Snowball (January 2021)
by Robert Bagnall
It took Chris Leaburn several moments to understand what had just happened. Even then, it made no sense.
Up until that point, it had been a regular winter’s walk in the woods and around the lake with the twins. The snow crunched underfoot. They’d watched their breath condense into white wisps. Grinning, the kids had made snow angels. Chris, too, had collapsed back, rigid, into a drift, and laughing, carved out wings. He’s only just risen, brushing himself off to admire his work.
And then, out of a clear blue sky—metaphorically: big sticky flakes were swirling—a projectile had been hurled at him with near superhuman force. It had come from the direction of the lake, across the water, and had missed him by inches, striking the thick trunk of an oak at chest height, shaking snow from the boughs, making the three of them jump for a second time.
By the conical white remains, what it was that had just missed him was beyond doubt: a snowball.
The question was, where had it come from?
Chris looked at the children to admonish them, but they stared back at him, shocked and startled, a frozen tableau. Every bit of common sense told him that no seven-year-old had the arm of Steve Dalkowski to the power of ten.
He opened his mouth to ask out loud, as if to beseech the Gods, where on Earth that snowball had come from, when…
The second snowball caught him full in the chest.
The Bar had no other name. An ugly squat prefabricated building, a neon sign reading ‘Bar’ in big thick capitals hung above the door. It sat on its own at the edge of town, a parking lot rutted with ice from last night’s patrons separating it from the road.
Quarter to midday and The Bar had its two regular customers.
Martha was half-English, hence didn’t subscribe to the notion that drinking before a full day’s work had been achieved was necessarily a sign of failure. She gave a sense of not caring. Not caring how old she got, that was putting on weight, what other people thought of her.
Al was a shift worker. That was all he’d tell you if you asked. Martha and Joey the barman had asked. Al neither elaborated nor clarified whether he’d just knocked off or was on his way to work. His tired army surplus fatigues never gave any clue. Joey guessed they both came from the trailer park, but never acted like they’d walked together, even though they’d arrive moments apart.
They would appear just after eleven, like animals emerging from their holes. Joey’d slide back the big brass bolt, throw the switch that lit the sign outside, and by the time he’d sprayed and wiped the bar one of them would be pushing open the door, knocking slush off their boots, the initial conversational gambit identical regardless.
Miller for Al, one swift, one savored. A nursed Jack Daniels and Coke for Martha. She didn’t seem to care if it came with ice or not. Joey habitually had them pulled or poured and on the bar and then busy himself with everything else. Ashtrays on tables. The cigarette machine flicked on. Martha and Al didn’t mind him putting the vacuum around. WGAP burbled away on a radio sat behind the bar, the phone-in that followed Morning Edition. It was old school, but it was how Joey liked it.
To be honest, Joey could have opened at midday when he’d got everything ready, but he enjoyed the company. But only their company. He’d feel riled if a stranger walked in. But the three of them seemed obligated to be there, like the world offered no other opportunity or option for those sixty minutes than to thaw and drink and philosophize.
“It’s not arrogant if you’re Mozart…”
“…arrogant is arrogant, whether you’re Mozart or not.”
WGAP cut across the issue of Wolfgang Amadeus’ egotism. “…the question that everybody in Brandonberg is asking: what happened by Clear Lake yesterday?”
“I think I had a beer,” quipped Al.
Joey shushed him with a wave of a bar towel and turned the volume up.
“A snowball seems to come out of nowhere—literally, nowhere—to hit father of two Christopher Leaburn as he walked in the woods with his two children. Nobody was around to throw it, and it hit Mr. Leaburn with enough force to leave him in hospital. What really happened? Ice from an aircraft’s wing? Meteorite? Military test? Our first caller is Geraldine.”
Behind the bar, Joey’s rate of polishing glasses slipped as he leant in to listen to Geraldine rehash the question without providing any additional insight.
“And our next caller is Martha.”
“Hey, Martha,” Joey called, before realizing that she wasn’t there.
“Pete. This isn’t anything new. I heard these stories from my mother when I was little. She called it the Invisible Snowman. It lives in the woods and sneaks up on people and throws snowballs. If you were brought up around Brandonberg you’re sure to have heard of it, but we don’t like to talk about it with out-of-towners.”
“I grew up not far away but have never heard of any Invisible Snowman.”
“Go ask your mother.”
