Sinister Melody

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
David Pugh

Black and white photo of a cobblestone street. The cobblestones are wet, slick and shiny. Light shines down the center of the image, illuminating the pattern of the stones. The sides are in shadow.

Photo Credit: Andy Magee/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It is early morning and lazily falling snow gathers in drifts at every windowsill, doorway, and curb of the city. Warped sheets of thin metal clank against the spouts of precarious brick chimneys. Iron horseshoes and wooden wheels, reinforced by steel, clatter along uneven cobblestone roads. Dense chunks of ice crash against the wooden piers of the harbor, sloshing in the frigid waters. In the harbor, a ship is being prepared for departure. Picture windows in stores fog with the discussion of price. Noses sniffle and mittened hands catch spontaneous sneezes. Wrapped in scarves, jackets, and woolen hats, residents of the city bustle in the narrow streets between towering grey buildings. No matter their destination, the residents pass each other and greet their neighbors, despite the cold.

A young woman hurries through the snow-covered streets. She hunches, her head down, clutching something to her chest, walking against the rending winds of the winter storm. Candles in windows guide her way. Their lights are faint, but enough to orientate her on the way home. She has walked these streets more times than she could count, but in the grey of the storm standing upright was a struggle all its own. Snow crunches under her boot and she slides off a patch of ice on the cobblestone street.

She stumbles, nearly dropping the something from her arms, and attracts glances of concern from a group of women conversing outside of a nearby shop. Their conversation changes instantly as they offer to help and draw near to her. She finds their presence reassuring, had the fall been worse, and smiles. However, now is not the time for attention so she shakes her head. She meets their gaze, returning their rehearsed smile with her own, and continues toward her destination.

Finally, a building with three candled windows all in a row guides the young woman around a corner to face an ancient brick building. She stops in front of its wooden door. Her feet feel unstable beneath her, and she wonders if anyone else is around. She struggles to balance herself as she removes an iron key from the pocket of her coat. She knows that if she falls again, someone will be there in a matter of seconds. Without looking up from the patch of ice beneath her feet, she slides the iron key into its lock. The lock clicks open, and she disappears inside the ancient brick building.

One mittened hand softly clicks the lock back into place. She gives the knob a twist and a slight pull to confirm that the door is locked. Flakes of snow that cling to her hair melt fast in the humidity of the house. For a moment she coughs, adjusting to the stark change in atmosphere, and she braces herself against the wooden door.

The young woman is short and slight, her face whipped red by the chilling winter air. Her woolen coat, mittens, and scarf are threadbare, and age worn. She sets the something down at her feet and, with considerable effort, she sheds her winter clothing. She piles them in a soggy heap on top of that something on the floor and stands, thinking, in a sweat drenched sundress.

Her name is Melody Geary, and she finds no comfort standing in the foyer of her home. Her mind races with thoughts of her husband, Daniel, and the condition she may find him in, in the bedroom at the top of the stairs. She hears the open window slamming against the side of the house. She shudders and lights a candle sitting in a ceramic dish on a small end table and moves into the dining room, turning her back on the staircase and the something buried by her winter clothing.

She still hears the words of Dr. Randolph.

How, exactly, has he been unwell? Has he been eating much? Has he slept through the night?

Today’s visit had been the third this week and each time his voice was calm and free of skepticism. His questions were specific and, usually, impersonal, but this time he had expressed interest clearly beyond professional in Daniel’s case. Melody smiles at the thought of preferential treatment. She had always found his presence comforting; he never failed to care for them.

Dr. Randolph had always been adamant about seeing his patients directly, but this had been different. In his cramped office, he kept a safe distance from Melody, listening intently as she described the rash that has developed across Daniel’s shoulders.

Judging by your description, I believe I am familiar with this ailment. Though I’ve never had the opportunity to catch it this early. Oh, no! Do not bring him! Give him this, it should stop the spread. Though its side effects will likely be… significant.

