"On a Cold Winter's Night"

 

By Jim DeBrosse

The Christmas Eve party was set to begin at 5 o'clock and that's exactly when the first of John's family began to arrive, their cars causing a minor traffic jam out front on the narrow Oregon district street.

The Schmidts were a no-nonsense, punctual lot, and they were big eaters, not ones to be plied with eggnog and little hors d'oeuvres while they were kept waiting for the meat and potatoes. Which is why John's biggest worry as he went to the front door was that Abigail was still fussing in the kitchen with the four ducks she had insisted on roasting for the occasion. "Duck?" he had said when she first brought home the naked, gleaming fowl from a pricey supermarket in Oakwood. "Nobody in my family eats duck."

"They do now," Abigail said in her quiet defiant way, then stuffed them in the freezer.

"Is four enough?"

"With your family, nothing is ever enough."

"Fine, be that way. I'll microwave hot dogs for the kids."

"Yum. How seasonal."

Aunt Greta's hand was on the doorknob when John opened the door. Glassy-eyed and Bourbon-breathed, she breezed past him into the house, embodying all the brusque good cheer and dreaded imposition of the holiday season.

"Oh, look, Karl! Look what they've done to the old place. Why it's exactly the way I remember it!"

The accolade almost brought tears to John's eyes. Two years of scrimping and sacrifice to renovate the old house, and here, finally, was his hour of praise.

Uncle Karl stood by the door with an enormous gift in his arms. He smiled sheepishly as Aunt Greta swept around the front room, pointing, touching.

"They used to play cards here every Friday night - right here in front of the fireplace - Dad and Mom and the Rileys. And Uncle Gerhardt would play the piano out in the other room - snockered, of course, and just banging away as you please. Sometimes they'd all sing songs, even us kids if we were good and allowed to stay up. Oh my, there was always somethin' doin' at our house. Just look at it!"

She returned to John long enough to plant a loud, wet kiss on his cheek and peel off her fur-collared coat.

"Karl," she snapped, and motioned with her hand.

Karl stepped forward with the package. "We brought a little something - for housewarming."

"You shouldn't have," John said. "I told everyone, no gifts."

"We wanted to," Aunt Greta said. "So be quiet and say thanks."

"Thanks," he said, and pecked her on the cheek. Arguing with Aunt Greta was like talking out of turn to royalty - it was only tolerated so as not to embarrass the offender.

Meanwhile, five or six more guests stacked up at the door, stamping their feet, holding their ears against a bitter wind.

In they came. Aunt Sylvie, Uncle Louis, John's older brother Fritz and his quiet wife Beth, their two well-behaved little girls, both in bright red holiday dresses. They all exchanged Merry Christmases, then gawked around the house and said the appropriate admiring things. John had to admit, Abigail had done a remarkable job of decorating. The fireplace, the banister, the doorways, the chandeliers were dripping with evergreen and velvet bows, just the way a Victorian house ought to look at Christmas time.

John took the coats and Aunt Greta's giant gift and stopped in the kitchen on his way to the backstairs. Abigail was still fussing with the ducks.

"Abby, are you nuts? Get those birds in the oven!"

"They need more marinating."

"But people are already here."

"John, they'll be ready in time. Will you please get a grip."

"Me get a grip? You're babying those things like family pets."

"John, would you not make this any worse than it has to be."

They exchanged angry, wounded looks and John charged upstairs.

How could it be any worse, he thought. Every person in his family was coming over for Christmas Eve dinner and not one of them knew what he and Abigail knew - that their marriage was dead, deader than a doornail, as Dickens would have put it, and after only two years.

Perhaps they should have canceled the party - in fact, Abigail was still insisting on it only days before - but John had pleaded with her. The invitations had gone out weeks ago, and everyone was looking forward to seeing the old family house again - the big white double on Jones Street where his mother had grown up, and his mother's father, resurrected by John and Abigail after languishing 30 some years as a boardinghouse.

The hours of wrangling ended in a truce: they would hold off any announcement until after the holidays and, until such time, would strive to be civil to one other and to each other's families.

But while that may have been the best solution under the circumstances, it was by no means pain free. For John, every cheery Christmas greeting, every dry peck on the cheek, every labored smile became part of a grotesque masquerade that would soon be unmasked.

John lay the winter coats on their big four-poster bed, the one where Abby slept now, and stood a moment in the winter gray and gloom. The pile of coats smelled faintly of drugstore perfume, of mothballs, a tinge of honest workingman's sweat. A lovely smell, really; the dear, sweet smell of his family. Something Abigail would never appreciate, of course, she being of the potpourri-sur-le-toilet-tank persuasion.

The winter wind pawed at the front windows, wanting in, but not terribly insistent, like a neighbor's cat. John shivered and looked around the darkened room, visiting with the ghosts there: his mother's ivory crucifix above the dresser, and next to it, his father's ancient grandmother clock, ticking away in its endless precision, sounding out the seconds from generation to generation to generation.

Family without end. Amen.

Someone snapped on the light.

