The North

Prologue

The North

Breathe

Choice.

This all started with a choice.

Aoin forcibly repeated the words in her mind over and over. Her breathing was heavy and the cold wind burned her lungs.

“This all started with a choice. MY choice” she reminded herself.

“It's my own fault I’m here”

Frozen and out of breath, she leaned against the birch tree at the base of the hill, the thick, slick ice coating on the cold, dead bark, jabbing painfully into her forehead. The freezing wind of the raging weather had stolen the feeling in Aoin’s face, but she knew the pain in her forehead was there; she was just far too drained to care.

“Choice,” she muttered to no one in particular, her body breathing heavily.

A blank mind and thundering pulse accompanied the total darkness of her clenched eyes as she tried to catch her breath. Her heavy bag was flung in a snowbank at her feet, a sign of her insurmountable defeat. The wind whipped pea-size pellets of frozen snow violently against her pulsing, red cheeks. Whenever her lips parted to take a breath, the wind raged past, ripping the very prana from her lungs. Her thin, worn-out scarf was an ice-laden second skin against her mouth from the condensation of every exhale. It was like she would never be able to draw air again.

Aoin was exhausted from trudging through the snow. She had been walking for hours and genuinely felt like it was an eternity. Her legs under their many layers felt as if they were cemented to the ground, aching, the muscles in her thighs burned and spasmed, Aoin’s feet so cold, they felt like they belonged on someone else’s body.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

She tried everything in her power to focus solely on her breathing and ignore the blustery storm around her. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. The pounding in Aoin’s ears began to slow and was replaced with the shrill whistle of the snowy tempest. Far off in the snowy distance, a discordant howl barely rose audibly above the tempest.

Her breath finally began to regain a sense of rhythm and control.

Gently lifting her right hand, bare and exposed, she slowly wiped her left and right eyes, melting the delicate icicles that had formed on her lashes, fusing her eyes shut. She slowly lifted her head and looked around. Her newly opened eyes revealed a rapidly darkening sky, a consistent curse of living up here in the North. Aoin had no way of tracking time, no watch or anything like it, but she could easily tell she only had a few more precious minutes of light before her world would be plunged into darkness.

“Fuck,“ Aoin muttered into the rigid scarf. She looked up the hill woefully, any sign of a road, stairs or walkway buried deep beneath heaps of ice and snow. There were no lights. Even before the arrival of the snow, this area had been shrouded in trees, giant white birch trees waving, reaching and curving up to the sky. The hill was painfully steep and slippery with an angle that made the heart pound and the muscles burn. Trees had fallen over and rocks broke through the ice and snow at irregular intervals, making the terrain look foreboding and treacherous.

“Well bitch, you’ve come this far,” she said aloud to herself, her own voice muffled by a selfish wind. He breath barely hung in the air in front of her nose for a moment, but it was there long enough to instigate a metaphorical contract Aoin was making with the universe to keep on going. She inhaled deeply, her belly pushing against her heavy woolen sweater. Again, the howl in the distance echoed.

Taking a step towards her snowy bag, Aoin felt her foot slip and lose its connection to the earth. Her ankle rolled at a painful, unnatural angle and Aoin fell down into the snow, flakes and chunks of ice creeping into any opening in her clothing it could find, stabbing her skin with their many icy knives. The cruel cold was vicious in finding any point of vulnerability in Aoin’s clothing; cascading over her collarbones and down the back of her neck and over her stomach. The small of Aoin’s back was not spared and chunks fell down the inside of every article of clothing she wore, sending stabbing chills along the skin on every part of Aoin’s torso and legs.

Fighting back burning tears, she clenched her eyes closed once more. Aoin inhaled the frigid air and laid there, motionless and defeated in the storm. Another doleful howl pierced through the shrieking wind.

As Aoin exhaled she allowed her mind to give in to the negative feelings that had flooded her empty mind like a tsunami. Self pity and fear streamed into every corner. Her utter exhaustion rendered her emotions powerless to fight off the anger. Life was unfair. Why did she have to endure this? What about herself made her deserve the deathly cold? Why did it feel that all of existence loathed her? This was stupid! SHE was stupid! Coming out in this horrendous weather was the dumbest choice she could have made! Why was this world, her world even like this?

