The roof creaked again under the weight of the snow and I sang louder.
“Na na na na-na-na-na! Na-na-na-na! Hey Jude!” my voice cracked from forcing it.
Hey Jude was the only song I really knew the lyrics to and the packed snow from the avalanche would kill me soon enough. The building I was trapped in was Jim’s, the local drunk. He died almost as soon as the snow hit the house from a heart attack.
I was here in Kensutt Alaska. My name is Judd Buckner and I had just turned 20 and just got an associates in social work. I thought taking a job in a small town in rural Alaska would be the best place for me. No ski lodges, night clubs, friends or family.
The bears I knew about. I got bear spray. The boredom I knew about. I brought books and video games. The cold I knew about so I got extra jackets and sleeping bags and survival gear. But all of that stuff is back at my place. Not that it would do me any good trapped in a oversized coffin with a dead man.
So I am drunk, singing, and soon to be dead. The singing is more so I don’t have to hear my encroaching death with each snap and groan of the roof.
At this point I decided to dance. I know my parents wouldn’t know it but I thought it might make my dad proud to know that I died dancing and singing. Neither would be proud that I was drunk, but I don’t think either of them stared death in the face like this.
So I danced a jig amidst the smell of death, alcohol and never done laundry. When the stench grew too strong I covered my mouth, coughed and drank more whiskey. Every so often I would cry. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I thought of everyone I would miss, and the pain of asphyxiation by snow. It was all too much.
But as I was dancing I tripped on a rug. It must have been 50 years old at least, stained to hell.
“God fucking damn it!” I cursed the rug.
In that tiny lapse of distraction I could feel the utter sadness of death. I kicked it and continued around the living room to stave off reality.
The roof cracked and I saw it bow inwards. I covered my head and screamed. When I opened my eyes I had hope. Where that rug had been was a door.
“Haha! Jim you fuckin drunk!” I cried out.
I dropped to it and saw that it had a padlock. Crazy, happy tears clouded my vision. I spared no time in running to Jim’s body. He was crumpled on his side in the kitchen with the half eaten sardine sandwich in his right hand. The horrible concoction of death and sardines hit me as I got with arm’s reach and I retreated with a wretch.
The ceiling groaned again.
I covered my face as best as I could with my shirt and threw him to his back. His body let air out his lungs and I recoiled again for only a moment. I had to remind myself he was in fact dead and pushed myself back to the task at hand with a grunt. I found his large key ring in his pocket and ran/slid to the trap door.
I began trying keys frantically. There were at least 10 of them.
“Why the fuck would you need this many keys!” I muttered, wiping tears from my eyes.
I got lucky and the third key worked. I slammed the door open with an overkill amount of effort and put one leg to the first rung of a ladder that descended into the dark.
But I forgot about my jacket. I saw it on the coat rack at the front door, almost neon red against the drab dustiness of Jim’s house.
I hesitated only for a second, but decided I needed the jacket. My boots pounded the old wood floors as I sprinted to it. I yanked it and tore the coat rack down as I did.
My feet barely found the rungs of the ladder and I pulled the door shut with my jacket. The sound of breaking timber followed me down and a catastrophic “Whump” came from the trap door.
With adrenaline flowing beyond belief, and my drunken state my feet missed one of the rungs. I was thrown off balance and my arms couldn’t react in time.
“Ah!” I screamed sharply.
My back hit an uneven surface, not quite flat on. The wind was knocked out of me and my back felt like it wouldn’t be okay for a while
“Kuuuuhhhhh” my body reacted to the impact.
I peeled myself from my position on my back to a position on my side. I had hurt my back in a way I didn’t understand.
After a while, lying there on my side in the complete darkness, sealed in with feet of snow and broken timber above me, I regained composure enough to stand up. I began to straighten my back and a spike of pain shot through my upper vertebrae. It was enough pain to take my breath away.
“Mmm-uuuuh,” I heard come out of me.
