It’s been 297 days since David died—and came back. He may have survived the avalanche, but the aftermath has been far worse. His wife moved out, taking his son with her, and a devastated David hasn’t left his house since, terrified of the mysterious new power that followed him home from the ill-fated expedition. After months in seclusion, David’s ready for a fresh start, and ventures out, determined to keep his power in check. But David’s power isn’t the one he needs to worry about.
“Warm Up” is an original short story set in the same universe as V. E. Schwab’s novel, Vicious (Tor Books [US], September 2013 and Titan Books [UK], January 2014). This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by assistant editor Miriam Weinberg.
It had been 297 days since David died.
294 days since Samantha left.
293 days since he locked himself in the house that had been his and then theirs and was now his again.
And he had finally made a decision.
He wasn’t quite sure when he made it, somewhere between turning on the shower and stepping in, perhaps, or pouring the milk and adding the cereal, or maybe a dozen tiny decisions had added up like letters until they finally made a word, a phrase, a sentence.
Either way, he’d made the decision, and now he stood very still at the kitchen counter, holding his choice in his hands with his coffee, afraid that if he moved, his resolve would crumble. He stood there until the coffee went cold, and he was still standing there when Jess came in, arms full of groceries.
“Jesus, David,” she said, dropping the bags on the counter, “it’s like an oven in here.”
His sister went for the thermostat. He swallowed. Three small words, a phrase, a sentence.
“I’m going out,” he said.
Jess’s hand froze above the AC. “Don’t joke about that.”
She’d pleaded with him for weeks—months—to leave the house, before finally giving up. Now her eyes brightened with a kind of guarded hope.
“I’m not,” said David. “I’m going out.”
The words felt more solid the second time. Jess gave him a long, hard look. “What changed?”
“Nothing,” he lied. “I just think it’s time.”
Jess turned the temperature down and came to him, resting her elbows on the kitchen counter between them. “How long has it been?” she asked casually, as if they weren’t both counting.
He didn’t know how to choose the right number. The instant of impact or the aftermath?
“Two hundred ninety-seven,” he said at last, because it had all started there in the snow.
“Sure you don’t want to wait for three hundred?” Jess managed a thin smile when she said it, but the joke was too careful, too light, like she knew they were on cracking ice. The smallest misstep would send them under. David felt it, too. That’s why he’d been standing so still.
“I’m ready,” he said, looking down at the still-full cup, the coffee long since cold. He tightened his grip on the porcelain, and a moment later fresh steam rose from the dark surface. A small, conscious effort. The line between accidental and intentional meant everything. “I’m going out tonight.”
“Okay. Great,” said Jess, rousing. “This is great. I get off work at seven. I’ll swing by and we can—”
David shook his head. “I need to do this.”
Alone. The word hung in the air, unsaid but understood. Control was all about focus, and he couldn’t do that, not with Jess hovering, studying him like a puzzle she could piece back together. She hadn’t yet realized that the picture had changed.
David had thought about telling her. Hell, he’d acted out that conversation a hundred times. Maybe tonight, he would finally do it. He’d come home, and he’d call her, and he’d tell her why Samantha had left, and why he’d spent 293 days in his house, and why he kept shivering no matter how high he turned the thermostat up. It would all make sense, and she’d know he wasn’t crazy. He was just scared.
And cold. Tonight, he decided, setting aside the coffee cup and turning toward the groceries. He handled the items gingerly, maneuvering the carton of milk, the apples, the steak, like they were grips, outcrops, footholds, ones that might give way if he weren’t careful. That first week, every single piece of food had turned to ash in his hands. Now he cupped a Granny Smith in his palm, marveling at the way the green skin glistened.
He was ready.
Behind him, Jess scooped up the discarded mug.
“Fuck,” she swore, fumbling the cup. It hit the floor and shattered, spilling coffee across the tiles. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she murmured, shaking her fingers.
“You okay?” David knelt and gathered up the broken shards.
“Careful,” she said, running her hand under the tap. “It’s hot.”
David nodded absently as he piled the broken pieces in his palm before dumping them in the trash. Dulled nerves, he’d told her. From years of climbing ice.
You should really get that checked out, she’d said.
You’re probably right, he’d replied.