More and more hot tears gathered in the corners of Aoin’s eyes and her breath quickened. The lava-like sorrow overflowed. Tears streamed halfway down her cheeks and then froze. Aoin sat up and began to sob loudly. She leaned her head against the lifeless tree, watching her tears fall off her face and blend into the anonymous chaotic dance of frozen water around her. Aoin gazed through her freezing, blurred vision to the treadless boots on her feet and bloodless state of her hands and her feelings of desolation grew as she looked over the shabby, snowy state of everything she wore. Ice and snow filled every hole and clung in giant chunks to the strings wrapped tightly around her aching calves, a precautionary, ye futile, attempt at keeping her feet somewhat warm and dry. The hands, frozen and nearly blue, had long ago seen the now-waxy fingertips fall victim to nail-biting and anxious cuticle-peeling; scars and flakes of dry skin were all over, another sign of many past years of love, hell and toil in the North.

Frostbite was going to become an issue at this point, if it hadn't likely already started to set in. “With my luck I’ll lose a finger or toe...” she expressed with defeat.

Desperately clutching the icey encasement on the birch tree with her right hand, Aoin attempted to stand on her feet. The howling of the wind had been replaced with the deafening ringing in her ears. Aoin’s emotions drowned out the distinct echo that was slowly coming closer. White-knuckled, and breathing with great effort, she righted herself, leaning her whole weight against the rigid tree.

Aoin sobbed harder as she shuffled her feet in the snow. The feeling of the lifeless cold of her physical body was replaced with a fiery emotional pain that brought her back down to her knees. Her body shook uncontrollably as the feelings escaped in a rush of tearful physical expression. The thought of walking became too overwhelming. Aoin looked at the tree that held her erect and her emotions took complete control of her. She stared up into the stormy sky and her mind was erased all rationality. Reeling her head back she clenched her eyes and jaw closed as she slammed her head with violent force into the tree. Momentarily, her overwhelming emotions were erased, in their place were fireworks behind her eyelids and a terrible pain in her skull. Again Aoin drove her forehead forcibly into the near rock-like surface of the tree. Ice cracked and shattered, falling off the birch’s peeling bark, to the ground around Aoin and disappearing into the snow drifts.There were no thoughts, only the stars remained, spackled against the inside of her frosty eyelids. One last time she rammed her head into the tree, this time feeling the roughness of bark pressing with great force into her forehead. Jagged edges of ice cut into the skin on her forehead, letting the feeling cold enter her blood. Aoin felt the world around her lurch and spin.

“FUUUCCCKKK!” She cried out again, clutching her numb hands to her head. Pressing her frozen palms into the quickly-forming goose-egg on her forehead she willed the ground and sky and trees to stay where they were and tried to ignore the twirling snowflakes. The overwhelming emotions and feelings were dissipating; Aoin was now rendered merely nauseous.

Now on all fours, eyes still shut and crying, Aoin realized the consequences of this particular choice. Her spine tingled and her head pulsed and swam. Her vision was blurred and her ears rang louder than any howl or storm. The muscles in her abdomen seized, her throat opened and Aoin vomited into the snow. The pressure from being ill was almost too much for Aoin to bear: he head felt like it was going to explode into a million little pieces. Aoin vomited again, the smell, taste and texture of warm bile in her mouth overwhelming Aoin’s physical senses. Spitting onto the ground, she wiped her mouth off onto sleeve before the puke could freeze to her skin. Aoin sat back on her heels and continued to cry.

“Fuck. Fuck! Shit! Stupid! Mother Fucker!” Her profanity was muted by the blizzard raging around her, adding insult to injury, and reinforcing Aoin’s feelings of nihilism. She wanted the world, no, the universe in its entirety, to know she was mad and felt her life was unjust. She wanted to punish existence and herself for every little action and thing that had led to this point. She was on the brink of entirely giving up. Aoin inhaled deeply again and let out a series of intelligible syllables expressing her deep-set disdain and misery with life.

