Authors: Daniel Pyle
For my blood brother, Enoch, who helped me point my career back in the right direction.
It’s funny what you hear when your house shuts down, when the heater stops coughing air through the vents and the television ceases spewing out its nonsense. As she stood at the kitchen sink, her hands wrist deep in sudsy, too-cold dishwater, Tess listened to the logs burning in the living room, the water heater kicking on, and (loudest of all) the ice-laden wind blowing against the western side of the house.
She grabbed the last dish (a yellowed mug that had started life as white as fresh snow) from the sink and cleaned it the old-fashioned way: rubbing, frowning, cursing. After she’d rinsed and dried the mug with a rag so threadbare you could see right through it, she put it in the cabinet and glared at the dishwasher. As if the outage was the appliance’s fault.
She dried her hands, cupped them around her mouth, and tried to breathe some heat back into them. She felt the air slipping past her lips, but there was no warmth to it. Not even a tiny bit. If she didn’t get back into the living room and spend some quality time in front of the fire, she was afraid her outermost bits might freeze right off.
The water heater turned off. The fire continued to crackle. Besides the sounds in the house, she heard Warren in the shed out back, sifting through wood, loading it onto the sled, heard him through the wall and across at least a couple hundred feet of snow-covered yard.
Never mind what you can hear. Pay attention to what you can feel. Which is going to be just about nothing if you don’t get yourself back to that fire.
She was about to do just that when she heard another sound, a kind of tinkling almost like breaking glass. Only slower, raspy. She turned her head, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. For a second, she thought it must be coming from the fire, an air pocket in one of the logs or something, but after listening a little longer, a little harder, she decided it might actually be coming from outside.
The wind? More snow?
She returned to the sink and leaned toward the window just above it. She parted the curtains, leaned closer, frowned.
Normally, she’d have been able to see the mountains through the window, the highest of the towering Rockies. Although their property officially stood 6,961 feet above sea level, she and Warren lived nowhere near the top of the world. Sometimes she would stare out at those peaks and marvel at their beauty, their magnitude. As far as views went, it wasn’t the worst. Today, however, a sheet of frost covered the glass and made it all but impossible to see through. Still, she thought she could make out something moving toward her, a blurry shadow of a thing. She squinted and moved her face so close her nose almost touched the glass.
The slow crackling got faster, louder. The shape—whatever the hell it was—came closer, and Tess almost thought she could—
The shape pressed against the frosty pane, just inches from Tess’s face. Still blurry, still unrecognizable, but definitely there.
The shape smacked the window, and the glass cracked. Just a single fracture at first, starting in the upper-right corner and running toward the center of the window. But then the shape smacked against the pane again and the single crack became a spiderweb of short, jagged breaks. Almost before Tess knew what was happening, the window blew in against her face, showering her with tiny shards of freezing glass.
was that…a hand?
It couldn’t have been, but she didn’t have time to think about it. She was too busy bleeding. And screaming.
Warren hadn’t wanted Bub to come with him. Not because he didn’t enjoy the Lab’s company but because Bub had started to limp. It hadn’t been much of a thing at first, just a hop in his step—Warren had blamed it on a thorn or a muscle sprain—but over the last few weeks, the hop had become much more noticeable, almost a lurch. Warren knew he should have brought the dog to the vet days ago, but he’d kept telling himself it was nothing, just sore muscles, that Bub would be fine. And then the snow had come and…well, he’d had other things to worry about.
So Warren had tried tricking him into staying inside—the cold couldn’t be good for him, would only zap what strength he had left and put more strain on his leg—but Bub was having none of it. Warren situated the dog bed by the fireplace and put a fresh blanket inside; Bub circled it once, obligingly, but then limped to the kitchen door, tail wagging. Warren found an old rawhide in the treat basket in the pantry and placed it on the living room floor; Bub sniffed the treat, licked it, and then turned away, pointing his nose at the kitchen door and the back door beyond, still wagging his tail.
“You sure?” Warren had asked. “You don’t want to stay inside by the nice, warm fire?”
Bub barked and grinned, as if to say,
nice try, old man
Except, of the two of them, Warren wasn’t exactly the old man anymore, not once you’d done the old dog-years-to-human conversion.
“Oh, just let him go,” Tess had said from the kitchen. “He might not have many more chances to play in the snow.”
Warren hissed. “Hush your mouth. He can hear you.”
In the kitchen, Tess had laughed.
of course he did; he wasn’t deaf
—he didn’t seem to care. He’d kept right on wagging that old butt fan of his and grinning his furry, lopsided grin.
“Fine,” Warren had said. “You wanna go for a walk?”
And, of course, Bub did.
