers as he was dragged through the wall of snow.
A second pull, and all that weight that had been on his back was
now on his head, but his lower back felt strangely light. A third pull
and Paul was in the light and air, eyes and mouth still full of snow.
Someone shoved him rudely onto his side and something whacked
him in the middle of the back, hard.
Once. Twice. Thrice.
On the fourth slap it was as if Paul's body suddenly remembered
what it was supposed to do. He began coughing the snow from his
mouth and throat, but at the same time his lungs kicked in, pulling for
air harder than ever. He choked and coughed, gagging out chunks of
snow. But he started to get air. He cleared his throat of those burning
crystal shards of ice and got one good breath.
Then he threw up.
This set him to choking again, his lungs trying to make up for lost
time and not caring what they were pulling in as long as there was
some air in the mix. A hand on his shoulder kept him from thrashing
over onto his back and making things worse. A second hand
occasionally pummeled his middle or upper back whenever it looked
to like Paul's choking was getting out of control again. Eventually the
choking subsided, and his breathing became more regular. Tears
washed the snow and ice from his eyes, so he could finally see clearly
when the hands rolled him onto his back, and his rescuer came into
Old Mr. Pratchett loomed over him, eyes bright with fear, brown,
ruined teeth still locked in a fierce grimace. His gnarled and knobbly
fingers gripped Paul's shoulders, squeezing so hard Paul felt his collar
bones creak. Those hands began to shake Paul up and down, thudding
him none-too-gently against the ground as Mr. Pratchett, white flecks
of spittle flying off of his dry, cracked lips, shouted into Paul's face.
“I done told you nawt to play heah! Din't I tell you? Din't I tell you to git on home? Why in hell won't you kids listen?”