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Today's Story by M.E. Garber

Father Frost was waiting for her, by the frog-pond. The little girl had said so.

Frost Patterns

“Here, Grandma, read this one.” Helen’s grandson Seth piped the words clearly, the way only a three-year old can.

Helen took the book and settled deeper into the sofa. Her arthritic fingers traced over the embossed fairy’s wings on the thick cover. The gold leaf was flaking away from the title, but she read it aloud: Fairy Tales of the World. Helen remembered reading this very book to her own children, so many years ago. She looked at Seth as he curled up on her left side, then at two-year old Alexis cuddled into her right. Her son’s children. Jeremy’s children. And Emily, his wife’s, too.

Helen looked up, saw Emily in the doorway, watching her with concern. Helen smiled, then opened the musty book to a well-marked page. “Here is one of my favorite stories, Alexis. But you knew that, didn’t you?” Alexis nodded, not lifting her head from the beautiful drawing of Father Frost and the good daughter in the forest. “Let me read it to you.”

Helen read the old Russian tale of the evil stepmother who hated her stepdaughter and had the girl taken out to the woods to die. But Father Frost found her to be a polite, well-mannered child, so he gave her a trunk full of warm clothes and jewels, and returned her home. The stepmother insisted her own daughter be taken to the exact same spot, so her husband complied. But Father Frost discovered she was a spoiled and inconsiderate girl, so he froze her to death on the spot. The evil mother wept as she buried her true daughter and wed off her stepdaughter to a rich man’s son.

“But why, Grandma, why did she die?” The little girl at her side nudged closer still.

“Because she was not nice, remember? She was very rude to Father Frost. One should never be rude, especially to Father Frost in his home. You should always be very nice to a person in his own home, shouldn’t you? That’s the burden of politeness.” Alexis nodded, and Seth too.

“Yeah,” Seth said. “You gotta be nice to people when you visit them or they can kick you out. Like when Robbie bit Jackson’s arm and Robbie had to leave the party.”

Helen looked blankly at the boy. Who was he talking about?

“OK, kids. Bedtime!” Jeremy called from the doorway. The children groaned, then gave Helen long, fierce hugs. She hugged them back, the beautiful children. Her beautiful son.

They were good to her, taking her in. Especially since she had memory troubles sometimes. Some days were worse than others. Today had been good. Helen smiled.

Then she bit her lip. Had she eaten dinner? She couldn’t remember. No one was around. Voices came from upstairs, where the children were being put to bed. Helen climbed to her feet and shuffled into the kitchen. The refrigerator hummed briskly as she opened the door. She liked the song, started humming along with it. She drank sweet orange juice and gulped down three cupcakes, happily licking her fingers after each one.

The light flashed on overhead. The fourth cupcake dropped from her nerveless fingers.

“Helen!” The sharp voice made her spin around defensively. “Why are you eating those cupcakes? Those are for Seth’s party tomorrow.” A thin blond woman stood in the doorway, hand on the light switch, staring at her accusingly. Helen knew she recognized the woman, but she couldn’t put a name to the face. It frustrated her. Frustration made her angry.

As the woman came to shut the refrigerator door, Helen slapped at her. Why was this woman persecuting her? Why starve her, then shoo her away from food and keep things from her? Like her name. It wasn’t fair. Not nice at all. Slap, slap, slap.

“Mom! Mom, stop it.” Firm hands grasped her arms, pulled her close to warm shoulders. The smell was familiar and comforting. She stopped fighting, stopped being afraid. Helen looked up to find her Jeremy holding her tight.

“Jeremy.” She smiled. “You are a good boy.”

“Yes, Mom. But come on, let’s get you to bed. It’s getting late, you know?” Helen let herself be guided to her room by her big son. So much like Ray, he was. And where was her husband, anyway? She asked Jeremy.

“He’s … he’s not here right now, Mom. You’ll see him later, I’m sure.”


The doctor’s office had been scary. Helen frowned, remembering the sharp hospital smell and the false smiles on so many strange faces. It was so overwhelming. Helen hated going there, hated feeling so inadequate and lost. Frustration and rage always lurked in the corners, ready to jump out whenever they could, and the doctor’s office just made it so easy for those nasty feelings to take her over.

