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This story appeared in Aberations #35, edited by Michael Andre-Druissi. Please see Rights and Permissions before redistributing it in any form.

Nobody knew whether Santa's Comet was going to hit the Earth or not.

They spotted it the February before so the world had ten months to wait and watch. NASA tried to nuke it in May but they were in too big of a hurry and all the bomb did was scatter it into a bunch of smaller pieces, like hitting a snowball with a baseball bat. All Mark really knew was that it was big, it was going fast, and it was going to either hit or miss on Christmas Eve.

Right around the end of summer people started to panic. By Thanksgiving, most of Mark's teachers quit coming to school so it closed down for the whole month of December which was fine with Mark. On his CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, which he wasn't supposed to see but he went and took the door off his mom's desk and read it anyway, the teachers said he was a HIGH-NEED CHILD with lots of UNFULFILLED POTENTIAL, which meant Mark would rather do almost anything than go to second grade. Mark's mom said his teachers were a bunch of dummies who couldn't tell potential if it bit them on the nose.

Mark's mom was one of the rare ones who stayed at her job. Mark didn't know exactly what she did all day. He thought maybe it was something with computers. She wound up getting promoted three times in three months and going out for a lot of dinners and movies with her new boss.

On the day before Christmas they all went up to Lake Tahoe so Mark could learn how to ski. Mark's mom had a sore knee from her karate class, so Mark found himself going up and down the Schoolhouse Trail over and over again with his mom's boss, who said to call him Uncle George. Uncle George was way older than Mark's dad. He was shorter and fatter and had gray hair and glasses and a round pink face. Also he smoked these little black cigars that smelled like the time Mark lit the couch on fire.

By early afternoon Mark mastered the art of going straight down the hill really fast and sitting down when he wanted to stop. He was also getting tired and the flowsnakes were starting to grab at the tips of his stubby skis. He was going too fast to see them but Uncle George swore he saw them popping out and tripping him up. And the weather started to blow up a little past two, sending thin white fingers past the big pink smudge of Santa's Comet, so they decided to call it a day.

While they were standing in line to turn his skis and boots back in, Mark asked Uncle George if Santa was really coming. Uncle George said I don't know, pal. What do you think? and Mark told him all about last Christmas, when his dad got mad and knocked the tree over and said that there wasn't any Santa Claus and tore all the branches off the tree and threw them in the fireplace and burned them all up and there weren't any presents the next morning. And his dad was gone.

Uncle George hugged Mark, which was kind of scary, and told him This year's going to be different. And it was.

.:.

Uncle George's cabin was totally cool. It was way out in the woods, at the end of a really bumpy road that made Uncle George slow down and squeeze the steering wheel tight and bite almost all the way through his cigar. The cabin was made of real logs and had a big rock chimney, more than big enough for Santa to come down. The living room was dug into the ground, so the bottom of the big picture window was right at snow level. It had a high, pointy roof like a letter A, and you went up some stairs to get to the second story bedrooms, which had this neat indoor balcony that looked down into the living room. And Mark's room was the best part, at the point of the A, up a ladder and through a trap door that Mark's mom said would probably take his fingers off only it didn't. It had a bunk bed and a big chest of drawers and a sliding glass door that let you out onto this little deck that had a flagpole sticking out from it and a big wooden box full of dirt and snow and dead plants.

Mark went right out onto the deck and sighted imaginary guns over the rail at his mom and Uncle George as they trudged back and forth through the blowing snow with loads of stuff from Uncle George's big green Range Rover, but didn't shoot because his mom didn't like him to play guns and he was on Best Behavior this weekend.

.:.

Uncle George took Mark and his mom out back behind the house into a patch of woods and helped Mark cut down a baby fir tree with a real hatchet. Then they dragged it back to the porch, knocked most of the snow off of it, and bolted it into a rusty old stand. The tree looked a little bare, so Mark's mom went into the kitchen and popped up a big bag of Orville Redenbacher's and strung some of it on Uncle George's dental floss and draped it all around the tree. Mark helped her, mostly by eating the pieces that broke on the needle. The tree looked better, but still kind of plain.

Then Mark had an idea. He made his mom and Uncle George stay in the living room, after first promising not to light anything on fire or plug anything into the wall or put anything down the drain, and went back into the kitchen and got out the aluminum foil. Rolling it into balls and kind of crunching it onto loops he made out of the rest of Uncle George's dental floss, he wound up with a bunch of shiny silver Christmas tree ornaments. Then he took more foil and a paper plate and was very careful with the kitchen scissors and made a big lopsided star for the top of the tree.

Mark's mom hugged him tight and said I told you he was a smart kid. Uncle George grinned back at them from in front of the fireplace, where he was fiddling with some newspaper and big split-up logs. The paper was on fire but the wood wasn't catching, so he had to keep crumpling up more newspaper and pushing it under the logs. Finally he stood up and said This isn't working. I'll be right back. Mark and his mom hung the ornaments and Uncle George went to the cabinet under the sink and came back with a big square red can that said CAMP FUEL on it.

