Bianca, my sister says. She says it three times, like the charm in a story. Soft, deliberate.
“I’m awake,” I say, before I even really know if it’s the truth.
Her voice is careful in the dark, like she’s afraid she’ll startle me, breathing the words instead of speaking them. “There’s someone at the door.”
The way she leans over me is careful too, like she’s trying to keep me calm. It’s silly, though. Of the two of us, I’m the one who’s never loud. I’m the one who keeps still and doesn’t make a fuss.
Outside, the night is strangely pale. Snow has collected on all the window ledges and made its way up the glass, shutting us in like a tomb. In the clear space above the little drifts, it just keeps falling.
Then, without warning, the pounding comes again, echoing from downstairs, booming through the front hall.
“Wait here,” she says, taking her cardigan from the back of the desk chair and after a second, the heavy wooden bat.
She leaves, and the whole house is as dark and still as the dead. The power’s been out since this afternoon. After a second, I reach for the Coleman lantern beside the bed and turn it on. Then I throw back the covers and follow her.
The lantern casts a dim circle of light, making shadows in all the corners. At the top of the stairs, I stand and listen.
Her feet are light, almost soundless on the floor runner. Then I hear her voice, loud and ferocious, speaking close to the door. “Who are you and what do you want?”
The answer is muffled, low. A man’s. “Please, my car went off the road. About a half a mile up Ashbury Drive. It’s stuck in the ditch and there’s nothing around. Please, if you don’t let me in, I’ll die out here.”
The door distorts most of the sound, but I can still hear the way his voice catches on the last part. Outside, the snow is falling in huge, silent washes, drifting up the sides of the house. It collects in deep hummocks, heavy, soundless, and by morning, we might be buried completely.
“Coral,” I say, because if we leave him there on the front steps, he’ll freeze. “You have to let him in.”
She turns and sees me, standing at the top of the stairs. It’s too dark to see faces, but the way her head moves side to side, I can almost watch her making up her mind.
“Oh, all right, fine.” She turns the thumb lock and the deadbolt, then steps against the wall before opening the door. Her other hand is tight on the handle of the bat.
The man lumbers inside, shaking the snow from his hair. He’s so big that for a second, he seems to fill the doorway, looming in dark silhouette against the white night sky behind him. Then he steps into the light and I can see that it’s just his coat. It’s a huge down-filled sausage of a coat, swelling out around his body.
He marches in place on the mat, stomping his feet to knock the snow off. He’s wearing gray canvas sneakers. A heavy winter parka, but canvas sneakers.
“May I hang up your things?” I say, starting down the stairs.
Coral gives me a quick, incredulous look, but doesn’t move to stop me.
The man is peeling out of the coat, dropping snow all over the hall runner, sprinkling the deep wild rose pattern with white.
“I’m sorry,” he says, looking truly abashed. “I’m so sorry about the floor. If you want to get me a towel or something, I’ll mop it up.”
“Why don’t you have boots?” I say, coming close enough to see the stubble on his chin, dark and slightly uneven. A little monogram on his shirt cuff, the letters HLD intertwined in navy thread. To smell the wild, acrid tang of his wet hair.
His face is long and almost delicate, younger than I would have guessed. His eyes are brown, dark-lashed, slightly close-set. “Excuse me?”
“Boots. You’re wearing a heavy winter coat, but you have no boots.”
“Oh,” he says, glancing down. “God, would you look at me. Poor planning, I guess.”
But the tone of his voice is apologetic. He doesn’t meet my eyes when he says it.
“Would you like something hot to drink?”
He nods, letting me take the coat. He’s very tall and almost as broad, but he keeps hunching his shoulders like he’s trying to make himself smaller.
“Your shoes have no laces,” I say as I start for the kitchen. Behind me, I can feel Coral move, choking up on the bat, but she doesn’t do anything. It’s just an observation.
In the kitchen, I heat milk in a saucepan and add sugar and salt and chocolate syrup. I do it in the dark. As I stand there, warming my hands over the stove, waiting for it to boil, the stillness comes suddenly alive with the sound of breaking glass. When I look around though, the source is mysterious, hard to make out in the dark.
Then I see it.
