Wintergreen

I stroll along the cold pavement and breathe the chilled December air. There is snow, large delicate bunches of flakes, falling slowly from the grey sky, but I know it will not stay. The grass is green and obstinate again this year; no warm blanket of white will cover the ground and bury the memories of winters past.

My long coat flaps in the light gust of breeze as I round the corner. It is not frigid, only cold, only lifeless like the quiet street before me in this tiny neighborhood down by the water. I try admire the beautiful homes in their stolid quiet but my appreciation is tinged with disgust; they’re all the same, formulaic, cookie-cutter, McMansions.

I come to the spot and slow. I take in a deep breath of the winter, then let it out slowly and watch the steam of my exhale in the stillness. A puff of smoke from the last living dragon. The final blast of steam escaping a dying locomotive. The last of my life escaping from me in cloud of vapor.

This was the spot. The ground will never be the same again, never be flat, never be even, never be unmarred, no matter what a landscaper or psychiatrist does.

I see us leaving the party late that night, so many years ago, laughing, flirting, smiling in the cool December air and warm embrace of alcohol. Then from nowhere, the sound of the engine, too loud and too high. The SUV of the drunk driver, full of his drunken college friends, plowing into her and pinning her against the stone wall of the yard. Her screaming. Me screaming. Sirens. Her last words as her eyes stared from her tear-soaked face into mine, and her bloody hand clenched my fingers tight one final time: I love you.

I take a deep breath, and begin to walk again. Another year and I know the snow will not stay. Another winter without her embrace, only the warm one that slowed me that fateful night. Only my cold bed and her calling in my dreams await me.

I know no matter how much snow falls, I will be forever stuck in this cold world, the cold empty world of wintergreen.

The Obliteration Room

Colonel F. J. Jefferson walked into the cold steel room and surveyed the panels of blinking instruments. Scientists clad in white lab coats scurried about, flicking switches, twisting knobs, pulling levers. The air buzzed with a ferocious intensity.

“This is it,” Dr. Wodehouse said proudly. He and Jefferson faced to turn the one-way glass. “Behind this glass and that steel door lies the greatest weapon we have ever produced. It will be the weapon that will turn the tide of the war.”

“A room?” Jefferson said quizzically. “How is a room a weapon?”

“We call it The Obliteration Room.” Wodehouse took a drag from his cigarette. The smoke curled upward into the stale air of the observation room. “Right now our technology is just confined to the fields we can generate inside, but once we extend the coils to be able to be applied anywhere we’ll be unstoppable.”

Wodehouse flicked a switch on the instrument panel opposite the glass and leaned down to speak into the grille of the microphone above it. His cigarette dangled in his mouth as he spoke. “Bring in the test subject.”

A pale emaciated man in an orange jumpsuit was lead into the room in front of them by a guard. He was chained at the wrists and ankles. The guard deposited the prisoner in the center of the chamber, then exited and closed the steel door behind him. The wheel in the door spun, hermetically sealing off The Obliteration Room from the surrounding passages of the bunker.

“Fire the weapon,” Wodehouse said, his voice tinny and garbled in the microphone, his expression unmoving.

The scientists in the room flipped switches and chattered excitedly. Then there came a low humming. The humming rose to a drone, then a grinding, then a deep throbbing that seemed to shake the whole facility, one that resonated in the forms of all in the observation room, and seemed to shake Jefferson’s very bones within his old frame.

The walls of The Obliteration Room wavered like a mirage in a desert. The prisoner craned his necked upward toward the ceiling and screamed. His face melted into a liquid, pouring down his cheekbones and exposing the red muscle of his face beneath. His eyeballs swelled and bulged from their sockets. He screamed in agony and the scream was drown out beneath the droning of the machine. He flailed his limbs wildly at his sides, as the men in the observation chamber watched in horror, and then they exploded into clouds of red blood and muscle and splintered bone.

The prisoner fell to floor, writhing, melting, screaming, crying for mercy and disintegrating into a pile of gore.

“Shut it off! Shut it off!” The Colonel screamed. Wodehouse watched impassively.

Finally, the drone died down and all was quiet again. The men in the observation chamber stared blankly into The Obliteration Room, at the steaming puddle of red ooze and shattered bones that had once been a man.

Jefferson looked down at the instrument panel.

“God help us,” he muttered. “We shall never use this weapon.”

Wodehouse smiled. “Follow me,” he said coolly.

“To where?” Jefferson asked, still shaken.

“To the others.” Wodehouse flicked his cigarette. “This is only the first.”

Twilight

Slowly, the sun peeked over the horizon, scarlet and bulbous, and the warm amber glow of twilight gave way to morning. It was going to be another beautiful day.

