Through the clumps of snow of the windshield, Dustin could see nothing but the few feet of road ahead that were illuminated by the weak, yellow headlights. The dark silhouettes of conifers and snowdrifts along the sides of the road whisked by, their nebulous shadows sweeping across the road as the car passed them. Craning his head to see past the shimmering flurry of snow that fell across his headlights, Dustin made out the brown-metal glint of a mailbox on the left of the road. This had to be the place.
Stopping the car, Dustin pulled his hood over his head and grabbed the bags lying on the passenger seat. He stepped out of the car, jamming his hands into his coat pockets as the icy wind blew over him, its chilling breath entering every chink in his clothes. Following the remnants of a path, he trudged into the darkness, his legs sinking knee-deep with each step, until he came across a dark, snow-covered shape in his path. Slowly climbing the icy steps that rose out of the snow, Dustin reached in his bag for a key. Grasping the cold metal knob, he opened the door and stepped inside, slamming the door behind him.
In the absence of the wind he heaved a sigh, breathing in the smell of old furniture and dust. It was a relief to hear his own voice. Turning on a couple lamps, he surveyed the room. An empty fireplace, wooden floors, stiff couches, a television set.
“It’ll do,” Dustin said. His voice was quickly absorbed by the empty space. Getting the heater started, he fell on the couch and picked up the cold remote. As a football game flickered onto the screen, he laid his head on the couch. His eyelids falling, falteringly, his head began to swim with the fuzzy noises of the commentators’ voices in the background. For a moment, he remembered the argument, the anguished voices, the clock smashing to the ground. But it felt so distant, drifting further away with each passing moment as his mind resigned itself to sleep.
A warbled scream opened Dustin’s eyes. He blinked at the darkness. He kept his breath still. Silence. He told himself it was a dream and closed his eyes.
He heard it again, a high pitched wail. It came from one of the rooms downstairs. Slowly walking past the pale light of the television, sputtering static, Dustin made his way down the old wooden stairs, shivering as he groped for the frigid hand-rail. The sound came again, louder, from the door to his right. He took a step towards the door, his arms tingling as a draft blew past. He thrust open the door.
He found himself in an empty bedroom, lit by a soft stream of pale moonlight from an open window. Through it he could see the snow whirling violently out in the darkness. He shut the window, cutting the wail short.
Then he noticed something, the faint outline of a white shape, moving against the swirling snow. It was large enough to be a person. Squinting, Dustin watched as it moved across his view. It disappeared. Struggling for a few moments to discern the shape from the snowfall, Dustin found it again. It no longer moved.
He watched it until the blizzard smothered the glass, blanketing the window in black. Dustin shivered. Noticing the frost forming in the room, he went back upstairs to the warmth of his couch. It was only when his mind began fading into sleep that a dim thought occurred to him. He had shivered, but not because of the cold. There was something about the shape’s posture, the way it had stopped. It was staring back at him, and he had felt its gaze through the cold glass of the window.
Dustin woke in a cold sweat. Gasping for breath, he sat up from the couch, staring at the television screen for five whole seconds before he realized that it showed nothing but static. He went to the sink and turned the faucet, freezing to the touch. Nothing came out. He rubbed his dry eyes.
Heaving a coat over his shoulders, he opened the door and stepped outside. He carefully stepped down the mound of snow that had formed over the front, each step leaving a brown indentation in the whiteness. Walking past the car, he followed the sleet-covered road to the convenience store he had passed on the way to the cabin.
He looked at the stark whiteness that surrounded him, the empty color that covered everything around him, rendering all shapes indistinguishable, broken only by the clear sky. He remembered hearing stories of people who went blind in the snow, and quickened his pace.
A gray object came into view, growing larger with each step. Soon dirty orange lettering became visible. Dustin walked into the Go-Mart convenience store, greeted by the odor of stale coffee. The man at the counter gave him a gruff nod.
Searching through the barren, dingy shelves, Dustin examined a bottle of water, the ice bursting out of the top. “Rough night, wasn’t it?” he asked.
The man at the counter grunted. “Lucky we didn’t get snowed in.”
Dustin piled his goods on the counter. A question was festering inside him, gnawing at his insides. He had to get it out.
“Did you see anyone out last night?
The man glanced up quickly from the cash register. “You know anyone out there would be buried three feet under.”
Dustin chuckled, the weak sound dying out as he saw the hard look the man gave him as he handed him the bags, ushering him out of the store without a word.
