Visit from a Winter Stranger

Submitted into Contest #23 in response to: Write a short story about someone experiencing their first winter.... view prompt



I haven’t quite been acclimatized yet. I’m in a large farmhouse in Connecticut, just an hour from New York City. I’m renting this farmhouse mansion for less than most people would pay for a closet-sized space in Brooklyn, but it is for good reason. The federal judge who owns it travels and is never at home, and when I graduated from Fordham and got accepted to NYU, my professor recommended me as a house-sitter. The job definitely has its perks. Picture a sun-dappled road and a post and rail fence that jogs through a green field to a hilltop. There’s a weeping willow in the front yard, a fishpond, a state-of-the-art granite kitchen, Jenn-Air oven and all the comforts of life. Ironic, I think to myself again and again. The judge worked so hard for all this. He’s never here.

               So much the better for me. I also dog-sit for the judge. He has two golden retrievers, Remy and Seven, although their real names are something much longer. No doubt the judge paid handsomely for the two most coddled hunting dogs in the state of Connecticut. He told me that he’d flown to Wyoming to pick them up. Apparently, the best goldens have square heads. I wonder how much squarer Remy’s and Seven’s heads are compared to a shelter dog. But then Remy and Seven are low maintenance. As long as I take them out for their morning run, they are good. In fact, they don’t chew, they don’t bark, and when I accidentally left the cold smoked, organic grass-fed brisket on the picnic table in the summer, they didn’t touch it. Almost weird.

               Anyway, that was the judge’s house in the summer. Now it’s after Christmas. Finals are over, but classes haven’t started yet. The sky was blue earlier, but now it’s almost opaque, with a fine, thin but consistent haze of snow beginning to blanket everything. It’s almost alarming, actually. My cell phone, which I hadn’t realized was plugged in to local weather, blared about sudden snow squalls and danger out of doors at least three times already. It doesn’t bother me. The house is stocked with food, and alcohol, and classes don’t start for another week and a half, so it’s just me and the dogs. We are watching snow cover the fields, the branches, the tire swing over the pond. Even the birds have stopped chirping. Silence hangs over the world outside.

               I almost failed to see it. On the winding road up to the judge’s house, it is now unmistakable. There is a car, an SUV, covered in snow, but stationary.  I squint to see it through the thick white veil that the snow squalls have become. It is undeniably a vehicle. I flash back to the words of my father before I left home for school—carry a towel in the back of your car, it’ll provide traction if you ever get caught in the snow. Dear old Dad. I love him, but I knew I’d likely not have to worry. This close to New York, I almost always used the public transportation. Now I thought of his words as I watched a figure exit the vehicle. The figure made no effort to move the car. Must realize the futility of it, I thought.

               I was aware that the inevitable was about to occur. I thought I could see movement. The driver, with hands up around his face was slowly making his way on foot to the judge’s house. I was alone, in the middle of the country, hours from any type of civilization, and a stranger was approaching. I braced myself. I’m not afraid of strangers, but it wouldn’t take long for a person to pick up on the fact that I was alone, a slightly built, rather overprotected law student living in the country with two mild-mannered hunting dogs. It would be a perfect target for a burglary.

               It would be slow progress on foot for the stranger to make his way to the house. I thought for a moment. My cousin was, geographically, my closest relative at this point. She lived in Manhattan, a financial advisor for one of the big firms. She would be able to get to the farmhouse in an hour and a half . . . under normal circumstances. These were not normal circumstances, though. My phone blared again. Apparently, the trains were closed due to the weather. The entire city had shut down. At least I should text anyway. And I did: Hi Lauren, big snow just checking in. Stranger’s car broke down. Call when you have a minute.

               Message back: I’m driving with Do Not Disturb on. Please try back shortly.

               Argh. Lauren. She’s so annoyingly proper sometimes. I’d forgotten that she’d been away for the holidays. She was probably driving up from some vacation destination, oblivious to the state of the weather in Connecticut. My thoughts were cut short by a knock at the door.

               There was no choice now. I had to open it. Or did I? For one brief moment, I paused, thinking that I could pretend to not be at home. The snow continued to squall and the alert on my phone blared again. Damned phone. No choice now, I had to open the door. It creaked and didn’t seem to want to open at first. When it finally did, I felt a blast of cold air as tiny crystals of snow blew in and covered my face and eyelashes, turning to cold water that made me shudder and shiver. I stepped back.

