by Frederik Pohl:
Mooney looked out of his window, and the sky was white.
It was a sudden, bright, cold flare and it was gone again. It had no more features than a fog, at least not through the window that was showered with snow and patterned with spray from the windy sea.
Mooney blew on his hands and frowned at the window.
“Son of a gun,” he said, and thought for a moment about phoning the Coast Guard station. Of course, that meant going a quarter of a mile in the storm to reach the only other house nearby that was occupied; the Hansons had a phone that worked, but a quarter of a mile was a long way in the face of a December gale. And it was all dark out there now. Less than twenty miles across the bay was New York, but this Jersey shore coast was harsh as the face of the Moon.
Mooney decided it was none of his business.
He shook the kettle, holding it with an old dish towel because it was sizzling hot. It was nearly empty, so he filled it again and put it back on the stove. He had all four top burners and the oven going, which made the kitchen tolerably warm—as long as he wore the scarf and the heavy quilted jacket and kept his hands in his pockets. And there was plenty of tea.
Uncle Lester had left that much behind him—plenty of tea, nearly a dozen boxes of assorted cookies and a few odds and ends of canned goods. And God’s own quantity of sugar.
It wasn’t exactly a balanced diet, but Mooney had lived on it for three weeks now—smoked turkey sausages for breakfast, and oatmeal cookies for lunch, and canned black olives for dinner. And always plenty of tea.
The wind screamed at him as he poured the dregs of his last cup of tea into the sink and spooned sugar into the cup for the next one. It was, he calculated, close to midnight. If the damn wind hadn’t blown down the TV antenna, he could be watching the late movies now. It helped to pass the time; the last movie was off the air at two or three o’clock, and then he could go to bed and, with any luck, sleep till past noon.
And Uncle Lester had left a couple of decks of sticky, child-handled cards behind him, too, when the family went back to the city at the end of the summer. So what with four kinds of solitaire, and solo bridge, and television, and a few more naps, Mooney could get through to the next two or three A.M. again. If only the wind hadn’t blown down the antenna!
But as it was, all he could get on the cheap little set his uncle had left behind was a faint gray herringbone pattern—
He straightened up with the kettle in his hand, listening.
It was almost as though somebody was knocking at the door.
“That’s crazy,” Mooney said out loud after a moment. He poured the water over the tea bag, tearing a little corner off the paper tag on the end of the string to mark the fact that this was the second cup he had made with the bag. He had found he could get three cups out of a single bag, but even loaded with sugar, the fourth cup was no longer very good. Still, he had carefully saved all the used, dried-out bags against the difficult future day when even the tea would be gone.
That was going to be one bad day for Howard Mooney.
Rap, tap. It really was someone at the door! Not knocking, exactly, but either kicking at it or striking it with a stick.
Mooney pulled his jacket tight around him and walked out into the frigid living room, not quite so frigid as his heart.
“Damn!” he said. “Damn, damn!”
What Mooney knew for sure was that nothing good could be coming in that door for him. It might be a policeman from Sea Bright, wondering about the light in the house; it might be a member of his uncle’s family. It was even possible that one of the stockholders who had put up the money for that unfortunate venture into frozen-food club management had tracked him down as far as the Jersey shore. It could be almost anything or anybody, but it couldn’t be good.
All the same, Mooney hadn’t expected it to turn out to be a tall, lean man with angry pale eyes, wearing a silvery sort of leotard.