D. T. FRIEDMAN
Even before Marni opened her eyes, she knew that it had snowed again while she slept. A chill had spread itself through the air, a smell like the one that lurked in a long-empty freezer. There was a tangibly frigid quality to the light, even behind the heavy drapes. There was no silence deeper than the one that hovered thickly indoors on an overcast winter’s morning. She could hear nothing but her own hitching breaths; all other signs of life were either muffled by the snow or sucked into the clouds. Outside, it was barren, desolate.
And inside, Jim was missing. Barren, desolate; no different from outside.
But, she realized, something was different. She could feel it in the back of her mind, in the back of her throat, in the backs of her thighs. It was like having vertigo. No, it was as if the world had vertigo; Marni remained steady while reality’s head swam with images of itself tipped askew.
She suddenly felt as if her lungs would explode if she stayed wrapped in the afghan. There would be news today; there must be!
She flipped over on the couch, a cry of triumph forming in her chest, and opened her eyes to the steady stare of the answering machine’s message light.
Her disappointment was as cold as the unfeeling light outside. She curled around the pillow, dragging the knitted blankets up with her knees and burying her face again. Her eyes felt gummy and swollen, her face sticky with dried tears and snot. What had she expected? She had been lying there all night; she couldn’t have missed the call.
It hadn’t come.
She lay curled in the warmth of the afghans, meeting only dusty pink and burgundy yarn when she opened her eyes. Blinking backwards, she thought. Eyes flutter open for a moment, then back to darkness. They haven’t found him.
Burgundy yarn in knitted patterns, and beyond, the chill of new snow-fall behind the curtains.
But that change in the air . . . that otherworldly shift . . .
You should get up, she told herself.
Her feet swung to the floor and found her worn slippers between the couch and the coffee table. After a while, she realized that she had been sitting for quite some time, transfixed by the steady, red light on the end table.
She dragged her eyes away and stood for another minute, breath puffing white from her lips, staring only at the brown carpet.
Marni shuffled over to the end table, dragging the blankets behind her like a bridal train, and reached out of them to turn off the machine. She let out a long breath when the red light doused, and her hand lingered over the phone as she turned away. She reached over instead to turn on the radiator, and made her way to the bathroom. The blankets rasped over the carpet behind her.
The white tiles were icy, and she avoided touching the bare surfaces as best she could. She reached out, intending to run the tap until the water heated, but stood and stared instead at the black plastic handset that had appeared in her hand. She didn’t remember picking it up.
They said it wouldn’t help if she called again. They said she should wait.
She dialed anyway, no longer having to think of the numbers. The receiver was cold when she pressed it to her ear.
“International Committee of—”
“Hi,” Marni faltered, clutching the blankets in her fist. “Um, this is Marina Patterson, and I’m calling to see if you’ve located my husband, um, James Patterson, yet . . . he was stationed in Afghanistan, and there was that attack at the—”
“Mrs. Patterson, this is Amy. I spoke to you yesterday. I told you that we’d call if there was any news.”
“Yes, um, I know. But I just . . . I saw on the news that . . . I mean, his file could be at the bottom of someone’s stack or something, and . . .”
“If there were something to report, we would have called.” The measured patience in Amy’s voice was enough to make Marni’s face flush.
“Maybe if I called later this morning, people would be a little more organized? I mean, it’s been two days and maybe you have information that you just haven’t processed yet . . .”
“It’s three in the afternoon, ma’am. All the morning reports have gone through, and the afternoon ones as well.”
“. . . oh. . . .” Marni’s eyes flicked to the frosted window. She tried to reconcile the new information with the sight of the flat grayness outside, with little success. Something was wrong; something was changing. “Well, then I guess I should . . . I’m sorry to bother you again . . .”
“Please, Mrs. Patterson, if you could just trust that we’ll tell you as soon as we have any information. . . .”
“. . . ok, sure. . . uh, thanks . . .”
She thumbed the disconnect button, and the tiny beep was swallowed by the silence.
