The Frozen Edition
Welcome to our December 2022 edition.
With the shorter days (in the northern hemisphere at least), thoughts for many of us drift to the cold days and weeks and months and what often seem like years ahead. This month, we present a number of stories in which the frigid air and drifts of snow (and in a couple of cases something else) invade. We hope you enjoy them. As with all writers, if you do enjoy a piece, we encourage you to make a comment about them. They can be contacted on Twitter or elsewhere at their handles. So can A Muse Bouche Review.
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
Feature: Blizzard on the Palisades (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction
Survival (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
Ahab and Bessie (David M. Simon) Fiction
Wrong Turn (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
Frozen Hearts (Renée Gendron) Fiction
Writer’s Block in the Season (Nicole Wells) Non-Fiction
Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor)
This is an excerpt from the novel A Studio on Bleecker Street. Clara Bowman is the second daughter of a wealthy family whose expected fiancé as well as her best friend died in a May 1872 train wreck. She discovered painting on a recovery trip to London some months later but was sidetracked when her studio on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village was burnt out in an arson attack that nearly killed her. This excerpt begins shortly after she was offered the use of a mansion in Riverdale, New York to try to recover.
AS 1877 BEGAN, Clara Bowman was taking advantage of the hospitality extended to her by Mrs. Agnes Nathan, a virtual stranger who’d offered the artist her mansion in the Bronx’s Riverdale section, one of many “country cottages” that lined the Hudson for some of New York’s society families. There, she could paint in solitude—and perhaps recover her strength and confidence in peace.
But in mid-January, a blizzard came through and it served Clara well that the Nathans kept their pantry generously stocked and their cords of wood stacked high.
As the snow fell and mounted in the yard, she heard nothing but the dull thumping as more accumulated. In the fading light of that afternoon, the Palisades became invisible through the thick flurries and what sounds there were were muffled except for the bracing wind and sleet crashing into the windows.
The next morning, the air was very cold—she touched a window and it felt like a block of ice—and the sky was crystal clear and the sun’s reflection off the snow almost blinding. Snow drifts were, Clara thought, two feet high. Maybe more. The stone wall that separated the lawn and the slight wood that led dramatically down to the Hudson was gone, concealed by snow, but the Palisades were back, capped in white with their colors enhanced by the sun burning into them, at times finding a reflective surface that shot bolts of light back across the river.
Below the cliff face, Clara saw small ice floes passing south with the tide.
The house had an octagonal wing on its southern side and large windows there opened to the west. Clara had always enjoyed the vista it offered toward New Jersey. Not sure when she’d again see a human being, she set fires in the small fireplace in the wing and in the larger parlor to which it was connected.
She was surprised that she did not find this storm-enhanced solitude lonely. Instead, she decided she mustn’t squander the unique opportunity that had come her way. She stood in the wing, tightly holding a wrap around herself and looked to the west. She would do what she knew best. She would paint.
Other than eating and sleeping on the couch in the parlor (the warmest room in the house) and tending to other necessities, it was all she did. After a week, when several warm days melted off the worst of the snow and passage to the house was again possible, four completed canvases sat in the wing, now dank from the accumulated smell of her oils. Each was different but when placed end-to-end they created a panorama of the Palisades, the river, and the white-blanketed lawn of the Nathans’ yard.
The canvases weren’t large. Clara hadn’t anticipated doing a set. She’d started in the middle and then took advantage of the quiet to go to the right and to the left. The works weren’t precise, but they flowed from her right arm and through her right hand as nothing had before, as her treasured mentor John Evans suggested they would. When the fourth and final one was finished, she arranged them carefully for the first time.
She realized she’d done something significant. It was not nearly Paris-quality and many of her colleagues in Greenwich Village had done better landscapes. But as she had realized the quality of her better portraits when she first stepped back to take them in from a viewer’s distance, she felt similarly as to these landscapes.
* * * *
Once the snow had largely melted away, it wasn’t long before visitors and neighbors again came to see Miss Bowman, making sure she’d survived through the bitter storm. She often arranged for a carriage to take her to spend days with her parents and others in the City. But the Bowmans and the Nathans and John Evans and especially her dearest friend Emily understood she had to return to Greenwich Village if she was to again be the artist Clara Bowman who’d been forced to leave when an arsonist nearly killed her.
There was no question she would move back. She first went there those years before as a mourning eighteen-year-old to see if she could become an artist, and it was where she found she could. It was where she must return. Evans found a delightful, sunny apartment for her about a block west of her burnt-out (but since repaired) place. It was superior in many details. The light was better and its separate bedroom had a window to the back.
She ended her exile on May 1.
By mid-morning the next day, there was some order to Clara’s new studio. The building was on the south side of Bleecker, and the flat was on the fourth floor to its back. The studio portion was to the left, and its windows faced south and across the yards of the brownstones along Mott and Mulberry Streets.
As a homecoming gift, her parents paid to furnish it. Her sense again overcame her pride in accepting the tables and chairs and bed and the other pieces throughout. Except for the studio itself. For that a group of former students joined with John Evans to buy her what she needed and then some.
Evans often visited the new studio on Bleecker Street. He even brought his newest batch of protégés to see the landscapes and portraits strewn about in no apparent order. He thought one of the four paintings Clara completed in the wing in Riverdale in particular was worth exhibiting at a forthcoming show nearby.
“Blizzard” was very white and given the press of other paintings at the exhibition, the best Evans could do was place it partway down a hallway from the main works on display. Clara was not happy about this, and she nearly took it home where she saw where it was to be hung.
But Evans prevailed on her. It was important, he said. It would be seen by the people who he, and she, wanted to see it.
In the end, Clara did not think it mattered. The exhibition ended after three weeks, and Evans took “Blizzard” to his house on Washington Square for safe keeping.
* * * *
Done with Yale, Joseph Nathan—Agnes Nathan’s only child—needed to decide whether to journey off for the Grand Tour with several classmates or to begin the humdrum existence he would toil at for the next forty years. It was not much of a decision, and he was set to leave town with a group of fellow graduates for Europe. Paris. Rome. Venice. Berlin. Ending it all with two weeks in London.
With time on his hands, he stopped in at the office of Art Illustrated where his ambitious friend Buddy Castle worked. Buddy was a year older and had done his own tour in 1876. They were to go to Buddy’s club together, and Joe was anxious, pacing around the large space.
“Do you know a Clara Bowman?” Buddy asked.
Joe stopped. “Vaguely. She stayed at our house in Riverdale. Did some painting there. Why do you ask?”
Buddy handed him an advance copy of the next issue and said, “Page 12.”
There Joe saw a review of the exhibition where “Blizzard” was hung. He knew little of art and hadn’t gone to the exhibit.
“Almost at the end,” Buddy said.
The critic, a Mr. Thornton Isaacs, described the event in general terms and highlighted in glowing terms the specifics of several of the younger artists’ works. Then:
Mr. Evans has been coy, though. He slipped in (almost literally as it was halfway down a hallway that one expected would lead to a kitchen) a landscape. Since the balance of the exhibition was of portraits, the scene of winter in Riverdale, unmistakably the place given the desolate Palisades that haunted its background, was bound to attract attention and it surely did that for this correspondent.
Inquiries of Mr. Evans established that it was, in fact, by one of his recent protégés. Clara Bowman is her name, and she displayed great promise in a series of portraits that were shown in Paris and London last year.
But it is well known that she suffered horribly in the still-unsolved fire on Bleecker Street of last year. Word was that Miss Bowman had lost her ability to paint, but I am happy to report that this is far from true. Indeed, if this simple yet overwhelming landscape is any indication, her ability has been enhanced by her “brush” with death.
The painting—its official name is the turgid “Winter on the Hudson,” although that may be an intentional slight at the famous school—combines a perspective of, say, Mr. Church with the excitement of the denizens of Paris. It is understood that Miss Bowman, with Mr. Evans, enjoyed the hospitality of many of those Frenchmen, and their influence on her at least is palpable.
