In the winter snows she walked; the cold, her only friend. Ice layered the twisting path through the park in a vain attempt to promote itself to stained-glass. Northern winds rushed through the birch trees. All color had been stripped from the limbs. All signs of life were hidden. She came to a stone stairway that gave treacherous way to the shoreline below. Dark water churned under a gray sky spitting snow.
More and more, that body of water so filled with biting cold and engulfing dark called to her. She found herself in the park more often. Things were getting worse.
There was a time when hope pressed against those darker feelings. There was a time when she felt there was still a way. But things changed, or more accurately, things stayed terribly the same. So it was the park, alone in the dead of winter. It was nervous glances at her stepfather’s straight-razor next to the sink. It was long gazes at the tops of skyscrapers watching birds spread their wings and watching the wind carry them away and wondering if she should do the same.
Fingers of cold slipped in through small gaps in her clothes. She shivered, and then felt quite peculiar.
Anna turned to look back at the park and blinked at the specks of snow landing on her eyelashes. Empty swings shifted in the breeze. Snow drifts huddled around picnic tables. The streets beyond a small stone wall were empty, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling.
Someone was there with her. Someone was watching.
Anna walked back through the snow, avoiding the icy path. Her dark hair tossed, and she tucked it behind her ear with a gloved hand. The cold stung her nose. She stood and waited. The peculiar feeling continued to the point of tingling.
A calm voice spoke out from in front of her. It was melodic and slow. “Strange ponderings for a woman so young.”
Anna looked on. The peculiar feeling inside her was matched by something equally odd—an absence of fear. A gust of wind brushed snow from the tree limbs. Flakes stuck and melted on her cheek.
“Is there no one to listen?” the voice asked. “No one who cares to hear your pains?”
“Where are you?” asked Anna.
The birch trees shivered in the wind; their long trunks and snowy backdrop blurred together like zebras. Something moved. Anna squinted, feeling victim to an optical illusion. A trunk shimmered in front of her as a small creature crawled up the side. It took hold of a limb and stood just above her.
An imp looked upon Anna, and Anna looked back. The gusting wind settled. From behind, the waves of the lake continued churning.
The imp wound its small tail around the branch and shielded its back to the wind. Its skin appeared hard like bark and matched the color of the tree. If real or illusion, Anna couldn’t say. Its eyes burned red.
“What are you?” Anna asked.
The imp looked on, frozen like a gargoyle.
Anna scanned the park for other persons. There was no one. She stepped forward, and the burning eyes followed her movement. “What do you want?”
The imp looked down his crooked nose. “There are solutions, you know,” the imp said, his voice still beautiful and calm. “I could assist thee.” His spiked tail flicked and punctuated the offer.
Anna stared and barely noticed the snow falling against her face. The branch above her swayed, and the perfectly still little demon swayed with it, as if part of the tree. Neither his fragile wings nor long ears stirred with the wind. Anna thought of a hundred questions, all of them obvious in their foolishness. In time, she found the only one that mattered.
“What will it cost me?”
The burning eyes, like golden embers at the base of a raging fire, stayed locked upon hers. The mouth of the imp stayed closed while the voice softly spoke out. “Only the consequences of your decision.” The words were like warm velvet, like melting butter soaking into a toasted muffin.
The imp scrambled out along the branch like a small monkey, agile and confident, and wrapped its tail around the waning end. With a simple flick, the wood snapped, and the imp flung it to the ground. The snow hissed with steam where the makeshift wand landed. Anna walked and found the melted spot. The bark was charred with the tail’s imprint. Anna held the small stick in her hand, and it gave the faintest glow. Through her glove, she could feel its warmth on her hand.
“What is this?” she asked, looking back to the branch.
But the creature was gone. Her eyes darted from trunk to trunk and limb to limb, but the imp was nowhere to be found. Gone as well, the peculiar feeling of a hidden observer.
In the winter snows, Anna stood alone. Now with the cold, fear had become her friend.