By James F. Reilly

This story is part of our special Mayan Apocalypse issue!

1

“We should probably stop, no?” Margot pointed at the glowing sign of a general store up ahead. “I feel funny just showing up empty handed.”

Billy shook his head and squinted into the swirling snow. “It’s only another couple of miles, babe. I just want to get the hell out of this shit. Besides, we’re not showing up empty handed. We come bearing the gift of booze, remember?”

Margot laughed. “I meant food, dummy. I don’t want to look like a freeloader.”

“If I know my sister-in-law, dinner’s already on the table waiting for us.” Billy rolled his head from side to side, eliciting a few audible snaps and pops from his neck, and then let out a deep sigh. “And, if I know my brother, he’s probably bitching about how I’m always late.” Billy placed a hand on her knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. “We’ll come back out in the morning and get some stuff. You can cook dinner tomorrow night.”

“Oh, I can, huh?” Margot punched him in the arm. “You are such a man.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Billy said, craning his neck over the steering wheel. “Christ, it’s really coming down.”

“Maybe just milk and eggs,” Margot said softly. Billy said nothing. He just stared ahead into the churning white vortex, his face illuminated by the red taillights of the truck in front of them.

Margot stared into the windswept parking lot of the store as they passed. There were at least a dozen cars in front of the building, and six more at the gas pumps. A few of them had Christmas trees tied to their roofs, crushed under the weight of several inches of snow. Margot had a tingling feeling in her stomach as she watched the store slowly recede behind a glowing veil of white.

“Is it always like this?” she asked.

“What, the snow?” Billy shrugged. “Sure. Sometimes, I guess.” He took his eyes off the road for a second and smiled reassuringly. “Trust me, you’re gonna love it. Skiing, sledding, roasting chestnuts–all that good shit. This is a New England Christmas…a real Christmas.”

“What? You don’t think we have real Christmases in Georgia?”

“No offense,” Billy said, “but backyard barbecues and pool parties aren’t my idea of a real Christmas. It’s like those people who go to the fucking Bahamas for the holidays. To me, that’s like celebrating the fourth of July in Antarctica. It’s…it’s sacrilege! You can’t have a real Christmas without snow. Period.”

“Jesus was born in a desert.”

“Yeah, and how did that work out for him?” Billy replied.

“Okay. First, you’re going to hell for that, and, second, I disagree.” Margot crossed her arms in front of her and leaned her head against the cold glass of the passenger window. “I happen to think Christmas is about surrounding yourself with the people you love, whether it be in the mountains or under a palm tree.”

“And that’s why you’re with me.” Billy squeezed her knee again and Margot pushed his hand away. “Oh, come on, babe. You know I’m just playing. This is our first Christmas together. I just want it to be special, you know?”

“I know. And I appreciate it.”

“And I’ll tell you what. Next year we’ll go down to Georgia and have a lame-ass southern fried Christmas with your family.”

Margot grabbed Billy’s earlobe and crushed it between her thumb and index finger.

“Owww! Fuck! Owww!” Billy whined. “Truce, truce!”

“Not until you admit you’re a dick,” Margot said, squeezing harder.

“Fine! I’m a dick, I’m a dick! Jeeeesus! You’re gonna get us killed!”

Margot jerked her hand away and retreated back to her side of the car. She milked the silence between them until the crunch of the snow beneath the wheels and the monotonous swipe-and-thud of the windshield wipers was more than she could bear. Finally she sighed, “Mind if I turn on the radio?”

“Knock yourself out,” Billy said with a laugh. “I gotta warn you, though; once you get past Bretton Woods the pickin’s are pretty slim.”

Margot hit the auto-tune button on the radio. John Cougar Mellencamp’s Hurt So Good gave way to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer and then Young MC’s Bust a Move.

“Christ, what decade are these people living in?” she asked.

“I told you,” Billy said. “Slim pickin’s. Just put in a CD.”

Margot opened the glove box and groaned. “Ewww. All of your CD’s suck.”

“So now I‘m a dick with bad taste in music? Why is it you’re with me, again?”

“Apparently so you can show me the true meaning of Christmas,” Margot quipped.
“Otherwise, I can’t think of a single reason.”

“Okay, well, so long as we’re clear on that.”