While Mr. Evans remains a staunch defender of the more realistic work that has stood him and so many others in good stead, Miss Bowman’s landscape and some of her earlier portraits suggest that she is among the American artists who will prove the equal and perhaps the superior to those no longer granted admission to the old, encrusted salons of Paris, man or woman.
“I cannot say I know anything about painting, but this chap seems to think she is talented,” Joe Nathan said when he finished.
“If he likes something,” Buddy said as he grabbed his hat, “it is worth liking. She is well on her way, my friend. Well on her way.”
With that, Buddy led his friend to his club a few blocks to the north but not before Joe got a copy of the new issue from him.
After their lunch, Buddy returned to work. Joe was bored. He decided to see if he could find Clara Bowman. Show her the review. From their few dealings at the Riverdale house, he knew she was nice and attractive enough. She came from money, though Joe didn’t care about that since so did he. She became a great friend of his mother and did a first-rate portrait of her. Maybe she’d help him pass the time until he left for Paris, maybe suggest things he might do when he got there. She was surely worth a bit of wooing.
It didn’t take long to track her down in Greenwich Village. Clara was well known given the drama surrounding her but also because she was considered one of the best of the artists flooding into the neighborhood. Joe soon had the address and climbed to the fourth floor of her large building.
“405.” It was to the back, and Joe knocked at its black door. She recognized her benefactress’s son when she opened it.
“Indeed, Miss Bowman. I’d like you to see something,” he said, pleasantly surprised that she’d remembered him. He held out Art Illustrated, open to page 12. She invited him in, brush in hand, and he stepped beside her at the painting.
“I just need a moment,” she said.
On the easel was the most recent landscape. He recognized it as being done from his house. She pointed her brush at it. “I did not give your grand oak enough attention but I realized how wonderful it was when I painted your mother, so I hope it will forgive me for my earlier lapse.”
She made several more strokes before putting her brush down and wiping her hands on a rag that was draped across the top of the painting. She reclaimed the Art Illustrated she’d placed to the side and began to read as Joe looked around but his glance ended up on Clara.
She was in profile to him. Fingers on her left hand tapped against her lower lip while she read. Her concentration on the story allowed him to study that profile. Before his thoughts on that front advanced too inappropriately, he looked away when she said, still eying the page, “This is extraordinary.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
She looked at him.
“My manners. May I get you something?”
“You can say you will accompany me to dinner this evening.”
It was a spontaneous utterance. Joe had arrived with no idea of what he would do or what he was doing. Now he was asking her to join him for dinner?
It turned into enjoyable evening for them both.
* * * *
For reasons he could not explain (perhaps chose not to explain) to his classmates, Joe announced at their club that circumstances were such that he could no longer make the journey with them. He assured them that it had nothing whatsoever to do with his family’s finances. He admitted that it was not a burning desire to begin work at his father’s financial firm.
“It is a woman,” was suggested by one but thought by all. “Confess it, you dog.”
Joe’s resistance was low. He meant nothing to her, he knew, but the thought that she meant something to him was enough to forgo being absent from New York for an extended period.
“All I will say is that while my prospects are slight my hopes are large and should I fail, as I almost surely will, I would like you to know that I fought the battle well and warrant being taken from the field on my shield and buried in a place of honor and not pitied but celebrated by you, my band of brothers, though I dream that when you return I shall still be in her bed!”
And with that Shakespearean invocation, his mates were satisfied, and Joseph Nathan was able to watch them sail into New York Harbor two days later with his head held high.
He was a fool in what he said but he was carried away with the thought of Miss Clara Bowman. Though it was true that it was far more likely that he would be carried off on his shield than ever lie in her bed. But he was a happy fool, and he might have detected the slightest hint of a smile when he told her during the third or fourth time he visited her studio after he showed her that article on page 12 that his plans were changed and he was compelled—he did not say it was because of his heart—to remain in New York while his friends sailed to Europe.
Marian L Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)
This vignette takes place in the same timeframe as Marian’s fifth book, Empire’s Reckoning. Teannasach means ‘chieftain’, or ‘leader’.
‘TEANNASACH, MAY I GO?” I asked formally. Ruar stepped forward, offering an arm and the kiss of farewell.
“Go safely, Lord Sorley,” he said. I swung up onto my horse and turned its head south. I had my instructions from my leader, and my own business to attend to in the south. I’d woken with a scratchy throat, but we’d talked and sung into the small hours, so I thought little of it. But as I rode through the morning, I reluctantly admitted to a cold. My throat was painfully sore, and my nose alternately running and blocked.
Ingoldstorp was some distance away yet, but they would give me soup and whiskey, and a warm bed. Perhaps a night’s sleep would chase the illness away. I found my hat in the saddlebags and wrapped my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The day was getting colder, I was sure.
An hour later the snow began. Big flakes, wet and heavy, at first: then, when the wind picked up, smaller and denser. The world around me turned white, and still the snow fell, thick and fast and rapidly shrinking the visible world to no more than a few arms’ lengths in front of me. I started to shiver. I couldn’t see the road now; all I could do was trust my horse to seek shelter.
I let the reins lie slack. The gelding plodded steadily forward, its head low against the wind. My fingers were numb. As were my toes. The snow stung the exposed skin of my face. I closed my eyes.
Random thoughts: lambs would die in this. Had I wrapped my lute properly? I drifted into a daze, time and the white world passing without sense or recognition.
My horse roused me, swinging his head and snorting. I looked around me, slowly realizing we stood in the lee of a building. I pushed myself up in the stirrups, my right leg dragging over the saddle as I dismounted, feet sinking into snow well over my ankles.
I fumbled along the wall of the building, looking for a door. I found one, but its latch resisted my stiff fingers. Swearing loudly, I pulled a glove off with my teeth and tried again. The horse pushed up against me, wanting cover.
On the fourth try I got the latch and the door open. I stumbled in, the horse following. A cattle byre, I could tell, from the smell and the heat, although almost no light found its way into the building. A cow lowed, then another. Probably the estate’s milk cows, I thought muzzily. I hoped so.
My hands were too cold to remove my horse’s bridle, or its saddle, even with both hands bare. He stood placidly enough, so I left him, moving towards the cattle. A warm, heavy body loomed in front of me. I put a hand on its side; it didn’t flinch. Slowly I moved around it until I was among the cows. I leaned up against one, almost hugging it. Apart from a flick of her tail, she didn’t object. Milk cows, as I had hoped, accustomed to being handled.
The heat radiating off the animals warmed me, even though the strong smell of urine in the byre made my eyes water. I would stink of cow, I thought, but I didn’t care. The cattle chewed and belched and shuffled, and one nosed me, its hot breath scented with hay. I’d never liked cattle much, before.
Warmed, I went back to my horse, removing his tack. He’d find hay and water, although the cows might kick him. By feel I found the bread and cheese in one saddlebag. Then I sat down to eat and wait.
The food tore at my sore throat, but I made myself swallow it, in small mouthfuls. I sat as close to the cattle as I safely could, and at some point, exhausted, I fell asleep.
A man’s voice woke me. Concerned, not angry: no estate or house would turn away a traveller in this weather. He knelt. “Are you well?”
I tried to speak, coughed instead. “Well enough,” I managed. “My horse brought me here. Where am I?”
“Ingoldstorp. Who are you?”
“Sorley.” A bout of coughing racked me. “Envoy for the young Teannasach. I was riding south from Dun Ceànnar.”
“Well, sit quiet while I give hay to the kyne and your horse. I’ll take you up to the house after.”
He was quick with the feeding. Then he piled the water trough high with snow, the byre door letting in blasts of cold as he went back and forth. It would melt soon enough from the animals’ body heat. Then he gave me a hand up, threw my saddlebags over his own shoulder, and took me to the house.
The snow and my cold ran their course together. Ingold—or rather his wife—distractedly welcomed me, found me a bath and a bed, fed me, and sat me by the fire when I coughed. I had been lucky: I could well have died, had my horse not brought me to the cattle-byre. But my cold remained only a cold, preventing me from singing to repay my hosts’ hospitality, nothing more.