Aoin stared blankly into the swirling snow around her. She had no control. She had no control over the ice and snow and wind. She had no say in what nature would do; it did what it wanted and what nature wanted was to be ragefull and bitter. The world wanted to freeze anything that moved. The weather was hell-bent on stopping anything that lived and wiping out life. She had no control over what the outside world did. Somewhere in the snowy void, another living something let out a lone, long cry to the world, echoing Aoin’s sorrows and fears.

She felt like a victim. She felt the world and the weather made her a victim to the elements of the North. She felt at the mercy of the weather, the ice, the cold, nature itself. Aoin sobbed hysterically as she blankly looked at the world around her.

Tears had given way to pure, unadulterated rage and Aoin yelled again and punched the still-guiltless tree, an entity that had in truth stood rooted in that very spot, existing through the same weather, the same wind and cold, year after year. The tree was unbothered by her anger: a silent, lifeless, unreactive shadow against the near-black sky. Still the ice showed its dominance and the frozen crust on the tree trunk broke even more and shards of ice cut deep into the knuckles of her right hand.

Aoin went to react yet again, habits of reaction still deeply ingrained, but then she stopped. Although she could faintly see the mean gashes on her hand in the last of the light, Aoin realized that she was unable to actually feel any of her wounds. She watched a single crimson drop of blood pool on her middle finger and slowly start to drip down the digit. Beneath her dirty, chewed fingernails, her fingertips had gone a pale white-blue, life-giving blood frightened away by the cold. Save the single drop that had escaped its fleshy prison. It dropped off Aoin’s fingertip and fell with determination strait down, its trajectory unbothered by the gale of frozen water swirling around, to the snowbank by her bag, barely visible in the deepening snow.

Aoin stood up and attempted to brush off some of the storm that clung to every surface. Sound had returned, the pounding in her head and ears abated, and over the wind she heard a piercing howl. The sound was still far off, aided by the wind but the origin was most definitely coming closer to where Aoin was having her fit. This was the first time Aoin had the sound register in her mind. Wherewith had been replaced by emotion and impulsivity until this point. Rationality chose to take over once again.

A deep breath in.

Grabbing her bag from the snow, she reached inside and hastily felt around for the crude, homemade red woolen mittens inside. “I chose not to wear them” she thought to herself as she rummaged blindly. “I’m such an idiot. A fucking idiot. I’m going to freeze to death and I’m stupid enough not to put these on,” she started to give in to more negative self talk, voicing the toxic feelings aloud to herself and the snow. Her berating was interrupted by the distinct howl and Aoin was forcibly snapped back to reality.

Aoin’s hand brushed a hard surface in her satchel and her breath caught in her chest. In giving in to her feelings of self woe and fear, Aoin had forgotten the reason she had ventured out in the first place. The reason for her choice to be where she was.

Aoin exhaled slowly as her fingers caressed the solid form in her bag.

A book.

The entire reason Aoin had made the choice to brave the outdoors in the first place had been a book. Her heart longed to pull the tome out and look at it; smell its pages but the weather would not bode well for her treasure, even if she could pull it out, open it, and see it in the now inky black atmosphere enveloping her. Only the self illuminating whiteness of the snow on the ground, the frozen birch bark on the surrounding trees, and the blowing ice through the air were visible. Aoin heaved a sigh as she realized she had chosen to linger too long both in her mindset and her physical location. She felt she was not only a victim to the snow but she was now traped by the darkness of the late hour. A big part of her wanted to accept her defeat, lie down in the snow and allow the elements to take her life as the world had done to so many lives before.

Inhaling deeply, Aoin looked in the direction she needed to go, or at least thought she needed to be headed in the inky night. She put forth effort into pushing the idea of how much further there was in her journey, from her mind. She pulled her heavy coat closer around her neck and reached down to wipe her bloodied hand in the snow. As she left red streaks that were soon buried under large flurries, Aoin noticed the boot string on her right calf had broken and fallen off and been lost in the drifts. Aoin closed her eyes and took a deep calming breath. She could faintly smell the metallic odour of her blood, mixed with a light touch of bile, and between her forehead and hand she was bleeding more than enough. Her tongue stuck to the cold, bitter, tacky roof of her mouth and she reached back down for a handful of clean snow. She put the frozen handful into her mouth accepting her sensitive aching teeth and numb lips as the warmth from deeper inside her body melted the liquid, releasing cool, moist relief across her tongue and down her throat.

