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Snow in a Broken Window
In the midst of a huge forest of pines, on the border between Minnesota and Ontario, there stood a quaint little cottage. The wind howled around its square, brick walls, its clay shingle roof made invisible by the thundering snow storm, a blizzard of legendary proportions. Only the light shining from its windows and the smoke from the chimney, present for a mere instant, broke Nature’s hold on the area. Looking through the eyes of the owl perched comfortably in one of the myriad of swaying pine trees, the small dwelling appeared angelic, surrounded by a small, bright halo of light, a bastion against the insidious darkness.
Had the sole occupant of the little house been sitting by her bedroom window, enjoying a mug of hot chocolate at such a late time instead of slumbering fitfully in her bed, she would have been amazed, if not quite a bit afraid, to see a man staggering into the light, a pathetic figure born from the dark trees behind him. Every time he took a tortured step, he sunk up to his thighs in the snow. Moth-eaten gloves, showing frighteningly gray skin, clutched a threadbare parka around a thin body. His pants, made of hard canvas, were now soaked, and specked with dirt and bits of tree bark. His plastic shoes sported several rips and tears and bit into his frostbitten feet. There were tears all over his clothing, some revealing pasty white skin. A scarf, frozen to his lips, obscured most of his face, except for two startlingly blue eyes and thin, black eyebrows. As he moved further into light encircling the house, he looked over his shoulder, as if he thought something was following him, some beast from hell that would come rushing out of the darkness.
The man struggled quietly, creeping every closer to the front door of the house, buffeted by the wind and blinded by the snow. He fell, once or twice, his thin frame completely vanishing under the thick blanket of snow that covered the ground. Yet he always got up again, covered by that frozen precipitation, a ghost on the brink of death.
Jackie Allein tossed and turned in her bed. Sweat beaded on her smooth forehead and then ran down her face, a rather pretty one, and mingled with tears. The sheets and comforter, a necessity in the winter here, lay on the floor, tangled, as if thrown there by some insane demon. Even though Jackie had lit the warming oven in the living room before she had gone to bed, the cold had already settled into the room. The pillow crackled as she rolled back and forth, dreaming her nightmares. So engrossed was she in her suffering that she did not, at first, notice the weak pounding on her door. Only when it stopped for a while did its absence seem to shock her out of her restlessness. She sat up in the bed, instantly awake, the coldness in the room seeping into her body. Through the gloom of her bedroom, she stared at a picture frame on the wall in front of her. Though it was holding nothing, her eyes bored into space where the picture should be.
“Why can’t you leave me alone, dammit?” she murmured as she reached down to pick up the sheets and comforter.
She pulled them onto the bed and was about the lie back down when the pounding on the door, even weaker now, started again. She froze, then slipped quietly off the bed. Grabbing her bathrobe from a hook beside the bedroom door and walking on her tiptoes because the tiled floor was extremely cold, Jackie ventured out into the brightly lit foyer. She looked through the peephole, yet saw nothing except for swirling whiteness. Mystified, she unlocked her door and turned the knob, pulling hard to open it, probably because a sheet of ice had frozen over top of it, anchoring it to the door frame. She cursed and pulled harder.
Finally, the door ached open, hinges squeaking and ice breaking. As soon as the edge of the door cleared the door frame, the door flew inwards, the heavy winds slamming it against the wall with a loud crashing noise. Giant flakes of snow were driven into the house as the blizzard continued to rage unabated. The ice cold wind bit into Jackie’s arms and legs. Yet she was not worried about that. What she was worried about was the man collapsed in her foyer.
The man propped himself up, arms shivering from the strain. He looked up at her with tired eyes and said, quite smoothly, “The name’s Henry Pazzo, ma’am. Don’t let them get me.” Then, his eyes rolled backwards in his head and he collapsed back onto the tile floor.
Jackie, aware that they would both freeze to death if she didn’t close the door soon, grabbed the head of his parka and pulled him further inside the house. With the wind driving daggers of ice into her face, she managed to close the door, slamming it shut and locking it quickly. As the feeling slowly returned to her fingers, she rushed back to her unexpected guest. With one look, she could tell he was in bad shape. Jackie speedily removed the man’s raggedy parka to reveal a relatively dry, though not clean shirt. She proceeded to take off his shoes and ripped pants. As she removed his almost nonexistent socks, she noted that his toes were gray, not yet black, a good sign.