After I stopped seeing stars, I held onto the ladder to stop drunk-swaying. I began to think like normal.
What was Jim hiding under his house? What would Jim even want to hide?
I grabbed my phone. The screen hurt my eyes, and I squinted through the glare to find the flashlight function. It was a still, how very Jim.
Tubes ran to barrels and tubs. The walls were coated in shelves and large bottles, most of them were empty. So maybe he was quitting the hard stuff.
A white reflection shone as I was scanning the room and my eyes widened. It was a fridge. I carefully made my way over. It was an antique to be sure. About 60 years old at least. I opened it and those crazy, happy tears came flooding back Inside the fridge was sardines and M.R.E.s. Jim was apparently a doomsday prepper, but most of his effort was into having enough alcohol. I crossed my chest and said a quick prayer to Jim, despite having not set foot in a church in years, and never liking Jim until after he was dead.
I grabbed one of the M.R.E’s and found an old chair next to the still. The brick of solid food tasted like heaven to me in that moment. I don’t even know what it was supposed to be. My inebriation kicked back in as my adrenaline was wearing off and I happily sang Hey Jude with a full mouth to spite the avalanche. I giggled while eating.
As I ate though it dawned on me that help wouldn’t come to Kensutt for a while, and Jim wasn’t exactly a VIP. The giggling, singing and loud chewing ceased. It was replaced with vacant, sad, staring.
So I needed to get out. But I couldn’t open the door anymore unless I broke it, letting all the cold snow down into my warm, safe haven. Even then I would need to tunnel my way out. I rose from the chair, my back calling foul, and began taking inventory of the hidden basement.
There was plenty of alcohol, lighters, tubing and jars. When I searched around the still I noticed there was a tiny chill in the air. Without thinking I laid all my weight into it, sliding it six inches or so. Jars and tubing fell from it, and a big section of thick metal clanged to the dirt floor.
“Yeah, yeah,” I complained at the still.
I could feel the movement of air stronger now. The light from my phone focused on a large piece of rotting plywood resting on the wall. I pushed it aside and I found myself looking at an entrance to a tunnel. It was small, but a person would be able to walk with a hunched back in it. I jumped with joy, hit my head on the low ceiling and wished I hadn’t drank so much.
Ol Jim must have been running his booze out of the tunnel. Why, I wouldn’t know, since there had only ever been one sherriff in town, and he drank almost as much as Jim did.
But the tunnel didn’t look recent. I spied one of the support trusses about ten feet down and the wood looked at least a hundred years old. It was a mine shaft. Jim’s house was built on a mine shaft into Tewksbury mountain. I pointed up with a wink, silently thanking dead Jim.
I hunched in, with my back stabbing me as I did, to get a closer look at the supports. They looked like part of the dirt, in color and density. There was no way the shafts were clear. It would be miraculous if the tunnel was open 20 feet. I looked around, swore and headed back into the basement and prepared my jacket for the outside should I be able to dig myself out.
I grabbed lighters, and took as much food as I could in the pockets and the sack. For kicks I stashed some bottles of moonshine. The idea of freezing to death while sober didn’t seem appealing.
Making sure to not stir up too much pain in my back I ascended the ladder with a screwdriver to try and pry some of the boards apart. When I arrived at the door and put light to it, it seemed to react.
It was bowed slightly as if under immense weight and was pushing towards me in front of my eyes. The wooden slats cracked and snapped in high pitched tones right in my face. I descended quickly, slipping more than once and again, cursing my inebriation. I entered the mouth of the tunnel and watched the door.