“Thank you, Martha. Our next caller is…”
Martha appeared from the darkened pool room at the back pocketing her cell, grinning. “Didn’t want any interference,” she said, nodding at the radio.
“You? When did you ever interfere with anything?” Al quipped.
“Invisible Snowman.” Joey kissed his teeth. “As if.”
“Well, there’s one now,” Martha declared.
“Hey,” exclaimed Al. “If it’s invisible, howdya know it’s a snowman?”
And then: “That caller you had on, Martha, she was talking rubbish…”
Martha pulled a face of mock offence. Merriment from the men.
“…we don’t have any problem talking about the Invisible Snowman round these parts. I’ve never understood why it isn’t up there with the Yeti and Bigfoot. Why be shy? We should be getting tourists in. Getting some money into Brandonberg.”
Martha’s expression had turned somewhere between quizzical and sour. And when a caller identifying himself as Sam said he’d once seen the Invisible Snowman, apparent as a hulking grey absence of swirling snow, Al and Joey were no longer laughing.
“I guess that answers Al’s question,” Martha mused.
They listened to the rest of the show in silence as more callers attested to the veracity of the Invisible Snowman. The advocates for meteorites, military testing, ice from aircraft, or even frozen goose shit had dried up.
Martha looked ashen, like she’s just lit a candle to guide her way in the darkness and found it was a stick of dynamite.
Five hundred miles away and seven months later, in a university laboratory, a man in a faded White Stripes t-shirt with a ponytail and a prematurely receding hairline stared at tables of numbers, graphs and charts on a laptop screen. Outside, the sun shone in a cloudless sky. Tomorrow he’d get to the beach. He took a sip of Coke and autodialed a number on his cellphone.
“These projections are incredible.”
“I know,” gabbled a woman’s voice in response.
“Are we saying that when the magnetic field failed on the cyclotron last winter, the particles decelerated exponentially, gathering material from the atmosphere as it went?”
“Shot out sideways like a bullet with whatever it went through clinging on for dear life like Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove.” She sounded proud. “Twice.”
“What was the weather doing that day?”
“Don’t know. Might have been snowing, I think.”
“So the particle, in its final moments, could have ended up as a… snowball?”
“Yeah,” the woman said, brightening. “But only for a fraction of a second. I mean, the chances of anybody seeing it, of it having any observable impact whatsoever is minuscule. Immeasurably small.”
“Immeasurably small,” White Stripes ruefully repeated back in agreement. “Shame. Would have been interesting to know what happened next.”
“Wouldn’t have changed the universe,” the woman replied. “Wouldn’t have changed anybody’s life one iota.”
The first TV crews arrived the day after the radio phone-in, chewing up the car park, taking Martha and Al’s stools at the Bar, and looking askance at Joey as he plugged the vacuum cleaner in during advertised opening hours. At one point, five crews stood in Brandonberg’s town square simultaneously, framing the best angles whilst keeping rivals out of shot.
Seven pages of the calendar later, when Doctor Miles Richardson called his colleague and, he hoped, soon to be fiancé, Ester Carter, to clarify her analysis, three books on the Invisible Snowman would sit atop August’s non-fiction best seller list, and an hour-long National Geographic special would be in post-production.
In between times, young men and women whose resumes proved their skills in marketing the insubstantial figured out how to get an invisible snowman on to t-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers. Intrigued, a steady stream of tourists rolled through Brandonberg, gormlessly spending their dollars. For any that did stop to wonder what the invisible looked like, local celebrity, Chris Leaburn, helped out with guided tours and by signing books he hadn’t written.
Everybody seemed to be a winner.
Except for one.
Haunted Martha Jenkinson, character assassinated by the popular press as a lush, and widely derided as a freeloader and bandwagon-jumper for her confessional proclamation that she had made the whole thing up. Even the fact that she didn’t sell her story, but just gave it away, didn’t help. Just proved she was in it for the publicity. If you want to talk to her, you’ll find her at the Bar. Buy her a JD and Coke. But don’t believe what she tells you. Remember: she’s a self-confessed liar.
Text copyright © 2020 by Robert Bagnall. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Robert Bagnall was born in Bedford, England, in 1970 and now lives in Devon, between Dartmoor and the English Channel. He is the author of the novel ‘2084’, and the anthology ‘24 0s & a 2’, which collects two dozen of his thirty-plus published stories. Find them via his Amazon author page. He can be contacted via his blog at meschera.blogspot.co.uk.