The storm of the morning of December twenty-sixth was predicted by no meteorologist. We had no time to prepare.
In the still-dark hours, I woke to the ghostly light of moon and stars reflected off snow. The radio, left on overnight to serenade us with lingering Christmas carols, now played only static. It was frigid in the house. Outside, nearly a foot of snow had fallen.
I ventured out to the barn to check on the cows. My boots crunched through the thin layer of ice that kept the powder beneath from stirring—although it seemed the storm’s fury had long passed, and not a breath stirred the air. The barn doors cracked and groaned as I opened them. Snowdrifts blocked the way, and the wood was frosted over. By the time I forced my way inside, the cold had infiltrated my heavy clothing and begun stinging my skin.
The barn was empty. No cows. Not even the frozen corpses I’d feared to discover.
I left the barn and gazed out across the blank distance. Virgin snow glowed, save for the dark, wavering trail of my footprints. Nothing else marred the expanse. Not a trace of hoof or boot aside from my own.
They must have fled before the storm. Sensed it coming and broken out of their stalls, and the snow covered their trail. It was the only explanation I could think of. How would I find them? I couldn’t search on foot, and although my truck could probably handle the roads, I doubted it would get me far in the fields. The cows wouldn’t have stayed in the fields anyway; they’d have sought the shelter of the woods, where my truck definitely couldn’t go.
With nothing else to be done, I returned to the house. It was still dark. Not even a paling of the eastern sky to betray the rising sun. The radio still filled the house’s hollow spaces with static. I left it on, hoping the signal would eventually clear up and bring us word of how the storm had impacted the rest of the world. The others were still asleep.
The lights didn’t work. I tried the kitchen first, then the living room. Nothing. Yet the radio continued to play, its static following me from room to room like a muttering shadow. Now and then I caught hints of garbled words, spoken in a low voice, calm and level.
“…nd…shua set…welve stones in…idst of…Jordan, in the pla…”
That was impossible. The radio ran off the same circuit as the kitchen lights. Unless all the bulbs had blown during the storm…
I checked some of the other electronics. The digital clocks seemed to work—that is, their displays all flashed at me, all showing the same time, 6:33, never changing no matter how long I watched them.
The radio and the clocks. Nothing else seemed to have power.
Not even the electric stove. This alarmed me at first, then I realized I wasn’t hungry. When the time came, we could light the fireplace and cook over open flame. The refrigerator was dead, but we could move all the perishables outside to keep them cold.
Phones were out too, both the land line and cell. There was no way of reaching the outside world except going out into it ourselves.
The plows hadn’t hit our road yet, but as I’d noted earlier, my truck could probably make it through. I had to try. Announcing my departure in case any of the others could hear me, I set out once more through the cold to my vehicle.
The engine didn’t respond when I turned the key. The dashboard didn’t even light up, so the battery was dead as well. The thought of diagnosing and fixing the problem in the bitter cold was unappealing to say the least, so I sat behind the steering wheel and debated my next course of action. Beyond the windshield stretched an endless white field. I could see my trail between the house and the barn, and my more recent trail from the house to the truck. But aside from that: purity. So smooth it seemed like polished marble. So bright it blurred my vision. I averted my gaze upward, toward the black sky, and my breath caught.
The stars! No wonder the snow was so luminous. Pinpricks of cold brilliance, like holes poked in a black veil, allowing some overwhelming power to shine through. They were sharp and far too close. Their thousand pointed gazes seemed to be directed at me, pressing against the windshield, threatening to pierce the glass with their keen light.
It hurt my eyes. Not like the burning ache of looking into the sun, but the pain of razors held against skin. I had to get away from it. I left the truck and hurried back to the house, slamming the door against the ethereal landscape and the alien stars. Now I was alone with the blinking clocks and hissing radio. Alone, but not for long; I could hear the others stirring now. The singing sigh of my wife. The gentle, pattering feet of my children.
In case they wanted breakfast, I went about lighting the fireplace. Then I went to the kitchen for some eggs.
The refrigerator, like the barn, was empty.
I shut the door and opened it again. Not possible. Unless…unless my wife had woken during the night, during the storm, and preemptively moved all the food.