Putting one foot in front of the other she focused again on her breath, refusing to glance up the hill for fear it would defeat her before she even started to move.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Resting her wounded hand in her satchel, tenderly touching the precious treasure, she envisioned how she would feel when she was out of the cold, warm, fed, able to read her book and away from the torturous howls of the wind. The wind seemed to sense her contempt for the weather and filled her ears even fuller with it’s loud symphony. Aoin quickened her pace to a near-anxious run. There was something about being outside in the dark and feeling the powerlessness rendered by the storm that made her feelings of loneliness and defeat even more prominent.

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

The words of F.Scott Fitzgerald abruptly popped into her mind. She had read his works a while ago. Their once hollow rationale took on a different meaning. She had stopped near the summit of the hill and began to question where to go in the dark. The words of the author from centuries before rang true. She constantly, nay, ALWAYS felt like her world was falling apart.

The dark had settled completely. Aoin had reached the top of the hill. She made the decision to walk into the abyss, her body aching and shaking uncontrollably from the cold. She was still far out from where she wanted to be but she chose to keep going. She was not going to stare blankly into the storm.

Aoin was not about to let self pity and self doubt take away the most crucial choice she had: the choice to live. A soul-penetrating howl broke through the shriek of the wind and Aoin sped up. Fighting off panic she tore up the hill at a dead run. Grasping at rocks or trees; whatever she could grab to keep her on her feet. She was panting hard as she used sheer will to propel her legs forward. Her body was in agony but her mind was resolute: she didn’t stop moving, she chose to go on. Aoin squinted off into the distance trying to peer through crystalline snowflakes into the dark. The world was a mass of black and white, the frozen lifeless world animated by the blowing and flow of the blizzard engulfing it. She used stark breaks in the white snowdrifts and ice that made up the ground, to guide her path through the storm. Anything close that was a dark shadow she walked around. The anxiety and panic was bubbling up in her chest. “I don’t know where I am,” she thought. Her pulse quickened. She was once again on the brink of losing control.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

She closed her eyes momentarily and let the vision of where she wanted to go play like a movie in her mind. Home. “I chose to go home,” her chapped lips whispered to the wind. Opening her eyes she continued doggedly on, letting instinct guide her steps. Walking for a timeless void, she focused solely on her breath and avoiding the obstacles that would appear without warning from the snow. Stopping and clutching her bag close she struggled to bring natural rhythm back to her breath. She reached towards a cedar bush, it’s dead branchlets thick with ice. Snapping off several, she held the bouquet in her hands and walked further through the trees. She drifted fondly into the memory of the smell of cedar, smiling to herself.

A loud howl, more close and foreboding than ever before, pierced the air and made Aoin jump out of her skin. She gasped and tried to force her body to move faster. Her frozen blood pulsed and throbbed through her body ash she sprinted forward blindly, doing everything in her power to keep from falling flat on her face. The ice-bound tree branches whipped fiercely at her face and she squinted through the wilds around her.

A cruel rock jutted out of the snow in Aoin’s path. It’s icy surface showed no mercy and she slipped and fell hard to the frozen ground. Too overwhelmed to think, she righted herself and continued through the storm, running blindly. The shadows of the trees showed a break, perhaps a clearing on the horizon and she drilled forward, her heartbeat and heavy breathing the only audible sounds. The line of trees ended and Aoin ran into a large clearing. The snow with the absence of shadows made the horizon seem blank and abysmal. There was nothing that Aoin could see in front of her. Still running forward, Aoin ran headstrong into a tall, chain link fence. The links drove sharply into Aoin’s still-throbbing forehead and she saw those now-familiar fireworks behind her eyes. Following along the fence she came to a tear in the links, just large enough for an adult to crawl through. Gasping with relief, she curled the links back and shoved her bag through, hastily followed by her aching, forced body, through the gap. Aoin was now running from the storm itself, the wind and ice making her mind gap on her howling, unseen threat. Looking through the snow she saw an ominous, black structure reaching up towards the sky. Relief washed over her trembling body and she chose to pause to catch her breath.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

She knew where she needed to be. Finally, she was almost there.

