The pounding on the front door woke him up.
He sat up, dazed, staring groggily at the images on the TV screen. Christ, he thought. What time is it? The assault on the door continued, each thud reverberating in the house like a mortar shell. He groped for the light switch, sideswiping his glass and knocking it to the floor. The light from the floor lamp arced brilliantly for a moment and then exploded like a firecracker.
Momentarily blinded, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to roll off the couch. His shin barked the coffee table. He opened his eyes and saw only the strobe-like after effects of the spent filament. He rubbed his shin, feeling the knot begin to swell. The light from the television glared at him, the swarming figures on the screen slowly coming into focus. The pounding came again, harder now and more insistent.
He couldn't help himself.
"Who the fuck is it?" Maybe his voice would scare them away.
He stood up and edged around the coffee table, pausing long enough to pick up his glass. He approached the front door warily, his vision still filled with weird after-images of the light bulb going super nova, reds and greens that swam in front of his eyes and then darted away when he tried to focus on them. The dregs of candy on the counter reminded him that it had been almost two hours since anyone had come to the door yelling, "Trick or Treat!"
Was this some teenager's idea of a prank? The hell with it, he thought, yanking the door open.
"Well, it took you long enough!"
The woman in front of him wore a long, green coat with a hood thrown up to protect against the cold. Her breath formed a billowy plume and the strands of hair poking out from under the hood were frozen and twisted into what looked like a garland of twigs or a bad attempt at a punk haircut. His first thought – he remembered this very clearly later – was that the Blair Witch had come to life. But that was wrong, he knew, the combination of too much drink, too little food and a lifetime spent watching too many horror movies.
Besides, he knew that voice.
"Jesus, Susan!" he managed. "Did you forget your car keys?" But that was wrong, too, he realized as soon as he'd said it. His thoughts were like the damnable colors still swirling in front of his eyes, slipping and sliding away from him like greased pigs. He forced himself to concentrate. Susan had taken the new car; he knew that. She had volunteered to help staff the Haunted House at the old Frontier Cabin, just as she did every Halloween, leaving him to hand out the candy to the trick or treaters.
He looked past her to the circular driveway in front of their house. Empty. And –
Covered in snow. Snow! He had forgotten all about the forecast. He shivered then, not just from the chill he suddenly felt deep in his bones. It had rained the better part of the day and the forecast called for an early-season cold front to swoop down from the Great Lakes and if the timing was right (the local weather-person, a young blonde with gleaming teeth and a tits-a-poppin' wardrobe, had sounded positively gleeful at the possibility) the local area might get a dusting of snow for the holiday.
A dusting? No, he thought, more like a blanket, or maybe an eiderdown. And the roads, slick and wet from all the rain, freezing as the temperature fell. Oh, my God. He looked at Susan again. The snow-covered porch light doused her with shadows. Was that a bruise on her cheek? And what was that smear across her forehead?
"Susan, what happened?"
She hugged herself with her coat. "I had an accident."
"An accident? What kind of an accident?"
She shook her head at him irritably. "Do we have to discuss it here on the porch? I'm cold!"
"What? Oh, of course not." He held the door open wide for her. "Get in here before you catch your death."
"I'm past that, I'm afraid." She hurried inside.
He guided her into the kitchen and switched on the overhead light, now glad for its brilliance. He slipped her sodden coat off and draped it over the back of one of the dining chairs. The brandy bottle was right there on the counter and without thinking he grabbed it, pouring her a tumbler. Ordinarily, Susan didn't much care for alcohol but right now he wasn't going to give her a choice.
She stared at it for a moment, an odd expression on her face. When the booze hit her throat she coughed and sputtered but the color bloomed almost immediately on her cheeks and she smiled handing him back the glass. "It's been a long time," she murmured.
"Now," he set the glass gently on the counter. "Tell me what happened."
"Well, I was on Burdick Hill road, " she began, staring at the floor, her wet hair curling in ringlets around her cheeks as it dried. "And, I don't know, all I can think of is I must have hit a patch of ice. I lost control of the car."
