Emma tied the scarf around her neck and trudged towards the dining hall. It was almost empty. The majority of students had already left. The remaining ones were busy hauling their dirty laundry off campus for their mothers to wash during the winter break. Emma had planned to spend Christmas break with Colin, in Los Angeles. But they’d broken up before finals.
Instead of snapping pictures of palm trees she stirred her bowl of cereal with a plastic spoon. She waited until the cereal became soggy and ate slowly. When she was done she unzipped her backpack and took out a yellowing paperback with marble pillars on the cover. She was determined to fill her days with homework and reading.
Half an hour later one of the dining hall attendants told her they were closing down.
“Storm’s coming,” he told her.
Emma nodded and grabbed her things. When she stepped outside the sky looked crisp and clear and there was not a hint of snow.
The wind started picking up before midnight. Emma glanced out the window. Snowflakes streaked the sky, growing in size. The trees rattled against the old house-turned-dorm. The floorboards moaned.
Emma put the book aside and turned off the lights. She dreamed of giant penguins marching across an ice plain and woke up early.
She peeked outside, eyes fixing on the snowman she had mutilated; its head was now buried under the fresh snow. Emma went down to the communal kitchen and placed the kettle on the burner. She had tea and cookies, then put on her jacket, laced her boots and decided to pay Sophie a visit.
Sophie’s dorm was on the other side of campus and Emma wondered if she might be able to get a lift. But no one was out that morning.
When she reached Sophie’s dorm she saw the front door had been left open, propped with a rock. Snow as fine as powdered sugar had settled on the carpet, reaching the couches and the television set. Judging by the amount of it, the door must have been left open the whole night. The resident assistants would have a fit when they came back to damaged furniture.
Emma went up the stairs and knocked on Sophie’s door. Sophie did not answer.
Emma frowned. She had not thought to phone Sophie before coming over. When they’d spoken at the party, Sophie had confirmed she was going to remain on campus. Had she left? Emma scribbled a note on Sophie’s whiteboard using the red marker attached to it with a frayed cord. The letters were thin, spidery loops. She underlined a word.
Emma walked back to her dorm, following the paths by memory instead of sight because they were hidden under the whiteness.
Emma sorted socks and folded clothes. She read and waited for Sophie to phone. There were no calls. When night fell she turned on her television set and saw only static. She’d tell the campus cops about the cable in the morning, when they did their rounds. She couldn’t be bothered to call them right that instant.
Emma opened a can of Vienna sausages and ate it by the window, watching the trees bend and shake, the snow swirl and fall. The snowman she’d built with Colin just a couple of weeks before was disappearing little by little, swallowed by the cold.
She thought about the spring of the previous year, when they’d met, and the charming way in which Colin massacred French during their language labs. Then she frowned, remembering how he’d looked with his mouth all over Claire Anderson at the party. Emma hadn’t wanted to go to the party, but Sophie dragged her and told her it would be fun to play beer-pong and have Jello-shots. But Colin had been there, fully in the throes of Rebound 101, and all Emma did was sit in a dark corner, listening to a random guy babble about weather patterns until eventually he told her the end of the world was now. Or nigh. Or some other bullshit and Emma excused herself, walked back to her dorm and mauled the snowman, flinging off its head.
Emma looked at the pale sausages, the colour of frozen fingers. Or maggots. Three hundred calories, almost 250 of these in saturated fat. Battered meat pushed into a sieve and reformed. It tasted like crap but it required little effort and there was a certain pleasure in sinking her fingers into the can and fishing for the sausages. Her indifference as she ate and stared at the snow was a quiet statement to the harsh winter: you can maul the house with this storm and I can eat my canned food.
So she ate and nodded as the house shivered.
Emma noticed the tracks going around the house and wished she’d risen earlier. The campus cops must have done their rounds already and wouldn’t come back until the next day. If they did. She’d pulled out her hand-crank radio from under the bed earlier — legacy of her days as a Girl Scout — and listened to the news. They were talking about a storm, a big one, headed her way. Storm of the century, someone had said, and if it was that bad then she doubted the cops would be doing their usual rounds, winter break and a lonely campus and all.
Emma placed her hands in her pockets and contemplated walking over to Sophie’s dorm. It was very chilly and the snowdrifts looked high, plus she had no idea if Sophie was even there. She might have gone to town to get supplies in preparation for the big one. She might be sitting at Gino’s, eating a warm split-pea soup, with a bag full of that horrible granola cereal she liked to buy. For a minute, Emma considered going into town. Having a coffee, eating a slice of pie; these things might lift her spirits. But Emma didn’t own a car and walking into town took half an hour. In good conditions. In this snow, it would take twice as long and it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
Emma stopped by the entrance, looking for their snowman. Somebody had smashed it into a pulp and shoved the remains of its lumpy body onto the ground. The murder weapon — a tree branch — had been abandoned next to the corpse. She was alone in her dorm but Dyer Hall was just across the street and some of the men there had egged her dorm that Halloween. Those pranksters wouldn’t think twice about beating the crap out of a snowman.
The thought of reckless young men running around campus, stomping on snowmen, had an unpleasant edge to it but she was also glad the snowman was completely gone.
Emma stepped back inside. She phoned campus security, but got the voice mail at the first try. She left a brief message about the cable, then looked for her old pair of skates.
There was a pond near her dorm, a little opening of water where the ducks and geese gathered in the spring. Sometimes, during the winter, drunk students would cut across the pond, running over the ice, and fall down, injuring themselves. They said a girl had committed suicide there a hundred years before and some talked about ghosts, but Emma had seen none.