All around me lay the dead. It had been so long I no longer thought of them as things that had been people; they were a part of the scenery now: ancient husks lying in twisted piles, nothing but intermingled bones and charred flesh long ago turned to ashes. They were the scattered pages torn from the books of an ancient library. They were the cast aside envelopes from a million urgent missives sent too late. Detritus. Chaff. Dust.

The battle to keep going is not about survival. The world is vast, and all that wiped out humanity left our material things behind. There are factories. There are farms. There are warehouses full of that I can use or consume. I can fend for myself.

In my life, I lived in the city, surrounded by people but alone. A world full of strangers is a cold one. I thought then I knew what loneliness was, but I know now I had not the slightest inkling. I drank with an eyedropper from the ocean that is isolation.

I smile weakly at the rising sun, but inside I remain hollow. What’s the point of going on, if I’m the only one left?

Dove Lake

I always loved going up to the cottage. It had been passed down in my family for generations. A rustic little box of stone and red wood, it sat in the middle of clearing down by the waters of Dove Lake, a stalwart little guardian of the serene wilderness around it.

I remember packing up all our things every summer with my Dad – fishing rods, propane grill, pots and pans, citronella candles, the whole kit and caboodle – into the back of our tiny dark green station wagon and heading up there for a week every July.

I loved those times in my childhood. My father was a stern man, but that tough armor he wore, that look he had like the world owed something and he was going to fight damn hard to get it, seemed to fall by the wayside as soon as we made our way up north. The beautiful trees and rocky hills of the Canadian Shield just brought out the good in him and let him leave all his worries behind.

My old man passed away many years ago, God bless him, and so the cottage belongs to me now. Kate and I had been loading up our own little car and heading up there every summer just as I’d done in my childhood. But that all came to a stop that one summer. I could never look at the cottage the same way after that, or think of it only in the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

It was two years ago that it happened. Kate had just had the baby not too long ago, and we’d decided after all the stress of becoming new parents to head up to the cottage for some time just for us. We deserved it. We left the baby with Kate’s parents, packed up the car, and headed up the highway to Dove Lake.

“I just want to sit out on the dock and read my book,” Kate had said.

That was the other thing. We weren’t just heading up there and leaving our newborn son behind just because we wanted some time for ourselves. Kate hadn’t been doing so well after the delivery. She’d still been in a lot of pain (which the doctors said was not normal, but did occur) and more troubling, had been very down since.

I talked with our doctor about what to do. Medication wasn’t necessary, he’d said. This happens after a baby sometimes and it eventually goes away. If things worsened or Kate’s mood didn’t lift we could look at other options. He agreed that heading up to the cottage to relax and take our minds off things would be a good way for Kate to feel better.

It was great to get up there. The sun was beautiful on the rippling dark waters of Dove Lake and our little rustic getaway (humble though it was) brought joy to my heart when we pulled into the property’s gravel drive. I thought of my youth, of sitting out in the little tin tippy and fishing with my Dad, and him telling me stories about the men at the factory, and how he’d travelled across Europe by train when had graduated from college, and how Grandpa used to sit out and fish on the lake with him just as we were.

I squeezed Kate’s hand. She was staring out the passenger window.

“Honey, we’re here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied heavily, and sighed. She frowned and I kissed her on the cheek.

It was always cold in the cottage. Though it was the middle of July, Dove Lake was far enough north that the temperature really dropped in the early morning and in the evening. You could see your breath in those early hours, those mornings we’d sit out on the dock and drink strong black coffee from tin mugs, and watch the mist rise from the still waters of the lake.

This year was different somehow. I was excited and happy to be away and escape up to the family retreat, but everything carried this dreary heaviness that emanated from Kate. Nothing seemed to break up the dark clouds that surrounded her; there was an impenetrable wall, a filter where all the sunshine and beauty passed in dull and gray to her, and all the beauty I knew she had inside couldn’t get out.

I tried to help. I tried to cheer her up, but I just couldn’t. Things got worse, and we argued at night, though she had even little energy to put into that. In those nights we huddled under the sheets close but were a thousand miles apart; the air in the cottage was cold but her next to me was colder still.

By the fourth day we weren’t talking much. There was just this uncomfortable silence between us, and the dark gloom enveloping her. I began to wonder what to do. I just wanted us to be happy. I suggested that perhaps we should just go home, that it wasn’t right to do it that year, what with the new baby, and how she was feeling, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.

“We came for the week,” she said, sad but resolute. “We’ll stay for the week.” She sighed again.

