Cold

1:32 PM, 45° Fahrenheit.

Stephan sat at his computer deep in thought. His right hand was poised over a keyboard waiting for instruction. His left hand unconsciously twirled a ball point pen. He tapped his feet. Despite the time of day he was wearing pajamas. On the computer screen was an unfinished email to Olivia Weston, a sitter who would be spending much of the next few weeks in Stephan’s home, detailing instructions for taking care of his son Gerald. Stephan wished he could spend every minute with his son, but work was currently a priority. The sitter was a necessity. Stephan sighed, ran his hand through his short wiry black hair. It had rained all day. He put the finishing touches on the email and hit “send”. He spun to face the office window staring at the drops of rain that left streaks of water on the glass in crooked, vertical lines. He loved the sound of the rain. Stephan’s reflection in the window studied him with piercing green eyes. The moment was interrupted with the shrill call of the telephone. Stephan put down his pen and picked it up. “McPhearson residence.” It was Samantha.

“Hi Stephan.”

“Samantha. What’s on your mind?”

“I just finished getting Gerald his immunizations and I’m going to stop by the store on the way home. Need anything?”

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“We still on for dinner tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Excellent, I can’t wait. Did you get the sitter?”

“Yeah. She’ll be here at five-thirty. Reservation’s at six.”

“Okay. Sounds good. I should be back in a few hours. See you later.”

“Bye.”

Stephan put down the receiver. They had been planning this dinner for days. She was especially looking forward to it, a last night of peace before weeks on end of exhausting film sessions. Both he and his wife, Samantha, were actors in the same production. Their schedules would be completely booked for half a month. He rolled his chair over to a stack of papers and picked up a script sitting on top. Stephan read the lines out loud thinking about dinner. The rain continued.

2:48 PM, 42° Fahrenheit.

Stephan yawned. He put his script back on top of pile of papers and stood up, stretching. He was hungry, tired, and still wearing his pajamas. Now, he decided, was as good a time as any to get dressed. He shuffled down the hall to his and Samantha’s bedroom. The granite tile felt like ice to his bare feet, nothing like the wonderful carpet in the office. Stephan put on wool socks, trousers, a shirt, and a sweater, but still felt cold. He needed a coffee. He left the bedroom, headed to the kitchen. He made it to the dining room and stopped. Stephan felt a chill slither up his spine. Someone was watching him. He gasped. A spectre-like figure was standing outside his front door, looking at him through the window. It was wearing a dark sweatshirt with the hood drawn over its eyes. Stephan walked to the front door and opened it just enough to see who it was. A blast of frigid air howled through the gap between door and frame. He spoke. “Hello?” It was his neighbor and friend, Leanne, drenched from the rain. Her eyes were red and glassy. Tears mingled with raindrops. She shivered.

“Leanne? What are you doing here? Come inside.” Stephan closed the door behind Leanne as she stepped in. “Want some coffee?”

“That would be nice.”

“Leanne, what’s wrong?”

“Jess isn’t going to…” Leanne could not finish her sentence. She sniffed and took a deep breath. “Jess isn’t going to give me and my children support.”

Stephan did not respond. Just a few weeks earlier Leanne’s husband, Jess, had abandoned her and their two sons. Just packed a suitcase, took the Volkswagen, and left without a word. Stephan and Samantha had helped her pick up the pieces. He hoped she had gotten over the worst of it. Figured he had guessed wrong. He looked into Leanne’s deep blue eyes. In them he saw something, an absolute loss of hope, a bottomless void. He looked away. “How about that coffee?” Not waiting for a response Stephan headed for the kitchen. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her slip her hood off. Her short bronze hair was matted and wet.

3:04 PM. 40° Fahrenheit.

Leannne stood in the kitchen drinking Stephan’s coffee. He had just returned from the restroom. He had washed his face and brushed his teeth, embarrassed about being seen by company in such a condition.

“The coffee’s good.” Said Leanne.

“Hm.” The coffee was terrible, burnt and sour. Stephan studied Leanne. Her posture reeked of insecurity: legs crossed, back hunched, elbows close to torso, darting eyes, mug clutched to chest as if it was in danger of being taken. “Your boys, they home?”