Running towards the ice-coated black-grey stone walls, she again hit the frozen surface hard. Pressing her entire body against the variegation of the rough and iced over surface she slid along it’s masonry. Her coat snagged on the heavy brickwork jutting out through the ice, protruding edges scraped her cheeks, exposed by the wimpy scarf that had fallen back around her neck. Aoin felt nothing. The whipping snow stung her eyes ferociously and filled her mouth and nose when she tried to breathe. She felt along blindly until she came to a lip in the wall.

Almost there.

Aoin sprinted up the 15 exposed steps to the building, the heavy concrete coated thickly with ice. The building’s heavy masonry and tiny windows drew a foreboding figure: in another life this building could have served as a prison, its interior isolated from the outside world, instead of the sterile condominiums for which it was purpose-built. She bolted past the already open gate at the hallway entrance.

Sliding on a patch of thick white ice, Aoin tried to make the sharp corner into the pitch black hallway leading to the door to the building and her home. Her body’s whole left side hit the ground with a sickening thud and Aoin blacked out for a few moments. Her bag landed under her torso, and the book found its way under her ribs, knocking the air out of her. She weakly rolled around on the frozen ground, clutching her arms around her body, desperately trying to inhale. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Rolling onto her right side Aoin blurrily could see the light grey door, not more than ten meters away. Summoning the last remaining shreds of strength she had left, Aoin forced herself to sand back up. She had changed her mind about giving up.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Stumbling forward like a baby deer on the ice, Aoin made it to the heavy metal door, windowless, with peeling grey paint revealing spots of rust on the dense steel. The door had a plain handle and there was a heavy padlock drilled into the metal at shoulder height. The hinges and padlock were coated heavily in a dark grease, in attempt to keep the moving parts from freezing in the vicious winter.

She grabbed the thickly-oiled padlock and reached into her shirt. Her fingers were vibrating icicles, sending shivers tremoring through her body as she tried to hold them still. She reached the pocket sewn discreetly into the seam of her top and found the cold hard metal of a key. Clumsily she tried to insert the key into the lock. Her hands barely sensed the lock or key and Aoin missed the intricate little groves. Inhaling, Aoin held her breath as she tried to steady her hands and unlock the door, but a wave of unsteadiness overcame her head and mind. Exhaling, she took a brief moment of mental and physical clarity to insert the key into the lock’s tumbler. Turning the key, the lock opened with a relieving “click” and Aoin lifted the padlock off it’s holster and tried to open the door..

Ice had gathered in thick humps around the door. Aoin wrenched on the door hard, the frozen precipitation scraping and telling against its metal facade. Her shoulders ached as she cracked the door open. Forcing her body and bag inside, Aoin pulled the door shut behind her with a slam that echoed on the cold brick-walled interior. She was standing in the stairwell of the building. There were no lights on, and no light came in the narrow barred windows that ran up the walls for many floors above Aoin’s head. Turning around, Aoin attempted to lock the heavy steel door using an identical padlock attached to the inside. Her hands gave into the numbness and she dropped the padlock and key.

“Fuck me,” she whispered wearily.

Bracing herself on the wall with one hand, she leaned down and felt around for the lock mechanism. Panic almost took over before her palm felt the greasy metal in the dark. Standing up as slowly as humanly possible, watching the lights behind her eyes dance in the utter darkness, she felt around blindly for the padlock and hooked the lock over the loop, locking the door and at last securing it behind her. Tears of complete exhaustion had started to fall as Aoin put the key back into her breast pocket. Sliding down the wall to the cold concrete floor, Aoin took a few deep breaths before collapsing into a dreamless sleep on the hard concrete floor, in the selfish cruel blackness.

_____

science fiction
Trina Krystal
Trina Krystal
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Trina Krystal

Grower, in every sense of the word.

See all posts by Trina Krystal