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The Mask Collector

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The usual mail had arrived. Nothing startling or unexpected; no letters from old and forgotten friends, no mafia threats: just bank statements, advertisements, and an unwanted magazine. Walter hadn’t really cared about the mail to begin with. He had only used it as an excuse to see the storm, but the post was so mundane and disappointing that it actually managed to detract from the experience. Impersonal business mail is depressing, in its own way.

He gazed back towards his house. The split-level ranch was set a ways back from the road, occluded from sight by a thick range of evergreen trees, his porch lights only barely visible. Their yellow rays glimmered weakly through the many dark trunks, and were further obscured by the translucent screen of the fast falling snow. He stood idly by the road’s edge, the mail in his hands, and stared blankly into the milky darkness towards his home.

The lights on his porch flickered. Walter closed the mailbox and began to trudge back up his drive. The snow had begun early that morning, and he had let it accumulate without opposition. The warm glow radiating from his fireplace had been far too seductive for a clear driveway to hold any sort of urgent temptation. Instead he had remained indoors, laid out on the couch like an old and overused slinky, drinking red wine and reading a novel.

The results were awesome. It was the sort of blizzard that came once in thirty years, the sort that the elderly shared stories about, recounting inconceivable scenes of submerged cars and totally blocked doorways. His driveway had been transformed into a formidable river of snow, cutting its way through the woods before his house. Its frozen white waters came up to just past his waist, perhaps a few inches more than a full three feet of snow.

Now, many hours after the first flakes had touched ground, he regretted not taking a more active stand against the weather, but there was no longer anything he could do about it. The inland area in which he lived rarely received more than a foot of snow at a time, and even that was uncommon. An ordinary snow blower had always been sufficient to clear his walks and driveway, but the old thing was hardly a match for a storm of such outlandish magnitude. Indeed, the snow measured up to a considerably greater height than the snow blower itself. He would have to call a plow service the following morning, once the storm had let up and the roads were clear.

Walter was frustrated to find it was hardly any easier going back uphill despite that he had already forced a path through the snow on his way down. The slope of his driveway combined with the weather to make footing precarious, and his movement was so greatly hindered that he thought it a miracle he had ever gotten down there in the first place. After a few minutes of cautious progress, he came to a point where the snow had collapsed inward from either side of the makeshift path, filling it in again. He at first tried to step over the little wall of snow, but it was too high and he had to kick it down instead. As he did so, however, his other foot slipped out from under him, and he began to fall. Reflexively, he swung his arms around to regain his balance, and the mail was sent flying all about his feet. Some of it caught in the drifts immediately, but one rogue envelope slid down the slope a short ways before becoming lodged in the snow.

Once he had regained his footing, Walter bent to gather the mail. He took a few steps back down the drive to reclaim the envelope which had slipped away, taking care not to fall again. Afterwards, he paused to catch his breath, gazing out across the street. The narrow old road he lived on skirted the edge of a great pond, now frozen quite solid in the deep of winter and hidden under a thick blanket of snow. The level ice and even distribution of snowfall had led to a perfectly flat field of white, uninterrupted for hundreds of feet and picturesque in its lonely stillness. Little flurries were sent swirling here and there over the ice by the harsh wind, but there was no other sound or movement.

As he watched, two clouds broke slowly apart and a not-quite-full moon shone down upon the broad expanse before him. The whole field lit up with the surreal glow of the moonlight, and something small and distant caught Walter’s eye. Very far out, right about the middle of the pond, some formation of snow broke from the level plane around it, casting a skeletal gray shadow upon the pearly field. The shadow was what had attracted his gaze; the shape would have otherwise been quite invisible in the dim light. He squinted through the falling snow, wondering what could possibly be in the middle of the pond. The thing came into greater focus, and Walter discerned what looked like a head and shoulders emerging from the snow.

It wasn't unusual. Some local kids must have made a snowman out on the ice earlier in the day, while the snow had still been manageable. And now, hours later, their hominid creation was almost totally buried by the blizzard, with only its head and shoulders still above the surface. It made for a striking image.

