F.R.O.S.T.Y.: A short story for the Christmas season

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Merry Christmas, folks. In case you didn’t know, I do not like snowmen. They are as creepy as undead skeletons to me. This is what comes of gorging yourself on Calvin and Hobbes as a child. Enjoy my version of Frosty the Snowman.

F.R.O.S.T.Y.

I hear that in other parts of the country they don’t believe in Frosty. They don’t know Jack like I do. When I woke up this morning and saw the white flakes through the bedroom window I remembered every detail even though it’s been over decade. I was sixteen when the blizzard hit Florida.

Every day in biology that year my teacher would talk about the melting icebergs, the greenhouse effect, and global warming. When you live in a state surrounded by ocean, rising sea levels are a big deal. The previous summer was a record heatwave that I lazed away in various pools and the ocean. They predicted a winter that felt like fall at the coldest.

The meteorologists were puzzled when the sudden cold front appeared, but most were pleased. I remember the one with gray hair grinning as he pointed to the cloud banks forming east of Cocoa Beach. The snow came two days later. Schools and businesses closed. Everyone in our neighborhood went out to make snow angels and forts and snowmen.

Except me.

I spent the day organizing the kitchen pantry. When Dad pulled me out of school the day before, I thought he had a surprise planned, but the surprise was buying propane tanks, butane torches, and bags of pool salt.

“We’ll need it.” He said. I didn’t ask why. I didn’t ask why he made me wear a surgical mask under my scarf either. When we got home from the store, Julio was waiting in his truck. Julio worked at the lab with my dad.

He was sort of like a janitor, but he exclusively handled hazardous materials. He and Dad joked they were the only two in the building without advanced degrees. Dad was a service tech, and he fixed anything in the lab that broke. He had scars from laser burns and a hunk of finger missing to prove it. He told me a few years later that the reason he knew so much about the project was they didn’t think he was smart enough to understand what they were saying. They were wrong.

Julio and Dad went outside for one last check of the house. They were out there a long time with the propane tank and some pipes. Then they duct-taped all the windows. Julio washed all our cold weather gear in hot salt water. When I asked why, Dad stood over the washer watching the clothes swirl and foam and just pointed.

I thought it was my imagination at first, but the clothes were sparkling. A sleeve or collar would break the surface of the water and emit a flash of light like a lightning bug. He sent me upstairs to take a hot saltwater bath.  I couldn’t see anything, but it felt like there were Pop Rocks on my scalp.

The next morning it was still snowing thick heavy flakes you could hear hitting the ground. This snow was uncomfortably white. Years later I would compare it to microscopic rhinestones that reflected light so brightly it hurt.

And I noticed something else strange. It was quiet. Our neighbors had four kids, but they weren’t outside.

“Dad, where is everybody?”

“Well, I’d imagine they have frostbite.”

“Ha!” I laughed. He raised an eyebrow at me in a way that made me shut up fast.

“You’ve never seen snow before, so you don’t know what you’re looking at, son. That ain’t real snow.” He looked over at Julio. Julio nodded and shuddered. “That stuff is man-made.”

“You mean like on a ski-slope? Like Colorado?”

“I mean like tiny robots that freeze everything,” Dad said.

“What?”

“They freeze everything they touch,” Julio said. He pointed to a scar on the palm of his hand. “Anything.”

“Did they make them at work?”

“Shot them up in the atmosphere. Trying to fix global warming.”

Looking out the window at the blue light of morning today, I know just how wrong they were. The robots were supposed to stay in the upper atmosphere. Multiple things went wrong. Weather balloons hitting rough spots and dumping loads early. Bad software programming. Too large a payload. The lab blamed the government for threatening their funding, and the government blamed the lab for reckless disregard for human life. The conclusion was Jack was their fault. I was lucky.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“Wait,” said Julio. “Wait until the robots break down.”

“How long will that take?”

“Hopefully not very long. Two days?”

That afternoon I turned on the tv to watch the news. Emergency rooms were overloaded with frostbite patients. Some of them were covered from head to toe. The weathermen were begging people to stay indoors or bundle up. Temperatures had dropped to record lows throughout the Sunshine State. Dad made me turn it off. I put in my earbuds and listened to Metallica for hours. Dad filled the bathtub and several 55-gallon drum with water and salt.

The power shut off around midnight. We were huddled under the heavy down comforters in the living room as the cold came in. There was no sleeping though.

“I knew I should have let that stupid top hat stay busted,” Dad growled.

“What hat?”

“The container for the robots,” Julio answered. “It’s a black cylinder with a lip on the top. Looks like a top hat.”

“Couple screws on the lid broke from the cold. I should have just told them I couldn’t fix it.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered, amigo,” Julio said, rolling his eyes.

I could see my breath in the light of Dad’s flashlight.  “How cold do you think it is outside?”

Julio muttered something in Spanish and gave my dad a guilty look. “Don’t ever repeat that, ok? It’ll get you in trouble.”

I finally slept, but I doubt Dad and Julio did. When I woke up it took me a few minutes to find them. They were in my upstairs bedroom looking out my window. The air was so cold it almost hurt to breathe. There was ice on my Xbox.

“We’re going to have to go out there,” Julio said.

Dad cursed. “We’d better wait until the sun is fully up.”

I walked over to the window and looked out at our backyard. The sky was clear of clouds and a sickly shade of blue. The yard was a mass of white drifts. Flakes clung to everything like magnets. Dad pointed down at the roof of our garage beneath my window.

I screamed. I may have never seen snow before, but I knew it wasn’t supposed to crawl. It oozed up the roof against gravity toward the wall beneath my window. Dad pulled me back downstairs.

“They look for heat sources, so the sun should confuse them during the day,” Julio said. “But come sunset we’ll have trouble.”

