In the mouths of children, the words “snow day” are sacred. It’s uttered in prayers, but hardly ever aloud. To speak it might jinx the gods of snow and school cancellation. When the 5 AM phone call blasted through the house, little Anna bolted upright in her bed and dove for the window.
Outside the apartment was a wasteland of potential. Perfect white snow glowed under the streetlights that were obscured by still falling flakes, not a car to be seen on the roads and not a soul in the thickly coated parking lot.
Anna heard the shambling of her mother who shouted at the phone. The answering machine picked up before she could get there. A robotic voice confirmed the prayers of the little girl, and she started to jump up and down on the bed, letting out small screeches.
The door creaked open. Anna’s mother walked in, hair natty and eyes barely open. “School’s out kid. Now I don’t want to hear a word before 9. I need sleep,” she said, and closed the door.
Anna sat in her bed, fully clothed and prepped for the snow. When 7 AM hit she tiptoed across the apartment and made her way outside. She stepped tentatively from the stairs, grazing the pristine snow before drawing her boot back. Then she dove into the white powder, belly flopping into the fresh foot that had fallen. She tried to make a snow angel, but sunk too deep and only managed to cocoon herself.
She stayed there for a while, snug in her coat, staring at the sky and its unrelenting gray. She closed her eyes, letting the silence and peace of the morning overcome her. No tests. No angry Mrs. Dole. No trying to prove that she was cool, not just a new out-of-towner. Just peace.
When she opened her eyes, a coal-eyed boy stood over her, skin paler than the snow. She shrieked and the boy smiled, showing black teeth and a wide grin. He knelt down and poked her in the forehead and turned to run.
Anna rolled out of her cocoon, looking for the boy. She watched as he rounded the corner, running on top of the snow with easy grace. His footprints were perfect forms of a small foot, each like a cast in the soft snow. She stared at the prints, her heart pounding.
The sound of crunching snow echoed from beyond the corner and Anna waited, holding her breath to see if he was coming back.
Louder, closer. The steps came faster.
When a red-coated neighbor walked around the corner with a dog, she let out the breath. The pug bounced in the snow, herping and derping its way to Anna. It shoved its flat face into her leg and she bent down to pet the runty puppy and forced a smile for the neighbor. Anna’s hands shook as she pet the dog. After it had left, she eventually wandered to the edge of the building, staring at the tracks and following them.
Behind the old apartments stood a rusting jungle gym. The old swings creaked and the slide made tall ramps of snow. Sitting at the top of the slide, sled in hand, was a child in the thickest orange parka that Anna had ever seen. He dropped over the rail onto the ramp and the whole mess slid down in an avalanche, leaving the boy cackling at the bottom.
“Hey Danny,” Anna said.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Did you see a weird boy come through here a few minutes ago? He was running this way. Had some sort of mask over his eyes.”
Danny stared at her for a second and bit his lip. “My mom said not to talk about them.”
“Do you know what unit they live in? Are they new like me?”
“Just try to ignore them. I don’t think my mom likes them at all. Neither does the dog,” Danny said.
“Oh. Okay,” Anna replied. She desperately wanted to know more but her shyness took over. She couldn’t afford to lose potential friends over badgering them. Instead she knelt down packed a snowball and flung it at Danny. He picked up his sled to block it, and with a giggle chased after her with a giant clump of snow.
Going home was always harder than it should have been. She tried to ease her way through the door, moving with the hinges and trying to make it silent.
The spirits that haunted her mother were different. They lived in empty glass bottles piled neatly in the recycling bin. She tried to fill the hole in herself with amber liquors, not understanding that her vessel was more a funnel than a vase. Her cup could never runneth over, only drain bitterly.
Anna breathed a sigh of relief seeing that she was fully asleep on the couch. It wasn’t that she harbored any sort of hate for the woman, it’s just that things went better when they didn’t talk. Her mother was regretful over a great many things in her life, and was prone to critical anger towards her daughter over the smallest of details. This snow day was hers, weird kids or not, and she intended to have a good one. She grabbed a box of granola bars and stuffed them under her coat.
When Anna reached her bedroom, she tossed the snow gear over the heater and looked out the window. Deep trenches had started to appear on sidewalks where the building’s super huffed and puffed his way with a shovel on the long sidewalks. Kids and a few others braved the cold but most stayed inside.
At the edges of her vision a wisp of white appeared. She felt something soft settle against her hair, terribly hot but so gentle.
“We’ll never set you free,” a small voice whispered.
Anna screamed and reeled, but found the room empty. The walls were covered in bright colors, contrasting with the drab carpet and drapes. She’d been fighting the winter with markers and crayons for months. Still, she was the only soul in the room.
In the living room, the sleeping giant lurched and stretched, but didn’t wake. Anna weighed her options. Could she even tell her mom? The woman would think Anna was insane. Would start talking about taking her back to the counselor who just wanted her on Ritalin. She would mumble to herself about what she did to deserve such a nagging child.
She opted not to wake her mother and sat alone in the bedroom, put headphones on, and pulled the covers over her head. A few tears streaked her face, but she soon let the music overtake her and sleep came shortly after.
Anna started to notice the white spirits more, but only when the weather was changing. It was something in the light, something in that weird area before dark but not quite twilight under the deep gray clouds that turned the sky purple or gun-metal gray. She had noticed them, and now they followed her.
