It was as though no color other than white existed. The world was blinding after the snowstorm last night. Laura saw the clean, unblemished snow as the perfect chance to go to the park and take photographs for her upcoming winter catalogue. She stepped outside her front door into a knee-deep snowdrift, her pants instantly moist. She waded through the pearly frozen tundra until she reached the freshly plowed street. Powder was still falling lightly from the white sky.
At the park across the street from Laura’s tiny, snowed in house, the silence was inviting. She shot for a few minutes with her new Nikon F6. She wouldn’t let her discomfort get in the way of this beautiful setting, even if the boots her husband got her for Christmas last month were soaked through to her toes. No one other than a few out of place birds was in the park today. Everyone was probably in their cozy homes with blankets and hot chocolate, including her husband and kids. Laura would give them the shining, frigid snow to hold onto in magazine pages. They wouldn’t have to step foot in the sloshy, white world.
She was just getting set up for a shot of a blue jay on a snow dusted branch when she felt a tap through the many layers on her shoulder. She whipped around, letting the camera shoot several times at nothingness.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to startle you.” A man bundled up in a gray coat stood over where she knelt.
“It’s okay. I just haven’t seen anyone out today.” She laughed.
“I only wondered how I might get into town and if maybe anywhere is open?”
“Well, town is just up the road a ways. I’m not sure what would be open; we often shut down for even a light snow. Where do you come from?” She put the camera back in its bag. Her fingers were too frozen to shoot anymore.
“I was just visiting some family out in East Hampton and my car broke down here in the storm. Islip right? I got off the highway as quickly as I could.”
Laura brushed the melting snow off her ice-capped knees. “Yes, where are you trying to get to?”
“Larchmont in Westchester. Still a ways.”
“Oh, wow, not such a good day for traveling, huh?” Laura laughed, nervously.
He tightened his scarf around his neck. “No, I probably should have stayed out east but I didn’t think there would be so much snow. I don’t know how I’m going to get AAA on the phone again, mines dead.” Laura felt him looking at her expectantly. Why did she have to be the only person out here today? She sighed.
“Well, I live just across the street, you can come use the phone if you’d like.”
“That’s very nice of you.” He bowed his head and showed a mouth of crooked teeth. “I’m Ben.”
“Laura,” she responded, wading back through the footprints she created earlier.
Back at the house, Laura’s children were lying on the living room floor in their pajamas, eating cereal. An episode of SpongeBob blared from the television.
“Kids! Turn that down!” she yelled before shutting the front door. Wind whipped drifts of snow into the foyer. The floor had already grown wet from her melting boots.
“I’m sorry, Ben, please let me take your coat.” Laura hung all of their cold weather attire on an overcrowded coat rack of hats, scarves, mittens and jackets. She showed him to the kitchen where her oblivious husband was sitting at the table, engrossed in the sports section.
“Honey, this is Ben. His car broke down and he needs to use the phone.”
Her husband glanced up from the folded paper in his hand. “Oh, hi, I’m Stephen.” He shook Ben’s hand and kept his eyes on Laura.
“Can I get you some coffee, Ben?” Laura asked, pouring water into the coffee pot.
“That’d be great, thank you. I just like it black.” Ben smiled his crooked teeth and sat down in the chair across from Stephen.
“So, where do you hail from Ben?” Stephen asked, setting the paper down.
“Well, I was visiting some family out east and my car broke down here on the way back to Westchester. Moved there a few years back.”
“Ah, well, great place to get stuck, huh?” Stephen laughed.
“Hey, the snow is probably worse up at home, who knows if I’ll ever make it back.” Ben laughed along with him.
Laura stood in front of the coffee pot trickling out brown liquid as she watched their uncomfortable laughter subside.
Nothing but the steady drip of caffeine and distant sounds of the nasal cartoon character filled the background.
Stephen glanced over at her as he fiddled with the edges of the paper.
“So, why travel today?” Stephen asked, looking back toward Ben.
“Supposed to have a meeting tomorrow, assuming it isn’t canceled,” he answered.
Stephen nodded as silence swallowed the kitchen.
“Here you are,” Laura said, relieved to set a hot cup of coffee down in front of Ben. Steam escaped the face of the mug in ghostly swirls.
“Thank you,” Ben replied, wrapping his hands around the mug.
Laura noticed cuts and white scars on his burly hands, oddly intriguing, like something she’d like to take a photo of. She looked at Stephen and saw that he was looking at Ben’s hands also, although his expression was one of worry. Stephen glanced up at her and she let her interest slip away, pushed out by concern. Had she let a dangerous man into her house and near her SpongeBob watching kids? Would he hurt them? Her pulse quickened as she pictured Ben’s smile turning into a snarl of crooked fang-teeth as he wrapped his scarred, ragged hands around her neck and squeezed until she was breathless.
