She jolted and stood upright, swaying slightly. She blinked, took a breath and started to cough. God, it was cold. She hunched and felt snow pelt her bare back. No, she thought. I can’t do this.
The snow was icy-hot against her warm skin. It melted as it hit her naked body, slush sliding down her skin in an excruciating glide. She dropped into a squat and wrapped her arms around her knees. Save the core temperature, that’s what she had read. Hypothermia would kill you fast.
She raised her face and looked into the darkness. Snow swirled in a thick flurry above and around her. Enormous flakes plastered her face and filled her eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, feeling soaked hair thump against her shoulders.
Where was she? She could already feel the paralyzing effects of cold. Even now snow was not melting immediately as it hit her naked body. She started to tremble, a quiver beginning deep in her belly and rippling across her skin. Minutes.
Her toes were clenched, trying to lift her body out of ankle-deep snow. Bare feet ached; a whine of pain whistled up through bones. “Think,” she snarled. “Where are you?”
She took a hand out from under an armpit and plunged it into the snow, scrabbling her fingers downwards. Fingernails bent and tore as she clawed through ice layered below the lighter surface layer, and then she felt something hard and flat and textured. Not dirt. Not stone. Wood. She dug further forward and felt an edge. Further—another. It was wood planking. Like—like a deck. Or a platform.
“Help!” She stood upright and screamed. “Help me! I’m outside—HELP!”
Her voice disappeared into the night and the swirling snow. She gasped as snow swirled onto her belly. Flakes clung to the tender skin, driving upward to attack her labia. “Shit-shit-shit,” she hissed, cupping her hands over her crotch and hunching over. Move now, go, go. She forced her feet forward, wincing as ice scraped her insoles. She registered the wood below her feet only as a more solid sort of cold.
Wind rose and snow pelted her harder as she felt her way along. Her feet hurt so much. There are 26 bones in the human foot—28 if you include the sesamoid bones at the base of the big toe. That’s actually a lot of bones. No wonder they hurt. A giggle pushed past trembling lips. Her body started to shake. Deep tremors snapped her jaws together, and she stopped laughing.
The wind suddenly switched direction and pushed her just as she was lifting a foot to step forward. Losing her balance, she staggered sideways and stepped into nothing. She cried out as she fell, eyes filling with a flurry of white, arms pinwheeling.
She landed in a snowbank. She scrabbled at the soft snow, trying to get her feet underneath her, sobbing as snow wrapped itself around every inch of her body. Armpits and crotch shrank, the back of her neck burned. Her fingers felt thick and heavy and her open mouth filled with snow. She gagged and panicked, thrashing.
Stop it. Calm down you shithead asshole freak. She stopped fighting. She reached her legs out slowly and found something solid. She found her balance and stood slowly, the pelting snow forgotten.
She could no longer feel her feet. Her hands were hard baseballs on the ends of her hands. The tremors from her belly had developed into full-fledged body shakes that snapped her head on the end of her neck and rattled her teeth together.
The body will try to warm itself by increasing the intensity of shivering, she read from her mindbook. Windchill and moisture will speed the process of hypothermia. She ground her teeth together, trying to get them to stop ratcheting her skull. Tears froze in her lashes. I can’t do this. The wind increased, and hail flayed her skin.
Move. Do it. She forced herself to take one step, then another. She held her left arm directly away from the side of her body and took three steps. She turned what she thought was 90 degrees to the left, and repeated the process again and again, adding a step for each turn to enlarge her search grid. Her foot finally hit something. She reached out a hand into the swirling snow. Her eyelids were frozen almost completely shut. She bumped the obstruction with a fist that would not open and considered the thing blocking her path. To not move was a mercy. Perhaps she should just stay where she was. She shook her head and bumped the obstruction again with both hands, trying to solve the riddle. It was… a fence. A small fence.