Mark's mom laughed and said What are you doing with that? and Uncle George said Gonna get the fire going a little, that's all. The can wasn't like the can of fire lighter that Mark's dad used on the barbecue. It was bigger and heavier, so Uncle George had to take the top off and splash a lot of it all over the logs and papers. A cloud of white smoke that smelled like a gas station came hissing out of the fireplace and Uncle George jumped away and Mark's mom grabbed Mark really hard by the arm and said Get back, sweetie.

Uncle George laughed at Mark's mom and took out a book of matches and lit one and threw it in the fireplace. A big yellow ball of flame and stink went whooom! up the chimney and the logs started on fire. Mark's mom was mad at Uncle George. She said That was a damfool thing to do! with her face all pinched up, just like the way she used to talk to Mark's dad.

Uncle George said Christ, honey, I'm sorry. and Mark said That was awesome! both at the same time and Mark's mom couldn't stay mad. She shook her head and said Men are all alike. Pyros to the core.

Then she put the tinfoil star on the top of the tree and smiled and everything was all right again.

.:.

They had hot dogs and chips and salsa and Pepsi and more Orville Redenbacher's for dinner, and Oreos for dessert. Mark's mom was kind of mad because there wasn't any milk, just Pepsi and beer, and the Pepsi wasn't the sugar free kind that Mark usually drank so he'd be up all night. And then Mark had another idea and went out and got a cup of fresh snow off the front steps and it was almost as good as milk for dipping the Oreos.

After dinner they tried to watch TV but the news kept coming on every channel, even in the middle of the Grinch. A man with a turtleneck sweater and a funny haircut was smiling a lot and talking about Santa's Comet and saying that it was going to miss after all and showing pictures of it. Also the man said that there were billions and billions of little pieces of it drifting down from the sky like snowflakes and to watch for them, but it was too dark and cloudy when Mark went to the window.

.:.

Before Mark went to bed he put some Oreos on a plate and poured a mug of Pepsi and left it all on the fireplace for Santa Claus, just in case. And then he made Uncle George promise to put the fire out so Santa wouldn't burn himself.

.:.

Very early the next morning, Mark went down the ladder to go to the bathroom. On the way back, he glanced over the balcony.

There was a big pile of presents under the tree.

Mark whooped and ran for the stairs. He remembered to check the fireplace first. The Oreos were twisted in half and the frosting was all gone from in between. And the mug of Pepsi was empty and there was a set of huge bootprints stamped into the ashes in the fireplace and trailing soot out onto the rug.

Mark's mom and Uncle George came out to the rail all sleepyfaced and shivering and smiled down at Mark and said Merry Christmas, pal! and Why does it always have to start at six in the morning? Then they came down and Uncle George made instant hot chocolate with lots of little marshmallows and Mark's mom started the fire back up. She used a lot more newspaper than Uncle George had and also put in some little sticks and pine cones so she didn't need any CAMP FUEL. Then they had breakfast, and Uncle George even let Mark have some coffee which tasted terrible but he drank it anyway. Finally Mark couldn't stand it and asked really softly if any of the presents were for him.

They were all for him except one.

Mark got a Game Boy with Tetris and Alien 3. And a pair of totally cool moon boots to wear outside in the snow, and a red plastic flying saucer to slide down hills fast. And a bright yellow FastTraxx RC race car on tank treads that Uncle George said might even be able to run in the snow. And a green and orange SuperSoaker 200 water gun, the biggest one they made, with two water tanks and a strap to hold it up around his neck.

Mark's mom's face got a little more pinched with each present he opened but she kept smiling anyway.

Mark's best present was in the smallest box. It was a genuine Swiss Army knife. I guess you know that's a tool and not a toy, right? said Uncle George, giving Mark his best Serious Look. You cut off a foot with that thing and you better not come running to me. Mark nodded but wasn't really listening because he was busy opening and closing each shiny blade in its turn. On the knife was a bottle opener, saw, nail file, hole-poker, bottle opener, scissors, tweezers, plastic toothpick, big and little knife-blades, and a Phillips screwdriver that snapped into place, forming a T with the handle. It stuck out between Mark's knuckles like it was made to fit his hand. Mark's mom rolled her eyes and said Uh-oh. Now you've done it and reached out and gently took the knife away and put on her own Serious Face and gave Mark some Direct Orders. Mark? Are you listening? Now hear this: You are not. To unscrew. Anything. Got it?

Got it. Mark smiled and held his hand out. Can I please have it back? She gave it to him and turned her hard, shiny smile on Uncle George.