He nodded. Burdick Hill was one of the most dangerous roads in the county and not just in winter. If you weren't dodging deer, you were trying to navigate a steep grade on black ice. On top of that, the state had designated it as a "secondary" road and so the plow only came by half as often and usually gave it just a lick and a promise when it did. Of course, this being the first storm of the season, it was most likely the plow hadn't come by at all.
Wait a minute. Burdick Hill was almost two miles from here and it couldn't be more than 20 degrees out there. "Susan, did you --?"
"Brian, I think I hit something." She lifted her head and stared at him, the color of her eyes a deep violet under the kitchen light. "I don't know what it was, it could have been a deer, but I saw it move out of the corner of my eye just as I lost control." She grabbed his arms, the touch of her hands like a freezer burn. "Brian, the car skidded right for it – I tried to turn the wheel but it didn't help. I hit it, Brian, I know I did!"
"Okay, okay." He felt her shiver in his arms. God, he thought, what a walk that must have been. "All right, so you may have hit...something. What happened after that?"
"I'm not sure, actually. I think I blacked out. I remember hitting something, probably a tree, because the car seemed to bounce off it and then I hit my head –."
"Didn't the air bag work?"
No...at least I don't think so."
"Oh, you'd know, all right." He was suddenly furious. That fucking used car salesman – he swore the car had been completely checked out! He held her far enough away to get a good look at her. A black smudge above one eyebrow might be the beginnings of a bruise. Her face pale except for the dark circles under her eyes and the eyes themselves showed no sign of a concussion or swelling on the brain. All in all, he told himself, she looked better than she had a right to.
"How do you feel?"
"Like death warmed over." She managed another smile.
"Come on." He led her through the living room to the stairwell. The game still flickered relentlessly on the tube. They went up the stairs and into their bedroom where he sat her down on the bed. "You just relax for a few minutes. I'm going to draw you a steaming bath, pour another brandy and pretty soon you won't remember being chilled."
He went into the bathroom and started the water in the bath. One of the selling points of the house had been the master bath, with its huge, lovingly restored ball and claw bathtub. Almost like a Jacuzzi, the real estate lady said, only without the jets. Big enough for two, she'd added, blushing slightly. Not that the two of us have ever used it, Brian thought. For this situation, however, it was much better than a shower. Satisfied with the water temp, he started out to refill her glass.
She stood by the bed, fumbling with the buttons on her blouse. "Here, let me," he said, hurrying over to her. She turned her head, chagrined, as he gently moved her hands aside. Normally all thumbs, tonight his fingers worked like magic and in seconds he was helping her peel the blouse off.
"Honestly," she breathed, "you must think I'm a big baby."
"Not at all." He kept his voice calm and reassuring but inside he was recoiling from the coldness of her skin. How much body heat can she have lost, he wondered? Still, her flesh felt soft and supple to his fingertips. He rubbed his hands briskly over her arms and shoulders. "No," he continued, "you just need a hot bath and another brandy and then you'll start feeling more like yourself."
"Is that," she looked up at him, "what I need?"
He didn't know which of them moved – maybe both of them – but his arms were suddenly around her. Like steel drawn to a magnet, his hands groped for her bra clasp and his lips bussed her forehead. His mouth traveled her face, each kiss leaving a little bonfire of warmth in its wake. The bra clasp sprung and she shrugged, her naked breasts now heaving against him, the rough wool of his Pendleton molding her nipples into hardened diamonds.
His jeans grew uncomfortably tight as his mouth found hers, the heat between them flowing like lava, and he wondered how he could ever have imagined her as being cold. He held her tightly, her breasts pillowing him, cushioning him like little fun-filled air bags –
Air bags? Oh, Christ on a crutch. The car!
"Brian, what is it?"
"Nothing. I –" He stepped back, holding her at arm's length. His head swiveled wildly, his eyes trying to look anywhere but at her soft, succulent breasts. "I've just got to finish drawing you a bath and then –"
"Go out and look at the car," she finished for him.
And until that moment, until the words left her lips, he hadn't made any conscious decision to do anything about the car, much less go out and look at it. But now that she'd said it, the idea made such perfect sense that he realized he must have been thinking it all along.
"Brian, don't go." She clutched his arm, her fingers jabbing him like icicles.