               He was tall, about six foot three, and covered in snow, from his already salt-and-pepper hair to the shoes on his feet, cap-toed business shoes that were soaked and damaged from the wet, heavy snow that continued to pour down outside. 

               Can I come in? he wanted to know.

               Of course.

               He was handsome, in the way that an older man can be. His hair was longish, in a style that had been fashionable a few years ago. He didn’t look like a burglar. He might be interesting. I remembered my first winter in New York and when I’d walked out into a puddle in the train station. The water had slowly seeped into my high heels, footwear that I’m not comfortable wearing anyway, and with each step the leather seemed to stretch until my stockings were black and my toes were prune-y from exposure to water. I’d walked for what seemed like miles until I’d finally taken the shoes off and walked barefoot on the dirty, wet sidewalks. It’d still been an improvement from the heavy, awkward wetness of my shoes, which I’d dropped directly into the trash can upon finally arriving at home.

               “You can take off your shoes if you want.”

               “I was on my way to a colleague’s house when my car got stuck”, he said. “Do you know Neville Katz?”

               How disappointing, I thought to myself. He’s an impresser. Everybody knows Neville Katz, including the judge. The judge’s description of the house even included the reference to Neville Katz. The judge lived in the same neighborhood as the reality TV mogul. Asking whether I knew Neville Katz was like asking if I’d heard of the President of the United States.

               “I’m his script writer,” the stranger volunteered. “I was on my way to a meeting with Neville when my gas ran out. Any chance I could stay until I can get to a gas station?”

               The stranger saw the confusion on my face.

               “Yes,” he chuckled. “We write scripts for reality TV, too. The stuff that happens is still real, but we just need to make sure that it’s interesting, so we sketch out a broad script and our cast is welcome to depart from it, if necessary.”

               “Yes, yes, of course. The nearest gas station is a mile away, but I’m sure they’ll be closed in the squalls. Come in. You can take off your shoes, and make some calls if you want.”

               Hm. Maybe this would be interesting after all. I was not shocked. I didn’t watch reality TV, but I was familiar with the premise. Neville’s shows usually involved some upper-class princesses who posed as housewives who became jealous of one another and then fought. It would actually take some ingenuity to come up with a fresh plot line each week to spawn a fresh round of housewife jealousy.

               I heard his stomach growl. He tried to ignore it.

               I didn’t want to embarrass him, but the stomach growling was loud enough not to ignore. I was beginning to get hungry myself. It was approaching the dinner hour. The sky was still strangely light, a side effect of the great squalls of snow that continued to shower down from the sky.

               “I was just about to make dinner. Would you care to join?”

               He agreed in the swift easy manner of someone who was used to having his needs met. For a minute, I imagined if I’d been the stranger at his house. I’d have been apologetic about the stomach rumble, tentative about inviting myself to dinner. He appeared to have none of these hang-ups.

               “What’re you making?” he wanted to know.

               I’d planned salmon, but there was not enough for two. I mentally scanned the cupboards and came up with “pasta.” He offered to help and I watched as he took stock of what was on the shelves: a tiny can of sardines, some olives. He eyed Chianti that I’d purchased at the wine store the other day. I’d been wanting to drink it. Why not share it with a stranger?

               “We can open a bottle of wine?” I offered.

               An hour later I was on my second glass of wine twirling the most delicious pasta puttanesca on my fork.  It was salty and tangy, and I found myself reaching for the wine glass more frequently than I usually do. He was funny. Not surprising, I thought to myself. He’s a scriptwriter. He’s a paid raconteur, and it was obvious that he’d had much practice with his trade. He talked about spoiled actors and set mishaps and run-ins with the law. I found myself laughing, then laughing harder, and then (the worst!) laughing so hard that tiny tears were forming at the corners of my eyes, threatening to roll down my cheeks. I couldn’t catch my breath. And yet it was so invigorating.

               He laughed only lightly, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled with crow’s feet that turned upward. Only there was something unsettling about him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. He had large dark eyes, and there seemed to be something strange about them. I finally saw what it was. His eyelashes were curled. I could tell because I did this regularly with my own lashes. It opened up my eyes and made them look larger. They seemed bigger, more movie star-like. And yet, when I imagined him curling his eyelashes before a mirror in the morning, I cringed. It seemed unmanly. Those entertainment industry types lead a different lifestyle, I supposed. I wondered if his pinkish lips had been enhanced with gloss. 

