By Katie Hart
He told her he knew a spot that wasn’t too far but he had totally lied. They’ve been walking for several minutes and she can barely keep up with his long, quick strides. The snow swirls around her face and stings her eyes, and her black leather jacket that barely greets her hips is no match for this cold, unmerciful wind.
Still, the footprints he leaves behind lead her forward. They’re a foot deep, like a trail of wells in the snow, and big enough to fit inside so that her bare legs don’t touch the walls. She plants her slim black boot where his thick boot has been and it feels intimate, like drinking water from a glass he’s just used.
His ponytail swooshes across his back as he peers through the trees to his left and right, then turns to look over his shoulder. “Just a little bit further,” he coaxes her. His voice is gravelly like sandpaper, and his tone is soft, as one would speak to a timid animal.
True to his word, after a few more paces he turns off the path and leads her into a tiny paradise. It is a clearing big enough for two or three people, surrounded by towering evergreens whose branches overlap each other. The wind dies down inside this sanctuary and the snow around her looks soft and peaceful—even pretty, she admits. As he shakes a couple cigarettes out of his pack, she nudges her toes deeper into his footprint wells, remembering how the dogs in The Call of the Wild go to sleep by burrowing under a blanket of snow.
He lights both cigarettes in his mouth with the flourish of a silver lighter, then snaps it closed with a loud metal clink. He hands her one. Their fingertips brush and a tingling sensation travels up her arm and spreads around her chest. He is standing close, his legs wide, almost straddling her hip. His chin could rest on her head if he leaned forward a couple inches. She smells fried grease on his collar but she doesn’t mind. Body odor, cologne, beer breath—it’s all the same. It’s just the scent of a boy when he’s near you.
He blows smoke at the smoke-colored sky. “So what’s your name?” he asks.
“Sh—” she starts to say, but something catches in her throat. She clears it. “Sheesha,” she finally answers.
“Shee-sha?” he repeats, his eyes growing wide. But they aren’t laughing eyes, or judgmental eyes. “Never heard that name before.”
Neither had the girl in the cafeteria, apparently, with the table of friends Sheesha had tried to join a half hour ago. “So, Sheila, where are you from?” the girl had asked from across the round wooden table. And when Sheesha had corrected her, the stifled giggles from behind the other girls’ hands pretty much tipped her off. That was the moment when everything fell silent. Boys shouting at other tables, silverware clanking and scraping across the entire cafeteria—none of it made a sound. All she could hear was the wind moaning outside, hollow and blowing around with nowhere to go. She could see it through the windows, kicking up snow and shaking the trees. She felt a gust of it go straight through her ribs when the girl replied, “Sheesha? Your name is Shee-sha? Are you sure you just don’t have a speech impediment?”
“It’s the name my mom used to call me,” she tells the boy. Her New Orleans accent sounds different in this northern Michigan weather. Her voice is nasally and off-key, like a horned instrument being tuned. She wonders if she always sounded like this but never noticed, because everyone else back home sounded that way, too.
“That’s cool,” he says, nodding his head. The commotion from a squirrel leaping in the branches above him showers snow down the neck of his jacket, which is faded black leather, and a much bulkier, warmer, and more practical version of hers.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“Adam.” He smiles sheepishly. “Just plain old Adam. You can’t make a nickname out of that.”
She contemplates. “What about just Dam?”
“Dam? That’s your idea of a nickname?” He laughs and pinches her arm, which actually hurts because her jacket is so thin. She squeals and wriggles away, happy to forget for a moment how painfully numb her toes feel because she is not wearing socks, and the front sole of her left boot is split open, and that whole theory about burying her feet beneath the snow is not succeeding in warming them up. Her eyes meet his eyes and neither of them looks away. Their smiles seem to mirror each other and she worries that her lips are turning blue beneath her blood-red lipstick, because that would be rather frightening.
Adam tilts his head and says, “I oughta take you skiing sometime.”