"Honey, it's okay." He took her back in his arms, cutting off her protests. I won't do anything stupid, I promise." Her eyes, bright and welling with tears, seemed a different color to him now, more blue than violet, like the color of the ocean on a clear summer's day. "I just want to check it out," he continued, "make sure it's far enough off the road so that no one else might run into it until the tow truck can get it in the morning."
"Brian, please! Let it wait until morning."
But now that the idea was in his head, nothing would get it out. "Look," he said, "I need to shut off the water in the tub, unless you want to spend the rest of the evening mopping up the bathroom floor." That softened her, a little. "Now, let me get you into the bath, I'll pour you another brandy and you can relax for awhile. By the time you're ready to get out, I'll be back. You won't," he kissed her now smoldering forehead, "even know I'm gone."
He eased his car out of the driveway and onto the road. His car. The old one. The rust bucket, the gas hog, the one with more holes in the body than it took to fill the Albert Hall. He grinned. Yeah. His car. The one with the snow tires. The one not in the ditch. Once more he became angry thinking about the car and the car salesman, what was his name? Oh yeah, Hank. Good old Hank Jones.
"Snow tires? What for?" Hank had said, his smile matching the Weather Lady's tooth for tooth. "This baby's got front-wheel drive, with on demand posi-traction action. Why would anybody need snow tires?"
The same reason they needed an airbag that worked, old buddy. Hank, a city fella who'd only recently moved upstate, hadn't quite caught on to the dues required to live in a small town. Up here, you had to be careful where you shit and how you cleaned it up because, well, people knew where you lived. Brian made a mental note to run his own special airbag test the next time he saw Hank. He would shove one up the salesman's ass and see if he could inflate it out his nostrils.
He drove slowly down route 34. No point in pushing it. The sky was pretty clear now and a sliver of a moon dangled above him like an apostrophe, pointing to his destination. There had to be at least two inches of fresh powder on the ground and he guessed the road underneath it was slicker than a cue ball. His tires chewed up the snow with a familiar crunching sound that never failed to remind him of a tire commercial he'd seen as a boy. He'd forgotten the brand now but he never forgot the logo: Tiger Paws. Tiger Paw's grrrrrip the road.
He shook his head. Keep your mind on your business, bub; that's how accidents happen. But a quick flash of Susan's pale skin grabbed his attention and he felt once again the weight of her breasts against his shirt, her plush lips on his skin. Without thinking, he rubbed his crotch and the car started to swerve. Goddamn it! Pay attention!
Under control once more, he continued his slow jaunt down the highway. But he couldn't get the memory out of his mind. What the hell was that all about? She hadn't come on to him like that since...well, not since her biological clock had gone crazy a couple of years ago. Jesus, she'd been like a tiger then, hardly letting him in the door at night before mauling his body with her need.
In the space of a few months he went from being her husband to being her own private sperm donor and the process became a hideously mechanical one. His come was her goal and she wouldn't dream of letting him waste any of it in her ass or her mouth or, God forbid, on those luscious tits of hers. All spontaneity gone, he felt like he suddenly had two jobs, one of which was to get his wife pregnant.
After awhile, the routine took its toll and his performance began to suffer. He made up excuses not to come home, usually ending up in a bar, which didn't help the situation any. More than once he'd awakened in the night with a raging hard-on from a dream of trying to plunder and somehow impregnate her poop shoot.
It took a visit to the doctor to finally end the ordeal and since then their sex life had gone from what he'd thought was pretty good to virtually nonexistent. He knew she was punishing him for his failure and he suspected her of having an affair. He'd considered the idea himself but always rejected it. Sooner or later, he felt, she'd come to her senses.
After all, they still loved each other, didn't they?
He neared the turn and lightly pumped his brakes. So far he'd had the road to himself and, conditions as they were, that probably wouldn't change. He turned the wheel gingerly and started up Burdick Hill. The snow tires spun a couple of times before grabbing hold and crunching again. The car won't be more than a half-mile from here, he thought.
He took his half out of the middle and drove just fast enough to maintain some momentum. When the skid marks appeared, he pulled as far over as he safely could and killed the engine. He set the flashers and, zipping up his jacket, stepped out into the cold night air.
