Fiction by Matt Athanasiou
Shivers raised her arms through the sheet of ice covering the pond. She lifted her pallid, shaky figure from the watery depths, and icicles in her hair clicked together. She watched a man run away.
He sprinted toward the police car parked on the highway shoulder. Its headlights cut across the darkness settling over the snowy farm fields.
The man staggered, almost fell in a drift.
She lifted a hand in his direction, grabbing for the traces of warmth he had left behind. Her shaking ceased for a moment. She touched her face and wondered, if she could feel it, would she be smiling?
The officer got in his vehicle and sped off.
She was unsure where she went when no one visited, and for how long. The world seemed frosted over and endless. She imagined she lay on the bottom of the pond and dreamed of holding hands or wiping away someone’s tears or rubbing her nose against another’s. She imagined this, because when the officer returned one day, she had to contain herself from rushing up to him and smashing her bloodless face against his rosy flesh.
He had been standing on the ice but jumped off when she pulled herself up. Her quivering became infrequent as heat penetrated her bone-deep chill. The officer’s teeth began to chatter. He had lines of tears on his face.
She knew how emotions felt, because they came with the warmth she took from people. His fear ignited like tiny flames throughout her body, and his sadness was like a steaming fist squeezing the back of her eyes and clenched in her throat. She welcomed his anxieties, and her limbs thawed and prickled.
As they stared at each other, he stopped crying, quit chewing his red lips, and shivered—the jarring movement of his entire body filled her with an uncontrollable urge to embrace him—and without trying, she suddenly reappeared, hugging him.
He sank into her at first, and then their cheeks touched, and he gasped a terrifying groan, grabbed his face, and sprinted for the vehicle.
She did not watch him leave. She held herself, savoring the heat, and frost melted from her eyes. Tears streaked her face. The sorrow she had taken from him caused her to whimper, and she wanted to believe that she was smiling. “I’m here,” she said and hoped the gelid wind carried the words to him.
Another night came, and the officer had a small fire burning on the shore.
From beneath the ice, the scene looked oily and dreamlike, as though someone could run an unsteady hand over it and smudge the world into a mess of nothing.
Her jittery fingers latched onto the ice, and she dragged herself to the surface.
She stayed close to the ground, showing she would not dart at him. Though it was so cold there alone, she had to control herself, take the little warmth she could get rather than frighten him off, or worse. Her frozen hair ticked against the ice.
He kept the fire between them, hardly blinking. His cheek was bruised.
She stood and said, “You pulled over.”
He stuttered. “You asked me to?”
She looked at footprints in the snow. “Someone.”
He stepped back.
She held her quivering hands to her chest. “Of course you. You wanted to.”
He shook. “I shouldn’t be here. You’re a corpse, something, and I shouldn’t be here.”
She inspected her pale arms. “I’m not sure what I am. I can’t feel much. That I know.” She lowered her arms. “Maybe you should bite my ear. I bet I could feel that.” She hoped she was grinning to show that she was mostly joking.
He took a few more steps away, but his expression relaxed, and he trembled.
Her bare feet padded the ice, and her hair dripped, the icicles melting. Her shoulders and knees steadied. She sniffled and said, “You can take your gloves off.”
He bit his lips, then said, “I should go.”
“You can.” She stopped near the fire, rethinking her words. “Or you can stay and talk.”
He gazed into the flames.
“Stay,” she said and bit down on her teeth clicking together. “It’s your choice, but I’m here.”
His lower lip puffed out, and hotness welled in her eyes and throat. He said, “This last week was an infant.” He tugged at the fingers of his gloves. “Mother she OD’d on meth. Found the kid. Been starving for days.” His voice became stunted, and he hitched and squeezed his hands, but no tears came—they streamed down her face instead.
She told him, “You can take them off. If you’re too hot.”
Without hesitation, he dropped his gloves into the fire. She stared at his sweaty palms and warned herself against grabbing them.
He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. “Died. Wrapped in my jacket. We were almost to the hospital. We were. There. If I hadn’t stood stupid. There. At the scene. Sorry for myself.” He trailed off, his jaw frozen and barely moving. He wiped his eyes and looked at his dry hands. “Okay.”
Teardrops streaked her cheeks and neck. Her shuddering stopped, and she felt clammy. She could see her breath.
His voice flatter now: “Wanted to leave. My badge.” He withdrew the crest from his coat.
She stared desperately at him, wishing he would remove his top. The corners of her mouth jerked up and down, and her fingers twitched, curling and uncurling at her sides.
His eyes widened at her unnatural movements, and he pocketed his hands. His mouth snapped shut, and he distanced himself, watching her.
She closed her eyes and fought the urge to chase him, relishing what she had been given. She was doing good. She thought to keep him there by encouraging him to talk more about his torments, but she had already forgotten why he was sad and angry. So she said all she knew: “I’m here.”
By time she closed her mouth, a door shut and the vehicle drove away. Not much later, the bitter chill returned to her bones, the flames died, and she sank back into the water, wishing its embrace was as cozy as his presence had felt.
He returned another night, but she stayed beneath the ice while he sobbed on top of it. If she accidentally grabbed him, she was unsure if she could let go. While keeping a sheet of ice between them wasn’t the warmest, it was better than nothing.