I started to call for her, but then noticed the house was quiet again. Even the radio static was gone. The silence pressed against my mouth and held it shut. I crept from the kitchen toward the bedrooms. I stopped at the master first; the bed was vacant. I checked the kids’ rooms next. Their beds were neatly made, but empty, like the barn and the refrigerator. But I’d heard them running around; they had to be here somewhere. I finally managed to open my mouth and call out.
The response was distant, and not what I expected. A low hum, like the dying echo of a large bell, rumbled through the air. It pulsed, rising in volume and depth, fading again, returning even louder than before. My knees shook, and soon I was on the floor. I tried to crawl, but my limbs felt so heavy. Numb. I lay there until the humming faded away completely. As it did, the radio slowly crackled again, and feeling spread through me.
I found my feet and stood there, sweating. After several minutes, the rapid thump of small feet reached my ears from the direction of the living room. A woman singing softly. I started walking in that direction.
My path took me by the radio, and I paused. Beneath the static, a matter-of-fact voice was speaking.
“…illed the suspect…ubsequent search of…ouse reveal…”
A news story, but nothing about the storm.
I came to the living room and stopped at the threshold. The room was just as my wife kept it, clean and tidy. But empty. No children running about. No mother watching over them. Just a vacant room highlighted in the cold light of the stars through the window.
What time was it? The clocks couldn’t be right. Still no sign of morning on the horizon.
Then something caught my eye, something in the field outside. I hurried to the window for a better look. In the center of the vast blankness of undisturbed snow, something stood. Something short, dark, and misshapen. It hadn’t been there during my treks to the barn and the truck—I knew this because my footprints passed directly through it.
I waited for it to move, holding my breath so as not to fog up the glass. The thing remained motionless. What was it?
Curiosity—no, something stronger; a primal need to solve this problem—drove all else from my mind as I ran outside. I didn’t even bother to throw on my coat. I plowed through the snow and stopped, breathless, before what I now saw was a pile of stones.
Nothing more sinister than that.
I laid my bare hand against the rock, felt its frigid, rough surface. Nothing so unusual, except for the mystery of its appearance. I scanned the ground in the immediate area, confirming what I’d observed from the living room window. Aside from my own footprints, nothing disturbed the snow. No other tracks merged with my own. Whoever had set up these stones must have used my trail from earlier.
My eye was drawn upward toward the stars. As before, they glared down at me. Never before had I seen stars such as these. Desperate for something normal, I searched for familiar constellations: Orion, the Little Dipper. But the harsh lights above were scattered in no recognizable pattern.
I shivered, and not for the cold. Turning my back on the pillar of stones, I headed back toward the house—
But my path was blocked by a second pile.
The brightness of the snow began to blur my vision, and I blinked furiously. All that unbroken snow, glowing like the surface of a dim star—
Then I noticed something. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, noting the field of flawless white around the pile. No footprints. No marks of any kind.
Not even the ones I’d made on my way out to investigate.
They were just gone.
Weakness overcame me. My legs gave out and I collapsed in the snow. I couldn’t even feel the cold. Above me, the stars seemed to sing, that distant, ringing hum. At times it was so deep I thought it would shake me apart; at others, so high it was like a knife through my skull. And though I wanted to escape it, I could not move, as if my body was dead, my mind a prisoner in a husk of inanimate matter.
When the sound finally subsided, I whimpered and pulled myself back to the house. As I shut the door behind me, I chanced to look back on the white field.
Half a dozen stone piles looked back at me.
The radio’s static was a welcome, familiar noise after that. I pulled a chair up next to the device and sat there, waiting. Waiting for the sun to rise, waiting for my family to appear, waiting for an explanation to present itself.
“…olice are now…firming the suspect’s ident…the husb…nd father…”
I stared at the radio. Why was it talking about this, instead of the storm that must have crippled half the county? Or was the storm more isolated than I thought? Was it just my hilltop farm, buried and cut off from the rest of the world?
It was a terrifying thought. If no one else knew of the storm, and I had no way of getting out, how long would it be before anyone thought to check on us? How long would our food last, if I could even find our food?
Where was my wife? She had to have moved it. It was somewhere out there, buried under the trackless snow. I’d find her and make her tell me.
