Cold as Winter

by Larissa Swayze

The freshly fallen snow glows blue beneath the Alberta moon and Christopher wades through knee-high drifts. He reaches into his coat, pulls out one of his grandfather’s cigarettes and lights it. He inhales deeply and the winter air mixes with the smoke, biting all the way down before leaving his frostbitten lungs in a puff as thick as ice fog.
He squints in the direction of the subdivision, his cigarette hanging off his lips. His hands return to his coat pockets. His frozen right fingers still curled around the lighter, Christopher flicks the striker to hear the sound. Once. Twice. Three times.
He watches the sky above the distant peaked roofs, breathing in his cigarette and the cold and the car exhaust from the highway. Where there used to be only stars—the streetlights throw a dull haze across the sky. The city has been creeping toward them for as long as he can remember. One day it was going to open its hungry maw and swallow them whole.
The night is strangely quiet. Christopher scans the field for his grandfather’s dogs. They usually follow him around during his evening smoke—bounding about, snapping at the air, barking at him, at each other, at nothing in particular. He inhales once more, then pushes through the snow. Each step invites the cold deeper into his bones.
Twenty feet from the barn, he widens his mouth to call the dogs’ names, but no sound comes out. He drops the cigarette. It melts the small patch of snow that catches it. He stares at the trail of blood, no longer wondering why the night is so silent.
The warmth of the farmhouse burns his cheeks and the smell of baking biscuits invades his nose. Christopher passes through the living room, where his grandfather sits in front of the television—crooked fingers wrapped around a glass of something dark, and enters the kitchen.
His grandmother barely looks up from the stove. “Damn it child, take off your boots when you come in the house. I just washed the floors.”
“What the hell happened to my dogs?”
His grandmother’s voice is smooth. The hand she stirs the pot of broth with steady. “They weren’t yours. And you smell like cigarettes. Go wash up.”
Christopher’s hands tremble. “What the hell happened to my dogs?”
She picks up a knife and begins slicing an onion. “Your grandpa kept saying if they wouldn’t leave the cows alone he was gonna do something about it. Well, guess what? One of the heifers damn near lost her calf because those mutts wouldn’t stop yapping at her. So grandpa called Uncle Joe over and had him take care of it.”
Christopher stares at his grandmother’s lined face, willing her to look at him. She dumps the sliced onion into the pot and moves on to a carrot.
Christopher’s voice is soft and flat. “Uncle Joe did it.” His hands stop shaking, but they remain cold as winter, even in the heat of the tiny house.
“Well, your grandpa sure couldn’t. You know how he loves them dogs.”
From the living room, the voices on the television grow uncomfortably loud as his grandfather turns up the volume.
“He didn’t have to kill them.” Christopher’s voice is lost beneath the laughter of a studio audience. His grandmother adds the carrot to the pot, then buries her head deep in the pantry.
Christopher moves back to the front entrance. He yanks off his boots and drops them on the linoleum. Thunk. He turns to the back of his grandfather’s head for a reaction. The older man coughs and Christopher can see spit spraying from his uncovered mouth. He watches his grandfather’s bald patch a few seconds more before turning away, unconsciously touching the back of his own head.
In the bathroom, he leaves the lights off and stands next to the sink. Through the two-foot by two-foot window he can see a cloud has moved over the moon. Still, the rolling hills on the horizon seem to radiate from within. But Christopher knows that can’t be. The snow is just reflecting the lights from the subdivision.
He turns on the tap and lets it run long enough that steam begins to rise out of the sink. He holds his hands beneath the scalding water until he can wiggle his fingers again. He looks in the mirror. His grandfather’s sharp eyes narrow. His grandmother’s wide nose steadily drips.
In the distance a coyote howls. Christopher’s ears twitch. Here come the dogs. Then, he remembers. He turns off the tap and heads back toward the kitchen. Shuffling his feet like an old man.