One of the panes in the kitchen door is gone and a hand is reaching in through the empty space to turn the lock. It’s a square, stubby-fingered hand and I go across to the knife block and take out the cleaver before coming up to the door.
“Who are you and what do you want?” I say, leaning close to peer through the glass.
There’s a man on the back steps and when he sees me staring out at him, his eyes go wide. “Oh good lord!” he yelps, almost stumbling into the drifted peony bed. “You scared the bejeezus out of me!”
I rest my hand against the door. The wind blowing in through the shattered pane is frigid. “I think that’s something I’m supposed to say, considering that you’re the one breaking into my house.”
“I didn’t know anyone was here,” he tells me. “No cars out front and the whole place looks deserted. I didn’t mean to cause trouble, just needed to find somewhere warm.” His teeth are chattering and he’s trying to work the feeling back into his hands, rubbing them up and down his arms.
I slip the cleaver into the pocket of my robe and open the door.
We’re standing in the kitchen, facing each other across the linoleum, when there’s a flare of light and Coral is behind me, holding the lantern and looking thunderous. “What’s going on?”
“This gentleman was just looking for someplace to shelter for the night and then he stuck his hand through our window. I thought that since he wanted to see our kitchen so badly, he might as well come in.”
Coral says nothing, only holds the lantern up, studying him with her jaw set and the bat hanging menacingly in her other hand. He’s a small man, with a hard, foxy face and a high go-to-hell arch in his eyebrows. His hair hangs in a ragged shock over his forehead, but he keeps his beard trimmed in a neat little patch just around his mouth. He’s wearing no coat at all.
The other visitor has followed Coral and is standing back by the refrigerator with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. It doesn’t really work. He still looks very big.
“Well,” I say, looking around at all of them. “It seems to be a bad night for passing through. I’m sorry, you two haven’t met.”
Our first visitor steps away from the wall, moving with the slow, weighty grace of an animal. “Jim Maxwell,” he says, offering his hand. Their eyes meet in a fast, furtive glance, highly charged and gone again.
“Carter Boyd,” says the other and then they both drop their hands and look away.
On the stove, the milk has begun to hiss and foam in the pan and I go to pour it while Coral covers the broken window with a piece of cardboard and the men sit across from each other at the table with the lantern plunked down in the middle.
“Do you two ever think about moving closer to town?” says Jim Maxwell in low, conversational way. “It’s pretty lonely out here.”
“We don’t mind it,” Coral tells him. “I’m good around the house and Bianca keeps a nice garden in the summer. We manage.”
“Your name isn’t Jim,” I tell him softly, handing him his cup. “Or else you’re wearing someone else’s shirt. Maybe both.”
He doesn’t answer. For the next few minutes, both men hunch over the table, drinking their hot chocolate, avoiding each other’s eyes.
Coral is sitting at the head of the table, looking tired and annoyed at having company in the middle of the night. “Bianca,” she says, getting to her feet. “Do you want to go ahead and bring some blankets down from the attic while I get a fire started?”
“I’ll give you a hand with that fire if you like,” says Jim Maxwell, whose name is not that and whose shirt belongs to someone else.
Out in the front hall, I start up the stairs, then hear the floorboards creak when Carter moves behind me. He catches me by the elbow and pulls me into the alcove under the staircase, pressing his hand against my mouth.
“You have to get him out of here,” he whispers, and I can smell the chocolate on him, and something else too, all fear and sweat, and over that, the light, clean smell of snow. “It’s not safe having him in this house.”
I take his hand away from my face. “What are you talking about?”
“Look, I don’t want to scare you, but right now, you got to listen to me. I guess you know that he’s not Jim Maxwell and I might as well tell you that my name’s not Carter. Me and him, we’re both off the same transport truck. They were moving us out to Willby, but then the roads got bad and we went off the highway.”
“Weren’t there any guards with you?”
“There were,” he says. “But you don’t need to know the details. And now there’s twelve real bad guys wandering around this godforsaken stretch of country in the snow. They’re all hard customers, but he’s the worst. I wouldn’t be surprised if he killed some poor sucker to get that fancy coat he came here with. Man’s vicious as a dog and he’ll kill you too without a second thought.”
The way he says it is supposed to make me shrink in terror. Remind me that the other visitor is big, eminently powerful. That he’s alone with Coral, who is stoking the fire and doesn’t know the man beside her is a criminal.