The porcelain sink was cold when she clutched it. Her wedding ring hit the edge with a dull clink. She tried to reach through the window with her eyes, to pierce through the clouds and find the position of the sun. No matter how long she stared, she couldn’t do it.
· · ·
It was nearing dusk as she wrapped herself into her overcoat and scarf, leaning on the end table for balance as she stepped into her snow boots and zipped them up. The wind swirled around her when she opened the door, mingling with the heavy air inside. She turned on the answering machine as she stepped out, a motion that had in the last few days become as automatic as turning the doorknob. She kicked at the snow on the porch as she pulled the door shut.
Only a few steps took her to the mailbox. Marni closed the metal door slowly, crumpling the one junk flyer in her hand and grimacing at the scraping sound of the rusty hinges. Jim would have to fix that when they found him . . .
She felt herself scream inside, felt frustration and rage and fear fly through her, swirling around and merging with each other. She found she couldn’t even recognize what distinguished her self from the chaos that the emptiness allowed to seep into her, not without Jim to hold reality steady so she could find her feet. . . .
She muffled her mouth with a gloved fist, lest anything more than a quiet gasp escape. What would the neighbors think? She glanced up the street, biting into her right hand while her left clutched the skewed metal clasp. Nothing but the grimy, blank facades of the other houses. Nothing but the cottony stillness of a new layer of snow.
She didn’t see the stranger until she turned to retreat back into the house. He stood with his back to her at the corner under the broken street lamp. Something about the dark shape pulled Marni’s gaze, and her breath puffed damp into her glove as she stared.
There was a stillness about him, somehow deeper than the stillness in her house. No, just different. It was as if he breathed the winter and made it a part of himself.
Snow swirled in eddies around his ankles, and the wind picked up the edge of his black overcoat to play it against his legs. He held his head tilted slightly to the sky, face hidden by the rim of an aging black hat. The houses, the light, the street . . . the world seemed to bend themselves around him; he radiated a sense of magnetism, of transition. Marni’s fist uncurled, and she dropped it from her mouth to wrap her arms around herself.
At her movement, the stranger began to turn. Marni ducked into her scarf and quickly retreated into the house. She leaned with her back against the door, the snow on her boots already beginning to melt onto the blue mat. She hadn’t seen his face.
The red light on the end table stared at her, and she jabbed the off button. They hadn’t called. Obviously, she made sure to tell herself. She had only been outside for a few minutes.
Marni leaned her head back, unconsciously mimicking the strange gentleman’s stately pose. Had he even been there, moments before?
· · ·
Blink. Burgundy yarn.
She rolled over to stare down the red light. They said not to call again. They had asked her to trust that she’d know as soon as they did.
At some point she began to cry. At some point she stopped. So passed the day, and part of the night.
They never called.
· · ·
Marni stood in front of the microwave in the kitchen, holding a fork in one hand and a potato in the other. She couldn’t tell if it was dawn or dusk; she didn’t know how long she was sleeping now, and the snow and clouds even made it difficult to distinguish morning from midnight. The light was sucked into the snow and held just under the surface, making it glow cold long into the night. The outside chill radiated from the window, stroking her cheek with an icy touch when she stood next to it.
She began to stab the potato with the fork, methodically piercing its skin with the regular pattern of the tines so steam could escape when she cooked it.
It was cold, unfeeling. The holes she made were indifferent and featureless. It seemed somehow that they should bleed more.
She paused, fork held poised to stab again. Her gaze drifted to the pale skin on her wrist.
She lowered the fork, stroked one tine over a blue vein. She rolled it over, pushed the points against her skin. She relished the cold, sharp feeling as she increased the pressure, reveled in the elasticity of her skin as it resisted. The marks she had made faded slowly as she watched. She flipped the potato over to pierce the other side and raised the fork.
To feel something more than desolation . . .
She drifted back to her wrist, and she drifted away.
