“My wish came true!” said Jeanie Reed, her eyes glued to the kitchen window. For the first time in her little life, she watched as white flakes amassed in fluffy piles all over the yard. “Mom, we’re gonna have a white Christmas!” But Mom didn’t listen; she was busy watching the weatherman on television scratch his head.
“Go get some logs from the shed,” she said. She blew her nose into a tissue. “I sure hope your father gets home safe.”
And then the freeze hit.
Germaine Roberts, the donation Santa in front of the Goodwill on Elmer, was caught outside when the automatic doors to the store froze shut. Employees and customers of the store watched him shudder and claw at the entrance. In one tough tug, his hands ripped off at the wrist, fell to the ground, and shattered. He opened his mouth to scream and the cold shot down his throat like liquid nitrogen. His heart stopped immediately. The store folk strained to watch as he fell backward, but the ice on the windows obscured their view. They could only hear a series of cracks like wet wood roasting on a campfire.
The Rowdy Rangers over at the Ambersaw High School football field were in the process of giving Coach Grant a Gatorade shower when the cold washed over. The yellow liquid sharpened into a guillotine as they threw the bucket forward and launched the blade directly into the back of his neck. His head pitched onto the grass and started turning black, the frostbite sprinting up his face. Some of the teens made it to the locker room. Most shriveled into human prunes around the goalpost.
Commuters crossing the 305 bridge didn’t stand a chance. They watched as the cold blew in from the south and crystallized on the road. In a frozen moment, Rose Franklin’s minivan was bisected by the frost. Despite her brake attempts, she slid headlong into a line of bumpers. Sweat collected on the steering wheel froze and burst like buckshot at the ejection of the airbag. It whistled through her head, through the headrest, and through the roof of her van. She was gone before the cold poured in.
Outside, an eagle fell from flight and shattered like porcelain on the hood of a Prius.
Jeanie Reed had her palms to the glass when it froze. She yanked her hands away and tucked them into her armpits. “Mom, it’s so cold that it’s hot!” she said.
“Quiet, honey.” Mom kept her eyes glued to the wooden set. On it, something terrible was happening.
Even though the feed operators tried to switch it back to the station in time, the fleeting image of man-on-the-street correspondent Kevin Garcia’s face peeling off was enough to make Mom turn off the TV. She looked away from her daughter while she held back tears. She grabbed the pink telephone off the wall, dialed her husband’s office, and brought it as close to the master bedroom as the cord would allow.
Jeanie gazed at the dark reflection in the set’s curved black glass while her mother asked things she couldn’t make out. Just that they were questions. After a minute or two, she came back into the room, turned the gas knob in the fireplace, and tossed in a lit match.
“Your dad may come in late tonight, he needs to wait out the storm,” she said. “Do you want anything to eat?”
“I’m not hungry,” Jeanie said. She checked her hands. They were red, but okay.
“Okay.” Mom sneezed, sought out a tissue. After, she lingered for a moment, pacing in a slow circle. She tapped the thermostat, walked through the house and made sure each window was shut, and then returned to the kitchen. Her fingernails danced around the rim of her mouth. “Well, I’m hungry,” she said. “I’m making soup. You can have some if you like.”
Jeanie crossed to the couch in the living room and sat on her hands. She stared into the fire, lost in the dance of the flames. After a while she said, “Does this mean Santa isn’t coming?”
“What do you mean, ‘no one’s coming’?” Maggie Decker, the power plant supervisor, said.
Mechanical cranking and grinding leaked through the thin walls of her small office on the plant floor. Across from her sat Gabriel Waters, her assistant and the only other worker at the plant who didn’t take off early.
“Just that,” he said. “The freeze is too deep. No one on the late shift can make it through.”
“Did you call the guys at Buckey’s?”
“Who do you think was first on the call list?”
“Snowed in like everyone else,” he said. “Mag, it’s just us tonight. We gotta wait it out.”
Maggie got up and walked to the window overlooking the interior of the plant. Turbines and transformers and boilers all operated under complete automation, managed only by a team watching computer monitors overrun with numerical data. Well, most nights. Tonight, it would just be them.
“I don’t need to tell you what happens if the system fails, do I?”
“Please, it’s tested below negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit. It would take — ”
“Nuclear war, I know. I’m just saying, now would not be a good time for the town to lose power.” Maggie sat back down at her desk. “I suggest you go back to your workstation. We need to be finding solutions to problems we don’t have yet.”
Gabriel nodded and turned to leave the room. “Should I make sure the doors are closed?”
