by Walter Kwiatkowski
Today, it was only College Boy and me in the old schoolhouse that stood just a stone’s throw away from Hudson’s Bay. Nobody else in this town would work on a day like today. Cold, windy, brutal. With lots of ice and mountains of snow.
“Did you bring the heater into room 104 and set it up like I told you?” I asked College Boy.
He nodded. “You’re crazy man. Why do you want to melt the ice off that window?”
I ignored him but noticed he had his parka on. “You going out?” He was new at the school. Some educated kid workin’ over the winter holidays. Started a couple of weeks ago. Can’t buff floors, takes too long to scrape stickers off lockers, and takes too many coffee breaks. But, by God, he was the best window cleaner I’d ever met. Couldn’t remember his name, so I called him College Boy.
College Boy smiled. “You gonna be lonely without me, old man?”
I turned away from the window and looked at him through one eye. “You college boys think you know everthin’. I was in Northern Alberta in ’43. Damned cold it was, minus fifty or so. Woke up in the mornin’ and found one of the horses frozen to the stable post.” I opened my tin of tobacco, then rolled some cigarettes. I buy the large tins. They’re cheaper and last longer.
College Boy looked at me in surprise. “You worry too much.”
I walked over to the small wooden desk. This desk was as old as time itself. It was around when my father was the caretaker for this school and his father before him. It was made of cedar and looked like a chest with spindly legs.
I slid open the top drawer and found a box of matches. It was next to a selection of tools: three screwdrivers, a couple of wrenches, several files, and a pair of pliers. I kept them in the desk ’cause they often disappeared from the toolbox.
I lit the cigarette as I walked over to the window. The snow was piling up, all right. Maybe five or six feet high by now. “It ain’t the cold I’m worried about. It’s the snow. Do you see it? High enough to bury bodies in.”
College Boy looked at me like I was a raving lunatic, but he said nothing. Instead, he pulled the tab on the zipper, but it wouldn’t move.
“You got a problem, College Boy?”
He made a face. “Stupid zipper.”
I laughed. “You got one them coats made in China?”
He tried again but the tab refused to move up the slider. I turned away from the window. “I think you’re makin’ a mistake.”
At that, College Boy gave up. “Man, Barney, my place is only three blocks from here. I didn’t have any trouble walking here this morning.”
I pointed at his parka. “Your zipper worked then.”
He ignored me. “My boots are warm; I’m wearing mitts.. It won’t take me more than ten minutes to get home.”
I looked at him and then waved him off. “The snow wasn’t six feet high this mornin’.”
College Boy shook his head. “Ever hear of the metric system? Nobody uses feet and inches anymore, old man.”
Hot-shot sighed. “Hey, Barney, let’s stop playing games. We don’t like each other. Fine. I’m cool with that. So if you don’t like me so much, why did you convince the School Board to hire me?”
I moved my cigarette from one side of my mouth to the other with my tongue. I looked at him with one eye closed. “’Cause you’re an outsider,” I told him quickly. “And nobody in this town would come within two hundred yards of this place in winter.”
College Boy chuckled.” You’ve got to be kidding.” No doubt my face showed I was serious, because his smiled disappeared. He thought for a minute: “A haunted school?”
How could he understand, this outsider? How could he? “Every year, when winter comes, the people go to the Home Hardware and buy Polyfilla and plaster of paris and trowels and enough food and beer to last two months. Then they make sure every opening in the house is boarded up or secured and every crack sealed. And they hibernate, watchin’ TV, talkin’ only on the telephone, but avoidin’ the doors and windows.”
College Boy tightened his scarf around his neck. “But that’s crazy, Barney.”
“Think so? When you came to work this mornin’, did you pass by any houses?”
“Were the curtains closed?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t look.”
“Were the lights on?”
He shrugged, but I caught a glimpse of his eyes and knew the answer. I smiled, but it was the kind of smile that said stupid outsider.
“But why would the people here do that?”
I grinned. “Because the snow is falling, College Boy.”
His eyebrows dropped. “Yeah, I’m an outsider, but I’m no idiot. Sure the snow is falling, but you guys have shovels and plows don’t you? You’re not a backward society where everybody runs around half-naked and screeching.”
“You talk a lot of words, College Boy. But I know a word you don’t much about. It’s fear. The kind that reaches into your body like a big hand and rips your stomach out up through your mouth. It’s a word that’s on every person’s lips. You say it once and your blood drops like the temperature.”
The look on his face told me he thought I belonged in an asylum. Perhaps he was right. “And this fear has a name, College Boy.” My cigarette dropped from my lips. College Boy was right. I was ranting. “Frosty Jack.”
For a moment, there was silence, other than the howling of the wind outside, and then College Boy began to laugh. In seconds, he was doubled over and had to grab a hold of the back of a chair. Finally, after several minutes, he fell into that same chair, the last spasms of laughter leaving him. “Frosty Jack? A name of fear?” He began to laugh again. I turned away from him.
College Boy sat up. He wiped some sweat off his forehead and tears off his cheeks. “But that’s an urban legend. I remember reading about it in a magazine when I was about nine years old. Some old coot came running out of the woods, half-naked, eyes wide, blabbering something about an evil spirit called Frosty Jack. The cops came and threw him in a mental home.”