Melody shuts her eyes and tries to imagine the lives of her neighbors, blissfully unaware of Daniel’s current state. Faintly, she hears the city beyond the whipping winter storm. The light snap of a whip and the rhythmic clomp of horseshoes against the snow-covered stone streets. The idle chatter of the passengers, and the courteous greeting of the carriage driver to passersby. She hopes they have not noticed Daniel’s absence.

Are you okay, dear?

The face of Mrs. Sanderson, who she had passed only moments ago, flashes in her mind.

Be careful out here! You can’t see five feet in front of you, let alone ice covered in snow. I can take that package for you, come inside and warm up.

She had joined them for tea many times on her walks home. Mrs. Sanderson hosted bridge every afternoon. Melody had no idea how to play, but she would sit and chat with them. She spoke freely about Daniel, or work, or medication from Dr. Randolph, or any other topic that day had brought her. None of the women had thought much of Dr. Randolph. They all found his treatments dubious. Melody would laugh and give a noncommittal comment. She would continue to follow Dr. Randolph’s advice, though she wondered how those women stayed in such good health without it. Their days all seemed to pass so easily to Melody. All of them blissfully unaware of this affliction that may move to her, or any of them any day.

Melody hears the open window upstairs slam again and is brought back to her surroundings. In her dining room, a long table, dressed in a moth-eaten runner, is covered in a thick layer of dust. At one end of the table sits a plate of crumbs and a chair with its back to a window. She pulls the chair away from the table and moves to sit, hovering just above the seat. She sways like the sudden stop in motion is a surprise to her, before righting herself and moving with renewed purpose. She lifts the plate of crumbs, her hands linger on the plate, unsure if something may sit beneath it. After a moment’s consideration, she moves the plate to the nearby sink without a glance back at the table.

Cold water rushes into the disgusting, scum-ringed sink. She places the candle on the counter and painstakingly removes melted wax from the ceramic dish. She rinses the crumbs from yesterday’s dinner plate before dragging a mildewed rag across its surface several times. Melody continues this menial distraction, trying her best to ignore the sounds of breathing.

Deep panting and the sound of rustling leaves crash behind her, escaping the rusted vent cover, clawing at the stray hairs that curl around her ears. She scrapes away at the clean plate and speaks to the calling breath.

“Soon, Daniel, we will be free of this. We will both continue our work. The days of us barely seeing each other, me going to dinner at Barbara’s or you to play cards at Waldorf’s will return. And none of them shall know of this misstep. These days we’ve spent locked here together. Your degenerating health. Our lives will continue as though they had never stopped. No one ever needs to know of these days I have wasted here with you. Let us finally be rid of this.” And she hurries back to the staircase.

She tears through the heap of winter clothes until she finds the something, beneath them all. A large glass jar filled with amber stones. She stares into the pristine surfaces of the stones as she steps onto the first stair. The bare skin of her hands as they hold the glass jar tingles with anticipation with each step. The stones glow with a strong light that guides her up the stairs with a feeling of ease—a naïve hope that could only come to someone who has placed her full confidence in another, never noticing the tingling has spread up her arms, toward her elbows.

As she draws near the landing, she thinks back on Dr. Randolph’s instruction.

No, no! It would be best not to move him, in this state. I suggest you give him these. This medication is unique. All you must do is uncork the jar in the same room as Daniel and the effect will be instant. They produce a strong smell that should stop the spread of the rash in a matter of minutes. Just be sure that no one sees them! This is a foreign treatment and I suspect your neighbors may not appreciate the idea. It may ruin my reputation.

Melody swore she had seen a gleam in Dr. Randolph’s eye as though he had waited to hear her words. He spoke with a chuckle as he covered the jar in a sheet and sent her on her way. He insisted she take detailed notes of the results and leave them under his door the following morning. He was on his way out of town; an old patient of his living further up the coast had taken a poor turn and he was forced to tend to them. The situation seemed rather serious, but he had left in a state of elation, almost manically, reiterating his instructions until she was out the door.

