…in which we meet a stranger all in white.
Mr. Wragg mysteriously came and went, slipping into the open garage, shuffling out again. Each trip, he weaved across the snowy yard a bit more.
No one paid much attention. The kids had a snowman to worship.
Stumbling in a drift, the fire chief arrived again.
“Wheeee!” he yelled, something between a fire engine siren and a squealing pig. “Wheee!”
Mary thought Mr. Wragg must be freezing, his face so red. Was it chapped? And he smelled funny too. Like old mouthwash.
Some grown-up glee animated him. Her daddy used to act like that sometimes. But she was little then.
Mr. Wragg squealed again and chased Timmy and Will round and round the snowman. His squeals changed to loud monkey noises, grunts and growls. Snow flew in the air from his boots. Mr. Wragg made a snatch for the boys, but tripped and fell, bellowing.
“You can run and run as fast as you can,” taunted little Will, “but you can’t catch us, Mr. Gingerbread Man!”
The two boys played Indian, counting coup, dashing forward to tag the fallen grown-up, then bounding away in delirious happy terror.
Mr. Wragg struggled to his elbows. Clumps of wet white fell from his hair. He stared for a long, strange moment at the snowman, then yelled, his strange lip quivering, and a sudden terrific excitement shone in his face.
“Alright! Alriiiiight! I got it! Let’s have extra fun!”
“What, Daddy? Where you goin’?”
Timmy turned to Will and Mary in confusion as his father humped it through the snow back toward the garage. He’d just been on a visit to the house, hadn’t he?
“Coming’ right back!” Mr. Wragg barked. “Just stay right where y’all are!”
The children heard the door slam. Too hard. Maybe the Christmas Eve wind blew it shut.
“He could be making some hot chocolate,” Will hoped out loud. “Hot chocolate would be cool.”
Timmy wiped his shining nose on a green nylon sleeve. He seemed a little more like a six-year-old now, without his dad, no snowman to build.
“We ain’t got hot chocolate. Mama can’t eat nothin’ chocolate.”
Mary had to ask why.
“’Cause chocolate gives her the squirts. She don’t eat nothing sweet but fruitcake.”
“Ewwww!” went Mary. “Fruitcake don’t taste like fruit or cake.”
“You’re stupid,” Will barked at her. “It tastes like fruitcake.”
Timmy gave Mary a sympathetic glance.
“If Daddy brings us some fruitcake,” he said, “I’m gonna spit mine in the snow.”
Mary and Timmy laughed.
“Maybe your daddy will get some doughnuts?”
“We could give the snowman doughnut eyes!” Mary offered. “And we could break a doughnut in two and make some little bitty ears!”
“That’s dumb,” groused Will. “Snowmen don’t have little bitty ears. They don’t have any ears.”
A door slammed. Mr. Wragg swayed back down the lawn.
He carried some kind of stick. And now the Wragg family’s little orange-and-white rat terrier, escaped out the garage door, romped alongside the lumbering grown-up. Sunny skittered like a dwarf antelope over the snow, barking and bounding, jubilant and confused all at the same time by the white stuff. Twice she leaped in the air to snap at windblown flakes.
“He’s bringin’ us a long stick of sugar cane!” Will guessed. “Sugar cane’s the best!”
It wasn’t sugar cane.
“It’s a BB gun,” Mary announced.
Breathless again and redder than ever in the face, Mr. Wragg huffed up. He cradled across his breast, sure enough, a gun. But not a BB gun. Mary didn’t know enough about firearms to recognize a double-barreled Remington 20-gauge.
Mr. Wragg’s coat pockets bulged with shells. A couple had fallen out as he clambered down the hill. They lay in the snow, one red, one green.
Mr. Wragg exhaled what looked like gunsmoke into the cold air.
“You boys… y’all come… whew… over here. With me.”
Mary, left out again, watched the trio trudge a little ways up the hill. Sunny stayed beside her, and she picked up the little dog. It trembled violently, and made frightened noises in the back of its throat.
Mr. Wragg and the boys stopped thirty feet or so up the lawn, on an incline slightly behind their newly built snowman.
“Can I shoot first, Daddy?”
Mary thought Timmy sounded different now.
“The grown-up always shoots first, Timmy.”
Mr. Wragg sounded different too, all the holly jolly Christmas suddenly gone right out of him.
“Can I shoot too, Mr. Wragg?”
Will’s face shone.
Mr. Wragg beamed down benevolently onto both boys over the stock of the shotgun. His white lip twitched. Silver fillings glinted in his smile.
“My boy goes first, Will. After me, I mean.”
Mr. Wragg’s index finger tapped the cold blue barrel.
“When Timmy hits his shot,” he added, “you’ll get a turn. But Timmy’s gonna let old Frosty feel some love first.”
