Excerpt

Blizzard

Marie Vingtras, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Blizzard,by Marie Vingtras, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman. In this heart-pounding race-against-time thriller, a woman searches for a child in an Alaskan snowstorm, imperiling both their survivals as the weather's extreme conditions bring out the best and worst in everyone surrounding.

Bess

 

I lost him.

I let go of his hand to retie my laces and I lost him.

My foot was loose in my shoe, I wasn’t about to waste time taking it off, and I couldn’t be falling over now. Damn laces. I could have sworn I’d tied a double knot before leaving.

If Benedict were here, he’d have said I wasn’t paying attention, he’d have been clear I wasn’t doing things right, meaning his way. The only way, in his eyes. Oh, sure. He can think that all he likes, but there’ll always be as many ways to do things as there’s people on earth.

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Never mind that: How long has it been since I let go of his hand? One minute? Two? When I stood up, he wasn’t there anymore.

I swung my arms all around to try to grab him, I called his name, I yelled as loud as I could, but all I got back was the whistling wind. I already had a mouth full of snow and my head was spinning.

I lost him and I can’t ever go back home. He wouldn’t understand, he doesn’t have all the facts. If he’d asked the right questions, if I’d answered him truthfully, he’d never have trusted me with the boy. He decided not to say a thing, keep up the charade, believe that I could do what he was asking me to do. And here all I’m doing is making things worse, adding to this hell.

As if I could help it.

Benedict

 

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Come to think of it, I’d say I could tell something was off. A bit like when you get the feeling a bug’s buzzing by your ear, maybe. You swat at it, but it turns out it’s an alarm, the alarm in your head, quiet as can be. It won’t make you jump, there’s just enough to keep you from a good night’s sleep, though.

So I didn’t sleep much and I bolted awake. Did I have a feeling right then, or was it only the draft coming in from below? I couldn’t guess. I was so tired after those days checking the traps, stowing equipment, and getting ready before the bad weather comes.

I’ve always been fond of storms—right before them, especially, when you’ve got to gear up for everything, seal all the gaps, haul in enough wood to last a few days, and hunker down as best as you can. And then, once the storm’s come, I just curl up with the CB radio sputtering, a hot mug of coffee to warm my hands, and a fire kicking up a fuss, what with the snow and the wind coming down the chimney.

I hear the house groaning and shifting like an old man. Sometimes I get it in my head it’s talking to me, the way it likely talked to my old folks and their own old folks before them, generations and generations all the way back to the very first Mayer who put down roots here, on land no tree could grow on, to prove that he knew something nature didn’t.

The house’s still standing and I’m nice and warm inside, like a diamond in a box. Problem is, I’m all alone.

When I came downstairs, the door was wide-open and the snow was already blowing in by the shovelful. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I yelled out for Bess, asked her why she didn’t shut the damn door, shouted that we’d all be dead of cold no thanks to her, but I got no answer. And then I saw the little boy’s boots weren’t there and that their jackets weren’t hanging on the rack.

Then I knew she’d gone out with him, never mind that even a girl as different as her ought to know that you never go outside when the blizzard’s at its worst.

 Cole

 

You listening, God? I swear to you I’ll never drink another drop. Whatever that bastard gave me is killing my head. “Rotgut” doesn’t even begin to cover it. No feeling left in my throat, and my stomach’s an unholy mess. That stuff will make a nun out of you, and I don’t even have the getup for that.

I was barely out of the bathroom, no thanks to the shits from the booze, when I heard someone hammering at the door. No good Christian would be outside in weather of this sort, so I bundled myself up as best as I could and grabbed my gun. No telling what could be running around in those woods.

I hollered, “Who is it?” as if a bear could shout back, but there was too much wind out there to hear a thing. The pounding only got worse. Well, no choice now. I turned the lock, got the door open with my foot, and stuck the barrel through just in case.

“Don’t you shoot, Cole. It’s me.”

Benedict. I’d know that deep, booming voice anywhere. He was covered in snow—it was on his shoulders like some two-bit general’s epaulets—and he already had white-tipped eyelashes with bits of frost hanging off them like some stripper all done up. I’m only saying that because I saw a picture of one in a magazine at Clifford’s. A pretty face with little drops at the ends of her big fake lashes that made her look like a silly life-size doll. Some men must like that.

Benedict shoved his way in and got the door shut behind him. Didn’t even pull off his hat. He was leaning on the wall, running his hand over his face. Looked like he’d just seen a ghost.

“Bess and the kid are gone. They’re out there.”

Them? Out in the storm? The idea was so wild I let out a guffaw.

“Now, now, Benedict, that’s an awful long way you’ve come just for a joke.”

He shot back, “You think I’d go outside in this weather for a laugh?”

I took a good look at his face and I could tell he was dead serious. Well, damn. If it was true, then they really were in the shit. The kid’s all of ten years old, that pipsqueak, and the woman wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. So I asked him: “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

I didn’t like the sound of what he said next one bit: “What do you think? You and me are going to go find them.”

