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JC Piech
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coldashell.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2011

Cold as Hell

 

by

 

JC Piech

 

 

I saw her standing in the snow. If it hadn’t been for the full moon that night I doubt that I would have seen her there—she was barely noticeable against the scenery. She said nothing, only watched as I approached her, the sound of my footsteps crunching through the snow being the only sound in the dark.

 

I walked up to her slowly, not wanting to frighten her—she was all alone in the middle of nowhere, and I was a man she didn’t know. It wasn’t only that, though: I felt cautious of her, a little fearful, even. But I was lost and she was there; I didn’t see what else I could do.

 

In silence, I stood next to her for a moment, perplexed by her stillness. Then slowly, without looking at me, she whispered, “Are you lost?”

 

“Yes,” I said, relieved to discover that she had a voice. “Yes, my car broke down a couple of miles back. I can’t get a signal on my phone. There doesn’t seem to be any road signs anywhere, and I don’t know where I am.”

 

She nodded.

 

We were standing just off of the roadside, on a patch of ground which sloped up into woodland. The night was still, and everything looked blue in the light from the moon. I looked up and the sky was so clear, it seemed like I could see all the way to the edge of the universe. Maybe that was why it was so fucking cold—there was nothing sheltering us from that huge, frozen void.

 

“So,” I said, after a while, wanting to dispel the unnerving silence. “I take it you’re lost, too? Did you break down? How long have you been here?”

 

“I don’t know how long I’ve been here,” she said. I had to lean in close to hear her. “It feels like a long time.”

 

She wasn’t wearing much: just an old and filthy-looking little black dress and muddy high heels.

 

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked.

 

“Not anymore.”

 

If she wasn’t going to admit to being cold, I certainly wasn’t going to offer her my jacket. That may have been the gentlemanly thing to do, but I definitely was cold. If she wanted my jacket, she was welcome to tell me how cold she was.

 

I stared at her, willing her to move, or to look at me, or to say something that wasn’t in answer to a question of mine. But she remained still, like an upright corpse.

 

“I think it would be a good idea if we joined up,” I said. She just stared ahead. “So it seems we have two choices. We can try to head back to the car and see the night out there. Or we can carry on in this direction and hope to meet someone or come across a house, or something.”

 

She said nothing.

 

“Do you have a preference? . . . No? . . . Okay. I propose we carry on and try to find someone. I don’t have any blankets or anything in the car, and the heating’s busted, so we have just as much chance freezing to death in there as we do out here.” I tried to laugh, just to seem friendly, just to seem human. “At least if we’re walking, we’re moving, right?”

 

She still didn’t reply.

 

I sighed. “Okay, then, let’s get going.”

 

I started to make my way back to the road and was surprised to hear the girl’s footsteps follow after mine in the snow. I was half expecting her to just carry on standing there, like some tragic female scarecrow.

 

We made our way along the side of the road without a word. It wasn’t long before trees surrounded us on both sides. The bare winter branches were silhouetted against the midnight sky and almost created a tunnel over us.

As we walked, the silence seemed to grow and become heavier. The lack of any sound pressed down on me; it was suffocating and felt thick in my ears. I stopped and turned to the girl, who stopped almost in sync with me.

 

“Why don’t you talk?” I asked, surprised by my rudeness but still wanting an answer.

 

She looked at me. I noticed for the first time how dark her eyes were—like big pools of night-time.

 

I turned back and began to walk. “I know that you have a voice,” I said, over my shoulder. “I’ve heard you use it.”

 

We must have walked for an hour, and we saw no rescuing beam of headlights, no dark shape of a house in the distance, just endless road and trees and snow. We rounded a corner and stopped.

 

I suddenly felt the strongest sense of déjà vu. There was a patch of ground which sloped up into woodland. I would have bet my life that it was the same place that I had first met the girl.

 

“Surely we haven’t gone full circle?” I asked, noting the hint of panic in my voice.

 

The girl didn’t reply. I’d stopped expecting her to. As we’d been walking I’d noticed a feeling growing in me—that lonely feeling you can get even though you’re with someone. It’s worse feeling lonely when you’re right next to someone than when you’re actually alone.