The car was actually in pretty good shape, considering. He walked around it, the glow of the flashlight picking out the damage. The driver's side had borne the brunt of it. One head light was gone and the fender and door were pretty tweaked, but as near as he could tell, the frame wasn't bent. Hell, it might even be drivable, once the wrecker hauled it out.
He checked the inside to make sure she hadn't left anything valuable in it and was just about ready to leave when he stopped.
"...I think I hit something..."
He sprayed the light into the surrounding woods. There hadn't been any blood on the care (or any fur, for that matter) so she'd probably just imagined it. Just as well. Why make the situation any worse? Unless...
On the snow a few feet from the fender. A splotch of color that might be blood. He bent down for a closer look. Yeah, she hit something, all right. The light picked out another one a couple of yards farther and still another leading towards a trail cut through the thicket. He sat on his haunches, considering.
Deer, most likely. Maybe a raccoon or a possum but he doubted it. These woods were full of deer and Burdick Hill was the worst road in the county for car-deer collisions year in and year out. And if it was a deer, it just might have crawled down that trail to die. He stared into the woods. Was it worth a look?
A lot of good meat on a deer. Feed a family for a month, at least, and if you weren't too fond of the taste, there were a couple of grocers in town who wouldn't ask questions. He stood up, knee joints popping like walnut shells.
He walked slowly down the trail, his boots scattering the fresh powder. He kept the light in motion constantly, swinging from the trail to the wood and back again. No telling just where that animal might have given up the ghost. At ten yards, he crossed a small stream, the water running fiercely beneath a thin, frozen crust, and the trail began to climb. Still nothing. He was about to turn back and say the hell with it when the trail opened up into a small clearing.
Just ahead of him stood a low, wooden fence. Past the fence, three objects loomed in the darkness. I'll be damned, he thought. A graveyard.
He walked up to the fence and splashed the light around the clearing. Still no sign of the deer – if, in fact, she had hit a deer. He narrowed the beam back to the objects in front of him. He didn't know why he was surprised but he was. After all, family graveyards were anything but uncommon in this part of the northeast. But why was this one hidden here, no more than a stone's throw from a busy road?
The three headstones were quite old, by the look of them. The first was taller than the other two and the shadow it cast obscured the rest of the burial ground from his view. Must be the poppa bear, he guessed. The top of the stone was carved in an ornate fashion and in the center of the carving was a symbol he didn't recognize. The stone itself had weathered with age and lack of care. He couldn't make out a name on it, only the first two digits of what looked like a birth date: 16-something.
Well, he thought, that made sense. Probably the family died out or moved away and nobody gave a shit about keeping up the plot. He wondered if the land was still owned privately or if it had been remaindered to the state. He remembered the stream he'd crossed, the water running briskly, undeterred by the early frost. Overflow from the Winooski, he guessed. Another wet summer and that stream might swell enough to suck the bodies right out from under here.
A chill crept through him and he shivered. Not my problem, thank goodness. He edged sideways, the light slipping past the large stone to illuminate the rest of the plot. And, since there aren't any deer around here, I think I'll just – he stopped.
Oh, sweet Jesus.
The rear of the burial ground dropped off as if someone had plunged a knife through it. On the precipice a head stone – a fourth head stone – drooped menacingly as if ready to drop over the edge. Ten feet below ran a second, wider branch of the stream. The water had run so hard through here that the stream had split and the erosion he'd speculated about just a moment ago had already begun.
And whatever – whoever, he corrected himself – had rested in that fourth plot was long gone. The chill slipped into his stomach and began fingering his intestines.
Enough, he thought. I don't need this shit, not on Halloween. But before he could move, the light came to rest on another splash of blood. He moved the light around, unaware that he was holding his breath. He saw another, leading toward the head stones. The trail stopped about halfway up the mound at a hastily built pile of leaves and snow.
Sticking out of the pile was a human hand.
He pulled into the driveway and sat for a moment, staring up at their bedroom window. A small glow filtered through the window, one he knew came from the light on the nightstand. If this were a normal evening, she'd be in bed by now, probably reading one of her magazines, feeling relaxed and a little high from the drinks.