The Middle Of Winter

By Robert Starr




Thereís only one way to find out what waits for me in the middle of winter. I might have avoided this whole thing if Iíd just taken a different route that one day, but I was carefree back then, and now it might be too late to do anything about it.

Itís just occurred to me Iíve read something starting with: ĎItís the middle of winter.í Sitting here with the snow and wind buffeting the side of my car, I remember the mood of something depressing.. something absurd. A group of travellers stranded in a snowed-in cabin in the Canadian north, I think, drawing straws to see who gets to take the first frozen bite from the sneering corpse in the corner.

No. It was a sappy story about a little boy and his pet. They get lost in a big storm and the boy huddles beside the dog for warmth. When a search party finds them, they whisk the lad off to the hospital in the nick of time, but the faithful animal is dead. Frozen solid in the protective curl that kept his young master alive.

Anyway, Iíve been sitting here for three hours now and the storm is really beating the sides of this old Chevy. Every time it hammers down, I think I hear the driverís door crimp a little more. But I wonít get out. No way. Not even when the storm tries to trick me into believing I can hear Eleanor over its crazed wail. Not even when Iím sure itís really her moaning over and over again.

I can see Iíve painted a bad picture of myself so far, that Iím probably one of those sickos who hears voices or canít let an old flame go. Well, itís not that way at all. My name is Michael Zapaliski and the woman Iím hoping to talk with isnít who you might imagine. Not a girlfriend, wife, sister, or mother. Not an ex lover or relative in any manner by any stretch. Sheís someone I met in a different place and, thankfully, in a different season.

You must be curious by now. So, if youíre interested and want to understand me and why Iím waiting for her in my car on a December night, Iíll take you back to the fall and a nondescript hill on a dirt road.

I used to like to go out driving on quiet country roads; it was peaceful to whirr through rows of tall trees whispering their flirtatious disapproval to each other in the wind like giddy old women as I drove by.

And thatís what I was doing when I first met Eleanor. Iíd just headed north past several run down farmhouses with green tin roofs and scruffy dogs that chased my car until I passed their property, enjoying the rural sensation that Iíd left the city behind for good, and feeling jaunty enough to flick a half smoked cigarette out the rolled down window. When I lurched over the top of a hill, I saw her standing in the middle of the road, half way down the other side.

I slammed my brakes on and slid to a crunching stop, but Eleanor didnít move. She stood looking at the ground with her hands on her knees, her yellow ankle length skirt fluttering like a field of wheat in the September breeze.

I walked from my car toward her, ready to yell, shake her, or both. I was three feet away when I stepped on a pebble that popped out from under my shoe with a crack, and the noise brought the curtain up on the bizarre play that followed.

"The middle of winter is always very cold," she said without raising her head, and I stopped, suddenly afraid this woman Iíd stumbled on might be an escaped mental patient or the victim of some violent crime dumped in a state of shock by the side of the road. I took a deep breath and one more cautious step before Eleanor pushed one hand in front of her chest, pale fingers extended, and I stopped on command. She pointed to the road in front of her and I saw she'd scratched her name with a shoe before I'd arrived, the seven letters scuffed down to the beige dirt and facing up the hill as though I'd been
expected. Then her head snapped up with a wide-eyed, slack- jaw expression like an invisible hand had grabbed her hair and pulled, and I got my first look at her shocking face.

Have you ever seen ĎThe Screamí by Van Gogh? That elongated mouth frozen in an utterance of unimaginable pain with no teeth and only a black cavernous pit inside? The cheeks like paper mache? Like they would break away with a nail clipperís snap if you poked one with your finger? And those empty eyes. Windows to a vessel filled only with suffering. Black. Hollow.

If youíve seen that picture, you know what I saw when I first looked at Eleanor.

She dropped to one knee holding her hands out beseechingly, lowering her head again and whining softly like a dying wounded animal.

"No, youíve got it all wrong," she sobbed to something I sensed was right behind me. "I wasnít trying to warn him," she said, clasping pleading hands over her head as if in prayer. Eleanor looked up again suddenly, pointing a quaking finger at me with her jaw held horribly high and resolute:

"Itís coming," she whispered looking right into my eyes, " and one day it will come for you."

And the agreeable Autumn breeze was swept away, replaced with a dank, clammy, dark basement air sliding down my back like the palm of a nervous hand; my un worldly would be benefactor dropped her head in terror, covering her china white scalp with wizened hands, and I spun around involuntarily

The stately women at the sides of the road were giddy no more; they wobbled once behind me like I was seeing them reflected in carnival fun house glass and shuddered-branches, leaves, dust, and dirt spun at the top of the hill in a funnel shaped vortex. When the thing started toward me, buzzing like a giant electric fan, the pebbles under my feet started vibrating so my shoes were skimming on top of the earth. It rose to pass over my head and a blast of frigid air jabbed my face like a barrage of simultaneous razor cuts, spinning me around and knocking me to the ground facing the other way.

Lying on my chest with jagged pebbles still vibrating under my ribs, I watched Eleanor hunted down.

I know now she expected to be found; Eleanor knew it would easily detect her escape and take her back to the place she called Ďthe middle of winter.í I know this because I saw what happened next: she presented herself by standing up, folding her arms over her chest, and waiting with closed eyes to be taken.

It wasted no time.

Sensing there wouldnít be a chase, its pursuit slowed and I noticed by the fluttering leaves circling Eleanor and the pebbles rolling languidly into the ditch, it was stalking like a hackled dog, confused and wary of her surrender. The yellow dress snapped from left to right like a crisp sheet shaken over a bed.

Then it took her.

