by Ronald Linson
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The sled betrays me. In classic Newtonian fashion, it shoots out from under me and my lunge turns into a stationary belly flop. My legs crash through, and I know exactly what’s meant by heart-stopping.
The backpack drags me down. It’s all I can do to keep my head above water. Then I remember the pry bar. With rapidly numbing fingers, I scrabble for it. I free it from the side pocket, hoping it doesn’t slip from my grasp, and praying to any god or goddess who will listen, jam it into the ice.
I cling to my ersatz anchor, but I can’t get enough leverage to pull myself out of the water, but if I don’t get out soon, I never will.
I release the emergency snaps and let the backpack sink. Hauling myself onto the ice, I half crawl, half shimmy towards the shore, clutching the pry bar all the while. Collapsing onto the snow, I look back across the lake. The sled rests a couple of meters beyond the black wound in the ice, mocking me.
My clothing is waterproof, and according to its advertisements, it “sneers derisively at all forms of precipitation.” They made no mention of immersion, though, and I’m soaked. I pull off my boots, drain the water, and then wring out my socks.
An inventory of my pockets reveals that I still have all my remaining ration bars, which I transferred from my pack when I found the canned food. I also have flint and the blessed pry bar. I can make fire the old-fashioned way.
I make camp amidst a group of boulders. It’s not perfect, but it does block most of the wind. Once the fire is roaring, I remove my outer clothing, letting the heat do its work.
While eating a ration bar, I decide to go back to the town. It’ll only take a couple of days, and there’s food and equipment, and maybe I can even find a replacement for my backpack. And no more foolish diversions like sledding.
After constructing my snowman sentry, I stoke the fire. Then I settle down to sleep, but my thoughts race. I may not reach the eastern shore first, but simply finishing at all has its rewards too. I won’t get as much money or fame, but plenty of doors would open for me. Maybe I can even become an actor or fashion designer, or better yet, start my own survivalist tourism business.
I must have slept because I wake to snow falling on my face. Not much more than a dusting has accumulated, but I’d best be going before it comes down harder.
“Good morning,” I say to the snowman as I examine the ground. “Nice job. I can’t stay to chat, though. The race awaits.”
The snowman rotates its head towards me. “May the best man win,” it says.
I slap the heels of my palms against my eyes and rub hard. When I look again, the snowman is back to its normal, inanimate self. I squeeze my eyes shut and blink a few times. No change. Reaching out with an unsteady hand, I touch it. It’s cold and wet, plain old snow.
“Okay,” I say, turning away. “I’m not crazy. I fell in an icy lake and it’s making me hallucinate a little, that’s all. I’m not crazy.”
I set a brisk pace immediately, not looking back. The snowfall is going to present a serious problem. The easiest way to get back to the town is to retrace my steps. That will be increasingly difficult as my tracks are filled in.
I skirt the lake, find my sled track, and follow it uphill. The snow begins to fall more heavily. Even so, my tracks are still pretty clear. It helps that I’ve kept to a trajectory of due east, so even if I lose my trail, heading due west should bring me back to the town.
Several hours pass, and as I had feared, my tracks are fading. The wind has begun to gust, blowing the snow around.
Something moves at the edge of my vision. When I look directly at it, there’s nothing. I take several steps and see it again. This time, I catch sight of white on white as it ducks behind a large rock. When I go and look behind it... nothing.
By afternoon, the storm has developed into a blizzard. My trail is all but gone. To make matters worse, there are things following me. Sometimes they run ahead, and I glimpse them peeking out from behind a rock or tree. Other times, they’re behind me when I turn around, right out in the open.
I don’t want to believe it, but they’re snowmen. Snowmen just like the ones I made to watch over me at night.
Once, I turn, and the snowman is no more than three meters behind me. “What do you want,” I scream at it. “Is it because I killed the other one?” I laugh, even though I’m terrified. “I’m not sorry! He failed in his duty.”
The snowman stands there, unmoving, staring balefully at me.
“Go away!” I shout, and then I run.
I run and run and run. I run through ever-deepening snow. I stumble and fall. I pick myself up and keep running.
I fall again, and again, and each time it’s harder to get up. Then I fall, and I can’t get up.
It is cold. So cold. It’s too cold. I can’t get up. I can’t move. I can’t...
Then it starts to feel warm. It’s nice, and I’m so tired. This is a good place to rest.
I dream that I’m strolling along the beach on Aquamarine, a resort world famed for its sands of that hue. I know I’m dreaming because I’m wearing a winter parka and snow leggings, and despite the warmth of the day, I feel perfectly comfortable.
The suns — one brilliant white, the other fiery orange — shine down from a cloudless pale blue sky. A trio of windsurfers with rainbow sails cavort a hundred meters offshore, while farther up the beach, families frolic in the breakers.
A child runs over and offers me a fluorescent green shell. I take it from her and hold it to my ear. I hear the sound of the ocean, but also, more faintly, a rhythmic beeping. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.
The girl smiles at me. Judging by the blue-green tint of her eyes and lips, she’s a native. I return the smile, holding out the shell.
She shakes her head. “Beep-beep,” she says. “Beep-beep.”
I awaken to an unfamiliar ceiling. My head feels thick, my thoughts in slow motion. There is a beeping sound, which confuses me until two realizations coalesce at once. I’m in a hospital, and I’m attached to a heart monitor.
“Good, you’re awake,” a female voice says. A nurse.
“What happened?” I croak.
“You are very lucky, Mr. Wilder,” the nurse says. “You were suffering from extreme frostbite and hypothermia. I believe you were clinically dead for a while there. Very, very lucky.”
“Huh?” I manage to grunt. My throat hurts.
“They retrieved you just in the nick of time,” she says. “Everybody’s talking about it. Most retrievals are corpses, you know.”
I feel like a corpse. I can’t move. I can’t even turn my head. Panic seizes me for an instant, then I relax. My whole body, head to toe, is swaddled in hard regenerative bandages.
“Here,” the nurse says. “Let me give you some water.”
She leans over me. Her face is round and white, her eyes a pair of dark irregular stones, with six more underneath them in a crooked grin.
Copyright © 2015 by Ronald Linson