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 My room seemed brighter when I awoke on that last morning in November. I pulled back the curtain to behold a landscape transformed. Brilliant white swathed every surface, and as it did each year, the first snow shocked and enchanted me.

 Pulling on my sweater, pants, boots, and coat, I clambered outdoors. The new-risen sun cast a rosy glow, and silence lent a surreal ambiance. The familiar fields cascaded like an ermine cloak, and my nose tingled from the chilled air.

 The calf-deep drifts were more sugary than stiff, not at all slick or fatiguing. Dreamily I traipsed along my driveway, passing the rusty mailbox with its roof of flurries, and entering a lane arched by frosty branches. With the tunnel before me and endless timber on either side, I drifted in peace through a frozen fairyland.

 My cheeks barely stung in the cold, and my breath wasn't fogging, so I decided to stroll the half mile to Volentown. My doctor was always after me to exercise for my heart's sake, so why waste a gorgeous opportunity?

 No tire treads marred the marshmallow mantle, but rabbits, a dog or coyote, and various birds had left tracks behind. A squirrel chittered at me from a low limb. "Where'd you bury your pecans?" I asked. Its jet eyes kept their secrets.

 I'd failed to consider the height of the hill by the county line. Although dauntingly steep for someone as sedentary as I'd become, it would display the wintry town in all its Currier and Ives glory. Huffing and puffing, I started up the incline, aching and lightheaded as I neared the top.

 A rock or thick branch must have lurked beneath the whiteness for I lost my footing, pitching backward. Even at my advanced age, falling unexpectedly into a soft cradle of snow was delightful. When I'd caught my breath and finished laughing, I marveled at the pink-tinged clouds floating low and thick above. Fanning my arms and legs, I made my first snow angel in decades.

 With the carefree mood, memories of sledding on this spot flooded back. The side of the mound to my left was bare of trees, a perfect stage for winter frolic. How many times had I sprinted up and slid down this local landmark as a child? Come to think of it, a bevy of boys and girls might show up at any moment, and they didn't need some golden ager spoiling their fun. Rolling up and onto my feet with less effort than expected, I cleared the last couple of yards to the summit.

 How I appreciated the hard-earned view! Volentown's population was less than 400, but it and the surrounding acres had housed everyone important to me. The familiar schoolhouse, church spires, and water tower were charming. Fresh snow and evergreens rendered it pretty as a Christmas card.

 Cars dotted the streets instead of horses and sleighs, families no longer skated in droves upon the frozen lake, and bridges were made of concrete and metal rather than wood. Still, the place held comforting echoes of the past and a slower, more welcoming pace than larger towns.

 To my right on the downward slope sprawled Lachaise Vineyard. Once the finest estate within twenty miles, it had sunken into ruin. The vintner who built the Queen Anne mansion abandoned it after tragically losing a child. I didn't recall the details, but a series of failed grape harvests sealed its doom from any attempts at rescue.

 It remained an impressive edifice despite chipped paint on its gingerbread eaves, a sagging porch, and peeling shingles on the turret roof. My gaze drifted over the dilapidated scuppernong arbor and terraced land from which prized wine had flowed. "What a waste," I whispered.

 My attention was seized by something scarlet and swift. It flitted away as I shifted my eyes to an icy pond at the base of the stepped hill. A rhythmic scraping heralded its return, and a cherubic figure with tawny ringlets filled my view.

 The child was skating joyfully, crimson cape and plaid skirt flourishing. She glided by on one foot, circled the pond, and built up speed for a flawless twirling jump. I couldn't believe my eyes because she looked no more than five years old. Launching into a spin, she squatted and raised back up, hair whirling and features blurring against the frozen backdrop.

 It didn't seem cold enough suddenly. Where were her parents? "Hey, get off the ice!" I yelled, shambling down the hill. She glanced my way but snickered and sped on. "No joking!" I cried. "Might be dangerous."

 She rounded the same bend and disappeared. Even as I neared the bank, I couldn't tell where she'd gone. Was she hiding in the woods? While wearing blades? I called out several times with no reply. No doubt she'd skate again as soon as she saw I was gone, so how could I ensure her safety?

 I climbed back to the road, amazed how little I panted. Could getting out limber me up so fast? Heading downhill on the road to town, I shouted once or twice in case she or her parents were about. I must find someone to help. The warmer the day grew, the thinner the ice would become.

 As I glanced over my shoulder one last time, I made an odd discovery. I wasn't leaving any footprints behind. Had the texture of the snow changed? It did feel more cushiony underfoot or as though my feet were gliding. Very strange, but I didn't have time to ponder it.

 In minutes I'd passed the Volentown city limits and found something far more startling. As I saw people gearing up for their day, they didn't seem quite...there. I recognized most of them, but they were different, not as opaque as before. When I called out a greeting to my slightly see-through mail carrier, he darted into the post office as if he hadn't heard a word.

 Maybe my vision was failing, but the buildings and landforms hadn't changed. Were the trees and animals shimmery? Yes, the butcher's Scotty dog waiting at the back of the grocery store had been black. Now it was a filmy charcoal grey. What could account for me seeing living things in this bizarre way?

 Only one soul on the block seemed substantial: a portly blond man in an outdated but well-tailored suit. He stood beside the boarded door of a deserted building, Volentown's only bank which had closed half a century before.

 "You seem like a solid citizen," I said, ambling his way. He was leisurely sweeping the sidewalk and whistling a Sinatra tune.

 "Ah yes," he chuckled, "So you've noticed? Not everyone is anymore."

 "Indeed..." I said, perplexed and impatient for answers.