Small wisps around corners, quiet chatter in the dark. It was a rainy night like any other. The smaller spirits hadn’t touched her since their impromptu game of tag back in the snow, but they lingered when they could.
She walked the long hallway to the stairs, her 5th floor apartment was a walk up without an elevator. The sweet smell of rain in the city wafted up the stairwell, greeting her with cold prominence. The dank yellow of the lighting cast dull shadows on the barely illuminated steps.
Anna turned the corner to the second floor landing and saw the light was out. The inky abyss below her was illuminated only by a narrow rectangle of light through the door’s window. She ignored the chill that ran down her spine and ran through the dark.
Lightning strobed bright light into the corridor. In the corner a lanky man sat shirtless. His skin was pale as snow, except for the black rooted lines that came from his arm. Black spots and a rubber tube wrapped around his right arm. He was staring right at her.
Before the thunder could clap, he started to hum. The tune was deep but joyful. It carried the sort of slow rumble of a reverential gospel song. Thunder cracked through the building and rumbled down to Anna’s bones. She ran.
In her panic she tripped over her feet as she rounded the corner. Before she could slam into the steps, giant hands gripped her by the ribs. The strong hands drew her back to the landing. His hum was closer now, reverberating and thick. She felt the piping hot breath on her shoulder as he brought his lips to her ear.
“No haste, girl. Do not fear. It has already been decided. We will never set you free,” he said. Another flash of lighting and with the passing of that brief pulse the man was gone.
Back on her feet, Anna ran down the stairs and into the brighter lights outside the complex. She looked at the massive brown brick building. It stood as a monolith over her as she watched its dark corners. The identical buildings near hers stood stoic against the dark, but her home was swarming with hardly discernible shadows. The corners seemed less solid, the windows duller and more sullen.
The rain pelted Anna while she stared. Like her fingers in the cold rain, the fear started to turn numb. She turned to the neighboring building and ran for it, incredibly relieved that she was allowed to sleep at her friend’s house for the night.
The storm that had lingered on the horizon for many hours descended over the complex. Anna, now older, had been sitting at her desk, pacing her way through math homework. She liked it more than the other kids. It always had an answer. There was always a solution. The problems locked together forming a puzzle to be solved, not a riddle to be pondered.
When the rain started to patter on her window, she could hear the small spirits walking on her bed. The springs should have creaked, but their footfalls only slightly disturbed the comforter. The lamp on the milk crate that was her nightstand cast their long shadows watched her. Without turning around she suspected three. There were usually more.
She finished the problems, trying to pay them no mind. Then Anna walked to the bed and flapped the comforter, watching as they slid from the top of the bed to her bedside. Their little hands gripped the bed at eye level, their black rounded eyes staring into her as she covered herself with the comforter and put the headphones on.
Anna counted slowly. Every second that passed she heard less of them. Less whispers, less rumpling of sheets. It was weird to think that she had been training the spirits just by ignoring them. Danny had been at least a little right on that point.
At the count of ten, Anna pulled the covers back.
The spirit from the hallway stared at her from the window. He was different now, longer and stronger, not entirely man anymore. The colors were like an orca, black along the back, and white over the eyes, the inverse of the children. On his arm the needle shredded veins turned white against obsidian skin. The white roots stretched all over the body. She’d only seen glimpses of him since that day on the stairs, and the smaller spirits never lingered long in his presence.
He stared at Anna, huge palms pressed to the glass. He started to nod his head and a hum carried through the window. Slow at first, but he was humming to the song playing on her iPod.
He slid his giant palm to the base of the window, and lifted. He climbed through, wavering in the air more like he was gliding than walking.
He put his hand on her face gently and whispered, “Time to go, Anna.”
She shook her head, trying to draw the covers up again. With his other hand the dark man grabbed Anna’s hands and stopped her from hiding. His hands were gentle against her wrist and helped her stand. Together they walked to the door and he opened it. Outside her room the world was a void, a singularity from which she had already long passed the event horizon. Not even the breath she drew could escape the consuming and silent maw.
The air in her bedroom started to pull into the doorway. Brightly colored papers tore from the walls and wound their way past Anna. The darkness swallowed them.
The tall being knelt down to Anna and looked her in the eyes. Her silent tears did not dissuade him as he gave a gentle push. She felt the weightlessness take over, and from the doorway he stepped into the emptiness as well. He grabbed her hand as they floated in the dark. The door edged shut, closing off the light and sounds of the old world. His hand tightened on hers and he said,“I promised. I told you we would never set you free.”
And they never set her free.
In the dusky hallways and old apartments, the people changed but the soul of the complex did not. It always sat on the periphery of life, an almost success, an almost story waiting to bloom. Almost. The whole place was a collective dream of a better future, but like crabs in the pot, life always found a way to pull them back into the boiling water.
Anna watched her mother fade, but felt the trembling echoes of the woman in every thought. The thick smoke of her cigarettes might have been gone, but the stench lingered in the walls and carpets. She still crossed each threshold tenderly, daring not to disturb the world.
Anna saw all of this as she wandered the old hallways and played with the toys of other children in silence and alone. Over time her tastes became more complex, less benign. She remained haunted by the spirits, but haunted others too. She would stay with them until they were spirits too.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.