Playing in the Snow by Quinn Camara
In the biting Wyoming cold, a stranger stands alone in the middle of a parking lot. He leans against the open car door, admiring the driver’s license in his palm. The license finds a new home inside his wallet. With a gloved hand, he pushes a cigar against his lips.
The frigid air brings a chill across his skin. “A few miles from here…that’ll do.” He speaks with a grey monotone, thick like the snow on the Granite Mountains above. The car door slams, and then it is only him, his unlit Cuban, and the fading neon sign of the corner store. He flicks out a Zippo and braces for the nicotine burst.
Little Hill Food Mart. It is the only corner store for several miles. At 2 A.M., it seems abandoned, an orphan lost between the mountain peaks. The owner’s car, a leather-brown Buick, is packed neatly into its place near the front door.
The owner in question, Doug Atwater, watches the stranger cross the asphalt. Most of Doug’s customers at this time are the regulars, the chatterboxes, the drunks who shouldn’t have been driving. To Doug, this man seems different, suspicious. As he draws closer, he notices the stranger’s thick black gloves, his unkempt hair, and his ragged brown coat. A cigar dangles from the stranger’s mouth.
Doug wonders if he’s a vagrant, a thief, or a simple traveler. His wife always says that he is too nervous for his own good, but Doug prefers the term “cautious.” He keeps a loaded pistol under the counter, just in case. He hopes, as with every unfamiliar customer, that the night won’t end with a trigger.
The stranger pushes a gloved hand against the door. A string of tinny bells jingles as he steps inside. His face is pulled tight, as if he never smiled once in his life. The man lets loose a puff of smoke, and it seems to hang like a fine mist in the air.
“Excuse me, sir,” says Doug. “I can’t have you smoking in here.”
The man stops in front of a tray of pre-packaged doughnuts, meeting Doug with a blank stare. He puckers his face. He puts the cigar to his lips and lets out another black puff.
The two men pause, glaring at each other.
“Seems like I can’t stop you,” concedes Doug. He waves away the smoke fumes with his hands.
“Much…appreciated,” the stranger drawls. He turns around, almost robotically, lets out another puff, and disappears down one of the food aisles.
The night is quiet once more. Doug peers through the icy window at the stranger’s Mercury Monarch in the lot. Even near the light of a streetlamp, the windows are tinted by the darkness outside. The road around the corner store is barren.
Doug squints, trying to read the license plate number. A license plate from Utah, Montana, or maybe even some farther state would reveal more about this 2 A.M. stranger. Doug leans against the window, then sighs. The plate is obscured.
Maybe he’s all the way from Maine, thinks Doug. Wouldn’t that be a disappointment? Coming all the way down here, just to find yourself at a tiny corner store. The Granite Mountains, only a few miles away, tower over Doug’s view from the window. Tiny, in the middle of nowhere.
When the stranger returns to the counter, he scatters a wad of items across the oak panels.
“Here,” he croaks. His face is still expressionless.
Doug shivers. He accounts for all the items: two pine air fresheners, cashews, hand sanitizer, a tube of lip balm, batteries, beef jerky, and finally a bottle of lotion. “Your total is $19.72.”
The man rummages through his beige wallet. “Here’s…twenty.”
Doug takes the crinkled bill and starts to bag the items. He pauses. “Are you…are you traveling tonight?” He slides the last item, the lotion bottle, into the bag.
“I’m heading to the mountains,” the man says, pointing outside. He lets out a puff of smoke again.
Doug glances at the Granite Mountains again, to the place where the peaks meet an obsidian sky. From here, the mountains seem immense, intimidating. “28 cents,” he says, passing the coins into the stranger’s gloves. “I have a, I guess you could say, small question for you, sir.” He hands out the bag of items next. “Mind if I ask … what are you doing in the mountains?”
“Playing in the snow,” he says, and smoke flies out of his mouth. “Or…something like that.” He smiles for the first time since his entrance. “Tell me sir, why are you here, speaking with me?”
“What do you mean?” The streetlamp outside flickers.
“A small question for you, sir,” the stranger mocks.
“Well … you walked in. You bought things,” Doug says, hesitating. He fixates on the gun beneath the counter, just under a tiny oak panel. “If that doesn’t satisfy you, then I’m afraid … I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.”
