Out of the Cold

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Chapter 2

It was hot out. Not that that was a surprise, but it needed to be said. At that time of year, the sun was always blisteringly hot. The air was heavy and sticky and the ground dry and cracked. During those days, fine golden brown dust covered everything in sight. The waves of heat that would rise above the ground created mirages beneath of wide, glassy lakes. A rather lonely house with sun-faded yellow walls stood in the middle of a large fenced-in clearing. A light breeze fluffed the blades of crabgrass as small reams of dust moved across the ground.

On the porch of the house knelt a young woman, crying as though her world had just shattered. Her sobs punctured the still air while tears streaked down her face. A little girl peered around the doorjamb at the woman, watching her weep. Her head was cocked to the side, her grey eyes were wide and her out-of-control red hair shone like a halo around her freckled face. A heavy hand landed on her shoulder and the girl started. She tipped her head back and looked into a pair of deep silver eyes that mirrored her own. Her daddy smiled at her before gently pushing her towards the kitchen with a promise to come and find her in a little bit. The girl skipped towards the doorway leading into the kitchen, and stopped just inside. She waited for her daddy's heavy footsteps to sound outside before sneaking back to the window seat. Wrapping herself up in the gossamer curtain, she watched as his arms circled around her momma. The two of them sat there on the porch, rocking slightly, the woman's sobs slowly calming in the afternoon sun.

Looking back on that day, and indeed on the ones preceding and following it, the girl would pick up on the signs. She would notice how the skin around her father's eyes would be wrinkled, and not necessarily from laughter. She would remember how her father's smile had been strained, and how his silver eyes, so much like hers, would constantly be full of worry. She would notice how, when he went to comfort her mother, he would hold her as though she were a piece of fine china and he was afraid of her breaking. He would be gentler with her than he would be with anything or anyone else.

Heavy grey rain pounded the dull green grass and dark, chrome-colored clouds held up the sky. By now most people had thrown in their handful of mud and left, wanting to get out of the rain. Two figures stood out next to the gaping hole, the last of them. Suddenly, the man moved to scoop up a large handful of soil and rubbed the wet dirt between his fingers. Still crouching beside the long mahogany chest, he smoothed his damp, blackened hand over the dark wood. He rested his forehead against a panel for a brief moment. Finally he stood up and walked backwards to the young girl at his side.

She slipped out from beneath her dad's arm and stepped towards her mother. She laid a hand on top of the slippery wood and silently traced the silver handles with a long finger. Her normally bright red hair hung dark and saturated down her back, a few strands plastered to her face. She didn't move to push them away. Instead she stood there, her hand gently lying on the lid, while the silent tears that slipped from the tips of her eyes mixed in with the rain drops that streamed down her face. Her dad gently laid a heavy hand on her shoulder and pulled her away. Together they walked in the drenching downpour, leaning on each other.

A redheaded girl sat with her forehead pressed against the window, the cool glass a welcome foil to her flushed face. The country side passed by in a blur, with a look to it as though an Impressionist painter had let his brush run rampant with vibrant oranges and reds, browns and yellows, even hints of green. As the train slowed to a stop, her eyes flickered up towards the doors. An onslaught of people were in motion, and the observer in her couldn't help but watch as they all moved in and out, in and out. Men in Armani suits and Dockers walked side by side, splitting off in different directions at the gate. Businesswomen and mothers alike pushed their way through the throng. The girl tilted her head back against the seat. She closed her eyes in abrupt exhaustion and drifted off. Snippets of conversation tickled her ears, gently keeping her from fully falling asleep. The sliding of the compartment door yanked her from her almost-doze, though she managed to keep her eyes shut. She heard someone sit on the bench across from her and shush the other person they were with. She let herself be lulled by the subsequent chugging of the train as it began to move along the tracks, gaining speed with each passing second.

She reached the house and stood looking at it, suitcase in hand. She watched as a tall man walked out and stood on the porch, seemingly waiting for her to take the first step. The girl took a deep breath and walked up to him. "Hi Daddy."

"Hi baby, have a nice trip?" He reached down and grabbed her case for her, ever the gentleman.

She shrugged her shoulders. "It wasn't too bad. Kind of long, though. My neck's a little sore."

"Mm, never did find trains too comfortable to sleep on," he agreed.

"Yea, I think I'm more partial to beds, myself."

A silence descended upon the two as they settled in the large, open kitchen. Not an uncomfortable, awkward silence, but a companionable one they didn't have to fill with words. Her dad watched her over the brim of his water glass, noting how thin she was getting, how her eyes were still so sad despite the number of years that had passed. His heart went out to his little girl.

"You tired, darlin'? Maybe you ought to go grab a nap before dinner," he suggested gently.

She inhaled deeply the familiar scents of her home. "No, Dad, I'll be fine. We going to Jackie's for dinner tonight?"

"Wouldn't want to break tradition, would we now? We'll go."

"Then just let me grab a different sweatshirt. I'll be down in five," she replied with a slight smile.

The glass door of the local diner opened with a jingle from the bell that hung above it. The girl was chuckling at something her dad had said before she noticed the silence in the notorious gossip center. Looking around, her brow furrowed in confusion before she had to squint against the sudden ambush of light and shouting. She brought her hand down from in front of her eyes and grinned to see her town—her family—surrounding her with smiles and cameras and balloons. Laughing, she hugged her dad from the side and went further into the crowd, greeting people and granting hugs and kisses. That night she smiled more genuinely and laughed more freely than she had in a very long time.

The tall man smiled at the sight of his daughter chatting happily with the owner of the restaurant, her freckled hands moving animatedly as she talked. She had never been one to sit still, he remembered, not when she was little. She'd always been moving here and there, more content to do than to watch. Even her mother used to jokingly complain about how the baby was always kicking and wouldn't let her have a moment's rest. He watched her a little more before returning to his conversation with a buddy from work.

