Winterking by Erica Ruppert [horror]

Imprint - Horror Imprint Logo 200wWinterking by Erica Ruppert

Snow drifted down on the still backs of the geese in the river. The birds sat like statuary in the thin fog rising from the water, impervious to the weather as the snow came down, and came down, and came down. The air was thick with it. Carolyn’s hair was frosted heavy white as she stood on the riverbank, watching the geese, her cheeks pinched red in the cold. She had left her coat behind. She told Serge she needed to be cold to keep away the phantom that wanted her warmth. Sometimes Serge tried to stop her from going out, but he hadn’t this time. Her ungloved fingers stung. At last she turned away from the muttering river and went back to the house.

Serge watched her climb the rise of the lawn. He opened the door when she reached it and brushed the snow from her head as she came in. She drifted past him without a word, and he pulled the door closed against the bitter air. It was only December, with winter hardly begun. It would get worse.

***

One dusk at the end of autumn, she had come into the house rattled and pale. The late afternoon sky filled the rooms with thick grey light. She drew the shades in the living room against the coming darkness and huddled in the shelter of lamplight.

“There is something down there,” she said into her clenched hands.

Serge put down his cup of coffee and went to her.

“Where?” he said. “The river?”

She nodded. “In the water,” she said. “It wanted me to come into the water.”

“Wait here,” he said.

Serge grabbed his jacket as he went out the back door and across the sloping lawn toward the river. The gravel road at the bottom of the property was empty in both directions. The river was grey as stones and showed nothing but ripples around the broken branches of a drowned tree. He walked upstream toward the bridge. There was nothing to see. He knew there would be nothing. She had seen things before.

***

She was always caught unawares by what she saw, the menace sudden and unexpected even as she tried to explain its workings to him. They developed a rhythm around her visions and fears. Serge turned the heat down in the house and risked the pipes and Carolyn agreed to stay inside. Still, he checked for her every morning and often shepherded her away from the river. She could not stay away from the river and what was hidden there. She said it called her, but called her less when she was cold. It could not see her clearly then. She drew him illustrations of her struggle captioned with a language she couldn’t read. Over time, it became they, the threat expanding like the bloom of a red tide. She exhausted him.

As soon as he could, Serge found her a doctor and pulled her barefoot from the cold to see him. She fought, then tolerated, then complied. After a few weeks, she no longer spoke of needing the cold, no longer cowered against what waited for her in the river. Dr. Pirrone told him that the meds were working, that she was stabilizing. Serge hoped.

***

Then she called him, frightened, from Pirrone’s office in the city.

“I can’t come home now,” she breathed into the phone. “They know where I am. They know where you are.”

“Wait there,” he said. “I’m coming.”

“Be careful,” she said, and hung up.

As he navigated the end of the rush-hour traffic, he realized what a mistake it had been to let her take the train in. She had seemed strong enough, and calm. He wanted to believe she was ready for it. Guilt picked away at his edges. They must have seen this at her appointment. Why hadn’t anyone called him?

Serge double-parked in front of the glass tower where Dr. Pirrone had his office. He didn’t see Carolyn. He threw on the hazard lights and jumped out. The wind, funneled down the street’s canyon, hit him like a slap. Through the huge plate windows, he could see the empty lobby. He looked up and down the street, throttling down his fear.

Then she rushed out from behind an outcropping of the facade. Her hair was a disaster, the wind in it, in her clothes. She did not try to hold her coat, let it flap like wings around her, let her scarf swirl up like a flag. Her eyes glittered, fevered.

“They know where I am!” she cried out. A man in all black turned to see her. Serge took her arm.

“Get in the car.”

She complied, stiff and nervous.

“We’re not doing this again,” he said.

She was silent for the drive. He reached for her hand, but it was like gripping a clutch of twigs. He still held it all the way home.

***

The deep cold settled down. The river stilled beneath it, a field of white under the thin snow. Only the water under the bridge was free, moving in sluggish dark ripples beneath the curved span. Even the geese were gone.

Carolyn grew restless as the winter hardened its hold. She refused to go back to Dr. Pirrone. She hadn’t liked him, anyway, she said. She hated the meds. Serge worked from home as much as he could, staving off family leave as long as possible. He could not leave her alone for too long. Her need wore on him.

***

“The portal is sealed until winter ends,” she said.

Serge looked up from the report on his screen, his concentration ruptured. “What are you talking about?”

“See the arch of the bridge?” Carolyn pointed out the wide living room window. “When the river is free, it reflects, it makes an eye through which we can see across all time.”

She breathed on the glass to frost it, and scratched a figure into the ice.

He came up behind her, cautious. “What is that?” he said. “You scribble it everywhere.”

She bent her head down, let her hair cover her eyes. “I don’t know. It came to me.”

