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by Christopher J. Ferguson

Crystal — thief, addict and sometimes prostitute — sat shivering and miserable in one of the most lost-in-time kitchens she had ever seen. Ten miles of snow from anywhere, she found herself surrounded by wooden spoons, Mickey Mouse clocks and the aroma of cinnamony goodness. She looked around, wide-eyed and uncertain, her heart that of a frightened animal, ready to fight or to flee at the earliest sign of danger.

Her eyes could barely leave the windows. At any moment she expected to see flashing reds and blues. It had been one helluva night. She and her boyfriend had been long on need for a bit of meth, but short on cash. She’d offered to do a couple of tricks, but her old man had been keen on knocking over a liquor store instead. Cliché but, hey, it beat screwing a couple of smelly strangers.

The heist had gone well enough, but her damn fool boyfriend thought it would make sense to get out of the city, head to the country to avoid the heat. Only the damned fool didn’t know how to drive in snow...

At once there was a blanket around her shoulders and kind hands helping her to wrap it around herself. “Tsk, tsk,” said the old woman, “you’ll be lucky if you haven’t caught your death of a cold. I’m going to make some good, hot soup and see if we can’t stop that shivering.”

Crystal watched her move about the kitchen, getting a pot here, a pan there, whistling and chatting away as if having a random stranger emerge out of the cold was a daily occurrence. “Are you sure,” the old woman was saying as she filled a sizeable pan with water, “that I shouldn’t call the police? With this storm, the phone is likely to go out. I don’t have underground lines this far from town, and I don’t own one of those fancy new radio phones.”

“No,” Crystal said, shaking her head, though this was no easy task given the shivery vibrations running through her neck muscles, “I’ll call a tow truck in the morning, if that’s okay with you?”

“I’m not about to throw you back out into the snow if that’s what you mean. Why, this is the worst storm in four years...” The old woman began prattling on about the weather and famous local snowstorms. She was evidently the talkative type, probably making up for loneliness, living all the way out here with only the obligatory housecat — naturally named Mr. Whiskers, what else? — for company.

Crystal tuned her out for the moment. She hadn’t been entirely forthcoming with the old bird. Sure, she had mentioned the cracked-up car on the side of the road back a half-mile or so, the victim of an unfortunate patch of ice under the new-fallen snow. But she had left out the unresponsive boyfriend she had left slumped at the wheel. He had served his purpose and she might as well leave him there.

Still she suspected that wouldn’t be reason enough to keep her out of trouble if the law ever found out about it. She could try to say the heist had been his idea and he’d forced her to go along, but they probably wouldn’t buy it; she had a sheet nearly as long as his. She also had neglected to mention the butterfly knife she kept in her coat pocket. Every now and again, as she got warm, she pondered what she was to do... what would she do?

The old woman had out some carrots and beef stock and was cutting up the carrots for the soup, oblivious to Crystal’s machinations. “So there I was: no power, no phone, a foot of snow on the ground, this must have been... I think it was four years ago in fact. Global warming my orthopedic shoe; you wouldn’t know it around here. Well, made me wish I put a wood-burning stove in here, but you know they say those things give off carbon monoxide—”

“Hey, lady,” Crystal interrupted, uninterested in hearing prattling about the weather, “I don’t suppose you smoke?” She raised her eyebrows hopefully.

“Noooo...” the woman said with an elderly chuckle that dashed Crystal’s expectations, “bad for the lungs. Maybe tonight will be a good time for you to quit?”

“Yah, maybe,” Crystal said with a roll of her eyes and a sigh.

“And call me Emma, please. Emma Silversmith, that’s my married name, although of course my poor Stan has been dead ten years now. So, I was telling you my story” — Crystal sighed again at that — “after two days of no heat, all my food and water froze solid. Phones out, no radio phone—”

“They’re called cell phones, lady... Emma,” Crystal said through chattering teeth, although she was gradually feeling warmer.

“Oh right,” Emma chuckled, “and none of that cable Internet either.” She leaned in toward Crystal as if she had a state secret to share. “They have a lot of pornography on that, you know?”

“You don’t say.”

“I don’t approve of that.”

“You and this house never made it out of the Revolutionary War, did you?” Crystal dropped her hand back into her coat pocket, felt the knife, reassuring herself it was still there. She wondered if this old bat had a car.

“Anyway, the roads were impassable, of course, so I thought, what else could I do? I put on my heaviest jackets and gloves and got ready to hoof it back into town.”

At that, Crystal got an incredulous look on her face, “You decided to walk back into town through the snow? How far is that?”