Emma put the skates on and traced circles with the blades, tattooing the ice with foreign words, lines, shapes.
She thought about giant penguins as she stirred the mac and cheese. The hand-cranked radio played classical music, the kind her nana liked to play on Sundays before the cancer gnawed her entrails.
She pictured the penguins marching in a straight line, in the snow, underneath a starless sky.
In her room, the phone rang.
Emma bolted up the stairs and grabbed the receiver.
“Hello?” she said.
There was a garbled word — more like a gurgle — and the line went dead. Great. She had probably missed Sophie. Instinct, though, told her it must have been Colin, not Sophie.
Colin. With the curly hair at his nape and his wicked half-smile. Colin at the party drinking his beer, laughing, kissing Claire while Emma listened to the boy who talked about the apocalypse.
Emma placed the receiver back in its place and went to the kitchen, to her half-burnt mac and cheese and the silence of the small dorm.
She read until late even though the words slid into the darkness and the book did not make sense. When she reached to turn off her lamp she looked out the window and saw someone standing across the street, looking at the sky. It was too dark and too snowy to make out who this was, though she pegged this for one of the kids from Dyer Hall; perhaps the very one who had taken care of her snowman.
She squinted, trying to see if there were any lights on over at Dyer Hall. The house across the street seemed to be painted with blackness, nothing but a shadow sticking out in the snow.
She didn’t think it would be that bad of a winter break, but the snow was coming thick and strong. By the time Emma had breakfast she was reconsidering stepping outside. But she wanted to see if Sophie was around and with the phone lines gone to hell she must walk to her place.
Emma grabbed her mittens, pausing at the door to stare at the snowman that had replaced her old one. Well, calling it a snowman was a bit of a stretch. It was just a mound of snow, piled high, with no definite form. The student from Dyer Hall who had shaped this snow creation — for it must have been the one she had spotted the previous night — had not spent much time perfecting it.
Emma went down the hill, watching her footing. The snowdrifts were getting perilously high and the wind chill was unbelievable. By the time she walked by the library, she was ready to call it quits. She paused near the library’s steps — or where the steps would have been, had they not been covered in snow — and noticed the front door was slightly ajar.
Emma frowned. The library, just like the dining hall, was locked during Christmas break. She wondered if the cops were doing their rounds.
Emma peeked her head inside the library. The lights were all off. The service desk was empty, the books all neatly lined on their shelves. Emma quietly closed the door behind her and went out again.
Her breath rose in a puff and she thought about this documentary she had watched as a child, about Antarctica. White cliffs rising behind a group of men. Explorers in a black-and-white film reel, with parkas and sled dogs and their blurred faces before the old camera. The narrator talked about the Nordenskjoeld’s Giant Penguin, now extinct, and the child Emma wished she could become an explorer of secret lands but Billy — who sat in front of her in Miss Ollin’s class — said there were no secret places left.
Emma skated on the pond, digging the blade onto the icy surface. For her amusement, she recited Latin names she had picked from biology textbooks and traced circle upon circle.
The wind, when it rustled the trees, paused to whisper her name.
The radio was calling it the storm of the century. Emma watched the wind whipping the trees, listened to its howl as it swept ice and snow across her window. Nearby the ocean raged, rising and licking the land.
She wondered if it was century or decade or just another exaggeration.
She wondered if Colin was in California, baking under the sun, or closer by, in the arms of Claire Anderson. She pictured them together, sharing a blanket, freezing to death. Pale limbs shimmered under the light of the moon as the storm broke down their doors, invaded their room and swallowed them whole.
She pictured Sophie sleeping beneath the pond, body encased in ice, and smiled because Sophie had known about Claire and had not breathed a word to Emma. Sophie who had been her friend. Sophie who thought all wounds can heal with two rounds of Jello-shots and the toss of a plastic ball into a beer cup.
Emma found a pack of cigarettes in her room. She did not recall smoking. She lit a cigarette and the lights went off. Emma sat in the darkness, flicking the lighter on and off. On and off.
The clock said it was morning but there was no light. All Emma glimpsed from her window was the snow accumulating higher and higher, the sharp shards of ice dangling from the roof.
She cranked the radio and there came a garbled report. River. Destroyed bridges. Submerged towns. Police. Mobilized. Storm.
The radio announcer said the end is nigh.
Emma nodded her understanding.
Across the street she saw pale figures emerging from the snow. Penguins, the size of men, walking in a straight line.
She remembered staring at the penguins in the zoo, wanting to touch them. Wanting to see if they carried a piece of ice inside their heart. She remembered the old film with the explorers. The white chasm. The pale slopes extending to forever.
Emma put on her parka but she did not bother with gloves or shoes. The snow crunched beneath her bare feet.
She followed the penguins, her fingers brushing their sleek bodies. They were warm to the touch, like the bread her nana used to bake.
Ahead of the penguin column, by the sea, she could glimpse tall towers carved out of ice; the secret place she had sought her entire life.
© 2013 by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. “Snow” originally appeared in Exile Editions’ This Strange Way of Dying (September 2013).
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia lives in beautiful British Columbia. Her first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, was released in 2013. Her debut novel, Signal to Noise, will be released in 2015 by Solaris.
Sebyth (artwork) is old and usually unseen. Sebyth draws stuff and plays video games and doesn’t get out much. There are whispers of elves and strange games.