“Sorry,” he said now, sponging up the coffee with a towel.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. She didn’t know. “Sorry about the mess.” She glanced at her watch. “Crap, I’m going to be late.” Jess taught second grade at an elementary school. David’s son, Jack, was in kindergarten there. It had been 294 days since he’d seen him.
“Go,” said David, wringing out the towel. “I’ve got this.”
Jess didn’t move. She just stood there and stared, squinting at him like he was written in another language. “I’m proud of you, Dave,” she said, reaching out and touching his shoulder. He didn’t touch her back. “Call me when you’re home, okay?”
David nodded. “Sure thing,” he said as if the very act of leaving the house wasn’t a strange and terrifying prospect.
It had been 297 days since David died.
Aside from the constant count in his head and his new . . . affliction, the only reminder was a photograph. It sat in a frame on the chest of drawers by his bed, a beaming version of himself, bundled up and ready for the climb, sunlight winking off snow. The rest of the group—six climbers in all—milled in the background. David was holding up three gloved fingers. It was a milestone. His thirtieth climb.
David never bothered with photos, but one of his teammates, Jackson—a partner at David’s firm—took his camera everywhere. That’s how they’d found his body after, the lens winking in the sun.
Gotta capture the moment, Jackson had said, snapping a shot. Memories fade.
So do pictures, David had thought, but he’d smiled and posed anyways.
Now he picked up the photograph, and ran a finger over the frame, steam blossoming on the glass.
Some people forget, he thought. A bad thing happens to them and their mind sweeps in and buries the bad thing deep, and all that’s left is a stretch of white in their heads, like fresh snow. Looking at it—at them—you wouldn’t even know anything was trapped beneath.
Some people forget, but David remembered everything.
He remembered the light-headed thrill of the climb. The wind-stripped voices of the others in his wake. The crunch of the icy crust on the snow. The sound and shape of his breath in the air. And somewhere, between an exhale and an inhale, a far-off sound like a hush but heavier. He remembered looking up and seeing the wall of white, as big as the sky.
He remembered the long moment of silence before the snow hit, and the longer moment after. The horrifying cold that ate through every layer of clothing, bit into his skin, clawed at his bones. All David could think of was that cold, and how badly he wanted to warm up.
Warm up warm up warm up, he’d thought, the plea like a pulse, soft and slowing until the air ran out, and his thoughts froze, and his heart stopped.
It had been 297 days since David died. And 297 since he’d come back, gasped and sat up in a base camp hospital tent covered in warming pads, the defibrillator still buzzing in the medic’s hands, his teeth chattering with cold.
Jackson didn’t make it.
None of them did.
An envelope showed up in David’s mailbox a few weeks later—he’d made Jess open it—from Jackson’s wife, Anita. Inside was the photograph, and a note.
All that’s left, it said.
Now David unfastened the metal clasps that held the frame together, and pulled the photograph free. He pinched the bottom of the paper. For a moment, nothing happened. And then the photo began to blacken and curl.
It didn’t catch fire. Nothing ever actually caught fire.
No, it all simply burned.
The photo—the broad smile, the wind-chapped face, the three gloved fingers—crumbled to ash in his hand.
What changed? Jess had asked.
The truth was, David had. He’d fallen so far, and the climb back up had been slow, agonizingly so—some days inching forward, others slipping back—but little by little, he’d fought his way back to the summit. He could see a life from here. Not his life, that was gone, but a life.
It was time for a fresh start.
It had been 294 days since Samantha left.
If any of David’s colleagues or Samantha’s old friends had come to visit, the first thing they would have noticed about the house was the shocking absence of stuff.
David had never been a fan of stuff, but Samantha loved acquiring it. She had spent a small fortune collecting trinkets and knickknacks, tapestries and prints and other random oddities. She treated every inch of empty surface—countertop, table, shelf—like an affront, something to be scrubbed out.
Nothing wrong with negative space, Sam, he’d said, tossing the latest bauble from hand to hand. That’s how he saw climbing, a physical exercise in positive and negative space. The vast expanse of white drawing the small, person-shaped speck into sharp relief.
At least my hobbies won’t get me killed, she’d said, plucking the ornament out of his hand and pecking him on the cheek.
After the accident, and after the fight, when Samantha left him in the middle of the night, she didn’t take any of the clutter with her. No, she took Jack and two suitcases and left David and the house full of stuff behind. He’d ruined most of it in those first weeks, a few select things out of spite (that damn lamp, those ugly bookends, the statue on the patio) but the rest were merely victims of his desperate search for control—sacrificed as he tried to relearn how to touch, how to hold, how to live.
