Then, about halfway through, it told me it was only the first in a chain. 'Winter People' was a series title, not a story title. I am not sure whether to be grateful I might be getting a publishable anthology in manageble story-sized bites, or wish it had been standalone so I could sell it under the clever title.
If you are confused about Christmas, know that here, the new year starts on the solstice, and that Christmas-proper starts there also, but all celebrations are/were normally held on Twelfth Night.
For a long time I thought Jess was the only one. For him it was biological. I was a regular type, and kept to my old school hibernation schedule - turn in mid-December, get up for good in early March. Most of the company did, although some people left at the beginning of December, and some stayed on until New Year's Eve. Oh, of course there were a few unlucky people in IT who had to cover the winter holday, but even then, we did it by halves - some worked through January and then got a late sleep, some turned in before Thanksgiving to get up for the February shift. Jess, however, covered both. He took his hibernation in June.
I found this out by accident, when I was collecting names for the company picnic. I asked if he was bringing anyone, and whether he wanted vegetarian or beef hot-dogs. He shook his head. "Not coming. Hibernation leave."
"What? You're kidding."
He shook his head. "Nope. June tenth to August twentieth. Got a special dispensation."
Jess is a big man, over six foot and heavyset, verging on overweight. If he had more body hair, he could have reasonably passed for a sasquatch. As it was he shaved everything but his scalp, and let that grow out to his shoulders. He wore sandals with socks with holes in the toes. I had to duck into the server room to see him, and there was a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'. If there had been a live leopard I would not have been surprised, but the only leopard turned out to be a little stuffed one sitting next to his monitor.
"So there really is some poor shmuck who has to work all winter," I muttered. "I'm sorry. Look, I'm new here, but HR might change their mind if enough noise gets made - "
He shook his head. "I asked for it," he said, with the tolerant smile of someone who's explained it a hundred times. "I have funny biology."
That fall we got to know each other fairly well, as it turned out we had the same lunch hour, and both liked Thai. I finally worked myself up to ask about his funny sleeping habits. He shrugged. "There's some name for the syndrome. I just can't hibernate properly in winter - my biological clock is six months off. It was hell in school," he added reflectively. "You still sleep to your school schedule?"
"Yeah. I stayed up for New Years back in college, my folks used to do a bash. But these days I like to get up early, get a few bulbs in the ground before I go back to work."
"Figures. I could never stand it. I spent summer semester a shambling zombie, and then in winter I used to have a special prescription to put me under. It didn't always work right. Two years in high school I just skipped it. Then I dropped out."
It shocked me, a little. I hadn't thought it was possible to skip hibernation without funny aftereffects; they always told me in health class that it was like missing sleep, but more so - it lasted all year. No wonder he'd dropped out. "What'd you do then? Community college?"
He shrugged. "Got my GED, did a bunch of temp jobs in the spring and fall. Did winter tech support for a hospital. It's easy to get, if you speak English. They love not having to fly someone up from Australia."
He had a house up in the West Hills, and I went over for lan parties four times. His friends were a mixed bunch - a fair number of computer people, but also two doctors, an electrician, and a guy who repaired sewer systems. There was even a girl who I thought was a middle-schooler, maybe someone's daughter, until she was introduced to me as Professor Michaels. She turned out to be thirty-eight, and taught biochemistry.
Jess introduced me as "a friend from work. Just here for the game.". Everyone nodded as if this were significant. I wound up leaving the first party at midnight; I was the only one. Obviously I wasn't quite one of Jess's inner circle. I wondered what they all had in common.
By next summer Jess and I were quite close friends. We'd unearthed a mutual high school Star Wars mania, and current interest in electric cars. That May my little sister moved out with some buddies from college. When I told Jess that my parents were making noises about selling the house and getting a vacation cottage, he wasn't surprised at all. "Why don't you rent my place this summer?"
"Didn't you have someone lined up?"
"Nah." He waved vaugely eastward. "I just grab some undergraduates. My last batch graduated. You won't make a mess of the place, I'm sure."
His house had a basement suite, which he used to hibernate in. The rest of the time it was a rec room. For two and a half months, the majority of the house was mine. I quite liked having a house to myself. I revived my old college habit of spending evenings in my underwear, and ate a lot of popsicles. It was an unusually hot summer. I found myself worrying about Jess, holed up in the not-rec-room. What were the odds of his getting heatstroke? Surely he would have said, if it were a possibility?
