I told my wife I had a surprise for her the week before Christmas. She asked if it could wait until the day, but I said no, this couldn’t.
By the time she got out of bed, I had the car running. The ice that had spread across the windscreen overnight was gone and the inside would be toasty for her.
“What’s this for?” she asked, standing in her dressing gown, peering out into the cold morning air.
“It’s your surprise,” I replied, handing over a red envelope.
She opened it. A mixture of confusion and excitement danced on her face.
“A photo of a cottage, I don’t get it?”
“That’s where we’re spending Christmas.”
“But the tree, the presents?”
“All sorted. I’ve covered everything.”
“I don’t know, I have work.”
“No you don’t, I spoke to your manager and it’s all sorted.”
“Really,” I said grinning.
She jumped on the spot, the reality setting in.
“We’re staying there?” she said, pointing to the photo, “It looks gorgeous! This is all so sudden. Let me pack.”
“I’ve done that as well.”
I had outdone myself this time.
“It looks exactly like the picture!” Sarah said, getting out of the car.
The snow had slowed our progress. We had arrived shortly after 3 o’clock; the sun was well into its journey to hide behind the horizon. The old stone cottage stood proud, its thatched roof, a bed for the blanket of snow that coated it. On the ground, untouched white lay in every direction, tinted orange by the winter evening sun.
“Oh and that snow, wow!” Sarah continued, “Come on, let’s go inside!”
I unlocked the door and the pleasant smell of burning wood enveloped us, like a welcome hug from an old friend.
In the living room the logs in the hearth crackled. A Christmas tree occupied the far corner. The baubles and tinsel reflected the glow of the fire in their mirror-like finish. Presents of different sizes and in an assortment of gift paper were stacked below.
Sarah turned to me, her eyebrow cocked, “Are you sure you did this? My Darren? My Darren did all this?”
“I had to call in a few favours, but yeah, I did.”
“I love you,” she murmured, as she wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. She relaxed her embrace and sighed in contentment.
I made a mental note to thank my friend Joe, without him, none of this would have been possible.
“Make yourself comfortable, I’ll get the suitcases,” I said.
I left the cottage, the icy cold air rushed in as if it were shoppers on Black Friday. I stumbled back from the shock, zipping up my coat in the process.
I followed my fresh footsteps back to the car, trying hard not to spoil anymore of the pristine snow. I opened the boot and took out our cases, not letting them touch the ground. Using my chin I pressed down on the lid, bending over to lock it in position before losing my grip. I dropped Sarah’s case onto the driveway; with a satisfying *poof*, it landed. My game was over. I shut the boot and picked up the now damp case.
Something caught my eye. On the far side of the yard, I could see the outline of a figure. I left the luggage where it was and walked to the edge of the grass.
The snow crunched under foot, it had been years since I felt that. When I was close enough to see it, to see her, I stopped in my tracks. A woman stood next to a small brick wall, holding her hands out from her side, palms facing me. When I realised she had no clothing on, I averted my eyes.
“Can I help you?” I said, shielding my gaze, “Do you need me to get you a coat?”
I looked back up and she was gone. All I could see was the immaculate snow stretching off into the distance.
“What are you looking at?” Sarah asked from the door, “I heard you talking to someone, so came out.”
“Oh, no-one. I thought I saw… It doesn’t matter. I’ve got the cases,” I said, holding them up to prove it.
I picked up the TV remote.
“We don’t need to watch TV do we?” Sarah said pouting.
“What else are we going to do?”
“We could talk, or read, or…”
“I didn’t bring a book,” I replied.
“I’m sure there’s something here to do. Have you tried looking in the cupboards? It is a holiday cottage after all.”
I sighed and got up.
“Do you want me to open the wine?” she asked.
“Sure,” I was going to need some alcohol if the TV was off limits.
I left the living room and walked the small hallway to the closet that sat at the end. I didn’t notice when the temperature dropped. I stopped at the end and I gave out an involuntary shiver. It was much colder here than in the living room. I wondered how that was possible. How could the heat just stop here? I placed my hand on the cupboard’s icy cold handle. I hesitated at first, but opened it anyway.
A mildewy odour drifted out, it clung to my throat, causing me to cough. I clicked on the small drawstring light, and saw the few games – Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble. I reached for the latter and pulled. As I did another one slid out. An unmarked scarlet box, it had the texture of how old book covers feel. On the side in gold gilding was the simple word – jigsaw.
