Featuring Tim Lebbon, Paul Tremblay, Joe R. Lansdale, M.R. Carey, Ken Liu and many more.
Lost in the wilderness, or alone in the dark, isolation remains one of our deepest held fears. This horror anthology from Shirley Jackson and British Fantasy Award finalist Dan Coxon calls on leading horror writers to confront the dark moments, the challenges that we must face alone: survivors in a world gone silent; the outcast shunned by society; the quiet voice trapped in the crowd; the lonely and forgotten, screaming into the abyss.
Experience the chilling terrors of Isolation. Featuring stories by:
Joe R. Lansdale
Michael Marshall Smith
Lynda E. Rucker
Release date: September 27, 2022
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 400
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Isolation: The horror anthology
THE SNOW CHILD
THERE’S a family building a snowman outside a little wooden house. A mother, dad, two kids: perfect. They pat down his sides, laughing at the woolly hat on his head, and then they are gone, left behind us. It’s getting dark and I wonder that such young children are still playing outside, then remember it’s only half past two in the afternoon.
This far north the sun is already fading, blue shadows draping the snow. I’m tired, and not just from the journey: a plane from Stockholm to Kiruna, the northernmost airport in Sweden, and then this bus, which is surprisingly full. But then, it doesn’t go any further than Jukkasjärvi, busy with its ice hotel and reindeer centre and holiday lodges, its church and small supermarket, the clusters of wooden houses each painted a different colour. After this, I have to hope she remembers. I have to hope she is there. Beyond this is only the Arctic Circle and the dark and the cold; where my mother lives, there is nothing.
My unease creeps a little deeper into me. I should have come home sooner. I knew it every time we spoke on the phone, hearing the crisp brittle crust to her voice, the coldness beneath. But somehow one year turned into the next and then another, and anyway, it’s nothing she didn’t expect; it never did take long for her disappointment in me to become resignation. Our conversations consist of the same old expected phrases—Howare you? I’m fine. Good. Yes, soon, I hope. Take care of yourself.Goodbye—all oddly formal, but we’ve been that way for so long I can barely remember anything else.
The last time we spoke, though, there was something else, a new edge to her voice, a jumpiness I hadn’t expected. I’d pictured her huddled into a corner in the store, holding the payphone to her ear, fidgeting with the curly wire and glancing over her shoulder as if afraid someone else might hear.
Still, what did I expect? I’d left her out here all alone, with nothing but the snow and the night that closes in too soon. How could anyone live so remotely without it creeping into them—the cold, endless blue dark? I had wanted to wait for the spring, but that phone call had nagged at me, not the words but the way she said them, and so I’d told her I would come.
The bus slows and I wipe mist from the window, catching a glimpse of lights from the shop. It has grey walls, a yellow awning, a couple of snowmobiles parked outside: it’s all just the same. I queue to get off the bus and catch snippets from the radio. Some kind of protest in Mälmo. The need for rent-controlled accommodation in Stockholm. A child missing from a village near Kiruna, presumed lost in the snow. I pull a face at that. She wouldn’t be the first.
My sister, Alma, had been the youngest child, the good child. And she too was lost, wandering off one day into the trees, her coat as red as blood, her skin as white as snow, her hair almost as pale. To complete the fairy story her eyes ought to have been as black as ebony, but my sister’s eyes were blue, like mine.
Snow had quickly covered her tracks. She never did come back, though my mother searched endlessly, leaving me alone in the cabin, young as I was. Sometimes I didn’t eat. Sometimes I didn’t shower for days, and when I asked about it she told me the oil on my skin would help to keep me warm. I never asked about my father; I had never known him. And even when Mother was there, she was not; as if the most important part of her had retreated, hibernating until this coldest of winters should pass.
Of course, it never did pass, despite Mother trying to act as if life was changeless. I know the cabin will be exactly the same. My room will be there, waiting for me. And Alma’s, more deeply frozen still, everything just as it was when my sister was seven years old.
