by Caitlin Kloess
Everyone says that winter is the bleakest time of year, but I like it. Winter is a season of new beginnings, when the grass dies and musters its energy under a blanket of snow until it can grow back with a vengeance in the spring. Winter is when the squirrels and birds go to sleep in bunkered hollows until the sun comes out and everything is all right again.
The wind whistles by me again, blowing the fabric of my dress flush against my legs. It roughly pushes my hair back, cold-combing it out of place like an insistent stage mother. My bare toes grip the icy brick beneath my feet, the skin pale and thin, delicate against frigid stone. The clouds wander aimlessly across the iron-gray sky, scudding into bunches like sheep.
I should be thinking about nights spent by the fire, snow drifting softly against bright windows. I should be seeing family, songs sung too loud and off-key as we all gather around the old oak table, scarred from the years. I should see warm coats and socks, sweaters, made with love, that itched, hats whose stretched brims drooped over eyes, mittens with holes in the thumbs.
Instead, I think of a girl who has folded into herself, watching her life go by without her. I think of tear-soaked pillowcases, sadness fogging the windows of eyes that stare blankly at the circus around them. Eyes no longer lit from within, just reflecting the lights of the cars outside. I think of the drop off of the ledge below my feet, the salt-slicked pavement below. I close my eyes and bend my legs, prepared to spring forward and into the darkness.
I do not cry, or scream, but I also do not jump. Not yet.
Below me, I see a little girl, all springy pigtails and scabby knees, skipping rope on the sidewalk below me. Her shoes slap the pavement, the laces flopping haphazardly like tired sunflowers at the end of fall. The rope sings against the dry spot of sidewalk she has chosen, chalk scum from the summer still lingering in the cracks. Her feet tangle in the rope, the tidy rhythm shattered suddenly as she settles both feet on the slush-puddled ground. She untangles the rope, grips the handles with new energy as she begins again.
Skip-skip-skip-skip, the winging of the rope and the chant it shares with the pavement and the small pounding feet, a tiny stutter-jump before she clears the strand that ribbons beneath her shoes.
She is sure of herself, this little girl, because she knows no world beyond next Tuesday or the circle her skirt makes in the air as she continues to skip-jump-skip. Her breath should be fogging the air, releasing little puffs of steam and turning her cheeks scarlet red. Her teeth are not chattering, and her fingers can bend with abandon, wound surely around the handles of her rope. She leaps forward with the rope as her partner, an ungainly hop-skip in a ragged circle on the pavement. One foot lands at the outskirts of a puddle, splattering her shoes with the murky, ice-cold sludge within. She doesn't stop, hopping right, then left again, altering her revolution to avoid the puddle and other tiny ice-slicks that litter the cracked sidewalk.
The wind huffs impatiently, sending the last of the dead leaves scuttling for cover under the ice-crusted cars that dot the parking lot, huddled just like the clouds.
The little girl suddenly stops, looking towards the apartments below me, as if someone has called her. She gathers her rope, turns, and runs back around the side of the building. I can't see her anymore, but the last skip skip skip she made still echoes softly in the clear, cold air.
I find myself wondering who called her in. Was it her mother, beckoning her to afternoon piano or Tuesday choir practice? Was it her father, home from a long day at work? Maybe it was her brother, calling for her to take the garbage out, because the raccoons had gotten into it last time and left old orange rinds and coffee grounds underfoot in the alley for the next week. Maybe she finally felt the cold threading itself into her bones, the same icicles that spike at my skin, and maybe that scared her. I hope that she'll go her whole life before she feels the punch of darkness come up, lingering in the back of her throat like a scream.
I return to the task in front of me, the pavement below like a black lake shot through with veins of ice and patches of salt, futile human efforts to halt the inevitability of nature. Futile, just like I tried to halt the darkness that came to me at night, gathered me into its arms and stroked my hair, weighted my limbs down onto the mattress.
My eyes flutter open, the wind pulling at my dress insistently.
Come on. Jump. It'll be easy, one step, two breaths, three seconds to fall, the darkness whispers in my ear. What, are you scared? It will be quicker and easier than falling asleep. One step over the edge.
My heart stutters in my chest. It's time. I close my eyes again and take a deep breath.
"What are you doing?"
I almost stop breathing. I turn my head, looking for the source of the voice.
The little girl steps out from behind the stairwell. Her cheeks are pink from the cold, her breath puffing out in little white clouds before her wide blue eyes. She steps closer. I see that she is missing a front tooth, the pink tip of her tongue poking through the gap like she isn't quite used to the loss.
"Leave me alone." I sputter out.
"I saw you standing up here when I was playing outside. I've seen you in your window during the summer when I play hopscotch, and in the fall when I rake the leaves with my daddy. Aren't you cold?"
"No. No, I'm not cold. Go away." I say sharply.
She comes closer. "My mommy said you were sick. I see you walk to school every day, though. How come you go to school if you're sick?"
I breathe out, slowly, testing the edge with my feet before sitting down. My shoulders hunch against the thin material of the dress.
"It's not that kind of sick. I...I just fell off the edge of the map."
I hear the scuff of her feet as she moves closer, hesitantly at first, squinting her eyes against the cold. She sits down next to me. I begin to tell her to get away from the edge, that it's too dangerous, but I stop myself. Her legs dangle next to mine, the swit swit swit of her leggings against the brick as she swings her feet in time to the toll of the church bells three blocks over.
"How come you're up here? Why aren't you inside?" she asks, looking over at me. Her tiny hands are already red from the cold, but they remain planted on the brick.
"Because," I hesitate, not eager to tell her the whole truth. "I don't want to be here anymore."
"It's just gotten too hard....It's too hard to wake up every day knowing that it won't be any better than the day before." I say, blowing out a slow breath. She nods, drumming her fingers absentmindedly on the cold brick beneath her. The pink polish on her nails is chipped, with a faded butterfly decal on one thumb. I don't know if she even understands what that means, and I am about to tell her to go away when she speaks again.
"But the sun comes up every morning. How do you know that that day won't be better?"
I think for a moment, then exhale my thought with the white puff of smoke from my breath. "I don't."
She pats my hand, like I'm the little kid and not her. "My grandma always used to say, when the sun comes up every morning, it doesn't know what the day will be like. It doesn't know if there will be rain, or snow, or clouds that hide its face. It doesn't know if a comet will come and knock it right out of the sky—"
"That's impossible," I saw, but I can feel a smile starting to form, like a tree root through concrete.
She shushes me and continues. "My grandma always used to make cookies with me, and they were gold like the sun. She called them sunshine cookies. She's gone now, but she said that whenever I see the sun, I would know that she was watching over me. That means she's watching you too, and she wouldn't want you to die yet."
"Why do you care, anyways?" I stutter out, sharper than I meant to. Her eyes flutter, confused, and for a moment I fear that she'll get up and leave. I close my eyes, waiting for the snap of the landing door to close. When I open them again, she's still sitting there, looking out at the dirty ice-scarred roofs below us. She thinks for a moment, and then speaks again.
"The sun gets out of bed and comes outside every morning. It's been doing that for as long as I can remember. Six whole years. If the sun can do it, so can you." She stands up, holds her hand out to me. "I would tell you more about it, but I'm getting cold. My mom said that she would help me make sunshine cookies today, but she's at work. Will you help me?"
My smile breaks through this time, shining under the tears that are brewing above my cheekbones.
I take her hand, this little girl whose name I don't know, and stand up. I let her lead me away from the edge. "Yes, I'll help you."