Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
My eight-year-old sister Kelly says that Santa doesn’t come to Salisbury.
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. The latest in a string of ridiculous things in this nowhere village. Like the football team only plays against itself and I have to be up making breakfast at 5:30, because our school’s an hour away and the bus, according to the guys, takes even longer in the winter on account of the plow attached to its grill. “Santa goes everywhere.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m eighteen.”
“You’re wrong, Graham. He doesn’t come here,” she insists. “Ask your nickelback friends.”
“Quarterbacks.” The kitchen linoleum is out of the forties with dancing salt shakers for a design, and it’s so cold it’s numbed my toes. I just hate stuff on my feet—even if Mom says we shouldn’t walk in this house barefoot because of the mice. It’s not the city, she’d said. Country mouse poop is loaded with esoteric diseases. It still wasn’t enough to keep me from wearing socks, but now that it’s December—a much harsher December than two hundred miles southeast in New York City was, I might change my mind. “My friends are quarterbacks.”
“My friend Shelby says they don’t need Santa because they have their own special guy called The Flannel Man.”
The toaster pops. A piece of toast rockets from the slot and hits one of the pinged white metal cabinets. The wallpaper’s dingy, the couch sags in the middle, and the porch windows leak in the summer rains, but we have a toaster that could dance if it weren’t even plugged into the wall. Mom’s concession. Not like there could be much of a concession for her driving Dad away and moving us to a town whose main drag is a single-plot cemetery, a combo gas station/general store/post office/diner, and a decrepit barn covered in deer antlers.
I shovel the eggs and sausages onto two plates and set one in front of Kelly.
She frowns. “I don’t like sausage.”
“Then don’t eat it.” I reach for the pepper and blanket my eggs.
“Why didn’t you make bacon?”
“Because we’re out and Mom hasn’t been to the supermarket in awhile.”
Bacon’s Kelly’s favorite, and when we lived in the city there was always plenty because Mom could get it right around the corner. But the only place we can buy it up here is the Price Chopper in Gloversville, which is a total haul. So she only goes there once a month—and then doesn’t buy enough.
“Do you think Mom will buy some so we can have it on Christmas?”
“That’s three weeks away,” I say, stabbing my egg with a fork. The runny yolk creeps toward my toast. “I’m sure we’ll have some by then.”
“If she doesn’t, maybe The Flannel Man will leave some on the porch! Shelby says last year The Flannel Man left them a whole roasted pig for Christmas, so I bet he’ll bring me bacon!”
“Who will bring you bacon?” Mom shuffles in, looking haggard. She’s in her bathrobe, and she’ll probably be in it all day. Not like she drinks anymore—she used to, after Dad took off, but since we moved here, she’s channeled her creative energy into making jams. Jerva’s Jams, she calls them. She churns them out, decorates the jars with red gingham, and sells them in the I-90 rest stops next to the shot glasses that say I ? NY.
“The Flannel Man,” Kelly says. She hasn’t touched her breakfast.
“Who the hell,” Mom says, pulling a mug out of the cabinet and peering inside it, presumably looking for mouse crap, “is The Flannel Man?”
“She’s got something in her head that Santa doesn’t visit here because they have their own dude who does it just for this town. Something her friend told her.”
“It’s true!” Kelly stands up and almost falls over. She was born with one leg shorter than the other, so walking’s difficult enough; when she’s excited, she forgets and does things like falls over getting out of chairs. It’s why I always have to look after her.
“Kelly!” Mom reacts. “You need to stay calm. You don’t want to crack your lip open again.”
“But it’s true. He lives under the bridge. The abandoned bridge.”
I almost choke on my toast. “Not the one on our property?” I say. Elkie told me Mom was able to get this broken-down place cheap because our driveway used to be a town road that connected Route 29A on one side of Trammel Creek with 29A on the other. You made a left onto our driveway, you went three miles, you passed our house, and then you went about three hundred feet to an old wooden bridge. I guess five years ago part of the wooden bridge collapsed. The town didn’t fix it or move the debris, they just left it. Built a new bridge in town instead. Nobody wanted property with a broken bridge. It was cursed, Elkie said.
“Yes.” Kelly nods enthusiastically. “Our bridge! The Flannel Man lives right up the road!”
“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it? A man living under that falling-down thing.” Mom sips her coffee.
“He does! Shelby told me her brother saw him and he was like this big hairy ape-man. Like Bigfoot.”
Mom dries the cup, pours her coffee, and sighs. “Somehow I doubt a Bigfoot would be running around leaving gifts on people’s doorsteps, even if he were a friendly neighborhood one. Now eat your breakfast and hurry up.”
I get up and put my plate in the sink just in time to see a wood spider crawl down the drain. “It was probably just some animal he saw. There’s tons of bears and stuff around here.”