The fight came out of nowhere. One minute they were eating breakfast, the next they were standing at opposite ends of the kitchen, glaring at each other.

"Why? Why would you take the job? You know how dangerous it is, you know how—"

"I know how much money it pays! Money that goes to paying for your school so that you can become what? A writer? That's not a real job, Elinor!" He shot back angrily.

She flinched as though he had slapped her. "It is to me."

He scoffed and threw his hands up in the air. "Oh well then. It is to you. Good, I'm so glad to hear that at least it is to you. But tell me something—is it important to someone who wants to hire you? How do you know that you'll actually be able to sell anything? What are you going to do to support yourself? Hm? Are you going to—"

"I don't know, okay? I don't know what I'll do." She looked at him with pure poison in her eyes and spoke with venom in her voice. "But I do know that whatever I do, I won't be doing it in a place where I'm not believed in, where my own father has no faith in me," she spat. "If you want to go and take that job, where someone very well might kill you, then fine. Take it. I'm out of here." With that, she stormed from the kitchen and out of the house, the front door slamming shut behind her.

The man slumped down to his chair. Did he really just say that? Hadn't he promised to never doubt her, to always support her, even if he thought her career choice was iffy at best? He hung his head in his hands, his fingers gripping his hair in self-loathing. He felt helpless. How was he supposed to fix this? How was he ever supposed to make things up to her?

"'It's not a real job'? Where does he think those Dick Francis books he loves so much come from? What…"

She sank down to the grass beneath her, tears streaming down her face, her words turning incoherent. She hugged her legs to her chest, muffling her sobs with her knees. She kept herself bent in thirds, her head bowed and her hair spilling out of its plait, until her eyes dried and her breathing calmed. Finally she lifted her face to the sight of her father sitting silently next to her. She waited, not moving, hoping, praying, that he would say something.

"I don't…I don't know what to say to you, El. I've been sitting and pacing and worrying and wondering…I don't know how to make up for what I said before." He sighed, almost in defeat. "I was wrong to tell you that writing isn't a real job."

"Yeah, you were."

"I will continue to support you with everything I have, and I want you to know—I do believe in you. I have to take that job though."

"But why? Why does it have to be you?"

Her dad ran a hand through his hair and reached an arm out to tuck her against him, like he did when she was little. "Apparently I'm the only one with enough connections and experience to get this guy."

She made a frustrated noise and clenched her jaw in aggravation. "It's not fair."

"I know, baby, I know. But you know how the old saying goes, El. Life isn't fair. And this, well, for a long time this was my life." He shrugged his shoulders and looked down at her, into those silver eyes that were so much like his. "You're just going to have to accept it for what it is."

"Yeah, Dad, I know." She sighed, suddenly tired beyond belief, choosing not to acknowledge the tears that started leaking from her eyes again. "I know."

The girl with curly red hair shot a brief glance to the person who walked into the diner, stamping snow from his boots, before focusing back on the scene she was writing. After a second though, her gaze slowly moved up to lock on the man in uniform. He held in his hands a long rectangular white slip of paper—an envelope, she noticed, as he drew close to her. Her hand froze in midair, the pen dropping from her limp fingers. He stopped in front of her, his hard expression softening almost imperceptibly at the sight of her. Wordlessly, he eased down into the booth bench across from her and slid the envelope over the table towards her.

She didn't move. She gazed down at the letter in front of her and didn't move.

Not when he started speaking, his words floating over her head and around her, echoing unintelligibly. Not when he awkwardly patted her hand before slowly bringing himself upright. Not when he walked away and out of the door. Not even when the edges of the envelope grew blurry before her. She didn't move even when she felt the eyes of the diner's patrons on her, searching, wondering, worrying. She didn't—she couldn't move. She sat there staring at the letter, not daring to open it and make it real. Not daring to lose all hope in half a minute. She felt the world stop turning; she felt the atmosphere around her grow heavy. She sat and looked at the envelope with dread in her heart and ice in her veins.

She didn't move. He was gone, and she couldn't move.

Her life crumbled around her, and she couldn't move to recover it.

The winter was harsh that year. Snow piled high in the clearing and power was out for days on end. Adults stayed indoors, not daring to venture out into the cold. School was cancelled and the children raced outside, eager to race down hills and lob snowballs at each other. The sky was nearly white during the day, the sun making only a vague appearance. The redheaded girl stayed in the lonely house, not bothering to move from it, barely eating, not even caring that she was wasting away. Her face was constantly streaked with tears and her nose was constantly red. The townspeople left her alone with her grief, unsure how to offer comfort. She slept through the day and paced through the night. She wrote constantly, determined to prove that it was not all for nothing. She wrote for her father, for her mother, for herself. She wrote, and she wrote, and she wrote. And when spring finally came, and the snow finally melted, she moved.

The girl emerged from the house, showered and dressed. The red hair she had always kept just above her shoulders fell now in curly waves down her back, untamed and un-brushed. She walked through the streets of the town, smiling politely at those she passed. She kept up a façade of pointed well-being as she made her way towards the post-office. She strode up to the counter and passed thick packages to the man behind the counter, the addresses already attached. With that done, she left the building and swung right towards the diner down the street. She took a moment to make sure she was calm before stepping in and up to the dining bar. She slid onto a stool and made a point to flip through the menu. She could feel the eyes of the other patrons on her, unabashedly staring at the ghost of a girl who sat in their presence. She didn't mind—she had lived in this town all her life, she knew what was expected of her and of its occupants. She didn't move away in an indignant huff. She stayed at the counter instead, and ordered her breakfast. When she went home, she packed up her things and left.

It would be a long time before she returned.

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