Carriers

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Matt Boyle


Photo Credit: ocegep/Flickr (CC-by)

“Congratulations,” said a tinny voice from David’s phone. He glanced at the screen and saw a spinning roulette wheel flashing quietly; it blinked, promising him Walmart gift cards and other riches. He sighed and restarted the phone.

“Fucking ads.”

He sat alone in the Colton Library stacks—nothing but books, quiet, and cold. He pulled his jacket tighter, breath pluming, and glanced out the window at the snow holding the campus in its grip. A single brave soul walked through the storm, head down against the snow, like a character from a silent film. David glanced at his phone again, then remembered it was still restarting and laughed at himself. He sat there, rather impotently, and shook his head.

“What the hell am I doing here?”

And then a young woman’s voice said, “Hey.”

David jerked around. The woman wore a muted grey sweater, a surgical mask, and studious glasses. She held up a hand nervously, and David grabbed for his own mask and fumbled it on.

“Um,” he managed to say. “Can I help you?”

She nodded at his phone. “Congratulations.”

“…for what?”

“You won an award, didn’t you? Didn’t your phone congratulate you?”

“Uh, no. It’s… just a malicious ad.”

She peered at him, not hearing him through his mask. “A what?”

He raised his voice. “A malicious ad. I probably went to some site I shouldn’t have. Just your garden-variety internet scam.”

“Oh, oh yes, I see. But… I still have to say congratulations. I, ehm…” She blushed, almost seeming to shrink on herself. “…you see, I navigated to some sites I shouldn’t have… and I picked up a virus too.”

He stared at her. “Miss, no offense, but that joke isn’t exactly in good taste these days.”

“God, I wish it was a joke. It’s not. I picked up a virus from my computer. Now whenever an ad pops up on someone’s device, I have to help advertise it.”

David blinked. He didn’t say anything. He was on a campus where almost everyone had decided to learn remotely. Those still on campus mostly hid in their rooms, or in corners of the library. He hadn’t seen his family or friends outside of a tiny box in a computer screen in six months. His mother had nearly died the month before, and he hadn’t even been able to leave the state. He didn’t know if he had the bandwidth to navigate this conversation.

Hell, he didn’t even know what this conversation was.

The grey woman pointed at his phone miserably and said, “Congratulations. You’ve won a free gift card to Walmart. There’s a message in there from Mary Stevens, from Omaha. She says, ‘I just got mine in the mail. Thanks!’”

David looked down at his phone again. Sure enough, the spinning roulette wheel was back, lights blinking silently. Mary Stevens from Omaha said the same words the grey woman had. He tried to hit the back button on his browser and the phone refused; it just refreshed the page and congratulated him again. The voice sounded exhausted, as if it could barely muster the energy.

“Congratulations,” the grey woman echoed.

David looked at his phone and then back at her. He did it one more time, then said, “I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” she said, and sighed. “I’m really sorry.”

“No, it’s ok,” he said, standing up. “I’m just… I’m tired. Why are we even studying here anyway, right? With this weather? We wouldn’t be if there weren’t a pandemic.”

“That’s the modern world,” she said sadly. “So easy to stay in touch nowadays. Can’t have a snow day if you can learn from anywhere.” She slung a book bag off her shoulder and sat at the other side of the table. “Do you mind? I have class and the network is better here.”

He shook his head. “No, you take it. I’m headed back to the dorms.”

She nodded. “Congratulations again.”

“Sure,” he said, and waved goodbye as the grey woman unfolded her laptop and booted it up. He walked along the stacks, his footfalls quiet and lonely, then he stopped before the elevator, blinking in confusion.

He felt an irrepressible need to… turn back. He had to…

“Congratulations,” he blurted out, almost a sneeze.

He stared down at his mask in confusion and something like horror, then realized that he was turning around and walking back to the grey woman. His silent footfalls followed him as he arrived back at her table, his eyes wide and confused. She looked up from her laptop screen, her face lit with colored lights of awards and ads that no doubt blinked at her from every link she clicked. He tried not to say anything, but… he couldn’t.

“Con… congratulations.”

She stared back, her eyes mournful. “I’m so sorry. Looks like you’ve caught it too.”

“Caught what? This doesn’t make any sense. You can’t catch a malicious ad. Human beings aren’t… aren’t…”

The grey woman didn’t say anything. She stared at him patiently.

He swallowed, feeling something coming up from his gut, like vomit. The words burst from his lips and he spat them out. “…congratulations,” he said again, feeling tears begin to form in his eyes, the words spitting from his mouth without his consent. “You’ve won a chance for a free PS5. You’re… the five-hundredth visitor to the site.”

The grey woman smiled behind her mask. “Thank you.”

“What the fuck is happening to me?”

The grey woman shook her head. “This is what we are now. Carriers. Of one virus or another. We can’t get away from either.”

David stared and looked up at the window. It had become dark in the past ten minutes, and all he saw was a silent snowstorm. Inside, the fluorescent lights hummed as the grey woman tried to exit out of the ads on her computer and start her Zoom call. All around them, he realized, the library’s computers were turning on, connecting them to the world kept physically distant, cutting through the pain of the lost human touch, offering their weary reminders that they were all in this together in these uncertain times, and that if they would just sign up now, all the riches of the world could be at their fingertips.

“Congratulations,” said the grey woman to the people in her computer. “We’re all winners.”

pencil

Matt Boyle works in instructional design at a university that allows students to choose how they want to learn during the pandemic. He doesn’t actually think flexible learning is like a malicious ad though, 🙂 Email: magicrat008[at]gmail.com

A Guiding Light

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
H.B. Bendt


Photo Credit: Thomas Milne/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The wind had shifted from a low murmur in the underbrush to a chilling howl racing around the steep drop of the cliffs. It carried an uncomfortable cold settling in one’s very bones, filling up the veins with ice, and freezing muscles until the skin turned blue and numb. The sparse grass beneath her shoes cracked with each step, stems frozen solid and glistening in the dim light coming from an overcast sky. Rain and snow mixed in a drizzle, settling in her hair and clothes, creeping into every exposed crack or corner it could find. She blinked, almost blinded by the curtain of flakes, some bright white, others translucent.

Despite the uproar of the storm, the cliffs themselves lay quiet and tranquil as ever. They flanked the bay on each side, reaching three hundred feet at the peak with slopes and jagged edges on the way down to the water. Dry bushes sat scattered along the path leading up, patiently enduring the cold. Enduring months of darkness and winter storms building up above the open sea and making their way landwards. Whatever hoped to survive up here wasn’t beautiful, but tough. Thick-skinned and rooted deep into the rock and black soil, not to be blown away whenever the wind violently shook the ground. The barren, dark sprigs of spring squill grabbed at her ankles as she walked on, scratching at the exposed skin shimmering pale from underneath the long button-up shirt reaching barely down to her thighs, and the open coat flapping in the wind. She passed through the shadows, across a patch of plain, frozen earth trampled flat by the stream of curious tourists venturing up here every now and then, and on towards the cliff’s edge. Moving billows of clouds overcast the sky, the sole sources of light being the dim, swallowed shine of the moon—and a slow, deliberate whoosh, whoosh, whoosh streaming from up above. On, off, on, off, again and again, at a comfortable, steady pace.

Grey waves crashed into the cliffs with a clangor, white foam riding along and dissolving into the many nooks and crannies buried in the hill. Rocks and earth crumbled, drizzling down the slopes underneath the tip of her shoes now peeking over the edge. She looked down at the dark water with its dancing crowns of foam.

Behind her, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

*

The door to the office creaked open at 3:47pm, seventeen minutes later than planned. Dr Lowes was a scrawny, balding man in a tweed jacket and glasses that sat at the very tip of his nose. The smile that slipped on his lips the moment he spotted her sitting in that olive corduroy armchair was genuine, broad, and warm. The whole room smelled strangely of liquorice. Books littered every available surface, including the floor, and on the windowsill, wedged between all sorts of potted plants, sat a model brain sporting a thin layer of dust. A Post-it pinned to it said I, too, can hurt in a shaky, cursive handwriting.

“You would have to be Francesca,” Dr Lowes said.

“Frankie is fine.”

“Frankie.” He sat down on a stool opposite her, looking her up and down for a moment. “So, Frankie. You believe you might be depressed.”

“Maybe.”

“How so?”

“Well,” Frankie inhaled. She had mentally jotted down a list on the way here. The list she had methodically put together in long hours surfing the internet, looking up all the common symptoms and signs. She wasn’t here to hear someone else tell her she was depressed—no, of that she was sure—but she needed professional chats to get her hands on prescription medication. “I feel a lack of energy and motivation. I sleep too much. I feel numb, occasionally. You know, just—empty. I’m not sad, but I do wonder about the point of, well, everything, really. I have noticed that I have recently started to neglect myself but I don’t have the energy to change anything about it. My diet is largely cuppas and Twix bars—”

“You have made it here today,” Dr Lowes interrupted her.

“Yeah, today is a good day apparently.” She smiled thinly.

Dr Lowes leaned back on his stool, his spine softly hitting the edge of the desk behind him. He crossed a leg over the other, looking at her over the rim of his glasses. “Tell me a bit about yourself. You are a student?”

“Yes.”

“What are you studying?”

“LLB. Torts. I’m not sure why.”

“Why do you think?”

Frankie paused. The go-to answer she had been telling everyone and their mother wouldn’t cut it anymore, would it? Therapy was all about honesty after all. “It seemed reasonable,” she said eventually. “Sensible. It’s not bad being a sensible person.”

“No, it isn’t. Being sensible can very well keep you out of trouble.”

“That is it, isn’t it? Being no trouble.”

“Being out of trouble or being no trouble?” Dr Lowes asked. Frankie didn’t reply. “You believe you are trouble to someone?”

Frankie inhaled sharply, blinking all of a sudden.

“I’m trying not to be. It’s just—well, I have this thing where I feel like I can do everything perfectly and it’s still not good enough.” She felt her face contort, nose scrunching up, chin quivering, cheeks rising. The dam broke.

Five minutes into her first therapy session she had believed she needed only for the meds and she sat bawling her eyes out. Dr Lowes looked at her for a while, the gentle, not quite but almost pitiful smile of an understanding old man on his lips, before he reached behind himself and held out a box of tissues to her.

*

The sessions that followed didn’t go any better and it wasn’t until the sixth one that she could sit through the entire hour without crying.

That same evening she stepped out of the office doors and into the cool, crisp November air. The winter storms had slowly begun to pick up, white clouds lazily moving across the sky until they would snow down somewhere above the Black Mountains. Leaves in desaturated hues of orange and brown danced across the sidewalk, illuminated by a sparse row of street lights, and the breeze from the sea smelled humid and salty. The walk from the university to town, down a rather steep hill and with no bus driving regularly enough to wait, for once didn’t appear all that daunting. Frankie thought of socialising. That by now uncomfortably familiar feeling of existential dread was still sitting in that corduroy chair in Dr Lowes’s office. A shapeless little form she could leave behind for the night.

She was halfway down the hill when she first noticed the pale beam of light coming in a short burst from the coast. A second one soon followed, then a third. Frankie stopped, looking ahead. A party was the thought that first crossed her mind, but the light hovered over the entire town for a moment and disappeared again. It didn’t come from the old, Victorian seafront promenade either but gleamed somewhere to the right, near Constitution Hill. Whoosh. Whoosh. Slowly, deliberately. No party lights were bright enough to illuminate the town and half the beachfront. Frankie stood wondering for a little while longer, before she shrugged and continued down the road.

By the time she had reached the bottom, snow had begun to drizzle down in thick flakes. It whirled around her head, dragged away by the wind coming from the sea, and Frankie popped up her collar and tightened her scarf against the cold. In a few weeks’ time the snow would turn back into rain and cover the entire coast in a grey, solid mist. The cold would linger however. As would the wind. And once Christmas came around, the town would be deserted until late January. Small wonder, she thought, that people became gloomy around here. Old, Victorian-style house fronts rose at each side of the road, wooden patterns gleaming with an orange shine from the street lamps. The Ghost of Christmas Present lingered around here, only it didn’t outright show itself, but instead crouched in the shadows, following her around.

Penglais Road turned into North Parade and Frankie cut right down Queen’s Road. Soon enough a familiar sign with a raven on it, hanging above a dark door, came into view, and she pushed inside, away from the snow and cold. The pub was packed. Not unusual for a Friday night. Some students liked to flock here for a game of pool or two before heading onwards to the pier or to whatever dates they had set up for the night.

Life could have been good, she figured. A sense of opportunity. New life. Start over. Get going. ‘You’re young, you have it all ahead of you. And remember, Frankie. Always remember: it’s not about your own personal happiness. It’s about their happiness.’

It had started when she had moved off campus and into a shared apartment with a friend, hadn’t it?

The fatigue. The sluggishness. That first spark of a little thought asking what’s the point? over and over again. It had been faint and quiet in the back of her head at first. Nothing but a murmur that came and ebbed away again. Truly bad days had been a long shot ahead into the future then, but it was when it began. Now, a little more than a year later, it was a good day when she managed to take a shower and brush her teeth.

“What’s it gonna be for you, luv?” The pub owner’s voice came slurred to her, words registering slowly and unevenly through the fog of noise in the pub.

“Cider and black, please.”

“Pint?”

“Yeah. Why not.”

“I’ve seen them, too, y’know. The lights,” another voice said. “They don’t come from the beachfront.”

Frankie jumped. At the bar next to her, apparently out of thin air, a boy had appeared. First year, from the looks of it. Fresh out of home, he should have been rosy-cheeked with an excited gleam in his eyes. Yet there was nothing. Dazed and hollow, a walking skeleton holding a glass of ale.

“Um—excuse me?”

“The lights. It’s not the seafront. It’s not the pier, y’know.”

Y’know. No, she didn’t know. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“It’s weird, nobody seems to know what they are. I asked, they don’t know any lights. But they’re there, right? All over town.”

“I’ve never seen them before,” Frankie admitted.

The boy stared out a large, dark window. The snowfall outside had grown thicker by the minute.

“First saw them maybe a month ago? Every second day or so, that’s how it started. Now they’re out there every day, shining when it gets dark. ‘S to let us know there’s the cliff there, y’know.”

“The cliff?”

“Yeah. Says there’s the cliff, right there.”

Frankie then involuntarily glanced out the high windows, too. Far across the village lay the seafront in quiet blackness, perhaps occasionally disturbed by students passing by, shouting and celebrating. There was nothing out there but cold and dark; nothing compared to the warmth and comfort and noise within the pub. The boy smiled at her. A strange, lopsided smile.

“You know what’s beyond that cliff?”

Frankie shook her head.

“Nothing,” the boy smiled. “Just peace and nothing.”

Said warmth and comfort of the pub suddenly pressed upon her like an iron-cast corset. It was as if the very air had been sucked out of the room all at once, leaving her suffocating on the bright lights and the dozens of voices shouting over the small, helpless whisper in the back of her mind praying for silence. Please. Just blissful silence for a change.

Let it be quiet, please, please, let it be quiet. Let it end. Let there be nothing.

The boy’s smile had turned strangely serene. The image appeared amusing enough and Frankie felt the corners of her own lips twitch involuntarily.

“I gotta go,” he said. “Y’know that feeling? That pull?”

Frankie shook her head.

“I’ll just go,” he said, the smile sitting on his face like a mask. “Get beyond that cliff, y’know.” He got up from his seat, his pint of ale still half full and left on the bar. Frankie followed his disappearing form with her eyes. She looked at the windows again. The bright whoosh, whoosh, whoosh then streamed into the pub brighter than it had before. Nobody seemed to notice.

*

In the darkness of her room, something whispered in her ear.

It began as a low murmur, rising and falling like the tide rolling towards the shore and back again. Quietly it crept into every pore and filled her veins up with a nightmarish restlessness. A low whoosh, whoosh, whoosh that her dreams turned into words she could understand. The whisper moved, a creature hidden in the dark, climbing on top of her bed until it sat quietly by her feet; glowing eyes staring at her. The voice in her mind rang soft and gentle.

Come now, Frankie. Come out. Let me show you where the cliff is.

*

The regular six o’clock evening lecture came and passed by without Frankie paying attention. Most of the lecture she had spent drumming her pen on the notepad, noticing vaguely that her brain was lagging behind. As usual, she had ignored questions she had known the answers to, her body too unmotivated and tired to raise first her arm, then her voice. That, too, had only gotten some vague attention. Like the clear, white snow outside, her thoughts had turned into grey slush ready to melt away for good at some point. The words ‘why bother’ repeated themselves in her head like a mantra.

When she stepped onto Penglais Road, the snowfall from the previous night had turned into a thicket, almost blocking her view. Ice caked the way down the hill and she stepped carefully, not feeling any rush anyways. It was the dark, she supposed. The never-ending wall of grey clouds that blocked out all sunlight and turned daytime into some kind of perpetual twilight before it would grow dark again. The bus passed her by, spraying slush and mud, followed by the first wave of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The lights had never appeared this early before. Frankie looked around, studied the faces of students flocking down the hill left and right of her. None of them noticed. Or perhaps they did, but then nobody cared. She looked ahead at the lights flooding across the town in regular, slow circles, and wondered whether she perhaps had gone entirely mental.

She got down to the old campus, grabbed a sandwich from the gas station and bought a few chocolate bars to go with it. Something nagged her in the back of her mind. The same invisible whisper buried in her brain, pulling her towards the pier like a puppet on strings. Her feet moved at their own volition.

Frankie made it as far as the end of Pier Street, where the road was suddenly blocked with railings and yellow tape. The winter months brought storms and high tides with them with the waves often flooding the seafront entirely. Every now and then the town officials would declare it too dangerous for people and close off the entire seafront. Only this time there were the flashing lights of an ambulance and by the cliffs, far down to the right, stood a firetruck on the promenade. A few men in yellow uniforms hosed down the rocks. Frankie stood and watched. With all the rain and snow splattering against the cliffs one might think there was no need to clean them. No need whatsoever.

“Terrible, innit?” A police officer guarding the barrier appeared by her side, stuffing crisps into his mouth.

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“The thing about the kid.”

“What kid?”

“Some kid killed himself last night. Jumped off the cliff.”

Something froze. Whether it was time or Frankie’s entire body, she couldn’t tell. But things moved in slow motion, rolling past her like tumbleweed in an old black-and-white movie. Some kid.

“Do you know who?” she asked.

“Some freshman at the university. I heard a couple of people say the saw him at Scholars last night before he offed himself. Can you imagine? Going for a pint and then deciding to jump off a bloody cliff?”

Yes, she thought. Yes, I can imagine that. And she began to understand what he had meant when he had talked about that pull. To go beyond the cliff. Because the lights had showed him where it was, hadn’t they? The lights that still, lazily, drenched the town in a bright flash going in circles. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

“Guess he must have jumped from the spot where the lighthouse is.”

“Lighthouse?”

“Yeah. Y’know the old thing. Not been in use for ages but it’s a good jumping spot, I suppose? It’s high up, steep, nobody up there to stop you. Guess the way down’s not so good though. Cleaning up those rocks each time? Now that’s a bitch for you.”

Frankie felt something churn in her stomach, followed by a sudden urge to vomit.

*

In the deep of the night something knocked on her window. A sleep-addled, hazy brain told her it was impossible; a fourth-floor window wasn’t reachable without a ladder, but the soft graze of nails against glass continued on in a steady rhythm. The weight that had previously pressed down on her feet had disappeared. Big eyes now instead glowed from the window, lanterns in the darkness, searching the room for her shape. She couldn’t move. Stiff and frozen underneath her covers, all that Frankie did was stare back at the dark thing looking in.

A beam of light started from the right, dragging across the landscape outside.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Come now, Frankie. Let’s go.

When it hit the window, the creature disappeared. It returned once the beam moved past.

*

“Dr Lowes?” Frankie sat cross-legged in the corduroy armchair, her fingers curled around a cup of tea. She had not showered in four days. Dry shampoo and deodorant fixed whatever could be fixed, the oversized jumper sleeves covering her hands only so far to reveal chipped polish on her nails. She was here to get better. She wanted to get better. Didn’t she? “Do you know anything about the lighthouse?”

Dr Lowes had been taking notes, scribbling away on the yellowed writing pad sitting on the armrest of his chair. He looked at Frankie over the rim of his glasses again, brows arched.

“Lighthouse?” he asked. “The one further up from the train? Yes, as far as I know that thing has been out of order for a few decades now.”

“Why?” Frankie asked.

“Well, the story in town is that the lighthouse was closed off after the last keeper committed suicide. The door has been locked and it has been out of use since.”