The radio jumped through a couple of channels of static, a warbling old country song, and a Spanish talk show before Margot turned it off and fell back into her seat. “Okay, New Hampshire radio officially sucks,” she proclaimed.

“Well, not if you grew up in the 80s,” Billy said.

“Or you’ve been in a coma since then,” Margot replied.

“Touché.”

The road ahead divided and Billy veered toward the right fork. The Camry bounced as it crossed the tracks of the truck in front and then fishtailed as he turned onto the road and started up a steep incline. Margot grabbed his shoulder and let out a feint squeal.

“Trust me,” Billy said. “I’ve been driving in this stuff for nearly fifteen years.” He peeled her hand off of his shoulder, rested it on his lap. “I’m a professional.”

“Uh-huh,” Margot said. She felt the tingling in her stomach again. She squeezed Billy’s thigh.

The road curved sharply, and the car slid again as Billy took yet another sudden turn, this time up a narrow road hardly wider than the Camry. Gone was the yellow pall of the street lamps; beyond the swirling snow now lay nothing but inky blackness.

“The secret,” Billy said, “is to steer into the skid.”

“Okay, how much fucking farther, Billy? I’m seriously freaking out, now.” Margot tugged on the shoulder belt until she felt it lock into place.

“Relax.” Billy laughed.

The car lunged forward up one final incline before coming to a stop a few feet from the bumper of a snow covered Land Rover. He shut off the headlights and, once Margot’s eyes had adjusted, she could see two shafts of warm, sparkling light emanating from the windows of a small chalet at the top of the hill.

Billy smiled and gave her a peck on the cheek. “We’re already here.”

2

Dinner was waiting on the table just as Billy had expected–a small pre-cooked Chicken, a bowl of mashed potatoes, baby carrots, and a salad. Billy could sense his brother, Rob’s, displeasure at their late arrival, but they both loosened up after a couple of glasses of wine. They ate quickly and Rob’s wife, Linda, took Margot up to the loft to show her their room while the couple’s daughters, eight-year-old Maxie and five-year-old Quinn, rushed back to their handheld video games in the living room.

“This snow’s something, huh?” Rob asked. “Must’ve been a bitch to drive in.”

Billy shrugged and poured himself another glass of wine, and then slid the bottle down the table to his brother. “I’ve seen worse. Didn’t get too bad until we got up past Concord. It’s the wind, mostly. I didn’t want to get Margot worried, but, man, it was like a whiteout once we hit the mountains.”

“This her first snow?” Billy asked.

“Her first real snow. I mean, she’s lived in Manhattan for a couple of years, now, so she’s seen the stuff, but nothing like this.”

“Yeah.” Rob took a sip of his wine. “She’s a good girl. Mom would have liked her.”

“Yeah, she is.” Billy smiled. “She’s a lot like her, you know? I mean, not in a Freudian way or anything; just her attitude. She’s a tough chick. Has a mouth like a sailor sometimes.” He laughed.

“So how’s it lookin’,” Rob asked.

“How’s what…? The relationship?” Billy shrugged. “I don’t know, I mean, it’s good. It’s great, actually. But it’s only been nine months, so…”

Rob smiled. “You’ll marry her,” he said. “I can tell.”

“Oh, and how’s that?” Billy asked.

“I just can, is all,” Rob grinned. “I see it in the way you look at each other. I got a gift for that sort of thing, you know?”

Billy finished the rest of his wine. Rob slid the bottle back to him. As he poured himself another, Margot walked into the kitchen and rested her hands on his shoulders. She kissed Billy on the top of his head; her long, curly hair, still damp from the shower, draped over his face. It smelled of lilac and citrus. Billy leaned his head back and gave her a kiss. Her lips were soft and inviting and, in that moment, he knew his brother was right. This was the girl he would marry.

“Am I interrupting boy talk?” She asked.

Billy sighed. “Well, my brother was asking me if we could swap women tonight, and I told him you’d be up for it.”

“Oh really?” Margot asked. “Sounds kinky!”

“Count me in.” Linda shuffled into the kitchen, wearing a pink robe and matching slippers. She had a towel draped around her neck and three different bottles of shampoo and conditioner tucked under her arm. “God knows, I could use a change.”