“Edgar’s spending the day with a friend. Joseph took the car this morning.”

“I want to help, but I need to know how.”

“It’s just so hard, everything. Sometimes I feel like I can’t keep going.”

“You have to keep trying, for your boys anyway. Did you get a job yet?”

“No.” She briefly made eye contact and then looked away. “I can’t do anything right… Sometimes I wonder if the world would be a better place without me.” After saying this she looked guilty.

Stephan shuddered. He had heard this before a long time ago. He frowned and picked up his mug, took a pensive sip. It was Jane. In high school, senior year, he had been good friends with her. She had been suffering from depression and had told him the same exact thing. Then one day she disappeared. A few weeks later a hiker found her in the woods. Suicide note in one hand and an empty bottle of pills in the other. Stephan felt he was at fault for not doing more to prevent the event from happening. He put his mug down. The hand that had been relaxed just minutes ago shook slightly.

“I better be going,” Said Leanne, “I’ve wasted enough of your time.”

“Are you going to be all right? I mean, maybe you should see someone.”

“Not enough money.”

“Maybe you should stay.”

“No, I better not.”

Stephan walked Leanne to the front door and shut it softly behind her, but not before he had convinced her to borrow one of Samantha’s rubber rain jackets. She thanked him quietly for the coffee and the jacket. The blanket of rain had become sleet. Stephan watched the yellow clad figure trudge down the street into grey oblivion. Stephan could not let history repeat itself.

4:16 PM. 36° Fahrenheit.

            Gerald bounced up and down on Stephan’s knee swinging his arms, giggling hysterically. He wore a little black sweater to match his father and a diaper with blue flowers on it. His four teeth showed in a wide grin. Stephan did not share in his son’s ecstasy. His mouth was drawn in a thin, crooked line and he gazed unblinking at the blank wall in front of him. Sitting in his office chair he compulsively rotated back and forth, all the more entertaining for Gerald. Now that the memory of Jane had reestablished itself in his mind, it clung to his thoughts like a parasite. A ghost from the past had returned to haunt him. Two ghosts would be too much to bear. And to know that he could have done something, that he could do something. Leanne just needed someone to be with, someone to talk to. The entire thing was maddening.

Sleet fell against the windows making a constant clatter. Many of the falling droplets were frozen and sticking to the hard surfaces they landed on. The ground was too wet for snow to accumulate, but if the temperature dropped further it would become coated in ice. Stephan woke from his trance, looked up when Samantha entered the room. She was wearing heavy black pants and a brown faux fur coat. A smear of cherry lipstick on her mouth. She loved to pretend they were rich. Movie stars, not just actors in a three point seven five star made for television drama series.

“I think we should cancel dinner tonight. Let’s just eat here, be with Gerald,” he suggested.

“What? Why would we do that?”

He had burst her bubble. Figured she would not want to miss an opportunity to wear her stupid coat in public. “I was thinking that if the temperature got any lower the road could freeze over.”

“We have chains and snow spikes don’t we?”

“If the ice gets solid enough even chains won’t keep us from sliding.”

“It’s too wet for it to freeze fast, probably take all night.”

Stephan met Samantha’s gaze then he looked away. His argument was too weak to convince her to change their plans. He knew that before he had even said anything. Gerald began to flail and fuss. Stephan put him down gently. He crawled off leaving a thin trail of drool in his wake.

Stephan took a deep breath. “I’m worried about Leanne. she came by earlier. She’s not doing very well.”

“Leanne? I thought we helped her get everything straightened out.”

“Well, Jess isn’t going to pay support.”

“Is that our problem?”

“No, I just think she should be with someone right now. She needs someone to talk to.”

“Then she should see a psychiatrist.”

“She doesn’t have any money right now.”

“That’s her problem.”

“Leanne is one of our friends and I want to make sure she doesn’t do anything irrational. If she hurts herself, who’ll take care of her sons?”

Samantha frowned. Her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes became slits, and she put her hands on her hips. She looked like she had just eaten something very spicy. “What about me? We hardly ever get to do anything together. We haven’t gone out together for over a month. Why is Leanne a priority?”

