Anna reached into her pocket. How could she have forgotten her cell phone in the car? When it was cold like this, lots of powdery snow from last week’s storm, she could go all day seeing no one, like today.
Anna had been hiking in the mountains for years, had started when she and Brett lived high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. She’d spend the day up there whenever she needed solitude, or they’d had one of those spats that seemed to materialize from nothing—a pile of dirty clothes in the bedroom, a careless interruption. The hikes always seemed to help, the few hours apart enough to “press the reset button” as Brett would say. By the time she returned he’d had enough time to worry—but not enough to be alarmed. She’d arrive cold and fever-cheeked and he’d lure her to the bedroom with hot cocoa and they’d make grateful love under the moose-and-snowy-pine patterned quilt.
She thought of those days now as the sun dipped lower. They’d lived in New Hampshire for seven years, but she’d never really made her peace with the trails in the Whites, some part of her resisting, longing for the familiar bird calls, radiant sun, and dry-clay air of northern New Mexico. Back home, she’d know which ridge to follow until it descended into the valley.
But Brett’s work brought them here and she did like the padded feel of pine needles underfoot, the leaves in autumn that looked like flames leaping up from the ravine. Over the years, they’d adjusted expectations, each absorbing enough of the bad habits of the other that their differences began to blur. Still, she preferred venturing out alone. Since they both worked at home, it gave her time to think, visualizing her next project without distraction.
But with the air rapidly cooling, the sun’s angle declining, she wished he was with her. He was a red fox out there, bounding confidently from rock to rock, never losing his way. Anna had been thinking of the painting she was working on, that can of turpentine she needed, had unconsciously avoided icy segments of the path in what seemed like minor diversions. So where was the trail? What about that last slick patch she’d sidestepped near the overhanging boulder? How could it not be obvious?
It was the tingling down her neck, though, her stomach querling around itself, that finally made her accept she was lost. She could freeze out here and no-one would find her until daylight. The temperature could drop into the teens or single digits without the still-strong December sun to warm the air. I should’ve headed back way sooner. Stupid, stupid.
Her breaths came quick and shallow, lightheadedness forcing her to catch her balance against a tree. Get a grip, Anna. If you faint, you’re fucked. She drew long breaths into her abdomen, tried to clear her mind of everything except making a plan. She scouted around for any enclosure where she could shelter. But even inside a cave she might not survive the night.
Suddenly, she remembered their wilderness trip to Northern Maine where a group of campers learned from their Canadian guide how to make a quinzie by hollowing out a tent-like mound of snow. It wasn’t quite as sturdy as an igloo, but still worked, and they’d slept inside overnight. But they’d had shovels and picks, arctic-rated sleeping bags. All Anna had was a metal water bottle and her heavily-gloved hands, so she set about plastering snow onto a small mound, enlarging it until she hoped it would hold her scrunched body. Trickiest would be coring it, like carving a pumpkin, the guide had said. Without tools, though, the task felt much harder. She wasn’t even sure it was possible, but she hacked away with the lid-end of the canteen, using her fingers like ice picks as the sky turned a mottled gray-pink. She remembered that you were supposed to jam sticks into the mound a couple feet deep so you wouldn’t poke through the sides. No time now, she thought, keep digging.
Eventually she’d dug a crude, lumpy cavern and her fingers had no feeling left in them. She checked her watch. 7:23. It had taken hours. She hurriedly gathered leaves and pine needles, piled them inside. That would have to do. She’d need her remaining energy to get through the night. Anna used her pee funnel before climbing in. She looked up to the indigo sky crowded with stars. A faint milky curtain pulsed across her vision. Disoriented, she squeezed her eyes shut and looked again, before understanding. Northern lights! Not the throbbing purple and green type she’d seen in videos, but no less magical in their ghostly swaying. She wished Brett was there. He was always saying how one day he’d find a way to see the aurora borealis.
Anna eased herself through the tiny opening, knowing if it broke, she wouldn’t have another chance. She huddled inside her tiny den, pulled off her soaked gloves, the material scraping like knives against her half-frozen skin, fingers quobbled from wetness. She removed her scarf and wound it around her head, neck, and hands, blowing warm air slowly, slowly onto her fingers. She remembered the energy bar in her pocket, would eat it as soon as she could still her shaking. She thought how relieved Brett was when she made it home from her wanderings, wondered what he’d be thinking now. Was he looking for her? She strained to hear in case he was calling through the gelid air—Anna—Anna—but heard nothing except the wind’s tuneless song, the hushed silence of the cave walls, the shush-shush of her down coat as she pulled her knees up. She breathed in the sweet resin of her pine bed, pictured the aurora ribboning silently outside, feared sleep but was unable to resist it.
—One of 12 Finalists in MacQ’s
“Triple-Q” Writing Challenge
writes short fiction, long fiction, and poetry. Her stories and poems appear or are forthcoming in Atticus Review, Bending Genres, Boston Literary Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, Cleaver Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Flash Boulevard, Flash Fiction Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, New World Writing, Six Sentences, The Drabble, The Ekphrastic Review, Unbroken Journal, and Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal, among others.
Read more of Kathryn’s work at her website:
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