Jack stared up into darkness, blinking the haziness of sleep from his eyes, only to find himself still staring up into blackness.
A gust of wind hit the house hard enough to cause it to groan a bit. There was a hard pattering of ice-on-ice, and Jack could feel the cold seeping down towards his scalp from the window.
What little ambient light there was outside was muted by the crust of ice layering Jack’s bedroom window, and the usual red glow of numbers from his alarm clock was absent.
The house creaked again, and Jack was about to pull the covers up over his head when he heard the tap at his door. He got up, groping his way to the door.
Beth was barely visible, her hair and eyes catching a few stray flickers of from what little candlelight made it up the stairs. She held something out to Jack, a warm and steaming mug.
“I thought you might be cold.”
“Thanks,” he said, tucking his hands into the long sleeves of his shirt and taking the cup. “Now that you mention it…” He sipped. Chamomile, a bit of honey. A hint of mint. “It’s good.”
“I didn’t wake you?”
Jack shook his head. “The wind did. And the house just didn’t sound right.”
“The power went out a while ago.”
Jack took another sip, then stood back, opening his door wider.
Beth stood for a long moment, her own mug clutched close to her chin.
“I better not,” she said. “I don’t want to make a mess, or break my neck on these stairs, getting to the bathroom.”
“Are you still…?”
She nodded, steam billowing as she blew on her tea. “I already had a cup of the nasty stuff. This will settle things down from that.”
“Raspberries are not nasty.”
“Well, they are in tea.”
Jack was about to say something when there came a heavy thud from outside.
They both nearly spilled their tea, stifling startled yelps.
Jack had one arm in his robe, and handed his mug to Beth.
“What are you doing?” she asked, eyes wide, glittering even in the dimness of the stairwell.
“I’m going to see what that was,” Jack said, shrugging his other arm into his robe. He squeezed past Beth, glanced briefly into her eyes, and then turned to head down the main stairs.
“Wait! You can’t just—”
“Stay there,” Jack whispered harshly, over his shoulder, as he padded down the stairs. He yanked the emergency flashlight from its cradle at the base of the stairs, then grabbed his coat, tugging it on over his bathrobe. He hissed when he felt just how cold the doorknob was.
Beth’s hands closed over his arm, and he just about leapt out of his coat, robe, and pajamas.
“Don’t do that, Beth!” he said, surprised the words made it out around his heart, that felt like it was hammering in his throat.
“You can’t go out there!” Beth whispered, tugging at his arm. “What if it’s—”
From outside, there was a muffled crunching, scraping, and another thud.
Jack shouldered Beth back, turned the knob, and cracked the door open, training the flashlight beam out onto the front porch.
He saw maroon mittens, ends of a scarf, and matching hat, amidst a tumble of his sister’s auburn hair.
She pushed herself over on her back, squinting up into the flashlight.
“S’mone forgot to turn on the porch lights. I kinda slipped.” She let out a lazy giggle.
“You’re drunk,” Jack said.
“There was… some drinking at the party…” Hannah said. “I might have done a little of it.”
“Or a lot,” Jack said, stepping out onto the porch.
The boards were coated with a thin layer of ice, and and he gave a sharp gasp as the cold and wet soaked through his socks and shot up his legs. He crouched down, and tugged at Hannah’s arm.
“Come on, let’s get you inside.”
The wind tugged at Jack’s hair, and the tails of his robe, hanging down below the length of his coat.
“Jack,” Beth said, from the doorway. She wasn’t glancing at him, or his sister, but off to her right, towards her house. Towards the forest.
From across the two yards, they could hear the trees coming to life. Rustling, creaking.
A gust of wind hit Jack like a physical blow, and his feet went out from under him, pitching him backwards.
He took most of the fall on his arms, but the flashlight spun away to the edge of the porch, its beam pointing uselessly out into the snow-and-ice laden front yard.
Hannah laughed. “Graceful!”
“Get up and get inside!” Jack wheezed at her, trying to get his feet back under him. It was getting difficult, between the slipperiness of the ice crusting the porch, and the tingling numbness that was creeping into the soles of his feet. He managed to scramble over to his sister, and hauled on her arm again. “Damn it, Hannah, get up and get inside!”
She stared at Jack, some of the bleariness fading from her eyes as her forehead creased.
“You swore! At me!”
Jack blew out a breath that trailed into a chattering of his teeth.
“Yes, I did. And I’m going to do it again if you don’t get your fat butt up and in the house. It’s dangerous out here right now!”
The trees snapped and rustled again, and the wind that streaked across the yard drove stinging shards of ice along with it.
Jack ducked over his sister, hiding his own face behind his sleeve as ice pelted and tugged at his coat.
He looked out from under his sleeve, to see Beth pointing towards the spot where the flashlight was shining into the yard. He turned.
Something moved out there, skirting the pool of light, ice and snow crunching under what Jack hoped were feet. There was a sound like dry leaves and pine needles rasping together rising and falling, as if the forest had stepped close, and was breathing.