“Committed suicide?”

“That is the story.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know for sure. Some people say he was a closed-off man that couldn’t quite fit in. You know what it’s like in small towns like this, people write you off as strange and shun you for it.”

“Was he bad?”

Dr Lowes shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Perhaps he was simply lonely. People do all sorts of horrible things when they feel lonely.”

“A boy killed himself up there two days ago,” Frankie said. She watched Dr Lowes scratch his neck with the end of his pen.

“Yes, well. I moved here about thirty years ago and the old lighthouse has been a popular spot for suicide even then. Three, perhaps four times a year someone would jump,” he paused. The look of minor discomfort on his face changed to what appeared to be concerned suspicion. “Frankie, you are not thinking about suicide, are you?”

From the corner of her eye, Frankie saw something shift in a darkened little spot somewhere behind Dr Lowes’s chair. It took no shape, but remained a vague, blurry outline of something that, at some point, may have had a body. Or might one day form a body again. A cold breeze reached for her neck, sending a shiver down her spine, and the whisper echoed softly in her ear. When the shapeless thing in the shadows turned, a pair of big, round eyes, bright as lanterns gaped at her.

“No,” Frankie said. In that very moment, the slow, rhythmic whoosh, whoosh, whoosh began again.

*

In broad daylight the lighthouse looked like nothing more than a crumbling ivory tower, removed from the rest of the world behind a solid layer of old age and isolation. A ‘No Trespassing’ sign in both English and Welsh was the only evidence of a human being ever having been up here. Other than that, the stone walls may have just grown out of the cliff by themselves one day. Low shrubs surrounded the once-white bricks and there was nothing eerie about the place other than the sharp howling of the wind coming from the sea. The entrance wasn’t as locked as Dr Lowes had suggested, but rather boarded up loosely. Little effort had gone into keeping people out. Frankie imagined the best repellent to be the story about the people who had killed themselves.

A few feet above her head something moved behind one of the dark windows of the lantern room. A cloud of mist that billowed behind the thick glass, roaming back and forth like a caged animal waiting for the opportune moment to break free. In the light snowfall it may have been nothing but a mirage; a trick her mind played on her to accompany the uneasy feeling creeping up from the rock below her feet, spreading through every fibre of her body until the hair at the back of her neck stood and gooseflesh crawled across her arms. Something whispered in her ear again. Frankie closed her eyes and when she opened them again, she stood in a round parlour within the tattered walls of the lighthouse.

High up, snug below the roof was the glassed lantern room, barely visible through the cracks in the floor boards. From there a stream of light illuminated the dim room in slow chants of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. A shadow flitted across the cracks in a hurry, making no sound. Frankie cautiously stepped into the centre of the room, following the trail of whatever was rummaging around above her. She went where it went, the scurrying shadow a guide across the room, moving back and forth in seemingly random directions. Every now and then the bright stream of light blinded her, but soon enough she found the little shadow creature again and continued her invisible pursuit. It felt familiar. A soft, comforting presence luring her in, that turned the cold, damp room around her into a cozy dream where nothing bad could ever touch her again. Sadness had no home here. And most importantly, there was no corduroy armchair in the corner.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Come now, Frankie. Come see what is beyond the cliff. Let it be quiet, let there be nothing.

The beam spilling through the floorboards turned the room into bright white. Frankie raised her arms, blinded again for a moment, stumbled backwards, and cold and ice grabbed at her ankles, biting into her flesh. She shrieked. The silent movement of the creature above her stopped; a pause so heavy, it dropped on her like a thick, suffocating blanket. The creature leapt forward. It sprinted across the boards, raced to the hatch leading down, and when she turned along with the noise, Frankie found those two glowing eyes stare at her from the top of the stairs. Bright as the oil lamp of the lighthouse itself did the eyes shine in the black around her, big and round, disappearing and reappearing with each circling motion of light.

The creature moved. Slowly, quietly, creeping down the stairs, the nothing that formed it coiled like springs, ready to pounce. It slipped across the floorboards, a clicking sound, guttural almost, coming from a set of teeth crunching away in an invisible jaw. With it crept the cold towards her, reaching for her ankles as if the creature itself extended its claws to gently grab her. The snapping mixed with a low purr.

Frankie. Frankiiiieeee. Here now, Frankie. Let’s go.

She turned and ran.

The whisper followed her through the dust and rot, a thundering, hollow sound of quick steps on the floor, while outside the wind howled around the lighthouse, chasing billows of snow in every direction. She broke through the boarded-up door, almost tripped, and fled down the path without once looking back.

*

Depression could manifest. Frankie had once read that in some esoteric article published on a mental health website. In dreams it might take shape, form a body that suddenly becomes palpable. Some experienced it in the form of a massive spider, others suddenly found themselves hunted by a pack of wolves in the darkened woods. For a while Frankie had believed her depression was merely her own face. Staring back at her in the mirror now, pale with dark circles under her eyes, the greasy, unkempt hair clinging to her cheeks. She knew her clothes stank. The steady rumble of her stomach had long stopped, hunger had turned into pain and cramps, but she could quench those with a cup of tea. The cup hadn’t been washed in two weeks.

The display of her phone lit up. 11:20 PM flashed, below the date that said Wednesday, 23 December. And a text message from her mother.

Not coming home for christmas is cowardly. I’m sorry but there is no other way to say it. If you are sick, then you need help. It is not an excuse to disappoint me or your father the way you did. I have never been more ashamed in my life.

That night Frankie slipped into her bed in a button-up shirt she had dug from the farthest corner of her closet. She pulled the covers over her head. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh came and went and came again. The steady flow that by now had grown so familiar. It soothed her mind, wrapped her fears into a warm cocoon. Darkness scurried over from the window and something heavy settled down on her chest. She didn’t need to lift the covers to see those lantern eyes staring down at her. To hear the soft clicking of teeth ringing close to her ears.

Come now, Frankie. We’ll let there be nothing. We’ll let there be quiet. We’ll go to the cliffs. We’ll let it end.

*

More bits and pieces of rock crumbled under the soles of her shoes, tumbling down the steep drop off the cliffs until they disappeared in the black below. The waves crashed a steady rhythm against the shore, beating on the glistening stone. Within the howling of the wind, she heard the whisper humming sweet nothings into her ears. There would be quiet soon. By her side crouched the little nothing, its glowing eyes gawking at the deep, deep drop. Frankie inhaled and stepped forward.

At the top of the deserted cliff, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

pencilHannah is a previously unpublished writer in her early thirties, finally taking the passion to the next level to turn it into a profession. She is a native German speaker with English as a second language, and anything suspense is her personal homebase. Email: bendthb[at]gmail.com

The Cold Face of the Mountain

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Karen Sheard


Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC-by)

I came to Alaska in search of the wild bear but something else found me in the wilderness. I now need to get down from this mountain before I starve, or the winter storms set in. But the worst thing is, I’m still heading towards the top of the mountain. I know that, even if I were to turn around now, I might not make it back down. What drives me on? If only it were that simple to explain out loud.

It was a few weeks ago that I started to sense its presence. As I hiked across the mountain of the sleeping lady I began to think back to where I had left. When I had been at home, with my wife, my mind had been constantly wandering to the mountains here. I had pored over photos of this very range of hills—when seen from a distance they are shaped like a naked woman lying in the snow. Down here, though, on the hills themselves, there was no such comfort, no warmth—either from the wife I left behind—or from the cold lady that tempted me here. Here, the peaks that form her soft curves were sharp and hard on my feet. No other travelers but I braved the weather forecasts this winter. Even the bears have stayed away this year. My camera card is empty of any images but blank snow and the paw prints of animals too shy to show themselves. I had a sense, tingling the back of my shoulders, that there were living things watching me pass, just outside the range of my sight, hiding in the mounds of snow and scraps of trees. Maybe my footfalls scared them away, as there is no other sound here except the wind that comes at night and the deafening quiet of the snowy land that stretches on in every direction. Still, I walked on, hoping for a sight of something. I descended into a valley between the mountains. Here, a shadow swept over the path, like a descending fog of gloom.

At the basin of the valley, I came across—I would like to call it a camp, but in truth there was nothing there to see. Just a lingering smell—a familiar sweet-unpleasant fragrance—that gave me the feeling that someone had been there just before me. A certain change in temperature, as if the place had recently been occupied by another creature. In the world of society that I had left behind, such changes would go unnoticed, but here among this vast nothingness, they rang out to my senses as clearly as if I had seen some outward sign. Something had been here not moments ago—a sense of it still remained here among the tall pines. Had I thought that it might still be there watching me, I may have been less keen to stay, but as it was, I chose to camp there. I had taken this trip from an urge to be alone, but now the sense that there was another being in this vast alien expanse, comforted me.

I set up my tent to face the direction the aurora borealis could be seen over the dark mountains beyond. The nightly dance of turquoise and purple haze had become my only sense of the movement of time. I found it a comfort to know that the world still moved on out there somewhere, for me to rejoin if I chose.

As dusk fell, my fire was all I had beyond the writhing glow in the sky to light my meal. As I sucked all I could from the last of my over-ripe fish, I watched the wind blow out the dregs of the fire. The light show has slowed to the occasional flash of blue, before the deep darkness set in for the short night ahead. In darkness, other senses take over, you hear phantom footfalls outside your tent, the wind takes on strange tongues that seem to moan your name. The temperature drops at nightfall—it’s winter here. A cool breeze blows over everything.

I lay in my tent, staring into the darkness of my own thoughts. I could not sleep. My mind was still wandering over the facts that the food was running low, and my feet were covered with wounds and sores. Moisture from my own breath was collecting across the canvas of the tent coating everything in a cold sweat.

And then I felt, rather than heard, the motion of the zip of my tent-flap being drawn slowly open. I felt the cold begin to seep into the tent, stinging my clammy body. I listened, with held-in breath, and finally caught the quiet sound of the zipper begging dragged gradually upwards. I drew back in my sleeping bag instinctively, my throat paralyzed, regretting taking off my boots and outer clothes, that might have offered more protection against attack. For some incongruous reason, against my control, my stomach rumbled, the sound deafening in the darkness, making whatever it was outside stop in its tracks. I clenched my stomach, but it went on, and I felt my bowels push against my bladder in sudden fear.

The tent flap tore open.

Before I had time to register the shape of the intruder, it fell inside, landing heavily on top of me in a cold, pungent hard mass.

I cried out in shock.

It had the weight of dead flesh, pinning me down by its bulk. For a moment, I froze in fear, until instinct made me brave enough to feel the shape of my intruder for fur or fang. Not a bear. But an animal of some kind. This was a man. A man, emaciated and cold. He smelled of the toilet and the forest. An almost inhuman, dog-like smell, that made my stomach heave the taste of the rotten fish back into my throat. I pulled away from under him, and threw my blanket over him, more in distaste than charity.

“My God help me,” the man suddenly exclaimed, shivering next to me, as if my warmth had awakened him. They were the first words I had heard for weeks. His voice rasped and I finally understood what people meant when they say that a person’s breath rattles. The man was clearly ill.

“My God what are you?” I said. Getting tongue-tied my haste, I obviously meant to ask: Who are you?

“Arnold Clever,” he said. The name made me shiver, though I could not say why. Maybe it was the small voice in which he uttered it.

“How are you here? There’s no one being on these mountains for miles. I would have seen you.”

“I hardly know where I am, I have been wandering. Wandering for so long. I am so hungry.”

I had little food myself; I had recent knowledge of what it meant to fear hunger, and it would have pained me to watch, as it would to experience it myself. So, I said I would share with him what I had, but even then, I secretly hid a portion of what I had in the depths of the tent. The reason for this I can only put down to the selfish instinct of survival that dogs all men.

I could not see his face in the darkness, and there was something of wildness about his manner, but I was put somewhat at ease, when he explained he was an adventurer, heading out to conquer the mountains in the distance. Such men as he and I have a wildness in our hearts that can make us strange to company. To such I put down his wild air.

When he had eaten a little, I began to ask after his strange appearance in the middle of nowhere, with no tent or provisions.

“I have been running,” he said. “Running and jumping over river and forest. Running for so long my feet have been on fire, and may turn to hooves.”

He said all this so piteously, I resolved to help him back to health. I hoped his delirium may pass with food and sleep, so I told him to rest in the tent and we would talk more in the morning. But he was feverish and vocal throughout the night, so that neither of us slept much. He kept complaining of a strange voice in the wind. But not only could I hear no voice, I could hear no wind. I attempted to reassure him that the night was calm, but he kept complaining.

“It calls my name; oh God help me. Do not let me go. Do not let me go to him.”

I assured him that if he did not want to go outside the tent, then nothing could make him.

“You don’t know what it means to hear it call your name,” he argued. “God pray you never know what it means. I have seen him, and he wears my own face.”

After long hours, he wound himself into a fitful sleep. I dozed a bit, but felt a strange unease, and so sat up to watch over my new charge till daylight came.

But as I watched, and saw his face reveal itself in the shadows of the dawn, I was horrified to see that I had been sharing my tent with an imposter. The man looked half-starved, yes, but there was more than that, something almost indiscernible about his hard cheeks, and sharp frame that made me think that this man was not human… No even worse—that he was not quite human.

I recalled the first thing I had asked upon him entering my tent, not: “Who are you?” but: “What are you?” It was like, even in the dark, I had sensed something was not right about this stranger that I had let into my tent. I cannot say that I was terrified immediately, but the feeling of something uncanny being at stake here, spread until my body started to shake… until I could not bear to be in the same space as this unknown man.

I slipped from the tent, though not dressed for the outdoors. The thing about the mountains is that you camp in one place, but when you wake up, you never know what scenery awaits you when you step through the flap. The terrain changes as the weather desires. I ran out into a world of white snow, hardly knowing where I was, or where I was going. I ran into the woods, falling in the ice as I tore over thorns and through sharp fir trees. But I could not stray too far from my tent, or risk being lost forever in the white.

I waited long hours among the trees, desperately clinging onto one large trunk till my hands grew bloody with the bite of its sharp bark. Despite the cold, I had sweated through my clothes in my panic and now they froze against my skin. The thick canopy of trees blocked the sun, so I hardly knew how long I shivered there. I hid until the cold got too much, and then peered out to see if the intruder was still at my camp.

The place sounded and felt still.

I stepped back to my campsite cautiously, like a wild moose snuffling for food in wolf territory. I clenched my fingernails into my palms in dread as I approached the tent. I lifted up my tent flap to see… oh God.

The man was still there, but his shape had changed. He now looked healthier, though he was still fast asleep and still as marble. The man I now looked upon was me! In every detail the man had taken on my form. His clothes were still those he had worn last night, or I should have gone mad with fears I was no longer myself. In such wild times, anything seemed to be possible.

I ran. I ran and ran, hoping to get myself lost from this madness. But a man can only run for so long in the cold, before they must face the fact that to run further would be to die. So, I stood, petrified as to what to do. Until I heard a cry from the campsite, like that of an animal set upon by a beast. I ran back, to get my gun, when the man, his face now his own again, thank God, ran at me, wildly.

“He is here. He is here.”

“What is happening? Who?”

He looked behind, fearfully. But rather than running away, he ran towards the source of his own terror, into the dense trees, and beyond my sight. I heard a cry, and then the howl of a wild beast, though whether that sound was from the stranger, in his wild state, or from something else, I could never tell. When I rushed after him, he was gone. I traced his steps in the snow, but could find no sign of him in the woods, only long scratches in the trees around where he had been lost.

I gathered up my belongings, leaving many items at the camp in my haste to be gone. I ran wildly in any direction until my heart punched against my chest and I had to stop to gasp for air. As my breath returned in cold gulps, the sharp sting of cold air in my lungs brought me to my senses. In my calmer state, I went through the events of last night and made sense of much of what had happened. The tree scratches I had seen were clearly a trail blazed by past travelers to find their way back, by the traditional means of marking a tree with your axe. The stranger, after all, probably had belonged to some party of climbers. Climbers never travel alone.

I became regretful at my cowardice at running away. As I picked through my remaining belongings, I saw that in my haste, I had left behind the majority of my food. I grew indignant that my fear had induced me to abandon so much of what was mine. I had allowed myself to be terrorized by some stranger that had, somehow, taken on the form of my own face. I was struck by an unshakable idea that I must get back my face from this man, or be lost forever, running in fear from what I had seen. I would not return to my wife, a lesser man than I had been, but I would return home a taller man than before.

I eventually discerned, some distance away, that the snow had been disturbed by something traveling across its surface, leaving a mark across its smooth skin. On closer inspection, I found shoe tracks traveling north, towards the mountains; these were the tracks, I surmised, of this stranger. I was determined to follow them, to reach some conclusion of this strange ordeal. I resolved to be the hunter, not the hunted, across this great land, and conquer this terrible thing that had intruded upon my peace.

As time went on, the space between each footprint grew longer and longer as the stranger traveled, as if he had been striding in impossibly long bounds. After time the footprints started to become startlingly far apart from each other, at impossible lengths. I followed them, seeing that the prints became bloody as if he had worn out his shoes and ran on his bare feet to the point of drawing blood. Good, that would make him easier to track. Then, another set of prints started to appear alongside his, or in place of his—it was hard to tell. They appeared to be some kind of hoof-prints, like the feet of a moose but only in sets of two, as if a large-hoofed creature had run on its hind legs behind, or in front of, the man. The man’s footprints finally disappeared, as if he had been taken up by this large beast, and the beast’s prints carried on, bounding up the mountainside, like the hoofs of a large goat.

I knew I should turn around. Go back. But I was driven on by the urge to get my own face back. No, not just that, but to reach the mountain top. As if I had taken on my strange visitor’s obsession with conquering the mountain, I could not leave without solving this mystery of what this man had seen to drive him so wild.

As I climbed further up the mountain, the air seemed fresher. I was able to climb faster, leap higher. I could smell the scents more clearly up here. I could smell the moss underneath the snow. I could hear the heartbeats of the goats hiding in the rocks. I could hear the sound of the wind, that seemed to call my name, goading me onward.

I discarded my boots, I didn’t need them here, the snow here did not hurt my feet. Even when they began to bleed, I could feel nothing but a gnawing hunger that only resolution to this hunt could fill. The hoof prints drew me on, always one step ahead of my own. I ran on, knowing eventually, if I ran fast enough, I could catch up with this thing that I sought.

As I reached the final precipice of the mountain I could see the bodies of mountain goats frozen in the ice. My hungry stomach pleaded that I stop and eat, but I sped on. Their faces stared at me blankly as I bounded on. I would not freeze in this cold through all of my fur.

I scaled the last heights in one bound, falling on the ice in an ungainly flop, onto the top precipice. Here I saw at last the creature that I had been seeking, amidst the growing fog. I almost backed away and fell down the mountain in my awe. Here was a large, horned creature. Hoofed and upright like a faun. Furred like a moose but with a face so drawn and angry it looked like the devil itself. He turned to look at me—recognized me with its grey dead eyes, and I felt the hunger in my stomach turn to knots.

I heard a woman screaming beneath me, and looked down into my hands to see the face of my wife staring up at me, my hands on either side of her head. Blood poured from her ears as I crushed my hands together.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, and I realized that somehow I was back home, in the warmth of our kitchen, but I was still cold, and ravenous.

I looked at her lovingly, and hungrily.

“What are you doing?” she said again.

“I have been running for so long,” I told her gently, as I began to show her what that meant… to see the Wendigo.

pencilKaren lives in London, UK. She has written short horror stories for anthologies, and published a book of short stories, It’s Dark Inside, under the pen name Karen Heard. Karen also writes and directs fringe theater, and is working on a TV pilot. She is always open to discuss collaboration ideas or writing projects. Email: karendsheard[at]gmail.com

Answers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer


Photo Credit: Herry Lawford/Flickr (CC-by)

Twin beams of light thrust their way across sparkling, frost-rimed gravel as James swung the car off the road and onto the lengthy drive, revealing ranks of stark winter trees on either side.

James blinked sleep from his eyes. It had been a long journey, but it was nearly over; there was a nervous optimism alongside the tiredness he felt. Tonight, he hoped, he would have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his identity. Tonight, he would have answers.

Still, crawling up the drive, stones crunching beneath the car’s tyres, he felt a tremor of trepidation, as he recalled what Houghton had told him. What would he learn? Would he wish he’d stayed in ignorance?

No. No matter what he learnt, he had to know. He needed to know everything, to assemble all the pieces. No longer would he feel the shame of ignorance.

He remembered, as if it were yesterday, his cheeks burning with shame at school, his classmates’ laughter, when he showed his project on his ‘family tree’ with just his name on it, the exasperated tone of his teacher as she dismissed it.