It would be reasonable to think all that if both of them didn’t look so thoroughly disreputable. If Coral were a fool.
I look up at the man who isn’t Carter. The maddening thing is how I can’t see his face. If I could, I’d be able to read the truth in the shape of his mouth, see his secrets in the lines around his eyes. “How did you know that he came here with a coat?”
He doesn’t answer, just draws in his breath as I step past him and out of the alcove.
“Come back here,” he says.
But I don’t, just start for the sitting room, and he follows me. He’s not panicked, not hurrying, but I can hear the soft fall of his footsteps. I can feel his hand when it reaches to catch hold of me, inches from the back of my robe.
“I was kind to you,” I say. “So was my sister.”
We’re standing on the hall runner, with the wild rose pattern damp under my feet and the cleaver in my pocket bumping gently against my thigh. He moves behind me, sly and cautious, edging closer.
I touch the cleaver handle, the worn-smooth wood. “How long have you been escaped, really?”
“Two weeks.” The voice is lower, the soft, apologetic pitch of the man in the monogrammed shirt. He’s standing ahead of me, filling up the sitting room doorway. “The part about the transport truck is true. There was a break on one of the state pen trucks two weeks ago and a whole bunch of us just ran. I’m real sorry. You have to know that no one meant to bring this to your door.”
But I’m not so sure he’s right about that. The foxy one is so close I can feel his breath stir my hair. The air coming off him smells like rage, and there may have been a man on that transport truck who seizes opportunities and kills indiscriminately, but he isn’t the man with the stolen shirt and the apologetic eyes. No, if he’s anywhere, it’s standing right behind me.
Soon, he’ll reach for my throat, but just now, we stay still, deep in the thrall of the silence and the snow. With our arms limp and our eyes open against the dark, we might as well be sleepwalking.
When Coral appears, it’s like a whisper. A slender shadow behind the man in the doorway, bat in one hand, the fireplace poker in the other. The end of the poker glows red-hot, and I know the strange electric calm can’t last.
She swings the bat in a short arc, more precision than force, and the man in front of her hits the floor with a soft gasp and doesn’t get up. Behind me, the foxy one grabs my collar. His hand is rough, but uncertain in the dark and I turn out of his grasp.
“Ungrateful,” I say as I sidestep him, swinging the cleaver so that it slashes across his outstretched hand. “I let you in after you broke my window!”
He hisses and yanks his hand back. I hack again and this time connect with his shoulder, but it’s only a shallow cut. I’m not strong enough to sink the blade anyplace bony. I need to find his soft spots, but the hall is dim except for the fading glow of the poker and the lantern light shining weakly from the other room. And then he’s right in front of me, beating at my face and my neck, trying to hold me.
Coral is dancing around us. I can hear her there, see the dark frantic shape of her, but the hall is dark and narrow and she won’t swing the bat. I could actually die in my own front hall because my sister is too scared to hit me.
Then the man in the monogrammed shirt is between us, fighting his way in front of me and ripping the cleaver from my hand. Behind him, Coral is screaming, screeching, beating at him with her baseball bat and then her hands. But the big man doesn’t even glance at her, just stands over the smaller one and buries the cleaver in his chest.
For a long, painful, moment, there is only the irregular pattering sound of blood falling in a sloppy cascade, and then the foxy one slips heavily to the floor and the other man falls with him, kneeling over the body, breathing in huge, whining gasps. Blood is running down the back of his neck from the place where Coral hit him, soaking into his shirt. I sink beside him, feeling weightless and numb. Time passes.
Then Coral is standing over us, lantern in hand. The light shows a festival of blood, spreading on the carpet in huge, ragged-edged splotches. They look like roses.
“Who are you,” I say to the man beside me. “And what do you want?”
“I’m the hard case from the transport truck,” he says, sounding tired and drowsy. The cut on the back of his head isn’t slowing. “I’m the hard customer that our friend here told you about. But I ain’t the only bad man in the world.”
“What do you want?” I say again, and my voice sounds very small.
He shakes his head, eyes slipping closed. “I just didn’t want to freeze to death.”
Our common prompt for March is the fairy tale Snow-White and Rose-Red.
Photo by p-duke