“Snow. Blood. Love.” by Ami Cameron is the Grand Prize-winning story in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer's Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.
Snow. Blood. Love. by Ami Cameron
It was a seventeen hour drive every second Christmas to my grandmother’s. We drove in my parents’ blue Oldsmobile. More than once Dad got out, adjusting the chains as we climbed through the mountains, in and out of snow. He’d return to the driver’s seat with a face slapped red from the sting of the icy wind.
A week before leaving, we’d gather our winter clothes from the basement. They weren’t used any other time, though it wasn’t for lack of longing. Many an early winter morning, I’d run downstairs and look out the window, still dark in the country, hoping to see that white light of snow that I loved. Instead, there was only green and grey: winter on the west coast.
But I was a prairie girl, a snow angel.
I belonged at Grandma’s, where there was snow, hot chocolate in thermoses that we drank by the frozen pond, and ice skates tied so tight we stopped feeling our toes go cold.
There were cousins who crawled into high beds under heavy quilts, and aunts and uncles who told stories of shooting deer and tracking elk. All I had to do was slip out my tiny upstairs bedroom, wander through the dark hall, and peer down the stairwell to see the proof of their hunting adventures. Over the staircase hung the head of beautiful beige doe that Uncle Mark shot by mistake when he was thirteen.
Her glass eyes shone, and her chin tilted proudly, as if to ask, “You think I belong here?”
Now, you don’t shoot does, only bucks, and with those black eyes gazing right at me through the shadows, I felt as guilty as if I’d shot her myself.
There was magic at Grandma’s house. We all knew it, though no one ever said it. A kitchen counter cluttered with pots, pans, and canning jars still had room for my aunts to hop up and have a seat, swing their legs and flirt with their brother-in-laws. Meals of lasagna or game roast arrived on the table without anyone being stuck in the kitchen. There was chaos and laughter and kisses in endless supply.
Each morning, I woke to Grandma banging around in the kitchen making her watery version of coffee, and the smell of bacon thick in the air.
More importantly, outside in the sunshine was a new layer of snow. Fresh and clean, and absolutely wonderful.
This year was no different. It was our first day there, and it had snowed during the night. I was just pulling on my winter boots to go for a good tromp when Aunt Meredith arrived, her eyes red-rimmed and bleary with tears.
In one swift and unified action, my aunts and uncles surrounded her. My two young cousins were swept away along with her luggage and winter coat. In a matter of minutes she was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of hot coffee in her hands.
“Jessica, go put a movie on for the kids,” my mother ordered, not bothering to look at me.
I hurried to get everyone settled in front of Miracle on 34th Street, but at fourteen, I wasn’t young enough to distract. Instead, I slinked back to the kitchen to eavesdrop.
“What has he done this time?” Aunt Rachel asked, referring to my aunt’s husband, Gary.
“Another affair,” Meredith said in a shaky voice to her coffee mug. “He says he’ll take the kids if I divorce him, and I don’t have the money to fight him in court.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks as she searched the faces of her siblings for help. Without warning my Uncle Doug slammed his fist on the table, spilling her coffee and making everybody jump, including me. He ignored us; his eyes were fixed on my aunt’s neck. Her shoulders sagged as he pushed back her long brown hair to reveal a purple welt the size of a grapefruit. My aunts gasped and my uncles swore.
“How long has he been hitting you?”
Uncle Doug’s voice was tight and angry, but Aunt Meredith didn’t answer. She just lowered her head to her hands and sobbed. It was a deep throaty aching sound that made the hair on my arms stand up.
I stood glued to the spot, and my gaze wandered from that ugly bruise onto every face, until it landed on my Grandmother’s back. She’d been doing the dishes. Dunk and wash, dunk and wash. Now she stood very still. Her knuckles were white where one hand gripped the edge of the counter.
Everyone moved into the dining room to talk, but Grandma stood like a statue at the sink. It terrified me to see her so still. I thought my strong stoic grandmother might be crying, which scared me even more.
“Grandma,” I asked, and placed a hand gingerly on her back. “Can I help you with the dishes?”
She stared out the window, a wet spot on her apron where she squeezed a dripping sponge, forgotten, against her stomach.
“He’ll come after her, you can be sure of that,” she said in a voice so low I could barely hear her.
“She’s safe here, Grandma. Everyone will take care of her.”
“He’ll come after her,” she said again, “And when he does, I’m gonna kill him.”
As soon as she said this, the trance was broken, and she dipped her hands back in the water and started scrubbing pots again.
“Can you take the plum pudding out of the oven, darlin’?” she asked, and I turned from her to do as I was told.
That night I couldn’t sleep. My cousin Tessa snored softly beside me while the wind blew against our bedroom window, rattling the pane. I watched the snow, swirls of powdered sugar in the grey sky, until my eyelids finally started to droop. Sleep hovered over me, and was about to descend, when a loud bang jerked me awake.