With a start, I realise that the bent-backed woman just emerging from the shop door is my mother. She goes to one of the snowmobiles, starts putting bags into its panniers. There’s no trailer attached, as if she hasn’t thought about my luggage, and I reflect that it’s a good job I only brought my backpack. I’ll have to wear it as we ride.
She turns and sees me, her reaction only a slight widening of her eyes, more lines carving her skin than I remember. I’m here, I mouth to her. I’m home: Tilda, the other sister. The one who never was quite what Mother wanted, who even now doesn’t have a husband, let alone a child, the one thing that might have melted her.
My mother can’t quite hide her disappointment in any of those things, but mainly, I don’t think she has ever forgiven me for growing up.
* * *
It takes forty minutes: glimpses over my mother’s shoulder of narrow white track, misshapen conifers lumpen with snow, shadows beneath them. Constant shaking and juddering from the uneven surface, the roar of the engine. Mother brought a spare balaclava and helmet, and my coat is windproof, though my feet are already freezing in my boots. It’s minus twenty. There is a road out here, somewhere under the snow, but it won’t be passable for weeks yet. I cling to her too-thin shape as Mother wrestles the snowmobile’s handles, preventing it wandering from the path. All this way and all we’ve managed is Hej and a brief hug, her touch so light I’d almost felt I’d imagined it. Now it’s impossible to talk, hard to see through the speckles of snow thickening on my visor. Mother never hesitates. She knows the way, letting the machine slow at just the right moment, though at first, despite the familiar windows, the snow-weighted roof, I don’t recognise it.
The garden is somehow full of trees. No, not trees. I blink, scarcely taking it in, then it floods in on me all at once. I swing myself from the seat, wrestle the padded helmet off my head, pull the balaclava over my hair. Blink at what she has done.
The garden is full of snowmen, but they are more than that. These things are beautiful, obsessively shaped and wrought. They’re not rough-rolled globes of snow but sculpted, refined, detailed. Not snowmen, but snow-children.
All of them are girls. All of them are shorter than me, about seven years old: just right. They are wearing Alma’s clothes. I recognise a fleece covered in the printed teddy bears she used to love. A corduroy skirt she had begged for. I can’t make out my mother’s words as I step towards them; they reach me but distorted, as if I’m hearing underwater. Perhaps my ears are still ringing from the roar of the engine, though I don’t think that’s entirely it.
I stand in front of the nearest snow-child. Her face is not carved from compacted snow but from ice, set atop a snow body. I look at her smooth cheek, her nose, her chin. Her eyes look back at me, the clearest, palest blue.
“Do you see?” Mother’s voice reaches me clearly now. “I knew you would like them, Tilda.” When I turn, her smile is a little too wide.
There are objects, too, scattered around the garden. A ball. A wooden horse. A plastic doll with white-blond hair. Other things. A cuddly toy puppy, drenched and matted. Building blocks. All placed at the feet of children who will never play with them, never bend to pick them up. I stoop and retrieve an old book, a volume of fairy tales I used to love, the pages clumped and frozen, ruined.
It is a long time before I can look at her. She stares back at me, unblinking, her expression one of purest joy.
* * *
I don’t talk to Mother about the snow-children, not yet. I’m not sure what to say. I need to watch her first, decide what I should do. At first, she doesn’t mention them either. She stows the snowmobile around the back of the shed then joins me inside. She speaks words of welcome, bustles about the kitchen, bends to the oven. I recognise the scent of her stew and realise I’m starving. She ladles it into bowls and we eat, her at one side of the wooden table, me at the other, stealing glances at one another. She asks me ordinary things. About my flat in Stockholm, out in the suburbs, far from the little streets of the Old Town so beloved of tourists. My job, nothing special, front of house in a fancy hotel. Whether I’ve met anyone interesting. Not for a long time, Mother.