I relaxed when I returned to the welcoming fire. Yet, the chill of the hallway had seeped into my bones.
“I found a couple of games,” I said, holding out the Scrabble and Monopoly.
“Ugh,” Sarah said, “We can’t play Monopoly, it’s such a horrible game.”
“What’s the other one you have?”
“It’s a jigsaw of some sort.”
“Ooo, that sounds fun. I haven’t done one of those since I was a kid. What is it of?”
“I’ve no idea,” I said, turning the box over, “there’s no picture.”
“Even better, it will be a surprise.”
“Sure,” I relented, discarding the other games.
Sarah snatched the box from me, placing it on the table and opened the lid.
“You have to start with the edges,” she said, already searching through the container for the pieces, “I’m so excited!”
I poured myself a glass of wine and gulped the first few mouthfuls. Without prompting, she looked through her pile and began joining them together. I snuck my phone out of my pocket and texted Joe, thanking him for the cottage; a few seconds later a thumbs up emoji came back.
I couldn’t believe how full the fridge was. I took out some cold meats and made each of us a sandwich.
“I hope you’re okay with roast beef,” I said, holding out the plate for Sarah.
She stared through me, her eyes wide and scared.
“She’s still here you know,” Sarah announced flatly.
“Ann who?” I said confused.
Sarah continued to stare, turning her palms to face me.
“Sarah, are you okay?” I said raising my voice.
She shook her head.
“They look lovely,” she said smiling.
I handed over the sandwich.
“Who’s Ann?” I asked.
“You said Ann is still here?”
She chuckled, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
She bit into bread and with a full mouth said, “Wow, this is good. Since when did you know how to make a sandwich?”
I feigned a smile.
The edges clicked into place in no time. The brush strokes gave away that the jigsaw was a painting of some sort. Blue sky decorated the top, with white snow along the left and bottom.
“You getting bored?” I asked.
Sarah curled up on the sofa.
“No, I’m tired; I think it’s the wine.”
I continued to search for pieces and every now and then one found its place, filling in the sky.
“Darren?” she asked through closed eyes.
“Thank you, this has been great.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, running my hand through her hair.
I took a sip of wine and continued with the puzzle.
Sarah gently snored beside me, but I hardly noticed; I was so enraptured by the jigsaw. As the scene unfolded, it was uncanny.
“Hey, Sarah, look at this!” I said, prodding her awake.
“She’s outside,” she mumbled in her semi-conscious state.
I ignored her.
“Check this out,” I continued, shaking her awake.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“What does this look like to you?”
“You woke me up to show me that jigsaw? I’m going to go back to sleep.”
“Sarah, seriously, look at it!”
She sighed, propping herself up.
“That over there,” I said pointing to the right side of the puzzle, “Doesn’t that look just like our car?”
She rubbed her eyes and squinted.
“Look, that’s this cottage!”
She sounded intrigued, but still groggy from sleep. Around a third of the jigsaw was now complete.
The painting wasn’t detailed enough to make out the registration plate. Aside from than that, the tiny vehicle was the spitting image of our car.
“That’s this living room, isn’t it?” I said.
Pieces were still missing, but the roaring fire was obvious, and the Christmas tree in the corner.
“Is that what you woke me up for?”
“Don’t you find that strange?”
She relaxed back into the sofa, “Wake me up when it’s complete.”
As her head flopped to the side, she snored in earnest. I picked up my glass and saw that it was empty, and so was the bottle. I got up and made my way to the kitchen.
Six bottles of wine lay sideways in the chrome wine rack. I chose one at random and slid it out. I wiped away the dust to read the year – 1984. Joe had gone all out. I sank the corkscrew in and yanked. With a pop, the cork relented. I poured a glass and rested against the fridge, swilling the wine, doing my best to enjoy it, as a fine wine should be. I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to copy what I’d seen on TV, but I laughed to myself and took back a large gulp.
I was merry from the alcohol and also very relieved. Our marriage had been a little shaky recently, and I promised myself I’d be a better husband. Today was the happiest I’d seen Sarah for a long time. I grabbed my phone and composed another text to Joe.