When he was four years old he went out into the kitchen in the middle of the night with a butter knife and took out every screw from every hinge on every cabinet he could reach. He was rattling them in a baby food jar when I finally figured out that his father wasn't dicking me around. Then when we tried to lock him in his room at night he pulled the hinge pins out of the door and the whole damn thing came off in my hand when I went inside--

And then Uncle George took Mark's mom's Christmas present out of his bathrobe pocket. It came in this neat little box covered with fuzzy black velvet, even smaller than the one Mark's knife had been in. Uncle George opened the box and held it out to her and she stopped telling all about when Mark was four.

In the box was a shiny gold ring with a big sparkly diamond on it. Uncle George said Well? Have you thought about it? and Mark's mom started crying and smiling and nodding all at the same time. And then she took the ring and put it on and hugged Uncle George really hard and they kissed for a long time until Mark said Mom? Can I have the box?

.:.

Outside it was cold and cloudy and the snow in the driveway came up to Mark's knees and more snow was coming down in big feathery clumps. Mark and his mom and Uncle George all went out and threw snowballs around and made snowmen. Mark's mom and Uncle George held hands a lot and only made one big snowman but Mark went all over the place and made a bunch of cool mutant snow-monsters with three heads and one eye and lots of nasty little stick-fingers, all sneaking around in the frozen bushes and looking over little hills and rocks like they were getting ready to attack the big normal snowman. Uncle George laughed and said He is pretty twisted, isn't he? and Mark's mom laughed and they kissed some more. And then Mark went back in the house and tracked snow all over the rug and filled up the SuperSoaker 200 with hot water from the sink.

The hot water made really good acid to squirt all over the mutant snow-things. Mark made Uncle George and his mom stand in the middle of the circle with the big snowman and hug each other as he danced around them and protected them by making acka-acka-acka noises and melting the heads off the bad guys and stomping them flat with his moon boots.

And then they all heard a noise out on the road that got louder and louder, the wallowing crunching roaring sound of a car with a big engine and no chains bashing its way through snowdrifts on the unplowed road. It was a long white fast swoopy car that said IROC-Z on the side. It fishtailed into the driveway and barely missed Uncle George's Range Rover and spun all the way around and went boof! into the snowdrift by the propane tank and the generator quit and all the lights in the cabin went out.

Uncle George said a bad word. And then a pretty lady with shiny yellow hair and boots that went all the way up her legs and a fur jacket got out of the car and three big men got out behind her. They were all scared and laughing and there was the kind of really loud screamy rock music that gave Mark's mom a migraine coming out of the car door when it opened up. Uncle George said Gina? What are you doing here? and the lady reached in and turned off the key and the music stopped and all Mark could hear was people breathing and the soft sound of snow coming down. The lady's pointy black boots slipped in the snow after she took one step and she almost fell but one of the men grabbed her and picked her up and her short red skirt went all the way up so Mark could see her underpants. The lady laughed and said Hell, I thought sure you'd spend the end of the world under your desk.

This is my sister Gina, Uncle George said to Mark and Mark's mom. Gina lives over the hill in Reno. Gina, this is my best buddy Mark, and this is Gail, Mark's mom. Also my fiancee, as of about three hours ago.

Oh, wow! said the lady in her rough scratchy voice, and the big man carried her to where Mark had stomped all the snow flat and put her down and she ran up and hugged George hard and shook Mark's mom's hand and bent down in front of Mark. Her face was a lot older-looking up close, kind of cracked around the eyes and mouth and with a lot of makeup on it. You can call me Auntie Gina, okay? she said as she took Mark's hand and shook it and her breath smelled like Mark's dad's when he got mad. And then she straightened up and looked at Uncle George and Mark's mom and said These guys are my friends. Uncle Tom, Uncle Dick, and Uncle Harry.

Uncle Tom made a mad face that went away when he saw Mark looking up at him. He was very tall and black, with a shiny gold tooth that flashed when he smiled down at Mark. Uncle Dick and Uncle Harry laughed at Uncle Tom but it wasn't a nice laugh, it was a mean one. Uncle Dick and Uncle Harry looked like they were brothers. They both had greasy slicked-back hair and the same pointy nose and the same funny pale white color, like they hadn't been outside in the sun for a long time. Uncle Dick had a tattoo, a little blue drop by the corner of his eye that looked like somebody drew it on with a pen.

Mark's mom got really hungry then and took Mark back in the house with her to get some lunch even though it was only ten o'clock. Uncle George stayed outside and talked loud and fast to Auntie Gina. When Auntie Gina stopped talking Uncle Harry pushed past Uncle George and tracked snow inside and Uncle Tom and Uncle Dick followed him in and they each took two of Uncle George's beers out of the fridge and sat down by the fire to get warmed up. Auntie Gina came in next with Uncle George right behind her. Uncle George's face was red all the way up to the pink spot on top of his head. He said Hell no you can't take my car back to town! and she said Then we'll just have to stay out here until it lightens up.