"Come here, you rascal! Haven't seen you in months."

It was Uncle Rudy, bigger than a bear, bigger than life. Almost 70, he could still lift John off his feet. "Aaaaaah, Johnny my boy, how ya doin'?"

John could smell the cigar smoke in Rudy's overcoat - the same smell he'd known and loved since he was a tiny child - acrid but somehow crisp and smelling of the outdoors, as though Uncle Rudy spent his days sitting around a campfire in the cold.

He dropped John to the floor again, slapped him on the back. "You've done wonders with this place, my boy. Your mother would have been proud. I'm sure she's up there watching right now and thinking, that's my Johnny."

"You think so?" He hoped, but then what must she think of him and Abby?

"I know so," he said, and winked. "Although I'm not so sure she'd agree to this eggnog business. Where you hidin' the beer, boy?"

He was showing Rudy into the kitchen when his younger brother Raymond showed up with his wife and three active boys, ages 8 to 4. Huey, Dewey and Louie, John called them. The boys, brand-new walkie-talkies in hand, scattered through the house, shouting "Roger" and "Over and out" with such volume and excitement it hardly mattered if the toys worked or not.

"So what's there to eat around this place?" said Raymond, who took after Rudy in both girth and temperament. His wife Ellen was tiny and dark and about half Raymond's size. John took their coats.

"Dips and chips and hors d'oeuvres in the middle room. Eggnog out here."

"What's for dinner?"

"Raymond, can't you wait?" Ellen scolded.

"I can. I'm just curious."

"Duck," John said.

"Duck," Raymond said flatly.

"Interesting," Ellen said.

"I'll say," said Raymond.

"Unca John! Unca John! How you turn on the TV?"

It was the youngest of Raymond's boys, tugging on John's pant's leg.

"No. No TV now," Ellen said.

"I want TV!"

"Not now, honey. We're going to eat soon."

"No, TV now!"

"It's all right," John said. "They can watch the one in my study."

All three boys raced ahead of him, walkie-talkies crackling. They bounced on his sleeper sofa, swiveled in his typing chair while he adjusted the wretched antenna on his small black and white set.

He noticed a small logo in the corner of the screen. Winter Storm Watch, it said. Terrific, John thought. One more thing.

"We want Nickelodeon," the oldest one said.

"I don't have Nickelodeon."

"Why not?"

"Because we don't have cable. We have five channels, that's it. Here, how 'bout this?"

It was an old-fashioned Western. Gary Cooper sitting tall and noble in the saddle, surrounded by bad guys. The Virginian? The set of Cooper's jaw said everything: cool, controlled, ready for violence only if forced. Nothing like the silly macho bluster nowadays, Arnie and Sly popping off, spraying machine gun fire like stray dogs marking territory.

"TV broke!" the youngest announced. "Fix it! Fix it!"

 

"No, it isn't," the middle one said. "It's a black-and-white TV, isn't it, Unca John?"

"Yes, the kind of television I grew up with."

"See," the middle said to the youngest.

"Black and white! Black and white!" the youngest shouted, as though the set were a technological breakthrough.

"Quiet!" the oldest one shouted, already interested in what soft-talking Cooper had to say.

The boys soon settled down, that vacant TV stare in their eyes, and that's when John noticed a different ruckus on the other side of the wall. A muffled stream of angry words, rising, falling, contemptuous and foul, pierced now and then by a woman's high-pitched boohoo.

"What's that?" asked the oldest.

"Yeah, what's that?" mimicked the middle one.

John threw up his hands. "Our crazy neighbors."

He pounded the flat of his hand against the wall. The shouting stopped but not the crying. He wondered if he should call 911 again.

The oldest boy hopped down from the sofa and turned up the TV, the sound of phony gunfire masking the real drama next door. "There," he said.

John went down the backstairs. Abby was still in the kitchen, mixing more eggnog. The smell of baking duck and plum sauce perfumed the air. Finally.

"Those two are at it again, dammit," John said.

"Next door?"

"Of course next door."

Their names were Vickie and Lyle McLaughlin, but John and Abigail always referred to them as "them" or "those two," as if not using their names made them less real. He was 20 something, a gas station attendant with hair down to his shoulders; she was little more than a teenager, with sad brown eyes like a lost puppy. They were two months behind on their rent, but evicting them would cost far more in legal fees and hassles. Once a week, John knocked on their front door and one of them, usually Vickie, would crack the door and promise another payment at the end of the week.

"You'd think he'd leave her alone on Christmas Eve," Abigail said.

 

"And her about eight months pregnant, too. What ever possessed us to rent to those two?"

"You're the one who said we needed help covering the mortgage."

"Well, dammit, we do."

Even at that, they had barely enough savings to fix up their half of the double - which, in turn, made it difficult to attract decent tenants to the other half. It was a classic Catch-22 - one their real estate agent had neglected to point out.

"Should we call the cops again or what?" he said.

"What good does it do? They come and she says everything is just fine and the police slap him on the wrist and leave."

