I don’t know how long I have been waiting to finally get another white Christmas. Longer than I had been unable to see my family over the holidays, that’s for sure. So it definitely felt like a gift when I arrived in Bielefeld with snowflakes dancing in the air. I felt like dancing with them. My luggage held me down though.
Central station wasn’t the most appropriate place to dance anyway. People pushed past me with hurried expressions. I had time. The platform cleared and revealed the faces of my brother, his wife and two children of three children that were already barrelling in my direction.
I managed to catch the twins in a tight embrace before standing and whirling them around. Kevin and Chantal were getting too old and heavy for this fast.
“Terry-tots!” They screamed, too close to my ears.
“Twin-tots!” I shouted back as I sat them back down. Then I mussed up their hair because ritual was ritual. “Look at you! You are almost as tall as me already.”
“You are short,” Chantal declared and took my hand.
This prevented me from picking up my suitcase, so I waited for my brother to save me while I answered rapid-fire questions. Of course I had presents. No, I would not tell them what it was. No, it was not a hippo. Also, no gator. Jason had been very clear about pets. Anyway, they had dust bunnies, did they not?
They bemoaned the fact but tidying up didn’t sound any better. Jason picked up my suitcase and embraced me with the other arm. “Welcome home, Terry. It’s good to see you.”
“Same, Jas.” I hugged him tightly. “It’s been way too long.”
His wife Ellie caught up with Liz on her arm. I had seen the newest additions to the Charleston family exactly once last summer. She had grown. She didn’t remember me. She started crying when Ellie tried to hug me.
I shrugged. “It’s fine. We can catch up later.”
We made our way to the exit, hands full of children’s hands, and suitcases. Snow caught in my hair on the square in front of the station. The lone stand selling Christmas sweets stood to the right. I inhaled deeply as we passed it by, cinnamon, almonds and caramel adding to the festive feeling.
Jason had upgraded to a minivan that easily held all of us. On the way to his house we sang along loud and horribly wrong to the Christmas songs in the radio. The afternoon turned dark and in the headlights the snow looked thick and wet.
* * *
It kept snowing the whole evening and throughout the night. I awoke to a thick layer of snow covering everything. Sipping my tea I looked out of the window. The garden was a white plain with black trees sticking from it, their bare boughs crowned with inches of white.
“I’ll entertain the kids until lunch,” I offered, knowing Jas and Ellie counted on the time to make some sneaky preparations. “There’s enough snow out there to keep everybody busy.”
Jas cleared a part from the patio while Ellie and I wrapped up the children in their warmest clothes.
It became clear soon that Liz did not like snow. As soon as she touched it, she began to wail like a dying seal. But she was happy enough playing on the patio, her red cheeks almost glowing so we built a wide snow circle around her and let her be.
Kevin and Chantal were torn. We were almost done building a snowman when they decided they’d rather have an igloo. Turning a snowman into an igloo was not an easy task. During construction it became clear that there would not be enough snow left for snow angels. So that had to be done first.
Trying to get the snow from their jackets led to a snowball fight. It went well until Kevin to a hit to the face and started screaming. Scared that he was hurt, I hurried over. As glad as I was to find his nose unbroken and no blood in sight anywhere, I wished he would stop screaming. “Kevin, you’re okay, Kevin!”
He looked at me with big eyes and disbelief. Then he clawed at his face with his mittens and took up screaming again as soon as his gloves touched his skin.
I pried his hands from his face, but wiping it with mine didn’t fare any better. Finally, I pulled off my gloves. Kevin’s crying abated as I gently wiped the wetness including tears from his cheeks. “You’re alright, Kevin. Look at me. You’re not hurt.”
He stared at me from big, wet eyes. Chantal joined us, peering at her brother.
“What hurts not?” She asked.
Kevin was snuffling, holding his hands away from his body. After a moment he held them to me and I pulled off his mittens. Reluctantly, he reached for his face. When nothing happened, he rubbed at his eyes with relief.
“Snow is bad.” He wouldn’t touch his gloves and looked unhappy with the flakes clinging to his jacket and trousers.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Chantal raised her own, snow-covered mittens. “In the face?”
Half a second later, I had a second screaming child to deal with. Kevin didn’t look surprised. He just tried to keep as far away from the snow that surrounded us as possible.
Having learnt from my previous encounter, I pried Chantal’s mittens from her face and cleaned it with my bare hands. It wasn’t going as well as it had with Kevin. Probably because my hands had traces of snow still on them from removing the mittens.