Sheesha takes an extra long drag of her cigarette. She is aware that she is both attracted, and not attracted, to this Adam, and the way he said “skiing sometime” suggested more than just hitting the slopes. Though he is cute in a grungy, pierced-ear, scruffy beard kind of way, she sees up close that he is a bit older than she’d thought. His teeth are tinged beige and there are tiny crinkles next to his eyes, and the skin beneath his stubble is dry and gray, like the ashes at the end of her cigarette.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m from the South. We think black diamonds are jewelry.”
His elbow nudges her arm. “Oh, come on. We’ll practice on the bunny hill for as long as you want.”
She shakes her head. “Nah, I don’t think so.” She gestures with her lacy fingerless gloves to her ensemble: clingy black skirt cut well above the knee, and a cropped jacket that protects her like cardboard. “I’m not really the outdoorsy type.”
“No, I guess you’re not.” He takes the knit cap off his head and fits it onto hers. Jokingly, he pulls it over her eyes until she bats his hands away. She adjusts it, fixes her bangs, and presses the cloth lovingly against her ears. The shivering majority of her body that isn’t covered by this new warmth feels excluded and jealous and naked.
She looks at him and his smile has something loose to it that wasn’t there before when she’d approached him at the hot food counter and asked him point-blank if he had a cigarette he would give her. She’d liked his looks, his quiet manner, the way he seemed so out of place in his food-stained white apron, and the way his gaze had lingered on her when he’d scooped her some baked lasagna. He seemed different from the other adults and not much older than the other students, and there was something about his stare that meant he understood something about her that the rest of them did not.
“There’s a shed close by,” he says. “We could get in from the cold, if you want. I’ve got a fifth of Jack in my pocket.”
The mention of booze makes her inhale another long, deep drag of her cigarette. She’s probably got ten minutes left before her afternoon class. Her first class, actually, since she’d only arrived on campus in a taxi that morning and spent most of it with the admissions counselor. She paws the ground the way the horses do in the streets of the French Quarter, restless but held back by their harnesses.
“I don’t know,” she tells him. Her leg stomps the ground a few times. “I guess it’s a long way to come for just one cigarette.”
“Yep.” He nods. “Let’s burn another and try to get the blood flowing again.”
She smoothes her boot across the trampled snow like vanilla icing over a cake. Maybe he’ll offer to carry her, she thinks. Pressing her eyelashes together, she sees the one time with the one boy where it was actually nice—incense burning, candles flickering, damp sheets clinging to the smooth arch of his back as he moved in rhythm on top of her, and the song of a long ago dead French woman on her record player sounding so beautiful it split her heart open like a knife.
“There’s no electricity or blankets or anything, but I’ll keep you warm,” he says, putting his hand on her back.
His touch makes her shiver. She chucks her cigarette into the snow and shakes her head. “Wait a second. No.” Her eyes blink rapidly as a certain thought becomes clear to her. “I need music.”
“If there isn’t music playing, then it’s just . . . friction.”
A ridge forms between Adam’s brows, but then he smiles. “All right, I can whistle pretty good if that helps.”
Sheesha shakes her head more violently this time.
“A romantic,” he says to the trees. “Don’t you know where you are?” He sweeps his hand at the nearby branches and includes in his gesture the miles of forest beyond them.
“No,” she says, frustrated. “I don’t. That’s the problem.” Turning and stepping and stumbling out of the clearing, she hears church bells ringing from somewhere far off, possibly from back home, possibly from memory, and she knows they are meant for her. Adam walks towards her and calls something out to make her change her mind but she can barely hear him. She sees the long trail of his footprints leading back to the lodge, which she hopes is still there, and decides to make her own footprints. The wind slaps her face as she squares her shoulders and plunges straight into its howl. Her steps are more up and down than straight forward, but excitement gives her speed. Once she loses her balance and falls onto her knees, but the snow crumbles for her, like skin taking a bruise, and she feels no pain or coldness.
The snow is beautiful and she is beautiful and she is returning and he is far, far behind.
Katie Hart has worked in the Subsidiary Rights department at St. Martin's Press and studied fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago. Currently she lives in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, where she is learning organic gardening, herbal medicine and homesteading skills.
This is Katie's first published story.