As if in a dream—the wind clawing at his eyes and mouth––Lucas strips the glove from his right hand and takes the .44 Colt Anaconda from his jacket pocket. In the glow of the Coleman lantern, which he’s propped up in the snow behind this house well off the main highway, the mass of metal that is the firearm has an almost golden sheen to it. It seems to defy even the blizzard, the wild swirling motion of the air that, like a zillion tiny galactic arms all at once, claims ownership over everything and everyone: the broad low-slung house, the snow-blasted trees and patio furniture, the girl’s near-lifeless body half-buried in the snow behind him; the blizzard has it all in its grip, has it all for the sake of having it all. There is this creaking sound, Lucas realizes, straining to see the Anaconda in his hands. Something in the trees, maybe the wood slats and beams of the house itself. Something the wind would just as soon snap into pieces than steer clear of.
And in the intermittent glow of the fluorescent lantern there are those diamond-like coils and sparkles in the air, most of which rise up from the snow on the ground—self-illuminated lightning bugs whose origin has to be crystalline rather than biogenic—and they dance and glitter and spin wildly as if to taunt, to dare Lucas to reach out for a handful of them and put them in his pocket, maybe in his mouth. Though he hasn’t tried that, Lucas has been utterly mesmerized whenever they’ve decided to come alive—they are secretive, shy little sparkle-sprites, as he’s been calling them, that come and go as they please. Somehow, he can’t get enough of their agile spiraling forms and scattering beams and sparks of light that remind Lucas of those gamma ray bursts he’s heard about, brilliant emissions of irradiation only the most severely collapsed black holes tend to shoot out into space.
They are, these sparkle sprites, the storm signaling to him, winking at him, acknowledging him, “Hey there now, Lucas. How are you? How goes it for you?”
And just now, extracting the Anaconda from his pocket once again—he doesn’t remember putting it back in there—he has the sensation that his bare right hand is so weak, so frozen in the joints, he won’t be able to keep the thing in his grip. But then they’re suddenly here again, the sparkle-sprites, arcing downward from out over the roof of the house like a sine wave in the night, their glimmering, radiant forms swarming, of all things, around the Anaconda.
What is this, Lucas? they seem to say and in a bedazzling display of intelligence coalesce into a glowing, three-dimensional neon green question mark that stands, teetering cartoon-like on its period point, at the very end of the long-nose barrel of the gun. What’s this human thing you’ve introduced into the equation?
“Oh, well,” Lucas says, a ribbon of them—phosphorescent shards of brilliance in motion—encircling the Anaconda now, orbiting it like so many energized electrons about a nucleus. “It’s a handgun. But it’s not for killing. Not in my hands, it’s not.”
We’re glad for that, they say collectively and then break their orbit about the gun and dart away like a flock of nano-insects, their lighted forms seemingly dissolving, dissipating like so much water vapor into the storm. He hears a child-like whimpering deep in his throat, a moan of disappointment, abandonment.
Why did you have to go? he wants to say but doesn't. He’s suddenly aware that time has slipped by him once again, a clang-clanging sound in his ears a blaring metronome set to 300 beats per minute. Death, he knows, is looming large, and though he’s managed to keep it at bay, just out of reach, he senses that it’s here, somewhere nearby the swaying-creaking children’s swing set well behind him or maybe among the heaving, wind-blown pines he glimpsed at the outer reaches of the yard.
He grips the icy Anaconda with two hands now––one gloved, one not––and he takes aim and pumps six booming rounds into the rear door of the house, each rock-hard recoil seemingly shattering bone in his wrists and forearms. But he’s done it, he’s fired from a range of maybe eight feet, taking aim at the polished brass door lock and handle mechanism, which, even with the lantern nearby, are barely visible through the sudden upsweep of snow back here, back behind this house. There are no audible echoing sounds of the gun blasts’ thunder-like blare, no sounds of ricochet, no sounds except that of the savaging-threatening wind.
He goes to the door and slams the heel of his boot into it, and he is consumed by a sense of delight and accomplishment when the door swings wildly open. But then the lantern flickers out—must have been a ricochet after all––and things go black again, Lucas ducking down and turning abruptly, his guard up. He has the sense, as he had even before coming up the snowy drive with the girl’s black coat over his shoulder, that he’s being watched. That someone is out here and whoever it is is lying in wait. The very idea of it has him frightened to his toes, and he goes out into the yard where he left the girl lie after dragging her away from the door and backside of the house some time ago. He falls to his knees before her corpse-like form, and he sees, for all the blackness, a sure hint of her blue-green baby-doll top and her wan, milky face and closed-crescent eyes. He remembers, as if stepping back into real time, that she isn’t dead, she isn’t gone. She has a heartbeat.
He’s supremely pleased, ecstatic, and he takes her by the armpits and drags her through the snow in the direction of the now open rear door of the house.
It was maybe twenty minutes ago that he came across her coat out along the highway, her hat by the mailbox, and what he thought was her lifeless body propped up against the back door of the house. A ghoulish, Halloween scene that had him recoiling and stumbling backward, the cumbersome pack on his back yanking him, ass first, into the snow, “You lost your coat?” he shouted at her in a strained, diminutive voice, the sparkle-sprites dancing all about his head and mouth; “Your hat? Why?”
It wasn’t until he put his ear to her chest to listen for signs of life—the howling wind making that an endeavor of frustration—that he heard, he sensed, the contracting-pumping motions of her heart. It was then that he dragged her, feet first, away from the house and out into the yard—fuck the snow, fuck the cold, fuck the lack of grace—and he took the Anaconda from his pocket to shoot open the door.
He’d been out half the night looking for her, refusing to put up the tent and save himself, though he was sure, long before he even came across her coat and hat out along the highway, that he was venturing into the throes of death by way of exposure. At one point, making little headway against the onslaught of wind and snow, he caught sight of his father—Velcro-strapped into some kind of helicopter-rigged wheel-chair, of all things—who was hovering in the air at the side of the road and waving and encouraging him to keep going, keep striding along.
“You can do it, son,” his father shouted out to him, his voice somehow a buzzy, saw-toothed synthesizer voice à la Stephen Hawking; “I know you can.”
Lucas knew then that he was reaching his end point, and he knew that the girl was likely doing the same.
That poor girl, he thought as he went along. That poor kid.
Now, he has her by the armpits and he’s dragging her through the open door, which he discerns to be the kitchen door, little green indicator lights on the stove and microwave aglow in the dark. He can’t help but pause for a moment, though, and peer back out into the night to catch one last glimpse of the sparkle-sprites, who, he likes to think, safeguarded him in some way from the elements. But he sees only, as if he’s lost his mind completely, that high up in the air, the swirling snow and wind have begun to form into what appears to be a voluminous, hot-air balloon in the shape of a human skull.
He watches as it expands to an enormous height and width, the eyes hollow and black-socketed, the teeth frighteningly real, the bony, exposed nose and mouth ashen-white, though brown-stained as if with streaks of lacquer or varnish of some kind.
The skull begins to fade, though, dissolve before his eyes until, in a matter of seconds, it is only the night out there, snowy and horrific, though not ghoulish horrific.
He’s glad for that, he decides and adjusts his grip on the girl’s armpits as he maneuvers her through an open, white-framed interior doorway and onto an expanse of thick-pile carpeting he takes to be the living room.
Lawrence Cady's short stories have appeared in Other Voices, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, Portland Review, South 85 Journal, Roanoke Review, among others. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Portland State University, Lawrence serves as managing editor for the peer-reviewed science journal Astrobiology (Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.).