On the fifth day Kate wouldn’t come outside. I went for a hike. I came back to the cottage and she was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Honey,” I said, “Let’s go out in the boat. Come on, let’s go fishing.” Anything.
“No,” she sighed, and rolled over. “You go.”

I should never have gone.

The waters of Dove Lake were dark that day, dark and still and quiet; the air was cold and damp. I rowed out and there was no sound at all, except the metal oarlocks creaking in protest and the water splashing from their cyclic motion. I stopped when I reached the center of the lake and dropped my line. I felt alone. I worried about my wife, and about our new son. I looked over the side of the boat at my reflection in the glassy water. It was like a mirror. My face stared back up at me, tired and sad, with the dark gray clouds over that overcast day as my backdrop.

Far off near the shore, I saw mist rising from the shallows. I didn’t catch anything in those lonely hours. I felt as the last man in all the world, sitting completely alone and isolated, in the center of purgatory. No one could reach me. No one knew I was here. Nothing could lift the gloom of the mists of the lake.

I paddled back to shore, and turned to see the cottage dock coming into view, coalescing out of the mist. I pulled the oars again and their metal shackles squealed. Splash. Squeal. Splash. Squeal. I stopped again and turned to toward the cottage.

Peering through the mist, I saw a ghostly spectre emerging from the far end of the dock. It was a pale, thin form, naked, slowly treading along the boards toward the cold black waters at the end.

It was Kate.

I screamed her name and my cry echoed out against the gray sky. She didn’t slow. I began to panic and started rowing with all my strength. The oarlocks groaned and complained louder than before and I felt like I was going to tear them from the gunwales of the boat. I’d never get there in time. I called her name again and again and my distraught cries echoed out into the nothingness, into the watching trees of the North.

Again I turned and looked over my shoulder. I was too late. I watched my wife reach the end of the dock. Even from the distance I could see her standing there, starkly contrasted against the rising mist. Slowly, she looked down. She raised her eyes straight up, to the lake, to me, and then her arm in one long, fluid, languorous motion. One finale wave goodbye.

Kate stepped from the dock and disappeared into the waters of Dove Lake.

I screamed and screamed and pulled the oars with all my strength. I paddled faster and faster, faster than I ever had before, until my arms burned and every fiber of my being begged me to stop. Still I rowed, until my arms felt like they would be pulled from their sockets. It didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do.

By the time I reached the dock, Kate was already dead. Her body floated cold and lifeless in the water. Sobbing, I pulled it into the boat with me. I cradled her head in my lap and sobbed and sobbed and called for her to come back, to live, not to go.

But she was already gone.

Last year the anniversary of Kate’s death came around. Her parents and my family offered their condolences. We had a nice dinner at her folks’ place, and visited the cemetery to honor her memory. But I wanted to do so in my own way. I wanted to go back to Dove Lake and have some time alone just as I’d done every year.

When I got up there after the long drive, everything was eerily still and all the memories came flooding in a rush, like a dam breaking. It was just as it had all been the year before. On the coarse wood of the table made of logs, still folded, sat the quilt Kate had lain under the day she died.

I’m selling the cottage this year, because like I said, I can never go back up there again. I can never feel the same way about the cottage as I did before. And maybe you think that’s because of what happened, because of Kate dying, and because of all the bad feelings I now have associated with that place, overpowering all the memories of my youth.

But that’s not it. I can never go back because last year I rowed out to the center of the lake again, and in the mists of the far shore I saw Kate walking out into the water; and when I looked down into it I saw not my own reflection, but her sad face, begging me why I’d done nothing to stop her.

Down The Chimney

A cloud of ash and soot exploded out of the fireplace. Hacking and coughing, I batted at the ashen smoke with my arms.

The cloud cleared and standing in our living room, in front of Michael and I, was a man in a Santa suit.

“HO, HO, HO!” he laughed. He was emaciated and was covered in filth. His face wore a psychotic grin and I could see his teeth were yellow and some were missing. At his feet was a filthy burlap sack.

“Have you both been good little boys and girls this year?” the stranger said. “Because I’ve got something just for you.”

He rummaged in the bag and I could see it was full of an assortment of vile things: a dead cat, old rotten vegetables, what looked like an ancient carton of putrefying eggs.

The man pulled something out of the sack, something long and blue and metal. It was a crowbar.

“Merry Christmas!” he yelled manically. He raised the bar and ran toward Michael.

Then they were on the ground and he was swinging the crowbar high above his head and down onto Michael’s face. I screamed and tried to pull him off but he was too strong. He bashed Michael’s face savagely with the cruel bar, and with each swing above his head he laughed: HO swing HO swing HO swing.