But the rest of the floor showed no weight. Only the door bowed and cracked. I turned towards the tunnel, confused. And when the first piece snapped, and the snow began to fill Jim’s hidden basement I retreated farther into the tunnel. It poured in like an hourglass for a couple seconds until the door broke in two. Half of it broke off and flew towards me. My arms flew up in a flinch but the broken door hit the wall of the basement just above the arch. I lowered my flinched arms and realized the snow was piling in faster than I ever would have expected. It filled the room faster and faster until in fear, I grabbed my jacket and makeshift pack. From the tunnel I watched the snow pile in like water, rushing into the basement like a pressurized pipe was on the door, pumping snow in. When most of the room had filled I turned awkwardly towards the unknown of the mineshaft and started hunch-walking, muttering the only part to Hey Jude I knew.
About 2 hours into my hunch walking I began to feel sober, I was thirsty and my back was stabbing itself so I stopped to take a break. I drank almost half the water I carried with me. I couldn’t help it; I had just consumed more alcohol than anyone I ever knew, in a very short time.
I flicked a lighter on while I waited for my back to feel better. It was the darkest dark I had ever seen, deep in those tunnels. But again, a sound interrupted my train of thought. A crumble of old, damp wood, followed by a loud bassy whump. I felt it in my chest.
I knew what it was immediately. A section that I passed had collapsed, fairly close. I snaked my back up the wall to get up and pressed on. Before long the pain in my back moved from a dull ache to a sharp pain that felt like daggers. Every time I had to traverse uneven ground it was worse. And there was a lot of it.
I wanted to stop, and at one point I laid my pack down in exasperation but another “whump” followed me, this time closer. I turned behind me to catch a tiny glimpse of dirt piling up just 10 feet back. It flowed like the snow into the basement, like something was pushing it. I yanked my pack up despite the painful complaints from my body. When I looked down the tunnel ahead my heart jumped into my throat.
I saw an outline of a person, just inside the tiny flame’s light. I couldn’t make out any features, and the more I strained to see, the more I became convinced there were no features at all. After a couple seconds, with me frozen in place unable to breathe, the silhouette vanished into the dark so slowly I doubted I saw anything at all. Another bassy whump snapped me to action and I powerwalked through the mine, putting an enormous effort into ignoring the stabbing pain in my hunched back.
I made it 30 feet before another collapse. My powerwalk turned into an awkward run. I tripped over rocks and uneven earth as I went. My breathing was too rapid to sing, but a chaotic Hey Jude played in my head as I went. The tunnel collapses started to occur more rapidly and I began to think that this was not due to my presence, that the mine was collapsing by design.
I tripped and fell to my side against the floor and wall of the tunnel, my back burning with pain. Only feet behind me the roof fell again and I felt falling dirt on my ankles. I pushed past the daggers in my back and the burning in my lungs. I pulled my feet from the heavy dirt and got back up. The first glimpse of natural light was barely reflecting around a corner only feet ahead. I went as fast as I could, using a swimming motion against the walls to avoid falling. The ceiling above me kept crumbling, I could feel bits of dirt falling onto my hair.
I rounded the turn and my eyes stung from the dim light of the evening. My legs kicked into overdrive, my lungs burned further and the urge to cough was nearly overwhelming. But there was a sound coming to me from behind. It was a rushing wave. The mine was filling with dirt, probably feet behind me, I didn’t want to look. I barreled onwards towards the exit. My heels kicked up loose earth as I ran. And when I reached the precipice the support fell in front of me and dirt blotted out the light. I charged into it as hard as I could. The earth was piling around me, and I could feel it getting heavier, but my forearm punched through into the freezing air. I clawed and wiggled as fast as I could, racing my asphyxiation. I pulled my head out, then pushed and dug around my torso, coughing and spitting. And with a final pull I was loose.
A thunderous booming of voices came from every direction as I rolled down the small ramp of earth in front of me onto the snow below.
“No!” they all cried at once.
They were as loud as a jet. I shot up to my feet and my eyes darted around like prey. The faint echo was still there, rolling off into the deep woods. Despite my coughing and exertion I held my breath, waiting for any other sounds. Birds flew away from me 30 feet to the left. After they disappeared, snow blanketed the wilderness in silence.