She was suddenly jerked up a foot in the air, her neck going limp with her chin bumping her chest, the arms going dead and dropping to her sides, and her flaccid feet pointing straight down. I remember the horror of thinking whatever held her was about to put on a human puppet show for my eyes, that Eleanor was about to dance like a marionette on malicious, invisible strings.

But she began to spin instead, slowly gaining speed until her arms were flying parallel to her shoulder blades, and her head lolling back so she faced the sky. What was left of the pebbles and leaves started to fling themselves out of the vortex; I covered my face with my hands masking her blurring image.

When it stopped, I peeked up cautiously and Eleanor was gone. The trees began to whisper among themselves again and a lone cricket chirped off to the side of the road like nothing unusual had happened at all.

***

For the next two weeks, I tried to make sense of what Iíd seen, even driving out to the familiar hill several times to look for any evidence of the horrible incident. The second Sunday I woke surprised and happy to realize my attachment had finally dissolved and settled like sediment in the calm pool of a sparkling stream; thinking about Eleanor made me feel the same way I did when I looked at the faces of long dead relatives in bulky photo albums, or when I got up the next sunny day after watching a horror movie alone the night before.

Iíd had enough time to put the whole thing on a shelf where I could see it from a safe distance, and the flimsy cushion of denial had me believing my memory had played a trick on me, that Iíd been the victim of my own imagination and embellished all but the fact Iíd run into a strange country woman who fled when I tripped and fell in front of her.

I was feeling light with this sudden freedom when I walked into my kitchen and opened the door, bending to look in the racks and temporarily blocking my view of the only window in the room. I straightened up with a carton of cool milk just about to touch my lips, immediately catching a dark shape in the window from the corner of my eye. I knew without turning it was Eleanor again, and instantly all the lies Iíd told myself to feel better were washed away. I felt the terrible weight of truth like a cold granite slab on my chest: she was the captive of something unseen and horrific, and had escaped again to warn me I was about to be the next victim.

Eleanor was standing close to the glass and, at first, staring right over my head like she was entranced with something someone had just whispered in her ear. It was an overcast day with a grey tint in the sky warning of a shower. I turned mechanically so we faced each other, but she was still staring past my shoulder. I donít know how long I waited for something to happen before she raised her left hand slowly and pointed behind me, her eyes widening with terror.

I put the milk down slowly on the counter top beside the sink feeling the muscles in my arms and legs tensing, building and focusing their energies like they had when I was a boy trying to grab tadpoles from the pond behind my grandmotherís house. I spun around quickly catching it hovering in front of the light in the middle of my ceiling, and the room suddenly became as cold as a walk in freezer.

And that reminded me of this:

Three weeks before, Iíd been at a busy intersection waiting for the no walk signal to change, comfortable in the anonymity of the strangers passing or waiting silently with me, but pleasantly isolated in my own thoughts. When a crowded bus rumbled up, my trance was broken by the diesel engine. I looked up and saw a bald little boy sneering at me; he even craned his neck to snicker when the bus drove by. I was shocked; it was as though heíd gotten up in the morning to take that bus, like he knew Iíd be there at that particular corner at that specific time, and was pleased his calculations had been correct.

For the rest of the day I felt like nothing was as it seemed; that something was always watching me from a safe distance, that something dark and strange was always just about to happen.

And now I felt I knew what it was, sensing this thing had come and waited for me to turn around and notice it, that here, finally, was the impending doom Eleanor had tried to warn me of.

It was everything Iíd always been too afraid to try to imagine, something too horrible to be able to imagine, and nothing I could see. The thing that made me want a night light as a little boy and whatever waited patiently beyond the lighted crack under the door for me to fall asleep, it was the physical unseen presence in the dark that poked and teased me as I inched down the stairs in the middle of the night for a drink, and that dreadful sinking feeling something was always right over my shoulder.

And I knew it was here to see me.

I started to back away, inching toward the window where Eleanor stood. For every step I took the invisible thing slid in tandem, scraping like sandpaper on the ceiling. When I stopped, it stopped, and months on my calendar flapped over on each other like the wings of spooked birds. Eleanor banged slowly and dully on the windowpane to get its attention; I turned around and she spoke to me:

"It wonít take you if it sees me. If you let it get close, itíll always have you."

She stopped and I watched her trying to breath, her chest rising and falling with laboured effort. I was an inch from the window now; it was the closest Iíd ever been to her and I shuddered at her grey flaky skin and cracked purple lips.

"Donít let it get you," she said, slapping her hands on the pane for emphasis.

Then the lights shorted out with a Ď pinkí, and I was left standing in my dark kitchen beside her. She put both palms against the window, pressed her forehead against the glass, and braced herself for another one of its onslaughts.

"Listen to me," she whispered in a conspiratorial tone, " donít let it get you." And it quickly left my kitchen and grabbed her from behind. I stood alone watching her fly backwards like she was part of a rewinding movie until she disappeared over the horizon outside my house.

***

So Iím sure you can see why I feel the need to find out more about this crazy business; Iím sure itís clear now why I get so nervous when the weather turns cold, and why I drive out to this particular rural hill to wait.

The truth is Iíd really like to know is thereís anything at all that can be done, or anything I can do to prepare myself, and Iím convinced a few moments alone with Eleanor would give me the answers I need.

I think I can hear her wailing now from just outside my car, from somewhere behind the frigid pounding wind. They must be very close: I can see fat snowflakes in the moonlight circling languidly and patiently around me, slowly filling the letter E in front of my grille and I think I just caught a glimpse of her yellow dress on the other side of this hill. But Iím too afraid to get out of my car.

Even though itís very important I talk to Eleanor one more time, I just canít bring myself to step out and face whatever lurks in the middle of winter until I absolutely have to.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Starr

Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's.After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.

His previous contributions to Aphelion include Little Ed and Indian Rubber Balls

E-mail: StarrShdr@aol.com

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