*Hey man. I can’t believe the effort you put into this place. Setting up the Christmas tree and wrapping up the presents. The wine, and the fridge; so much food! I don’t know how to repay you. The fire was a nice touch; that was the icing on the cake. Remind me I owe you big time!*
I was about to press send when I saw the time, 23:55. *Fuck it*, I thought, and sent it anyway. He’s not going to get annoyed if I wake him with that. He would love the fact I’m in debt to him, he’ll lord that over me for years.
I gazed outside and poured myself another. Through the kitchen window I saw the snow glint in the light from inside. In the once perfect blanket of white, impressions led off into the darkness. Something was out there.
I rushed to the back door and entered the cold. It was now freezing and my jaw chattered. I turned on the torch function on my phone and shone it into the pitch black.
“Hello, is anyone out here?” I asked.
I jumped as the light illuminated a shivering naked woman.
“My name is Darren,” I said, taking off my sweater, the chill of the night chilling me further, “Let me cover you up.”
I approached slowly so as not to startle her, my heart raced.
“I’m going to put a jumper over your shoulders, okay?” I announced, lifting it up.
She turned to face me.
“She’s out there alone, I can hear her.”
“Sarah?” I shouted baffled.
Her eyes stared through me, her lips blue and quivering.
“Oh my God!”
I raced over and placed the sweater on her.
“Honey, you have to get back inside.”
“Darren, what’s happening? Is this a dream?”
“Sure,” I said, “follow me.”
I led her to the cottage, seeing her discarded clothes lying in the snow. I picked them up, one by one, as we approached the open front door.
I closed it behind me. Only embers remained in the fireplace, the cottage had lost most of its heat. I accompanied Sarah into the bedroom and tucked her in. She shivered throughout. I played with the small electric oil heater until it sprung into action. I waited, touching the metal surface until it began to heat up.
I heard her snore and let the anxiety drain. My muscles hurt from the panic. I pushed off my shoes and joined her in bed. I snuggled up behind her body a block of ice, her feet wet from the snow outside. I wrapped my arm around her and held her close. I don’t know how long it was until I fell asleep. But when I awoke, it was morning.
I ran my hand along my wife’s body, relieved she was now warm.
“Honey, how you feeling?”
“Ugh,” she said turning over in bed to face me, “my head kills. How much did I drink?”
“Half a bottle of red.”
“Is that all? I’m in so much pain, my feet hurt.”
“What was the last thing you remember?”
As morning light that leaked in through the threadbare curtains, she covered her eyes.
“I don’t know. Did I fall asleep on the couch?”
“Yeah,” I said, not wanting to bring up the nocturnal sleep walking, “Do you want me to make you some breakfast?”
“No, I’m nauseated. Can I stay in bed?”
“Sure,” I replied, getting up.
“It’s so cold.”
I placed the blankets back down and she slipped them underneath her body.
“I’m going to get something to eat, I’ll come check on you in a bit.”
“Uh huh,” was all she could muster.
I put on my clothes from the day before.
“If it’ll cheer you up, you can open one of your presents early,” I said smiling and leaving her to sleep.
In the living room the jigsaw loomed up at me. A compulsion pulled me to sit down and finish it, but I resisted, I was starving.
The fridge presented me with a dilemma, so much to eat. I scanned all the items, mentally picturing them and I weighed up how much I’d enjoy each. I reached stalemate with myself and decided to make the same sandwich I had the night before.
I stood chewing my creation and stared out of the kitchen window. I studied my wife’s footprints from the night before. A fresh layer snow drifted to the ground. The anxiety from earlier rose up again, forming tight knots in my stomach, quashing my hunger. In the distance I saw the small stone wall. Behind it I could swear I saw the outline of a person. I placed my sandwich on the table and left via the back door.
Snow landed on my face, melting on impact. The wetness underfoot seeped into my shoes and chilled my feet. As more and more flakes settled, my skin turned numb. I jogged, heading straight for the stone wall. The snowfall thickened making it hard to see what appeared to be a person that stood out in the cold.
“Hello?” I asked, but heard nothing back in response.
My now damp T-shirt was cold and made me shiver. The naked woman, it was definitely a woman, who seemed to wait for me, held out her palms. At first I thought she was welcoming me. As I advanced, fresh cuts on her wrists began to bleed and drip.
“Miss!” I shouted, “I’ll get you help.”
I reached into my pocket to take out my phone, but it wasn’t there. A mental image of the nightstand conjured up in my mind, seeing my mobile plugged into the wall socket on charge.