“That’s nice,” Rob said. “Real class acts, the lot of ya.” He swigged down the rest of his wine and washed his glass out in the sink. “I’m gonna go get some firewood.”

Rob left the kitchen and returned a couple of minutes later in a bulky, white, down jacket and white knit hat. Billy burst out laughing, and that set off Margot and Linda.

“What?” Rob asked, his arms hanging stiffly by his side.

“Need a hand, Michelin Man?” Billy asked.

“Yeah, real funny,” Rob said. “We’ll see who’s laughing on the slopes.”

“I’m pretty sure it’ll still be me, Frosty,” Billy said.

Rob flipped him off as he cracked open the back door and slipped on his gloves. A sudden strong gust shook the house and blew the door wide open. Rob took a step back as an avalanche of snow poured into the kitchen. “Woah!” He laughed, and tried to close the door. “Will you look at this?”

“Oh my God.” Linda grabbed a broom from the closet and handed it to Rob. “There’s got to be two feet out there already!”

“It’s just a drift,” Rob grumbled, as he swept the snow over the threshold.

“Still, you said we were only going to get a few inches!” Linda looked panicked. “If I knew it was going to be this bad…I mean, shit, the roads…we only picked up a few things from the store. I knew we should have gone to Stop & Shop! We don’t have any milk or bread or…”

“Linda, it’s fine,” Rob barked. “I’ll hit the grocery store first thing in the morning, just like I said I would. The Land Rover will roll right over this shit. Believe me, we’ll be fine.”

Margot’s fingers dug into Billy’s shoulders. “I told you we should have stopped,” she whispered.

“Babe, relax,” Billy said. He got up and slipped on his leather coat. “Rob, let’s go get that firewood.”

His brother heaved a sigh, leaned the broom up against the wall, and threw up his hands as he stepped over the drift and out the door. Billy followed, slamming the door behind him. Rob had already been swallowed up by the squall.

“For fuck’s sake, wait up, Rob!” Billy took two steps forward and sank into a thigh-deep drift. He pulled himself free and followed his brother’s tracks around to the front of the chalet. Rob stood at the top of the stairs that led down into the sunken driveway. The light from the chalet windows cut a swath through the night, making the snow that danced around them look like a luminescent swarm of fluttering moths.

Billy looked down into the driveway. The Land Rover was buried up to its headlights, with huge, windswept domes of snow on its hood and roof. Billy’s Camry was completely covered, reduced to a smooth white mound.

Billy turned to his brother. “What are you thinking?”

Rob stood silently for a moment, his eyes shimmering, his face caked with snow and rivulets of snot and frozen tears.

“What am I thinking, little brother?” He asked, his voice nearly lost to the wind. “I’m thinking we’re good and truly fucked.”

3

The weatherman danced in front of a map of the northeast with a mixture of excitement and sheer panic. He pointed at New England–at least what little of it that could be seen beneath the massive animated cloud–and then ran his finger down the entire east coast, stopping at the Carolinas.

“Folks, I can safely say that this is something we’ve never seen before,” he said breathlessly. “This massive system literally came out of nowhere and, in the past few hours, has absorbed several smaller systems riding the jet stream, forming a ‘super storm’ that is now blanketing the northeast. We’re talking hurricane force winds, and snowfall at a rate of several inches per hour; in higher elevations, we could see as much as a foot or more an hour, with no sign of slowing …”

“Yeah, tell us something we don’t know,” Billy muttered. He cradled Margot in his arms. She snored softly, long ago surrendering to the valium Linda had given her. Linda sat next to Billy, equally as doped, but working on her fifth glass of wine nonetheless. Maxie and Quinn lay curled up on the floor beside Rob, who sat Indian style in front of the small television.

The weather-map had changed and now depicted the entire United States. The Great Lakes were obscured by a swirling mass of clouds the size of Texas, while two huge tropical storms book-ended Florida, one in the Atlantic, and one moving up toward the pan handle from the Gulf.