I wished Jas and Ellie would come looking but I knew they trusted me. Until one of the kids came running they’d stay out of things. And whatever it was that upset the children, it wasn’t on a level that made the seek out their parents.
Chantal quieted down snuffling. Kevin was still standing still as if that would make the snow on him disappear. Chantal joined him and I was stuck with two pillars of salt.
“It’s just snow.” I scooped up a handful and formed a snowball with my bare hands. It was heavy and sticky, worse than wet. Something cold ran up my back but I ignored it. It was only snow. I held up the finished snowball. “See?”
Chantal and Kevin shook their heads in unison.
I wasn’t going to argue the point. “Alright. We’ll go inside. I’ll make hot milk and you can have a cookie.”
The nods were less enthusiastic than expected. I picked up Liz and followed Kevin and Chantal who still tried to avoid the snow as I herded them around the house to the front door. Even as I peeled them out of their jackets, both were careful not to touch the snow. That got easier as it melted.
By the time we’d leave to get a Christmas tree, their clothes would hopefully be warm and dry again. I draped them over all available heaters and shoved the snow-heavy boots under the shoe rack. Liz decided to fall asleep over this much excitement and I put her into her crib.
When Jas and Ellie came into the kitchen, Kevin and Chantal seemed to have forgotten about their tantrums over milk and cookies. I relayed it shortly but Jas and Ellie shrugged. Kids were strange from time to time.
I touched my hands, remembering the sticky feel of the snow on them. Whatever the kids had, it was rubbing off. That wasn’t a good sign. I went to wash my hands.
* * *
It was already dark when we drove to buy the tree. The snow lit up the afternoon, reflecting the lights from the houses, cars, and street-lamps. Traditionally we bought our Christmas tree on the day before Christmas. That ensured, it wouldn’t start to needle before Christmas began.
It was also tradition to get the weirdest tree available. That ensured there we always found the prefect tree, even on the day before Christmas. The farm lay a little outside the city. The white blanketed everything, with the road little more than a black line winding through it.
The last bit of dirt road had turned into mud and our boots sank deep into the cold sludge as we walked to where the trees ware laid out. Kevin and Chantal were unusually quite. They didn’t dash off. Instead they tried to hide their faces under their hats from the falling snow. The flakes were tiny and got everywhere.
“Kate and Katie will arrive around four,” Ellie brought me up to speed. “Mum will come around six. Then you’ll finally meet Corey.”
Corey was mum’s new dog. The old one had died in spring and I hadn’t visited since early summer when mum had decided to get a new dog. I had seen plenty of pictures, of course, but it wasn’t the same.
We almost fell of Chantal and Kevin who had planted themselves in front of the first tree of acceptable size. “This one,” they declared in unison.
“Have you even looked at the other trees?” I wanted to know.
By the guilty looks they exchanged, they had not.
“I want home,” Chantal said, hunching her shoulders. “
“Well, I want to look at the other trees,” Ellie said. She went past them making a show of looking at the other trees lined up against a fence.
I followed her, trying to shake the feeling that the snow was lying heavier on my shoulders than it should. Jas stayed with Kevin and Chantal, holding Liz on one arm. The owner of the farm came over with punch for us all and a quick chat.
“You think we should go with the kid’s choice in the end?” I asked Ellie.
She looked back at where the children still stood, hunched and emanating the desire to be elsewhere. “I thought they’d cheer up and follow us.” She sighed. “I hope this doesn’t keep up much longer. I can’t remember the least time we had this much snow. I was planning on enjoying it.”
“I have no idea what came over them.” I ran my right through my short hair, removing the snow that started to pile up and thaw onto my scalp. My hand tingled when I retracted it. I curled it around the warm cup. It helped only a little.
We finished out punch and walked back to Jas and the kids.
“You still want this one?” Ellie asked them.
They nodded vigorously. Their cups were still full which was also a bad sign. They never turned down free sweets even if it was punch. We had the tree netted and carried it to the van. The drive home was quiet. The children didn’t want to join us singing Christmas songs. They started their own wailing concert when we tried to sing along to Let It Snow.
Ellie took Liz and I herded Kevin and Chantal while Jas carried the tree around the house to the back door. When I put the shoes away to dry, I found some snow on the floor already. That wasn’t possible. It had to be from now. I scratched my head and put my boots down next to the others. The snow twinkled in the warm light of the lamps.
When I arrived in the living room, Jas had already put the tree into it’s stand. Chantal and Kevin were busy filling it with water, running to the kitchen with small plastic jugs. I helped Ellie unpack the decorations. We didn’t help decorating until Chantal and Kevin were done with the parts of the tree they could reach. Only then did we place the remaining baubles and garlands.