.:.

The flowsnakes almost got Mark later that afternoon. He was outside playing with Uncle Dick and Uncle Harry. Uncle Tom and Auntie Gina were taking a nap upstairs in the extra bedroom. Mark was mad because Uncle Harry wouldn't let him drive the FastTraxx car until the batteries were almost all empty and they couldn't charge them back up again because the power was out. So he made a bunch of snowballs from the wet slush under the eaves and put them in his big plastic saucer and slowly sneaked around to the front of the house to try to catch Uncle Harry and Uncle Dick by surprise. It wasn't hard. They were standing out by Auntie Gina's car and passing a funny-smelling cigarette back and forth.

But as Mark came around the back corner of Auntie Gina's car the snow fell away under his feet and he dropped straight down until he was waist-deep and he bit his tongue and dropped his saucer full of snowballs.

And something wrapped itself around his left foot, hard and fast and strong. He yelled out loud from the pain and surprise and whatever it was climbed higher and coiled itself tighter around his ankle and bit into his leg, right through his moon boot. It hurt a lot, like getting hung up on barbed wire. Mark grunted and pulled his left foot up as hard as he could and shoved his right foot even deeper into the snow. The boot's nylon liner turned inside out and his foot came out of his sock and dragged past the sharp points that were trying to chew his leg off. Mark scrambled out of the hole and ran yelling Mom! Mom! with one bare foot leaving red-spotted tracks in the snow. Uncle Dick laughed and pointed at Mark and pounded Uncle Harry on the back and Uncle Harry coughed out a cloud of smoke and bent over and said a bad word and started laughing too.

Mark's mom ran outside and picked him up and took him back in by the fire and looked at his leg. There were six ugly little holes oozing blood on the side of his calf. Mark's mom got some paper towel and cold water and pressed hard on the punctures to make them bleed.

Mark cried. Not because it hurt, which it did, a lot, but because everybody was looking at him like he was a little baby. Uncle George was holding him from behind and Uncle Dick and Uncle Harry came in and stood around and grinned with little squinty red eyes. Even Auntie Gina and Uncle Tom were looking down from the balcony all sweaty and messed up.

Mark's mom wanted to know What happened, honey? Did you fall down? and Uncle George said We told you not to run around out there, didn't we? and Uncle Dick said He went right on his ass is what he did and then Mark yelled at them all.

It was the flowsnakes! Flowsnake got me!

Nobody said anything for a second. And then they all laughed, everybody, even Mark's mom.

Mark went off Best Behavior. He yelled No no no no no! really loud and twisted out of Uncle George's arms and stood up and flipped the coffee table over and spilled all the magazines and chips and drinks all over the floor. Uncle George stood up and said Hey, now-- and Mark slapped his hands away and tried to run away but Uncle Dick grabbed him hard by his collar and said Hold on there! and Mark spun around inside his jacket and roundhouse-kicked him in the knee as hard as he could, just the way his mom had shown him, turning his hip all the way over and following through. Uncle Dick let go of Mark's neck and sat down hard on the couch. His eyes went even redder and narrower and he stood back up and made a fist with one hand and said You little prick! and Uncle George grabbed his arm and said Don't.

The house went quiet. All the mad went out of Mark like cold water down a drain. For a second Mark thought Uncle Dick was going to hit Uncle George.

And then his mom said Knock it off, all of you! in her Serious Voice and Auntie Gina, still up at the railing, made her voice all high and teasy and said Uncle Dickie? I'm having a terrible time getting to sleep. Would you come on up here and tuck me in?

Uncle Dick scowled and limped up the stairs. Uncle Tom came down and went outside with Uncle Harry to smoke another cigarette. Mark tried again. There really was a snake, Mom. It grabbed my boot off.

Uncle George said Okay, pal. I'll go take a look and went outside and came right back in, way too soon. Looks like the big guy found the pyracantha bush.

Did you get his boot back? asked Mark's mom.

Nope, no boot. Found a boy-sized hole in the right place, though, and some of this. Uncle George held up a nasty black stick covered with little dead leaves and long, pointy thorns. Is this the snake that bit you?

I. . . . I don't know. Mark took the branch, carefully. The thorns were long enough to do the damage. But he'd felt something squeezing him, not just scratching. Something alive. Can I go back outside and look?

His mom said Huh-uh, little buddy. You just booted a grownup, remember? She flicked her eyes up at Uncle George and he had to go to the bathroom all of a sudden. Look. I know it's hard sometimes but you're going to learn some self-control. You can't just kick the crap out of anybody that gets in your way. That's what your daddy used to do, remember? Now go on up to your room and think about that for a while.

Yes, ma'am. He bent over and picked up his Game Boy from the wreckage of the coffee table and thought about it and looked up at her and handed it over. Then he headed for the stairs.

