Gunter threw another log on the fire and cursed every god he knew for sending the cold so deep into his bones. The fireplace brimmed with lively orange flames and the wool blankets stacked so thick over his body, that he could barely breathe under them. Yet, Gunter felt cold. He didn’t know whether that was from the freezing temperatures outside or the creeping of death.
If you’re going to take me, you might as well be quick about it, he thought, tucking himself deeper in the blankets. For a man well over a hundred years old, death sure seemed to take her time. She probably forgot about him.
The wind whistled as it tugged and scrapped around the edges of his little cabin, sending icy snowflakes bombarding into the window from time to time. The sun bathed the cabin’s insides but offered no warmth. It was as cold a winter as Gunter ever remembered one to be.
Though, to be fair, he was also as old as he ever remembered to be.
He listened to the wind howling, the fire crackling and his bones wincing. Now and then, the wind brought a wave of joyful laughter and squeezed it through the cracks of the cabin’s wooden walls. Gunter shivered each time; both from cold as well as annoyance. Youth had no right to make him remember he’d once enjoyed the snow.
Oh, how long ago those times were…
The fire popped an ember and it jumped on the rug Gunther had placed to keep his feet from touching the cold floorboards. He watched the ember with contempt.
The small red-hot thing sat there, taunting.
“Don’t you dare…”
It began simmering the carpet.
“Damnation!” Gunter stumbled beneath the pile of blankets and searched for his legs underneath. The darn thing was just out of reach and he had to get up to put it out. He smothered the ember with a log, then threw that log onto the fire.
“Eat it all, you devil,” he said to the flames. “What am I feeding you for? Give me heat, don’t spit food back at me!”
The fire hissed as its flames engulfed the newly placed log. A gust of wind blew down the chimney and it fed the fire, making it brighter for a few moments. Gunter pulled the rug somewhat away from the fireplace.
That would be the joke, burning my house in this freezing hell, he thought, tucking himself back under. Blasted, but it was cold. How could a man be so cold, with such a big fire going?
Darn it, he didn’t have any tea to warm him up. He should make one - but he’d have to step out of his blankets to make it…
He pondered what to do and, after a good five minutes, was approaching his resolve. But then, a knock came on the door.
Gunter looked up so suddenly that his neck reminded him to be more careful.
“Who the hell is it?” he barked.
Silence. Then the knock came again, louder this time.
“I heard you the first time, WHO IS IT?”
A voice came through the door but it was muffled and drowned in the wind’s howling. Gunter groaned and reluctantly stood up again. The heat he’d been storing under the blankets for the whole morning escaped like his wits did at times.
“You’d better be someone bloody important!” he grumbled as he strolled to the door, keeping one blanket wrapped tightly over his shoulders. He positioned himself at the door such that when he opened it, the wind didn’t blow directly in his face.
“Get in!” he snapped.
A figure stumbled inside.
With it came a rush of damned cold air. Gunter slammed the door shut and turned his face towards the figure, his expression demanding a good reason for this intrusion. As the figure took off its hood and cap, Gunter’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor.
“I be damned…”
“Hello, Gunter,” said Tobias, a man he’d last seen when they were both eight years old. “You haven’t aged a bit.”
“You still look as wilted as a dead shrub.”
“You’ve never grown any teeth, I see. I still have mine, look.”
“That smile of yours… how many divorces did it cause?”
“With that belly of yours, why do you need a fire to keep you warm?”
Gunter stared at the man. His wilted old face looked too small compared to the massive winter jacket he wore. It encased him like a knight's armor, only far bulkier.
“You… I thought I’ll never see your face again…”
“Yeah, neither did I,” Tobias said, lips turning into a grin. “Imagine my surprise when I heard you were still alive. And living in this crappy old shack! Wasn’t this the ‘fortress’ we used to play in?”
“It was,” Gunter said, waiting to see if this was either a dream or he’d died. “I expanded it.”
“Not much, I see.”
“For a beggar.”
“I don’t need a mansion where I have to walk half a mile just to get to the toilet!”
“Can you still do that? Go to the toilet? I’d give anything to be able to go to the toilet again…”
“You…” Damn. This was real. Tobias really was standing there, in his cabin, old as hell. Whatever ill omen had led him here now?
“Why have you come?” Gunter asked. “Why now? We’re both half-dead already.”
Tobias’s eyes grew distant. He looked outside the window, at the snow piling up, blown around by the wind.
“It is time, Gunter,” he said. “It’s been one hundred years, to the day.”
Gunter frowned. “What in the world are you talking about, you old coot?”
“You know very well, you senile whimper. The ride.”
Gunter wanted to bark something spicy in return but the signal from the brain didn’t reach his mouth. A memory cut it off, so he just stood there, jaw slacked, eyes widening.
“You’re drooling,” Tobias said.
“You… you’re insane.”
“No, I’m not. I have a certificate from my doctor. I’m even allowed to drive my car, be it with someone in the passenger’s seat, but still.”
“No, you are insane!” Gunter said. “You’ve been waiting for 100 years and now you come back, to remind me of the day I almost died, while you skidded your skinny butt down the mountain like a fool!”
Tobias’s jaw tightened. “I’m here to tell you it is time, Gunter. It is time to make that ride.”
Gunter blinked, dumbfounded. “When I said ‘not in a hundred years’ I meant not EVER, you idiot! I wasn’t being literal!”