“This is unprecedented stuff, folks. Completely unprecedented. And they’re no better off across the pond, where, we’re told, much of northern and central Europe is experiencing blizzard conditions, with London reporting more than two feet of snow fall in the last three hours.” The weatherman took a deep breath and shook his head and laughed. “This is…it’s a little scary, is what it is.” He looked at his watch and laughed again. “Here we are, thirty minutes away from December 21st 2012. I don’t have to remind most of you what that date signifies. It’s got to make you wonder, right? I mean…”

The camera panned violently and then cut back to the news desk. The anchors–a meticulously coiffed silver-haired man and an overly made-up middle-aged woman–stared slack-jawed at a commotion off camera. After a few seconds of silence, the male anchor regained his composure, looked into the camera, and smiled unconvincingly.

“Dan…Dan is obviously joking, folks,” he said. The reporter paused, his smile wavering, as he held his finger to his ear. “We, here at WCTV, want…to…assure you that…okay, hold on a minute folks. We’re getting some news out of…I can’t make this out. Is somebody going to throw this on the prompt…?”

The image on the screen froze and flickered before giving way to color bars and a droning, high-pitched tone. Rob flipped through the stations and, after nothing but static, test patterns, or no picture at all, switched off the television.

“Satellite dish is probably buried,” Rob said. “With that wind, I’m surprised we had reception as long as we did.” He threw the remote onto the sofa and grabbed his beer off of the coffee table. “I’ll get up there and clean it off in the morning.”

“What if he’s right?” Linda asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“What? What if who’s right?” Rob asked.

Linda’s eyelids fluttered and her head bobbed forward. “The fucking weatherman.” She practically spat out the words. “What if this is it? I mean…you know…it?”

Rob sighed. “Jesus, Linda, you’re half in the bag. Use your head, for Chrissake,” he said. “That’s all tinfoil-hat-wearing bullshit.” He took a hearty swig from his beer and set the empty bottle back down. “A fucking Aztec fairy tale.”

“Mayan,” Billy said.

Rob waved his hands in the air. “Who gives a rat’s ass? Mayan? Aztec? They could be fucking Oompa Loompas for all I care. It’s a bunch of goddamn nonsense that I don’t want to hear about. End of story.”

Rob knelt down and scooped up the girls, one in each arm, and then carried them off to bed. Linda cursed him under her breath, and took another sip of wine. She looked at Billy and offered him a weak smile.

“I’m not stupid, you know,” she said.

Billy nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

“It’s just…why the fuck not, you know? Why is it so impossible?” She reached for the bottle of wine, started to pour herself another glass, and spilt most of it on her wrist. “I mean…it’s happened before…so… what makes us so fucking special, you know?”

Billy steadied the bottle for her.

“Thanks.” She laughed. “I guess I’m just a little…I probably should go to bed.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Billy said, setting down the bottle and wine glass for her. He helped her up from the couch and started to walk her toward her and Rob’s bedroom.

“I’m okay, I’m okay.” She tapped him on the wrist and pulled away. “ I’ll see you in the morning, Billy.” Linda gave him a peck on the cheek. “We’ll probably be laughing about this tomorrow.”

Billy nodded and smiled, and wished he could believe it.

4

Margot awoke to cold blackness and throbbing inside her head, blissfully unaware of her surroundings until she sat up and her feet touched the frigid hardwood floor. With the realization came panic. She frantically patted the bed, hoping to find Billy sleeping next to her, but nothing lay beside her save for the sweater and damp jeans she’d worn on the ride up. She felt for the lamp on the night table and turned the switch, eliciting a loud click and nothing more. She turned the switch again, and again, the anxiety swelling within her.

“Billy?” she called.

There was no reply, just a distant penetrating whine, and a rhythmic, muffled crunch that came from below. Margot stood and fumbled through the darkness toward the dim light that bled in from beneath the door. She wrapped herself in her robe and stepped out into the loft. She could see Linda down in the living room, sitting on the couch and flanked on either side by her daughters. A Coleman propane lamp burned on the table in front of them; the source of the high-pitched drone Margot had heard from the bedroom. She hurried down the stairs and along the hall into the living room.

“Did we lose power?” Margot asked, her breath hanging in the air before her.

Linda nodded and offered Margot a tight, quivering smile. Rob sat on the ottoman, sweat-slicked and breathless, and cradling his head in his hands. His overstuffed jacket lay drying in front of the fireplace; a single log smoldered within it.

The front door was ajar and, through the gap, a pile of slush and snow spilled into the room. The two large windows above and on either side of the door, however, were gray and opaque.