Mary stood off from this business. Her arms hugged her chest, the squirming dog clutched tight. She felt very cold just that moment, but very hot at the same time. She always felt that way when she got confused.
Were they really going to shoot handsome Frosty? They’d just taken all this time and energy to make him…
Well… they wouldn’t shoot him for a minute, at least.
Up the snowy country road out front, a white jeep sputtered into view.
A blue-and-red eagle emblem emblazoned the door panels: U.S. Postal Service. Unblemished snow caked the vehicle’s top and hood. It wagged a tail of blue smoke.
The driver approached slowly. His front bumper just cleared the undisturbed powder on the road. The jeep’s four tires spun once with a funny slurring noise, but then its snow chains found buried blacktop.
“Yo! Uncle Sam!”
Mr. Wragg cheerfully waggled the shotgun high in the air.
In reply, the mailman waved a big blue-mittened hand, and the jeep choked to a stop in front of a pair of mailboxes. The mitten reached out a little side window of the jeep and opened the box for the Wragg family – a big shiny aluminum cube sporting a snow-pile cake on top.
Uncle Sam left the mailbox for the Rogers family untouched. That one wore scales of rust under the snowcap, and the loose bin nodded up and down once like a horse head when the mailman accidentally touched it.
Uncle Sam threw the jeep into gear and sputtered off down the county road, leaving two crushed gray stripes behind.
“Timmy, looks like we got a few more Christmas cards,” Mr. Wragg announced. “Baby Jesus in the mailbox!”
Then, with frightening speed and expertise, before the children could speak another word or think another thought, Mr. Wragg snapped the shotgun to his shoulder, pivoted, aimed, and jerked both triggers in rapid succession.
It scared the hell out of all three children.
Mary tumbled back onto her fanny, her hands over her ears. Sunny escaped and streaked for the house, struggling through a high drift along the way. The two boys simply jumped up and down, helpless with adrenaline, their faces bright as jack o’ lanterns.
Look at Frosty!
Mr. Wragg had conjured a magic trick. Abracadabra.
Only seconds ago, the snowman’s head sat right there, just so, his steel mouth shining and his big red fireman’s hat tipped back. The clown-white face with the orange carrot nose and the coal-black eyes beamed holiday happiness to the whole wide world.
Now Frosty’s head was gone.
The fireman’s hat, all lopsided, rolled clunkily away down the hill, half its long bill shot away.
Mary jumped to her feet and took off running back toward the Rogers house, her shoes sinking in snow. The little terrified rat terrier returned suddenly, bounding along beside her in wild flight, barking between leaps.
The boys screamed, out of their minds with excitement, flinging their arms in the air, dancing every which way.
“Me!” yelled Timmy. “Now me, Daddy!”
Mr. Wragg loaded new shells and handed over the gun to his son.
Mary tumbled headlong, running too fast for one drift. She fell in the snow, and the little terrier pushed its wide-eyed face up against hers, black lips curled in fear. Sunny tunneled under her body trying to hide.
“Dammit! Timmy, did you hear that?”
A metallic rattle.
“You missed the whole goddamn snowman, son! You missed the goddamn snowman and hit the goddamn mail box! You done gone and shot our Christmas cards! Baby Jesus got buckshot in his ass now!”
Timmy looked humiliated, knocked down in the snow, his jacket and hat too big, the gun oversized.
“Git up from there, Son. Here. Let’s put in two new shells. Now, boy, you line up that sight right square in the middle of old Frosty’s back this shot! Do like I showed you those times before – draw your bead, take a deep breath, let it out slow, then just squeeze the trigger. Don’t jerk…”
Mary kept her hands clapped over her ears. The snow somehow made things louder, too loud. In the cold, she could no longer feel her hands or ears.
She also couldn’t believe her eyes.
A bright scrap of the tinsel scarf she had personally knotted around Frosty’s neck slowly drifted down from the sky, out of nowhere, and settled across her legs.
The spot where the garland used to hang – the snowman’s top – no longer existed. Timmy’s shotgun blast had blown a huge round hole clear through Frosty. Mary could have pushed her whole head through the opening.
Blue shotgun smoke, and the smell of gunpowder, filled the air.
Mary also couldn’t believe what happened next.
Mr. Wragg handed Will the shotgun. Her brother Will.
Will had a shotgun!
It waggled dangerously in all directions until Mr. Wragg caught hold of the barrel with a big grown-man hand and held it steady.
Mary watched Mr. Wragg load two shells, both blood red, into the twin breeches. He showed Will the way to snap the barrel shut.
It sounded like a pecan breaking under a shoe.