Honey? Mark turned and looked back at his mom. Next time, aim higher. And then she smiled and tossed him the Game Boy.

.:.

Alien 3 was way too easy for Mark. He blasted his way through it in an hour and a half, finishing off the last boss alien just as his mom called him down for dinner.

Tetris, on the other hand, was . . . interesting. After fireplace-roasted hot dogs and marshmallows and Pepsi, Mark said goodnight early and went upstairs and settled into a serious binge. Out of the corner of his ear he heard rhythmic thumps and bumps and creaks and once a high yipping laugh that could only have been Auntie Gina getting tickled or something, but he ignored it all in favor of flipping and stacking hundreds of tiny blocks into neat little rows. Finally, around midnight, both Mark and the Game Boy's battery gave out at the same time.

.:.

In the morning Uncle George went out to start the Range Rover but all four of his tires were flat as pancakes.

Mark could tell Uncle George was really mad even though he kept smiling. All the grownups smiled back and forth at each other and argued really quietly in front of him. About him. Finally his mom sent him up to his room.

Through the floor Mark heard his mom going off Best Behavior really loud and in between he heard the mumbly sounds of Uncle George trying to settle her down. Only a few of her words came through and some of them were bad words he'd never heard her say before.

And then the front door went wham! and shook the house. Mark heard Auntie Gina say quite clearly Well I'm outta here then. He bounced up and snatched back the curtains and watched as she floundered through the snow to her car. She was crying as she started it with a rattle and a roar and then she put it in gear and it went Bwaaaaaaa! really loud and kind of shook and blue smoke came out of the back end and the back tires spun in the snow and kicked up two big white fountains but it didn't move. Then she made her hands into fists and hit the steering wheel hard and got out of the car and left it running and walked around to the back of it and crouched down and disappeared.

The car just sat there and rumbled and made more steamy smoke and Auntie Gina never stood back up. Mark sat there and waited. Two minutes, five, then ten. He was standing over the trapdoor trying to get up the nerve to disobey Direct Orders and go down and tell his mom when it opened by itself and Uncle George's head popped up through it. He said Come on down, Mark.

Auntie Gina fell down! said Mark, pointing out the window. She tried to drive her car but it wouldn't go and she got out and I don't see her any more. Uncle George scowled and rolled his eyes and said Great. Just what we need, a little more stress around here.

Mark's mom wouldn't let him go out in the snow without bundling up first so Uncle George went alone. Uncle Tom, Uncle Dick, and Uncle Harry sat there and stared at Mark's mom, all with the same nasty stubbly face.

There wasn't much light downstairs because the window was half-buried in snow which had piled right up against the side of the house. The buried part of the window looked like a giant version of Mark's ant farm, all white with lots of dark little gopher-sized tunnels dug up against the glass. He was bending down trying to figure out where the holes went when his mom said Oh, Mark. Oh, no. Mark straightened and looked out over the snow and saw Uncle George standing there between the Range Rover and Auntie Gina's car.

In his hand was Mark's missing moon boot, bright and shiny and new.

Uncle George set the boot on the thick cap of snow that rode atop the Range Rover's hood and walked around to the back of Auntie Gina's car. And stopped. And covered his mouth with both hands and backed up and tripped and sat down in the snow and shook his head.

Then he jumped straight up as if something had bitten him. He scrambled backwards on his butt and kicked at something in the snow.

Then he stood and ran.

And the fresh powdery snow moved around him, crackling and bubbling and humping up into veiny ridges. Uncle George took two steps and tripped and sprawled face down in the snow. Eyeless white tendrils the thickness of Mark's arms exploded through the powder and wound around both of Uncle George's ankles and bit deeply into his calves with tiny icicle-teeth.

Uncle George pulled his feet free and tried to stand but more flowsnakes jumped out and grabbed his hands and arms and legs and yanked him back down and snagged his neck and shoulders and chest.

Mark's mom screamed George! and yanked the door open. Uncle Dick slammed it shut and said Ain't bringing those things in here with him! and pushed Mark's mom down on the floor--

--and Uncle George started to scream like a girl, high and whistly. And roll around in the snow like in the Stop Drop and Roll video Mark saw in school but the snow wasn't like fire. It didn't go out. It stuck onto him and more flowsnakes reared up and struck--

--and Mark's mom bounced up and went EeeeYAH! and did a bunch of karate on Uncle Dick, kicking him between the legs and snapping her knee up into his chin and hitting him in the head and neck with her elbows and fists so fast and so many times that it sounded like a flock of big birds flapping--

--and Uncle George staggered upright and walked a few more steps towards the house and his fingers were all gone and the skin on his face was torn into flaps and all drippy red and chewed up and one eye hung down his cheek on a string of stuff and the flowsnakes all over him looked like a big white fur coat--

--and Uncle Dick fell down with his head all crooked and Uncle Tom tried to grab Mark's mom but she turned and kicked him in the knee with the side of her foot. His knee made a sound like a pine knot exploding in the fireplace and he yelled a bad word and went down--

--and Uncle George dropped to his knees and clawed at his face and fell backward into the snow and was quickly covered in wiggling whiteness--

--and Uncle Harry grabbed a big piece of wood from the stack by the fireplace and swung it hard like a baseball bat and hit Mark's mom in the back of head with it and she fell down.

