He pulled his coat close and raised the collar as the crisp autumn air grew colder, whipping around him fiercely and threatening to carry him away like the leaves barely hanging on to the limbs overhead. The beautiful fiery oranges, reds, and yellows waved in the growing wind, fanning like flames. The warm amber light of the setting sun, instead of igniting the brilliant foliage in an array of blazing tones, turned dull and gray.
The cooling air of the evening stole away every last leaf, stripping the trees bare and sweeping off the walkway ahead of him. He huddled against the dropping temperatures nipping at his face and clawing through his jacket as he hurried on his way, cutting through the park on his walk to his apartment. Tonight, he was alone. None of the people he usually saw on his trek home were present in the park, probably scared off by the sudden change in the weather. No one sat on the benches reading the paper. No joggers passed him by. No children or dogs. No starry-eyed lovers lost in each other’s beauty.
No, tonight it was just him. Just him and the autumn leaves drifting away on the breeze. He stopped as one last leaf floated down before him, dancing as it made its way to the concrete sidewalk at his feet. He tracked its motions with his eyes, following it all the way. It was the last one not to be blown away, the last one to fall.
As it landed, frost formed, lining its edges, and when it stopped, when it finally came to a rest, lying perfectly still, lines of frost jutted out from it, tracing the cracks in the pavement, the spaces between the concrete and the grass. It flowed out from that single spot, coating everything in a sudden burst of winter. Soon, the entire world would be crystallized if it continued unchecked.
Stepping back suddenly, he saw his own breath rising in the deepening gloom. Night had begun to fall quickly, and soon he found himself in the deepest winter night, shivering, huddling and hugging himself, ill-prepared for this unexpected shift. But why?
In the space between the lights standing along the walkway, he found his answer. Darkness sat heavy, thick, and cold there, but he saw something. A shadow stared back at him, its silhouette darker than the surrounding night. Its eyes were even darker and as deep as the sky.
“Whoever you are, whatever you want, you can have it.” He panicked, reaching for his wallet, thrusting his coat open for a second to reach for his back pocket. The sudden wintry air gripped him with its icy claws, and he winced, dropping his coat back into place.
“You fool, I don’t want your money,” she chuckled (yes, she) as she stepped forward, emerging from the shadows and into the dim yellow light. Her long black hair flowed behind her like it was part of the night, shadows trailing from the shroud of darkness she left behind.
Slack-jawed and unable to find the words to express what he felt in that moment, he stared at her long, gaunt face and bony frame. She wore a long dark gray sweater draped over her body like a dress. Her jeans had tears in the knees and across her thighs. Her plain shirt hung loosely over her thin body. She crossed her arms in front of herself, wrapping her pointy, crooked fingers over her upper arms. One severe eyebrow raised as she looked at this foolish man standing in front of her.
“I’ve come here for something much more valuable.”
Her arctic breath carried a chill far worse than anything the night had offered so far. Yet, he found that he no longer shivered in her presence. The cold had bitten down to his bones, and now he felt nothing at all. Completely numb.
“Wouldn’t you like to know, young man, what it is I’ve come in search of tonight?” She placed a strong, hard hand under his chin and aligned his face with hers. She stepped closer.
“Yes,” he said without emotion, his voice flat.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not a good boy.”
She moved in closer, letting go of his chin and grabbing his arms. She pulled them around her waist so that he held her against his body. He felt every bone under his touch, even through her sweater and shirt. She nestled up against him, resting her head on his chest and sliding her spindly hands under his coat.
He sucked breath in between his chattering teeth as her icy touch pierced his clothing and went straight to his skin. His muscles tensed against the painful chill. His skin tightened. No matter what dark frost had come down with the breeze, she was colder.
Warm me, she said, but he couldn’t see her dark lips move. Her voice hadn’t sounded on the night air. She spoke in his head now, her voice intruding upon his thoughts.
His grip tightened around her frail form, her vulnerability activating some instinct in him to care for her, to protect her. He rubbed her back, running his hands over the bumps in her back that were her ribs and spine. He couldn’t tell that she was warming up; in fact, it felt like the opposite was happening. Both of them grew colder.
“Let me get you somewhere warm, somewhere safe,” he breathed, his voice little more than a chilled whisper, freezing and crackling as it escaped his lips.
They weren’t far from an all-night diner where a cup of coffee and some warm food would surely put color back in her cheeks and take the bite off her chill. Then, once they’d warmed up over dinner, he could decide what to do next to help her on her way, maybe even find out why she’d appeared there the way she did to begin with. First, the immediate threat of the cold needed to be addressed. He couldn’t have her freezing to death against him.
I’m not the one freezing, she told him quietly, and the girl nestled against him looked up with a cunning, narrow darkness in her eyes, her stare hard and sharp like icicles. Her lips, turning a bright wintry blue now, curled up in a wicked smile, revealing jagged teeth.
He tried to let go, tried to pull away from her and run, but he couldn’t move. Stiff with cold, all he could do was stare as she pulled up his shirt and dug her icy nails deep into his flesh. He tried to gasp, but the air burned his lungs, and then his throat clenched when they stopped pulling in air.
A moment later, her lips were over his, smothering his face with her macabre kiss. She sucked against his mouth, and he felt what little air had been left in his chest leave his body. Something else left then, too, something she pulled from deeper in him. It started with that old familiar tug – the one he felt when he heard a song that moved him, or the way nostalgia tried to pull him back to better days, or that longing he felt for a simpler time when he was a kid and actually felt the magic of the world around him. But now something snapped, separated itself from him, and followed her.
She pulled her lips back from his to let him see the dark wisps leaving his body and entering hers. What was that? Was that the valuable thing she’d told him she came for? Was that . . . his soul?
Yes, it was, my love. Thank you. She smiled and wiped her chin before drifting back into the shadows.
They found him the next morning, crumpled up on the walk through the park, surrounded by an outline of dead brown leaves. It was later determined that he’d died of hypothermia. The temperature the night before had only reached down in the fifties, and he seemed more than adequately dressed to survive a walk home in those temperatures. Still, his skin was cold to the touch, and all of his internal organs had frozen solid. They found strange marks on his chest and sides that resembled freezer burn. No one saw a dark-haired wintry wraith drifting through the park hungry for men’s souls.