a serial short story, part one of three
by STEVEN FINKELSTEIN
hey were about forty kilometers north of Saskatchewan when the car died. Henri, bundled up against the cold so that he looked like a bear lumbering around to get under the hood, eventually admitted that he couldn’t fix it. He said it was the alternator, and Gill knew little enough about cars that he had to believe him. They realized at that point that they were in trouble, but neither wanted to say it. There had been a storm front coming up from the south, following them, and both of them could feel the weight of the gray, snow-laden clouds that tumbled now inexorably toward them, doing languid summersaults as if to belie the white death they carried. For at this time of year, a storm of this magnitude could drop many feet in a matter of hours, and the conditions were perfect, as Henri said, for a real hum-dinger.
They’d met in Saskatoon, at a bar called the Long Rifle, which had a musket up over the lintel as you stepped inside. They got to talking while playing darts, and it turned out that both of them were arm wrestlers of some renown…as much renown as is ever bestowed for that particular skill. When they found out about it, they both started looking each other over in an appraising way, but eventually decided to save it for another time. They were both big, powerful men in their own right, actually resembling each other very much in stature, the sort that you come across in any of the logging camps in that part of Canada; gruff, bearded, seemingly as rough-hewn as the forested landscape from which they earned their living. They also had it in common, as it turned out, that work awaited them up north, in wilder, less populated country. It was logging work for Gill, and Henri didn’t mention just what it was he was doing, but Gill assumed it to be manual or skilled labor of some kind. Henri had a car he could borrow, he said, and he’d be glad of the company if the other man could use a lift. Gill offered to chip in for gas, but Henri turned him down good-naturedly, agreeing only on Gill buying him a couple of rounds. Gill was struck by the generosity. It was hard country up here, and altruism was come across as rarely as a good looking woman.
Gill spent the night in a flophouse, and he and Henri struck out early. The car was an original Volkswagen Beetle that might have once been green. It looked and smelled as though it wasn’t second hand, but more likely fifth or sixth. It was also comically small for two such large men. They rode with their knees crammed up next to their shoulders, but Henri seemed to be in fine spirits, and his quips soon had Gill laughing, though the other man was not normally a morning person. They left the city proper by a route that Gill wasn’t really familiar with. A shortcut, Henri called it. It looked like it might have been a disused logging trail; there were plenty of them up here. As they went upcountry, the change from rural to unspoiled wilderness was remarkably quick. Both men made note of the cloudbank in the rearview at about the same time the road, such as it was, more or less disappeared. Henri seemed pretty flippant about it, so Gill had no choice but to project a similar attitude. Then they’d had the car trouble, a grinding noise at first, and then a burning smell, and then a jouncing and sputtering that had nothing to do with the unevenness of the terrain.
The two men began discussing their best course of action. “Listen,” Henri said, speaking with a bit of a French accent. “The thing about it is that my little shortcut, not so many people know about it. As you can see, we’re really quite isolated up here. If we waited, it’s possible someone might come along and give us a ride, but it’s not very likely. The storm precludes the possibility of staying here, so we don’t have much choice but to seek help on foot. I don’t think it makes much sense to go back the way we came. We’d be walking into the teeth of the weather, and it would take more than a full day to get back to the city, even in optimal conditions. So I think we have to go on, toward Big Bear. It’s the nearest shelter, at this point. I know you can’t see much of a track going forward, but I know the way. I’ve made this run before; I can guide us.”
Gill said nothing, but presently he nodded his assent. He was concerned, but didn’t want to show it. There was something about the other man’s demeanor that was starting to bother him. He was giving out the impression of being in fine good humor, despite their predicament. But it seemed forced, somehow. It might have been that the French Canadian was likewise worried and was trying to put a brave face on it, but more so than that, his smile was just a bit too wide, and his dark eyes glittered from beneath heavy lids. Gill prided himself on being an accurate judge of other people. You had to be, up here. And what he thought now, as the clouds rolled in and the two men removed their luggage from the back seat, was that his companion’s movements had the extra emphasis put on them of a man who is contemplating violence. Perhaps it was frustration at the car dying. Whatever the reason, there seemed to be no other choice but to play it his way. Gill had a cellular phone, but even before he checked it he knew he’d have no reception.
They set off, going roughly north by northeast. The Beetle, where they left it, had a forlorn look, almost as though it was a sentient being they were leaving behind as a sacrifice to the elements. Henri had a red book bag that he wore backward, so that the large compartment and whatever its contents hung in front, across his chest. Gill had a much larger dun-colored rucksack that he wore the traditional way, strapped comfortably around his waist. He was mad at himself, and doing his best not to show it. True, there had been no way for him to foresee this turn of events, but he had gotten into an unproven vehicle with a man he didn’t know well, and then had agreed to go by a route with which he wasn’t familiar. Stupid. A series of mistakes like that could get a man killed up here, and he’d lived in rough parts of the world enough that he should have known better. But that’s what happened. You got careless just once…but sometimes once was all it took.