Not that Ingold was often present. A handful of years older than I, he spent all the daylight hours out with his men and the sheepdogs, digging ewes and lambs out of drifts. I offered to help, but he refused. “I don’t doubt your skill with sheep, Sorley,” he said. “But you’ve work to do for the young Teannasach, and that can’t be risked.” So instead I fed the penned and stabled animals, and warmed half-dead lambs by the hearth of the house, with his wife and the estate’s women.
The weather changed on the fifth day, the wind shifting south, warm on the skin. Snow melted rapidly, turning the yard and the track to muck. “I’ll turn the sheep out in the morning,” Ingold told me, as we shared whiskey that night. I had played for them earlier; I couldn’t sing, but music of any sort was always welcomed. “You’ll be on your way, no doubt?”
“I will. If this weather reached south, the Casilani ships will have been delayed, but if not, they could be in harbour already. I have letters to go to Casil, from Ruar and the regent, and I have stops to make along the way.”
Ingold sipped his whiskey. “What are they like, these Casilani?” he asked.
“Wily. Sophisticated, and skilled with words and subtlety. At least the officials. The soldiers–” I shrugged, “–are not so different from any men.”
“You’ll need all your wits about you, if you’re to ensure they treat us fairly,” he commented. “But the same was needed with the Marai. Though now that they’ve been defeated, let us hope it will be some time before we have to deal with them again. I suppose it’s no different with the Casilani. But we’ll be hard-pressed to pay tribute this year.” The talk drifted to the effect of this unseasonal snow, and how many lambs had been lost. “We’ll have been better off than most,” Ingold said. “I had enough men to rescue most of them. Some of the estates will have lost almost all, I’d think.”
“Why did the Marai leave you alone?”
He snorted. “I’m a practical man, Sorley. I sent my wife and children to Dun Ceànnar, and then I went too, but later. I told the estate workers I’d gone south to fight at the Wall, for the Marai, and I left them orders to cooperate. We lost a lot of animals to feed the raiders. There’s some pale-haired babies born this year, and they took a few girls, and a boy or two, as slaves, but they didn’t burn the byres, or the cottages. A small price to pay for our lives, I’d say.”
I wouldn’t argue; his hospitality had saved my life. But my gut clenched at the thought of the girls taken, whether to the wilds of Varsland or left in the raiders’ wake to birth those pale-haired babies. I raised my glass without speaking, and he grinned and drank his whiskey down. “Bedtime,” he said. “I’ll be out at dawn tomorrow, so I’ll say goodbye now. Safe travels, Sorley.”
David M. Simon (@writesdraws)
The day it happened, I was holding down a bar stool at Wally’s, working on my second Christmas Ale, eating a plate of fried perch, and trying to warm up from a morning on the ice. It was bitter cold that morning, the wind sweeping across frozen solid Lake Erie all the way from Canada, and I had stayed pretty close to shore. Still, I had two nice walleye and a mess of fat perch in my truck cooler. Wally’s is the place where us old, retired ice fishermen out of Port Clinton congregate to swap fish stories and lift a glass. It’s especially satisfying when your fish stories are actually true.
Me and half a dozen of my buddies were shooting the shit, enjoying the particular ambiance of Wally’s, which is sort of a cross between a bait store and a VFW hall basement bar—mounted walleye, steelhead and smallmouth fighting for wall space with flickering neon beer signs and a Ridgid Tools calendar two years out of date.
Our shit shooting was interrupted when the door burst open with a swirl of icy air, and Bert staggered in looking like the abominable snowman. He was wild-eyed, crusted with snow from the top of his Browns beanie all the way down to his Muck Boots. His ample beard was frozen into chunky spikes. Bert tried to speak, but the words got swallowed by a phlegmy cough. He bent over, hands on knees, to catch his breath, then tried again. “Ahab’s gone!”
“What the hell do you mean Ahab’s gone?” I asked as we ushered Bert to a booth, where he collapsed. Shirley, the owner and barkeep, hustled over with a big, steaming cup of joe. We all gathered around while Bert sipped the coffee and pulled himself together. A puddle formed beneath his feet as he thawed.
“What do you mean Ahab’s gone?” I asked again. “I saw him go out this morning on his snowmobile, pulling that rig on a sled behind him. Is he lost? Stuck somewhere?”
“Maybe he finally found his great white whale,” Kevin said to a round of laughter. Ahab’s name isn’t actually Ahab, it’s Smitty. We call him Ahab because he’s been chasing his own whale for twenty odd years, although in this case his whale is a Lake Erie monster named Bessie. According to legend, and a couple hundred years of occasional sightings, Bessie is an enormous snake-like creature that lives in the Lake Erie deeps.
Ahab believes in Bessie hook, line, and proverbial sinker. He’s spent decades trying to catch her with this crazy homemade rig—a welded metal tripod that holds a thick reel of heavy polypropylene line with a winch. At the end of that rope is a large meathook, baited with a whole raw chicken.
Bert held up one finger while he took a big swallow, draining his cup. “That’s exactly what happened,” he said.
That silenced the laughter. Shirley brought Bert a Bud draft to replace the coffee, and we all gathered around to hear his tale.
“I know none of you had the cajones to drop a line much past the breakwall this morning because it was a little brisk, but I was feeling lucky. I loaded up my sled and headed out, didn’t stop until I was damn near to Middle Bass Island. Little tricky out that way, some buckled ice to avoid, but nothing I ain’t used to.
“About the time I had augered a couple of holes and set up shop, I realized Ahab was already there, another fifty yards north. He saw me about the same time and we waved back and forth. With how far away he was and the wind blowing we couldn’t really talk. I dropped my tip-ups and settled in to wait for the bite to catch fire.
“As it turns out, that lucky feeling might have just been gas. Didn’t get a nibble, and my damn feet were getting cold. I was packing up when I heard Ahab hootin’ and hollerin’ to beat the band, so loud I could hear him clear across the ice. And there was this other sound, a high pitched whining, that I realized was the rope on his contraption spinning wildly. That crazy bastard had hooked something big.
“Don’t look at me like that, it’s not like I thought he hooked Bessie. I figured maybe it was a beast of a musky, or some mutant catfish. I started to mosey in his direction to get a better look. The problem was, whatever he had hooked was stripping out line so fast the reel was smoking. No way Ahab could even grab the winch handle to slow it down, let alone reel line back in.
“And then it stopped. I thought at first he had lost the fish, but when he reeled up the slack there was still pressure. Ahab could barely keep up. Whatever he had hooked, it wasn’t gone. It was surfacing.
“I was still several yards away when Bessie erupted out of the ice. Chunks and shards were flying everywhere, and I ducked down to keep from getting hit. She just kept coming out of the lake, a snake as big around as two or three men with golden scales and spines down her back. She was whipping her head back and forth and finally shook the hook. Then she starts looking around. I stayed hunkered down close to the ice. Not gonna lie, I was scared shitless.
“Meanwhile, Ahab is flat on his back looking up into those yellow lizardy eyes with this big, goofy smile on his face, like he couldn’t believe it finally happened after all these years. Bessie’s head was weaving back and forth like a cobra. Then her jaws open, and keep opening, and her head plunges down, swallows Ahab whole, and just keeps going right through the ice.”
Bert stopped talking to drain his beer. “That was it. I ran to my snowmobile and hightailed it out of there, left all my gear. No way I’m going back for it. I’m never fishing this fucking lake again.”
Shirley brought a round of shots, and we each took one. “You all know my dad Wally was a commercial fisherman before he retired and opened this place. He told me once that before the trawlers headed out, they said this prayer—Dear God, be close to me. Your sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.” She choked back tears and raised her glass. “For Ahab.”
I said my goodbyes and went home after that. I haven’t been back on the ice since.
Louise Sorensen (@Jlouise3anne)
AEDYN AND I RESCUED his girl, Gracelyn, as well as my old friend Donal, and once I recovered from the snakebite, he and I had to boat a crowd of newcomers, and some old-timers who needed more care than we could give them, to the next settlement. We all took a grip on the ropes and pulled one of our big canoes, plus a two-man canoe for Aedyn and me, through the flood and muck from our home compound to the river.