“Laura, could I talk to you for a moment?” Stephen stood from his chair and took her arm, startling her, as she watched Ben take a sip.
“Um, here’s the phone Ben, just a moment please.” She set the cordless phone down in front of his marred hands, stealing another glance.
Stephen didn’t let go of her arm until they were in the hallway. He still had Ben in his sight from where he stood.
“Why’d you bring this guy here?” he whispered loud enough to show he was angry but quiet enough so that Ben couldn’t hear him.
“He was wandering in the snow drifts, lost. They won’t come for his car. No where in town will be open.”
“Did you see the car?” Stephen asked with urgency, peering over her shoulder, his eyes on Ben.
Laura exhaled. She knew she shouldn’t have brought him to their home but it was freezing outside, and she couldn’t be so rude to turn him away. She was sure anyone else would have done the same thing, wouldn’t they?
“Look, I think we need to ask him to leave.” Stephen stared at her sternly.
“Stephen, I have already invited him in. Let’s just call AAA and be cautious. He really does seem harmless.” She shook the image of his brown eyes turning red and his teeth turning into sharp points as he lunged like a wild beast.
“Fine, I hope you’re right,” he dropped to a lower whisper. “A snowstorm seems like the perfect opportunity for a stranger to play the helpless victim and then kill your whole family… just so you know.” She laughed as if he were absurd.
“Sounds more like you’re writing a novel than living in the real world.”
“These things happen in the real world, Laura.”
She turned around to see Ben taking another sip of his coffee. He was harmless. Stop it, Laura. “Let’s get back to him, we’re being rude.”
“So, any luck with AAA, Ben?” Stephen asked as he walked back to his chair in the kitchen.
“No,” he sighed. “Couldn’t even get an answer. I guess I’ll just have to keep trying.”
“Yeah, today is a tough one, we’ll get ahold of them eventually.” Stephen took a sip of his own coffee. “So, you say you have family out east, what part?”
“East Hampton, you ever been?”
“You don’t say. I’m originally from Southampton.” He laughed. “Small world, isn’t it?”
“And getting smaller.” Ben smiled. There was something unusual about his smile, the way one side of his lip hitched further up than the other. One eye crinkled at the corner as the other remained wide and alive. An imbalance of features and feelings. Laura watched him, captured in her imaginary lens.
“Hey, if you guys don’t mind I think I should get started developing these photos upstairs. I’m on deadline and I really need to make sure there’s enough to work with.” Laura was already moving toward the foyer where her camera bag sat on a chair.
She felt Stephen’s eyes on her back.
“Sure,” he said with subtle anger. “We’ll keep calling AAA.”
“Kids, please turn that down. I don’t want to have to ask again.” She walked through the living room to the stairs. Her son picked up the remote and pressed a button, his and his sister’s eyes glued to the TV all the while.
Laura headed up to her darkroom, feeling guilty leaving Stephen alone with Ben but she had to focus on her photos, well she wanted to focus on her photos. She hoped that she wouldn’t have to re-do them. She shivered at the thought of going back out into the flurry.
She settled her camera down on the table and mindlessly prepared all of her materials. She had gone through the process too many times to count. It was never the part that she enjoyed about her job. She enjoyed taking the photos, giving immortality to what only she saw through the lens that day.
She let her developing photos soak. She thought about Stephen and Ben downstairs. She hoped that they were able to get AAA on the phone so that they could have some relief today and not have to worry about who this guy was. She thought about the scars on his hands and wondered if they were from work. She thought about the cotton sweater he wore and his gray, puffy jacket. She thought it was fitting that he emerged in a snowstorm, like he belonged somehow.
She sat for a half hour, thinking of everything that could go wrong while she was up here. It couldn’t just be that the man was stranded in the snow; it had to be that the man was waiting for an unsuspecting woman to feel sympathy before murdering her whole family. She couldn’t tell whether it was Stephen’s voice or her own whispering gore into her brain. She cringed; picturing the blood of her children smattered across the snowdrifts. She pictured Stephen yelling, “What did I tell you?” just as his arm was cut clean from his body. Her breathing was coming in rasps now as she grabbed the metal table, a searing pain through her ribs.
She turned her mind back to the prints that were slowly gaining life as she calmed herself down. Then, she realized something strange as she looked into the solution. She leaned closer to one photo she had been staring at. Behind one of the trees was a man. As the photo fully came alive, she realized that man was Ben.