I started my search anew. Living room, kitchen. In the bedrooms I tore the blankets off the beds and emptied the closets. No sign of anyone. They couldn’t have gone outside because I would have heard the door, I would have seen their footprints in the snow.
Just to be sure, I looked out a window.
More of those stone piles had appeared; easily a dozen of them now cluttered the field.
It had to be the kids. It was the only explanation. They were covering their tracks somehow, playing some game.
The thought of going out once more beneath those hellish stars made my skin shrivel, but I was angry now. I stormed outside, went to the nearest pile, and shoved it over. Stones rolled over each other and spread out against the whiteness. I kicked until not one rock remained atop another. Then I threw my head back and shouted their names. They would hear me, whether they were inside or out.
My own voice echoed back at me from the distant trees and hills. It seemed to bounce off the sky itself, that awful black sky with its leering stars. The sound made me feel small and adrift. If I could just hold the hand of someone, some other living thing, I might have an anchor. But alone, those stars seemed like a billion glowing mouths, sucking at the earth, drawing me out of my body and into annihilation.
I picked up one of the scattered rocks and hurled it at the stars. An irrational attempt at self-preservation? An experiment? I couldn’t say what possessed me to do it or what I hoped to accomplish.
I only knew that after the stone was lost to my sight, I was afraid.
Yes, I’d been frightened before that moment, frightened of the snow and the stars and everything that was missing. But now, as my missile pierced the empty darkness between me and the heavens, I felt its ripples stir the air. Air that needed to be still and silent. I felt like a fly that had disturbed only a single thread, and in so doing shaken the entire net and called down the spider.
I quietly made my way back inside. I had barely shut the door when that humming started again. Anticipating it this time, I sank to the floor and began to whimper. My limbs went stiff—I didn’t even try to move them this time. Heaviness settled over me, and it became hard even to breathe. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for that painful noise to end. It went on and on, longer than before.
The radio static pulled me back. My clothes were soaked with sweat, and my mouth was sticky. I must have been lying on the floor for hours.
But it was still dark outside.
I tried to interpret the voice from the radio as I sat up: “…in the master bedroom…gaged police in…brief gunf…amily found in the basem…”
The half-understood words sparked a realization. There was one place in the house I hadn’t yet searched. We kept the cellar locked so the kids wouldn’t hurt themselves on the stairs. It was still locked, but after everything else that had happened so far, this possibility didn’t seem so strange.
The radio’s crackling voice followed me as I took the key from its hook in the kitchen and opened the cellar door.
“…amuel…ook a stone and set…up betw…”
That predatory alertness from outside hit me again. Something in the air was angry. I could feel it pressing in against the outside of the house, and more strongly rising up from the darkness of the basement.
I tried to call my wife’s name, but only a sick, high-pitched sound escaped my throat.
Pattering footsteps. They drifted up the stairs, spun about the house, up the walls, across the ceiling. Was it footsteps at all, or something else? I pictured an otherworldly being, hidden behind the veil of night, knocking at the borders of the world in search of an opening.
As I shut the cellar door, no longer willing to search the depths for my missing family, a rotten, metallic odor wafted into my nostrils.
I locked the door and set my weight against it. It wasn’t footsteps I’d been hearing. Not singing. My family was gone, like the cows and the food and the electricity. Gone and replaced by clocks that flashed the same time over and over again, malignant stars, piles of stones that rose of their own accord. I was alone with this strangeness, my only company the hissing radio that once more crackled with the ghost of a reporter’s voice.
“…stimates time of…murders at…ix thirt…”
I turned away from the basement and toward the radio, then swallowed hard.
On the floor, between me and the kitchen counter, stood a pile of stones.
“…ehold, thi…stone shall be…witness against…”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get to the bottom of everything, and to start I had to establish some connection to the outside world. No phones, no truck, no power. The only other way I could think of was to bundle up and walk the two miles to my nearest neighbor. If they were as cut off as I was, then maybe together we could walk all the way into town.
I left the crackling radio behind and layered myself in as many undergarments as seemed practical before pulling on my boots, coat, hat, and gloves. Then I emerged from the house once more and faced the starlight.
