The howling sound washed over town like waves trying to break further into land. A dry coldness followed, sticky like ethereal honey, and covered every object with icy paint. The Badgerbrough winters were always though, and you didn't venture outside if you didn't have to. That's why Billobi frowned when he got a message one day from an anonymous sender:
Working for the Inquisitive meant a lot of freedom, since most of it were made up (or rewritten against his will beyond recognition to make it more "sell-able", according to his editor). It also meant having to deal with that slice of the population that believed every single word published. Most were friendly, but there were always a slight risk of running into one of those who blamed the Inquisitive for bringing out the demons of the world (something Billobi didn't argue against; he was practically working for one).
While he was putting on his warmest piece of clothing, Ana read the note. She wasn't pleased.
"Are you sure about this, Bill?"
"It's a job", he said. "And that means money."
"What if something happens? You don't know who this is, dear. Does your editor know about this?"
"He's the one who handed me the note - after charging me for stamps, of course! Hand me that scarf, will you, dear?"
Ana hesitated for a brief second, but finally gave him the scarf. She kissed him and went back to the living room without a word. Billobi took one last breath of warm air before heading out into the embracing cold outside.
It almost felt like a ghost town, walking through Badgerbrough during these harshest days of winter. He didn't recognize the few he passed by, because of all the layers of clothing the weather required.
As he passed Angela Burdett's Candy, he began wondering about his anonymous writer. What if Ana was right? Maybe it was someone who was out to get him? To kidnap him, or worse! He couldn't recall any upsetting stories he had written. Not recently, anyway. Maybe he should have had brought somebody with him, but who? Ana? No. Thomas? Travel all the way to Horsehead to get his brother-in-law, just in case? No, and besides, he had seen worse during his travels! Walking mountains, tiny boxes that torture souls, dowsing rods that brings forth a nemesis from your nightmares, little girls that...
He stopped in the middle of the road, but it felt like his heart continued walking straight through his chest. What if it was that little girl from Skiff-in-Loch? He automatically grabbed his left hand, as to shield it against any more finger snapping. Why would she do something like that? Shouldn't she be at the western shore, watching all that...dust or flour or what it was? Had the article upset her?
A cold wind swept through the street and forced his legs to start walking again. North Street was just around the corner. Horsehead isn't that far away, he thought. There's still time. I should have brought someone with me, I shouldn't have gone by myself! She may look innocent, but she's not a little girl! She snaps her fingers and nails disappear! But why? Why now? The thoughts swirled around a centre of anxiety and fear, as he turned the corner and met...
He looked around to see if he was on the right street, or even at the right house, but he was. North Street 11, second house. There was a row of people, lined up in front of the building, waiting for something. As he came closer, he noticed they were smiling, despite the cold - at least, until he tried to go inside.
"Gettin' line!" they shouted while pushing him back.
"But I'm expected!" Billobi explained.
"Really now? By whom?"
"By he...or she...who lives here!"
"Yeah, yeah, in that case we're ALL expected! Nice try lad, gettin' line!"
Almost an hour later, the turn had finally come to Billobi. He had witnessed frozen people going inside, only to come out minutes later with rosy cheeks. He grabbed the door handle and turned it; although he didn't know what to expect, at least he knew it couldn't be a certain little girl from a treeless island that would make his nails disappear.
"Ah, Mr Reaptorter! Coume im, coume im", a happy voice greeted him. It belonged to a thin man, dressed in colourful clothes that Billobi hadn't seen before. "Not freeze enough, yes? Cold, yes, good? Ah, Mr Reaporter, beautiful you coume. Hug!"
The man embraced Billobi and gave him a long, friendly hug. With one arm around Billobi's shoulders, he lead him into what only could be the kitchen. The host flew around the tiny room, a trail of colour that seemed to paint the world in joy. He seemed to mutter fragments of words in a language unknown to Billobi, who suddenly found himself holding a small glass.
"Now, we cheers! Cheers!" the thin man said and emptied his glass. Billobi did the same without any afterthought, as if his mind hadn't caught up with his body. The clear liquid tasted strongly of alcohol, with a lingering aftertaste of spruce.
"Let me just... You... My name..." Billobi began, but the words didn't come out as he wanted to.
"Yes, you Mr Reaporter! I write note, you get, good! The Inkustive, newspaper with strange story. You write good! Good Reaporter."
"Who are you?"
"Oh, sorry. Me are bissness man, no names. Just bissness. Yes, Mr Reaporter? You write sand howle, in my living roum. Write good story, in newspaper, many coume and pay! Is warm."
"I'm sorry, but I don't really follow, Mr...Businessman. What is it that you want to show me?"
"Coume!" the colourful man said and pushed Billobi in front of him. "Me show living roum!"
As they left the kitchen and passed the hall, Billobi noticed that the house - or at least, what he'd seen of it - didn't feel inhabited. There were no candles, no furnitures, no curtains, no nothing. It felt grey and dead for such a colourful host, he thought.
"This living room, and this howle of sand!" the thin man said as they entered the living room.