Mark screamed Mommy! and stepped toward her and Uncle Harry swung the wood at him but he ducked and ran around the couch. Uncle Harry chased him around three sides of it and then tried to climb over but Mark's mom reached up her hand and grabbed his ankle and tripped him and said Run, Mark in a weak scary voice. Uncle Harry stomped at Mark's mom with the heel of his cowboy boot but she hung on and said Now, Mark! Go! Then Uncle Harry threw the piece of wood at Mark.

It hit him in the shoulder and spun him around to face the stairs. His eyes stung with tears. He heard the thumping sounds of Uncle Harry kicking loose from his mom and jumping over the couch after him and he ran up the stairs as fast as he could, with Uncle Harry right behind him.

Mark swarmed up the stairs, ran to the ladder, and slammed the trap door in Uncle Harry's scowling face. Then he pulled as hard as he could and dragged the big old chest of drawers and bunk bed over so one leg of each was on top of the door. Then he jumped into the bed.

And then it got quiet, except for the muffled sound of Uncle Tom calling up to Uncle Harry who said Yeah, yeah. and started hitting the bottom of the door with something, maybe the same piece of wood that he'd used on Mark and his mom. Whap! The door jumped up and dropped down a quarter-inch, carrying Mark and the bed and the chest of drawers with it. Whap! Whap! Mark heard Uncle Harry's whispery words: Gonna get you, kid. Gonna stake your dick out for the worms. Mark could barely breathe. Whap! The bed jumped again and Mark heard Uncle Tom say something from downstairs. Uncle Harry was quiet for a long time. Mark thought maybe he went away but then he said D'jou hear that, boy? Your mamma killed my baby brother! and started to really pound on the door with the wood. Wham! Wham! Whump-wham! The trap door started to splinter. Mark looked around for something else he could use to hold it shut.

And then Uncle Tom spoke again from below and Uncle Harry laughed a mean little laugh. Yeah. Oh, yeah. I like that idea a lot, you know that? More mumbles from the living room. Yeah, babe. You set her up and I'll knock her down.

It got really quiet again. Mark heard Uncle Harry creaking down the ladder. Then it got even quieter and stayed quiet for a long time.

And then his mom screamed.

.:.

The trapdoor wouldn't open, even after he shoved everything back off of it. For a horrible instant Mark thought that Uncle Harry had locked it shut somehow but then he yanked on it extra hard and it ground up with a spray of pine splinters. Uncle Harry had almost broken through it with his chunk of wood. Through the open hole Mark heard his mother going no no no no. He crept down the ladder, expecting Uncle Tom or Uncle Harry to jump out of one of the bedrooms but it didn't happen.

They were both downstairs with his mom.

Her hands were tied to the bannister with a twisted coathanger. Her pants were down and she was bent over and Uncle Tom was behind her and his pants were down too. Uncle Harry was holding her tightly by the hair and bumping her face into the rail over and over again and saying bitch bitch bitch bitch. At the sound of Mark's gasp he looked up and smiled. Heya, Markie! Why don'tcha come down and take a shot? You can have my turn!

Mark's mom jerked her head back and pulled Uncle Harry's hand with it and her face was all purple and puffy. Her lips peeled back from bloody teeth and she hissed Get back to your room right now!

On the way up he had an idea.

Mark went out onto the little deck outside his room and looked down at the red mess in the snow in front of the door. Everything was quiet and still. So he dug a frozen clod out of the planter box and lobbed it down and a small white storm boiled into life around where it hit. He threw more dirt and rocks and more flowsnakes came to the surface and sniffed around and went back under.

They were everywhere. So Mark went back to his room and loaded up. He threw down the contents of his cardboard suitcase, his pillows, ski pictures from the walls, the contents and then the drawers from the chest. The flowsnakes went crazy, massing around each new warm item and attacking it until it was as cold as the surrounding snow. Mark brought them closer and closer to the house, piling up more and more against the picture windows.

Uncle Harry and Uncle Tom didn't seem to notice, judging from the sounds that came through the trapdoor. That wouldn't do. They had to be close to the windows for Mark's idea to work.

He went back out onto the deck and untied the rope on the flagpole. It was a big loop maybe fifteen feet long, plenty to do the job. He took out his Swiss Army knife and cut the loop and pulled the rope through and tied one end around the planter box three or four times and tied the other to the railing around the deck.