The stranger rests his hands on the counter. “Perhaps … I’m moving too fast,” he drawls. “Maybe a subject change? I have a few more dollars here.” He slowly unfolds his wallet and plucks out two dollars. “A cup of coffee. Black. No sugar.”
“We don’t have any…”
“Brew some. It only takes five minutes.”
“And you said you wanted it black, right?”
“Yes, yes I did. Thank you.” The stranger lets out a puff.
The coffee machine is behind the front counter. Doug tears open a pack of coffee grounds and pours everything into a filter. He can feel the stranger’s eyes penetrating his back. He starts the machine. Four minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Doug watches the machine tick down and tries to keep the stranger in the corner of his eyes. He can hear the man’s shoe tap against the tile with a steady rhythm. He fidgets with his wedding ring.
Nearly four minutes pass before the stranger speaks again: “Excuse me.”
“Yes?” Doug answers. He neglects to face the stranger. A cold silence hangs in the air for a moment. Doug hears the man exhale, smells the smoke from his cigar, and fixates on the bottom drawer behind him again. Thirty-five seconds. “What more can I do for you? Your coffee is almost ready.”
The stranger blows another puff of smoke. “The coffee? That won’t be necessary.”
“What do you mean? You ordered it.”
“You don’t always get what you expect.” The man flicks the cigar. “Check your ring, for example,” he says, pointing at Doug’s hand. “Not a diamond. Not even gold. It’s different.”
Doug turns and examines his own fingers. “My ring?”
“Yes. Your ring.”
“Well, what about it?”
The stranger leans forward against the counter, meeting Doug with a blank gaze. “That stone … in the center. What is it?” He taps the cigar against the counter.
“Well, it’s my wedding ring.”
“I can see that, friend. What is it?”
Doug pauses, and the men are still locked in a stare. He lowers a tentative hand toward the bottom drawer. “I don’t know why you’re questioning me ‘bout this.”
“Small talk. Just a little … curious.” The stranger smiles. “Is it a ruby, perchance?”
The coffee machine emits a beep from behind them.
“Well, my wife wanted a ruby,” Doug starts. “Had a real hankering for them. Too expensive. I settled for a garnet instead and saved a little more for our honeymoon.” The machine beeps again.
“A garnet?” says the stranger, inquisitive. “That’s her birthstone, you know?”
“Her birthstone? Who are you talking about?” The oak panels slide open beneath the counter.
The stranger chuckles. “Lots of people. Everyone in January. You’ve got nieces, mothers, wives, and daughters with that stone.” He places his gloved hand on the counter. “Some of them are … in heat right now. Others, well, some of them are … playing in the snow.” He holds his cigar up to his eyes, as if to examine it. “Doesn’t it make sense … Mr. Atwater?”
Doug fingers the grip of the pistol now. He doesn’t like the texture of it. “How do you know my name?” He glares at the stranger. Outside, the flickering streetlamp finally goes dark, and the Granite Mountains loom over the store.
“I notice everything,” the man says. He taps his cigar against the counter, and Doug can feel the vibration in his fingers.
Doug draws his hand back from the drawer. “I still don’t understand.”
The man smiles again. “That’s normal.” He retreats backward and presses a gloved hand to the door handle. “Thank you,” he says, holding the crinkled bag of items. “And … I’m sorry.” He begins to exit the store.
“What do you mean? Why are you sorry?” Doug asks, but the stranger is already outside, the door is closed, and the tinny bells have signaled his departure.
Doug sighs and notes the full pot of coffee behind him. He normally prefers three creams and three sugars, but tonight, he drinks his first cup of black coffee. When he stares outside, he can only see the dim outline of the stranger’s car in the darkness.
In the parking lot, the stranger wrestles with the back door of his Mercury sedan. His cigar is pursed around his lips, and after a few attempts, the stranger pries open the door. He tosses the bag of items into the car, where they land at a woman’s feet. The batteries roll out onto the floor.
The stranger plucks the cigar from his mouth. He looks down to where the pale woman is sitting patiently. “I’m back,” he says, but his passenger doesn’t respond. “I have gifts.” The stranger creeps forward, skin to skin with this strange woman, and extinguishes his cigar against her neck.
“No pain anymore.”
He cradles the woman’s cold hands with his warm black gloves. Then, gently, he slides off her garnet ring and holds it up to his eyes.