Finally I couldn't help myself and went downstairs to check.
He turned out to be lying on the pool table, wearing nothing but a slightly damp sheet. There was a fan going, and a Rube Goldberg gadget that put out sprays of water through the fan every so often. Other than that everything was still. He didn't have a monitor on. I almost whimpered when I noticed that. My father had a heart attack one February while I was in high school, and if he hadn't been wearing his monitor he would have died, and we wouldn't even have known until we woke up in March to find his body. Oh, he might have woken up in time, but he might not.
Still, I told myself Jess probably didn't have the right metabolism for a monitor.
I could barely see him breathing, but he was breathing, so I finally left him there and went back upstairs, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
He woke up early. This, he said, was typical for him. "You know, down near the equator, they only hibernate for a month or so. It's not as necessary, in the heat."
"Mmm. It's a cultural thing." He stretched; he actually had pretty good muscles, although they didn't show unless he was using them. I was envious. Then, he was half a foot taller than me, too. "Get close enough to the equator, and 'winter' is a matter of opinion. Most of those countries have two hibernation months, one in January and one in July. People pick what suits their biology, or coordinates with their relatives in Argentina, or is easier to keep up with trade. Companies never really shut down; they just go into holiday slumps and concentrate on one hemisphere or the other. A lot of the hibernation drugs, they come from equatorial plants. Equatorial ancestry - " he punctuated this by thumping the counter - "is really useful for switching months. You ever wonder why so many winter-shift doctors have South American names?"
"I havn't hung around with a lot of winter-shift doctors."
"S'true, though. The ones that don't fly up from Australia or South Africa or sommat, they're mostly immigrants, who don't mind staying up real late." He grinned. "You know, I used to think about moving to New Zealand, just so's I'd be normal." He took a long swig of his soda, then peered at the empty glass.
It was rare for him to get this talkative. "Why didn't you?"
"I talked to a girl who had. Painter. She said as soon as she moved, her clock switched too. She started sleeping in January. Couldn't help it. Didn't do her a bit of good, of coure, since she was in Australia." I poured him another glass, and he nodded gratefully. "Professor Michaels thinks it has to do with light; photosensitive cells in the skin. She thinks maybe I could sleep in January if I took the right drugs and I used one of those sunlamps on a timer, tricked my body. I don't care to, though."
"Why should I expend so much effort on being normal?" He shrugged. "Most people - you know, a lot of people could switch, if they cared to. That's why we don't have to import all the wintershift workers. That's why people can skip a winter for emergencies and not go mad. People are flexible. It's just that I'm not, and I've adapted."
I brooded on this for a long time that autumn. Somehow I never got around to finding my own place; Jess and I made comfortable enough roommates, and the house was really a little big for one - but then he kept having those parties. It was enough to make me wonder how he afforded it. Of course he was getting a double winter-shift bonus, but even so it was a big house with a nice view of the city, and he wasn't charging me a third what I'd expect the mortgage to be. I finally asked him about it, and he sheepishly said he had family money. His parents were well-to-do, and they felt bad about never getting him diagnosed, and him dropping out of high school and all, so when they finally stopped not speaking to him for dissapointing them, they helped him buy a gigantic house with a nice basement to hibernate in. It all worked out, because he could hold the lan parties.
The parties were nice, although now I was living there it struck me as more odd that I was the only one to duck out at midnight when the game wrapped up, even to go to bed. Jess waved me off eagerly enough. I felt like a novice being ushered out a secret society meeting. They were still talking at two in the morning sometimes.
Finally, at the beginning of December, I figured it out. This happened by accident. I woke up at two-thirty the night after a party desperately wanting a glass of milk, and threw on a bathrobe to go downstairs and get one. I could hear people chatting, and the noise of a car engine, and figured that things were breaking up. When I wandered down Jess and the electrician were snuggling on the sofa, and Professor Michaels was perched on the card-table with a champagne flute, chatting with them. She nodded politely at me as I paused in the entrance, then turned back to Jess. "So, same time next month?"
"Of course. Are you free the day before? I was hoping for some help setting things up."
I blinked a few times as I heard this, and finally turned back to listen. Next month was January. That couldn't be right.
Michaels chuckled. "Am I ever not free?" Her eyes flickered over to me. "Can we expect an extra guest?"