After a short time I decided it was okay to relax. I hunched over but my back immediately rejected the idea. I lied on my side in the snow with some awkward movements, yelping in pain a couple of times. I coughed up a good amount of dirt, vomited and realized that my pack was in the mound of dirt at the mouth of the tunnel. I looked back at it and I could see all the evidence of my frenzied escape.
It was a days walk to the next town, if I was going there in a straight line. I had guides when I came here, and there was no snow then, either. I was at risk of getting lost, and I would have to endure the night. So I needed all the supplies I could carry. I stood up and looked at the mound of dirt with a smile.
“Didn’t get me!” I taunted in a whisper.
I dug for a short time and felt my pack. After a little work I had enough out so I could pull it out. With my legs planted on either side, in one massive effort it popped out of the dirt and I fell onto the snow on my back. I winced from pain, although it wasn’t the worst of the day.
“Judd,” said a familiar group of voices.
My blood stilled in my veins. It didn’t echo this time, and it was close. My eyes darted around desperately for help as my heart pounded at my ribcage. I slowly tilted my head back.
I only needed to see the top of its head to snap into action.
“What the fuck!” I yelped as I got up.
I sprang into a lowered stance. But it wasn’t a person in front of me. It had the same shape, but that’s where the similarities ended. It was black, standing on the snow with whisps of what looked like steam coming off a lake in the morning.
I had to be dreaming.
The dark smokey figure remained only for a couple seconds, as if making sure I got a good look at it. The wisps surrounding the shadow began to agitate. They grew in size and intensity until the blackness was gone, and it melted into the air, leaving a small spot of wet snow where it stood.
I backed myself against the side of the mountain. My eyes couldn’t move from the spot where the mystery had appeared. After almost a minute I suddenly thought I might be asleep, dying in the hidden basement with the still from some unknown chemical in the air. I pictured myself lying on the dirt floor in the dark, twitching as I dreamed my escape. I had to test it. My hand groped in the bag, pulling out one of the lighters, I flicked it on and held it under my hand. In the moment before the pain hit me I thought I was asleep dreaming for sure, but it came.
I yelped and threw the lighter into the snow. My eyes darted around the woods while I rubbed my burned hand, wondering what that thing was, and what it wanted with me. I was not dreaming, and I doubted Ol Jim was making absinthe in his basement.
“Na......na na .....na na na na...” the lyrics forced their way through my mouth warily.
I rocked myself for a bit, embracing the craziness of the moment, smiling at how confusing and unreal my situation was.
Only when I felt the chill of the cold did I resolve to start moving. It was getting darker. I had no idea where I was, but I knew I had gone uphill in the mine. My eyes rested at an overlook nearby, and I was certain that I could see most of the town from there.
As I reached the crest of the small hill, the valley came into view. The mountainside swept down to the small town. Only there was no town to speak of. The avalanche had covered everything. There weren’t even visible trees. Just snow. The mountainside was cleared off, but the amount of snow needed to bury Kensutt 30 feet deep was much more than I could imagine. It couldn’t have come from the mountainside alone.
This wasn’t an avalanche.
“Na.....na ....na,” I forced out.
I was losing track of the song, even in my head. My hands whirled back and forth as I looked at the mountain, then at the valley in a fervor.
I took a deep breath with my eyes closed. My body calmed down a little bit at least. When I opened my eyes I was thinking level headed. No matter what happened to Kensutt, and no matter what I hallucinated, the fact remained. I needed to get to the nearest town to the south. The mountain was to the west of the now buried town so I had bearings.
I started towards Carlsburg, anxious to find any landmarks I recognized. It was hard to keep myself focused, and at every sound I saw the flash of the smokey figure in my peripheral vision. I would snap my head to focus, holding my breath but there was always nothing.
But I had to keep moving. Each time I stopped it felt I was back in time, a toddler afraid of the monster under my bed. I couldn’t bring myself to make a sound, and the next step through the snow seemed to pierce the silence like an insult.