He turned and resumed making his way back up the drive. Despite already having shoved and wrestled a path through the snow on the way down, it was quite nearly as much work going back up. In quite a few minutes he had traversed merely half the length of his driveway and was by now deeply regretting ever having come outside at all. The wind bit at him, penetrating his collar and viciously attacking his neck and face. He wished for nothing more than to get back to the warmth of his fire, and was in a great hurry to do so. The driveway was laid in a stretched approximation of an “S” through the woods before his house, and until now Walter had been tracing it. In his haste he decided it would be far easier to cut through the woods, where the snow would be shallower. The tall trees swayed in the storm, and beneath their boughs Walter saw a blackness which seemed an inviting refuge from the vicious wind.

He immediately made his way to the side of the drive and stepped up over a squat ridge and into a heavy drift. Shoving his way through that last barrier, he emerged into a darkness which seemed to envelop him, dampening the wind and snowfall. There was still at least a foot of snow on the ground, but that was no serious hindrance and Walter was able to proceed forward without labor. The only danger now was blindly colliding with a tree, for he could see nothing but the faint lights of his porch, sixty yards away. He stretched out his arms and walked slowly forwards, groping in the darkness. Encountering no obstacles after a few baby steps towards the light, he increased his pace. Almost instantly, his foot caught against an unseen object and sent him crashing down into the snow.

When one’s clothing is wet-resistant and bound tightly enough that the snow cannot find its way into open sleeves and collars to give an icy kiss to the skin beneath, a snowdrift is an extraordinarily comfortable thing to lie upon. It was for this reason that Walter did not get up immediately. Instead, he laid his head down upon his arms and just listened for a moment, watching around and letting his eyes continue adjusting to the darkness. There was only enough light to see about six feet away before an encroaching wall of black blocked all further vision. After a minute, he was able to make out what he had tripped over. Branches, felled by the storm, lay all about the ground like enormous caltrops. His face had narrowly missed another of the fallen limbs.

As he lay prostrate in the snow, something else attracted Walter’s attention. Cutting through the wind which whistled sharply overhead was another sound, scarcely audible. If he hadn’t fallen, he doubted he would have noticed it. He turned his head towards the sound, and then lay perfectly still. Coming from off among the trees to his right was a sort of irregular scraping, as though some animal were limping over the snow with a light, uneven gait. A moment later the sound stopped dead, and the wind took over again. He remained where he was, listening, but heard nothing more and so clambered slowly to his feet, shook himself off, and continued moving forward.

Silhouettes of the wide, towering trunks loomed towards Walter as he marched along, lifting each leg high before plunging it back down into the snow. He was approaching the edge of the driveway again, and the porch lights shone more strongly here, illuminating the trees from behind. The drive was only ten yards away when the shuffling resumed. Walter froze, and this time the noise continued. Here, almost out of the woods, the wind was louder. It sounded shrilly in his ears, rushing by like a chariot race above his head. Nevertheless, the scraping and dragging was louder than it had been before. It sounded closer. Walter turned and gazed back into the utter black behind him. He saw nothing: no shape, no movement. But it was coming closer. There could be no doubt. While he’d been standing there, the sound had grown from a tiny and remote whisper to a noise like a course sponge rubbed against stone, perhaps heard from across a room.

He wondered what animal could possibly be outside in such ghastly weather. There was no plausible chance it was a human, for who would come out in such a storm, especially to wander in dark woods owned by a stranger? This wasn’t a city, it was rural Pennsylvania. There weren't random crazies wandering the streets. And if there were, they had either found shelter much earlier in the day or had frozen to death. Bears were obviously hibernating… did foxes hibernate? Walter had once read about a sub-species called the Arctic Fox, an animal whose fur turned white in the winter for camouflage while it remained above ground to hunt all the season long. He wasn't sure if they lived in this region, but it didn't matter. He didn't think it was a fox. The movement was too drawn-out, too large, to be something so small and unassuming.

It was still coming towards him. Although logic argued nothing could be outdoors on such a night, some intuition in the back of Walter’s mind told him to move. He turned back towards his house and began a light jog through the snow, anxiety building in his mind. He broke through the four foot drift at the edge of his driveway in one great push and battled his way across to his front steps, knocking snow this way and that, the wind roaring in his ears. He leapt up the front steps onto his porch, and simultaneously the wind died down completely, leaving a hostile silence. He spun back to face the woods, expecting to see something crossing the driveway in his wake. But there was nothing.