"Hey, there's an idea." He waved at me. "Feel like staying up this year? Next party's on the eighth of January. We could use a good orcish rouge."
I blinked a few times. I'd never even heard of somoene staying up past the second, except winter-shift workers covering January. Besides, I was already marked off for one more week of work only. "I, um. Won't it be a little small? Surely not everyone here's a January half-shifter - "
The electrician raised her head sleepily from Jess's chest. "Course not," she murmured. "Everyone'll be - Jess, you great lummox, are you saying your own roommate doesn't know about us?"
Jess suddenly looked very sheepish. "Ehheh, it hasn't come up."
The few remaining partygoers turned to look. I blinked, as a belated realization came upon me with the force of a small golden brick to the back of the skull. Computer people, who kept computers running so they could run the world while all the humans were out cold. Two doctors, who made sure the humans could get up again. An electrician, a sewer worker. Professor Michaels, who ...
Professor Michaels rolled her eyes and hopped off the table, abandoning her drink. "Go back to bed, dear. Yes, it's all of us. Jess will tell you everything in the morning. I'll help. I'm staying over."
By the time I managed to get up it was afternoon. Michaels had made breakfast.
I asked her how many people there were who stayed up all winter. She shrugged. "Maybe half a million, across the whole world. A hundred or so in Portland. There are probably more who should, but who force themselves to do it the normal way - use drugs, do funny things with sunlamps, stuff like that."
"Oh. So you all know each other? It must be a terrible syndrome to live with."
"It's not always the syndrome," Jess rumbled. He'd popped open a soda and was sitting with his legs propped up on the table; Michaels swung her legs like a little girl. "But most of us know each other, yeah."
"Who'd do something like that if they could help it?" I murmed, faintly horrified. "Surely the money's not that good."
"For some of us it's philosophical," Michaels said, calm and cold.
Jess shrugged. "Speak for yourself, Michaels. You don't hibernate at all. Surely that's a syndrome."
"There aren't enough of us to give it a name."
I blinked a few more times at this revelation. "I thought not hibernating did funny things to your brain if you kept it up."
Michaels shrugged. "Not in my case. I havn't hibernated since I was ten. Jess is right about it being a syndrome, though - my parents used to have to drug me under - my body just doesn't make the right chemicals for me to hibernate. I was so glad to give it up. You know how wonderful it is, to get up in the morning every morning all year? I can watch the seasons. The complete set of seasons. I can go out and do fieldwork all winter, and come back and analyze the data and spend summer getting it published." She sighed. "My point stands, though. Some of the people who stay up were quite normal winter hibernators as children. They just decided to switch, and they had the biology that could, if they gave it a few nudges. They wanted to see the snow, or don't like summer heat, or just wanted to be different."
Jess gave me a sideways look. "You might try it," he said softly. "I'd ... enjoy your company."
"What? Are you asking me to take off two months next summer? I'd - I can't do that! I don't have dispensation!"
He shook his head. "No. Just skip it this winter. One skip is safe even for normal people. See if you like it. Take a holiday. I'll teach you to sled."
He beamed. "A wonderful sport which can only be done in the dead of winter, when it snows. You grew up here, didn't you? Kids in New England get to do it in December before they turn in, but out here, you get one chance a winter. And nobody takes it because they're all asleep. You'll love it. Come on, give it a try. We'll have a whole city to ourselves."
It didn't take me long to decide. Jess gave me some pills one of his doctor friends had forged a prescription for, on the "weird folk stick together" principle, that were supposed to keep me from going under at the usual time. There were non-chemical ways to do the same, but this way was simpler. Sure enough, December passed without a twitch. The streets emptied out as people went down for the winter, and pretty soon there were just a few people staying up for New Year's.
We held a small New Year's party, and sat up to watch the last cars heading home from other parties, and arriving at their houses, and all the lights going out as they laid down with their monitors and their piles of blankets, to wait for spring.
The next evening the world was dead quiet, and you could look out of Jess's bedroom window at night and there wasn't a sea of lights anymore, just the outlines of the highways - they always left the streelights on - and the odd little building that stayed open, a hospital, or the house of a half-shifter who didn't board at their job, or a dry-goods store. One of the problems with staying up all winter was that you couldn't get fresh produce, and food at all was horribly expensive. Jess, anticipating this, had stocked up on canned food in December. I was already getting very sick of bean soup.