Emma laughed again, as if conscious of her own foolishness. “Oh, ten miles at least. I know, it sounds like a fool’s errand, but I couldn’t be certain when they’d get around to plowing me out way out here. Old people are known to die in the cold sometimes you know.”

“Perish the thought.”

Emma had the pot of soup up to a good boil now, was adding in the carrots and beef stock, stirring the whole concoction. “It was silly of me, I know. I probably should have just stayed put and waited. But I just had these images of people finding my cold, stiff body in the spring and trying to thaw me out. Better at least to make some kind of effort to save your own skin, wouldn’t you agree?”

“You don’t know the half of it, grandma.” Maybe, Crystal was thinking, the thing to do was bump the old lady off, sit tight for a bit, then take her car once the snow cleared and try to make a good escape of it. Hell, dump the old bag in the woods somewhere let the animals get at her. Crystal was savvy enough in looking around to note that the only pictures around were of Emma and some old guy, probably Stan, the dead husband. “Hey, you got any kids, gran... Emma?”

The old lady shook her head and her tone dropped just a bit, although she kept up her chipper visage: “No... I guess it just wasn’t in God’s plan. Would have been nice to have some little ones around, but it was always just me and Stan. He was enough to take care of, himself, sometimes. Now it’s just me... and Mr. Whiskers of course.”

“Of course.” No kids meant no one missing her for months. Plenty of time for Crystal to vanish. Maybe someplace warmer. Maybe Los Angeles, maybe Florida. Maybe she’d even get clean, turn her life around or something. Oh sure, she’d feel a bit bad about whacking old Emma here, but sitting on the beach in LA or Ft. Lauderdale, she’d get over it. And it wasn’t like this old fart was taking big bites from the apple of life anymore. Perhaps a good quick, unexpected death would be better than her going through cancer or Alzheimer’s or something like that. Maybe shanking the old lady would be merciful in a way, yeah, Crystal liked the thought of that. She’d be like an angel of mercy.

“Do you want something to drink, honey? Maybe some hot cocoa?”

This was all just too much. “What are you, an IHOP?”

Emma got a kettle of water boiling — naturally, there was no microwave — and procured a packet of cocoa. “Do you like marshmallows?”

“No, that’s fine,” Crystal said with a shake of her head. Okay, so she was gonna cut the old lady. Now it was just a matter of planning exactly when to do it. She was still shivering a bit too much. The old lady probably couldn’t put up much of a fight, but she didn’t want to drop the knife or cut herself. Maybe it would be best to wait until the old lady went to bed. She could slit her throat in her sleep. Emma would never know what had happened to her. Then Crystal could just shut that room up and use the rest of the house as long as she needed to until the snow melted a bit. She didn’t want to have to try to avoid puddles of blood if she didn’t have to; that would just gross her out.

Soon the pot was whistling and Emma was mixing up the cocoa. She also had returned to her story of the old snowstorm: “So I start walking, keeping to the road so I know I don’t get lost. I get a mile or two pretty easy, almost started to think I was doing pretty good. Then it starts getting dark, and colder of course. Pretty soon I can’t feel my fingers or toes or my face right anymore. And did you know when you start getting cold, really cold I mean, it makes you tired? Like you just want to lay down somewhere and go to sleep?” Emma came over with a steaming cup of sweet-smelling cocoa.

“I think I heard that in high school health class. ‘Don’t go to sleep,’ they say.” She sipped at the cocoa, it was very chocolatey and good. Most important, it was hot and felt good going down her throat, warming her innards more efficiently than the blanket could do.

“Well, that’s easier said than done,” Emma said, laughing. Then she sighed, “I think I made it maybe four miles total. Not even halfway. Not much of an athlete I guess. I just got to a point where I had to sit down and rest for a bit. I remember being tired, just so tired, like nothing else mattered but going to sleep. So that’s what I did, I picked a nice big oak tree by the side of the road and leaned up against it and went to sleep in the middle of this freezing cold night.”

Crystal wiped cocoa foam from her upper lip with her sleeve. This story was finally getting a little interesting, “How the hell did you live through that?”

“Well,” Emma laughed almost self consciously, “Of course during the night a snowplow came by. Can you believe that? If I’d just stayed put I would have been fine. But how was I to know, they might not have come for days? Anyway, the snowplow picked me up, brought me into town to the little hospital there. Did you drink all that cocoa already? Let me get you some more, honey.”

“Thank you, Emma,” Crystal said. She was feeling better now, warmer, finally shaking some heat into her bones. She looked forward to the soup, a little food would do her some good. She let her head rest on her hands, relaxing and listening to the old woman’s story.

