Jessa paces across the cashew-coloured wall-to-wall broadloom of her cramped off-campus apartment, pursued by the cloying smell of her Chapagetti instant noodles. She is spending the evening alone, drinking flabby wine and resenting her ex-roommate Lena for getting into an exchange program and moving to France. This is how she has spent most evenings for the past seven weeks. She is resentful because it was her, not Lena, who first discovered the program, then spent the month leading up to the deadline daydreaming about sitting in a café in Nantes and falling in love with a brooding sculptor, while Lena actually compiled and submitted an application. The injustice of this burns Jessa like a chronic case of acid reflux.
Her phone emits a short whistle. “Get here,” the text reads. It’s Wednesday, which means nineties karaoke at the pub, where Jessa usually loves to unironically belt out hits from the time of her birth. Tonight, she doesn’t feel like leaving the house, but she also doesn’t feel like ever again missing out on anything that might turn out to be exciting. With a resigned slump of her shoulders, she laces up her puffy boots and steps out into the crisp air.
The undisturbed snow glitters in the light of street lamps, their buzz sawing through the still night. The air is so cold it stings Jessa’s hands and face. This sleepy residential street full of narrow Victorian houses sits next to campus, a few blocks from its pulsing heart. This is where Jessa always finds herself: adjacent to the action.
She walks down the centre of the street, where the blanket of snow is flawless. No cars will cross her path. Her neighbours all have small kids, so instead of going out in the evenings, they prefer to bore Jessa with their chatty explanations about how it’s hardly worth having to pay for a babysitter and parking just to go to the movies, which, by the way, have gotten so expensive. She crosses the street, toward the single storey yellow-brick elementary school at the end of her block, and looks up at the moonlit field. It looks as if a blizzard is raging there, but the air around Jessa is undisturbed. The hairs in her nose freeze into tiny icicles. It takes several seconds for the scene to come into focus and start making any sense.
Behind the school, in the gleaming white oval at the centre of the running track, a dozen, maybe fifteen, snowmen are throwing snowballs at each other. Not the round-bellied, carrot-nosed snowmen of Christmas carols, with pebble smiles and scarves wrapped around non-existent necks. These are man-shaped mounds of snow, with arms and legs and heads, all smooth and featureless, like Play-Doh figures come to life. Jessa moves out of the streetlight’s beam, not wanting to be spotted, but unsure by whom. She can’t stop watching, afraid to breathe or blink. They can’t see me, she thinks. They have no eyes or ears. The thought is so grotesque and funny that a chuckle escapes her chapped lips.
The snowmen are bending, scooping, rolling snow in their mitten-shaped hands, throwing it, then bending again to restart the mesmerizing cycle. Some of the snowmen absorb the snowballs that land on their torsos with a muffled thud, while others disintegrate before her eyes, injured arms falling into a soft, powdery heap, only to reform moments later into another loose-limbed white marionette.
Jessa sees a man on the far side of the field staring at the scene, laughing to himself. His rosy face peeks out of a charcoal parka, and she can see the puffs of his shallow breath. She opens her mouth to call to him and break the spell, but she’s interrupted by the crunch of footsteps behind her. She whirls around to see a couple walking toward her, embroiled in cozy conversation, arms linked. They walk past, strolling along the fence separating the snowy madness from reality as Jessa knows it. They don’t look up or appear to notice anything at all.
Jessa wonders for a second if the snowmen are invisible to them, when a loud crack ruptures the silence and she flinches, ready to duck or crouch or run, dread rising in her chest. She turns toward the sound and sees the man in the charcoal parka. He’s swooning now, and the remains of a jagged, snow-encrusted rock of ice lie on the road in front of him. As the man turns toward her, she sees a crimson thread trickle down his temple, where he was struck.
Jessa’s breath catches in her throat. She’s forgotten how to swallow, and her mouth is too dry to make sounds. An icy hand squeezes her heart as she comes to a ghastly realization: They can hurt us. The snowmen aren’t looking at the man. They almost knocked him out, but they don’t even know he’s standing there. Are they alive, Jessa wonders, or are they just a kind of weather? An unseeing storm that destroys without feeling?
The man staggers, weaving as he hurries down the street, away from Jessa and the swirling mass of animated snow. Jessa is slower to react, her body leaden as she spins on the heels of her boots, snow squeaking under her. She looks around for the couple, to see if the loud noise roused their attention, but they’re gone. She tries to run quietly, but each footfall echoes with a loud crunch, her breath and the swish of her pants amplified in her ears. She runs past the school, down one side street, then another, weaving through laneways until she reaches the strip of bars marking the western edge of the campus.