“Not very good, now, is it, Jamie? More of an acorn than a tree.”

As if he were supposed to produce a family tree out of nothing!

James slammed his hand on the wheel with a grunt of anger.

Well, he would know.

Ahead of him, the black, unlit bulk of Lander House rose from the darkness. Had he know about the house then… he could imagine the other children’s envious faces. If only…

Growing up in what they called a ‘group home’, a small orphanage, effectively, James never had known a home of his own, never had a ‘forever family’, not even a foster one. Unwanted, ‘odd’, he’d slipped through the gaps, forgotten and ignored, without an identity.

Maybe he would have one now?

The drive swung around in front of the building, the headlight beams revealing that Lander House was constructed from a dark-red brick across which twined tenebrous vines of ivy. James parked before its main doors.

All the windows were black; no lights turned on at his arrival.

Slowly, he climbed out of his car and stood before the house, wondering if it held the answers Houghton had promised him.

*

Six months earlier, James had knocked hesitantly on the door to Houghton’s office.

All his life, James had assumed he’d been found on a doorstep, or dumped like trash in a bin, had never thought he would know who he really was. Had never thought he could find out.

Getting engaged had changed that.

“You should hire someone to research your past,” Jane had told him, brushing aside his protests. “Don’t talk about costs, darling, I can see it eating at you, no matter what you say.”

It was true. A wedding was as much about family as the two people getting married, driving home to him just how alone he was, no matter how welcoming Jane’s family were to him.

He’d taken her advice, bringing him to the man’s office. Christopher Houghton found people. His job was half-genealogist, half-private investigator, tracing beneficiaries of wills and missing persons.

“Come in, come in,” called a voice from the other side of the door.

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

“Hello, I’m James Eastleigh; I have an appointment.”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I was abandoned as a baby. I want to know who my parents were, where I came from.”

Houghton nodded. “What do you know of your birth?”

“Practically nothing. Once I was old enough to ask, all the carers in the group home would tell me was that I was named James after the local MP and Eastleigh after the hospital I was taken to. They couldn’t tell me who my parents were.”

“Unsurprising,” said Houghton. “That was often the case. Sometimes the care staff just wanted children to accept their lot and not ask questions. At other times, the parents may have requested anonymity. Of course, things are different now.”

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

“Yes, I did, and when I got it, both parents were missing from it. I believe I was dumped.” James sighed. “Is it even possible for you to help me?”

“Tough, Mr Eastleigh, but not impossible. Just because your birth certificate is blank doesn’t necessarily mean nobody knows who your parents were. The first thing I will do is request your records. If any of them are sealed, we will ask for them to be unsealed. It’s possible their names are in them, somewhere. If they aren’t, I will check newspaper archives for reports of your discovery, see if it points to your parents or if any other news stories offer us clues.”

“And, if that fails?”

“DNA comparison—we might find relatives on one of the databases out there—or, we can try a public appeal. Somebody out there knows who you are, Mr Eastleigh, and it may be that someone will recognise a family resemblance.

“Of course, it is possible, we may only find dead-ends, but I promise you, I will follow every possible avenue…”

*

Houghton had.

“Yes, you were a tough case, Mr Eastleigh. Or, perhaps I should say Mr Bostrom.”

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

“Yes. Well, close. A DNA test will be necessary to confirm it, but I am certain of your identity.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Only, it’s a little complicated. Indeed, yours is a peculiar case. A proper mystery.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I had to dig—pull together disparate strands. But, I got there in the end. It all began with a call to the police from a Mrs Clarke.”

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

“She wasn’t your mother. She was your grandfather’s housekeeper.”

“Grandfather?”

“She worked for Andrew Bostrom of Lander House. Forty years ago, she called the police, saying her employer was behaving madly, threatening her. Then, the line cut off. The police arrived to find her dead and a baby crying in the nursery.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Recently born, unregistered. No sign of your mother, presumed to be Bostrom’s daughter, Cecilia, nor of Andrew Bostrom himself. Little was said in the papers, some vague talk of an ‘incident’ at Lander House, implied to involve an intruder. You were placed into the care of the local council and your grandfather reappeared in official documents a couple of years later, as if nothing had happened.”

Houghton shrugged. “He’s a rich man; probably paid somebody off to stop asking awkward questions and assume it was an intruder who killed Mrs Clarke. As for his daughter, nothing.” Another shrug. “That’s it.”

“You say he is a rich man—he’s still alive?”

“He would be about ninety, but there’s no record of a death. The taxes on Lander House are up-to-date. The obvious inference is that he still lives there.”

“Then, I guess I ought to go see him.”

Nodding, Houghton said, “If you want any more answers, James, Lander House is the place to look. That’s where it all began for you…”

*

There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door of Lander House. James had only ever seen one in movies before. He pulled it and thought he heard a distant jingle from somewhere within the vast building.

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

As he waited, James hugged himself: The night was chilly and he only had on a light jacket. He hadn’t expected to be left standing on the doorstep like this.

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.

Nothing.

Was his grandfather really inside waiting for him? Perhaps he was dead. Or, maybe, he’d left long before. James wondered if he were wasting his time.

Should he come back? Would he find his answers if he did?

He had to get inside.

Using the light from his phone as a torch, James slowly circled the house, wary of tripping on something unseen in the night. Perhaps it was a relic of the days when the Welsh Marches were a wild, lawless place, but the building looked like a fortress with windows high up and both the front and kitchen doors thick and bound with iron.

“I guess grandpa didn’t like visitors.” James wished the muttered joke hadn’t sounded so weak in the darkness.

There was an old glasshouse, an orangery, maybe, at the rear of the building, built with an iron frame and thick panes of glass that had a milky texture and were grimed with years of dirt.

James considered trying to break in that way, but smashing the old glass seemed extreme and he doubted his grandfather would appreciate such destruction of his property.

There were outbuildings near the house and he was able to smash the lock off the door of one with half a brick. Inside, he found a ladder.

He dragged it over to the house and leant it against the wall, before climbing to an upstairs window. Through it, he could see a room that was empty except for a large, dark wood wardrobe.

James used the half-brick to break a pane, then reached in and unhooked the latch, opened the window, and slipped inside. He checked the wardrobe, but it was empty.

He paused beside the door and listened; the house was silent.

He exited the room. The hallway was in darkness and he felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill. The light of his phone made little impression upon the blackness and he felt as if it were pressing in upon him. He shouldn’t have come here…

He searched around and found a light-switch, flicked it. The hallway lit up and he winced at the sudden brightness. Illuminated, the hallway no longer seemed spooky and he gave a shaky laugh at his foolishness. A grown man shouldn’t fear the night!

Still, the light told him there was power, which meant the house wasn’t completely abandoned. Not that it meant anyone was home.

“Hello,” he called, but there was no answer, only silence.

He tossed the half-brick from one hand to the other as he considered which way to go; it didn’t seem to matter much.

Slowly, James made his way through the upper floors of the house, but it appeared to have been abandoned for years and many of the rooms were empty or contained furniture covered in dust sheets. There was a bedroom with a rather grand four-poster bed, but the blanket was dusty and he doubted his grandfather had slept in it for a long time.

Then, he found the nursery.

The room was large with a cot in the middle, ornate with legs like the trunks of trees that rose to support a shade decorated like a canopy of leaves. Art Deco-style branches were painted twisting across the walls of the room. James had never seen anything like it.

Was this where he’d slept as a child? Where the police had found him crying on that fateful night? Maybe he was being naive, but he’d expected to feel something, some frisson of familiarity, but he’d felt nothing within Lander House, not even here.

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

It might have been where he was born, where he was found, but, if it were, there were no answers, nobody to tell him about himself.

If anything, the tantalising hint of an identity was worse than knowing nothing about himself.

He found the stairs down. The top of the stairs was where the police report the investigator had dug up said the body of Mrs Clarke had been found.

Looking down at the spot, James had to wonder what could have driven his grandfather to murder his housekeeper. He could imagine no reason. Had the man been insane?

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

James explored the ground floor. Still, there were no clues to his identity, not even in his grandfather’s office when he used the half-brick the smash the locks on the bureau and a desk drawer, nothing to tell him who his mother was, what had happened to her.

Was she dead as well? Had his grandfather killed her?

What mad family had he come from? Was he better off not knowing the truth?

James sat on the bottom step of the stairs and put his hands over his eyes and sobbed. He’d hoped for so much, like a fool. He should’ve known better, just accepted that he was a cipher, alone in the world.

Shaking his head, he stood. There was only the glasshouse at the rear of the house left to explore, and it wasn’t as if that held any secrets about him.

He stepped towards the front-door. At least, he could leave without having to clamber awkwardly down the ladder.

Pausing with his hand on the lock, he looked back. Had he heard a noise, or was it the echo of some memory nagging at him? For some reason, he felt the need to visit the orangery. Or, maybe it was just a compulsive need to complete his search.

James felt like a fool as he stood there, grasping the lock. He knew there was no reason for him to go back there. There was nobody in the house, nobody hiding back there, and it wasn’t as if his grandfather had left any paperwork amongst the ornamental shrubs, or whatever had been growing back there, doubtless long dead, if they were untended as the rest of the house.

There was no point to it, but he let go of the lock and began to walk towards the rear of the house. He felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped out into the dark hallway upstairs. Ridiculous.

He could almost taste the damp air on his tongue as he entered the glasshouse. The orangery was full of plants. Clearly, there were automated sprinklers keeping it watered.

There was no sign of a light-switch, forcing him to proceed by the light of his phone, pushing past shrubs that had overflowed their pots. Before the place was abandoned to go wild, he could imagine it had been quite beautiful, probably his grandfather’s pride. But now, it was a mess.

At the centre of the glasshouse, where the roof peaked, there was a single tall tree that towered over everything else that grew in it, so tall that it pressed against the glass ceiling and bent to one side.

James approached it and shone his light over its dark, wavy leaves.

At about head height, he could see a single fruit, the shape of a rugby ball and a little larger. It seemed to shudder where it hung.

“What the—?”

He went closer, studied it. There was something moving within the fruit, pressing against the membranous skin.

He leant towards it.

Something pressed through the skin, defining features—something like a face peering out at him. James recoiled and swore.

Yes, it was definitely like a face. He couldn’t believe it.

Mould—yes, that was it. He’d read about mould spores making people hallucinate and this place was damp and bound to be full of them.

Only, he knew it wasn’t mould, knew that what he was seeing was real. Real and yet quite impossible.

He reached out to it, touched the slick, waxy skin. It pulsed beneath his fingertips.

A split appeared in the skin of the fruit and spread, so that it practically burst open. Inside the fruit he could see the tiny form of a newborn child, covered in slimy pulp, like blood. Its tiny arms reached out towards him.

James stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing, yet unable to look away, to dismiss it. He felt as if he were about to vomit.

He was going mad! He was going mad!

The more he looked at it, the more he was reminded of a photo in his file of himself as a baby. It was like looking at himself as a child.

A torrent of thoughts flooded through his mind as he understood the meaning of what he was seeing, why people had always found him odd, why nobody had wanted to adopt him, why even Jane had said he wasn’t like other men she’d dated as she looked at him sideways.

Had he had the DNA test Houghton had suggested, what would he have found?

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

“My family tree,” he laughed, tears in his eyes. He’d always wanted to know where he came from and, now, he knew—and, wished he didn’t.

Spotting a hatchet, James seized it and struck at the child in the fruit, burying the blade deep in it. The child wailed in pain and James screamed, wishing he could silence the sound as he struck it again and again, obliterating it into a pulpy mess.

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

But, it wasn’t enough. It was too large.

He ran back into the house, to the kitchen and threw open every cupboard until he found lighter fuel and kitchen oil. Pausing only to turn on the gas from the cooker, he ran back out to the glasshouse and threw the fuel and oil over the tree, before lighting if, sending a coruscating sheet of flame up its trunk.

James stood, watching the flames engulf the tree, which seemed to shiver as it burnt. Flames spread to nearby vegetation, despite the dampness. Above him, the glass ceiling cracked from the heat, then shattered and began to rain down about him like a fall of snow.

He couldn’t return to Jane, not now, not knowing the truth about himself, where he came from. He just prayed his grandfather was dead, unable to continue the mad course he’d taken.

James watched the tree burn, the heat painful against his skin.

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, ParABnormal, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor) and a comic horror e-novelette, A Trip to the Middle of the World, available from Alban Lake through Infinite Realms Bookstore. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

The Silver Wrens

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grey


Photo Credit: Sarah Horrigan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The ancient yew tree stood in the Fraser family graveyard. Dense, dark leaves absorbed the weak winter sunlight, making gewgaws of its red berries and silver wren pendants. Family legend said that the tree had watched over the clan for a thousand years. The dead lay tranquil in its shade. The living prospered, the clan’s assets expanding as surely as the great yew’s girth.

*

Felicity stormed out of the house three weeks after her birthday, slamming the door hard enough to shatter the glass. She heard her mother cry out, but Felicity’s anger could not be soothed with words. She needed to run. She didn’t know how she could ever look her mother in the face again—her mother, yes, her actual mother, her real flesh and blood mother.

“I adopted you when you were a baby.”

Her mother had been telling her this lie since Felicity had been old enough to understand the concept.

“Where are my real mummy and daddy?” Felicity had asked when she was three years old.

“I’m your mummy now.”

“What about daddy?”

“My husband died a long time ago. You were only a baby when he left us.”

Sometimes, when her imagination was alight in the darkness before sleep, Felicity remembered a sly, handsome face with a clever smile, reading her stories in a melodic golden voice.

“He didn’t have time to read to you. Your mind is just playing tricks.”

Once she started school, Felicity’s curiosity about her real parents grew. Every year on her birthday, she asked her adoptive mother about her real parents.

“I found you under the mulberry bush.”

“You were abandoned on my doorstep.”

“They left you in a shelter, they didn’t leave their names.”

“They died in a car accident, there’s no one left to find.”

Felicity might have wondered why her adoptive mother changed the story every year. But she had no time to wonder about anything; she spent her childhood energy adapting to moving home every few years, learning her way round new cities, finding new friends and settling into new schools.

“Why do we have to move again?”

“Because it’s better to be a bird on the wing than a tree stuck in the earth.” Felicity had seen her mother clench her hands, heard her muttered monologue. “Roots in the earth, going where they don’t belong, grabbing what isn’t theirs.”

So they’d moved, always living in characterless concrete tower blocks. Felicity never got to play in a park. Her mother made strange warding gestures every time they passed a tree. Her childhood had been filled with hard greyness.

It’s too easy for you, thought Felicity, you’re not an orphan. She became determined to leave home as soon as she was old enough and start laying down roots of her own. Her mother had told her that she was adopted, that there were no ties of kinship between them—Felicity didn’t owe her anything.

On her eighteenth birthday, Felicity excitedly tore open the DNA test kit she’d bought. On impulse, she had bought one for her mother too, not that her secretive mother would have agreed to take part. Felicity had obtained saliva from her mother’s toothbrush and hoped that it would work.

Felicity ran blindly on the rough pavements, stumbling as she recalled opening the test results that had arrived that morning. She’d opened hers first. Her ancestors were Scottish Celts, going back for generations with very little genetic variation. The results included a map which showed the familial matches they’d found on their database. The stars that marked her family’s location looked like a new and wonderful constellation. Her relatives were scattered all over the world, but one relative was very close to where she lived now and then there was a cluster in the far north of Scotland.

Felicity took out her adoptive mother’s results. At first, she thought she’d got the papers mixed up. But no, the results were almost identical. In that moment Felicity knew that the woman who had claimed to be her adoptive mother was her biological mother.

They’d had a colossal argument when Felicity confronted her mother.

“You stupid girl! All these years I’ve protected you, hidden you. All my efforts undone in a moment.”

Her mother waved at the map.

“See these stars? This is their way of finding the people who dared to leave. Now we have to fly again. Why couldn’t you just let it lie? Why wasn’t my love enough for you?”

“Lies aren’t love!” Felicity had yelled. “What sort of mother pretends not to be a mother? What sort of twisted life is that?”

“I had to. You don’t understand the danger. Give me five minutes to explain, but then we have to get away. You need to pack some things. Quickly!”

“I’m not listening. Everything you say is a lie; you’ve lied so much you don’t even know how to tell the truth anymore.”

Felicity rewound their argument over and over as she ran. She lost track of time, but suddenly became aware of the chill air cooling her sweaty body. She looked around. There was an inviting coffee shop on the corner.

As she sipped her hot chocolate, the flickering film reel of their argument coalesced into a single tangible image—her mother’s face, full of love and terror, reaching out to her. She sat there for an hour, hoping the steamy warmth of the cafe would thaw her icy confusion. Eventually, Felicity realised that whatever came next, she would have to go home first, gather her things and move on, either with or without her mother.

Felicity hadn’t appreciated how far she’d run until she stepped out of the coffee shop and realised where she was. She recalled her mother’s fear and almost called an Uber to take her home, but she preferred to walk, using the time to clear her head.

She saw the reflections of the actinic blue lights from around the block. As she turned towards her home, she saw an ambulance and a police car. The front door was open. Just beyond, her mother lay unmoving as a paramedic shouted “Clear!” Her mother’s body jumped as the defibrillator discharged. She saw the paramedic check her mother’s vital signs, then shake his head. She heard him call time of death, a knell that drowned out the police officer’s voice, asking her if she knew the deceased. As they led her inside, Felicity glimpsed, in the distance, a strangely familiar face, a good-looking man with a clever smile. She blinked, but when she looked again, he was gone.

Although the police quizzed her for many hours about the broken door and the argument with her mother, they could find no evidence of foul play. The inquest recorded death by natural causes, a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of the conflict with her daughter. Felicity hated the pity on the coroner’s face.

Felicity inherited a comfortable amount of money. Her mother’s will was clear, especially about being cremated rather than buried. The solicitors managed the paperwork efficiently and impersonally, though Felicity had to sign for one envelope, a letter from her mother.

Dear Felicity

I hope that when you read this letter we will both have enjoyed long and happy lives. I hope that you have made your own family and are surrounded by my grandchildren. If you are young, then it means they have found me. I beg you to flee, use the money to travel, get away, find a new identity. Families are what you make rather than what you inherit, never forget that.

xxx Mummy

Felicity fingered the pendant that had accompanied the letter. The exquisite silver disk showed a perfectly sculpted wren, every detail chased into the metal with delicate skill. She could feel the individual feathers with her fingertips, metal cold but somehow alive to her touch. There was a curious golden chain attached to the pendant, too small to be a necklace. Felicity turned her mother’s letter over. There was no explanation.

Although her mother had urged her to use her inheritance to travel far away, Felicity had only one destination in mind. The clustered galaxy of stars on her DNA map drew her to Scotland.

*

It was Christmas Eve when Felicity arrived in Aberdeen airport. The wild and robust landscape was a world away from her cloistered urban childhood.

It had taken a few weeks to follow up on the DNA test results, but she was relieved when her relatives had enthusiastically agreed to meet her. They’d invited her to join them for Christmas. A cousin had picked her up from the airport, loading the two suitcases that held all her possessions into the back of his truck and driving her to their ancestral home.

She held on to the bag which contained her mother’s ashes—her new uncle had asked her to bring them, suggesting they could be laid to rest in the family graveyard. He’d also asked her to bring the silver wren, telling her it was a precious heirloom.

Felicity was astonished when her cousin parked the car in front of a castle. There was no other word for it, though it was no fairy-tale confection of turrets. This building had stood firm against war and weather for a thousand years and looked set to endure for thousands more. The grand hall was palatial, but Felicity couldn’t see beyond the throng of her extended family as she was greeted and hugged exuberantly. She wept as a deep feeling of belonging filled a space in her soul that she never knew existed. Her uncle shooed the flock of cousins away and asked a servant to show her to her room. The tartan-draped walls were cosy and comforting; the roar of the fire in the hearth lulled her to sleep.

Christmas day passed in a whirl of feasting and song. Felicity delighted in her family’s lively energy. Her uncle had fiery red hair and was clearly the king of the castle. Her many aunts bore a striking resemblance to her late mother. She seemed to have a legion of cousins, some already working on the next generation with babies due the following spring. They swept aside her apologies, accepting, without rancour, her explanation that her mother had kept them a secret. She felt embarrassed when the family gathered to open the gifts lavishly piled under the Christmas tree. She had prepared a few thoughtful tokens for them, but was overwhelmed when her uncle handed her a carved wooden box. She removed the silk and velvet wrapping and found a newly minted silver wren, identical to her mother’s.

