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The Ghost of Contests Past
2006 Winning Fiction Entry
"I am dying," the snowman spoke softly. His voice, high and soft, warmed Christopher more than all of his mother's blankets. Now, that voice was cracking and melting like the snowman's white, round face, a face that would smile until it was gone. The snowman acted like most grown-ups, smiling when he was sad.
Christopher felt the same grownup sadness, but he could not smile about it, since he was only seven years old.
No. His throat felt hard and tight. He covered his mouth with blue, snow-sprinkled gloves, coughing out cold winter steam. No, no. His coughing always grew worse when he was upset. You can't die. You can't die if I put you back together. He scooped up a handful of snow, one of the few fading lumps that still covered the backyard grass. He placed it gently on the upper corner of the snowman's chest. It looked wrong, like a third shoulder.
His heart sank as it toppled back off, taking an extra chunk of the snowman with it.
Water melted down from the snowman's uneven eyes, two cuff links that Christopher had taken from his father's old suit. Even Christopher, more a believer in fairy tales than most of his schoolmates, never thought that a pair of buttons could look so sad.
"Christopher . . . " A few more flakes broke off the snowman's chest. Was he trying to breathe like a real person? "I watched you come into this world, before you shaped me with your hands, or your mind."
Then don't go!
"Don't you remember the stories your mother read you? Nobody likes countries where it's winter all the time. Nobody, except evil queens."
Then I'll be a queen some day.
The snowman chuckled.
Christopher wiped his eyes, coughing into his glove a few more times. Next winter he would be a year more grown up, which meant he would want to play with the snowman a little less. A year later, even less. And less. And less.
Christopher pulled off his red hat. The wind, a little warmer than yesterday, tickled his matted brown hair. Stupid seasons. I don't have any friends after winter. You're the only one who plays with me and doesn't throw my lunch in the girls' room, or make fun of the pom-pom on my hat, or trick me into believing things, or call me the cough-boy.
The snowman laughed like a tired grandfather, placing a gloved hand on Christopher's thin, quivering shoulder. The hand warmed him almost as much as the voice.
Christopher stopped trying to wipe his cheeks dry. At that moment he believed what his mother told him, that he'd be a little boy forever, and he hoped she was right. He didn't want grow another day, another hour, another moment. Please don't go. Or if you have to go, take me with you so I don't have to go back to school next Tuesday.
The cracks deepened under the cuff link eyes. The snowman's angel-voice lowered a bit more. "One day, I will, but not this winter."
Christopher stood straight. Why not now?! I'm ready! I don't like spring or summer. I can't even swim!
"And your mother? Would you leave her?"
N�no . . . but . . .
The snowman's carrot nose drooped like a weeping willow. "She doesn't always understand you, but her heart broke once. If I took you now, it would never mend."
We could visit her and fix it, couldn't we?
"No. To her, we would be balloons in a lost sky."
What does that mean?!
"If you came with me now, she would never recognize you again. Don't ask to join me until it's your time. Promise me that, Christopher. Take my glove and promise."
Slowly, with a nod and a look, Christopher touched his best friend's glove. The cuff link eyes rose a little, and his carrot nose straightened just a bit. "Thank you, Christopher. Now before I go home, let's play one more game, shall we?"
Christopher forced a smile. He climbed on the snowman's back, laughing quietly as he jumped down. After their snowball fight, he wiped off a mustache of ice. He coughed and hacked from the excitement, and a few times he had to stop and rest, but it was the most fun they'd had all winter.
When he woke up the next morning and looked out the window to his backyard, he saw the shapeless mound of melting snow. The cuff links were sliding down, and the carrot was on the grass with both gloves. He cried and coughed, cried and coughed. Ever morning, for the rest of the year, his mother brought him some medicine and a cup of her best hot chocolate with marshmallows. Though he drank every mug, he tasted only a few drops.
* * *
The instant message window flashed red and blue on Frank's computer screen, carving a sharp rectangle from his field of vision and a sharper one from his patience. He quickly turned the sound off, but the "boop-bleep!" had already rang halfway across the lobby.
Now he looked like a fool in front of the idiot glaring at him over the counter. Frank did not call the man an idiot � he employed the euphemism "guest", which was more of an amenity than "rich idiot."
"Sir," pressed the frail, balding guest. He looked thirty-seven or thirty-eight, only five or six years older than Frank himself. Yet if one turned the clock back far enough, this man could have been his babysitter. How could his elder, his teacher, his better, fuss with him over a bit of linen and down?
"Sir," repeated the man in a shaky voice, "I asked you what you intend to do about this. My kids are too old to share a bed, and I'm not putting one of them on the floor. If your entire staff is too incompetent to find me an extra cot like I was promised before I made the reservation, maybe they ought to find a more reliable hotel chain and borrow one from them."
The instant message flashed red and blue, red and blue. Above the computer screen, in the real meat-eating world, The idiot-guest stared at him with a cow-mouth that was too broad for his thin face. Frank rubbed his temple, leaning forward. This man would make a perfect painting in the living room of eternal ennui.