“Well, I hadn’t brought my purse along of course, so no driver’s license. They had no idea who I was. Just some old woman frozen solid, practically. I guess they must have checked my pulse and didn’t find one. The next thing I know, I wake up as some Jane Doe in the morgue drawer.”

“Huh?... you’re kidding?” Crystal said, although she wasn’t able to muster the enthusiasm that this revelation deserved. She was getting tired herself, a long day, too much stress, too much cocoa even. She felt like she’d be ready for sleep, herself, soon. But she wanted to hear the rest of the story now.

“I swear,” Emma held one hand to her heart, the other stirring the pot of soup, “every word I’m telling you is true. So, there I am, naked as a politician’s lie and, of course, I start screaming and banging on the metal walls of the box I was in when finally this young fella pulls me out of the wall on this metal drawer. Now you’ll have to do the best you can to imagine the look on this fella’s face when he sees me. Must’ve wet his pants, gotten a fresh pair and wet ’em again.”

“Wow... dat’s sumptin,” Crystal said, and was momentarily taken aback to notice the slurring in her own speech. Dimly, a part of her brain began to register alarm. Something was wrong here.

Emma nonchalantly continued the story: “So he goes running for the telephone. He’s alone down there in the morgue, see, with this naked old woman who should be much quieter than I was. Feeling more than a bit confused and disoriented, as one can imagine, I have to slide myself off that drawer. When I get down, all I see is that young fella dialing that phone with his back turned to me—”

“Hey laby... wut... wut ya put... in...” Crystal put one hand on her knee, steadying herself, trying to rise, the other one fishing in her pocket for the knife.

“Not even knowing what I’m doing, I come up behind the fella and snap his neck like a bird’s wing.” She continued her story with the tone of voice she might have used in discussing a favorite nephew. “Good timing, too, as he’d almost finished dialing. I was feeling famished. Couple of days without food will do that to you, you know. So I ate his forearm, which was a bit stringy but did the trick, then found my clothes and quietly went on my way. Hitched a ride back to my house with no one the wiser. Good thing they didn’t have my denture prints on file, now, wasn’t it?!”

She laughed, then stopped when she noticed Crystal’s attempts to stand. “Oh, no, no,” Emma said, “don’t go troubling yourself. Oh, I know it’s my fault; I oughta know better than to go on and on with my stories.” She moved to try to push Crystal back into the chair.

With the last bit of useful energy, Crystal managed to get the knife out and blade opened. Emma’s eyes went wide with surprise as Crystal sunk the knife blade into her stomach. She felt the blade pierce through tough skin and fascia before sliding into the old woman’s abdomen. Her energy thus spent, Crystal collapsed to the floor, feeling waves of exhaustion sweep over her. She was too tired even to feel disappointment as she looked up.

Emma was standing over her with a disapproving expression, the knife blade still protruding from her stomach. There was no blood, no gore, not even a look of pain on Emma’s face as she gingerly removed the blade and set it aside on the kitchen table with distaste.

“Oh,” she said with consternation in her voice, “I wish you hadn’t gotten yourself all worked up. Adrenaline so ruins the taste in the bones, and I do like to suck the marrow from them, even thought I know it’s not ladylike.” Emma sighed, taking a seat at the table and watching as Crystal faded. “I know it’s my fault, not yours; I just can’t help telling my stories. And you were such nice company.”

She stood abruptly, her voice now sad, apologetic, “I don’t know why God sent me back like this, made me the way I am. I always tried to live a good life. That’s why I drugged your cocoa, so you won’t feel a thing. You’ll just go to sleep and don’t worry about the rest.” Her mood brightened after a moment. “You do look quite scrumptious you know.”

Crystal’s eyelids were like lead, trying to close. She could not move, could not speak, felt drool running down her cheek. It was hard even for her to comprehend what Emma was saying. Even her heart, which had begun to register alarm moments before was now quieting down, becoming calm, telling her to sleep. There was nothing to be done, nothing to be done for it. Another few seconds and she would be asleep.

At once there came a hiss from the pot boiling on the stove as some of the boiling soup ran over the lid. “Good gracious,” Emma said, standing suddenly and moving quickly toward the oven, “how I can become distracted. You just stay there; the soup should be ready in a moment. And don’t you worry,” Emma said with a grandmotherly smile, reaching for the largest of her kitchen knives. “I’ll be back for you in just a moment.”

Copyright © 2017 by Christopher J. Ferguson

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