I AM NOT A clever man. Apparently everyone knew that the blizzard was coming – everyone except me, that is. And not only did I decide to continue with my journey that night in my ramshackle old heap of a car, I also didn’t tell anyone else where I was going. Or even make sure my phone was fully charged. Yeah, I’m an idiot alright. But that still doesn’t make what happened any easier to deal with.
So of course the car broke down in the middle of nowhere just as the blizzard was really beginning to bite, leaving me stranded on a little country road that I’d never been on before with no way of getting help and no sign of any passing cars to come to my aid. Everyone else was too sensible to be out on a night like that: a night so bleak and wild, and only two days before Christmas.
I sat there for a while, cocooned in the relative warmth of my useless vehicle while the snow whirled around outside. There had already been a few significant falls over the last couple of days, but this blizzard was on another level entirely. Although the night was relatively still, the sheer volume of snow that was falling meant that the road would soon be impassable, and that if I wasn’t careful, I could pretty soon be in real trouble.
Even in the short time I had sat there, the snow had started to settle on the windscreen of the car, blocking out the snowbound scene beyond. The car’s heater was already starting to struggle, and the longer I waited the harder it would be to trek through the snow and find some kind of shelter. I put on my gloves, zipped up my coat and stole myself to venture out into the freezing night.
Thankfully, the situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I remembered passing a small cottage just before the car had given up the ghost: it couldn’t have been more than half a mile or so away, which would be difficult but doable provided the weather didn’t worsen.
The going was hard from the outset, with the snow already thick on the road. Within a minute or two I was all but smothered by the swiftly falling flakes, which clung to me with a clammy obstinacy that no amount of brushing could free me from.
By the time I could see a hazy light shining through the swarming snowflakes I was soaked to the bone and thoroughly exhausted. My feet were like blocks of ice, and my face was numb and frozen. But the warm orange glow of the light spurred me on, giving me the boost I needed to soldier on just that little bit longer.
When I finally arrived at the front gate, I could have wept with relief. The cottage was picture-postcard perfect, a little bastion of comfort and warmth huddled against the glowering darkness and the vicious, penetrating cold of the blizzard. Lights blazed happily from its windows, and two snowmen even stood as silent sentinels over the barely-visible garden path.
But something wasn’t quite right. When I got to the front door it was already open, and little flurries of snow spilled into the otherwise warm and inviting hallway. I stepped in and slammed it shut behind me. An eerie silence suddenly engulfed me, and at that moment I felt like an intruder, awkward and out of place.
My voice sounded flat and lifeless in the cramped little hall.
“Is there anybody there?”
No answer came. I walked through each room of the cottage in turn, knocking gingerly on each one before poking my head in. The place was utterly deserted.
It seemed as though whoever lived there had just stepped out for a moment: a fire blazed in the grate, and the dishes from their evening meal were neatly stacked in a pile by the sink. There was even a Christmas tree with an assortment of presents tucked underneath it in the living room. But there was no sign of any living soul in the place.
I sat down on the very edge of the couch, almost afraid to touch anything. A log popped in the fire, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I took a deep breath and chuckled slightly at my own nervousness. Okay, it was a strange situation, but I was out of the cold, I had a roof over my head and I wasn’t likely to lose any toes to frostbite any time soon. All I had to do was wait: the family would return eventually, the blizzard would die down, and soon everything would be right with the world again.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty. The only thing that kept me company was the steady ticking of an old grandfather clock out in the hall. After perhaps an hour of waiting, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed to do something, even if only to distract myself from the laborious passing of time.
I made a quick check of the house for a phone, but there was nothing. Still, that wasn’t so odd – lots of people don’t have a landline now that mobile phones are everywhere. I found a pen and a scrap of paper in the kitchen and wrote a quick note explaining the situation which I then pinned to the front door: I thought it best to give the family as much warning as possible on their return before they found a strange man in their home.
Peering out of the window, the snow was still falling with the same languid, heavy insistence as before. The two snowmen, lumpen and misshapen under the fresh weight of snow, seemed to be craning forward and staring back in at me. I shuddered and pulled the curtains closed.
It felt like I was taking advantage of the kindness of strangers as I walked through their house. There was a photograph on the mantle above the fire: two cute-looking kids, a boy and a girl of maybe seven and eight, and their father, an unsmiling, severe man who looked as though he’d seen more than his share of harsh times. No mother, but that wasn’t particularly peculiar in this day and age.
I told myself I was looking for some kind of clue as to their whereabouts as I crept through the cottage, but in reality I think I was just being a little nosy and wanted a peek into the lives of my unwitting hosts. The cottage itself was pristine: it looked like it must have been cleaned on a daily basis, and even the room that the kids shared was remarkably sober and neat. In fact, the only thing out of place in the whole house was a smashed plate which I found in the corner of the kitchen, which I swept up and put in the garbage. It only took two minutes, and it was the least I could do considering the hospitality I’d already helped myself to.
I went back and sat on the couch again, after turning on their ancient TV set, only to find the screen as full of snow as the night sky outside. It was now well past midnight, and there was still no sign of the father and his two kids. I felt a little like Goldilocks as I lay down on the couch, spread my coat over my self and settled my weary body down to sleep.
I jolted awake hours later after an unsettled night. A clock radio had clicked on, sending the velvet tones of Bing Crosby ‘s White Christmas echoing eerily through the otherwise silent house. I felt stiff and unrested, almost as if I hadn’t slept at all night. I had vague memories of some awful dream, but it melted as swiftly as a snowflake under the weight of the fresh new day. My wrists hurt abominably: maybe the cold had got into my bones during my walk through the blizzard the night before.