Jas finalised the tree by putting the angel on its top. Then we admired out handiwork and praised the kids for theirs. Since they didn’t want to go outside again, we spent the rest of the day playing inside and watching a Christmas movie before bedtime.
When I arrived in the living room, Jas had already put the tree into it’s stand. Chantal and Kevin were busy filling it with water, running to the kitchen and back with plastic jugs of water. I helped Ellie unpack the decorations. We didn’t help decorating until Chantal and Kevin were almost done with the parts of the tree they could reach. Only then did we place the remaining baubles and garlands.
Jas finalised the tree by putting the angel on its top. Then we admired out handiwork, praising the kids for their taste. Since they didn’t want to go outside again, we spent the rest of the day playing inside and watching a Christmas movie before bedtime. When I went upstairs to read them a bedtime story, I noticed there was still snow clinging to our shoes.
I crouched down and poked it. The snow stuck to my finger. There was more of it under the bench the shoes stood under. I swept it out. When I went downstairs after reading and checked on the shoes once more, there was snow again. At least as much again as I had thrown out before.
I swept it all out again and poured salt over the shoes and under the bench. As I put the bag of salt back into the cupboard, I hoped I was going crazy.
* * *
Kate and Katie arrived just after we put the duck into the oven in another drizzle of fine snow. Over night, the whole city had turned white. Everything was buried under a thick blanket of white. Snow ploughs and salt spreaders kept passing by, doing their best to keep the streets clear. Jas and I took turns shovelling snow and salting the pavement and path to the house.
The snow under the bench had not returned over night. I was ready to believe it had been a figment of my imagination. Still I was happy to see Jas had a second bag of salt ready. I used it very liberally.
Katie looked great despite her advanced pregnancy. Kate hovered at her side ready to help at the drop of a hat. We had coffee and started the dinner preparations. When mum arrived, the kitchen smelled of roasting goose and simmering sauce.
“Where is Corey?” I asked when we hugged. “I was looking forward to seeing him.”
“He wouldn’t go out,” mum said, shaking her head. “No matter what I did. Corey put one paw down in the snow, whimpered and couldn’t be moved. It’s just a few steps to the car. But he wouldn’t budge. So I left him”
We started setting the table, while Kevin and Chantal raced around us with the cutlery, excited to see the burning duck. It took some time to get all bowls and plates arranged on the table with enough space for us to eat. Then Jas brought the duck and Ellie lowered the lights.
The children squeaked in anticipation as Jas poured liquor into a serving spoon and set it on fire. The blue flames danced on the surface until Jas poured it over the duck with a dramatic flourish. We joined the oohing and aahing as the fire danced over the meat.
Jason let the kids talk him into a second round of fire. Then Ellie turned on the lights and started dealing out potatoes, red cabbage, brussel sprouts, and dumplings while Jas sliced the duck and gave everybody some meat and filling. Mum poured the sauce and I poured the wine and grape juice.
It was a merry dinner. There was so much to catch up on and not a hurry in the world. When Chantal and Kevin became antsy, they were served an early dessert of baked apples with ice cream. We ignored them bouncing around, eager to get to their presents.
The table looked as if we had barely stared by the time we finished. I saw days of leftovers ahead. But that was alright on baked apples and ice cream. I didn’t feel as if I would be eating again before next week.
Clearing the table took some time. Ellie packed away the leftovers in orderly boxes immediately. Jas put the dishes into the dishwasher, Kevin and Chantal had a slalom race between our legs. The promise of presents dangled right before their eyes.
I went to check on the boots. Where I had salted the floor, only small puddles of water lingered. In mum’s coat, the snow still clung to the wool. I did not touch it.
“Where’s mum?” I asked when I returned to the kitchen. I was ready to light the candles, sing carols and unwrap the unshapely presents Kevin and Chantal had for me.
“She went outside for a smoke.” We looked at each other and knew it had been way too long for a simple smoke.
Booting up, we stepped onto the porch. There were footprints barely visible in the mounting snow. I looked back and though there was no wind, the white was pressing up against the glass of the floor-length windows of the living room.
We followed the faint trail into the garden. The unfinished snowman was losing even more of it’s shape as snow piled up over it. Behind it, the snow angels were still visible. I glanced at Ellie, but she stared straight ahead.
“Is that-?” Her voice trailed off as she tugged on my sleeve.
I followed her gaze. In the eerily immaculate form of the snow angel, white on white, lay a dark figure. Arms and legs stretched out as if they were about to deepen the angel form in the snow. A cigarette end was smoking feebly in its right hand.