That right there was worse than Clifford’s hooch. It almost made me want to take another swig.

Freeman

 

I couldn’t sleep a wink with this storm. The wind’s blowing so hard around the house that I don’t see how it’s still standing. There’s the gusts coming in on one side and the snow heaping up on the other that’s got the walls in a vise. Lord knows how I’ll make my way out when it’s all past. The first time I weathered a storm here, it was two days before I could get outside. There was a good five feet of snow in front of the door, and those window shutters I’d been foolish enough to shut weren’t opening. “Rookie mistake,” Benedict said later on. I might be an old man, but I still had to climb up to the attic and come down through the dormer with a rope. That wasn’t easy going. I popped my shoulder out on the way down, and I still had to shovel snow with my good arm before I could find something to keep the other one where it belonged. This time I decided I’d clear as much as I could around the house, maybe that’d be enough.

Staying alive isn’t something you can just figure out as you go. Where I come from, nobody has to wonder if snow’s going to shut them in. There’s no snow, not one flake, and if I had the choice, with these joints of mine, I’d sooner be there than in this place. The cold, the damp—that’s no good for this old body. That’d really be something, to have lived through everything I did only to die now, rotting like a moldy old branch.

What am I doing here, anyhow? I reckon if He’s bent on us meeting and on me being buried at the end of the world, then He has His reasons for it. He knows I’m a sinner, but if God in all His mercy has a plan for me, then I’ll wait on the answers. I’m frozen, and I’ll still wait as long as I have to. Lord knows, I don’t have much say in the matter. 

 Bess

 

I don’t see a thing. The snow’s swirling all over the ground, and when I look up, the whole sky is full of specks. The air’s got no color to it, like every single tint’s gone, like all the world’s been watered down.

I wish I’d listened when Benedict was trying to tell the kid how blizzards work. Maybe I’d have known what to do, other than not going out, but what’s done is done.

I’ve got my back to the wind. I’m leaning against what I reckon’s a rock. Unless it’s a bear hibernating . . . Oh, that’d take care of things.

I can’t even decide what to do next, but if I don’t get a move on, I’ll end up a snowman. I’m not as stupid as that. I know how much of a mess I’m in. I need to keep going, find the kid, or head home to get Benedict.

But if he sees that the kid’s lost, he’ll go right to pieces. I can’t go back, I can’t tell him what happened: that’s too much. He’s got both feet on the ground, but some things will knock even men like him for a loop. Anyway, I can’t leave the kid all on his own.

Which way do I even go? Straight ahead, I guess. That’s what he must have done. Kids can be stupid sometimes, do things without thinking, just by instinct, even a little genius like him. So if I don’t think, I’ll just walk straight ahead. That’s got to be the best thing to do.

Benedict

 

Cole’s taking his sweet time getting ready. He’s dragging his feet.

Can’t really blame him, though. Who’d want to go out in this weather? Living here’s hard enough when there’s no snow, but in the worst of a storm you’re in the belly of the beast—that’s what Freeman says. I didn’t go by his place. He’s too old and his eyes aren’t that good. What he came here for, I can’t even guess. I let out a guffaw when he showed up two years ago with his van and his brand-new gear. Like one of those retirees who comes up to have himself a good time.

Living here, though, in a quiet corner like this, all alone—that’s not really something you hear about around these parts. And he’s the only Black man for miles. He sticks out just as much as Bess did when she settled here in a miniskirt and those white cowboy boots of hers. For his age he’s in better shape than those boozers Clifford or Cole ever would be, but still he didn’t look one bit like a guy here to get a taste of the wild. I figured he wouldn’t last the winter in his mittens and his beanie hat. He was always tight-lipped about what he’d done before coming here, apart from being drafted for Vietnam. Maybe that’s how he stuck through the first winter.

We didn’t help him then. Around here, we’ll help out our fellow men, but we’re not going out of our way for a stranger. I did lend him a hand the first time he had to change the drive belt on his snowmachine, though. He’d bought it off of Clifford, just as crooked as always. Some things it’s wisest not to buy used here. If someone’s getting rid of it, there’s a good reason why. It broke down so many times that Freeman had to go through every page of the manual that Clifford gave him. He’d never taken it out of its shrink-wrap. Makes me wonder if he knew how to read. Freeman took the whole machine apart, and after he’d put it back together, it worked even better than my own—not that that’s saying much. Anyone could see Clifford wasn’t all too happy. That crook thought he’d pulled a fast one on Freeman by selling him a dud, but the joke was on him. And that was when I finally saw that, for an old man, Freeman was awfully resourceful. When he banged up his shoulder, he turned up at my door, wasn’t even moaning, just asked if I could take him to see a doctor because he couldn’t drive on his own. I wasn’t all that keen on driving a good fifty miles to the free clinic, but I took him anyway. He’d gotten through his first winter here; nature wasn’t going to get one over on him. Maybe, in a way, it’d made its peace with him.

