Light on Snow
Though I imagined spending the six-hour drive to the cabin listening to podcasts and talking with Tom, it turned out to be lovely to have him sleep. It was perfect. I was alone without having to truly be alone. I never knew how much I enjoyed being in the presence of a sleeping human. Knowing he was there made it feel safe to think about hard-to-think-about things, like the fact that I had no idea what to do with my life. Time seemed to be moving so fast and everyone around me was figuring things out except me. I had no internship, no lab experience, and mediocre grades in a slew of odd classes. My boyfriend and I smoked too much weed and drank lots of sodas and ate processed foods. I didn’t like that if I doubled my age I’d be forty, and if I doubled that, eighty. Eventually my behavior would catch up with me. I think I read that at twenty-two our brain cells start dying. I knew two girls who began getting grey hairs at twenty-three. My life was slipping away before it’d started.
What was nice about Tom was that he had a lot of fears, too. Some might say we fed off each other, that we built a ladder of anxiety and pushed each other off again and again, but I happened to feel differently. I liked that he had fears and understood mine. I had become so sick of young people being fearless and stupid.
Tom thought it was funny I worried about aging and finding “the right career path.” He liked to remind me of how meaningless everything is.
“Who cares if your butt sags, really? Who cares if you are dumber if you yourself won’t know the difference?”
“But will you still love me when if I’m not as pretty or as smart? When I’m old?”
He also thought it was sweet that I assumed I’d live to be into my eighties. He called me an idealist. I called him an ass. He recounted of all the ways we might die before then and how little it’d matter in the grand scheme of things.
“Except, I should clarify,” he said. “It would matter to me, if you died. It just wouldn’t matter universally, in the grand scheme of things. But I would genuinely be sad.”
I knew what he meant, and I appreciated him for saying it in that way. He said I needed to prepare for the possibility of anything, and the certainty of death. If there was one thing he could promise, it was that someone I love would eventually disappear, one way or another. His father had died when he was in high school, but he said that was beyond the point. The point was that there is no point, but that that’s okay. Why that he thought this was inherently okay, I still don’t understand.
He looked like a little boy as I drove onward. He had kicked off his boots and used his coat as a pillow. All around me there was grey except to my right there was my hung-over boyfriend in a red wool sweater. He had burrowed into a scrunched ball of his own body, and his blonde hair fell across his forehead and tangled in his eyelashes. His eyelids twitched. With my fingers I swept his hair out of his face. He seemed so small and innocuous—thin and curled.
Snow began to fall. I stopped to get gas on the edge of a small town that lapped up against the foothills. We were in a valley and a river of light from the sunset poured through, illuminating the crystals of snow in the thin air. I filled the tank and walked into the tiny station to use the bathroom. Though the cold whipped my face and stung my eyes, it also excited me. I began to run from the car to the building. It wasn’t far, but running made me feel like I was moving toward something important and it made me giddy about the next few days in the mountains.
I skipped past the candy bars and coffee stand into the unisex bathroom. I slipped down my jeans and sat on the bone-cold toilet seat, my teeth chattering. I peed slowly, savoring the feeling of growing lighter and freer. Afterward, I washed my hands under hot water at the sink. I looked in the mirror. My long back hair spilled out from under my pink knit hat and earmuffs. I looked like a kid myself. I guess we were kids, only twenty. But I felt so removed from the time I was a child. Where did the time go? Wasn’t I just ten and coming up here, eager for the chance to sled down hills on top of trashcan lids? When did things double?
I bought a machine-made vanilla cappuccino for me and some Gatorade for Tom in case he’d need any electrolytes to help his hangover. I also got some peppermint chocolates and a bag of barbeque-flavored chips. The man at the counter was wrinkled and kind. I couldn’t remember if I’d met him before, possibly on a past drive. I stared into his brown eyes and said thank you when he gave me my change.
As I approached the car, I noticed that there was no smoke steaming around it, no glowing headlights. It seemed strange that Tom hadn’t turned it on. He must be freezing, I thought. I quickened my pace accidentally spilling coffee on my coat. When I arrived at the car pawing at the stain, I saw Tom wasn’t in it. My fingers were numb from the short jog back to the car. I opened the door and tossed the Gatorade and snacks into the passenger seat and turned on the ignition to get the heater going. I sipped my coffee while I waited for him to return from the bathroom. I imagined him getting sick in the unisex toilet and called his cell phone, only to hear it ring from his backpack in the back seat. I drove the car into one of the front parking spots so someone else could fill their car with gas. Another ten minutes passed before I went in and looked around. He wasn’t in the bathroom or stretching his legs in the parking lot. I went inside to ask the nice store clerk, but he hadn’t seen a boyish blonde man in a red sweater either. He said he’d keep an eye out and asked for a description of Tom, which I saw him write down on a small notepad.
