Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Photo Credit: Chinmoy Mukerji
When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.
For years—before the world ended—I was his go-to girl. He’d split with someone, track me down (consistently on the heels of my broken heart’s mending), swear he’d changed, beg forgiveness and promise picket fences. I’d been deeply in love with him since we met in a Robert Frost poetry seminar, so I’d always fall for it. As soon as I dreamt of a wedding, he’d run off with another woman, citing he wasn’t sure I was the one—he needed space.
Shortly after the last incident, I was thumbing through my Chic Chick and stumbled across the article “10 Signs He’s Using You”—and Warren exhibited every one. Simultaneously incensed and embarrassed, I texted him to never again find me, punctuating it with the “last man” cliché.
Then came what CNN (while it was still on the air) unoriginally dubbed Skullpocalypse—like the invented zombie disaster that’d spawned movies, anthologies, Walks for Hunger and The Walking Dead—only minus the virus-rotting-flesh-eating-of-brains tropes.
Deep in Haiti, a scorned voodoo practitioner cursed her cheating husband and his lover. Flesh melted off their bones, organs withered and turned to dust, and all that was left were skeletons. But it had an unforeseen effect: The skeletons were alive, and they possessed an obscene strength and harbored an evil so vile their vacant, tar-black sockets coaled with hatred. They set to biting every living thing they could find. And whoever or whatever got bitten followed suit.
They overtook and escaped the island, and there was no stopping them. You couldn’t bash them apart—they simply reassembled, stronger and more aggressive (I saw the bones of a squirrel re-connect and break his attacker’s legs before biting her). You couldn’t shoot them—bullets whizzed through. There was only one recourse: The skeletons fled from dead things. If you died before you were bitten, you’d never be condemned; if you had a dead body near you, they’d leave you alone.
I don’t know how people brought themselves to do it, but many shot themselves. Or others.
That was Halloween, when the New England air was rife with the smell of carved pumpkins, wet leaves, Sweet Tarts, and snappled in anticipation. By Thanksgiving, the air was redolent with the skeletons’ rancid milk and overcooked mushroom smell, and the gray skies weren’t just somber, but oppressive. By Christmas, I was, as far as I knew, the only living person in a debris-strewn Mystic, Connecticut. I spent the day below decks on the famous Charles W. Morgan drinking bottles of exquisitely-aged Amontillado and reading the only book I’d taken from my apartment—The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (a gift from Warren). The inscription inside read, Mel… something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend.
I was sure he was out there, and he was one of them. Which meant any human skeleton I came across could have been him. Which meant that my fatal bite could possibly come from his mouth.
I’d be damned if he was going to get me. I had to cut town, go someplace remote—and since I knew that I’d meet death eventually, I considered where I’d want to be when it happened.
Armed with the dead body of a Mystic Seaport Security Guard and the gun he’d used to kill himself, I secured an abandoned pick-up truck and hit the road. By the January snows I’d arrived at Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Although it was now a museum and gift shop, his life there had inspired the poem, “The Mending Wall.”
In light of the circumstances, it was the most apropos location I could think of.
At first, there weren’t any skeletons around—the sparse population had likely succumbed, leaving none to bite, so they’d boned elsewhere. By Valentine’s Day, they knew I was here—my oil lamps’ glow through the sheer curtains and the smoke channeling from the chimney had probably given me away. By George Washington’s Birthday, the security guard’s body had decomposed enough so the skeletons weren’t afraid of it anymore. That was when I discovered, by defending myself with a flaming piece of firewood, that not only did they recede from fire, it was the only way to kill them: they couldn’t rise from their ashes.
With the help of equipment from the maintenance shed, I managed to penetrate the frozen ground and dig a trench around the house and barn. I only built a low flame—I needed to conserve wood—but I found that was enough. I keep fires going twenty-four-seven.
Day and night, in the woods beyond the smoking gash, they rattle around the hibernating oaks and maples, snapping branches beneath their metatarsals. When they walk, it sounds like banging drumsticks and shaking maracas—the thickets bristle with a snap-shhh, snap-shhh, and you can tell how close they are by its volume. Unless, of course, there’s an ice storm, because the clicking of the crystal-coated birches is louder.
During the day it’s easy to spot them, but at night, it’s dark as cloak, and they’re so white they blend with the field’s snow cover—if I squint, I can distinguish their gaping eye sockets, hovering like phantom holes.
Tonight, mist shrouds the field—the mud and vanilla smell tells me it’s warming up, for which I’m glad; but it’ll be March soon, for which I’m not, because the ensuing spring rains will most likely extinguish my line of defense.
