Sunday, August 16, 2009

Year's Long Night

Jack pulled Beth to her feet, and when she staggered after a few steps through the snow, he stopped, turning towards her.

“No. You are not going to carry me.”

“But you—”

“No. Go.”

Jack turned, and started back through the trail he’d broken through the snow. Beth picked her way after him, stopping every few steps. She was breathing in short, sharp gasps, and Jack saw her bending, hand pressed to one side or the other.

They both stopped when the wind knifed through the trees on the far side of the meadow, where the woods truly started.

Neither Beth nor Jack’s hair stirred.

The trees rattled and swayed, back and forth and back again.

Aribeth…. Give her back….

The forest spoke with a voice of dry leaves rustling, of dead, brown pine needles rasping against each other.

Jack pulled Beth in front of him, and urged her along the path with a steady hand on her shoulder. When she stumbled or faltered, Jack wrapped an arm around her waist, and levered her up, holding her against his side until she got her feet under herself again.

They broke through the tree line. Behind them, the wind-that-wasn’t-wind tore angrily through the trees, and there came a number of sharp cracks, of branches snapping violently.

They made better time across the yard, and stumbled through the hedgerow to find Jack’s father on the porch, staring in their direction.

“Are you kids all right? I heard branches falling.”

“Dad, move,” Jack gasped, pushing Beth ahead of him. “Get her inside.”

“Look at you both, you’re white as sheets.”

“Door, Dad!” Jack snapped, as he pushed Beth up the front porch steps.

Jack’s father backed up a step, holding the door for the girl as she hurried inside.

Jack mounted the top step, and turned, staring back the way they’d come, his breath pluming out in frosty white clouds. The trees had gone silent.

“Son? Everything all right?”

He swallowed against the dryness in his throat, partly from the hustle, but mostly from the fear that was still clutching at him with knobby, gnarled, branch-like fingers.

“Something was out there, Dad.”

“If it’s breaking branches that close, it’s too close, son.”

“No. It didn’t get what it wanted. It’s gone.”

* * * * *

Jack picked up Beth’s coat from where it was tossed over one of the chairs, and hung it on the rack by the front door. He picked up her gloves, and hung them over the blaze in the fireplace, from one of the stocking-hooks on the mantle. He folded her scarf, and stuffed it in one of the pockets of her coat.

He set her shoes by the fireplace, then climbed the stairs. His mother stepped from the bathroom, giving him a level stare, her mouth set in a grim line.

“She’s okay?”

“Warming back up. But the next time I say ‘no running’ you will prevent her from doing that. Do you understand? She’s not as tough as she thinks she is.”

“She wouldn’t let me carry her.”

“Next time, you carry her. Now go get into some warm clothes. Unless you’d rather join Beth in the bath?”

“Geez, Mom!” He hurried up to his room, and changed. He worked a bit more at the sketch, looking up with grainy-feeling eyes when his mother called him for dinner. He put his work away, shutting the drawer carefully, then headed downstairs for dinner.

* * * * *

Another gust of wind caused the house to creak, and the lights flickered again, causing everybody to look up from their plates, and then trade uneasy glances around the table.

“There wasn’t anything in the news about a storm on the way,” Jack’s father said, with a frown. “It’s like that wind came up out of nowhere.”

Jack and Beth glanced at each other, and her hand found his under the table.

“Margaret, do you still have those candles?” Beth asked.

“Of course, dear. In the closet, the big box at the back.”

Beth scooted her chair back, and padded down the short all beside the stairs, and rummaged through the closet, coming back with four tall glass cylinders encasing a yellow candle.

“Jack, would you help me?”

He glanced at his parents, who shrugged, and then he squeezed behind his mother’s chair, taking the candles from Beth. He followed her across the living room, to the fireplace. She grabbed a long sliver of kindling, and lit it from the fire in the hearth. Her hand shook only slightly as she lit the candles.

“One here,” she said, patting the mantle, and Jack set one of the candles there.

Before he could take his hand away from the glass, Beth gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

Jack nearly dropped the rest of the candles.

“What the heck—”

She scowled at him. “Do you want to help or not?”

She didn’t wait for his answer, but turned and held the curtains by the window next to the couch.

“Next one here,” she said, pointing to the windowsill. “Lined up under the tile.”

Jack looked up, at the ceramic tile he and his father had secured above the window almost two months ago.

“Is this a—”

Beth kissed his cheek again, and Jack’s question slid out of his mind as he felt his face grow warm.

“Come on, next window.”

They moved to the tall window by the front door, and Beth took advantage of Jack’s stooping to place the candle to again kiss his cheek.

“Jack’s a good helper!” Ellie said.

“Yes, he is,” Beth said, smiling. “Come on. Last one in the kitchen.”

Jack shrugged his shoulders as he passed the dining room table. His parents, at least, did their best to hide the smiles.

Beth had hopped up on the counter by the sink, and was indicating a spot on the windowsill above the sink. Jack leaned, stretching to reach, and Beth leaned over, planting another kiss on his cheek.

He stepped back, and the girl slid from the counter.

“Now, you want to explain that?”

“You know what that wind is, Jack.”

“I have a pretty good idea.”

“We just have to make sure it doesn’t get in.”

Jack glanced at the candle, and then over at the door.

“Doorways are protected already. Especially the front door.”

“The mistletoe. I knew you had to have another reason for that.”

She giggled. Jack’s stomach fluttered.

“So… we don’t have to do the rest of the windows?”

“No.. I don’t think so. I’m not in any of those rooms enough that it would go looking for me.”

Jack nodded.

“Wait, what about my room?”

“Silly. You’re there when I’m there.”

“So… it doesn’t like me?”

“It is a thing of cold and wind and darkness, Jack. The candles will keep it at bay. Fire against air, heat against the cold, light against the dark. And little bits of love against the emptiness.”

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