Mom touches my arm and murmurs, “Graham, don’t scare her.”
“Did I sound like I was trying to scare her?”
“Not really,” she says, sipping her coffee, “but I know that tone of voice.”
She’s talking about the first few months after Dad left. I tortured Kelly. I was just pissed off and she was an easy target. I played jokes on her, told her there were ghosts living in her closet, shit like that. Mostly so Mom would talk to me, though. She wasn’t doing a lot of that after Dad left. She was talking a lot to the bottle of blackberry brandy instead. If I was being yelled at, at least I felt like I existed. “That was a long time ago, Mom.”
She eyes me, dumps her coffee in the sink, and shuffles toward her bedroom. “I’m going back to bed for awhile.”
Outside, there’s fog. Make no mistake, it’s cold, but there’s fog. It’s another thing about the Adirondacks I hate. In the city, if I saw fog, I knew it was warmer out. Here, the fog billows in like something out of a John Carpenter film and leaves ice on the leaves behind it. I help Kelly into her Barbie coat and mittens.
Me and Elkie smoke cigarettes during lunch in the woods behind the school. There’s a private clearing surrounded by a huddle of evergreens and tons of boulders that have plenty of holes for us to hide lighters and ditch butts. In the summer, it’s a festive hideaway out of the Adirondack humidity, the kind of place you want to toast marshmallows. Now, though, with a foot of snow on the ground, the logs we sit on glazed with ice, and freezing rain stinging our cheeks, it’s creepy.
I flick the Bic and light up, then pass the cigarette to Elkie. “So who the hell is this Flannel Man my sister keeps talking about?”
“Oh, he goes back, like, a hundred years or something.” One of her long black braids is caught under the collar of her coat and the other one hangs loose; the incongruity is annoying. “There was a town up on top of the mountain called Bungtown ‘cuz they made barrels or some crap. And like at the end of the 1800s everybody who lived there got plague or whatever and died, but there was this one guy who survived and he came down and moved underneath the bridge that used to be on your property.” She takes a drag. “He had to live there because nobody wanted to go near the old fart for fear of getting sick. But I guess he had scads of money and he missed his kids who died, because every Christmas he supposedly left presents for all the kids in town on their porches.” She passes the cigarette back to me. “He did that for like ten years and then he disappeared, and the parents felt so bad they started giving their kids stuff from ‘The Flannel Man’ instead of Santa.”
I get what Kelly is saying now. “So nobody writes ‘to Jimmy from Santa’.”
“Pretty much,” she says. “Around here, it’s ‘to Jimmy from The Flannel Man.’ Kinda bizarre. Every couple years some freak resurrects the whole thing and really does leave presents from The Flannel Man on people’s front porches. You’ve lived here long enough to see there isn’t much to do around here, much less in the dead of winter, except for shovel snow. Like last year there were like six families said they woke up Christmas morning and found presents on their porches, presents they didn’t buy.” She stands up and stretches.
“So it’s true? Shelby did have a whole pig roast left on her porch on Christmas last year?”
Elkie’s trapped braid finally comes loose. “Oh, yeah. But like I said, some freak like Shelby’s brother Seth probably did it. Bored, wanted to get his rocks off.” She takes the last drag off the cigarette. She tries to pitch it into the cup-sized hole in a boulder we’ve been using all week to toss our butts. “He would, too, he’s such an asshole. Let me tell you that apple don’t fall far from the tree.” That’s when I notice the hole is empty. There should be at least five or six butts in there—me and Elkie make sure we dump it every Friday, so hunters or anybody cross-country skiing or hiking through these woods on the weekends won’t find it and discover our secret patchaway—but today’s only Wednesday.
“Elk, did you dump the butts? Our hole’s empty.”
“Why the hell would I do that in the middle of the week?” She pulls her hood up over her head and wraps her scarf around her mouth. “Maybe it was The Flannel Man, ooga-booga,” she laughs as her booted feet crunch through the snow.
There is a crash in the woods behind us and I turn and look.
Elkie doesn’t seem to hear it and keeps walking.
The last time I saw my father was Christmas Night two years ago, and he was wearing the brand new peacock-colored flannel shirt, XXL, that was the first present he opened that day—the one from me. And I was surprised he liked it so much.
My Dad was always all about his job, working his ass off, crunching numbers in some cubicle at a company. Mom and me and Kelly, especially Kelly, with all her surgeries for her legs, we never wanted for anything. He was always working, working late, leaving before I left for school and coming home after I was in bed. And I thought he loved his work. So every Christmas I bought him business-y things. Ties. Or dress shirts. Or pencil cups and boxes of paper clips.