I sip fresh coffee—it’s so hot it warms me instantly. I adjust my flannel blanket; then I hear something. I lean forward, cock my ear toward the woods—there’s a different sound, as though something is running. It could be a fast-moving non-human skeleton, like a rabbit or deer—but they’d sound similar to the others.
This could be a living creature.
Like a bear.
I reach for a gun and rise from the rocking chair, simultaneously shedding my blanket. I move to the newel post and focus at the edge of the forest.
A shadow bursts from the evergreens and books toward my fire.
It’s a person.
I race to the edge of the flames.
The intruder stops just short of the trench, pushes back his hood.
The heat prickles my cheeks. “Warren?”
“Mel.” He doesn’t look surprised. “Boy I’m glad to see you.” Hyperventilating, he slides a nervous glance behind him; then he looks back at me, nods at the flames below. “What’s with the fire?”
The back of my throat burns with anger. “They won’t go near it. It’s the only thing that destroys them.” Then I remember the gun. I train it on him. “I wasn’t kidding, what I said about the last man on Earth.”
“Now that I really am?”
I visualize our last break-up: he calls, can’t see me anymore because he’s just met Rose, doesn’t want to blow it with her, if she’s not the one he knows that I am, he needs space, thanks for putting him back together again, he’ll always be grateful, he has a bond with me he’ll never have with any other woman no matter what.
I taste rage—metallic, sour.
His dead body would ensure the skeletons don’t come near the trench for awhile. The spring rains issue would be solved.
I cock the gun.
“Mel. Put the gun down. Come on.” He peers over his shoulder. “I’ve got no one else and neither do you.”
In the woods, I hear the snap-shhh, snap-shhh.
“What happened to Rose?”
His eyes flash desperate. “Please. Let me across.”
I don’t move.
He turns completely to look at the skeletons—as if assessing whether or not he can make another run for it—then pivots to face me again. “She got bitten. Okay?”
“I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
“You ever seen it, Mel? Gnashing teeth, running flesh, vomiting, withering organs, shrieking. Watch someone you love die like that is that what you want?”
Love. So he did love her. I thrill to his anxious expression—he’s always been so brash, arrogant, cocksure I’d always be there when he needed me. Not today.
He clenches his hands into fists. “Mel, we’re it, here, for God’s sake, don’t wall me out!”
The smell of rancid milk and overcooked mushrooms is suffocating. They’ll reach him soon.
As many times as I’d delightfully imagined him tortured, it’d been fantasy. In two minutes, it’s not going to be fantasy anymore. And I’m angry at him, but he’s right—I can’t watch him suffer what he’s just described.
I ram the gun into my pocket. “Follow me on your side of the trench.” I rush to the house and seize the ancient metal toboggan I’ve been using as a bridge. I slam it down across the ditch with a creak-ploof as it hits the opposite snow bank. “Hurry up.”
He reaches me and I retract the bridge just as one of the boners leaps, misses, and plummets into the flames. It erupts into an ember-spewing fireball; Warren crushes me against him, and I’m immersed in his familiar smell, something like almonds and bourbon. It stirs things in me.
When the flash dies down, we both look. An indigo plume of smoke rises from where the thing had met its end. The rest of them retreat to the woods.
“Imagine how many lives would’ve been saved if we’d figured that out months ago,” Warren says. “Rose would still be here.”
I pull away from him, start up the porch steps.
He’s quiet, then says, “Thanks, Mel.”
I poise and grab the railing. “Let’s get this straight. You can stay here tonight, I’ll feed you, we’ll heat water for a bath and wash your clothes, but in the morning, you take some supplies and go.”
Before I head inside, I retrieve my coffee.
It’s ice cold.
The fire in the hearth casts the framed photographs of Frost in flickering shadows; heating water for Warren’s bath, cooking his food has softened me, and I try to quell cozy fantasies as I clip his flannel shirt to a clothesline I’ve strung across the living room.
“Wow. You never do let that thing go out.” Warren, in my bathrobe, appears in the doorway.
My pulse quickens. I move to poker the coals. “The key is to stay focused, constantly watch. Of course, there’s not too much around to distract me.”
He steps closer; I smell the gift shop’s lavender soap. “It’s lonely here, isn’t it?”
I shut out the tactile memory of having been crushed against him outside. “It’s not bad.”
He rubs his hands before the flames. “What smells good?”
“Corned beef hash.” I slip into a rooster-patterned oven mitt and palm the iron skillet I’d had warming on the bricks, bring it to the table.
“I haven’t had that since I was a kid.” He settles into one of the rustic pine chairs.
“The stores are full of canned goods.” I shovel the food on his plate. “It’s scary to get ’em—I gotta go into town armed with a torch in my hand or a dead squirrel tied around my neck—but it’s doable.”
He eyes the red taper in a burnished gold candlestick. “Can we light this?”
