“Winter House”

 

WinterPic

Upon opening her eyes, Lorna would always see the same thing: The floors, the walls, the ceiling, all sparkling with frost in the darkness like the inside of a candy sugar house, still and white and glinting in the light of the silver moon. Icicles dangling like delicate blown glass, reflecting her image in miniature, here, there, a thousand places.

Lorna would slide out of bed, wide awake, and she would hear her feet crunch on the snow. She would breathe out and release a cloud of crystal air.

The window would be frosted over, but the moon would still be glowing through it, icy illumination, and Lorna would walk over and put her hands on the sill, knowing that something outside had awakened her. She wouldn’t open the window to see, but would just stand and wait, not feeling the cold at all in her thin nightgown.

And after a few moments, she would watch as five spots appeared in the frost, holes in the seamless sealed winter around her, and then the spots would become lines, five raggedly parallel lines growing longer and longer down the length of the glass, and Lorna would realize that the lines were made by fingers, by someone dragging a small hand through the thick caked ice on the window. She would try to peer through the lines, reality through prison bars, through zebra stripes, and she would strain with the cornea of one eye practically touching the glass, but she’d see nothing but a dark shape running away into the woods. And wherever that shape had just passed, the world would be white and soft and silent, covered in a blanket of snow.

Lorna had been having the dream since childhood.

***

“I can’t get rid of it, you know,” said the old man, fumbling with the lock on the front door. He was easily past eighty, stooping and nearly bald. The armpits of his yellow t-shirt were sopping. “Had a for sale sign in the window for a while, but don’t see the point anymore.”

“I wasn’t even aware that anyone owned it.” Lorna fanned herself with her notebook, glancing up and down the street, which was deserted.

The old man turned and smiled, reminding Lorna of a half-rotted jack-o-lantern. “Everything’s owned by somebody,” he said. He went back to work on the door and a second later it swung inward. “Voilá. Pardon my French.”

Lorna peered around him into the dimness. She took a step forward, but he didn’t move. “Aren’t you coming in?” she asked.

“I’d rather not.” He was looking at her again, and his eyes looked as though they’d been immersed in clear jelly. She wondered if he’d been drinking.

“You don’t believe all those stories, do you?”

He glanced inside, the interior a twilit gray broken up by harsh yellow rectangles from the uncurtained windows. “I just don’t like it in there, is all.” He dropped the keys back into the pocket of his sagging trousers. “Did you bring a coat?”

Lorna stared at him. “It’s almost a hundred degrees.”

“Not in there it ain’t.” He jerked his thumb toward the house, toward its half-seen entry hall. Then he crossed his arms tight across his chest, as though he had felt a chill. His skin was translucent, and Lorna could see the purple veins like tangled branches beneath its surface. “Well, try not to break anything,” he said. “You can poke around as long as you want.” He hobbled down the three steps from the porch to the ground. “When you’re done, just stop by my place and I’ll come back and lock up.”

Lorna watched him as he made his way across the yard to his own house a little way down the block, the grass flattening with his passage. She waited until he had disappeared behind his own door before crossing the threshold of Winter House.

***

Well, it’s aptly named.

That was the first thing Lorna thought as she stepped inside. It was like walking into a meat freezer, a temperature change so drastic that for a full minute she felt faint, and had to put her hand to the wall to steady herself. Her breath came in cottony puffs (like in my dream) and her fingers and toes began to lose sensation.

Shivering, she uncapped her pen and made notes about the cold in her notebook, cursing herself for not bringing a thermometer.

She made a quick survey of the rooms; the house was not large, and most of the rooms were empty. One of the bedrooms upstairs held a dirty child-sized table and chair, but that was all.

When she came back down to the first floor, the light slanting in from the windows had changed, taken on a bluish tinge. It was still light enough to see, but the shadows in the corners had deepened, even though it was only just past noon.

Lorna had written a page and a half in her notebook, recording her sensations as she moved about the house. In a way she was disappointed; she’d come here hoping to feel some sort of…presence? No, not exactly. But something. So far she hadn’t felt anything except the cold. Was this the place that had so fascinated her growing up, the house she’d dreamed of, heard whispered stories of after her parents thought she was asleep? The house she’d stood in front of so many times when she was a girl, rooted to the spot with a terror both sickening and delicious?