“Yes, you were,” Tobias said. “You might haven’t known it at the time, but you were setting yourself up for a lifetime goal. A hundred years of contemplation, before you attempt it again. And make it to the end!”
“We’re half-dead already, as you’ve said,” the man said flatly. “You know you won’t find peace until you make that ride. It’s been haunting you in your sleep, creeping up at the most unexpected moments, calling to you…”
“What? No, it hasn’t! You’re deluded!” Gunter regretted opening that door. He let good heat escape for this? A crazy old fool from his past? But throwing him out now would mean having to open the door again…
“I’ve fixed your sled…”
“What?” Gunter balked. “You WHAT?”
“Your sled, you imbecile. I went looking for it, the day after. At first, I could find it. It had buried itself deep in the snow, you see, having fallen from that cliff. I had to wait until spring for the snow to melt… but that spring didn’t come until some thirty years ago when the climate got hot enough. I’ve been going up that mountain all that time until I finally found your sled. Or, what was left of it. The steel girders are the same, but I’ve replaced the wood. I’ve added a new rope. It’s good and sturdy. I didn’t expect you to be this… fat, but the sled should hold your weight.”
Gunter just watched as the old man’s mouth moved, perplexed. And here he was, thinking he was losing his mind as he was getting older.
“Someone should lock you up in a mental institution,” Gunter said.
“Why, so we could be roommates? No thanks, you snore and you fart in your sleep. I can still remember…”
“You're 108 years old, and that’s what you remember?”
“Well, what do you remember from your childhood, wisecrack?”
Gunter thought. He remembered going down the mountain on a sled, trying his best to catch up to his best friend, Tobias. It was an especially cold winter, with lots of snow. Perfect for making the ride all the way down the mountain.
Then, there came a bend. And a cliff. Tobias turned gracefully. Gunter’s sled skidded over a frozen patch of snow. It all happened so fast… The sled drove him off the cliff and as if by some miracle, his jacket got caught up in the spindly branches of a thorny shrub.
He dangled there, over the abyss for over an hour, before his friend found him. And pulled him up.
“I remember your weakling arms,” he said, shrugging off the memories. “You pull like a girl.”
“Ah, that’s right,” Tobias said, musing. “You were fat back then, too.”
“I almost died because of you.”
“I was the one that pulled you up, remember?”
“Yes, but who’s idea was to go sledding in the first place? Yours!”
“You wanted to go too! We both planned that ride since we first went sledding!”
Gunter shivered under his blanket. Standing close to the door, feeling the cold wind creeping inside through the cracks and recalling old memories of that day brought a new wave of chills that surged across his skin. He shuffled closer to the fire, walking past Tobias.
The man smacked a hand on his belly. Gunter looked at him, then at his hand. There seemed to be something in it.
“Look at these two,” Tobias said. “And tell me you don’t see pure magic in their eyes.”
“Just look at the damn picture.”
Gunter took the thing in Tobias's hand and it indeed was a picture. An old, crumpled one, yellow on the backside, black and white on the front. It depicted two boys, smiles as wide as their faces, standing in the snow next to a rooftop - the whole house appeared buried in snow that year, almost to the chimney. One boy was skinny and lanky, the other chubby and stout. Both looked like they were up to something glorious.
On the back was a number, smeared and barely recognizable. 1921.
“One hundred years…” Gunter whispered. He could hardly believe it. Did one century really pass by? But it happened so fast! So fast that it rushed past him like a train and he missed it coming…
“My friend,” Tobias said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It is a miracle that we have both lived so long, is it not? I mean, how many people get to live over a hundred years old and still have someone from their childhood alive with them?”
Gunter nodded. “That is pretty rare, I’d say.”
“If not the first time it’s happened,” said Tobias. “This is no coincidence, Gunter. Something mysterious is happening here. I knew it ever since that day. I took your words as an oath as I felt the power hidden behind their meaning. To you, it was just an outburst of anger and fear. To me, it was a promise. Do you remember? I asked you afterward if you would do it again, the ride.”
“Not in a hundred years,” Gunter said. It was what he had replied. Not in a hundred years. A figure of speech.
Or was it?
“Well, it’s been a hundred years,” Tobias said. “How about it, old coot? Wanna go sledding down that mountain?”
“I can barely sit on a chair,” Gunter said. “I’m freezing to hell as it is and I’m near a fire.”
“I am blind in one eye,” Tobias shrugged. “I have a weak heart.”
“We’re just two men whose time is over, but death forgot about us.”
“No,” Tobias said. “We’re two kids who still have a job to do. Death won’t come for us until we see it done.”
Gunter looked at the man, truly looked at him for the first time since he stepped inside. He saw no wrinkles. No saggy skin, no tired eyes. What he saw was his friend, as he was when they were both eight years old.
“You’re batshit crazy.”
“And you’re a coward,” Tobias smiled back. “That’s why you couldn’t make that turn. That’s why you went over the cliff. You were afraid.”
Gunter huffed. “Well, ain’t afraid no more. What’s the worst that could happen to me? I guess I could live for ten more years.”
“Ha! With those trembling hands? I don’t see it happening, mister!”
“You ain’t a racing horse either, whippersnapper!”
“Still faster than you!”
Gunter snorted. Tobias stared at him, expectantly.
“So, what will it be?”
The cries of playful children came to the cabin again. Shouts. Giggles. Pure enthusiasm.
Gunter smiled. Then he let the blanket fall to the ground.
“Let’s see what you’ve done to my sled, you lunatic.”