They only thing noticeable in this room was the round, crude hole in the floor. Everything else were dusty or broken. The walls had markings after paintings, and a shattered table was piled up in the corner. But the hole in the middle of the floor seemed to glow in the dim light. It was filled with yellow sand, and looked almost like liquid gold.
"You try, clothes off!"
"Clothes off! No clothes in howle!"
"You want me to stand naked on the sand?"
"No stand", the man said and bent his knees. "Sit."
Billobi took off his shoes and warm socks and walked over to the hole. He dipped his toe as if he was about to take his first swim for the summer. He couldn't feel the grain of the sand, no matter how much he stirred his toe. It really felt like water, flowing around, doing its best to avoid his foot. And the warmth! He had never felt anything like this before.
"What wait, Mr Reaporter? Sit in howle, but clothes off!"
"I'm not taking my clothes off", he said. "What kind of sand is this?"
"Me? Bissnessman. Sand me not know. I found house, this, and found howle, that. Nice and warm, people freeze. Coume here and be warm, pay me little. But not enough, Mr Reaporter. You write in newspaper, many people coume here and be warm, make much pay. Me pay you, if you wants."
"But is it safe?" Billobi said and pulled up his foot. The toe was completely dry. "Do people bathe in this? Is it deep?"
"Deep, maybe. People sit, but no chair. Sit like... You know, swim?"
"They need to swim to keep floating?"
"Yes, yes, flotting! Be warm, flotting."
A knock on the front door called on the thin man's attention, and he excused himself. Billobi took out his pen and paper and started taking notes. He could hear muffled sounds from the front door, and finally how the door closed. The colourful host came back and said: "Was customer, wants sit in sand howle. But no money so I turn down. Me, Mr Bissnessman!"
He followed up the last sentence with a short laughter, and patted Billobi on the shoulder.
"So, Mr Reaporter, what you say? Big write in newspaper? Many rich come sit in howle?"
"First of all, even if we publish this in the Inquisitive, I'm pretty sure many of the readers don't have any riches to talk about..." Billobi said and drew a sketch of the hole.
"Is ok, many people with little pay, still money."
"And second... Are you really sure you want people to bathe in this, without knowing the consequences? How long have you've been doing this?"
"I find house four days ago, no problems with people. Except few, but no problem now I think."
The sound of the front door opening echoed through the hallway, accompanied by heavy footsteps. A sturdy, bearded man came into the living room. His hands were shaking.
"Please, I need the warmth. Just ONE more time! My hands are freezing, heck, my heart is freezing! Please!" He walked further into the living room as he talked.
"No! You, out! I tell you, no money, no sit! Is no acceptions. You go out now! See, Mr Reaporter, this why I need rich people."
"Excuse me", Billobi interrupted, "but have you bathed in this before?"
"Why do you care?" the bearded man said with a hostile voice, as if he'd just noticed Billobi's presence. "Have you paid?"
"No, I have not, but..."
"Then don't take up the sand's time!" he yelled. "And why does he get to bathe for free? I'm freezing! Look at me!"
"Out!" the colourful host shouted. "Out! Sand howle closed, no more guests! Mr Reaporter, help me out with this person!" He tried to wrap his thin arms around the sturdy man, only to bounce off like a ball. He flew across the room and landed next to the broken table.
The bearded man turned to Billobi, eyes lit like torches.
"So, let's just take it easy, shall we?" Billobi said and backed. "I'm not going to stop you from bathing."
"You've violated the warmth!" he screamed. "It's mine! Give it back!"
"There! Take it! I don't want the sand! I'll go now!"
But as he tried to put his socks on, the bearded man rushed up to him and knocked Billobi over. The strength felt almost unnatural, as if something was fuelling the crazed man from within.
"You shall put it back, nothing must leave the hole!" he shouted and dragged Billobi over to the glowing sand.
"I only dipped m-"
He was cut short as his head was pushed beneath the surface. The warmth immediately spread across his scalp, and he could sense every single hair on his head; they felt like tiny stalks, swaying in a light breeze, tickling. But it didn't stop there, no. It continued past his ears - two red seashells - over his ears and nose, past his mouth and stopping at his neck. It felt anything but uncomfortable. He almost forgot to drown.
The next moment, he could feel the cold air breaking through his lips and making its way down to his lungs. He tried to focus, but could only see the blurred outline of what he assumed was the bearded man, who cried: "Did you give it back? Did you?"
"Giv-" - Billobi had to cough before he could continue. "Give...what...back?"
"The warmth! You must... Your ears are red! You haven't given it back, have you? Have you? Give it back! I need to -"
Billobi didn't hear the last word. The warmth spread across his head once again, but this time it continued further down his body, passed his knees and feet, until it completely surrounded him. He loved it. It was a warm blanket in the middle of the night, his mother's hug and kiss before bedtime, bathing next to Hamphred after a hard day's work, the blue eyes of his Ana.
The thought of Ana forced his eyes wide open, and whatever it was that stared back at him, it grabbed him by the neck and pulled him further down.
(To be continued.)
The 2016 Cartographic Review!
1 hour ago