I took a step closer. It was mum. Her white hair was invisible against the snow. Her skin was whiter than ever and snow was coming out her open mouth and eyes. I wanted to rush to her side, wipe away the snow and see if she was still alive. I wanted to run and never look back until I reached a land that knew no snow.
For what felt like eternity, I stood frozen, staring. Then I pulled my eyes away from the dead woman. I took Ellie’s elbows. She was still staring at mum and looked ready to rush to her side. I shook my sister-in-law.
Her eyes focussed on me.
“We must go inside. Now! Do you understand?”
“Good. I will tell the children mum went to look after Corey because he was lonely. You go to Jas. Tell him what happened. Call the police.”
Ellie nodded again. She didn’t resist as I turned her around, though her eyes wanted to linger on the dead body in the snow.
I pushed her towards the house. We left our boots outside, and I closed the door firmly behind us before giving Ellie a last nudge towards Jason.
“Where is Gran?” Kevin accosted me almost immediately. “We want to open the presents.”
“Now!” Chantal joined her brother
I crouched down. “Gran had to go to Corey. He was lonely without her and made noise. Her neighbours called.” I reached to muss up their hair and hoped that the ensuing fight glossed over any problems in the story.
“You can go to Kate in the kitchen and tell her to get the matches, okay? We light the candles and soon you can have your presents.” I still smiled as they rushed off. It was hard to remove the stuck facsimile of an emotion from my face.
I stood and walked to Katie. She was sitting in the comfy chair, her back to the windows. I crouched down at her side, too, relaying what had happened. She looked at me with scared eyes, one hand protectively covering her belly.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I said. “But it’s not normal.”
I glanced to the glass door. Snow was piling up against it too. It should be impossible. The balcony above protected the porch from direct snowfall and there was no wind to move it towards the glass. Still our boots were buried already.
Kate came in with the children and matches. I smiled at her as I went to look for Ellie and Jas. “Talk to Katie when you have a moment alone,” I said as we passed each other. I wasn’t able to answer her questioning look with anything but a warning glance at Kevin and Chantal.
“You make sure you only set the candles on fire, okay?” I gave them both stern looks. They nodded, too excited to feel anything amiss.
I found Ellie and Jason in the guest room. They were huddled before the computer, their phones both calling out with nobody answering.
“We can’t reach the police,” Ellie said. “We can’t reach anybody, the network is down.”
Jason put his arm around her shoulders and looked up from the screen. “Internet is also limited. Says here that massive snowfall is hindering transmissions. Towers are down, cables broken. That kind of thing.”
“We can’t just leave her lying there like, like-” Ellie’s voice broke and she buried her face against Jason’s shoulder.
“We can entertain the kids with the unwrapping of their presents while you go to the station.” I looked at Jas. “It’s just a few blocks, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “I can be back within half an hour.”
Ellie made sad and upset noises. But since she had no better plan, we decided to go with it.
Jason got up and cast a last glance at his mobile. “I’ll try to keep you updated, but,” he shook the useless item.
I helped Ellie up and we walked back into the living room together.
“Dad is getting Gran,” Ellie lied as we dimmed the lights. The tree shone with candles, bathing the living room in warm light. “He said we can start unpacking already, but only if we leave his for him.”
Chantal and Kevin stormed to the parcels piled under the tree with glee.
“Singing first,” Kate reminded them sternly.
There were a few murmurs of protest, but no actual resistance. As usual, we sang speedruns of Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. When we were done and the kids could finally tear at their presents, I stepped to Ellie’s side.
“Did you hear the car start up?”
She shook her head. We looked at each other for a moment, then turned and went to the front door. It was slightly ajar. I swept snow away that was starting to pile up against all laws of physics on the front stairs. Then I grabbed the bag of salt and liberally poured it all over the path as we went.
The van was still parked at the side of the road. The pavement was covered with an unbroken blanket of snow I salted away as we approached. The driver’s door stood open and I had to pull Ellie back with all my strength.
“Jason!” He scream came from behind both of her hands.
Jason was sitting behind the wheel, snow piling up in the foot space. His hands were clasped around the wheel, his skin white as mum’s had been. And as with her, snow was pouring from his mouth and eyes.
Ellie struggled to reach her husband, but I knew that as soon as she touched my brother, there was no going back. “Ellie! Ellie!” I shouted until she acknowledged my existence.
Her eyes were wide and tears gathered in them. “What-“
Her question was interrupted by the shouts of Kevin and Chantal.
“Who let them out?” I whispered.
She shook her head. “Gran got the skies.”
