Author:Christopher Golden
    For Lily Grace Golden, who brightens even the darkest days.



    Ella Santos stood on the sidewalk with a cigarette in her hand, watching the snow fall and feeling more alone than she ever had in her life. The storm seemed to loom around her, holding its breath and waiting for her to go back inside. For a couple of impossibly long minutes, no cars or plows appeared on the street. The bank and the boutique and the music store and the other restaurants on that stretch of Washington Street had all been closed up for hours, windows dark and abandoned. The city of Coventry had given itself over to the storm, and suddenly Ella felt foolish that she hadn’t already gone home and crawled into bed with a mug of tea and an old movie.

    She took a long drag on her cigarette and huddled deeper inside her down jacket before exhaling the smoke from her lungs. The only sound was the snow itself, falling so hard and fast that she could hear the strange shush of it accumulating. Ella shivered, and not entirely from the cold. Alone on the street, she might have been the last woman on Earth, the only human voice remaining but afraid to interrupt the quiet conversation between snow and sky.

    A squeak of hinges and a burst of laughter came from behind her and she jumped, startled by two women emerging from the restaurant at her back. Quiet music—the lilt of an acoustic guitar—carried out to her as well, just before the door swung shut.

    “Night, Ella,” one of the women said, pushing her blond hair out of her eyes. “Thanks for staying open.”

    Ella smiled, feeling foolish for the way she’d let the weird isolation out on the street get under her skin. As a kid she’d loved snowstorms, but as the adult owner of a restaurant, snow days were few and far between … and very bad for business.

    “My pleasure,” she said, waving as the two women hurried across the street to their car, their shoes leaving tracks in the newfallen snow. “I hope you enjoyed your meal. Get home safe.”

    “You, too!” called the second woman, whose dress was entirely inappropriate for a snowstorm, even covered by her heavy jacket.

    “Closing soon,” Ella replied.

    The women had been inside the restaurant for just over an hour and at least an inch of snow covered their car. Instead of trying to clean it off they piled in, and now the windshield wipers kicked on, sweeping areas of the glass clean. The rear window remained covered with snow as they pulled from the curb. The driver would hardly be able to see a thing, but fortunately there weren’t a lot of other cars on the road. Even the plows didn’t seem to be making many appearances tonight.

    Ella took another drag on her cigarette, letting the smoke warm her before she blew it out through her nostrils. She had started smoking one summer in high school when most of her girlfriends had taken up the habit. Now she hated it, knew it made her look weak and foolish instead of cool and sexy, but she’d tried to quit half-a-dozen times and always started up again.

    A loud bang and scrape announced the arrival of a plow several blocks distant and she turned to watch its grinding progress, the upper halves of its headlights peering over the giant metal blade.

    The restaurant door swung open again and she turned to see her bartender, Ben Hemming, poking his head out. His blue eyes blinked against the sudden gust that drove snow into his face.

    “You okay, boss?”

    Ella smiled, reaching up to wipe snow from her eyelashes. “Just thinking. Things wrapping up in there?”

    “Near enough,” Ben replied.

    If he thought she had a screw loose, standing out there in a storm that was fast becoming a blizzard, he hid it well. Maybe it is a little crazy, Ella thought. But as isolated as it made her feel, she liked the pure white calm of it all.

    “Time?” she asked.

    “Quarter after eight,” Ben replied, snowflakes adding to the premature white in his hair.

    “All right,” she said, tossing the cigarette to the snowy sidewalk and grinding it out with her bootheel. “Last call. We’ll close up at eight thirty.”

    “Thanks,” Ben said. He started to duck back inside, then hesitated. “You sure you’re okay?”

    Ella bent to pick up the crushed, damp cigarette butt. “Always.”

    Ben didn’t recognize the lie or at least didn’t challenge it. He let the door swing shut, in a hurry to start closing out tabs. Ella couldn’t blame him; Ben had a pretty wife and a new baby at home and he didn’t want to leave them alone in the storm. Nobody was waiting for Ella back at her little house on Cherry Road. For her, there was no rush.

    As she pulled on the ornate door handle a massive gust of wind slammed it tight again. It felt as if the storm fought against her, but she forced the door open and slipped inside. She turned as the door swung shut and caught a glimpse of the plow going by. In its headlights she saw just how thick and fast the snow was falling. Then the door slammed and she flinched. The blizzard had arrived.

    The Vault had two big fireplaces, which had been roaring all through dinner and had now begun to die down. The early evening had been fairly busy despite the storm. Now, only three tables were occupied, but the family at one and the older couple at another were in the process of gathering their things and slipping on jackets and scarves and gloves. The trio of twentysomething guys at the last table seemed in no hurry, sipping their coffees while one worked slowly at his tiramisu.

    Four people were at the bar—all of them regulars who would go now that Ben had doubtless announced last call. In the far corner, where she had live music Thursdays through Saturdays, TJ Farrelly sat on a stool with his fat-bellied acoustic guitar, playing an old Arcade Fire song. It made Ella smile. As long as somebody was there to hear, TJ would keep playing. Sometimes he would play after all the customers were gone, entertaining the staff while they swept up and cashed out.

    Snow melting in her hair, trickling icily down her neck, Ella went into the ladies’ room to flush her cigarette butt, promising herself she wouldn’t smoke again tonight. She glanced in the mirror and laughed softly at her reflection, reaching up to brush the snow out of her hair and off the shoulders of her coat.

    As she left the bathroom, the small window set high on the wall began to rattle in its frame and she thought she could actually feel the building sway. The restaurant was sturdy—once upon a time it had been a bank—but the walls shook and the draft that whipped around her made the bathroom door close with a bang.

    It almost felt as if the storm had come in after her.

    TJ watched Ella cross the restaurant and exchange a quiet word with the last group of diners at The Vault, three guys who seemed intent on camping overnight at the table if only someone would keep the coffee coming. TJ thought it was funny how the career drinkers at the bar would happily slide off their stools, tip the bartender, and head home, but the guys reminiscing over coffee were reluctant.

    Old friends, TJ figured. High-school buddies who haven’t seen each other in a while. He would have asked them, but he felt fairly certain. TJ had always been observant; he had a knack for figuring people out, though Ella tended to puzzle him. The restaurant was basically her life. TJ figured it was normal for someone to be that wrapped up in an endeavor like this, where the financial margins were slim and the risk of ruin was pretty sizable. But Ella was thirty-two years old and single, not to mention considerably attractive, with long legs and chocolate-brown eyes and a mouth he’d thought more than once about kissing. There had to be someone she trusted enough to manage the restaurant a couple of times a week so that she could do something for herself—go to a movie or a concert or, for once, eat somewhere other than in her office in the back room of her own restaurant.

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