By Carly Boies
Jackson woke up disoriented. When he stretched, his joints snapped with cold. His fingers were stiff and when he blew on them the moisture from his breath collected on his skin, making it worse. Shaking his head, he stuffed his hands inside his thin coat and stood.
As he looked around, the stone under his feet seemed to buckle and tip. He stumbled and caught himself on the rough wall, feeling the slick sheen of ice where he fell. Sitting down again, he decided to stand when his head stopped spinning.
From where he was on the floor, Jackson studied his surroundings. He was in a cave, or so he thought. The walls shimmered with a thin sheen of ice and he heard a far off dripping sound from deeper into the earth. He could see the cloud of his breath in a shaft of weak light coming from around a bend to his left. When he looked to his right, his stomach twisted. Someone was laying a few feet from him, unmoving.
He tried to stand again, slower this time. Using the wall, he shuffled towards the person. Turning them over, he brushed a long strand of dirty blond hair out of her face. It was a girl, a very young girl. Her eyes were blank. She was not breathing. When Jackson touched her, her skin was cold and frozen. He dropped her back to the floor, feeling like he might vomit. Scooting away, he turned and tried not to think about her blank face.
Slowly, he crawled towards the light at the other end of the cave. His right leg throbbed dully at the hip and knee. In the cold, everything felt slow and sluggish. When he touched the back of his head, he felt a large lump and a dry crust of something he thought might be blood matted in his short hair. He pulled his hand away quickly, feeling sick.
The cave sloped upward and ended in a reasonably large hole. The light that had seemed so dull further back was now blinding, assaulting his eyes. Jackson tried to shield his face, but his arm was weak and shaky. It seemed like more effort than it was worth to hold his hand up, so he dropped it back to his side. A sneaking suspicion about blood loss crept into the back of his mind, but he pushed it away.
Very slowly, his eyes adjusted to the light. He squinted, and then did not have to squint anymore. A cold wind blew past him and into the cave, carrying flakes of snow. Outside were trees. So many trees, all of them covered in snow and towering into the sky. Green pine needles peaked out from their branches and shuddered in the fierce wind. Drifts of snow were blown this way and that, and more was coming down from a grey sky.
Jackson stood there and watched it fall. As he watched, he shivered. His fingers ached with cold and his body throbbed with hurt and all the while the only thing he could think was, I have no idea where I am. It hit him then, that something was off, wrong. His mind was blank. He could remember pieces of memory, a face here, a sound there, but they kept slipping away whenever he tried to take hold of them. Why he was in a cave, where that cave might be, or how he had gotten there in the first place illuded him. He did not know who the dead girl was.
In the next few hours, Jackson walked the length of the cave, careful to move far around the girl and avert his eyes. Near the back it was dark and wet and narrow, and the further in he went the colder it got. There was nothing but rock and ice. He decided to sit just inside the cave, out of the wind, and hope the sun would give him some warmth. He could feel his body temperature dropping perilously low.
As he sat, he wondered what time of day it was. If it were morning, he had a few hours until the sun set. If it was afternoon, this was as warm as the day would get. He realized with a jolt that either way, he would freeze to death. The realization hit him and then slid away and out of reach. His mind was like a sieve, letting go of everything. The thought stayed longer than most, however, and the dull panic he had started to feel welled up in his stomach. He would be like the dead girl, cold and frozen.
Soon, his joints ached with cold. He got up slowly, using the wall for support, and walked back and forth on shaky legs. It warmed him up a little. As he walked, he glanced outside. There was nothing but snow. No footprints, no tracks, no sight that anyone had been there. Jackson poked his head out, feeling the sting of snow the moment he did. Curiosity got the better of him, and he stepped fully out of the cave.
All around him, wind blew through the trees. As far as he could see, tall pines waved gently in the storm. Jackson turned in a circle, feeling dizzy the second he did. He stood on his tip toes to look over the lip of the cave. Nothing. Except… He squinted and shield his eyes with a shaking hand. Excitement washed over him. There was smoke, coming from somewhere nearby. He could see it billow into the air above the trees.
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