Then he started jumping up and down on the deck and yelling at the top of his lungs. Hey! Hey! Over here! Hey!

Then he dropped through the trap door and ran to the inside rail and yelled Mom! I see trucks on the road! Lots of them! and Uncle Tom said a bad word and pulled away from Mark's mom and Uncle Dick let go of her hair and they both ran to the window which was covered almost all the way up in a shifting white mass--

--and Mark sprinted back to the ladder and jumped up through the trap door and back to the deck and shoved the flowerbox out over the rail as hard as he could. The big pine box went over the edge with a grinding sound and dropped straight down and the rope went twang and swung it back towards the house and crashed it right through the picture window.

The drift of snow pressed against the window collapsed inward with a muffled flump and Mark heard Uncle Tom and Uncle Harry yelling. The snow outside humped up into waves of white furry snakes all moving towards the house.

Hypnotized by the sight, Mark stood there until he heard his mother scream again.

He jerked awake and ran back inside and down the hole and across the hall and looked over the rail. The entire downstairs of the house was covered by a moving blanket of quickly dying flowsnakes, mostly around the fireplace. The fire was out, buried in snow. Steam swirled into weird clouds in the room. There was no trace of Uncle Tom or Uncle Harry, only a big lump of furious white activity by the hole where the window had been.

His mom had walked her feet three steps up the stairs, as far as she could with her hands tied. Still, a few flowsnakes twined their way up and bit at her bare legs and she crunched down on their icy little skulls with her boots. Mark scrambled down to her and started untwisting the coathanger that held her, trying not to hear the dry icy rustlings below and the sharp hiss of her breath each time a snake struck her.

It was hard work. The cold stiff wire creased Mark's fingers and made them weak and slow. Finally the hanger came undone with a snap. Mark's mom jerked upright like a runner starting a race and carried Mark up the stairs and kicked loose the last stubborn snake from her ankle. At the top she collapsed to her knees and dropped him onto the carpet.

Mark sat there and looked at his mom. Her eyes were swollen nearly shut. Her lip was split and swelling and her nose was bloody and her hair was yanked straight up in a big patch on top of her head. She grinned at him and licked the pink film off her teeth and spat down the stairs and said Thanks, pal just like Uncle George used to. And then she shivered and pulled up her pants.

They hate us. Why do they hate us so much? Mark was doing his best not to cry but it was getting harder and harder. The flowsnakes kept exploring the ground floor of the house, pouring through the broken window in a white flood.

Most of them flung themselves at the still-steaming fireplace and the heater registers. Some of them, however, seemed to know that Mark and his mom were upstairs. Mark's mom picked up the battered piece of stovewood and crunched them as they topped the last riser; each flowsnake died with a bright flash of static and a puff of sour swimming-pool smell.

And then they stopped coming. It took a while for Mark and his mom to see the difference, but the flood through the window slowed to a trickle and then stopped.

The light changed. Something big was moving outside the window below the line of snow, something that broke up the dim sunlight and sent it into the cabin in glimmery bits like pieces of a mirror. Mark heard a heavy crunching sound outside on the porch and his mom tensed and stood up by the rail.

The boss flowsnake punched through the drift like it was tissue paper, exploding into the cabin in a cloud of flying slush. Instead of furry white snow-feathers it had hard shiny scales of ice that Mark could see right through to its flickering heart of green fire. Instead of a tiny bird-skull with needle-sized fangs, it carried a huge gray cone-shaped head that split into six sections, each lined with a thousand inward-pointing icicle-teeth that made a constant grinding sound as they worked against each other. And, worst of all, instead of being the thickness of Mark's wrist, it was fatter than a garbage can, more than big enough to swallow him whole.

It hissed up at them and surged across the room, new baby flowsnakes forming and dropping away from each scale that touched fresh snow. Mark's mom put an arm in front of him and heaved the chunk of wood straight down into its mouth. The horrible six-sided maw closed down with a crunch! and the heavy stick flew apart into splinters.

Mark backed up three steps as it raised its awful head up to the level of his mom. She just stood there and stared as it came closer and closer. Mark yelled Mom! Come on!

She shook her head like she was just waking up from a nap and said stay back and slowly worked her way back to the end of the hall. All right, you bastard. If you want something warm you come on up and get it! and turned and grabbed Mark's hand and hauled him up the ladder into his room and dropped the door shut.

The boss flowsnake ground its icy way down the hall to the ladder in no time. Mark pulled the bunk bed back over the trap door just as the first hammering whump! nearly tore it off its hinges. His mom collapsed onto the bunk as the door jumped up with another whump! and said Okay, Mark. Any more good ideas left in that evil little brain? 'Cause if there isn't, you're going out the window and run while I hold the door.

Mark went to the room's tiny closet and the trapdoor went whump! again and he pulled out the SuperSoaker 200 and the big square can of CAMP FUEL and said How about this?

