& ICE

By Stik Mann

It was the strangest dream, not only because it was so real, but also because of what happened next.

My son is only four or five years old. I tuck him in his bed and he squirms in the cold sheets and grits his teeth and laughs a little boy laugh. I run my hand over his forehead and through his hair. "Don't you know how much I love you, Jamie?" I say to him. "Don't you know how much I love you?"

And then I wake up.

I remain awake for many minutes before I remember that my son now goes by James, not Jamie as he did years ago. James is now sixteen. James is over six feet tall with a punk haircut and an attitude. I can't remember when I last told him that I love him.

I contemplate the dream for an hour or so before I once again fall asleep.

And then...

 

I was in a small house with a group of people whom I didn't know. We were sitting on couches, everyone quite comfortable, everyone silent and introspective. Some were smoking, blowing wavering rings up into the overhanging cloud.

On the wall opposite me was a large, faded, old-time photograph of a wrinkled man with long, gray hair and beard, staring back with dark, menacing eyes.

Suddenly, one of the women gasped loudly and pointed to the base of the couch where I sat. A large, green toad slowly inched out onto the floor, hopped once and then stopped. Then another one appeared from the same spot, and then another, and another.

The woman jumped up and grabbed a broom and tried to sweep them back to where they came. Then, toads began appearing from everywhere -- from the hallway, from around the kitchen counter, gathering in the middle of the floor and making it impossible to leave without crushing hopping green toads. One emitted a loud croak and soon all were bellowing.

I turned and pulled open the curtains.

The world was green with toads.

Chris and Katie and I are driving back from Rick's place. We decided that it was too late to get into the hot tub. But it sure would have been nice.

We are all very tired. It is a little after 3:00 a.m.

We pull up and stop in front of my house. I am telling them goodbye when Chris interrupts and says to me in a calm voice, "Steve, is your house on fire?"

I turn. The entire roof of my house is smoking, coming not from one place but oozing through the tiles, everywhere at once. But, it can't be, I say to myself, and I look around. The stars are shining through breaks in the clouds; nothing wrong there. The neighborhood is silent; normal for this time of night. Behind the closed curtains of my house, the living room lights have been left on, as I have told my son to do if he goes to bed before I get --

And then it hits me.

My house - my house is on fire. And my son - my son is inside the house.

 

I found myself in what I knew was a burning house, though I could neither see nor hear flames. Smoke was thick above my head. Upstairs, somewhere, there was fire. Somewhere, up there, was my son.

I ran to the stairway door and hollered out. There was no answer.

I stepped through the door and ran up into black, intensely hot air, my lungs filling quickly with thick, oily smoke. There was a loud noise, followed by pain.

When my vision returned and the frequency and ferocity of my coughing and choking lessened, I realized that I was again at the bottom of the stairs outside the door, sprawled on the floor.

I got on my hands and knees and sucked in as much of the air nearest the floor as I could. I closed my eyes and staggered back up the steps, but could not reach the top of the stair -- another inch and my hair would have ignited. I shielded my face with my coat and reached up and out into the heat, searching for the door knob to my son's room. I heard the hair on my arm singe. I reached further and felt the flesh on my hand sizzle.

It's over, I said to myself. Everything has ended. My son is...

And then --

"Hey, dad. You burnin' something?"

James staggered into the doorway below me, coughing and rubbing his eyes.

James and Katie and I are sitting in Don and Michelle's living room. James is looking straight ahead, as if sleeping with his eyes open. Katie and I are looking out the window. Across the street, a fireman, silhouetted by leaping flames behind him, cuts a hole in the roof of my house with a chainsaw.

The fire has burned for well over two hours. Whenever I believe it is under control, it flares up again in another place. I am sure nothing is left of my possessions.

"I need some air," I say, "excuse me," and I step outside.

Fire engines line the entire block. There is an ambulance nearby. Huge, snake-like hoses and coiled extension cords are everywhere. Standing on the sidewalk in front of their own dwellings are my neighbors, all wrapped in blankets and sipping from steaming mugs, my burning house reflected in their eyes.

Firefighters are everywhere. One is busting out my bedroom window with a long rod. One is shoveling grey muck out the front door. Another, clad in an oxygen mask and holding an axe, steps by the man with the shovel and walks my way.

Suddenly, there is a collective expression of awe from the crowd. They look into the sky, some extending their palms upward.

Snowflakes -- crystalline and enormous -- slowly emerge from the heavens like alien paratroopers, seeming to defy gravity.

The fireman steps behind a truck and sets down the axe. He removes the mask and someone assists him with the tanks. Exhausted, he rests against the truck and tilts his head to the sky as snowflakes fall upon his pink, sweaty face.

"Fire and ice," he says. "Fire and ice."

 

I stood before what used to be my home. Mounds of black ash and the charred remnants of my possessions littered the yard. Shattered glass was everywhere. The entire first floor appeared intact. Little of the roof still existed.

I stepped carefully through the debris, up to the front porch and in the door. The smell was like a combination of lamp oil and the kitchen of a greasy restaurant. Everything was soaked with water and gritty mud. A few blackened holes in the ceiling were the only evidence of actual damage by fire.

I walked over to the stairway and looked up. There was a chilly breeze coming from above. With each step up, the walls became progressively darker. At the top, I pushed open the door of James' bedroom with my foot and saw blue sky.

The roof and most of the outside wall were gone. The bed, the desk, the shelves -- everything was gone, with the exception of the remains of a few books and magazines scattered on the floor.

One particular book caught my eye. The ironic survival of this title, along with the winter wind, caused a creeping shiver to claw its way up my backbone and explode at the base of my brain. I opened it at random to an illustration by William Blake that accompanied the text. In it, the poets walk across the frozen lake of Hell's ninth circle. All around them, the sinners of treachery are fixed in the ice, only their heads exposed.

It was then that I became aware of a strange presence that had come and gone. It wasn't just the flames; it was something more, something hungry and dark and horrible that had swooped down from some unknown place and was forced to return without prey in its talons.

I tossed the book and left the room, stepped down the stair and out of the house.

I noticed that there was a note stuck on the door. It was from a delivery company which evidently had come to deliver a package.

SORRY WE MISSED YOU, it read.

James and I go to my mother's house for Christmas. James is on the couch, his eyes half-closed. It is late at night.

I walk over to him. "James," I say, softly, and I run my hand over his forehead and through his hair. But he has fallen asleep.

I lay on the floor and close my eyes. And just as I drift away, an vision appears to me: A beautifully bejeweled, golden goblet, lightly dusted with frost, floats in mid-air. I know that it would be good to sip the liquid it contains, but the elixer is frozen solid.

I look closer. I almost missed it. But when I tilt my head and squint my eyes just so, I see a tiny blue flame, skipping and dancing across the surface, leaving behind a thin, thawed trail of magical brew.