She didn’t answer. Not because she was trying to assess the situation, but because any answer would be admitting that it was hopeless. The snow piled against the windows, and there was no sign of it melting. They still had a small woodpile in the house, and the chimney was blessedly uncovered, so they had a little heat, even though the power hadn’t worked in days.
“No,” she said finally. She turned from the window, letting the blinding white be replaced by white blinds. She walked slowly back to the table where he sat awkwardly dealing another hand of solitaire with gloves on.
She paced the room, since she had long since worn out all methods of entertainment. He tried to ignore her, but she had been pacing for…how many days had it been? They hadn’t seen the sun for who knew how long. The sky had been grey even before the blizzard came, and they lost count two days after their windows had been covered.
“Honey, please stop. You’re making me nervous.”
“Just play your damn cards.”
He threw down his cards irritably. “I can’t focus when you pace like that.”
“Well, I’m tired of sitting!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to calm her down. She had been on edge for the last…he lost count of that, too. He always suspected she was claustrophobic, ever since she cried in that elevator that got stuck. He glanced to the room where their daughter slept. “It’s hard for both of us, you know.”
She looked like she wanted to lash out at him, then her eyes crossed to the room with their child and sighed deeply. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I’m going crazy in here!”
“It can’t last much longer. We’ll wait it out.”
The knock came on the inside front door.
Neither of them saw the others reaction, but each chalked it up to an hallucination. They both felt mixed feelings of relief and disappointment, until they each realized that the other had heard it, too.
Then they heard it again.
“Have they…” Her eyes were wide with hope as she barely could voice what it meant. He ran to the door, and she followed him with her gaze. Without checking the window, he threw open the door, desperation driving him.
The stranger stood there, all smiles, an old-fashioned briefcase in his right hand, and his left hand on the brim of an old and worn out hat that he tipped genially. His dark eyes flashed an indeterminate shade, and his skin was a tan that could have been hereditary or from exposure. His suit was brown and pin-striped, an old cut that John recognized from movies in the 1920s.
Stunned, John could only say, “Can I help you?”
“Lawd, sir,” the man said in a drawl that smacked of old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. “I believe it’s me that can be helpin’ you!”
Mary got to the door as the man made his way inside, not rude, but insistent. The door shut behind him and Mary looked questioningly at John. The stranger came in to the dining room and lit one of the candles they had placed out for meals. Neither of them saw him get out a match.
“Have they cleared the roads?” Mary asked desperately.
The stranger looked at her tenderly, concern etched in his face. “Ma’am, it’s a shame, this here storm. I made my way the best I could, here to help poor souls like yourselves.” His eyes flashed.
John groaned. “You aren’t a Bible salesman, are you?”
“No sir, though I am familiar with the Lord’s word.”
“So what do you want? And what’s your name?”
He looked at John. “Just call me Nick. I think that I can help you in this here situation.”
Mary looked at John, skepticism and hope meshed in her face. “How can you help with that?”
“Never mind the how, that’s for me to worry about. Are you interested?”
“Sure! I mean, I don’t know if you came in a car or with some kind of crew-“
“I work alone.”
Skepticism won. “What could you possibly-“
“I told you,” he snapped so sharply Mary froze. “Leave that to me.”
John didn’t know what to do, but some instinct told him to attack this stranger for talking to his wife that way. Another instinct left him in frozen motionless.
“All I need,” Nick said. “Is for one of you to sign this contract, here.”
The briefcase clicked open, and Mary’s nose crinkled. John fought off a retch as the stench hit him, rotten eggs burning in his throat. Nick produced a paper, and placed it on the table.
John fought through the fear that clenched his throat, and he could see it in Mary’s face as well. “What,” he gulped. “What are the terms?”
“Oh, they’re not complicated,” Nick said, soothingly. “But they are binding.”
“What are they?” Mary pressed.
“I just need something very,” he lingered as though thinking of the word. Mary realized that he was savoring it. “Precious.”