But I trudged on in between. Pulling my feet out of the snow only to plunge them back again.
Just as my feet started to feel sore I found a landmark, a road. The flat snow with trenches on either side ran to the south and north. I could follow it south right into Carlsburg. My heart leapt with excitement and I scraped my feet on the solid earth with joy.
I signaled ahead with my right hand, looking down my saving grace.
“Onward, ho,” I said to myself in a whisper, imitating a settler. I trudged on, although easier than before.
After a while my legs grew sore, my back was yelling again and I could feel the coolness of sweat building under my layers of clothes. I was exerting myself too much, despite my slow pace. I needed a breather.
As the thought flowed into the foreground a sound grabbed my attention.
It was a howl. This whole area was known for wolves. I froze, listening to it fade. My nose ran over my mouth and I raised my hand to wipe it away. But another wolf answered, this howl came from my other side. Something about them was too close, and seemed coordinated. I knelt and scrambled for my pack.
The moonshine was still jangling around with the sardines. A molotov cocktail. I tore a piece of cloth from the bag itself and put it in my pocket. In case of wolves, I would use the moonshine for instant fire. It was my only deterrent.
A third howl came from directly down the road towards Kensutt. It sounded closer than the others. I rose like a rabbit and pushed myself to a faster pace.
Not long after the howls a sound came to my ears and it eased me a bit. A river. I remembered going over a river to get to Kensutt. The sound of rushing water was pleasant, and if I had been out for a leisurely walk I might have appreciated the beauty. But night was closing in, and the wolves howled again, this time closer.
The bridge lay over a gorge, the rushing river was 20 feet below, full of melting snow.
As I neared the bridge two things happened. The snow began to move on the bridge, and I heard movement behind me. In the dim light a fair distance away I caught the outline. A wolf slinking into the forest, out of my sight.
Adrenaline took over and I sprinted towards the moving snow. Out of the two options I’d rather not be eaten, given alternatives. It started as a run, but the first step I ended up falling into the snow face-first as my I didn’t lift my legs nearly enough. But the bridge was shifting. I noticed more movement as I rose.
The more I pushed ahead towards the bridge the more obvious it became.
Snow was funneling itself it seemed, onto the surface. Invisible hands sculpted it onto one spot. By the time I got to the bridge there was 3 feet of snow piled on it. I started to lift my legs higher in a jog, but the snow was constricting my legs. Behind me there were at least six wolves peaking out of the trees.
A sound came from the bridge.
It was collapsing under the weight of the white tide. In a wave of panic I fell, swimming and dragging myself towards the nearest end of the bridge, towards the wolves. The sound of the swirling snow and the swelling river below overwhelmed my ears.
I arrived at the northern end of the bridge as it exploded towards the river in a heap of wood and concrete. The sound made several wolves take off into the woods. I stood up, keeping eye contact with a wolf. It was 50 feet away now and its confidence was contagious. Several others were starting towards me with lowered heads.
I flipped my head backwards and saw I had three feet behind me to work with before I would fall. My hands went to the pack and grabbed a lighter and the molotov cocktail. I flicked the lighter but in my numbness and adrenaline I instead flicked it into the snow. My left hand found another and when I flicked it, I was too zealous. Again, into the snow.
I exhaled like a sniper, watched my left hand this time in the pack and took one out carefully, readying the cocktail with my right.
But when I looked up the wispy shadow was 5 feet away, standing on top of the snow like before. The wolves stood in place, some growled and a couple in the back howled.
The lighter was a breath away from the rag. My chest heaved and my arms shook but I stayed in place, staring at the being where a person’s eyes might be. My insides seemed to become weightless. I became aware of my numb hands, the snow all over my face was a stinging pain but my legs were warm. With an odd satisfaction I realized I had pissed myself. At least I would die with dignity, I laughed to myself. A smile formed on my face.
“Judd,” it spoke in two voices.
One of them was a little girl, another was a serious older man.