She took a thick blanket from the couch in her living room and wrapped it around the man, and then pulled him further into her house, into her small living room, bare but for an old Hopi carpet, a small couch and, in the center of the room, a huge furnace, which served as the heating system during the winter. Jackie pulled him up to the ceramic sides of the furnace, propping him against it. She stoked the fire, which had become only a collection of smoldering embers overnight, and added some more wood. Biting her hair, a habit she had developed before she had dropped out of college, she stared at the man. It appeared as if he had been unconscious for only a few seconds because now he was just sleeping peacefully, his haggard face relaxed under the bright, artificial lighting.
Reassured that the man was at least situated well, Jackie walked into her house’s small kitchen, which was really just an extension of the living room with cheap, metal appliances. She wanted to make a warm compress for the man’s face, which looked in particularly bad condition. Knowing that it would take too long for the water in the cistern to become hot, she pulled a small pot out of an upper cabinet and, filling it with water, placed it on her gas stove. She took a box of matches from the pocket of her bathrobe, only to discover that they were wet from helping the man inside. Throwing them onto the countertop, she walked back to the foyer and searched the pocket of her leather jacket, hanging unused since the storm had started a couple of days ago. She found a lighter, along with a half-full box of cigarettes. Jackie took both out, fished a cigarette out of the crushed box with her long, smooth fingers, then let the box drop again. She kicked it into her bedroom and closed her bedroom door before going back to the kitchen. Jackie flicked the lighter on to see if it still worked, then lit the cigarette she had been holding in her left hand. Breathing deeply, she used the lighter to spark the stove.
She walked back to the living room, taking another pull of her cigarette as she dropped onto the sofa. Wearily, Jackie looked the man leaning against her furnace.
“Who the hell is he?” she wondered aloud. “And what did I do, helping him? How do I know that he isn’t some serial killer? Of course, I haven’t heard of anything suspicious since I was in town last.”
Jackie laughed, if a bit uneasily. She decided she couldn’t go back to bed now. Instead, she took another blanket that had been lying on the couch, and curled up in it. She sat still for a while. The only sounds intruding on true silence were the wind howling in the chimney and the crackling fire in the furnace. And her steady pulls on the cigarette.
The chemically white smoke curled over her head, winding past her green eyes. They widened as she remembered the water she had been heating on the stove. Jackie pushed off the blanket, which slid to the floor, and got up. She took one last pull of the cigarette then, casting a quick glance at the man in front of her, affirming that he was still asleep, pulled up her sleeve and extinguished the cigarette on her upper arm. Her pretty eyes did not change as she did this, and she thought, Did it ever hurt? She flicked the cigarette butt into a small trash bin by the furnace and walked the few feet to the kitchen.
The water looked like it had already been boiling for a while, and the bottom of the pot, or the part of it that was visible, glowed a dangerous orange. Grabbing a dish towel from a nearby towel rack, Jackie pushed the pot onto the countertop, where it steamed for a few seconds as she turned off the gas supply for the stove. She poured some cold water into the pot to make the temperature of the water bearable, then dipped the dish towel into it. After wringing it out for a few seconds, until it was just moist, Jackie walked back to the man in the living room and draped it rather nonchalantly over his face. Shifting her weight to her favored left leg, she stood there, staring at him. She could see the dishrag move, flutter as he breathed deeply, in and out.
She cocked her head to one side. The blanket in which she had wrapped him had slid down and was no longer covering his chest and arms and as he breathed in and out, his chest rising with each intake and release of air, the thin sleeves of his shirt rose and fell as well, revealing, for seconds of a time, something written on the inside of his right wrist. She bent down to take a closer look, but the man began to stir. The towel fell to the floor to reveal the man’s wide awake, blinking eyes.
Jackie crouched down beside him.
“Are you okay?” she whispered, a futile attempt at preserving the tranquility of the room because the man responded in a loud, smooth voice.
“Yes. I am quite alright,” he said, with an accent Jackie couldn’t place. He opened his mouth to say something else, but then a suspicious gleam appeared in his eye. He tried to move away from her, using his arms, grasping for surface on the warm, even sides of the furnace, to pull himself up. However, as soon as he got one quivering leg to stand, he collapsed again.
“Are you a government agent?” the man asked, his voice raised in fear and panic. He continued trying to put as much distance between them as possible, panting heavily at the exertion.
“Hah!” Jackie snorted. “Why do you think I live here, an hour and a half from my closest neighbor, not counting that asylum up by Brand Canyon, of course. It’s been there for ages and I’ve never heard anything from them or about. Better stay that way too,” she murmured. “I have enough problems without having to deal with a bunch a loonies.”