But for the better portion of that year, I found out Dad wasn’t all work and no play. At least, he didn’t want to be all work and no play. I heard Mom yelling at him at night. It seemed like she was always asking him for more stuff, we need a new car, I bought this new dress, Kelly needs to have a trip to Disney World… the more I listened, the more I figured out that Dad really didn’t like work; he was just doing it for us. And he never yelled back when my Mom got all harpy. The only thing I ever heard him say back to her at a volume above normal was, “Jesus, aren’t you ever going to appreciate what I do for you?”
So that Christmas was the one that I decided to encourage him to take a little down time for himself. To go do something guy-esque, like bowling or hunting or fixing cars. And so I took a risk. And I bought him the flannel shirt.
He put it on and buttoned it up. “This is nice, Graham,” he said, feeling it. “It’s really comfortable.”
“I thought you could use it,” I said.
He looked at me for what seemed like a long time. I know because we got almost all the way through “We Three Kings,” which was playing on the stereo, before he winked at me and said, “Don’t you worry, I will.”
“Open mine!” Kelly demanded. She was chewing on a very crisp piece of bacon, and crumbs fell from the corners of her mouth to the rug. “Open mine!” She handed him the box, inside which was a tie with martini glasses on it.
He thanked her by patting her on the head, but then said, “Okay, now comes the best part! Kids, let’s get to opening your presents!”
Later, after Mom and Kelly were in bed, me and Dad were cleaning up the living room. He still had the shirt on.
“I really like this, Graham,” Dad said. “Really. I know it was probably a little scary for you, buying me something so different.”
“I didn’t think you’d like it,” I answered. “I was nervous.”
“See?” He nodded. “It pays to take a risk, doesn’t it?” He took a piece of wrapping paper, tossed it in the fireplace, and lit a match. “I want you to remember that. Sometimes you need to be not so safe about things. Sometimes, you need to change it up if you’re going to make yourself happy.”
The next morning I got up, and Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, crying. “Your father’s gone.”
“Where’d he go?” I was rummaging in the refrigerator in search of leftover eggnog—the only thing I was allowed to drink in my parents’ house, and I could have it for as many days as I pleased until it was gone, but once it was gone, there would be no more.
“No,” she said. She blew her nose. The worn-out tissue broke apart and disintegrated into tiny white bits. “Gone forever. He won’t be back.”
I stood there, blinking. “Why?”
But she cast her gaze to the floor, went to the bedroom and slammed the door. That was the first night I saw her really drunk, and after that, there was eggnog in the house every night and I could have had it whenever I wanted.
We made it through one more Christmas in the city.
Then, this past April, we came here.
It’s the middle of the night—almost morning, actually—and there is a thunk, a crash, and Kelly screaming. I hear Mom rush downstairs, and when I get down to the kitchen and flip on the light, I realize Kelly wasn’t screaming in horror, but in surprise.
“He was here! He was here! The Flannel Man!”
Mom rolls her eyes. “For God’s sake, Kelly, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I only just went to bed an hour ago. I was up all night, I didn’t see anyone.”
“He was here!”
“You had a dream,” Mom says. “All this bat-shit talk, it’s got you imagining stuff.”
But through the dark of the kitchen, out in the indigo night, I think I see a shadow dart by the window. And I hear footsteps.
“Mom, take Kelly and go upstairs.”
“I’m on the football team, Mom, I can handle it. Now take Kelly and go upstairs and lock the door. Somebody is definitely out there.”
She is about to protest further, but then Kelly says, “I told you!”
They tiptoe out of the room; they tiptoe up the stairs. And the sound of the Civil-War era stairs creaking under their lighter footfalls chills me, because I realize it’s familiar. I’ve heard that sound in the house before. I’ve heard that sound in the middle of the night when I knew both Mom and Kelly were in bed.
Whoever’s out there has been inside our house.
I have no choice.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and cross myself, and in my head, I heard Dad say, sometimes you need to not be so safe about things. I grab the mop, because it’s the only thing even close to a weapon, pull open the door, and rush out onto the porch, shrieking “yeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyee!”
But there is nothing but the sound of the wind chimes and that mournful mountain silence broken only by the occasional hoot of an owl.
Until I see the footprints in the snow. Footprints that don’t belong to me, or Kelly, or Mom. Because they start in the corner by the woodpile, trail off the edge of the porch, and wend their way toward the frozen stream in the direction of the broken bridge.
I look back at the house. In the upstairs hall window I see Mom and Kelly’s huddled shadows.
I swallow. I should follow those tracks to the bridge and put an end to this once and for all. For all I know, it’s that asshole Seth, like Elkie said. But then I feel how cold my feet are and realize I’m out here, in the snow, barefoot.
On Christmas Eve.
I wave an ‘all-clear’ up to Mom and Kelly, and I see Mom pull the sheer curtain across the window and the hall light goes out. I balance the mop handle on my shoulder and start to walk, as fast as I can because my feet are burning, back toward the porch—
But I see a dark, hulking shape moving toward the bridge. Son of a bitch! “I see you!” I yell, and the thing stops for a moment and turns. God, it’s thick in the middle. Big, I can’t tell how much bigger than me, but tall.
