He lies in bed and debates running to the closet for the ski mask. He’s almost positive Sheri left it there, tucked into the pocket of her coat. Almost positive. He thinks of the mask with the longing of a child on Christmas Eve, waiting for morning. An intensity of desire he has not felt since Audrey Tisdale first allowed his hands under her shirt in tenth grade.
His body is warm enough beneath the mountain of quilts and blankets, and against the danger of Sheri’s icy feet he has taken the precaution of pajama bottoms and a thick pair of socks. But there’s a tingle in his lips and in his nose, a numbness which persists in spite of the space heater humming quietly on the floor. He thinks of the tingling and his mind whispers frostbite, but that’s absurd. You can’t get frostbite in your own apartment. Can you?
The heater throws a soft orange glow, the room’s only illumination. He can’t see that glow — his eyelids are closed, not because he’s waiting for sleep, but because he doesn’t want to expose even his eyes to the frigid air — yet he knows it’s there.
A January wind howls around the corner of the building and fingers of frost seep their way through the single-paned glass of the room’s one window. It’s not that far, he thinks. Just ten feet to the closet, maybe twelve. You’ll be back under the covers in less than twenty seconds.
Ah, his mind answers. But think how much warmth you’ll sacrifice in those twenty seconds. Think of the time it took to store up the body heat beneath these blankets, how easy it will slip away.
The wind quiets down so that even through the closed bedroom door he can make out the ticking of the hallway clock.
Yes, he counters, but think also of the distance between now and morning. Six hours. Six hours with your face exposed to the freezing air. Compared to that, twenty seconds is nothing.
Even so, he doesn’t move.
The clock ticks. He begins to count backward from twenty. An experiment, just to get an idea of what twenty seconds feels like. The seconds from twenty to ten pass like nothing, but as he nears the halfway mark, the time between each tick of the clock seems to expand like a balloon being filled with water.
You’re being a baby, he thinks. Last night was worse.
Worse? Don’t kid yourself. Last night, the central heating was working. Last night, you had Sheri to keep you warm.
He must admit this is true. The space heater can’t replace the central heating unit, and Sheri now sleeps on the edge of the mattress, a two-foot chasm between his body and hers.
A trembling comes from the foot of the bed. Gertie. Sweet Gertie. She’s old now, but her coat is thick, and Sheri covered her with a blanket before bed. But now she’s shivering. It must be colder than he thought. Colder than either of them had expected.
In his mind, a sudden memory. Danielle at eight years old, wide-eyed and unblinking. A gooey Milky Way bar is at stake, and his sister’s eyes quiver in their sockets, and the tears form and threaten to spill over the bottom cusp of each eyelid, but neither of them blinks.
The balloon swells with water until it surely must burst. Each successive tick grows louder until they seem to be not ticks but tocks, which echo with the reverberation of a bass drum, so loud that he feels as if he is lying not in his bed but inside a great clock tower with its machinery moving around him in an intricate clockwork dance.
At the lake house, that same summer as the staring contest, a few weeks before or after or perhaps the same day, he can’t remember which. Those two months are a jumble in his mind. Dani sits on the floating dock in the center of the lake with her skinny legs dangling in the water. From below, he looks up at his sister’s feet, wavy through the water’s prismatic distortions, his eyes stinging from contact with the water. This time it’s bragging rights on the line, and that somehow seems more important than a chocolate bar. His lungs burn from the lack of air until he can take it no more and he kicks his legs and his head cracks through the surface of the lake with a splash, and he takes great whooping breaths into his lungs.
He feels Sheri shift in bed and becomes too aware of the distance between his body and hers. A gulf. A chasm. He thinks of the argument from earlier this afternoon as they prepared dinner together, begun with an innocent enough phrase: What are you thinking? A favorite question of hers, one which he knows she asks not to frustrate him but because she genuinely wants to know the answer. And he had responded as he always did, knowing his reply would piss her off, but not knowing how to answer any other way. “How can you be thinking of nothing?” she’d asked. And the truth was that he probably hadn’t been. But his thoughts were elusive and slippery; getting your hands on one was like trying to catch a tadpole in your fist. As soon as she asked the question, his mind wiped itself clean, a shaken Etch-a-Sketch, and he answered the only way he could: “Nothing.”
Whether it’s holding your breath until your lungs feel that they’ll explode or holding your eyes open until you feel that they’re crawling with ants or holding the beat a moment too long before answering after your partner asks what should be an innocuous question, time has this way of developing a funny fluidity during feats of endurance. He understands, finally, a factoid he’s heard repeated since eighth grade Earth science class, the idea that time is relative. There’s no chance of him getting out of this bed for any length of time, be it twenty seconds or two seconds, because the difference between the two is not as set in stone as he’s always believed. Time is relative, time is fluid, and twenty seconds can feel like a lifetime. Twenty seconds now seems time enough for mountains to rise and kingdoms to fall.
The tingling moves into his cheeks and he wants to rub the heat back into them with his hands, but his arms remain resolutely by his side. His body is at war with the elements and his arms have committed a mutiny. His hands, witnessing entropy in action, have grown afraid and unwilling to leave their cozy sanctuary.
He thinks again of that day at the lake house. Not of Danielle and not of the chocolate bar, but of the warmth of the sun on his face. He can’t quite remember what that had felt like.
The solution comes to him, then, and he nearly laughs at the simplicity of it. Nearly, but he stops himself, because if he wakes Sheri, she’ll pull his pants leg up to the knee and press her feet against his shin.
It’s simple: all he need do is coax his arms into movement with the promise that they won’t have to leave the warmth of their cave, that they can accomplish their mission without ever exiting from under the covers. Once their cooperation has been established, he’ll lift the quilts, quickly, so as to let as little heat escape as possible, and scoot lower in the bed. Like a child hiding from monsters in the dark, he’ll duck his head under the covers, and there the cartilage of his nose and his ears and the soft tissue of his lips will be safe from the frosty air.
He exhales some unclear emotion — relief, surely, at the arrival of this simple if inelegant solution, but relief tinged with something unidentifiable — and because the room is dark and because his eyes are still closed, he must imagine rather than see his breath hanging in the air.
He hadn’t noticed when it began again, but outside, the wind is once again howling its wolfpack howl.
In what feels like a very long time, he has heard neither tick nor tock from the hallway clock. He chalks its absence up to the resurgence of the wind, so loud that it erases all other sound, but now a numbing thought occurs to him. The reason he hasn’t heard the twentieth tick of the clock is not because of the wind but because the twentieth tick hasn’t yet ticked. It feels as if it’s been three, four minutes since his experiment, but has it been? Or has it only been a fraction of a millisecond, the time between the last second and the next stretching out before him like some vast and uncrossable frozen tundra?
He tries to slip lower in the bed, tries to wiggle the sheets up over his face using his shoulders. It doesn’t work. His hands remain frozen by his side. He can’t move. Paralyzed by fear? Or has this insidious cold frozen time itself?
Eyes still closed, he does the only thing he can. He listens and he waits.
The wind howls on.