We’ve been driving for a few hours now, Jack and I. I think I might’ve fallen asleep earlier, but very little has changed since I last remember, so I can’t be sure. It’s starting to get dark, the first pink shards of light have begun to appear over the mountains speeding by, and the moon’s already up. No stars, though.
“Do you wanna pull over?” I ask, and wince at the sound of my voice. It’s scratchy and broken from the lack of usage. Jack nods curtly, tight lipped.
“In a little while,” he says. “We can find a place to stop when it gets dark.”
I nod. I’m not used to the stoicism, I still find it a little disconcerting: the short sentences, the head nods, the pursed lips. I am frightened, though, by how quickly I’ve begun to adapt to it.
It’s been long, too long, since I’ve spoken to anyone. Jack is the first person to have said more than two words to me in a couple years, and it’s ridiculous how my want for conversation--so dulled over time--has suddenly reemerged. So of course of all people to come for me, it had to be him, the definition of gloom and silence--foggy premonitions of sun that only yield more of the same. I laugh at this comparison, he looks at me sharply.
I bite back a smile, shake my head. “Nothing.”
He raises his eyebrows but doesn’t turn his eyes back to the road, instead, he slows down. I think he’s staring at me, for a second, and I start to redden- but he’s looking past my window, at the mass of pine trees bordering the empty freeway.
“Here’s fine.” He says, slowing the car and veering towards the forest. I don’t question it, I know I won’t get a real answer anyways.
He drives out for a little while, twigs cracking under the weight of the car. The short trip is rocky, I let out a sigh of relief when he finally pulls over at the edge of a small clearing.
“Here’s fine.” He repeats. Then looks at me, expectantly.
I frown, he raises an eyebrow. “Oh! Yeah.” He unlocks the door. “Yeah, here’s good.”
It’s shockingly cold when I step outside, the air burns my throat as I inhale, sharply. I let out a shaky breath, puffing out my cheeks as I do, to feel my teeth chattering. They clatter against each other, so loudly. If Jack hears it, he doesn’t say anything, just hands me a coat he pulled from the trunk. “Here.”
I try not to be too enthusiastic as I take it, wrap it around my shoulders hesitantly. It hasn’t been used in a while, feels just as cold as the world around it. But it’s lonely, as am I, so I keep it tucked tight under my fists. I look up and Jack looks down, heat rises to my face as I realize he was staring.
“Really that bad?” I joke, but it falls flat. His brow furrows, deep lines cutting through his forehead and melting into skin. He turns. “I’m gonna go see if I can find somewhere to start a fire,” he says, already walking away.
“Okay.” But it gets caught in my throat, comes out barely a whisper. It doesn’t matter, anyway, Jack’s already disappeared into the trees, his footprints on the snow the only proof he was ever here. And even those begin to fade.
I let out another breath, but like the one before, it comes out shaky, half-caught in my chest. I feel my throat start to close up, burning hotter by the second.
“No, no, not now!” I hiss, but it’s too late, the tears are already carving paths down my cheeks, the cold turning them to ice by the time they’ve hit the ground. They burn, and the pain makes them come even faster.
There’s nothing I can do but sit here and hope the red tracks I’m sure scar my face are gone by the time Jack comes back. Jack, whose face could never be the marred, ruined mess I’m sure mine is right now. Jack, who couldn’t even look at me when he tried, turned away, even, but even that look of pity is nothing compared to the self-loathing boiling inside me now.
The tears stop after a while, but they stay frozen on the ground, ugly little crystals that crunch under my feet as I step towards the car. I’m quite thirsty, I realize, but the car door stays firmly shut when I pull it--of course it’s locked. Why would anyone trust me with anything other than myself? And even that is dubious.
I sit for a little while, trying to ignore the thirst clawing at my throat, but it’s unbearable and really, I could just gorge on snow for a little while. But when I look down I see Jack’s faded footprints, my tears, and it’s all too much. I can’t be here, I’ll leave, I’ll come back soon.
It’s hauntingly silent as I venture further into the brush, looking for the solution to a thirst I decide to label as water. Water can be liquid but water can also be ice, and I’ve seen enough movies to know water is never far when you really want it.
I couldn’t say how long I was walking for, under normal circumstances I track these things--but the cold and the fatigue had my mind to a state as numb as my fingers were starting to feel. I couldn’t remember what I was searching for, was just wandering aimlessly.
Eventually though, I do find water, or at least, a frozen up pond, and the thirst that resurfaces frighteningly fast reminds me of what I was searching for.
No, it can’t be. The idea of taking a scorchingly cold sip of the liquid brings me no satisfaction.
And then I remember.
I haven’t seen myself in years, have no idea what I look like. It’s a selfish, vain yearning, but I lost myself too long ago and I need to find this person again.
I’m afraid, as I approach the glistening pool, sit at it’s edge with my eyes closed for too long. There’s a world of time in my mind, but none in my hands, and although I can’t remember who I’m waiting for, I know there’s someone out there who’ll come for me. But no, what if they can’t find me? What if it’s been too long, days rather than hours, that I’ve been walking? The emptiness in my stomach and rust building in my throat certainly speaks to something.
Jack, I remember. Jack’s waiting for me. But is he looking? What if he thinks I’m gone? Why did he come for me in the first place?