But now things were better, she reminded herself. They were home, and it was warm. The children, her children … no, her GRANDchildren, she forced herself to recall … were curled up next to her, watching the TV. They had a movie on. Fantasia. Hippos and alligators danced in tutus. They’d already seen her favorite part, the frost fairies touching the water, freezing it, and skating across it, making beautiful frost patterns. Those fairies captivated Helen. They were so lovely, and the beauty they made! Frost disappeared all too quickly, and the patterns were hard to see anyway. But there it was, for everyone to see in the movie. Every snowflake was different, she knew. So how many fairies did it take to make a snowstorm? Or did Father Frost oversee the whole thing? Father Frost with his riches was their king. Wasn’t he?

Helen wrinkled her brow, confused. Jeremy would know. Or Ray. Her husband had studied snow, and the weather. That’s why she loved it so much now. It reminded her of him. Of their good days together, he a scientist, she an artist drawing fairies. Frost fairies were always her favorites.

She stood, no longer caring about the marching broomsticks and Mickey Mouse in an ill-fitting robe. She’d ask Ray about the frost. He’d be in the kitchen. Shuffling quietly to not disturb the children, Helen went through the dining room to the door. The kitchen light was on.

There were people there!

She stood just outside, looking in with a hand on the wall for balance. She knew she should recall something about all this, about these people. They were familiar, but she couldn’t place them. Don’t think about it! Don’t let the anger out!

Helen concentrated. The people were talking. She listened.

“You know we have to sooner or later, Jer,” the woman said.

Jeremy! That was the man. That was her son’s name. That man was her son. Dizzy relief washed through Helen. She recognized them after all! She wasn’t lost. And the woman. That was his wife. What was her name? Helen frowned, but didn’t let it pull her down into the waiting maelstrom. The voices drew her attention once more.

“I know. I know! But she’s my Mom, Em. It’s hard, you know? We’re all she’s got left now that Dad’s gone.”

“Yes, but you’re all the kids and I have, too. Right now, it’s teetering on the brink. Sometimes she’s here, but more and more, she’s gone. She’s becoming a danger not only to herself, but to us. This morning she left the front door wide open again. What if someone had come in? What if Alexis had wandered out into the street? And what happens when your mom leaves the burner on again and no one catches it?”

They were talking about her! Helen wanted to deny the things Emily said, but it was important. It took her strongest effort, but she thought about those accusations. Helen knew her brain was not quite right anymore. The Alzheimer’s. It’s why she had to live with her son and daughter-in-law instead of in her own house with its wonderful painting studio. She missed her painting, but she right knew it was for the best. Her painting days were over, really, and she was lucky to have such loving family to take her in. She knew this, and did her best.

Her brow crinkled in concentration. At her home, she’d always left the front door open, letting breezes waft through and freshen the house. She lived outside town, on a quiet road. It was no problem there. But here? She shook her head.

The burner? Thoughts slid like eels across the surface of her mind. She caught flashes and images. Nothing connected, but she began to see a pattern, like teasing a fairy’s profile out of the ice and snow in her illustrations. She recalled being hungry, putting a pan on the burner, then opening the fridge for butter and finding a half-eaten ham sandwich. She’d eaten that and….

Her hand slid down the wall and landed at her thigh with a thump. “Oh!” I could’ve burned down the house. The thought seared through her, and clarity struck Helen:  she was not an easy houseguest. She needed to repay their goodness somehow.


Helen pulled her thoughts from the misery swirling behind her eyelids. Jeremy stood before her, concern in his blue eyes. So much like Ray. Fire swept over her memories, ravaging her thoughts. What she was doing here? She didn’t remember … didn’t remember …. What didn’t she remember?

Tears tracked down Helen’s cheeks, wetting her chin. She let Jeremy and … and Emily … return her to the living room. They sat her down her in her rocking chair, the one from her house that cosseted her like a babe in a sling. Confusion churned in her mind. Images danced on the television. She turned to them, seeking peace. Instead she found a troubled mouse in long robes and too many mops.

“No.” She waved her hands at the screen.

“No, what, Mom? What’s wrong?”

“No … no mops. Fairies. Frost fairies!” The mops were scary and bad. She didn’t want bad. She was not bad. She wasn’t! She began to jiggle herself, up and down, trying to stay calm. It was so hard, when her brain was telling her she was bad. There it was again, that word, that thought. Bad. She began to moan under her breath.

“Let her see her fairies, Jer. If it keeps her calm, let her watch them.”