After a moment of shock, we raced to the house. Snow was already up the stairs again, creeping towards the door. Ellie didn’t stop, dragging more snow with her as she ran straight into the living room. The door to the porch was wide open.
The shouts from Kevin and Chantal sounded as if they came from far away. As if they came through a wall of now.
“Oh no.” I murmured.
“What is going on?” Kate asked. “Katie just told me about Gran.”
“It happened to Jason too,” I said before Ellie could stop me. “I don’t think the kids should be out in the snow.”
The snow emphasised my words by finally pouring into the living room.
“Impossible,” Kate breathed.
I decided that I didn’t care what was possible. We had to leave. Now. The snow had been behaving strange for too long.
“Get Katie ready to leave,” I told Kate. Then I turned to Ellie.
She had taken Liz, holding the baby close to her chest as she stared at the open door. “I have to get them.”
How did you tell a mother that she cannot? The snow had reached the Christmas tree. We looked at each other.
“Ellie.” I tried to be gentle.
“I have to.” Her arms tightened around Liz so much that she started to cry. “They are my children.”
They were also likely dead. “Ellie,” I tried again.
But it was too late. She had already taken off out the door into the snow.
I shook my head and joined Katie in the hall. “Where’s Kate?”
“Gone ahead to clear and start the car.”
I nodded. “Good thinking. Here.” I poured salt over her and over me, then gave her the half empty bag. I took the reserve bag, cut it open and poured our way towards their car. It was cleared of snow, the motor running. I poured salt over it liberally when I noticed, Katie didn’t get in.
Following her line of sight I almost screamed. Running around the car, I dropped the salt to take her head between my hands. It took some force to make her look at me. Behind her, at the open car door of Jason’s van stood Kate. Frozen, snow coming from her mouth and eyes as her hand rested on the car and she had bowed slightly as if to speak with Jas.
“Katie.” I tried to drill my eyes into her. “Do you want to live, Katie?”
She didn’t reply and I had to repeat myself a few times. Finally her eyes focussed on me. “Do you want to live, Katie?”
She shivered and put both arms around her belly.
“Then get into the car. Now!” I pushed her and to my surprise she moved. Like a marionette on broken strings, but Katie climbed into the car. I poured salt over her boots and into the foot space of the passenger seat.
I kept pouring salt over the car as I went around it before filling my own foot space with the last of it. Because I couldn’t help it, I put on the seat belt before setting the car back. When I turned on the lights they hit Kate. She turned her head to stare directly at us with snow-filled eyes.
Katie screamed almost as loud at the car as it jump-started into the middle of the lane. Snow fell again, big clingy flakes that didn’t entirely wipe away with she wind-shield wipers. I drove as fast as I dared under the flickering street lights. Some were buried under too much snow and had stopped working.
There was nobody else on the street. Not a single car, not a single person. The snow kept falling, reflecting the light there was in shades of magenta. It dragged at the wheels, clinging like mud, slowing us down. I accelerated a little, hoping not to run into another car.
Suddenly, I felt a tug on my sleeve. I glanced to the side, but Katie wasn’t even looking at me. She stared out the window, her eyes wide and blank.
“The doors,” she whispered, “the doors are all ajar.”
I slowed down, peering at the houses on my side of the street. She was right. Every door was slightly open. And snow piled up against each of them and into brightly lit hallways. I put the pedal to the metal. Forget about safe. If we didn’t get ways soon, we wouldn’t get away at all.
I turned onto a bigger street, going faster than allowed by far. Several speed cameras went off; the price of staying alive. I was shivering, hurtling down the four-way lane towards the highway all on my own.
Katie was trying to find a radio station, but all she got was screeching static.
I breathed a first sigh of relief when we reached the highway. It was almost empty and I bet my life that the few cars on it had come from Gütersloh and beyond. I accelerated until the car rattled and bounced. Katie held on to the handhold over her head in silence.
The snow fell thick. I drove almost blind until Herford. When we reached Bad Eilsen, the snow wasn’t much more than a dusting on the trees, not enough to light up the night. Katie found a radio station. A news anchor was reporting a state of emergency throughout Bielefeld that seemed swallowed in snow. All efforts to breach the silent white failed.
I looked at Katie. She had her eyes closed. Dried tear trails shimmered on her cheeks. “Do you want to go home?”
She opened her eyes and shook her head after a moment.
I nodded. “There’s a motor way service area ahead.”
Her mouth tightened into a line but she nodded.
Well, Bielefed is ahead of us on this one at least, the radio host joked over the first beats of Dreaming of a white Christmas.
Katie’s hand shot out, punching the radio into silence as I set the indicator.