The Cold That Flays the Skin

I see the Christmas lights go up, and I know my time is running short.

***

When I was a child, it was easier. I’d be found, and coddled by kind folk or child services for a few days, then sent to a foster family. Sometimes they were awful, and I knew I only needed to bear it until Christmas. Sometimes they were wonderful, and I cried when the first plastic reindeer appeared in a neighbor’s yard.

I’ve never met anyone like me, but I often wonder how many of the missing children whose faces line the exit at Walmart have a similar affliction.

The year I was six (I think – I don’t have my original birth certificate, only the paperwork Mr. Fax gave me), I saw my own face on the TV and begged my new mom to take me to the mall parking lot to help with the search. I watched my old mom drink hot cocoa, her eyes red-rimmed, and try to speak coherently with reporters. My old dad huddled with the preacher, and they waited. And waited. I was right there, but they couldn’t see.

I had a different face.

***

Mrs. Hannah, who took me in when I was nine, believed in angels, and I told her that I would never leave her. No matter what happened, she’d know because I would recite to her the thing she prayed with me every night: Little angel, formed of Joy and Mirth, go love without the help of anything on earth.

And after it happened, I ran home through the ice and crept in the back door. I brought her tea with a shot of Irish Cream, and put it down next to the rocker where she sat reading her Blake. “Mrs. Hannah,” I whispered.

Her wide eyes found me and she didn’t shrink away at all. I told her the poem, and she touched my new cheeks with her papery old hands. “A miracle,” she said.

I lived with her for almost three years, but she died in the autumn, and I was sent to a creaking house with five other foster kids. The Partriges were kind, but harried, and after them I lived with Maris Lakes. I tried the same trick with her, that following winter, but she kicked me out into the snow and called the police.

At fifteen, I stopped trying. I lived in libraries and bus stations, occasionally in police stations, worked wherever I could, and didn’t let myself get attached to anything.

***

I attended five different universities, transferring between the fall and spring semesters so I never had an advisor or professor who’d notice that Will Everson didn’t match the kid from last year’s design seminar. At the end, I cycled back around to my first alma matter to get around the school’s residency requirement. That was the year I met Emma.

***

“Hey, do you know if this is the right form for graduation?”

I turned around to the short girl behind me in line at the Registrar’s office. “Uh,” I said.

She had a dimple in her left cheek, and purple hair. When she realized I was only going to stare at her, she scoffed and asked the boy behind her instead. Silver barrettes glinted in the otherwise dull hallway. They reminded me of Christmas lights, and I didn’t let myself ask her out, because I only had a few weeks before it wouldn’t matter if she wanted to kiss me like I wanted to kiss her.

***

I’ve always been a sucker for moments. Like when you leap into a murky lake and startle the bluegills. Like when the sun bursts out from behind the rainclouds and this relief pours through you that you don’t have to sleep wet again. Like watching the baby bluejays hop around after they’ve been pushed from their nest. Like finishing the hardest essay exam ever. Like seeing a girl with purple hair and falling in love. Like the crackle of fire and the heat of cocoa sliding down your throat. Like when your favorite basketball team wins in overtime. Like selling your first website.

Those kinds of moments.

Like standing in a snowy field, when the coldest wind of the year snaps over your cheeks so sharply it feels like your skin will peel away.

***

I got to have a lot of first moments with Emma. For five years I had them. I met her for the second time in a coffee shop, where I engineered a mix-up between my double-tall mocha and her double-tall cinnamon latte. (Emma’s hair was long and apple-red.) We dated that year, but I chickened out around Labor Day and said I had a rare blood disease. She saw it for the lie it was, and dumped me.

The third time we met, she picked me up at a bar. Her hair was pink and she had a stud pierced through her tongue. I was eager and slept with her right away. She never answered my calls after that, though. She didn’t like to think of herself as being so easy, though I’d never, ever have considered her so. It wasn’t like I could tell her we’d known each other for a couple of years.

The fourth time, I was hired to design her boyfriend’s webpage. It sucked. The fact that she had a boyfriend, not the site I designed. We hung out anyway, and she laughed at all my jokes. She said, “You remind me of someone,” every other week. Her hair was still red, but streaked with black. I only saw the dimple in her cheek when her boyfriend wasn’t around.

I kissed her at a Christmas party, knowing I had nothing to lose. Her eyelashes tingled against my cheeks and for a moment, I was afraid I was going to cry. I smiled and pointed up at some mistletoe. We laughed it off, but she turned away after that and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night.

Then, ten months ago, I was walking my dog around the park, staring at the trees as if I could will the fuchsia blossoms on the redbuds to remain forever, to never let the cold come back. I turned the corner onto St. Peter’s and there she was, sitting at the bus stop. Her hair was about fifteen shades of blond.

I sat down next to her, pretending to take a break. We chatted, and she said, “You remind me of someone I used to know.”

“Someone from your dreams?” I smiled.

Her eyes narrowed, a little. Curiously. “He had a Scottie dog, too.” She held out her hand and Summer licked her fingers like they were best friends. Which they had been.

“You’re absolutely beautiful,” I said.

***

It’s easy to be what I am in the age of the internet. Designing websites doesn’t require any face time, and as long as I renew my driver’s license every January, nobody in any sort of authority notices. Certainly not the landlord’s at my massive complex, not the people at the gas station, or the vet’s office. Not anybody who reads my blog or chats with me at one in the morning. I use screennames and nicknames, so most people never notice my bank statements read William Everson. They know me as Ever, or Liam, or Bill. Never Will.

