He knew school would be better if he got to see more of her face - the face he thought about for so long, but saw so briefly. Something about her captivated him intensely, made him wish he could see her more. It had to be her smile. He could never forget how pleasantly her lips curled - even if he tried.
Every day, he got off the bus and maneuvered through his cliqued and clotted peers on the way to his first period class. But his destination was not his true goal, for in one of the loitering groups was the Girl. Her circle of friends seemed to surround her face like a halo. Robert knew little about her, but the image of her laughing - her head tossed gently to the side, flipping her thin dark hair out of her thin dark eyes - was all he needed to remember her by. Her shy, benevolent smile lingered in his mind in biology; she haunted him in math. By fifth period, though, he began to lose his grip on her memory, and if he was lucky, she had completely slipped away by lunchtime.
On the good days, Robert did not have to struggle with the subtle dimples in her soft cheeks, or the way her two front teeth slid behind her lower lip is slow motion. He did not have to constantly remind himself that her perfect smile was not meant for him. He did not have to fight a battle of wills against himself just to be able to pay attention in class. He did not have to hate himself for taking that sightseeing detour on the way to first period class. On the good days, he could forget that she mesmerized him with every move she made in those fleeting seconds of the morning.
Today was not a good day. Before first period, the girl had been listening to a friend tell her a story - apparently a pleasant one, she was smiling the whole time - and Robert had not realized that he had stopped walking to absorb some of the sunshine of her smile. She noticed him while he was busy noticing her, and their eyes met for the first time. Robert froze. After a short eternity, he regained control of his uncooperatively shaky legs, he turned and walked away shamefully and hastily, his head filled with dreading premonitions of what the girl and her friends would say about him.
Today, throughout the interminable torture sessions that everyone else called class, Robert was preoccupied as usual with the girl’s smile. Only this time, his dismay and disappointment in himself overpowered his longing desire for someone else. After his last class, he was still wondering how he could possibly have done something so stupid when he looked up and saw a very familiar smile approaching him. Robert froze as his eyes met hers once again.
"Hi," she said, with a friendly upward arc on the left side of her mouth. "Robert, right?"
Still too surprised to say anything else, Robert responded with all the eloquence he could muster at the time: "Yeah."
"I was just wondering," she looked down shyly, "Do you have a girlfriend?"
School was going to get a lot better.
The trees glared, the wind howled, and dread loomed in the damp forest air as she crossed over to the afterlife. She had been scared half to death - twice.
According to the obituary, she was "superstitious," a "book and film connoisseur, with a taste for the classics of bone-chilling cinema," and "interested in all things spooky." According to the neighbors, she was nervous as a Mexican jumpin’ bean. She was introverted, frail, and credulous - the perfect target for a Halloween prank - or two.
The first time the mousy woman was scared half to death, she was taking a shortcut through the woods from the post office to her home on All Hollow’s Eve. It was an hour after dusk, when the spirits were to walk the earth. To Elizabeth, each step must have sounded like the crushing of bones, and each chirp of a songbird - punctuating her quick, erratic breathing rhythm - must have sounded like the howl of yet another lost soul. She was ready to run at any moment.
Several local teenagers had decided that frightening the local loony - on the night when her demons came alive - would be very entertaining. They planned their fun casually, deciding on what would be cheap, easy, and spine-chilling.
Elizabeth was shuffling along the mossy path when, according to witnesses she heard what she thought was an unnatural moan accompanied by a scratching sound. The deafening echo of her own heartbeat, pulsating at dangerous speeds, must have drowned out the clear, audible giggles of teenage girls. Elizabeth broke into a frantic run, clutching her U.S. mail package in her hand and praying for her own safety. Suddenly, she tripped on a protruding root. Looking up to a huddle of glowing eyes surrounding the silhouette of a menacing forest canopy, she could think of only one thing. The Body Snatchers had come for her.
One of the Snatchers extended his hand towards the fallen victim with the intention to help her up, an effort that he found to be futile as soon as Elizabeth opened her mouth. The town nurse, working by the window of the doctor’s office some 2 miles from the edge of the forest, said later that not only did she hear it, but also that "the shriek was enough to give me chills." Elizabeth then fainted, and the Snatchers went to find help.
The details after she was scared half do death the first time are rather unclear, for there are no living witnesses. An observer can assume that she came to several minutes later and created the uneven footprint trail to a clearing in the woods. It was here that footprints of a galloping horse - an animal foreign to this region - joined those of Elizabeth. At this point, she broke into a panicky run, which must have ended in a climax of terror. Her body was found several miles from where the snatchers left her, wearing torn pants and a permanent, static expression of torturous pain and fearful surprise and sporting a death grip on her,
The obituary that appeared in the next weekly village paper informed the people of the town that Elizabeth had died of a "heart-related internal stress injury." Not quite, but why bother? It insisted that Elizabeth was "liked by those who knew her well," but those people formed a very small group. She died without a spouse or children. She would not truly be "missed dearly" - until rumors spread, the town barely noticed her absence.
