James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

THE ICE DAY (Featured Short Story)

Here’s another in a series of previously unpublished stories I thought I’d offer to my blog readers. This exercise in apocalyptic horror comes from about ten years ago when I sat down one day and said, let’s write a Stephen King-style short like I might have read in Night Shift, an early example of King’s collections of shorter works.

While I didn’t really send this one out on submission more than a time or two, I recall reading this once to an American Lit class in which I guest lectured, and they all seemed to dig it. A few months ago I gave it a slight revision, added some detail to make it feel more contemporary, and decided today that some of my readers might enjoy this attempt at genre writing.


THE ICE DAY

James D. McCallister

Georgiana Montgomery, shivering and jiggling as she danced across and into the tiny bathroom—her pink panties and oversized baseball jersey provided little warmth against the cool Carolina morning. Except that it wasn’t wintertime, it was May. What was it doing so cold in the house? She remembered that one year that it snowed after Easter, but that’d been when she was a girl, the early 70s. Ages ago.

After she tinkled, she put on her rob and stepped into a pair of flattened, filthy old slippers that had once been fluffy. The radiator sat in a hallway in the middle of the old place, and somehow the heat was supposed to make its way to the four corners of the small domicile’s rooms, but having gone to bed with it nearly 65 degrees outside, the radiator wasn’t on. At least the heater sat just outside the bathroom door: So long as one left it open, a reasonable degree of comfort could be had, if not exactly privacy.  Georgiana was frustrated at such trade-offs in life. She got it going and stood there trying to warm up her hands.

She stole a glance back over her shoulder at the lump that was her current life-partner, slumbering and snoring through another drunken night, a great dent on the other side of the old mattress. The great mound of pink flesh sweated under the electric blanket like a piece of meat slowly baking in its own rancid juices.

Georgiana gagged as she made her way through the piles of dirty clothes on the bedroom floor, thinking of the way her boyfriend Ernie Abel’s breath would smell upon waking—after the latest blow-up they’d had the night before, she hoped against hope that Ernie wouldn’t want to ‘make up’ this morning. He’d probably have beer-dick anyway, and once he woke up would only need to pee really bad. If so, that’d be one body function for the best, least as far as Georgie was concerned.

She frowned and fiddled with the small countertop television set in the kitchen. Nothing but static came over all the channels, of which there weren’t but three and a half to begin with. She swore she was going to get one of those satellite things one day, since hell would freeze over before cable made it out this far in the sticks. That would just be another bill to pay every month though, and the money was tight—as it always had been for her.

Georgiana went out onto the deck of the small house and surveyed the countryside that rolled away, rows of spindly pine trees dropping needles all year round—there had been very little rain for a few years, now.

Today might be different, though: The sky was battleship gray, the cloud ceiling so low and ominous it was as though the dawn had stalled out halfway.  The streetlamp in the backyard over the storage building was still on, glowing in the mist. The air wasn’t as cool as she expected, maybe sixty degrees, and it was heavy with moisture.

Rain soon, she thought. A nasty-ass day.

#

The Montgomery place had been there for longer than anyone could remember; Georgiana was born there, and her own mother had died there a few years earlier after a massive, unanticipated stroke; Georgie Montgomery—she’d gone through a teenage girl spell wherein she wanted to be ‘Monty’ instead of ‘Georgie,’ but it’d never took with anybody—swore when she was a teenager she’d never live way out here again, not after all the years of boredom and yearning for something more interesting than Hampton Hill High School boys and pancake suppers over at Gethsemane Holiness. But after Mama died—Daddy had already gone after getting cancer, almost ten years before—Georgie felt she had no choice but to move back. Especially after the last marriage had come unraveled. Hoo-boy.