I stared at it, my grip tightened on the bottle and lighter. The thought occurred to me to use the molotov on it.
“A crude weapon against something you know to be not of this world,” the voices spoke. The older man’s voice scoffed.
One of the more impatient wolves barked at it. A tendril of black shot out of the being’s torso. It found the wolf’s eyes despite the creatures evasions. It yelped in pain and ran. As the tendril receded the others ran off in terror.
“What are you?” I asked softly. My anger was gone.
The white steam bubbled across its pure black silhouette, expressionless.
“I am one of the Junwei. I watch over this land.”
“You don’t seem to watch over the wolves,” I said sarcastically, surprising myself.
“They are hungry. But I need you for something else.”
I looked back at the broken bridge, hearing the river below. I wondered if I could land the jump, escape the wolves at least.
“Your survival would be unlikely. There are many jagged edges, and the water is freezing. You would be dead within minutes,” the voices taunted me, the voice of the little girl giggled afterwards.
My face would have burned with embarrassment if I could feel it. If it could read my thoughts I wasn’t going to throw fire at it. I put the molotov back into the bag and slipped the lighter into my left pants pocket.
Ice was forming on my hair. The cold seeped onto my scalp, my body shivered and this irritated my back. The pain was back. I rose from my knees one at a time and stood, although I couldn’t straighten my back all the way.
“Why do you need me?” I croaked out.
The being shifted, but it was hard to tell how. Behind it the wolves peeked out from trees, cautious.
“Kensutt lied on sacred ground. I claimed the souls of all with my magic. Except for you.”
“Why did you kill them?” I interrupted it.
The white flumes of steam suddenly hissed and blew up in size.
“You could not possibly understand!” voices boomed from all around.
The wolves disappeared from sight again and I caught myself backing up instinctively. My heel slipped a bit towards the gorge and I caught myself. The being calmed instantly.
“You are involved in an ancient conflict now. I cannot touch you like the others. you must choose,” it continued.
“I have to die?”
“Yes. And you will join me in the heavens as a PROTECTOR.”
The being paused.
“Or I pursue you. I am patient. I will have your soul one way or another, the necessary arrangements have been made. But if you die later my opposition gains strength. Our goal becomes farther away,” it droned as three.
I had no clue what this thing was or what it wanted. All I knew is it wanted me to die, and it killed everyone in Kensutt.
“Our goal?” I asked.
Even in my pockets my hands were starting to numb. I needed heat or I was going to die.
“You must brave this river or fend off hungry wolves. There is nothing ahead of you except a painful end. Let me make your end painless. Give me permission to, and I will”
Fuck that. I hoisted the pack over both shoulder and began to look for a place to cross the river, marching through the snow to follow it west. East there was a waterfall and I wasn’t crossing there.
“It seems you have made your choice,” it said in disgust.
I didn’t want to look at it. Behind me I heard the hiss of boiling mist, and I knew it was gone. Leaving me with the pursuing pack of hungry wolves.
As I trudged through the snow I grabbed dry twigs from trees. I tore a strip of cloth from one of my shirts under my jacket and bound them into a makeshift torch. The howling followed me just out of eyesight, haunting every move I made.
I pushed on, with my numb hands, numb feet and numb face. I needed to cross the river and start a fire or I would die.
It took only an hour to find a calm spot with a shore on each side. I couldn’t tell how deep it was. I took my jacket off with a look around, noticing that it was going to get too dark to see any minute. My shoes slid off, then my socks. I stood on my jacket and removed my pants. It worried me that I couldn’t feel the cold touching my skin. I started to bundle everything when a soft subtle sound came from the calm river. I squinted in the dark and moonlight began reflecting off the surface.
The surface was hardening into ice before my eyes.
“Judd,” came a voice from behind me.
It was neither male nor female, devoid of all recognizable characteristics. I whipped around, dropping to one knee in front of my pack.
“I watched you with the other,” the voice came from low to the ground.