"Except Ray's boys have to listen to the ruckus. They're upstairs watching TV."

"Then bring them down. They don't need to watch TV on Christmas Eve."

"Okay, okay."

A second later, they heard a small explosion outside their back door, followed by the throaty roar of a Harley Davidson. Abby went to the door.

"He's leaving."

"Good."

 

"Come look."

 

John pulled back the curtain. The jerk was leaving all right, his leather jacket wide open to the cold.

 

"Good riddance," John said.

 

"No helmet, either," Abby said, smiling wickedly. "Maybe we'll get lucky."

 

"Abby, it's Christmas Eve."

 

"Well, maybe he'll hurt his head just enough to take on a whole new loving personality."

 

"That's better."

 

They smiled at each other, and for a moment, it seemed like old times again.

 

"Will you take this eggnog out?" she said.

"Yes, but don't you think you should greet the guests."

She flashed him another of their wounded looks.

"It's just one more night, okay?" he said.

 

She softened a little. "All right. Give me a few more minutes."

 

He circulated through the two rooms and made sure everyone was comfortable and sufficiently plied with food

and drink. He liked hearing their strong, familiar voices fill the rooms; it seemed as if that was what had been

missing from the house all along.

 

Many were talking about the renovation, of course. How nicely the wood floors and trim had been restored (13

layers of paint on the banister alone, John thought), and the charming wallpaper in every room (his idea, not

Abby's, since it required hours of messy, intensive labor) and their collection of fine old furnishings, most of it

"borrowed" from Abby's family and their sprawling, 18th-century farmhouse in Connecticut. Abby was sending it

all back, just as soon as she could afford to do so. In a week, she was moving in with an old college girlfriend in Boston, now a class-action lawyer with her own townhouse on Beacon Hill.

Abby came out of the kitchen into the middle room, wiping her hands on a towel. Several guests started the applause, which soon rippled through the two rooms.

"Here, here," shouted Aunt Greta, hoisting her cup. "The egg nog is absolutely marvelous, dear!"

"So are the hors d'oeuvres," said Raymond's wife. "You must have been slaving all night in the kitchen."

Abby said thank you and blushed a bright red. It was one of the qualities that had first attracted John - her seeming modesty and frailty. It was only later, but not that much later, that he discovered the Yankee toughness just beneath the pale, delicate shell. He had married someone to cherish and protect, and found a fighter on his hands.

"The duck should be ready by seven-thirty or eight," she announced. "I hope all of you can hold out till then."

"Don't worry 'bout us," Uncle Rudy shouted from the front room. "As long as there's beer!"

 

There was a consensus of laughter, but John knew the late meal wouldn't sit well with most of his family, who

were used to workingman's hours and dinner at five. He just hoped the hors d'oeuvres held out. He could always

start the hot dogs early for the kids.

 

Abigail returned to the sanctuary of her kitchen and John spotted a new arrival in the front room - Minnie Dorger,

one of his mother's oldest friends, sitting primly in a corner of the sofa, her metal cane tucked between the

cushions by her side.

 

During the Great Flood of 1913, Minnie's parents had pulled John's mother, only four at the time, from one of the

rescue boats ferrying survivors to St. Anne's Hill. As many families living on Dayton's high ground had done back

then, Minnie's parents opened their home and their hearts and accepted the little refugee as one of their own. No

need for agencies or professionals. Just neighbors helping neighbors. That was the way it was back then.

It took weeks for the floodwaters to recede and communications to return to normal before John's mother could

be reunited with her parents and siblings. In the meantime, Minnie had become like a sister to her. It was a bond

that would endure for a lifetime.

 

"I was so sorry - about your mother," Minnie said, hardly above a whisper. Emphysema forced her to speak in

breathy, truncated phrases. She rested a hand on his forearm; it quivered with a life of its own.

"I wanted to come - the funeral - but the summer heat - "

He stopped her. "I know you were there in spirit."

Her brown eyes sparkled in the pale, wizened face. "I remember this house - like yesterday," she said. "Is that hole - still upstairs?"

"Which hole?"

 

"In the attic."

 

"Really?"

 

"Yes - goes back to the flood."

 

"Oh, that one."

 

He remembered now, a patch of loose brick in the middle of the inside wall. The housing inspector had pointed it

out, said it didn't pose a structural problem but that John should consider patching it up, for privacy's sake.

 

Minnie caught her breath and continued. "Your mother, Aunt Emma - trapped up there - several days while - the

others out of town - a wedding, I think - The neighbors, the Kiefers - they had a little gas stove - They passed

fresh bread - right through that hole."

 

"Really? Mom never told me that."

 

His mother had never liked talking about the flood. She had been so thoroughly traumatized by the time the

rescue boats had arrived that she scalded her behind on a hot coffee urn in the bottom of the boat and said

nothing.

 

"People looked out - for each other - in those days."

 

"Not so much today, I take it," John said.

 

"No, not so much. . . ."

 

She withdrew into herself again, the shining eyes dimming a little, her breath still coming quick.

