illustration by S. Bell

Snow Devils

Charles Payseur

The quiet atmosphere of the wintry setting of Charles Payseur’s “Snow Devils” underscores the chilling effect of what’s going on in a greater world. But the love story, set against these challenges, is full of warmth and hope. Love is love, and can blossom in even in the most forbidding of situations, and is sometimes the only thing that can motivate us to change.

For a half mile between the tree line and the highway nothing flanks the small road but field. Time was it was corn, or soy, or whatever the hell people used to grow here before the snows set up permanent residence, before the only way of growing things was in the greenhouses.

Aspen hates that half mile of road.

His house is tucked into a clearing a mile from the highway, invisible in a small valley. For protection, Aspen’s fathers had always told him. Protection from what Aspen didn’t need them to explain. He’s always known the dangers out there, from the highway. Every now and again news still flits in of a house broken into, of the blood, the bodies, the looting. Less now than there used to be, but it pays to be careful.

Still, that half mile from tree line to highway, that half mile that Aspen walks every Monday and Thursday to catch the Jacobs’ bus into market, is something he dreads. Before the tree line it’s just the cold, and as bad as it is the cold is something Aspen barely feels anymore. He has his rituals, his armor. Thermal socks, thermal long underwear, leg braces, undershirt, pants, sweater, bibs, coat, boots, gloves, mask, hat, goggles, hood: all go on in a neat precision that means he’s normally sweating before he reaches the tree line.

But after that . . .

Ever since the Change it’s not the cold that’s most dangerous. At least, not alone. It’s the wind. And without the trees to break it, the wind plays in that half mile of open field like otters finding a hole in the ice.

Aspen takes a breath and looks out at the road, or what he imagines is the road. The snow is blowing sideways across it so hard he can’t really see it, just knows that it’s there because of the markers every fifty feet. Beside him Nara whines and Aspen bends to check her harness and sled to make sure it’s not pinching. But no, she’s just impatient, whatever part of her that’s Husky wanting to be moving again, blue eyes urging him to action. Aspen sighs and moves out of the protection of the trees.

No exposed skin. That’s what his fathers taught him. Exposed skin is as good as a death sentence out here. Check the seals on the produce. Recheck the seals. Any tear or opening and the food will freeze long before it reaches market, and people have enough frozen shit without buying it from him. Don’t push the braces too hard. They’re high quality but unique now: what would he do if he ever broke them? Watch out for snow devils.

He walks fast but doesn’t run. Running’s difficult enough with the braces, and if trouble came on him while he was trying he’d be too tired to fight it. There’s a pistol at his waist for wolves or bears. And there’s Nara. So he walks, a boy and his dog, trying to keep his shoulder to the wind so that he can glance over every now and again. Around his boots the snow is still drifting fast enough that it looks like a white river that he’s struggling through. Nara trots along happily, shaggy fur protecting her from the elements.

Midway across the fields he notices the wind die down a moment, the cold gathering its breath for something. This is how they start. Aspen stops, turns in the direction the wind has been coming from. He commands Nara beside him, down, good girl, and then he sees it.

It starts with a wall of snow picked up by the wind in a line. It angles across the open field, distant but approaching fast. There’s nothing to stop it out here, just a wide swath of empty. Aspen swallows. Before the Change snow devils were just pretty things, a breeze and a dance and nothing more. People used to say it was a spirit coming to say hi. Since the Change it’s another matter. The spirits have grown hungry, fat.

He tracks it, watches the angles as it starts to pull together, faster and faster. It will miss him. He thinks. Still, he crouches over the sled and Nara and waits. Walls of snow meet and then there’s a rush and a howl like all the ghosts of hell come back and a hundred feet away a geyser of snow lifts into the air, ten feet in diameter. Aspen can’t breathe. He’s watching, listening, searching the column of white for a face, for a voice that he might recognize.

Three years ago his father, Derek, hadn’t come home from a trip to market. Aspen remembers the look on Mark’s face as the hours passed. Outside the winds were driving so bad they feared the glass of the greenhouse would shatter. Derek should have stayed in town. Should have, but both Mark and Aspen had been sick and he wanted to get back with the medicine.

Aspen waits, the wind tugging at his coat as if calling him into the vortex. Come away, the snow devil says, voice a moan over the field. Come away.

