He opens his eyes, blinking at the dark world around him. There’s nothing but the sound of music vibrating in the walls. Staring out into the shadows, all he can do is think about the pain, the fracturing agony deep inside of him. It’s been there for a week now, festering and infecting everything. At first, it had seemed so surreal, like there was hope, but now. The truth has settled in, a deep sepsis that curdles his blood black and poisons even his sleep. Avery looks over at the alarm clock and sees that it’s eight. How is it only eight?
Max probably went to work already, even though the radio would only talk about the blizzard coming in. Nothing could stop that kid from getting to where he’s supposed to be. When Avery got home, they were all still at school, but now there’s no avoiding him. He needs a drink. Sitting up in his old bed, he could never shake the feeling that home no longer smells like home. It smells like Lysol, cookies, and laundry detergent. It’s not the familiar like it used to be. It’s distinct, pungent maybe. Avery throws the blankets off and pulls on his jeans. The clingy fingers of sleep fall from him as he stands up, reaching out with blind familiarity until his reaching fingers find the lamp on the desk next to his bed. Flicking the switch, he watches the snap of orange-tinted light that fills his room. He hardly took anything with him when he left six years ago for college. It’s all the same.
Walking across the room and grabbing his Princeton hoodie and pulling it on, he steps out into the bright hallway. Looking down at the end of the hall where his great grandmother’s vase still holds a bouquet of lilies, as it always has, stands out against the blackness beyond the window where the snow is coming down harder than he’s seen in a long time. Usually a blizzard around here consists of regular amounts of snow, just yellow journalism to hype up the townsfolk; but not this. This genuinely looks like a blizzard.
“Morning, sleepy head,” Cordelia chimes from behind him, nearly making him scream.
He turns around and looks at his littlest sister and smiles, scooping her up in his arms and squeezing her tightly, lifting her up and spinning her around just like he did when she was little. She hugs him, burying her face in the slope of his neck. “How was school?” Avery asks her, dropping her down. She looks up at him with a smile on her sweet face.
“It was good,” she shrugs. “I made Mac ’n’ cheese for dinner.”
“Is that what that amazing smell is?” Avery asks her, heading walking toward the stairs. As he walks down the steps, he thinks about the house he’d looked at with Madison. No, he can’t think about stuff like that, not anymore. That’s all in the past. He stuffs his hands into his pockets, trying his hardest not to notices the ring abandoned in there.
His Mom is sitting in her usual chair, reading, as is her ritual. She was never one for TV or for movies at night. For her, the ritual consisted of something warm to drink and a good book. The numerous bookshelves in this house all point to the hobby his mother consumed. When you have seven children, you don’t have money for movies or cable. Avery looks at her as she glances up at him. “How was the nap?” She asks, setting the book down without marking the page. Her mind is as sharp as a razor, always has been. She never forgets a thing.
“Good,” Avery says with a sigh. He glances at the window behind her, the porch getting buried with snow. “Sheesh, it’s really coming down out there.”
“Yeah,” his Mom says, looking over her shoulder. “I’m worried about George and Martha.”
“Want me to run over and check on them?” Avery asks, thinking about his aged neighbors. George has tended to the largest garden that Avery has ever seen. During the summers, when he was in middle school, he used to help weed that enormous garden for a quarter a day. George was the salt of the earth and so was his wife Martha. She’d been a teacher once upon a time, but ever since Avery knew her, she was retired, baking and reading her bible out on the porch.
“No, it’s too crazy out there,” His Mom says, shaking her head.
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells her, grabbing his snow boots and sitting down on the couch while Cordelia heads back up the stairs. “I’ll run over and see if they’re fine or if they need anything. Just a quick walk down the lane and back.”
His Mom looks at him, her dark, chocolate brown hair streaked with fine lines of silver. The crow’s feet are harder to hide now. Avery had noticed how old his Mom looked when he graduated with his degree, before recklessly thinking he needed his master’s degree. His Dad had proudly worn his gray hair since Avery was in middle school, but that wasn’t new. It was his Mom’s aging that really hit Avery, because as she ages, so too has he. Avery’s had a hard time coming to terms with this; it’s just a strange feeling. Everything is just pushing forward and Avery feels stuck at his parents’ home.