“Where’s Billy?” Margot asked.

Rob didn’t look up. He just pointed at the door. She went to it, the snow crunching beneath her bare feet.

Beyond the door lay a long, ice-blue trench that ascended at least six feet before meeting a roiling dark sky. At the peak, Billy, caked in snow and a shovel hanging over his shoulder, stood screaming silently into the wind.

5

A box of Cheerios, six bagels, a small package of frozen chicken nuggets, five cans of Spaghetti-O’s, and two bags of salt and vinegar potato chips. Those, along with the plate of leftovers from the night before, various sweeteners and condiments left behind by previous tenants, and an energy bar Rob had stashed into his overnight bag, were laid out on the kitchen table before them.

“That’s it?” Billy asked.

“That’s it,” Rob said. “We figured we’d do groceries with you this morning. This was just…stuff from home. Stuff for the kids…” His voice trailed off and tears welled in his eyes.

Billy peered back into the living room. Linda was sleeping on the couch, and Maxie and Quinn were sitting in front of the fire bickering over whose turn it was with the Nintendo DS, and Margot was standing at the front door, holding her cell phone aloft trying to get a signal.

“So what the hell do we do, Rob?” Billy whispered.

Rob raked his hands down his face and sighed. “I’m gonna go for help,” he said. “I’ve got my skis. I can bushwalk back down to the main road. I don’t know; maybe it’s not as bad as the mountain.”

“No,” Billy shook his head. “Fuck that. We should wait…”

“Wait for what, Billy?” Rob asked. “For help? You saw it out there. No one knows we’re here. No one is coming. We’ve got, like, three logs left. After that, we’ll have to start burning the fucking furniture. And this…” Rob motioned toward the table. “This won’t last more than a few days. A week at most.”

“At least wait for the weather to clear,” Billy pleaded.

“We don’t know when that will happen, Billy. It could get a lot worse before it gets better. I…can’t take that chance. Not…not with the girls.”

“Fine. Then I’ll go,” Billy said.

Rob laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“What? I’m younger, and I’m in better shape than you,” Billy said.

“Younger, yes. Better shape?” Rob smirked. “That’s debatable. Either way, I’m the better skier. It just makes more sense this way.”

Billy sighed. His brother was right. He hadn’t tackled anything more challenging than the bunny slope since he was a teenager. Skiing had always been Rob’s forte.

“Look. It’s only a few miles to the main road.” Rob said. “I’ll go; I’ll see what I see and, if I don’t find help, I’ll turn right around. If I leave now, I can be back before nightfall.”

Billy ground his fists into his eyes and groaned.

“Trust me, little brother. I’ve got to do this.” Rob rested his beefy hands on Billy’s shoulders. “C’mon. I want to show you something.”

Billy followed Rob down the hall to his bedroom. They stepped inside, and Rob closed the door behind them. He moved to the other side of the bed and knelt behind it. When he resurfaced, he held a square plastic case, which he placed on the bed. He pulled a small key off of his key ring, opened the box, and turned it toward Billy.

“Jesus, Rob!”

“It’s a beauty, ain’t it?” Rob pulled the Khar 9mm out of its case and handed it to Billy. “Don’t worry. It’s not loaded.”

“Yeah, famous last words,” Billy muttered, as he took the weapon. It was surprisingly light, not that Billy had much experience with guns. “When did you get this? Fuck. Why did you get this?”

“It’s not mine,” Rob said. “It’s Linda’s.”

Billy shot him a quizzical look. “Why the hell would Linda need a gun?”

“There was an incident a few months ago. Nothing major. Just some punks. Made off with her purse, and… well…it shook her up pretty good. We thought…” Rob waved his hands. “It’s not important. I wanted you to know that it’s here. You know; just in case.”

“In case of what?” Billy asked, handing the gun back to him. “In case you don’t come back?”

Rob shrugged. “I don’t know, Billy. Just…just know it’s here.” Rob locked the gun back in the box and put the key in the nightstand drawer. “If push comes to shove, Linda will know what to do. Hell, she’s a better shot than I am.” Rob laughed and slipped the box back under the bed.

“All right,” he said. “I’m going to get ready.”