“We don’t have anything special,” John said, thinking of art or jewels or antiques.
“What do you need?” Mary’s voice was tight with fear. John fought to keep his face impassive, but he knew that this man was dangerous.
“Something personal. Something you feel that you can’t live without. Something irreplaceable.”
“If we can’t live without it-“
“You can live without everything but air, water, food and shelter. I said something you feel you can’t live without.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” John said.
Nick smiled, and John felt himself shrink inside. The stranger looked at Mary, a skeletal arm extending, and pointed. He said in a low voice, “She does.”
Mary looked like she couldn’t move. The color had drained from her face, and she had her arms crossed over her breasts. Her whisper came almost breathlessly.
Nick’s lip curled. John looked at him and back at his wife. “What? What is it?”
“I’ll just leave this here for you, ma’am.” He laid the contract delicately on the table. “Just sign and I will be back for it.”
“What is it?” John cried.
“Adieu!” Nick said as he flung the door open and gave them another tip of his hat.
“Wait!” John shouted running after the stranger. He wrenched open the inside front door. “What is the-“
Nick was gone from the foyer. The faint stench of his briefcase lingered. John went to the outside front door and threw open the curtains.
The snow was piled against the window and hadn’t been moved since they had been trapped.
She winced at the familiar question. It was unfair, the rage she felt towards him when he asked her that, but it came all the same. She tried to keep her temper under control.
“No,” she said, letting the curtain fall. “I was just…looking.”
The candles burned in their kitchen, the only light they allowed themselves as their supply dwindled. The electric lanterns and flashlights had already run out of batteries. Stumps of wax stood as a reminder that they were running out of candles, too.
“How much food do we have left?”
Mary rattled off the litany she knew by heart. “Ten cans of peas, two cans of chicken, three pounds of rice, three cans of beans-”
“Do we have anything that isn’t canned?”
“John, we were down to back-up food before we got stuck in here. We were supposed to make our shopping trip six days ago, if you recall.”
“It’s not my fault, Mary. I couldn’t go out in the snow, the roads were too dangerous. And if I had gone, I would have been trapped, and I wouldn’t have been able to get the food back here.”
“Then I would only have to feed two of us, and you could be trapped in the grocery store, with all the bread and beer you could stomach!”
“Jesus,” he said, half apologetically and half offended. “We couldn’t have expected this. There’s never been a storm this bad here, ever. I doubt there ever was one anywhere.”
“If you hadn’t wanted to move out to the country in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this situation at all!”
“What are you talking about?” he shouted, then moderated his tone, remembering that the baby was asleep. “You wanted this as much as me!”
“I wanted a large house, somewhere in a suburb,” her voice rose as her anger did. “You wanted to live in the middle of nowhere. No neighbors, no serviceable road, I was shocked that the house had running water, since you wanted to play Laura Ingles Wilder!”
“We talked about this, Mary.”
“No, you talked about this!” she shouted. “You decided that living out past BFE was a good idea, without any input from me, when I was only pregnant with your daughter! Maybe I would have some objection to raising a child in the middle of nowhere, but you didn’t care!”
The cries from the bedroom interrupted their argument. Mary stormed to the crib and lifted the baby roughly. She bounced the screaming infant vigorously trying to calm it and herself, but couldn’t.
John came in and watched her attempt to soothe their daughter. “We needed a big house for a family, and we couldn’t afford anything in a suburb.”
“We could have made it work. We wouldn’t have to spend all the money on gas we do. And we would have neighbors in case something happened, something like, I don’t know, the biggest fucking blizzard of all time!” She turned away from him and tried to coo into the baby’s ear.
John went back into the kitchen. They weren’t going to resolve this over the screaming with both of them furious. After a moment, the cries quieted down, and a few moments of blessed silence passed. Mary came back into the kitchen, not meeting his eyes.
“What about the decisions you made without consulting me?” he began.
“Don’t even go there.”
