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Snow; His wife had slipped into an ice-cold catatonic state. Perhaps a visit to the country cottage would break the spell...

Fresh snow had fallen overnight. It snapped and popped under his feet, the sound crisp and sharp. Birdcalls rang out through the woods around him. He wondered how she would be today. Would she be sad? Would she be angry? Or, and his heart sank at the thought, would she be as frozen as the landscape around him?

The cottage appeared between snow-laden trees. It was small with one bedroom, a tiny bathroom and kitchen, and a cosy sitting room with a log fire. They had never minded its size and had spent many happy days there, huddling under the covers at night while they gazed out at the starlit sky, or keeping warm in front of the fire when they played board games.

They had been coming here every winter for the last six years, ever since Nicholas was born. This was the seventh winter since Nicholas's birth. And they were back again. Or rather, Anne was.

As advised by her doctors, he was staying at the inn in the village. The owner of the cottage had been more than understanding. They were welcome to stay as long as they wished.

Of course, he didn't tell her that Anne would be there on her own. A sad smile stretched his lips at that thought. The village being the size it was, he was sure the owner had found out by now.

He visited the cottage every day. He cooked and cleaned, and sat with Anne late into the night. Most of the time, she hardly knew he was there. He had never felt so helpless in his life.

It had been six months since the accident, yet Anne showed no signs of coming out of the catatonic state she had fallen into.

'Take her away from the city,' her psychiatrist told him quietly. 'Maybe a change of scenery would do her good.' He had not been so sure himself. Sometimes, she would snap out of her daze. And in those brief moments of lucidity, he almost thought he had her back. Then her eyes would cloud over and she would collapse in a frenzy of rage, beating him repeatedly with her fists, her mouth open in a scream that would never come. Sometimes, she sobbed and wailed so loudly that the neighbours came to the door, asking if everything was all right. They had not done so for weeks.

He reached the porch and rapped on the door. He waited a minute for footsteps he knew would not come. His breath formed a small white plume in the frosty air when he sighed and reached inside his coat for the key. The door opened onto a dark, cold hallway. He left melting snow on the carpet as he made his way to the front room.

She sat by the window, her blind gaze directed at the trees outside. Cold ashes sat in the grate, remnants of last night's fire. He felt a lump rise in his throat.

A fortnight ago, when he asked her what she wanted to do for Christmas, her face had shown the first glimmer of animation since that fateful day last summer. Then, in a voice so quiet he strained to hear the words, she said, 'The cottage'.

He moved to the fireplace. Her head turned.

She stared at him. And there it was. That look.

That expression of cold indifference that was like a knife in his chest.

'Who are you?' she said. He swallowed his bitterness and smiled gently. 'It's me, Jack. Your husband.' Her eyes remained as frozen as the scenery outside the window.

It was at times like these that he felt like shaking her. He fought down the urge to stride over to the window seat, grab her shoulders, and scream at her. Scream that he too had lost a son. Scream that it was not her fault the lorry skidded on the road that day and crashed into her car. Scream that he wished he had been there with them, on the way to their son's school play. Had been in the car when Nicholas's body was crushed in half. Had been by her side when she was pulled out of the wreck, alive and with barely a scratch. Had been there and not got stuck in the dreadful evening traffic, delayed by a last-minute call at the office.

He wanted to scream that she was alive and that he was glad she still breathed, however selfish and guilty this made him feel toward their dead son. He wanted to tell her that they could make another baby, one day. Maybe a little boy, like their Nicholas, or even a girl, the sister their son always wanted and never had.

Instead, he built a fire and went to the kitchen. He reheated yesterday's soup and fed her while she stared desultorily at the white landscape, dabbing her lips with a napkin like he used to do with their son.

The afternoon wore on. He tried to convince her to go for a walk. She remained silent and motionless by the window. He sat reading a book until the daylight faded and then made her favourite dish for dinner - pasta with tuna and olives. It had also been Nicholas's favourite.

He walked back to the village late that evening. It was a clear night. The sky was studded with countless stars, diamonds strewn across a dark, velvet carpet. There would be snow the next day as well.

He entered the inn through the side door to avoid the locals who stood gathered at the bar. He knew several of them by name. Although he felt boorish, he was grateful they had kept their distance.

Sleep claimed him well after midnight. His last thought was of the phone call he would have to make the next day. His firm had been considerate to date, but there was a large contract looming on the horizon and, although they had not actually said the words, they needed him on the team to clinch the deal. He did not have the heart to tell them that work was the furthest thing from his mind, now and for the foreseeable future.

Before he knew it, sunlight was streaming into the room and he awoke to the sound of robins singing outside the window. It promised to be a glorious day. A rare burst of energy filled his veins and he hurried downstairs into the breakfast room. As he left the inn, one of the locals waved at him from across the street. He found himself waving back.

He walked swiftly toward the path that would take him to the cottage. The phone call could wait. More birdsong erupted around him as he walked under branches laden with fresh snow. He raised his face to the sky and let the sun warm his face. He felt a lightness in his step he had not experienced for a long time.

He was not surprised to see the smokeless chimney breast - he'd had to light the fire every day so far. He knocked on the door and waited as usual. There was no sound from inside the cottage.

He used the key, walked in and stopped in the doorway of the sitting room. He looked to the window seat, a smile on his face. The smile faltered.

She was not there. He headed to the bedroom. The bed had been made, the covers neatly tucked at the corners. This was unusual in itself. A further surprise awaited him in the kitchen - she had washed up the dirty dishes. Heart thudding inside his chest, he went back to the sitting room. Dare he hope that she was coming back to him? He frowned. But where was she? He returned to the porch. It was then that he saw the footprints in the snow. They led from the bottom of the steps and disappeared into the woods. A smile curved his lips.

She had gone for a walk after all. He locked the door behind him and followed the tracks as they veered to the east, away from the village.

A quarter of an hour later, he was treading deeper into the woods. He looked around at an unfamiliar landscape and realised he had never come this far before. A trace of unease darted through him.

'Anne? Anne, can you hear me?' His words echoed across the silent trees. A flock of birds took off in the distance, wings rustling like a thousand dead leaves. Unease turned to alarm. He started to run. As he followed her ever more erratic tracks in the snow, stumbling over hidden roots and potholes, his ragged breaths formed insubstantial plumes in the cold air.

He found her sitting against a tree on the edge of a clearing.

'Anne?' He rocked to a halt and stared at her still figure, fear holding his feet to the ground. His voice dropped to a whisper, broken in grief. 'Anne'.

She turned slowly, her heavy-lidded gaze moving from the picture in her hands. His heart stuttered in his chest. For the first time in a long time, he stared into the eyes of the woman he loved and saw her look back at him.

'Jack,' she breathed.

He was at her side in a heartbeat. And as they held each other tightly, sobs racking their bodies while their shared anguish finally found physical release, Jack knew that this frozen winter would end one day. Like the change of seasons, they would welcome the warmth of summer once more.

The photograph fell to the snow-covered ground. It had been taken the year before at the cottage and showed them huddled in front of the fire, big goofy grins on their faces while they struggled not to laugh at the camera on the mantelpiece.

The brightest smile of all belonged to their dead son.

A.D. STARRLING IS THE AUTHOR OF THE AWARD-WINNING THRILLER SERIES SEVENTEEN. THE THIRD BOOK, GREENE'S CALLING, IS AVAILABLE TO BUY ON AMAZON, KINDLE OR IN GOOD BOOK SHOPS. ADSTARRLING.COM

He waited a minute for footsteps he knew would not come
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Sep 28, 2014
Words:1696
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