The stinging cold slipped through her fingers, but she barely felt it, let alone knew that she was kne
“}ading it like her mum would when she moulded flour into dough. The milky-white blanket pooled all around Jen, yet she took no notice of how she was buried so far underneath that the weight of the layer of snow pinned her down, clasped tight to her legs. All she could see was the back of her eyelids. All she could hear was the howl of the wind as it thrashed against her. All she could feel was fear, tying her gut in knots like she was made of nothing more than string.
Although every limb weighed like lead, Jen managed to lift her arms up to cover her face from the biting blast. She peeled her eyes open the slightest fraction, catching the warm red of her jacket that clashed with the blinding white everywhere else. She was just the slightest smudge on a blank canvas. A lone speck on the page. She was certain that no one would find her, no matter how hard they squinted. She may have been cased in flaming red, but beneath those layers she was invisible. Her waxen complexion and empty gaze made sure of that.
She’d seen the way the other kids at school looked straight through her.
She’d noticed when she brushed past them, they seem to give no notice.
She realised she was a ghost to the world.
And now she was going to die because of it.
The feeling pricked every corner of her mind, coursed through every vein in her body, flipped in the pit of her stomach.
This was it.
She tossed her head left and right, as if trying to knock the toxic thought loose, but she could feel the fear spreading like cancer. If it was cancer, would it kill her before she froze to death? Would it be more uncomfortable than this?
She felt the tears swelling, but they never came.
She swallowed the lump in her throat, tasted the ice on her tongue.
This was not it. Could not be it.
But it was. It was all over.
Aubrey Foster’s world revolved around the amber-eyed girl who always giggled when the same jokes were made, who never ate her broccoli because she believed it hurt the environment. The little girl, who remembered every word to her favourite TV show, but always forgot to unpack the dishwasher when she came home from school. Her little Jen, who insisted that the colour pink should be on every nation’s flag and cried when her doll wasn’t in it’s usual spot on her bedside table.
Jen. Her life was all about sweet Jen.
Even on Sunday nights, the nights that preceded her early morning shift, Jen would stand in her bedroom doorway chirping ‘mummy’ until she took notice and came running to check what the fuss was about. If she didn’t then she’d come to her, her eyes glazed over and her pale skin flaming.
“You haven’t read me my bedtime story,” she’d whimper faintly.
This was the routine every Sunday night. Aubrey would be standing over a warm bath of bubbles, dunking glassware and scraping residue off the dinner plates and then she’d hear that fragile cry and her heart would break, but at the same time feel so complete. Most days she’d rush toward the sound, preparing to see her angel struggling to get out of her favoured dress or be rushing around looking for her teddy. But every time she had already tucked herself in, the one-eared bear resting by her shoulder and a book sitting on her lap. One corner of the girl’s mouth lifted, the tiniest pit forming in the corner of her mouth. That’s all it took to make Aubrey’s perfect world.
But tonight, a Sunday night, as she was drying Jen’s Dora mug, she could only hear a deafening silence.
She waited and listened, dread swarming fast. She heard the tick of the hand swinging an hour past her daughter’s bedtime. She heard the house creaking on it’s arthritic foundations. But no sign of Jen.
She left the half-dried mug on the bench and headed to Jen’s room. Heading through the winding corridor past the family portraits her daughter had painted in art class, she stood in front of Jen’s door, partially shocked that the girl had closed her door.
She never closed her door, not even when she was getting dressed.
She rapped a fist on the wood.
She knocked again, hesitated, then eased the door open.
Time had frozen like the stray strands stuck to her face. Jen didn’t know how long she’d been out here. She didn’t know how long she had left.
Violent shivers wracked her body as she squirmed through the icy carpet, trying to drive herself forward when all the frosty gusts pushed her back. It was an effort getting one foot in front of the other. It made her legs ache and her body feel heavy, but she missed her mum so bad. She missed her homemade cinnamon rolls and bedtime stories. She missed her long fingers latched tightly to her own and the warm hugs.
Jen picked at every memory of her mum. In her mind she watched them on rewind over and over, until the white nothingness laid out in front of her was far away and instead she was devouring a plate of those sweet rolls as her mum loaded a fresh batch onto a baking tray. She was listening to her mum’s soft voice, listened to her paint pictures that came to life in her mind. She was being held in her embrace, feeling her mum’s heart hammer to a recognisable rhythm. She felt her fingers squeezing…
Her toes struck something solid and she cried out, startled, and winced from the sharp pain running through her foot. Beneath the snow was probably a rock or something made of concrete. But she could make out an outline a meter away. She reached out so her fingers brushed something rough. She fought her way through the snow until she knew where she was. She had stumbled on the root of a tree that had always reminded her of those scary zombie movies where a claw ruptured the earth. The wood flaked off in chunks and foreign initials were etched into the wood. She traced the legs of an A and smiled at the idea of her mum scratching away at the trunk with a gaunt twig. Her arms folded around the wood and then she groped for the nearest branch. Clenching every muscle in her body she hoisted herself up, climbing from the bed of snow to perch on the terrifyingly skinny limb. Jen brushed the snow off her clothes and nestled close to the timber, silently praying to herself that the branch would hold her weight. If it didn’t, at least her fall would be cushioned.
Using one hand at a time she rummaged in each pocket, until she found what she was looking for.
The plastic case nearly slipped from her grip, but she managed to keep it in her sturdy vice. She turned on the phone and scrolled through her contacts until she’d found that familiar blurred image of her mum’s mouth wide open, captured mid-laugh. She dialled the number and was almost about to hold it to her ear just as she felt the screech pierce the air before she had a chance to realise that it had emerged from her own throat. The phone fell from her clasp as she stared in horror at the strange form standing only arm-spans away.
Aubrey shouted until her words were fully submerged beneath the torrent of salty tears. She shouted until the back of her throat itched and the pressure crushing her temples became intolerable. She shouted until she realised that her world had been flipped on it’s head and sent reeling off course. She shouted until she broke apart right there, hunched over her daughter’s bed with it’s sheets peeled away and the small crater where she should’ve been, a reminder of the girl who acted as the adhesive to her life and had now been stripped away. Aubrey had scanned every corner and crevice, searching for the cascade of coffee-coloured locks and the inquisitive gaze of a girl who searched for the answers even if there weren’t any. She checked the bathroom for Jen, expecting to catch her beautiful reflection in the mirror. She checked the lounge, expecting to find her daughter lifting up each cushion in search for her teddy. She checked the kitchen, expecting to find her ravaging in the cupboards for a late-night snack. But she was nowhere. Now, her heart hammering violently with panic and her head blazing with unpleasant thoughts, she shot to her feet and checked the window. Sealed. She couldn’t possibly have gotten out, not without grabbing Aubrey’s attention. Unless she managed to sneak past, but…no, that’s not right. She would notice if her baby was sneaking out…right? She wasn’t so sure, but now she didn’t have time to dread what’s already happened. It was all about figuring out where she’d gone.
Aubrey peered through the frosted glass at the obsidian skies and ivory basin. Snow had bled from the heavens, burying the town like a graveyard. Schools had shut for the day so kids would build snowmen and hurl snowballs at one another. At night the town would be dead still, no person brave enough to step foot outside the warm indoors.
Why would her daughter want to take that chance?
She threw on a heavy jacket, one that trailed down to the back of her knees and tugged on a pair of Nike with a missing sole. Grabbing the car keys and her phone, she hurried out the door, forgetting to lock the door behind her.
Then a sound rang out in the house, loud in the silence, but never reaching any ears.