She sighed and closed her notebook, tucking the pen back into its pages. Maybe writing about Winter House wasn’t such a great plan after all.

She looked up and noticed that the room was definitely darker now, almost as though night was falling. Scowling, she checked her watch; its hands stood at 12:17. Then she noticed the windows.

They were frosting over, from the edges inward, a white camera shutter closing.

Lorna gasped as she watched the tiny ice crystals forming on the glass, and she noticed that the temperature had dropped considerably in the last few minutes. I should write this down, she thought, but then the idea passed from her head, displaced by the disbelief, the fascination, the unreality of the situation. I’m at home dreaming, she heard herself think or say out loud. Then, on the heels of that, I’m freezing to death.

She could have fallen then; she could no longer feel her legs, and she knew that if she fell it would be into the waiting embrace of the soft snow around her, the glittering white shroud that would wrap around her limbs and fill them with its essence, turning her skin as blue as the light in the room, pulling the living heat from her body. She felt gravity working upon her, drawing her toward the earth.

Lorna was snapped out of her trance by the pain, finding herself sitting awkwardly on the wooden floorboards, the heels of her hands smarting, her notebook open beside her. She shook her head to clear it and immediately looked to the window, but there was no frost, no nothing, just a regular window with early afternoon sunlight pouring in. She got to her feet, brushing dust from her clothes. It was still cold enough to see her breath, but that didn’t seem so cold anymore. She took one last look at the window, almost expecting to see five long ragged finger marks, a ghost of them left there on the glass, but there was nothing.

***

“Who died in that house?” Lorna was sitting on a threadbare couch in the old man’s living room, sipping hot tea from a chipped mug.

“No one that I know of.” He had gone and locked up Winter House while she sat there. When he came back, he’d introduced himself as Davis, not specifying whether it was his first or last name. “I inherited it from my father, and he bought it from a fellow in town. Hasn’t been there more than fifty years, I’d say.”

“But how can it be haunted if no one died in it?”

Davis shrugged. “Beats me. Far as I know, no one’s ever seen a ghost, or even heard one in there. It’s just that weird cold.”

“You don’t go in there, though.” Lorna sipped her tea. It was sweltering in the room, but she couldn’t seem to get warm.

“I’ve been in there lots of times,” he said defensively, scrunching up his almost toothless mouth. “Had to, when it was left to me. But I try to avoid it. I don’t like that cold.” He looked longingly at her tea, apparently wishing he’d made himself some.

“But you’ve never seen…what I saw?”

“The windows, you mean? No. I guess I never stayed in there long enough.”

Lorna finished her tea and got to her feet. She wanted to get home and make a few more notes before the events of the day had lost their luster. And Davis didn’t seem like he had any more useful information. “Well, I’ll be in touch if I need to go in the house again. Thanks a lot for your time.”

“Sure thing. And let me know when the book comes out.” He gave her the pumpkin grin again. She could feel his gaze boring into her back as she left.

***

Lorna was having the dream again, but it was different this time, she knew it. The first part was the same, getting out of bed, feeling the cushion of snow beneath her feet, and seeing the finger-lines drawn in the frost on the window.

But this time, when the dark figure had run away, leaving winter in its path like the White Queen of Narnia on her sledge, Lorna’s dream-self did something it had never done before. She slid open the window, climbed over the sill, catching her nightgown on a nail and tearing it, and then dropped to the ground below.

The figure was far away, in the trees, but still just visible. Lorna followed it through the world gone winter, everything around her silent as death, colorless save for the bluish cast of the ice that covered the earth. She was not cold, and she was not afraid. She didn’t feel as though the figure would hurt her.

Lorna had walked for ages through the snowy wood, pushing aside the black branches, when all of a sudden she thought the figure had disappeared. Confused, she stopped walking, her breath heaving out, crystalline in the black night, but then she looked down and saw a small burrow, just big enough for a person to crawl into. She got down on her hands and knees and wriggled inside.