"In the old days," said Frank, "Those who couldn't pay for their bedding slept in the Inn stables. Inn's don't have stables anymore, but I'm sure one of those nice mounted police outside could accommodate you if you ask nicely. Either that, or there's the garage. Your kids will thank me when they grow up with nice, strong backs."
The balding man flushed. "Who do you think you--?! I'll t-ell th-- management-�"
Frank spread his arms. "I am the management. Remember?" The man had turned a very interesting shade of purple. With a casual eyebrow raise, Frank offered him a mint. The idiot turned and stormed back toward the elevator, his bald spot facing Frank like an angry eye.
Frank knew he should have practiced some restraint � after all, one angry customer was murder on the gossip pyramid. But these days he cared little for statistics. He was a missionary, on a pilgrimage to educate the world about human stupidity.
He shivered as he looked away, turning his attention to the flashing message, Hello, Francis. We need to talk., in the typical red letters of a messenger. The screen name on the top window bar read "CYa".
He was in no mood to play mind games with fourteen-year-old Internet stalkers, but being called 'Francis' piqued his curiosity. Only his sister still called him that. Frank sighed; he had worked so hard to build his little temple of estrangement.
His sister, Frances, with an 'e'. They'd once been as close as twins were supposed to be, and 'Frank' had become his distinguishing nickname. They had kept in touch very sporadically over the years, usually online, and she changed her screen name often. Still, "CYa" did not sound like her style.
Do I know you? How did you find my screen name? He typed in blue-lettered response, anticipating some teenish answer.
I noticed your post on the message board. I tracked the rest of your information. I would like to speak with you, and your sister.
Message board? Ah, yes. The snow message board he'd found online during one of his more idle evenings. Feeling in the mood to mess with a few minds, he had posted the dreamlike experience which he and his sister both remembered having about a certain snowman they'd built one winter. Quite a memory, that was -- one of the few childhood memories that he couldn't put away.
Around this same time each year, he'd dream about that snowman during a random night. In the dream, he would rebuild the snowman with Frances and a number of other children, and they were all on a great snowfield that he didn't recognize.
Still, he never allowed the nostalgia to rob too many moments of his lovely, lovely profession. A focused mind was very necessary to keep those green slips of paper jumping his way.
Look, he typed, I know first year high school is rough, kiddo, but go procrastinate from your earth science exam some other way. Let the big adults do their work and make money.
I would like to meet you, Francis. My name is Christopher Yarn. You and your sister and Annelaia are the only ones who can help me.
He had no idea who Annelaia was, but he instinctively kept his eyes on the screen.
Who are you? He typed.
Big mistake. All three clock hands circled with alarming speed as Frank found himself unable to pull away from the conversation, like one of those obnoxious Chinese puzzles that he could never put down. Obnoxious, yet inviting, in that ugly-train-wreck fashion.
So, what exactly do you want from me? Frank typed.
I want you to help. Once we meet, I will explain.
As they continued the conversation, Frank learned of disturbing similarities between himself and this strange Internet personality. This Christopher Yarn had his own childhood snow-friend, one with cuff link eyes and a carrot nose. This was a slight deviation from the coal eyes, button nose, corncob pipe and a strange, old hat that he and Frances had used. The hat, he remembered, seemed to be the most important ingredient . . .
How old are you? Frank finally asked.
I don't remember.
What the heck? He shook his head, red-cheeked, feeling like he'd forgotten thirty years of toilet training. How could he open up this much to the quirkiest Internet stranger ever to stumble across his computer screen? If Brian the buck-toothed, wisecracking bellhop found computer logs of his boss discussing autonomous snowmen . . . Brian would usurp Frank's kingdom of cynicism.
Still, he was strangely pressed to keep talking, keep cracking at this puzzle that called himself Christopher Yarn.
They talked of boyhood fun, imaginary friends, games without frontiers, and how they felt when their snowmen melted. What was wrong with him tonight? Frank was many things, but 'friendly to strangers' was not on his laundry list of personality traits. At least, it hadn't been for . . . how long?
Can you come to the fields?
After much arguing, a lot of I-don't-knows and pained contemplation, Frank agreed to meet Christopher Yarn at a Holiday Inn in Wisconsin next week, where there was still plenty of snow. Though his embarrassment sprouted anew, a defiant bile climbed up his throat. His job didn't own him. If he whimsically flew to China tomorrow morning to catch a sumo wrestling match and paint all four of his cheeks the colors of the Chinese flag, that was his right. For too long, Frank surrounded himself with hundreds of people vacationing while he worked.
The last Frank remembered of his conversation with Christopher was the message, You know me. Once a year. I'm the cougher. Frank went cold, so very very cold, unnaturally cold as he remembered another detail of his yearly dream.
One little boy among the rest of the dream-children, coughing like his lungs were chimneys . . .
He sat up with a jolt, cursing at himself for dozing off in front of potential customers. Luckily, the lobby was mostly empty, and he quickly scribbled down the plans he'd made with Mr. Yarn, just as the Instant Message window flashed again.
This one was from his sister. Helloo, Francis. Remember me? Are you still alive?
Jokingly Melodramatic in such a trite way, as always. He answered her how he usually did after one of their long cycles of silence. Have you thought about our company idea yet? "Francis & Frances"? It does have a charm, you must admit.