I’ve lost all sense of myself, but worry still creeps up along my spine, making me shiver--unless it’s just the cold. I can’t be alone again, I won’t have it, so why did I leave? What was I looking for?
My mind spins in cycles, I know I’m sitting for a reason, my eyes are closed on purpose, either for peace or concealment, from what? I know I remembered earlier, so why can’t I remember now?
The cold’s really getting to me, the slow tears seeping out of my eyes have frozen, and I don’t think I could open them if I wanted to. I’m not afraid, just tired, and a little hopeless--the cold doesn’t hurt anymore, just feels like a perpetual, crushing silence. As if I’m ten feet underwater waiting for my ears to pop, for the lack of air to get to me so I finally have to let go and take a breath.
But then I’ll drown, won’t I?
It’s a soft voice that shakes me--it’s kind, unsettlingly so. I feel him sit next to me, and it’s too cold to feel our arms brush, but I know they do anyway.
I smile. “Jack.”
“Why did you leave?” He asks.
I sigh. “Don’t remember. Too cold.” I pause. “I think I was thirsty.” So that’s why.
“There’s water in the car, you know. Or snow on the ground”
“I know.” I want to tell him the car was locked, that the snow held what was left of my tears and his footprints and all the unfamiliarity and aloneness in the world, but I can’t find the words, so I just say “sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He sighs, and I hear the smile in his voice when he asks, “why’re you sitting?”
“Was tired.” I say.
We sit in silence for a bit, and it’s peaceful, forgiving. I don’t feel safe, don’t know if I ever will again, but for a while, the world is still, and that’s enough. This can’t be forever, I’m reminded, as I hear him shift positions, crunching the snow as he does. I inhale deeply, but my lungs can’t get enough of the bitingly cold air, so I stop trying. My breath becomes shallow and all too quick.
“You okay?” He asks.
“You know,” Jack starts, and his voice has gained a playful tone I didn’t think I’d ever hear. “You haven’t even told me your name.”
“Don’t remember,” I mumble. I concentrate. “Think it started with a J though.”
Jack laughs. “Like mine?”
“I’ll just call you J then,” he says. “If that’s fine.”
I hum in approval at the tiny piece of my identity I’ve regained. It feels nice, it feels like the rest is possible, like I’m one step closer to opening my eyes.
“Why are your eyes closed?”
“It’s the ice.” I explain. “Locked them shut.”
“I don’t believe you.”
I nod. “Okay.”
It’s silent again, but long gone is the peaceful stillness I’d so coveted, replaced by an awkward closure I can’t savour. I sigh. “I’m scared.”
“Of looking.” I gesture in the general direction of the frozen-over pond, let my arm drop back to my side. Jack hums thoughtfully.
“I can’t remember.”
He doesn’t ask what, or why, instead says, “you have to do it.”
I feel my brow furrow, thawing my frozen face. “Why?”
“Because otherwise, you won’t be able to leave.”
The breath I’ve been holding in finally leaves me, my ears pop, I take the breath that drowns me.
But I’m fine. The air in my lungs burns, but I’m still here, still alive.
“What if I don’t want to leave?” I whisper. Jack doesn’t answer--doesn’t have to.
“I'll break the ice for you,” he says instead, taking my hand in his own--or so I assume, by the sudden warmth I feel melting the frozen and hardened lines of my palm. I say nothing, but feel him let go, hide my yearning for the all too brief warmth.
“I’m leaning over the pond.” He tells me. “Gonna split the ice now.”
It’s the loudest sound I’ve heard in weeks, he could have shattered the entire world for all I know.
But I can’t say--my eyes are still closed. I do feel it though, the pain coursing through my hand at the thought of his splintering the ice, can almost picture the redness and aching knuckles.
“I’m sorry.” I whisper.
“You won’t be if you look.”
And now I know I have to. It’s the standing at the edge of a precipice with nothing to hold you back, no one behind you to keep you from falling. It’s the second before you dive into a pool, the adrenaline of knowing you’re going through with it and nothing, not even yourself, can change it. It’s the believing in something so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be true, but the thrill of that possibility is more than enough to keep you going: the perpetually exhilarating feeling of almost-there-maybe.
And as I feel the muscles twitch in my eyes, I’m reminded of the feeling of falling right before you finally sleep, when you’re lying on solid ground but the entire world somehow disintegrates below you and lets you go.
I open my eyes.
It’s sunrise, and the rays of light reflecting off the snow-coated ground nearly blind me, but it’s beautiful and daunting and so real. The tears I was holding back melt and fall, crystallizing on the ground into something not ugly, brimming with memories of hurt, but new, and shiny, they hold all the vivifying colors of sunrise.
I want to look at Jack, but I know I’ll see him in the reflection, would rather see him beside me than alone, dark hair a stark contrast against the pale snow. I slowly lean forwards, I can see the dark ripples of the water shrouding a face, but my vision is still spotty from the sun and there’s too many colors dancing across my eyes. I want to close them again but I know I can’t, know it’ll be the end if I do.
I breathe, my pulse a deafening beat in my own head, heart ready to fly out of my chest, as I lean even further, searching for the two figures, side by side, one an empty pool of firestarter and the other a match box with no spark.
But when my eyes adjust and I can finally look down to the glistening empty below me, all I see, staring back at me, is a solitary boy with dark hair and piercing eyes and frozen tears stuck to his face, and we smile at each other.
“Hey Jack,” we whisper.