A BLIZZARD STORY
by Forrest Roy Johnson
January is a hard month in Minnesota, especially in rural areas. Freak blizzards can roll in with little warning, trapping people at work or on the roads. One such storm hit two days after New Year's, last year. I was at home, scouring the classifieds for a suitable Help Wanted ad while my wife was working an afternoon shift at the local coffee shop. It started snowing at about two o'clock. At three, she called to tell me she'd be staying at her cousin's house until the weather cleared.
I decided to make the most of my time alone; I opened a bottle of scotch and watched a World War II film. After spending most of the late afternoon and evening on the couch, I was ready to call it a night. I had turned the television off and was walking to the bedroom when I saw movement outside my front door. A man was walking up my steps.
We both reached the door at the same time. I opened the door and he stepped in, shaking a layer of snow off his body.
"You scared the crap out of me," I told him.
"I'm sorry," he grinned. "My car went off the road about a half mile north of here and I saw your yard light on. Can I use your phone?"
"Well, I suppose, but no one's going to come get you. Not in this weather. Why don't you just come in, have a drink?"
He accepted and we went into the living room. We made small talk for a few minutes; I asked him who he was, where he was from, what on earth he was going out in these conditions. He was quite genial, especially once the alcohol kicked in. Midway through his second glass, he cocked his head. He looked around as if something was familiar about the room but he couldn't quite figure out what. After a moment his eyes lit up. "Would you like to hear a story?"
About fifteen years ago, he began; a huge blizzard completely immobilized the entire Midwest. Zero visibility, a foot of snow on the ground, more on the way; the kind of storm the region is known for. No one could get anywhere, not trucks, not trains, not plows. Even a snowmobile was hard-pressed in those conditions.
In the thick of the storm, a man lived alone in a small farmhouse. He was in his early thirties, but the stoop of his shoulders and the weary look in his eyes told of a life of hardship and grief. An almost empty bottle of bourbon sat on the coffee table in front of him. Four years ago that night, his wife had been killed in a hit and run accident; five years ago that month, they had had a stillborn son. Both were buried next to the grove by the house.
Since he could still walk, the man decided he hadn't had quite enough to drink. He stood up, sat down suddenly, stood up again. He walked slowly to the front door (He liked his liquor ice cold and since there was unlimited ice outside, why use the freezer space?). He opened the door fully expecting to find nothing on his step other than two more bottles.
There was a body.
He swore, jumped back, stumbled over a pile of hunting gear and fell. He struggled to his knees and half crawled to the door. He looked to his right, saw a trail in the heavy snow where the person had struggled to his door. He looked at the body – a man, bearded. He saw the breath coming from between the man's lips. A clear thought came to his alcohol-fogged mind: Good God, he's alive!
He grabbed the man by the hood of his bulky coat, dragged him inside, and propped him against a chair next to the wood-burning stove that heated the house. He did his best to get the man out of his frozen clothes, but in the end simply threw a blanket on him and went to draw a lukewarm bath. When he returned to the kitchen, his guest had begun to stir. The host helped him into the bathtub and served him a cup of strong, black coffee. Warmed both inside and out, the guest showed some real signs of life: he farted and requested that his coffee be spiked with "some of that whiskey outside."
Once he had drunk, dried and dressed, the guest joined his host in the sitting room. He explained that he was a friend of a neighbor and he had been trapping in a slough about a mile southeast of the house. The storm had blown in sooner than he had expected and he became disoriented. Snow-blind and freezing, he had wandered for about six hours before coming across the fence line that led him to the house.
He thanked his host profusely and offered a hundred dollar bill for taking him in for the night. The host declined with a laugh – anyone would have done it, no need to offer money for a common courtesy. The guest insisted, however, on giving something.
"I'll tell you what," he said, "If I can tell you a story, will you call it even? I think you'll find it interesting." The host agreed.
"Many years ago I was out trapping near my home. It was maybe the first week of December. It had been a cold fall and the sloughs were mostly frozen over. I had gone out that afternoon just planning to check a few of my traps. I was getting to the end of my line when I fell through the ice.
"I was chest-deep in the water and there was no way to get out other than breaking the ice and wading the hundred yards or so to dry land. I did that, but by the time I got out I could feel myself getting drowsy – I was hypothermic. I fought the temptation to lie down and sleep – if I did that I'd freeze to death.