* * *
And what would we be, Frances answered, giggling to herself, a shampoo company? How about we just shorten it to something you'll like even more. We'll call it "Francise." Get it? Once more, Frances wondered if she laughed too much, joked too much for her employees to see her as "The Boss."
Frances had spent most of her teenage and all of her adult years trying to cheer her brother up, at least during those rare times when he graced the family with his presence.
It was sad, really � he had such a keen mind, a sharp sense of humor. As children, they'd both had enough imagination to contend with top notch English professors. Stories, pictures, imaginary friends, the whole "creativity" package, delivered at birth with the rest of their limbs and appendages, unraveling as soon as they learned their first spoken words.
Running a bookstore allowed her to retain a bit of her imagination, while Frank had sacrificed his own for The Wallet. At least, she figured, they still laughed at each other's jokes. Frances might let her brother burn away his higher creative powers, but she'd be damned before she let him lose his sense of humor.
Sounds great, he answered, So when do we get started? How about whoever goes out of business first contributes the office space?
She laughed again, turning on another of the nearby lights from behind the counter. It was late, past closing time, and she would have been back in her dilapidated apartment by now if the strange instant messager before her brother hadn't compelled her to stay and dismiss her staff. Frances made a note to give them all a raise. She felt a little guilty, a little embarrassed about how hard everyone here worked for her.
She had to tell someone about this strange messenger, and despite the layers of skepticism Frank had grown over the years, he was the only one she trusted with something like this. I just wanted to see how you were, my dear brother. Is that a crime? You've been hybernating even longer than usual.
It's a capital offense, sis. My temple of seclusion cannot be desecrated by the sect of the friendly.
Well, you can call security later. I had a very strange conversation on here tonight. But first, let's talk about you. Is everything okay?
At the risk of a little irony, you won't believe me when I tell you.
Her jaw dropped. Since when did Frank worry about his own credibility in her eyes? She, who had once believed a customer who claimed her store was haunted?
I talked to a man named Christopher Yarn, just before you messaged me. He wants me to meet him at some field in Wisconsin. I'm going. I think I've finally lost the rest of my marbles, sis. I may have to leave my business to you before the men in white come for me and I find myself cutting out paper dolls with fat little cheeks.
After a long, stunned pause, she typed: Afraid I can't take that offer, Francis. I've talked to Christopher also. I'll be joining you in Wisconsin and maybe in the dollhouse.
The next hour or so made the evening more interesting than any she remembered having in years.
Memories and feelings, long since retired to quiet corners of her mind, crawled back into the limelight. She remembered a story about a young Santa Claus that she'd written once over the holidays. She remembered scaring some of her friends one Halloween by making up a story about a haunted jack-o-lantern.
Heh. I think I remember that story. I was eavesdropping.
Or mind reading? she answered.
There's a difference?
She chuckled, wondering if their conversation had given Francis �- or Frank, as he insisted on calling himself -- the urge to paint. He hadn't painted in twenty years. Of course, whenever she reminded him of the pictures that she'd pulled out of his trash can, he swore that she was mistaking him for some other twin.
When they said goodnight, her hands were shaking. She pulled her calendar from the middle drawer, flipped it open and marked off Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. Whether or not this Christopher Yarn would show, she would see Francis again, and they would have fun with this exciting new flavor of shared insanity.
The phone rang, shocking her out of her not-quite-daydreams. On reflex, she gasped, snatched it up and offered a shaky hello.
"Do you remember the dream?" A strong male voice answered on the other end, waking her like a triple shot of espresso.
"Y�ye . . . " she found herself answering before realizing what was happening, "W-wait. Who is this? How do you know . . . ?"
"It's Christopher. Do you remember?"
"I . . . "
"We haven't met," a series of coughs broke his voice, so loud and strident that Frances winced in empathy, half-expecting wet spray from the receiver. "But if you remember the dreams, if you remember the fields where we play every winter, you'll remember me." At first she thought he sounded like a powerful old man, but then she decided he couldn't be much older than herself.
She realized suddenly how badly she was shivering �- not just her hands, but her entire body, like a nervous rooster. She did remember the last time she'd dreamed what he was talking about -- around the winter solstice. In this dream, she'd been with Francis and many others, people she'd never met in real life, though she saw them each year in this medium. Had Christopher walked among them?
"I'll see you," the strong voice said in a conclusive manner, adding one final, sharp cough.
When she grew aware of the dial tone, she had no idea how long she'd been sitting there, listening to it absently with her mind wandering through other times and places.
In the dream, they had all been building the snowman again. The same snowman . . .
* * *
"Okay, one more scoop! Er . . . maybe two more," said Eight-year-old Frances, scooping up fresh snow in her bare hands.
"Two and a half," said her twin brother Francis. "And they won't stay if we don't rub them in good."
All over the wintry park, pockets of children played in groups of three, four or six. In a far corner stood Frances and Francis, smoothing over the last bits of their snowman. Parents of other children talked feverishly about these twins, lest their afternoon gossip should leak away like soup through a broken bowl.
"Those two should be in a snow globe," one mother would comment. "It's not like their schoolmates would notice they were missing, certainly no more than they notice them."