I walked to the window. Its heavy glass pane was rippled with frost; the wind rattled its foundations. The wind. It was howling like starving wolves, strategically blowing snow from one part of the school yard to the other. The snow was now as nearly as high as the window. But you won’t leave, will you, Frosty? Not until you get what you came for, like always. Father knew. We must give Frosty Jack what is Frosty Jack’s. It won’t be long now.
I turned and looked at College Boy. “That old coot was my father.”
He stopped laughing and looked at me. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree..”
“I remember that night. I was in my 30’s, I think. I’d just gotten married. My wife was pregnant. My father was asked by the principal to stay late. The sky was dark. It felt like snow. Everyone left the school early and quickly. Father got some large plywood pieces and boarded up the doors and windows. He knew what was coming.
“There was a young guy, just out of the army, some Indian guy from Winnipeg, an outsider. He was hired a couple of days before to help my father out. Though why he came I don’t know. The Indians of this area wouldn’t take one step into town. They said it was built over bad medicine.
“A big pile of rocks with a branch sticking out of it was discovered around 1907, but it was destroyed when the town was built. Well, the snow came all right. For four days it snowed. My mother kept me and my brothers away from the windows.
“My father stayed at the school the whole time; that is, until the roof caved in and Frosty Jack came and took the Indian. After that, my father ran out into the woods. That’s the last time I saw my dad. But the townsfolk said he saw Frosty Jack coming out of a snow bank, and he went crazy.”
College Boy tried one last time to do up his coat. “Well, I’m not waiting four days. I’m out of here.”
I stared at him. “I wouldn’t advise it, College Boy.”
He was a tall, lanky kid with an unshaven chin. He bent down on one knee to tie the laces of his boot. “I’m not staying cooped up in this place with a crazy old man because of a nutty story. I’ve got things to do.”
“You’ll never make it.” My mood had suddenly become melancholy. He left the janitor’s room and went into the boiler room. He walked to the far wall and came back with a wide-mouthed shovel, which he leaned against a stool that was next to the boiler.
“You’re going to try to push six feet of snow away with that?”
He fitted his mitts over his fingers. grabbed the shovel and started for the door. I took a rolled cigarette from my shirt pocket. College Boy suddenly stopped and turned back. “You said the roof of the school collapsed and the Indian died, didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “I said the roof collapsed and Frosty Jack got him.”
“So the Indian died. But I remember in the magazine they didn’t mention anything about an Indian or anybody dying.”
“You’re right. Dad couldn’t prove anyone died. The snow covered the body.”
He looked at me. “Wouldn’t they have found the remains in the spring, after the snow melted?” I put one foot up on the stool.I struck a match against the wall and lit the cigarette. A huge bang rattled the boiler room door, almost tearing it off its hinges. College Boy jumped two, maybe three feet.
I smiled. “Nobody found anything in the spring, College Boy, because there was nothing to find.”
“The Indian didn’t die, then.”
I smiled a long, knowing grin. “Frosty Jack ate him.”
College Boy gave me a quick unbelieving look, then turned and walked towards the boiler room door. “See ya.”
“I doubt it.” I answered. I watched as College Boy grabbed the handle of the large door and unfastened the lock and pulled. But it wouldn’t open. He stuck the shovel handle between his legs and tried again, this time with both hands.
The door popped open, and wind and snow hurled into the room like a genie out of a bottle. The wind was loud, and sounded like a thousand whips cracking. College Boy stepped out. The door slammed shut behind him.
I looked at my watch. I gave him two, maybe three minutes.. I went over to the door and refastened the lock and went out into the hallway. I poured myself a cup of coffee then went down the hall to room 104. The windows were huge and frosted.
Normally, I could see the entire area just outside the boiler room. But today, ice had spun frosty cobwebs on both the outside and the inside of the windows. So I had College Boy put a little heater near the centre window.
Speaking of College Boy, he should be shivering with cold now. He should have dressed more warmly, made sure he was zipped up nice and tight, but then again, how could he have known I had filed down the slider teeth so the zipper wouldn’t work. It was a slow, steady task, but I had done it while College Boy was busy scraping stickers off the hallway lockers. Shoot, must be nearly minus 30 out there.
I rubbed the heated spot of the centre window with my hand, revealing a circle of clean glass. Outside, the sky was nearly black and the snow was exploding in every direction. And the wind was in a frenzy. I sat on the end of a school desk and took a sip of coffee. I watched him through the little circle I had made. He was doing better than I expected. Maybe thirty or forty feet.
* * *
Now, he’s just realizing the truth. The freezing cold wind is smashing into his unprotected chest like a battering ram, seeping through the openings of his knitted sweater and drilling into his chest. And the snow that’s falling onto him ain’t snow as we know it. He’s trying to wipe it off, but it won’t come off. It’s sticking to him like glue, and its building layers on his arms. Each time he wipes, little tears appear in his parka.
Now his arms are too heavy. He’s leaning over. The snow is piling up on his back. Like being in a hole and having dirt thrown on you. There he goes. He can’t take the weight anymore and falls to his knees.
And something flashes from out of the snow, ripping his chest apart, and biting at the exposed areas. But the wind blows away his screams. Like always. Like every winter. My father understood. The townsfolk were trespassers and had to pay the rent. So long as we found an outsider every winter, we were safe; Frosty Jack would be appeased. I put down my coffee cup and turned off the heater.
Copyright © 2016 by Walter Kwiatkowski