Her teeth chattered together as she cursed herself. No coat, out in her pajamas, and the garden shed was still fifteen yards away. Suddenly the porch light flared. She ducked her head, hoping for cover in the thicket of trees.
Her ears honed in on footsteps on the porch steps. Snow inched its way up her pajama bottoms and into her moccasin slippers.
She picked up her pace, the weight of the bag even heavier. Pressing forward, she knew once she reached the garden shed, she’d be visible. How could she possibly explain herself?
He had been acting like a madman for weeks. Did he really think he was going to get away with it this time? Her own madness gave sway to determination. She bolted for the shed.
He was in the thicket. At the shed she could heave the bundle out of sight, feigning innocence. After eleven years, it was time for the secrets to stop.
Praying for forgiveness, she lunged for the shed’s icy metal latch. She hurtled the bag in the shadows. Allen, ten feet away, was breathing hard, eyes desperate. She wanted to reassure him, but she couldn’t.
“Hillary, please.” A silvery glow illuminated his striped pajamas as she saw the warm porch light beyond.
“Go inside, Allen.” Her jaw convulsed.
“I can’t let you walk into that shed, Hillary.”
“Oh, I see,” her laugh a harsh bark. Then she realized her out. “I’m taking care of it this time.”
To her horror, he took a step toward her, then another. “Don’t!”
“Tell me what you’re doing.”
“It was supposed to be a surprise.” The snow blower. She was going to clear the walks. It was a perfect alibi.
“It’s over, Hillary.”
“Oh, no, I’m getting that snow blower!”
The moonlight disappeared, as if a plug had been pulled. She lunged for the shed’s latch. In the corner of her eye, she saw Allen run toward her. She almost sobbed. Was this it?
“Don’t go in!”
Using all of her strength, she flung the door open as the automatic light lit the shed’s interior like a balefire.
“Oh, my God.” She stared in wonder, disbelief, and a small amount of horror. Allen stopped just short of the shed’s opening as the light bathed Hillary in a triangle of warmth.
“After all these years.” She shook her head.
Allen put his hand on her shoulder and for a moment, it occurred to her that they were alone out here, and no one would hear her if she called out. But now that she knew his secret, perhaps the wedge between them, the slight distance, would be closed.
“You,” he said, “are an insufferable snoop.”
She marveled at the inside of the shed. “This is the first time I’ve ever really seen what you’ve done up close.” She was in awe of the terrible genius of it.
“You don’t think ill of me?” His warm arm encircled her shoulders.
“How could I?” she looked at him. “I just can’t believe it’s finally over.” She took a tentative step inside. The snow blower sat like a relic, while detritus crowded around it. “I have to see.”
“No, please, don’t. Come on, we’re adults. Isn’t it enough you found them?” Mesmerized, she reached her trembling hand out and felt the cold plastic tarp. “Hillary…”
She whipped around, face hard, “Wasn’t it enough that you knew? Eleven years! That never stopped you!”
He was silent.
“The attic,” she said, voice steely and sharp, “the panel above the closet--” Allen clenched his eyes shut. “The garage rafters! Nothing was safe!”
“Well now you’re going to see how it feels.” She pulled the plastic tarp away. “Oh, my God!” Hillary clapped a hand over her mouth. She turned to Allen, tears dancing in her eyes. “I’ve wanted this copper fondue set forever!”
Allen smiled. “Go ahead, look at the rest. You earned it.”
She moved the box aside and found her other gifts, one her favorite perfume which was practically impossible to get.
“After eleven Christmases, this is where you hide my gifts. No wonder I’ve never found them. And you, you rotten snoop, you’ve always found yours.”
“Grab that big bag you hid. I saw it, don’t deny it.”
“Fine,” she said, rolling her eyes, smiling. “Snoop away.”
Allen pulled the bag in front of the door and opened it. Wonderful gifts, including a heavy wilderness backpack he’d had his eye on.
“So,” he took her in his arms, “Should we even bother wrapping them, Mrs. Snoop?”
“I always wrapped yours even though you knew. And for the record, I wasn’t snooping. I was hiding.” Hillary shivered. “Why didn’t I wear a robe?” she said, teeth chattering.
“You go inside and shower. And please, allow me my manly task with the snow blower. I’ll stick the gifts in here and be right in.”
“Okay. I’ll make coffee.” Hillary smiled, loving his pink cheeks and grizzled stubble.
“Listen, honey,” he said, “let’s not ruin it ever again. I know it’s hardly fair since I’ve done it for years, but from now on, no more snooping. Okay?”
“Deal. I love you, Allen.”
“And I love you.” He watched her retreat toward the house.
Allen grabbed her bag and dragged it inside, pushing it up against the pile. One good shove and he’d clear a path for the snow blower. As he pulled it toward him, the bags shifted. His eye caught something as it tumbled to the particle board flooring.
He picked up the severed hand, chipped red nails and gray mottled fingers stiff with age, and shoved it back into a garbage bag behind the fondue.
“Sorry, Mrs. Ingerwood. Going to have to move you sooner than springtime.”
The shed door closed, cutting the light so that complete darkness converged inside.