The worst part was that this time it had been her own fault, which gave her all the more reason to exile herself into the backwoods of Edgewater County:  penitence and solitude, she’d always heard, had a way of cleansing the soul of past indiscretions. After all the myriad ways in which she’d been hurt, this time it was she who had behaved as though she’d learned nothing; twas she who’d gone and done the very things that had been her emotional undoing: One morning she took a notion to be cruel to her ex, Sean-Paul, and had done something about it, too, spreading her legs for the first willing man that came along, getting high and beer-buzzed and getting her freak on—not with a stranger, but an old boyfriend, so it hadn’t been too terribly daring, she supposed, but no less hurtful when Sean-Paul found out.

Later on, she had a flash and realized that at that point she and Sean-Paul had been happy for months—and that she must’ve thought it was a dangerous place to be, this happiness, so she took some action. She went ahead and made something bad happen, so that this time, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Get it over with, and all—be in control, for once. She felt stupid about it now, but there was no going back: Sean-Paul’s heart had been broken. She tried to forget the hurt look on his face when he walked in on her and the man, Buddy Lawler, as they were going at it, but couldn’t. Right when Sean-Paul come in, Buddy was coming. Hard. Giving it to her. How awful. What a thing to do to her husband. Hell, that’d been some number of mistakes ago, so she hadn’t the foggiest why it all deviled her on this po-faced old rainy day. Or whatever was about to happen.

She went back in, shivering against the damp. Put on the coffee and then tried the television one more time. Nothing. That if that wasn’t weird, nothing was.

“Sugar,” Ernie called out through a wet belch. “Come on back to bed for a minute r’two. Daddy’s sorry about last night. Let’s make up . . .”

#

The television stations never came back on. The clouds got darker. The air remained heavy with water—but no rain would come. The birds had all gone somewhere. The other animals acted funny, sniffing the air and running in circles.

By the second day—a Monday—Ernie was just about panicked. He’d rushed them both over to Mackie English’s place to see if he was picking up anything on the satellite dish. Mackie, holding a shotgun, had been as gray as the clouds overhead when he’d answered the door.

“Why ain’t you at work, Mackie?”

“There ain’t no work no more. I seen it. I seen it on one a them overseas channels, before they went off.”

“Seen what?”

“The clouds.” He waved the double-barrels of the gun up at the oppressive, roiling sky. “Look at ’em now. Oh, Lord have mercy . . . they’re everywhere. All over the durn world. But this, this here,” his eyes spinning around like a cartoon character, “ain’t nothing. You shoulda seen them skies in Russia before the satellite went off. They’re already dying over yonder. In Russia.”

“Bullcrud.”

“You know it’s from all them trails they laying in the at-mo-sphere. You see them every durn day. I done kept telling people. But don’t nobody listen. ‘That’s normal,’” in a high mocking voice. “‘Them ain’t nothing but regular old contrails.’ Bullcrud is right.”

Ernie looked up and so did Georgie, holding onto her big cuddly man’s thick forearm. What had been a near-stationary mass of gray cotton-candy now seemed more turbulent, swirling, moving. Georgie he saw a flash of lightning out of the corner of her eye, then dismissed it, until the enormous thunderclap came a few seconds later, causing all three to jump and curse.

“Here comes the rain, finally,” Ernie said. “You crazy, Mackie. This ain’t nothing but weather.”

#

No rain came. On the third day they’d driven down out of the hills and around the lake, through Chilton and by the Sugeree River Nuclear Station, which seemed to hum and steam along like normal, and finally down Highway 79 into Tillman Falls. There were a bunch of people on the town green—hundreds—all clustered around the little statue of Pitchfork Ben.

When they walked up that black preacher, the Reverend Doctor Roosevelt Nixon, stood hollering through a megaphone. Telling everyone to keep calm. To pray. Some people were praying. Sure. Others roamed around wild-eyed with panic. Some stood arguing and yelling and cursing at each other.