 

John patted her hand and said, "Glad you could make it," then got up to check on the progress in the kitchen

again. That's when Ray's oldest boy came bounding down the front stairs.

"Mom, Dad! A blizzard's comin'! There's a special report on TV."

Raymond started up the stairs. John was on his heels.

In the study, the two younger boys were bouncing on John's sofa, shouting, "A blizzard! A blizzard! A blizzard!"

"Quiet!" Raymond bellowed, and the boys temporarily ceased. The harried voice of the weatherman came

through.

 

"Folks, brace yourself for a big one. I've never seen the barometer drop this low in my 20 years in the business."

 

The weatherman was wearing a cardigan instead of a suit, and his usually crisp toupee looked disheveled, as

though the station manager had just yanked him out of a Christmas party somewhere.

 

"I repeat: expect high winds gusting up to 80 miles an hour as well as heavy snowfall - ten or twelve inches

tonight. The storm alert is in effect for all parts of the Miami Valley until midnight. If you have any travel plans

tonight, forget it, folks. Stay home. Put some logs on the fire. Kick back and open up the presents early. It's going

to be one nasty night."

 

The boys started bouncing again, "Yay! Nasty! Nasty!"

 

Raymond put his hand on John's shoulder. "I'm sorry, buddy, but we may have to pass on that duck."

 

Just before eight, several hours after the last guest had gone, John and Abigail sat down at the kitchen table to

enjoy a meal of wild rice, new potatoes in garlic and rosemary, and roast duck with oyster stuffing and plum

sauce.

 

Outside the wind was a steady roar, every now and then gusting and beating at the kitchen windows, whistling

through the tiny cracks in the frames. It was a sad, lonely sound, the background music of their lives.

 

Abigail picked up her knife and fork English-style. "Bon appetit," she said, cracking a thin smile. She sliced neatly

as a surgeon into her leg of duck.

 

"For somebody who just roasted four ducks for two people, you seem awfully cheery."

She smiled again and imparted a bit of Yankee fatalism. "As my mother always said, 'there's a reason for

everything.' "

"Somebody should have told the ducks."

"Very funny - shut up and eat."

He carved a small piece of the fowl's plump breast, swirled it in the plum sauce and placed it in his mouth. It was good, very good.

"Delicious, as always," he said. "Believe me, if cooking had been the only thing, we wouldn't be getting a divorce."

"I wish I could say the same. If you had ever prepared a meal, I think I would have fainted dead away."

"Thanks. This meal is off to a great start."

"You brought the topic up, I didn't."

They both ate in sullen silence for a while and listened to the wind. Snow crackled now against the windows, like someone flinging sand.

"Here it comes," John said.

Abigail shivered.

Several bites of duck later, they heard a rapping at the front door.

 

Abigail's eyes went wide. "Who in the world?"

 

John moved quickly to the front room and turned on the porch light. Perhaps it was a stranded motorist, someone

in distress. When he opened the storm door, an icy blast nearly wrenched the handlatch from his grip. He held on

and stuck his head outside.

 

No one there.

 

He looked into the street and saw a frightening void. The houses, the streetlamps, the cars were gone, hidden

behind a howling wall of white. The snow was moving horizontally, a continuous slipstream from the north and west, swirling here and there into small tornadoes. It was like nothing he had ever seen.

He heard the rapping again, off to the right. The McLaughlins' screen door was loose, flapping erratically like a wounded bird.

Why the hell didn't they stop it? In another minute, the door would go flying down the street. He was certainly glad now he hadn't installed storms on their side of the house, if they showed so little respect for property.

He stepped outside, still holding to the latch, but couldn't keep the wind from slamming the door shut. He stood a moment to steady himself. The snow and wind bit into his face, stung like grit against his eyes and ears. He could hardly believe he was on his own porch.

He tucked his head down and started for the other side. The footing was treacherous on the ice-covered wood.

By sheer luck he caught the door on the backswing and, on unsteady legs, rammed it tight, making sure the latch

was secure, then started back again.

 

On his way past the front window, he caught a glimpse through the open curtain. The TV set was on, blaring no

doubt, while Vickie lay on the sofa, covered to her chin under an old blanket. He moved on, perturbed that she

hadn't done anything about the door, until his more angelic side reminded him that she was pregnant and that her

husband was probably nowhere in sight

He was inside again - a miracle of warmth and calm - when Abigail came into the front room, her arms crossed to keep from shivering. "So who was it?"

"No one," he said, rubbing his icy hands, stamping his numbed feet on the door mat. "Just the neighbor's door."

"It must be perfectly awful out there," she said, then laughed suddenly. "You have snow on your eyelashes, John."

"So?" He rubbed his eyelids with his index fingers, failing to see the humor in it.

 

"I'll survive," he said.

 

"Well, good. I'm going to bed then."

 

"Fine."

