Carl woke up, his eyes opening in darkness. He blinked once and then looked out the window. In the dim light of early morning, he could see snow falling in clumps and dizzy swirls. He turned his head to the side and looked at his clock. 6:00 AM. Far too early to be up. A faint flicker in his subconscious as he remembered… something. Something had woken him up.
He lay there, his mind working in sluggish turns, trying to remember a half-forgotten dream. He shivered a bit. In spite of the heater, it was chilly and goosebumps had risen on his arms. He blew out an experimental breath and saw a pale cloud. Christ, there had to be a window open somewhere or maybe he’d left open the front door when he came back.
He sat up now, the sleepmud that clogged his mind falling away rapidly. The voice, the slight whisper, that’s what had woken him up.
But it wasn’t a dream, he could still hear it. So quiet, so still that it was almost imagined, but it was there. A whispered voice as substantial as breath.
He looked around the room, his eyes trying to make sense of the dark forms around him, trying to see if there was someone there. But there wasn’t. There couldn’t be. He looked at the pillow that lay next to his own, as though expecting her to be there, but she wasn’t. He even lay his hand on that empty side, to see if there was some trace of warmth. But there was just a chill.
He released a shuddering breath and saw it caught upon the air, watched as it hung suspended and then faded.
A hand stroked his cheek and he pulled away from it. His skin tingled from the touch, but it had not been warm. Phantom fingers that were steel and stone and ice and drew the warmth from him.
It sounded like her. So much like her. He couldn’t move, just waited to see if he could hear her again, knowing that it was her.
i’m so cold
And again invisible hands touched his face, plaintive and lingering. He recoiled from them, his skin numb from that lingering caress.
He realized he was holding his breath and he let it out in a shiver. It stayed in front of him and hovered there and Carl swore he could see a face, briefly, quickly and then it was gone. Grey eyes, grey skin, grey lips formed in vapor. Such a brief glimmer but he knew the face, had seen it beside him every night for the last ten years. Every night except for the last. And now she was gone.
carl, i’m so cold
His heart beat out a staccato rhythm and he shuddered. His hands shook and his teeth chattered. The water in glass on the end table next to his bed had frozen over. Even the beads of condensation had frozen, small glass tears clung to the glass.
The hands again, holding the sides of his face. At first, that same light touch. But as he tried to pull away, they began to grip, hard and steely. He tried to free himself, to break away, to get away from the cold. His face went numb and his breath came out in rapid pants.
The face appeared again in the whorls. Her eyes staring at him and her lips parted.
carl, i’m so cold
He could see more details. That one hair that always hung in her face, even when it was in a ponytail. The small scar on her chin. The small, round hole right above her left eye.
She leaned forward, still holding his head and he let out a long low moan.
carl, i’m so cold
She kissed him. His lips cracked and froze. His eyes glazed over with frost. And deep within his chest, his heart labored to beat solid blood and then his heart turned to crystal.
He was so cold.
It had been unusually cold. Not that it had mattered much, there had been enough clothing provided to keep warm and the marching – the endless marching was something you got accustomed to rather quickly – did its part in staving off the frigid air.
Still, it was unusual.
All this marching meant you had time to reflect on all the little things, moments and nuances in life that otherwise would have been drowned out by all the noise that accompanied any modern existence.
Looking back, not seeing what went on would have been a better option.
After three eerily cold nights and chilly days – despite the sun shining bright from a clear and uncluttered sky – there was no denying that something was wrong. Besides the strangely cold weather there was a creeping sensation that someone, or something, was following in our tracks.
At the dawn of the fourth day things took a turn for the worse.
It was as if the very friends you had traveled with for so long, people you knew and trusted, were consumed by the shadows as soon as you didn’t look straight at them. It was especially disturbing when you saw them in the corner of your eye. When you saw what became of them.
They would flutter in and out of existence, like a candle desperately trying to stay lit despite there being no wick left to fuel the flame, fear and agony all too well visible in their eyes.
Watching their presence shift between the known, conscious world and something otherworldly and surreal begins to claw away at your sanity.
“What happens to them when I turn my back? Where do they go, what do they become?”
It has been a long time since that fourth day, since that turn for the worse. Days became months, years, decades.
You grow used to always having someone watch you, no matter what you do — and having to watch others in return. We sleep in shifts, with at least two awake at any given time. Work is impossible. It is an impractical, exhausting existence.
Those of us that could not handle the uncertainty, those that willingly disappeared from out of sight, have not come back to share what fate has befallen them. We never expected them to.
I am growing old, and tired, but not as old and tired as my friends.
I am unsure as to the best course of action — to make sure I do not face whatever unholy evil that exists in that gap between the corporeal and the unseen by taking matters in my own hands… or wait for the others to fade and see what, if anything, awaits me.
As for now, I wait.