There was a heavy fog that morning, and if the trail hadn’t been cleared and well-marked, we never would have found the river. It was to be an easy paddle downriver. But when we reached the water, the temperature dropped, the fog got heavier, and we could scarcely see our hands in front of our eyes. No worries. The river too was marked with tall numbered stakes driven into the shore at intervals and topped with red flags. Members of our compound had gone to great lengths to explore and map this territory, and we were confident that when the sun burned the fog off, we’d know exactly where we were.
We slid the canoes into the water and loaded the nine passengers into the big one. Our two able crew, Jordan, our ancient lit dude, interpreter and translator of all things bookish and language, and his beautiful girlfriend, Michelle, who resurrected lost tech through his interpretations, joined them, and Aedyn and I got into the other. The plan was for the big canoe to stay close to the shore, with us on the river side of them, scouting for deadheads and sandbars. Although that morning, we couldn’t see much. All we could do was hope we didn’t run into anything.
As we proceeded, making good time with the current favouring us, the fog was dense as pea soup, muffling all sound. I was straining my ears to hear conversation from the passengers so we could be sure we were pacing them, but all was quiet. We should have had them ring a bell, or sound a horn, but we’d neglected to think of that.
Aedyn made a comment that I couldn’t make out, even though he was only a few feet away in the back of the canoe.
“Steer closer to them,” I called to him. I thought we could hang a rope on the other canoe and keep better track of it that way. I guess he misunderstood me, because the next thing I know, we’re swinging out, away from shore and into the middle of the river, and tufts of floating islands so common in the fall were passing by us on our shore side. We kept bumping up against them, almost as if they were herding us into another channel.
The next thing I know, a strong current had seized us and we were off and running and had lost the other canoe, which as far as I knew, had stayed on its original course. I could tell by the smell of grass and swamp that our canoe wasn’t on the main river anymore. There was also a faint underlying stench like that of long dead skunk that set my hunter’s instincts buzzing. Water shouldn’t smell like that.
Our canoe would get hung up on a shallow, and then there’d be a surge in the current and we’d leap off and continue on our merry way. The farther we ventured down this avenue, the colder and narrower it got.
We weren’t dressed for cold. We didn’t even have jackets. This time of year, we should have been sweating in our tees and jeans. But the temperature, according to the plumes of my breath, was undeniably dropping even lower.
The fog began to clear a little, and I perceived Aedyn in the back of the canoe, hunched over, covered in hoar frost, but still paddling.
The land all around us faded into view. I was shocked and then delighted to see that it was covered in a sparse forest of skinny junipers, and what looked like snow. Then the cold set in and I was worried. Very worried.
When I heard muffled growling from behind and Aedyn yelling, I turned around but everything was a blur of frost and fog. And then the canoe started rocking, as though something was jostling it from behind. It reminded me of the stories of ice ogres and their tame ice whales, who capsized unwary travellers to add to their stewpot. But those were only stories to frighten children and keep them from straying too far on the water. In our world, the days of ice ogres and their whales were in the distant cool past.
But the rocking got worse. The bow was rising high out of the water and plummeting back, and I had to grip tight to the gunwales as though on the back of a bucking horse. I thought we were going to capsize for sure. Then the rocking suddenly stopped, but the water all around us was frothing, the boat sinking first right and then left, and it was all I could do to keep us afloat with frantic paddling.
I was sweating heavily from the exertion and not a little terror, when the water calmed down. A broad wake, as if from some giant animal, proceeded downstream in front of us. I caught sight of something big and long and white under the water, but couldn’t make out exactly what it was.
With the sudden peace, I was finally able to turn around and check on Aedyn.
He was alone. There was no one and nothing with him growling or rocking the boat. He was still paddling, but weakly, not helping a bit. I steered the canoe to shore, got out, and pulled it onto a pebbly beach. A pale sun, doing little to thaw us out, broke through the fog and was slowly burning it away. Luckily, there was no wind, as we had nothing to wrap around us for warmth. But we had matches.
Just past the beach, I dug down through a foot of snow to a layer of leaves and moss, started a little fire, and pushed Aedyn beside it. It was then that I saw he wasn’t covered in hoar frost at all. His hair had turned white, his skin pale as bone, bleached white as an egg, his dear face full of wrinkles, and looking about a hundred years old. My poor Aedyn. I couldn’t fathom it. I stared and stared, willing my eyes to see something different. But the vision persisted. And how was I going to explain this to Gracelyn? She didn’t like him going out on missions as it was, but it was our way of life. No one was going to hand us food and shelter. It sometimes did cost us our lives. But to bring Aedyn back, maybe dead, and looking like he was? I’d been right there all along and couldn’t believe my eyes.
Was I frozen and wrinkled too? I felt my face. Cold as ice, but as far as I could tell, smooth. Seeing Aedyn’s beautiful dark hair white as the surrounding snow broke my heart. I couldn’t bear it if he died. How do you make yourself stop loving someone? I yanked out a hunk of my own hair. Still boring old orange ginger. The pain helped me focus on our plight. Despite the cold, I was flushed and pouring with sweat.
Where were we? We were somewhere in winter, but our own world was a certified fire ball. There was no place on it I’d ever heard of that had a foot of snow. Or a pale winter sun.
I had little experience with cold. Should I feed the fire and get Aedyn warmed up? Or hustle him out of there before he did freeze to death or, from his appearance, died of old age?
My heart was racing, and I felt like a cornered animal. The fog was dissipating. With the sense that there were hostile eyes all around us, though I could see neither man nor beast, I decided to get him away from there.
I shook Aedyn’s shoulders, but he didn’t respond. I slapped him on both sides of the face, gently, to no effect. He was very still. Not shivering. Frozen in that hunched position. I started to shiver so hard I was afraid to load us in case I flipped the canoe. Then I felt his neck and after a long panicky pause, found a slow pulse. He may have been lost in himself, as he had a knack for meditation. I couldn’t call him selfish for leaving me on my own in the cold as he was obviously in no shape to help. If I hadn’t found his pulse, I would have sat down beside him and kept him company for all eternity, but he was alive, and there was hope. To prevent him losing his paddle, I pried it out of his stiff hands, threw both him and it into the canoe, and positioned him in the bottom. If he couldn’t paddle, at least he’d help stabilize our craft.
With only me paddling, though I was putting every ounce of my strength into it, retracing our journey back against the current was slow.
And then I felt something bumping us from the side, as though a large creature was trying to turn us around. I could see nothing beneath us, but slapped the water with the paddle, and thrust it under the hull in a slicing motion. Several times it hit something heavy and slippery. Most times it just glanced off, but one time it felt like something big had latched onto it and it took me a devil of a time to shake it loose.
As we got farther upriver, nearer our original course, the sun on my back became stronger, warmer. The attacks beneath us ceased and I stopped shivering. I ventured a glance back at Aedyn and saw that his hair had turned gray, as though he too was thawing. Colour was returning to his hands. I couldn’t see his face because he was still leaning over, but his improvement gave me courage that he would be all right and I leaned into the paddle with renewed vigour.
The side course we’d gotten stuck on seemed longer than I remembered, though this could have been because of our reduced speed. I’d turn and check on Aedyn every now and then, and each time, his hair was darker and his position more relaxed.
At last we reached a junction that I was sure was the main river. I steered a hard right and we started downriver. Immediately the smell changed from grass and swamp and that unpleasant tang of rot to good honest river.
To catch up with the big canoe I fell to paddling with a passion. It wasn’t long before I felt help from the stern, and looked back. Aedyn was sitting up, paddling strongly, dark haired, red cheeked, healthy.
I almost cried. It was all I could do to tear my eyes away from him and keep paddling. My relief knew no bounds.
I try not to think about what happened on that first leg of our journey. Aedyn acts like nothing at all went on and sometimes I think I must have been caught in some fevered dream of my own.
But when we arrived at the next settlement, something made me take a good look at my paddle.
Embedded in it was the biggest sharpest tooth I’ve ever seen.