I ask her little in return. It’s difficult. So much here is the same, and I don’t want to speak about what is different. It strikes me again that I should have come in the spring. At least then the snow-children would be gone, the land revealing itself, green emerging from the white. We fall silent and she takes to staring out of the window, just beyond my head. It’s disconcerting, as if she’s almost but not quite seeing me, and I can’t help wondering if she’s thinking of Alma.
Slowly, a tear runs down her cheek.
I sit up straighter. “Mother, what is it?”
She waves my words away. Wipes the tear away. I see it balanced on the crook of her finger, glistening.
“I’m just so afraid, Tilda,” she says.
I can’t answer. I don’t know how.
I picture a snow-child, her face made of ice. Droplets of water running down her cheek as the temperature rises. All of them becoming soft, misshapen, transforming into something else before they vanish.
I still can’t speak so I go to her and wrap my arms around her shoulders. I feel the little rounded bones of her, hard and unbending. Pat the soft warmth of her hand. Then I clear the table, run hot water into a bowl. After the washing up, there’s little to do—there’s no television here, no DVDs or CD player—and we both say that we’re tired. We agree to go to bed, though I have no idea what time it is at all.
The familiarity of my old room is expected, yet comes as a shock. I set down my pack, sit on the woven blanket covering the eiderdown, feel its slightly rough texture under my fingers. I look at the board games stacked in a corner, the ones I couldn’t play after my sister left. The books, tilted this way and that, gaps on the shelf like pulled teeth. Has Mother offered my books, too, to those figures outside? I shudder to think of it; my books, old friends all, sodden and ruined at their feet.
I get ready for bed, donning an extra layer of thermals, two pairs of socks in case I should have to get up in the night. I didn’t bring slippers but I spy my old moccasins, tucked under my desk. I feel nine years old again and I try to remember what it was like not to be alone but one of two. Alma slips away from me, though, as she always did; instead, the memory that comes is of my mother. The way my door would creak open and she would be standing there, like a ghost. The way she’d slip inside and snuggle the eiderdown under my chin, patting it down, moulding its shape to my body. That was how she used to tuck me in, before Alma left. With tenderness, with love, and without a word.
Sometime deep in the night—or the early morning—I wake from a dream, its shape rapidly dissolving into mist. I was walking between the trees, I remember that, but I don’t know where I was going. All I could see was the forest and only the forest, nothing else.
Now I hear a sound, one that might have followed me out of my slumber. I remain motionless, scarcely breathing. Just as I decide that of course I won’t hear it again, it wasn’t even real, there it is: the soft, high sound of a child crying.
I tell myself that at any moment I will wake again, for real this time, but I don’t because I’m awake already. The sound comes to me once more: a child’s sob, followed by a stream of words I don’t recognise. The voice is muffled, but I think it’s a girl’s. It sounds as if she’s pleading to come inside.
* * *
It is morning, weak white light seeping over everything. It must be late; I’ve slept in. The sounds I heard last night seem distant as any dream and just as unreal as I swing my legs from the bed and into my old moccasins. They still fit perfectly.
I go to the window and open the curtains. I can’t see the garden from here, though I half expect to see a little frozen face peering in, looking back at me. Of course I don’t. There’s only the side of a hill leading nowhere but into the boreal forest that clothes this latitude for miles and miles. I never did know why Mother decided to move here and I often wondered if it happened when my father left, or died, or when whatever happened to him happened, my mother turning her loneliness into something physical.
The clattering of pots and the hiss of a kettle call me towards the kitchen. I put my head around the door, afraid of what I’ll find—They’re real, Tilda. You do see, don’t you?—butMother is setting out bowls of steaming porridge, glasses of lingonberry juice and a pot of coffee. I can’t help smiling at the old smells. I sit and she puts porridge and juice in front of me, no coffee, and I feel as if I’m nine years old once more.
“What would you like to do today?” She sing-songs the words, her voice a shade too bright. She glances at the window, as if she’s already waiting for me to be gone.
