Here in Los Angeles we're experiencing our sixth month of summer, but I remember winter... Here's a new story for a chilly day. Because somewhere it's chilly.
The Temperature at Which Love Freezes
By Katherine Tomlinson
The front door shut with a soft but emphatic click as Jonathan slipped out of the house. Even though he knew Kaye wouldn’t have heard it—she slept like a hibernating bear—he still found himself looking over his shoulder to make sure she hadn’t wakened, that she wasn’t following him with her furious eyes.
But Kaye had merely grunted and turned over, burrowing deeper into the 600-thread count sheets and goose-down comforter.
There was only one person who would send Jonathan a text in the middle of the night; only one person whose text he’d read in the middle of the night.
Jonathan had grabbed the phone, fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table and read the message without turning on the light.
Come outside. I have a surprise for you. <3 span="span">3>
She’d attached his favorite picture of her, the one he’d taken after surprising her in the shower.
With barely a glance at his sleeping wife, Jonathan had slid out from beneath the covers, squeezed his bare feet into the fleece-lined slippers Kaye had ordered online without checking his size, and padded silently across the carpeted floor.
He’d tied his plaid bath robe tightly before venturing out into the cold, well aware that all he had on underneath the flannel was a pair of thin cotton boxer shorts.
Outside, Jonathan breathed deeply. Purged of the vague day-time petroleum scent that always lingered in the wake of rush-hour commuters using his street as a short-cut to the freeway, the night smelled like pine needles
There was an icy mist in the air that threatened to turn to sleet but the chill felt good against his warm skin, over-heated by the furnace bulk of his wife lying next to him on a bed that had been too small to share for at least a year.
He stepped past the circle of brightness cast by the porch light, squinting toward the dark street expectantly. There was no sign of Lila’s car.
Still, he didn’t expect to be waiting long. He and Lila had engaged in these after-midnight rendezvous before. She’d pick him up and they’d drive somewhere and they’d have sex like teenagers only better because they knew what they were doing. Then she’d drive him back home and he’d get back into bed with Kaye none the wiser. She seemed to be permanently stuffed up with allergies, so she’d never smell the sex on him, and he rose before her in the morning and washed the guilt off him before breakfast.
It was very quiet out. And still no sign of Lila.
Jonathan ventured out onto the walkway in front of the house, narrowing his eyes against the street light in hopes of sharpening his night vision.
Jonathan looked up and down the street and across it too, but there was no sign of Lila’s silver-blue BMW. She loved that car, which he had leased for her, writing off the expense as “marketing costs.”
It was money well spent. Lila had been very grateful.
A shred of plastic grocery bag drifted past on the street, pushed by the cold wind like an urban tumbleweed. Nothing else was moving in either direction.
Jonathan wondered if he’d misread Lila’s text or misunderstood it.
He wondered if the text had been lost in the ether for hours and was only just now coming through and if he’d missed her earlier in the day.
It was clear there’d been some kind of mix-up.
With a last look around, Jonathan exhaled a sigh and trudged back up the walkway to the front door.
He was mildly surprised to find it wouldn’t open.
One of the first things he’d done when he and Kaye had moved into the house was change the lock so it would shut but not latch unless turned with a key.
Probably it’s just frozen in the cold, Jonathan decided. It’s an old house. But after he jiggled the handled and pulled and tugged, it became clear that the door was, in fact, locked.
Jonathan was irritated but not yet concerned. They kept a spare key to the front door beneath a fake rock hidden in the rose bushes that bracketed the front porch like a pair of parentheses.
It took him a while to find the fake rock and he scratched himself on the thorny branches of the winterized rose bushes in the process. One of the thick, hard thorns embedded itself in his forearm, drawing blood.
When he finally located the phony stone, all he found beneath it was cold, bare dirt.
He was puzzled at first, but that soon gave way to a feeling that he identified as panic.
He patted the pockets of his robe, unconsciously searching for a phantom key but finding only a random cough drop wrapped in sticky paper.
“Fuck,” he said out loud, closing his rob a little tighter.
He considered lobbing the fake rock at his bedroom window but knew Kaye would never hear it. She was a heavy sleeper and she’d been snoring when he left their bedroom.