There was a jumble of static, too long, too noisy. Helen flinched, rocking in anxiety. Then she heard the music. Soft and enchanting. Dancing music. And the fairies danced to it, making frost patterns in the water, freezing the world into gentle, beautiful sleep. All the fire was gone; only fairy-frost remained. Helen smiled and watched, transfixed.


Bright light streamed in the window by the sink and fell onto the breakfast table where Helen sat, drinking orange juice. She blinked, tearing at the sunlight and reveling in the tart sweetness of the juice lingering on her tongue. Only Emily was there, and Emily’s back was turned as she cleaned the counters. The kids must’ve left for school.

“How long did I miss this time?” Helen surprised herself by speaking her question aloud.

Emily’s shoulders jerked upright. She turned and looked at Helen with a wary expression that melted into real warmth.

“No matter that. Welcome, Helen. We’ve missed you.”

Helen smiled back at her daughter-in-law, but her eyes didn’t miss the dark shadows ringing her eyes, the strain-lines edging her mouth and the deepening creases on her forehead. She knew she was responsible for them. Or most of them. The knowledge pulled Helen down from the heights the sunlight and orange juice had lifted her to.

“I’ve missed me, too.” Helen laughed at Emily’s surprised expression, then Emily joined in. After a moment, Helen turned serious. “I’ve missed you, Emily. Jer and the kids, too. And I’m sorry … for everything. I want to repay you.” The clouds were rolling in, the emotions growing too strong. Tears stung her eyes, adding to her misery, to her fight against the world.

A soft touch; Emily’s hand brushed hers, pressing gently. It held the chaos at bay. Helen looked up, fear and appreciation warring inside her.

“Don’t worry, Helen. It’s alright,” Emily said. Her eyes, so sincere, shone with sadness and love, though shadows hovered in the background.

Helen gulped, gave a watery smile, and nodded. “Just, thanks.” She patted Emily’s hand with her free one, the way she’d patted little Jeremy’s hand so often. And her mind began to wonder where her little son had gone off to now.


A blast of cold air and a sudden tumble of laughter and voices filled the kitchen. A little girl with ruby-red cheeks barreled into Helen and wrapped her short arms around Helen’s waist. Her furry puppy hat tickled Helen’s arm.

“Grandma!  Grandma! We saw snow falling and the frost fairies’ work on the frog-pond in the woods!”

“Yeah,” chimed in a boy, equally napped by cold as he pulled off his blue hat. “It was cool! The snow was freezing the water all slushy, right as we watched!”

The words sent a helter-skelter stream of images and associations careening through her brain. Helen latched onto the word snow. It meant winter, and cold. Frost. ”Jack Frost, Father Frost, frost fairies.” The words popped out of her mouth the way they’d popped into her brain, without her being aware of how it happened.

The boy laughed, a loud, braying sound. “No, grandma. Fairies aren’t real! They’re just pretend.”
Helen stopped in her tracks. “Not real?” She recalled hours spent detailing dresses fashioned of ice and snow, and hours more getting just the right expression, the right color for the skin, the wings, the texture of the spun-ice hair. “I’ve seen them.” She lifted her chin.

He started to say something, but his father shushed him. They all moved into the living room. The boy slumped down onto the couch, arms crossed in petulant fury. Helen sat precisely in her rocking chair, feeling like a queen. “I wanna watch frost fairies,” she said in a voice that dared contradiction.

The boy groaned, his little sister followed his lead, but the father shushed them both and Helen got to see the frost fairies dance the stream and pond into winter. She didn’t notice their grumbling throughout the three repetitions of the segment that she demanded. She saw only the frost fairies, while her mind saw the girl’s rubies and wanted some for herself.


Helen woke. It was dark. She got up. Father Frost was waiting for her, by the frog-pond. The little girl had said so. He’d given the girl rubies and a fur hat. And Helen needed that treasure to repay…repay someone.

She slipped into the kitchen. Food. She needed to eat!

She opened the cold-machine. A yellow rectangle sat there, tantalizing. Food. Helen lifted it and took a bite, then spat it on the floor. Bleghhh! She wiped the greasy goo from her tongue.

Out the window, moonlight spilled on freshly fallen snow. It glittered like a dream, like fairy-dust. Fairies! Helen squinted hard, looking for them. If only she could see them once more. If only she could. She’d find Father Frost and be polite to him, and he would give her treasure to pay Jeremy. She wanted to be a good guest.