I take a deep breath. “I thought maybe we could talk.” I force myself to smile but she turns away, so I almost don’t see her lip twist.
“I’m going to chop some firewood,” she says. “You’ll need it, I suppose.”
I remember what she said about her snow-daughters melting: I’m just so afraid, Tilda. There’s no sign of her worrying over that now. No sign of whatever madness came to meet her in the cold.
She shifts, as if she knows what I’m thinking. “Together, then,” she says. “Let’s go out, shall we?”
And so we do, both of us heaving sections of a fallen tree onto a block for Mother to cut into pieces before I remove the logs and stack them undercover to dry. She swings the axe easily, for all she looks so stringy and thin. But then, she’s strong; she has to be, out here alone, with no one to help her.
I push aside the guilt that rises and look towards the front garden. I can see only one of the snow-children from here. Ripples of transparent hair flow behind her and one foot is almost lifting from the ground, as if she’s about to skip away. Perhaps she is; perhaps she moved during the night. I wonder if she, too, has pale blue eyes—but I suppose she must have, like Alma’s; like mine. Mother’s children, all.
“Mother,” I try to begin, “you don’t really think they’re real, do you?”
She swings the axe and there’s a loud smack as she sets it quivering deep into the block. “Enough,” she says. “We’ll go inside now, Alma.”
I stare at her. Has it been so very long? But surely she could never forget that it was Alma, the perfect daughter, who went missing; the other who was left behind.
She blinks. “Tilda. Come inside.”
I don’t move and she, too, glances at the thing she has made. “You must know the story,” she spits. “Someone returns home. They find that the woman has a child, one she wished for really, really hard.”
Someone, she said. In the story it was a husband who came home, I knew that, but that’s not what she said.
“And she lives with the child, quite happily, a gift, a joy, until the sun comes and she melts.” She strides over to me, grabs my arm, starts pulling me around the side of the cabin. There they are: snow-child after snow-child, gleaming in the light streaming from the pale white hole in the sky. “In spring,” she adds, needlessly, and points. “This is Istapp. This is Snöflinga, and this—”
Icicle. Snowflake. This is what she has named them. “Mother, listen to yourself. Please. You made these things, you can’t really think—”
She moves quickly. I feel the sting of her slap spreading across my cheek.
“You’ll say nothing.” She pushes her face up close to mine. “Nothing, you understand?”
She turns and stomps away from me, her steps squeaking and crunching in the snow. She doesn’t look back, just opens the door, goes in and closes it after her, as if we’d had a normal conversation.
I put my hand to my face. It is already turning numb as the cold creeps into me.
* * *
Inside, Mother is doing ordinary things. Chopping carrots she must have bought at the store, half a world away. Scooping them into her stew-pot.
“Nothing,” she snaps, as if completing her earlier sentence. She doesn’t look up at me.
“All right,” I say softly. “I won’t say anything, if you don’t want me to.” I’m already wondering what to do. I can stay with her a few days, but what about after that? I could give up my flat and my job, but the thought of being out here, caught up in her pretence…
I think again of the spring. Her delusions must end then, mustn’t they? I’m not sure if I can last that long. I don’t know if I can bear to watch her pain as all her work, her precious children, melt into the ground.
A sniff comes from somewhere behind me and I whirl about. A little girl is standing in the doorway. She is leaning against the jamb, staring up at me as slowly, slowly, a drip runs down her face. She appears to be about seven years old.
My mouth falls open. “What the—”
I feel, rather than see, Mother rush past. She steps in front of me as if to shield the child from the heat of my gaze and stoops to her. “There you are!” she says, half turning to me again. Her whole demeanour has changed. She looks happy. She looks joyful, her delight brimming over. “You see, Tilda. You see?”
I do see, but I don’t understand and I can’t move.
“I made her,” Mother says simply. “She is my daughter. She’s your sister, Tilda.”
