The last thing he remembers before waking up to...this was all the sensations disappearing. Clear up to that moment he'd been shivering, and it had become painful as his exhausted body had struggled to keep him awake.
He looks back at the tracks leading to his car. No signs of melting, and now it's getting darker. Panic sparks again, but it never quite materializes as a full-blown feeling the way it had earlier.
He recalls the temperature: The in-dash thermometer had shown seven below zero. That was at noon. It has to be even colder now.
But he feels nothing. He raises his right hand to his eyes. A fleeting sliver of yellow filtering through the trees crosses the skin of his fingers to reveal nothing out of the ordinary.
And that's the problem. He should be a deep blue color all over. He should still be lying in that snow, either for all eternity or until someone stumbles upon his remains.
He frowns at the irony. This is late February; if recent years are any indication, there will be flowers blooming within the next few weeks. Right here. Right where snow and ice - as thick as the petals will be high above the ground - has toyed with his life all afternoon.
If you don't like the weather, wait a minute. That famous regional saying still holds true here in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, he may not have a minute to wait.
Now think: Obviously, I'm in a deep stage of hypothermia, and by some miracle, I'm still alive. The most important thing is to get help while there's a chance. I have to keep trying that phone until it gets a signal. I may not have enough time left to walk all the way back to the main road.
He thinks the thoughts, just doesn't feel the symptoms that would normally go along with them. There's no sense of urgency accompanied by a pulse. He hasn't eaten since this morning, and thousands of calories were burned between the struggle to free the car from the snow and the fruitless effort to walk the twenty miles back to town in the blizzard. But he doesn't feel hungry. Doesn't feel weak. The only thing he does feel is lost.
He takes off walking into the woods toward the top of that hill he remembers. It's more like a float than a walk. As if there's an angel on each side, carrying him by the arms.
There's a clearing at the top. He reaches into his coat, probing for the phone with a hand that seems absent. A coat that seems absent despite seeing it with his own eyes. It's apparent that his hands must be frozen beyond use. The only hope remaining is to head back down, get to the main road, and pray someone drives by and sees him.
His eyes must be playing tricks. No tracks in the woods to follow, just fresh, undisturbed snow. In his mind, he's laughing at the absurdity, but no sound comes from his throat. Stars jitter up in the sky, too many millions of miles away to do any good down here. He guesses by now, it's probably creeping toward twenty-below.
So where's the floral scent coming from? He questions when he reaches the bottom of the hill where he'd first regained consciousness.
His sense of smell must be playing tricks too. The last time he recalls this hodgepodge of honey and earthen green being so overwhelming was the spring before Leah, his childhood neighbor and friend, passed.
There's just enough fluorescence to this sea of frozen ivory crystals that he can make out what's on the ground immediately in front of him. His next thought would have been: Go slow and keep walking. Watch for headlights in the distance.
But that thought has been aborted by the realization that he's standing over a dead body. He leans toward the stiffened, curled figure for a closer look. It's a man. Forty-three years old, wearing a grayish coat and a thin pair of matte-black jeans. He has cheap athletic shoes and two pairs of crew-length socks on. His name was Randal, and he was born on August 31, 1978. He was a Goth Metalhead by image, and a childlike nature lover by heart.
Randal's face turns straight as a stem. He was me.
Everything goes completely black, even the snow. Like being in the deepest part of a cave and the torch just got extinguished. Yet he is still alive. He's still thinking, still moving, still buzzing with the energy of a hummingbird. New light begins to warm him in a golden dawn when he realizes this is, in fact, a cavern of some sort.
It's unlike anything he's ever seen. Vegetation is everywhere; so much so that it's impossible to tell if the walls are even made of rock. He pushes his hand through what seems like yards of lime-green grass attempting to find out. That's when he first notices the semi-transparency.
He examines himself from the chest down. Semi-transparent. He wonders for the longest moment how he's still able to sense everything he touches. The grass glistens with cool dew, the same way the grass in his yard always did on an early spring morning. The slick blades bend when he runs his finger across them.
A whisper of a breeze, moist with the scent of recent rain and the clean sweetness of freshly-bloomed Morning Glories, teases his nostrils with invitation. He casually starts walking in the direction.
"Neato! Isn't it?"
The voice is that of a child, and it's coming from directly behind him. Randal gives off a smile of both relief and joy as he turns around.
Leah had died from a rare form of cancer at age thirteen. He wishes he could forget. Just as he had spent his whole adult life wishing he could. The music and the lifestyle could mask it over occasionally, but it could never kill the memories.
Uh huh. Randal hadn't said that to anyone since they were both twelve. It was always "yeah" or "yep" after that. He looks at Leah, with her semi-transparent, tightly-woven red pony tail and knows she's twelve. He remembers. He would give anything to be twelve again. And when the shock of hearing his own childish voice wears off, just as he suspects, he finds himself a foot shorter and sixty pounds thinner. He compares his blue, dirt-stained overalls to her pea-green ones and giggles with the prospect of adventure sending a tingle down his sun-ripened arms.
"Are you ready?"
He's never sure, given the mischief Leah had always tended to pursue, but one thing he does know is that a day spent with his best friend is always guaranteed to be interesting. She races past him and he follows. Anything could be beyond that twist in the passage at the end of the grassy room. They both grin with saucer eyes as flower-after-flower pops out beside, below, and above them, as though each step across the cavern floor pushes some kind of instant-grow button beneath the grass.
With each zig and zag, the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter and more colorful. Eventually, the floor slopes downward, fanning out into a soft ledge with a flexibility to it almost like a diving board. Randal backs away from it, but Leah remains in place, her glinting eyes peering straight down through rounded glasses. She nods at him as though she's been waiting for this moment for decades. Then closes her eyes, and takes him by the hand.
"Which flower do you like the best?"
"They're all down there," she assures.
Randal has always liked them all. It's a tough question.
"I guess...the Indian Paintbrush. It has the neatest color, and it grows everywhere around here."
But 'here' is a different place now, he reminds himself.
"I like the Sunflower," she states with confidence. "It grows tall as the trees and it's round and yellow, just like the sun."
They exchange gazes and Leah raises her knee in preparation for departure into the void.
"Are you sure you can handle this?" she asks.
Never once has he dared look down. Instead, he stares at and beyond Leah's Pink Carnation-cheeked face.
"If I could handle life, I can handle anything," he replies as they sprint off into the blinding rainbow of light before them, and into the abyss.
Nebulous clouds, glittering with globules of earthy red and sunshine-yellow engulf the two. Randal feels like he's falling at the speed of sound. The see-through skin of his neck and face turns to putty as gravity contorts it this way and that. The descent begins to slow toward the end of this infinite minute.
"I knew you could handle it!" Those are Leah's last words. Right before turning invisible. Right before they both do. Right before outlines of vast, red and yellow petals appear below through the heavenly haze.
He floats down onto the beaming crimson surface of the flower top and releases an alleviated sigh when he observes one of the sunflower's petals high up above and to his left rustling where Leah had landed.
A shift in energy, unlike anything he's ever experienced, pulls at him. He can't describe it, because words are suddenly meaningless. His vision, hearing, taste, and touch are all fading into a new way of being: One with which he's content.
Who knows what form of existence these life forces formerly known as Leah and Randal will assume next. But for now, two aromatic, healthy flowers bask in a sunny breeze just outside of town. Side by side, in front of two pink granite stones. One, tall as the trees and yellow as the sun; the other, one that has the neatest color, and grows everywhere around here.