THE WIND HOWLED, and the cold snuck its way into the house, seething under the front door and through the cracks around the windows. Claws of ice extended from the gutters, so that it looked like something was crouched on the roof.
This was on Manitou Street, where the houses all dated back a hundred years and mature maples arched over the road and darkened the snowy yards with the conflicting shadows of their branches.
Ted Grayson read the paper every morning with breakfast. Not on a tablet or a laptop, but in print. He liked the ritual of it. The crisp turn of a page and the sizzle of butter in the pan. The smell of newsprint mixed with freshly ground coffee. He ate the same meal every morning—two eggs, over medium, wheat toast spread with raspberry jam, a cold green apple—and he read the newspaper in a particular order, front page to funnies. Because he comforted in routine.
He hated it when something disrupted that feeling. An unmade bed. A ding on his car door. Deer nibbling the heads off the flowers in his garden. His wife leaving her shoes about the house or his daughter sleeping in too late or playing her music too loud. A discrepancy in the contracts and receipts he studied as a financial advisor and bookkeeper.
That same feeling—of messy annoyance—came when he stepped outside and heard the bark of a dog. A sharp, persistent, yipping sound that bothered the air like a knife screeching back and forth across a plate. The morning was so cold and wind-blasted that his skin felt suddenly too tight and his eyes might as well have hardened to glass.
The dog belonged to Cynthia Dixon. She lived across the street, two houses over, in the Colonial with the cheap Masonite siding that was moldering at the seams and the driveway that hadn’t been shoveled. His own decorations came down promptly on December 26th, but she still had a browned Christmas wreath hanging from her front door.
The dog’s name was Napoleon, a Maltese. His fur was the dirty white of week-old snow, and Cynthia often said that he made so much noise because he was compensating for his runty size.
From her front porch, in a red fluffy bathrobe, Cynthia was now calling for Napoleon—saying, “Here, boy. Come on, boy. Come on.” She whistled. She clapped her hands. But the dog did not listen.
Because it had gone from barking at a cardinal roosting in the bare branches of a maple to barking at Ted. He hurried his way to the end of his driveway and slid the Star-Tribune from the holder mounted on his mailbox, and the dog barked at him so violently that its whole body shook.
He tried to ignore Cynthia, but she called out to him. “Good morning!”
He raised his hand stiffly before turning back toward his house.
Her voice followed him. “I’m dreaming of July about now.”
“I’m sorry?” he said, pausing his step. Speaking to her was always like tuning in to a half-sung song on the radio and trying to catch up with the tempo. She confused him.
“I’m dreaming about heat. I love heat.” She hurried down her walkway and crunched through calf-deep snow in the yard in her bedroom slippers. She scooped up Napoleon and pinched his snout shut and only then did he stop barking. “This time of year makes me wonder why I live here. I love to sweat.”
“It is brisk out,” Ted said.
When she crossed the yard, the bathrobe had opened and revealed a white flash of thigh. Her inky black hair—which she often wore in a ponytail—was loose around her head, resting on her shoulders like raven’s wings. They hadn’t spoken much in the two years she’d lived there, and not at all since her husband left her three months ago. Doug. She worked as a yoga instructor in the studio downtown, but what Doug did for a living was never known. He was one of those big burly handsome guys who looked like he probably kept in constant contact with his fraternity brothers and read Sports Illustrated on his lunch breaks at the bank or car dealer.
The half-light of dawn gave the ice-coated neighborhood a candled glow. Ted was used to having the neighborhood to himself at this hour, the windows up and down the street staring darkly. “You’re up rather early, aren’t you?” he said.
She laughed, expelling a scarf of steam from her mouth. “Mister, more like I’m up kind of late.”
Again, he didn’t know how to respond, and his creased face must have expressed this to her, because she said, “I’m about to go to bed.”
“Your driveway,” he said before he could help himself.
“What about it?”
“I’ll shovel it for you.”
“It’s fine. It’s only a few inches of snow.”
Both of them were shivering now, but they kept talking. “No. You’re going to drive over it and pack it down into ice and then it will be slippery. I’ll take care of it.”
“You don’t have to do that.” She cocked her head, as if looking at him for the first time. “But thanks?”
He had this compulsion—to neaten his silverware, to rip dandelions out of other people’s lawns and pick lint off their shoulders—that certainly applied here. But he tried to tell himself the offer was also in the spirit of charity. She was alone. She could use help. He was a generous, good person.
She pulled the hood up on her bathrobe and stepped forward—out of her yard, into the road—and he wasn’t sure whether he should meet her there. “It’s scary, isn’t it?” she said.
She nodded toward his paper and he unfolded it with a snap. The front page displayed a headline that read FULL MOON MASSACRE with a photo of police cars surrounding a meatpacking plant in southern Minnesota. The rack lights blazed red and the caption indicated the entire night shift had been killed.
“I think it was the smell of blood that did it,” she said.
“But I thought…,” he said, never getting the chance to finish the sentence, because a hard gust came and tore the paper from his hand. Its pages came apart and some scudded along the ice-clotted gutter and others took wing, fluttering toward the gray sky.
What did he think? That the infection was something that only affected other people. That this would never come so close to home. Certainly they would never experience such a thing in Northfield, Minnesota, a small college town with a frozen river curling through it and maple- and oak-clustered neighborhoods where nobody ever locked their doors.
Copyright © 2021 Benjamin Percy