"Ironic," he told me, "that they're all turned in now. The days are getting longer. If it were really a matter of the light, it would be December and January that were the national holidays, not January and February."
"Well, it's a matter of climate as well," I said weakly. "December used to be a holiday, back in the Middle Ages."
He chuckled. "Yes, and people used to get up for Christmas. Can you imagine that? They'd wake up and go attend church and have a good meal and then go right back to hibernation for two months."
"Yeah, and who have you ever met who celebrates Christmas anymore?"
"Well, some people do it at the end of December. No worse than New Years." He chuckled, and turned a page of his book. "I should have been at the office two hours ago."
"Go in. I can amuse myself here."
He patted his pager. "If anything desperate happens, it'll ring me. I can make up the time."
He had a quite deliciously casual attitide toward getting to work on time in the winter. I, of course, didn't have to work at all. Hibernation leave. I went in with him anyway, to keep company. Occasionally we'd see one of the half-shifters coming in or out, usually looking quite bleary. They exchanged nods.
Jess always kept a radio on in the server room - the government weather station. I wondered why. I'd met one of the announcers at his January party, although she wasn't a regular. She got to pretty puch play whatever she wanted between bulletins, and right now was going through the Complete Works of Pachelbel. In the middle of the the fourth variation on Canon in D, I found out why he kept the radio. It cut off, there was a buzz, and her voice came on, sounding calm and serene despite the fact she was announcing a Weather Emergency. Apparently there could be a blizzard coming in from the northeast within the hour. Listeners were advised to be careful while driving, not go out unless necessary, and be sure they had plenty of food and wat-
Jess clicked it off. "Come on, let's go home."
"What? But it's not even noon yet."
"Tough. This place has generators. When the blizzard hits I intend to be curled up in bed with a mug of tea. We can go sledding tomorrow."
The blizzard did indeed hit that afternoon. There was snow piling up against the windows and even when the windows were clear you couldn't see the sun; nothing but grey and white everywhere. I had bean soup for dinner and went to bed early.
The next morning the city was like a postcard of Alaska.
Jess had gotten up before I had, and dragged something out the garage that was like a pice of board propped on extra-long ice-skates. "This," he told me proudly, "is my sled. I ordered it by phone. The operator was utterly flabbergsted somebody wanted a sled shipped to Oregon. Come on, let's hit Taylors Ferry. There is nothing quite like Taylors - oh, I forget, you're new, aren't you? Well, maybe something smaller."
I knew the section of Taylors Ferry he had in mind. In summer, driving down it involved riding the brakes for most of a mile. Sledding down it was likely to give me a heart attack, broken leg, or both. We went to a cul-de-sac near his house and set up the sled near the top. He took the front, and I sat behind him and sort of hung onto his waist harder than I probably should have, and he reached out and shoved off.
Sledding is an incredible adrenaline rush. I didn't even realize I was yelling until we skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
We did the culdesac run five times, and then we did go over to Taylors Ferry. I don't know how fast the sled was going when we hit the bottom, but it took us a quarter-mile to stop. When we did we sort of tumbled off in a heap on top of each other, whooping madly. I would have said something terribly sappy if I hadn't been breathing too hard to do anything but laugh.
After a while I managed to catch my breath and sit up, and Jess dusted himself off and righted the sled. He sat down on it and looked at me sideways. I could hear the powerlines humming, but that was the only noise - no cars, no people talking, no distant machinery. I'd heard this sort of quiet before, way out in the woods, going meteor-watching. It was funny to hear it in the middle of the city, but it made me feel like I was in a church, which was funny because I hadn't gone to church in years, and I hadn't felt like this in a church for a long time before this.
The sun reflected off the snow everywhere, and I hadn't known it could get this bright in winter. Winter had always meant dark to me, but here and now the sky was blue and the whole earth was white. I think in the back of my mind I knew right then, even though I didn't think it aloud for weeks.
"Well?" Jess said after a long while. "What do you think?"
"I want to do that again," I told him. He grinned and took my hand, and we stood up and took the sled to start the long walk back up the hill.
That summer I gave notice in May and took some pills to induce hibernation. I found a temp job for the fall, and that winter I did tech support for a hospital. It was easy to get, since I spoke good English. They were grateful not to have to fly someone up from Australia.