A movement outside the window jerked her back suddenly. Gasping, she dropped the fork as if it had burned her and clutched the potato in both hands as she peered outside.
The stranger walked slowly down the street, stirring up the snow as he passed. It swirled around him and settled, softening his footprints until they disappeared. Marni laid her hand on the icy window, watching his back until it was swallowed by the dark.
Dusk, she decided.
The stranger never turned.
· · ·
“Hi, um, Marina Patterson again . . . I know you told me not to call, but it’s been three days, and surely you’ve found his remains by now, and—”
“Ma’am, you can’t call us every day. Please believe that this is a priority for us. I promise, you’ll find out as soon as we have—”
“No! Don’t tell me that again! He was supposed to come home! Three days ago!”
“You’re a liar, Amy! If your husband had been killed, I wouldn’t know how to tell you over the phone either! Just tell me he’s gone and be done with it!”
“Mrs. Patterson, you’re being unreasonable! There’s no reason yet to be so sure that—”
Marni hung up, sat wrapped in the afghans. She had just used up her anger, her last emotion. There were no others; they were all used up too.
She huddled on the couch, empty of everything that Jim had ever given her. She had found his scent earlier, lingering in his closet. It was mellow and warm, and she had sat for hours on the cluttered floor of his closet to breathe him in. For some reason, the scent never faded as others did when she smelled them for too long. He was there with every breath.
It had never been noticeable when Jim was around, but she must have filed it away somehow in their eight years together. Now that he was gone, it felt as if he infused the very air with his absence.
He was here in the living room, too. It was as if she could feel him sitting in his armchair next to her couch, even though she couldn’t see him. If she closed her eyes and reached her hand out . . .
Marni thought of the crash the fork had made when she dropped it on the floor. It still lay there; she couldn’t make herself go back into the kitchen.
This couldn’t go on. The very air promised an approaching climax, but it was waiting. Waiting for something.
Waiting for her?
She felt as if she had begun to sink into a pit of Jell-O. Time slowed to a thick, lugubrious pace, and she felt her life slowing with it. She crossed to the end table to turn on the answering machine, even though she wasn’t planning on leaving the house. With great effort, she took the handset from the pocket of her bathrobe, and placed it in the cradle. It was a tiny defeat, but none had ever been greater.
· · ·
Marni stopped counting the days.
· · ·
The mailbox door scraped its hinges as she opened it to peer into the empty interior. The air was sharp and cold, and smelled only of snow and metal.
Marni had tried to sleep in her bed last time she felt like sleeping, but the cold emptiness of the sheets had chased her away. She had ended up on the couch again, communing with the message light until she faded away. Her dreams had been red and unstable.
She leaned onto the waist-high pile of plowed snow that surrounded the mailbox, hand hanging from the skewed latch. The world was blank and white. Even the houses and mailboxes that lined the streets seemed flat. There was no smell but that of dirty ice, and no feeling but that of seeping warmth. She could think of no worse fate than to return to the couch and burgundy afghans, red and empty until she faded away.
So easy, to fade away . . .
She sank down, and tasted the hard snow of the pile with her cheek. It melted around her skin and refroze, cradling her head. The light faded around her until the only illumination came from the gray glow trapped in the clouds and reflected under the surface of the snow. Time disappeared.
· · ·
A breeze picked up, ruffling the hair that stuck out from under her cap and carrying the crisp sound of boots crunching through new snow. Marni opened her eyes dreamily as the black shape passed and lifted her head to follow its progress. The wind sighed, sprinkled white dust over her body. As if swept by the wind, she drifted to her feet.
The stranger made his way down the street as she watched, slow strides carving tracks into the snow that the wind soon covered over. He paused under the broken lamp at the end of the street and gazed upward.
Marni gasped as the moon washed the street silver, its sudden appearance nearly blinding her with its glamour.
The stranger returned his gaze earthward and turned the corner.
Slowly, Marni followed.