Maggie didn’t look up from her computer. “Very funny,” she said.
Near the roof of the warehouse, a droplet of water precipitate formed and slid down a window, settling into a tiny crack before freezing, expanding, and widening. A needle of cold drew in and began to spread.
After needling through the checkout counter, Roger Carmack pulled his son Jeffrey into the soup and coffee aisle and clutched him tightly. The woman in black’s voice echoed off the polished linoleum floors, as did the call-and-response chants of her followers, all of them sure of the apocalypse and sure of what would fix it.
It was usually his wife, Deborah, who picked Jeffrey up after school, but with her out on business, Roger assumed the duty. He thought it’d be fun to surprise Jeffrey with a Coke after class, maybe get him a candy bar if he got an A on his science test. Along the drive, he wondered what kind of candy Jeffrey might pick. Roger had always been a Snickers man.
“Bring me the lamb,” said the woman in the black dress. “Only expiation will summon the sun!”
The store patrons around her dispersed throughout the store, swarming through the aisles like maze rats, searching for Jeffrey and his warm blood, the blood that would wash away the sudden, inexplicable cold — cold surely brought on by an anger residing in the sky.
It hadn’t taken but half an hour for the cult to form.
“Here!” yelled one of the followers. He found them in the walk-in freezer, trying to hide behind a stack of Miller High Life boxes. He dragged them by their hair to the front of the store and threw them before the others.
“It is from these sorts of people that this freeze came!” she shouted. “Sinners in pride, frigid in their relationship with the Lord — it is from their number that the sacrifice must come! Remember not your false fears, these are your true enemies!”
The crowd accelerated into a frenzy, burning her words like fuel. Their eyes filled with a lust for violence that, judging from their smiles, tasted delicious. Roger pulled Jeffrey’s face into his chest and covered the back of his head with both hands.
They descended upon them.
The lights blacked out.
At the front of the store, sparks shot out of the automatic door, followed by a soft whirring noise. Together, the patrons watched it slowly creak open.
Jeanie Reed and her mother crowded around the fire in their darkening house. Even with the multitude of blankets, jackets, and their bodies pressed together, they both shivered. Mom wiped her nose and pulled back crystallized snot.
It had been four hours since the power dropped out, and as the sun went down, the cold took on a new form. It grew ravenous, angry at any remaining warmth. It barraged the doors and windows with such unrelenting frost that even to touch a windowpane or doorknob would bring immediate frostbite.
“M-m-mom,” Jeanie squeezed out between shivers. “Wh-when does d-d-dad get home?”
Mom looked to answer and instead coughed into her elbow for a long time. Every time she thought the cough was over, it bellowed back up, resetting itself. By the time she should speak, her throat was raw.
“Soon, honey,” she said, her voice a full octave below its normal tone. She sounded like she’d swallowed a razor blade, the way the mucus bubbled in her esophagus when she spoke. “He’ll be here soon. He just needs to wait out the storm.”
“B-but when is th-the storm gonna end?”
“I don’t know, honey. But it can’t last forever.”
At that, Jeanie started to cry.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” Mom sneezed into her palm. The thick strand between her nose and her hand froze. She broke it off and threw it aside.
“I’m s-s-sorry,” she said. The tears on her face froze into ice pellets and stuck to her skin.
“Oh, baby, you have nothing to be sorry for.”
“No, I sh-shouldn’t have made that st-st-stupid w-wish.” She picked off a few frozen tears and flicked them. “N-now, it’s gonna be w-w-winter forever.”
“Jeanie, don’t be silly,” Mom said, a touch of fear in her voice. “The people at the plant will get the power back on, and the sun will come out, and then tomorrow we’ll cook eggs and beans and pancakes and toast, just how we used to, and have a glass of orange juice and see you off to school.” Mom brought Jeanie’s head into her lap and tried to stop her hand from shaking as she stroked her daughter’s hair. “It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay. Just go to sleep.” She coughed blood into her elbow, watched it turn stale. “When you wake up, everything will be okay. Just go to sleep. That’s alright now. That’s just alright.”
“Alright,” said the General. “Say that again.”
Richard Wells looked at the man with four stars on his hat and raised an eyebrow. “The whole thing?”
“Yes.” His face showed no amusement. “I want to make sure I heard you correctly.”
Richard took a deep breath and thought about reaching into his back pocket for a pill. But then he thought about where he was — all the men in green uniforms, the screens full of numerical data, the big red buttons with protective glass boxes — and decided against it. He looked crazy enough as is.