How to warm up.
After the accident, they’d airlifted him off the mountain.
As they loaded him into the helicopter, the EMTs had given him a blanket. It didn’t help. When he tried to pull it tighter, the fabric went ember-red under his touch, and then crumbled. David stared down at the smear of ash across his palms as the EMTs piled in. They gave him another blanket. He didn’t touch it. Instead, he clutched a metal rail beside his stretcher. The silver began to glow beneath his fingers. He felt nothing, no heat, but when an EMT leaned against it midflight, it burned the skin from the man’s arm.
A malfunction, they called it.
When the chopper landed, the doctors couldn’t convince David to unclench his hands. They gave up. Trauma, they wrote in their books. They told him they’d come back in the morning.
But in the morning, he was gone.
David paid off two nurses and a front desk clerk and checked himself out—terrified that if he stayed he’d be dissected as some kind of freak—and went home. Afterward, he wished he hadn’t, wished he’d had the strength to run away. From his family. His life. Anything that could be burned. Instead he stood at the gate where the cab dropped him off and stared up at the oversized, overstuffed house, desperate to see his family again. To have the chance to say good-bye.
Samantha threw her arms around him. Jack clung to his leg, begging to be picked up. He kept his hands balled at his sides, terrified of touching them. Samantha said he looked tired. They went to bed. He only wanted to be near her. One last time. He lay there in the dark, hands wrapped around his own ribs—the heat never reached him—to keep her safe, but it wasn’t enough.
She tried to embrace him. He shook her off.
That’s how the fight started. They’d had so many, over the years, everything from minor quarrels to screaming matches—he worked too late, she spent too much—but this one was different.
David knew what it was: the chance to set her free. To let her go. An awful, dull ache spread through him as he said things—cruel things—any and everything he could think of to push her away. A few of them were truths. Most of them were lies.
And then a horrible thing happened.
She went to slap him and he caught her wrist.
He hadn’t meant to hurt her. It was reflex, self-defense, a hand raised against a hand. But the moment his fingers met her skin, she screamed. He let go at once, but it was too late. The flesh had bubbled and burned, raised welts in the shape of his hand.
Samantha pulled away, horrified.
He tried to apologize, tried to explain, but he couldn’t make her understand. He didn’t understand.
She left right after, in the middle of the night, Jack and two suitcases in the car, David and his trauma left behind in the house.
Some days David told himself that if he found control—when he found control—he’d make it right. Piece that part of his life back together. But he knew he wouldn’t. No matter how good he got, it would never be good enough to embrace his wife, to hold his son.
The only papers in the house that he hadn’t burned were the divorce papers. He hadn’t signed them, not yet, but he would.
After tonight, he told himself.
It had been 293 days since he locked himself in.
Now, as David stood facing the front door, he checked himself—keys, wallet, phone—savoring the small measure of control he felt at confirming each thing, and the small comfort at delaying the vital moment a few seconds longer. Shoes. Pants. Shirt. Jacket. He’d showered and shaved—not that he hadn’t continued those rituals daily under his self-imposed seclusion; David had always been a creature of routine—and combed back his hair, which Jess had cut for him the week before.
He reached out and brought his fingers to rest on the handle—it remained cool beneath his touch—and turned. He stepped through. Closed the door. Locked it. Took one step, then another. David made it to the end of the drive, through the gate, up the quiet road. Every block he paused and asked himself if he wanted to turn back, or keep going.
He kept going.
The Lanes’ house sat only a mile or so from the city center, and as David walked, the street and path—both empty when he set out—began to fill. It happened quite suddenly, this populating of the world, and David soon found himself standing at an intersection crowded with people. His pulse quickened, and he hung back to let them cross while he composed himself, flexing his hands, reassuring himself that he was all right. A hedge decorated the corner behind him, and he plucked a leaf and held it in his palm. It didn’t burn. He dropped it with relief, and crossed the street.
As he did, David had the feeling he was being watched. He scanned the other corners and found a handful of people—an older woman, a pair of teen girls, a young man—but none of them were looking his way, and he shook it off; nearly a year without prying eyes was bound to make the world seem full of them.
