Huddled in front of the fire, he listened to the wind’s relentless whistling as it whipped past his house. Its music was a constant now, the silence of stillness a vague memory. The slapping noise made by the tarp as it beat against the shattered window was a lullaby, a repetitive rhythm that urged him toward sleep. But not yet.
Tightening the scarf wrapped around his throat, he tried not to shiver. The flames held his attention, and he watched them with the same fascination he had previously reserved for the financial forecasts that had once flashed across his computer screen.
But that was a long time ago. A lifetime ago – during the Before Times. He tried not to think about the Before Times too much.
The small fire he tended was almost lost in the cavernous opening of the huge fireplace.
It had been the fireplace that had sealed the deal on the house.
Amanda, New England born and bred, had found the move to Southern California a difficult one. She missed the white, wintry wonderland of New Hampshire, and she missed cuddling under mounds of warm blankets on frosty mornings. She was a snow bunny, loving solitary runs down lightning fast ski slopes, and the soft, wet feel of snowflakes against her lashes.
Palm trees, swimming pools, stretches of sandy beach – none of it held any attraction for her. But he had… and that’s why she married him and left behind the ski trails and White Mountains of her youth for the move to Silicon Valley.
She’d hated most of the places they’d looked at along the beach, said they were ‘too new’ and lacking in charm. Then they had found this house – with its unlikely fireplace that took up one entire wall – and she’d fallen in love with it. And while he thought it impractical (Who needs a fireplace in Southern California? he’d asked, aghast at the price tag), he’d given in.
He wanted her to be happy.
She had been. Joyfully, determined, she’d set to work, trying to recreate a little bit of New Hampshire in Southern California.
After the Before Times ended, the irony of it used to bite him – but only right after.
He was past that now. Resignation had set in. Irony only existed in the face of expectation; he had none.
His hands ached.
He flexed the stiff fingers, grimacing as he did so. He held them closer to the embers, but the dissipating warmth did little to relieve the pain of icy joints.
Hearing a soft groan and feeling movement from the body next to his, he turned to stare at her.
His arctic princess.
That’s what he called her that first time he’d met her. The skiing holiday at Granite Gorge…
It was the vivid blue eyes that grabbed his attention. He couldn’t see the rest of her face; it had been swathed in layers, but those eyes! Those eyes held him. It was later that he discovered that the face and the rest of her lived up to the promise he’d glimpsed in those beautiful eyes…
His arctic princess.
He moved away from the fire, leaning in close to her, studying her face. Just like the first time he saw her… cocooned in layers, just like the first time… just like the first time… But no, not quite.
Blankets and pieces of clothing from the Before Times lay piled atop her body. He had tried everything he could think of to keep her warm… alert.
But now, most of the food was gone. Worse, the furniture (fuel! heat!) was also gone.
He had stopped trying to keep her awake. Where was the kindness in it? The love? What was there for her to wake up to? Just more of the same.
Cold. And snow.
But not the brilliant white snow of her New England childhood. No.
This was an ashy, ugly gray mix. It blocked out the sun… smothered the stars.
The memory hit him then, its force sudden and unexpected.
They had been standing outside the ski lodge, looking up into the sky. The night had been clear and the air crisp and cold. A good cold, the kind that was invigorating, the kind that had a joyful snap to it. Staring into the night sky, the light of thousands of stars piercing the velvety blackness, they’d been awed by the beauty of it. That had been the first time he kissed her. The first time he knew she was the one.
He quickly put the memory aside, painfully swallowing unshed tears. It didn’t do to think too much about the Before Times.
She stirred again, and his numb fingers lightly caressed her cheek. “Shush, shh… sleep, love.”
But her lashes fluttered and those eyes slowly opened. “Peter?”
“I’m here,” he whispered.
“Is it snowing?”
He nodded. He gazed into the blueness of her eyes, committing the color – the look of them – to memory.
She sighed. “The skiing will be good.” Her eyes closed then, and the thick, honey-colored lashes rested against cheeks now cooling from more than the room’s coldness.
He howled then.
Like an animal, he crawled on his arms and legs, clumsily making his way to the shattered window. He yanked away the tarp, letting the cold air beat against his face. Lurching to his feet, he looked out into the gray landscape. He couldn’t see the ocean. He couldn’t hear it – the wind was too loud.
But he heard his own howling – and he didn’t care. He didn’t care and he continued to howl, raging against the dying sky, against an earth that had become alien to him, against the injustice of this nuclear winter.
The Before Times! The Before Times!
How he longed for them… he wanted them back, wanted his life back, his world… her…
Spent, finally, he collapsed against the wall, slowly sinking to the floor. His eyes drifted toward her body.
His arctic princess.
He closed his eyes.
Author’s Note: The idea for this story rose out of a challenge to write a story (of no particular number of words) based on any of a variety of phrases as part of ‘Inspiration Monday’ from the blog BeKindRewrite. Two of the phrases were ‘the dying sky’ and ‘the alien earth.’ I changed the phrasing slightly for ‘the alien earth’ but it is in the story, as is ‘the dying sky.’ Thanks to BeKindRewrite for the inspiration prompt!