“The wren is an ancient family emblem gifted to just one daughter in each generation. We thought the family had lost the wrens forever when your mother disappeared. To have you back amongst us is a gift beyond your comprehension.”

Felicity stuttered a reply. It was hard to perceive herself as a gift when her family had heaped such unearned generosity on her.

She woke early on Boxing Day. Her uncle had invited her to the family graveyard at dawn. He said that she could be part of an important family ceremony and she could lay her mother’s ashes to rest. He asked her to bring both silver wrens.

The castle was silent as she walked down to the breakfast room. It was still dark, so she knew she wasn’t late, yet the horde of cousins was nowhere to be seen. The housekeeper served her strong tea and bitter salted porridge, smiling at her protests. There would be a raw wind at the churchyard; she would need this traditional fuel to keep her warm. As the first light blushed the crystal dark sky, the housekeeper ushered her toward the nearby churchyard.

A low granite wall surrounded the cemetery, the natural stone glowing as the sun’s rays shimmered across them. Felicity walked in through the iron gates and threaded her way between the gravestones towards a dark shape in the centre of the graveyard. The ancient yew’s dark green leaves absorbed the rising sunlight, providing a stark contrast to the reflected luminosity of the bright red berries and the silver wren pendants hanging from its branches. Felicity was enchanted by the tree’s beauty as the sun’s radiance filled the graveyard with colour.

A hand grasped her shoulder.

“This is a moment that I have dreamt of since your mother took you from me.”

A honeyed voice wrapped the words around her. She turned, knowing that she would see a man with a sly, handsome face and a clever smile.

“Daddy?”

“Do you remember me?” His voice was melodic and soothing.

“You used to read me stories. Sometimes I couldn’t remember your face, but I would know your voice anywhere.”

He smiled, pleased that she had recognised him.

“Where is everyone?” Felicity asked, looking around the empty graveyard.

“They stayed in the castle, out of respect for me, and this divine moment.”

They stood for a while and then her father snapped his fingers. The sound echoed jarringly among the gravestones.

“Come, this ceremony must be completed before the sun is fully risen. Are you ready, little wren?”

Felicity nodded, but she had no idea of what to expect.

Her father pointed at the abundance of tiny red berries adorning the yew.

“These are not strictly berries, they are arils. The seeds sit at the bottom of tiny cups of sweetness. The fruit keeps the birds alive in winter. We must offer a gift to the tree in exchange for its bounty.”

He gestured for her to hang the two wren pendants from the branches. The golden chains looped perfectly around the fine-needled branches. The silver birds settled smoothly, blending harmoniously with the green leaves and the red arils. Felicity felt a strange flutter in her chest, the birds looked so peaceful on their perches, but her mother had never wanted this. She felt a sudden urge to grab the wrens and fly away, but then she flushed with fear at the thought of losing her cherished new family.

Her father looked at her curiously, then turned to thank the tree as he picked a handful of arils.

“Now we must share this fruit—this ritual binds us to the family tree. Let the fruit dissolve in your mouth then swallow. Do not chew the seeds inside the arils as they are poisonous when broken.”

Felicity hesitated, but couldn’t resist her father’s invitation to join the family. She saw him place a handful of arils in his own mouth and swallow them with relish. She put a few arils in her mouth. Their sweet flavour was delectable, but the flesh dissolved into a sticky slime that was difficult to swallow. She resisted the urge to chew the seeds, and was grateful when her father offered her his hip flask.

“This is mead, made from our own honey. It will help to wash that down.”

The sweet drink melded deliciously with the fruit, though the spirit burned her throat as she swallowed.

“There, we have completed the first part of the ceremony, now we must welcome you home.”

He gestured at a small hole that had been dug nearby.

“Return your mother’s ashes to the family tree where she belongs.”

Felicity knelt and poured the ashes into the ground, her heartbeat loud and urgent in her chest. She supposed that the emotion of meeting her family, of saying goodbye to her mother, was finally catching up with her. She lifted her hands to wipe away the tears that were blurring her vision, but her eyes were dry. Her arms trembled, overcome with weakness.

She looked up, surprised to find that she was now lying beneath the tree. The silver wrens sparkled in the branches above her. She felt strangely warm and comfortable as her father knelt to cradle her head.

“Rest. The yew seeds that salted your porridge this morning will soon do their work. You will not suffer, I am sure of that. I did not let your mother suffer. We were distant cousins and childhood friends. We married young and I loved her, even though she was marked as the wren. We could have had a long life together; the tree is patient. But she tried to escape her fate and forced the family’s hand.”

Felicity looked at her father’s clever face. She felt cosseted by his mesmerising voice, even as her mind wrestled with his words. She did not understand what he was saying, could they have had a life together, been a family? Her body was weighed down with sadness and regret.

He continued, stroking her hair gently.

“This tree has safeguarded our family for a thousand years. As it thrives, so do we. As we nurture it, so it cares for us. All it asks is a sacrifice, a wren on the feast of St Stephen, one in each generation to bind the family to the tree. Your grandfather chose your mother to be the wren, but she was afraid that I would choose you in the next generation. Her love for you transcended her love for our family. However, she was the wren of her generation, there could be no other. I knew that we would find her one day.”

Felicity felt her father lift her unresisting body. Her heart was fluttering frantically now, like a captured bird. The family tree blurred into shimmers of silver, red, and green, festive tinsel colours. He lowered her gently into the shallow grave that had been hidden behind the yew’s vast trunk.

“We had not chosen the wren for your generation. In the olden days, we could rely on pestilence and plague to choose the sacrifice, but now we have to be more direct. It is a difficult decision, though the wrens can choose to live up to fifty years before the tree demands their lives. We were about to choose your generation’s wren when you turned up, a stranger to us. Your arrival was a blessing. Now we can let you go before we have time to love you and suffer the pain of your loss.”

He stayed with her as her heart faltered and stopped. Felicity’s cousins emerged from behind the gravestones and covered her body with earth.

Back at the castle, the family celebrated the sacrifice that would bring them prosperity for another generation. Felicity’s possessions were burned—no one would come looking for her.

In the graveyard, the yew’s fine, questing roots covered Felicity’s body with its downy filaments, binding her, bone, joint and socket, to the family, forever.

pencil

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate—it’s a sweet life. A number of her poems and short stories have been published in the horror ezine Siren’s Call. One of her comic poems is also available via a worldwide network of public fiction dispensers managed by French publisher, Short Edition. Of her horror writing, Alex’ best friend says ‘For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted! Email: sue[at]collavoce.co.uk

99 Words of Sorrow

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Maureen Rostad


Photo Credit: Sarah/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Jeremy died on December 21, five years ago to the day.

Raindrops hung in the air almost like nature was hanging them on an invisible Christmas tree. The forecast told of a massive rain torrent later in the day, an uncharacteristically warm winter. Her heart felt much the same as the humidity, and unshed tears hung around her neck.

A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. Dead before the ambulance could navigate through the narrow roads of rural Pennsylvania, up the side of the mountain and down again to the gravel road that eventually led to her house in the middle of nowhere. She remembered cursing that house then, hating the little rundown farmhouse on a little rundown farm, their diamond in the rough. How unfair it was, she thought, as she wept beside him, while she was silently aware of the seconds that passed, knowing that no doctor could revive him after so many. The true anger at the house came later when projects piled upon her, a leaky faucet here and a door that refused to latch there. Several walls still had imprints of her fist through the drywall, another project incomplete.

Jewel knew that she needed to move on from his death. The logical part of her brain knew that her life, being replayed over the same way each year like Groundhog Day, was not normal. Like she went through the motions 364 days per year only to live one day. But some unknown, some obsessive need or grace or whatever made up the cosmos, told her to keep doing it.

She found herself outside of the local electronics store, drawing the curious eyes of those entering as she hugged herself. The air smelled raw, scrubbed out like a toilet. A rarity that this store, when so many other locally-owned ones failed, would stay in business, and yes, even thrive. The owner was kind of a celebrity, some gamer, winner of some huge online Xbox thing, said he always wanted to own an electronics store that catered to other gamers. Like D&D meets Best Buy.

Jewel tended to avoid this store, preferring to go out to the strip mall even though it was a longer drive, because she normally had to dodge hopeful gamers buzzing around the store like mosquitoes to a mudhole. The owner runs some kind of gaming podcast, and if some gamer does something fantastic, whatever that means, he doles out fifteen minutes of fame. Or, more exactly, a podcast hour.

But this store was the first stop.

She stepped through the automatic glass doors, still hugging herself. She was immediately assaulted by a young girl dressed like an elf, her nondescript brown hair clinging to her green Santa hat with static electricity. The elf smelled like freshly-baked Christmas cookies. Jewel briefly wondered if it was a perfume. The girl handed Jewel a postcard and then walked away to descend upon another customer, feet jingling all the way.

Jewel looked at the postcard.

Christmas Contest!!!!! Win a brand-new Nikon D850!!!!! Sponsored by J&J Jewelry Store!!!!!

Despite the morbidity of her mood, Jewel smiled to herself. Five years ago, almost to the hour, her husband had picked out a Nikon camera, an earlier model to this exact camera. Her Christmas present.

J&J, huh? she thought. Jeremy would have liked that.

Tell us why you should win in 100 words or less, the postcard said. The best reason wins this award, a fabulous high-end digital camera. See fine print for details.

“It’s my Christmas gift, five years late,” she wrote, scribbling out a short story about her dead husband’s brain aneurysm in 99 words. 99 words of sorrow on a card, she thought. 99 words of sorrow, take one down, pass it around…

She looked around for the elf.

Jewel went about the rest of the morning perfunctorily, her legs deadened down like coal filling a stocking. Out for breakfast—the super special: two eggs, any style, toast, bacon, and pancakes—a second place set for him. She received more than one sympathetic look from other diners who thought she was being stood up.

If you only knew, she thought.

Then to the jewelry store. “Jewels from your Jewel,” she said to him, every year, as she handed him a watch, all wrapped up. Even though he knew what was inside, he still managed to act surprised.

“I love it!” he would say, and then he would kiss her.

As she paid the bill on a man’s watch, her cell phone made a blip to notify her of a text message. You’re the winner of our Christmas Contest!!!!! Stop by the store before closing to claim your prize!!!!!

The woman behind the register waved the receipt for the watch in Jewel’s face, letting out a short breath.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Jewel said to herself, as she turned around and walked out of the store, forgetting the receipt.

The clouds begin to threaten the horizon by the time Jewel pulled into the electronics store’s parking lot, and fat, angry raindrops splattered onto her face as she rushed through the glass doors, making her look like she was crying.

Jewel had to make some sort of statement about how wonderful it was that she won a brand-new Nikon DSLR camera. For the podcast. She was not sure about announcing Jeremy’s death to the world, despite the fact he had been gone for years. But the deadened part of her stomach, the blackness inside of her, dissipated just a little as she told the microphone about his death. By the time she was done, that part of her was not gone, but she felt a little better. The store owner was gentle, asking her only a few questions, and he gave her a hug when she was done. She cried on his shoulder. To her surprise, he handed her a business card. With his cell phone number handwritten on the back. A few moments of awkwardness passed because she had no idea what to even say to that. She stuffed it inside of her pants pocket, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and briskly walked away before he could, or rather, she could, respond.

The temperature had dropped while she was in the electronics store. A light dusting of snow clung to the parking lot, but the rate of snowfall threatened even the most frenzied of last-minute Christmas shoppers. They walked quickly to their cars, dashing around like reindeer.

The snow is a new beginning, she thought, as she, too, galloped to her car.

Ten minutes later, Jewel plugged her phone into the car cigarette lighter. Her car inched along the only real road the township where she lived had, barely half a mile from the electronics store. It moved with all the other shoppers who were unfortunate to get stuck in a surprise snowstorm. She briefly thought about turning around and asking to bunk inside the store, but she was scared that the owner might have already shut everything down, and then she would be stuck even further from her house. She was even more scared that she would have to talk to the store owner.

Since she was not moving, she dug around her middle console until she found a power converter, a noisy device that let her plug in regular three-prong plugs into the second cigarette lighter. She managed to open up the camera box, find the battery and the charger, and plug everything in. Her car only moved a foot. Might as well capture the snow, she thought. Since it’s going to take me a year to get home.

Jewel predicted several feet of snow, given that they had been expecting so much rain. She again cursed living out on a farm. Fortunately for her, Jewel stockpiled almost everything, including wood for a fire. Not really a farmer, but more of a homesteader, she learned her lesson long ago to always be prepared. Especially about the snow. The last time they had this much snow, she was holed up for two weeks without power. It was their first year of marriage, and she thought they would starve before she could get to the nearest store.

She looked outside. The wind battered against her car and created snow flurry cyclones. She looked at the Nikon’s screen. A slight charge—the battery must have been pre-charged. She waited until she could pull off to the side of the road, since the car was not going anywhere. She grabbed the camera and went outside.

Jewel almost abandoned her mission when a force of cold air hit her in the face, making her feel as though her sweater had a million holes and whipping her hair around her face. The man behind her lurched forward to take her place in case she changed her mind, blaring his horn and giving her the finger. She aimed the camera and took a picture of him. Click, click, click. She was almost afraid that he was going to get out of his car and wallop her, right here on the side of the snow-pummeled road, but he seemed to forget her as he looked forward, his fists grabbing the wheel as if he would lose control of the car going less than a half mile per hour. Her eye wandered towards the trees on the horizon. She looked at the screen between every series of photos.

She turned around and faced her car, and she turned the camera around too. Click, click, click. She missed herself completely. Click, click, click. She got the top of her head. Click, click, click.

There! She got herself.

And something… else.

Her blood momentarily warmed her torso as her fight or flight response kicked in, but it faded as she tried to puzzle out what was in the camera LCD screen. A shadow? No. The sun glinting off the snow? No. Some kind of brightness, but it was undefined. Not shaped correctly for a flash, and it was too bright for a flash anyway.

As if, instead of casting a shadow, she cast a light.

Was that even possible? A weird aftereffect of all the snow?

She twisted around, almost slipping on some stray patch of snow, but nothing was there. She frowned. She could barely lift the camera back up because her fingers were shaking from both the cold and the fright, but she slowly went through the pictures again. Yes, something was definitely there. What was it? A spot on the lens?

She scrolled through the earlier pictures, trying to figure out if the lens was bad, but whatever it was only showed up next to her selfies.

She tried again. This time, she tried to have her face off to the side of the screen. Click, click, click. Yes, something was definitely there. And it was still near her face, not in the same spot as it was previously. Not the lens. Just to make sure, she snapped several, random photographs. Nothing.

Must be the sun hitting the snow and my face at the correct angle, she thought. Whatever it is, I can’t stand here all day.

Taking a long look at the wintry scene around her, willing it to give her answers, she went back inside her car. Several people honked at her as she navigated back into the lane, but she ignored them, her mind on whatever she had in the photographs.

The wind picked up speed, creating noises against her car like ghosts in a scary black-and-white film. Jewel was momentarily blinded as she crept along, the brightness of the snow sending dancing sparks around her vision.

The brightness faded as the clouds blotted out all natural light, as if God himself did not want to witness the ensuing blizzard. By the time she reached the mountain pass, almost all the sun had been drained off the winter wonderland. Her anxiety increased in the same measures. She turned on her high beams, but they were useless. The snow came down faster than the lights could melt it. Her windshield wipers were on the fastest speed possible, but they were not fast enough.

Her fists were knotted up on the wheel just like the man she made fun of earlier. Her house was less than a mile away, but she felt that she would never get home. She turned off the side of the road momentarily to cry, windshield wipers matching her frightened breathing.

After several long breaths and wiping the tears that continued to fall, she gave the car some gas.

The wheels spun.

She tried again, and the wheels spun some more.

She knew that she was on the verge of a full panic attack, but she did not know what else to do. She gave the car some more gas, this time almost flooring it. The car rocked back and forth, and out of whatever snow pile she was in.

Just as she let out a breath that she did not realize that she was holding, the car skidded. She instinctively grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right, away from the rock face. The tires had a mind of their own, and she head-on collided with the mountain.

Jewel did not know how long she sat in her car, confused. Her breathing bordered on screaming until she realized that she was, in fact, screaming, and she had to force herself to stop. She realized that 911 would be just as useless today as it was five years ago. She would die here in this very spot because no one could, or would bother to, transverse the mountain pass. Her mind obsessively fixated on her body, found two weeks from now, frozen solid even as the snow melted.

She could no longer feel her own feet, and she realized with renewed panic that the heat in the car had escaped faster than she thought it would. She spotted the camera, thrown onto the passenger side floor. She took several minutes to grab it, the cold inside of the car acting as a wall to her inertia. Her body screamed at her, what left she could feel of it.

When they find me, the camera will be frozen to my fingers, and they will have to throw it out. This thought made her giggle inside of her head, a morbid thought spiraling out of control just like the situation she was in.

I better move, she thought. Otherwise I’ll die here.

Jewel grabbed whatever she could: her cell phone, the camera, an extra blanket she found in the back seat. She used her feet to push open the car door against the snow that had piled up outside. The top had not frozen yet, and her feet landed, compacting the snow as she put her weight on them. She cautiously made her way to the trunk, the rational part of her mind that was left demanding that maybe she had something else warm that she could wear. Yes, she had a coat. She stood in the middle of the mountain pass, snow wailing down on her as she put it on.

Jeremy’s old college letter jacket. It smelled like him. Instead of the overwhelming sadness that she got, the kind of sadness that made her rest against a wall with her hands on her knees because it punched her stomach like an MMA heavyweight champion, she felt happy. Safe. Jeremy was helping her get home.

She looked around, but everything was blanketed in white and cold, and she had a renewed sense of panic because she did not know what to do now. All at once, tears fell again, fat droplets of water like the raindrops earlier. She scrubbed them away, thinking that they might freeze inside of her eyes.

He’d want to record it all, she thought, almost gleeful over the absurdity of taking a final picture of herself before she froze to death in the middle of the road.

Her mind would not let that go, and not knowing what else to do since she did not know where she was, she gave in to her own insanity.

Jewel fiddled with the settings until she found the delay timer and the burst shot. She carefully set the Nikon on top of the trunk. Pressing the buttons, she hopped over to the edge of where she hoped the road was, and she smiled at the camera. She waited a few seconds, not hearing anything, and started to go back towards the camera when it finally clicked. She went back to her spot, pasting another smile on her face. Let the police figure that one out.

She slushed her way back to the car, retracing her own footsteps, and checked the LCD screen. She almost dropped the camera, the strap catching on Jeremy’s jacket buttons. preventing it from sinking into the snow or smashing against the car. She made a wet, strangled sound. She waited almost a minute, the LCD screen shutting off on its own, convincing herself that she was spooked because it was December 21.

She tried again, picking up the camera by its strap and turning the screen back on.

She was in the photos, as she expected to be, but the background was not the frozen ice land of the Ninth Gate of Hell. Rather, it showed a spring background, right before the trees bloomed, the wisps of grass and leaves evident.

She thought perhaps the camera had some kind of mechanism to trade pictures, like a built-in Photoshop effect, but beside her was the same whitish figure. Perhaps a person? Whatever it was had its own light source, as the sky was fading as if on an electric dimmer. Not bright like a flashbulb or a lampstand, but it was definitely glowing, like a lit paper lantern floating down the river during the nighttime Toro Nagashi festival.

“Jeremy,” she whispered. She grabbed for something to steady her, a sharp jerk momentarily startling her as she hit the car, a wash of overwhelming sadness hitting her.

Jewel sat against the car, turning on the screen every time it blinked off. Her fingers long ago had lost any feeling in them, and they felt almost like stubby pencils instead of living flesh. Just to spook her some more, her headlights suddenly blinked, then faded out. She was left in the ensuing darkness.

She stared at the springtime scene, so vivid against the vanishing light of her current situation. It was like a guiding post to safety. With sudden comprehension, she understood that she was looking at her house in the background scene of the photograph, a very short distance over the edge of the road.

She got up from her half-crouch. She steeled herself with fake confidence, breathing in and out with deep, steady breaths. The cold air filled her lungs, washing away her panic. Jeremy had sent her this camera to let her know that he had not left her. He was there, inside of the camera. And he was helping her get home.

She looked out toward her house. She saw a small bump that passed as her roof even though she did not recognize anything else because of the snow. Everything was white, white, and more white, with only trees sticking up from the ground to announce that they still lived even in the cold.

I have to jump, she thought.

Flicking on the camera, she tried to figure out if she would make it, or if she would die from a broken back. She debated the two choices, follow the road until it led her to her house, or jump and trek across the field, the more direct route. Looking down at the camera gripped in her hand, she took a picture.

