“So explain this again.” The tall building on Brick Street had an ominous and eerie feeling.
“Winter has his territory blocked off within Nowhere. You can only reach it through this door.”
“Okay.” I walked up the steps to the front door. The lock was rusty, but the key didn’t seem to mind. It slid in as easily as it had every other lock and turned smoothly. There was a click, and the door came open easily. Clutching the key in my hand, I stared into the threshold. Unlike every other door to Nowhere I’d seen thus far, it was not black. The vision within the door was a field of snow.
“Are you ready?” William asked.
I closed my eyes, and nodded. “Yes.” I went through the door, and upon reaching the other side, it slammed shut. I could hear Maurice and William pounding on the other side. I grabbed the handle, jerking with all my might. But to no avail. This side bore no keyhole, and if Maurice could not open the door from his side, there was little hope of it opening for me.
Someone clapped behind me. Slow, sarcastic claps. I turned around, feet starting to get cold as snow seeped into my shoes. My shoes. Not the perception of my shoes. My shoes in actuality. I was myself again.
“Welcome to my world, Catherine.” He was not tall. But he was not short. His eyes were the blue of the ice around us and his hair was the color of sand. “It’s taken you sometime, longer than I expected.”
“Do I know you?”
“Yes…and no.” He smiled, flashing canines that were just a touch too pointed to be friendly in a smile. “I am Winter. I am the man that took your husband. But in the world out there, I have another name. They call me Daniel.”
“Officer Dan stops by once a week.”
He was too handsy by far…his cologne was overpowering…
“Indeed.” He smiled again. “You’re so cold, Catherine. So very cold. I just wanted to help you. Things—never would’ve worked out with you and David. His family never approved and you—you can’t even bring a child to term. At least, not his child.”
His words should have grated against my ears, but instead fell soft as feathers and with the warmth of a steady fire. He walked towards me, and I found myself frozen. My feet would not move.
“David was so mistaken. I never wanted him.” He was within arm’s reach, but I couldn’t move. He reached out and stroked my cheek with a cold hand. “You…Catherine. You’ve always been the one I wanted.”
I couldn’t bring my voice to speak; it lay frozen behind my lips.
He drew even closer, just a handbreadth away now. “The one I cared for. The one I love.” He leaned in and kissed my cooling lips. I couldn’t move. “Now, now you are mine.”
The key was still in my hand. It shouted at me, screamed and berated. Fight! Fight back Catherine!
The cold was eating away at me. He was doing this. I pulled memories of David from my mind. Summer afternoons spent in the shade. A spring picnic in the park. Our honeymoon off the Mediterranean. All warm and full of his love. The ice around my heart cracked. A loud snap jolting through my body.
Walking, hand in hand, to the market on the weekends. Dreaming together of the future, naked to the full moon’s light. Whispered kisses in the shadows. David brought me into the light.
The ice cracked again, and crumbled. I balled up a fist, and punched Daniel in the nose. He staggered back, hand going to the blood starting to leak from the extremity. “You bitch!”
I smiled. “Aren’t as good as you thought, are you?” I took a menacing step forward, “Now, where is my husband?”
Never Anger a Lamppost
“He is gone. Removed. You can never have him. Don’t you see? This is what’s best for you. Anything that reminded you of David was poison. Had to go.” He smiled. “Your baby—was killing you, and that…cat. It only reminded of David. I couldn’t let you suffer like that.”
“You think I wanted my baby dead?” The audacity of the man struck me in roots giving place for rage to settle. “You think I hated having Variel around? She is still with me. She’s kept going. Kept me sane. You think I wanted to find her body?
“Blood—pouring out of her ears, her nose…her mouth.” I wiped at my own mouth in reflex. “You think I wanted my baby dead? Dead and blood pouring out of me. It was everywhere.” I stared at my hands for a moment before looking up at him. “I can still smell the death on me. That was you?”
Fear caught his face. I didn’t know what he saw, but I felt myself changing. Felt the wind catch at fabric around my waist and elbows. Grey and black tatters of a gown. The gown was alive in itself. It was alive with my grief. Alive with my rage.
“I would never do anything to hurt you—”
“You never loved me. You only wanted to possess me. You’re a coward. You’re a selfish coward.” Tears flavored my words intermittent with rage.
Objects began to appear around me. Stones and books and silverware, a lamp post and a mail box. More and more in a ring around myself and him.
“Where is my husband?” My voice cracked like a whip.
“He will never have you! He can never escape me!”
“You’re wrong. I didn’t make it here on my own. Someone helped me.” I opened my hand to reveal the silver key I’d clutched so hard the outline of it was embedded in my hand. “David helped me. He brought me the key. He set me on the path. Now you will give him back to me.”
“No! No! He his mine! And you are mine!”