People did notice what she left behind, however. The two-story, four-bedroom house - whose exterior care Elizabeth had neglected in favor of an "exciting" façade - and the surrounding property were taken by the State, and the house remains untouched, except for a small inventory taken in the foyer. The antique book collection - consisting of topics from aliens to witchcraft to conspiracy exposés to prophecy archives - is being catalogued and estimated for value. So far, over sixty thousand dollars worth of books have been enumerated.
People may not remember Elizabeth for her book collection, or even for the mysterious budget that kept replenishing itself in spite of her lack of a job. They will remember her for the peculiarities of her character: her shyness; her mystery; her obsession with the occult, magic, and anything chilling; and her tendency to believe at least partially in anything she read or watched. They will remember her for the mystery surrounding her death on Halloween night. They will remember her for the expression of horrible fear, forever fixed on her face.
They will not remember that in her right hand, the U.S. Mail package was torn open to reveal a paperback of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Only Elizabeth would remember a detail like that.
He opened the car door, stepped out into a friendly gust of winter, and looked out on the silver pond. A boy and a girl, young and just discovering the feeling of falling in love, were looping around each other in a harmony of imperfections. He could almost hear their laughter above the wind. But, for the most part, his eyes were all he needed. He looked out from the woven wool of his hat and scarf and took in all he could of the scene: The strokes of green giving away the shapes of snow-covered conifers and the grassy remains of a warm autumn; the millions of ice crystals that made the ground shimmer in the sunlight at his back; the downward slope of the gentle, playful land toward the pond; and the rings of light in the ice, footprints left by hours of carefree gliding. He looked up. The sky was a pleasant pale blue, almost a summer shade, occasionally interrupted by a cloud or two. In one cloud, he saw a doe nuzzling her fawn, and in another, the pattern that a stream makes trickling over rocks in the forest.
But the streams in the woods nearby were frozen at this time of the year, as was the pond, he reminded himself. The boy and girl had skated to the bank and were sitting on a blackened log partially covered with snow. They were very animated, even from a distance, but the pond was now empty, and begging for some company. He turned around and opened the back door of the car, watching the peaceful scene slide along its reflective surface in slow motion, and reached in to get his ice skates.
His skates were black, with white bladeholders and laces and gray trim. The blades were perfect mirrors of the winter around him - far less intrusive than the door of the car, which he closed as he began to walk down the hill. The muted crunch of his feet in the untouched snow left a path from the top of the hill to the edge of the pond, where he sat down and laced up his skates. He tied them tightly, and gusts of wind seemed to accompany each tug on the laces until the blades became natural extensions of his legs. He took woven mittens from his jacket pockets and pulled them onto his hands before he pushed himself up.
He shifted his weight from his left leg to his right, adjusted his scarf, and kicked off. The wind moved around his body as he moved over the frozen pond, slowly at first and then accelerating with each thrust in his legs. He became gradually blind to his surroundings but aware of himself: he did not notice that the young couple had left, but still felt completely and utterly alone. His mind was an impenetrable fortress as it roamed across the unconscious like his eyes across the landscape and his body across the ice. He was curving back and forth randomly with nothing better and nothing worse to do in the universe, at complete peace with the winter around him and oblivious to any other human in existence. The wind, the ice, the trees, the sky: this was his world, the only world he needed.
Yet something was missing. He became suddenly aware of this fact when he heard, somehow above the wind, the crunch of human footsteps coming down the hill behind him. They were gentler than his own, but mysteriously more noticeable. He let himself carve a gentle semicircle in the ice to turn around and see what he had heard behind him. Though the figure was several hundred feet away, he recognized it instantly and began moving towards it with a familiar excitement, suddenly aware of the warm scarf covering his mouth. As he approached the newcomer, he recognized more and more: slender shape, then dark denim pants and a puffy vest, then straight blonde hair under a blue winter hat, and finally, smiling blue eyes over a striped scarf.
"And I thought I was happy here by myself," he said as he glided to a stop.
"And I thought you could use some company," she replied, and he could see her smile through her scarf.
He smiled back. "I suppose I could." He held out his hand, and as she took it, he pulled her gently on to the ice. He was gliding backward, she forward and into him. After watching the winter disappear behind her, he stopped and pulled her close. They were facing each other in the middle of the pond, and the wind was no longer a distraction. In perfect symmetry, their left hands wrapped around each other's waists, and their right hands pulled down each other's scarves. The glitter of the ice and the traces of the trees disappeared as their eyes closed and their lips met. Winter wasn't cold anymore.
(c) Jeff Kessler 2001-2002