“You led me this far, Jeremy,” she said to the camera. “Tell me what to do now.”

In answer, the camera showed her the snowy bank.

She aimed the camera up the road, the longer way home, still unsure. A black screen. As sure a sign as any.

“Okay, Jeremy.”

Jewel flicked the Nikon dial to “movie mode” and pressed the button to start recording. She wanted Jeremy to guide her the rest of the way home. Or to record her death as she fell off the side of the road.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled. The only answer was the camera adjusting itself, auto-focusing whatever it was looking at. The snow. Maybe the white would burn out the camera’s bulbs.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled again. She wanted nothing right now but to be back within her house, the holes in the walls be damned. She would take her unloved house in disrepair over this snow.

She wrapped her blanket around herself, hugging herself. The air smelled sweet, as if it knew that the snow raging around her would melt away her sorrow. She shifted the camera to her left hand, sticking her right hand in her pocket momentarily to give it some warmth.

Right before she jumped off the side of the road, she curled her hand around a business card.

pencil

Maureen Rostad is a freelance writer and attorney based in South Central Pennsylvania. You can follow the daily adventures of her and her dog, Joe, on Instagram. Email: miheui[at]gmail.com

Eidolon

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Laurent Sauvebois/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was subtle. Rerouting her commutes to and from work. She considered her routing as a means to avoid road construction, school bus stops, garbage trucks on pick-up day, the mainstream uptight crazy traffic, or simply enjoy a scenic route. Of course, now that it was dark on her way to and from work, she couldn’t rationalize “scenic” anymore. She considered being able to enjoy a full episode, rather than mere snippets, of Rufus Roundstone’s Noir In the 21st Century as a side benefit of, rather than the reason for these extended commutes.

Beryl loved film noir but was often too tired after getting home from work to stay awake through a movie. A friend suggested podcasts during her commute. Beryl was skeptical. How could a podcast recreate lighting, Dutch angles, haunting tendrils of cigarette smoke—all essential in creating noir’s ambience? Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She was surprised at the abundance of noir podcasts available. She tried a few but Noir In the 21st Century was the clear winner. Rufus Roundstone’s voice was the voice of noir. Imagine a voice that combined the timbre and characteristics of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and George Sanders. The content varied. Re-imagined classics (The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe, Spade), neo noir, interviews and special intros with the likes of Noir Czar Eddie Muller. Perfect.

She normally struggled against the onset of winter, but now she welcomed the drives in the dark and the rain. It helped make up for what she considered the limitations of audio only. The quiet metronome of her fore and aft windshield wipers blended with the foley work in the podcast. She was in her own private little theater complete with a heated seat. The extended trip home helped ease the transition to what she considered her weaker side. Beryl was an extremely talented designer and she knew it. At work she was strong, independent, decisive. Once “outside,” in public, even at home, it all seemed to fall away, a superhero stripped of her powers. She was prone to anxiety attacks. Decisions almost shut her down.

*

Hec had not noticed that Beryl arrived home later each day. First, that was Beryl, born fashionably late. Also, the seasonal switch flipped. The shorter days of winter made him feel perpetually late. Leaving work late, getting home late, eating dinner late. So, he dismissed Beryl rolling in after dark as part of his own perception of lateness. He wasn’t overly alarmed—until their daughter asked, “Hey dad. ‘Sup with mom?”

“What do you mean, Abb?”

“She’s, well…” Abby looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Um, not home yet, right?”

“Abby, it’s not that late, just your perception now that it’s cold and gets dark early and—”

“And almost nine o’clock, Dad.” She shoved her watch up under his nose.

Hec looked at Abby’s watch. He checked his own. His face didn’t match the reassuring words. “Ah, Abb, you know what a workaholic she can be. She’s probably on some kind of a roll with this latest design project of hers.”

“Ya, well, she better not be late Thursday.”

“What’s Thursday?”

Abby made fish mouth and her eyes rolled, feeling her dad was a little clueless. “Only their big annual gala party? The one we’re invited to? The one where she’s getting that surprise doodah thing?”

As Hec watched his daughter’s gestures he lamented to himself, she’s been watching too many teen sitcoms and melodramas. “Right, right, right! They are giving her the Imagine Design Award. More than just a doodah, Abb. They don’t give those out lightly. This is the first in five years.”

*

The morning was dark with gusts of wind that rocked her Nissan Leaf a bit. The wind gathered the rain and pelted the car making percussive splashes. Perversely, by noon it was unseasonably sunny and warm. Beryl took advantage of the weather to run her car through the wash and vacuum it during her lunch break. She wanted to get in the habit of keeping it nice, and though still new, the dash had collected dust and she’d started to detect a faint, unpleasant odor. If she didn’t know better, she’d say there’d been a smoker in the car. She shrugged her shoulders thinking, “Maybe a salesman or someone on a test drive? How rude. But then, why am I only just noticing it?”

She enjoyed the conveyor ride through the car wash; the rainbow-colored foam sprayed out and ran down the windows, the wax had a familiar and reassuring scent, and the jet blower sounded like a small jet engine starting up. The conveyor spit her and the Leaf out and she rolled across the lot to the quarter vacs. She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this unprecedented, balmy day. Beryl got out and admired her first new car. She’d chosen the Deep Blue Pearl exterior with black cloth which was shot through with blue threads, a nice complement to the exterior color. She opened all doors, took out the floor mats and hung them on the available clips. “That’s odd,” she thought, as what looked like bits of cigarette ash floated out and off the front and back mats. She plopped her Ziploc bag full of quarters near the coin slot, dropped several in and began to vacuum. She started whistling music from The Barber of Seville. She ended up singing lyrics from the Rabbit of Seville.

She had to use her fingernails to unweave some long blonde hairs from the cloth upholstery of the back seat. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had anyone with hair that length and color in her car. Abby was the only one she remembered sitting in back and she had inherited the dark red hair of her mother. She shrugged and decided it must have been there from some other customer, maybe took the whole family on a test drive, maybe the smoker’s family. “Still,” she thought, “you’d think the detailers would have cleaned up better before handing over the keys.”

*

The drive home that night was under a clear sky, but the coldest yet. As soon as the sun had set, the temperature dropped like a hammer blow. Beryl shivered as she felt the contrast of the cold with the rapidly warming seat. She pulled out of the parking lot and decided to take the route around the lake, then started episode six.

The sound of rain, a car door thud. Beryl swore she felt the car shift slightly. She wondered if the gusting winds of morning were returning. She imagined she smelled wet wool.

“OK, so you found me Delilo, what’s the score anyway?”

“You coulda shaken your hat off before getting in at least, Dill, you used to be a gentleman.”

“Well, this gentleman doesn’t appreciate being strong-armed into a car, although I do appreciate being outta the rain and I thank you for that.” A groan. “Where’d you get those guys anyway? A heavyweight two-for-one sale?”

“Distant cousins needed a leg up with employment.”

“Does their parole officer know what they’re doing?”

“Don’t get cute, Dill. You’re no good at comedy. Got a little job for ya.”

“I don’t do your kinda job anymore, Delilo, you know that, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah, well, do this one last job for me and we’ll forget about that debt your wife is building up at my place. By the way, try to keep her out, OK? I’ve never seen a dame so unlucky. Kinda makes me feel sorry for her.”

“You never felt sorry for anyone, Delilo, not even yourself.”

Sounds of shifting and a stubbled chin being scratched. She thought she smelled a faint scent of some aftershave, like something her grandfather used to wear.

“Didn’t realize I was so impressionable.”

Beryl grinned to herself, enjoying the added sensory experience her imagination was creating.

“It’s an easy enough job for you, Dill. Walk in the park.” A wood match striking, the scent of cigarette smoke. “This dame’s not even spilled milk, no one going to cry over her… passing. One of those spoiled rich dames likes to go slumming. Enemies in both camps. Cops want her on a murder rap.”

“Let ‘em have her.”

“Uh-uh. Knows something she shouldn’t.”

Beryl heard breathing, the sound of cigarette smoke being blown out—she could smell it, then it seemed a bit of smoke wafted into her peripheral vision. She felt the car shift a bit.

“So, the whole debt forgotten? Can, oh, what’s his name…” A finger snap. “Biegler! He still your mouthpiece? Can he write up an agreement, call it an insurance policy for me that’ll stick?”

“Biegler can do that in his sleep. But you gotta keep your wife outta my place, or let our bouncers keep her out. We usually keep the hands off the ladies.”

A snort. “She’s no lady. Not since she got that ring on her finger… sure had me bamboozled. Be my guest, toss her out, better yet, don’t let her in. You know what she’s like after a few drinks… or at least you oughtta. She is still your sister, you know, or had you forgotten?”

“Half-sister.”

“Don’t quibble.”

*

At home, Beryl got out of the car. When she turned to close the door, she noticed a damp-looking spot on the back seat. She opened the back door to pat it, assuring herself it was probably a shadow, but no. The seat was damp. There was a small puddle on the floor mat too. An almost electrical spike of fear shook her from the inside out; she felt a bit of a chill. She took a few deep breaths to shake it off, but that brought the scents of aftershave and stale cigarette smoke. She backed away shaking her head. Her heart was racing and her hands shook so she almost dropped her phone. “No, no, no. Come on, be rational, Beryl. Maybe there is a weakness in one of the window seals that the car wash breached. Take a deep breath and start a list for the dealer.”

*

Hec was in the kitchen when she entered. It seemed overly bright to her. She squinted and blinked a little.

“Hey Hec, where’s Abb?” She hoped he wouldn’t detect the quaver in her voice.

“Fed and in bed, Beryl.”

“Not our Abby? It’s only—”

“It’s 9:45, Beryl. Abb and I’ve had dinner. Your plate’s in the warming drawer. Glass of wine?”

Beryl checked her watch, the clock on the oven.

“Hec, I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I was down in my zone on that new design.” She was ashamed at how easily the lie came.

Hec shrugged, turned toward the wine glasses and asked again, “Glass of wine?”

“Uh-huh, thanks.”

*

During the drive into work the next day Beryl was running a bit late, but managed fifteen minutes of the next episode. That night, a filthy, relentlessly wet night, she picked up where she had left off:

A woman’s voice. “But, you don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to know you.”

It was Dill.

“What have I done to you?”

“Me? Not a thing, doll. As far as I know you are a perfectly swell dame—though outta my league. Seems like a waste.”

“Look can’t you put that thing away? It might go off.”

“It will go off darlin’.”

“Why, why?”

“Better ask Delilo.”

“Raimy?” A little snort and bright chuckle of relief. “Some kind of joke, huh? OK, buster, what’s the hook?”

“No hook.” Gun blast.

Beryl jumped. It surprised her how loud it seemed. She heard echoes of a muffled sound, a female “umph” and the rustle of someone slumping, only it didn’t come from the speakers. The smell of cordite wafted from the back seat, then the sound of a wood match and the acrid smell of tobacco. She checked her rear view mirror. There was an ember and a column of smoke. She swerved onto the shoulder, hitting the brakes, eyes snapping forward. She felt and heard that deep drone, like the throat singing she experienced with her panic attacks. One side of her neck and jaw tightened; she could hear her own heart pounding; she struggled to force herself to breathe. She forced her eyes up.

She felt herself talking, but didn’t quite believe it. She didn’t recognize her own voice.

“Say, put that out mister and don’t toss it out the window either.”

She felt something cold against her neck; she assumed it was a gun. Her hair lifted. Someone blew on her ear. Her hair dropped back down. She shivered, felt the cold sweat of fear in her armpits, yet her palms were relaxed on the wheel.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely neck?”

She started to nod and tried a furtive glance in the rear view mirror.

“And don’t get any ideas, get rolling again and keep those green eyes on the road and we’ll all be pals, Irish.”

“How far we going?”

“Not as far as I’d like.”

Her voice sounded more familiar to her now. “My husband and daughter. They’ll be worried.”

“I’m sure they will, darlin’, but by the time they get around to doing anything about it, you’ll be on your sweet way home, no harm done. But, you sure you wouldn’t consider forgetting that family right now and coming home with me, Irish? No? Too bad. I’m a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and those freckles. Take this turnoff down Five Mile Road. Wanna guess how far Five Mile Road goes?” He chuckled.

Beryl slowed and veered right, slowed some more as the roughness of the road surprised her. Her teeth were chattering but she didn’t feel cold. Her hands were now shaking. Her insides were doing flip flops—forget butterflies, she felt like some alien was about to emerge though her abdomen.

“OK, check your odometer, in three miles you’ll see a turnout on the left. Use it for a U-turn but stop before you get back on the road. Watch the edge, it’s steep.”

She did as she was told. When stopped, she tried to get a look in the rear view mirror.

“Careful now.”

She felt the cold barrel of the gun at the back of her neck again. She closed her eyes, wished she was practiced at prayer.

“Hey.” The gun tapped against her temple gently. “You better try breathing. Just keep your eyes forward and your hands on the wheel.”

She heard the rear door open, some sliding, a thud. The car shifted with a weight change, shifted again. Whoever was in back slid across to the passenger side. Footsteps on gravel and something heavy being dragged, then nothing but the wind outside the open door. Footsteps headed back to the car. Another weight shift, the rear door closed. She heard heavier breathing.

“Dame didn’t look to weigh that much. I guess death is like the camera, puts on the pounds. OK, you can head home. I’ll tell you where to drop me and remember, eyes straight ahead, in fact, let’s see you cock that rear view mirror to the side. Thatta girl.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Eidolon.” The voice, bored, carried a ‘no more questions’ finality.

Eidolon. It rang a faint bell. Where had she heard that before? She heard a voice saying it, a different voice, not the voice from the back seat. Professor Dorelle. Yes, Ancient Greek Lit. Homer, Euripides, Helen of Troy, Trojan Horse, all that. A shade, a spirit-image of someone dead or alive. She felt a chill. It was all she could do not to look back.

“OK.” The voice from the back made her jump. “Know where the Greyhound station is?”

Beryl nodded.

“Drop me there.”

*

Back home, Beryl pulled silently into the garage. She sat staring.

The door from the house to the garage burst open.

“Beryl, what the hell? I was worried sick. Abb, too. I looked for your phone. What were you doing way out on Five Mile Road? Listen to me, like a fishwife. Come here, you.” Hec pulled her to him and squeezed. Rubbed his nose in her hair, sniffed deliberately a few times then pushed her back to look her in the eye. “Did you start smoking?”

Beryl shook her head; her lips were quivering.

Hec figured she was cold and led her into the house. “Here, go put on your flannel-lined jeans and a big sweater, I’ll flip the basking machine on—you can eat near the fire. I kept your dinner warm—again—had to feed Abby. She’s in bed but I’m sure she’s not asleep. Better go assure her. She’s still a little girl in a lotta ways, you know.”

“OK, Hec. I’ll wash my hair before I eat.” Her voice was low and rather monotone. She paused without looking around said, “I’m not smoking Hec. You know me better than that. I had to meet someone after work, chain smoker.” Another lie.

She tried to use the shower to come ’round. “Buck up, girl. Something has just triggered your vivid imagination in a powerful way. Remember the make-believe murder mysteries you used to solve as a kid while all your friends were playing with dolls? Creepy dolls.” She shuddered and grinned at the same time. “I’m talking out loud to myself. If it happens again, I’ll go see a trick cyclist.”

She knew the water and steam in the shower was hot, still she shivered deep down. Finally gave up trying to stop shaking. Grabbed her big towel, then climbed into her hooded Turkish towel robe.

*

Beryl went directly to work the next morning, no scenic route, no Noir In the 21st Century. She tuned to a favorite internet radio station. An eclectic university campus non-profit.

*

“Daaa-ad?”

“Yes, Aaaaaa-Abb.”

“D’ya think you could take me shopping after school today? For a-a d-dress or something?”

“Ah, you want to dress up for Mom’s award dinner? A dress, Abb? You? Really?”

“Don’t make fun, Dad. Yes, I-I d-do, I think it’s im-important.”

He felt bad, teasing her. He should have known how hard it was for her to ask. Her normally well-controlled stutter had resurfaced. “Sure, sweetie.” He put one arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll cancel office hours with my students today. Meet you at the car after final bell?”

“Yip!” She launched herself at her dad and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his legs—used to be hips. Hec marveled at how quickly he went from having a little girl to a long tall beauty.

“Want to go over to Anya’s for a hair trim and a blow out too?”

“You’re th-the b-best dad ever.” She squeezed, then hopped down, giving him a peck on the cheek. “B-but she b-books up like crazy. What if she can’t f-fit me in?”

“Remember, she’s also Auntie Anya, I’m pretty sure we can work something out. In fact it might be better—get your dress first, see her after the salon closes. She might want to check out your dress before styling your hair.”

*

On the way home, Beryl dismissed her reluctance to continue the podcast. The night was cold and windy, a freezing hard rain, with intermittent hail. She turned right, to the proverbial dark side of town and beyond, not left toward home. She checked her clock and figured she still had time to listen to one episode, get home and ready for her team’s big gala that night. She’d arrive fashionably late, she grinned—it was almost expected of her now. She resumed the podcast. She felt she’d lost her place somehow. There was the sound of hard rain and wind being thrown against the windows. At a stop, the rear driver side door opened. A gloved hand covered her side mirror, the car shifted as someone got in… aftershave… the door closed, the light turned green. Beryl sat frozen.

*

Brenda put on her white gloves and polished Beryl’s award. She admired it from several angles trying to decide which direction it should be facing for the unveiling. Settling on something she liked, she draped a plush deep blue velvet cloth over it. Brenda was proud to be on Beryl’s team. This was the highest award their company offered and it was rare. This was a design award, awarded by designers.

“Oh Brenda, Mr. Halliday wants to be sure Beryl has no inkling she’s getting this tonight.”

“Not as far as I can tell, Lucas, and I never thought of her having much of a poker face.”

“…and she will make it tonight?”

“She won’t be on time, but yes. I’m certain she’ll be here.”

“OK, we’re doing the presentation between dinner and dessert service. She should be here by then.” Lucas looked around the banquet room. “Looks good.” He nodded, “Well, the band has arrived, sound system is a go, I’ll just go peek in at catering.”

*

“Don’t attract attention now, Irish. We’re this close.”

“Close? Close to what?”

“You tell me, doll, you tell me. I’ve got ‘em bound and gagged just like you wanted. What’s next?”

Beryl chilled from the inside out, her heart raced, her head felt like it would implode. “Who? What do you mean ‘like I wanted’?”

“We arranged it this morning. Don’t you remember? Your kid and that husband of yours…”

“What do you mean? This isn’t happening, Beryl. Pull over, deep breaths, turn around drive straight home…”

“Hey, Irish, I thought you said it was you and me from here on out… ‘straight down the line’ you said… anyway, rigged it so his car broke down on their way in to school… funny him teaching in the same school she attends. Along comes me, a good Samaritan, to give ‘em a lift, right? It was real smooth. Your kid, she’s sharp… had to move and talk fast to stay ahead of her. She knew my ‘shortcut’ wouldn’t work, had to pull off sooner than I wanted. Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

Beryl went from chilled to flushed, she wanted to fling off all her clothes as she felt them tightening around her and such burning heat. “You’re not real.” Her voice cracked.

“Hurts to the quick, Irish. I feel real enough, that kiss last night was real enough.”

“You yourself said ‘Eidolon’. No, no, no, Beryl. Don’t make him more real by talking to him. Turn off the podcast. Sing something. Sing something. Music heals me. Rabbit of Seville, come on.” She was pulling off the road, couldn’t even come up with a tune, her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, tears dropped from her chin onto her chest, she could hear her heart pounding. “Hec, oh Hec, what have I done, Abby, my baby, you’re OK, this isn’t real.”

She felt a warm hand pull her hair back behind her right ear, a caress lingered on her neck just below the ear, the familiar scent of aftershave, she felt her shoulders relax, her hands released the wheel. She leaned into the caress, took in a deep breath, she relaxed and a smile spread across her face. Her head pressed into the warm hand, she rubbed her own cheek in his palm, then reached across and put her left hand over the back of his, kissed the palm. She rubbed a stubbled cheek with the back of her right hand. “Ah Dill, Dill.” She felt herself talking. Heard herself, but her voice sounded sultry, husky, like a smoker’s voice. “Gimme a drag, huh?”

Dill pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around and slid it between her lips at the side of her mouth. She took a deep drag, blew upward; a long spiral of smoke smashed against the headliner of the Leaf and spread out like a thunderhead. “You sure no one will find them?”

“Sure I’m sure, doll, but you decide. They can starve in each other’s company for all I care.”