The inanimate clamored around me. Let us… Let us… Let us…
I knew what they wanted. “Your life will end here, in blood and sorrow if you refuse me again.”
“You think you frighten me little girl? I’ve killed hundreds like you!”
And their bones spoke to me from the ground, soft whispers of long ago life. Let us… Let us… Let us…
I closed my eyes for just a moment. “Give him back. Please.” I spoke over the maelstrom of tiny voices.
“Please? Please?” He laughed. “Never!”
I sighed. “Then you will get no mercy from me.” I let go of the control I had over their bloodlust. Bones rose from the ground and went first, battering into the man. And then the silver and the stones and the books. The lamppost and the mail box.
I turned away, but couldn’t quite block out the sound of his gurgled screaming.
“She did say please.” I looked down, Variel sat facing Winter’s bloody end.
“I couldn’t hold them back much longer anyway…I killed a man.” I closed my eyes again and my stomach heaved.
My knees grew cold as snow seeped through the fabric of my tattered gown. I pressed the palms of my hands against the ground to steady myself.
“It’s all right.” Variel rubbed against my arm. “Wash your mouth out with some snow.”
I took her advice, ridding myself of the after burn of the bile with the cold clean taste of the snow.
“I have to find David.” I pushed myself up to standing and took a good look around. All I saw was snow and a corpse covered in twitching objects.
“You have to look past the snow. There were two things Winter was good at, illusion, and death. Just, see what’s there.”
I breathed deeply of the brisk air, and looked. All around me, all I saw still was snow. “Nothing.”
“I know you can do this. Concentrate. He must have a home here. A fortress. The inanimate within are clamoring for you. Listen, see.”
I closed my eyes to better hear. At first, all I could hear were the contented sighs of the bloodthirsty. I pushed past them, past the cold of the still stone beneath my feet and the bones too tired to join the fight.
Chairs and a table. Shelves. A fire. Smoke. I could smell it. I opened my eyes and looked up into the sky where the smoke pooled and cast my eyes below it and looked.
The stone building appeared out of the haze. Reasserting itself into the landscape with genuine relief. Variel purred. “Well done.” It was immense. A veritable disaster of architecture from every part of the world one found stone castles in. Fluted turrets met starkly against watchtowers as solid as mountains. Stairs grew from every direction and some ended abruptly, going nowhere.
But there was a door. A clear entrance into the chaos.
I nodded sharply and walked up to the door. It was ajar. The fortress and its furnishings seemed to welcome me. Call to me. I smiled and stroked the lintel gently. “Well done,” I whispered back to it.
One could feel the entire place warm.
But there was a source of cold. A deep, dark cold the house could not warm. I followed the twisting halls of stone back and deeper. Deeper to the heart where the source of the cold was.
Bone-numbing cold that chattered my teeth and turned the tips of fingers blue. It was a shard of ice. Huge, it filled the center of the circular room I found myself in. Its blue tiled floor was cold beneath my feet. The walls were pierced with doorways going in every direction.
Doorways filled with images of places I knew. The cemetery. My house. Hanover Street. The territories of the Wizard and Locksmith. The Library. He’d been watching. Always watching.
I looked up at the pillar. It was smooth and perfect. Precisely clear but for a single imperfection close to the floor. A dark blotch. A strange, large blotch. A man-sized blotch. With the clarity of understanding I rushed to the side of the trapped man. He was embedded deeply within the ice. His arms stretched out in defense, his hands reaching for something.
Variel whistled. Which surprised me as I hadn’t known cats could whistle. But then, Variel wasn’t just any cat.
“That’s a pretty potent work.”
“How do I get him out?”
“Well—” Her words were cut off by a strangled mrowl.
“Variel?” I turned around.
She hung in midair, grasped by translucent hands attached to a translucent form. Winter.
“Let her go!” I swung at him, only to fall through his non-existent form.
The ghost of Winter laughed. He laughed, and laughed. But his laugh cut off as Variel’s claws dug into his chest. Apparently he’d forgotten Variel wasn’t altogether alive. She looked at me, smiled her catty smile and bit down into his throat.
It was some instinct in me that screamed. “No!” But before I could blink, she had sucked him into herself and fell prone to the floor. “Variel?” I moved to her side and knelt, laying a hand on her. “Variel?”
She still smiled, and as I watched, her form faded away.
“Cats are the gatekeepers of death,” David said with a smile. “I figure it’s good to have one around. They keep the spirits that refuse to rest at bay. Of course, they say for every life they send, they lose one of their own.”
“And how many lives has Variel got left you think?” I stroked her ears and snuggled closer to my husband.
“She’s an adventurous creature, but I bet she’s got at least one left.”
“No!” I pounded the floor where she’d lain with numb hands. My tears catching in the gullies between the tiles. Running like rivers amidst islands of cool blue.