Renee Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
LIHUA CHEN CHECKED the oxygen level in her tank, then zipped up her winter coat. She blew on her driver’s goggles. They blocked her peripheral vision, but the world before didn’t become clearer.
The world was still a block of ice on the last planet of the Delta System. Nothing here but the remaining survivors of an empire that had collapsed with multiple simultaneous civil wars.
She stood in a not-quite-air-tight access port to the colony. In front of her were steel doors leading out onto the desolate tundra. A tundra that had once provided enough resources to mine for trade and a decent standard of living. Now it was treeless and shrubless and barren.
The tundra had been plundered and ravaged and mined until those who had the chance to leave had left, and those that remained behind were stuck to scrimp and starve and stay behind and suck on oxygen tanks to compensate for high pollution.
Behind her, in the colony, the lights flickered. The electricity grid was faltering and needed replacement parts.
Her pulse stilled. Dead still. If the colony lost electricity, they’d be vulnerable to plunging temperatures and attack from an array of hostile wildlife that would be too pleased to feast on the colonists’ bones.
The lights came back on.
The slight ache that had developed behind her jaw eased. She moved her jaw from side to side, and the ache disappeared.
Yared Onyeneme stood next to her and slipped on his goggles. The goggles shaded his midnight eyes, darkening them and highlighting their intelligence. The goggles covered the high edges of his cheekbones but contrasted well with the sharp edges of his jaw. He motioned for her to turn around. She did, and he tugged on the tubes from her oxygen tank and ran his hands down the length of her arms and legs, checking for tears.
He nodded, and she repeated the process. His equipment was also in order, and Lihua motioned at the camera for the exterior door to open.
The door opened with the high-pitched squeal of steel grinding against steel.
Lihua shielded her face against the bright-grey afternoon. A thick layer of clouds covered the sky, shielding the sun’s full force. The vastness of the tundra was unending. A carpet of ash rolled out in all directions, blanketing the ground.
Grey. The entire planet had been turned grey after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks at all the world’s nuclear sites.
“Comms check,” Lihua said.
“Five by five.” Yared’s voice was rich, soft and right in her ear. She’d never tire of hearing his voice.
She walked to the open buggy parked outside and dusted the grill and seat with a brush stored behind the driver’s seat as per protocol. She climbed into the driver’s seat and pushed the ignition button. The engine sputtered and coughed and belched to life.
Yared buckled his four-point seatbelt. Eyes straight, the long line of his powerful arms led to a set of more powerful shoulders. He was lean, built for a back-alley fight.
Yared checked the equipment in the back seat. “Clear to go.”
Lihua stomped on the accelerator and steered the buggy to the horizon, not that it varied from any direction. Endless grey met endless light grey, pocked, desolate and frigid.
The buggy bucked and rocked, then lurched forward.
Cold air numbed her cheeks. She tightened her grip on the wheel to keep her fingers from going numb.
It didn’t work.
The frigid air bit into her hands and wrists and cheeks. She’d need to apply animal fat to her skin for weeks to regain its lustre. Not that there were many animals left. Not that the animals left had much fat. Not that the fat from the remaining animals could be splurged on such luxuries as facial cream.
She refocused her thoughts on the horizon.
“Rover’s Point or Penanhampton?” Yared rolled out a map across his lap.
Memories of half-starved, fierce ice wolves stalking the last raiding party haunted her. They stood hip-height with two rows of teeth and retractable claws. It wasn’t their size that gave Lihua nightmares. It was their tireless tenacity that terrorised her.
Lihua blinked away a tear over the death of her brother Ping but failed. The tear trickled down her cheek and pooled in her driver’s goggles. A perpetual damp spot against her skin, one she couldn’t shoo away.
“Ping was my best friend for forty-three years.” Yared’s normally soft tone was rough with grief.
Two more tears trickled down her cheeks. She wanted to wipe them away but didn’t. Let her vision be blurred, and her cheeks turn prickly from cold. They were minuscule prices to pay to remember Ping, his laughter, his annoying little brother antics, and how he always left her his carrots.
Lihua could never eat enough carrots.
Yared shifted his weight and adjusted his oxygen tube. “You know Ping would have fixed the generator. He would have taken one look at it, and stood back, watching us for an hour, maybe two trying to figure out how to repair it.”
Lihua laughed a sad little laugh, one that rode a wave of sniffles. “Yeah, that’s him. He’d have the answer before anyone else but would give us time to figure it out ourselves. And when we couldn’t make it work, he’d show us how.”
Yared gave a soft, rueful chuckle. “Remember Ping’s fortieth birthday party?”
Lihua looked the other way, angling her cheek to the full force of the wind. Not that the bitter blast cooled the heat flaring against her face. “Hard to forget having to unclog the toilette system.”
Hard to forget the moment she fell in love with Yared. He had been the first to grab his toolbox and head to the wastewater maintenance system. He opened the door with intent, and a pile of red goo fell on his head. Ping had rigged a bucket over the door to spill on whoever opened it.
Yared had stood in silence, blinking, covered in the goo. He had turned slowly to Ping, deliberate movements of someone ready to rally their strength and attack. But had laughed, loud and rich and beautiful. His laughter rang out in the metal and cement corridors, adding a much-needed joy.
And that was the joy-filled moment Lihua realised she loved him. His compassion, sense of duty, intelligence, and the way he took everything in stride with a broad smile.
Lihua shifted her gaze to the horizon, to a future she wanted to build with him but couldn’t. “Penanhampton. We’ve picked Rover’s Point clean.”
“There are more gangs in Penanhampton.” Yared’s tone wasn’t disapproving, it was more statement-of-fact.
Lihua powered up the pulse cannon bolted onto a swivel on the rollbar. Energy systems were a go. She reached into the space between the seat and the door and removed the thermal foil-encased rifle. She handed it to Yared.
Yared angled the barrel to his right, out of the passenger side frame, and pumped the action. He loaded a thirty-round magazine into it and put it back in its protective case.
“Weapon is hot.” He removed a rifle from his kit, inspected it, primed the action, and looked down its site. “Second weapon is hot. My sidearm was inspected at the station and is hot.”
Lihua steered a hard left across the tundra. Her fingers twitched to release the chains that dragged behind her vehicle to mask its tracks, creating dust. And dust was death. A trail of dust would be visible on the horizon for dozens of klicks, and depending on how cold the day got, the trail would suspend in the air like the humidity in the jungle.
Not that this ice world had ever seen jungles. Not that this ice world in a nuclear winter ever hoped to see anything warmer than a cool spring day.
She pulled her scarf over her cheeks and swept her gaze from left to right. Near them, somewhere, were the hungry. The hungry wolves, nomads, creatures that would spring forth through the frozen ground to snatch any hot meal.
Yared held out his compass. “Adjust your heading by two degrees east.”
She did and kept steady pressure on the accelerator, but her heart sped faster. Three hours alone with Yared. Three hours of silence, grunts, and endless horizons bogged down her thoughts of how his breath would feel against the hollow of her neck.
The mission was to salvage parts for the colony’s generator to keep the power on.
“Two degrees?” she asked.
Yared tapped the compass on the dash. “Two degrees. You’re on course.”
Her entire life was off course without him in it. Not that she had ever had him. She’d had a string of not-so-serious relationships. Placeholders, that’s what she’d called them. Placeholders until she had a true and lasting love. With Yared.
And Yared had been married years ago when they first met. But his marriage fell apart after some particularly tumultuous fights, and the ex had stomped away to the other end of the colony with some new lover.
Then there was Ping’s and Yared’s friendship. A bro-mance of epic nature. A strong bro-code to never approach the other’s girlfriends or relatives.
A bro-compact. A bro-blood-bond. A bro-constitution.
A leave-Lihua-to-her-fantasies-and-broken-heart-over-a-dear-friend-who-would-never-give-her-the-time-of day hell.
She drove on, into the desolate world, into her aching heart, into a future that would never be theirs.
