Author’s Note: This story is closely based on a nightmare I had, written up the following night and only modified enough to make some amount of sense.
(reading time: 12 minutes)
At sixty-three it was the oldest thing out there, living or inanimate. The house behind it was only forty-two. Everything older was off in the dark trees, grumbling, bundling up for the whipping wind of the late November night. The device was ready for anything, having weathered plenty of Cayuga winters already.
It was little more than a circular ceramic tin with a frayed cord tail. It was plugged into two more cords, making sure it could stretch from the counter outlet in the kitchen, under the closed front door, and out onto the lawn next to the three folding chairs with their legs buried in the snow. It gave off no light, and the faint smell wafting from it, like biscuits sun-mummified in a silo, was dragged away by the wind. Still, the three men were drawn to it.
They trudged through the darkness carrying everything else they needed for their silly tradition. Marcus Laughter, the man who owned the house along with his wife Gayle, led the procession with a plastic cooler under one arm. Twelve glass beer bottles rolled around inside. He plunked it down behind the sixty-three year old machine.
The man behind him, wearing two wool caps over his bald head, was Jack Dinios. It was his idea to name it the ‘magic cooler’, because they never needed to put any ice in it. Somehow, whenever they drank during an upstate New York November, the booze chilled itself. He dropped himself into a neon green chair, sinking further into the snow than the cooler.
Last in the procession was Spart, short for Spartacus, which was the nickname he earned when taking the blame for some towel-snapping in high school in 1977. Even though he was last in his chair, he was the first to lean forward and warm his hands by the machine that acted as their campfire.
Marcus lifted its lid and pulled out a butter cracker, which he popped in his mouth with a satisfied groan. The cracker warmer was his favorite possession: a device that never really seemed to catch on. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever seeing another one on store shelves. The one they had was a prototype produced by a company his father had worked for. The only thing that came with it was a small flier for itself left inside.
Gayle loved it as much as he did, keeping it fully stocked with every kind of cracker the local Food Genius ever stocked: butter knots, wheat crisps, cinna-grahams, and even some black ones with seaweed in them. The device’s dry heat was the only comfort the three men allowed themselves as they pretended to enjoy the cold. Already it had melted the surrounding snow and revealed the only visible grass for hundreds of feet in any direction.
Long ago they’d made a bet that they could keep the fun of summer going, and it had morphed into staying out late into fall and winter. They would only give up for the year when one of them cancelled because they couldn’t take the wind chill.
“You have to have some Indian in your blood somewhere,” Jack insisted. “Laughter’s not a regular old last name. It had to be something before that, like Sky-laughter or Laughing-woodchuck.” He chuckled himself, spitting cracker crumbs into the snow that quickly melted little craters.
“When you add it all up, we’re about a third Indian,” Marcus said. “At least that’s what my Pops always said.” He took a swig of his ale, barely tasting it. The beer was mostly to wash away one cracker and prepare his mouth for the next.
“Bull,” Spart sputtered. “And I don’t mean Sitting Bull. People can’t be thirds of anything. They have to be halves. You don’t have three parents, do you? You can be half-Indian or a quarter Indian or an eighth Indian, but not a third. It’s just math.”
Marcus was about to argue the point when the front door slapped behind him. He twisted in his chair and saw Gayle bundled up in a sweater and coat, carrying a giant flashlight, its beam cast down onto the snow. When she reached the three men she greeted them thinly and then leaned down to whisper something in her husband’s ear.
“Hey, hey, hey, it’s the last day of summer,” Jack jabbed. “It’s not a time for secrets. What’s on the table for discussion?” Gayle looked at him like she was waiting for him to pass out, but then a smile crept across her face.
“I’m just going for a walk,” she said, stepping away from them and trudging toward the tree line with her light still pointed down. All three of them watched her go. Spart snatched a sesame seed cracker and made quick work of it so he could shout a question at her.
“Why not stay and get toasty?”
“That poor thing has a hard enough time warming the crackers inside, let alone you three crackers.” She kept walking and disappeared behind a black conifer.
“As if she isn’t white too,” Spart muttered. “Or does she think she’s a third of something else?” He turned, but couldn’t spot her light. “Hey, why’s she holding her flashlight down like that? It’s weird.”
Marcus didn’t answer right away. He took a purple corn cracker and let it sit on his tongue, let the salt sizzle and slide down the back of his throat. The other two kept staring. They weren’t going to drop the subject. He wished she hadn’t gone out the front; then he wouldn’t have to explain the strange situation. Whether they believed him or not, it would ruin the mood.
“There are some things living around here,” he explained, his voice narrow and light as if it tiptoed around broken glass. “They don’t like the light. They don’t mind if you have some to protect yourself, as long as you don’t shine it at ‘em. Gayle talks to ‘em sometimes. Makes sure they’re not upset about anything.” Jack and Spart twisted in their chairs again, but it was nothing but black trees and the wind whipping fog off the snow.
“Are you being serious?” Jack asked. “Like… what kind of things? Like feral people or… a moose?”
“She better not be talking to a moose instead of us,” Spart snorted. He crushed a sour cream and chive cracker with his molars.
“They’re just things,” Marcus said forcefully. He looked back at the house. It was the first time the other two men really noticed the lights mounted at both ends of the gutters, all turned to converge on the front door and the cracker warmer. “They don’t have a name.”
“Is Gayle alright?” Jack asked, serious. He pressed his beer into the snow so it would stand. Concern puffed out of his mouth. “If these are… imaginary friends, she might need to see a shrink.”
