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by Joel Caris
A wind blew as extra punishment, the night already so cold and the bright stars lancing her with too sharp light. She stood on her back porch wearing gray wool socks, the cold of the wooden planks seeping through, but not so harsh. The wool softened the world.
The stars above created infinitely complex patterns. Staring upward, wiggling her toes within her socks—their cocoon, their warmth—she wanted nothing more than for the stars to begin to move and shift, for the universe to rearrange itself into a more comforting pattern. Everything would be new and hope would emerge.
She closed her eyes. She counted until she lost track. When she opened her eyes, the stars remained the same.
The cold permeated the night. She crossed her arms and lifted herself up and down on her toes, her cold feet, the air cutting through her fleece jacket. Why was she standing outside in such cold in her socks? The world needed to be harsh for her to understand it.
Her flesh shook and when she blinked, it was a scrape. Stand long enough without blinking and the cold would freeze the film on her eyes. It seemed that way. Each inhalation of air felt slow, arduous, a process that, given only a little time, would wear her down, destroy her immune system, leave her vulnerable to all kinds of new and exciting illnesses, viruses, creeping bacteria. She exhaled crystals. This is what it would be to die of cold, standing on a porch in wool socks, breathing oxygen tainted by the angry intricacies of existence.
She placed her bare fingers against the porch railing. The new contact only allowed more cold to enter her.
The stars faded a moment and a soft face replaced them. Hours and hours she had thought of him, considered him, and in her mind he became something more solid and real than he ever could be in reality. She could touch and caress him, grow with him. She created intimacies that comforted her so completely that she slept well at night, deep and satisfied, as though her inner desires had manifested, solidified—crawled into bed with her and crept so close, pressing against her body, sharing their warmth and beauty. Those nights she slept with hopes and certainties and awoke with intentions. Every day would bring new revelations.
She shook. The cold invaded her, violated her. Needles stabbed her skin and her breaths now left gasping, grasping, the pain in her chest a deep threat. It was not so cold to justify the pain. Even the stars and their sharp light could not be held to account. It was the death of her hopes that weighed against her chest, crushed her lungs, that stabbed her flesh with cold spikes. She knew this. The intimacies never did manifest and now an angry reality would reassert itself, mocking her for daring to turn her back.
The years crushed her. Capillaries restricted and veins collapsed, arteries were clamped shut. With each breath, as her lungs screamed, she could feel the slowing of her heart, of her blood. The cold would soon be complete. Her blood would thicken at first, then stop, and then it would only be moments as the cold rushed through her. Her blood would freeze and expand just enough to burst every pathway—to shred and destroy her body from inside out. No one could live forever, even in ice, as the cold would only serve to kill. Every inch of flesh touched would be blacken, die. It could not survive such cruelty.
She took her hand from the railing and slipped it back into her other hand, twisting together her fingers and squeezing. Already her grip had weakened. Everything would weaken—the first step toward death. It did not matter. The years pressed down so hard against her that she wondered if it would not be the cold but instead a crushing force, a heaviness that would mutilate her before she could ever freeze to death. That would be as appropriate, but not nearly so poetic. How beautiful it would be to freeze to death, to grow ever quieter, ever more still, until there was nothing but a brittle statue that spoke of a broken and ruined life—that could stand forever as a warning to the rest of humanity, not to ever nurse dreams or dare to believe, to revel in hopes, to expect or reach or try to touch—to never dare try to touch and feel and share. People would travel from across the country, the world, from far galaxies and gather and stare, transfixed, and for a moment they would see soft, shimmering faces within their own minds—then they would turn away with shame, with fear, and know the source of deep, aching cold.
She wanted this. She wanted to wander into the world and find a large field with nothing, not a single monument, and to stand so still in the middle of it while the nighttime air crept around her and froze her dead, solid, a simple and heartbreaking scarecrow for the rest of humanity. Except she would be made of flesh, rather than straw, and she would die naked and alone, held upright by shattered emotion instead of a stake in the ground. People would come from everywhere to stand and stare. Some would worship, but those would be the fools. The wise ones would recognize the cruelty of the world and understand their fate. They would look upon her and the moment her sad beauty broke them, they would understand. They would recognize themselves.