"How would they get proper schooling if they're stuck in a snow globe?" a grandfather asked, feeding his dog a piece of leftover croissant.
"You'd have to put a school inside the globe," chimed somebody's uncle. "And dorms for all the teachers."
Meanwhile, Francis moved the pipe in the snowman's mouth a little to the left, a little upward. "It's still crooked," he said, squinting. "It looks like grandpa when he fell asleep smoking."
"I never saw grandpa smoke," said Frances.
Her brother gave her a look.
Francis had supplied the snowman's rubber boots, button nose, eyes and the corncob pipe that had belonged to grandpa, and great-grandpa before him. The pipe had been used for many snowmen in many old family tales. Francis had listened to grandma and grandpa's stories at night as he fell asleep under his warm blue quilt. He'd listened, he'd dreamed, and he'd painted the snowman with his watercolor set. Now, his hands shook as he straightened the pipe.
The twins shared a fleeting look of anticipation, then Frances's face fell.
"Look! The mittens are falling off! He'll catch cold if we don't fix them!" Frances moved to straighten them, which she had supplied along with the black boots, blue scarf and grandma's old broom. She'd written her own book with crayons and construction paper, a book filled with grandma and grandpa's stories. Frances wanted to give it to all the bookstores in the world, but Mother had only laughed and ruffled her hair.
"He can't catch cold," said Francis, "He's supposed to be cold, remember? He's a snowman. He can only catch a hot. Don't put the mittens on too tight or you might break him."
"Oh . . . I hope you're not too warm in those, Mr. Snowman." Frances loosened the gloves just a bit, so the palms could be seen again sticking out from the snow. She then stepped back and looked the snowman over. "We forgot something."
"I know. I think he needs�"
At that moment, a chilly gust of wind brought an old straw hat right to the snowman's boots.
"�a hat?" Frances finished.
Francis looked at the straw hat and frowned. "That's a farmer's hat. He's not supposed to be a farmer."
"But grandpa's grandpa was a farmer," said his sister.
"Was he made of snow, too?" asked Francis.
"I don't know. I like the hat," Frances said after a pause.
"Oh-kay . . . " capitulated her brother.
They knelt down, picked the hat up and placed it on the snowman together.
"Francis, Frances. Merry Meet," the snowman spoke in a soft, cheery voice. Frances squealed. Her brother frowned for a moment before letting his jaw slide down in surprise.
They led their new friend around the park, each holding one glove, gently but firmly. Other children stopped their play and stared after them as if they were watching the moon eat the sun. Later, these observers would not remember much; snowmen only stay in the memories of special friends.
"You should come to our house," Frances said when it was time to go home.
"No, silly, d'you want him to catch a hot?" asked Francis.
The snowman shook his head. "I cannot visit you. You can only visit me."
"He'd have melted if we brought him into the house," Francis told his sister on the way home, "You know that."
Frances sniffled. "Maybe he's made of special snow that doesn't melt."
"There's no such thing," said Francis.
"There's no such thing as talking snowmen either. Or there's not supposed to be," answered his sister.
"Then ask him again tomorrow," Francis said. "But he couldn't stay for supper anyway. He would try to help mom cook burgers and then he'd catch fire."
Day after day, the twins came back to the park to play with their snowman. Mothers, Fathers and Aunts gawked. Policeman wiped their eyes and swore they would never switch shifts again.
Some days, the snowman helped them build beautiful snow forts that sparkled a little when the sun was out. Sometimes they even went skating along the ice, each of them holding one of the snowman's gloves.
One day, they were taking the snowman to a grocery store, since he had grown curious and wanted to explore the town. His coal eyes sparkled. To more imaginative observers, he looked like someone who swam happily in search of lost memories.
"It's too warm. I'm taking my coat off," said Frances.
"Me too," said Francis, then "Hey!"
A warm gust of wind blew the snowman's left glove off his body. "I'll be right back," said the snowman, turning and running after the glove.
"Oh no, oh no!!" Frances screamed and brought her hands to her face.
"Come on, don't just scream! We have to chase him!" Francis shouted, grabbing her hand and dragging her along, though a moment later she ran with her own legs.
They darted past Old Mrs. Huddel, the town librarian, who was out walking with her sister. "Well, I've never seen them so alert," said Mrs. Huddel. "Maybe their reflections ran away. That must be what they're chasing. I can't imagine those two would be after anything real."
"But wouldn't they smack into the mirror?" asked her sister. "I should think they'd have cuts on their noses."
Mrs. Huddel shrugged. "Maybe they were using imaginary mirrors."
The twins found the snowman's hat, caught on a lamppost. Francis snatched it, and they ran faster.
"Yeesh," muttered a policeman to himself, watching them sprint. "If that big white fella with the hat's been harassin' those kids, I'm gonna have to put a stop to this. He ought to spend more time with folks his own age."
Francis and Frances soon found a trail of everything they'd placed on the snowman � an eye, a nose, pieces of the mouth and another eye. At last, they found a large, twisted lump of snow, melting into a great puddle, turning into part of the dirty old ground.