“What was that?” I said to Tessa, sure she’d heard it too, but her only answer was another whispering snore.
I dropped off the bed and my feet hit the cold wood floor. Careful not to slip, I tiptoed down the stairs, doing my best to ignore the doe that oversaw the stairwell like a royal guard. I turned toward the kitchen, following the noise, and saw the back door was open and banging in the wind. Drifts of snow were billowing in. I ran over to pull the door shut, and saw someone in the back yard.
The door blew out of my hand and banged open again, and Grandma turned around. The streetlamp cast an eerie glow into the backyard, and I could see she was wearing my Grandfather’s old plaid hunting jacket. In her hands she held his rifle. She dropped the gun when she saw me, and it fell silently into a cloud of newly fallen snow. I pulled on some boots by the front door and ran out to her. The snow and wind pelted my face and blew through my nightgown.
The snow covered the top of my boots, and filled them with icy cold. Grandma had her hand over her mouth, and her thin shoulders were shaking.
“Oh no,” I whispered.
It was Gary, lying face up in the snow. His blood made a dark red stain against the whiteness. It reminded me of a cherry snow cone.
“Grandma,” I started to say, but she interrupted me.
“I did it. It’s done now.” She paused, then nodded her head once, decisively, and said, “Help me get him into the shed.”
She went and stood by his head, but I couldn’t move, maybe because of the shock, or maybe because I was near frozen.
“Jessica! Grab his legs!”
The urgency in her voice made my feet shuffle forward. We lifted and dragged, but it was no use. He was too heavy for us. Grandma retrieved the toboggan that was leaning against the garage, and once he was on that, we were able to slide him to the shed. I tried not to look at his face, his jaw hanging slack, or his eyes that didn’t blink when the snow fell on them.
Grandma opened the shed door and we pushed the toboggan in and over, dumping him on his side. Then she closed the door. The snow had covered the blood over, so Grandma picked up the gun and we went inside.
She warmed some milk for us and I stood by the old stove. My skin prickled while it warmed through my wet nightgown. Grandma took some brandy from the cupboard and poured a liberal amount into her empty cup. It sloshed over the sides, and she lowered the shaking bottle to the counter and took a deep breath.
Looking at me sideways she said, “I suppose you could use this too.”
I choked as it burned a pathway down my throat.
By the time the milk was ready, I was damp but warm, and a touch drunk.
My brain had started to thaw from the cold and shock, and tears, or maybe melting icicles, clung to my eyelashes. There was a dead man in the shed. Grandma had shot him. I’d touched his lifeless body. I looked up at her, desperate for this to all be a mistake. The skin on her face was red and chapped, and for the first time she looked frail to me.
“Now I don’t want you to think about what happened out there. I wish you hadn’t come out, but thank God you did, or we’d all be in a real pickle.” Her voice shook as she said, “Now up to bed.”
I drank the rest of my milk too fast, and hiccupped loudly. With Grandma behind me, I climbed up the narrow stairs and crawled into bed. Tessa smiled in her sleep, and I felt hollow and empty beside her.
Grandmother smoothed the hair off my forehead. In the darkness she looked like a ghost perched on the edge of my bed.
“Grandma,” I croaked, but she shook her head to silence me.
“Don’t think about tonight. This has to be my secret. Do you understand? It’s got nothin’ to do with you.”
It has a little bit to do with me, I thought, and shivered as I remembered the thud of Gary’s body as it rolled onto the shed’s dirt floor. Grandma pushed the quilt tighter around me.
“Please,” she continued, “You let it be a bad dream. Let it go, darlin’, just like it never happened.”
She stroked my forehead until I fell asleep, feeling the alcohol hot in my belly.
My dreams were filled with banging screen doors, blood trails in the snow, and brandy in a beaker that steamed like a chemistry experiment.
I dreamt of the bruise on my aunt’s neck. It spread like an ink stain over her whole body, while tears slid down her cheeks. Then I saw they weren’t tears but snow, dropping softly and melting on her face. She smiled at me, and repeated my grandmother’s words, I did it. It’s done now. Little drops of blood dripped from her fingertips.
I jolted awake, my heart thundering, but it was still dark outside. Through my bedroom window the snow fell silent to the ground, illuminated by a single streetlight. It would have been beautiful to me, but now all I could think of was the trail of blood that lay underneath, and the cold body in the shed.
I wanted to go outside, to see if the body was still there, but I remembered Grandma’s words, to let it go. I tried to convince myself that it really had been a bad dream.
Two days later we drove home, our car piled with gifts from the Christmas festivities. Leaving Grandma’s house always made me sad, but if anyone thought it was odd that I cried in her arms this year, they didn’t say.
Once we were home, details of that night became blurred. I had vivid dreams. They were always about the shooting, but I never knew who’d be holding the gun. Sometimes it was my grandmother, sometimes my aunt, but the dreams that scared me the most were the times when it was me.