For days, she had stopped at the third step from the top, only pushing a tray of food onto the landing. She would call to him and tell him to get it and the importance of keeping his strength up. Now, shrouded in the amber glow, she steps onto the landing. Scattered on the floor, the untouched sandwiches have turned blue and green with mold. From behind the door to her right, their bedroom door, she hears it all more clearly than downstairs. Rustling leaves, the slamming windowpane, and the breathing. That horrid breathing that has plagued her for nearly a week. The chill of the metal knob shocks her, but only enough to enliven her anticipation. With great effort, Melody opens the door to find her husband, Daniel, exactly as she had left him.

A rotten smell fills the air and the bed sheets and floorboards beneath Daniel are frozen solid. He sits, shoulders hunched forward, on the side of their bed facing the open window. What remains of Daniel’s hair, and the leaves that sprout from his scalp, blow in the winter air. His skin is so thin that the muscle and blood pumping within are visible. Snow blows in the open window, the flakes that land on Daniel melt instantly and soak into his waxy skin. The moisture absorbs into the network of veins that pulse rapidly.

With the horrible sound of snapping twigs, Daniel moves to face her. His neck bends straight backward, like a stem that is unable to support its bud, and he looks to Melody. His eyes protrude slightly, rolling in their sockets with the movement of his head. The waxy coating of his skin had tried, and failed, to form over his eyes only to dry up around his yellow eyeballs. The exposed irises turned a faded grey and cracked, pieces sloughing off in the frigid gusts.

Leaves sprout along the ridge of his collarbone like a ruff; they sway in the frigid air with a startling resilience. The thin skin cracks and falls away from his mouth exposing his brittle and yellow teeth. They chatter together senselessly; the muscles contracting on memory alone. His arms bend backward at the elbow and, his fingers growing like vines, reach out to her.

Along a vein in his shoulder, a clot forms before her eyes. Through his thin and waxy skin, the clot forces its way into the cold winter air, emerging as a fresh bud. It opens and thick petals of a vibrant blue unfurl. They flap before settling against the skin, appearing unbothered by their harsh environment.

This medication is unique; all you must do is uncork the jar in the same room as Daniel and the effect will be instant.

With a smile of assurance, Melody uncorks the glass jar.

They produce a strong smell that should stop the spread of the rash in a matter of minutes.

Melody inhales deeply.

Just be sure that no one sees them!

For a moment, both Melody and Daniel are still. She smells nothing.

Suddenly Daniel’s face contorts mournfully, his mouth opens as though to scream. The waxy luster of the skin fades as it shrivels, clinging to the withering muscle below. The blue petals shrivel and curl before falling to the frozen floorboards. Daniel’s whole body wilts into a silent heap on the bed.

This is the closest the two have been to each other in days. In his current state, she found it difficult to identify him. Despite the vegetation, most of Daniel’s features were still there. High cheekbones. Weak chin. Crooked teeth. Until this moment, she has not considered the details of this affliction.

I believe I am familiar with this ailment, though I’ve never had the opportunity to catch it this early.

Give him this; it should stop the spread. Though its side effects will likely be… significant.

Just be sure that no one sees them!

It may ruin my reputation.

She feels her face flush with guilt she had not felt since childhood. Surely, she could not be at fault; she had only followed Dr. Randolph’s orders. It was impossible for her to have known.

“Are you there, dear?” comes a familiar, but distorted, voice from the open window. The voice is a series of snaps and rustling, like the sound of wind moving through a lush forest. It sounds distant, from far beyond the threshold of the window, but fills the room. It is calm, even toned, and Melody grows tense. Still clutching the glass jar, she does not notice the glow of the stones fade. She moves to the window to see who is addressing her.

Outside Mrs. Sanderson and her neighbors, lying flat against the frozen stone, stare up at her. Through the violently whipping snow, she sees vibrant blue petals blossom from each torso. They sway as though the violent storm is nothing more than a spring breeze. Their mouths gape open as the strange voice comes once more.

“We came to have a word with Daniel. We heard his call.”


David Pugh studied film at Indiana University. Enjoys pizza, Tekken, and slasher films not exceeding 93 minutes.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email