I tried not to look at the piles of stones that stretched beyond sight across the field. I kept my eyes focused in the direction I was heading. I made it to the road and turned east. Two miles. In snow this deep, probably an hour’s walk. The one blessing, I thought as I began my trek, was that the same stars that burned my eyes illuminated my path perfectly. As long as I didn’t look up, I could pretend it was just a normal, clear winter night. As long as I didn’t look to the right or left where those pillars of stones rose like silent judges…
They lined the road on either side, gathered in random clusters. Six here. Three there. Another group of three. A pause, and then six again.
I picked up my pace. The snow resisted me, but I lifted my feet high and bounded down the road. Stones sped by, piles beyond count, consuming the snow-covered ground. I could hear their voices, groaning grinding cracking like gunshots and wailing like a distant bell and suddenly I was on my face in the snow, hands clutched over my ears to block out that agonizing hum, the voice of the stars. Beneath it I could hear their screams; but they hadn’t had time to scream so it couldn’t be a memory it had to be real but it couldn’t be because they were—
And the night was silent again. I rose to my feet and looked around me.
The road was filled with stones. Left and right, ahead and behind. A labyrinth of rocky pillars and snow and the over-arching alien sky. I looked back the way I’d come, and although I could see the horizon like a razorblade where snow met space, I could not see my farm. Ahead, although the atmosphere was painfully clear, I could not see my neighbor’s house. I should have been able to see one or the other.
I was disoriented. Yes, that was all. If I just kept walking, I’d find civilization eventually. I was cold, but not deathly so. My many layers served me well. I wasn’t hungry either. That was probably a result of my focus, of trying to solve the mystery, of the urgency of my mission.
Stay calm. There would be an explanation in the end.
I brushed snow off myself and continued walking. Walking walking walking. My boots crunched and crunched and I saw them sink into the snow, but if ever I chanced to look back I saw no trace of my passage, no footprint or scuff. Only more piles and pillars and jumbles of stones in patterns that I insisted were random even though my brain kept picking out six three three. In a sea of random configurations, of course there would be one or two occurrences of that particular sequence. It wasn’t a repeating pattern, just the same pattern, because although my feet rose and fell and my legs burned from marching through the snow, I wasn’t moving. That’s right, I was marching in place, I had to be, that’s why I left no footprints. And the way the stones seemed to swim past me in the never-ending night was just a hallucination. If I could only make my feet move forward then I could put that single, anomalous pattern behind me and not have to think about it or my empty house or the not-so-empty basement—
“Stop staring at me!” I shouted at the stones. Throwing my head skyward I shouted again, “Stop staring!”
My voice echoed back at me, twisted and deepened and bell-like. The sound of it ground against my ears, ground and ground away and the pain of it sent me sprawling once more. Not my voice; the voice of the stars, of whatever brilliant thing hid up there and let its glory show through tiny pinpricks in the black veil, tiny yet still powerful enough to crumble my bones with only a whisper. Make it stop make it stop make it stop. I reached for the nearest pile and took a stone and bashed it against my ear. Anything to stop the noise, to stop the pain.
But the voice was too overpowering. Compared with its vibrations, the impact of rock on skull was nothing. No matter how hard and how insistently I pounded, I could feel nothing, nothing, nothing. Not even when something gave and the rock came away sticky, not even when the snow around me turned pink—
The voice faded away and I was left. Left staring at the bloody stone in horror. Left fingering the uneven, jagged terrain of my head. Finding the moist border of skin overlaid against something slick and hard, here a sharp edge, there a mass of something bulbous and soft.
And yet I stood. I rose on shaking legs and looked down at everything I had spilled, felt the lightness and faint throbbing in my head. I understood and yet didn’t.
Best not to think about it. I still had my mission. Still had to find someone.
I turned eastward and continued walking down the road, through the maze of stone pillars. I walked for hours. Maybe days.
And still I’m walking. I don’t believe morning is ever coming. I don’t believe I’ll ever find my neighbor’s house, or even a break in the landscape which has become a flat and eternal sheet of white around me. I keep going because what would I do if I stopped? I’ll keep walking until something changes, until I forget why I refuse to turn around and go back home. Will I ever forget? I don’t think I will. And so I will walk forever, between the stones and under the watching gaze of malevolent stars.