 

I scratched the back of my head and looked around. This was definitely the place. How could this have happened?

 

“So, what do we do now? Do we try another direction? Maybe try heading back to the car . . .”

 

So we headed down the road, only this time in the opposite direction, back towards where I had come from. We walked what I guessed was a couple of miles, about the same distance as I had originally walked from the car to the girl, but there wasn’t a car in sight. We walked some more. I was convinced that at any moment I would spot it, and we could at least sit down and rest our legs. But there was nothing. That sense of panic began to churn in my stomach. What was going on? Was I going mad? No, of course not, I thought, don’t be overdramatic. The car must be just a little further than I had thought.

 

But then, as we rounded a bend in the road, the idea that I might be going insane suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched. We were back at the slope again.

 

My mind burst with confusion. I screamed in my head. What the fuck? But my mouth was silent. I couldn’t utter a word. I spun around to face the girl, desperate for her to speak, for her to tell me what was going on.

 

“Why are we here again?” I said. “How are we back here again? We went in two different directions, and both led back to here. We went in a straight line!”

 

“I don’t know,” she said.

 

“I’m going to try again,” I said, and started to run down the road, the same direction we had just gone, back towards my car.

 

I sprinted through the snow, and realized that I was following a trail of my own footprints. An inferno of panic now spread through my mind as I ran as hard as I could. Never before had I ever wanted to see my car so much. It was a dilapidated Ford Fiesta that would barely start in the mornings. It would chug along, constantly threatening to break down. If it had been a dog, I would have been advised to put it out of its misery a long time ago. But now I was desperate for it; to see that shitty car now would be my salvation.

 

However, my sprint came to a slippery halt. I was back at the slope again, and the girl was still standing there.

 

I was panting. My teeth ached from the cold air. I approached the girl, my panic morphing into fury, and took hold of her shoulders.

 

“Where are we?” I screamed in her face, which remained emotionless. In that moment, I hated her. “Why does everywhere lead to this place?”

 

I started shaking her, violently. Her head rocked back and forth, and I found myself hoping that her neck would snap. I thought I’d rather she was dead than continue being some wordless, floaty thing beside me. She didn’t try to stop me; she didn’t cry or scream, she just said, “I don’t know.”

 

I stopped shaking her and grabbed her cold, dead face with both hands. “Who are you? How did you get here? How long have you been here?”

 

“I can’t remember,” she said. “I’ve been here a long time.”

 

I let go of her and sank to my knees, covering my face with my hands. The snow soaked through my jeans, and I could feel the chill of it start to seep through to my bones. “Does it ever get light?” I cried into my hands. “Does it ever get warmer?”

 

“Never.”

 

~

 

The police officer approached the rusty Ford Fiesta, which was wrapped around the sturdy trunk of a tree. It was cold, and falling snowflakes landed on his eyelashes. He steadied his footing on the icy road, and shone his torch into the car.

 

Inside was a man, his bloody mess of a face resting awkwardly on the steering wheel. There was an empty vodka bottle on the backseat, and a suitcase in the boot. There was a pale band of skin on his wedding finger and a gold ring lay on the floor of the passenger side.

 

The police officer shook his head.

 

~

 

Before I found myself trapped on that cold and lonely road, I used to think that any talk of a hell was nonsense. As I was growing up, my parents and their friends and the priest at their church used to warn me about it. You know, all of that fire and brimstone stuff. Burning for eternity. Tortured and taunted by demons. I never paid attention. And it turns out that I was right; it was all nonsense. Damnation isn’t hellfire; it’s a long, cold night on a road that goes nowhere with a girl who makes you feel more lonely than if you were by yourself. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty accurate description of how my life had turned out to be in the end. Maybe hell mirrors life. And just like life, hell is what you make of it.

 

JC Piech lives with her very patient husband in south-east England. Her writing tends to fall into one of two categories – light and spiritual, or dark and strange. Perhaps it’s because she’s a Gemini? Or perhaps she’s just a weirdo. You can follow her juxtaposed mind mumblings at http://jcpiech.blogspot.com.

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