He raised his eyes to the evergreens, where shadow and gloom obscured all that lay beyond the first trees. Although the sound had ceased, and he saw nothing, and never had, Walter had a mounting feeling that something was lurking right out of sight, just past the edge of the light. The sensation of being watched was almost palpable. His heart racing, he threw open the front door and ran inside to the kitchen to retrieve a flashlight. Grabbing it up, he dashed back to the porch and shone its light into the dark cavities between the trees.

There was nothing. No animal, no person, nothing at all. Nor was the snow disturbed anywhere except upon the path he himself had made. Perhaps the thing had been moving along his trail, where the snow was already upset by his passing, following him. He pointed the beam of the flashlight hither and thither through the falling snow, but there was nothing to see no matter which way he looked. After a moment he switched it off with a growl and retreated inside, but remained staring warily out his screen door for a few minutes further. The wind had picked back up, racing past with all the fury of the devil. The snowfall had never let up in the first place: it surged perpetually downwards, smothering the world. There was no other movement. Walter closed the door. He was hungry, and he had been drinking, and the storm was enough to pressure anyone’s mind into over-reacting to a noise in the dark. Gradually, he let it go, and went to make dinner.

Chicken had been set to marinade earlier, and he now pushed it gently into the oven. While it roasted, he prepared a salad, tearing up the green leaves and washing them in the sink. He toasted a slice of garlic bread and poured a fresh glass of wine, and after a few minutes took the chicken out of the oven. He sat down at his kitchen table to eat, and took his time, savoring the meal. When he finished, he felt considerably better, and after placing the dishes in the washer, Walter refilled his glass with wine and went back to the living room. After adding several logs to the fire, he picked his book up off the couch where he had left it, and was about to sit down when he chanced to look out the window directly across from him.

His pulse quickened. A stone’s throw from the window, standing in the shadow of the forest, was a snowman. It hadn't been there before. Nor was it an ordinary snowman, button-smile and carrot-nose, body of three great snowballs and twigs for arms. No, it was nothing like that. The thing was sculpted exactly like a man, made completely from snow, with proper legs and proper arms and a real head with a neck, set upon wide shoulders. But it wasn’t perfect. It was proportioned strangely, with a thicker torso and arms that fell a little too far below the waist. It was built leaning against a tree, for surely legs of snow were insufficient support. It even had hands. As Walter once again squinted through the storm, something else seized his attention, and a chill traveled down his spine.

It had no face. He hadn't noticed it at first, forty feet away and through the frenzied snowfall. But now Walter couldn't take his eyes off it. Off its face. Its missing face. The head was shaped as a normal man’s would be, though the neck were a little more substantial, but where on every fortunate human being there were lips and eyes and ears and a nose, there was nothing. Just a smooth, featureless facade of snow, convex with the curvature of the head. Walter shivered. It was a disturbing sight. What sort of child would create such a thing?

Tearing his eyes off of the snowman’s head, Walter noticed something else. The snow around it was disturbed, and the path led into the woods behind it. Simultaneously, he realized the only reason he could see the snowman at all was because the flood lights on the side of his house had been activated. They were motion sensitive, which meant something had to have moved and triggered them. Walter chuckled, relaxing. This explained everything – everything. Some local kids had taken the blizzard as an opportunity to scare him, and they had succeeded admirably. Walter had a strong appreciation for a good prank, and his chuckle expanded to a laugh. He raised his glass of wine and spoke, “Well done! That deserves a toast… you had me going, there.” He drank, and sat down to resume his novel.

The fire was roaring merrily, and the book was mesmerizing. Almost two hours had passed, and Walter hadn’t looked up once. He was flipping pages at a hectic pace, utterly caught up in the lives which were playing out before his eyes. The tension was building in the words; he could feel something coming. A character began a somber speech, layered with sorrow and unmistakably leading to some disclosure of tragic truth. The character revealed what he’d been leading up to, and Walter’s mouth opened a little. It was brilliant. This means… and… but then he’d have had to… Walter’s train of thought derailed, and he lowered the book to ponder the implications, looking out across the room without focus. A second after, the novel fell from his hands as he leapt to his feet, his heart racing, his mouth agape.

The snow man was right up against the window, its head resting against the glass.