* * *

Rob stomped through the living room, his ski boots gouging the tile floor. Billy carried his brother’s skis and poles and Maxie’s Dora the Explorer backpack. Margot helped Rob slip into his coat, and Maxie handed him his gloves. Quinn held his hat. Linda was still in the bedroom, crying hysterically, as she had been ever since Rob had told her he was going.

Rob knelt and pulled the girls toward him, squeezing them hard.

“Daddy, you’re crushing me,” Maxie said.

“Me too,” Quinn cried.

“I’m sorry, guys.” Rob planted a kiss on both their heads. “Daddy just loves you both so much. You know that, right?”

The girls nodded in unison, and Rob smiled. “Now I’ve got to go, and I might be gone a while, but I’ll be back.”

“You promise?” Maxie asked.

“I promise,” he said. “Now you guys behave, okay?”

“We will daddy,” Maxie said.

“Can you get us batteries for our Nintendo?” Quinn asked.

“I’ll see what I can do, honey.” Rob stood and looked to Billy, tears welling in his eyes. He pulled his hat down over his ears, strapped on his goggles, and grabbed the ski poles from Billy. “Okay, let’s do this.”

Billy nodded and opened the door. The sky had darkened considerably, and at least another foot of snow had fallen since they’d finished shoveling out the trench barely an hour earlier. Rob started through the door, and Margot grabbed his hand.

“Good luck,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek.

“Watch out for them,” Rob said. He nodded over his shoulder toward Billy and winked. “All of them.”

Rob bounded up the steep incline, and Billy followed, laying out the skis when they reached the top. Rob planted his poles in the snow on either side of him, locked his boots into the bindings, and propelled himself forward a couple of feet.

Billy opened the backpack and pulled out the bundle of shredded fabric he’d made from a day-glo orange fleece he’d brought with him. “Tie one of these to a branch every so often,” he shouted above the wind. “To mark your route.”

Rob laughed. “You’re not nearly as dumb as you look, you know that?” He took the backpack and slung it over his shoulder.

“I threw that energy bar in there, too,” Billy said. “Just in case.”

“Yeah, just in case,” Rob said. He pulled up his poles, grinned, and pushed himself forward. “Leave a light on for me,” he shouted, as he vanished into the squall.

Billy waved, knowing then that it would be the last time he would see his brother.

6

On Christmas Eve, Margot decorated the fireplace with candles and some of the ornaments Linda and Rob had brought up with them. The girls’ stockings were hung from the mantle, a single sleeve of fruit leather in each. Linda had left all the gifts in the Land Rover, so Margot had wrapped a couple of pieces of her own jewelry in the pages from a tattered copy of Life magazine and placed them on the mantle above each of their stockings.

Quinn wolfed down her dinner–a quarter can of Spaghetti-O’s and half of a stale bagel. Maxie only ate a few bites, and set the rest down on the coffee table.

“Can I have it?” Quinn asked.

Maxie shrugged. She hadn’t said a word since the night her father had left. Quinn happily finished off what was left in Maxie’s bowl and then sat back on the couch.

Billy broke down another kitchen chair and threw the legs onto the fire.

“Did you talk to her?” Margot asked “What’d she say?”

Billy shook his head. “She didn’t say anything.”

Margot took him into the kitchen, out of earshot of the girls. “Linda hasn’t eaten a thing in three days, Billy,” she said. “She’s hasn’t even come out of her room.”

“Can you blame her?” Billy snapped.

Margot saw anger in his eyes. She held his face in her hands. “Billy, I…I can’t even imagine what she’s feeling. What you’re feeling. But those two little girls need their mother right now, and she needs to know that.”

Billy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

As if on cue, Linda emerged from the darkness of the hallway, holding a small, flickering candle, her eyes were almost swollen shut and her face was smeared with mascara.

“Linda, I…” Margot started.

“I just thought I’d come get the girls,” Linda said. “Give you two some time alone.”

“Why don’t we all sit in front of the fire for awhile?” Billy asked. “We’ve still got a bottle of wine left.”

Linda’s eyes drifted to the girls on the couch. “No, that’s all right. Really. I…I’d like to be with my babies. You two should be alone.”

