It came in the night, somewhere between December tenth and eleventh. No one saw it coming. It was a sneak attack.
We played chess before going to bed. Denise won, as usual, but this time in fewer moves. Either she was getting better, or I was getting worse. She only quipped that she was playing for two now.
So I closed my eyes on a perfect world. Denise, and the child she carried, slept curled up beside me, and the house which I had always loved so much was finally my home. It seemed to settle in all around us, warm and safe. It was not a night to think of ghosts. Instead, I feel asleep and dreamed of the future.
The snow came softly, in its way; a light dusting from a black sky. It fell half-heartedly, in short, whirling flurries, only a shadow, a prelude, of future storms. But it was the first, and with faltering feet, with it winter took its first steps.
So I opened my eyes on a gray and featureless sky, frowning on me through the bedroom curtains. Then, I heard a dry, hacking bark from the other room.
Instinctively I rolled over, groping the empty place where Denise was supposed to be. Finding it cold, I pushed myself up, groggily trying to rub the sleep from my eyes.
For a moment, I found myself stunned, staring through the window out into the yard. My heart started to beat a little faster. In all my life of coming here, this was the first time I had seen this familiar view blanketed in white. Something so familiar had been made strange, an alien landscape as remote as the surface of another world.
Coming back to the here-and-now, I stood, padding across the wooden floorboards. The air was cold all around my arms and torso, and I rubbed myself briefly to warm up. I followed the hacking sounds through the kitchen, into the living room.
Denise was stretched out on the old sofa, covered in nothing but a thin and flimsy blanket. The fireplace was filled with cooling ashes, and a chill hung over the room. It was clear that she had been here awhile.
Her eyes had a blank stare, devoid of any recognition, as they skimmed my face. She seemed to still be dreaming, or even drugged. I kneeled beside her and took her ice-cold hand. Her face looked weary and pale.
She started coughing again, a dry bark that shook her shoulders. It seemed painful; she winced every time.
“Honey? What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
She nodded, slowly. “Yeah…but I think I’ve come down with something.”
Her voice sounded raw. “No wonder. What are you doing out here, sleeping in the cold?”
She shook her head. “I feel cold, and my throat really hurts.”
I pressed my hand against her forehead checking for fever, but it too was icy. “You don’t seem hot. Do you want me to get the thermometer?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s okay. But maybe some tea?”
“Sure. Hang on”
I fumbled around the kitchen, making the tea. For some reason, Maria’s ghost was hovering close over me. I had installed the gas stove I was now using, but I suddenly recalled the old wood-burning stove she always used to cook with. Her presence seemed so utterly real to me in that moment I almost forgot she was dead.
But Denise was coughing again, so I hurried, burning myself a little on the kettle. That cough definitely did not sound healthy.
“Here you go,” I said, propping her up with some pillows and handing her the tea. I pulled over the piano bench, where my uncle Stephen used to play, and sat down beside her. Outside, it had started flurrying again.
“Snow,” she said, sipping the tea. “I guess it’s here at last.”
I nodded absentmindedly, puzzled by her expression. She was staring blankly out into the yard, her eyes distant, focused on an object outside the room.
“Why did you sleep out here, honey?”
She lowered her cup a little. “I…can’t remember.”
I followed the line of her vision out the window, towards the old oak tree.
“I was dreaming about something.”
“What was it?”
“I forgot,” she replied, her voice so small I barely heard it. I had the disturbing feeling that she did remember, but it was something she didn’t want to talk about.
Unwisely, I let it go. And that was my first mistake.