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Ronald Malfi


  Ronald Malfi



  Eddie stood maybe ten yards ahead of Todd in what appeared to be an open field of snow. Like Todd, Eddie was down on his knees, eye level with the little girl who stood in front of him. She was wearing a pink snow parka with the hood drawn up over her face, the hood itself rimmed in grayish brown faux fur. Mittens hung from the parka’s sleeves by colored string.

  Jesus, Todd thought. His daughter.

  Both Eddie and the little girl turned and looked at Todd. After a moment, Eddie stood, clumps of fresh snow falling off his knees.

  The girl had no face.

  A grin broke out across Eddie’s face. “Come with us, Todd.” The grin widened—impossibly wide. “It’ll be warm…”

  For Deb, my shelter in the storm.

  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  Title Page




  Part One: The Storm

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Part Two: Survival

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine





  “Mr. Farmer? Is that you?”

  But she knew it wasn’t George Farmer. Even if it looked like him, it wasn’t George Farmer.

  Wiping strands of sweat-slicked hair from her face, Shawna Dupree crouched below the counter inside the deserted Pack-N-Go. Too frightened to sit up and peer over the countertop, she managed to survey the store in the reflection of the tortoiseshell antitheft mirror above her head. The blood on her hands was starting to freeze to the rifle’s cold steel.

  The lights were out and the store itself was a mess. Aisles were cluttered with fallen, rotting goods. Bottles of soda had burst, leaving behind sticky puddles of molasses on the linoleum. Someone—one of the others?—had knocked over a metal shelving unit, driving it into the glass doors of the industrial refrigerator that lined one wall; despite the freezing temperatures outside, the ice cream had begun to melt in the freezer. Worst of all, Jared’s body lay somewhere amid the junk food and girlie magazines. She’d had no choice with Jared.

  “George Farmer?” she called again, her voice a pathetic squeal that reminded her of weather vanes twisting noisily in the wind. She winced, held her breath, counted silently to ten. When she spoke again, she tried desperately to sound more in control: “If that’s you, goddamn it, you better answer me! I’ve got a gun!”

  Daylight fell through the plate-glass windows, one of which was decorated with a bull’s-eye webbing of cracks. The light was pale, ghostly blue, casting an eerie glow over the otherwise darkened store. Beyond the windows, the town square was blanketed in snow, the roofs of the nearby shops nearly bowing under the weight. She could make out the whole downtown area in distorted miniature in the antitheft mirror above the register. The spire of St. John’s remained a solitary reminder of what the town had been only a short time ago. At the horizon, the sky looked like hammered sheet metal.

  Something shifted toward the back of the store.

  Shawna drew her legs up closer to her chest, her heart jackhammering. A rivulet of fresh blood, dark as chocolate syrup, oozed from her left pant leg and across the floor. She forced her eyes from the antitheft mirror and glanced at the blood soaking through her jeans. Just looking at it caused the pain—at least subconsciously—to intensify, and almost instantly she could feel the burning, jagged laceration along her calf all over again. On the floor, the runnel of blood was temporarily arrested when it reached a rubber WELCOME mat. Then it grew darker and seeped along the mat’s edge, angling around one corner.

  Holding her breath, Shawna listened for the sound again, but the store remained silent. It had been a whooshing, shuffling sound—like someone walking in pantyhose, her thighs rubbing together. Miss Brennan, her middle school math teacher (so many years ago now), had sounded like that when she walked—that shush-shush-shush…

  They know I’m here. Somehow, they know I’m here, right here.

  Was it possible that this was all a dream? A horrible, hellish dream?

  She squeezed her eyes shut…but in doing so, the image of Jared jumped up behind her eyelids, his face frozen in a mask of pure terror, his skin gone a horrible milky white, his eyes covered in a film of tallow mucus. There had been a constellation of blood speckling the right side of his face, and more blood—a lot more—in the nearby snowbank outside, where she’d shot him the first couple of times. But he’d pursued her across the town square, along with George Farmer and several others. She had shot him again in the magazine aisle of the Pack-N-Go. That was finally when he went down. Before he died, he’d managed to lift his head, his voice shredded and nothing more than a croak as he had attempted to speak her name: “Shaw…naah…”

  A sharp bang echoed from the opposite end of the convenience store. Shawna braced herself, gripping the rifle tighter. Come on, fucker. Another bang—louder than the first. Then the rushing sound of ghost-feet or batwings or old Miss Brennan’s pantyhose came charging down the aisles. Bags of potato chips and plastic tubs of motor oil exploded up into the air like a shark’s dorsal fin cleaving through water.

  It was hunting for her.

  Shawna executed one final glance in the spotty mirror above the register and saw—or thought she saw, for it was there and then gone in a single instant if it was even there in the first place—the flickering visage of something large and thin and so pale she could see the burnt umber of the setting sun shining right through its shimmering, translucent flesh—

  Soda bottles burst off the shelves directly behind her and loose coins sprayed the linoleum.

  Shawna jumped up, swung the rifle around, and screamed as she pulled the trigger.




