She had always made him think of winter, and so it was a wry twist of fate when he lost her in November. It was his own fault: he had told himself that it did not matter, that he could handle not being with her any more, and when he had found out he was wrong it was far too late.
He left work and stepped into a blast of cold air. It was December now, the sound of commercial Christmas fading behind him as the door slowly creaked shut. It was dark already, though in summer he would leave in daylight to tread those same roads.
He walked down the street, deserted at this side of town since all of the customers had left, watching his own breath appear crystallised in the air in front of him. It drifted away after a suspended second, returning to air, cooling off and vanishing. His presence in the night was gone, just like that.
Every step quickened as he walked away, eager to move from the unpopulated pavements and the darkness of an area with no streetlights into the more secure city walkways. He could see the distant lights; first he had to crunch over frosted residues of yesterday’s puddles in the dark, feeling rather than seeing his way along a route that for him was as familiar as his own bones. Strange how something that in daylight seemed so reassuring and steady could become a monstrous maze of traps and tripping snares in the night, particularly when that night was cold enough to draw a shiver and cause him to pull his coat tighter closed against the wind. For not the first time he remembered her flowing black curls, that always protected her neck and ears from the cold, keeping her warm and denying him the opportunity to offer his scarf in a foolish gesture of chivalry.
For a brief while the only things that existed around him were the clouds of his own breath and the crunch of his own shoes on the frozen pavement, too rapidly, one rush away from turning into a run. The cold and empty fields to either side of him were unsettling, and he raced for a return to the cold and empty comforts of civilisation instead. There was something about the vastness of nature that spoke to some primal knowledge buried away deep within him, and he did not want to turn and face it.
Entering the town again he at last began to relax. The pace that his feet had started continued, carried onwards by momentum as he at last saw the bus stops in the near distance, electric lights highlighting timetables and showing up the solitary figures of a man walking his dog and an old woman who had stopped to talk to him. The dog huddled close to its master. Even those with thick coats built in feel the cold.
A crow squawked somewhere as he landed at the bus stop, his footsteps finally ceasing to destroy the delicate ice crystals that littered the ground. The old woman moved away into a line of nearby houses, and the dog and his walker faded around the corner. For a few moments he was alone still, the air as silent as air can be in a town; the nearest streetlight let out a slight buzzing and the hum of traffic was faintly audible on the main road, out of his line of sight. Looking up, he could see the icy pavements reflected in the glass roof of the shelter, the white speckles littered across the writing on a drain cover picked out in reverse.
The bus came, orange numbers glowing on the front, a meaningless identity code that stood out in the darkness. There was no one else aboard, and someone had left all of the windows open. Freezing air streamed through the gaps as they set off moving, the surly bus driver only grunting in recognition of the bus pass he showed. He felt somewhat uneasy, alone under all of the lights of the bus, visible to all those passing by in the darkness that he himself could not see. Exposed both to scrutiny and the cold. Solitary.
They passed over the familiar route, sleepy. It was as much as he could do to pay attention, to remember to check that they had not yet reached his stop. They slowed down through a residential area, bordering a park, finally catching up with a slow drizzle of traffic. Then he looked through the window, and saw her.
Wrapped in a thick black coat and white scarf, her icy black curls tumbled over her shoulders like a living plant, thriving in the cold where others died. Her skin was pale as driven snow as it always was, and those gorgeous dark eyes did not look up to notice him. At first he almost wanted to call out and make her turn his way, but he did not want her to see him here, alone on the illuminated bus, yellow lights turning his skin jaundiced. She was still so beautiful, though she was frozen, an ice maiden with no heart to thaw perhaps. It had been cold pride that had broken them apart, he knew that now. Once he had imagined himself an ice prince to go with her, no heart to thaw, two loveless figures finding something at least in each others’ arms; now he knew he was an autumn boy. She had thawed him out with the heat of her angry rebuttal, and he had discovered the heart hiding down inside him all along, and it was hers.
The bus passed her by, a flash in the side of a window, an image that would haunt him forever. He got off the bus two stops early and began to walk home.
His thoughts were a broken mirror, and the shards were making his feet drag on the pavement.
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