She carefully began taking the photos out and hanging them on the line. Each photo that she did this with had Ben somewhere in the background. Her hands began to shake and goose bumps littered her arms. First, he was behind a snow draped tree. Then, he was sitting on a bench across the snow filled park. He was standing by the horse monument in the park’s center. He was walking through a distant trail. He was looking up at chickadees as powder sprinkled his weathered face. He was in every single one of them.
Laura’s heart was like a Ping-Pong ball within the confines of her chest. Her breathing quickened even more. It was real. Who was he? She slowly backed away from the photos, letting Ben surround her. Was it possible that she wasn’t paying attention and just didn’t see him? But, she was focusing the camera in every direction. The photos were yards apart. She tried to stay calm, to tell herself that everything was fine, but she knew it wasn’t.
She cautiously opened the door and walked back down the stairs.
When she reached the living room she saw that the TV was off and her kids were no longer there. Her eyes bulged at the silence. No.
She walked through to the kitchen to see Stephen still sitting at the table, but no Ben. She exhaled, thankful.
“Where are the kids?”
Stephen looked up, surprised to see her. “Their room with the PlayStation.”
“Did AAA come?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah, just a few minutes ago actually.”
She sighed with relief. “Thank God, you will never guess what I just found in my photos. Really creeped me out.”
Stephen looked at her, confused, waiting for her to go on when a loud boom sounded outside the front door. They both flinched. Oh God, she thought, he’s back. He’s going to kill us.
Stephen stood up and walked into the foyer. Laura followed closely behind. He opened the door, slowly. Wind whipped snow inside like a frozen fire.
Laura peered around his shoulder and they both saw the same thing—nothing. Icy powder sprayed her face and she shut her eyes tight as Stephen pushed against the pressure of the wind, locking the door.
“Must have just been snow falling off the roof.” He shrugged; wiping flakes off his face. “So what happened with the pictures?”
“It was so strange, Ben is in every one of them.” It sounded almost outrageous to say it aloud. Why couldn’t she express what was happening?
“What do you mean? Like you took pictures of him before inviting him over?” Stephen asked.
“No, I didn’t know he was there.” She furrowed her brow together, a headache sat in her skull like a third eye. “Let me show you.”
They walked upstairs together and down the hall to her dark room. She dreaded seeing the photos again and trying to figure out what had happened. Nothing made sense.
She prolonged turning the doorknob until they finally had to step inside.
Stephen walked over to the photos hanging on the farthest line. The red of the room gave him a bloody glow. He took a photo between his fingers. White snow now turned red, coated the thick tree branches. He studied it, then turned around to meet Laura’s eyes.
“Which one’s have Ben in them? I still don’t see what you mean.”
She frowned and walked over to where he stood, the glossy paper clasped between his fingers. She examined every photo on the line again. Ben wasn’t in any of them.
She felt Stephen watching her as she slowly made her way around all of her photos. They came out perfectly. They were in focus. The mounds of snow looked cold and fluffy against the bodies of trees. Birds posed with dust on their small heads as if they had been waiting for their photo to be taken. And there was no Ben.
Laura turned around to look at Stephen who was anticipating an explanation.
“That’s really strange.” She shrugged.
Stephen looked worried as the red glow danced around his jaw. His eyes bloodshot with lamplight.
“Let’s go check on the kids,” he said, slowly, like he wasn’t sure what to make of her.
They went back downstairs. Laura was confused and tired and her headache screaming inside her brain.
Stephen tapped on their bedroom door and when no one said anything he opened it, cautiously.
Their daughter and son were sitting on the ground in their pajamas with PlayStation controllers in their small hands. Eyes stuck to the screen.
“Everything okay?” Stephen asked.
They didn’t peel their eyes away from the TV. Their son furiously clicked away at his controller and jerked his arms around as if he were actually driving a racecar. Stephen shut the door.
“Maybe you should go lay down,” he offered. Laura silently nodded and walked down the hall to their bedroom. She rested on her side against the mattress, staring out the frosted window. She pulled the cotton blanket up to her chin, feeling the glass of the window radiate cold. The wind whistled in her ears. She nestled her tired face into the pillowcase. He was just a stranger in the snow. And now he was gone.
Laura’s eyes began to slowly blink shut. Snowflakes flurried down outside between the opening and closing of her heavy eyelids. An icicle broke off the roof and disappeared into the whiteness below.
SHAY SIEGEL is from Long Island, New York. Shay received a B.A. in English from Tulane University in New Orleans where she was a member of the Women’s Tennis Team. She recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in The Montreal Review, Burning Word, Mouse Tales Press, The Cat’s Meow for Writers and Readers, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, Belleville Park Pages, Black Heart Magazine and Extract(s). Her website is www.shaysiegel.com.