The man, Henry Pazzo, she remembered him telling her know, visibly relaxed, appeased by this somewhat convoluted statement. He stopped trying to crawl away and leaned back against the furnace, the collar of his shirt soaked with sweat. He reached out and snatched the blanket from where he had left it, not using it to warm himself, just clasping it to his chest.
“Thank goodness,” he breathed quietly. “Sometimes, I feel as if I am going there after this whole ordeal is over.” He chuckled falsely at his joke.
Convinced that his change of attitude was genuine, Jackie, who had been on edge while Henry had panicked, relaxed as well. Although she wanted to ask what ordeal he meant, she decided to let the poor man recover more and asked, “Would you like something to drink? Brandy, maybe? A beer?”
“Just water, please,” Henry said politely, then pulled the blanket tighter to himself.
Jackie walked into the kitchen, grabbed a glass from a cabinet, and filled it with water. Letting it sit on the counter, she opened her fridge, which had been well stocked a week ago but was now approaching the empty mark. She was not worrying however, as she grasped a beer from the back of the fridge, because she had enough frozen goods in the cottage’s small basement to last for a while. Closing the fridge, she used the bottle opener attached to the refrigerator’s door and tossed the bottle cap into the sink. She liked the sound it made as it hit the aluminum sides. She smiled.
“Maybe today won’t be such a bad day after all,” she muttered to herself as she reached out to take the glass of water.
“Or maybe it will?” a voice said in her head. “I think he’s trouble, just like the last one.”
Jackie shook her head, took the glass, and said, “Stupid voices!” before going back into the living room.
She handed the glass to Henry and sat down on the couch again. She watched him drink, studying him as she sipped her own beverage.
“What was that ordeal you were talking about before?” she asked, after a few moments spent gathering the courage to ask the question.
“Well, I don’t know if I should tell you,” Henry answered quietly and again, Jackie caught the slight hint of an unidentifiable accent.
She frowned and lifted the beer to her lips again. She set it down beside the couch, two fingers of her left hand cradling the neck of the bottle like she would a cigarette. She frowned again, and looked at Henry expectantly.
“Okay,” he whispered, “But you have to promise to tell no one, okay?”
“Okay,” Jackie drawled out. “And if I do, will you have to kill me, or something?”
She laughed and cast a glance at him, to see if he was laughing as well. He was, his mouth wide in a smile, and she noticed his perfectly white teeth for the first time.
“Well?” she said.
He stood up and stretched, cracking his neck and fingers. Jackie shivered, goosebumps running down her back. She did not particularly care for that noise. Henry walked over and sat down at the foot of the couch. As he began to speak, he leaned closer to her, and she noticed that he seemed once again on edge, sweat trickling through his thin hair even though the room had grown remarkably cooler over the past couple minutes. The knuckles of his hands, shaking as he clutched at the blanket draped around him, seemed to glow slightly under the myriad of lights in the room.
“Something is wrong with him,” the voice in her head piped up out of the darkness that was eating her soul.
“I am being followed by government agents, have been hounded through deserts and rainforests, the clouds and the sea. I only barely escaped their clutches before I came here. That’s why I was out in that infernal snowstorm. I just had to get away. They thought they had me captured, but they underestimated me. I know too much about them to fall for their tricks. My only problem is that I am weary of all this running. I have been running from them ever since my father entrusted me with their terrible secret, the day they took him away from forever.”
At this point in his narrative he sighed, and through her eyes, he did look tired, his face gaunt and his body wiry, eaten up from constantly fighting against those who could not be fought against. He haphazardly stretched out one arm to pick up the glass of water that had been sitting on top of the wet towel that had been the warm compress. Holding it with his thumb and index finger, he placed it close to his right knee, next to the Jackie’s bottle of beer, which she protectively picked up. She lifted the rim of the bottle to her lips and took another swallow, watching Henry furtively over its bottom. After taking a sip from the glass, he continued.
“I have nightmares of what the government plans for the world, and unless I can scrounge up some help, I am going to have a very hard time finding away to stop it.”
Jackie nodded slowly, unsure of whether to commit herself to his cause or not.
“Don’t trust him” the voice inside of her whispered insidiously.
“What can I do to help?” she decided.
“Can I stay here for a while? I need to recover so that I can run some more!” he said, his voice tinged with bitterness.
“Okay.” she said slowly, still trying to comprehend what he had just told her.
“Could I sleep on the couch, just until this blizzard ends?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Will you be fine with just that blanket or - ”
“Yes,” he said, interrupting her gently.