“Get off our land!”
The thing turns and starts to run back toward the broken bridge, and I follow it, hoping to catch up with it before it decides to duck into the woods. As I get closer I can hear its heavy footfalls, a heavy crunching of the iced-over snow. God, my feet are burning!
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
It veers toward the broken bridge.
“Get out of here!” I shout, waving the mop. The shape is standing on the embankment, just above its lair, and it’s watching me advance, making no move to retreat. I keep running, brandishing the mop handle. I try to become one with the burning in my feet, to use the pain for courage, and I rush at the figure, raise the handle over my head, and poise to strike. And when I do, the handle clubs nothing. I end up falling down in the snow.
The dark shape has vanished.
Mom’s Swedish meatballs taste like plastic because she makes them with the powdered sauce that comes in a box. But it’s Christmas Day and she’s making something other than jam, so I’m not going to complain.
“So,” Mom says. “If you didn’t see anyone, what was all that yelling out in the yard?”
I hadn’t wanted to frighten them, so I had lied about the dark shape. “Just raccoons. I went all the way up to the bridge, Mom,” I say. “There was no one there.”
“You didn’t see The Flannel Man?” Kelly is sitting by the Christmas tree, sorting presents to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
I look at Mom. She has that stern I’m-warning-you-young-man look on her face.
“No,” I say. “No, Kelly. There’s no such thing as The Flannel Man.”
Mom nods her approval as she stabs meatballs with her fork puts them into the Crock Pot with that vile yellow sauce.
“Really? Because he left us presents!”
One of the meatballs falls off Mom’s fork and makes a soft splish as it lands on the metal countertop between the stove and the Crock Pot.
My chest pinches. “Stop joking around, brat.”
“No, really! He left us presents! Come and see!”
Mom and I don’t move for a moment, and then we head into the living room, lit only by the twinkling white and red lights of the tree. Kelly’s got a gift, wrapped in red shiny paper, in her hand. At her feet is a pile of four or five more. “See?”
Terror: that shadow person was in this house last night. There was someone in our home.
“They have our names on them!” Kelly is beaming. “Look! Kelly. Mom, these two are for you. And Graham he even got you, too! We should go down to the bridge and thank him and maybe bring him some meatballs!”
Mom looks at me, her eyes narrowing. “Graham,” she hisses. “How could you?”
It takes me a second to figure out she’s accusing me of playing a prank on Kelly. “Mom. I didn’t! I swear!”
Her expression turns sternly dubious. “Right. You said you didn’t see anyone last night.”
“I…” I know I have to come clean or she’ll blame me. “I… I did, Mom. I did see someone. I lied. I’m sorry.”
She scowls. “If your father were around—”
But she doesn’t finish her sentence. There’s no sound in the room except Frank Sinatra crooning “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”
“Where’s Kelly?” she asks.
Kelly is gone.
Mom’s voice goes up in pitch a notch. “Where’s Kelly?”
As if in response, I hear the wind chimes on the porch and the slam of the door.
“Kelly!” Mom screams and clambers to her feet, nearly tripping on her bathrobe as she races toward the kitchen.
“Mom, I’ll go.”
“Graham, she’ll fall, she’ll get lost, she’ll— Oh, God! She took the meatballs!”
I set my hands on her upper arms. “Mom, I’ll get her. Go sit down.” And then I’m out the door, running, my feet freezing because I once again am a complete ass and am running outside in the snow barefoot. “Kelly!” I see her, in her yellow nightgown, hobbling down the embankment. She vanishes behind the skeletal bushes.
I envision her cracking her skull open on the boulders that line the creek and pick up my pace. I scramble down the embankment, slipping a few times on the ice, but arrive under the bridge unharmed.
Kelly stands there, her mouth hanging open, her little chest heaving, her breaths coming out in white puffs.
She is staring at one big, hairy man, all right. He’s got a squirrel-colored beard and hair that looks like fourteen chickadees have built nests in it. But he’s far from Bigfoot. He’s just your regular old homeless guy living under a bridge. Only something’s different.
I’d know that peacock-colored flannel shirt anywhere.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover‘s short horror fiction has appeared in WrongWorld‘s latest multi-media anthology, I’m Going to Tell You One More Time; Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, New Witch Magazine, MudRock: Stories & Tales, and over a dozen others, including Sussurus Press’ I Am This Meat anthology. Her stories “Wailing Station” and “King of Bull” took 2nd and 1st place, respectively, in Toasted Cheese‘s 2006 and 2007 Dead of Winter Contests. She holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Burlington College and is pursuing an MFA at Goddard College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com