But that afternoon, at the bus stop, Emma asked my name and I told her.

“Will.” She repeated it three times. I noticed she’d removed the tongue ring. Emma held out her hand to me, and I took it. “I’m Emma.”

***

That whole year was a moment. Thousands of them.

***

The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to tell Emma I didn’t love her.

It was three days ago. I put my hands on her face, and said, “I never want to see you again.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said. She kissed me, and I closed my eyes and pretended it would last
forever.

I pushed her away, and shrugged. “Believe what you want.”

***

Now, I’m standing alone.

The moon is a hard, sharp diamond in the sky and the skeletal trees clack together in the biting breeze.

My feet break through layers of ice and snow, and as I walk into the grove, I shed clothes. It used to be I left them on, only to trash them later when they’re too sticky and crusted. But back then I feared the cold. Now I just hate it.

Tears freeze on my lashes and I try not to think about her. I touch my face with my fingers, running them over the curve of my cheeks and the square of my jaw. I feel the scar next to my ear – it will be gone in an hour. I feel the mole just inside my hairline. I feel the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes. My skin is tight and chapping.

I drop my shirt and unbutton my pants. I kick it all away and stand on the frozen ground, toes burning and going numb. The wind explodes against my back and I moan. It’s a reedy sound, quiet and pleading. I just want this over fast. In the morning I’m moving to Chicago, so I’ll never see Emma again.

The moonlight dims and I raise my face. Clouds blow across the sky and I see the first drops of ice seconds before they hit my forehead. Then my nose. My lips. My shoulders. Each flake, every crystal, slices open my skin.

I burn all over, jaw clenched, eyes closed.

Winter flays me.

***

It ends with numbness. First I bend and stretch my muscles, joints cracking, blood flowing again. I pull up my jeans and throw my shirt on, then my socks and boots. When I am covered up, I touch my new face. The skin is smooth, baby-fresh. And warm.

I feel a sharper chin, with a cleft. That’s good. I like it when I have a cleft. I sigh and run my fingers up into my hair. When the sun rises, I’ll glance in the mirror.

I turn around to leave the park.

“Will,” Emma whispers. She’s standing there in her blue parka. Her hands are pressed to her face so hard. Her hair is white in the moonlight.

NOTE: image is "Cold" by Rachel’s flickrs.

39 thoughts on “The Cold That Flays the Skin

  1. Wow. I love how both Will and Emma are shapeshifters in their own ways, that he manages to develop a relationship with her despite always changing, that she finally finds out about him in the end, that…oh, who am I kidding? There’s too much awesomeness to name. ^^

  2. I don’t think there is a lack of monsters, I just think the monsters are inner etheral demons.

    I liked it quite a lot.

  3. Thank you! (I thought of you when I wrote But back then I feared the cold. Now I just hate it. 😀 )

  4. Thanks! See? I can write a story without blood! (This is me, proving it to myself.)

    ….. I guess there *is* flaying, though. Hmmm.

  5. Honestly, I think this is my favorite thing that you have done so far. It’s beautiful, really.

    (And with a unique concept – just like a snowflake!) 😀

  6. Oh, I love this! Thanks for sharing it.

    Going to send it out for print publication? I think you could place it in a shot.

  7. I’m glad!

    And maybe someday it will see print. We tend to think of our fiction in this blog as practice. It’s the opportunity to play, to experiment (when we have the energy!), and to just have fun writing without worrying too much about publishing beyond this internet space. Oh, and entertainment, of course! 😀

  8. Is that … is that a happy ending?? *picks up the story, turns it upside down, shakes it* Holy crap, I think it might be!! I don’t know what to do now!! *CONFUSION*

    But totally rockin’. Winter flays me. *shivers*

  9. HAHAHAHAHAHahaaaHAAAHA…..shut up. :p

    Ok, I know I do happy endings. I do. Just give me a minute.. I’ll.. come up with one. Um. It’s around here somewhere.

  10. So… yeah. You win. I just looked back over all my Wedfic since the beginning. I don’t do happy endings. I like my sudden tragic turns and ambiguous ambiguity a LOT. I think I shall practice some happy endings. (Though, ftr, my novels almost always end on an upturn. Unless it’s the second in a trilogy. Those, by definition, should be a bit sad.)

  11. I like your sudden tragic turns and ambiguous ambiguity a lot too! And I may curse you, but I love it when you’re mean to your characters. I can’t stand reading anything now where the author is too nice. I want suffering and angst, dammit!!

  12. This is great Tess. Original. Perfect TV series. Every week a new face. We all shape shift, and sometimes change and growth is painfull. If we don’t, we stay in umhealthy relationships, with ourselves and others. This concept needs to be a novel. The depth you could bring to a constantly changing character is limitless.

    I think I found you in the paragraph that starts – “I’ve always been a sucker for moments.” *love* lots.

  13. Heh – I can see it on TV. But not in that Quantum Leap way. I don’t think Will is much in to saving other people. 🙂

    Thanks.

  14. I’m trying not to be freaked out by the similar themes of our stories this week. I mean… we say we’re doppelgangers, but DUDE.

  15. This is beautiful! As someone else said, I love that Emma changes her appearance too. It’s lovely. 😀

  16. It’s one of the best of yours I’ve read here. Even better than Ash Tree Spell… much, much better, actually.

    And, I could tell it’s a happy ending, and that was lovely. Generally I think happy endings suck, but this one deserved it…

  17. 😀 I agree – one of the best!

    This one just… had to have a happy ending. Usually I don’t think that way, but in this case… yeah. 😀

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