Back in the dim confines of his cabin, Dustin could not forget the grim face of the man at the counter, his narrowed eyes. But Dustin knew there was something else. It was fear. Staring out the window at the rolling clouds blotting out the weak afternoon sun, Dustin realized that the man at the counter had wanted him gone.
The wind battered the walls of the cabin, struggling to find an opening, a way in. The skies had gone dark hours early. Dustin turned on the television. Buzzing static pierced the silence of the room. He turned it off, and the emptiness once again consumed the cabin. Gazing at the hunting trophies adorning the opposite wall, Dustin began to lose control of his eyelids as they slowly covered his vision. A faint buzzing filled his ears as he drifted away into sleep.
Dustin was standing in a street, one he had seen many times. He walked down the row of houses to his right, each the same as he remembered, until he found himself looking at a familiar squat, gray-roofed house. His house. But there was something different about the neighborhood. Snow danced silently in the air, covering his surroundings in a layer of white. It never snowed back there. Dustin walked across the lawn to his house, sinking with each step. Then his foot hit something hard, and the snow in his path thawed away, revealing what lay underneath.
It was the body of a woman, her eyes closed. Her stiff arms held three children. He could name every one of them. He stared at her face, the hard lines on her cheeks relaxed, serene. As his gaze traveled up her sleeping features to her eyes, they opened.
Dustin looked away. He kicked snow over the bodies, covering them up, restoring the perfect white surface. It was as though nothing were wrong.
Dustin woke up with a throbbing headache. A cold draft blew through the room, sending shivers up his body. He reached to pull the blankets back over himself when he realized they were already covering him. A fine layer of frost was forming on the red wool. Pulling the blanket over his numbed shoulders, he got up and walked to the heater. Checking that it was turned on, he put his hand on it.
The hard metal was as cold as the surrounding air.
As he pulled on his jacket, shivering, he began to realize what it might feel like to freeze to death. Flipping through the phonebook, he found the local repair shop. He had picked up the phone when he remembered that the lines were still down. He checked the page again for the address. It wasn’t a long walk.
Opening the door, Dustin was once again greeted by a fresh layer of snow over the front steps. Walking down the road, he gazed at the white that encompassed him, blending perfectly into the gray sky. He tried to imagine what had existed before the snow, but the white surface was so timeless, so untouched, that he could easily have been convinced that it had always been there. A grim smile came to his face at the thought. Maybe he could also bury those memories so deep that they too might cease to exist.
A slight breeze of cold wind brought him back to his senses. He looked behind him. His cabin had grown so small that is was indistinguishable from its surroundings. There was still a long way to go. Then he noticed the sky. The gray clouds had begun swirling, darkening with each passing second. The conifers shook in the breeze, chunks of snow falling from their branches.
Dustin’s heart stopped cold. There was nothing but empty forest for as far as his eye could see. He started running down the road, each breath expelling steam that hung in the air. The snow began falling, dead silent among the howling wind. It fell faster and faster, picked up by the violent gales. The throbbing pain in his head returning, Dustin forced his legs to move faster, ignoring the pain in his chest from the cold air in his lungs.
A gust of wind slammed into his side, stinging pellets of snow spraying against his face, and suddenly the ground was at the side of his face. As he forced his dazed body to rise, Dustin felt the snow crawling down the back of his shirt. Plunging his hands into stinging snow, he pushed himself upright, fighting to move forward. He had lost his way. He could see nothing in front of him but the thick snow. He looked frantically for black asphalt on the ground, but the snow had already covered all signs of the road.
But through the dense wind he caught a flash of yellow. It was light, somewhere off in the distance. He began limping towards it, wrenching each leg out of the knee-deep snow to take the next step. He could no longer feel his feet, the burning sensation of ice in his shoes strangely removed. As he struggled on, he realized that the snow was getting deeper, now almost to his thighs. He became aware of dark, blurry shapes around him, growing denser with each moment. He was deep in the forest.
He forced his feet to move through the thick snow. He knew he should have reached the source of the light by now. He shouted and screamed for help, but he couldn’t even hear his own voice in the wind.
Then his foot hit something hard, buried in the snow. At first he thought it was a tree, but it was too flat, too angular. He extended his hand, pressing his palm against a flat surface. He could feel the wooden planks brushing against his skin. He followed the surface, keeping one hand on it, until he found himself at the front porch of an old cabin.