 

They had been fixed up by mutual friends who, of course, thought they were perfect for each other. She was an accounts executive for a company with its world headquarters in Dayton, he a CPA with a local firm and on his way to being made a full partner. They were both nearing 30, both tired of the dating scene. Marriage? Why not? They shared a love for old houses, for dining at nice restaurants, for finding good wines at cheap prices. And for a while at least, they were perfect for each other, as a kind of financial/leisure alliance, until Abigail was laid off and they found themselves mortgaged to the eyeballs fixing up the old place on Jones Street.

Abigail wanted a fresh start. Sell the house and move back East, where both of them had gone to college. But John had counseled patience: they would lose their shirts until the house was renovated. In reality, he was stalling and he knew it. He couldn't bear to leave the house.

In his bookcase, he found his well-worn collection of Jack London adventure stories - appropriate material for a winter storm, he thought - and with the wind still howling around the old house, he lay down on the sofa in his study and snuggled under the big afghan his mother had knitted for him the year he went away to college. He was well into his third story, trekking vicariously across the frozen tundra of the Klondike, when he heard the first scream.

He slammed his book shut, tossed the afghan aside, jumped to his feet. He found Abigail sitting on her half of the bed, knees propped under their big down blanket, reading a Forbes magazine. She looked small and lonely in the big room.

"Don't you hear that?" he said.

 

"Now what?"

 

"The screaming next door."

 

"Again? I thought he took off."

 

"Evidently, he's back."

 

"In a blizzard?"

 

John went to the phone by the bed.

 

"I'm not messing around this time. I'm calling 911. And in the morning, I call my lawyer. I'm getting them out of

there. I don't care if the snow is piled ten feet high."

 

But when he picked up the phone, there was no dial tone. He rattled the plunger.

"Great. The line's dead."

"You're kidding?"

"No, I'm not kidding."

 

Still disbelieving, she took the receiver and rattled the plunger herself, then said, "Let's try the kitchen phone. This

one's had problems before."

 

Dressed in flannel pajamas, Abigail stuffed her feet into fur-lined L.L. Bean slippers and the two of them went

down the backstairs to the kitchen. John took the receiver off the wall.

 

"Dead, too," he said.

 

"Darn," Abigail said, the strongest word her Connecticut sensibilities would allow.

 

"It must be ice on the lines," he said.

 

"Oh, this is wonderful. Just wonderful. He could be killing her right now. What can we do?"

 

"We can pound on the wall, for starters."

 

They started upstairs to John's study. They were nearly to the top step when the lights in the hallway began to

flicker and dim.

 

"Oh, no," Abigail said. "Please."

 

"Oh, yes," said John.

 

The instant he said it the lights flickered a last time and died. They both froze. John felt the darkness squeeze at his chest.

"I can't believe this," Abigail said. "This is absolutely unreal."

"It's a winter storm, Abby. I thought you had them all the time in Connecticut."

"We do, but we don't lose our lights and our telephones."

"Welcome to the boonies. Now where the hell's our flashlight?"

"How should I know?"

 

"Weren't you the last to have it?"

 

"When?"

 

"You dropped a contact in the bedroom."

 

"Oh, yes. I think it's still by the bed."

 

"Can you find it?"

 

"Of course."

 

"Then please do."

 

She snapped "excuse me" as she brushed past him. He could hear her fingertips tapping on the plaster as she

worked her way down the hall.

 

"The streetlights are out, too," she shouted somewhere near their bedroom.

 

"Good. Maybe they'll call out the National Guard."

 

He heard Abby bumping furniture in the bedroom now, swearing softly, then a gleeful, "I found it! I found it!"

 

"Terrific."

 

He followed her into his study.

 

"I don't hear anything," she said, shining the beam against the wall.

 

"Shhhhh!"

 

They listened and in a moment, he heard something, not a scream, but a low moaning underneath the roar of the

wind.

 

John put his ear to the wall. He heard a woman's faint voice, desperate and pained and strangely distant, as

though coming from another world. It made the hair on his neck stand on end.

 

"Oh God help me, somebody help me, oh god please God help, help, help, please. . . ."

The moaning gave way to a shriek, as high-pitched and elongated as a train whistle.

John pounded furiously on the wall. "Leave her alone, you jerk! I'm calling the police! Do you hear me?"

"John, stop it!" Abigail shouted. "She's having a baby!"

"A baby?"

"Yes. Listen."

 

"She can't have a baby here. She should be. . . ."

 

"John, shut up." They listened to the screaming again.

 

"She's in labor," Abigail said. "We've got to do something."

 

"Do something? Do what? I don't know anything about having babies."

 

"We've got to try, John. She could die."

 

"Try what? We don't even have a medical dictionary around here."

 

"John, dammit, all I know is we've got to help her."

 

"All right, all right. Let's get our coats and our boots and go."

 

"We need string."

 

"String?"

 

"To tie the umbilical cord."

 

"Let's worry about that when we get there."

 

"But we won't know where they keep their string."

 

"Okay, okay, we'll get some string. . . ."

 

"And towels and. . . ."

 

The awful cry penetrated the wall again, louder this time, charged with something so animal John almost shuddered.

