January in Fullerton Heights is usually a fierce month, and this January is no exception. It started snowing the last week of December, really let loose early in the month, and every few days it snows just enough to undo all the work everyone did the days before to clear it. Today’s snowstorm hit early, so it got dark early. It’s even darker now.
Heat blows fiercely out of floor vents, but the house is still cold. It always feels cold these days. Elijah knows it has nothing to do with the weather.
He listens to the wind tearing past the house and shivers. He’s sprawled out on his living room couch, one foot propped up on the arm, the other dangling over the floor. A cup of coffee and an open bottle of beer sit on the coffee table, almost lost in the sea of empty cans, bottles, and piles of junk mail. He sips his coffee and ignores the beer—for now—and tries to convince himself that he’s actually watching TV. It’s on almost all the time these days, but even though he finds himself in front of it more often than not he rarely remembers what’s on.
The lights flicker for a moment, causing the cable box to cut off in the middle of something unimportant involving two chefs and an argument over kale. Elijah fumbles for the remote and grunts in annoyance as he turns the TV and the cable box back on. The default setting is the local cable weather channel.
“…really starting to blow out there, with gusts of up to 40 to 50 miles per hour. If you’re thinking of traveling tonight we really advise against it. Stay inside, stay warm, wait for this to pass. We expect the snow to die down by three or four this morning, and we should have beautiful blue skies tomorrow. The question, of course, is ‘will it last?’ There’s another system forming in Canada, and depending on how things go it might wind up rolling over us in another few days…”
He mutes the television, staring at the computer-generated map with its dark blues and reds and greens all moving across the United States as jerky, time-lapse animation. He doesn’t remember there being a winter like this—of course, he’s only lived here eight years. But Chuck lived here almost thirty, and he can’t remember anything like it either. It’s unnatural, the way the snow keeps hammering everyone. The meteorologists keep talking about how the snowfall has broken records going as far back as 1917.
He rolls out of the couch, muttering half-finished obscenities about the weather, and staggers into the kitchen. He wraps his bathrobe tightly around him, glad that he’s actually wearing slippers this time, and resists the urge to grope for the light.
It’s dark almost everywhere in the house, but the kitchen seems especially so: the soft yellow light from the living room barely reaches past the entrance. The only light in the kitchen comes from the blinking clock on the microwave, a casualty of the power flicker. He waits a moment for his eyes to adjust, then identifies each silhouette. There’s the refrigerator, humming quietly next to the dishwasher. There’s the sink, there’s the window overlooking the back yard, currently showing nothing but black sky and the slightly lighter shadows of what he knows is falling snow. On the next wall he can barely distinguish the counter top, the cupboards, and can see a hint of the coffee maker next to the microwave. The next wall has the pantry, the clothes washer, the dryer. Finally, once he’s worked out where the center of the room is, he can see the kitchen table and the vague outline of the boxes piled on it.
There they are, just waiting for him. They came in the morning, just before the storm hit. There were more than he expected—he can’t tell in the darkness, but he knows the boxes cover the entire table, and knows they’re stacked two layers high. He stands motionless, staring at the shadows of boxes, trying to will himself to turn on the light, open the first box, and start going through the materials.
He doesn’t move.
He can imagine how they looked in the morning: plain brown cardboard boxes, loosely taped over the top. He remembers the bits of paper peeking through the hand-holes cut in the sides. It’s exactly what he asked for. Exactly what he’d worked diligently to get—and all he has to do is turn on the light, walk over to the table, grab a box from the top of the pile, and open it.
He doesn’t move.
He imagines himself moving, he pictures himself walking to the table and reaching for a box… and he gasps, staggering against the sudden spinning of the room as he gasps for breath. He hurries back to the living room, hand trailing against the wall for support, and collapses into the couch. He cradles his head, eyes closed, and focuses on taking long, slow, controlled breaths. He focuses on breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in, breathing out. Eventually the panic recedes enough to be aware of other needs.
He wants a drink and a cigarette. He doesn’t want to want them, but he does.
I can always start tomorrow. Tomorrow, in the morning. Tonight I can… well. One last trip to oblivion.
“One last trip,” he mumbles, and heads back to the kitchen.
If he’s going to do this, it won’t be with beer. He remembers he has a cheap, unopened box of wine in the refrigerator. That should work.
He turns his head away as he pulls the door open, squinting to avoid the light. His gaze settles on the small window over the sink.
There’s an instant, between the darkness of the kitchen when the refrigerator door is closed, and the blinding light of the refrigerator light when it’s open, when Elijah can see the window clearly. In that instant he sees it staring down at him, hairless, white-skinned and smooth, human-looking eyes but so large, small nose, mouth closed in a tight, thin line. For a moment their eyes meet, for a moment Elijah’s shock is mirrored in the face looking in from outside. Then the light from the refrigerator blinds him, and he shouts in alarm, frantically backing away and crashing into the kitchen table. He falls to the ground, hitting the back of his head on the tabletop. He hears boxes slide off the other side and spill to the floor with a crash.
Head throbbing he scrambles to his feet, groping for a butcher knife set in a knife block to the left of the microwave. He grips the handle tightly, staring out the window. He can’t see anything now; his vision is awash with colors from hitting his head. He hurries to the entrance and gropes for the light switch, turning it on. He squints as his eyes adjust, then looks out the window again.
