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Monday, October 24, 2016

Short Story: Cold

Cold
Austin Ballard

It was a cloudless morning, for the first time this year. Like many of his cabin fever-ridden neighbors, Peter hoped the long winter was finally over—the longest and earliest winter in forty years, the news had said.
   Peter’s snow boots crunched on the frosty grass as he lugged his load to the edge of the pond. He dropped his lunchbox, ice saw, and lawn chair still in its bag onto the ground, then hefted his shovel. He walked up to the edge of the frozen pond, up to the familiar spot by the willow with its hanging tendrils frozen in the water.
   Peter didn’t bother being careful when stepping on the ice. He walked right onto the familiar sheet near the willow and stomped down hard. Nothing happened. He took the shovel and speared the ice with its spade. The ice didn’t so much as chip. It was just too hard.
   Peter let out a long, white breath that billowed into the wind. He pulled his scarf over his shoulder and peered out over the pond toward the pines on the other side. A couple of premature geese honked as they flew over the fog. Even animals seemed to have been caught off guard by the unnaturally cold winter.
   Peter looked down at the ice again. It had frozen so quickly that it had gotten an odd, milky quality to it, like mottled quartz or frosted glass. Still, Peter thought he could see a bubble in a darker part of the ice. Maybe today was the day after all.
Peter trudged off the shore to the grass and set up his lawn chair. He sat on the canvas seat and looked out over the pond. Another goose honk echoed through the air.

***
“It’s getting cold!”
“I’m coming!” Peter grumbled as he stepped down the stairs. He turned the corner down the hall and entered the kitchen. Hannah sat at the table with her arms folded, a stern expression on her face.
Peter sat down across from her and took a fork, and then sighed. “Egg whites? Really?”
“It’s healthier.”
“I don’t care. I need filling food. I should’ve just made breakfast myself. Now I’ll have to pick up something on the way just to stay full for work.”
“Oh, I wanted to tell you, don’t use the debit card for a while. I ordered the inventory for DressMiss.”
Peter dropped his fork onto his plate. “You what?”
“I know it’s a lot, but it’s an investment. You said it’d be a good supplement to our income.”
“Hannah, I said we needed to talk about it more before you dropped $5,000 on dresses!” Peter said loudly.
“It’s actually $5,600, and, and—” she said, holding up a finger as Peter opened his mouth, “I told you I’ll make it all back in four months! I’ve already got a sales party scheduled for next weekend. I’ve thought a long time about this, and it’ll be something good to keep me busy and make money for us.”
“Fifty-six hundred…” Peter scoffed, eating a bite of his omelet. “I work and save all summer and come back and you spend it all.”
“I’ll make it back,” said Hannah irritably. “Just support me in my desire to work and stop being a jerk about it.”
Peter glared at her. “I don’t see us ever buying a house together at this rate.”

***

Peter smiled as he swiped on his iPhone app. $230. Not a bad start to the day. Why hadn’t he been this good at gambling when he had tried it years ago? Perhaps he simply hadn’t been mature enough yet. He was so young back then, when he and Hannah had just gotten married.
Peter looked over the pond again. The sun was definitely warmer now—still not a cloud in sight—and the day was turning into the loveliest one he had seen all year. The morning frost had already faded from the grass, and Peter had taken off his scarf a half hour ago. If today’s sun didn’t thin the ice, Peter didn’t know what he’d do. Despite his remarkable earnings, he’d spent too many days out here by himself, it seemed.

***

Peter briskly opened the gas station door and walked toward the liquor section. He threw open the refrigerated door and started pulling random bottles into his arms. Foster’s, Heineken, lager… he didn’t know if they were brands or flavors or what. He didn’t care.
Peter brought the clinking bundle to the counter and pulled out his driver’s license and wallet.
“Debit or credit?” asked the clerk.
“Credit.”
Peter brought the sack of alcohol to the car, pounded on the steering wheel with his fist, and screamed. Four months he had worked while Hannah was watching TV and eating home-cooked meals with her mom, just so they could save up for a new life somewhere else. And she was throwing away her $5,600 investment after one party? It was this type of shortsightedness that had started their marriage off so poorly in the first place, but twice was just too much.
Peter opened bottles and drank the bitter, burning liquor from them as he drove. He hoped a cop would arrest him so he could have somewhere else to sleep tonight. But no cars in the dark streets so much as slowed or blinked their headlights at him. He sped to his neighborhood and parked halfway onto the lawn. Hannah’s car wasn’t there yet.
Peter drank some more in the car, coughing and nearly gagging from the taste. He had never drunk before, and now he didn’t understand why anyone would. But he kept drinking anyway.
Eventually, Peter got out of the car and walked into the cold garage. Small snowflakes were beginning to fall. Peter vaguely thought that seemed odd for this time of year, but there was a fog behind his eyes that made it hard to think. He grabbed a shovel and took it inside the front door.
Peter waited.
***

Peter had waited long enough. A sheen of melted water had covered the pond, making it blinding in the noonday, spring sunlight. He took his shovel and walked next to the willow again. This time he was careful as he walked out onto the ice. He stomped the wet ice with his foot, and heard a thick shifting sound as white cracks appeared over the surface of the pond. Peter smiled. He hit the ice with his shovel and was pleased to see that it cut a sizeable crack.
Peter peered into the ice below the willow. He had been stupid to throw Hannah’s body into the pond that night, no matter how drunk he’d been. But how could he have known the pond would freeze that very night? It had been the earliest winter in forty years. Snow had covered the pond for most of the winter, but still, the thought of her being here out in the open for anyone to stumble on had been terrifying.
Peter ran back to his chair to grab the ice saw, almost giddy with relief. Now that the long winter was over, he could finally rest.

(1200 words)

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