Mark's mom looked at him and smiled a very nasty bloody smile. The trapdoor went whump! one more time and splintered under the leg of the bunk bed and it tilted crazily and she hopped off. What were you going to do with that?

I was going to make a flamethrower. And he did, as his mom shoved the bunk bed away from the remains of the trap door and dropped the chest of drawers down onto its hard maple side and sat on it and rode up and down with each frustrated whump! from below.

The idea was that all Mark had to do was fill the SuperSoaker 200's tanks and pump up the air. It wasn't that easy, though. There was still a lot of water in both of the tanks and it took Mark a long time to fumble them loose and dump the water out. Mark's hands, usually the quickest, surest part of him, turned nervous and stupid and ice-cold and shaky. And his mom's breath hitched into a near-scream with each floorshaking whump! The water gurgled out slowly no matter how he shook the bottles around. And the CAMP FUEL went in even slower. The can was heavy and the liquid came out too fast and spilled everywhere, stinking up the room and giving Mark a nasty headache right behind his eyes. And then the second bottle didn't screw in right. The threads went crooked and Mark forced it anyway and when he started to pump up the gun a light spray of CAMP FUEL came hissing out.

Finally he got it right. The bottles sealed firmly into place, the air tank pumped up without leaking, and he wiped most of the excess CAMP FUEL off with the sheet on his bed. Then Mark's mom tossed him Uncle George's Bic lighter.

Okay. Here's the deal. I'll get off and when he pokes his head up you hit him with the juice first, a good long blast, and then the fire. Right? Mark nodded. If it doesn't work we're going right out that window. Mark walked around to the window side and opened the door and his mom scooted around so she was facing him. I love you, Mark. Always remember that. Mark practiced flicking the Bic on and off a couple times and set the flame up high.

Then Mark said Ready.

The boss flowsnake rammed the door just as Mark's mom slid off the chest, the worst possible time. It threw her and the door and the chest aside like a toy and heaved eight feet of itself up through the hole. It was facing the wrong way, which was very lucky for Mark's mom, who was flat on her bottom right next to where it came through the door.

Time slowed down for Mark. His mom scrambled backwards past him crab-style yelling Do it do it do it! and he had a long time to look and wonder as the barrel of the SuperSoaker 200 came slowly up.

The boss flowsnake had a sour tangy metal smell, like the blue crystal stuff Mark's grandma used on her toilets and got so mad when he tried to eat some and burned his mouth when he was four. Things were moving within its blurry jacket of icy scales, bright flashy things, blobs and streaks of light and dark. It was beautiful, really. But it was the enemy.

So he blasted it, just the way his mom had told him. The stream of CAMP FUEL came out in a hard straight stream that splashed all over the place, onto the snake, the rug, and the walls. Then he lit the Bic lighter, very carefully. started another stream towards the flowsnake. And brought the flame close to the stream--

--and it went whooosh! and turned into a fat tongue of flame so fast that Mark yipped and dropped the gun. Which was okay, since the boss flowsnake and the rug and the walls and the furniture burst into bright orange flame.

What was not okay was that the boss flowsnake shoved itself further into the room instead of retreating down the hole. And what was very not-okay was that it was facing Mark and his mom this time.

But it wasn't coming after them. It was trumpeting like an angry elephant and biting at the walls and rug and furniture and itself, at anything that was on fire. Mark's mom grabbed the SuperSoaker 200 and sprayed more CAMP FUEL all over the room and gathered Mark into her arms and backed slowly out on the deck. The rope was still there, swinging slowly in the breeze. Okay, pal. Just slide on down and I'll follow you. Mark climbed gingerly over the rail, trying not to look down at what was left of Uncle George, laid bare and red and frozen like supermarket meat on the driveway. The rope was cold and icy-slick and very easy to slide down.

His mom followed him down and sprayed the whole front of the cabin with the SuperSoaker 200. She muttered as she worked. You like it warm, huh? I've got your warmth right here. And then she lit it up in several places with Uncle George's Bic. The CAMP FUEL roared into greasy orange flame and soon Mark and his mom were both very hot in their ski clothes.

Then they went over and got into Uncle George's Range Rover. Mark's mom started it up and carefully rolled it forward on its flat tires and said If there's any more of those things they'll go for the fire and not us. I hope. And then she put the Range Rover into gear and slowly rolled it forward into the snow. It did just fine on flats as long as she kept the speed down to a fast walk.

They drove slowly down the road, pushing gently through high drifts of snow in low gear. Mark kept watch out the window but didn't see anything moving. After they hit the main highway, Mark turned to his mom and asked Next year for Christmas can we go someplace warm? She laughed and said Absolutely. How do you feel about Maui?

.:.

But when they finally made it back to Incline Village, everything was on fire.

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