Nothing but snow.
He goes to the living room where the portable phone sits on a charger next to the lamp. He picks it up with his left hand, keeping the knife in his right, and turns it on. No sound—the storm has knocked out the land line again. The lamp flickers momentarily, and the cable cuts out again. The silence that fills the room is sudden, and feels oppressive. Elijah hears his own ragged, shaky, gasping breath, the howling wind raging outside, and nothing more.
His breath catches as a shadow flits past the bay window—barely distinct through the snow, but man-shaped, there for a moment and then swallowed up in the storm. A second later he can see the shape again, this time coming up the walk.
He tightens his grip on the butcher knife and runs to the door. He stops just before he enters the landing, thinking back to the night Sarah disappeared. The door was in splinters: what kind of strength would it take to do that? What kind of chance does anyone have against that kind of strength? He’s torn between the desire to fight, and the desire to flee. Instead of choosing one or the other, he stands there, unable to choose at all.
Someone knocks on the door.
Elijah nearly drops the knife in surprise. He stares at the door, heart racing, trying to think of something, anything to do.
The knocking returns, this time a little harder. Elijah forces himself to breathe.
“Eli?” The voice sounds muffled through the door, but it’s familiar. “C’mon, kid, I know you’re home, I saw you in the window! I know I shoulda called, but I’m freezing my ass off out here!”
The voice triggers a memory. The paralysis is broken. Elijah steps forward. “Al?”
“Surprise.” The voice is both rueful and amused. “Hope you don’t mind. But even if you do, I’m standing outside your goddamned door! No offense.”
Elijah undoes the latch, pulls back the deadbolt, releases the handle lock, then opens the door. Standing on his front stoop is the shivering form of his father-in-law.
Elijah stands to one side. “Come in.”
Albert Desoto Findlay is a little shorter than Elijah, but he looks much larger—he’s wide and moves with the steady deliberateness of a tractor. His hair is snow white, coarse, and his face has the rough features of a man who spent time living poorly. He wears a hunting jacket, black mittens, work pants and galoshes. He wears no hat, but red, knitted ear muffs—a gift from his wife—cover both ears. He stomps into the hall, shaking the snow off his jacket and muttering to himself about the cold. As Elijah closes and re-bolts the door, Albert’s muttered curses trail off. When Elijah turns around he sees his father-in-law staring at him warily.
Elijah stares at Albert blankly, then looks down at the butcher knife, still gripped in his right hand.
“Oh. Uh… no. I saw someone out back. Thought maybe you were him.”
Albert looks grim. “Someone out back?” There’s a glint in his eye—Albert is not a young a man, but he’s quick-witted and has a backbone of steel. In his younger days he was a police detective, and was something of a legend in his precinct.
Elijah nods. “Then I saw someone out front. You, I guess. But…”
“Yeah, I get it. You call the police?”
Elijah shakes his head. “Land line’s down. Cell service out here is terrible.”
Albert takes off one mitten, reaches into a coat pocket, and pulls out a smartphone. He frowns. “I promised Ellie I’d call when I got here…”
“What are you doing here?” Elijah hesitates, worried that the question sounded too abrupt. “I mean… I don’t mean it like that. You’re welcome, obviously. We’ve still got the guest room and I can get some clean sheets, but…”
“You know we don’t blame you, right?” Albert watches Elijah carefully.
Elijah blinks. “Uh. I…”
“About Sarah. We don’t blame you. We don’t think you had anything to do with it. We never did.”
Elijah doesn’t reply.
“I’ll admit the scenario popped into my head,” Albert says. “Because I was a cop. You think about things like that. But it wasn’t serious. I mean, I thought about it because of all the times I saw husbands do terrible things to their wives, but I never for a second believed those scenarios were possible. I’ve known you twelve, thirteen years, kid. I guess you could lie to me if you really put your mind to it, but not about something like…” Albert frowns, then shrugs. “Like this.”
Elijah’s eyes moisten. He nods. “Yeah, I know.” His voice is thick. He coughs, trying to clear it. “I know you don’t.”
“Then why the hell don’t you talk to us?” The pain in Albert’s voice is hard to take. “We lost Sarah too. We’re going through it too.”
“Because…” Elijah looks at his father-in-law and tries to find the right words. Finally he laughs, slightly bitterly. “Follow me.”
He steps into the living room and points with the butcher knife. Albert follows him, then follows the gesture until he sees the coffee table. The ashtray, cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, dirty glasses with dried, crusted alcohol at the bottom. He turns to Elijah, understanding and sympathy in his eyes.
“Geez. Kid. You’re falling apart.”
“You couldn’t talk to us because you didn’t want us to deal with this, too.”
Elijah nods again.
“Well…” Albert looks at him thoughtfully. “You’re a moron.” He shrugs. “That’s OK, it ain’t a permanent condition. Good thing I showed up, though. That was Ellie’s suggestion, by the way. I thought you were doing OK. She thought different. I usually listen to her when she gets those notions, she’s a smart lady.”
“Yeah,” Elijah agrees.
“My stuff is in the truck, but that can wait a bit. Seeing as you’re an alcoholic and all, mind if I get a beer?”
Elijah manages a smile. “In the fridge.”
He hears Albert stomp off into the kitchen, stop, then stomp back into the living room.
“What the hell is all that crap on the kitchen table?”