After two minutes the snow devil dies and Aspen resumes his trek to the highway. He wonders what would happen if a snow devil found him. He wonders if that’s what happened to Derek that night, if the winds picked him up and tossed him, ripping away the coat, the goggles, the mask. They can be strong enough to lift someone twenty feet into the air. Aspen imagines the twirling nightmare. Light wrenched away. In the dark. No direction. A single tear in his clothes would have meant a slow death if he couldn’t get back. And he wouldn’t know which way to go. In a snow storm every direction looks the same.

Or maybe Derek just packed up and left south. Maybe he had looked at that half mile to the tree line and just kept on past, all the way to New America or someplace else that only snowed two months of the year.

Aspen reaches the highway minutes before the Jacobs arrive with their bus, its enormous plow cutting through the drifting white.

Aspen was named for the tree, which is to say that he was named for hope. There’s a colony of aspen growing near his home. Time was it stretched for miles and miles around. Aspen, the survivor. Burn it down and it just grows back stronger. But ever since the Change it’s been getting smaller, year after year, a yard at a time. It’s not used to things being so cold, and while its shared roots are safe from fire, the freeze that seeps into the soil can still kill it. So it sends its root deeper, hoping.

The market is busy but not as busy as a year ago. People pack into the small gymnasium and try to pretend they don’t notice who’s missing. And this week there’s something to distract them. This week there’s a new family there.

Immediately Aspen can tell they’re from the south. The south, where everyone who hasn’t died here seems to be heading, like they’re all just rolling downhill towards the warmth. Only there’s already so many people there. He’s heard the stories. Crowding, starving, murder. Wars. A government that controls everything, that decides who goes hungry and who eats. No one seems to care about the frozen wastes that only thaw out for maybe a month a year. Aspen’s fathers had thought that meant safety. But now they were gone, Derek vanished and Mark wasted away and burned and spread to the winds.

The new people stand out, though. Their skin is darker, for one, a sort of tan color that Aspen doesn’t recognize from any of the old magazines he has tucked away in his room. Maybe Hispanic, maybe Asian, probably some mix of a great many things and Aspen’s never seen much but pale white so he doesn’t feel a good judge, feels it would be wrong to ask. They’re wearing heavy coats even inside where most people strip down to shirt and pants, another giveaway.

There are five of them, a mother and father and three children, the oldest of which looks to be Aspen’s age. Aspen swallows. Children are rare here. Most of the time when someone has a kid it’s their ticket further south. Too difficult to raise children up here; too dangerous. So aside from Aspen, there’s only Lilly Jacobs who isn’t yet seven and Hadley Andersen, who’s twelve. Aspen, at seventeen, is too old to relate to them, too young to be allowed out drinking with the adults.

Aspen approaches, sees that they have a number of tools spread out on the table in front of them. Knives and picks and axes, shining bright. Quality things. Whoever they are, they’ve come prepared.

“See something you like?” The voice is a melody, bright, a warm sun through greenhouse glass. Aspen looks up to see the kid his age looking at him. He opens his mouth, and he wonders if the entire gym can hear his beating heart through the opening.

“I’m Aspen,” he says, and the face regarding him smiles. He can’t tell if they’re male or female. The face is round, soft, full of humor. Short hair, long eye lashes. Aspen wonders what kind of world the south is to make such faces, and why anyone would come north from there.

“Like the tree,” the person says, and laughs. Aspen worries a moment, heart stopping, that he must seem a joke with his limp and his dog, a poor match to Aspen the survivor. But the laugh isn’t cruel—it’s like a bell or a chime, a musical chord let loose in the market. Aspen forces himself to relax

“I’m Bry,” they say, and extend their hand. Bryan? Brynn? Aspen doesn’t ask, accepts the name with the hand. “It’s great to finally find a nice place to rest. Yours is the first town that’s let us stop in a while.”

“I don’t—” Aspen wants to explain that he doesn’t live in town, wants to say that he lives in a big house all alone with nothing but Nara and some chickens and bees and the greenhouse and the snow devils. But he stops himself. Caution, his fathers always said. Never tell someone where you live before you trust them. Aspen looks down at the tools on the table.

“What do you need?” he asks, and Bry laughs again.

“I love that about up here,” they say, and Aspen gives them a confused look. “You never ask ‘how much?’ Just ‘what do you need?’ It’s great. Down in America D.F. it’s all about cost, control. Here it’s about need. The truth is, we’re looking to settle down. We hear there’s an empty place a bit outside town, but we’re new to this and not sure what we need.”