"No, no, no . . ." Frances shook her head. "We have to keep looking! If we don't find him, he might really melt! Like this big lump!"
"Frances . . . he is that lump," Francis answered quietly.
"No! That's not him!"
"Yes it is."
"That can't be him! He wouldn't melt and leave us all alone!"
Francis touched his sister's shoulder. After a few moments he started wiping tears from his own eyes. "Come on, we'll build another one next year."
They gathered the gloves, mittens, scarf, nose, eyes and corncob pipe, walking home with wet cheeks. Another gust of wind snatched the straw hat from Francis's quivering fingers. They both watched it drift down the sidewalk in lazy spirals before it sailed up, up and away. Frances stepped after it, but Francis held her wrist gently.
* * *
"I�I'm sorry . . . " Anne stammered, rubbing the cut on her ankle. Her feet were two small islands in a sea of broken glass. "I'm sorry . . ." The gray-haired man in the tuxedo had sidestepped the glass, but his martini was now part of that sea.
Anne had taken two shifts that day for coworkers who hadn't shown, and she was operating on slightly less than six hours' sleep. Her accident-prone talents were on overdrive, just like the bile in her throat. Mr. Tuxedo's left shoe probably cost more than most of her combined wardrobe. "Really, I'm sorry, I never do this," she continued. "I�"
The man stared back at her, the shine on his hair and eyebrows matching the rest of his wardrobe. "Lovely," he spat. "And these are the people who want tax cuts."
"Look, if I spilled anything on you�"
"Please," said the shiny Mr. Tuxedo. "I pay a month's utility for a sandwich and martini at this place, and it's delivered feet first. How quaint. Get me the manager."
He knelt down and touched her chin, raising it a little. His fingers felt like the frog legs from her seventh grade science class. "I asked for the manager, sweetness."
She slapped his hand away. "Don't do that."
The man rubbed his hand, staring back at her incredulously. She stood up slowly and started to back away, until she realized she was backing straight into the doughy paws of Tom, her manager.
"What's the trouble?" Tom wheezed. His voice then raised to an ass-kissing tenor. "I apologize for her, sir, she's a little temperamental. Anne, go home. We'll talk more about your future here tomorrow, and what I haven't been seeing."
"Yeah, okay," muttered Anne.
"I understand, Tom. No need to smooth it over. I'll clean out my stuff tomorrow."
"Anne, let's talk about this--"
She turned, wrenching away from his paws and treating herself to one last look at Mr. Tuxedo's livid face. "Sorry about your martini. Drive safely, now," she said with a needle-thin smile. She looked back at him through the window and flipped him the finger.
On her way out, Anne tore a strip from her skirt to tie around the cut, then she scratched voraciously at another half-healed scrape on top of her right hand. She had kept it half-healed for several months now. That was punishment, she decided, for having not lived her dream, and failing at almost every alternative.
The moment Anne was out the door, the cold smacked her like a watery grave. Snowflakes caught on her cheeks and eyelids, clinging and melting after a moment or two. She headed for her apartment, riding her vindictive fumes until they dissolved into shivers. Shivers, and the need for something warm.
She walked a few more steps before noticing a thick fur coat blowing around a lamppost. She stared at it for a long moment, fighting with herself about what to do.
Oh, heck. Someone junked it and I'm not giving any money to the seal clubbers.
She untied it, wrapping it around her shoulders. As the cold melted away, she silently shouted her imaginary speech to the poor millionaire customer, and to Tom. Instantaneous retrospective eloquence, another long-time quirk of hers.
When she reached her apartment, she plopped down on her bed without bothering to turn the light on.
She lay there until it was pitch dark, then stood up and began singing some of her favorite old songs, two of which she'd known since her third grade school play.
The darkness was her best friend these days, her angel of music. As long as she let it blind her, as long as she couldn't see herself, the strength of her own voice made her a proud member of a Capella royalty. Still, some of her best songs really needed two people. Two women, two very similar women with each voice complementing the other. If only . . .
She choked back sudden tears as she remembered that small window of her girlhood, the window when her wish had been granted. Oh gods, not now . . . I was starting to feel just a little bit better . . .
The phone rang, cutting coldly though her mental world. She jumped up like a spooked cat and snatched the receiver, feeling that irrational embarrassment. Naturally, whoever was calling had been watching her sing in her dark, closed-off apartment. After all, that was Anne logic, and Anne logic steam-powered everything in Anne's world.
As she spoke into the phone, she was once again very aware of the cold. "Y�yeah? Who is it?" Her singing voice gave way to the sour tone that she flaunted proudly in front of strangers.
"Annelaia?" A strong male voice answered, followed by a few thick coughs. "We've spoken."
"Huh? Oh, uh, yeah. Yeah, uh . . . Anne. Call me Anne. And you're . . . wait, yeah, I remember . . . "
"Christopher Yarn. We were talking about snow. About meeting. Do you remember your dream this winter?"
"I . . . " She thought of her last dream, the one where she rebuilt Laia in the great snowfield, the dream she had once a year, every year.
In the dream, other children were around her, building their own snowmen. She would always wonder why there were no other adults, and then she'd notice that she was a child again herself. Who needs grown-ups anyway, she would think. "Wake up, Laia," she would plead to her snow-sister. "I rebuilt you. You can wake up."