“We could get some cash for ’em… Dill, our money won’t hold out forever… I bet Delilo isn’t as hardhearted about his half-sister as he makes out. Hec’s family is filthy rich and they adore that granddaughter of theirs.” She pulled out onto the highway.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? You know, they might have a harder time pinning it on us if we all just disappear. Blackmail, doll… I dunno.”

“Blackmail beats murder. We go for the payoff, then disappear. Never to be heard from again. You and me, Dill, straight down the line.”

*

The annual dinner carried on as these things do. Brenda, Lucas, and particularly Mr. Halliday kept a watch, at one moment on the door, at one moment on their watches, at one moment on the lovely sculpted award hidden under the cloth, at one moment on the three empty chairs where Beryl, her husband Hector, and daughter Abby were to be seated. The empty seats, the unused place settings were an irritation to Mr. Halliday. Beryl was often late, but this, this was rudeness, the annual gala. Of course, she didn’t know about her award so she couldn’t be blamed for snubbing it. The surprise was that Hector hadn’t managed to get her there and he knew about this award. He always managed somehow to deliver Beryl at least “fashionably late.”

Finally the plates were cleared and the speeches had begun.

Lucas bent down to whisper, “Mr. Halliday, Brenda and I have both called Beryl’s and Hector’s cell phones multiple times. We get no answer. I’m a little worried. I hope they haven’t had an accident or something. This really is not like them.” Lucas was, in fact, considering calling the police or local hospitals.

Brenda squatted down to add, “Mr. Halliday, if they don’t arrive, I suggest you unveil her award anyway. The art department put so much into it, it is a lovely design in and of itself. You can make a joke about her tardiness. It’s practically a signature for her…”

Dan Halliday nodded. “Fine, fine.” He made a whisking motion as though batting at a gnat to dismiss Brenda and Lucas. He could not disguise his irritation.

*

“Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too… that long slow death you’re trying avoid. Though I hear that hypothermia can be pleasant after awhile, after the first phases of cold they feel warm, even flushed, they start taking off their clothes and even try to burrow into a small dark space…”

Beryl pulled into an access road for a campground closed for the winter.

“I’m a city boy born and bred, Irish, what are we doing here?”

“Don’t get cute, we gotta make a plan, I mean, how do we ask for the money? How do we arrange the pick up?”

“We don’t have time for cut-out letter ransom notes. Phone calls? Too easy to trace.”

“Unless… how about we use a burner phone, even two or three? Make the calls from them. Have the money transferred via phone into, I dunno… your wife’s account is too obvious. Can’t use Hec’s either.” Beryl started to tap her nails on the steering wheel.

“Biegler.”

“Biegler?”

“Delilo’s mouthpiece. He might do me a favor… for a cut.”

“Why’d he help you burn Delilo?”

“Honor among thieves, doll? Really?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders.

“I bet I can get a nice little packet from Biegler. Burner phones, credit card account in some name or other ready and waiting, IDs, offshore bank account. We could get outta the country, and still get the money. Delilo will be quick. He’ll also be ready to retaliate. What about your in-laws?”

“They’ll need time to access their accounts, I guess, I dunno how their money is locked up, bonds, stocks, bank. Probably need a day. So… you know how to contact Biegler?”

“Know where he lives. Head back to town. Just before city limits, take Majestic toward the lakes. Slow down, you’re not driving a race car you know.”

Beryl grinned, feeling she had the upper hand. “You’re not scared are ya, Dill? I just love the twisties, although you’re right, this isn’t the car to do this road justice.”

Just then she hit some black ice, her Leaf spun and slid. The air bags didn’t go off for some reason. Her head hit the steering wheel hard. When she came to, she felt blood on the side of her forehead, grabbed a tissue. There was blood on the passenger window which she couldn’t figure out. She didn’t recognize the road she was on or her direction. The freezing rain didn’t help.Thoroughly disoriented she shook her head to try to clear it, then grabbed her phone to pull up directions for home. The shoulder was only slightly canted and it was easy for her to get turned around and back on the road.

She smelled cigarette smoke and aftershave. It puzzled her. The rain had completely given way to hail that was bouncing off her hood like ping pong balls. As she entered known streets and landmarks, she saw Hec’s car on the side of the road. She smiled, he was out looking for her. She pulled up behind him and jumped out into the hail. As she got up to the driver door she saw no one inside. She felt the hood of the car, cold. She felt a deep chill, heard the voice from the podcast: “Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s, “Derecho,” placed 3rd in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (September 2018). “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

The Grave of Samuel Seymore James

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
M. Luke Yoder


Photo Credit: denisbin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Preservation of the dead. That’s why I take grave rubbings.

Isn’t preservation the reason we created gravestones in the first place? To preserve the proof of the people we care about?

I imagine the first burial marker was the turned earth that hid the body. But the earth is ever changing, and humans are ever sentimental, so we needed more permanent signs of death. Mountains. Landmarks. Rocks. At first, it was a small pile of stones that wind and water wouldn’t wash away. As we evolved, those piles became pyramids and monuments and henges for the great; for the mediocre, short words of remembrance etched on small granite or limestone or marble slabs: name, date, epitaph. I think it’s sad that the mediocre, the most common human lives, are the first to vanish, eroded and effaced by weather or vandals or lack of care. We will forever know where the memories of our Pharos, Presidents, and Poets are housed, but the proof of Samuel Seymore James of Huger, South Carolina, 1781-1806, Beloved Husband & Faithful Fisherman, might moulder to obscurity if not for rubbers like me. In a way, I keep the dead alive.

But many cemeteries and plantations and old properties with old graves no longer allow rubbings. They argue rubbing hastens the decay or someone may break fragile stones even with best intentions. And I understand: gravesites are solemn places for the safeguarding of our past and the one true promise of our future. They are as concerned for preservation as I am. We need archival proofs, however. In time, those cold carved letters on stones and marble slabs will be erased and return to mere rock, and those names will vanish from the earth. Without archival proof, those weathered words may as well be written on the dirt and the rain. So I continue to rub, whether I should or I shouldn’t. Some cemeteries still allow rubbing from anyone, but I’m not concerned for those graves: they have their archivists and plenty of them. I seek lonelier treasures.

Which is why Samuel Seymore James’ grave is so important to me. It’s the loneliest thing I have ever seen.

For fifteen years, I’ve taken rubbings from countless sites. Piles of archival boxes and hard plastic document tubes rise from the floor of my apartment. I’ve rubbed stones and revealed names and dates indecipherable to the eye from weathering. I’ve recorded hopeful goodbyes inscribed on crumbled white obelisks tucked away in a decaying cemetery corner. I’ve taken rubbings from a collapsing antebellum family complex marking the death of a dozen children, each vulnerable to the diseases that plague mankind. I’ve found and documented our names and fears and hopes of death before nature or man could erase them, and I’ve brought them home with me on paper and cloth rubbed with colored wax. I’ve seen it all. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James haunts me to this day.

While visiting cemeteries in the area one steamy summer, I pried a story from old Huger locals. Deep in the wilderness, there is a small grave site, unknown to any from off. It was, as they said, a local legend, preserved by a vengeful magical creature, as if the stones were erected that very morning rather than centuries ago. They would not take me—one visit was enough for each of them—but they told me about hidden markers along the way and gave me detailed directions, the same they’d pried from their grandparents when they were younger and bolder. They admonished me to return as soon as I could.

I hiked seven hellish hours to the grave, prepared to camp for the night. The paths often took me through flooded lands and cypress swamps. Snakes rattled at me. Alligators slid from logs to follow me. Tall pines and sweetgums and shade oaks drenched in Spanish moss gave me no relief from the close heat. I was ripped at by piercing thorns and hounded by insects that thirsted for blood. It was brutal. I understood why those locals refused to accompany me.

I stumbled to the grave site at dusk in a putrid film of sweat, covered in welts from the giant mosquitoes that arose in those stagnant, humid lands. My clothes were torn and bloody from long briars, my hair was matted from grime; I imagine I looked like some filthy being borne from those wild swamps that nature allowed to live. What a contrast I was to the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

Tucked beneath an ancient sprawling live oak with heavy branches drooping to the ground, I saw two gleaming white stones rising out of the leaf litter like incisors. It was as if nature decided against decay and allowed the markers to remain as unblemished as the day they were set. A pair of alabaster hands, one from each stone, stretched and clasped one another through space, binding the graves. When I looked closer at the hands, I could see words etched on the back of each, in a perfect Gothic font: Together in Eternity.

The left marker bore Samuel’s name and date of death. The edge of each letter was sharp and crisp, without hint of moss or mold, so pristine I thought it a wonder I didn’t hear the pinging of hammer on chisel as I approached earlier. I was amazed a grave so old and isolated could be so clean and free of weathering.

The right marker, just as pure, bore a name as well: Edith Anne James. Unlike Samuel’s grave, there was no epitaph or date of death: 1785–. Samuel was buried here alone, forever.

A loneliness I’d never felt before, or have experienced since, rolled over me in an instant and settled on my bones. In the fading light, I stood at Samuel Seymore James’s grave and I wanted to weep. The grave was so far removed from everything else in space and time and companionship that I was struck with the grandeur and sadness of it all. Buried alone, here, in a place so far removed it’s a wonder it exists at all. I took the rubbings of the stones and the clasped hands binding them among the crying crickets and flickering fireflies long after the sun disappeared.

I didn’t sleep well that night. In the fitful heat of my tent, I imagined I could hear Edith Anne wailing, wandering outside my tent, seeking her beloved Samuel and her rightful final resting place beside him. I could not dissuade myself that this grave was the loneliest on earth, hidden from the eyes of others, and destined to remain hidden until nature, if it was within its power, did away with it.

I returned home feeling I’d taken my most important rubbings. I placed them in an archival box and continued my work for years, knowing that no grave would need more proof of existence than Samuel Seymore James’s. I’d trekked through hell to take those rubbings. I could say that if I should die tomorrow, I’d die happy having brought Samuel Seymore James out of the wilderness, returned to life, and having captured the spectre of his beloved Edith Anne and her unfulfilled promise to him as well. Despite the terrible hike, I was satisfied my passion for preservation drove me to his grave and gave me such a sad, haunting story as that of two lovers long dead and separated for eternity.

But now I have to go back through that hell once again.

I received a call last week and I’ve been digging through my archives ever since. Thousands of rolls and sheets and I cannot locate the rubbings for Samuel Seymore James: not with the other Huger rubbings nor in the archive box for Charleston and Surrounding Area.

The call was from the American Institute for the Preservation of the Dead. They are a historical advocacy group that insists rubbings are a vital method for safeguarding the burials of the past. They won a grant from the Smithsonian and want to take their message on a tour to raise awareness for rubbings and the importance of preservation. The representative who contacted me knew of my work through other rubbers and mutual friends. The Institute would be thrilled for me to submit my most important rubbing for approval. The award for the twenty-five works chosen would be a one-year gallery tour throughout the country for advocacy and a prize of one thousand dollars. I told the representative I knew the exact rubbing I would submit and that I would send it soon.

That was six days ago. I’m now convinced, after having exhumed nearly all of my past work, against all odds I misplaced the rubbings of Samuel Seymore James. There is no reason I should believe I committed such a crime, but there it is. They are nowhere to be found.

I thought about submitting others. I have a beautiful rubbing from Boston I did on cream cloth and purple wax with a date of 1713 and a tearful poem yearning for positive judgment on a life lived. But it wasn’t the same. I know what I’d had with Samuel’s grave. I cannot bring myself to submit another sample in its place. I am certain I am, in all of Creation, the only human to have taken a rubbing of that grave, and the importance of its preservation is undebatable. The rest of my rubbings can burn for all I care.

I’m sure I can find the grave once again.

I live three hours from Huger. It’s winter now and the drive should be easy. Winter in the South is different than most people expect. They expect it to be mild, but not cold. They are wrong. It doesn’t snow much in Huger, but there are countless days from December to March when the cold is as close and heavy as a hide blanket and the clouds press down upon your shoulders with weight. You can’t help but hug yourself to hold on to the heat being pulled from your chest. And when it rains, the damp lasts for weeks beneath the feeble sunlight that manages to filter from the heavens. Darkness falls early on those days and the dawns are slow to return. It’s one of those looming mornings as I drive through Huger.

I think about the story of Samuel Seymore James often. Every grave I’ve visited since has evoked the memory: I see him kissing Edith Anne goodbye that late August morning and heading into the forest to find a secret fishing hole. I see the hurricane clouds and flooding winds, the oak branch that fell on him after he lost the path home in the darkness and rain. Edith finds his body herself. She buries him beneath the oak and spends everything she has on the gravestones. The few people who trekked into the wilderness to witness the ceremony said Edith refused to leave with them. She sat on the ground at her own gravestone, silent, tracing patterns on the smooth surface with her finger. She was broken, they said. So some stayed with her. But Edith Anne never got better. They built her a shelter and found her food and soon she was alone.

When one couple took it upon themselves to return from guilt, Edith Anne was gone. Two days later, the couple died in a house fire. A man traveling through the forest to Jamestown noticed small piles of stones which lead him to the grave; he camped at the site on the way up but he never returned home. His body was found beneath the oak. Just twenty years ago a Ranger found two Wiccan lovers dead on Edith’s grave. Visiting the grave now is a dare that few local children still rise to. But no one ever goes back twice.

And so the locals told me the story of Edith Anne James, alive still in that wilderness, caring for the gravestones and punishing those who leave her.

The locals told the story with such conviction that when I first stumbled to the site that long ago summer, I wanted to believe it as well, seeing those stones absolutely unaffected by the very same nature that attacked me every step I took toward the grave. There Samuel lies, below two shining white beacons of stone that defy degradation and decay. Edith Anne is there, too, somewhere, the magical source of that defiance. I wanted to believe that wave of loneliness crashing over me in my sweaty exhaustion was Samuel’s and Edith’s. I wanted to believe it all. But while that abject feeling of loneliness is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced since, my reverence for the story has waned. Evidence soon proved otherwise.

I found many examples in the literature of gravestones in near-perfect condition after over one hundred years, stones that nature just doesn’t touch, due to differences in material or local conditions or a variety of other rational variables. Despite decades and centuries of heat and floods and droughts and deep chills, despite the enduring press of nature upon all things in this world, there are exceptions immune to that press. There are things in existence that resist the inevitable laws of nature, and the grave of Samuel Seymore James appears to me to be one of those special examples. I’ve found other examples on every continent and within every other climate. There is evidence in this world our markers can endure those laws to which all other things must succumb. And isn’t that why we created gravestones in the first place? Preservation! Isn’t that wonderful enough in itself to justify returning through hell for a rubbing, despite a local legend and the natural part of me that still wants to believe that legend is true?

I think it is. I thought it was the moment I was contacted about the award and I still do as I see signs for the Wadboo Trail a few miles north of Huger.

The Wadboo Trail is an old horse path that meanders through the forest for fifty miles. It was cut out before the Revolution and farmers, travelers, and enthusiasts have been using it ever since. This is the main passage I will follow to reach the first pile of stones.

I park in the small gravel lot at the head of the trail, empty as last time. I sit basking in the final warmth I’ll have until the campfire I build tonight. The head of the trail is wide and paved in pine straw, but it soon narrows and becomes ribbed in places with exposed roots and fallen branches. Despite the hellish heat of my last trek, I enjoyed a brisk pace and admired the scenery until I left the trail at the first pile of stones, a rough footpath that’s noticeable if you know where to look. But after are the swamps and muck that pulled down on me like I was wading through hell with little hope of reaching the grave. Swamps tend to ebb in the winter, and I hope this is true today. From there, the land rises to dry and is choked with greenbriers and thickets to the grave site.

I’m going to camp through the night. There’s not enough sunlight in the day now to avoid it and hiking in the dark is unthinkable. I can reach the grave site well before dusk but I’ll return in the morning. I have two battery lanterns that will give me enough light to work in the dark, but with the fire I plan on building to stay warm, I may not need them.

I tug my hat over my ears and open the car door to pull on my stuffed backpack. The cold slaps my face. I can see my breath. The sound of crunching gravel radiates a few feet and dies close in the heavy air. There is no wind, but wind would be a mercy if it lifted these pressing clouds from my shoulders. I feel like I’m in a cold, grey box stuffed with cotton spun from the dampness. A mist seeps from the sodden ground. It’s as quiet as a fallen blizzard. I stand up straight, shrug my backpack right, and pass between the two short wooden rail fences that mark the cold beginning of the trail.

I can’t see the tops of the pines for the low clouds. The mist is so thick I can just make out a few magnolias scattered about the edges of the trail. All I can hear are my winter clothes swishing with my steps, my boots crunching the pine straw and dead leaves on the trail, and my heaving breath. I walk to the rhythm of these sounds and it takes my mind off the depressing conditions: I plan on making quick pace to the first marker. This will give me more time to navigate the swamp waters and will also keep my temperature up besides. I still shudder when I think about this hike in that hellish heat in the past, but I suspect this gross day will do its best to beat it.

In quick time, the first marker appears just as it was before. I find the footpath, but it’s more crooked and rugged than I remember.

The trees are older and closer together here. More oak and sweetgum. Spanish moss hangs like curtains from the branches; dank green moss and gray lichens grow between the bark. If I didn’t know those swamps still awaited I’d take my time to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle to breaking. But those swamps do await. So I do my best to follow the winding trail and keep the pace. My cheeks are numb and my lungs sting from the cold.

I am alone with my marching sounds. Swish, crunch, breath. Swish, crunch, breath. Now at the edge of my hearing, softer but higher pitched than my cadence, I can hear a pinging. As if someone struck a bright cymbal or triangle. I don’t know what is, but I incorporate the sound into my march. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. I fall into the rhythm and quicken my pace.

I trip on an exposed root. I grab a branch to steady myself, but it snaps off and I land on my hands and knees. One nub on the branch punctures the palm of my hand. It hurts like hell. I scream and the sound dies close, smothered by the mist and clouds. When I raise my hand to examine it, I leave a bloody handprint on the detritus and exposed roots.

The wound is deep. I wrap a bandage around my wrist to stave the blood. I clean the wound with water. A large splinter of the nub is still stuck. I yank it out and scream again. Soon, the bleeding slows and I dress the wound. It may not be enough, but I’m not stopping. The grave is too important. I start the hike once more.

I’m lost in the swamp. My wound has broken open. I’ve also twisted my knee. I don’t have time to stop now, not with dusk already settling in. Winter dusk is not like summer dusk. Especially on cold, disheartening days like today. In the summer, the colors dusk throws into the sky are brilliant: purples and reds and yellows tossed from below to bloom on the belly of the slow, darkening heavens. In the winter, dusk is more like closing your eyes to die; the light slowly fades in the gray until there is nothing left to see. And when the darkness finally comes, it comes quick. I should not rest, but I must. This hike has been far worse than my first.

It’s as if nature redoubled its efforts from long ago to prevent me reaching the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

The land rose and sank in places I could not remember. The footpath twisted through the dense woods in an unimaginable and illogical way, turning back upon itself and forking madly. It was more maze than trail. I could still find piles of stone markers, but there were fewer than I remembered and I found them at odd intervals. At one point I thought I saw someone sneaking in the mist. They didn’t answer my calls; I twisted my knee when I left the path to find them. Branches scratched at me and roots stubbed my feet. I finally stumbled to the edge of the swamp. And still, I could hear that ping, out there somewhere, hidden within the mist and clouds that enveloped everything.

I was exhausted. I forced myself deeper into the swamp. I couldn’t find the next stone marker. There was nothing but cypress trees and vines and that damned mist obscuring it all. I tried to find the source of the ping, but it was difficult to know the direction beneath those dampening clouds. I’ve been unable to find my way out of the swamp since, and now I don’t think I ever will.

I’ve torn something in my knee. Blood runs down my wrist, soaking the tourniquet. It drips from my fingers into the water when I rest my arm by my side. I can’t keep warm, no matter how hard I hug myself. I redress the wound in the dying light, but it won’t help. The bleeding won’t stop. And the pinging won’t either.

I rest on a small dry area between two cypress trees. I think of my favorite rubbings: the one from Boston; an eighteenth-century angel fighting Satan in Louisiana; a severe slab of marble from Boise, 1896-1945, with a tasteless joke and an etching to match. These were all fine examples, examples that need to be preserved, and any one of them or countless others were good enough to win one of those awards. I could’ve submitted any of them and won. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James called to me, and for that I am lost.

