Frank used a shiny button for the nose. Ann shoved a corncob pipe between the little stones that formed his upturned mouth. And Bass wrapped a scarf around his neck.
“Tonight?” asked Bass. “Midnight?”
Frank twisted the button nose into place. “I’ll take the north generator. You, the west. And Ann, the…” He lowered his voice while a group of schoolchildren walked nearby. “Ann, the—”
“South generator.” She took off her top hat and placed it on the snowman. “Easiest job yet.”
“Where did you get that hat?” asked Bass.
“Rolled by as I was walking here. I think someone lost it caroling. Snatched it up before they could find it. That’ll teach those annoying—”
Ann pulled her hands away from the snowman.
“Something wrong,” teased Bass. “Did the snowman scare you?”
“Did you see it…move?”
They stared at the snowman’s ridiculous face. Happy and carefree, but not moving. Frank and Bass shared a look and silently agreed not to make fun of Ann. She wasn’t known for being a good sport.
Had the snowman been real, it might have noticed a newspaper blow by with the headline, HOSPITAL SABOTAGED IN FRAUD CASE: TRIO AT LARGE.
“Christmas Eve,” said Bass, tightening the green scarf. “Lots of families gonna be heartbroken if the power doesn’t come back on. Lots of people need it.”
By the look in his eye, one might wonder if Bass was having second thoughts.
He continued. “But that’s not my problem—I got a cruise with my name on it!”
“Think bigger,” said Frank. “You can afford an entire fleet when we get paid. The power’ll only be out long enough to trigger lawsuits, not defibrillators. Probably.”
“Let’s call him Burly.” Ann pushed the hat down lower on the snowman’s head and then shrugged. “Anyway, who cares? We get paid either way.”
The misfits turned away from the snowman, which meant they did not see his coal eyes rotate until they were on their narrow sides, tilting inward. The stones of his mouth grew closer together to form a grim line. And there was a slight crunching sound, as if someone were chewing on a corncob pipe.
Ann checked her watch. 11:49. Almost time. The hospital loomed enormously overhead, and she could hear a steady beep-beep-beep from a hospital room.
The three generators needed to turn off all at once, and then turn back on at the same time, because this, Frank assured them, would simulate a computer malfunction. IBM would be buying her next house as long as Frank and Bass didn’t screw anything up.
A silhouette stepped around the corner, outlined by a streetlamp behind it.
No, “stepped” was the wrong word. She had seen this odd shape…slide around the corner.
This was a restricted area. Ann had worked hard to get the keys to the security fence. No one else could be here.
The shape continued to slide her way. Scrawny arms. Broad shoulders. She couldn’t see much of it, but what she could see didn’t make sense. The person’s shape was surely different than it looked. Had to be. Those proportions were inhuman. A trick of the light. But that hat…
“That’s the children’s wing,” came a dark voice.
As the interloper’s face came into the light, she spoke his name.
“For shame, Ann.”
Paralyzed by fear, Ann barely reacted when Burly’s dendroid arm removed a snowball from his own chest and threw it at the ground in front of her.
Ann felt her body convulse. Her next step only got started. Her boot seemed stuck. A chill ran up her ankle and spread to her foot, then up her leg. Burly slid closers, branchy arms akimbo, staring into her with unflinching, coal eyes, as a sheet of ice covered her legs and spread up her body. She felt her arms freeze in place.
“Shiver and cold,” Burly crooned. “Shiver and cold.”
Bass wondered if the others were pacing. He was pacing. He couldn’t stand still on any job, but with ten minutes until go time, he felt especially restless. He’d made a path in the snow, three feet wide, where he’d walked back and forth in the small space around the west generator. This part of the hospital grounds was littered with equipment taller than Bass, electrical monoliths and other mechanical devices that he didn’t understand, giving him little room for his erratic shuffling.
A shadow moved.
Bass held still. He hadn’t heard anything. No one could move that quietly.
It moved again. Whoever it was, Bass wouldn’t get caught off guard. He scooped up a handful of snow, squeezed it tight, and ran toward the shadow.