Now, here they were, gathering wood in the shed, Bub sitting on the dirty concrete floor in the corner beside an old, discarded wood stove—his tail clearing a spot in the dust behind him—panting and watching Warren dig through the logs as if it was the most exciting thing he’d ever seen in his life. Warren worked his way to the far end of the woodpile, looking for perfectly seasoned wood, logs that would burn through the night without sputtering and dying on him.
He lifted the tarp at the end of the stack and pushed a few of the topmost logs out of the way.
Outside, gusting wind blew against the shed. The wall creaked in one spot, then in another, as if the wind was testing it, looking for a way in. Warren ignored the sounds and moved aside another pile of wood.
“Here we go.” He turned to Bub. “Can you say ‘mother lode’?”
Bub cocked his head and woofed.
Warren smiled. “Exactly.”
He took an armful of quartered logs from the pile and loaded them onto the old sled. Whether the sled had been his or his brother’s once upon a time, he could no longer remember. Either way, it had seen its fair share of winters and had been through more than a few hillside crashes. One of the runners had a warp to it that made the sled wobble even on the smoothest of snow, the old planks were cracked and bowed, and the paint had worn away so completely it no longer looked as if it had ever been painted at all.
Warren bent over to pick up a chunk of wood that had bounced over the edge of the sled and then returned to the woodpile for another load. Outside, the snow seemed to have picked up considerably. Warren heard it rattling against the shed, felt the freezing air seeping in through the thin walls. Despite the thermal undies, the snowsuit, and the heavy-duty coat, he shivered.
Most of the wood in the shed would have been fine for a normal fire—one of those hour-long blazes you sat in front of with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine—but now that he, Tess, and Bub were relying on the wood to keep them from freezing to death, Warren wanted to be more selective. He rolled a few too-green logs from the stack and found another bunch of winners. He’d curled the first few pieces up in his arm and was turning back to the sled when he heard the screaming.
He dropped the wood, barely missing his toes (his boots were good enough but probably wouldn’t have done much to spare his little piggies from a falling hunk of heavy wood). Bub had gotten to his feet in record time, bad leg or no. The dog looked from the shed’s door to Warren and then back to the door. He whined. Warren heard it even over the sound of the buffeting wind.
Bub took a step toward the door, looked back at Warren, whined again. Louder this time.
Come on. Let’s go. Come on. Go, go.
Warren did. He hurried to the door and jerked it inward. Cold air and gusts of snow blew across them. Bub didn’t slow down, rushed across the threshold and into the snow, and Warren followed. The wind hit him in the face, blew sleet up his nose and into his mouth. As he shuffled through the snow, he pulled up his scarf.
The screaming had stopped. Not died down but stopped completely, which scared Warren even more than the shrieking had. He ducked his head and tried to hurry across the yard.
But hurrying wasn’t easy. Even in the low spots, the shallow valleys between the drifts, there were at least sixteen inches of snow on the ground. Warren’s boots weren’t snowshoes—they weren’t even really winter boots, just old leather things that got wet and dyed his socks brown when he wore them out in bad weather—and although the snow was pretty dense, it wasn’t even close to packed enough for him to walk on top. He had to trudge through instead, like trying to walk through water.
And, on top of that, walking toward the house meant walking into the wind and snow, which had been picking up all day but seemed to have gotten especially bad just during the few minutes they’d spent in the shed. Hard bits of icy snow peppered his face if he looked up and to a lesser extent even when he kept his eyes pointed straight down at his unseasonable footwear.
Despite his limp, Bub was having more luck. He weighed less, of course, and sank only partway into the snow, and he didn’t have all the layers of extra clothing restricting his movements. He hurried on ahead and stopped a couple of times when Warren lagged too far behind. During each of those delays, he stared toward the house, toward his mistress, and whined. The wind brought the sound back to Warren, almost seemed to amplify it. Once, Bub snarled in a way that gave Warren the chills. Chills on top of chills. Swirls of snow billowed around the Lab, not obscuring him (they weren’t that close to a whiteout…not yet anyway), but giving his already pale yellow coat a smokey, ghostly look.
When they were close enough he thought he’d be able to make himself heard over the wind, Warren yelled for his wife.
He pulled down his scarf and tried again: “Tess!”
Another cloud of snow blew against his face, into his mouth, and nearly choked him. Tess still didn’t respond.
Bub barked and limped on. Warren followed him to the back door.
He almost didn’t see the broken window at first, might not have seen it at all if the curtains hadn’t billowed and caught his attention.
He didn’t know what the broken window meant (if it meant anything at all) and didn’t care. All that mattered was getting to his wife. Finding out what in the world had made her scream like that. Making sure she was okay.
Bub leapt over the single step leading to the back stoop. Under the snow, you could hardly tell the step was there—in fact, the whole stoop had just about disappeared under the drift that had formed against the house. Warren kicked around under the snow until he found the riser, then followed his dog up to the door and jerked it open.