“C’mon Linda, don’t be silly,” Billy said. “None of us should be…”

Linda ignored him. “Maxie. Quinn. Come with mommy.”

“But I wanna open presents,” Quinn cried.

“You know we never open presents until Christmas Day,” Linda said. “Now you two come along. Let’s leave Uncle Billy and Auntie Margot be for a while.”

Quinn pouted, as she shuffled past her. Maxie drifted by in silence.

“Can I get you anything?” Margot asked.

A weak smile crept across Linda’s face. “No,” she said. “They’re all I need right now.”

“Okay,” Margot replied. “Well, just let me know if…”

Linda turned and shuffled up the hallway.

Billy put an arm around Margot’s waist and walked her back into the living room. He sat on the couch and pulled her down next to him. She rested her head on his chest and listened to his stomach bubble and growl. He hadn’t been eating either. He told her it was because he was trying to conserve food, but she knew better. He was as crushed by the loss of Rob as was Linda; he was just better at hiding it. Or at least he thought he was.

They sat in silence for awhile, staring at the fire, and then Margot sat up and slapped Billy on the thigh. “I know,” she said. “Let’s open presents.”

“What? Now?” Billy asked. “No, c’mon. Let’s just…let’s wait until morning, okay?”

“I want to give you yours now,” Margot persisted. She grabbed the flashlight from the end table and shone the light at Billy. “I promise, you’ll love it.”

He leaned his head back, threw up his hands, and smiled. “Fine,” he said. “You’ve piqued my curiosity.”

“Just give me a minute,” she said. “And no peeking!”

Margot tiptoed up the hall, pausing outside Linda’s room along the way. A dull light spilled out from under the door; from beyond the door, she heard a gentle rustling and a high-pitched snore. Margot smiled and padded up the stairs to the loft and into their room. She aimed the flashlight around until she found her suitcase; she then hoisted it onto the bed. She rummaged around inside until she found the black Victoria’s Secret bag, and emptied the contents–a sexy-cute satin Santa skirt, matching red bra, and Santa hat–onto the bed.

Until a few minutes ago, sex had been the farthest thing from her mind but, as she’d lain with Billy on the couch, basking in his warmth and mesmerized by the lapping flames, she’d felt a strange urgency, an urgency unlike anything she’d ever felt before.

She needed him.

It wasn’t entirely sexual. She needed to feel that closeness, that connection. She needed to get lost in it and let the feelings take her to another place somewhere far from the pain and the grief and the fear, if only for a few moments.

And she knew he needed it, too. Perhaps now more than ever.

Margot propped the flashlight up against the suitcase and stripped down to her panties. Her nipples stiffened the instant the chill air hit them, and the goose bumps followed. She wedged herself into the form-fitting skirt, and slipped into the bra. As she fumbled for the clasp, a whip-like crack shattered the stillness.

“Billy?” Margot cried.

She grabbed the flashlight, and ran out into the loft. She heard footfalls below, and rushed down the stairs into the hall.

“Jesus, Billy, what was that?”

Billy pounded on Linda’s door. “It’s locked,” he shouted. “Goddamn it, Linda, open the door!”

There was another loud snap, followed by a muffled thud. Billy stepped back and kicked the door, splintering the jamb. He kicked it again. This time the hinges gave and the door fell inward.

Margot shone the flashlight into the room.

Quinn’s body rested face down on the bed, arms by her side, a crimson soaked sheet draped over her head. Maxie lay across the threshold, her dark hair matted to her face; blood from a dime-sized hole in her forehead trickled into a slowly expanding pool beneath her. Linda stood in the corner, eyes shut, head hung to one side. She hummed softly and tugged at the front of her blood spattered nightgown with one hand. The pistol was in the other.

“Linda, please!” Billy shouted. “Give me the gun.”

A manic smile spread across Linda’s face, and her eyes snapped open.

“We’re going to be a family again,” she said.

And, with that, she put the gun barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

7

Billy dragged Linda’s body up the trench, rested it beside the girls, and began to dig three shallow graves in the ice. By the time he’d finished, nature had already claimed the bodies, coating them in two inches of fresh snow. He decided to leave them as they were, so planted the markers–three hastily assembled crosses fashioned from strips of fabric and the spindles from the back of a kitchen chair–in front of each smooth, white mound.

