by Kim Fielding
Ethan missed snow days. He remembered sitting in the kitchen with his toast and glass of milk, still wearing his footed jammies, waiting eagerly for the radio announcer to say that school was cancelled that day. Snow days had been like wonderful, unexpected gifts.
But it had been years since he’d received an unexpected gift. Now he was in late middle age and even though nearly a foot of the white stuff had fallen overnight, he still had to go to work. Maybe a few business would be closed today, but the hospital sure as hell wouldn’t. In fact, the ER would probably be extra busy today, what with the idiots who got in their cars and forgot that snowy streets were slippery, the daredevils who busted themselves up attempting winter sports anywhere they could find a hill, and the decrepit who keeled over trying to shovel their sidewalks.
Which reminded him—his stretch of sidewalk needed to be cleared before he went anywhere. What he really wanted to do was curl up on the couch with hot chocolate, a good book, and maybe season four of The Walking Dead. Or even better, curl up with a lover. Spend the day snuggling and napping and making love, eating junk food. Laughing. It had been years since he’d done all of that too.
Ethan put down his coffee and bundled up warmly.
The midwinter sun had yet to rise. Before heading to the garage for his shovel, Ethan turned on the porch light. But when he glanced outside, what he saw made him freeze: a set of footprints leading away from his front door.
“What the hell?”
As he opened the door, a blast of frigid air swept inside, making him shiver despite his heavy clothing. He stood at the threshold, staring at the white blanket that lay over everything, as pure and clean as a fairytale scene. Except for the large, deep footprints, as if the overnight visitor had been very heavy.
There were no prints leading toward the door—just the ones going away. In the darkness, he couldn’t see where they went once they reached the street. But where they went didn’t seem as important as where they had come from. He’d been alone in the house all night. Hell, he’d been alone in the house for six years, ever since Tom died.
Telling himself it was too early for mysteries, he closed the door and went to fetch the shovel.
God, he’d forgotten how damned heavy snow could be. This was wet stuff, the kind that managed to soak through supposedly waterproof boots and work its way through his clothing, chilling his legs even as his upper body sweated from the labor. As the shovel scraped loudly against the concrete, he huffed and puffed like an antique locomotive. Appropriate enough, seeing as he was getting somewhat antique himself.
Maybe he ought to pay some kid to shovel for him. Like that strapping college student who lived a few doors down. But no, that would be a blow to Ethan’s pride. And anyway, if Ethan was going to hire the kid, he ought to do it in the summer. Then Ethan could sit on the porch and ogle while the kid mowed his lawn. Shirtless. Yeah, that would be better.
But now, Ethan was clammy and sweaty and short of breath, and he wished he’d been better about getting regular exercise. Tom used to nag him about it, but Ethan never felt as if he had the time. And a fairly strict workout regimen hadn’t saved Tom, had it? Pancreatic cancer didn’t care if you ran half marathons.
An unexpected stab of nausea clenched Ethan’s stomach as he lifted another heavy load of snow. He should have eaten something with his coffee, and he should not have allowed himself to dwell on thoughts of Tom this morning. He wasn’t usually so maudlin. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. He’d try to get a later shift the following week; that might help his mood.
He dumped the shovelful to the side with a muted thud and leaned on the handle as he looked up at the sky. No signs of dawn yet. There was a terrible beauty in these dark hours, a sense that all the world had fallen away and left him with nothing but a frozen expanse. He couldn’t smell anything except wet wool, couldn’t hear anything but his ragged breathing. Couldn’t see anything but the bit of driveway where he was working and the snow-covered walkway leading to his door. And the footsteps, of course. The steps that led away.
Ethan stood up straight. He slid the shovel blade under the edge of the snow, kicked it to wedge it in firmly, and lifted. Was this shit really snow or powdered lead? He grunted with effort and tried not to puke up his coffee. He really didn’t feel very good. Maybe instead of getting a snow day he’d need a sick day.
As he stood alone in the darkness, shovel in hand, contemplating whether he felt bad enough to call in to work, the pain hit. It was so intense, so sudden, that his first thought was that he’d been shot. He looked down at his chest, expecting to see blood. But his coat was whole and unsullied, and besides, this wasn’t a piercing pain. It was an awful clench, as if he had a vice squeezing his chest, or a charley horse in his heart.
The pain radiated across his shoulder and down his left arm, up his neck and into his jaw. He dropped the shovel but didn’t hear it hit the ground.
Maybe that was because he was falling too. Slowly, like a snowflake drifting earthward, his parka making little rustling sounds and his lungs too tight to work at all. He landed in a heap. Maybe the snow cushioned him, or perhaps the existing agony was already so great he couldn’t register anything else, but the fall didn’t hurt. He tried to call out, but he couldn’t get air into his lungs. The neighbors wouldn’t have heard anyway. They were tucked inside their cozy beds in their well-insulated houses.
The sun rose. Not slowly and begrudgingly, as the winter sun was prone to do, but all at once—as though someone had flipped a switch. The snow dazzled with its brightness and the air glowed, and if Ethan could have managed it, he might have wept at the beauty. He might have said something poetic or profound.
But all he did was gasp desperately and clutch at his chest.
Amid the exquisite pain, even as he writhed on his back like an overturned beetle, Ethan heard the tiny crunch-squeak of footsteps approaching through the snow. A man stood beside him, hand extended, familiar face beaming in a wide, beloved smile.
Tom. Ethan couldn’t say the name, but he didn’t have to. He just smiled back and reached up for the offered hand.