What would my gravestone look like, if someone should chance upon my body? I imagine aspects of each of those rubbings coalescing into my own gravestone, erected in my name, here. I’d have a witty epitaph. Something to make people laugh. Above my name, a quote on preservation and the innate need for humans to create things that remind us of those we miss the most. I imagine sculpted adornments and effects that would make anyone who stumbled upon it ask themselves: who the hell was bold enough to die out here? And, at moments, I imagine Edith Anne visiting my grave to keep the unrelenting weathering forces of nature and time at bay, as she did for her beloved these last two centuries.

I imagine these things and it makes me smile. But I know the truth. The only things that will mark my grave are my possessions and the small portion of my bones that don’t get carried off by alligators and other scavengers. Those things will mark my grave for a time, but nature will claim those, too, with hurricanes and floods and larger tides. I imagine this tiny island I lie on now will be gone in five years, and my bones and belongings will fall to the swamp, carried away to wherever nature wishes. Soon, there will be no trace I lived and died. There will be nothing to stop the weathering of my grave and no one near enough to preserve my existence.

This is why we build monuments to the dead, in hopes that we can defeat nature and, in a way, live forever. But that won’t happen for me. I die as we died before, when nature hid us from the universe as soon as it could and we didn’t know enough to do anything about it. Before henges and pyramids, before piles of stone.

There is little light left. The pinging is as fast as it’s ever been. My eyes are heavy. It’s no shame, to die like this. In the name of preservation, I tried. I look to the dusk horizon, as close as it is, and I hope to see a color. Any color but gray. Purple. Red. Yellow. Something. But all I see is that damned mist and those awful clouds above. I can’t tell if darkness is here or my eyes are finally closing. I’ve lost a lot of blood. The pinging stops. As the last bit of light leaves, I see something strange.

I fumble for my light and flick it on: it’s a white tube that wasn’t there before, propped against a nearby cypress.

I slide back into the cold water. My knee screams and I almost sink. I manage to hold the light on the object and I splash to it. It’s a plastic document tube. Written along its length, in black Gothic letters: Preservation of the Dead.

I carry it back to my island and set the light on the ground. I unscrew the cap. I pull the rolled cloth from the tube. It’s the rubbing of Samuel’s grave.

It’s my rubbing. My cloth, my color of wax, and my signature; Samuel’s name, date, and epitaph. It’s mine, except for a message written in the margin, in the same letters as on the tube: This is Your Award.

I’m not alone. I shine the light about. The clouds are lower. The mist swallows the light and spits it back at me. I hear a splash behind. I swing the light around; a figure wades into the mist. I shout, but it’s pointless; it doesn’t look back. I chase as fast as I can.

I can’t keep up and they won’t slow. My leg feels like it’s going to snap. I’m dizzy from losing blood. I keep the light enough to spot glimpses of the figure through the mist. I can’t scream anymore. I can barely breathe. If I falter, I won’t have the strength to continue.

The ground starts to rise. I claw my way onto land. There’s another document tube. Beyond, the figure stops. I crawl to the tube and twist it open. This time, I see the impression of two hands clasped, rubbed in red wax: Together in Eternity. In the margin, again: This is Your Award.

I beg for the figure to stop and to help me. Instead, it disappears into the mist. I roll over onto my back and try to scream at the clouds. My voice dies in my throat. I can’t tell if this is real or an irrational dream; I’m not certain I want to know. The ping starts once more. Clearer. Closer. I shine the light in the direction I know it’s coming from and I see a familiar pile of stones.

The grave isn’t far, now.

I force myself to my feet, but my leg gives and I fall. I crawl forward on my hands and knees. I hit snaking vines of greenbrier and deep thicket. The thorns catch my clothing and pierce to my skin. I can feel blood dripping from my head and ears. Vines wrap around my ankles, denying my efforts to continue. I pull myself, digging my hands in the soil and using roots like ladders. I hold fast to the light and I see a clearing. More vines seem to reach out at once to bar my way; they tangle my limbs and twist me around. A thorn stabs my throat. I am being torn apart. I bellow loud and pull as hard as I can. I squirt out onto the leaf-littered ground beneath the oak like I was pushed.

I crawl to the grave site. My body is throbbing. I imagine I look like some pathetic creature, spewed from nature like excrement from disgust. A thing that has no choice but to go where drawn. A mindless maggot seeking by instinct.

I shine the light at the grave.

The figure is hunched over Edith’s marker, striking the stone ping ping ping ping ping! Just behind it, on the ground, another document tube. A wave of absurd terror rolls over me and I want to weep. I know what awaits. I know, and still, I must see. I find a stick to prop myself to my feet and limp to my fate.

Ping ping ping ping ping!

The white cloth inside this tube isn’t mine, but I wish it were. As illogical as that seems, I wish it were.

There are words written once more: For Loving Samuel as much as I do. But above the epitaph, an image of my own face, as if the cloth was placed over my sleeping eyes and rubbed with some ethereal red wax while I dreamed impermanent things.

The pinging stops. The figure stands and turns. My light shines through it now, a spectre transparent like a fine mist rising from the ground. I cannot see if the creature is man or woman from the pulsating shimmer that springs up in a halo around it like dawn. But I know. In my bones, I know. It unleashes a sound of happiness so pure I wonder how it is that I was ever frightened of dying out here in the first place; my doubts of returning to the grave vanish in the flood. The rubbing was worth it. For Samuel, it was worth it.

And then Edith Anne reaches out and pierces my chest with an incorporeal hand. My heart seizes and I can’t breathe. I drop the light and fall to my knees as she screams in delight.

The last thing I see is my gravestone, pure white, next to Samuel’s. Name, date, epitaph: Dedicated Preservationist.

I wonder, will it weather?

pencil

M. Luke Yoder is a writer from Charleston, SC. Email: mlukeyoder[at]gmail.com

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: PJ Nelson/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

It is winter when the tree blooms. Sarah watches it out of her kitchen window, her breath fogging up the glass. The sight of it sets her pulse galloping.

“Andrew,” she calls, picking up the pot of coffee and pouring another cup. Her husband, shivering in the cold morning, comes to stand beside her. They watch the tree as Andrew takes several gulps of coffee. The silence—the knowledge that sits between them, heavy as all three of her babes piled in her arms—hurts nearly as bad as remembering.

“I’ll tell the kids not to eat the fruit,” Andrew says. He moves away without another word.

Sarah stays by the window until the coffee grows cold in her hands. Her brain is a pit of snakes, writhing, reminding.

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

The words, heard nine years ago, are fresh as the snow fallen that morning. Sarah thinks of the woman—the witch—of her white hair and brittle hands, and she wants to take her children into bed, keep them there till ice thaws and their other trees bloom.

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

Andy, during the last snowfall of a particularly hard winter.

Elizabeth, on a day so cold wet eyelashes froze together.

And every time Sarah gave birth she feared what she might push out between her legs—a child black with rot, a screaming mouth full of maggots. Or perhaps a child shrunken and wrinkled, already dead inside of her.

But she gave birth to three beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed children who said please and thank you and (almost) always listened to her.

And now, seven years after Sarah pushed Josephine, red and screaming, into the world, the tree bloomed. Tiny green shoots press out of spindly branches, reaching toward a gray sky. Sarah pulls the curtain over the window, heads upstairs to wake her children.

The next day, the tree’s leaves are full and there are small, pretty, baby apples hanging on its branches.

Sarah sends her children out to play in the snow—“don’t eat those,” she warns them, and they nod dutifully.

Inside, she cleans the house. Every five minutes she runs to the window—every time her children are far away from the tree, launching snowballs at each other. Andrew, chopping wood beside the barn, doesn’t take his eyes off them.

Sarah cannot stop thinking about that day nine years ago. It is branded into her, a wound that never heals. Remembering is ripping the scab off, letting it ooze again.

As she cleans the kitchen, suds soaping up and bubbles popping, she is reminded of the smell of his skin. Harshly clean, like he had come to her straight out of the bath. Perhaps he had.

Sarah gets down on her knees and her bones begin to ache, her hands red and raw.

He had tasted of sweet salt, like he had nervously sweat on the drive over, let it dry before knocking on her door. They were never ones for words. Their version of talking had been lips between thighs, soft “oh god”s offered up to heaven. Whether in pleasure or in asking for forgiveness of sin, Sarah has never been sure.

When her children come inside, their cheeks are red as ripe apples.

They chatter to her about their game over dinner. Sarah smile and nods, but she sits at the table in a spot where she can see the tree out the window. She swears its leaves grow even as she eats.

If she closes her eyes, she can see his skeleton suspended in dark earth beneath the tree. She wonders—as the tree has grown, have his bones moved with its roots? The image of a root snaking through a skull’s eye is stuck in her mind.

“I’m going to cut it down tomorrow,” Andrew tells her. When she thinks of Andrew with an axe, she doesn’t think of him next to a tree but standing over a pool of blood. A body, empty.

“Good,” Sarah says. She rolls over to sleep and the full moon shines in through their window. It is hours before her brain quiets enough to let her go.

The next day, Sarah breaks a plate. It isn’t a snap-in-half kind of break—it’s a shatter, send-shards-deep-into-crevices kind of break.

“Go outside while I clean this up,” she tells her children. Josephine bundles up the younger ones and they troop outside.

Sarah crouches and digs out ceramic shards, grateful that she can’t see the apple tree for a moment. Earlier she saw that its apples were round and glistening in the cold morning light.

He had gone into town, but Andrew promised the tree would be gone by afternoon.

Just as she is getting the last of the shattered plate off the floor, there is a loud clatter as someone runs back inside.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth sobs, and Sarah is up in a heartbeat, tossing the plate remnants into the sink. Her youngest is crying, snot and tears mixing. Her mouth is black.

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

“I don’t feel good,” her daughter says, throwing herself forward into Sarah’s arms. Elizabeth sniffles. “Mommy, I’m sorry.”

“What happened, pet?” Sarah asks. Her voice is calm, hand steady as she touches her daughter’s hair.

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

Sarah’s heart stops. She takes her daughter by the shoulders and wrenches her away, crouches down to look at her. Elizabeth’s blue eyes are dark, like a cloud has passed over them, and black liquid oozes slowly from one corner of her mouth.

Elizabeth pulls an apple out of her pocket—it has one bite taken out of it. The apple’s insides are made of mold.

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

Elizabeth’s sobs have quieted to hiccups. She nods. “It was Andy’s idea,” she mumbles, but Sarah knows better. Elizabeth, her sweet, youngest daughter, has long been the troublemaker. The one who steals cream from the fridge, feeds the cat pieces of cheese, climbs far higher in the trees than she knows is allowed.

Despite the panic crowding her lungs like one too many cigarettes, Sarah goes to the door and opens it.

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

She doesn’t quite understand how normal her voice sounds. How even it is. It is what she sounds like when she calls them in every day.

There is a choking noise from behind her. Sarah whirls around to find Elizabeth hunched over on all fours, black sludge pouring from her mouth.

“No!” Sarah cries, running, but before she can reach Elizabeth, her daughter is back on her feet, and it is not her daughter any more.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth says. No, Sarah tells herself, this is not Elizabeth. “Mommy,” the thing says again. Its eyes are black and dripping. Its mouth is a gash in its face.

“Hi, pet,” Sarah says, but this time, her voice shakes.

Behind her, the door rattles, and two voices drift through. “Mommy?”

The voices are wizened and old, voices of throat cancer and strep throat, of sickness and phlegm. It is the voice of the witch—of his mother—when she cursed Sarah so many years ago.

Elizabeth—what was Elizabeth—lunges. It moves faster than a child. It screams like a mountain lion in heat.

No time to think, Sarah moves. She opens the door right as Elizabeth runs at her, lets her youngest slam into her two eldest, closes the door behind them. If Elizabeth is lost, surely her other two are as well. Surely they will come after her.

Sarah turns, heart ready to vomit itself onto the floor, to find all three of her children looking up at her through the window in the door.

They look hungry.

She yanks the curtains closed, throws the bolt across. She runs around the house, locking every window, blockading every door. Her mind sings her a song—all of your fruit born in winter be rotten, all of your fruit born in winter be rotten. She can hear them, scraping at the doors, screaming.

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

The shrieks, the noises. Not all of their windows have curtains. Her children peer inside, their eyes black as a moonless night, searching.

Sarah is about to let them back inside—to finish what she began, to end the cycle, to let the rot take her. It is already inside of her. It has been inside of her, festering and growing, for years.

But there is a sound from the driveway. A car, pulling in.

Andrew.

 

Ten years ago, Sarah and Andrew married in a quiet ceremony. Sarah’s parents were eager to get her out of the house—only daughter, a burden. Andrew had a farm, inherited from his family. Means to take care of their daughter. They pushed her out, eagerly put her hand in his during the ceremony. Sarah kissed him on the lips and felt nothing in the pit of her stomach.

But him—him. She met him at the market when summer was at its fullest. He sold her a basket of peaches, and she told him that she would bring him a jar of her peach jam. She brought him one a few weeks later, and he invited her to come see the harvest of plums he had not yet brought out from his truck—they fucked twice in the backseat, once fervent and needy, the next quiet and slow, with the kind of eye contact she had ached her whole life for.

Between laundry and starting dinner, a whole afternoon before Andrew was due back, he would come by. He drove a red truck—Sarah loved the flashiness of it, like a bright fall apple during a hard Canadian winter. He would knock, all politeness, and she would let him in, lead him to the bedroom. Kissing him was inviting summer into her mouth.

But Andrew came home early.

Sarah heard his truck, pulling into the driveway, and her fear was a worm in her throat. She leapt out of bed, yanking on a nightdress. Beside her, he tried to get dressed, fumbling with buttons.

“Who’s here?” Andrew’s voice demanded. It had taken him longer than she would have thought to run inside, but when she came out of the bedroom she knew why.

Andrew stood in the kitchen, dark eyes glinting, axe in hand.

 

Sarah rushes to the window to see Andrew arrive, peers out—her children, or what were once her children, rush toward his truck.

Sarah sees his lips move as he gets out, calling to the children before he can see them. She wants to warn him, wants to say something, but there is still a bit of her old lover lodged in her brain. She will never scrub the blood from her mind, never forget how the soft moan he made while dying was just like the one he made in her bed.

Was it worth it? Andrew had asked her, eyes dark as the bottom of their well. She saw nothing in them. Was it worth it?

When she thinks of the decade of ice between them, of the scent of blood, of the way he smells after sex, Sarah does not open the window. She does not call to her husband—she does not warn him of their children, rotting from the inside out.

She watches as he sees it. Their eyes, black as his own—their mouths, grinning mold. She watches her middle child, named for his father, hand Andrew a half-eaten apple. Andrew stares down at it. Sarah watches him grapple with what lies in front of him.

Rotten fruit. Crazed children. Are they children? He takes too long to figure it out, to realize that Sarah’s dead lover’s mother has cursed them into a horror story. To remember the words Sarah repeated to him after she heard them. Andrew does not hear those words in his sleep—he does not begin each winter with a chest of glass.

The children rip into him. Sarah flinches at the sight—teeth in neck, blood spurting onto snow. Her husband’s blood is so hot it melts the snow down to the ground. The sight makes her think of her children’s art projects, of the way they paint with abandon. She hunches over, her lunch splattering into the sink.

There are screams. She cannot tell whose they are. When she raises her head, looking out, they are done.

They stand over their father’s body, pulling flesh from him. They try to eat, then spit him out, then cry. Great sobs, black tears streaking down their cheeks.

She can only hear the high keen of her eldest. Josephine, standing over her father, looks down at his body and screams, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Sarah stumbles away from the window. She looks around, wildly. They will come for her next. Does she let them? She wonders if his bones can hear—if he heard her children kill their father, if he can hear them now, screaming. She wonders if he wanted this, or if he would apologize. He was an apologizer. Sorry, Sarah, let me, he would say, press his lips to her inner thigh. Sorry, Sarah, that my mother cursed you and your children.

Innocent. They were innocent.

She begins to sob, sinking to the floor of her kitchen. She stays there for a long time, longer than she should. She should keep an eye on them. She should watch where they go. She should be prepared. But she sits there, tears seeping into her dress, unable to move.

A knife would be good, she thinks after it’s been quiet a while. She yanks open a drawer, finds her best knife. Grabs the second best, two. No, a cast iron pan instead. That might not kill them. She could knock them out, call the doctor—

No, no. Fuck, the doctor won’t be able to fix the problem of a nearly decade-old murder and the rotting fruit of her loins.

There is a loud splintering noise.

Sarah struggles to her feet, the knife in one hand and the cast iron pan in the other.

“Mommy?” a voice says. Her boy. He comes in first. At five years old, he already looks like his father. Same dark hair, but her blue eyes. What a heartbreaker he will be, she thinks, as if she has smudged the black away in her mind. Her baby walks toward her.

“Mommy?” he asks again. He blinks at her. His mouth, black, gapes open.

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

Her son leaps at her, and Sarah swings. It’s a decision that takes a moment—her affair can have no more consequences. It has to end with her, with them.

She hits Andy in the side of the head and he flies across the kitchen, hitting the wall with a thud. Black sludge oozes from his head, drips from the pan.

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

Elizabeth tilts her head like she used to when she was a baby.

“Mommy,” she says. She is holding a fresh apple in her fist. “I’m hungry.”

 

Days after Andrew and Sarah buried her dead lover beneath the apple tree, his mother came calling. She drove her son’s truck, the one Sarah had driven back to his house in the dead of night, her lungs hot as coals.

When his mother climbed out of the truck, Sarah knew it was over. She was the picture of fury. The cold wind whipped her hair around her face, a halo of snow white. The slam of the truck’s door echoed like a gunshot.

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

His mother was silent until she stood right in front of Sarah. She was tall, thick, angry. She was the kind of angry that makes you a murderer. Sarah had seen it days before in her husband’s eyes.

“I know what you’ve done,” the woman said.

Sarah tried to look confused. “I’m sorry,” she said, cocking her head to the right. “Have we met?”

The woman’s hand shot out and grabbed Sarah by the wrist. She pulled and Sarah fell forward, so their faces were inches apart. Sarah could see every line in her face—was assaulted by the eyes of her lover. Gold rimmed in hazel.

“Do you know that they call me a witch?” she hissed.

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

The woman—the witch—let go of Sarah’s wrist. “It isn’t a fairy tale,” the witch said. When she reached out again, this time she had a knife in hand—Sarah flinched, stumbling backward, but the witch just laughed.

“I’m not here to kill you, girl,” the witch said, “just to reap what’s been sown.” She grabbed Sarah’s arm and sliced a cut across her wrist, soft and shallow. Sarah’s blood dripped, hot and red, into the snow.

“Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten,” the witch said. When she let go, Sarah fell, clutching her wrist.

The witch cut herself then, letting her own blood drop atop Sarah’s.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sarah said, then. She clamped her mouth closed. She wished the witch would cut her tongue out. “I didn’t do it.”

The witch stood, wrapping her bleeding wrist with a strip of cloth. Her anger seemed to have bled away, laid itself out on the white ground. She looked almost sad. Sarah watched as her eyes flicked toward the apple tree.

Andrew had dug a hole in autumn, planned to plant a tree by the house come spring for the children he was certain they would have. They dumped the body in first, put the tree on top of it. Cold soil from the barn. The tree wouldn’t survive the cold, sure. But for now it was serving its purpose.

“I don’t imagine you did,” the witch said.“But you started it, see?”

Sarah did.

 

She gets in her dead husband’s car. The keys are still in the ignition. She puts her knife, black with blood, in the passenger seat. When she looks into the rear view, to back out of the driveway, she’s surprised to find that her own eyes are still blue.

They match the sky.

It is a five-minute drive to her dead lover’s mother’s house. The witch still drives his truck, a red apple resting in the driveway. Sarah sits in Andrew’s truck for a moment, and she finds that she is the kind of angry that makes you a murderer.

She thinks of Elizabeth’s last words—I’m hungry.

Sarah is hungry.

The witch’s front door is not locked. She is sitting in front of a roaring fire, covered with blankets. Sarah’s hand clenches around the knife.

“Sarah,” the witch says, turning to look up at her.

Same white hair, same eyes. Sarah looks down at her and into the past. The witch stares into the fire. “Been waiting for you,” she says.

“You’ve reaped what I’ve sown,” Sarah says.

“Yes,” the witch says.

Sarah wrenches the old woman’s head backward, drags the knife across her throat. The blood that spurts is red—like her son’s was when Andrew sliced into him with the axe. The blood streams down the witch’s body, soaking her blankets. The woman makes a gurgling noise and Sarah can only think of her children, of the only good thing Andrew gave her.