"I'm awake, now it's your turn," Laia would answer. Just as Anne felt a surge of joy, she would wake up with tears on her cheeks, with the knowledge that such a time and place no longer existed, that maybe it never had.
That dream was her secret garden, she supposed, or at least she believed it was secret until a few days ago. God, if Tom or Greta got wind of this . . . but hey, she quit, right? If she wanted, she could avoid that whole block of town for the rest of her life.
"Do you remember?" asked Christopher, his voice commanding truth.
"Yes. I do," she answered.
* * *
Little Annelaia looked at other children the way she looked at pretty stones in a museum. She smiled shyly, and sometimes she turned her head after them as she passed by. But they were forbidden, they were not for her, because she was only Annelaia, not one of them.
She sang, she danced away the loneliness in her little yard. She was a princess with a royal audience, but only when no eyes watched. Sometimes she would make up her own songs, sometimes she would take the broom and try to dance with it, pretending it was her sister.
Of course, Annelaia was an only child. When she was four, her mother's stomach grew with another baby for months until it looked big enough for the baby to come out. A girl, said the doctor. Annelaia had to wait at home with the babysitter while her parents were at the hospital, and she'd sat awake in her bed all night.
When she heard the door open in the morning, she'd scurried downstairs to meet her new sister, but both her parents' arms were empty, and their faces were very long. Annelaia heard the word 'still-born', and for the longest time, she would ask "Momma, when's my sister going to start moving? I want her to stop being still so she can come home."
When school started, Annelaia avoided the other children. She always helped her mother bake cookies and clean up the floor, and even her father called her "Santa's little elf" when she carried some tools for him, but when they asked her to bring a friend over, she frowned like she didn't understand.
"Maybe we should get her into a play group," said her mother. "Don't you think, Jim? She needs friends her own age. A little girl can't play with wood and straw her whole life."
"Heh," answered her father, "How many moms say that about their kids? C'mon. Friends aren't as good in real life as they are in books and movies."
"Jim . . ."
"Don't 'Jim' me today. Life isn't a biography of David and Jonathan. Friendship's a crock."
"Jim! You can't say that, just because you never--"
"It's self interest from day one! And they're bad influences. I don't want to raise some commonplace daughter who cheerleads and dates football captains."
Annelaia saw shapes in the snow, just like other people saw them in the clouds. One winter, when she was seven, she came across a snow bank in her yard and saw the vague outline of a little girl.
With patient, delicate movements, she carefully shaped the little snow-girl. She started with the feet and legs, then shaped her chest, then a pair of arms, then her head and hair. Finally, she etched a face with her finger. When Annelaia was just about finished, she started chanting "patty-cake" to herself.
"Patty-cake, patty-cake, bake-r's pan," she said as she finished the mouth.
"Bake me a cake as fast-as-you-can!" The snow girl answered.
Annelaia's eyes widened only a little; she was still young enough to think that maybe snow-people could come to life, even though it didn't normally happen. They finished the song together, and then Annelaia lifted her new sister up. "Laia! I'll call you Laia!"
She was "older" than Laia only for one day, as Laia grew very quickly. By the next morning, she was Annelaia's exact size. Day after day, they ran, skipped and played hide-and-seek in the snow, a game that Laia always won.
Weeks passed, and Annelaia smiled more, laughed more, even talked to some other children at school. She sang more clearly and danced more smoothly, now that she had a partner. Some of the other neighborhood children, passing by her yard, would watch them dance with wet, open mouths. Laia mirrored Annelaia's playfulness, especially when it was snowing outside. They even shared clothes, and Annelaia would creep out to the yard and bring her food from the table after each meal. Laia seemed to know a lot for a girl her age, even more than the guidance counselor at school. Annelaia told her about her problems � the hard, hard math test, Mrs. Wendell's beastly voice, or the boy who always chased her at recess and pulled her hair.
"You're smart," Laia told her. "Just work real hard. And pull that boy's hair back, but be careful."
"Your eyes are melting . . . !" Laia shouted one day when Annelaia came home one day. "Oh no, you're going to melt away. Let me put some snow in your eyes."
"No, Laia, it's okay. I'm not melting. I'm just crying."
"Uh-huh. It happens when we're really happy or really sad. You make me really happy, so I cry sometimes."
When the winter was almost over, Laia stopped smiling, stopped sounding so cheerful, stopped talking so much.
"What's wrong, what's wrong?" Annelaia asked. "Laia, you can tell me."
"Nothing. Nothing is wrong," Laia smiled, but her smile looked fake. "Come on, let's play in the puddles. I like water."
Once, Annelaia went looking for Laia in the yard and almost gave up, until she spotted a hint of white behind a small pine tree. "Laia!"
She ran over, but Laia only looked at her sleepily. "Hello Annelaia," she said.
"You're�you're not hiding, are you, Laia? From me?"
"Of course not," Laia answered dismally, the way grownups answered when they were lying. Annelaia went back inside, staying upstairs for the rest of the day.
Only during storms and dark, cool weather did Laia look a little happier, but when the sun came out, she sulked again.