"I staggered up the steep bank to a gravel road. I turned to look back at the path I had broken. As I looked, I saw, or thought I saw, a young boy running through the cattails. He looked to be about eight or nine years old, blonde-haired, wearing tan shorts and a striped green t-shirt. He ran across the surface of the slough, making no marks on the thin layer of snow that covered the ice, moving none of the foliage. He looked terrified, like he was being chased. He reached the place I had fallen through the ice and stopped, standing on the open water. At that moment, he pitched violently forward, as if some invisible hand had shoved him. The surface of the water remained still as the apparition faded.
"I stumbled back to my pickup and drove home as fast as I could. It was the most unnerving thing I'd ever seen. Even after I'd warmed up and calmed down, I could still see the little boy in my mind. I turned on the TV and saw him. I cooked my supper and saw him. I closed my eyes to sleep and I saw him.
"The next morning I put on my chest waders and went back out to the slough. I knew that what I had seen was a hallucination, a product of a mind that had been affected by the icy water. But yet, I had to know. I waded to the place I had fallen in. I poked my foot around, trying to feel if there was anything at the bottom. After a moment, I realized the ridiculousness of it. There wouldn't be anything down there. Shaking my head, I turned toward shore.
"Something caught on my foot.
"I steadied myself on a clump of vegetation and lifted my foot, as best I could, to the surface. Through the murky water, still several inches down, I saw a tattered, green striped shirt. The torso of a tiny skeleton was inside.
"I screamed and shook it off. It sank. I ran to shore, tripping several times, the icy water again numbing my limbs and my senses. I shook violently – whether from the cold or from my discovery, I do not know. Ice formed in my hair and my clothes. My blood seemed to alternately freeze and boil. When I reached the shore I sprinted, lungs burning, to my truck.
"An hour later, the area was canvassed by sheriff's deputies, state investigators, and other various types of law enforcement. Over the next few days they determined that the remains belonged to a boy who had gone missing several years before. I was questioned both as a witness and a suspect, but ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. The boy's parents called to thank me for bringing a small amount of closure to this horrific time in their lives. I told them to thank God, Luck, or Fate, whatever they happened to believe in. I had no closure.
"The night after I discovered the boy's body, I had a dream. I was standing back at the edge of the water when I heard a small voice call to me. I turned to see where it was coming from and I saw something dull and white moving through foul water. As I focused, I realized it was coming toward me: a miniscule, mud-stained skull.
"I forced myself to wake up, terrified. The next night, I had the same dream. And the next night. The next, the next, the next, for months. I dreaded sleep, turning to pills, alcohol, drugs. Nothing helped. It still came, night after night, exactly the same: the slough, the voice, the skull – that grinning death's head – approaching me from its grave. And every night, I forced myself awake before it could get to me.
"Finally, one night, I steeled my nerves and allowed the dream to take its course. The skull slowly surfaced as it came nearer, revealing a skeleton covered in tattered clothes and rotting vegetation. Though it had no eyes, the death's head looked at me.
"'You know what happened to me,' it said in the voice of a little boy. 'If you find the man who did this to me, I'll leave you alone. I've been waiting a long time.' It then turned and walked back into the water.
"From that night on, I was single-minded. I searched newspapers, court documents, anything I could get my hands on that was connected to the boy's disappearance. I lost my job, the few friends I had. Soon I was living out of my pickup, wandering the region in search of a killer I knew nothing about.
"Five years passed before my efforts were rewarded. I was at a bar in eastern South Dakota when I overheard a conversation. A man was confiding to another that he'd been carrying around some sort of guilt for a long time. At first it was a vague, nonspecific sort of 'I did a bad thing' talk, but I started to recognize things. He talked about the town the boy was from. The timing was right. He even mentioned the boy's name.
"The man left a few hours later. I followed. As soon as I knew no one was nearby, I approached him, told him to follow me. I led him to a churchyard that bordered a river.
"'Look in the water,' I said. ‘Do you see him?’
"Before he could respond, I shoved him in. He shouted, but slipped under the fast-flowing water nonetheless. He managed to grab a low-hanging branch, but I met him there, held his head below water until he stopped moving, then let the body float downstream.
"I slept dreamlessly for the first night in half a decade.
"The next day, though, I began to wonder. How did I know I hadn't killed an innocent man? But no, the dreams had stopped, hadn't they? It must have been him.
"I doubted for months. A creeping shame made its way into my heart, gnawed at my conscience. I decided, finally, that I was the only guilty party in the entire affair, and that I should die for my crimes. I bought sleeping pills and washed them down with a bottle of vodka. But I didn't die.