“She’s not a priority. She just needs some help right now.” The look on Leanne’s face melted his argument. Stephan looked down and rubbed his temples. Knew she would not relent. Dinner tonight was happening come hell or high water. Gerald appeared by the office door and looked in at them eyes wide. He accused them angrily in toddler gobbledygook.

 

5:39 PM. 31° Fahrenheit.

            Stephan pulled into an empty parking space at La Viande. Samantha sat next to him in the passenger seat. The neon sign flickered. Soft yellow lights on the exterior illuminated the sky. The chains on the wheels clattered and groaned as they struggled against the icy patches on the asphalt. A flurry of snow sprinkled the windshield with crisp white flakes. Wipers fought the ice accumulating on the tinted safety glass. Stephan put the car in park and twisted the keys from the ignition, exhaled a breath that became a patch of condensation on the window, and spoke. “Well, here we are.”

 

6:03 PM. 30° Fahrenheit.

Stephan could not relax. He tapped his fork on the mahogany table with soft rhythmic clicks. His foot played the offbeats. His eyes darted around the room anxiously. Samantha paid no notice to Stephan’s neurotic behavior, instead focusing on the the rotisserie chicken in front of her. His own meal, a medium rare lamb chop, grew cold on his plate completely untouched. The restaurant was almost empty. Most people were probably bundled up in blankets at home enjoying a nice warm home cooked meal. There was the occasional clink of silverware or sharp laugh that emanated from otherwise quiet conversation. A roaring fire combined with the light wind on the windows added soft undertones to the composition. Stephan coughed. He felt his pocket vibrate, slipped his hand in, and removed his telephone. It was an incoming call from Leanne. “I have to use the restroom. I’ll be right back,” he announced. Samantha nodded and muttered something incomprehensible through a mouthful of chicken. Stephan placed his phone back in his pocket and stood up unsteadily. His boots functioned rather awkwardly on the carpet that covered the entirety of the restaurant floor. He navigated empty tables and chairs, boots thudding dully. When he reached the hallway with the restrooms he whipped out his phone. He had missed the call. He punched “Leanne” into his contacts and rang her number. It was a man’s voice that answered the phone.

“Is this Stephan?”

“Yeah, who is this?”

“This is Joseph, Leanne’s son.”

“Oh sorry, Joseph, didn’t recognize your voice on the phone. Is there a problem?”

“Leanne disappeared without her phone. I think she went out into the snow on foot. Her shoes are missing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. She didn’t even wear her coat. I can’t take the car to look for her. We don’t have chains. She can’t have gone far, but the new snow would have covered her tracks.”

“Alright I’m coming. Don’t leave the house.” Stephan reckoned that even if he could convince Samantha of the severity of the situation it would just waste precious time. He walked out to the dining room and spotted her at the table. She had not seen him. “Ah, what the hell.” He muttered under his breath. He spun on his feet and jogged to the exit. A waiter who had just turned the corner from the kitchen carrying a full platter nicked his shoulder. The platter came crashing down. Caesar salad, braised steak, and mashed potatoes hit the floor, a seeping pile that stained the carpet.

“Goddam!” shouted the waiter.

Stephan took no notice and slammed through the wooden double doors and out  into the evening. The wall of frigid air knocked the breath from him. Everything was black and white. His boots fought for traction on the frozen sidewalk. He zipped up his parka and fought his way to the car.

6:12 PM. 29° Fahrenheit.

            Visibility was terrible. The swirling torrent of snow obscured objects near and far. The windshield wipers did not do much to help the accumulating ice. The car struggled through a layer of snow above the frozen road occasionally losing traction for a second or two. In his haste, he had forgotten to turn on the heater. His breath spilled from his mouth in puffs of fog. Stephan relied on his phone for street to street navigation. He could only make out the occasional road sign at an intersection. He almost took a wrong turn more than once. Finally he arrived at Leanne’s house. He saw no traces of a solitary walker leading from the modest grey bungalow. It was madness to be driving in these conditions. He drove further down the street. Against the stop sign sat, sprawled, a limp figure dressed in black, a light covering of snow on its head and shoulders. Stephan eased the car to a stop. Teardrops mingled with flakes of flawless crystal. A black star in a night full of white.

Words by Raymond Hill