I flicked one of the lighters on with careful precision, remembering how I had lost two of them before. The fire flickered into weak existence and a wolf’s eyes reflected only feet away.
I stared for a bit at the motionless creature. It was unafraid of the fire.
“I saw you walk away. I will help you, Judd,” the wolf spoke without movement.
“What is happening?” I stammered. Half from the cold, half from insanity.
I grabbed my head in confusion.
“You are dying. I will help you survive.”
The wolf’s eyes glinted with light and I noticed the trees reflecting a soft orange glow. I turned around and there was a small campfire, waiting for me. I turned angrily towards the wolf.
“What is this?” I growled.
“I have made a fire for you. Please sit by it a while and warm yourself before you die,” it droned.
No! What is ALL this? The snow, the mine, the wolves, the bridge,” I took a fluttering breath, coughed and continued, “...and now everything is done for me? What is happening? What are you?
“It will become clear in the end.”
Although it took considerable effort, I rolled my eyes.
“F-fucking riddles? That’s all yuh-you got?” I chattered.
The lack of movement in the wolf was disconcerting, but my anger held. We had a brief stare-down.
“What do you want from me!?” I yelled at the motionless wolf.
“I want you to live,” the wolf’s head lifted, “I saw you walk away from the other.”
My eyes stayed locked onto the wolf’s for a bit. I wanted to hit it, attack it. They were toying with me, both of these things. I didn’t like it.
But I was freezing to death, and there was fire on the other side of the river.
I grabbed my pack and clothes violently, muttering curses at the wolf and the smoke. When I turned my back I felt a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time. Spite. Right then I wanted to spite both of them. But I couldn’t tell which one was good or evil, and I didn’t know any motives. Not to mention all the action I could take was live or die. I just had to walk away.
The ice was thick. It didn’t make any noise under my weight. I awkwardly shuffled across to the fire. A wonderful campfire lay in a small clearing, big logs piled nicely. The snow was a fair distance away, with pine needles exposed for resting. It was excellently warm, and my body ached to lie next to it. But I was being watched, and I couldn’t help but think that something else was expected of me.
“Be careful, Judd. The protector is watching you. They will nudge things towards your death if possible.”
The voice seemed to come from right in front of me.
“Y-yeah? Fuck you!” I yelled back through shivers.
But the wolf did not respond. The reflection of two eyes faded back into the dark woods beyond as the ice melted silently back into the river. My eyes stayed locked onto the spot where the eyes disappeared. With my naked back to the fire I looked into the dark, wondering. I took a seat on my pack, and wept for what seemed like an hour.
With my body bundled in all my clothes I slept. The sleep was terrible. Every time snow fell from trees I awoke in terror, for a brief moment feeling the snow building around me. Every time one of the wolves howled in the distance I panicked, grabbing at my bag. Every sound, every gust of wind, I saw it. The smokey figure in the dark. I knew it was there. It was the longest night I have ever experienced. When it was light enough to move I simply rose to my feet and headed south.
I kept away from heavy branches, for fear they would fall on me with a a push from the protector. I stayed away from inclines, even tiny hills. My mind and body were tired, scared, confused, and angry.
Why me? The question kept repeating in my head as my feet plunged into the snow again, only to rip them out from where they wanted to stay. The road to Carlsburg was far away.
But after what felt like a very long time I finally saw smoke. It was a house, there were people I fell into their arms and they brought me to a doctor where I recovered. While I slept several of my extremities had to be amputated. I remember tapping the stub of my pinky against what used to be the tip of my nose as I was waking. Both of these used to be longer, I had thought.
It’s been years since then. I don’t go outside much anymore. I don’t ski, I don’t kayak, I don’t go near mountains or hang out under trees. I don’t go anywhere that gets tornadoes or earthquakes.
People think I went crazy, and I know I have. Not a day goes by when I think about choosing differently. But I’ll know what’s what when I die. Maybe.