The county sheriff wasn’t doing poop. Milling around off to the side with two of his deputies, all of them grim-faced. One of the younger cops kept punching buttons on his cell phone, listening, and then shaking his head with his eyes all bugged out. Somewhere a siren wailed, but the policemen wasn’t making no move to respond, Georgie thought. Sure as heck wasn’t doing nothing.

The preacher was huge, and a pretty famous guy around the area—he had that black megachurch down near Columbia, and on Sunday mornings he was on the TV preaching in his stentorian style of oration that was part traditional fire and brimstone, part erudite, intellectual discourse: He was also a PhD, and a real one, too, not one of those fake ones they give out to famous people just so they’ll speak at commencement. Georgie Montgomery didn’t know diddly bout getting no PhD. She had quit school—high school—after she got tired of being bullied by that bunch of rednecks out in the parking lot. She still saw some of them. How could you not living in a po-dunk place like Edgewater County?

“My brothers and sisters—you must not believe the rumors,” the preacher megaphoned to the restless crowd, Georgie and Ernie two more of them, now. “There has not been a nuclear war. There has been no invasion, either within or without the terrestrial limits of our world. Furthermore,” and here he paused, looking from face to face to face of the people in the front who were most intently paying attention, briefly making eye contact with Georgie and causing her stomach to flutter, “and in spite of what you all know me to believe in my heart is the word of God, and the unceasing infallibility of His book—this is not the beginning of the end times. I see no evidence for this eventuality—none whatsoever. God has reassured me of this—an assurance beyond intellect, beyond emotion. This is weather; this too shall pass.”

“This is not the end times,” a little girl off to Georgiana’s right repeated in a hushed whisper.

Ernie had gone all pale except for his eyes, which were swollen and red-rimmed; he’d been crying on the whole drive over, especially after they’d seen a couple of different wrecks, but with no police or EMS personnel in sight. Georgiana had seen a woman in one car, covered in blood, reaching up and screaming for help.  Georgiana had kept her mouth shut about stopping. You didn’t want to get involved, especially not now.

“What the hell’s going on, then?” Ernie, his voice cracking in panic, shouted at the preacher. Georgie pleaded and grabbed at Ernie’s coat, but he shoved through the crowd toward the statue. “What is it, then?”

“Please, please, please,” the preacher said as murmurs of unease swept through the crowd. A fight broke out along the edges of the crowd between two groups of teenagers; it spilled over to the adult men who stepped in to intervene.

The preacher shouted over the sudden cacophony of shouting, panicked children and adults. “It’s only the weather,” he said through the megaphone in his sonorous, soothing voice. “The weather will clear in time. Everything will be back to normal . . . it’s been told to me by God,” he insisted, but people had begun to move off the green and disperse. It was getting colder.

#

Ernie lay bleeding and screaming in the back seat. Georgiana, crying and struggling to drive the stick shift in his old Camaro, kept grinding the gears and forgetting to push the clutch all the way down, and Ernie was hollering about that, too. They’d gotten caught up in the looting of the IGA food mart to which they had gone to get groceries; Ernie was hurt bad, real bad. They went there because they didn’t have much of anything in the house since she hadn’t gone shopping on Sunday like normal. Georgie had assumed, for some reason, that everything at the grocery store would be normal. Like it’d always been.

Except on the rare occasion when it snowed there in Edgewater County. And everyone went durn fool buying up bread and milk. Like it was the end times.

Ernie had been challenged over some a package of hamburger meat that had a spot on it as gray as the cloud cover overhead. He’d tried to fight back, but the other man, an old camouflage-wearing redneck with an enormous gut and looking and smelling as though he’d climbed straight down out of his deer-stand, pulled a hunting knife and stuck it in Ernie’s side. The redneck man took the hamburger meat then, laughing like he was crazy, saying he had beat Ernie and would win at this thing no matter what, so Ernie had his permission to curl up and die like the drunken worthless Scot-Irish trash he and all his brethren were, all of it shouted amid laughter and echoing amidst all the other voices shouting. A blur getting Ernie out and into the car; she run through a guard rail and tore up the front of the car and once Ernie was better, mercy but he would have a fit about that, too.