At first she could see nothing, hear nothing but her own quickened breathing. But as her eyes adjusted, she realized that crouching in the back of the burrow was a little girl.

Lorna sat cross-legged on the ground facing her. “What’s your name?” she asked.

The girl’s face was as white as the world outside, her lips blue and cracked. “Gwen,” she said. She looked as though she were glowing.

“What are you doing here all alone?”

Gwen stared at her with black marble eyes that looked like holes. “I’m lost.”

Poor little thing, thought Lorna’s dream-self. She looks half-frozen. “I can help you get back home.”

The girl didn’t say anything then, just sat and stared, frail and birdlike. She seemed exhausted. She rested her head against the dirt wall of the burrow and closed her eyes with a sigh.

And suddenly it was as though Lorna was transported into the girl’s weary reverie, because all at once she was back in Winter House, standing on the wooden floorboards, and all around her the windows were frosting over, white fingers spreading, concealing. The cold had a cruel weight, pressing down and into her bones, and she clutched at herself desperately in a vain attempt to keep warm. The house was growing darker and darker, the cold becoming harsher, coating the rooms with a layer of icy death. Lorna felt the same sensation she’d experienced earlier in the day, when her waking self had stood in this very spot, that feeling of falling into the loving arms of the freeze, succumbing to it, wrapping herself in it like a second skin.

And then Gwen, the little girl, was there before her, standing at the foot of the stairs, and with small, deliberate steps, moving slowly as though walking was difficult for her, the girl mounted the stairs and began to climb.

Lorna followed her, teeth chattering helplessly. The cold had entered her body and was killing it from the inside out, blood glaciating in her veins.

The girl entered the room upstairs, the one that had held the child-sized table and chair, abandoned and covered with dust, but now the room was fully furnished, with fresh pink wallpaper and a little bed with a lavender quilt, and the table and chair were new. A few crayons were scattered across the floor, and a doll was propped up on the pillows.

Gwen crossed the room, not seeming to notice Lorna watching her, and stretched her arms above her head, arching her back, yawning in a charming, childlike way. She pulled back the covers on the bed, revealing matching lavender sheets, and then she crawled in under the quilt, snug and warm, nestling down with a smile on her tiny china mouth, on her blue lips, a smile that spoke of a long journey finally at its end, of a well-deserved rest to come.

The house went dark as Lorna stood in the doorway, the cold closed in, and she saw no more.

***

Filtered sunlight falling on her closed lids coaxed Lorna from sleep. She felt strange, uncomfortable; there seemed to be something in the bed with her, poking at her arms and face. She opened her eyes, blinked twice, and then sat up sharply.

She wasn’t in her bed at all. She was on the ground in the woods, her nightgown torn and tangled amid the pine needles and dead leaves that crinkled beneath her body.

Lorna looked around her, seeing no one. The trees reached upward on all sides, and various birdsongs drifted down from their heights. She didn’t know where she was.

And then she noticed the burrow. Rather small, like an animal would make, but big enough for a person to crawl into.

Despite the yellow heat of the morning oozing down upon her, Lorna’s skin was suddenly swept with cold gooseflesh, fingers of ice on her body, in her blood. She approached the entrance of the burrow, an unsteady rhythm tripping in her chest. She knew what she would find in there.

She peered into the darkness, into the hole where none of the sun’s light would reach.

The tiny skeleton was there, the skull still wedged against the dirt wall where it had fallen when the little girl had succumbed to the sleep from which she would never awaken. The bones were as white as a new snowfall, luminous in the blackness of the hollow.

Lorna got to her feet, seeing the frozen woods of her dream superimposed upon the summery reality, and for a second everything was cold and still, the air pristine and clear as a pure frost. Even the birds had stopped singing, as if they sensed this change of season, this clash of opposing forces.

And then Lorna shed a single tear, a token of mourning for the lost little girl who had dreamed of home as the winter closed in around her.

The tear grew cold as it slid down her cheek, and as it fell it caught the light, a frozen prism, and reflected the snow-covered world back at her from its crystal heart.

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