Flustered, she went to the kitchen, where she finished the bottle of beer, which she tossed into the sink as well. Glancing at the clock on the microwave oven, she realized that not even an hour had passed since she had awoken. Taking another glass from the cupboard she used water to swish the acrid taste of the beer from her mouth, then placed the glass in the sink as well, allowing the cool water to run over the items now collected therein. Jackie turned the water off again and left the kitchen, leaving the lights running like she always did. She wanted to talk more to Henry, having realized that throughout their whole conversation he had failed to mention what the governmental conspiracy actually was.
But he was already asleep, eyes closed, peaceful. Disappointed, Jackie returned to her bedroom. After hanging her bathrobe on the hook by the door, she stooped down and picked up the crinkled pack of cigarettes she had kicked into the room earlier. Puffing the box out so that it looked more rectangular, almost normal, she took out another cigarette. She lit it using her lighter, which she tossed back into the bathrobe pocket. Pulling the smoke into her lungs, she sat down on her bed, thinking.
Although she liked the house always lit, no matter the time of day or time of year, because she had always found comfort in the artificialness of the light produced by electricity, her bedroom always remained dark, the blinds drawn and curtains stretched across the window. Now, in the middle of the night, the only light in the room was the glowing cigarette in Jackie’s mouth, its constant flare causing her face to appear demonic in some aspects, angelic in others.
The cigarette finished, put out in the usual manner, Jackie lay down on the bed. No longer warm, she clasped the sheets and comforter around her, and wished she could sleep in the living room with the heat of the furnace providing a pleasant backdrop for dreams, dreams … nightmares.
Jackie awoke, sweat running in rivulets down her arms and legs, soaking her pajamas.
“Told you, told you!” screeched the voice in her head.
She stood up, slowly, cautiously because her head was pounding and her right arm hurt. She staggered to the door, too tired to have slept at all. She put on her bathrobe and lit up another cigarette, which hung limply from her mouth as she walked to the kitchen. Henry was still sleeping peacefully. Too peacefully, she thought angrily. Why couldn’t she sleep that way?
“Told you, told you!” the voice screamed again and her head threatened to explode from the pressure.
Jackie lurched into the kitchen. She looked into the living room, but the site of the couch was blocked by the huge furnace. Satisfied, she opened a kitchen drawer, then slammed it shut again. Where had she put those knives? Angrily, she opened another drawer and, when she did not find what she was looking for, scattered its contents all over the floor. Almost hysterical, she finally found her butcher knife, ordered in with the spoons. Her long, smooth fingers with their flawless white skin and faultlessly green fingernails curled around the grip of the knife. The pound in her head stopped.
“Told you so! Told you so!” the voice in her head quieted after these final exclamations.
She stalked out into the living room, rounded the furnace and prepared to –
He was gone. He was gone!
Furiously, she looked around the room. She stabbed the sofa in fear and hatred of herself and HIM, then she bashed into the small bathroom off the living room, slashing the curtain insanely. The basement door was still locked, the key in her pocket, so she ventured outside, where the blizzard had stopped. The sun shone, flashing off the mounds of snow that littered the landscape, obscuring the sight of the massive pine trees. Snow flakes, beautifully crafted, landed in Jackie’s hair. Sunlight glinted on the broad knife in her hand.
“I knew it,” a voice gasped achingly beside her. “I knew it! You are a government agent! I knew it!”
Jackie turned to confront Henry. His face was twisted in madness. Where it had seemed gaunt before, it now seemed obtuse and over built. His eyes glared up at her, insanity frothing at his lips.
She yelled back at him. “You betrayed me, you sick son of a bi***!”
He gaped at her, his mouth wide, revealing teeth that were stained yellow, cracked with lunacy. She glowered at him, watching his neck spasm as he rolled his head back and forth.
So engrossed was she in their shared madness, her fingers only just maintaining a grip on her weapon of choice, that she failed to notice his right arm begin its meteoric rise, failed to see the glint of that bright yellow sun on his own blade of choice. Until it came to rest in her chest.
She gasped, and collapsed in the pure snow, as blood flowed freely from her wound. Her weapon lay discarded, now covered with blood, yet it was hers and not his.
He stared into her eyes, rapidly draining of life. Then, Henry Pazzo calmly used his bloody blade to slit his own wrists. As his strength drained with his blood, he reached up and buried the blade in his throat.
As their blood flowed together to form a steaming red river on a sea of white, small flakes of perfect snow flew into a shattered window, under which stood: Hartford House for the Criminally Insane.