Its horrible, empty face was staring into the room, and without eyes its gaze seemed to bore into him. For a moment he couldn’t move out of shock. Electricity jumped along his skin and down his spine, and he shuddered convulsively. Then reason reasserted itself. It was a snowman, and this was reality. The joke was starting to turn sour. But this did nothing to lessen his repulsion towards the perverted thing outside the window. Up close, its cruel aspect was loathsome to look upon, the lack of features repugnant. Yet its blank stare somehow entranced him. He walked hesitantly towards it, hooked by the bizarre notion that it was staring directly at him. Crossing the room one uncertain step at a time, he stood before the window and slowly knelt, so that his own face was level with the empty one on the other side of the glass. A mere foot separated them. He unconsciously leaned forward with wonder, staring back at it. His nose touched the glass.

The thing on the other side twitched to life, its head lolling suddenly to the side as it flung one of its long arms up into the window, shattering it. Walter leapt backwards with a shout and fell down, scrambling away from the window in horror and confusion as glass shards went everywhere. His back hit up against the couch. He was so stricken by the suddenness of the movement that he sat motionless as the snow man threw an arm over the bottom ledge of the window and clasped hold of it. The other arm followed, but Walter was still struggling to process the terrible impossibility before his eyes: a dead, inanimate thing seemingly possessed of a will and a demonic animation that by all reason it could not have. Even as the snow man dragged itself through the window and fell heavily onto the carpet, Walter stared, transfixed and motionless. It was not until it raised itself onto its hands and knees and began crawling towards him with clumsy, disconnected movements that some impulse of fear drove him to his feet.

For a moment he stood and watched it dragging itself across the room while a series of thoughts ran through his head, at first mostly revolving around the phrase WHAT THE FUCK? But underneath that, his thoughts travelled from the intuitive knowledge that the thing meant him harm to the instinctive response that was to defend himself.

Accompanying the last thought was the memory of the baseball bat around the corner, in the entryway coat closet. Inspired, he ran to it, tore the door open and, grasping up the bat, ran back to the living room. The thing was halfway across the room, still on its hands and knees; its head raised crookedly, and was starting to stand up. It raised itself to its knees, and then got one foot under itself. Walter had been stopped at the threshold of the room by the eerie sight of the snow man jerkily erecting itself, but now he took the bat in both hands, got a firm grip, and rushed towards it, the bat raised over his shoulder.

The snow man had just got both feet underneath itself, so that it was sort of bent over in a low squat, and was raising itself machine-like to a full stand when Walter got to it and brought the bat smashing down into its shoulder with all the force he could muster. The snowy flesh looked soft and impressionable, like the snow presently drifting past the windows all around them, and Walter’s arms were instinctively ready for a great deal of give to follow the blow. When the bat connected, though, it was as if against packed snow which had been out in sub-zero temperatures for days, frozen into hard and unyielding ice. Shock reverberated painfully through his forearms, and for a moment he was totally confused, as if he had dropped a cat and in landing it had made a metallic clang rather than the soft thud the ear is trained to anticipate.

He was knocked slightly off his balance by the unexpected impact, and stumbled narrowly to the side of the thing. It had taken no notice of his attack, and was still slowly straightening itself out to a standing position. As Walter regained his balance and turned back towards it, the snow man’s shoulders stopped rising, slightly hunched over but fully standing. Its head was hanging loosely forward as if its neck were broken, facing the floor at an unnatural angle. Walter lifted the bat to strike again, though now a little discomforted by the distinct solidity of the snow man’s body. It felt like attacking a person far more muscular than himself. There was something else, too. Its movements and its posture were aberrant in a disquieting way. Standing within close proximity of a person of severe mental disturbance is a frightening experience for those not accustomed to it, and the snow man’s physical propinquity generated the same aura of trepidation.

Steeling himself, he raised the bat above his head, and as he did so his eyes drifted past the snow man to the hearth set in the wall behind it, where the fire danced brightly. With a slight smile, he looked back at the thing before him and brought the bat rushing down upon his head. If it could not be beaten by brute strength, perhaps it could be driven backwards into the fire, where the snow’s hardness would be of no protection.