This child doesn’t look anything like my sister. She isn’t Alma. She’s staring down at her feet and her features are half hidden but it’s plain to see that her hair isn’t blond. This girl’s hair is black as ebony and she doesn’t smile back at Mother or even look at her. From what I can make out, her expression is pinched, frozen. Her nose is running, another drip poised to run down her face.
I force myself to speak because someone has to say something, but I barely croak the word. “Hej,” I try. “Hej.”
The child jerks her head, but she gives no sign of recognition and I’m not surprised when she doesn’t answer. Mother starts pulling at her shoulders, twisting her away from me, giving her a little push.
“She can’t talk, Tilda,” she says. “Not like us, not words we can understand. Don’t you know anything?”
I stare, but Mother doesn’t. She starts guiding her along the hall, towards my sister’s room. I can hear her voice, the bright tone of her response. “Yes!” she says. “So clever, my dear. That is your mother—you see her white cloak?”
I realise, as Mother closes the door behind them, that she is talking about the snow.
* * *
I am in my room, sitting on the bed, mobile phone on my lap. I’ve been trying to get it to work, though I don’t know why I bothered. Mobiles don’t work out here. Did I think they’d have built a signal tower in the wilderness since I came here last? Still, I turn it as if at any moment it will ring, connecting me to another world. I unlock it with my thumb, open the messaging service. The last one I had was from a friend at work. Big night out when you’re back! We were planning a nice meal in the Old Town, never mind the expense.
That reminds me I’m hungry. Mother has emerged a couple of times from Alma’s room, but mostly she’s been in there. Muffled voices, rustling sounds, the rattling of dice then the sweeping of game pieces onto the floor. At least, that’s what I thought I’d heard. It might be anything in there. A troll. A witch. Even Alma, her little face so serious, her eyes wide and blue and so very pretty.
I push myself up, walk along the hall, stopping to stare at the two-way radio tucked into its alcove. It’s a last-mile service only, meant for emergencies, enough to reach the nearest neighbour at best. I hear a door open and quickly look away, continuing into the kitchen. There, I see what my mother has laid out on the counter: piles of meat, great joints of elk, all of it glistening and frozen.
Mother comes in, her feet shuffling, pace slow. She sits at the table, her back to me.
She doesn’t answer so I look in the cupboards, rummage through tins, find some soup. I grab a pan from another cupboard, grimace at the dark crust around its rim.
She doesn’t even twitch. I run the tap, wash the pots before I use them. When did it get so bad? But it was like this before, I remember. I’ve been washing up since I was nine years old; since Alma went away.
I put the soup on to warm, watch as the surface starts puckering.
“We should eat,” I say. “Mother, we’d better feed the child.”
“My daughter,” she snaps, correcting me.
“Yes.” There’s nothing else I can say.
She lets out a long sigh. “Don’t make it too hot, Tilda. It might hurt her.”
“Do you think they’re melting, Tilda? I think they’re already melting. Then it will all end. They’ll come back next year, but they won’t be the same, will they?” She twists in her seat and looks at me. “They’re never the same.”
Now I’m not sure it’s just the snow-children she means.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she snaps, “I’ll do it.” She strides towards me, pushes me aside. Starts clattering bowls onto the counter, one, two, three.
When they’re full, I put out a hand and squeeze her wrist. “Let me do it,” I say. “Let me feed my sister.”
Her frown dissipates as she stares into my eyes. After a long moment, she nods.
* * *
When I open the door to Alma’s room, the child is sitting on the bed. Her eyes are bloodshot and sore, her hair greasy, her fringe a little too long. She follows me with dark brown eyes, sniffing as I sit at her feet. I hold out the soup like a gift.
She shuffles closer, the bed shifting and sinking as she moves. I can smell her; clothes that have been too long in a musty cupboard, the oil of her hair. She is real, this girl. Flesh and blood. Did I really need reassuring of that?
