snow

It's gotten cold out.

You don't expect your life to change on an unremarkable December night. The wind is blowing straight through to your bones, chilling you so thoroughly you feel like a thing of ice—blue and slow-moving, squinting through the snowflakes flurrying across your wake. You don't know where you are, and all hopes of finding a public restaurant, some public venue open at this late hour, have long since left you. You shouldn't have fought with him. You most certainly shouldn't have flung open the door and run out into the early evening. The temperature has dropped drastically, though your pride has cooled not at all. You won't return home. You are alone and near-frozen. And now you have lost yourself on a street that looks as though it fell into disuse a century ago.

Only a few streetlights are working here; the odd straggling post gives off a flickering amber light that does little to cut through the falling snow. There are houses, or something like them, but most are barred or have condemned signs on them. Those are not for you. There is rubble all around, lying ghostly and indistinct under a blanket of white. Your feet kick over gray ashes into the untouched snow with every step. Before you have gone far, the silence presses around you. It is thick and impenetrable. You want to turn back, but your direction is unclear; no footsteps betray your path. You feel like a ghost, and shiver.

Freezing is rapidly becoming a real threat. There is no one in sight. No lights in the squat houses. You don't know what it is that draws your attention to the right a few steps further. There is another house—no signs of life to have caught your eye, though there are thick dark curtains in the window. You hesitate, and then walk up to the door in a trance.

The door knob gives under your hand and you step in. It is not warm, but in here there is no wind, and your fingers begin to tingle. You take a few steps further and look to the side.

There is a room there. It is dark and you cannot see, but soon your eyes begin to adjust. Where is it? You know you are looking for something, though you don't know what, or why, or even how it is you knew to come here for it. There isn't much furniture. Your eyes sweep the heavy window curtains, the chairs and their curious iron chains, and a recollection taps at your mind once—twice. You know this and yet you don't know what's happening.

And then you see her.

She is lying on the floor, almost beneath the drapes. She isn't moving, isn't breathing. And yet you know she isn't dead. You know she is your destination, the thing you seek. You step closer and push back the curtains, unleashing a thick cloud of dust that filters down onto her lovely face. She is already covered in it. How long since she last moved?

Outside, the moon has shown itself at last. You notice suddenly that she is holding something tight in her dusty arms, and with a benevolent smile you look to see what she has clung to for all this time. The spell breaks as you realize. The gray skull grins up at you. It mocks the scream that burbles up in your throat as you leap away. He sees. The thought flashes frantically through your mind, and nausea rises up strong in your throat. He? Who is he?

But she is moving now. If the skeleton she holds has broken your spell, your scream has broken hers, and she is blinking open wide blue eyes, fixating them on you with such love and trust that you could cry. The sickness recedes. Instead you are left with an overwhelming need to nurture and protect. Serve.

"You've come," she breathes. When she sits up the bones clatter on the floor, and another storm of dust cyclones through the air around her. "I've waited so long." Her voice has become reproachful. You are beside yourself. You are beside her, on your knees.

"I'm so sorry." You've kept her waiting. You could pluck out your own eyes. Waiting? No. How long have you known—?

"I will forgive you." Her voice is so tiny and sweet. You forget. You start touching her. Brushing the dust from her, as much as you can, forcing aside the need to sneeze as you ever-so-gently wipe her cheeks and shake the filth from her golden hair. "But you must help me."

"Of course," you say. "Of course."

Her thin white arms stretch up to encircle your neck. She is smiling against your neck, you can feel it; on the floor the skeleton grins, vacant and knowing.

"I've waited so long," she says in her wispy little girl voice.

You hold her tightly, carefully. "You'll never wait again." Your promise comes from within every cell, every pore you have. She looks at the bones on the floor and a tiny giggle balances precariously on the weighted air.

"No," she whispers. "I won't."