Questions danced on her tongue. Questions like how he’d found yesterday’s dinner, the bland gruel it was. How did he find last night’s entertainment in the common area—an impromptu Gilbert and Sullivan act from the maintenance department, more tongue and cheek than a professional production. And did he spend his night in his tiny quarters reading biographies from 17th-century leaders, listening to 1930s big brass bands, or sleeping?
Not that she noticed such things about him, knew what he ate, what he read, what he listened to.
She had more important things to do—ensuring the colony’s perimeter was secure, the weapons in good working order, and the pipes that circulated water weren’t frozen.
The most important thing for her to do was to keep her chin high, her eyes dry, and the ghosts that haunted her heart away.
Damn those tears that dampened her cheeks, blurred her vision, and forced her to feel emotions she didn’t want to.
The mission. Her life was about the mission. Her partnership with Yared was mission-oriented. Go out onto the tundra with the man she had secretly loved for years, protect him, salvage the parts, and stave off calamity in the colony for another day.
Mission first. Heart last.
“Sing me a song,” she said. Anything to hear his rich, baritone voice.
He tapped his hand against his thigh to a tune she didn’t know.
“Do you know Louis Armstrong’s A Kiss To Build a Dream On?”
No, but it was now her favourite song. She shook her head.
Yared cleared his throat, then sang in a gravelly voice. Not quite on key, but full of soul and meaning. His words filled the endless klicks to Penanhampton with an emotional melody and powerful words.
Delicious and raw emotions filled her. She drove on for an hour, enthralled by his voice. Only him, not Base, not some sister colony looking for support, not some hostile force looking to steal from them. Only his voice, velour-rich and directly in her ear on a private radio network that some friendly or hostile force couldn’t overhear.
She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel in time with his singing. She hummed along to the tune but didn’t know the words.
The sun lowered against the horizon. An hour had passed with Yared’s soulful voice in her ears and no signs of predators—human, wolf, or otherwise. The buggy bounced along the pocked ground. The sun lowered against the horizon, and Lihua pulled her minus-fifty-centigrade-proof scarf over her face.
Static came from the radio.
She angled her gaze towards it, waiting.
Yared reached for the receiver, but she placed her hand over his and stopped him. Her gloved hand rested over his gloved hand. There was no skin contact or warmth of his body, but there was a sensation of his strength, presence, and solidity.
If he knew. If he cared. If he returned the longing looks she could no longer hide.
“Wait,” she said over their private, buggy-level comms.
More static, somehow more menacing, and closer.
She reduced her speed, then looked over her shoulder to the wake of ice crystals hanging in the air rising from the crushed snow. Dust meant death.
“Anything?” Yared reached for his shotgun and rested it against his lap.
She ran her tongue along her chapped lips. The prick of pain was a reminder of the seriousness of their predicament. “I don’t know. I don’t like it.”
“There haven’t been marauders in these parts for months.”
Months. That meant they had travelled elsewhere, picked those places clean, and returned in search of new spoils. Not that there was much left to salvage twenty years after the attacks.
The simultaneous terrorist attacks on the world’s nuclear power plants that drove terraforming had destroyed any shimmer of hope of a semi-decent temperature. There was no escape, no off-world. Only a struggle to survive and increase caloric intake by a few hundred calories a day from generation to generation.
Scavenge for everything because there were so few and so little left.
She scanned the horizon to her left, right, and behind her. No sign of snow-dust plumes. The tightness in her jaw eased, enough for her to draw breath between the small o between her lips.
The sun faded fast like it had given up warming this world and was moving on to better ones.
Lihua placed her night goggles on and turned on the starlight. The world was contrasted in light green light, and the few small animals that scurried across the tundra were cast in green light against a pitch-dark emptiness of night.
“Anything?” she asked.
Yared held his night binoculars up. “Nothing eastbound.” He looked over his shoulder. “Nothing from the north…Shit. Move.”
She stomped on the accelerator. “What?”
“Three trails are coming in from the west. Coming hard.”
Something lodged in her throat. Fear, anxiety, anger. Whatever it was, it tasted metallic and determined. “Head back?”
Yared stepped from the passenger seat to the back seat and loaded the machine gun. “We need those parts.”
Lihua smiled inwardly. Any other answer and she’d kick him out of the buggy, leave him bouncing hard on the tundra, pulling her heart with him. “What’s near here?”
“Ice. Wolves. Hostiles.”
All true. Bitterly true.
“What else?” She needed a third person in the buggy and had petitioned for one for years. A driver, a gunner, and a navigator. Too much risk, the council said. Everyone in the colony had four major skill sets to ensure knowledge transfer and redundancy. Three people on a salvage risked too much.
“Think you can make a landing site?” Yared’s voice was strained, strained in the way that suggested the words were venomous to his tongue.
The words were a curse.
Landing Sites were what governments had once called the places where the aliens landed their craft to make first contact. Aliens that brought disease and their politics and their wars and their energy weapons that poisoned the atmosphere reduced the human and animal populations to near extinction. They then extracted what resources the ice moon had left.
Landing sites sparked turmoil in the empire, forging alliances between rebels and aliens and pitting the fringes against the centre until the empire’s centre had buckled under too much pressure.
Yared cocked the machine gun, and the air fizzed with high-potency energy. “That’s ten klicks east of Penanhampton. Got enough in the tank?”
No. Never. There was never enough in the tank. What passed as fuel in the buggy was high-octane alcohol that would turn anyone who drank it deaf, mute, and blind.
“I can make it.” She changed course a few degrees. Her ankle was sore from the sharp angle she kept it. Any flatter and she’d push the pedal through the floor.
The buggy rocked and bounced. The snowpack under them cracked and groaned, loud complaints of shifts under the ice.
Something large was burrowing under them, following them.
Her throat closed more, enough to put a cork stopper on the fear swelling in her.
The high-pitched ffttt of a high-calibre shot whizzed by her.
Her pulse sped ahead of the racing buggy, hard and irregular, forging a path into the frozen depths of the world. She gulped, the high-oxygen content of her air tank mixed with adrenaline, disconnecting her, making her woozy.
Yared swivelled the machine gun around.
Lihua cupped her hand over her right ear and winced. She drove steady, cut to the right, accelerated, and then cut another diagonal.
The heat of the machine gun barrel warmed the back of Lihua’s neck. Her nerves learned a new dance, jigging this way and hopping that way. There was always something new on the tundra, something daring that tested a person’s limits.
This time, the test was on Lihua’s bowel control.
A third short burst of shots rang out behind her.
She corrected her bearing and steered over a series of snow dunes. The wind picked up, pushing full force against the buggy’s side. Her fingers tightened around the wheel, and a dull, creeping ache rose from her hands to her wrists, freezing her grip on the wheel. Pain cell-deep gripped her, controlled her, tortured her.
“Report.” Her voice was raw, unused in the wind.
“They’re backing off.”
She turned her head and scanned the horizon for trails. “Away or off?”
“Appears to be off.”
Appearances on the Tundra suckered many people into false confidence. Not Lihua. Not on her two-hundred-and-seventy-second mission. She’d gone out and come back with her partner alive, intact, and with the necessary parts all those times.
Except for the one brutal, painful, burn-into-soul time she’d lost Ping.
Raw emotions strangled her, but she pushed forward into the tundra. Unable to move on from her past, unable to shove her heart forward, away from Yared, unable to take full breaths free of things that should have been.
Two-hundred-and-seventy-two missions with Yared Onyeneme. Nearly two thousand hours beside the man in this buggy. Two-hundred-and-seventy-two times he’d had her life in his hands. Two-hundred-and-seventy-two times, he’d cradled her heart in his hands.
Not that he knew.
Not that he’d crossed the line.
Not that he even knew there was a line between colleague and lover.
“Report,” she said.
“Hostiles are backing away.”
“Circle to base or head to Penanhampton?” In buggies, there was no command. Decisions had to be consensual to reflect the dynamism of any situation. The driver had more sway but never the final word.
“Negative. The colony will die without the replacement parts for the generator.” Yared stepped into his passenger seat and then sank into it. He pulled the sleeve of his parka back. A giant, glow-in-the-dark wristwatch shone on his wrist. “We’ve one hour.”