I take my seat. “I’m out of matches and lighters.”
“Isn’t that risky? Being matchless?”
“As long as the fires don’t go out, I’m fine for now. I’ll get more on my next trip to town.”
He considers me for a moment. Then he says, “You’re not going to town alone—I’ll get ’em.”
I’m about to respond you’re gone tomorrow, but his sad St. Bernard-esque eyes disarm me; in this moment I see what I’ve always wanted: just us, a meal, a fire, a home. Desire, excitement, cliffhanging fear course through me. “How’d you find me here?”
He sets down his fork, shifts, and reaches into the robe’s pocket, extracting a piece of wood the size and shape of a large cookie. He sets it on the table as though it were Spode.
I immediately recognize it.
It’s from the maple that stood on this property—outside Frost’s bedroom, the subject of his poem “Tree at my Window.” Years ago, the tree had become feeble—a threat to the house—so it’d been cut down. The farm had sold these wooden mementos for fifteen dollars each. There are still, in fact, some in the gift shop.
I’d mail-ordered the one he has, given it to him the first Christmas we’d been together. I’d admitted my one dream was to marry him, here, on this farm, where that maple had stood.
His gaze intent on mine, he quotes the poem: “My sash is lowered when the night comes on, but let there never be a curtain drawn between you and me.”
There’s a knot in my throat.
“Do you still want to marry me, Mel?”
I blink. “But… you loved her. Rose.”
“I did.” He leans toward me. “It doesn’t matter now.”
The air is still, the only sound is the fire’s hiss–pop-crackle.
“10 Signs He’s Using You” seems farcical, stuff penned by bitter women, and right now I’m not one of them—joy burbles through my limbs, belly, chest, face. “Yes.”
He cups my hand. “Then we’ll do it. Tomorrow. We’ll just marry ourselves. Out by where the maple used to stand.”
He’s on me; we land on my makeshift bed in the corner.
Suddenly, something jabs my hip. The gun. It’s still in my pocket.
I laugh. “Wait.”
He stops. “What?”
I pull the gun out, set it on the small table that serves as my nightstand.
“Just take everything off,” he says.
And I delight in his almond-bourbon-lavender taste and think something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend and now that day is here.
I open my eyes. The drear of late-winter day leaks through the sheers; there’s a chill in my bones and a bouldering roar.
The fire in the hearth has gone out. And it’s raining. In torrents.
I jar the dead-to-the-world Warren. “Oh my God get up! Get up!”
He mumbles, stirs as I struggle into my jeans and flannel. I rush to the window. The fires in the ditch are dead; there isn’t even any smoke. Out in the gloom, the skeletons merrily funnel into and out of the trench like a river of white flesh-eating ants. They’re advancing on the house.
“What’s going on?”
“The fires went out, they’re coming!”
“Shit.” He whips his clothes off the line. “Just re-light the fire in here, we can wave burning logs at them!”
A claw seizes my heart. “We have no matches!”
He just stops and looks at me, his eyes wide. “We can run.”
But I peer out the back window and know better: the skeletons have encircled the house. “We can’t.”
He comes up behind me, brushes the sheers aside. For a few moments, we simply watch them approach.
Then he whispers, “At least I’m not alone.”
The words are hot pokers through my heart, cement in my lungs. My face burns; I can’t breathe; I can barely speak. Then I collect myself and face him. “Is that why you really came to find me? You didn’t want to be alone?”
He looks surprised, and I know immediately he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.
He sets his hand on my cheek. “I knew if anyone was gonna still be breathing, it’d be you. You don’t give up.”
I sadly recognize this is true about more things than it should be.
“I had no choice,” he says.
The skeletons hurtle over the porch railing; the house shakes. A black object plummets from the small table that serves as a nightstand.
All those people who shot themselves or others, I’d marveled at how hard a choice that must’ve been. But now, facing the only man I’ve ever loved, knowing that he truly had deeply loved Rose and the only reason he’s here with me is because the world ended, what kind of heartbreaking existence is knowing all of that, every day, loving him, knowing that?—now the choice isn’t difficult at all.
I fling myself on the mattress, reach for the weapon, aim it. “Step back, Warren.”
“You heard me. Step back.”
I swear I see sweat break out on his forehead. “Wha—what are you doing?”
“I’m not you, Warren. I’m not afraid of being alone. Or anything else.”
A skeleton, its bony fingers reaching for us, crashes through the wall. I close my eyes and pull the trigger.
When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies such as Dark Opus Press’ In Poe’s Shadow. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, and is editor for Read Short Fiction. Her most recent work, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole, is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, is forthcoming from Vagabondage Books. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. Her website is kristipetersenschoonover.com. Email: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com