She sees three pink-cheeked girlfriends, arm in arm and stumbling, and she tries to calm her ragged breathing. The sight of drunk students makes her knees buckle with relief. A group of smokers spills out from the grey façade of a nondescript bar Jessa knows would be neither fancy nor divey enough for her friends, the refrain from “Sweet Home Alabama” trailing behind them.
Jessa leans against a wall, elated to be among flesh-and-blood people. She brushes past the cluster of smokers and enters the bar, taking a deep, grateful breath of stale beer and mildew. The music is cranked and everyone is shouting, but it’s not crowded. She sees three empty stools at the bar and slides into the middle one, gesturing for a pint. The bartender slides it toward her and she downs a third in one gulp, her heart still thudding. Minutes pass, three, or maybe ten, and a dark puffy coat enters her peripheral vision. She glances to the right and sees a man, older than the average clientele, ease himself onto the next stool. She rolls her eyes. Not now, she thinks. The last thing she needs is a past-his-prime graduate student trying to make conversation.
She starts to lift her numb body off the stool when the man turns toward her with a curt smile and she spots a red smear on his temple. A chill ripples through her body as the man orders a drink, his slender fingers emerging from the charcoal sleeves of his coat and closing around the bottle. She is surprised at the smallness of his hands.
“I saw you,” she says, before her good sense can intervene. The man gives her a thanks-but-no-thanks look, but Jessa keeps staring, waiting for him to take another sip before she continues.
“The field,” she says. “The snowmen,” and all the warmth slides off his face. He stands up, puts a hand on her elbow, and guides her to a nearby booth.
They slide into the soft vinyl and lean in toward each other, their drinks almost touching, their hands vibrating with adrenaline.
“At first I thought it was some kind of freak weather thing. A miniature tornado,” he says. “I don’t know if those exist.”
“I thought it was a blizzard,” Jessa says.
“I wanted to take a picture, but I just stood there,” he says, shaking his head.
“I didn’t even think of that. I was so scared of attracting their attention.”
“For one horrible moment I thought they were trying to kill me,” he says, touching his temple and staring past her. “Then I realized they weren’t even looking at me.”
“I’m not sure they could see us. Or see at all,” Jessa says.
“I’ve never . . . ,” and he trails off, his eyes landing on the side of her face. “Have you?”
“No,” Jessa whispers. “I hope I never do again.”
“When I get home, I’m looking into cheap flights. Someplace tropical,” he says with a tight laugh, running a hand through his thick hair. Jessa can’t stop staring at his hair, the colour of television static, a dizzying blend of black and grey.
A volley of laughter blows in from the front door like a blast of wind, and they both flinch. The man’s eyes find hers and grab on.
“Do you think they’re still out there?” he asks. “Should we go back?”
Jessa drops her gaze to her hands, her knuckles turning white around the pint glass. The man isn’t as big inside his parka as she thought. He’s wiry, with a fine-boned face and a delicate neck. She takes another long sip, not wanting to answer.
“I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture,” she says. “I take pictures of everything.”
“We should do something,” the man says. “Alert people.”
“I saw a couple pass by, but they didn’t see anything. Or they were just too interested in each other.”
“Maybe it’s just us. We’re cursed,” the man says with a chuckle. “Or the field is cursed.”
“Maybe it is,” Jessa says, too seriously. “Do you remember the old guy who froze to death in that same field a few years ago?”
“What old guy?”
“He was a coach at the school who slipped on the ice while he was cleaning up the athletic shed. Cracked his head open, and nobody found him till the next day. He might have survived except for the cold. It was pretty tragic.”
“I remember the story,” the man says. “But he wasn’t old.”
“He was at least forty.”
A small smile crinkles the man’s face.
“I’m forty,” he says. “And change.”
“You don’t look it,” Jessa says, embarrassed. You look like a person, she thinks.
“Thanks,” he says, shifting in his seat and looking away from her. “While we were out there, I kept thinking about my kid. We were building a snowman together two days ago.”
It hadn’t occurred to Jessa that this man might be a father. What does a father look like? Can a father be just any person, sitting in a bar, wearing a parka?