Bass threw the moment a shape came into view, but his face fell even before the snowball landed in Burly’s face. The show hit, stuck, and then was slowly absorbed by the snowman, who grew slightly taller in the process.
“No!” Bass fell backward. “It’s not possible! You’re a fairytale!”
“Is that so!” Burly slid faster, towering over Bass. “Then let’s have some fun…before I melt away.”
Bass tore his face from the impossible sight and jumped to his feet, determined to run for as long as possible, not to think about the abomination behind him, but a bundle of sticks pushed against the back of his head, and Bass was thrown into a pylon.
He barely recovered before it happened again.
The sound of carolers, blocks away, serenaded the scene as Bass’s head went thumpity-thump-thump.
Frank knew Bass would be pacing and that Ann would be scheming. He was the only one who would be standing still, waiting quietly. He was the practical one.
Most of life was simple for Frank. Turning off the generator didn’t require him to jump through philosophical and ethical hoops like Bass always did. It only required pushing a button. Simple.
And it was this stoic outlook that kept Frank from panicking when a snowman shuffled around the corner and set its wicked eyes on Frank. It made no sense, but Frank had long given up on making sense of the world. The snowman’s intentions were clear, and a plan quickly formed in Frank’s mind.
Frank had scoped out the location weeks ago. He ran away from the impossible snowman and down a narrow alley where HVAC piping covered one side of the building like ambitious ivy. The pipes were old. Hot air burst from pinholes in the old metal. Frank stood at the end of the alley, his back to a street, and watched as the frozen interloper turned the corner and made its way toward him.
Burly the snowman knew the steam was hot that day. He paused at the revelation that his body was melting. The resulting water spread here and there, all around the square blocks of the alleyway.
The stones of his mouth grew closer together, and Burly pushed through the steam. His body shrank. He moved slower and slower as each burst of steam melted more of him. His eyes focused on Frank as he forced himself through another jet of hot air.
When Burly made it to the end of the alley, he was less than half of his height. The silk top hat threatened to fall off of his narrowed head. He steadied it with one branch; his other arm had fallen to the ground.
“The hat!” Frank advanced on him. “That’s the key.”
Burly saw his body melting onto the ground into an undignified puddle. In that puddle, he saw the reflection of Frank, who was taking a large step toward him.
But Frank stumbled.
The puddle, though melted, was still part of Burly’s body, and Burly was no longer affected by the steam. He froze the puddle.
Frank nearly fell, but spread his arms and kept a shaky footing.
Burly drew the water back into himself, growing large again. Frozen water in the alley fed his body. The small trickle that ran through the gutter underneath him started running toward him from both directions as Burly drew the water into himself. He grew to nearly Frank’s height when Frank swiped at the hat.
But Burly caught his hand.
As Burly grew and grew, he held Frank in the air, dangling him like an ornament. Now ten feet tell, he held the bewildered Frank high above the ground.
Face to face with Burly, Frank saw his own reflection in the old button he’d used for the nose. His face stared back at him, distorted in the cheap plastic as if his last moments were being painted by Edvard Munch.
“Are you going to kill me?” asked Frank.
“Kill you? No. I’m going to send you down to the village with a broomstick in your—”
“Stop!” someone hollered.
Bright lights. Burly froze and dropped Frank. A police officer, gun drawn, ordered Frank to put up his hands.
More uniforms arrived. Burly held still.
Frank was already in cuffs when another patrol car stopped, and Burly saw two stunned faces in the back seat, their eyes glued to him. Bass and Ann, shivering in their own handcuffs.
“We caught your buddies around the corner,” said the cop, shoving Frank against the hood of his car. “You might have gotten away if you hadn’t stopped to build that snowman.”
“That’s not what happened. It’s real! There must have been some magic in—”
“Yeah, yeah. Can it, you creep. I hear you’re going away for ten years.”
Ten years. Burly could wait. He let himself melt into the gutter, knowing he’d be back again…someday.
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