There wasn’t much chance of them freezing, in the early going, unless they became well and truly buried by the snow. They both had on many layers. The problem quickly became a lack of snow shoes. Both men wore heavy boots, and the direction they were going there was a thick crust, an icy rime with powder underneath, so that they sank several inches with every step. Each time they put a foot down it made a satisfying crunch, which was only enjoyable the first couple of times. After that it became a burden, particularly as the wind picked up and the first flakes began to fall around them. They were also traveling uphill, gently to begin with, then more steeply as they circumvented a deep gorge, making use of a wide, rocky shelf with a few small, dead trees standing alone here and there. To the east was a forest of much larger trees, mostly pines, and beyond that a mountainous range on which snow glittered, seeming almost to touch the sky. It would have been real postcard territory, but neither of the two men stopped to admire the view. It was not only the urgency of what faced them; they were used to such sights, and the panorama no longer gave them pause.
Despite the temperature dropping, both men were soon sweating. Gill was thinking something, something it would have done no good to say. It was this: the terrain being what it was, there hardly seemed to be anything remotely resembling a road that they were traveling on. Henri might profess to have taken this route before, but even without a storm to deal with, it hardly seemed that anyone could have been passing through there with any regularity, not by car, at least. It was another odd detail, but one that would profit nothing by being pointed out…and his breath was in short supply, anyway. Henri led the way, a few paces ahead, striding purposefully, staring intently ahead of him, as the snow and the wind swirled around, buffeting the pair. By Gill’s calculations, they were about ten miles from Big Bear, a permanent encampment for truckers, loggers, and, at one point, prospectors. No longer the last, for the land around here had largely been stripped of any valuable mineral content. It was going to be hard going. Luckily, both men were in good physical condition and in the prime of their lives, but this was still not a circumstance to be taken lightly. Gill’s mind seemed to be stuck in a loop. Again and again he reviewed the events that had led to this, and he cursed his foolishness.
Before too long the snow was driving down so thick and fast that neither man could see much more than a few feet ahead. It had become a true blizzard, and the sudden ferocity with which it had struck made it seem vindictive. Gill caught up with Henri and pulled on the other man’s arm. They had left the car behind three kilometers and something more than an hour ago. “Listen,” Gill shouted, striving to make himself heard above the wind. “Are you still sure of where we’re going?”
Henri gave a short, bitter laugh. “Roughly,” he said. “I can no longer see the trail, so I’ve been looking for landmarks. Aside from that, we’re bearing north and east, according to my compass. But I’ll get us there, damned if I don’t!” And then he was plunging ahead again, without waiting for a reply. Gill followed grimly, shaking his head. Yes, damned if he didn’t indeed. But if he lost the way, it might well be both of them who were damned.
It was some time later that Gill knew, beyond any further doubt, how much trouble they were in. He knew it because it had now taken them more than enough time to have reached Big Bear, if they’d been going approximately in the right direction. It had been around ten o’clock when they’d left the car, and now it was approaching four. They had been walking for almost six hours, which should have long since seen them into Big Bear. They’d stopped to rest a couple of times, but not for long. Their pride wouldn’t allow it. There could be no denying now, though, that both men were approaching exhaustion. They were still going north. Gill knew it, for he had a compass as well, but the knowledge didn’t help him. This territory was unfamiliar, but logic dictated that they had shot wide of their target. Henri’s “landmarks,” whatever they were, had failed him. Whenever Gill got the other man’s attention, to try and suggest it, the French Canadian’s responses grew shorter and shorter, until at last he was nearly snarling at Gill. It was near dusk; the sun set early this time of year, and once that happened, the temperature would plummet still more. Gill had his eyes fixed on Henri’s broad back. It would pause, sometimes, and the man would lower his head, checking the compass, perhaps, and then jerk back up before stumbling on. Indeed, they were both stumbling. And the landscape was changing around them. They were in the trees now, full sized trees, not saplings. They had entered the forest. Whether that was a good sign or ill only Henri could have said, and he wasn’t talking.