He knocked on the door, stiff fingers against hard wood.
The door slowly opened, revealing a wizened man. The man seemed alarmed, and for a moment Dustin thought he would slam the door shut. But the tension in his face broke into a weak smile.
He motioned for Dustin to step inside, shutting the door behind him.
“I thought I heard someone shouting outside,” he said as soon as the howling wind was cut short. “You’re lucky that you found your way here.”
He threw more sticks in the fireplace and drew a seat up for Dustin, motioning for him to sit.
The roaring fire warmed Dustin to his bones. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said.
The man chuckled. “No need thanking me. It’s nice having company once in a while. I don’t get many visitors.”
Dustin stared silently at the fire for a few moments.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Dustin said.
The man nodded. “There can’t be a hundred souls from here to the foothills. I’ll be ashamed if I can’t name them all.”
“But how about Top Rock? It’s only an hour drive.”
The man shook his head. “The city-folk never come up here. They almost seem to avoid us. Fine by me, I suppose.”
“Why?” Dustin asked.
He shifted uncomfortably. “There are rumors about this place. It’s all superstition, of course,” he said, waving his arm. “But you can’t help but believe, sometimes…”
The crackling of flames filled the silent room.
“They call it the whiteness. They say there’s something about this place during snow season, some kind of sickness…it drives people crazy. Insane. I guess it has to do with being shut in all the time, but they say that once the whiteness starts to take hold of you, you start to see things, strange things, moving in the snow. Then you lose your mind, like a rabid dog.”
He stared thoughtfully out the window for a moment. “See, that’s why I panicked when I saw you at the door, all covered in white… I thought it was happening to me.”
Then he laughed. “Now I’m just making a fool out of myself. I honestly don’t think anyone here believes it, but one mention of it and they all go crazy. Maybe we’re just the crazy ones.”
Dustin laughed with the man, but what the man said reverberated in his mind.
“Maybe we’re just the crazy ones…” he muttered to himself.
The man rose, throwing more sticks into the fire. “It’s getting late,” he said. “Give me a shout if you need anything. Make yourself at home.”
As the man left the room, Dustin remained in his seat, staring into the fire, afraid of what he might see if he looked out the window into the snow outside.
“It’s just a myth, a superstition,” he told himself. The blizzard howling outside drowned his voice.
Dustin wondered when the sickness would take hold of him, or if it already had. He remembered the face of the man at the Go-Mart counter. Fear. The man was scared for his life, scared of him. Dustin stared at the bedroom door. What if he hurt the man, what if he had already hurt him? He had to leave. He wasn’t safe.
He pulled on his jacket, taking a flashlight from the table, walked out the door into the howling darkness.
The flashlight threw a feeble light against the wailing blizzard, illuminating the flurry of snow around him, casting long shadows of the looming trees. He didn’t know where he was going, he only knew he had to get out, to leave. He felt as if he were in his car again, the flashlight in his hand like a single dim headlight, traveling up the lonely road. Just two days ago, he had thought this place would be his sanctuary.
He remembered the angry voice of his wife, the children cowering silently behind her as they spat words at each other over something he couldn’t recall. As he trudged through the snow, pain shot up his foot with each step. He remembered how he had kicked the wall after his wife had left, sending the clock off its perch, crashing to the ground, glass and small springs scattering across the floor.
He was back on the snow-buried road, no longer able to notice the cold, unable to feel the stinging snow against his face. Was this a sign of madness?
He found himself in front of the familiar cabin, the inside lights still on. Scraping the snow off his car, he wrenched the door open and got in, placing his raw hands behind the wheel. He felt the familiar rumble of the engine, growing into a roar as the car accelerated down the road, chained tires crunching into the snow. As he pressed his foot into the accelerator, he saw the faces of the children, the fear in their eyes as they watched him walk out of the house. All the memories he had tried to forget, the memories he had buried so deep under the snow, came spilling out like a creek in early spring.
As the car left the tree-line behind, exposing the vast valley, Dustin saw the squat buildings below, blue smoke rising into air. He realized where he was headed. He could picture the familiar house, the gears of the clock still rolling on the floor. The car remained on its course.
He wondered where his wife was now, and tried to think of what he would say. He saw now how hopeless it was to hide from the truth, to bury it under the snow. It didn’t matter how deep he pushed it, how many layers covered it up. Staring into the trackless white, he knew that there was no escaping it. After all, even if he tried to hide it in the snow, he could not stop the thaw.