by: Austin James
Winter mornings like this are the deadliest.
The clouds press against the terrain, casting flat, gray light. Big, fuzzy snowflakes meander towards the ground. The atmosphere is still and quiet as the crystallized air absorbs both breeze and sound. It seems warm, too warm to be winter; chilly on your nose and cheeks, but not freezing like you would expect. Trees are decorated in deep frost; some look like frozen fishbone ribcages. Others, hunkered under the weight, look like crippled hands, the skin drizzling from the bone in hoary waves of frozen froth. Scattered pine trees are like drunken gray-green triangle smears in the fog.
“Is this a dream?” your brain asks. And that’s exactly what Winter wants you to think. “This serene, calm tundra is harmless,” it says. Yet it will not hesitate to take your toes through frostbite, nor freeze your lips to chop-sicles.
Winter mornings like this can be deadlier than the blizzardy yowl or the icy wasteland…at least then you somewhat expect to die.
Punching holes through the knee-deep snow, you track prey that doesn’t leave tracks. If not for the pink trail of blood blots scattered every so often, there would be no tracking to be had.
These woods are tranquil and peaceful, part of Winter’s trap. Visibility is low due to fog and snowfall. It’s easy to lose track of time. You could be wandering around out here for hours before realizing you’re lost, freezing, dying.
The blood stains in the snow are spaced just far enough to keep you on path towards your wounded prey.
Winter takes more than a few souls each year, out here in these very woods. You can’t see the sun, nor the mountains. It may not be coming down hard, but the snow is falling thicker than you realize and even your own tracks are quickly filled in with fresh powder. Which way is town again?
Each pink blemish of blood is a beacon directing your way.
Even the squeaky crunch of your own footsteps is muffled and distorted in the winter air: every noise is faint and fuzzy. It’s details like this that fool your brain into thinking you’re dreaming. We all know that you can’t freeze to death in a dream.
The only way to survive is to focus on the task at hand, the slow and steady pace of trudging through the snow. Focus on the kill, the harvest. It’s too easy to get taken away with the majestic beauty of these woods, and in a wonderland such as this, one step staggered in the wrong direction will surely lead to getting lost, getting frozen, getting dead.
It’s that real. It’s that dangerous.
You see the copper-colored blob in the foggy distance before you hear it, but the sizzling of snowflakes on hot metal wafts in soon after, hissing and spitting like bacon grease in a cast iron skillet. With each step it fades more into view, and you recognize it to be a rocket-powered jetpack, still hot from use, melting the snow it rests in. It’s bumped and bruised from a rough landing and will eventually rust to death before anyone else finds it.
Never mind that—where is the operator?! Were they hurt in the crash? The only thing worse than being lost in these wintery woods is being lost and injured. Something else leaks in from the fog as you gain ground on the jet pack. Not far from the crash site, you see a young girl lying among the cherry slush of bloody snow.
God, no! Are you too late?
You sprint towards her, the weight and suction of the frozen powder weighing down your stride. Hot breath evaporates from her nostrils. She’s alive!
She squirms, weak and whimpering, sounds that disappear behind you as they’re soaked up into the air’s black hole void of silence. All she’s wearing are blood-soaked pajamas—no jacket or coat—and her garlic blonde hair is already frozen. Her bruise-colored eyes barely flicker as you kneel beside her.
You pinch her mouth closed to damper the cry as you jerk the huntsman’s blade out of her femur where you left it as she rocketed away towards the woods. You wipe the frost from the polyurethane tusks sprouting from her jowls and reach for the hacksaw hanging from your belt. Even on a morning like this, you’d do best to work fast as a search party can’t be far behind.
Austin James has caffeine in his blood, gypsy spit in his spinal fluid, and an incredibly lazy pseudonym. His prose and poetry have been published in multiple magazines (such as Pulp Metal Magazine and Bartleby Snopes), as well as a few books and anthologies.
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