Margot clambered out of the trench and stood beside him. She grabbed his hand and bowed her head.

Billy wanted to say something–anything–but words eluded him. Instead, he found his attention drawn back toward the chalet. The snow had reached the upper windows, obscuring all but the peak and the chimney. The twenty-foot pines that dotted the property appeared to be reduced to the size of saplings. Only their tips poked through the icy crust.

In a matter of days, everything would be buried and, by then, they’d be out of food, out of firewood, just plain out of options.

Billy stared down at the shapeless mounds that formed before him, and wondered if Linda had had the right idea.

8

New Year’s Eve came and went. There was no countdown, no midnight toast, only a long, desperate kiss as they clung to each other, naked beneath a pile of blankets, and watched the last of the cabinet doors go up in flames.

“I love you,” Margot said, her sunken eyes glistening in the firelight.

“I love you, too,” he said.

He caressed her sunken cheeks, kissed her again, and lifted her up onto him. Margot gasped softly in his ear as she wrapped her legs around his waist and took him inside of her, their bodies shuddering in unison as they made love one final time.

9

Margot died on January 5th.

Billy had gotten up early that day and, after a breakfast consisting of a handful of Cheerios and several cups of water spent the morning shoveling out the trench (which, at that point, had become more of a cave). At around 10:00 AM, he noticed that the sky had lightened and the snowing had slowed considerably. An hour later, it stopped altogether.

Billy threw down the shovel and scrambled up to the mouth of the trench, and what he saw caused him to drop to his knees.

Beyond a sea of rolling white hills and dwarfed pines, Mount Washington lay bathed in a shaft of golden sunlight, framed by the bluest sky Billy had ever seen. Shadows danced across the valley as the clouds raced eastward, leaving nothing but clear skies in their wake.

Billy howled and pumped his fists. He jumped back into the trench, sliding down on his backside, and threw open the door.

Margot lay amidst a pile of blankets, her hair draped over her face. He knelt down beside her and squeezed her shoulder.

“Margot, honey,” he said. “You’ve got to see this.”

She didn’t move.

“Margot, wake up!” Billy shook her gently.

Her head lolled back, and her hair fell away from her face. Her eyes were half open and glazed; the side of her face was caked with a dry, greenish foam.

Billy pulled her toward him and, as he did, an empty prescription bottles rolled out of the blankets and into the puddle of acrid vomit and undigested pills that lay beneath her.

Linda’s pills.

Somehow she had managed to take Margot with her.

10

After Billy had buried Margot, he went back into the chalet and gathered his things.

He knew he was going to die. He not only knew it; he accepted it.

But he’d made up his mind that he was not going to die here.

He rounded up the last of the food–the fruit leathers from the girls’ stockings, a cup’s worth of Cheerios, and three frozen chicken nuggets–and stuffed it into the pockets of his ski jacket along with the last two boxes of matches. He made a small fire, melted some snow in a pan, poured the water into three empty wine bottles, and packed the bottles, along with some extra clothes, into his overnight bag. The next morning, at first light, he slung the bag over his shoulder, slid Linda’s pistol into his belt, and clambered out of the buried chalet for the last time.

He stood atop the roof, bathed in the early morning sunlight. He smiled and reveled in its warmth, amazed at how–despite everything–its mere presence offered hope. Snow crunching beneath his feet, he started down the hill, and then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A rabbit darted out from a hummock of snow and froze not more than twenty feet away. The rabbit’s nose twitched, and then it bounded off in the opposite direction.

Billy stared at the valley before him; vast and white and immaculate. He didn’t know what lay beyond it, if anything at all. What he did know was that, up until now, he’d gotten it all wrong.

He’d convinced himself it was the end of the world.

Now he realized it was only the beginning.

James F. Reilly’s writings have appeared in several magazines, including Horror Garage, Apex Digest, City Slab, and Tales of World War Z, as well as the anthologies Gratia Placenti, Undead, Read by Dawn Vol.1, Vermin, and the upcoming Dark Futures from Dark Quest Books. James currently lives in Massachusetts, where he divides his time between feather-dusting his collection of Mandrill skulls and participating in Boer War reenactments. James has a wife and son. Pray for them.

Reilly also runs the popular Horrorview.com website.

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