One day, Annelaia brought Laia to the park to meet some of the other children. "I don't know about this . . ." said Laia, as they were walking.
"Come on, we'll have a good time," said Annelaia. "And you're supposed to play with other girls your age, you know. Not just me. Mom says that's un-healthy."
"Well," said Laia, looking carefully at her wet footprints, "I guess . . . if it'll make you be happy, I'll come with you."
The other girls and boys crowded around them, and it was not long before Annelaia and Laia were part of their game. They made a small fire, lined up behind it and took turns jumping over it.
One mother, sitting at a bench with several other parents, sat forward sharply as she watched the children play. "Is that a fire?!"
"Probably," answered her husband. "Why?"
She looked at her husband as if he'd just shown her a prison tattoo from a secret past. Then she bolted off the bench toward her son, who had just jumped over the fire and was heading around to the back of the line for his next turn.
Laia was right behind Annelaia. "You shouldn't play this game," Annelaia told her.
"I want to be close to you. I want to watch you," said Laia. Her tone had changed � it was neither sad, nor happy, nor plain. Any adults who might have been eavesdropping, watching the children play, remembering or regretting their own youth, would have described Laia's voice as final.
When Annelaia came to the fire, she leaped over it, high and graceful. She glowed with embarrassment as the other children ooh-ed and ahh-ed.
When she landed, she turned around just in time to see Laia leaping over the fire. "No, Laia, NO!!" she screamed, she reached out to catch her snow-sister, but she only caught Laia's wet clothes and a splash of cold water.
"Where did she go?!" Annelaia asked the children around her. None opened their mouths to answer. All remained still.
She broke and ran as the other children's wide eyes tracked her. She cried all the way home, leaving a trail of tiny puddles as she carried Laia's dripping clothes. "I'll find you, Laia," she muttered through her tears. "They can't hide you from me like that. I'll find you."
* * *
Three sharp knocks made Frank jump and toss in the overly padded Holiday Inn Queen-sized bed. Despite the excess covers, his bones and muscles felt like ice. Old Man Winter just loved Wisconsin.
He waited for the second knock, too lazy to rise if he didn't have to, hoping it might have been some stray thread of imagination between dreams and reality. "Uwaowoo," he moaned loudly, in case it was housekeeping.
He floated back into a light slumber, pulling the covers around him more tightly, which worked about as well as wrapping ice cubes in toilet paper. What kind of winter was this . . .?
A few days earlier, he would have cursed the snow and the cold for ruining his tires. But somehow, ever since he'd seen Frances again, he was strangely unable to exercise his God-given right as an automobile owner in America to complain about the weather.
He still hadn't met Annelaia or Christopher, but meeting Frances again had made the trip worthwhile. He had surprised her, surprised himself even more, by nearly crushing her in a bear hug.
"So, how do you like the misery of wasting away in an old corner bookstore?" He'd asked her in that first hour of their reunion.
"It's wonderful," she'd answered. "Must be lonely at the top, ruling the world from your little hotel without anyone even knowing, huh?"
"I am that I am," he'd answered. She had laughed and thrown a handkerchief at his face, and they had spent the rest of the night catching up.
Three more knocks made him gasp and sit up, though he was still not entirely awake. Those bloody maids!
"Francis? Francis?" A deep male voice.
"It's Christopher. You'll find something by the door when you open it. Take it with you. I would shake your hand, but I've got to go. I'll see you all on the field."
He sank back down, turning and half falling off the bed.
Three more sharp knocks. It seemed this was a man who wanted to be sure his every word was absorbed, processed and understood.
"Aihkay," Francis mumbled through a yawn. "I eardoo."
The knocks did not resume, and once more, he felt the world slipping pleasantly away.
When he woke several hours later, he found himself sprawled on the floor with only his arm still hanging on the bed. "Wha--?!"
The gray, cloudy morning light glowed passively through the windows to his right. Though he was out of bed, he felt a little warmer. He hoped it hadn't gotten too warm . . .
What? Why would a summer freak like him want it to be cold? An hour ago, he'd been cursing the winter. What was wrong with him lately?
He thought more and more about the snowman that had been such a tiny, crucial part of his young life. Filled with sudden anticipation, he scrambled to put his boots on and headed for the door, not stopping to think or care that he was still in his bathrobe. He grabbed his video camera, something he'd brought to record bits of this little reunion. He'd left the charger at home, and the batteries were pretty old, but heck, maybe they were blessed with Hebrew luck and would last for eight more days.
By the foot of his door, he found an old cuff link.
* * *
Christopher had not yet shown, and by his tone earlier, Annelaia had guessed he would be a bit late, but the twins had beat her to the field.
They were quite an interesting pair. At first, their opposing personalities made it difficult for her to believe they were related; certainly, she and Laia had been much closer and far more compatible. Where Frank was questioning, direct, analytical and a bit paranoid, Frances was more heartfelt, trusting and open.