I hadn’t thought to be nervous, I’d only felt annoyed, but now I was scared. He had seemed so deflated of energy—it was hard to imagine him going anywhere. And there wasn’t really anywhere to go. The center of town had been about a mile back, and this was the last station before the winding road carved into the high parts of the mountain range.
The wind hissed and pricked my skin with what felt like knives as I walked the circumference of the station, gulping down the rest of my lukewarm cappuccino. There were no other buildings around from what I could make out in the darkness. All I could think to do was walk around the edge of the parking lot that butted up against pine trees. I called out his name, but heard nothing besides the wind and cars.
The only possibility I could imagine was that he had wandered into the forest area. I returned to the car and changed shoes. I had on fluffy boots that were more like house shoes and they’d grown muddy and wet. I put on my real winter boots. I saw his boots were gone and he’d taken his winter coat, though he forgot his hat. My chest rose and fell with urgency while snowflakes lightly landed on my arms. No matter what was happening, the snow could be beautiful and it certainly was so on this evening.
I kept my car parked in front of the gas station, and I walked along the border of the piney forest. It smelled like Christmas. If he had walked into the woods, it was impossible for me to tell where. There was no real trail. When I came across an area that had been littered with beer cans, I decided to enter. I thought if kids or homeless people had hung out there, maybe a trail could exist nearby? Or maybe it would have attracted Tom? It wasn’t great logic, but it was all I had.
“Tom?” I called out. The temperature was dropping quickly.
I walked on the forest floor, a mixture of leaves, snow, and earth. I used my phone to light the dark evening. As I gained altitude, the trees grew taller and grander.
A small stream flowed nearby—I could hear it. I shined my phone to the left and saw the brook; it had begun to freeze over. There were icicles hanging like crystal daggers from low branches that stretched above the stream. Water always leads down, so I knew if I kept the sound of trickling water in my range I could find the stream and it would lead me back.
A rustling sound came from above, so I hiked forward as best I could for what felt like hours. It was probably just one. I screamed out again and again. I eventually started singing loudly, as I grew so bored and dreary yelling “Tom, is that you?” I didn’t understand, and I was so, so cold. Why the hell would Tom have gone up here like this? Had he gone up here like this? I patted my gloved hands on my face. They smelled like cheap vanilla coffee. I was worried my skin had peeled off because my face felt raw and bloody.
The sound wasn’t him. It was a trick—a large, wet-eyed elk running away from me, higher into the dense woods.
I sat down and watched my heavy breathing form a smoke-like mass in front of me. I started to shake and pulled my knees into my center, as if instinctively trying to protect my vital organs. I was alone, shivering. My fingers looked like long, pearly ghosts. I took off my gloves and bunched my hands into fists. I couldn’t feel my joints when I flexed them. I started to think it was highly unlikely my boyfriend was up here. Maybe I should have driven around town to see if he had tried to walk somewhere to grab food or something, instead of roaming aimlessly in the black hills of a winter’s night. I was now in a bad place and all I wanted was to be in the cabin drinking beers we had bought with our fake IDs.
The snow was falling gently, like puffs of shimmery cotton floating through the sky. The night was dreary, yet stunning. It was surprising how much could live up here, how many trees and plants and probably animals, though dressed in properly evolved coats, no doubt.
Sometimes Tom and I would play a game: who could think of the worst way to die. Being scraped to death by a potato peeler was at the top of his list. Mine was falling into an abandoned water well or mine shaft. We’d also play: which death is worst? We actually had some pretty fundamental differences. He insisted drowning would be better than burning to death, and I completely disagreed. He thought deaths involving cruel and unusual torture were the worst. I believed there was nothing more awful than dying alone. At least if you are tortured, there is another human in your presence. There is at least a witness.
“Would you rather know you are going to die beforehand or not?” I’d asked. Basically: cancer or car wreck? I assumed Tom would be a definite “car wreck” since I was a definite “cancer.” But he surprised me.
“That’s a tricky one. I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s selfish, but I can honestly say I’d want to know if you were going to die, before it happened. I can say that. Even if it meant prolonged pain for you.”
I would then wriggle my body against his, nuzzling into his chest with my uncontrollable smile. I loved to feel loved. I almost wished I had cancer, just to prove to him I’d do whatever he wanted. At the same time, I didn’t want to die. What I really felt was overwhelmed with gratitude that we were both reasonably healthy and young. He said that when you love someone so much, it makes death less scary. Because you know if you die, it’s okay because you’ve lived. I thought that was so stupid. I believed the looming reality of death made it almost impossible to enjoy our love, knowing it would end eventually. I thought love made death even more terrifying. There was more to lose.