Mr. Wragg stood close behind Will, supporting his arm under the barrel. The grown-up stopped for a minute to have a coughing fit. He spit a yolky glob of yellow like raw egg into the snow.
Mr. Wragg wiped his mouth and issued orders like a true SEAL, a true fire chief, clamping the wooden gun stock tight against Will’s shoulder.
“…or it will knock you flat on your ass like it did Timmy!”
Mary could still hear Mr. Wragg, but she closed her eyes tight.
“…or maybe knock your shoulder out of joint. So hold it right there just like you have it. That’s it. So… ready, son?”
Mary’s ears felt too cold to hear any more.
So she opened her eyes.
She saw her brother’s face, intense in concentration like an old man’s. His red hands seemed frozen to the long blue barrel.
“…so the little silver bead down there lines up between these two notches… and put that bead right where you want the blast to hit…”
Mary plunged her face down into the cold snow. She felt the puppy tremble under her. Poor little gun-shy Sunny…
“Damn! Looka that, boys!
Mr. Wragg’s shout popped Mary’s head up. She had trouble seeing through a damp clump of snow stuck to her face.
Damp clumps fell off Frosty too.
Will’s shot had ripped through the snowman at the exact spot where torso and base joined. The gaping round wound glistened for a long moment, a surprise to everyone. Then the snowman leaned slowly to the right, hesitated as if fighting for its life, leaned a little more, dropped one of its rakes.
In two more heartbeats, it toppled.
Frosty the Snowman… was dead.
“Hooray!” cheered Timmy. “You got ’im, Will! Hooray!”
A door slammed over at Elmore Rogers’s house, nearly as loud as the shotgun blast.
“Hey!” rose a voice. “Theh HEY!!”
Mary watched her daddy limp awkwardly down the slick trail across the wooded lot. He wore his work boots, untied, and he was bent nearly double, hurrying at a hobble. Elmore’s huge bandaged thumb waved like a crab claw.
“Whagg? Whath the heck? Whath the heck you doin’ waving thath shotgun aroundth my kidths?”
Mary hated when her daddy yelled.
“We’re assassinating a goddamn Muslim snowman, Elmore. Cat got your eyes?”
Here it came, Mary thought.
Seemed like grown men always hollered and carried on. The closer her daddy got, him with that big bandage on his hand and tripping in those horsey boots around the yard, the louder the words rose.
At least the boys shut up. The gun shut up.
Sunny, poor baby Sunny, still trembled like somebody had shot at her instead of the snowman.
Mary snuggled her bundled body over the terrier, lifting the noble little face to her own and away from the argument. She turned her delicate head, stared away, across the road, into the woods.
She saw something.
Way down past the mailboxes, across the road, beyond the railroad track, deep in the blue shadows of the snowy woods, something moved.
She’d never have seen it at all if she hadn’t been protecting Sunny.
Somebody stood back in the trees, watching.
He wore a white coat the same color of the snow, and a curious pair of white gloves like waiters on TV in fancy restaurants. He had on a white hat, like a cowboy, pressed tight down on his head. The only thing not white on his whole body might have been his boots, but the snow covered them so they looked invisible. And dark shades, not white ones, covered his eyes.
The sunglasses made him spooky. He looked like a white praying mantis.
The man seemed to have simply appeared there, out of thin air, the way the snow appeared last night.
Frosty disappeared. The man in the woods appeared.
Sunny whined and pushed her black nose back under Mary’s coat. Her daddy and Mr. Wragg now yelled very loud at one another. Mary couldn’t understand half the words her daddy tried to say. His mouth was bleeding again.
The man in the woods looked directly at Mary, then at the two boys, then at the quarreling men, nose to nose in argument.
The face of the man in the woods did not change. His posture did not change. Nothing about him changed, and no vapor of breath seemed to come out of him, the way it gushed from everyone else.
Did he even breathe?
Sunny all at once made a very curious noise in her throat, a sort of frightened but angry whine.
Mary sat up. She faced her daddy and Mr. Wragg, yelling so loud at the same time, their faces red, their fists balled.
“Who’s that man?”
Mary pointed her finger into the woods.
The adults and the two boys all actually seemed a bit relieved at the interruption. They allowed themselves to look in the direction she pointed.
“Whath man, honey?” her dad asked, his voice tight.
“I don’t see nobody,” growled Will. “It’s your imagination.”
The man in the woods had vanished. He was gone.
Like their snowman.
Except for one telltale glimpse. Elmore saw it too.
Strange. He thought of one of those shows on TV where people sighted that thing – what was it called?
The Abominable Snowman. Or Bigfoot. Whatever.
Elmore glimpsed a heavy figure in white sliding from sight. It vanished completely into the snow that filled the woods.
A branch quivered up and down where it passed.
That was all.