Finally he stopped and Michael lay bleeding on the floor, his face an unrecognizable mess. I was sobbing. The stranger stood up and grinned his evil yellow grin at me.

“Well now,” he said, and dropped the bar. “Have you been a good little girl this year?”

My Dog Wrench

I love my dog Wrench. Wrench is a special dog. He’s not like any other dog in the whole world.

Wrench was a stray, and I adopted him. I found him out in the world when he was wandering around, lost, scared, and alone. I’d always wanted a little doggie of my own and Wrench looked like he needed help. So I took him into my heart.

Some people say you shouldn’t adopt strays, because when they’re away from human contact for too long they don’t do so well being reintroduced to it. They’re basically not like pets anymore, they’re more like feral animals. I can see the thinking behind this, but I adopted Wrench anyway; he was just so beautiful. And I wanted more than anything to have a little pet doggie of my own.

When I first adopted Wrench, he was still very much an animal like that – he was scared and confused. He was still crying and yipping and whining a lot, he was so scared. I understood how it all must look to a little dog like him, how frightening all of this new environment must be. How new I must have been. It was only natural.

He wouldn’t eat. He refused to touch the big bowls of wet food I put out for him, or even the dry kibble. He tried to run away every time I opened the front door. He even bit me. But I guess that much was to be expected; you can’t just adopt a stray animal and expect it to be perfectly behaved and love you right off the bat. These things take time. You have to build a relationship. You have to train your animal for obedience. You have to reward it when it does good and punish it when it does wrong.

And that’s how my dog Wrench got his name.

Wrench is well-behaved now. Wrench loves me and I love him. When I leave work I always get excited when I think about coming home to find him waiting for me behind front door. When I come in he’ll jump up and up and put his paws on me and bark excitedly. He’s so excited to see his master and I’m excited to see him.

I love my dog Wrench. Wrench is a special dog. He’s not like any other dog in the whole world. I love that he greets me when I come home. I love that he sits up on my lap and lets me pet him when I’m watching TV. I love that he wears the new collar I bought him. I love that he’s my best friend in the whole world, man’s best friend, and I’m his.

Even so I know that Wrench will always be an indoor dog. I’ll never be able to take him out for walks, or buy him a leash, or take him out to a dog park to play with other dogs. Wrench must always stay inside because he’s special. I know he’s special because yesterday when I walked by the bus station I saw his picture on the bulletin board beneath big bold capital letters which read HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD.

I love my dog Wrench. Wrench is a special dog. He’s the most special dog in the whole world. And no one will ever take him away from me.

Christmas Eve Gift

“I’m too excited!” I said. “There’s one I want you to open now.”

“But it’s only Christmas Eve!” she said, finishing the last of her hot chocolate. “Surely it can wait until the morning.”

“Oh come on! Just this one,” I said, scrambling over to the pile of presents beneath the tree. I found the one I was excited about – the big, square one I’d wrapped in red foil. I brought it over and set it down on her lap.

“Ooof! It’s heavy!” she said. She shook the box back and forth and the contents thudded around inside.

“Go on, open it! Open it!” I said.

She smiled widely and with excitement began tearing off the festive paper.

“Oh, what could it be? What could it be?” The paper crackled noisily as she crumpled it away. Finally she opened the cardboard flaps at the top.

The dead eyes of her ex-husband stared up at her, still frozen wide in terror inside the head, just as they’d been the moment I’d severed it with the swing of my machete.

She squealed with delight. “Oh, how did you know?!”

I smiled and draped my arm around her, and she kissed me on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas, honey.”

The Invisible War

Nothing helps, and it’s only getting worse.

The dirt, the dirt and the germs, they’re everywhere. Hiding in every little nook and cranny of the house. I’ve scrubbed and I’ve mopped and vacuumed and disinfected everything but they’re just too strong. It’s an infestation. I can’t get rid of them. I can’t live in this cesspool. They have me surrounded and I can’t escape.

It’s only gotten worse. I could feel them spreading, their microscopic forms slowly crawling toward me in my sleep. They’d been getting stronger every day, and I knew it. All my disinfectants, all my arsenal was starting to become obsolete. They were evolving and now I’m losing the arms race. Last night they broke through my final line of defense, my last antiseptic perimeter, my ring of salt around my bed to keep away the little virulent demons. They are winning this war.

I’m infected. I could feel it when I woke up this morning. And I knew I had to do something.

The hot water pours from the faucet, boiling hot, too hot too touch but I know I must. The steam rises in my face and I put my hands under the scalding stream. The pain is excruciating, like nothing I’ve ever felt. I scream in agony but smile wickedly: die you little fuckers, die. I laugh as the liquid scorches my skin. Die, die, die.