Helen stumbled towards the door. It was locked. She fought with it, but it was no good. The moonlight was leaving now, the clouds covering it over. In her desperation Helen accessed a deeper part of her brain. The lock opened under her gnarled hand, and she hurried outside, eager to find the frost fairies, Father Frost and her salvation.

Cold air filled her lungs. Not noticing the wet seeping into her slippers, she marched directly towards the small woods at the rear of the property. The drainage ravine cut through there, and a pool formed when the waters ran deep. It was the frog-pond the ruby-laden girl had mentioned. The snow was already ankle-high, but Helen was intent on her goal. Nothing else mattered.

Snow began to fall heavily as she made the shelter of the copse. She slid down the rocky embankment, too eager to slow down until she tumbled. The fall scared her. Her breath kicked out as she tumbled to a halt at the bottom.

Helen lifted her head. Snowflakes cascaded around her, winging her thoughts back to Father Frost.

I will find Father Frost tonight. I’ll surprise him at his work. He’d be delighted to see me. I’ll be polite, unlike the nasty daughter, and he’ll reward me. Then I can repay my burden. Helen struggled to her feet and stumbled through the entangling undergrowth towards the pond.
Snow swirled over its surface as winds tickled through the ravine. The pool was thick with slush just turning solid. It looked like someone had just left. Probably startled by my appearance. Helen’s shoulders drooped. She’d have to hide now and wait until they came back. They would come back. She knew it.

On the other side of the water, a tiny streamlet trickled into the lower basin, creating a high, crisp tinkle. Beside it, a honeysuckle bush over-arched the pool, while above a small elm clutched tightly to its withered brown leaves. It would be a good place to hide. Slowly, very slowly, Helen edged around the pool and under the honeysuckle branches. She crouched down, then sat heavily, prepared to wait all night if she had to.


Helen blinked. Cold. Her whole being was cold. Snowflakes no longer melted on her eyelashes, but clung there like heavy dew. She smiled. Of course, one would have to be cold to visit Father Frost. He made the cold. He made it beautiful.Dawn pinked the sky and light crept into the ravine. The pool was almost frozen over now. The Frost Fairies had come, touching their magic onto pool and leaf, and even onto Helen herself. Her hands were so white. Like alabaster. Beautiful. She imagined her face must be the same. She couldn’t feel her hands anymore, or her feet. First the cold, then the searing heat, and now, nothing. Helen didn’t complain. Strangely enough, her thoughts became clearer with the cold. Slow, but lucid. For the first time in a long while, Helen felt like herself. Memory surfaced, and a tear glided down her cheek, gradually freezing. Impossibly distant, a voice called out. Again and again. A light flashed through the air, and a siren cut the hush with its sharp scream. These did not intrude on Helen’s mind. Instead, a deep voice called out to her, and her being quivered. Though she’d never heard it before, she knew the voice of Father Frost.

“Are you comfortable, Helen?”

“Oh, yes, very.” It was so hard to move her lips, to form words. But somehow Helen managed the lie.

Seconds became like hours, and more feeling receded from Helen. Warmth filled her mind, and her thoughts relaxed in the honeyed ease. The voice came again. “Are you sure you are comfortable? Wouldn’t you rather be home?”

Another tear joined the first. Home. Her sorrow welled up and out of her.

“No. I…haven’t been a good daughter, Father Frost. I’ve become…difficult.” She choked on the whispered words and fell silent, remembering. Seeing clearly what she’d become.

“I know, Helen. And you know the payment, then?”

It was fair. In truth, Helen welcomed death. It would be her treasure, to escape what she’d become.

She nodded, or would have if she could’ve moved. But she flashed hot, and a final shudder passed from her core outwards. Then, she was still. Her last thought was of Father Frost, and how his voice sounded so much like Ray’s.

Helen’s spirit hovered a moment over her abandoned body, the fuchsia robe like a beacon in the snow. Sunlight winked on the diamond frozen on her cheek—treasure from Father Frost. She watched with a detached sorrow as two officers skidded after Jeremy to the place where her body lay, traced over with the most delicate patterns. Beautiful, cold treasure. She only hoped they could appreciate such beauty.


M.E. Garber grew up with hobbits, elves and dragons, so it’s no wonder that she now enjoys writing strange things. She lives in Ohio with her husband where, in addition to writing, she enjoys gardening, cooking, travel and eating chocolate. You can find her blog at:  http://megarber.wordpress.com


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