  The newscaster with the plastic-looking face and the electric yellow tie spoke of doom. Todd Curry glanced up at the screen just as an HD map of the Midwest replaced the newscaster. A digital white mass blipped across the state, moving in staggered increments across the screen, completely obliterating Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. At gate sixteen of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a number of people groaned in unison. For a moment, Todd thought it was in response to the digital snowstorm on the flat-screen television set, but then he looked over to the check-in counter and saw that flight 218 to Des Moines—his flight—had been delayed another hour.

  “Son of a bitch,” he whispered to himself.

  “The snowstorm will continue through the evening and well into tomorrow afternoon, which is bad news for a number of commuters who are desperately trying to make it home this Christmas Eve,” the newscaster said, grinning like a ventriloquist’s dummy in high definition despite the bad news. “Downtown Chicago has already been hit with six inches and some of the
outlying areas may see as much as fifteen inches before this storm passes. So unfortunately for all you holiday travelers, there appears to be little reprieve in sight. Back to you, Donna.”

  “This is bullshit,” grunted an enormous man in a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and cargo pants that looked like they had been cut from the fabric of a multicolored circus tent. The man was sweating profusely and balancing a triangular Sbarro’s pizza box on his left knee. His small, squinty eyes shot over to Todd, who was seated two chairs away. “You believe this? You just watch, buddy. They’re gonna cancel this flight.”

  “Sounds like my luck,” Todd returned. In his lap, his hands wrestled with each other while between his feet his laptop sat in its nylon carrying case. Like someone anticipating a horrible telephone call, Todd’s eyes kept shooting back to the flat-screen TV bolted to one of the rafters above the rows of seats. On the screen, a mildly attractive woman in a burgundy pantsuit was shaking her head at the unfortunate weather conditions.

  “That’s their little trick,” the big guy in the Bulls sweatshirt went on, jabbing an index finger roughly the size of a kielbasa at the check-in counter’s electronic screen. “Right now they know this flight’s been cancelled. Hell, look outside! Doesn’t take a meteor-fucking-ologist to see we ain’t leaving the ground anytime soon.”

  The big guy was right: over the past hour, the walls of plate-glass windows had become great sightless cataracts, blinded by twirling, billowing snow. Todd could just barely make out the vague dinosaur shapes of the airplanes out on the tarmac, gray and indistinct beasts fading into the background the longer he looked at them.

  “They keep saying the flight’s delayed just to weed out the more impatient travelers,” said the man. He had his pizza box open now and he was trying to gather up the messy slice inside with his overlarge fingers. “They get a few boneheads going up to the counter, changing their flights and asking pointless questions, before they slink away like dogs who’ve been beat for nosing around in the kitchen trash.”

  Indeed, a small line had already formed in front of the check-in counter, though it did not seem to be moving very quickly.

  “You just watch,” said the man in the Bulls sweatshirt. “Once that line dwindles, they’ll put up the cancel sign on the board. It’s a lock.”

  “We could still get lucky.”

  “Wanna bet?”

  Ha, Todd thought morosely. You have no idea, chubby.

  “They do it this way to stem the flow, know what I mean?” said the man. “They don’t wanna get rushed by a hundred people all at once, see?”

  Todd ran his hands through his hair and said, “You do a lot of traveling?” With his run of bad luck, he was already thinking this fat bastard would wind up sitting next to him on the flight…if there was a flight.

  “I’m in sales. Medical supplies. Pharmaceuticals.” The guy finally managed to wrangle the slice of pizza out of the box, but not without having a wedge of pepperoni land in his lap. “Shit on a stick.” He looked up at Todd with his piggish, squinting little eyes. “How about you?”

  “Travel much? No, not really.”

  “I meant, what do you do for a living?”

  “I’m a lawyer.”

  “No shit? Private practice?”

  “Personal injury, DUIs, that sort of thing.”

  “Gotcha. Ambulance chaser,” said the guy in the Bulls sweatshirt, sliding the tip of the pizza into his mouth. He tore a bite out of it that would put the shark from Jaws to shame. “I get it. There big money in that?”

  “I do okay.” He checked his watch: 5:45 P.M. The goddamn flight was supposed to have left two hours ago. He envisioned Justin watching television in the living room of the little house on Calabasas Street in Des Moines, wearing his Turbo Dogs pajamas and sporting his fresh crew cut, while Brianna—Todd’s ex-wife—scampered around the house doing a little last-minute tidying up. She’d been a good sport about all this and Todd silently thanked her for it. After all, it was for Justin’s sake.