"I saw the man I had killed sitting by the edge of the river holding a bottle. I sat down next to him. He turned to me and with water running from his nose and mouth he said, 'You think you can cheat me? You had no right to kill me. I did nothing to you. How dare you try to punish my sins? They were many and horrible, to be sure, but I did not kill that boy. You murdered me wrongly, friend. Your own sins must be paid for before you can die. I won't let you die before then. The only way I'll allow you to die is if someone punishes you for a sin you did not commit, just as you punished me.'
"I awoke vomiting liquor and undigested pills.
"Ever since then, I've been traveling. I've been telling my story."
The guest grew silent. The host had not moved a single muscle in several minutes, scarcely even blinking. The guest looked up suddenly. "You were married, yes?"
"Yes, I was. She died."
"You know, I thought I recognized the face on that picture behind you. I need you to know that I never intended to hurt anyone that didn't deserve to be hurt."
"What are you talking about?"
"About four years ago, I was getting desperate. The boy, the man; both were visiting me while I slept. I needed the dreams to stop!
"I drove my pickup into the oncoming lane and crashed head-on into another vehicle. I remember time seeming to slow down, watching as the windshield of my car fragmented, seeing the face of the other driver. I knew I recognized that face. I'm sorry."
The host went pale. He roared in agony and rage and lunged at the guest. The guest had half risen from his chair when the host struck. He tackled him, straddled him, and began punching him about the face. The guest managed to get up for a moment, only to be thrown again to the floor, this time smashing a glass-topped coffee table on the way down. The host grabbed a piece of the table's wooden frame and hit the guest with it again and again.
The host blacked out.
When he came to, he looked down at the shattered, bleeding head of the guest. Blood had spattered all about the body, creating a sort of halo on the splintered wood and broken glass. He looked at his own arm and discovered that he had been gashed quite badly. His legs gave out and he fell to his knees. He felt bile working its way up his throat. Stars danced before his eyes and he forced himself to breathe deeply.
A gurgling sound came from the body. The host looked down and saw the remains of lips moving. The guest's arm gripped his shoulder weakly and pulled him down to the pulpy face. He was able to make out only four words: "I lied. Thank you." The arm dropped limply and a final gurgling breath escaped the guest's lips.
The host stood, shaking. He stumbled into the bathroom. Ignoring the pain, he tightly bandaged his arm. He did his best to wash the blood from his face and hands, but his clothes were soaked in it. In his bedroom, he changed out of his soiled garments. He grabbed a well-worn knapsack from under his bed and filled it with clothes, as much cash as he had, some food, and other supplies.
He was about to run out the front door when he stopped. He turned back to the wood-burning stove. Using a chunk of wood, he dug out the remaining embers and spread them on the rug. Within a few seconds it was on fire.
The host prayed that the weakening storm would cover his tracks as he made his way to the Greyhound station in the nearby town. He needed nothing to light his path, as the burning house illuminated the falling snow and created a hellish glow that could be seen for several miles.
Three days passed before anyone could get to the charred ruins. Only a small handful of bone fragments were found among the wreckage. The host was declared dead, the victim of a tragic, accidental fire. He read about it in a newspaper three hundred miles away.
That night, he had a dream.
The guest sat in the charred remnants of the host's home. His face was mangled and bleeding; in his lap, the photo of the host and his wife. The guest's lips began to move. "Now it's your turn. You murdered me, someone must murder you. Until then, well," he let out a low laugh. "I'll be right here."
My guest took a deep breath and reached for the whiskey. He smiled at me and poured himself another glass. I noticed a long scar running down his left forearm.
"So," he asked, "is that your girlfriend in that picture?"
"Ah, a married man! Well, she's a very pretty girl." He paused for a moment. "Say, does she happen to work in town?"
"At a coffee shop, yes."
"I thought she looked familiar. I met her earlier." He looked up from his drink and into my eyes. After a moment he added, "Very pretty girl." Still looking at me, he drained his glass and settled back onto the couch. He let out a satisfied sigh and closed his eyes.
After a several minutes, I went quietly into the other room and called my wife's cell phone. It went straight to her voicemail. I opened the door to my closet, reached to the top shelf, and pulled down an old cigar box. From it I removed my snub nosed revolver. Last chance, I thought. I called my wife one more time. It rang, rang, rang.
Forrest Roy Johnson is a Minnesotan exiled to Iowa. He lives there with his wife. More of his fiction can be found in Miracle Ezine and at fiction365.com. Go to Facebook.com/ForrestRoyJohnson and Like him, because he likes you. Forrest's story, A Blizzard Story, appears in the April 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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