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The Good Stuff
Short Story
Lines in the Snow
by Gary Kemble
Length: 1,357 words

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Lines in the Snow

As the days grew longer, so did the look of longing in her eyes. I’m an old man so I can see these things, but Jack missed it, the poor fool. He was too busy thinking about picking a ring in Jonestown and whether Pip Sullivan’s barn would be big enough for the reception. Lucy, meanwhile, was eyeing the sleigh she’d rode in on, watching the blanket of snow on Main Street growing thinner each day.

I was over at the stables, sweeping up, the morning she left. He ran out of his store wearing nothing but his long johns and jumped out into the street, barely noticing the snow biting his toes. He held his hand over his eyes like a sun visor and stared at those two lines in the snow, like railroad tracks, heading south.

Five years on Jack still thinks about her sometimes. Hell, he thinks about her every day. You can see it in his eyes. He thinks about her rosy cheeks and that truss of golden hair that could never be tamed, and about her laughter freezing on the air.

You can watch him from the diner over the way, staring out the window of his general store, wishing for something he knows is never going to happen. The men over at the mill laugh at him behind his back; some even spit when they mention his name. Damn fool, they say, she ain’t never comin’ back. They roar with self-conscious laughter, saying he should just get himself laid with one of those whores down at Jonesburg. But behind the contempt lies a barely acknowledged longing for something pure in their lives. A love untainted by life and kept fresh with longing. The womenfolk want to mother him, asking him if he’d like to go out with their sister’s best friend.

Sometimes Jack says yes. I saw him down at the Jonesburg Dance Hall, cutting it pretty with someone or other’s bookwormish sister or cousin or whatever. He sure can dance, I have to give him that, but he was never really there. His eyes were all serious and his brow was furrowed and you could tell that he knew he should get on with things… but maybe… just maybe… Lord knows, you can’t turn love on and off like a kerosene lantern. There have been men that have been struck heavier blows. Jack Thompson took to his wife’s lover with a woodaxe and now he’s over at the State Pen serving life, thanking his stars he didn’t get death. But at least he got over it, you know? Whereas our boy over there, thinking about lines in the snow, he’s wounded in a way that’s just gonna keep on taking, like a cut that just won’t heal. Something like that can ruin your life.

It’s no consolation being able to tell him I told him so. She blew into town ahead of a nasty snowstorm, her sled carving two lines in the fresh snow, like railroad tracks, letting everyone know there was someone new in town. Most of us knew she wouldn’t stay long. She was a free spirit and, for all the beauty of the mountains and the forests, I knew our town wouldn’t hold her.

Like any Godfather worth his salt I warned him. Don’t get attached, I said. She won’t be around for long. Probably just long enough to give that horse of hers a bag of oats, and to stand by the fire and warm the chill out of her hands. The storm will pass and she’ll pass with it, you mark my words. He smiled at me and told me I was a damned old fool, laughing as she walked the three steps up to his store and stomped the snow off her boots. Maybe I am a damn old fool – stupid enough to waste my breath when I’d already seen the look in his eye.

The storm hit. It was quick and nasty and old Pat McGauran on the Old Deviation Road lost the roof off his barn. The next day when I came out the town was blanketed in white. The lines were gone. I think Jack wanted to believe that meant Lucy had no past, no future, just the present – the giddy anticipation of new love – that would stretch on forever.

Jack’s Momma – God rest her soul – always said there’s no such thing as love at first sight. She said true love was something you had to work at each and every day, tending it like a sapling. Love at first sight, she said, was a cheap excuse for those that lacked moral fortitude. A justification for jumping in the sack before the ring was on the finger and all was good in the eyes of our Lord. Until that day I believed her. Since that day, I’m not so sure.

Love, lust, impatience – whatever you want to call it – I saw something blossom between them as the days grew shorter. And it sure as shit had nothing to do with tending trees or moral fortitude. It was more like trying to catch a cloud in a milk bottle. They chased each other all over town that winter, laughing in the face of encroaching gloom.

Mrs Longford and her sewing circle tried their best to sully the affair, talking in barely hushed tones behind the sacks of wheat in Jack’s very own store – apparently Junie May’s sister had seen them kissin’ under the oak tree by old Mr Kellerman’s place – but even they had to admit it put a spark in the air. I think people were starting to realise that moral fortitude or no, there was something special happening.

When Lucy stayed for Thanksgiving, even I began to doubt myself. I thought maybe Jack had given this woman enough of a reason to deny that wanderlust that bloomed in her heart. She said grace that day, Jack carved the turkey – you couldn’t have wished for a nicer picture postcard.

We have a festival once a year – the shortest day of the year. It’s a pagan thing but the local minister tries to dress it up as praise of God. Thanking him for getting us through the worst of winter, thanking him for spring, and so on and suchforth. All the locals care about is breaking out the moonshine and dancing ‘round the bonfire. I saw the change that night; the change in her eyes. They still went home together but I knew it was over.

Christmas came and went, and then so did she.

Five years went by. I got so used to seeing Jack lonesome that I just thought this would be how it would always be. You live in a small town long enough, you start to believe that nothin’ really changes. Babies are born and people die, but no-one ever leaves. No-one born here, that is.

Then this morning, as I shovelled snow out front of the stables I noticed there were no lights on over at Jack’s place. He doesn’t sleep well, not anymore, and usually has opened the store by the time I come down. I have to admit, I feared the worst. This is a hard time of year for Jack, the hardest. I set the shovel against the stable door and trudged across Main Street, a heavy weight resting on my gut. As I got closer, through the dawn gloom I noticed a note tacked to the door. A note for me.

I stomped the snow off my boots and tore it open with numb fingers, breath whistling in and out of my lungs and hanging in the air like dragon’s breath. It was a short note. I guess he figured he’d wasted enough time.

"Dear Bill, Gone to find her. Take care of the store for me. Yours, Jack."

I walked back out into the street as the dark clouds parted, the sun glaring off the snowy street. I held my hand over my eyes like a sun visor and stared at those two lines in the snow, like railroad tracks, heading south.

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