"Just go!" he said. "Get whatever you need. I'll meet you downstairs."

"But you don't have a flashlight."

"I'll find my way. Now go!"

John was still feeling around for his boots in the downstairs closet when Abigail came running into the front room. She was carrying the big kitchen pot they used for making gumbo.

"I think I've got everything," she said. "Look. Dental floss - it's tougher than string. And some alcohol as a disinfectant. Oh, and a pair of sharp scissors to cut the cord."

"Fine," he said, although he didn't like hearing the words "scissors" and "cut." It sounded too much like surgery.

 

He found his boots while Abigail threw on her black winter coat from Saks. "I'm ready," she said.

 

She was the first to reach the front door. She grunted as she pushed and rattled the handlatch on the storm door,

"This. . . darn. . . thing. . . is stuck!"

 

"Move over." He tried it himself, ramming his knee against the frame. It crackled, but wouldn't budge. There was

a thick glaze of ice over the door as tough as welding.

 

"Come on. Let's try the back," he said.

 

They ran through the house. John reached the door first, flung it open and found a solid panel of snow and ice

where there used to be a glass storm.

 

Abigail hoisted the gumbo pot, ready to strike. "Stand back!"

 

"No, no, wait! I just thought of something. The attic!"

 

"The attic?"

 

"There's a hole up there."

 

"John, we don't have time. . . ."

 

"I'll show you."

 

He grabbed the flashlight and quickly charged ahead. She came running behind with the pot and the towels.

When he opened the door to the attic stairs, the cold air came rushing down like a cataract of ghosts. He took the stairs two at a time, huffing, puffing.

Boxes were stacked five or six deep against the inside wall - boxes for his and her stereos, his and her computers, his and her VCRs, for all the electronic toys gathered during their single professional lives. He toppled them and flung them aside.

"John, be careful. Mother's things are up here."

 

He leveled the whole row of boxes before he found it - an octagon of loose brick about waist high. He handed

Abigail the flashlight, crouched and started clawing at the edges of one loose brick. He gripped and pulled, pulled

and gripped until his fingertips ached, but the brick slipped free.

 

"Look! Just like Minnie said."

 

He pushed at the remaining bricks with both hands. They tumbled with a thunderous crash, and there was the

hole - big enough to crawl through.

 

"Here we go," John said, getting down on his hands and knees. "Back to the future."

 

"Back to the what?"

From the attic, they had no trouble locating Vickie. Her screams were still coming from the upstairs middle room,

the one opposite John's study. The instant she saw the flashlight, she reached out, crying, "Oh God help me,

please help me!"

 

Abigail took her hand and, with a surprising firmness in her voice, said, "Don't worry about a thing. We're here to

take care of you."

 

John was flooded with shame: without storm windows, the room was drafty and chilly. The power had been dead

only a few minutes, but already you could almost see your breath.

 

Abigail flicked the light along the bed. Vickie's bare knees were in the air, a tattered blue bathrobe bunched

around her waist. She was lying in a pool of reddish liquid. Her dark bangs, curled at one time, were matted with

sweat to her forehead. Her complexion was fish-belly white.

John was certain she would die.

Abigail got down to business. "Fill this with water," she said, handing John the pot. "And bring as many towels as you can find."

"Warm water or hot?"

 

"Warm is fine."

 

Vickie started groaning again, building up to a scream. Another contraction was coming. John left the room.

 

He found his way though the darkened hallway easily enough: the house was a mirror image of their own. He felt

the wall until he reached the back bedroom door, then the bathroom. It was like walking through a funhouse,

touching, anticipating, until he got careless and slammed his kneecap against the rim of the bathtub. The shock

went clear to his sciatica.

 

"Damn!"

 

He ran the water, filled the pot and, groping around the walls, found some towels and flung them over his

shoulder. He inched his way back to Vickie's room again, one arm to hold the pot, the other to feel his way.

 

Abigail had thrown a bedspread over Vickie's legs and made a kind of tent where she could look in. It glowed like

a dome from the flashlight.

Vickie was between contractions, moaning in a soft, distracted chant - "oh. . .oh. . .. . . " There was only enough light to show the deep shadows of her eyes, like black sockets in a skull.

"Vickie," Abigail said. "I can see the top of the baby's head. You're very close. You just have to keep pushing."

"It hurts, it hurts so bad," she whimpered, rolling her head back and forth on the pillow.

"I know, Vickie. But you can't give up. You have to keep trying - for the baby's sake. Will you?"

"Yes," she said, her voice as small as a little girl's.

"I know you can do it, Vickie. I know you can."

John cleared his throat, the male intruder in the room. "Where would you like the water?" he asked.

"Put it here by the foot of the bed," Abigail said. She was kneeling there, elbows on the mattress.

 

"What's the water for?" he asked.

She paused, then said, "I'm not sure. They always have water in the movies. I guess we can wash the baby in it."

"It may be cold by then."

"Here." She dipped one of her clean face cloths into the water and handed it to him. "You can wipe her face a little."