No. No, it’s not working. They’re spreading too fast. I have to do something.

I run to the bathroom and turn on the shower. Hot. No hotter. Come on, faster. Hotter. Hotter. I can feel their little microscopic forms spreading all over me, multiplying in tiny little colonies. They’re raising their armies. They’re still on the offensive.

HOTTER. HOTTER. COME YOU MOTHERFUCKING HYDRO COMPANY WHAT DO I EVEN PAY YOU FOR! FUCK, HOTTER! HOTTER!

I step into the burning water and it is glorious in its destruction. I scream over and over as it burns my skin but I know I’m going to win now – I’ve mounted the offensive. Die you little fuckers, die. You picked the wrong man to fuck with. I scream and scream and in my screams of agony I can hear myself laughing but then I’m not sure whether I’m laughing or crying. But it doesn’t matter.

It’s still not enough. No matter how hot the water it’s not enough. I am torching the theatre of war to take the enemy with me but it’s not enough. I scrub and scrub and scrub, but it’s not getting them off. They are multiplying too fast. I just want them to die. I just want to feel clean. It’s not enough. It’s not enough.

My sobbing slows. With a shaking red hand I turn the shower off. The stream of inferno recedes to a dribble, tiny drips of lava dropping to the porcelain below. I stand in the steam. My skin is on fire but I don’t care.

It’s already too late.

They’re laughing at me. I can feel them. They’ve already breached the last beachhead. They’ve broken through the castle walls and are inside the city. They’ve osmosed through my skin. They are inside me.

Naked and red, I run to the kitchen. Again I turn on the scalding stream from the faucet. I grab a glass from the cupboard and set it down on the counter. Come on, hotter, hotter. HOTTER. Daddy’s thirsty. Come on. COME ON.

No. No, that wasn’t enough, remember? Stupid. So stupid. It didn’t work before, it won’t work now.

More. More firepower. I need more firepower to win the war. Complete and utter destruction. Total annihilation of the germ race. Genocide. Nuclear holocaust. Wipe them all out: little germ soldiers; little germ civilians; little germ men, women and children and crying germ babies.

In my head I see the image of the tall white jug, and I run to the laundry room.

Job

I was so angry. So very angry. I shook my fist at the sky. I stayed up late into the night, crying hot tears of rage, screaming to the empty rooms of my house. I destroyed my furniture. I drank myself into oblivion. But it all did nothing to dull my rage.

Why me, God? Why must I suffer? What had I done to deserve this fate over my fellow man? Why have you forsaken me?

Cancer. The word was delivered from the doctor’s mouth like bullet to my head.

I tried to find the reason for it all, the meaning behind it. Was this a test? A way to prove my faith? I took the counsel of a priest. Then a medium. Then a Wiccan. No answers. There was only the gaping mouth of the MRI machine, the napalm of chemo ravaging my body, and my inevitable death awaiting me.

How can I love thee, O God, when you treat one of your own children this way? When you smite me with suffering with no explanation? How can the sheep trust the shepherd when he cares for the flock, but also chooses to maim and slaughter at random, with no rhyme or reason, no order, no justice?

You want to test me? You want to see me suffer? Fine. I bow to thy will.

But know that there are many other sheep in your flock, and I can play this game too.

Crank Call

“Where’s Sophia?” I said.

“Playing in the yard.”

The phone rang and I picked it up.

“Hello?”

From the other end of the line there was only heavy breathing.

“UGH!” I said, and slammed the receiver down.

“Who was that?”

“Some pervert,” I said, “There was only breathing on the other end.”

The phone rang again. Again, I picked it up. “Hello?” Again there was only heavy breaths coming through the receiver. I slammed it down.

“Just don’t answer it. Are we almost ready to eat?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so. Would you get Sophia?”

“Sure honey,” he said, and kissed me on the forehead. He went out into the yard.

The phone rang again. I stared at the handset shaking on the cradle. I thought about what kind of sicko could be on the other end of the line, behind the glow of a computer in a dark room somewhere, or hiding in some filthy basement while he randomly called strangers to fulfill whatever sick fantasies he had.

The phone rang and rang and I just couldn’t help myself. I ran over and grabbed it. “Just stop it!” I yelled into the receiver. “Leave us alone!”

Again there was only the sound of heavy breathing. And then, this time, something different. With the breathing I heard the crying of a young girl, and my blood ran cold as I recognized it.

“Mommy! Help me!”

Then, a man’s voice, low and dark and heavy: “Is Sophia there?”

Evil laughter poured from the handset. Through the window I heard the sound of my husband in the yard, calling for our daughter.