I’d been sitting on the dark ground and the melting snow began to seep into the stiff cold fabric of my jeans. It was cold beyond cold, and I thought my fingers might break off. I called out another time for Tom, but not with much effort. It was a pathetic whisper of a song that matched my inner state well. I watched the snow land on the furry pine trees, decorating the branches. If one branch became too burdened, it would simply release the powdery snow, which then fell to the forest floor like dust.
I took turns sticking my greyish white fingers into my mouth. I’d place a finger in there and then close my lips around the icy flesh. I wished I could find Tom. Or that he would find me. I wondered if he needed his fingers in my mouth. I’d never asked him about his opinion on freezing to death. At least it would be in a somewhat beautiful place. I knew he would factor that in when making his decision.
I could no longer hear the stream against the wind’s sibilance. The night was black and every direction looked like the other. I started to wonder, what were my thoughts on freezing to death alone? I wanted to talk to Tom about this. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t feeling how I would have imagined I’d feel in this sort of predicament. I was feeling extremely cold, which I would have guessed, yes, but I would have assumed that I’d be much more frightened about dying alone. I wanted to talk to Tom about how strange it could be to feel opposing thoughts at once. In the dark hush of the forest, I didn’t mind the idea of dying by myself. I actually felt it would be peaceful, surrounded by the pristine snow. I thought of how many animals went off to die alone, and how it actually might be a good way to go.
In contrast, I was also feeling furious that I might have to die for trying to do something good. And at such a young age, for such an idiotic reason. If I died trying to find my boyfriend who wandered away from a fucking gas station, I was going to be pissed. Tom wouldn’t really care if he died at twenty, he wouldn’t feel cheated, but I would.
I stood up and began walking in the direction that seemed to be back down the mountain. I kept pressing buttons on my phone to light up my steps. I accepted that I was possibly leaving Tom to freeze. Yet, I didn’t want to turn into ice alone up there, and it was possible I could get more help if I went back down. And it was possible he was back at the car, pissed it was locked. Actually, that would be kind of hilarious if I died freezing trying to save him from freezing when he was actually stoned and trying to break into my car.
I heard a stick snap to the right of me. I called out. My voice was hoarse.
“Tom?” I yelled. “Tom!”
“Tom! Is that you?” I said. “I’m coming. Are you okay? I’m walking over there, keep yelling!”
“Hello, ma’am?” someone said. “Are you alright?”
“Keep talking so I can find you. It’s very dark.” I said. “Yes, I’m okay.”
“Your boyfriend’s back!”
I flashed my phone light and saw the outlines of the old man who worked at the store.
“Sir, what are you doing out here?”
“I was worried you got lost.”
“Is Tom okay?”
“Yes, he just appeared out of nowhere. He said he’d fallen asleep on a walk. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“Is he hurt? Is he okay?”
“He’s not hurt. Listen, I don’t judge or nothing, but he smelled like a skunk and his eyes were bloodshot.”
“Where is he?”
“He borrowed my truck and is driving up and down the road looking for you. But I was worried you might have come up here, and it’s so cold.”
The man was shaking and had on no gloves.
“Where are your gloves, sir?”
“Oh, I forgot them.”
“Can you feel your fingers?”
“No actually I can’t. I’m a little worried.”
I was finally right up to him. He was about my height and what little hair he had on his head stood straight up. I gave him my gloves though they were too small he took them. It was unspoken that I owed him for trying to save me. It was unspoken that he had actually gotten lost and could have died.
“Sir, have you seen a little stream by any chance?”
“I think that way,” he pointed right.
We walked quietly and eventually heard the faint trickle of water. I’d never found a sound so soothing as I did in that moment. I told him we should follow it back down. The stream looked as if it had frozen even more so since I left its sight. It was beautiful and icy and there was moss around the rocks that glowed green in the night. I began to feel much warmer. I was confident I was going to live. Tom was safe, and I was glad, but I couldn’t stop smiling, knowing that I wasn’t going to freeze to death alone in the night.
At a certain point we began to see yellowy white lights shining through the pines. “The gas station,” the man said, pointing. Though I was exhausted and beginning to feel bitterly angry, I was stunned by the piercing combination of light on snow awakening all of my senses, forcing me alert. Forcing me alive. I felt very grateful.
Shannon Schaefer Perri, Light On Snow
American, b. 1988, playing from Austin, TX, USA
Shannon Schaefer Perri is from Austin Texas. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiddleblack and In The Fray. She is the Digital Editor for The Austin Review.