Jonathan climbed the steps back onto the porch and considered his options. The house was at the end of a cul-de-sac small enough that he and Kaye knew all their neighbors but the housing crisis had taken its toll on the neighborhood and only two of the houses were occupied. Their nearest neighbors had gone to visit their children for the holidays and the man who lived in the house across the street worked the night shift.
Jonathan sighed. The windows on the first floor of his house were all covered by iron security grates. Even if he managed to break the glass, it wouldn’t do him any good; the openings were too small to wriggle through.
He walked around the house toward the garage, wondering if he could pry the roll-down door open wide enough to crawl under it.
He knelt on the damp, cold concrete to get some traction on the door handle but couldn’t budge it more than an inch.
Fuck, he thought again, and then, it’s getting cold.
In fact, it wasn’t actually getting colder, but the wind had picked up and the wind chill factor was coming into play.
Jonathan stamped his feet to warm them up, and then tried jumping jacks to get the blood flowing in the rest of his body.
The exercise didn’t help.
He began to shiver, at first imperceptibly and then so violently that his teeth began to rattle.
He started next door with the vague notion of breaking into the neighbor’s house but halfway across the lawn he tripped on one of the pop-up sprinklers that kept their grass green in summer.
He fell heavily and by the time he’d gathered himself, he’d forgotten his plan and returned to the house.
He was beginning to have a hard time thinking straight.
A few minutes later, it seemed like a good idea to shuck his robe and kick off the slippers, which were now loose on his cold-shrunken feet.
By the time he stepped out of his boxers, he was feeling light-headed and calm.
Inside the house, which she kept heated to 78 degrees against the Minnesota winter, Kaye watched as her husband peeled off his boxers in what she had learned was called “paradoxical undressing.” It was a sign that the body and mind were starting to shut down in the cold, a symptom of extreme systemic distress. Jonathan would have been very distressed if he had been aware of just what a pitiful sight his shriveled penis and testicles presented.
Jonathan was vain about his cock, which was eight and a half inches long when fully aroused. Not that she’d seen it fully aroused in some time.
It was 23 degrees outside and the forecast called for sleet and possibly snow before the night was over. The wind was from the north, sweeping down from Canada and dropping the perceived temperature to somewhere around minus 15. That was cold but not spectacularly cold.
Kaye had read that in parts of Siberia empty plastic bags would freeze within minutes in the frigid temperatures; freeze and then crack like glass.
She’d seen movies where people were flash-frozen by liquid nitrogen and then shattered like fine china.
She’d have liked to see Jonathan break into a million frozen shards.
But that might have looked suspicious to the police.
Better to keep it simple.
A lot of people freeze to death every winter. She’d looked it up.
There’d be no reason for the police to question her story that she’d found him dead on the front lawn after he’d inexplicably wandered out into the cold.
They’d find the 25-year-old scotch in his belly in the autopsy and nod knowingly. Most cold-related deaths involved alcohol Kaye had read.
Jonathan always had a drink or two before bed. She knew it was the only way he could stomach lying so close to her night after night.
The police probably wouldn’t check his cell phone but if they did, it would be a bonus. The text had come from a burner phone Kaye had picked up the day after their last anniversary, the anniversary where he’d gotten her a $50 gift certificate to Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It had been easy enough to schedule the text to arrive in the middle of the night.
The number wouldn’t track back to Lila of course, but Kaye had attached one of the nude pictures she’d found in Jonathan’s computer. Lila’s skanky face had been clearly visible. It wouldn’t take the police long to find her and to ask her why she’d enticed her lover out of the house on such a cold night.
Kaye had watched a lot of Forensics Files. The police wouldn’t find the photo on Jonathan’s computer. Kaye had replaced his hard drive after duplicating everything on the system except for the pictures and the incriminating emails. It had taken her close to a month, but she was nothing if not patient.
Kaye really didn’t bear her rival any ill will, but if Lila was implicated in Jonathan’s death it would be gravy.
At the thought of gravy, Kaye stomach growled.
Maybe I’ll make some ham and red-eye gravy, she thought. Maybe some biscuits too. Something that’ll stick to my ribs on a cold morning.
Kaye smiled. She loved winter weather.