“I—you got to take me to the medical center,” Ernie wheezed, a high whistle coming out of his throat. His voice sounded all bubbly and wet. “I can’t breathe right no more.”

“I already tried,” she wept, and she had. But: “It was closed. It was closed.  There ain’t no where to go.” She wiped her eyes, then wiped them again, then realized that the windshield was misting up. She turned on the wipers, then fumbled around with the de-fogger when she realized the condensation seemed to be on the inside. Foggy and wet but no rain. Colder, still. That was the only change.

All the windows were covered in tiny droplets of moisture, suddenly.  “What’s going on now, oh my lord…”

“Getting colder.” Ernie’s voice came small and thin. She stole a look back at him. He looked pale. His Atlanta Falcons t-shirt was slick with blood. She realized she could see his breath.

#

Once she’d dealt with Ernie, Georgiana had brought the animals inside with her.  She’d wrapped him up in two old tarps out of the shed. Her back aching and other muscles all protesting at the Herculean effort, she’d dragged him like a big roll of carpet out behind the shed and into the old vegetable garden her mother had kept. She knew she’d have to bury him, eventually, but the wind was blowing all funny and it sure as heck was getting colder.

Buster the old hound—he’d been her mother’s final pet, and was a real good dog—whined and smacked his lips at her. There was no more dog food but a cupful or two in the bottom of the big bag in the closet, and she was trying to save that for later—and maybe not for Buster. Georgiana herself probably only had enough to last for another couple of days herself, and that was mostly peanut butter, breakfast cereal, and dusty old canned goods like beets and pumpkin pie mix that nobody ever wanted. She cried when she looked at Buster, who seemed so pitiful. Bootsy the calico yard-cat was mewling and scratching around, but didn’t really want to go outside, not as cold as it was getting. She was just hungry too, and something about the cat’s imploring looks into Georgiana’s eyes made her cry.

Georgiana was sickened by her own face in the bathroom mirror, the splotchy skin, the zits, the big nose, the flabby chin that hung down. Her stomach growled. Low thunder rolled outside. Ernie had died in the back seat of the car, which was all covered in blood and out of gas and she’d called, tried to call somebody, but there were no phones and no signals and no TVs and the more she thought about, the more she stared at the gray dead signal coming through the eye of the television, a friend for life, always on, always there and talking to her, the more she thought she must be dreaming, and that this wasn’t only weather but it was dream-weather, and that dream-preacher was right, that it would pass and the TV would be back with the smiling anchors saying, “Phew, but wasn’t that a storm. A storm to remember.” She’d wait. She’d bury Ernie, explain it all once things were back.

And then the power went off.

#

Mackie had come by, scared and babbling, but Georgiana was glad. He wasn’t a threat to her; she’d known him since they were kids. She was glad he had the shotgun. She didn’t know who else might show up. She showed him Ernie, told him what’d happened. “Them summa bitches,” he said, crying over Ernie. Said he would help her bury him, but that he had to warm up first. “All of them’s the ones deserve to die. Not old Ernie Abel.”

No duh, she thought: It was freezing outside; an odd misting of ice crystals had begun falling from the sky, so light and delicate that the air seemed to dance with them. Georgie thought she’d seen a flash of sunlight for the briefest of moments the last time she’d looked outside, as though a tiny hole had opened up in the oppressive cloud ceiling—but it had probably just been more of the strange lightning that had started popping sometime in the night—blue and crackling. All the ice crystals had flashed with light for a second, though, she was sure of it. But then again, maybe she was going crazy. Or dreaming. Yeah, that was it, she tried to remind herself.

“The gubmint done gone and done something bad, I know that’s what’s happening,” Mackie said. “Them durn old trails.” Them bastards, he added, were probably still spraying up yonder above the ugly clouds. Far as all them knew.