There had been a picket fence, once. A white picket fence with a blue-gray house within its small border. Pine trees in the back yard and window boxes in the front windows.
She swayed, clenched fists clinging to the fence, head dropped to her chest. She could see it—beds of tulips, a small green lawn, the bench he built when they got pregnant. Was there a dog? She could not remember. But, yes. Put a dog there.
No! Wake up! WAKE UP NOW! She jerked and gasped. She was falling asleep. She wasn’t feeling very cold now, and the shaking had subsided to occasional deep shudders.
“Not good, not good,” she muttered, and remembered the short fence beneath her hands. She forced herself forward again, kicking one frozen foot in front of the other, noticing they didn’t feel like they belonged to her any longer.
The fence made an abrupt right turn under her palm. She turned, took two steps more and smacked her face into something hard. Pain cracked from her nose through her head. She gagged as blood ran down the back of her throat.
She patted at what she had run into. She ran knuckles over the rough surface. It was a—wall. No, a corner. It had—think damn you! It had metal on the corners.
It was a building.
The knowledge galvanized her legs. She staggered along the wall, supporting her trembling body against its mass, limping along as fast as she could. She tried to scream again. “Help,” she croaked. She could barely pry her lips apart, and her tongue felt thick and cool inside of her mouth. Help me.
Nobody ever helped. No one ever came. But still she whispered, “Help me.” Bloody nostril hair froze with every gasp, and the wind picked up again into a terrible wail. She came to another corner and followed it around, knees shrieking white agony with each step.
She ran into another barrier, hitting this one at mid-thigh. She fell forward, momentum throwing her flat onto a platform. She lay still for a moment, then slowly pulled her arms out from under her body. Awkwardly she shoved her torso upright. She dragged her knees up over the barrier, distantly feeling the skin tear.
She tried to stand but found she could not. The wind flung hard snow against her buttocks and the backs of her thighs, but she barely felt the assault. She knelt on her hands and knees, head dropped between her arms.
It would be so easy to stop. She leaned into the thought. It was a good one. Snow was friend, yes? She fell sideways slowly, coming to rest against the building. Stupid building. Can’t lie down. Her cheek pressed against the wall, her neck canted at an awkward angle. She reached up a fist, intending to push the wall out of the way. Her knuckles found and traced a fluted pattern under her cheek. She could hear her heartbeat in the ear that was pressed hard into the surface, which felt warm.
Door. Her heartbeat whooshed in her ear. Like listening to a seashell. It’s a door.
Snow piled up in drifts which covered her feet, and curved around her butt. If it really was a door it would be locked, of course. And she didn’t have a key. Didn’t have time to find a key. Too bad.
She wasn’t cold at all now.
She tried to get her left arm to move. “Silly bear, what are you doing?” she wanted to say. Her lips would not move. She felt her arm spasm, and her hand was flung upwards. Who did that? It fell back down on her with a thud. She paused, listening to her heartbeat. Like the sea was farther away, how funny. The hand was flung again, thrown like it was a shot-put, and her clawed hand hooked onto something smooth and curved.
The knob rotated under her hand. The door swung open. Her body thumped into what might have been warmth.
She lay quietly at first. There was no light, and she could not be bothered to try to force open her eyes. She bent one knee and pushed her body forward. Always forward. You die if you stop.
The wind followed her indoors, whistling and wailing, driving thin sheets of snow on top of her body. She rolled sideways, reached out a claw and pushed at the door. The door clicked shut. Wind screamed in protest outside, and she smiled, lips cracking. She had beat them again.
Katrina Hays was an opera singer and river guide before finding her way to writing. Her poetry and essays have appeared in WomenArts Quarterly, Psychological Perspectives, Bellingham Review, Apalachee Review, and Crab Creek Review, with poems forthcoming in The Hollins Critic. She is the founding editor of RWW Soundings, the online literary and program journal of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, where she received an MFA in Creative Writing (2010). She is now on the RWW guest faculty.