I moved forward with trepidation, wondering if she had been out here all night. But surely that would have been impossible. It was now that the structure of the stone wall became clear, it was a well. The woman waited behind. Too anxious to get any closer, I stopped.
She mouthed a silent shriek. Her eyes screamed back even louder. I tried to read her lips as she repeated the same word over and over again.
I tried to formulate a plan. She was agitated and crying. Trying to keep calm, I moved one step at a time, holding my hands out in a soothing offer. Without a second thought, she crouched and fell into the hole.
I ran to the well, gripping the edge hard, gazing into the black water; its surface untouched, perfectly calm.
I placed my wet clothes over the oil heater and studied the empty bed, hearing the water run from the on-suite. Steam drifted into the room. The woman’s petrified face still burnt into my retinas, still shouting that one word.
“Is that you, babe?” Sarah said from the bathroom.
“Yeah, I’m getting dressed,” I replied, still in shock.
I smelt the fruity air, heavy with the fragrant scent of the bubble bath.
“How you feeling?” I asked.
“A bit better, thanks. Would you wash my hair?”
From the bath, she held up the shampoo; droplets of water ran down her forearm and dripped to the floor. My mind flashed back to the blood that dripped from the woman’s wrists.
“Sure,” I said, a little uneasy.
I knelt down next to her. I picked up a cup, filled it with water, and then poured it over her head, turning her blond hair a dark auburn colour. I lathered the liquid and she let out a satisfied sigh.
“This is nice,” she cooed.
Cup by cup, I poured the water, flushing the soapy suds away.
“I still can’t believe you did this,” she said smiling.
I rubbed her hair and turned to look in the mirror at the end of the bath. A grin began to grow on my lips until I saw the reflection at which point my blood ran cold.
The woman glared at me, her eyes red and swollen from crying. The water coloured with a hint of pink. Her hands gripped the metal handles of the bath. Blood splashed from her wrists like a leaky tap.
“Holy shit!” I cried out, shuffling myself over to the other side of the room.
“Darren!” Sarah shouted, “What are you doing?”
I caught my breath, my heart racing in my chest.
“Darren?” her toned now concerned.
I didn’t know what to say.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
A glint of light caught my eye; a single razor perched precariously on the tub.
I got up and picked up the blade.
“I saw this, sorry, I panicked.”
“What? You think I was going to use that?” she said upset.
“No way, I uh…” I stumbled my words, “It’s just dangerous is all. I’ll leave you to it. Hope you enjoy the rest of your bath.”
I left the room and headed straight to the cupboard.
I studied the razor in my hand; blood crusted the edge of the blade. I placed it on the top shelf, well out of Sarah’s reach and opened the suitcase. I removed a fresh pair of clothes. Slipping on jeans, I saw my phone flash a green light, signalling I had a text.
I pushed my feet into my wet shoes and cursed at myself. Picking up the phone I read the single line message.
What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t do that.
It was from Joe.
Angry, I called him back, leaving the bedroom as I did. I went outside, ready to shout at him, making sure I was out of earshot of Sarah.
“Joe! What the hell is going on?!” I shouted down the phone.
“What do you mean?”
I snuck into the car, to make sure I could not be overheard.
“You swear you didn’t put up the tree and wrap the presents?”
“What me? You know who you’re talking to, right?”
“But, it’s all there.”
“I promise I never did!”
“What about the fridge?”
“What about it?”
“The food, it’s chock full!”
“Not me mate.”
“So, the fire, that wasn’t you too?”
“Darren, all I did was what you asked. I put everything in the spare room. You realise I went out on a limb to get this place for you, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I appreciate that.”
“The new owners won’t be in until January. You haven’t got anything to worry about.”
“Fuck,” I said.
When Joe offered me the place, he promised me that the last owner was out of the picture. It was a perfect opportunity to take Sarah somewhere nice for Christmas.
“What happened to the owners?”
“It was a young married couple. The husband went to prison earlier this year. His mother was selling it on his behalf, she couldn’t afford the mortgage payments.”
“Joe, I’ve seen things.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“What happened to the wife?”
“I have no idea, I only sell the houses.”
I went silent.
“In the spare room you say?”
I hung up and got out the car. As I entered the cottage, I saw the fire in full swing, warming the place through. I headed straight for the spare room. And like Joe said, on the bed lay the Christmas tree, still in its box. Next to it, a selection of presents I had bought for Sarah, as well as some wrapping paper, tape and scissors. I closed the door behind me.