The knives and axes gleam in the light of the market. They look so sharp, like they could cut down a forest, and for a moment Aspen can only admire them, covet them.

“The old Vandt place,” he says, and Bry nods. The Vandts left for the south only a year ago, had taken what they thought would be useful and left the rest. “You’ll need to repair the greenhouse, first.” A windstorm had shattered a window just before the Vandts decided to move. Luckily they had covered it so the cold didn’t fully reclaim the garden, but it had never been properly replaced.

“I know where to get a pane, if you’re interested,” Aspen says. He has a few spares, but it doesn’t do to go saying that. He looks at the blades on the table again. “I’d even help install it, if you think I could have one of those axes.”

Bry smiles, green eyes like gems, and Aspen blushes. Beside him, Nara whines.

That night, back in his own bed, in his own house, Aspen dreams.

Dreaming isn’t new to Aspen, but this dream is. Normally he dreams about his fathers. Mark cooking, or Derek teaching him to shoot. Mark getting sicker and sicker. Fevers, because Aspen is terrified of fevers, like the one that killed Mark, like the one that put him in braces when he was twelve. Or Derek lost in the snow, calling for help, eyes frozen shut from the tears. And Aspen watching from behind glass, from inside the greenhouse, unable to go out to him, protected from the wind and snow but not from the pain.

This dream, however, is full of sun and warmth. He’s sitting at the edge of a lake, soft sand beneath him. He’s clothed in shorts and a tee shirt. Outside. A jolt of fear moves through him at that but it fades. It’s safe. And beside him is Bry, smiling face and gleaming eyes. They’re still wearing the bulky coat and then they’re pressing against Aspen, their lips crushed against his.

Aspen has never kissed anyone before. It’s heat and it’s birds calling in the distance. They sound strange, but maybe they’re the summer birds he’s read about in his magazines. Migratory birds that stopped migrating after the Change. Maybe, but then Bry is touching the waist of his pants and tugging and Aspen’s breath catches and he tries to swallow but his mouth and throat are suddenly dry.

A hand finds Aspen’s zipper, and with deft movements Aspen feels—

Aspen wakes with a start, his body tense and flushed, twitching as he ejaculates into his pants. He gasps, then pushes the sheets off him, not wanting to have to clean them. Nara whines from the foot of the bed and he tells her to stay. He slides his feet onto the floor, body still roiling with feeling. The air is like a cold hand on his body as he gets up and slides out of his pants, limps with them down to the kitchen where he scrapes out what he can into the compost bin before it absorbs into the fabric. Don’t waste, his fathers had always said.

After that he wipes himself down as best he can and quickly washes his pants, leaving them hanging in the kitchen to dry. He returns to his room and slips on new pants and gets under the covers. Nara shifts and looks at him, blue eyes distinct in the darkness, the only light the glare of the moon off the snow outside the window. Aspen does his best to get back to sleep, both wanting and dreading a return to that dream.

Instead he sees his fathers. Derek is swinging an axe, felling tree after tree. They are all aspens. Mark’s ashes swirl in the heart of a snow devil. Come away, he calls. Come away.

The greenhouse is large and Aspen checks the seams every morning and every night. Any breach can go from bad to worse very quickly. He checks the crops as well. Beans and peppers and carrots and onions and cabbage. Staples, because you never know when the market might disappear. Market is for specialty. Aspen’s is apples and honey. There are six trees in the greenhouse, which is tricky because the roots go deep and so the foundation of the greenhouse has to be deep as well. The hive is easier to maintain, though he’s never liked it. When he was little the sound scared him. Now he mostly stays clear of it except to bring in the honey.

He harvests what needs harvesting and waters and lets Nara play near the chicken pen. Everything is secure. He checks his braces, making sure the connects are sound, well oiled. It grounds him, this small act, steadies his mind like the braces steady his body, keep him from tumbling. Next is suiting up and going to check his firewood. He needs to cut more but waits, knows that in a few days he might have a better axe and doesn’t want to push himself more than he has to. Instead he goes in and prepares a simple meal. Eggs and onions and cabbage and a slice of hard bread he got at market. He feeds Nara a mix of venison and chicken liver.

Without anything else pressing, he leaves Nara behind and heads for the aspens. Worry nags at him, spurred by his dream. He’s afraid that he will arrive to find them all cut, destroyed.