The police questioned my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, even my parents, once Gary’s absence was noticed. Grandma turned out to be an excellent liar. No one thought to ask the fourteen year old girl a province away who had helped hide the body.
Of course I didn’t tell my parents. I’d seen enough Perry Mason shows to know what an accessory to the crime was. My parents speculated that Gary had some bad business associates, and maybe he’d met with foul play. Or maybe he’d just wanted to disappear. A body had never been found, after all.
“Good riddance,” they said with a chuckle, while I slipped away to my room and hid under the covers, guilt and fear overwhelming me.
Months went by. Gary was all but forgotten it seemed, except by me.
My grandmother died a year later. We packed up the car like every time before, but this time, instead of happy anticipation, our hearts were heavy. My mom’s eyes filled with tears more than once on the seventeen hour journey.
The snow greeted us as we climbed through the mountains, and I fought with my mind, as flashes of truth and fiction tangled together.
Grandma’s house was the same as always. The big stove in the kitchen greeted us with a blast of heat when we walked in the front door. Aunts and uncles gathered around us. Cousins hooped and hollered and ran through the house, crazy as always – a year older and a couple inches taller.
There were tears as my mom greeted her siblings, arms around each other, supporting one another just like they always had. And there were moments when, as we played cards or ate or watched movies, we could almost pretend that Grandma was in the kitchen, finishing the dishes or making her famous plum pudding.
The day of the funeral came. It was a cold morning, cloudy and grim. It looked like snow. We bundled up, our dark clothing hidden under large winter parkas. My aunts’ high heels sank through the crusty snow that covered the ground.
The service was short. At the gravesite the wind whipped at our hair and froze the tears on our skin as the casket was lowered into the frozen earth. The pastor finished just as the first flake of snow hit the polished mahogany lid.
At home there was a big pot of soup warming on Grandma’s stove. After we ate, the cousins settled in front of the television, while the adults talked quietly or went to their rooms. But I was restless.
I went into the kitchen to see if I could help with anything. At fifteen, I realized that meals didn’t just appear, and the house didn’t run itself. Sorrow draped itself on my shoulders because I knew some of the magic of this place had disappeared along with Grandma.
I did the dishes and put the kettle on for hot chocolate. My eyes fell on the back door, and suddenly I needed to be out in the snow. I needed to remember exactly what had happened the year before.
I yanked on my boots and jacket, and stumbled down the back steps. The days were short now, and it was already dark. With the snow falling around me, I was transported back to that night.
I closed my eyes.
I heard the screen door bang in the wind. I felt the snow fill my boots and freeze my skin. I saw Grandma, the shotgun by her side. I watched it drop into the snow. Then….
Tracks in the snow, footprints I hadn’t noticed before.
I wish you hadn’t come out, but thank God you did, or we’d all be in a real pickle.
My eyes snapped open and I swung around. Aunt Meredith stood behind me.
“You’re remembering, aren’t you?” she said softly.
“I don’t know,” I didn’t want to give away Grandma’s secret.
“She said you didn’t see me, but I was never sure.”
We both looked ahead, as if we could see the whole thing like a movie in front of us.
“Where were you?” I finally asked.
“Over there,” she motioned toward the cedar siding of Grandma’s house. “You passed me when you came down the steps, but you were looking at Grandma. I ran in the house and up to my room.”
I imagined her watching from her bedroom window while Grandma and I dragged the body of her dead husband through the snow. We both shivered at the same time.
I wanted to ask if she shot him, or if it was Grandma. I wanted to ask where his body was now. I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t make my mouth form the words.
She reached into her coat pocket and brought out an envelope. My name was written in Grandma’s slanting script. I opened it with cold fingers as my aunt left me alone to read it.
When you are a mother, you will understand.
I’m sorry. I love you.
I refolded the letter and put it back in the envelope. Then I went inside and finished making the hot chocolate. I didn’t wipe away my tears.
That wasn’t the only letter delivered that day. Grandma’s confession was sent to the police too. She told them where the body was, and Gary was dug up from a shallow grave in the shed. The case was closed and I didn’t hear any more about it.
Last night I dreamt I saw a herd of deer running through the snow. Grandma was beside me and she raised her gun with the skill of an experienced hunter. The doe lifted her head and looked at us. It was the same doe that hung over my grandmother’s staircase, except her eyes were still full of life.
“No!” I cried, and tried to pull her gun down.
Grandma turned to me and smiled.
“I’m tired of dead things,” she said, and lifted the rifle high, firing a shot into the cloudless sky. The doe bolted, and the herd scattered in every direction. “She deserves to be free,” she whispered, “But freedom comes at a cost.”
She dropped the gun and fell to her knees, and I saw the bullet hole in her jacket, just over her heart. There was blood in the snow. Grandma’s blood. Her love.
And I couldn’t cover it up.