A board beneath her creaked as she shifted and dared to stare out at the black landscape that stretched beyond the porch until engulfed by the horizon. Cold starlight provided vague illumination. The ground rolled, slight rises and falls, and small plants pricked up from the ground. Grass, weeds, brush, wild flowers. A creature slunk across the dirt, toward the edge of the horizon, and she froze, her fingertips brushing against her hip, staring at the small animal as it moved, hesitantly, a few feet at a time. After a moment, it stilled, shifted, and she thought that it must have looked toward her, picking her out from the shadow mosaic of the house, the porch, the land. It focused, hypnotized, on her eyes—on the glint of broken belief within them. Could it know? From it's vantage point—the distance and such a different perspective of the world—could it understand the pain behind her gaze or did it see only a threat, a predator, a soft and vulnerable human that would normally be simple prey but could harm it through some sick twist of fate, the use of weapons, of tools? Did it understand or was its mind a mess of instinct and base reactions and nothing more? Did it hate her or pity her?
She blinked. Her fingers flexed and flexed in the cold night air and more wind slipped past her, through her, assaulted her with its cold and vampiric tendencies—the way it tore the moisture from her and claimed it as its own. It would lift into the clouds and return to earth somewhere far away where she could not utilize it. It did this; the world stole from her. It knew no other way.
The wool socks did nothing now, invaded so thoroughly by the cold. For brief moments she considered undressing, unconcerned with who might see her. She wanted to bare herself in front of the animal, so far away, and beg it to come close and view her, revel in her exposure, to see her for the nothing she was—to see the vulnerability, the unsteadiness, and to consider whether or not it should take, devour her, tear her apart and return her to the earth. She wanted this, as much as anything. Yet, even as she hovered her right hand at the zipper of her fleece jacket, she could not bring herself to shed her clothes. The world had not yet claimed her so thoroughly. It stopped her mind for a moment, the realization that she was not so far gone and broken as she had imagined—that perhaps some vague hope remained.
It broke her. The thought that she could continue on, pushing forward through the shattered intimacies, perhaps even coming to believe again—she hated it. Such a resiliency could only lead to greater pain, continued hurt, a neverending cycle of destruction and debasement. She wanted all of it to stop and fade. She wanted to snuff out these blows, the heavy hits. No longer could she flinch, hurt, and come back again and again in the hopes that the next time would be a caress instead. They never were. No one would touch her—they only knew how to hit.
This was life. Truth.
The creature began to slink toward her, keeping low to the ground. She watched. It moved cautiously, as though hunting, and she wondered if it somehow knew she held no tools or even the motivation to fight it. If it wanted it could crawl onto the porch and devour her whole, alive, starting at her woolen feet and working its way up. The pain would be a relief—a full bore frontal attack that she would see coming, for the first time. Perhaps that was all she wanted: fair warning. Perhaps a misery that she anticipated would be the perfect antidote to the sly humiliations.
The animal stopped, though, twenty feet out from the porch. It watched her for a long time and she met its gaze. The wind buffeted her and she trembled, shook in the cold. She felt on another planet. She felt in a harsh and cruel landscape. But this was earth, her home, the only place she had ever known, even if she only recently had come to truly know it.
It watched her and she considered going to it. She considered begging it to devour her. But she knew the smallest movement would send it running, for it still wanted to live. It desired no death.
After long moments, the creature—a coyote, of course—turned from her and crept away, slipping through the brush as easily as a snake and disappearing into the silvered night. She exhaled as it faded and began to cry, silent, realizing even in that short time she had created expectations and lost again—a punch, a hit—and knew it would never end. The cold could attack her all it wanted but she would not die. The predators would not come. No god would freeze her in the middle of the field and the worshipers, the frightened viewers, would never appear. It was endless—disappointment and heartbreak and rejection, and she could only live it again and again, day after day, until there was nothing left of her but a shell moving amongst the world and stumbling into each new disappointment, each new twisted opportunity.
She was no monument—only a failed experiment, a shattered girl, standing in the cold and bathed in starlight, trembling, with nowhere to go; yet the destination set, confirmed, so far into the depths that she could not see—would not dare try to penetrate the darkness to discover what awaited her.