It’s a mile to where the colony begins and it’s getting farther away each year. But it’s all wooded and fairly safe. Aspen wears his pistol and carries his rifle, just in case he spots an elk or bear or rabbit. He checks his snares on the way, finds one rabbit dead, already frozen in the trap. Meat’s still good, though.

Despite his fears, the aspen are much the same when he finds them, trunks stretching up through the snow. He places a gloved hand on one of them, imagines that he can feel down into the roots, to the colony’s core. He wonders how old it is, how many hundreds or thousands of years it’s spread and retracted. Until now, when the march of progress is in full reverse. Small clumps of moss cling in to the bark, some of the only year-round plants left. Aspen forgets what they’re called. They’re not for eating.

Aspen reaches out and brushes one of the small, pale green runners of the moss, is surprised when it bursts in a cloud of spores. Like a green mist it floats a moment, indecisive before the wind takes it in a gust, up and away, away. He watches it, the last hope of this plant that has lost so much. He wonders what the odds are that those spores will find another colony of aspen, another place to flourish. And in that moment he feels something rise in him like a wind.

The sound of an engine pulls him back to reality. Not a car. Not the Jacobs’ bus. Small, sounds gas powered. But this far north that’s wrong. Gas hasn’t been used in a long time. Homemade bio-diesel is the closest they get, and even that is hard to make. But whatever it is Aspen knows that it must be coming for him. For his home.

The trees rush by as he stumbles as fast as he can, lungs screaming pain as they suck cold air through the mask, braces squeaking slightly as they strain. Aspen aches from the pace but he pushes himself faster, faster. His mind is buzzing with curses. With Nara inside there is no one to protect what they have. Aspen has grown too complacent, too careless, dreaming about things when he should be concentrating on survival.

The noise of the engine rises up over the trees and he knows it’s close, bursts through the trees to the clearing around his house to see it slide into view. A snowmobile. One driver, one passenger clinging to the back. Neither of them very big. They kill the engine in front of the house, between Aspen and the door. Fear streaks fast and hot through him and he wants to jump back into cover, to lose himself and forget the house. If this is a break-in then it’s too late anyway to save it. He remembers the rifle on his shoulder.

Reflex takes over. The rifle strap slides from his shoulder as he draws it up. He sights. The riders are both wearing helmets, bubbles that remove identity. It will make shooting them easier, not having to see their faces when he does it. They step off the snowmobile and Aspen clicks the safety off. Then he sees them stand. Neither of them are big, but the passenger is tiny. A child. And the bigger one . . .Aspen swallows, then secures the safety back on, lowers the rifle.

“Hello,” the larger of the two calls toward the house, and Aspen walks toward them. The smaller one sees him first, points him out, and the larger figure waves.

“Aspen!” They call. Bry’s voice. Bright, amused. Like this is all a game. Aspen waves back.

The smaller one is Rin, a girl, and Aspen leaves her to play with Nara and the chickens in the greenhouse while he and Bry go into the kitchen. Aspen quickly hides the pants that have dried and puts the kettle on the stove and goes to the cupboards for the tea tin. Not real tea, of course, but an herbal blend that Mark knew how to make using various plants and sweetened with dried apples.

“This place is wonderful,” Bry says, and puts down a long bundle on the table. An axe. Aspen places a hand near it and then moves away without touching it. Something about his dream still worries him, but he accepts it all the same.

“Where did you get the gas?” Aspen asks, and Bry shrugs, eyes fixed on a bowl of apples near the pantry. “You can have one if you want.”

Bry hesitates a moment and looks at Aspen with those deep, green eyes. Aspen looks away, blushing, feeling his body respond and cursing that he hadn’t left his coat on, something to hide his own reactions. Instead he turns back to the kettle and is rewarded with the crisp sound of Bry biting into an apple.

“It’s been so long since I’ve had one,” Bry says. “Down south they try to grow oranges and citrus but it’s crap since the Change. Grapes grow, but they don’t have many apple trees.”

“Did you have wine?” Aspen asks. He makes mead, especially apple mead, but he’s heard stories of wine, the tang and tannins, the rich color. The grapes that grow this far north, though, even in the greenhouses, don’t turn out so well. Something about the soil.

