A Winter Fire
Rebellion is a fiery heart in the coldest winter.
I trudged through the snow, flecks of ice infiltrating my right boot. The crystals melted between my toes, soaking my socks and causing my illicit homemade snowshoes to slowly disintegrate. I advanced forward, my fingertips buzzing with pins and needles as they poked through thin hand-knitted gloves. They curled together to place 4 rhythmic knocks on the door in front of me.
I was escorted inside, where I became a prisoner to a long, sweaty hug.
Matin beamed, "It's a delight see ya, Kat! Pure delight."
Martin was a wiry man, always dressed in a neatly pressed button-down, the standard-issue adult male uniform these days. Unlike everyone else, however, he proudly bore a pair of crooked round-rimmed glasses. They were a rare glimpse of the world before the takeover and a quiet smirk of subversion that had remained miraculously un-confiscated.
I sighed, "My name is Catherine, Martin." It always broke my heart to speak to him like this.
Carefully finding his way back to the pre-approved dialogue, he replied, "My mistake Catherine. Must be the end of a long day."
Twitching with the uneasy awareness that his smile had lingered too long, Martin turned away, leading us down a barren pink hallway to a scant yellow kitchen.
A worn-out table with two seats stood at attention by a roaring wood-fired stove. A singular fake carnation in a stemmed glass vase indicated the occasion. Sarah looked up from a foreboding pot of ugly stew. "Catherine. We are so glad you came, and in this weather! You must be freezing."
I shrugged and smiled. Sarah smiled. Martin smiled. The walls smiled. A standoff.
Sarah mercifully chimed in, "Martin, darling, would you put on some music for us?"
He nodded theatrically and walked over to the radio.
She casually added, as only a true actress could, "Oh and be a dear and pull the curtains? The glare from the snow is giving me a migraine." She shook her head and massaged her temples for emphasis, letting a single red lock slip from underneath her utilitarian cap, a scandalous display.
As the lips of the curtains kissed closed, we were surrounded by a familiar and dark womb of secrecy. Our rebellious hearts silently pulled us from the kitchen to the bedroom, and within a few moments, we began to hear our own voices babbling over light jazz.
"How much time do we have?" I whispered.
"At least an hour." Sarah chortled. "That tape has fifteen minutes of us just talking about sustainable food production."
Satisfied, I lifted the metal bed frame, revealing the staircase to our secret.
As we descended, Sarah gently scolded Martin, adopting her usual vocal fry, "You would never refer to her as Kat, Martin. Too informal. Duh."
"I know darlin', I know." Martin replied, fatigued, his Texan affectation suddenly present.
It had become evident that the act was getting harder for Martin to keep up. I always attributed this to him being a man, less used to performative compliance prior to the rise of the New Regime.
"Yeah. God Martin, pull your shit together." I said with a wink.
He laughed, which quickly turned to coughing. Sarah patted his back, but he pulled away, walking over to the ancient computer that whirred away in the back of the bunker.
"How's he doing?" I asked.
"Okay." She murmured, pushing in her eyes with exhaustion. "We've been running low on meds." She added, chuckling, "So all things considered, it's pretty much a miracle he hasn't just keeled over by now."
"I totally forgot. I have something for you!" I said, instantly remembering the juicy contraband I had discovered earlier that day. I reached under the layers of skirt I was forced to bear above my trousers, revealing a thick glass bottle of pills. "I don't know if they'll help, but they've got to be something, right?"
"Oh my god, you're a hero," Sarah replied, looking over the bottle, "he should actually take some of these right now."
"Compliments to the governor's mistress!" I snarked, "Found them under her pillow."
But before she could reach him, he whipped around to face us. He spoke with a grimace. "It's done."
"What's done?" I asked, confused.
"You didn't tell her?! Sarah, what?" Martin cried out.
She simply snarled back, "When would I have?"
He took a deep breath, before explaining, "We're starting phase two tomorrow. I just sent out the request for everyone's confirmation of loyalty."
My mouth went agape. "Are you kidding me?" I spoke, voice shaking. "I told you I'm days away from recruiting the Chancellor. You want to just leap into this and let that allyship die? We need her!"
Sarah, unflinching, looked me dead in the eyes. "We don't have time for that anymore, Kat. Lieutenant Gerhart has been... dispatched. Our only trustworthy man on the inside is gone. If we don't move now, ready or not, they will crush us."
My body went numb. "Then that's... even more reason to get someone new on the inside!" I snapped, "We're flying blind! Jesus, I... How did they do it?"
Martin replied. "Fed to dogs."
Releasing a tensely clenched breath, I regained my bearings. "Okay. Okay, just let me try to get to the chancellor tonight. Sarah, please. I'll get it done. Please."
