Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Photo Credit: Michael Berke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)
“This is where all the unwanted stuff goes to die.”
The door of the room on the top floor of the antique shop gave a perfect, high-pitched creak on its rusty hinges as Ruth, our manager, opened it slowly.
The room was a dark, crowded mess of boxes, old dusty furniture and tables and piles full of old, rusted, broken junk. In the faint light from the small circular windows, I could see piles of stuff covered by old sheets and something hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Ruth navigated her way confidently around the heaped piles, reached up and pulled on a chain next to the lone dangling light bulb in the center of the ceiling.
“The full effect is better with the lights on,” she said as the chain made a loud clunk as the light snapped on. I jumped involuntarily and my eyes stung from the sudden flash of light.
“Obey the sign on the door; the things in this room are not for sale,” she continued “The idea is they’re kept here to eventually be repaired and then put back on display downstairs, but as you can see,” she swept her arms around the room, “that hasn’t ever happened.”
It was grimy and smelled of mildewed fabric and rusty metal. Our other co-worker, Burke, was fascinated by what appeared to be a broken puppet swaying pathetically from the ceiling. It was an old-woman puppet with a missing eye. Ruth cleared her throat obnoxiously and we snapped back to attention. She adjusted her thick glasses and fixed us with a sharp, no-nonsense glare.
Ruth’s imitation of our old boss was pitch-perfect—the way she glared at us and cleared her throat. We all broke down and started laughing.
We were like that for a good five minutes. It didn’t help when I breathed in a particularly large dust bunny and my laughter turned to violent sneezing that continued on for another five minutes.
“Jesus, Greta, you allergic to this place?” Ruth asked as she passed me a dusty handkerchief she got from who knows where. I cringed slightly as I pressed the moldy fabric to my nose and blew.
“This room is crazy! There’s a whole other store up here!” I exclaimed.
“As ‘Manager,’” Ruth said again in her ‘boss’ voice, “Only I have permission to drop things off. She made me swear not to let any of the other employees come in here.”
“She must think we’ll mess it up or something,” Burke retorted. He was examining a contingent of little robot toys whose eyes lit up and blinked. “Can you imagine actually playing with these as a kid? I love them!” He watched gleefully as the robots marched around his feet after he’d wound them up.
“It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about this place before. We wouldn’t have gotten any work done!” I pointed out as I surveyed the rest of the room. In addition to Burke’s strange robot toys and the disabled puppet hanging in the corner, there were more toys piled everywhere. Most were broken, like the twisted heap of model train tracks and the herd of headless rocking horses. I sat down on one of the rocking horses and chuckled as it creaked loudly beneath my weight.
“Enough browsing,” Ruth said sternly. She was dragging a big, peeling chest from out of the corner and motioned for me to help her. Burke heaved a few heavy boxes off an old ripped chaise lounge and a tarnished rocking chair. Ruth opened the chest and pulled out a case of room-temperature beer and an ancient bottle opener. She popped off three caps, handed them around and raised hers in a toast:
“To surviving a very dead Boxing Day rush!”
We clinked our beers together and drank deeply. The ‘Not for Sale’ room, with its graveyard of broken playthings and odd drafts of winter wind, was then christened as our club house and suddenly felt cozy. I sipped my beer slowly, and half-listened to my friends and their tipsy stories and toasts. From what I could see out the windows, it was snowing.
Ruth stood up slowly and cleared her throat again. “On my many jaunts up here to drop off surplus stock, I’ve discovered, among the junk, quite a few little treasures. Like this,” she indicated, pulling from somewhere a heavy gold watch that dangled from a long chain. She swung it in front of our curious faces like a hypnotist. “And this,” she tossed a gleaming silver cigarette lighter to Burke. He grinned with surprise at his gift and flicked open several times.
“Not everything up here is worthless. I just think the old bat doesn’t remember where anything is anymore,” Ruth continued and pointed to an old wooden dresser draped with an old white sheet. She whisked it off to reveal it was intricately carved. An impressive collection of music boxes and snow globes sat on top. They looked polished and well-cared for and completely out of place in this room.
