There was a white glare on the garden; crisp and glittering. The blizzard had started around dusk, unexpected and fierce. Snow snapped and spun in the moonlight; fell in whipping sheets to coat the ground inches thick.
Liam stood at the window and watched the snow fall. “White Christmas,” he said to the empty room.
Charlie would have loved it. He would have wanted to be out there, puffed up in his winter coat and woollen gloves, scarf tucked down into the collar, bobble-hat sitting askew on uncombed hair.
Ellen, too. Keeping a watchful eye on him as he jumped and ran through the garden, stooping to roll fist-sized balls to throw at the fence or the trees. Tracking him with the screen of her phone, capturing memories to be shared in the warm with the lamps turned low.
The snow was pure and white, smooth and unsullied. Charlie would leave no tracks in it this winter, there would be no snowballs spattering against bark, no bellies or heads rolled across the garden and piled one atop the other, sticks pushed into the sides for arms.
No playing, no memories.
No Charlie. No Ellen. Not this Christmas, not ever again.
Last years’ presents still sat huddled in the corner of the living room. All bright paper and golden bows still waiting to be prised apart by small eager fingers.
Liam could have cried, could have raged against the indifferent world, but he’d done all that and was exhausted. Spent and empty. Broken and hollow.
Shattered into tiny pieces the day they were both found pinned in twisted wreckage. A blizzard had swept in at them through the broken windscreen, turning them to mannequins of frost and ice.Frostbite had eaten away at Charlie’s lips and blackened his eyelids to brittle seals.
A flurry of snow lashed at the window and masked the garden behind a screen of flakes. As the wind snapped it in another direction an instant later, Liam thought he saw something shift down there. A shadow against the white. A small shadow.
He dressed quickly. Slipped trainers on bare feet, left the laces dangling and thudded downstairs.
The night air was bitter as he opened the door and stepped out onto the patio. Snow fell thick and fast, obscuring his vision. Cold wind stung his cheeks.
Nothing, he thought. Yet, something had drawn him out here into the blue-black night.
He trudged to the lawn, wind buffeting his clothes, snow streaming across him, into his ears and mouth. Melting there, cold and damp.
He fell to the ground. Scooped a handful of snow, then another, and drew them together. Took the compact ball he’d made and rolled it along the ground. He crawled across the garden, pushing the ball in front of him until he had a good-sized round belly of snow.
Then he started again. Placed the smaller ball on top.
Ran over to the conifers at the back of the garden and dug down, rooting around in the fallen foliage. He came away with a thin gnarled branch that he split in two across his knee.
Back to the snowman, feet ploughing a deep furrow in the white. He speared a stick in either side: crooked arms reaching splintered hands out to him.
He caught sight of the shadow again, dancing somewhere out of reach, but getting closer.
Something missing, he thought.
Charlie always liked to use stones for the eyes and mouth. Black stones and pebbles that he’d collected on walks through the woods or along the beach. Charlie’s special stones, he’d called them and kept a jumble of them in a box on his bookcase. It was labelled in a stuttering, inconsistent hand. Large, spider-like capitals in bright red crayon that he’d once used to write his name on the wall.
Liam went back to the house, back up the stairs, leaving a dusting of snow behind him. Into Charlie’s room lined with a grim veneer of dust. He retrieved the box. Picture books with creased spines and ragged corners fell to the floor.
A veil of rushing flakes surged at him as he made his way over to the waiting snowman. His fingers burrowed through the box, pulling out a handful of stones. Each of them had a story, each of them specially chosen for their size or shape or colour or texture. Charlie could have told him the reason for keeping each and every one.A hushed, conspiratorial voice in a lamp-lit bedroom imbuing the stones with a child’s magic.
He pushed in two onyx eyes and a row of smaller stones for a mouth. The snowman smiled back at him with black teeth that glinted in the moonlight.
Liam saw the small shadow creep closer and lose itself in the deep, rounded figure.
“Ellen,” he said and, pressing his face against the cold white belly, wept for the first time in months.
* * *
He awoke with the sun rising in the east. Reds and yellows and oranges filled the garden.
A black stone had fallen at the snowman’s base, stick-arms drooped low to nudge Liam’s shoulders.
He heard a shifting movement, a crumbling of snow close to his ear and felt something judder at his back. He pulled his head away just as a star-shaped hand burst from the snowman’s middle.
Liam watched those small fingers clutch at the air and lost all sense and reason for an instant. They curled and stretched, reaching out as Liam scrabbled to his knees.
He dug deep, thrusting quick handfuls of packed snow away, numbing his fingers as he tore at the figure. Tore and snatched and clawed until he could pull the boy away.
“Happy Christmas, Charlie,” Liam said in a breathless gasp and held the boy close.
The pale, shivering boy with a single row of dark, shining teeth studded across his lipless face. The boy with black stones for eyes.
WRITTEN BY L.R. BONEHILL
ILLUSTRATED BY LEE DAVIS
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