"Fine," she relented, "but no matter what happens, we are starting tomorrow."
Without looking at her, I grabbed a membership coin, engraved with a tell-tale carnation, and digging my nail into the side of the heart-shaped locket that never left my neck, crammed the coin inside against my own.
"She will accept this tonight," I affirmed, holding up the necklace.
Sarah just shook her head. Martin smiled and grabbed her hand. "Come on, Darlin, you know Kat can do this. She is the best at what she does."
Sarah gritted through her teeth, "At kissing up to the elite? Or being a thief?"
"Both." I replied with a smile. Wrong move.
Sarah's face dropped. "Is this funny to you?"
Martin tried to interrupt, but she rolled over him instantly with a familiar tirade. "No, you know what? Let's really work out the timeline here. Shall we? For a laugh? How long do you think they will be able to overlook me? Hm? Summer? When my skin gets tan? When I start to look a little more- Before they find out he's sick?"
I interrupted her then to beg her to forgive me, but before I could say anything substantial, the firebomb hit.
Shortly after taking impact, I gasped awake from unconsciousness, smoke burning my nose and lungs. I coughed up black, soot-filled blood as I screamed at Martin to wake up. He slowly lifted his head.
Sarah stood over us, tears streaming down her blackened face. "We need to run, now," she barked, yanking Martin up by the arm, and just like that, three tiny black dots crawled out of the rubble and started sprinting across the blanket of white that stretched all the way to the horizon.
"We're sitting ducks out here!" I screamed against the wind.
"You want to go back?" Sarah yelled back at me, pointing one red hot finger toward the house crumbling behind us. "Great then. We're going to your place".
"We'll never make it!" Martin protested.
"We don't have any other choice." I replied, unfeeling.
The blizzard picked up. Sarah broke out into a run, leading the charge against the weather, swirling at the mercy of the wind. Our faces burned in pain as our hair hit us in the eyes. We left a trail of black and grey and red behind us. We arrived, finally, hours later, near to collapse, only to see an officer's car pulling down the long driveway.
I mourned our luck. Martin and Sarah laid low in an embankment, physically spent.
"I'll get rid of this guy, I promise, I'll be right back," I said, knowing if I were not quick, they would be laying there to die.
I snuck in the backdoor and leaped into the shower, washing myself of the marks of a resistance fighter. As I powdered, tying on a silk robe, I thought of my friends, elbow-deep in the snow, Sarah on her belly, neck exposed, Martin, on his back, heaving for breath under a merciless sky. I thought of their fingers turning blue and then black.
I was trembling, pulling an open scalp wound under the towel wrapped around my head when the first knock came. I hesitated for a moment as if I was being caught off guard.
"Coming! One minute please!" I sang in the most chipper tone I could muster.
My feet slipped smoothly into fuzzy pink slippers, toes still throbbing with frostbitten pain. Finally, I answered the door. "Why, hello, Sergeant. What an absolute pleasure. Please come in".
The plump, grey-skinned bureaucrat replied flaccidly, "How do you do? Thank you for the offer, mam, but I'll stay outside."
Test number one. I would pass with flying colors if it killed me. I smiled at him, "Oh, don't be silly! I'll make you something for this cold. Is tea alright?"
He remained stalwart, murmuring, "I really don't think I should."
Test number two. I insisted. "Well, I don't think I should leave a man of such stature out in the cold. I won't take no for an answer."
Finally, he smiled back. "Your generosity is very gracious, mam. But I'm afraid it must be strictly business tonight."
I sighed, dolloping on all the feminine charm I could conjure. "Well, if it must. How can I help you?"
His face fell back into submission as he grunted, adjusting his belt. "I'm afraid I actually have some bad news for you. Your acquaintances, the laborers, Caroline Hines and Martin Parr? Passed away this evening. There was a fire; it seems they must've accidentally left a blanket next to the stove. The whole place went up in flames. A memorial will be placed over where their ashes lay."
My brain buzzed. How would I react if I were really hearing this? Shocked? Hysterical? I landed on shattered, as I collapsed, crying in great gasping sobs. I let the Sergeant hold me, choking on his reeking herring toast and coffee breath until finally, he pulled away. "I'm terribly sorry for your loss, mam. We'll send a state therapist tomorrow morning to evaluate your grief and all that, for any time off approvals."
Test number three.
I wiped my eyes. "No, no, thank you. Sergeant," I replied eagerly. "I will attend to my grief in my own time. I should not want to slow down the great machine of the state with my selfishness and weakness."
He nodded. "Yes, mam. And again, my condolences."
As I moved to shut the door, wanting desperately to run to the backyard and peel my friends from the unforgiving ice, I looked up meekly, remembering to always finish out a well-crafted performance.
"Oh, and Sergeant? Thank you so much for coming out tonight".