One hour against the dark, the cold, the hostiles, the ice wolves, and whatever alien menace still lurked in the recesses and shadows of Penanhampton.
The wind spread prickles against her cheeks and forehead, numbing her and freezing her thoughts. She blinked past the specks of snow blowing into her headlights. She squinted through the gloom, the endless, rolling white snow dunes.
He removed a map from the glove box. “Remember the marker?”
Hard to forget a thirty-metre-high mountain of snow in the shape of a heart. “Frozen Heart.”
“That’s right. It should be coming up in two klicks.” He put the map back and raised the nightscope binoculars to his eyes.
“Heat signature of wolves a kilometre east.”
Lihua sucked on the inside of her cheek. “Scan in all directions. Make sure it’s not an ambush.”
Three ice wolves were manageable. It was the super-packs that worried her. Packs of fifteen or more wolves strategically placed along a route, driving their prey towards the next sub pack, running them to exhaustion. In her case, chasing them until the buggy lost power. Lihua had lost Ping that way.
A horrible, sixteen-hour slow death. Knowing the buggy would lose power, there was no place to hide or seek a fortified position. Nothing. Only taking position behind a stopped buggy and firing at twenty fast-moving, all-claws-and-fangs targets.
That’s how many ice wolves they had downed before the remaining pack had dragged Ping off and devoured him in a pack on the verge-of-starvation-devouring.
Ping’s screams haunted her. She woke up at night drenched in sweat at that terrible sound. When she was at her workstation, monitoring the wastewater levels, the thrum of electrical instruments gave way to Ping’s agonised screams. She walked down a corridor, her bootheels clicking against metal floor, and the sound echoed down the hallway, carried by Ping’s last scream.
Lihua gulped a breath, hating the memory, the iron smell that lingered in the air whenever she thought of Ping, and the utter helplessness that gripped and strangled her.
She should have saved Ping. Saved her little brother, her friend, and the colony’s Master Engineer.
She’d failed on all counts. Failure tasted bitter and full of regret.
Yared shifted in his seat. “There are wolf heat signatures farther up.”
An uncomfortable feeling whirled in her stomach, the same feeling she got when she knew there was only bad news and worse news. Nothing ever good came from that feeling.
“They’re going to track us, run us to ground,” Yared said.
And bad went to worse and worse to horrible.
She veered south by southeast at the Frozen Heart hill and eased on the accelerator. She checked her rearview mirror for a snow trail. There was none. But the engine was noisy, and the frigid air carried sound for kilometres.
“Think we’ll lose them?” he asked.
She slid her gaze to the speedometer—thirty kilometres. In a relay, the wolves could keep up like they were going for a lazy Sunday jog. At the switchover between sub packs, the fresh wolves could sprint and jump into the buggy. Lihua and Yared would be dead in under a minute, torn limb from limb, hearts devoured first.
The cold seeped through her clothes, past her skin, numbing her muscles. Speed up, and she’d attract the attention of whoever still lived in Penanhampton, maybe more hunting teams roaming the tundra. Slow down, and the wolves would catch up.
“We’ll not lose the wolves,” she said. “They’re too smart, too hungry.”
“The electrical stations this side of Penanhampton have already been looted.”
“So too have the other ones by other parties.”
Yared grunted. It was low, almost washed out by the wind, and defeated.
Defeated. Uneasiness swelled again in her stomach. If Yared was defeated, no hope would be left on the desolate planet. “What parts do we need?”
“What else uses that?”
“That can handle the capacity we need?” Yared tapped his hand against his thigh. “Power poles. We could get them from power poles. Looters want a quick score.”
“Do we have the equipment?”
Yared crawled into the back seat and opened a trunk. “Ropes. Crampons. Tools. We’re set.”
She slowed to a cluster of abandoned houses. “Think there are any here?”
“Only one way to find out.” Yared maneouvered over the seat, took his seat, and laid his rifle across his lap. He raised his night goggles to his eyes. “No heat signatures.”
She eased off the accelerator and drifted to a stop. “Good. Keep an eye out.”
“I’m going up the poles.” He hooked an ankle over his opposite knee and made to put on a crampon.
“No. You’re the better shot.” She took the crampons from his hand and affixed them to her boots. “The motor’s running.” She stepped out of the buggy, ending his chance to object, collected tools from the trunk, and strode up to the first power pole.
She reached for the first rung and climbed.
And climbed, and climbed, and climbed until her arms were sore from gripping the rungs. She removed the first step-down transformer.
The wind was less forgiving here. Instead of slapping against her cheeks, it punched her in the face. The cold tore through her, despite the five layers of clothes.
She jumped down from the last rung. “Anything?”
“The wolves are regrouping.” Yared’s voice was tight.
She placed the first step-down transformer into the trunk, waited for Yared to climb into the buggy, then drove to the next pole.
She repeated the process six more times and parked the buggy beside the seventh pole. “Ready?”
Yared grunted. That beautiful, low, ever-sexy grunt. “Four wolves are moving in. Make this one fast.”
Fast? Fast implied she was well-rested, hadn’t driven two hours over the tundra, recovered from an adrenaline dump for a previous attack, hadn’t climbed up six poles, and wasn’t worried about a pack of wolves encircling them.
Fast. She could do it fast. She could do fast by forcing her burned-out muscles to climb, climb, climb until they were nothing but ash.
She harnessed her thoughts on the colony and the hundred and seventy-six lives that depended on them getting the equipment to repair the generators.
She cleared her throat again, and again, and again but she still tasted iron, bile, and fear. She reached for the first rung of the ladder. She hauled her body up on the pole, pushing past the burn, the dizziness, and the height. She kept her gaze slightly upwards, reaching for the next rung and the one after.
She removed the step-down transformer, placed it in her backpack, and headed down.
A shot rang out.
She looked down.
A second shot. The muzzle flash illuminated Yared’s handsome features. Determination and grit firmed his jaw.
Lihua shot a flare, and it burst into a shower of bright-red light. A dozen wolves formed a perimeter around them. A jolt of adrenaline rocked her body into action.
Two wolves approached in a pincer movement from behind Yared.
Training triumphed over adrenaline, and Lihua removed her sidearm with a steady hand and fired at the lead wolf. The shot fell short, and the wolf leapt back, regrouped, then strode forward.
Lihua aimed slightly higher and squeezed the trigger. She hit the wolf in the side. A sharp, pained howl rolled across the snow.
Lihua climbed down three rungs.
“They’re regrouping.” Yared peered down his rifle’s sightsite. “Hurry.”
She climbed down two rungs at a time. Her crampons caught in the metal rung, and she twisted her ankle. Pain blurred the edges of her vision.
“I’m coming.” She sucked in a breath through her mouth. Her teeth protested the shock in temperatures, each nerve ending firing. She hopped down a rung, easing her way down the next.
Strong hands reached up for her and guided her to the ground. “I’ll get the first aid kit.”
She hobbled to the buggy. “There’s no time. Can you drive?”
Concern followed by something tender flashed in Yared’s eyes. He helped her into the passenger seat and gave her his rifle. “I’ll drive.”
She removed her backpack and placed it in the back seat.
Yared climbed into the driver’s seat and speeded away. The front tires hit a rut, and the buggy lurched forward.
A throb pulsed through Lihua’s body, expanding from her ankle and rushing up and down her leg. She tried to ignore it, but it was present and steady, keeping time with her pulse.
Their next flare went off one hundred metres up. On the edge of the red lights, pairs of golden eyes stared back at her. Waiting in the shadows, watching, calculating.
“They’re still after us,” Lihua said.
The buggy sped up, bouncing across dunes and sliding on ice.
Lihua scanned the horizon. Movement in the shadows. She turned to her right, and a large mass struck her. A wolf chomped down on her coat and dragged her off the buggy. She screamed, part scream part surprised, part pained, fully angry at having been blindsided. She landed against the ice hard. Hard enough to knock the air from her and shower stars in her vision.
The wolf pressed its full weight against her and tore at her winter coat.
She bucked against its weight, but it pressed harder against her. She tried for her sidearm but couldn’t reach the holster. Her rifle was somewhere, lost in the fall from the buggy. She struggled for breath against fur and foul breath.