But as the bat whistled through the air, the thing’s head twisted to face him with unnatural speed. Almost too fast to see, its arm jerked upwards, stopping the bat on one wide palm. For a split second Walter stared at its hand. It fingers were as thick as any three of his combined, and proportionately far too short for the enormous palm, though longer than any ordinary human digit. They closed around the bat. His eyes widened. With one extreme movement, the bat was ripped from Walter’s hands and flung across the room. It happened in an instant, done with a demonic strength far beyond any natural creature. Ambitions of driving it into the fire were vanished from his mind, but before he could so much as blink the snow man’s other hand closed around his throat.

He couldn't breathe. The grip was beyond breaking; it was like an icy metal clamp around his neck. He struggled mutely, battering weakly at the arm which held him. It did not give. He flailed his arms around blindly, unable to turn his head, reaching for anything he could get. His fingers scrabbled up the back of the couch. His vision was going blurry as his fingers found the end of the couch and then grasped about in the air above it. Then they hit something thin and metal. It was his floor lamp, which had been lit for his reading and thus whose incandescent light bulb was now hot enough to burn him. He grabbed a hold of it and yanked it towards him and into his field of vision. As things started to go black, he twisted it forwards and brought the bulb down on the thing’s arm.

Instantly, the pressure on his throat vanished and he fell to his knees. Air filled Walter’s lungs as he gasped and coughed, but he simultaneously scrambled backwards and into his kitchen, fear of the thing before him overwhelming him. It had recoiled angrily at the lamp’s touch and the accompanying sizzling sound, but it was moving towards him again. He jumped to his feet, still gasping for breath, and brandished the lamp in the snow man’s missing face. A moment later, he wondered why he had bothered, for it bore the same result as the bat. It was torn from his hands with supernatural speed and strength and sent crashing into a wall, leaving him defenseless and in a state of complete panic. He had nowhere to run, and he didn’t fancy hiding and waiting for it to find him, cornered, in a closet.

He turned tail and fled across the kitchen to the door which led into his garage. He fumbled with the doorknob for a moment, his hands shaking too bad to turn it. He looked back over his shoulder. The snow man was half-walking, half-limping across the room towards him, hunched forwards, one of its feet dragging. Its left arm stretched forward, reaching for him.

“C’MON!! OPEN!” Walter screamed at the door. Attacking it with both hands, it finally yielded, and he slammed it shut behind him, then flipped on the lights.

Two cars filled the spacious room, and all sorts of tools hung about the walls. One huge garage-door made up almost an entire wall, with about four feet of space around the edges of the cars on all sides. Walter looked across to the workbench on the opposite wall. He almost cried with relief. There sat his chainsaw, right where he had left it. He was in such a state of despair that he was expecting it to have somehow vanished or been lost.

Walter had one last scheme of resistance, and then he would have to take his chances outside. He jumped down the wooden steps onto the lowered concrete floor, falling to his hands and knees. Getting back to his feet, he ran to one of his cars and retrieved two tennis rackets from the trunk. As he dashed to the workbench, there was a great, booming thud from the opposite side of the garage. He ignored it, knocking things this way and that off the cluttered surface. Finally, he found the twine he’d been looking for. He hurriedly started lacing it through one of the tennis rackets, creating a harness for his foot. He slipped his foot into it and tied it down as there came an ear-shattering crash from the stairs. He looked up. The door had been knocked off its hinges, and the thing was just passing over the threshold.

He started lacing twine through the other tennis racket, but was so nervous that he dropped it. He started bending down to get it, and then changed his mind halfway to stand up and reach for the chainsaw. He looked over towards the stairs. The snow man was slowly coming down the steps. It was staring straight at him, or so it seemed. For a moment he was paralyzed by the sight of its hideously blank face, as he had been before when he first saw it. The sound of its rough foot scraping against the concrete floor broke the moment, and he starting frantically pulling at the cord to start the two foot chainsaw.

The motor was cold, and nothing happened. The snow man was half-way across the room, its arm once again stretched out towards him, its threatening fingers spread wide. He slipped his other foot into what there was of a harness on the other tennis racket, and started backing around the car towards the garage door, away from the oncoming horror of wintry origin. He slapped his palm against the button to open the garage door, ready to run. The other tennis racket was loose, but it held.

The great door hummed into motion, and at first there was no change in the atmosphere of the room. As it went up, a vertical wall of white slowly appeared behind it. It was nearly at the height of Walter’s stomach when the surface of the snow finally appeared, and a furious wind rushed through the opening. As the gap widened, snow followed the wind, and soon the storm filled the room with its urgent presence. The huge build-up of snow against the door collapsed partially inwards, burying Walter’s feet in snow.