She drifted by the blank houses and scraggly trees that had faded into the background before, now made sharp again by the glitter of ice in the moonlight. The city was cold and silent, sleeping under its white afghan. Only the stranger moved; only Marni followed.
She tried to call out to him, but her voice was only a sigh carried away on the wind. The breeze played with strands of her hair and muttered against her neck, and the moon dusted her clothes with tiny diamonds.
The stranger was standing motionless in a silent alley when Marni caught up with him. The unbroken snow on the street surrounded his dark form with untarnished brightness, and a glittering cloud slowly swirled about him. He turned to face her where she stood at the mouth of the alley, as if carried with the brush of the wind. With infinite leisure, he reached out to her with an upturned, gloved hand.
She could see his face under the brim of his hat, but she couldn’t make out its details. Her eyes slipped away whenever she tried to focus on his.
He seemed less and less substantial as she drew nearer. When she took his hand, it was like grasping a smoky shadow. He spun her into his embrace and drew her close as they swirled up with the snow. The air swirled around them; there was nothing to hold her but his arms as they danced. When she breathed him in, he tasted only of winter.
“Jim,” she whispered.
Shh, sighed the wind.
She buried her face in the foggy substance of his black overcoat, emotion once again rushing in to fill her with joy and loss. “Jim,” she sobbed, “you left your keys on the end table when you left . . . how could you leave me knowing you’d never . . .”
Please. It is my last night with you.
She nodded against his buttons, and held him close until the moonlight faded and she stood alone on her street, hand clutching the skewed latch of the mailbox. She held her eyes closed, concentrating on the last taste of his vaporous glove on her cheek as it faded away with the diminishing sound of his footsteps. The breeze teased her hair one last time, and then the dawn was still and gray. The world had settled back into itself; the feeling of vertiginous metamorphosis was gone.
· · ·
On the end table, the light of the answering machine blinked, and blinked, and blinked. One message.
Without taking her eyes from the light, Marni pushed her scarf over her head. She stripped her gloves, shrugged off her coat, and toed out of her boots. As each sob rent her deeper and deeper, she tore off her sweater, her socks, her pants, her bra. She stood by the end table for a moment that seemed to extend into eternity, wearing only her wedding ring.
She pulled it off her finger and set it by the telephone, next to Jim’s key ring.
She fled from the red light, upstairs to her bedroom. She curled between the cold sheets and screamed until she no longer could feel enough anger and loss to fuel her voice. Naked and empty, she slept alone. The sheets never warmed.
· · ·
It was dusk when she woke to the pounding at the front door. Blearily, Marni unstuck her eyes and rolled out of bed. She pulled on her bathrobe as she went downstairs, blinking in the orange glow of a winter sunset. The carpet tickled her bare feet, the railing slick and icy under her hand.
A dark form stood upon her doorstep, framed by a pink and orange glow beyond the window. She drew forward as if in a dream, empty and unbelieving.
Marni and Jim stared at each other for long moments when she pulled the door open and shivered in the wind that swirled in around him. He pulled her close when she started to cry, and buried his face in her hair.
“I thought,” she sobbed, muffled by the scratchy wool of his overcoat. He smelled of winter. But underneath, his own scent, sweeter than cinnamon. “I thought . . .”
“Shh,” he said. They stood together for long minutes, their shadows merged and rocking back and forth to follow them.
When at length Marni heard the sound of crunching footsteps in the snow down the street, she drew away from Jim’s chest and let the wind lick her salty cheeks. She peered around his shoulder to see the stranger standing to face them under the broken streetlamp. Jim followed her gaze as the stranger touched gloved fingertips to the brim of his hat, turned, and walked away. The wind softened his footprints until he faded into the dusk.
“Who was that?” Jim asked.
Marni could only stare to the end of the street where the stranger had disappeared.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
D. T. Friedman is a fourth-year medical student who lives in the call rooms around the hospitals of Indianapolis. She is a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, and a member of the Codex and Liberty Hall online writers’ groups. You can also find her work in Shimmer Magazine.