“Don’t be too long,” his Mom says. Avery looks at the window and sees the swirling world of white and stands up, nodding as he grabs his coat. “Take a scarf and gloves,” his Mom says to him, like he’s in elementary school. Avery brushes it off, wrapping his scarf around his neck and stuffing his hands in his pockets. Throwing open the door, he feels the cold embracing him, pulling him out from the warm interior.
The swirling black is strangely welcomed by Avery. As he walks, each sinking footsteps reminds him that there’s a large world out there and that he’s built something for himself. Twenty-six years old and he’s almost graduated with his Master’s Degree and that’s no small feat. Jumping from Boise State to Princeton and receiving the laurels of all the hard work that he’s put into his life. Behind him is a golden road and the only thing ahead of him is stars. But he’s on this path alone again. For over four years, he had been on that road with Madison, walking toward the gilded horizon with her on his arm. Now, alone again, his mind feels like it’s walking the nocturnal blizzard perpetually. It’ll be so strange going back to finish up the semester without going out with her and the others to get drinks. Things are going to be so strange now. Everything has changed. Avery blows out a long jet of mist, trying to shake her from his mind, but her ghost won’t give him peace.
It’s telling when a woman says no. When they don’t give you the answer you’re looking for, the one you’ve hedged your bets against, it’s pretty much the end. Avery saw the writing on the wall when she looked at him, blinking back tears in her emerald eyes, wiping them away in the middle of the silent library. She said that she wanted to talk about in time—that she wanted to still be friends and to maybe work through this. But Avery knows better. There’s no going back form this. It’s a sinking raft beyond this point. No amount of talking is going to help him get over the fact that his girlfriend refused to take the next step, the step he was more than eager to take.
“I’m just not sure I’m ready,” the wind whispers her words, the words that haunt him. Move on, he tells himself. But that’s easier said than done. How many people had he confided in that his heart was shattered, bleeding out? All of them telling him that he deserved better—that there was someone else out there for him. To hell with that. Over four years! Over four years, he had invested with Madison and now it’s gone, over. That’s Rome being sacked. That’s the fall of something great that will forever scar the landscape of his mind and heart.
At the end of the lane, he walks several yards through the snow, heading up the lane to Gilroy residences. They’re the kind of older generation that lived in Ashwood Bend before the Darrows showed up and transformed Ashwood Bend into a wealthy, residential community, tucked away and self sufficient. When the Gilroys were young, there were only a few hundred people in and around Ashwood Bend. Now, the town is pushing well over two thousand in the surrounding mountains and along the river. Avery was young when it happened, but he remembered when Main Street was refurbished and all the facades changed. Hiking up the lane, he hears something pass down on the street, probably heading up to their lane. It might be Hayden and his flavor of the month, maybe his Dad.
The Gilroy house is a quaint little hovel that has been built on twice and it shows. None of the additions match the original look of the forest home, nor do they match each other. As he approaches the house, he notices the lights are one in the kitchen and the living room. He knows the interior of their home as well as he knows his own. Whenever Grandma Grace was out of town, Martha would have them all over to watch them and sit them while their parents squeezed in date night or a trip. Making his way across the fresh blanket of snow, Avery makes it to the snow coated porch and notices the completely covered rocking chair.
I should offer to clear the porch, he thinks as he ascends the steps. George’s garden surrounds the sides and the back of the house. It’s strange that their old, fat corgis, Daisy and Winslow, aren’t yapping at his presence already. Knocking on the screen door, Avery lets the memories wash against his thoughts, trying desperately to weather away Madison.
When there’s no answer to the second series of knocks and no barking, Avery can’t help but look at the car parked in the driveway. They have to be home. Peeking in through the windows, he can’t see anyone inside the living room. The old recliners are empty and so are the dog beds next to the old, four hundred pound TV out of the seventies.