 "I'm Sebastian Drake, former bank president. S'pose you'd like me to tell you what's going on?"

 "Thought'd crossed my mind."

 "Well, friend, you literally stumbled over a barrier you never knew existed."

 I stared at him with a sickly suspicion beyond my grasp to express. "What barrier?" My stomach was both aflutter and sinking.

 "The greatest one, of course. Life and death."

 "How did...? What hap-...? I slumped against the bank's brick wall.

 "Remember when you fell near the crest of Lachaise Knoll?"

 "Yes, but I didn't get hurt. I'm fine!" How did he know I'd fallen?

 "Ticker gave out. Happens to the best of us." Mr. Drake's smile was crooked.

 I glared at his drollness in disbelief. "Well, it's never happened to me. So I'm a little baffled."

 "Sure y'are. Understandable." He leaned against his broom. "Take your time to think it over. Got nothin' else anymore."

 I let confusion cascade through me. Sure, I was overdue for this at age 81, but could death be so undramatic? Was there no St. Peter or afterlife graduation ceremony? No tunnel of light or loved ones eager to reunite?

 "What do I do now?" I'd never felt so untethered and strange.

 "Whatever you want. Stay here or travel with a thought." At my nonplussed expression, he added, "Well, maybe hold off on that since you look plenty lost."

 "Oh no!" I gasped. "I forgot about the girl skating on Lachaise's pond."

 "Don't worry. She's in no danger." Drake chuffed with humor. "That's just Della, the Lachaise family's only child. Drowned 1897."

 I thought about her attire, and it made sense. What modern girl wore a long skirt to do anything remotely athletic? So she was the one who caused her father's depression and the family's eventual downfall. "How sad," I murmured.

 "No need to fret, Monsieur. We are fine now." A cultured, nasal voice made me turn my head. An immaculate gentleman with waxed mustache had approached. He wasn't transparent, so that must make him a ghost in this flipped reality.

 Mr. Drake introduced him as Henri Lachaise, vintner and father of little Adelaide, or Della for short. Ringlets bouncing, she skipped up behind him.

 "What do you say, Della?" Henri prompted.

 "Thanks for looking out for me. Come skate sometime if you'd like."

 I loved the idea and thanked her for inviting me. Oh, to be able to do the physical activities I'd loved when I was young and try out new things too.

 It seemed I was having more social interaction dead than I'd had alive of late. As time stole my friends and family, I'd become isolated and bitter. It was such a burden lifted to know wouldn't die alone as I'd always feared. Well, I had, but crossing the boundary wasn't turning out to be so bad.

 Mr. Drake cleared his throat, looking at me gravely. "You should probably get on with your life review. Everybody has to."

 A stream of joyous, heartbreaking, and mundane experiences flooded all of my senses. Things I didn't recall absorbing as a baby yielded to childhood, school, work, retirement, and my demise.

 I'd been happier than I knew and sadder too. Mostly I missed loved ones and regretted chances untaken. Whether it took minutes or decades, I'm not sure, but it left me convinced I'd led a decent life, not going out of my way to harm anyone. Now that I knew my mortal struggles had all been temporary, I felt bold and free.

 "Answer this quick," Mr. Drake said. "Who do you wanna see most?"

 A name instantly left my lips: "Becky! Becky Varner." It stunned me, not having seen the girl since high school. But I'd never stopped thinking of her.

 A light tread and floral scent I recalled arrived behind me. Cool fingers covered my eyes as she sang out, "Guess who?" I wheeled around to embrace her with greater gusto than I'd ever dared. I couldn't break her ribs, I reasoned, and no one was likely to judge.

 "Oh, Becky..." I said, "Even prettier than I remembered." A glance at my hand on her shoulder confirmed that I must look young again too. Gone were the raised veins, wrinkled knuckles, and liver spots.

 "You can see other family and friends whenever you're ready," Mr. Drake said. "No suffering or need to earn your way. Just enjoy yourself."

 "It's much the same as before except you can't interact with most of the live ones till they cross over," Mr. Lachaise chimed in. "And you may never leave your mark on the living world again."

 Good deal, I thought. I didn't want to see anyone but Becky to reignite the love we'd lost in a senseless shuffle of outside interference and misunderstandings. I reached for her hand with breathless gratitude.

 "'Remember French class?" Becky asked. "How we used to dream of going to Paris." Her oceanic eyes sparkled.

 "Sure do," I said. "Never got there."

 "Me either. Let's go!"

 The snowy smalltown street was replaced by the most beautiful of springtime city boulevards. We sat at a sidewalk cafe reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. The surroundings were vivid and more extensive than any film or travel guide.

 A loaf of crusty bread, plate of cheeses, and bottle of chilled wine awaited us. I reached to pour, noticing the label read "Lachaise Vineyard Scuppernong 1895." My newly smooth brow crinkled. Was wine that old drinkable?

 "Nothing spoils in heaven," Becky said with a giggle, pert and adorable as ever. Once or twice in a lifetime, you meet someone you can be your true self around. Becky and I were denied the time we should have had together, and I couldn't believe my luck to get another chance to love her.

 "To death," Becky said, lifting her crystal wine flute.

 "To eternity," I replied, clinking it with mine.

January 11, 2020 03:29

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1 comment

Crystabel Lynx
03:46 Jan 15, 2020

I'm changing the title to "Snow Angel" now that I've had a little time to think it over. It's the longest story I've written, breaking a too-many-decades long streak of not finishing much of anything. The key is to get the whole first draft out of your system before editing. I'd always write a paragraph then start picking it apart. Glad I finally broke through and hope anyone who takes a look enjoys this.


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