               I then castigated myself for making judgments like the provincial girl that I was. It was as though I’d never met anyone outside my conservative neighborhood in Florida. Surely there was a world of sophistication and fun, of adventure and hijinks that was waiting to be experienced by those who were not hemmed in my their backgrounds.

               The sky was finally growing dark, and I became faintly aware that I would have to broach the awkward subject of making sleeping arrangements. I toyed with my glass and looked out the window. He seemed to sense what I was thinking. I saw him smile slightly through his curled lashes. “Would it be OK if I slept in the armchair in the living room, just till the snow clears?” he wanted to know. Now the wine seemed to be going to my head. Surely, I had to offer him a better option. There were three guest rooms in the house, all cozily outfitted with a tiny reading light, a tiny fireplace, and books. There were full hot showers in each, a private bathroom for two of them, and the refrigerator was large enough to feed an army. Surely, I couldn’t deny him what I’d provide to any guest. I led him to one just off the kitchen. He could sleep there for the evening. He opened another bottle of wine.

               My head swam after that. I’m not sure how much more wine I had to drink. I remember thinking that I should stop drinking alcohol and start drinking water, but the room was gyrating and I was beginning to go from feeling giddy to feeling slightly ill. I had to hold on to the walls as I walked the stranger to his room. I noticed that he had a small black bag with him, like a doctor’s bag. He held it close, and when I reached for it, to hand it to him, he quickly clasped it closer to him. This was the first time I’d noticed anything remotely like hostility in him. But it did appear to be hostility. Maybe even anger. His eyes flashed for just a moment at me and he said, with some bite in his voice that he could carry his own things. He must have seen the fear in my face, because he quickly apologized and explained that his bag contained the necessities for the script. Oddly, when he removed his coat and put his open bag on the bed, I spied a flash of chrome, what looked to be instruments or implements of a scientist or doctor.

               I had strange dreams that night. I tossed and turned. I dreamt of running. I felt breathless and desperate in my dream. But when I looked down at my legs, they refused to work. Out of a haze, the stranger’s face appeared, with his eyes exaggeratedly large, almost cartoonish. Long, ridiculous curled eyelashes fluttered when he spoke, and I became more and more alarmed. His lips were glossy and red, like a clown’s, and he reached both hands around my neck. I felt cold and tried to scream, but no sound came out. My legs remained dumb, heavy, unable to respond. At various times I seemed to realize that I was in a dream, but as soon as I felt relief, I would fall back asleep and the dream would resume with such convincing sensation that I again thought it was real. It felt as though I’d slept for days when I finally awoke at 10 a.m. the next day.

               The stranger was gone.

               The squalls had stopped by the time I awoke, and the sun had put a veil of crystals on the white hills around the judge’s house. I took Remy and Seven outside. There was no trace of where the SUV had stopped. It must have all been covered in additional snow from the squalls.

               I walked the mile to Pancik’s gas station down the road, Remy and Seven bounding alongside me in the drifts. But Sammy Pancik told me he’d received no calls the prior evening or in the morning.

               “Where’s the next closest gas station?” I wanted to know.

               “At least fifteen miles away, center of town, but you know that!” Sammy said.

               I did know that. But if the stranger’s car had been out of gas, he would have needed to get fuel from somewhere. I telephoned three gas stations in the vicinity. None had taken calls. None had delivered gas to a stranger.

               I was afraid to go back to the farmhouse, but I did it anyway, and I did it by myself. The rooms looked untouched. I thought that maybe some food was missing from the refrigerator, but I couldn’t be certain. Nothing was missing from the house. The only curious thing was that Remy no longer listened to my commands. Sometimes he would howl for no reason, and he could not be comforted. I found this so disconcerting that I wanted to look for another place to live.

               I only told Lauren about the stranger’s visit.

               “That’s what you get for drinking two bottles of wine by yourself,” she said.

               But even the judge noticed Remy’s strange behavior. He told me that he seemed different somehow, and I, not knowing what to say, simply nodded my head. When I think back on the stranger, I do not know what to make of his visit. I know only that when I gave my notice to the judge that I’d be finding a new place, he seemed disconcerted. He asked no questions, but only told me that things could be lonely for a foreigner in a Connecticut snowstorm.


January 05, 2020 15:02

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