"But I don't know. . . ."

"John, just do it." And then more softly, "Please."

"All right then."

He knelt slowly by the head of the mattress, feeling awkward about the prospect of comforting a strange woman -

a neighbor he had once known only as a nuisance and a rent check. Feeling even stranger that he couldn't see her face.

"I'm going to wipe your brow a little," he told her. She didn't answer.

 

He started patting her face lightly, along the forehead at first, then over the cheeks and across her open mouth.

She reached up and took his hand in both of hers. The quickness and force of her grasp surprised him, jolted him

into an awareness that he was dealing with another human being - someone who desperately needed him.

 

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for bein' here."

 

"It's nothing," he said.

 

He felt her hands quivering, working the bones in his fingers, frightened to let go.

 

"Oh, no!" she cried out. Her grip crushed his hand.

 

Abigail screamed, "Push, Vickie! Push!"

 

Vickie grunted in a low, guttural roar, something so feral it seemed to possess her, its power rushing out of her

chest and circling the room. John was frightened in a way he had never been before - frightened for the life of this

woman and yet by her, and by something else he couldn't name, as punishing and elemental as the blizzard that

howled outside. All three of them were trapped in a passage of pain and blood and desperate heat that forged

them in its grasp and refused to let go.

 

Vickie paused briefly for a sharp, deep breath and started pushing again, squeezing his hand so hard he had to

make a fist to stop the pain. She ended with a piercing cry before throwing her head back to the pillow. Her

breathing was frantic, shallow, as though each breath might be her last.

 

"You're going to be all right, Vickie. You're doing just great," he said, reassuring himself as much her.

 

Abigail came out of her makeshift tent. "I can see more of the head, Vickie. It's coming! The baby's coming! It

won't be long now."

 

"Oh, God, please, please. . ."

John felt Vickie's hands working at his fingers again. In the dark, it all seemed so strange, so otherworldly, the wind howling outside like circling demons. He was amazed at how well Abigail was holding up, amazed at this store of knowledge he never knew she possessed.

Vickie began shivering now in her own sweat. John took off his parka and laid it over her.

 

"Thank you," she whispered, and he felt ashamed all over again. He made a promise: he would order the storm windows tomorrow, the instant the phones were working again, if God would only please spare the life of this young woman and her child.

Vickie shrieked and grabbed his hand again.

 

Abigail screamed, "Push now! Push, Vickie!"

 

John whispered push, push, push, wanting desperately for the whole thing to be over - for himself, for Vickie, for the small trapped thing that was tearing now at her insides.

"It's coming, Vickie. It's coming! Keep pushing!"

Without warning, Vickie cried out hoarsely and suddenly fell back, catching at her breath. "Oh God, I can't. . . I can't. . . I can't. . ."

Abigail bustled from the foot of the bed and pushed John aside. "You can, Vickie. Dammit, you can! One more time. That's all it will take. One more time. You have to, do you hear me? You have to!"

"Yes, yes, yes. . ."

A breath later, Vickie's head snapped upward as though pulled by a string. "Oh, God!" she cried. She clutched John's forearm with both hands, digging into his skin, his muscle, clear to the bone.

Abigail shouted, "Push! Push! Push!. . . "

"Oh, Vickie, look! Here it comes! Here it comes!"

Vickie let go of his arm and dropped back on the mattress so heavily John thought she had died. He took her wrist, tried to feel her pulse, couldn't find it. He put his cheek to her open mouth. She was still breathing, slow and deep, in a trance of pain and exhaustion.

The silence at the foot of the bed was ominous, as though time itself had died. Abigail's head was still under the tent.

"Abby?"

She whispered urgently, "Come here, John."

He crouched next to her and, holding the flashlight, saw the strange blue baby, slick and gleaming in the harsh, artificial light. Its eyes were closed and it was completely still. It didn't seem like a baby at all but some wet, rubbery imitation - half-formed and not quite real.

Abby whispered, almost sobbing, "John, I think it's dead."

"No, it can't be. It can't be."

John wanted to smash through the window, scream at the top of his lungs, but he could only kneel there and

watch as Abigail started wiping the baby clean, dabbing at the bits of blood here and there, red as paint.

The baby didn't stir, didn't open its eyes. It just lay there, waiting for some kind of magic to bring it to life.

"It's a girl," Abigail said sadly.

"Oh, Abby." He closed his eyes. He couldn't watch any longer.

"What about the cord?" she said. "Should I cut it?"

"I guess," John said. "We can't just leave it."

The cord was surprisingly thick and tough-looking, spiral shaped like a unicorn's horn.

Abigail took out her floss, cut off a piece and tied it around the cord an inch or two above the baby's stomach, then tied a second knot just above the first.

"Why are you doing that?" he asked.

"To keep it from bleeding. I remember seeing it once. On Nova, I think."

All their life experience, it seemed, had been gleaned second-hand from books and TV and movies. No more.

John leaned close and whispered, "What do we tell her, Abby?"