“Only in church,” Bry says, then looks away, face darkening. Aspen wants to ask but can’t. He’s heard the government in the south is run through the churches, observance mandatory. His mouth opens and all he hears is a howling from the wind outside. He swallows.

“Do you want to see something?” Aspen asks, and that brightens Bry’s face. They nod.

He takes Bry up to his room, hopes they can’t smell what happened last night, or any of the other nights Aspen had done as much on purpose, fully awake. There was little else to do other than stare at the magazines. Aspen pulls them out, shiny covers sparkling in the daylight from the window. He wants a prop, something to distract from him, from his legs that Bry hasn’t asked about. The ink is faded on the covers and the pages yellowed around the edges. Inside everything is fresh, like peeling back the Change. Inside the past is shown in vivid color.

Mostly they’re nature magazines. Home and Garden and Outdoor Sportsman and things like that. They had been Derek’s and now they are Aspen’s. He found them in a box in the attic. Piles of them. Filled with pictures of animals, birds, fish. Things that used to be native around here, or other places. He likes the birds the best. The colors. He imagines the songs he never heard. Bry laughs when they see them and takes one and starts flipping through it.

“This is great,” they say. Aspen searches their face for some sign of a lie, for some malice or guile, but finds none. “These things were real?”

“I thought they still existed down south,” Aspen says. At least there it isn’t winter nearly all year. At least there it should still be normal. But Bry shakes their head.

“Not much besides people,” they said. “And some cows, some goats, some pigs. Nothing wild. It’s . . .it’s all city there. Hardly anything but streets and those patrolling the streets. Hardly anything . . .”

It’s not what he imagined he’d hear. It’s supposed to be better down south. Supposed to be warm and green. Safer than here. Aspen looks down at a picture of an oriole. Bry drops the magazine they were looking at on the floor, picks up another. Aspen can’t keep from looking up, stealing glances. Bry lounges, still bundled in their coat. Aspen can feel his hands shake, remembering his dream, remembering how Bry had felt in his dream, mouth like summer. He swallows, wets his lips.

“How did you know where I live?” Aspen asks. Bry stops scanning the pages.

“We asked around,” they say, “got the general direction.” They push a hand into their pocket and pull out a small device. Aspen’s eyes go wide. He’s seen ads for them in the magazines. It’s a phone.

“And all the old navigation maps are still accurate. Well, most of them.” Bry shrugs and thrusts it back into their coat. Then they spring off the bed and laugh and move to the doorway where they pause, hand outstretched back toward Aspen. Aspen doesn’t know what’s happening but he takes that hand and gets to his feet.

Immediately Bry pulls him sharply forward, and without his balance Aspen stumbles, legs locking and braces holding his weight, hands landing heavily on either side of Bry. Aspen freezes, or tries to freeze but everything inside him is burning, burning at the look in those green eyes and he thinks he might lose himself again and make a mess in his pants and he’s shaking all over, his hands trembling on the wood around Bry’s head. And Bry is smiling, chin thrust forward, mouth so close to his. Come away, those lips seem to say, come away.

A scream from downstairs breaks the silence, the stillness. It’s Rin and their moment is pushed aside as they rush to her. She’s been stung by a bee. Bry soothes her and Aspen gives her a slice of apple with some honey on it and she quiets. Aspen can’t keep from looking at Bry, but those green eyes give nothing away. Bry and Rin leave on their snowmobile, though Aspen makes plans for Bry to return the next day to pick up the window.

The snowmobile makes slow progress away and Aspen watches it go until he can’t see it anymore, until it’s just a noise over the trees. Aspen goes into the kitchen and is alone with the axe. He unwraps it, examines it. It’s so smooth, except for a part of the haft that has been filed a bit, like something was removed. Aspen remembers his dream and covers the axe again and tries to get back to work.

The next day he waits. He waits and he tries to remember the nearness of Bry’s face to his own and he gets himself off twice just thinking about that. He needs to calm down but he can’t. Bry is late. Morning passes and Aspen tries to get his work done. But something about it seems different. There is no comfort in the routine, in the endless cycle. Bry has swept in like the storm that is rolling in outside and nothing is recognizable. It seems empty, lacking, an open wound, which in the cold is deadly.

The old Vandt place is two miles from him. One out to the highway and one more toward town. It isn’t pulled back from the road, just sits there for all to see. Part of the reason the Vandts wanted to leave. Too dangerous.