The wolf’s weight crushed her, and something inside her broke, and something on her side felt warm and sticky. She was certain she’d die here, alone, frozen. She’d die like her brother had died, a sad little death.
A shot rang out.
The wolf raised its head, its hackles high.
Another shot rang out.
The wolf yipped in pain and backed away from Lihua.
She gulped air. More pain from her sensitive teeth, but pain meant she was still alive. Blinding pain from her exposed side, blood was gushing from her. She rolled onto her side and clutched her wounds.
Yared ran to her, scooped her up and placed her in the backseat of the buggy. The line of his jaw was tight, screwed shut as if to keep him from falling apart. Worry flashed in his eyes, the kind of worry that haunted someone their entire lives.
He opened a first aid kit and applied bandages to her wounds. “Keep pressure on them.” His voice trembled, wobbled, then broke. “I’m going to get us out of here. But you have to fight. You hear me?”
She nodded. Blood soaked through the bandages and her glove.
He wrapped more gauze around her side, then applied a third and fourth layer. He removed a thermal blanket from the kit and wrapped it around her shoulders. He cracked open a chemical heat pack and placed it under her blanket.
“You fight.” He held her gaze. Powerful emotions played on his features.
She nodded, already tired from the fight.
He jumped over the passenger seat, then sank into the driver’s seat. The buggy’s wheels squealed against the tundra.
Lihua rocked in the backseat. She leaned her head against something soft. Her eyelids had never felt so heavy.
“Lihua.” Yared’s voice was insistent, a drill sergeant giving a direct order. “Stay awake.”
She mumbled a response, pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders, and stared out onto the tundra.
Her thoughts drifted from her childhood friend who had left the planet on the last civilian evacuation transport, to what she’d had for breakfast three weeks ago to when she was rude to a colleague. Bits and pieces of a life sometimes well-lived and other times.
The buggy came to an abrupt stop.
Her body jostled, and she opened her eyes to narrow slits.
Yared gathered her in his arms.
She reached for the step-down transformer from her backpack and laid it in her lap. She rested her head against Yared’s shoulder. He smelled of sweat and cold and engine oil. He carried her through the double doors, refused a gurney and carried her to the medical ward. He laid her on a bed, then stepped out of the way to let the doctors work.
Yared stood at the foot of the bed, watching. Small frown lines bunched his eyebrows. His eyes fixed on her as if memorising her, burning her into his memory.
A watery smile curved her lips. She mouthed ‘I love you’ then had no more energy left to battle.
She awoke weak but alive. She scratched at the IV port in her hand.
The medical ward was dark. Equipment beeped. Three sets of parents slept in cots beside incubators. Their babies were connected to all sorts of equipment Lihua couldn’t identify. Yared slept in a chair beside her bed.
She made to sit, but the pain in her side made her reconsider. She let out a slow breath.
Yared opened his eyes. He sat forward and rested a hand on her bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Alive, thanks to you.” A blush crept over her, rolling over the pain of her injuries and creeping up her throat until it finally scorched her cheeks. Her last words to Yared rang in her ears. “You should have kept driving.”
Hurt washed over his expression. “Leave you to die?”
“No sense in getting both of us killed.”
“I’d never leave you.”
“You’re a good friend.” The words pained her.
“Friend? Is that all I am to you?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but he leaned forward and pressed his mouth to hers. The kiss was intense, pouring all the words they couldn’t speak to one another into the moment.
Pain left her and was replaced by hope and love.
FROZEN. WRITER’S BLOCK. Comparisonitis. Plotting overload. Death by editing. I cycle through months of flaying myself for my lack of productivity. I have stories jack-knifing in my brain, a seven lane pile-up with no relief in sight. Not to mention the few hard-wrought fans I’ve won over that must be losing their patience with me and my untimely releases. I need to write! What the hell is wrong with me?
Taylor Swift’s refrain echoes in my head, and I know it’s me. Deadlines strangulate creativity faster than a coronary’s ruptured and thrombosing plaque. My passion seizes and spasms as surely as a heart muscle choked and fibrillating. And, the real kicker, is that I know better than to critique myself as I write, or over-plot when I thrive as a pantser. I’ve already learned my lesson to not compare myself to authors whose books are so amazing they’re somehow both inspiring and debilitating.
Yet somehow, I still do it all. Desperation is never a good look, but on an author hanging their hope that this time it’ll be the difference between “making it” and waking up early day after day, giving up weekends and drawing boundaries with their young kids, only to have to pay people to read books that have already cost about a thousand a pop in editing and book covers … well … desperation looks better than defeat. So I try all the things that will make this book be the one: is rapid release what I’ve been missing? Series are key! No, the expert told me to wrap up my series and incorporate my passion into one of the trending genres. Or is it that I need more lectures and conferences to tell me how and when to hit my story elements stronger. Wait, didn’t I give up on that book with the precise plotting blueprint? Oh, but the answers are never so simple, right? I need to study those giants in the field who have succeeded! Read more of their works and reverse engineer the magic.
Insecurity is a real bitch, isn’t it?
You know what’s worse? Expectations.
What if the problem isn’t my lack of productivity so much as my distorted expectations? I’ve got a toxic mentality of being able to do it all when the reality is, everyone needs down time. Productivity just doesn’t work that way. We all have our seasons.
Where does inspiration come from? Not during the flurry of activity and production, but during the silence and stillness. This is the winter in Chinese philosophy, the element of water, the unknown. It is followed by spring, the wood element, a rising energy like the plant that breaks through the darkness of frozen soil. Then there’s the natural summer, a time to get taken over by passion, the joy of it all coming together after the frenzied creativity of spring. And finally, the harvest time, when we reap our rewards, and true fall, when we shed it all like the trees to their leaves, allowing a feeling of mourning as we let that book go to make space for the next one.
What if being frozen actually comes from imposing spring on a winter landscape, or any other time in the cycle. We naturally flow through these seasons every day (the most creative block of time is actually 3-5 am!), and yes, we can keep that spring energy by constantly chipping away on our word counts. But do we allot for our own tides of being in our plans and expectations? A low and high tide of productivity beyond our control and an inherent part of our nature?
A day’s hour at the computer in a metaphorical spring will look wildly different from one in winter.
This is not only okay, but the way it should be.
AI has everyone taking notice lately, but we’re not robots yet, and the humanity we bring to our books is what makes them beautiful. There is a yin and yang to life, the light and the dark, the doing and the being, that no artificial intelligence can capture, and there’s a monotony to robotic production that no human should emulate.
We only have to remember as we’re trying to make all the “doing” happen that being human takes a lot of space to allow for … “being.”
And this allowance might just be the grace we need to find salve for our insecurities. Writer’s block is a function of the path, and where you want to go, but creativity is all about letting the here and now flow, naturally and in accordance to the seasons of your being.
New This Month:
Marian L Thorpe‘s next installment in her wonderful Empire series, Empress & Soldier, is being released on December. Empire’s Daughter is the first part. She had numerous titles available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com. Her books are at Books2Read.
Joseph P. Garland is publishing at-cost versions of classic novels in paperback and hardcover at Amazon. All Austen and a wide range of others. Classics. His own books are described on his DermodyHouse website.
David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-grade fantasy adventure.
The second book in Renée Gendron‘s Outdoorsmen series, The Officer’s Gamble, was published on October 18. Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series is available as is her Ninth Star, Jaded Hearts, and Seven Points of Contact, Heads and Tales, a supernatural/mythological anthology. to which Renée Gendron contributed a historical, supernatural, romance. Shopkeeper & Spoon, Beneath The Twin Suns: An Anthology, Heartened by Crime, and In The Red Room: A crime anthology with heart, all edited by Renée Gendron, are also available now.
Nicole Wells‘s UpSpark; A Love Story, is available on Amazon. The Worst Story Ever Written is also available on Amazon (including for free on Kindle Unlimited). You can sample Chapter 1 here. Her other stories of various and mixed genres are at NicoleWellsWrites.com