“When I was a kid,” he says, reading her mind, “I thought parents were this whole other species.”
Aren’t they, Jessa thinks.
“I thought, before you become a dad, you graduate to a higher level of understanding of the mysteries of life.”
He smiles at her, a glint of tears in his hazel eyes.
“Then people around me started having kids and I realized the terrible secret,” he says, leaning conspiratorially toward her. “Parents are just us. No different and no wiser than before. Just us, with less free time.”
“I never thought my parents had any mysteries figured out,” Jessa says.
“One time,” she says, “they forgot me outside in my stroller. We were coming home from a birthday party, and they spent the walk home arguing, I don’t know what about, because I don’t actually remember this. I was two. When they got home they parked the stroller by the back door and went in to unpack all their bags, and then my mom started cooking dinner and my dad went downstairs to do who knows what. They remembered me when my mom was calling everyone down to eat.”
Jessa picks at the label of a ketchup bottle in the condiment caddy and clears her throat, embarrassed that she’s telling this to a stranger, but unable to stop.
“I had fallen asleep,” she continues. “I was fine.”
“I’m sorry,” the man says.
“Now my mom tells the story as if it’s a funny example of how bonkers the early days were with three kids.”
“Sometimes, even when you’re doing your best, it’s not enough,” he says. “There’s no forgiveness for the parent who tried hard and fell short.”
“It was winter,” Jessa says. “I could have frozen to death. Anyway, it only happened once, but it’s a good example of their usual level of chaotic energy.”
“What are their names?” the man asks.
Jessa furrows her brow.
“Maxim and Eileen,” she says. “I never think about them as Max and Eileen.”
“I get it,” he says.
“Did you ever forget your kid out in the snow,” Jessa asks.
“No. But I’ve wanted to forget him a few times. And before you give me a look, let me assure you, my wife’s thought it more times than I have.”
Jessa’s mouth curls into a crooked smile.
“I never asked your name,” she says, taking in his winter tan and laugh lines. He whispers, “Roger.” A perfect dad name.
“I’m Jessa,” she says.
“Hi Jessa,” he says. “Where were you headed tonight?”
“Just walking. My friends are at karaoke, but I wasn’t in the mood, so I thought I’d wander for a bit, try to get lost in my own neighbourhood, you know?”
“Earlier tonight I was thinking about how much I miss the days I could just do whatever I wanted with my evenings. I thought it’d be so nice to just stroll around, pretend to be free.”
“It’s overrated,” Jessa says.
“Freedom. I spend most nights alone with my computer.”
“Alone with a computer. Sounds like another sort of heaven.”
“It must feel good to be needed?”
“I guess,” he says.
“So were you out just being free tonight?”
“Not exactly. I was heading home from my studio.”
“Are you a sculptor?” Jessa asks too quickly.
Roger gives her a puzzled look.
“No. It’s just a small recording studio in my friend’s office. I do a podcast with some friends.”
“Have I heard it?”
“It’s about travel. Or, right now, it’s about all the places we would travel to, if we didn’t have kids. We talk about food a lot too.”
Roger runs his fingers through the salt and pepper waves of his hair, and Jessa is surprised to realize she’s kept count of every time he’s done it. Her body contracts around the pint of beer sloshing in her stomach.
“I wanted to move to France, but my roommate did it instead,” Jessa says.
“How did that happen?”
“She actually applied for the year-abroad program, and I fucked up.”
“I do that at least once a week,” Roger says. “Tell myself I’m going to start running again, or cut out sugar, or take a deep breath and count to ten before snapping at my kid. But then, you know. Life.”
“My mom tells me I don’t have follow-through.”
“Making big plans is fun,” Roger says. “Finishing things is another story.”
“Maybe life made the right decision for me?”
“To making decisions,” Roger says, raising his bottle. “Or letting life do it for you.”
Jessa taps the bottle with her glass and opens her mouth to take a sip.
“If you’d moved to France, you would have missed all this,” Roger starts, gesturing at their dingy surroundings, then trails off as they both remember the snowmen.
“I need some air,” Jessa says, standing up and placing an awkward hand on Roger the dad’s shoulder. A fluttering sensation rises in her throat. She turns toward the door, slapping it open to take huge gulps of freezing air on the sidewalk packed with cigarette butts and sparkling snow. A moment later, Roger slides into the spot between her and the overflowing garbage can.
“Let’s go,” he says. “Let’s see if they’re still there.”