“We should clear the roof.” Dad pointed me to the kitchen where the bags of salt were stacked against the wall. “Grab a bucket.”

An hour later Dad had poured salt water down the wall onto the roof below my window. The snow sputtered and slid away in a sheet. Dad, clad in a thick pair of coveralls, my paintball mask with a surgical mask underneath, and thick work gloves duct-taped to his sleeves, dropped down onto the roof and cleared the rest of the snow from on top of the garage. Julio followed him wearing his snow armor and cleared the roof above my room. I watched from inside as the line of saltwater puddles around the house grew into a moat. The snow was still oozing toward the house, piling up in low drifts at the edges of the puddles.

I heated pan after pan of water on Dad’s camp stove in the garage to fill the tub again for Dad and Julio when they finished clearing the house. Julio sat shivering under the down comforter after his tepid saltwater bath. He took the mug of hot coffee from me with a muttered “gracias.”

“Dad, shouldn’t we use the generator?” I asked as Dad walked in, ice clinging to his beard after his own dunk in the tub.

“Not yet. When the sun goes down.”

“So what are we doing?”

“They start moving more as they break down, so once it gets crazy out there, it’s almost over.”

I didn’t want to know what he meant by “crazy.”

We huddled inside for the rest of the day drinking hot coffee from the camp stove and watching the drifts of snow creep toward the icy puddles of saltwater. The neighborhood was silent all day. As the sun went down, I asked Dad what he thought had happened to everyone else.

“They’re probably dead, son.”

“All of them?”

“Except the hoarder at the end of the block. He’s probably fine.”

“So it’s just us?”

“I’ve been keeping an eye out for people, son. If someone comes to us for help, we’ll help them.”

 

I stare at the ceiling of our bedroom and listen to my wife breathing next to me. I still wonder what would have happened if Dad had tried to warn people. Before he passed away I asked him why he didn’t.

“You try telling Floridians there’s a blizzard coming and see how many of them listen to you.”

I still wish we would have tried. I entered high school with a class of over three hundred. I graduated with twenty.

 

“Time to go,” Julio said, scrubbing his red-rimmed eyes and downing the last swig of coffee.

“Let’s start the generator.”

The house warmed up slowly, but Dad kept the thermostat on 45. “Too warm, and they’ll come too fast for us.”

We stayed inside until about midnight. That’s when Frosty decided he wasn’t afraid of salt anymore. We bundled up and stacked the bags of salt on the roof with Dad. Julio said he’d take the front. Dad told me to watch the backyard with him.

I didn’t understand why we’d bought the propane until Dad stepped outside and lit the pipes. The next thing I knew our house was surrounded by short wall of flames. Julio lit and checked the front of the house while Dad sent me to the side by the alley with more salt.

I swear Antarctica would have been warmer than our backyard that night. I tossed salt into the puddle next to the house and watched the snow twitch. It sparked into a chain reaction, and suddenly the drift closest to the house seemed to have arms that swirled around reaching toward me. It desperately searched for my body heat, flailing like a dying octopus until I kicked the salty puddle into the center of the monster. The snow octopus sparked white hot and shuddered. As turned to go back to the backyard, I realized I’d been cut off. The drift behind me had risen to over four feet and was oozing and flailing over the puddle, reaching for me.

I had one chance. I ran.

The snow erupted behind me as I splashed through the puddles. The drifts snatched at me in fits and starts until they balled up into a great rolling mass behind me. The bitter cold of robotic ice grabbed at my heels.  I leaped over the embers onto the patio and turned to see the snow sizzle. Dad was right. The heat was attracting the snow but somehow keeping it at bay. The flakes balled up into a thick lump, followed by another smaller lump and another, each shuddering and squirming as if the lumps were sacks filled with insects. The lumps became a jagged column while the bottom seemed to have tank treads made of ice, flakes tumbling over each other leaving behind a trail of writhing snow.

“Dad! The salt!”

“On three!” he yelled from the roof.

One.

Two.

Three.

For what seemed like hours all I knew was cold and the sting of salt water. The briny liquid splashed over the fire and hit the wall of angry snowflakes with a hiss. The icy wall sparkled like diamonds. Flashes of light spread until our backyard looked like we’d set off fireworks. A silver fountain of dying robots heaved and fell back. Frosty receded like a wave, sparking and jittering into pools of salt water. Julio yelled for help on the other side of the house. I ran around next to the flames and found him spraying the snow with salt water from an old insecticide pump. I tossed a bucket full of brine at the heaviest drift and listened to it scream and melt away as I ran for more water from the drum next to the front door.

“They’re breaking down,” Julio yelled at me. “If we can last a few more hours until sunrise, we’ll make it.”

My hands burned from the cold as we tossed saltwater everywhere. I moved purely on adrenaline, constantly shoring up one side or another as the snow flailed and sparked in death throes.

“Sunrise!” my dad shouted. “Sunrise is coming, guys!”

I blasted another snow monster with a bucket of saltwater. “Die, Frosty! Die!”

The sun rose on the remains of a war zone, a monster made of ice twitching all over our neighborhood. I’ve never been so glad to be awake with the sun.

 

My daughter bounces into the room shouting, “It’s snowing!” She does a little dance of joy and drags my wife out of bed to show her. Annie squeezes my hand gently as we look out the window together. She’s from Texas, but she’s heard Dad’s stories. I shrug and kiss her forehead before they head downstairs to get a better look. I pull back the curtain on our bedroom window and watch the flakes flutter down on the wind. They are soft white. Beautiful. Harmless.

Before I join my girls for breakfast, I check my stock of rock salt in the attic. Frosty may have died, but I wouldn’t put it past someone resurrecting him. They never did find the Top Hat.

sparkling-snow

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