“Oh, you don’t want me to mention that you decided we were going to have a family, but didn’t think of any of the things we might need for one?”
“Yeah, because you never bring up the simple fact that you don’t love her, and never wanted her!”
“Of course I love her! She’s my daughter. It’s not my fault I had some objections to your timing, when we had no savings and were living in an apartment. You wanted to raise her in that shoebox?”
“I just wanted to raise her,” Mary said through clenched teeth. “If it were up to you, we’d wait until I was dried up and ancient to even try.” She advanced on him. “If it were up to you,” she looked at him accusingly. “You’d give her up right now.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” his eyes bulged as he went on the defensive. “You can’t seriously believe I’d want to kill her just because we’re stuck in here. Even if I did, I wouldn’t want to outlast the blizzard just to go to prison.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Mary gave him a condescending stare. “We’re running out of food, you could easily tell everyone that she starved.”.
“Mary, how could you even-”
He stopped in mid-sentence as her nose crinkled like something had wafted to it, something hateful. Shortly after noticing her reaction, the stinging odor burned into his nostrils, almost making him vomit.
“What the hell is that?” John said, covering the lower half of his face with his hand.
“It smells like,” the image of the slender man at their door came back into her mind, his smile honey poured over a poisonous mushroom. A cobra in a kitten costume.
She ran, as quickly as she could around footstools and tables, her frantic state turning the room’s careful planning into a minefield. The drums in her ears pounded a war-rhythm that chased her all the way to the dining room. She grabbed the doorway and pulled herself into the threshold.
No one stood there. No bony hand beckoned, no saccharin smile uttered enticements, no briefcase hung at the knees of a tailored suit. Her breath left her in relief.
Until she saw the contract on the table.
“John!” she croaked from a mouth that had gone dry.
“Yeah? What is it?” he came to the dining room, and tried to look at her face, but she wouldn’t be pulled away. He followed her gaze to the table. “I thought you threw that out?”
“I did,” she said weakly.
“Why did you put it back?”
“I didn’t!” she held her arms around herself tightly. “I…I tried to convince myself I had dreamed it.”
John’s mouth tightened. He, too, had tried to convince himself it was an hallucination, any explanation that would restore his faith in a logical world. Sitting on the table was the sledgehammer that threatened to shatter that faith.
“You must have put it back. Who else could have? I damn sure didn’t.”
“John,” she looked at him, her eyes now contemptuous. “You saw me.”
The image came back to him. The contract in her hands, the sound of the paper shearing apart, the faint noise buried in the ripping sound that seemed so ordinary. Like someone screaming on a TV a hundred miles away.
There wasn’t a single crease marring the paper.
“I…how is this possible?” John ran from the room and began opening all the doors he could.
“John, what is it?”
“Where are you?” he shouted at the stagnant air. “Where the fuck are you?”
“John, stop! You’ll wake-”
“I’ll find you, you sick bastard and I will fucking kill you!”
He turned. His eyes went down to his arm and saw her hand gripping it. He felt himself calm down, the rage abating. Not the fear, though.
“Mary, he was here.”
“He couldn’t have been. John, that’s…that’s impossible.”
“It was impossible that he was here at all. That’s what you kept saying when you tore it up.”
“I know, but…there has to be some explanation.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Maybe,” she swallowed. “Maybe we should read it.”
John opened his mouth to tell her that was crazy, and that she was crazy for suggesting it. He closed it. What could be crazy about reading it? At least, what could be crazier than it showing back up, intact, after being rent to pieces and tossed in the garbage?
He stood gazing into the dining room, as though he expected a lion or some kind of dragon to emerge, hungry and dangerous. For a moment, the air seemed to hang with his internal debate. Then he set his jaw and marched into the dining room.