Still, as the three of them spent more time together in this winter wonderland, Anne knew she was part of something very unusual, something she might never experience again in her lifetime. Maybe her first impression had been wrong, or maybe the magic of a warm meal and drink was changing her perspective, or maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever the reason, the twins' attitudes were changing along with her own. They were starting to seem more like twins. Frances was rediscovering the childhood wonder she had probably never quite lost, and Francis was dropping much of his cynicism. Annelaia found herself remembering more of her own girlhood, forgetting Tom, forgetting the whole bloody restaurant, even dropping the normal sour edge from her voice.
Now, as they sat sharing a quick breakfast in the abandoned park field, with the ground covered nearly a foot in snow, she felt something she hadn't in a long time. She was still too afraid to embrace it completely, but she thought that maybe, just maybe, for one more day, she was little Annelaia the princess.
"I'd love to make a summer home out here," said Frank, breaking a spell of peaceful silence, "But I'm not waiting around for five more months. Let's start without him."
"No! He's got to be coming . . . ?" Frances answered, looking back and forth between Anne and her brother.
Annelaia nodded. "He wouldn't miss this."
"I know!" said Frances, sounding like a young mother feeling sorry for a cold little boy. "He seemed like he wouldn't miss this for the world. There was nothing false about him, you know? I know he wasn't giving us the run-around. He sounded so desperate."
"Yeah, I guess. He did have an honest voice," Frank scratched his nose, pulling his hat down over his ears. "But I still think we should start without him. Feels like he's waiting for us to do something. Don't know how to explain it."
Frances opened her mouth, but closed it as her eyes shifted and sparkled with something painful. Sorrow? Longing?
"Call it a clueless male hunch, Frances, but I'm telling you, he wants us to start by ourselves," said Frank.
"Maybe he's just lazy?" Anne offered, trying to lighten the mood a little.
Frances sighed, clearly more out of pity than reluctance. She smiled broadly, rolling her eyes in a dreamy fashion. "Ooohkay, I guess we can't help it, can we? I hope the poor man doesn't get mad at us. C'mon! Let's go!"
They gathered, and gathered, and gathered. Somehow they all seemed to share an engineer's spec sheet in their minds, one that described the exact size and proportions of the snowman-to-be. They built and gathered, built and gathered. Christopher Yarn was nowhere in sight.
"Look," Frank panted as he added more snow to the body, "We're more than halfway finished. Most people would have quit by now. I don't know if he's . . . "
"I hear him!" Frances jumped and shouted, clutching her mittens to her face. Annelaia thought that she, too, might have heard the very, very faint approach of something through all this wailing wind. The sound was no louder than a large cat climbing down old wooden stairs.
"What? Are you sure you . . . ? Wait, you're right!" Frank exclaimed. "Let's keep building!"
They built, they gathered, and finally they were finished. The twins each placed one cuff link on the head for an eye. Annelaia added the carrot for the nose, then placed the mittens and boots in the right spots. Frances made the mouth out of coal, and Francis added a corncob pipe. They watched, they waited, they studied their silent creation. Something felt incomplete.
Finally, the approaching sound identified itself. It was not Christopher, but an old, tattered silk hat traipsing toward them, carried by the wind in a lazy spiral.
Annelaia immediately swept up it when it came close. "A hat . . .?"
"Put it on the snowman!" The twins cried, children using adult voices.
She placed it on the snowman's head, certain she was doing the right thing, though she had to stand on her toes to do so.
"Thank you, brothers and sisters," the snowman spoke.
Annelaia turned a new sort of cold. The twins had gone a strange shade of pale.
"Thank you," the snowman repeated, "Thank you for helping me speak. I'm Christopher Yarn. I died twenty-two years ago, from an illness that would not let me go. I was ten years old.
"I have seen you all in the worlds in-between. In the dream, as you call it. You three I have chosen to hear me, to pass along my words, to one who never heard me speak."
Francis fumbled with his video camera. He looked unconvinced, but he still pointed it at Christopher Yarn, this year's snowman, as he told his tale.
Christopher talked a little about his childhood and the snowman that had been his only friend. More than anything, he talked about his mother. She was still alive, still mourning his death. "Give her these words. Release her. She must live for me. She did not fail," said Christopher. "Fate forsook me and sent me home."
Annelaia opened her mouth to speak, but not before the hat fell from the snowman's head. Frances screamed and reached for it, but the wind carried it off. Frank gently restrained her, and the snowman spoke no more. The words Fate forsook me and sent me home echoed, echoed, echoed and faded as the hat vanished from sight.
* * *
Francis, Frances, and Annelaia found Christopher's aging mother and brought her the message and the video camera, what little it might have captured with such old batteries.
The old woman waited until they had left to curl up in the living room chair and play the tape. To her surprise, it held a very clear picture. At first she was confused, seeing only a large, silent snowman for the entire recording, but a tiny buzzing prompted her to play it over and over, more slowly each time, making it louder and louder until the volume knob broke.
She gasped, hearing a high-pitched, delicate little voice. The voice, though awkward and alien, somehow made her think of Christopher, twenty-two years ago, when he was a boy of ten.
Christopher, as he would have spoken, had he ever been able to speak during his short, autistic life. Christopher, with a voice free of fear, free of exhaustion, free of those horrible, horrible coughs. She blew her nose once, letting the tears warm her cheeks as she listened to his story.