The outside was cold and itchy. I got out of the stuffy van, and hundreds of tiny icy needles immediately pierced my whole body. I shook that feeling off and took a deep breath. “Let the cold get inside you,” my mom used to say. “And you won’’t be cold anymore” I closed my eyes and tried to relax the strained muscles. The cold started to crawl inside slowly as I breathed out steam and fog into the dark.

The car line to the gas station moved slowly. I saw people rushing around to get organized and help the line move faster. We stood by the highway, smoked one cigarette after another, and watched people making their way around the narrow gas station area.

“We need food,” I said, rubbing my nose with icy cold, dry fingers. The smell of the cigarettes got deeply buried inside my cracked skin, and suddenly I felt just like that old upholstery in the van: dusty, torn, wrecked  —  but holding on.

“There’s a small shop at the highway down the road and one at the gas station. Let’s check what they have. You have any cash on you? I have close to nothing” My husband and Nastya took out their wallets, and I heard the sound of metal coins being tossed around.

“We’ve got almost nothing left, honey,”  two women behind the counter were surprisingly cheerful and greeted each customer with a smile. “Some sweets, some cookies, maybe a soda. Check the fridge.”

“You want anything to drink?” I asked Nastya.

“No, I have my water. We should take something to eat.”

“Sweets will do,” I answered, while chaotically examining the half — empty shelves, the dirty floor, the people coming in, the people going out, and the answers from my friends, who finally wrote back to my countless “How are you?” messages.

I heard a man shouting from the shop doorway — he held the plastic door with his shoulder and right leg. The cold breeze got inside, and I immediately felt it with my feet  —  they must have been frozen for hours. How come I have noticed it only now?

“You have coffee?”

“We have horilka!” the women laughed, and I saw the man smile at them in return. It seemed like that was his first time in the whole day. I smiled, too.

“Not even instant coffee?”

“No, honey, sorry. We ran out of it hours ago,” answered one of them while putting out the candy bars and two packs of cookies for us. We poured the coins over the counter and grabbed full hands of sweets, like teenagers who got high for the first time.

Our van was still far in the line. We left the sweets on the dashboard, used the restroom at the gas station, and checked another shop to find nothing but energy drinks and cold soda in the fridge.

A few moments later, we found ourselves smoking in the middle of the gas station amidst the cars and moving people. Nastya and my husband scrolled through the news. I was checking my messages when I suddenly saw a cigarette between my fingers.

“Shouldn’t we leave the gas station to smoke?” I asked. “Isn’t it… dangerous?”

“Oh, who cares,” said Nastya angrily, and she turned away to talk to her mother on the phone.

“We die either from smoking, from the explosion at a gas station, or a russian rocket,” said my husband sharing a big silly smile with me.

I knew he was kidding. It’s just a joke. A joke that had suddenly felt so real.

We moved away.

“No, mom, I won’t be sharing my GPS tracker with you!” I heard Nastya screaming. “How knowing where exactly I am would help you? My phone can die because of it!”

I heard her mom objecting loudly.

“We’ve just passed Zhytomyr. We’re somewhere on the highway,” Nastya said. “We still have a long way to cover. I need my phone! How will I call you if the battery dies? Have you thought about that?”

“I’ll go talk to my parents, too,” said my husband, turning away to dial.

I should call my parents… I should… A bit later. Just a moment…

The voices slowly faded as I walked away, approaching the highway. I could barely hear anything. Everything got muted – the cars’ working engines, people talking on their phones, people talking to each other, the dogs fighting over leftovers, the trucks driving by. I stood by the highway, tucking the ends of my coat under my arms and trying to finish my cigarette in silence.

All I could see was the darkness consuming endless fields behind the road. It crawled slowly and heavily over the highway to the point the gas station lights stopped it.

I stepped closer to the road to see into it, to look inside the blackness spreading around. I felt cold. I felt like a massive wave of nothingness had moved toward me, and all I could do was stand and watch it. Helpless. Numb. But fearless.

How can small lights like these stop the endless cover of the winter night? How is it possible you can see right in the middle of the dark blindness – and see everything clearly? I felt small. I felt strong. Every muscle in my body felt so tense I bet I could run all the way down to Rivne, to the border, back to Kyiv — anywhere. I have to get somewhere.

“You shouldn’t stand that close to the highway.” I turned to my husband’s voice and stepped away from the road. “You are cold,” he said, scratching my hair and kissing me on the forehead.

I buried myself in his hug and felt his arms landing on my back and head while I tucked my nose deep inside his clothes. So warm and safe. So peaceful.

Can we stay like this? Just stay like this…

“We should get back into our van,” he said. “The way is clearer now. Most cars have turned down the road to Vinnytsia, so we should move faster from now on. We’ll be home soon.”

“We’ll be home soon,” I repeated.

Photo provided by the author.