He snatched up the contract and tore it. The sound sliced through his mind. He grunted, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t hearing agony underneath the shredding. The paper felt heavy, warm. He took the scraps and threw them into the sink. He ran to the cabinet and grabbed a bottle of grain alcohol. Stuffing a rag into the drain, John had no idea if Mary was talking to him or not. All he could hear was the pounding of the drums in his ears that couldn’t drown out the screaming coming from miles away in the sink.
The alcohol blubbed into the basin as he soaked the scraps. Mary got to the sink just as he touched the lighter to the fluid and jumped back with a curse as the flame caught some of his arm hair.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Getting rid of this fucking thing once and for all. Let’s see it come back now.”
He stalked away, triumphant in his victory over the forces of the paper. Mary stared, transfixed by the curling pieces and dancing tendrils of smoke.
His voice broke into her mind as she stared at the white wall in the window. Brought back to the tiny room, in the tiny house, in the giant blizzard, all she could hear was the rhythmic sound of John mashing the last can of peas together with some rice. For days, every sound had become a hot iron against a fresh nerve. The sound of John’s breathing seemed louder every day.
Her only relief in the past month was floating in the abyss of the snow, the infinite space that had replaced the countryside where they lived. In the erased landscape, she floated, free of the prison her body languished in until he dragged her back to her flesh. Or the baby screamed. Or she had to change the diapers that had gotten increasingly messy as they added more water to her food to try to fill her up with less.
Her hand clutched the curtain and she bit her lip. Mary was tired of that question. She was tired of the house, tired of John, tired of their daughter. Tired of the snow piled against the windows and doors. Tired of the cold.
The coppery tang in her mouth brought her away from the brink of rage. “No,” she sighed, and moved away from the window. She sat down heavily across the room from him and looked at the floor.
“Mary,” he implored. “Talk to me.”
There was nothing to talk about, except how little food they had. They were out of baby food and had been mashing rice and canned vegetables by hand. The last three days, all of their meals had been salted rice. The house smelled of their sweat and John had developed a cough. Their clothes were all dirty, and the pipes had frozen. They had been boiling water from outside, only because the gas line still worked, miraculously.
She stared at the floor.
“Darling, talk to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t do this.”
“It can’t last much longer.”
“That’s what you said,” she paused, trying to recall when he had stopped trying to reassure her. “I can’t remember how long we’ve been here.”
“We can’t give up hope.”
Her eyes brightened slightly. “There is one thing.”
“We’re running out of food, John. We won’t last. She’ll die. Then when they find us, we’ll also be dead. And who knows what they will think? Even if we survive, she won’t.”
“Mary,” John began, fear rising in him. “We can’t live without her.”
“We feel we can’t live without her.”
It must have been an hallucination, the way her voice seemed to take on a familiar tone, enticing and terrifying at the same time.
“Mary, you can’t be serious.”
“She’ll die anyway, John. This way-”
“Listen to yourself! We just have to hold out a little while longer!”
“I can’t, John. We can’t. She won’t last more than a couple days. We can have another baby. They’ll see how our food is, and they’ll understand!”
“This is insane. You’re insane!”
“Yes, John. I’m losing it. I can’t be here anymore. I’m dying. So are you, so is she. We can make it out. We can start again.”
“That contract burned to Hell where it belongs. Even if it didn’t, and even if I wasn’t sure it was just a shared hallucination, I would never sign anything like that.”
“You don’t have to,” she looked right at him as though the answer to a riddle just clicked into her head. “He just said one of us needed to sign.”
“Well, there’s nothing to sign, so get that out of your head, you crazy-”
He was aware of the smell of sulphur coming from the direction of the dining room before he was aware of his head turning towards it. Gooseflesh and beads of sweat dotted his skin as he realized that she was up and moving towards the dining room. He lunged for her and grabbed her around her thick coat, dragging her down to the couch.
Her scream of rage ripped through the silence of the house as she struggled against his hands clutching at her wrists. He grunted as she fought, the couch scraping against the floor. From the bedroom, the cries of a woken infant lent a grisly soundtrack to their fight.