“I knew this was coming,” he said. “Weather patterns have grown more and more unpredictable over the past decade — in fact, just last year we saw both the hottest summer and the coldest winter in over a century.” He paused. “But I don’t think anyone knew it would get this bad this fast.
“What we’re seeing in Ambersaw is something I’m calling a hyperfreeze. Caught in an irregular wind pattern, thunder clouds and extremely cold precipitates merged to form a magnetized version of snow. But our analysis shows this snow, which seems no different in visual appearance than your average snow, isn’t magnetized to earth’s natural field. It’s making its own. Like a broadcast. Each individual snowflake, a little radio tower — and they’re attracting more cold weather systems.”
The General stood and paced the room. Richard continued.
“This will not self-correct. This piece of nature will not just ‘go away’. As time passes, this phenomenon will attract more snow, more wind. The town will only get colder. If we don’t act, the system will continue to grow. It’ll consume Ambersaw, maybe even all of Kentucky, and from there, who knows? It won’t get any smaller than it is right now. That’s what matters. That’s what’s important. That’s why we need military intervention.”
The General stopped to watch one of the room’s many computer monitors, this one playing a video on loop.
The video was a surveillance feed from the Ambersaw retirement home, one taken during their 4:00 p.m. dinner. On it, a group of a dozen or so seniors sat around small circular tables eating grey paste.
Their meal was going fine until something from down the corridor seemed to upset them. The people in the video all turned in unison, though only the nurses rose from their seats. Then, a blast of cold shot through the room, visible on the feed as a blue wave, an EMP of frost. All of the seniors crumpled to ash instantly, leaving only black chunks on the frozen carpet. The camera was hit only a moment after, ending the video and resetting its loop. Despite being only ten seconds, the video proved jarring. The General himself was almost 73.
“So that’s why you think we should firebomb Ambersaw?” said the General.
“Yes, sir,” Richard replied. “That’s why we need to firebomb Ambersaw.”
When Jeanie Reed awoke, the house was quiet. Sunlight beamed through the still-frozen windows, warping into bubble-shaped shadows on the floor. Though it looked warm and yellow, that was but a deception. The cold never left. She yawned through chattering teeth and raised her palms to the flame. “M-mom,” she said. “What’s f-for breakfast?”
No one responded.
She looked back toward the kitchen. “Mom?” Bringing the blankets with her, she waddled into the dining room. Mom wasn’t there. She went and checked the master bedroom, then the guest, then her own. The bathroom. The other bathroom. “Mom?!” Laundry room, office, under the bed, under her bed, “Mom!” Every closet. Every cabinet. But she was nowhere. Gone.
Jeanie slammed the refrigerator door shut and slumped against the oven. Tears overcame her then.
When she was done, she returned to the fire and noticed something taped to the front door. A note, in her mother’s handwriting.
“I love you so, so, so much…” it started.
Bomber pilot Steve Barber almost started laughing during the briefing. The idea was insane — were they really going to drop napalm on a snowstorm? — and the sternness with which they spoke made it seem like it wasn’t some big “10-year-anniversary-in-the-Navy” prank.
By the time he suited up and got the go ahead on the runway, his laughter ran dry.
“Now,” yelled Richard, the scientist. “The eye of the storm will be the most volatile spot, and that’s where you need to deliver the payload. Don’t stay in it for too long. You need to be quick.”
“Have you ever flown a plane before?” asked Steve.
“No, I — ”
“Right,” he said, lowering the cockpit window. Then he initiated the takeoff procedure.
When she was done reading it, Jeanie Reed crumpled the note and threw it against the wall. Her nostrils flared, her face turned red, and she let out a scream.
As quick as it formed, her anger slipped to sadness, to grief, and she assumed a dull expression. She went upstairs to her parent’s room and into their walk-in closet. There, she scanned the top shelf for the boxes that belonged under the tree, for her and for them. Then she went to the kitchen and returned moments later with a step ladder.
One by one, and often requiring great effort, Jeanie brought down each present and placed them under the tree. She arranged them in three piles, one for each of them, taking great care to organize them biggest to smallest, back to front, so that no matter from which angle you viewed the tree, all the presents were visible, attractive, and almost magnetic — a picturesque representation of a fine Christian Christmas.
When she was done, she went into the kitchen and removed prepared dishes from the refrigerator and set them on the countertop. Next were the plates, cutlery, and napkins, all of which she set out on the dining room table for three. Each set got an accompanying glass of ice.
When she set down the final glass, she took a momentary seat on the chair and bounced her heels on the floor. Before long, she was biting her nails.
Gotta stay warm.