In the midst of all this, the thing kept coming forwards, and at last the chainsaw roared to life, only a moment before Walter would have dropped it and ran. He wielded it before him menacingly, waving it through the air in a futile attempt to deter the snow man’s advance. It ignored the display of power, and for the first time Walter wondered whether it was really alive at all or merely empowered to movement by something else. He was in no position to research the topic, and as the thing’s frozen arm came within reach he danced forward and brought the spinning blade diagonally down on its shoulder.

Flecks of ice and snow flew everywhere as the chainsaw ripped down into its chest, so that Walter had no choice but to close his eyes. Its right arm fell to the floor, totally severed. He kept forcing the chainsaw deeper into its torso, and the cruel wind which whipped all around him combined with the bursts of ice to create a chaos which engulfed him absolutely, depriving him of both sight and sound. For a moment he was lost in the violent swirl, and his entire mind was left with nothing in that instant but his grip upon the snarling chainsaw, feeling the resistance of the thing’s flesh and pushing through it, screaming with exertion.

Then it ended. The chainsaw raced back into top speed as the resistance disappeared. Walter opened his eyes. The snow man’s upper half: its chest, arms, head, and shoulders, had been totally sawed off and lay separated upon the ground. Walter stood stock still, staring at its remains, and after a minute dared to breathe.

The lower half of the snowman toppled over onto the floor, and Walter relaxed his grip upon his weapon, now sighing with relief.

The wind and the chainsaw drowned out all other sound and thought, and the snow which blew into his face from outside was almost blinding. He took a step back from the door.

The second he did so, the snow man’s upper body jerked back into motion, the one arm dragging it towards the outdoors. Walter’s breath caught in his throat, and he stood, watching in renewed horror, as what was left of the thing dragged itself into the vast snow drift.

No sooner had it gotten itself onto the snow than it vanished. Walter blinked and stared at the spot where had just been, but now there was nothing there but an ordinary pile of snow, in no way different than the rest of the great wall before him. With the exception of the never-ceasing wind and snowfall, all was still. Walter remained where he was, breathing deeply, apprehensively, and watched out the drift.

All of a sudden, an arm burst through the wall of snow, ten feet away from where Walter stood. He jumped so badly that the chainsaw fell out of his hands and clattered to the floor, where it stopped running. The crusty, frozen hand closed and opened, clutching the air. It extended forwards as a shoulder broke away from the snow. Walter stepped backwards into the wall as the horrible face emerged from the drift, followed by the rest of the snow man’s crooked figure. It straightened mechanically and turned back towards him.

Walter was out of ideas. He had no more fight in him. He jumped into the drift and desperately tried to get on top of it. The snow gave way beneath him, and he collapsed into it face first. Shockingly cold snow flooded into his collar and sleeves. He pushed himself out of the drift and back onto the concrete floor of the garage. The thing was coming at him again, and sheer panic focused his mind. He lifted one leg and placed it firmly upon the snowy slope, and raised himself up. The makeshift snowshoe sunk a little, but it held, and he placed the other foot a little higher. The loose tennis racket wiggled around his foot but did not fall off.

He took a final step onto the top of the drift, and without looking back (for fear of what he might see) began trekking out into the blizzard, sliding his feet along the surface of the snow. Miraculously, the tennis rackets worked, supporting his weight and only allowing him to sink a couple of inches into the snow. He moved out along the perimeter of the garage, vaguely hoping to elude the thing in the woods behind his house. He had nowhere else to run. He had no other hope.

Passing around the rear corner of his garage into complete darkness, everything was suddenly doused in bright light. The abrupt flash of the flood lights made him jump, almost throwing him off balance and into the snow. That would have been a death sentence. He wouldn't have had time to get out of it.

He made his way slowly across his back yard to the tree-line. Halfway across the open snow, the flood lights turned themselves off, plunging him back into darkness. Opening his eyes wide, Walter kept moving forward, his arms held out in front of him, blindly searching for the trees. Just as his hands found the tree-line, the flood lights turned on again. His heart was racing at an audible pace, and he stepped forward into the trees without looking back. At least he could see. He tramped through the woods as fast as he possibly could, hindered by the loose snowshoes. Any sort of real speed was impossible. It was all he could do to progress at brisk walk without tripping over his own feet.

