Something was dying in the flurries of snow. The wind had piled it into drifts, threw it into icy funnels that danced between the trees.
Emily couldn’t see five feet of road in front of them, but the desperate howl pierced the wind. A dog maybe, or something altogether wilder. One hand firmly wrapped around Song’s wrist, she dragged the boy along. He grew heavier, slower with each step. Piece by piece, they had let go of their possessions, offered them like sacrifices to the cold, to earth’s gravity and fatigue. Song had long stopped complaining; he’d even stopped coughing, just hung on to her, placing a shaking foot in front of the other.
The dog howled again, and Emily forced her legs to quicken the pace. Song whined, and then his hand slipped out of hers, and he sunk onto a pile of snow. She was aware they were going to die; that was as clear as the icicles that hung from the hard guitar-case she still carried strapped to her backpack. She could barely walk on her own skinny legs and they wouldn’t get far, but she pulled him up anyway, hefted him onto her hip. His frozen cheek came to rest against hers. He coughed, tried to lock his ankles around her waist, but his boots were too slippery, and he soon lost the strength to try again.
Emily was not far behind. With each step along the icy road, her knees shook, and even in the split second in which she slipped, she found herself utterly unsurprised, almost unmoved.
They were going to die.
Blinding pain blasted through her wrist, up along her arm when she landed—hard on her left side, protecting Song from the brunt of it—and, still, she was left impassive. The pain drove tears to her eyes, and the wind froze them on her cheek, but she hardly noticed. She struggled back to her feet, sucked in stinging breath after stinging breath, and pressed forward.
There had to be something out there, something other than the snow, the trees that formed an aisle on either side of them. Hope felt foolish—but this was logic. They were not out in the wilderness; there had to be something.
“Song please, please…” she begged, when he slipped down her thigh again, clinging to her neck like a monkey. She hefted him back up, swallowed the pain that shot through her arm, and tried to squint through the snow. Another howl filled the stillness, closer this time.
In her head, in her legs, it felt like she was running. The truth came closer to padding along on heavy feet, but it was the idea that mattered, the breath that burned in her lungs. She envisioned herself bursting through the trees to some large, well-appointed house, with food and a bathtub big enough to float in, to make it all worth it.
What she found—in the end—was a decrepit gas station, but she reminded herself, sing-song voice in her head and all, beggars can’t be choosers.
They made an inelegant entrance, crashing through the door that hung on its hinges, into a convenience store that had been ransacked long before, the toppled shelves mostly emptied, covered in dust and a fine layer of ice. Emily hauled the both of them through the tangle of wood and wire, past the cash register that lay, gaping open like a wound, on the floor by the counter. The wind whistled through the broken windows, and had it not been for the storeroom just behind the cigarette display, there would have been no point to the gas station at all, not for them.
The storeroom had only one small window and a rotting desk—no food in sight. It was cold, still, but temperature was relative—they were out of the snow, out of the wind, and she could finally set her boy on the floor, and collapse herself.
Every motion sent pain crashing up her arm, and somewhere in the back of her mind that scared her almost as much as Song’s cough and the way his cheeks were burning up the moment he was out of the wind. Biting down, she pilfered through her pack, throwing onto him whatever they had left: a few clothes, a blanket. Where was the towel she’d always used to rub him dry?
“I’m getting some snow to melt, okay? Don’t move.”
Song didn’t answer; Emily grabbed the empty bottle and struggled to her feet. She thought of fires, of tea and food as she stumbled through the store-room, cradling her arm and ducking her chin into her scarf to protect her from the wind. Kicking the door open again with her boot, she squatted down, and pushed snow into the bottle until her gloves were caked in the stuff. She was back on her feet, shivering, when something broke through her pain-addled senses.
The dog barked, once, then again—vicious, aggressive and scared. A shadow hushed through the snow somewhere far ahead. Emily stood, frozen on the spot until, in the distance, hulking shadows emerged—a soft grey against the chaotic white of the blizzard.