In the living room, I froze. Sarah stood, wearing a bathrobe, holding a present she had taken from under the tree. She raised it to her ear and shook.
“I wonder what it is,” she beamed.
Carefully, she removed the tape and opened it. She revealed a pair of black lace panties.
“Darren?” she said seductively, “I could wear these tonight.”
I feigned a smile back.
“Wait, these aren’t my size.”
She picked up the crumbled paper she had let fall to the floor and read the tag.
“Who the FUCK is Ann?”
“I can explain!” I said and immediately regretted it.
“Asshole! You haven’t changed at all!” She threw the garment into the fire, which in turn roared with satisfaction.
“Sarah!” I pleaded.
But she was already in the bedroom. The door slamming behind her, confirmation I shouldn’t follow.
I peered at the empty bottle of wine that sat on the table next to the jigsaw and worked out how many glasses I must have had. *Five?*
The puzzle was getting easier now the cottage was complete. Even in my inebriated state, it hypnotised me. The building covered in snow, the window into the living room showed the interior in so much detail.
The fireplace in the corner was exactly like it was here and the tree with the presents on the floor. Even the screwed up wrapping paper left strewn on the ground. And one man, with a glass of wine, finishing a jigsaw.
My ears tingled, as if someone or something was watching me. All that was remaining was the snow section in the bottom left, the hardest part.
I started to match the pure white pieces, placing them together separate from the main puzzle. I noticed what looked like footprints, and as the parts came together, a chill ran down my spine. Putting the completed section into the main picture, it was obvious to see. A delicate set of prints, running from the front of the cottage to the well in the corner.
Excited, I went to the kitchen and took out another bottle of wine, this time not giving the label a second thought. I picked up another glass and made my way to the bedroom, as a peace offering.
The living room was suddenly much colder. I placed the wine and glasses down when I heard the front door bang against the wind that now grew outside. My chest thumped as panic set in. I left the cottage.
My heart ached seeing the fresh footprints in the snow, identical to that of the jigsaw. The icy air hurt my skin. I trotted along the tracks that filled quickly with the new settling snow. The security light of the cottage did its best to illuminate my way. Its powerful beam penetrating far through the curtain of icy flakes that fell.
On the ground lay Sarah’s T-Shirt, I picked it up, then her jeans, her socks, and then her underwear. I held them to my chest. I fell to the floor in front of the well, and crawled to the edge.
“Sarah? Are you down there?” I shouted.
In the moonlight, I could see the water line was lower than before and my wife smiled up at me.
“I found Ann,” she laughed manically from the bottom of the well, stroking the decomposed head of the body she held in her hands.
“I told you she was here.”
I dressed up smart. Wearing Sarah’s favourite T-Shirt of mine and the jeans and shoes she had bought for me last Christmas. I drank from the tepid coffee, concerned she had not arrived.
“Can I get you another drink?”
“Thanks,” I said, holding up my cup.
The jitters in my stomach were now a kaleidoscope of butterflies that made my leg shake sympathetically.
“Do you know how much longer she’ll be?”
“She’s on her way, I promise.”
I gripped the bouquet of flowers that rested on the table.
*There she was.* I could see her through the glass.
Impatiently I stood up.
“Hi Sarah,” I said as soon as the door opened.
Unconsciously mirroring her, I sat when she did.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked.
She smiled, her head lolling to the side gently.
“I’m good,” she slurred.
I held out my hand.
“I brought you some flowers, they’re your favourite.”
Her eyes did their best to focus on the roses. She brought them to her nose and breathed in deeply.
She looked to her right, “They smell lovely, don’t they. My husband bought them for me.”
Puzzled, I stared at the empty seat next to her.
“I’m moving house tomorrow, just like I said; to be nearer to you.”
“Did you hear that?” she said, turning to her right again, “my husband is moving closer to us. That’ll be nice.”
“How long do you think she’ll be here?” I asked the man next to me.
“She’s doing well, aren’t you Sarah?”
She nodded happily.
“Who’s she talking to?” I asked again.
“When someone goes through something so traumatic they can invent a coping mechanism; this is hers.”
“I wish I could be here with you,” I offered, a tear rolling down my cheek, “you must be so lonely.”
She shook her head like a little child.
“No, I’m not lonely,” she glanced over to the empty seat next to her, “Ann’s here.”