He pinned her to the couch, his face close to hers as her arms stretched against his grip. He moved up and sat on top of her hips. “Stop it! You can’t-”
He broke off with a scream of pain. Her teeth sank into the flesh of his nose as she growled and wriggled like a dog tearing at a steak. He released her arms and pulled away from her, blinded by tears and blood. Her hands flurried as she struck him with wild blows of her fists, and he toppled back, his head striking the coffee table.
She turned and ran, then fell forward as John grabbed desperately for her ankle. Her cheek hit the floor and sent stars into her vision. The room tilted slightly, and it seemed that the crying was coming from the walls themselves.
John’s hands clutched at her pants and dragged himself up her body as she kicked out. Her boot heel hit the top of his head and his shoulders as he kept his mangled nose from her reach. She swung her heel back into his face, cracking against his jaw. The world went black for a moment, and Mary wriggled free from his grip.
She stumbled as she got up, barely keeping her balance. She staggered up and moved towards the dining room again. She was almost at the doorway when John grabbed her around the waist and flung her back into the living room.
Careening over the coffee table, she couldn’t hear her knee snap as it caught on the edge. Glass shattered as she knocked the vase holding dead flowers to the ground. Her left hand caught herself as she landed, breaking her little finger against the floor and shredding her palm on shards. She managed to scramble into a sitting position, her right leg akimbo. Holding her hand, she saw her finger dangling at the grotesque angle, and a wail of agony escaped her throat. John, poised to strike her again through the haze in his eyes, stopped and moved instinctively to comfort her.
When his hand touched her shoulder, her berserk rage returned. She snatched up a large shard of glass in her right hand, heedless of the edge slicing her fingers and palm, and drove it into his left shoulder. He bellowed in rage as the shard broke off in her hand. He reeled back and gaped at the edge of the glass still sticking out of his own coat. His arm felt warm and numbed at the same time as the blood seeped into the heavy fabric.
Before he took his eyes from the protruding glass, she was on him. The remainder of the shard slashed at his face, scoring open his left cheek just under his eye. He moved his right hand to block, and felt a tendon sever between his thumb and forefinger. She leapt at him, past his hand and he brought his knee up into her stomach.
She doubled up as her coat took most of the blow, and shoved the glass into his thigh. He screamed as he fell back, his leg unable to support his weight when he stood on it. He watched the glass as the dark pool around it grew at a rate that was distressingly fast. Somewhere in his mind, he remembered that there was an artery inside the leg, and he panicked as he realized that she must have severed it.
As he reached to staunch the flow, she kicked his chin, knocking him back for a brief moment, dazing him for long enough that the blood poured unhindered out of the hole in his leg. As the world went black, he mumbled out a final plea for his child, the last thing he heard was her screams from the crib.
Mary stood, blood dripping from her hands, as she looked down at her husband. He stopped moving, the murmur fading from his lips. She staggered on her bad leg, holding her left hand with the right, both nearly useless. Her left eye swelled shut as her cheek bruised and bled. She took a tentative step towards his recumbent form, waves of agony shooting through her as her adrenaline subsided. He didn’t move to stop her. She took another step, another. Dragging her limp leg painfully over his body, she made it to the threshold of the dining room.
Somewhere, there was a child crying.
Hush, baby, her lips moved, but no sound came out. It’s ok. Mamma’s gonna make it alright. Mamma’s gonna save us all.
Hot tears ran over through the puffy flesh of her eye and down her bruised cheek as she went to the dining room table. There sat what she knew she would see. A pristine contract, as though freshly printed and laid out for her convenience, beckoned to her. It was almost over now.
Weeping freely, she used both hands to trace her signature on the line. She collapsed into the chair. Fatigue and pain dulled the crying in the other room as she shook with her own sobs.
The door opened and the smell of sulphur wafted in.
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Deadman’s Tome Book of Horrors Anthology
Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature, lovecraftian literature, or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you’re thinking where to submit horror short stories then consider Deadman’s Tome. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.