“They’re not imaginary,” Marcus argued. “I saw one once.” His friends leaned in. “We were in bed. Three in the morning. I don’t know why I was suddenly awake, but I looked out the window and there it was.” He reached for a cracker, but it snapped and he came away with just a corner. Furious, he flung the whole wheat shard into the darkness.
“Yeah man, but what was it?” Spart urged.
“It was a round face. Not like a person, but far less like an animal. Its skin was pocked. Its teeth were locked together; I don’t think they can open their mouths. Its eyes were too big and its pupils were spirals… but flat like they were smudged on with a finger somebody just rubbed on a pencil.”
“And the body?”
“No body. There was something around the face and below it, but it was just like… wind. A different wind than everything around it though. Sharper. When snow fell into it, it freaked out like it was in a blender.”
“Isn’t your bed on the second floor?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, and there’s not enough roof for anything to stand outside the window.” He pointed at the window in question, but it was difficult to see through the glare of the gutter light. “It was looking at me, and I was just sort of frozen in place. Couldn’t even whisper to wake Gayle. Eventually it drifted away.” His breath caught. Poppy seeds stuck in his teeth. He licked at them, but they wouldn’t budge. “What I remember most was the nose. It was long and hooked. Maybe this is… insensitive to say…” The other two flinched. They hadn’t been to a city between the three of them in five months. They never had much occasion in two feet of snow or ten cauldrons of thunderclouds to bother with the word ‘insensitive’. “It looked like a nose from one of those old racist propaganda things, showing a Jew as like a vampire or something.”
“Whuff, better be careful,” Spart said to break the silence. “I might be a third Jewish.”
“You’re pulling our legs, right?” Jack asked nervously. “You’re trying to get us to say summer’s over. Still feels like June to me.”
“Was that a June bug?” Spart played along, pointing at a snowflake as it blew through their cone of light.
“We’re not seeing things,” Marcus insisted. “Gayle thinks she knows what they are, since she talks to ‘em sometimes. She says they’re parts of people long gone, blown into clumps and frozen together by the wind. People pushed out of their homes that froze to death.”
“Like the Indians around here?” Jack asked. Marcus’s lip twitched.
“Yeah, but anybody else too. Not just Indians. And these things… they got nothing to live for. Sometimes they just destroy themselves when they feel like they’re being ignored.” He pulled out a rice cracker with a burned smoking corner. He blew on it to make it stop. “One of ‘em turned itself into a fireball and smashed into this stack of firewood we had. Burned all night long.”
“And Gayle’s out talking to one right now?” Spart asked. He stood up. The wind picked up speed, rattling the lid of the cracker warmer.
“Sit back down,” Marcus barked. “You either give ‘em all your attention or none of it. I shouldn’t’ve said anything.”
“Well we’re safe in the light, right?” Spart mocked. He dug a small flashlight out of his own pocket and clicked it on, searching the surrounding area.
“Stop waving that around!” Marcus hissed, jumping out of his chair and toppling it. He leapt over the cracker warmer and wrestled with the other man. The wind whistled in their ears and between their legs.
“You two don’t want to overheat under this beating sun, hehe,” Jack said nervously. This was just supposed to be a dumb game. He didn’t want to think about pieces of people wandering around and looking for things to blow themselves up on. “Okay fellas.” They didn’t stop. “Okay! It’s not June! It’s November, and I can’t feel my fingers, and would you please-”
There was a burst of red light like a flare. They heard it before they could turn their heads: a crackling roar. It smashed into the back of Jack’s chair, knocking him into the snow with a squeal. He scrambled away as the flames ate the plastic back, browning and melting it.
There was a distant startled scream. Marcus released Spart and cried out for Gayle. As soon as he turned, the wind howled louder than all of them. It tore at their clothes. The front door slammed open and shut. One of the gutter lights broke free of its mooring and swung by its wire, shifting the cone of light in and out.
Spart was there, and then engulfed in the darkness. There. Gone. There. Gone. He reached for them. Gone. His voice was still there, caught in the wind, but not the same one that broke the light. Marcus and Jack stumbled back when their friend flew through the air, slamming into the snow and disappearing under it.
The wave of darkness engulfed his crater, and when they could see it again there was no sign of him. His scream was still in the air, still above them. He came down again and was sucked into the snow. His pleading vanished under them, was taken up by the gale, and found its way into the air by the roof once more. Spart impacted five more times, moving in a circle half underground and half in the sky, half in the dark and half in the light.
The wind died down and the gutter light hung like a dead cat draped over a branch. Spart hit one more time, right where the cracker warmer was. Both disappeared in the snow, leaving behind nothing but crumbs of ten different colors.
Marcus hopped forward on all fours involuntarily, like an electrocuted frog. He dug at the spot where his friend had fallen. There was something there; he could feel it. The man’s hand wrapped around it and he yanked it loose: one third of a left leg. Blood crystallized to a spear of bone. A wrinkled sock with palm trees on it. The rest was gone. The cracker warmer cord was frayed.
Spart was pieces now, lost in the night wind. Marcus threw his hand over his mouth while Jack ran inside. The one third Indian guessed they’d had enough, watching three crackers get warm, talking about their seeds and stripes as if it was their core. Chewing up all different kinds and letting the crumbs melt their way to the ground.
That hate that moved them must’ve been old, passed between pieces, between Indians and anybody else that didn’t fit. Much older than the cracker warmer. Hotter than the third of June.