She grabs the dead witch by the hair and hauls her out of the chair. The body thuds to the ground, vacant eyes watching as Sarah sits herself down. She watches the fire pop and sizzle, the knife still hanging in her hand. She knows the blade will rust but she can’t bring herself to clean it.

Something is digging into her thigh.

Sarah shifts in the chair, reaches into her pocket, and pulls out the bitten apple Elizabeth had handed her.

Its insides are white and crisp.

Something snaps in Sarah’s chest. The curse is over. She wonders if her children, dead in her house, are bleeding red instead of black. She wonders if she were to peel back their eyelids, she would find eyes the color of a summer sky.

The witch, on the floor beside Sarah, smells of shit and metal and blood. The fire is hot against her skin. She wonders if she should cry, but finds that there is nothing left.

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

pencil

Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She received second place in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal‘s A Midsummer Tale contest, won a mini-contest with On The Premises, and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

Us, Alone

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Meredith Lindgren


Photo Credit: James Gates/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The sky did not lie that morning, clouds covered it as some indecent warning of that which can never be prepared for in adequate fashion. They would turn the world white. They blanketed even the ground and hung down as if in some attempt to find reflection.

It was a year to the day since Amelia hadn’t lived.

Nick and I needed to go into town to get some supplies.

We could stay there. Or we could go right through.

We could go right through the next town and the next town and the next. We could go and never stop, but we won’t.

We’ll return to our one room cabin with a loft for the bed, open to the bottom floor. Separation, but no privacy, except the bathroom.

We almost expanded the place last year.

We started to.

The cats, Mittens and Boots, watched us from the window of the loft. They would not go outside again for days. Country life is sometimes simple, but never more so than city life.

Before we left for town, we cut as much wood as we could. More money for food. We broke down building supplies.

As the morning passed the sun did not come and the cold did not go, it worsened. The sun hid its place in the sky, dim and evenly dispersed, an indicator of day.

We piled the wood up next to the stove. It almost covered the door. If the weatherman was right, in a day’s time we wouldn’t be able to leave the house anyway. The birds and small animals skittered frantic, never far from their nests and holes.

We got into the car.

“Do you have the list?” Nick asked.

“Won’t matter,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

It meant that the shelves would be picked. We would get what we could. The wood should have been cut the day before, the supplies acquired, but our mare, Joan, had begun to birth a foal. Though we had attended the birth and given it our best efforts and lost sleep, we lost them both. We should have done better.

Death comes in threes. Last year had been unseasonably warm. The first two deaths had been chickens, taken by coyotes. We didn’t talk about the third.

Amelia.

A year later, death had come again. Two down. No telling who the storm would take. I turned to Nick.

“It’s all up here,” I said. I pointed to my head and grinned.

“Can you tell me where it is in the house so I can go get it?”

“It’s also in my pocket,” I said.

“Can I see it?” he said.

I showed it to him.

He looked at it. “I don’t know why we had to do all that,” he said.

There was no reason. Numbness drove me. I felt none of the urgency I should have. This had been true for some time. My notice of it was occasional.

He started the car. “I love you,” he reminded us both without looking at me. He squeezed the steering wheel.

“I love you,” I said back.

I didn’t look at him. I looked at the day. I looked at the year. I looked away but it all looked the same.

The truck tried to make it up the hill. More and more the truck tried to make it places. It made a noise. Chunky, like everything fixed inside it had come loose.

It sputtered. Something tight contained, connected to the other noise in an indiscernible way. We ignored it because we didn’t have time for something like that.

The car hissed and steamed. It died.

Much as it could for something that had never been alive.

“Shit,” Nick said. He hit the steering wheel. CPR for cars, it never works. For CPR to work, you have to break ribs.

Cars have no heart or breath to start. No ribs to break. There were no numbers attached to their deaths. They die alone without envy of our threes.

We got out and looked under the hood.

“There’s a coolant leak,” he said. “We need to patch it and put in more coolant. Otherwise the engine will get too hot and will just run itself into oblivion.”

We were just between the general store and our home. Two miles in either direction.

We didn’t have any coolant or patches. He undid the stick that held the hood up. It slammed back into place. The first flakes fell onto it, melting with the heat left by the engine in some strange taunt.

We looked in both directions. The birds had not yet stopped their calls, beseeching nature not to run her course. More snowflakes were quick to follow.

“We won’t make it to the store and back,” I said.

“No. We won’t.”

He turned to walk home. I followed.

I had a hat with flaps, but my ears were numb within five minutes.

Don’t get me started on my nose.

I tried to walk up close with Nick, for warmth, but it was hard to keep up. He was walking as if trying to lose me.

By the time we got home the birds were silent. It had snowed four inches. About one every ten minutes. We started a fire. We stood in front of it. There was nothing to say. The fire popped and crackled. Boots and Mittens wound around our ankles.

We sat at our table and shared a can of chili for dinner. If all had gone as planned, we each would have gotten our own. He went up to the loft and there produced a bottle of whiskey from the depths of his bottom dresser drawer.

“I was saving this for the next storm,” he said.

“This storm.”

“Yup.”

It raged outside. The wind howled, stealing any other sounds.

I took a drink straight from the bottle. There was no reason to be fancy. It was warm in my chest, my blood coming alive.

“We should take a look at what we have,” I said.

“Won’t change anything,” he said.

“It will help us ration,” I said.

“That it’d do.”

He lifted the bottle, tilted it. It was less than half full.

“I might switch to the cheap stuff.”

“Smart,” I said. We were past the point of caring about quality.

He got the bottle I had known about from out of the cabinet. It was no fuller than the other. We would have picked more up at the store. Even with both, the whiskey wasn’t going to last us the storm.

“I might be okay for now,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The electricity went out. A log cracked in the fire. We went to bed. To say we made love ignores the other feelings we made as our bodies worked and writhed in expression that may well have been meaningless for all it told us about each other.

I searched his face for my own feelings, but it was too dark.

A log cracked in the fire.

I searched his movements for my own and though he stirred inside me, the only feelings I could discern were my own.

Once done, we separated, some mystic push away from each other. We came back together for the warmth. Our limbs did not intertwine.

Weightless, I could feel our stillborn daughter between us. I had all year.

She had been fully formed and came out with my body’s leftover heat. Perfect. Nick hadn’t been gentle as he had pressed his two fingers into her chest, one’s not supposed to be for CPR to work.

It was hard to say if we had her in common anymore.

Two feet of snow kept the doors shut. Wind howled.

I listened to the absence of the steady gentle hum of electricity, sudden and noticeable when it was gone. The world was too unstill for it. Unsaid things moved around inside me like Amelia had. A light snore formed in Nick’s throat.

I woke to blank light and silence. Each lay upon the world, equally distributed across all surfaces. Snow fell onto itself. It reached past the sill, filling the window. The wind had ceased. The birds were silent. Nick was silent.

A silence beyond sleep.

I did CPR. I broke his ribs. I touched his heart, but not hard enough for it to start beating and bleeding and all the things it had done again.

I did nothing.

I started after he’d stopped making his own warmth. Like her, any heat he retained was borrowed from me.

At what point he died in the night, there’s no way for me to tell.

I tried to call emergency services. The lines were down. We didn’t have cellular phones. We lived beyond service.

I screamed. I cried. There was no witness to any of this. I realized that I had the luxury of unobserved grief. I could cry all day or not at all. I could say that either had occurred.

Upon this realization I stopped.

I started some breakfast for myself. I got the fire going with the embers left in the stove. Heat spread through the room.

I would need my strength to get Nick out of the bed. At some point I would need to lay down again. It was the only surface in the house for it and I wasn’t going to give it up for a corpse.

I ate plain oatmeal. We were out of butter and sugar. Each were things we had intended to get at the store.

I fed the cats the parts of Joan and her dead foal that we had had time to cut out and wrap up. Whether the hide and the bulk of the meat from either animal would be salvageable would be clear when the snow was gone.

When I was done, I went up to the loft. I put my hands under Nick’s armpits. I lifted to no avail. I got his head and shoulders less than an inch off the bed, even using all my strength. I collapsed onto my side.

He turned to me.

“Hello, handsome,” he said, just like the night we met.

“You’re dead,” I said.

I had not said that the night we met.

“Do dead men talk?” he said.

“No,” I said. I believed it at the time.

“Well then,” he said. “Let’s start over. Hello, handsome.”

All the gestures and facial expressions remained the same. The human mind is a wonderful thing. This conversation didn’t seem like something to do, but he repeated himself.

“Hello, handsome,” he said.

“Handsome, but I’m a girl,” I said again. It was what I said the night we met.

“It’s the golden rule,” he said. “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

“I do. Or, I do try,” I said. The first night I had just giggled.

“You shouldn’t lie to the dead,” he said. “We know.”

He went back to being dead. I no longer had anyone to talk to. It was a relief. Now I could get back to moving him.

I did not put my hands back under his armpits, but rather his shoulder and hip. I rolled him. He hit the ground with a great thud.

I lay across the bed.

It felt so normal. This was something I’d do after changing the sheets.

It felt so abnormal. Someone had died here just few minutes before. Minutes adding up to hours in all likelihood, but a blink in time however dissected.

I shifted so that all of me remained on my side.

I looked over to the empty space next to me. I could feel the inanimate nature of the body that lay just beyond my sight. Still I lay as time existed outside of me. The snow obscured any of the sun’s telling. It piled on and on in silence. Tears ran gentle down over my nose, outside my control and like all things without a sound.

It was only when I stopped that he sat up.

“Why did you let our daughter die?” he said. He had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask.

“Why did you?” I said. I had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask either.

“Me,” he said. “You were the one carrying her. What did I do?”

“You were never there for me. You were never there for us.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“You weren’t there for me,” I said. “For us.”

“Excuse me for trying to make some money so that I could support us. Besides, you’ve said as much before, but what more could I have done? Climbed in your skin and lived life for you?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No. You don’t be absurd. You’ve said I wasn’t there for you, but what more could I have done?”

“Something. You could have talked to me. Helped me when I was sick. Brought me food. That’s what you could have done. There’s an in between living life for me and what you did which made me feel alone. It made us feel alone.”

“She never got the chance to feel anything. And I wish I could have carried her inside me. I wouldn’t have been so proud. I wouldn’t have tried to do so much.”

I had continued to work a lot.

“Maybe I did do too much. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t been hungover so much. You were always somewhere, drinking with your friends, leaving me alone. Us alone. She would have lived if I hadn’t felt so alone.”

He collapsed back to where he had been all along.

“What?” I said. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

He lay down again. There he was on the floor, broken ribs. Flat lack of breath or muscle tension.

I got up and changed the sheets. I wrapped him in the old ones.

I laid back and let the silence overtake me. The eeriness of the unexpected. I waited for him to speak again, but he didn’t. The snow kept falling. The hidden sun made for a day without time. I was hungry.

I made grilled cheese and soup. Warm food helped keep the house, body and soul warm. Something a person needed in a storm like this.

I started bleeding after lunch.

My period, right on time.

Part of me had hoped I wouldn’t, that some part of Nick would live on. This time his absence would be expected. That would make it tolerable.

Pads were something we would have bought at the store.

I didn’t worry about what Nick would think as I cut up a towel, our brown one that was fluffy and soft, but wasn’t as new as some of the others. I didn’t care about his judgement as I stuffed it in my underwear.

It would work fine.

The phone lines were still down.

I paced in the dim and sourceless light.

The plan had been to talk to each other and read. I picked up my book but couldn’t focus. Tears came again. They couldn’t last the possibility that this time they were not for him, but rather for myself.

I paced and paced at a steady pace, faster than the hours crawled on. Darkness came on. The wind started again, the snow did not stop. Nick could sense the evening.

“Are you going to sleep with me in here, like this?” he said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Are you going to stay up all night? My mourning widow until morning?”

“Even sleepless mourning widows are removed from the body.”

“What next then? Are you going to push me down the ladder? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll break? Don’t you love me too much for that?”

Did I?

“You’re supposed to,” he said. “You can blame me all you want, but love goes far to keep things alive. I could never tell how much you loved anything.”

I dragged Nick by his feet. I stopped at the edge of the ladder.

The sheet had fallen off of him. I pushed him. He hit the rungs. His body hit the rungs. He was gone. The way it hit the floor was more solid.

I could never tell how much he loved things either and for a second, it was me that was dead and he was standing above me broken body that he had just pushed down the ladder. I was him and he was me. It was so vivid, it had to be true. It was nothing like the night before when he’d been separate inside me.

It passed. We were ourselves again. In our little home.

The outside world was so far away, it might as well have not existed. I continued to sit and watch him, lifeless. I looked down on him from above, bloating and bruising. His eyes were open. No more could I feel him watching me, either from above or below. Even though I wanted to believe in Heaven.

It was a grey dusk that came. And with it a hunger. And with it a girl. She was ten, an age Amelia had never reached, but I recognized her. There were his eyes, my hair, his chin, and my cheekbones.

His lips parted to say, “Why didn’t you want me?”

She was gone, but I said, “I did. What are you talking about?”

I went down the ladder and put the sheet back over Nick. I went to get the bottle of whiskey that would be my dinner. Not having to share anymore, I only needed the good stuff. Boots sniffed at the sheet.

“Boots, don’t,” I said. “Don’t, Kitty.”

But I didn’t move to stop her. I watched her sniff about.

“How long are you going to let her do that?” he said.

Boots moved to chew on his toes. I shooed her away. She would drift back and I would have to deter her again.

I put more of the cut-up towel into my panties.

I drank the rest of the bottle and passed out to her chewing noises.

It was dark when I woke. The cats were curled up, warm beside me. Out the window, I could stars in the sky. The clouds were gone, the snow had stopped.

I was hungry. I had to step over his body to make my stew. I had to put wood in the fire to keep it going.

While it heated I dragged Nick from the base of the ladder. I did not take him far. I didn’t want him in the kitchen area or too close to the stove. I lay him down by the window where he would stay cold. I ate.

“You could offer me some,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sulked.

“I could heat it up for you,” I said.

“Is the phone working yet?”

“What you don’t want to hang around the house with me? You think it’s boring to be expected to do nothing, to just sit there looking pretty?”

“You still think I’m pretty,” he said.

I’ll admit, though I didn’t when questioned, that did make me curious. I went over to the sheet and lifted it. Even in the dim light of the fire I could see, his blood had begun to pool as gravity dictated. I poked at his back.

“You have blood pooling,” I said.

“It happens,” he said. “It will happen to you.”

I didn’t tell him, but it wouldn’t happen to me like that. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t let it happen to me like that. Bones had broken in the fall. They floated around inside him, banging against his ribs. His skin was bruised.

“Only after I die,” I said.

“You don’t have to rub it in.”

I smiled.

“Do you think you’ll be blamed?” he said.

“I think I’ll be questioned. Blame must placed.”

“I want you to be blamed,” he said. “It’s your fault. You killed me.”

But I didn’t. I hadn’t. I turned to go upstairs. Amelia stood at the top, six, now.

“You told more than one person that you didn’t want children,” she said. “You told your best friend when you were my age. You told your first boyfriend. And your second. You told me.”

“I told you that you were changing my mind. By the time you were here I wanted you more than you can imagine.”

She turned into the sun which was rising.

I went back to bed. I laid down, hoping to get back to sleep. I didn’t want to be awake any more than I had to. The sun would be an unwelcome guest.

Though I couldn’t get back to sleep, I searched for a connection with widows who would stay up all night. Who reach for their absent husbands in the morning. I moved my hand across his pillow in motions I imagined they took.

His warmth would have been welcome. He was bigger than the cats. I had to go to the bathroom.

I cut off more of the towel. I threw what I had been using away. The cats had chewed the others, sucking out the juices and shredding the fabric. I picked up the pieces.

The snow filled the downstairs windows, dipping under its own weight in the middle. Light flowed from the loft.

The cat had bit Nick’s toe. It was red with blood, but it was not bleeding.

I went to the bathroom and cut up more of the towel.

When I came out, Nick turned to me and asked, “Would you have married me? If it hadn’t been for her? I’ve always wondered. When I do things right, sorry, did things right, it seemed like the answer was yes. But otherwise, I don’t know. It was pretty iffy.”

“I might have married you if I hadn’t gotten pregnant, but not when I did.”

This left him still and deflated.

I made myself a breakfast identical to what I had eaten the day previous. I had enough of yesterday’s lunch and dinner to do the same, but we would see.

Mittens rubbed against my leg. He looked up at me.

“You’re thinking of feeding me dry cat food, aren’t you?” he said. It was the first time he had ever spoke. “Don’t you ever want more,” he said. “I want more.”

I patted his head. I would give him some of Joan’s foal, so much like my own human child, when it came down to it. He had a point.

But first I would feed myself.

“I agree with the boy cat,” said Boots. “Sometimes I want more.”

“You may not forever,” I said to her agreeing with the boy cat.

She rubbed against my leg in the same way he did. One difference was that I was secure in the fact that she wouldn’t spray the walls. As though she could occupy a space, but did not need to own it. Lines did not need to be drawn.

Not in her mind.

She was naïve.

“You can have some of Joan’s foal,” I told her. “Both of you,” I told them.

Nick sat up under his sheet.

“You again,” I said. “I’m tired of you.”

“Sorry to be an inconvenience,” he said. “I’m curious about whether the phones are up again.”

They weren’t, nor did we have electricity. The storm was over, but I was still waiting.

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

“So we are,” I said. I ate in front of him. I didn’t offer him any.

I let the cats sniff my spoon. They did not eat any.

“You’re practically feral at that point,” my mother said.

“You’re not dead,” I said.

“The dead are easier to be haunted by. Anything we say might be something that you want to say to me, but can’t. That will occur to you in the future.”

She was right.

“I know I’m right,” she said. The first time one of them responded to my unsaid thoughts.

To ignore them was to ignore my own mind. There was silence from all of them with this revelation.

The cold white world provided no supplement. All life beneath the placid surface. Death which would not be found in nooks and crannies picked by animals that had wanted nothing more than to survive the storm.

Inside was the home where I did the same. The dead man in the corner. The ghosts dissipated. Silent cats padding along, searching in corners for food until I would give them some.

I looked up as if I was a small animal waiting for food to be delivered. Rather than becoming accustomed to the quiet, it grew. It seeped in through my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. It exploded in my mind.

They all came back again.

“If you had wanted me more, I would have lived,” Amelia said, though she was a baby now. Too young to be talking.

“See, even she agrees,” Nick said.

“It might be for the best,” Boots said. “You can’t even feed your animals on time.”

I got my coat.

“Plus, it seems awful, this predicament you’re in,” my mother said. “But with the grades you got and your basic looks, this may be as good as it gets for you. Although you do need to find another man, as soon as you can. And for the love of God, keep the baby alive this time.”

I got my boots and snowshoes.

I opened the door to the outside. Snow piled in. I would have to dig my way out. They would talk to me the whole time. They were talking as the snow fell in.

“Great, now we’re all going to die,” Mittens said.

“I don’t mind,” Nick said. “It will preserve me. In certain cultures, you would have been expected to throw yourself on my pyre in mourning. This works, though.”

“What kind of mother are you?” Amelia said.

“The kind that would kill her own mother,” my mother said.

“You’re not even here,” I said.

I went up the ladder to the loft. I looked out the window. The drop was about six feet from the sill. How bad it would be would depend on the density of the snow.

“If I was here, you’d find a way to kill me,” my mother said.

The drop would be fine. I emptied the cash out of Nick’s wallet and put it in my own.

“Now you’re robbing me,” he said. “My mom was right.”

His mom was always so nice. What did she say about me?

It was all in my mind.

It wouldn’t stop.

It was all in my mind.

It was all my mind had made out of something.

I lifted one leg and then the other out of the window. I sat on the edge. Only my bottom was still inside. There was no heat to the day. I hopped down. I sunk about a foot into the snow.

I stepped out from the cavity I created, up onto the surface of the snow. Even with the snowshoes I sank into it with every step, but kept walking. They called to me from the window.

Taunts and apologies.

There was no one to hear them.

The world was bright in a way that had to be witnessed. Brightness like that could not be imagined. I would be snow blind the following day, but that was okay. In town they would have been plowing the roads until they couldn’t. They would have started again as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t need to see to take the next bus out of there. I would take it to the next town. To the next town then the next.

Even far into the white that I hoped was the road, I could still hear them yelling from the cabin.pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She has worked as a childcare worker, a radio co-host and currently an appointment setter. When she is not setting appointments, she spends her time talking herself out of secluded cabins in the woods. A previous Three Cheers and a Tiger Winner, her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Subprimal Poetry Art. Email: suavegossamer[at]yahoo.com