“This is a dying business and everyone knows it. I say we take what we can from the good stuff up here, the things that aren’t ‘dead’, and call it a reward for a job well done,” she pronounced and began to pilfer through the dresser drawers. Burke’s eyes lit up and he scampered back to the robot toys. I was drawn to the beautiful, glistening snow globes.
I picked up one of them carefully, surprised at how light it was. Tiny white snowflakes glittered and twirled around a small brick building under its crystal dome. There was a small key sticking out the back. I turned it around once and I heard a faint chime of bells. I shook it and watched the little flurry swirl around while the chimes wound down.
“Go on! You like them, don’t you? They need a good home,” Ruth goaded me.
I couldn’t help wondering how much it might be worth…
The light bulb flickered suddenly, off and on. We paused in our pillaging and in that a brief moment before the light flickered back on, I thought I saw a movement from the corner with the hanging puppet. I blinked and let out a gasp.
“What’s the matter, Greta?” asked Burke.
“Nothing… I thought I saw…” I squinted through the dim light at the puppet. It was still. I shook my head and turned back to the snow globe.
At the exact moment I looked at it, the churning little snowflakes suddenly turned black. I shook it again and watched, disturbed, as black snow delicately blanketed the familiar-looking red brick building inside. Then a small sound broke through: chimes. They were soft at first and then grew louder. But I hadn’t re-wound the snow globe, it was playing on its own.
I suddenly felt it grow hot in my hand. I yelped in surprise and tried to release it but it remained planted in my hand. The heat grew as the black snow within it swirled faster and faster.
“I— I can’t let it go!” I shouted, shocked at the hot glass and metal that was stuck to me.
Ruth darted across the room and reached toward me. She touched the snow globe for a split second before reflex withdrew her hand sharply, as though she’d touched something hot. “What’s doing it?” she exclaimed, horrified.
My hand was pulsing with the pain of the heat and my heart raced. Burke thundered towards us but a sudden gust of cold wind blasted through the room and knocked us all apart. The room was a blur as we thrashed around, caught up in some unknown force. I heard the crash of furniture and glass tumbling and shattering against the floor. The force gradually subsided and we were sprawled around the room. Burke’s forehead was bleeding from flying shards of glass and the one-eyed puppet had somehow become tangled around Ruth. The heat of the snow globe vanished instantly but I still couldn’t let it go. My hand throbbed with pain as I crawled towards my friends.
“Ruth! Come on, Ruth! Wake up!” shouted Burke, gently slapping her cheeks. Her eyes flickered open and she stared at us with an expression of sheer terror on her face.
“My fault… it’s all my fault…” she whispered.
Burke and I locked eyes, relieved she was awake but confused by what she was saying.
“Don’t try to talk,” I whispered as I helped Burke hoist her to her feet. He tugged gently at the puppet’s strings but they were too tangled. We started towards the door gingerly, afraid of provoking whatever force we’d just witnessed.
Then the light in the room went out completely.
It was unnaturally dark. The room had windows. We should have been able to see the streetlights below. But no light seeped in. We paused, terrified and trapped, unable to see our way to the door in the debris of the sudden indoor flurry.
And in that instant, I knew why it was so dark and why the little building inside the snow globe looked so familiar:
Outside, it was snowing black snow and we were inside a red brick building, just like the snow globe welded to my hand.
“It’s my fault! They wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t for me!” pleaded Ruth suddenly.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
Ruth shook herself away from Burke and me. “It heard me say we should just take whatever we want and it’s angry… it protects the stuff in here—” something cut her off suddenly and she gasped.
We heard her start to flail in the darkness. I fumbled in Burke’s pocket for the lighter she’d given him and flicked it open. The tiny flame illuminated for a split second the sickening sight of the puppet strings snaking themselves around her neck.
