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Steady as the Snow Falls(9)

By:Lindy Zart



Never married, no children. There had been a woman-Nina Hollister-who'd  been with him for years, and when he lost everything, she went with it.

He quit playing football five years ago.

Rarely seen in public for the past three, said to live in the Midwest, but that was unconfirmed.

Her mind tripped over the one fact she couldn't compute, not yet. She'd  blinded herself to it. The truth was a dark taint, an oozing blob of  black she couldn't outrun for long. And how did Harrison feel, living  inside of it? Breathing in the darkness, choking on it. It was true that  with the advancement of science and medicine, what Harrison had wasn't  as life-threatening as it once was, but it was still there, working its  evil magic. Destroying.

If Beth thought about it, dwelled on his reality, she wouldn't leave the  house all day, and she would never return to Harrison's home. And that  would be wrong, that would seem like she was judging something she  didn't understand-plus there was the issue of being sued. Little things  she'd noticed yesterday made sense where they hadn't prior, and it put  an ache in her throat.

Beth uncurled from where she was lying and left the bed, her legs and  arms sore along with her heart. Heavy. Sad. Flashes of him pictured and  cataloged throughout the years besieged her as she stumbled to the  bathroom. His happy brown eyes as a child, the determination in his jaw  as a teenager. How he exuded confidence and drive during college. The  cocky flare to his grin as his professional football team won and won  and kept winning. When Beth's eyes were too exhausted to read, she  watched clips of games, something she hadn't had any desire to do  before. Harrison made it interesting, his movements graceful and strong,  his form fierce and unconquerable on the football field.

He wasn't good at football-he was brilliant.

She brushed her teeth, staring at her puffy face and eyes in the mirror.  The more recent photographs showed a broken man. Physically struggling,  but also mentally, emotionally. Bitterness honed into his features,  glaring from his eyes, thinning his mouth. Beth spit out the toothpaste  and cursed, putting her weight on her wrists against the countertop.

She mashed a finger to her short nose and made a face at herself. "Stop  feeling sorry for him. You have work to do. Get to it," she told her  image.

Resolved to separate her emotions from her job, Beth spent the morning  going over her notes, jotting down questions, rereading articles, all  with a stiff face and a sick sensation in her gut. Even the two cups of  coffee, hot and robust, fell flat against her taste buds. When it was  time to go to Harrison's, she stopped in front of the door that led to  the attached garage, her instincts telling her not to go. Nausea grew.  Beth inhaled and exhaled. She'd told herself the same thing yesterday,  but for different reasons. And she'd gone.

Beth left the house.

The drive took hours at the same time it took seconds. Hills and trees,  all bedecked in glittering white, surrounded her. She could feel her  heart pounding, powerful and filled with dread. Her fingers tightened  and relaxed on the steering wheel, again and again. The sky was blue and  cloudless, but she knew there was snow in the forecast again for later  that day. Yesterday she was afraid because she hadn't known what to  expect-today she was afraid because she did.

Everything was different. The house took on an ominous cast. The windows  were eyes, the door a mouth posed in a shriek of horror. The landscape  turned barren. Tree limbs became arms, reaching for her, reaching for  life to steal and keep as its own, until it was dead like the tree. It  was all twisted, warped.

It was worse inside.

The walls cried with sorrow. Their pain could not be covered up with  memories. Memories for no one to witness, or enjoy. She imagined  Harrison coughing up blood, and that blood seeping from the corners of  the ceiling to drip down its length. Pooling on the floor, alive and  venomous. His skin broken out in oozing sores, red and angry and  vengeful. Beth had a perverse impulse to check the cupboards and  refrigerator, to prove there would be paltry supplies, barely enough on  which to survive. He was waiting, biding his time. He'd given up.         

     



 

She understood then-the house was a coffin, and he was the corpse within.

Beth stood in the foyer, imagining unseen disease crawling along the  walls and floors, heading straight for her. She wanted to turn and flee,  and she couldn't.

