Through Cold Winter

A Short Story

Photo by James Mann

Every December was the same. Snowflakes filled the sky like a million falling stars, Christmas music infested shopping malls and grocery stores, and gremlins stole into our apartment block and kidnapped a child.

They went missing in the night. The police were called, but they didn’t care. It didn’t make the evening news. Families wept. The children were never found. Dark whispers followed, but mostly we tried to forget. Every year. It always happened to other people, different children.

Until it happened to me.

The gremlins’ hands were cold as they pawed at my hands and feet. Like the time I licked a frozen flagpole at school, their long fingers stuck to me, pulled and stretched my skin until I thought it would tear. I tried to scream through frozen lips. My tongue was hot inside my mouth. They pulled me from my bed. Down the stairs.

I summoned a warm memory —

my sister squealing with delight as we slid down the big hill at school on sled made out of a garbage bag

— and nudged out at them. But there was no one else around to pull from, and my lone memory bounced off the gremlins like clouded breath in a blizzard.

Up the chimney against my thrashing protests. They spirited me away through cold winter sky on leathery wings. Never look down. I focused on the foremost gremlin. The way its blood-red nose lit the misty darkness remains etched with crystalline clarity in my memory. Tears from wind and fear crystallized on my cheeks. I couldn’t enjoy the sudden sensation of flying, of seeing my black city slumbering below. I felt too sick. Too scared. Freezing vomit fell on the city like hail.

Smoke poured sickeningly from the chimneys of a nearby factory, smearing the sky. They dumped me on the its doorstep, flitted into the air while I clambered to my hands and knees — off to find another hopeless child. I watched the blood-red nose disappear into the night. Alone. The factory rumbled and fiery light leaked through its seams. Even on that frigid night, I rejected its warmth.

I wanted my bed. My sister and my mother.

I stood. The step was at the top of a large chute and covered in ice. My feet shot out from under me, my tailbone cracked hard on the ice, and pain shot up my back as I began to slide. Down, down, down into a gleaming orange hole. I landed hard and tumbled to a stop. My stomach seized as I dry heaved. Bile trickled bitterly over my lips. Two fat white-bearded men in ill-fitting red velvet suits grabbed me under the armpits and hauled me to my feet.

I was inside the factory. Its far walls were lost in a haze of smoke and steam. The main floor, two storeys below, was filled with row-upon-row of children at long tables. Young and old, dark skinned, light skinned, fat, malnourished, boys, girls — all types of children, from all over the city. Hundreds. Thousands. They were assembling toys. Shaggy-haired and sunken-eyed, bleeding fingertips and dry lips. The oldest of them were nearly adults, and the boys’ chins were covered in wispy beards that made me itch just looking at them. The rosebud tips of cigarettes gleamed in once youthful eyes.

My feet never touched the ground as we descended a rickety staircase. At the bottom, the fat men shackled my wrists and ankles. I was forced to follow them through the labyrinthine aisles at an awkward, shuffling run.

I nudged outward at the nearest children, just a small glimmer of remembered happiness —

sitting on my Nan’s knee, fireplace blazing, ‘Pa snoring in his recliner

Most of the children were too numb to notice. But a young girl—new, just like me—looked up, startled, as though I’d slapped her. She looked straight at me, eyes wide like she didn’t know what to do. With more strength, perhaps? I thought. Maybe then I could reach the others. The older children were buried deep within themselves, but they were still there, rich with hidden, treasured memories. I drew a memory from the girl. Savoured it, then stored it away. She watched me the whole time with eyes that still had their fire.

I kept walking, one shuffling step at a time. More of the fat men in red suits walked about, snapping at children, eyes ablaze. They all looked the same: a halo of frizzy white hair, beards reaching all the way down to the near-to-bursting buttons on their suits, which gleamed like never-spent gold coins. Cruel taskmasters.

That year, I was chosen by the fat men to do their dirty work. But they didn’t know me. They didn’t know what I could do.

They had made a terrible mistake.

I pulled in memories from the children around me —

snowballs careening from one side of the street to the other, thudding into brick walls and snow forts, laughter

the last candle on the menorah blazing with new flame

Da’ singing carols in the darkness before bed

nutmeg sprinkled on egg nog, mug still warm from mum’s hands

blurry lights through Christmas tree limbs and heavy-lidded eyes

the crunch of boots breaking through ice-crusted snow

— they filled me. They poured from my eyes, my mouth, my ears. Then I nudged outward with everything they gave me. Golden love spilled forth. Waves of memory crashed through the crowded factory floor. Fat men choked on its drowning warmth. The waves passed through the children, returning their memories, filling them with forgotten moments and the love of friends and family, but with my smell still on them. Wave after wave. The children broke free, their faces filled with hope.

They rose up and followed me. We tore down the factory while our parents slept, and the golden light of our victory spilled forth, setting our city ablaze.

We fled the bones of that dark place. Into the deep night. Snow fell. Quiet.

We owned the city. Then we went home.

I woke in my bed to the smell of cinnamon pancakes, like a warm hug.

The burning factory, the golden light, the children — fading like a bad dream.

I went downstairs, and watched my mother as she prepared breakfast, already in her holiday sweater, little necklace of plastic Christmas lights dangling down to her belly. She flipped all the pancakes, then noticed I was there. “Good morning, darling,” she said with a smile, but only paying half attention. “What’s that in your hand?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just something I found.” Like a dirty memory, I hid the golden button deep in the pocket of my pyjamas, wondering if I’d ever manage to forget.

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