He told the darkness how depressed he was, how much the town was squeezing the life from him. He said he could not stop thinking about the old man he had evicted from his home. The old man said he had nowhere to go, would never step into a nursing home, and when the old man asked what the officer would do, the officer said he would live out of his car; he had only been trying to keep some emotional distance, had never wanted to find the old man frozen to death behind the wheel of a truck in the woods.
He bawled, and she floated, holding a hand against the underside of the ice, yearning to wrap her fingers around his and yank him down. He would find peace in the cold, and she in the warmth—but he might die, or become so frightened he would never return.
He grew angry, said he thought she would be there for him, and punched the ice. It chipped and reddened from his bloody knuckles. Her own fists became hot and she pressed them to her cheeks. He left shortly after.
It was freezing, wherever she went when alone. It was the one feeling she could never permanently rid herself of, so she had to prolong any heat she could get. All fires eventually burned out, but she wanted to believe if she offered people slivers of numbness at a time, they would be satisfied, and there would be no need to extinguish another life. But that also meant she would have to be content with mere flickers of warmth.
The officer returned one day, while she approached a vehicle that had pulled over. Both his cruiser and the stranger’s SUV radiated heat.
He stopped around the bend, in the opposite lane, and watched as she leaned into the passenger window of the truck. Inside, a woman laughed hysterically, but the hilarity left her as Shivers’s chest and throat and cheeks reddened. Shivers chuckled, and then burst into a fit of laughter.
The woman’s body scrunched in shock, and a burning wave flared from the officer. He turned on his lights and floored it toward them. He skidded and slammed into the stranger’s front bumper.
By the time he opened his door and was knocking on the window of the SUV, Shivers stood on the pond. His face was pink and unshaven. His sunken eyes glistened. “Said you’d be here,” he whispered.
Startled, envisioning him slamming head on with another vehicle and dying—going cold alone—she could hardly enjoy her feet melting into the snow.
During a sunset, he sat in his idling car.
She crouched by a snowbank and jerkily crept toward the vehicle, her body tingling. She headed to the passenger door, imagined crawling inside and climbing on top of him, gripping his body against hers.
But she only tilted her head against the door panel and placed a palm on it. If she went inside, she would never be able to contain herself and would hug him numb. She had to believe that he would not mortally hurt himself. Their visits could last.
A tremor ran through her at the thought, and her shoulder knocked against the car. The officer called for her, and she crawled back, slipping into the pond. She shook beneath the ice again, and pictured them submerged and wrapped around each other.
This day, when the sun was high, Shivers trembled beside a snowbank, watching a desolate highway. There was no breeze and the snow and woods crackled beneath the crushing winter. A flicker of heat grew nearer.
The police cruiser appeared on the horizon, and with it came a blazing in her joints, her throat, behind her eyes, and in her chest. The vehicle sped, the engine ripping across the snowfields, and when the car reached the bend, the officer slammed the brakes but did not turn. He plowed into the snow. Whiteness crashed over the hood.
The burning sensations coming from him wavered and died.
She held herself, afraid she may have lost him. Then fieriness reignited within her.
The door swung wide, and he leaned sideways, his head bobbing. Without a seatbelt on, he dropped to the ground. He glanced at her. His eyes were rimmed with black, cheeks were pulled against his skull, hair was long.
She looked back at the pond and spasmed.
Exasperated, he yelled, “You have to be here. I tortured that woman’s cat. Insensitive bitch, but she felt it for her cat. Its fur was so soft.” The creases in his angered expression softened as she drew in his rage. He pushed himself up, shaking.
“There’s no need for a jacket or shirt,” she offered, her trembles lessening.
His head tilted.
“They’re too hot.”
He pulled off his tops, leaving them on the path behind him. She closed her eyes at the heat waving from his exposed flesh. He hugged himself.
She staggered backward, her ankles hardening and loosening. It felt like blood was beginning to flow throughout her. She squatted at the edge of the ice. “Share with me. Give to me. You don’t have to feel.” She waved him over. “Not alone.”
Trancelike, he continued toward her. He told her about his partner who had tackled a thief and unnecessarily punched him in the temple, giving the man brain damage, and they agreed to never breathe a word of it for fear of losing their jobs—and he removed his boots. He shuddered and came closer and told her about the way he had cut himself after finding the old man dead in the truck—and he took off his jeans. He got within reach and told her all of the ways the world overwhelmed him with cruelty, until he was naked, and the whimper dulled from his voice, and his teeth chattered too much to speak.
With her flesh almost rosy, knowing what she was about to gain but also lose, she said, “Soon it will get so cold, you won’t even be able to shiver,” and he stepped into her.
They embraced, and she fell back. He slammed against the sheet of ice with a grunt. She gripped him, and he scratched the surface, trying to free himself, but she squeezed tighter. He might die elsewhere, drive into another field, cut himself too deeply, taking his warmth to the grave rather than giving it to someone who appreciated it, someone who would give him what he sought anyway.
His body buckled and snapped, and he bled. His flesh blued, and soon his struggling ceased. Only his eyes twitched, staring into her own, and then they frosted over.
Shortly after, he stiffened. She let go and sank in the comfort of boiling waters. She reached the bed of the pond, inundated with his emotions, and she cried and screamed and thrashed. She lost sight of his horrified expression, but she could tell without question now, that she was smiling—at least until her permanent chill spread from a pricking to a bone-jarring grasp again.