  It had been almost a full year since he’d seen Justin, back in…Jesus, was it back in March? For the kid’s seventh birthday? That long ago? Of course, he was supposed to have had Justin for three weeks this past summer, too, but life had a way of changing plans without fair warning. This past summer had been a mess—a complete fucking wreck, in fact, thank you very much—and, in the end, his only communication with Justin since March had been over the telephone or through handwritten letters in the mail. Justin’s teacher had taught his class how to write letters and address envelopes—something the boy had been infatuated with since learning it—and it wasn’t long before bulky white envelopes started to appear in Todd Curry’s mailbox, the printing done in big childish capitals, usually in Magic Marker, the stamp crooked in the corner like a poorly hung picture. The letters had touched Todd deeply—deeper than he had thought they could—and it wasn’t until one morning in late July, after returning from a pitiful and humbling weekend in Atlantic City, that Todd had collapsed into tears over a ridiculous crayon drawing of a cat wearing a top hat, with arrows for whiskers, that Justin had sent him. He’d stuck the drawing to the refrigerator in his tiny Manhattan apartment with a Domino’s Pizza magnet…but the drawing had been so accusatory and made him feel so guilty that he removed it after only two days. The next time he spoke with his son over the phone, it was all he could do not to crumble apart again like a sand castle. Something had changed in him. Immediately after the phone call, he’d scrounged through the kitchen trash to retrieve the stupid drawing of the cat in the top hat, but it had been too late—it had gone out with the trash earlier that week. Gone.

  Gone, he thought now, and the word resonated like a ringing gong in the vacant chamber of his mind.

  “I usually don’t travel on Christmas Eve,” the fat guy in the Bulls sweatshirt was saying, his mouth loaded with pizza, “but this was a big client and I didn’t want no one getting the jump on me. The pitch went fantastic, too. I really hammered them. Wore a suit and tie, the whole nine. Really did the thing up nice, know what I mean?”

  “Sure,” Todd said, snatching up his laptop and standing. The last thing he wanted to do was spend another minute talking to Chunky the Pharmaceutical Rep. “I think I’m gonna grab a coffee.”

  Chunky looked dejected. “Don’t you wanna see how the flight plays out? We got a bet.”

  “No bets. And besides, I thought you said it’s going to be cancelled. That it was a lock?”

  The guy shrugged his enormous shoulders. There was nothing but pizza crust left in one grease-streaked hand. “You mark my word, Perry Mason. You just watch and see.”

  Todd bustled down the corridor, a few fast-food joints to his left and his right. Any of these places would serve coffee, but his eyes happened to lock on a small bistro called Hemmingson’s at the end of the gangway. Thanks to the delays, it was now well past happy hour. Fuck coffee; what he needed was a stiff goddamn drink.

  The place was overpopulated, no doubt due to the multitude of cancellations and delays, yet Todd managed to squeeze his way to one corner of the bar and order a Dewar’s on the rocks without taking an elbow to the ribs. A hodgepodge of Christmas decorations and sports paraphernalia hung from the walls and, despite the smoking ban, someone was puffing away on a cigarette. The TV behind the bar was tuned to the Weather Channel. On a steady replay, the television showed clip after clip after clip of Midwesterners in parkas with fur-lined hoods trudging through the blizzard. These clips were replaced by shots from a traffic-cam along the interstate, where it looked as though the world were made up of nothing but fender benders and police lights. Todd felt something cold and wet turn over in his stomach. When his scotch arrived, he gulped down a hefty swallow in hopes of killing whatever angst was squirming around down there.

  “Excuse me, excuse me,” came a woman’s voice from somewhere beyond the crowd of bar-goers. Todd turned around and saw a woman in a cream-colored knit wool cap struggling just beyond the wall of broad male sh
oulders. “Excuse—shit!” With that, the woman came bursting through the crowd. Overburdened with luggage and squeezed into a knee-length jacquard coat that was maybe two sizes too small, she looked as though she were about to rebound off the lacquered countertop. Todd reached out and grabbed her forearm, steadying her before she completely lost her balance.

  “Whoa,” he said. “You okay?”

  “Christ,” she huffed, and dropped both bags at her feet right in front of him. “It’s like Custer’s last stand in here. What’s a girl gotta do to get a drink, anyway?”

  Todd grinned. “I think you made out pretty well, actually. No arrows in the back or anything.”

  “Although I think some Indian brave back there cupped an ass cheek.” She pulled the knit cap off her head and a sprig of red wildfire hair exploded from her scalp. She had a cute face, though, with narrow cheeks and large, beseeching green eyes. A smattering of faint red freckles peppered the saddle of her nose. All of a sudden, what with three days’ growth on his face and dark patches beneath his eyes, Todd felt uncharacteristically self-conscious. “I really should have brought my stun gun,” she said, her eyes not settling on him for more than a split second. “March through the crowd like a goddamn cattle driver.”

  “Maybe a stun gun won’t be necessary,” he said. “What do you want?”

  “To drink?” She looked instantly flummoxed. Then: “Oh, yes—uh, do they have Midori?”

  He blinked. “I don’t know.”

  “Midori sour, if they have Midori. But do not substitute generic melon ball for Midori,” she added quickly. “It’s not the same and, anyway, I think something in the melon ball makes me break out in hives.” She raked stunted fingernails down the length of her neck, as if the simple mention of hives had summoned them into existence.

  “Duly noted,” Todd said. As it turned out, the bartender had Midori. The drink was mixed and set on the bar posthaste. “Merry Christmas,” Todd said, and they clinked glasses.