She had heated up a tea bag over Ernie’s camp stove he would carry up to the river to go fishing, the little green tank that had a little gas left. When she smelled the gas, Bootsy had gone plumb crazy with hunger—she knew Ernie used that stove to cook fish, bless her heart, Georgie thought, making her want to cry again.

“They’s gonna be martial law now,” Mackie said, cradling his gun. “Them bastards.”

“Well what’s that gonna do? They cain’t control the weather.”

“Hell they can’t. ”

Georgie thought Mackie had gone round the bend. Like her. But she didn’t say that.

“But also, they had all the people buying the dang old Humvee things, you know? Want to know why? Cause they wanted ya’ll to get used to seeing them everywhere, on every street corner, tooling around. Now they gonna have a goddurn chain-gun in the back a ever’ one a them—you watch.” He stopped cold, holding up a hand. “You hear that? You hear that? Sounds like one a them helicopters from up at Shaw.” The Air Force Base was located about forty miles to the east, and was an economic engine in the depressed midlands of South Carolina. “Shit.”

“But Mackie,” she said, shivering and putting a log on the fire, one of the two she had left, and just glad to have a fireplace in general, “you think the Army’s still together? If the world’s ending, or something?”

“Shit yeah—it’s the goddurn Army, Colette, what done this. They know what they doing.” Mackie had started calling Georgiana by the name of his grown daughter who lived in Alabama, and who had had all kinds of drug and crime problems. His eyes danced when he talked, and he kept looking out the window into the gloom. You couldn’t tell anymore whether it was night or day.

“You think this is the end of the world?”

Mackie seemed to veer wildly from mistrust to desperate hopefulness about the military’s role. “Hell no. Not after the Army shows up. Ain’t nothing they cain’t fix. You watch.”

Georgiana looked at the shotgun Mackie had set down, propped up against the ratty old sofa. She thought about what she would do if the sun didn’t finally come out the next day. She cried some more and then tried to pray, but couldn’t remember how.

And then the big chunks of ice started hitting the roof, and slamming up against the windows. Big-ass hail. Like nothing she ever seen.

#

The cold was relentless. The clouds spit and spit ice until there was two feet, three feet, five feet on the ground. There was no more going outside. She thought about Ernie’s frozen body in the back yard, and was glad that it was at least covered up with the ice, now.

When it all warmed up and thawed. That’s when she’d bury him.

Mackie squatted babbling in the corner, wrapped up in a blanket, clutching the shotgun. He’d started loading and unloading it compulsively earlier in the day—or night—until Georgiana had opened up a can of beets and they had shared it.  Even Buster ate two of the sliced beets; poor Bootsy, though, was hiding under the bed and wouldn’t come out, not even to pee.

They were all dying, already. The house was so cold now you could see your breath. She had busted up two of the chairs to burn, but the varnish had caused a choking cloud that raked her throat and lungs. It was May in South Carolina. And yet it was an ice day outside, like you might get in January, not May, and usually not even then. May was supposed to be the beginning of summer.

After he seemed to go to sleep, Georgiana took the shotgun out of Mackie’s hands. Tears were frozen solid on his cheeks. She realized then that he was dead.

The gun tasted funny. She thought she saw the sun coming out right before she pulled the trigger—but she didn’t want to take the chance. The world went whoomp really hot and hard and fast, all white like it already looked outside, then red then black and a high pitched squeal and there was Ernie, running on up ahead and calling for her, and her mother too, who had on her dress she liked to wear to the IGA and everything was all better, all better now that the dream was over and the light had come back on, a tiny one, but really bright and not that far out of reach, just up ahead through a narrow path or a tunnel, which was the only strange part. And that was the last time Georgiana Montgomery worried about the ice falling, and the end of the world. It would clear up soon. It was South Carolina. It was May. Hot as hell, soon.

—end—

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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