She glanced at the fireplace. The flame, though sustained, lay short and shrinking. It was hungry. It needed wood.
Jeanie was halfway to the back door when she remembered.
Richard Wells watched the live feed from the cockpit on the computer monitor. Alongside him stood the General and a handful of his top men, over 200 years of military experience split between them, much of it in aviation. Together they squinted at the monitor to make out the increasingly grainy footage.
As Steve, the pilot, got closer to the center of the storm, his camera began to ice over. Before long, the video froze completely, leaving only audio.
“Officer Barber,” the General said, “We’ve lost the video feed. Please relay your status via audio. Over.”
“Roger,” Steve said. “Will update as the situation progresses. As of now, cruise set to 600 knots. At 40,000 feet, visibility is low, but manageable. I’m about ten klicks out from the DZ, and it’s cold, sir. Kinda wish I’d worn another layer. Over.”
“Maintain your altitude and start preparing your payload for drop. Can you see the storm? Over.”
“Roger that. Clouds are obscuring my vision, but I’m getting close. Opening bomb bay in three, two…” Over the channel, metal started to grind together. “Sir, I’m having trouble with the bomb bay door, seems to be jammed or frozen. Advise, over.”
The General looked to his men.
“Has he tried pressing the button again?” said one, a tall and balding fellow.
The General nodded and went back to the microphone. “Have you tried pressing it again? Over.” he said.
“Not yet. I will give that a shot. Pressing the button in three, two…” Metal whined and warped. Something popped. “Sir, that doesn’t seem to have worked, I think — ” static.
“Officer Barber, are you still there?” said the General. “Officer Barber, can you hear me? Over.”
White noise blared from the speaker.
How could she forget?
Her mother was dead. The storm had killed her. The storm would kill her too.
Jeanie returned to the living room and wrapped herself in a cocoon of blankets next to the fireplace. The flame danced its last few sparks, and then went out. Jeanie closed her eyes.
Above the charred wood, through the chimney, she could hear the wind howl.
Steve Barber, the pilot, jammed his thumb onto the big red button on his instrument panel again and again. It refused to move. As he continued to press it, the feeling in his thumb went away, replaced by icy pinpricks, frigid enough to feel warm.
He glanced up at his windshield and was met with a frozen tableau of the exact wind pattern that was slamming into it when he crossed the threshold. White peaks and valleys, like the commercials with the wind tunnels. His sight was blocked entirely.
When he went to press the button one last time, a chunk of his thumb broke off. He looked at the angular break, the unbleeding, sharp edge left, the bone sticking out enraptured by nerves, and furrowed his brow. He didn’t feel a thing. He wondered how much of himself was already gone.
Though the instrument panel was frozen from left to right, the flight stick still functioned, and judging from his time in the air, he figured he was just at the right spot to drop the bomb.
Steve threw his body against the stick and felt the plane pitch toward the ground.
Something slammed against the front door. The loud thump was enough to awaken Jeanie, though her eyelids had frozen shut and she shivered with an intensity rivaling a seizure. She made mumbling sounds past her frozen lips while the thumping continued, and then the sound of incredible wind blew into the house for just a moment before being cut short. Then came footsteps.
They thudded down the hall, past the kitchen, and toward the living room. Jeanie started to wheeze, the warm air puffing out of her nose like dragon’s smoke. The footsteps drew closer. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the ice off her eyes. She kept punching herself in the cheek.
When the footsteps entered the living room and stopped directly in front of her, Jeanie’s scream ripped the ice from her mouth.
The massive being made muffled noises, there was a sound like air escaping, and then the voice of her father filled the room.
“Oh my god, Jeanie. My poor sweet Jeanie…” He lifted her into his arms and hugged her against his insulated cold weather gear. He shattered the ice from her eyelids with a light tap, and then Jeanie could see he was carrying two suits, one of them little, that looked just like the deep-water-diver suit he was wearing.
“Where’s your mother?” he said.
Jeanie paused, pouted her lip, and looked fit to cry. She tried to unwrinkle the note and broke it apart instead. She handed the remnants of the note to her father. He didn’t need to read it. He only needed to see the look in Jeanie’s eyes to know she was gone. He clutched the pieces of the note to his chest.
When he was done, he handed Jeanie the suit and said, “We have to move on, for her. It’s what she would’ve wanted.” Then he led her outside.
Twenty miles away, as they rode on his snowmobile toward the little city of Gardner in search of safety, Jeanie felt a warmth on her back.
She turned around and stared in awe as a pillar of flames leapt at the sky.