In all of this, Walter had never had the opportunity to put on actual shoes, and his feet, encased in socks long since soaked through with snow, were going numb. Nor had he been able to put on a coat, or any other sort of protection besides the sweater he had already been wearing, and was now shivering violently in the wicked wind chill.

But he kept moving, because of what was behind him.

He was now far enough into the trees that even if the flood lights were still on, they would not penetrate here. All was darkness, and the wind assailed him mercilessly, as in the outermost circle of Dante’s Hell. Frequently, he tripped over his enormous and unwieldy feet, but managed to catch himself on a tree. It was on the third such instance that, as he paused against the tree to catch his breath, he heard it again: that same, light scraping and dragging that he had first heard many hours ago as he had gone to get the mail. It was faint but distinct.

With a moan, he forced himself onwards, now utterly desperate. The eerie sound which pursued him grew louder with each step he took. It sounded only a few dozen feet behind him. He dared not look back. Shoving forwards, he passed through a final stretch of woods and emerged into an open field.

The beauty stopped him. Stars speckled the sky, their light showing a great, windswept snowscape. It was like standing on a glacier, as though the ice age had come again…and with it, all of its vicious creatures. The imminent noise behind him broke back into his mind, and with a start he tried to rush forward into the field. For a few seconds he was almost running across the surface of the snow, but then his haste caught up with him.

The loose snowshoe caught in a drift, and his foot slipped out of it. He was moving too fast to stop himself in time, and he plunged down into the snow.

Immediately, the wind vanished and all sound was cut off. The world vanished, replaced by absolute, unimaginable cold, pressing in from all sides. He was enveloped completely by the snow; he was drowning in it. He flailed his arms and twisted himself about until he could partially sit up, bringing his head back above the surface. Snow filled his eyes and the wind flew in his face and filled his ears.

He started blinking rapidly to clear his eyes, and as he did an image appeared, at first blurry and indistinct, then razor-sharp and heart-stopping.

The thing was just emerging from the woods. It was walking on the surface of the snow, lurching towards him, dragging its trailing foot behind. One arm hung limply by its side; the other reached for him, fingers claw-like and grasping. Its awful head hung forward, raised just high enough for its missing face to stare through him. His breath caught in his throat.

The wind rushed at him in a wild frenzy, seeming to emanate from the approaching horror. It howled through the night, wailing in his ears. He was suddenly taken by the bizarre notion that the wind was saying something, that it was carrying some awful, echoing voice.

I WANT YOUR FACE, it howled. GIVE IT TO ME. The words were agonized, torn from a tortured throat. It was only feet away, its hand reaching for him.

Walter started screaming. He turned over and tried to scramble away over the snow, but only became more deeply entrenched.

He twisted back to face it, raising his hands over his head.

It was upon him.

Ellen carried the tray of brownies into the den, where her husband Mark and their five-year-old son Jack were playing with toy cars on the rug.

“Look, Jack! Brownies!” She held them out towards him as she sat down beside them. Both parents smiled with affection as Jack reached out with both hands and took a brownie in each, then tried to cram them both into his mouth at once.

“Honestly though, love… have you ever seen such a storm? I can barely get out the door.”

Mark couldn't help but laugh at the expression on her face, eyes wide. Years ago, he had fallen in love with that face. “Never. It’s the storm of the century. I’ll say though, it’s a damned good thing I shoveled the walks earlier, or by now we really wouldn't be able to get out the door.”

She was watching Jack again, who had already finished the brownies and had gone back to zooming the little cars around the rug. The flames from the hearth reflected in her eyes.

Mark smiled. All was well.

The doorbell rang, loud and demanding. Immediately, Ellen looked up at him with confusion. “Who could that possibly be? Who would be out in this terrible weather?” He shrugged, equally at a loss. She got up and started walking towards the door.

“Look through the glass first, will you?” Marks called after her.

Coming up to the front door, she pulled the curtain slightly back and peeked out. It was their friendly neighbor through the woods, Walter Fenton, but he didn't look right. She stared for a moment. Something was definitely wrong. There was blood around the edges of his face, which seemed drawn in some places and saggy in others, as though it were an ill-fitting mask. His eyes were averted downwards, hidden in shadow.

She opened the door.

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