The house was still empty. I checked the front door, and my note was still in place. Opening the curtains, I saw that the snow was no longer falling, but it covered everything in drifts that looked at least a couple of feet deep: I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The rest of the day I spent in a kind of limbo, wandering idly from room to room, resisting the temptation to have a rummage through my host’s possessions and try to find out more about them. It was odd: usually you can tell a lot about a family from a quick stroll through their house, but this little cottage was like a blank slate. It was all antiseptic surfaces and neatly folded bedclothes – there weren’t even any kid’s drawings stuck to the fridge. It was a completely neutral space, devoid of any personality whatsoever. The broken plate I’d tidied away had been the only human touch to the whole place.
The day passed slowly. I ventured outside for a time, tramping through the deep snow in an attempt to get the measure of the place now that it was light. The thick snowdrifts muffled every sound, giving the whole scene a strange sense of unreality. I felt like I was walking around on top of a giant wedding cake.
There was a small shed in the corner of the garden: it looked like a rustic version of Santa’s grotto swathed as it was in sagging layers of snow. The door was open, but it seemed far from welcoming. Nevertheless, I trudged towards it, eager to see what secrets it might hold.
The interior was dirty and dingy, in marked contrast to the immaculate house. There were cobwebs everywhere, and the tools that hung from the walls were old and rusted. Except there was a single blank space on the tool board, a space with no dust or dirt or mess surrounding it, where some well-used tool had recently been taken.
The cold drove me back indoors again, and I soon got the fire started from last night’s embers. In amongst the loose papers provided for kindling I found a sheaf of what looked like crude children’s drawings. Once the fire was lit, I settled back down on the couch to examine them.
One drawing in particular caught my eye. It featured a clumsy yet still recognizable rendition of the cottage, with three figures standing beside it. Two of them seemed to be standing with their hands on their hips, with large, unhappy frowns on their faces and bright blue tears streaming from their eyes, while the third, drawn much bigger, had furious red eyes and appeared to be holding what looked like a snake.
Something about the drawing intrigued me, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. The rest of the pictures had a childhood innocence about them, but this one disturbed me.
I spent the rest of the day leafing through some old paperback Westerns I found in the main bedroom, but none of them were interesting enough to really hold my attention. My mind kept returning to this strange little family and the odd, isolated life they must lead out here. Maybe it was normal for them to disappear for days at a time. Maybe it was some kind of twisted Christmas tradition. Although somehow I doubted it.
Time dragged. I made another circuit of the house, just for something to do, and stoked up the fire in the evening ready for another night on the couch. I turned in early.
I slept in fits and starts, probably because I wasn’t dog-tired like I had been the first night. Strange sounds, muffled and distorted by the thick blanket of snow, kept me awake, and I dreamed bizarre half-nightmares of the missing children and their stem, faceless father.
I rose early, peering through the window to find that a thaw had set in overnight. The blanket of snow had retreated somewhat, and the bright sun edging over the horizon held the promise of further melts. Trekking back to the village would be tough going, but it was certainly doable and wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. Besides, I felt like I’d overstayed my welcome as it was, and it would be good to get out of this peculiar, limbo-like house.
I wrote a short note explaining the situation and left it on the kitchen table, along with a little money – “think of it as an early Christmas present,” I wrote – and headed out the door.
I cut straight across the garden between the two snowmen towards the gate. The thawing snow now had a crust of ice on top, which made a satisfying crunch with every step I took. I hadn’t gone far when my foot caught on something under the snow, almost sending me flying. Looking down, I saw a gnarled human hand poking up from the surrounding sea of white.
Instantly I dropped to my knees in the wet snow and began to dig, raking back armfuls of ice and quickly uncovering the body beneath. I knew who it was immediately: the father of the family, his face oddly serene in death, with an ugly, bloody dent in the side of his head. He must have slipped in the snow and knocked himself out – a large stone lay under his head like a pillow – and the cold had done the rest.
I stood for a moment over the corpse, taking in the scene in all its eerie stillness, with the squat little cottage looking on. It was then that I looked at the dead man’s other hand, and saw what he was clutching in his stiff, white fingers. A coiled bullwhip, old and obviously well-used.
The child’s drawing I had found leapt into my mind, and shock stole the breath from my body. I turned to the two snowmen, which were now little more than shapeless pillars of white. I bounded towards the nearest and pushed at it with desperate hands, hoping to find solid, hard packed ice beneath my fingers.
But I knew I wouldn’t. The snow was light and fluffy, disintegrating even as I touched it. In a matter of moments I had demolished the towering lump of snow to reveal what my heart already knew would be there: another body, this time that of a young girl, with her arms tied behind her back and securely fastened to a stout wooden fencepost.
I dropped to my knees, tears pricking my eyes. I couldn’t begin to imagine what they must have suffered. Maybe they’d been relieved at first when their father had fallen, thinking that they had delayed or even escaped their punishment, with their relief turning to panic as they slowly realised their father wasn’t getting up again. It was all so senseless, so pointlessly tragic.
In the days since then the children have continued to haunt me. I wonder if there was anything I could have done, if the two of them we perhaps still alive in their icy tombs when I was walking through their cosy and welcoming home, utterly oblivious to their existence. I think a part of me will forever remain there, in that little wintery garden, staring at two bodies frozen in silent screams as the first few flakes of snow begin to meander downwards again out of a heavy, leaden sky.