He kept going.
David passed half a dozen shops, a handful of restaurants, a bar. At the last, his steps slowed.
McKillan’s read the sign over the doors. Samantha despised bars, couldn’t stand the noise and the smoke and the sticky floors.
David went in.
The world got smaller. The people got closer. He tried not to think about how easily the wooden shell of the place would burn as he made his way to the counter and climbed up onto the stool, lacing his fingers in front of him. He ordered a gin and tonic. And then another. And a third. He went to the bathroom. When he came back, a fresh drink was waiting at David’s stool. A beer.
“From the lady at the end,” said the bartender, pointing to the edge of the counter. “Said you looked like you could use it.”
David twisted in his seat to see the woman. She had red hair and redder lips, and the darkest brown eyes he’d ever seen. Everything about her seemed . . . warm. David hesitated. And then he took his drink, and went to join her.
Her name was Christa. She touched his arm when she talked, and he leaned into her heat. After the first beer, he’d forgotten about the crowded bar. After the second, he’d forgotten about the days—weeks, months—of meticulous planning. After the third, he’d forgotten about his fear, and his power.
By the time David left, he could barely see straight enough to read Christa’s number on the napkin. On the way out, he thought he recognized the young man in the corner booth. But he couldn’t place him.
He ambled down the sidewalk, feeling better than he had in 297 days. The bar had been loud, but in the relative quiet of the street, David heard his phone beep. He had a message. He tugged the cell gingerly from his pocket and pressed the button, holding it lightly to his ear as he walked.
“Hey Dave,” Jess’s voice said, “just your baby sister here. I hope you made it past the driveway. Don’t forget to check in. Love you. Be safe.”
When he put the phone away, and looked up, he realized his feet had carried him down a side street. He turned back and made his way toward the main road, and was halfway there when he snagged his shoe on a bit of alley debris and stumbled forward. Without thinking, he threw out his hand, and caught himself against a restaurant’s back door.
It only took a second. The surprise of the fall and the pain of the impact caught him off guard, and his control wavered. He pulled back as quickly as he could, but by then he’d singed a handprint into the wood.
Clumsy, growled David to himself as he straightened. He’d been doing so well.
He took another step toward the main road before he realized someone was standing in his way. The light in the alley was lower than that on the main street and at first the figure was nothing more than a fuzzy silhouette in David’s far-from-sober vision. And then the shape moved toward him, sharpening, and David frowned.
It was the young man from the corner booth. And the street corner, David realized. He was dressed in dark jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He barely looked old enough to drink.
“Can I help you, kid?” asked David.
The stranger continued toward him with slow, measured steps, and David found himself retreating, even as he said, “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
The young man reached the burned door, and stopped.
“The son of man,” he said softly, bringing his hand to the wood, “shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all that offend.” His hand fell away from the door. “And cast them into a furnace of fire.”
The stranger’s eyes glittered in the dark.
“What the hell are you talking about?” said David.
“David Lane,” said the stranger.
David’s blood ran cold. “How do you know my name?”
“You have sinned against God.”
“Who are you?”
A knife appeared in the stranger’s hand. “One of his angels.”
David stumbled backward several feet, but his shoulders fetched up against a trash bin, and before he could get away, the stranger was there. “Wait, please—”
He didn’t get the chance to finish. The knife slid between David’s ribs. Pain, bright and hot—hotter than anything he’d felt in 297 days—tore through him as his knees buckled.
He grasped at the stranger’s arm as he sank, tightening his fingers around the man’s sleeve. The fabric burned instantly, and the flesh beneath began to char, and the stranger gritted his teeth, but didn’t let go. David’s grip began to weaken, until his fingers finally slipped from the stranger’s arm. The knife slid free. Everything got quiet. Even the sound of his own body falling forward to the street seemed far away. He felt the cold then, not blistering as it had been beneath the snow, but steady, spreading through him as he lay there.
Warm up, he thought, but his hands rested uselessly against the pavement. Warm up, he willed, but only the cold was there to meet him. The cold and the quiet. They took hold and dragged him down, and the last thing David saw was the stranger crossing himself, the ruined flesh of his arm knitting back together.
And then the darkness came, and buried David Lane in a blanket of ash.
“Warm Up” copyright © 2013 by V.E. Schwab
Art copyright © 2013 by Victo Ngai