Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
She’d found the snake in the mostly-finished attic that had briefly been her older brother’s room. She always thought of it as his lair, even now that he’d been gone a whole year. It just felt like his place, had felt like it the moment their parents agreed he could have it for his bedroom. The room was narrow, with walls that rose up three feet before sloping in toward the low ceiling. At one end each knee wall had a small square door held closed with a piece of wood on a nail. Behind those doors were unfinished storage areas. It was in those that Sarah found the bulging cardboard boxes full of old toys that she and her brother had outgrown.
She’d been spending a lot of time up there lately. At first, she’d avoided even looking at the door that opened onto the staircase. But as the leaves began their slow burning and the northern wind sucked like a vampire at the tomatoes in the back yard she found herself sitting in her brother’s comfy burgundy reading chair next to the disproportionately large round window. Sometimes she would read. She had for many years loved Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and Stephen King, but everything that had happened with her brother had soured her taste for horror. So she would sit with a YA novel or one of the dozens of manga her friend Clarisse was always lending her. Other times she would watch leaves or rain or snow fall. She’d imagine the low clouds were an ocean she could swim in and daydream herself as a whale with a song that could say all the things words couldn’t. She’d dive so deep that no therapist or teacher or friend could reach to interrupt her grieving with their furrowed brows and uninvited hands on her shoulders.
It had been one of those days, a sea day, that it had occurred to Sarah to wonder what was behind those little doors now. She’d been trained so well by her volatile older brother to never be curious about his things that she’d unconsciously restricted herself to those parts of his room, of the room, that were out in the open.
In the window she’d noticed the reflection of a little door standing open, or she’d thought she had, for when she went to the door it was closed. But she’d become curious enough to open it and pull the delicate hanging chain that turned on the light inside. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, certainly nothing as innocuous as a bunch of dusty cardboard boxes. The nearest bulged like a spider’s egg sac, so she pulled it out, half expecting Kyle’s scary-calm voice to ask her what she was doing. She shuddered, remembering what he’d kept in these storage spaces when it was still his room.
The box held a nest of shiny bright shapes. She stared in wonder, at first unable to place these objects in any frame of reference. Was it some kind of treasure? Suddenly the objects clicked into context and she recognized the toys. There were the kind of action figures whose legs are held on by hidden black rubber bands, now brittle and stiff. There were Sarah’s old dolls staring up at her with empty eyes that had sometimes featured in her childhood nightmares. There were little green plastic soldiers and an amazing toy spaceship that Kyle had once caught Sarah playing with when she thought he wasn’t home. She could still vividly remember the surprise of being suddenly flung backward by her hair, the sharp blinding pain each time he kicked her, and his bored expression. He won’t stop me playing with it now, she thought. But it no longer interested her, so she tossed it into the shadows at the back of the storage space.
She found her favorite My Little Pony from when she’d been little. The purple mane and tail were tangled and the moon-and-stars cutie mark was rubbed completely away. Sarah had slept with this pony, who she’d named Marabel, every night for years. She felt a pang of guilt for forgetting Marabel, so she placed her on the window sill, further claiming the little space.
Digging deeper through the box, she found mostly small plastic things until she reached the very bottom. Her questing fingers closed around a strange shape. She took it, shaking bright-colored tiny dinosaurs and bits of ribbon from its slick surface.
It was a long bunch of connected plastic triangular prisms that could be twisted to make different shapes. The triangles alternated in color between dull purple and aquamarine. There was a place at one end where the label had worn off, but she looked it up on the internet and found out it was called a Rubik’s Snake.
It was hard to say what she found so fascinating about the plastic puzzle. Maybe it was the clicking sound the pieces made with each turn. Or how she could lose herself in it, because it wasn’t meant to be completed or beaten. It was just meant to be played with. So she played in the chair by the window, watching the snow drifting from the low grey sky, mind mirroring the still grey clouds and hands busy. Click, click, click.
Visits with social workers, days at school, tense silent dinners, all blurred together. Her grades were still good, especially in math, but no one could fail to notice Sarah’s increasingly detached, vacant manner. School ended for winter break. Then there were days and days when no one expected anything from her. So she started sleeping upstairs. Her first night sleeping there she woke in the dark when a stair creaked. She froze, wide awake, holding back a scream. It was Kyle. Even death couldn’t stop him from hurting her. Screaming would only make it worse. What was she thinking hanging around in his room and sleeping in his bed?
But no, of course it wasn’t Kyle, just her parents, coming upstairs to check on her. She heard her father whisper something to her mother on the stairs, then their careful quiet treading down to their room. She released the breath she’d been holding and closed her eyes but couldn’t stop her thoughts enough to sleep. She brought Marabel and the snake to bed with her. Lying in the dark with Marabel tucked against her neck and the click, click, click, of the snake drowning out her worries, she fell sound asleep.
New Year’s Day dawned stark white like the whole world was a hospital room. Eighteen inches of snow had fallen overnight and the day was clear and sunny. Sarah sat in her chair by the window, hood pulled down to shield her eyes from the glare. A cup of tea sat steaming on the windowsill, next to Marabel and her purple phone. Click, click, click. Sarah had researched Rubik’s Snakes on the internet and found step-by-step instructions for making dozens of shapes. A Wikipedia article claimed that a Rubik’s Snake could be folded into around three-trillion unique combinations. The endless possibility thrilled her. She could do something no one had ever done every single day and no one would even know. It felt right to her to spend her days manufacturing secrets in this room.