***

On New Year’s Day, she disappeared while Serge was in the shower. He came out of the bathroom to a house too still, too empty for her to be anywhere in it. His wet hair froze to his neck as he ran down to the river, yelling for her to answer him.

He found her by the bridge, squatting under the abutment where the bank sloped down into the dark river.

“He wanted me to come,” she said.

He, now. No longer they.

“Who wanted you?” he said. “Who is calling you?”

She could not answer. She only traced the familiar figure over and over against the palm of her hand.

“Please,” Serge said, taking her chilly hands in his to still them. “I love you. You’re scaring me. Let me help you.”

She took her hands away from him, picked a rock out of the hard dirt and threw it into the water.

“You can’t,” she said. “I thought I had more time.”

***

As they lay together in bed that night she told him that she had to go, and that he could not follow. He lay awake for a long time after she fell asleep, looking into the answerless dark. In the morning she was gone, her space in the bed cold.

He did not want to believe it at first, calling for her through the house. Then he saw her coat was gone, and her shoes. He was surprised she had taken them. There were mingled footprints in the frost on the path, already dissolving in the morning sun. Someone had come up. She had left in company.

As he retreated back into the house, he saw the sign scratched into the front door. How long had it been there? He looked out at the empty river. The town behind him was quiet this time of the morning. He felt watched. He scraped his fingers over the broken paint to peel away the curved lines. He couldn’t read it, but he knew it was not safe to leave it. It called to something.

***

Serge waited for her to come back without any expectation that she would. He did not enjoy the sense of relief her absence allowed, as if he were disloyal to be free of the constant fear for her. Her presence still lingered in the house like a pall. To dispel it, he packed up her possessions neatly, labeling each box with the precision of a draftsman, ready for her if she wanted them. If she came home.

***

By mid-February, the snow had almost melted away, and the air smelled of wet earth underneath the chill. The sky was grey, naked. Even in the shelter of the house, Serge felt exposed. He had begun noticing motions at the corner of his eye, and the dull suspicion of being paced by something faster than he could run. He turned the heat up to seventy-five and left it there.

One day at sundown, he went to the back door to look out at the river, drawn to it. She was there at the bottom of the yard, with tall shadows behind her that she did not cast. He could see her lips moving. Come out, Serge, she said. I can see you, she said.

“Go away,” he said through the glass. She laughed. She faded into the dusk.

***

She haunted him even though he did not see her. Once he gave in and went down to the river, missing her, but the sense of something waiting to drop on his neck was so heavy he did not go back. It followed him back, relentless. His work suffered. He made arrangements to transfer out of state. He made an appointment to see Dr. Pirrone.

“She was mad,” Pirrone said. Serge started at the blunt assessment.

“I know I’m not supposed to say that, but the only other way to explain Carolyn would be to say she could see God. Neither is really correct.”

“But what about the treatment plan, the dose adjustments?” Serge said, his voice trailing off, losing hope.

“I couldn’t help her,” Pirrone said. “There was something else there.”

***

Serge left the office with the wind at his back and let it blow him down a side street, away from the dwindling five o’clock crowds. He found a pedestrian cut-through and was alone almost immediately. He didn’t recognize the street. Water trickled in the gutters with hollow music. The sky between the high buildings deepened toward nightfall. His skin prickled with the old sense of being watched.

Movement caught his attention. He saw her walking on the other side of the street, part of a black-clad pack. She cut her eyes toward him. He caught the quirk of her lips as she moved past. He kept his face forward and kept moving. He wished she hadn’t seen him. He hoped she believed he hadn’t seen her. He turned, trying to double back to the main avenue

She was suddenly at his shoulder, her breath cold against his ear. “Serge,” she whispered, and he started and turned. She was pale and as beautiful as he had wished. Ice crystals glittered through her hair.

“How have you been?” Carolyn said. Her voice had an edge of anger.

He stepped back from her. She leaned in. The cloth of her jacket rasped on his coat.

“Did you miss me?” she said.

He glanced at her companions where they stood. He thought they watched him, but he could not make out their faces. When he turned his head, they resolved into a flock of shadows, tangled in the streetlights. Carolyn shifted to fill his field of vision.

He took her shoulders and pushed her back. Her jacket felt empty beneath his hands. She frightened him, but he held on.

“I never thought I would see you again,” he said. “You left me.”

She smiled, a sliver of ice.

“Not forever,” she said. “He lets me go, sometimes.”

He knew he had lost his chance.

She slid her arms around him. Her cold was unbearable. Serge tried to force her away from him, but it was like pushing into water. She gave way, and he only sank. At the edges of his vision he could see the shadows pouring in, filling in the lighted spaces.

“You are so warm,” she said, and pressed her mouth over his. Breath flowed out of him. He felt his lungs crackle and freeze, cold like a burn radiating from his chest. His eyes grew foggy. All he could see was static and snow, spiraling into a familiar shape. He could read it now.

 

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