Neil Mason opened the curtains to a wall of white.
“Oh dang.” He glanced to his copy of Michael Wallis’s The Best Land Under Heaven on the nightstand. A butterfly fluttered in his chest. He pushed the feeling down. You expected snow when you stayed in an Alpine chalet — they anticipated this sort of weather. Besides, the forecast hadn’t predicted a blizzard. Nothing extreme could have crept up on them out of nowhere, could it? Also, he didn’t want that to happen. Neil gazed into the featureless oblivion.
Or did he?
“Mmh, what time is it, hon?” Ellen sat up in bed, eyes bleary.
“Seven.” Neil cleared his throat. “Lotta snow out there, hon.”
Ellen smiled. “Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“Hm.” He eyed his half-awake wife, still beautiful even after all these years. “Coffee?”
He slipped into his shirt and trousers and opened the bedroom door at the same time that Jess opened the kids’. Of course, she’d wanted a single room, but — damn — he wasn’t made of money. Still, the sight of snow through the windows made her grin. She glanced back to him, then back to the far wall. “Looks like a sick day to carve!”
Neil must admit, he hadn’t a clue what that meant. As a child, he’d sworn that he’d never become “out of touch”. Yet, Neil could’ve claimed she used something other than English whenever she spoke. But they’d gifted her a snowboard for Christmas, and she’d been eager to use it — that he could understand. “Yep.” He returned her smile. “A sick day. To carve.”
Still dressed in her pyjamas, Jess made her way to the chalet door as Neil made coffee. Alex came out of the bedroom with a stretch and a yawn. Neil could have a proper conversation with him at only eight years old. Strange, he thought, how children regressed during those hormonal years. Ah, well. She’d be through it sooner or later. Sooner, he hoped.
“Hey, bud. You ready to learn how to ski? It’s gonna be great, you’re gonna love—”
“Dad?” Jess yanked and shoved the door, which shuddered in its frame but did not budge. The windows on either side blinded him with whiteness, the same shade of white of Jess’s eyes. The look chilled him to the core. “Dad, we’re—”
But Neil, who already knew where this would go, finished his daughter’s sentence.
“Snowed in.” He nodded as his children turned to face him. Behind him, Ellen hovered over his shoulder. Neil sucked on his teeth. “Somehow, I always knew it would come to this.” Not true, but how could he not use such a heroic turn of phrase at the moment like this?
Jess ran to the window, grabbed the bottom, prepared to yank.
“No!” Neil couldn’t help but shout. His daughter turned, fear in her eyes. He lowered his voice. “No no.” He pointed to the snow-smothered glass. “The avalanche could flood in here, drown us, smother us. They’re holding.” He didn’t add: For the time being. “Don’t open them. It might kill us all.”
Jess backed away, hands in the air. She glanced to her father, eyes like a rabbit’s. “Then what do we do, Daddy?” She’d not called him Daddy for three or four years — God, how he’d missed that sound.
“Dad?” Alex looked at him with his child’s eyes.
Neil strode into the centre of the room, where wife, daughter and son stared at him, expectant. They wanted an answer, needed a solution — a way out, a rescue. He’d always wondered whether he had it in him. Well, this would be the moment he found out — now or never. What creates a man? Of what is a father made up? Did he have nerves of steel or the stomach of a coward? Did he have the stuff?
Yes, he did.
He stripped off down to his underpants. The shirt he threw to the bedroom door, where it caught on the handle and dangled there like a second skin. His trousers he shimmied out of with the same elegance he’d used on his wedding night. They pooled around his ankles. Neil grabbed a felt tip pen from the counter, pulled the cap off with his teeth and spat it to the floor.
Alex whimpered and hid behind his mother. Jess covered her eyes and cringed. “Daddy?”
Ellen gasped, and her hand went to her mouth. Her eyes, bags still beneath, widened. “Neil, what are you—?”
“Marking off the prime bits of my body.” He shook his head and gestured to the snow outside. “It’s only a matter of time. We have to resort to this to save ourselves, to save our children. As father of this family, it’s my responsibility to feed you.”
Ellen shook her head, and her hair fell loose. “W-What? What?”
“Yes.” He scribbled words across his torso, drew dotted lines to divide the portions. “Chuck. Rib. Short loin, sirloin, tenderloin, top sirloin, bottom sirloin. Round. Brisket. Plate. Flank. Shanks.” Neil threw the pen to the floor and stained the wood with a squiggle.
Neil yanked the six-inch kitchen knife from the block and headed for the main table in the kitchen. He swept the table clear. Coffee cups and bits of cutlery clattered to the floor. Then, something cracked, and bits of pottery exploded. Neil lay down and handed the blade to his wife, handle first. “I’m afraid so.”
Ellen looked at the knife as if she’d never seen one. Neil pushed it on her, and she took it with hands that trembled. She stared into his face, eyes tear-stained. “A-Are you sure?” Her eyebrows rose. “Are you sure, hon?”
“Yes. Yes, I am, hon.” He nodded and took a deep breath. “Let’s begin. I love you all.”
“I love you, Neil.”
“I love you, Dad.” Alex’s eyes shimmered.
“Love you, Daddy.” Jess allowed the tears to flow.
Neil Mason closed his eyes as the crimson flowed.
* * *
Vince Todd knew how to get Jessica Mason to fall in love with him.
True, they’d only known each other for a couple of hours. They’d chatted on the coach and bonded over a single pair of headphones and an iPod chock full of emotional pop. But everyone knew that love at first sight existed. And who could deny him his passion? Not his parents, not her parents, not the very mountains themselves.
Once he pulled the block from beneath the door and opened the chalet, she’d see his sense of humour. Jess would see Vince had more than an emotional side. He’d show her he could be fun and hilarious, as well as sensitive and deep. She’d laugh and fall into his arms. The mother would tinkle laughter, whilst the father would offer a hearty chuckle. The little brother would find the prank hilarious and fall in love with his new big brother. The chalet company might be a bit annoyed at the white paint on the windows, but could you put a price on love? Vince would get a 200 cleanup fee, tops. He grinned as he dragged the brick away. “Panic over, guys, your hero is here!”
Vince opened the chalet door, eager to see what lay within the human heart.