“George? Martha? Are you guys home?” Avery knocks again, louder this time, in case they’re asleep. “It’s Avery Ashmore. I’m just checking to see if you two are okay. George?” He calls again, shattering the muffled silence of the world of snow and darkness.
There’s nothing. The cold seeps in through his long, wool coat and he looks over his shoulder at the dark lane. He wants to go back, tell his mother that there was no response, but leave out some choice details, but he knows that’s childish. George and Martha are good people. His Mom would have known if they were out of town or if they were going on a trip. The fact that they’re not answering worries him. He shakes his head. Worried about what? This is Ashwood Bend. Nothing bad happens here.
Pulling open the screen door, Avery takes a deep breath and tries the front door. Praying that it’s locked, ending this stupid crusade of courage once and for all, Avery feels his stomach sinking as he twists the handle and finds it unlocked. In his mind, there is a line of fire burning in the inky blackness, a line that should not be crossed, a line that is drawn directly over this threshold. Walking over this line is stupid. His Dad is a cop. Go back and wait for you Dad, he tells himself over and over again. When he gets home, they can go over together. They can investigate the whole situation together.
Slowly, he pushes open the door and watches the rogue flurries swirling and breaking through the doorway, landing on the old, amber, shag carpet and melting. The interior of the house reeks of sickness and humidity. He’s not sure what to put the smell as, maybe mold. It reminds him of when Harvey was young and needed a humidifier running in his room with Keith, day and night. Stepping over the line of fire, Avery closes the door behind him, listening to the wind battering against the exterior of the house, making everything inside ominously quiet. The ticking of all the clocks George collected over the years grates against his senses, none of them seemingly in sync with the others.
“Hello?” Avery calls to the house, expecting the nightmares to come jumping out of plain view. “George? Martha?” He asks the house. “Winslow?” He feels himself smiling at the silence. “Daisy? Anyone home?”
He looks at the familiar, ancient brown couch with the orange flowers design that makes no sense. It’s unfathomable that this was attractive at one point in their lives. Looking into the kitchen, Avery wonders if something terrible has happened here. When was the last time anyone talked to them? Saw them? Reaching for his pocket, he realizes that all he has is the engagement ring. He’s buried his cellphone in his luggage to avoid texts and calls from those offering their condolences. Taking a deep breath, he tries to act like everything is normal. Everything is fine.
Walking into the kitchen, he notices that one of the chairs is toppled over, something that makes his blood run thick with terror, his heart beating in a jar of grease and molasses. Taking his steps through the kitchen, he kneels down on one knee and looks at the chair, wondering what his Dad would do in a situation like this. Not seeing anything, he decides that he shouldn’t touch anything. Standing up, he looks around the kitchen and into the empty sink. Well, empty except for the clever.
Avery’s heart is all he can hear pounding. He looks at the old clever that looks like it has been handed down for generations. The iron is old, dull gray, freckled with dark spots and the wooden handle is painted in the finish that leaves it looking yellow after the years. On the dull gray edge, grinded clean of black spots and blemishes, the weapon is slick with crimson blood, fresh, tufts of white hair stuck to the blade.
The growl behind him makes him turn in the blink of an eye, ready for anything, but as he looks into the shadows cast by the couch nearly up against the wall, he can see Winslow sinking into the shadows, hiding behind the couch as his little body quivers and trembles. He hobbles backwards behind the couch, vanishing from sight as he continues to growl.
“Jesus Christ, Winnie,” Avery says, turning and looking at the clever in the sink. Don’t touch it, he tells himself over and over again. He doesn’t want to ruin anything his father is going to need. Stepping away from the sink, he jumps as the window over the sink is suddenly flooded with light. The motion sensor must have been triggered by something and bright, white light floods the snowy garden. Avery half expects to see George and Martha dead in the garden, their bodies staining the fresh snow crimson. But instead, he narrows his eyes, not sure if he’s understanding what he’s looking at.
There are half a dozen trails of footsteps leading through the garden, snaking over the fence, and off into the darkness of the forest, the forest that his house shares with the Gilroys.