Snow filled the air with white butterflies and they cinched the scarves around their necks. Sylvie’s pale cheeks shivered. Emmett was sure the fortuneteller’s house wasn’t much farther, though. They just needed to keep moving. To help Sylvie through a plump drift, Emmett reached for her wrist and felt the cold bubble of the scar under his thumb. He snatched his hand back and she tightened her face, but didn’t say anything. Emmett was thankful that she wasn’t blaming him for running out of gas. Not yet, anyway. As they raised each leg out of the snow, wind drove pain through their wet, skin-sticky pants. Their boots crunched deep with each step. Underneath all the snow, the ground was black and cold, unyielding to their prints. A small whimper curled from Sylvie’s throat.
Finally, they reached the top of the hill. Flakes swirled. Tall shapes ahead. Perhaps trees. A light? With the air so swampy with snow, it was hard to tell. “I think that’s the house,” Emmett said, pointing at the light.
He turned toward Sylvie. White face. Teeth chattering. A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek. He reached up and thumbed it away. It was good they were sweating from the walk up the hill, he told her. The exertion would keep them warm. At least he was willing to try something.
“My feet hurt,” Sylvie said.
“We need to keep moving.”
Neither of them moved right away though. It was a steep hill and they were tired. Before the car ran out of gas, the radio weatherman from Templeton had said thirty below. Stay inside, the radio told them. But Emmett had been insistent, standing in the doorway breathing hard. The fortuneteller can change your life, Emmett had said. Everyone knows that. Snow landed lightly on their eyelashes and splattered into water when they blinked. The fortuneteller was old and wise, with one green eye, one blue, both gelid and wobbly in their sockets. Her skin was pitted with such deep wrinkles, a penny could stand in the lines. She’ll tell us what to do, Emmett had said, holding Sylvie’s fingers till they turned red.
They both shook violently. “We need to keep moving,” Emmett said. The trek down the hill was more difficult, however. Their arms and legs had stiffened with cold and they walked like puppets lurched into motion.
Then Sylvie fell. One minute she was trudging behind Emmett, chest heaving with dry sobs, a sound he’d heard so often it no longer registered, and the next she was in front of him, rolling down the hill, kicking up white flares of snow. Emmett watched her tumble down the hill. Several breaths later, he moved. He tried to run, but the snow was clinging and deep and everywhere he wanted to go. Emmett stumbled forward and snow shocked his face. He caught himself before lurching into his own tumble and angled down with more caution.
Sylvie had left a snarled track in the snow that was already filling. Emmett passed her hat then one of her boots. He found her in a heap where the ground began to level out. He called to her but she didn’t answer. She was a dark bundle of clothes on the snow, already dusting over. He kneeled and pulled her to a sitting position. Snow came away, stuck to her face. There was blood on the snow. Must have been a rock or something when she hit.
Emmett called Sylvie’s name and her pupils narrowed into focus. A smile thin as a black twig. “I need to go pee,” she said. “I have to pee really bad.”
He thumbed blood and snow off her cheek. He blew on her hands and kneeled in front of her, pulling out the lighter that he’d brought. The flame sprouted from the lighter and the wind snatched it away. Emmett angled his body to better block the wind and held the lighter close to his chest, cupped in his palm. He rasped the wheel again and again. The flame sputtered, blew out, and finally caught. He wrapped himself around the furious orange tongue and told Sylvie to lean into him, to share the heat between them.
“I just peed my pants,” she said.
He looked up at that and the slight shifting allowed the wind to snatch the flame away. Perhaps they should turn back. Emmett wasn’t sure they could climb the hill again, though. Sylvie hadn’t shown any interest in food for the past few days. She was weak. God, she’d always been weak. Emmett told her the house was just beyond the trees and they needed to get up and keep moving. It was important to keep moving. How long had they been out here? Emmett jerked Sylvie up and she followed, one bare foot turning a slow shade of mouse in the snow.
Why did they need to see a fortuneteller anyway? What’s going to happen will happen or not. None of it made sense. Three things make sense, Emmett’s father had once told him. Baseball stitches, bullet casings, and paying your debt. Emmett imagined his hands under the gloves would thicken into his father’s in another decade and there was no way to stop that. The wind whipped up a froth of snow and flung it all about them. Sylvie fell to the ground again and took him down with her. Flakes fluttered. It wouldn’t be bad to rest, would it? Resting was good. It had been a long walk. The wind moaned. How long had they been walking? Where were they going? The fortuneteller, yes, to get some answers. Where the old woman felt the bumps on your head and traced the lines on your palm and told you things could be different. Snow thickened on Emmett’s cheeks. The right side of Sylvie’s face was in the snow. The cut was not bleeding any more, but wherever she lay, she lay in blood. The light was not much farther. The trees were near. If they could only reach the trees, the limbs would block some of the falling snow and they’d be able to see better and get their bearings. That’s what Emmett’s father had told him in the hospital, that Sylvie just needed to get her bearings. Emmett thought about moving but he was so tired. How long till dark? He needed to pee. Burning down there. He went ahead and let it go but the warmth was fleeting. Snow swirled above him. Sylvie was quiet, no longer crying, just sitting while snow softly padded her face. Emmett saw the scar poking out from under her cuff, thought about her white limbs in that bathtub of red water, how she hadn’t cared enough to stop. Snow fattened the air. A person couldn’t just be sad. There needed to be a reason, didn’t there? The flakes tumbled and whipped, disappeared into the white ground. Where the snow landed on his cheeks, it formed a white crust. Then he saw the house. There it was! Right there! The yellow gauze of a porchlight. His hands like numb animals against a tree’s rough bark. The fortuneteller’s house opened and the old woman hustled him in, sat him next to a snapping fire. A cup steamed between his palms. Warmth began to orangely seep. It wouldn’t matter what the fortune was anyway. Knowing something couldn’t keep it from happening. Sylvie had told him the day before that she’d had enough, had too much. Just keep going, Emmett had told her. You don’t have a choice. His fingers and toes began to tingle as hot blood surged through them. He started to glow. Was that a spark jumping from his palm? Suddenly his hand erupted into flames. Flames spread up his arm, raged across his belly and chest. He rolled and ripped off his coat and shirt. It was hot! He was burning up! He gathered palmfuls of snow and rubbed them over his naked chest and shoulders. He stood and ran, stumbling through the snow toward the black trees and the yellow light. The limbs scratched at him. The trunks loomed tall as fathers. Emmett left Sylvie sitting, turning into a white mound. The thick congestion of snow thinned under the trees and he ran, his arms and chest on fire. He burst from the trees into blinding whiteness and air rich with white butterflies. The fortuneteller’s house was just ahead. He had gone in the right direction. It was there. It must be right there.
Photo by harold.lloyd on flickr
© 2012 Brad Green. All rights reserved.