I smile, dip the spoon into the soup and hold it out. She takes it, swallows. Takes it, swallows. She’s hungry. She isn’t made of ice and snow—but I knew that, didn’t I?
She hasn’t uttered a word, but one rises to the surface of my mind anyway and I whisper it to her. Mama.
The child lets out a gasp. She grabs my hand, slopping soup over the rim of the bowl as words burst from her. I can’t make sense of them, but I see the hope that’s suddenly in her eyes. She keeps looking at the window, as if at any moment someone might come, but out there it’s already growing dark.
I wish I could ask her to explain where she came from. I wish she could tell me.
She can’t talk, Tilda. Not like us; not words we can understand.
I recognise her voice, though. I’ve heard it before. I heard it during the night, not through a window, as I’d assumed, but through a door. Not pleading to come in, but crying to get out.
I stroke her back, shushing her as best I can, and try to remember what I’d heard on the radio on the way here. A child missing, from a village near Kiruna. Did they say where, exactly? Or where she was from? I can’t remember, but plenty of tourists fly into that tiny airport in the far north of nowhere. Is this one of their children? And was she lost in the snow—orsnatched from her family?
I picture my mother lifting the child’s small form onto the snowmobile. Driving away, her arms around her. Loving her, this little daughter she’d found at last, after all these years. And the snow falling, falling, erasing all trace behind them, as if they’d vanished into a story. A happy ending for someone.
When I re-enter the hall, Mother is nowhere to be seen. I pause by the radio, flick the switch. It doesn’t respond; no light appears. It has the feeling about it of something dead and I look under the little shelf, tracing the wire to its end. My mother has cut the cord in two.
* * *
I shoot out a hand and silence my alarm. I set it last night on a low volume, my mobile coming in useful at last. I knew I’d need to be up and out before the light came to wake me. I’m already dressed but I pull on my boots and an extra jumper and then my coat. I’ll fasten it later, outside. I can’t risk the sound of the zip waking her.
I sneak out into an early morning that isn’t as dark as I expected. The sky at its zenith is black, the stars a bright glitter, but low on the horizon a green veil shifts and dances. The northern lights have come to help light my way.
There’s no helping the sound of my boots on the snow but I stay close to the house, where it’s at least been cleared in the recent past and isn’t so deep. I go around to the back of the shed and tug the cover from the snowmobile, revealing its sleek shine, its gathered power. Then I push open the shed doors, ignoring the shadowed shapes of tools and machinery, everything needed to survive out here, and reach for the hook just inside. My fingers meet with nothing.
Of course the key isn’t there. Had I really imagined she’d leave it for me?
I watch the lurid light stroking and slipping over the curves of the snowmobile, turning the snow the colour of sickness. I check the ignition but it’s empty, a small black slot. So simple; so impossible. I stare into it, thinking of all the movies I’ve seen in Stockholm, the hotwired cars. Always so easy to drive away, but I have no idea how to make it start.
* * *
For the next couple of hours I keep to my room, wondering and wondering where she might have hidden a key. It might be anywhere. She could have thrown it into the snow. Perhaps I’ll find it come the spring, as the white retreats from the earth.
Then I hear sounds coming from outside: sharp cracks and spattering, something breaking like glass. I can’t see anything from my window, so I pull on my coat.
In the front garden, the white figures are motionless. Nothing moves, nothing changes, not here, but I realise that something has. One of the snow-children is broken. Her jumper hangs from her, misshapen; one of her arms is missing. Her neck juts upwards, ending in glinting shards like a broken bottle.
Movement draws my gaze. A dark shape is shuffling, bent-backed, from the shed. It is my mother, the crone; the witch. She stoops and picks up something from the ground, clear and shining. It is the snow-child’s head. It must be heavy, judging by her lurching gait as she moves back towards the shed once more.
I notice her axe, abandoned in the garden. Obscene among the toys lying at the children’s feet.
Mother pauses. She cradles the child’s head in her arms as if it were flesh and blood. ...
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