"I don't know, John. It's so sad. I just don't know."

She pulled out the scissors from her bathrobe pocket, poured some alcohol over the blades and, without hesitating, snipped the cord.

Free at last, John thought.

Suddenly, he felt the need to touch the baby, to be sure that it was real and not part of some nightmare brought on by the blizzard. He lay his knuckles against the baby's chest, surprised by the warmth there, as though it were sleeping, the rush of life dormant underneath.

Abigail spread a bath towel on the floor - a shallow grave, indeed - when John said, "Wait a minute."

He remembered something crucial in its oversight, like a number left out of one of his accounting equations. "We

haven't spanked it. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? Spank it so it starts breathing?"

 

"It's worth a try," Abigail said.

 

He paused, not sure how to pick the baby up.

 

"By the feet, John. And hold it tight."

"Okay, okay."

 

He slipped his left hand under the baby's head first, then gripped his right hand securely around the wet, spindly

legs. He lifted it slowly, surprised by the the absoluteness of the dangling weight.

 

"Have you got a good grip?" Abigail said.

 

"Yes."

He brought his left hand up and, with the back of it, rapped the baby's behind with his knuckles.

It swayed lifeless in his hand.

Vickie began to stir again. "My baby," she moaned. "Where's my baby?" She sounded more alert now, rising upward through layers of exhaustion.

Abigail whispered to John. "Harder. You have to do it harder, John."

"I don't want to hurt it."

 

"John, you have to."

He drew his hand back, building up his resolve, when the baby began to wriggle in his grip. The movement so

stunned him he dropped the baby onto the mattress, where it landed softly on its back and immediately began to

cry.

 

The high-pitched screeching rattled the window frames in answer to the wind.

 

John stood there numb, disbelieving.

 

Abigail scooped up the baby and lay it carefully on the bath towel.

"Did I hurt it?" he asked.

"No, you idiot. You were wonderful."

"I was?"

"Yes, you were."

 

Vickie cried out, "Bring it here! Bring the baby here!"

 

While John held the flashlight, Abigail wrapped the baby in the towel, folding it over many times to keep it warm. The baby was still crying, great bellowing lungs full, its mouth bigger than its face. John had no idea how such a tiny thing could make so much noise. It was a majestic sound, nonetheless, like trumpet blasts from the angels.

Too weak to sit, Vickie slipped her arms out from under the parka as Abigail lay the baby on her chest. John held

the flashlight so she could see.

 

"It's a girl," Abigail said.

 

"A little baby girl," Vickie said, a sense of wonder in her voice. The baby quieted as Vickie ran her fingertips along

its nose and mouth and cheeks.

"Ain't she beautiful?" Vickie declared, although John wouldn't have put it that way. It still had that squinchy, unformed look of all newborns.

Vickie unwrapped the towel and plucked gently at the baby's hands and feet, perfect in their miniatureness. Then she brought it close and kissed its rosy forehead. The baby began to hiccup.

"Why listen to you!" Vickie said, and they all found this uproariously funny.

"Where's Lyle?" Abigail asked, taking charge again. It was a question that had to be asked.

Vickie didn't answer for a long while, then said matter-of-factly, "He left. He says he ain't comin' back. He didn't want no baby in the first place."

"Listen to me, Vickie." Abigail's voice was sympathetic but forceful. "You can't let him come back," she said. "You

have the baby to think about now."

 

"I know," Vickie sniffled. She lifted the baby so she could see into its wandering, unfocused eyes. "But what can I

do? He's the one makin' the paycheck right now."

 

"There are shelters you can go to," Abigail said. "I'll help you find one."

 

"In the meantime," John said. "You're staying here rent-free."

 

"For real?"

 

"For real," John said.

Vickie sniffled a little. "You two have been so kind. I wished I'd got to know you sooner but. . . ."

"Don't worry about it," John said, flooding with shame again.

 

"Have you thought of a name?" Abigail asked.

"No," she said. "Not for a girl. I don't know, I just always thought it would be a little baby boy - so maybe Lyle

would change his mind."

"How about Noelle?" John said, suddenly struck by the name. It was one of his favorite Christmas songs.

"Noelle?" Vickie said, testing the sound of it.

"I mean, since it is Christmas Eve."

 

"I kinda like that," Vickie said. "Noelle McLaughlin. That has a nice ring, don't it?"

"I think it's very pretty," Abigail said, and she took John's hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. It was a night full of

surprises.

Vickie tapped the baby's nose. "What do you think, Noelle? Huh? Do you like that name?"

 

The baby flickered a crooked smile, for whatever reasons newborns have.

"Noelle it is," John said.

He and Abigail laced fingers and he felt his heart leap with hope and the promise of a new beginning.

Light-headed with exhaustion and joy, he broke into the first few notes of song - low and off-key - when Abigail, too, began singing, and then all three, their voices joined against the cold and dark:

"N-o-o-elle, O N-o-o-elle

Th-e-e angel's did sing

On a cold winter's n-i-i-ght. . .

Copyright, 1993, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

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