“No! Stop!” I screamed, powerless as the strings tightened. Burke was frozen, horrified. The snow globed burned hot in my hand again, the wind swept through the room, and once more, we were turned inside out.
The chimes tinkled three times and everything stopped. Then, I heard another sound emerge from somewhere in the darkness: the slow, mechanical grind of a key being turned in a wind-up toy.
Little blinking lights rapidly pierced through the darkness and the sound grew and grew. The lights were coming from the eyes of the little robot toys Burke had been playing with earlier. They flashed furiously as their numbers swelled and marched around us, surrounding us.
“…punishment…” rasped Ruth as she lost consciousness and crumpled to the floor.
“You aren’t leaving this store,” commanded a strange unknown voice. All the lights in the store suddenly snapped on and the wind-up noise stopped immediately. The one eye in the face of the puppet around Ruth’s neck swivelled and fixed its soulless gaze upon us.
“I have a duty to the heirlooms in this building,” the puppet croaked. “You never cared about these things, the broken and the tarnished. They may be stored out of sight but they are never forgotten. And even those that aren’t broken, they aren’t to be stolen out of greed!”
The puppet wound itself even more tightly and Ruth’s face was a deep shade of purple. Burke made a step towards her but the robots all raised these tiny arms in the air. We saw they were hand-less and the joints where they should have had hands were filed into razor-sharp spears.
I looked around helplessly and felt the snow globe grow hot in my hand once more. In the millisecond before the wind began again, my other hand reacted by flicking Burke’s lighter open. I felt a spark ignite and I shut my eyes as the wind blasted and shook the room. The flame was fed by the rush of air and fire spread everywhere.
“Noooooooo!” bellowed the puppet and the room stopped shaking. But the damage was done.
The fire leapt from one pile of junk to another, spreading furiously through the dry and dusty room. The robot toys broke ranks and scurried every which way but many were swept away by the growing flames.
In one motion, Burke snapped the one-eyed puppet’s head from its cords and scooped Ruth up in his arms. We thundered down the stairs and through the main floor, the fire pursuing our every step. The wind-up sound grew, as did the shrieks and moans of the burning toys, as we ran past the displays and their glass cases exploded, sending more fragments sailing through the air and slicing our hands and faces. But we didn’t stop, not even when the smoke was so thick and it became as dark as the sky and its black falling snow.
At last we were outside and almost to the safety of the street. I looked back and saw the antique store completely ablaze.
The flames snaked down the walls, devouring them with a ravenous pace. The roof became a skeleton of charred beams and the smoke reached its black, curling tentacles high in the air.
I felt the sudden chill of the wind on my face and through my hair, a brutal reminder that winter lingered just on the edge of the inferno that was once Heirloom Antiques. I abruptly felt an intense, over-powering pull that forced me forward onto my knees. I realized with dread that I was being dragged back towards the fire by my hand.
I thrashed and fought against it. The flames reached out to me like a giant hand, ready to curl and crush me into its fist. I heard the chimes and the invisible pull intensified. The chimes grew louder now and the fire crackled and purred in sick anticipation, about to be reunited with its last heirloom.
Using all the strength I had left, I flung my hand clutching the snow globe directly on the concrete steps of the store. As the glass shattered against the pavement, I felt blood run down my hand and I was released. I sprawled for the briefest of moments on the ground before scampering backwards towards the street. Burke was next to me and Ruth was slowly coming to. My chest heaved as I gulped in the fresh, frozen air, my heart pounded hard in my ears and I felt the sweat and tears on my face begin to cool.
As we sat shivering in the frigid wind, watching the store burn steadily, the black smoke billowed higher and higher. A gust of wind unfurled it across the night sky, where it hung like a cloud for a split second and then vanished.
At the same moment the smoke turned from blackness into nothing, the thick snowflakes turned white and fell silently from the sky.
Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. Before her recent move to France, she taught dance, drama and English in Edmonton Public Schools, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips on the food blog Sandwiches are Beautiful, and documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture, both in Canada and beyond, with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com