I can’t say as much of Bess, or the kid. One day she said that it was a real laugh, the two of them around these parts. That was her way of saying what everyone was thinking: the two of them had no business being here. I don’t know if nature’s taken a liking to them or if it’s going to spit them out alive or dead. All I know is it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have brought them here. I know I promised the kid’s mother that I’d keep him with me, but I shouldn’t have. And now I’m out in a blizzard, looking for a kid and a girl in the middle of nowhere.

Cole

 

One thing I’ll say: I had no desire to go out there. Only an idiot would do that.

Sure, I wasn’t hinting as much to Benedict, but odds are they’re already frozen dead or at the bottom of one of those crevasses in the ground by the lake, or worse. It’s been a long winter, and some of the animals out there have an awful lot of teeth.

I even let Clifford know over the CB radio and he said not his problem, not sticking his head outside in this weather. No surprise there, although I figured he wouldn’t mind finding the girl, if not the kid. I tried my darndest to drag my feet. I rummaged around for my warmest socks and also those fancy little silk liners that old Magnus always told me to put on first, even if they’d been darned so many times that it was only by the grace of God they didn’t fall apart. Course, we’d still end up frozen worse than Eskimos.

Benedict was waiting on me, leaning on the doorframe. He looked like he’d aged ten years in a split second. Knowing they were out there had to be the worst thing he could imagine, and he was one to know. Men caught in spring runoff, crushed flat by the tree they were chopping, found stiff like twigs in ditches—he’d seen more’n his fair share when he was little and the sawmill was still there. A kid and a pretty woman lost in a blizzard, though? Best as I can recollect, no such thing’s happened before. And Benedict knew just why. ’Cause there’s no sense in that, and everyone here’s got some sense to them, because each thing you do costs you and Mother Nature never goes easy on you. That’s the deal you get. You want to live here? Clean air, big game, plenty of fish? Full freedom, nobody to answer to, maybe not even a soul in sight for weeks on end? You can live here on your own, all on your own.

The day you find yourself face-to-face with a grizzly or your rig won’t start when you’re miles from your place, though, you got to accept that nobody’s there to help you, nobody but yourself. That’s not something that damn girl can get in her head.

I finally found those socks. I grabbed two dozen cartridges for the rifle. Benedict had his with him, too, and I was going to open the door when I remembered Clifford’s hooch. Not a bad thing to bring on such a harebrained expedition, that. This way I won’t even feel the worst of this mess.

Bess

 

It’s a real struggle to keep moving no matter what, and I’m not sure it’s getting me anywhere. There’s moments, out here in the snow, when I could swear I saw something move, but the second I look again, it’s gone. This damn snow won’t just come straight down like nice, normal rain. So I don’t lose my head, I try to remember California, the beaches our parents took us to every Sunday after church, all four of us by the ocean, having sandwiches and

playing cards and the sun making us sleepy.

I can’t make myself feel that heat anymore. Around here, even in the summer, the sun doesn’t even warm your bones. Just makes you think you’re warm, but you’re never actually warm. You never think you’re baking in the sun.

Sometimes I dream about the Pacific: those long rolling waves, the salt on my skin, and the spray in my hair. All there is here is fresh water, gallons and gallons of it, lakes and rivers and streams and brooks and falls. Water, water everywhere, all the time: ice floes, snowmelt, crystal clear or muddy in the spring. And cold, always cold. Nothing you’d ever want to skinny-dip in.

I’d give anything to sunbathe on the beach again, listen to the waves crashing on the sand. It’s funny: I can still remember the coconut smell of the sunscreen Mommy put on when I was little so she could tan and not burn her milky skin. She was so pretty back then, like a movie star. We weren’t all that well-off, but she was always elegant. She was a small woman with the looks and the stomach of a fifties film star. Daddy was so in love with her that he said even Rita Hayworth didn’t have anything on her. I didn’t get what he was saying about some old actress who died the year I was born, but Mommy seemed to really like the sound of that.

Both Cassandra and he were blond, almost white-haired—that was the Scandinavian side showing. And I’d gotten Mommy’s red hair, like a real Irish American. It was a burden, but everyone always knew who we were from a mile off. “Look who it is: that’s Elizabeth Morgensen and her mother.”

When I was a teen, I was so scared I’d end up a bad copy of her. I didn’t have my boobs yet and my hips were as skinny as a boy’s. I wasn’t anything close to a sex symbol, not even an old one. Then her hair went gray overnight. She tied it in a long, faded braid and it was stained yellow at the end from nicotine. She was always dressing to be seen, and then, snap, she let herself go. Why hang on to bits of cloth or tubes of lipstick when what mattered most was gone?

I always did my best to forget the dead, and now I was trying to forget that side of her too. And then I gave up just like her, but in my own way. I guess all we had in common was our looks. But I still can’t shake her.

The kid’s out there, and Lord knows I’ve got to save him. I can’t make the same mistake twice.

__________________________________

From BLIZZARD. Used with the permission of the publisher, ABRAMS. Copyright © 2023 by Marie Vingtras, translation copyright © 2024 by Jeffrey Zuckerman.




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