They came for me twelve minutes before midnight. I thought to call out to them that they were unwelcome here, but my voice had become a fickle thing. It betrayed my thoughts; I would think one thing, but what came out was a mere rasp that sounded vaguely like the King’s English.
I knew who they were, of course. I heard them speaking to my wife in the doorway and shuddered. There is no mistaking the harbingers of death when they come for you. I knew as soon as I heard the clop of their horses’ hooves approach, the rickets creaking of their carriage. The winter wind seemed to part for them, amplify their presence. They were otherworldly, and for this our world rejected them. They walked free from the reigns of reality.
My wife, Melinda, was not immediately letting them in. That she was still speaking with them told me she did not know who they were, but sensed that something was wrong. She is a lovely and kind woman, but not always perceptive. Her heart is too pure; I married her for her kindness and her beauty, and never for a day did I regret it. If anything, I regretted not listening to her more, for being the headstrong man she playfully accused me of being. She had insisted I not try crossing the pond, that the ice was not as thick as it looked. She had not been to the pond, I replied, but I had, and knew the ice could bear a man’s weight. She just flapped a hand at me. She was never an insistent woman.
I waited until I heard the door open. Quiet voices. Friendly, almost, but the politeness was just a veneer. I could almost feel their voices in my bed, rubbing across my arms, leaving behind a thin slime. Within a few seconds, I knew Melinda would let them in. How could she not? A night like this, and visitors way out here, at this hour? From my bed, I could only see out the window into the trees beside the house, but I knew the snow had to be piling up. It had started the day before, and had not let up. I just thanked God we had stocked the house with food and firewood the week before. Otherwise Melinda would be snowed in with no way out and no one coming.
It occurred to me to stay abed. To let them come and do what they were there to do. But I was not raised to be passive. I was not raised to cave in to the will of others, when my own well-being was at stake. True, I had not left my bed for more than a day, but I had stayed prone out of a dim hope of getting better, of shirking the chill from deep in my bones and lungs. Melinda’s hope as much as my own. Perhaps I had simply been stubborn not to see this coming. Or too afraid.
I carefully pushed myself up, arms quavering, until my back was pressed against the wall, my eyes riveted on the bedroom door that Melinda had closed when she heard the carriage approach. I heard my wife retreat into the house; footsteps followed her, two men. They moved closer, but their words remained too low for me to understand. I thought I heard Melinda mention my name, but I couldn’t be sure, which struck me as unusual. I had been listening to her voice for almost twenty years; surely I would know when she spoke of me within my hearing. Perhaps the chill had dulled my senses. Perhaps the presence of the intruders in my home had altered the way sound travels. I have always been a practical man, but when something happens that I cannot explain, I am the first to admit that I do not understand.
Slowly, I lowered my feet to the floor. I didn’t want the boards to squeak beneath my weight. I wasn’t sure how my legs would hold up, so I traveled along the wall, leaning my left shoulder against the logs that I had mortared myself shortly after our marriage. Once, I had known every inch of this house as intimately as I had known Melinda, perhaps more so. Now, it all seemed foreign to me. The room did not spin, but wavered, as though attached to a pendulum. Back and forth, swinging before me. I found, by closing my eyes, I could move more quickly. But, with my eyes shut, the men—for lack of a better word—in the other room seemed to swim into my mind. Shadowy shapes, silhouettes, faceless but somehow leering at me, taunting me, reaching for me. Knowing that I knew why they had come, taking pleasure in my fear and my flight.
I made it to the window as the strangers approached the bedroom. Clad only in light cotton pants, I slid open the window and leaned myself out into the winter’s darkness. The wind stole the breath from me; the snow stung like a thousand angry hornets. I did not crawl out of the window but fell, into several inches of snow that covered the ground. The cold was sudden and overwhelming; it hit me like a fist and then numbed my pain. I can make it, I realized. I could make it to the shed, where I kept my extra rifle. I did not know if the men could be killed, but I would make sure to find out.
Walking was impossible; a healthy man would scarce be able to stand in such weather. I crawled like a dog, all sense of pride a thing of the distant past. I knew I was risking my fingers and toes, but the thought would’ve made me laugh had I been capable. What are a few digits when you are fighting against the ultimate sacrifice? I forced myself to think only of the rifle, and of the hope that they had come merely for me, and would not take Melinda in my stead. Surely it did not work like that. No just God would tolerate such an egregious act.
Time was lost to me. I crawled; I felt like I had traveled miles, and I felt like I had accomplished mere inches. The shed, invisible to me in the snow, came no closer that I could tell. My breathing was ragged and dry; I longed to hold my face up to the sky and let the snow melt in my mouth. I had never been so thirsty. My muscles had never ached so deeply. I felt as though, instead of pushing myself up, I was holding the world aloft, and at any second my arms would give and it would come crashing down on me. I only knew I was crying when I felt the ice on my cheeks, and found that I could barely open my left eye. How foolish I had been. How utterly foolish to think that I was in any condition to make it to the shed, or had any chance at fighting off the inevitable.
“Yes,” a voice said.
I didn’t register it at first. I kept moving forward. Only a few heartbeats later did I realize that someone had spoken. From where, I couldn’t tell. All around me was darkness dotted with streaks of white, the fierce window creating a chaotic tableau that made it impossible to focus on any single point. There was everything and there was nothing.
“Here,” the voice said.
From my right. I didn’t look. I didn’t have to. I recognized it. My wife had been speaking to it minutes ago, hours ago, or two just like it. Toneless, emotionless, yet evocative of endless depths, the oceans I had read about but never seen, prairie skies on cloudless nights. I thought of our barn that had burned years past, of staring at the dancing flames, yellow and orange but black at the center, unable to do anything but think of how utterly helpless I was to put it out.
I took some weight off my arms, put it on my knees, head hung low. I had lost. But they had made a mistake, and from that I took comfort. They had come too soon.
“No,” the voice said. “Look.”
For some reason, I turned my head. I had not made it far at all. A few yards at most. The bedroom window was tightly shut, the interior aglow with candle flame. My wife, my dear Melinda, with hands covering her face, tears painful to behold. Beside her two men, one whom I knew but could not place, the other the county doctor Melinda had summoned that morning. The doctor had his hand on my wife’s shoulder. All three of them stared at the bed I remembered leaving, at the still form resting atop it that I remembered being.
“We did not come too early,” the voice said. An icy, impossibly cold finger brushed itself across the back of my neck. “We came too late.”
D.W. Davis is a native of rural Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at Facebook.com/DanDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.