Harrison found her like that, still as stone, unable to move, her eyes  continually shifting over her surroundings. He wore a red shirt that  clashed with his hair, and black jeans. White socks covered his feet,  but no shoes. His eyes seemed blacker, bleaker. Older. Like they had  seen his destiny and knew there was no way to bypass it. She stared at  his face, seeing beyond the skin and into his insides, picturing the  rot. What was it like, living with something that was slowly destroying  him? Did he hurt all the time? Was he currently in pain? He had to be  exhausted, mentally and physically. The thoughts he must have …

What was it like to meet his demons and know they could one day slay him?

"I wasn't sure if you would come back."

"I told you I would." Her voice lacked strength.

Understanding tightened his features as he studied hers. "But you thought about staying away."

"Yes." She clenched her hands into fists, an unconscious motion, the  action that of someone illogically afraid of the unfamiliar. Beth  loosened her grip, immediately feeling bad.

His eyes dropped to her hands, a muscle bunching in his jaw. "You can't catch it by touching things."

"I know that." Beth's voice was a whip, sharp and striking. Her mind  went back to the coffee she drank the day before, the mug she used. Stop  being crazy, she told herself. It didn't change her thoughts. She  didn't know him as a man, as a person, and therefore, she couldn't trust  him.

Harrison's expression scorned, even as it said her reaction was one he'd  endured before. "What's changed from yesterday? I'm the same. You're  the same."

"It's not the same," she denied. Weakly. Shamefully.

Shadows shifted over his features, drifted into his eyes. "And now you  know why I'm here, without a television, without contact with the  outside world. You're the embodiment of every prejudice I got tired of  dealing with."

"I'm sorry, I just-I've never known anyone before with … it."

"That you know of. Most people don't announce it."

"I'm sorry," she said again.

His upper lip curled, telling her what he thought of her remorse.

Beth took a deep breath and continued. "You said you hired me because I didn't know who you were."

"Yes." His eyes went back to her hands and stayed there. "And that's true."

"But that isn't the only reason, that isn't why you specifically contacted me. You tricked me." The words sounded petulant.

"How did I trick you?" His gaze hadn't left her hands. He seemed fascinated with them.

"You must have researched me. How else would you know about my degree,  that I was freelance? How else would you know that I had no idea who you  were? How many others have you done this to?" Her pulse was out of  control, in tune with her thoughts.

Harrison's gaze finally lifted, and it was bitingly blank.

"You lied by omission. You had me sign a contract under false pretenses.  What is this-some kind of sick game to you?" Beth had gone too far. She  knew it as soon as the words left her mouth, as she watched the color  leave his skin. What she said was cruel, and she stunned herself by it.

"I'm s-sorry," she stuttered. "I don't know why I said that. I didn't  mean that. I shouldn't have said it. That was mean to say." Beth shook  her head. "I don't know what to think, what to do."

"Nothing."

Beth blinked. "What?"

"You think nothing. You do nothing."

She laughed shakily, running her eyes along the bare walls and empty  spaces. Looking everywhere but at Harrison, and then she did, and she  couldn't turn her eyes past him. "You make it sound easy, like my world  wasn't just rocked by being introduced to yours."

Other than a flicker in his eyes, Harrison had no reaction. "Would you  have said yes to writing the book if you knew who I was beforehand? If  you'd known what I have, would you have even considered working for me?  Would you be here right now?"

"I don't … " Beth looked down, swallowed. Her throat had a lump in it that seemed to grow as he spoke. "I don't know."

Harrison stepped closer, a thoughtful look on his face as he casually  crossed his arms. He was mocking her. His stance, his expression.  Calling her a fool without saying a single thing. "Let's look at it this  way then-who in their right mind would agree to write a book about a  person they know nothing about? Who would sign a contract on nothing  more than assumptions and promises? Who would show up at a stranger's  house in the country, knowing nothing about the person inside?         

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