It was fully night when Gill spotted what looked like a small structure off to his right. It seemed at first like little more than an indistinct shadow, but then as he stared harder he saw that it was something solid, something permanent. He shouted for Henri to stop, then made his way toward the dark object without waiting to see if the other man complied. Whatever it was, it was farther away than he’d thought. The wind and the snow and the darkness made it hard to judge distances. But he got there, and it turned out to be a small cabin. He approached it from the rear. Through drifts that were now up to his waist, he circled around to the front, Henri arriving moments after. The two men could barely make out a sloping roof of unfinished logs, and the support beams of a porch, largely invisible beneath the snow. Without discussion, they battered their way to the front door, using their arms to simply shove the compacted snow out of the way as best they could. Despite their many layers, the length of their exposure to these temperatures had made hypothermia a real possibility. The door was locked, and quite stout. They took turns aiming kicks at the lock, and then, when that didn’t seem to be working, Henri pushed Gill bodily out of the way and started ramming his shoulder into the timber. There was some encouraging splintering, but it held. Then Gill noticed a small window off to the right of the door. It was the work of a moment to smash through the glass and the latticework. Then it became a matter of trying to squeeze his not inconsiderable bulk through the aperture. Even without the rucksack, it was a tight fit. He got his head and one of his arms through, and then he had the hardest time with his other shoulder. But eventually, by wriggling like a trout, he got that through as well, and fell partially inside. Henri hoisted his legs up so that when he scrambled with his arms he finally dropped down entirely with a crunch of broken glass. Inside, it was as dark as the bowels of the Earth. He staggered to his feet, knocking against unseen objects. He had pretty well lost the feeling in his extremities, but after a time he located what he was fairly sure was the door. He found and shot the bolt, and after some wrenching and tugging he finagled it open. Henri tromped in, a good deal of snow falling in behind him. Then the two men together got the door closed again, Henri holding it shut while Gill threw the bolt against the weight of the snow outside. And then they were in, the only sounds their ragged breathing and the howling of the wind, as their eyes tried to adjust to the near total blackness.
Later, Gill wasn’t sure of exactly how long they rested. It could have been minutes, or hours. Perhaps they even slept. He only knew that he lay on the floor, for he lacked the strength to stand, for a time. He thought maybe the two of them hadn’t even realized how hard they’d been pushing themselves, how close, in all likelihood, they’d come to death. But he knew that after some time, a lot or a little, he was able to sit up again. It was like he had been dreaming, but the dream was about nothing but darkness and cold and the alien howling of the wind. He spoke the other man’s name, and presently the answer came. “I’m here,” Henri said.
“Where?” It was perhaps a foolish thing to say, but Gill’s mind wasn’t working anywhere near full capacity.
“Here…” And then came the flicking of a lighter, and a small flame appeared a few feet away. Henri was sitting up, propped against a wall or perhaps a piece of furniture. His countenance was entirely sinister, the eyes bloodshot where they appeared above the heavy beard.
“What time is it?” Gill asked. “How long were we asleep?” For he had decided that they had slept; he was still wearing his watch, but couldn’t make out the time in the blackness.
“It’s twenty past five in the morning,” Henri said. “But I wasn’t asleep.”
Gill began to move his limbs experimentally. “Oh?” he said. “What were you doing?”
“Sitting,” his companion responded. “And thinking.”
Gill was trying hard to clear the cobwebs. He was also trying hard not to find something really disquieting about the other man’s disembodied voice. “The sun should be up soon,” he said. “Then maybe we’ll be able to see the inside of this place better. But it’s critical that we get a fire going.”
“You’re right,” Henri’s voice came back to him out of the blackness. There was a snap as he extinguished the lighter. “Of course you’re right. We should get a fire going. I just want to know, though…maybe you’d be so kind as to explain why you got us into this mess.”
“I’m sorry?” Gill said. He felt that he must have misheard, was hoping he had…but knew that he hadn’t.
“I said…maybe you want to explain to me why you got us into this mess. Because I’ve been sitting here in the dark for a while, thinking about it. Pondering. Mulling it over.”
Gill tried hard to keep the incredulity out of his voice. “You’re suggesting,” he said, “that I’m somehow responsible for what’s happened to us?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I know you’re responsible. You’re the one who pulled us off course. I should think that would be pretty obvious.”
Gill knew that physically, he was nowhere near recovered from their ordeal. He was groggy. But the other man…he must not be thinking straight. Gill had his faculties about him enough that he was at least able to try and be diplomatic about it. “Look,” he said. “I didn’t cause the car to break down, and I didn’t cause the snowstorm. I wasn’t even the one who picked this route. You did that.”
“I know!” the other man hissed. “Don’t you think I know that?” The enmity in his voice was really alarming. “But I was just at the point of recalculating our route to Big Bear, when you saw this place and distracted me, and dragged me off course. Otherwise, we’d be there right now.”
Gill was usually a man who would try and diffuse a situation, if it was at all possible to do so, but in this case, righteous indignation was starting to take over. “Are you serious?” he said, his voice rising. “Are you serious right now? That’s completely delusional! You led us off course…way off course! The length of time we were walking, we should have long since gotten into Big Bear…you got us lost! If I hadn’t spotted this place, we’d probably be dead right now!”
Gill was panting, momentarily out of breath. The silence had a sullen quality to it. Then the answer: “You’re right. You’re absolutely right, everything you said. It was my fault. Stupid of me. I just get frustrated, when things go wrong, but…I’m sorry about that. Sorry.”