She spent the first part of the day learning and practicing the more interesting shapes, glancing at her phone occasionally to check the next step. She made a snowman, ostrich, pinwheel, cross, and frog. After lunch she just played. The calluses on her thumbs and index fingers made soft rasping sounds that punctuated the click, click, click. The spaceship sat next to Marabel and her phone on the windowsill. It didn’t occur to her to wonder how it got there.
That night she dreamt she slept curled around her brother’s warm body, just like she had as a toddler, before everything went wrong. In the morning she stumbled out of bed and stepped on something painful. It was the top half of an action figure, one of the ones from the cardboard box. Shaken from her morning stupor, she saw that all the action figures were on the floor, laid out in a circle around the bed, in an alternating pattern of torso, legs, torso, legs, torso, legs. The snake lay on the pillow in the straight configuration she always started with. Some part of Sarah wanted so much to be afraid, but there was a weight inside her like a cold wave that caught that part and pushed it down to the silent depths. She picked up the Snake, needing the click, click, click to hold onto.
On January 7th Richard Reece, Sarah’s father, decided he should go upstairs and check on Sarah. He and Mindy, Sarah’s mom, had only been upstairs three times since Kyle’s death. The first time he preferred not to remember. The police detective and forensic psychologist had been there. But now it wasn’t Kyle’s room, it was Sarah’s. And Sarah had barely left it all week.
Richard was not the sort of man who had a hard time admitting when he was afraid. He knew very well how much it scared him to go up there, even to see the door hanging open in the hall, revealing the stairs that lurked behind it. He knew his fear was irrational, but he also knew it was legitimate. For the better part of a year there really had been a monster living at the top of the stairs.
Sarah had always been a quiet child who mostly kept to herself, easily ignored, especially as Kyle had gotten worse. But now she had a familiar vacant look that scared Richard even more than those attic stairs. So he opened the door, noting the trembling of his hand with uneasy amusement, and climbed the hollow steps. Sarah sat in Kyle’s old reading chair, profiled in the big round window, holding Kyle’s old Rubik’s Snake and folding it at an impressive and constant rate. Click, click, click. Her hands seemed to move of their own accord while she turned to look at her father. He shuddered and immediately hoped she hadn’t noticed, for when she looked at him with those vacant eyes for a moment she looked to him like a huge beetle sitting in the chair, her busy hands like an insect’s forelimbs. Click, click, click. “Hi Sarahbel,” he said in a weak attempt at comfortable familiarity. “Whatcha up to?”
Sarah blinked at him a few times and shook her head. Then her eyes focused on Richard for the first time in several days. “Hi, Dad,” she replied in a voice that was creaky with disuse. Her focus moved past her father to a place on the wall just behind him and went suddenly wide, so he turned with a start, body overreacting with the expectation of danger. It was Kyle, he was sure of it, his son wasn’t dead, at least not anymore, and there was no escape. His vision pulsed with the force of his heartbeat, but he saw what had frightened Sarah—it was just a shadow on the wall. Windblown branches and clouds had made a shadow that looked remarkably like a person, remarkably like Kyle. But it was just a shadow. Richard felt a sickening surge of guilt. Am I really this afraid of my dead son? he wondered. A touch on his arm re-ignited his panic, but it was only Sarah. She pressed close to him and he put his grateful arms around her. Can she really be fourteen? The top of her head barely reached to Richard’s chest. It was one more way she took after her mother.
Sarah inhaled her father’s scent, dusty and resinous with a trace of diesel fuel. It was a little bit the smell of the garage where he worked and a lot just an essential quality of his. It comforted her then as it had long ago when her father had whispered little stories and held her to help her fall asleep on nights when she was scared. It was for Sarah the essential smell of safety, and she breathed it deeply. She looked past her father at the shadow on the wall that looked so much like a person, watched it raise its finger to its mouth as the wind outside whispered, “Shhhhhhhh.” This time the part of her that feared was free to be afraid, but something held her body and her voice and made her look all through that hug that would have comforted her so much. She looked, while the shadow person stood impassive on the wall, while the little doors into the storage spaces both swung silently open, while the piled blankets on the bed slid and shifted the way they do when sleep is hard to find.
When her father let her go she wanted to ask him to stay, but she couldn’t. His eyes searched the room in the way of someone who knows they won’t see a place again for a long time but he made no mention of the open doors or the slow-squirming bed sheets. The door closed and she heard the sound of his footsteps descending the stairs. She picked up the snake from the windowsill and twisted it absently while she watched old toys slither out of the two closets to the bed where they tangled with the sheets. She focused on the click, click, click of the snake. She was certain if she stopped, if she let the sound cease, the fear would overtake her and she’d break. The sheet-and-toy tangle took the shape and size of a teenage boy. I should run away, she thought. I should scream for help. She had always thought those things and had never done them. Her brother was dead now because someone else had screamed for help. She knew she never would.
The Kyle-shaped thing approached her, standing too close the way Kyle always had. She remembered that his eyes had been grey like a winter sky, a trivial thing but she couldn’t look at the face before her, made of toy cars and bright plastic dinosaurs and Barbie dolls. Looking would make it real. She remembered Kyle’s eyes and she listened to the click, click, click while she chuckled at how stupid she’d been to think she could ever be safe from him.
The thing slapped Sarah hard enough to knock her down. She watched the snake skitter across the floor and stop next to the burgundy chair, where it continued shifting and twisting until it settled on a shape like a frowning face. Kyle kicked her over and over, but all she could hear was click, click, click.
Writer, gardener, mother, wife, noisemaker, forest creature, queer, trans, mentally ill, and an excellent liar—Amelia Diamond copes with the misfortune of being unable to stop noticing the devastating beauty all around her by writing stories and making abstract noise music. She frequently publishes her short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com