I stood and ran to the ice trapping my husband. I pounded my hands against it, dug at it with my nails. One tore off, bleeding sluggishly in the cold.
“David!” I shouted at him. Pounded and tore and shouted again. “David!”
His eyes, which had been closed just a bare moment before, opened. Bright green and piercing.
“David!” I pounded harder, desperate for the ice to break. “David! Please, David! Please!”
One hand moved, clenching into a fist. And then the other. I could see the glint of his wedding ring even through the ice. I pressed my hand against the ice. Willing it to push through to him.
“David?” His hand closed around mine. I stepped away, pulling him free of the ice.
He collapsed against me and we fell to the floor in a heap of arms, legs and dripping clothes. Steam waded off of him in little waves. “Catherine,” he said softly. “Catherine…” He kissed me. He kissed me so fiercely all the cold left my body.
Everything was warm and welcoming. Every hurt, every lonely night washed away in the life of that kiss. There seemed to be water all around me, warm, life-filled water.
The pillar of ice was melting.
“David. We should go, we can’t stay here.”
He drew away, and his smile warmed me down to my toes. “You’re right. But what about Winter? He’ll never let me go. How did get past him?”
“Winter is dead, David.” I swallowed. “He’s dead.”
I met his incredulous eyes. “I killed him. The inanimate, they killed him because I could not hold them back. I didn’t want to. And his ghost attacked Variel. She took him. Sent him onward. He’s gone. He’s really gone.”
There was no repulsion. David lifted me into his arms and stood. He kissed me again, I thought I would melt. “You did only what you had to do. I have faith in that.”
A shot of sound snapped through the air. The pillar of ice was starting to crack. “We have to go.”
“You still have that key?” I opened my hand. He smiled. “Well done. Hold tight to me.” I didn’t need further prompting. I clutched him tight and he took off running. We slammed through the doorway as the ice fell behind us in deadly shards. Shattering at our heels.
I opened my eyes on my own bedroom. There were arms wrapped around me, I was warm, and dry. I rolled over within the loop of arms. David smiled at me. “Good morning,”
“Good morning.” I kissed him. “You aren’t going to leave me again, are you?”
“Never again.” He pushed my hair out of my face. “You are the bravest person I have ever known. I love you Catherine.”
“I love you too.”
Explanations are Not Forthcoming
“Catherine?” It was my mother, pounding on my door. The shower was running, David. I smiled, picking myself out of bed and shuffling over to my bedroom door. It seemed Maurice had taken the time to fix it.
With a new deadbolt even. Bless him.
I unlocked the door and opened it on my mother in mid-knock. “Good morning.”
“Good morning? Good morning?” Her voice raised several decimals. “You’ve been gone. Vanished. No one has been able to find you anywhere!”
“Well, I wasn’t anywhere. I was Nowhere. Now. If you excuse me, I want to take a shower.” I started to close the door, but she stopped me.
“Catherine Elizabeth! I want an explanation. You ran from the hospital, you vanish for days at a time. You rave at Mr. Crowley about David being alive and now you have the audacity to brush it off like it’s nothing?”
David stepped behind me and wrapped his arms around me, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good morning, Mom.”
“You see, I told you he was alive.” My mother fainted, falling to the floor with a fairly significant thump. Maurice and William were quick to step up to help her away.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” William said. “We’ll explain everything to the family.”
Maurice nodded in agreement. “Far past time. This family has too many secrets.” Now that, I could agree with.
“Mommy! Mommy! Look what I found!” My daughter rushed up to me, chocolate brown pigtails waving behind her, barely contained by her blue ribbons. In her hands she held a squirming kitten. “Isn’t he adorable?” She held him up for my inspection, green eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Precious.” The kitten was nothing special at first glance. Black with white feet and bib. His tail thrashing in irritation.
“Can I keep him?”
“Hmm…” I lifted him from her inexpert grip to take a closer look.
“I’ll call him Mittens and feed him and keep him clean and everything!” she promised emphatically.
Mittens? The kitten decried. My name is not Mittens. On closer inspection, one could see the pattern of darker black stripes. Amidst those stripes was an image. A key.
“I don’t think he looks like a Mittens, Victoria.”
“Then what does he look like?” David asked, peeking at the kitten over my shoulder.
Monty. The kitten mewled. My name is Monty.
“Monty. He looks like a Monty.”
My daughter frowned at the kitten for a moment, and then clapped her hands. “Does that mean he stays?”
I smiled at her and glanced back at David, who nodded. “Yes, that means he stays.”
Oh good, he purred, Cause I’m hungry. I laughed, cuddling the kitten tight and then drawing my daughter in for a hug. David wrapped his arms around both of us.
My daughter squealed in happiness and basked in the warmth and love of my family. At long last, I won the war and Winter had no hold on me.