“Fine,” Gill said. He was still really surprised by the vehemence he’d heard in the other man’s voice, and the absurdity of the accusations. But clearly the best thing to do was to try and smooth things over, if Henri was amenable to it. “But we really do need to try and figure out how to get a fire started. Once we’re warmed up, we’ll be in a much better position to figure out what to do next.” He began to feel around on the floor next to him. Among shards of glass he located his rucksack, lying close by. With hands stiff from the cold (and he hoped there’d been no permanent damage), he began to sift through the objects at the bottom, trying to find the waterproof tin of matches that he knew was there. He found them, and after more digging he also located a small flashlight. He flipped it on, thanking whatever gods or fates that the batteries were still working. Then he began to play the thin beam about the room, still from a seated position. The beam ran its finger over the rough underside of the log ceiling to where it formed a neat peak, the chinks well interlocked; despite the unfinished look to the place, it had been built by a practiced hand. There was little in the way of decoration on the walls, as indeed the overall look and feel of the place marked it as functional only, bereft, really, of any clues to its owner’s identity. And yet the owner was there. The light found Henri’s bloodshot eyes, and then when Gill hurriedly jerked it away, it showed that he was leaning back against an open army cot, on which a figure lay. Gill rose with some difficulty and took two careful steps forward. The light shone full on the face of a corpse, the body of an older man, it appeared, laid out as if in repose. “Fuck me,” Gill said.
Henri got to his feet, turned, grimaced. The two stood gazing down, while the man, whose eyes were open, stared back. It was difficult to say how old he might have been, and it was likewise difficult to say how long ago he might have died. The flesh didn’t show too much in the way of decomposition, but it had turned an unpleasant blue-gray shade. He was not an imposing physical specimen, but he did have whiskers and a beard that put those of the other two men to shame. His lips were parted in what looked like a rictus of pain, revealing badly tobacco-stained teeth. There were dark flecks of tobacco juice dribbled down his chin. One arm lay across his chest, the other was by his side. A ratty comforter was pulled up to his waist. “Looks like a heart attack,” Henri said.
“Or he might have choked to death on his chaw,” Gill said. Henri snorted. “I’m serious. I almost saw it happen one time. Some old war horse in a bar…somebody told a joke that tickled him just right…he had a big cheek full of Cherokee Red and he almost swallowed it. Lucky for him somebody there knew CPR.”
“Assuming this place is his,” the French Canadian said, “I don’t think he’ll mind us using it for a while.” Gill had been hearing a kind of grating noise that he thought might have been branches scraping the roof. Now he realized it was the other man grinding his teeth. Ignoring it, he reached out a hand, fingers extended, to try and gently close the dead man’s eyes. But they wouldn’t close. The lids had frozen in place. Henri chuckled. “Guess he wants to keep those peepers on us, huh? Make sure we don’t steal anything.”
“All I want from this old codger right now,” Gill said, “is the use of his fireplace.” For he saw it now, over to his left, a simple affair of stone and mortar, and he made for it, leaving their host in his resting place contemplating the great mysteries with his glassy orbs open and staring…
A short time later, they had a fire going, though it would be more accurate to say that Gill had a fire going, for Henri had done almost nothing. In any case, a few pieces of firewood had been near at hand, and after checking the chimney as best he could for blockages, Gill had lost no time in building a small blaze, then removing his gloves, boots, and multiple pairs of socks to check for frostbite. There was some numbness and discoloration, especially to his toes, and he rubbed them between his fingers to restore circulation, while sitting practically in the hearth. Henri came near and also sat by the fire, but he removed no clothing and appeared in no great hurry to do anything else, either, other than to stare sullenly into the flames. With the mood he seemed to be in, Gill thought it best to avoid saying anything that might antagonize him. In short order, though, he discovered something that made it necessary to consult the other man for his opinion. It was, at this point, half past six in the morning, but apart from the firelight, there seemed to be virtually no further illumination through the broken window, though by Gill’s calculation it faced directly east, and the sun would be up now. He examined the hole, where no glass or latticework remained, and found only hard-packed snow. He then went to the door and threw the bolt, discovering more of the same. There was no porch, no sky, no trees. There was only a solid white wall. There was only snow.
Note: This is the first of three chapters. Be sure to catch parts two and three in our upcoming April and June issues.
Steven Finkelstein is a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of five books, a screenplay, a comic book series, and many short stories and essays. His work has been featured in a variety of publications both online and in print, in the US and abroad, most recently in Bare Back, Shadowland, and The Brave New Word. For more information on Steven and his writing, feel free to visit his website: stevenfinkelstein.com. Steven's story, Old Tom, appears in the August 2013 issue of HelloHorror and Part Two of Snow appears in the February 2014 Issue.
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