“It is bloody freezing,” his wife said. “Bernard, say something. Anything.”
“What am I to say that I haven’t uttered to the old man before?”
“Perhaps raising your voice.”
“I do. I do.”
“Upstairs. Not here.”
Too late. Their daughter, Alice, wriggled awake in Maggie’s arms and cried. Maggie bounced the baby as best she could, cooing her with sweet nothings, but once Alice started, she kept on crying. Her breath misted into the air before being eaten by the chill of the small room. Outside, the snow continued to besiege the city. It had not stopped since Christmas.
“Mother,” Stephen said, “won’t Malice ever stop?”
Stephen was five and thin for his age, though no one would know it. He not only wore every stitch of clothing Maggie had mended for him but also two empty potato sacks and a shawl from Maggie’s mother, god rest her soul.
“Stephen, don’t call your sister that awful name. You’re not helping. Your father is doing enough of that already.”
“Not in front of the children.”
Bernard stood at the window, or rather, bounced from heel to toe in an effort to keep his blood moving. He turned to his wife and huffed, the annoyance as visible as his breath. “Miss Landers must be stranded in the Midlands. The trains will be a right mess until this snow lets up. When she returns, she can talk some sense into him.”
“Since you have not.”
“No, Bernard. Miss Landers is his housekeeper, but she isn’t a saint. She could only deal with Mr. Crawford for so long, which is why she left for holiday. He’s a right mad tyrant, brooding up there in his study. He holds it against us for taking up room and board. Miss Landers told me. He needs the money, though he holds his nose when he takes ours. He can’t afford to keep up appearances, yet he wastes money on extravagance. Look at the radiators. So garish.”
“They are American,” Bernard said.
A radiator stood next to him. Its silver coils were adorned with Gothic interlocking lines. One could get lost in those details. Extraordinary devices just the same. The radiators were heated from the cellar. A cast iron boiler sent steam through pipes within the house, ending at this set of coils and others in almost every room. Bernard had read about them and knew what an expense they were.
“What good are these if Crawford won’t buy the coal to heat them?” Maggie asked.
“They can make music.” Stephen demonstrated with a brass button from one of his many coat sleeves. Toneless notes filled the room.
“Stop that, son.”
“He’s right, Bernard. They’re cold lumps of nothing without the boiler on. Like us.”
Maggie’s sharp words belied her soft and pleading eyes. They were on Alice, whose crying had been replaced with a ghastly retching, the sound of sickness.
Stephen edged away from his mother and sister, his dead grandmother’s shawl trailing behind him, a cortege in gray and black. He looked afraid. “Father, what will happen if it never gets warm?”
Crouching down, Bernard placed a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m going to get us all sorted, hey? We’ll be cooking like gooses in no time.”
He kissed the top of Stephen’s head, then met Maggie’s gaze. “I will speak to Crawford. This time, he will listen.”
M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer. His work has been published in After Hours Press, Aphelion, Chicago Literati, Ink in Thirds, Literary Orphans, Maudlin House, Quail Bell Magazine, Transmundane Press, Word Branch, Unbroken Journal, and Vignette Review. He is the author of the short story collection Other Musicand the e-book FewBlox. Follow him on Instagram under the handle @MC_StJohn.