Aspen packs his sled with the window and his emergency supplies. Tent, materials to start a fire, water, shovel. Everything gets packed and then fitted to Nara, who is restless, agitated that their regular routine is broken. But she doesn’t complain once they get moving. Aspen takes them into the growing winds, under the darkening sky, toward the highway, toward the Vandts’. It’s not far, only a couple of miles. Easy.

The wind howls over the trees, and by the time they reach the field a hollow lives in Aspen’s stomach. A lack, like there’s a hole pulling at him from the inside. He should turn back. Already he sees two snow devils reaching up into the air. He swallows. Time was, he would have turned back. He wonders if it was the same for Derek. It doesn’t matter. He starts walking.

The wind pushes, pulls, has a mind of its own out here. Aspen doesn’t recognize his fathers, doesn’t see their faces when the snow devils lurk and loom. He pushes on, Nara at his side. He makes the highway and turns right and keeps walking. The road looks almost clear. Even with the wind he can tell that something has been through, and not the Jacobs’ bus. Aspen hurries, the wind erasing his footprints even as he’s making them, like he’s walking on air, like he’s flying.

As he nears he sees the smoke whipping up into the still darkening sky, black on grey. He walks faster and if running were determined by will he’d be sprinting, pushing himself as hard as he can, heedless of Nara’s barking warnings. Perhaps she wants to keep him from the house, from what danger might lurk there. Perhaps she just doesn’t trust the smell in the air, but she follows all the same. And Aspen keeps going.

He’s burning by the time he reaches the remains of the house, braces cutting painfully into his skin. He hopes he isn’t bleeding but he refuses to think about it. His eyes scan, pick out dark shapes not yet covered in snow. Whatever happened, it was recent. The shapes are not bodies. They are not. He tells himself it over and over until he can look to confirm. They aren’t. They are large bags. Aspen picks one up. Canvas, well made. He makes out the symbol for the New American Alliance. He imagines that it’s the same symbol that had been filed off the axe in his kitchen. A reason for Bry’s family having gas, working electronics. They were running. Are running. Are gone.

Aspen can feel the wind start to swirl around him. Nara barks, and he orders her back, nearer the burning house; there’s some safety there, away from the wind. He turns.

He thinks about roots, about the aspens. Reaching down, desperate to outpace the frost which is sinking deeper and deeper. Even if the roots find purchase in the deeper soil, in the rock, it won’t save the aspens. Rot will set in, spread. The roots won’t have the strength to push up fresh shoots through the frozen earth and snow. Aspen catches movement out of the corner of his eyes, sees the beginning of a snow devil racing toward him. Nara barks louder but stays in the safety of the fire’s heat.

Aspen remembers his dream, the press of Bry’s lips, that distance between them so small and shrinking. He wonders if Bry is even still alive. If so he hopes they make it far away. Maybe if they go north enough they’ll find a place. Maybe up there it’s already thawed and waiting for new people. Maybe. But here is only cold and lonely and Aspen finds himself so tired, weary, like suddenly Nara is a thousand miles away and all he can do is stand and watch the snow devil come.

The winds pull tighter and Aspen can feel the devil forming around him. He’s in the center. Behind him the house burns. The smoke rises up like the pyre Aspen made for Mark, like he had never made for Derek. His fathers. Some say that snow devils are just the spirits of the dead returning. Aspen waits. He can’t go back to that house, to the endless stretch of winter cold and emptiness. But neither can he give in to the pain, to the seductive finality the snow devil offers. Aspen steps back, braces resisting a moment but he pushes through, joins Nara by the house.

All around him the wind is rising, rising, tugging at him, urging him up. Come away, the face in the snow says, and in that moment it is Derek, is Mark, is Bry. Come away.

But Aspen keeps himself still, feels Nara nuzzle his gloved hand. He’s leaving. There’s nothing for him here, no hope, no future. Only survival, and suddenly that isn’t enough. He’ll go north, and maybe somehow he’ll find an end to winter up there, will punch right on through to the other side. He’s tired of hiding, of letting fear and loneliness rule him. Maybe he’ll even meet back up with Bry some day, in some place they’re both moving toward. Maybe not. Either way, Aspen is leaving.

The snow devil lasts a minute longer, then fades away, leaving Aspen with a long walk back home so he can properly pack. It’s the way of hope, he knows. Either put down roots or try to fly. He takes the first step, brace squeaking like a whisper. He tries.

• • •