Winter Burn by Liam Lalor

art by Michal Ico

Seven thirty in the morning. He stood, surrounded by others yawning, half-living, in the subterranean car. He kept his knees soft. Held to a yellow lacquered pole. Watched a man slouched like a knoll in his parka. There was the smell: steely oil, coffee, hairspray, tobacco. The fatuous feel of close and slowly undulating human beings.

On the platform he waded through. Sidestepped. He lifted his eyes, found familiar, sporadic heaps of clothing along the wall. Heaps, at times, leavened with bodies — prone, sagged, knobbled, jutting — presenting cups, slight boxes. A lonely row. One slab of leaning cardboard read in thick black letters: ‘THE COLD CUTS/THE COLD BURNS’.

Topside, the air struck harsh and sere. He adjusted his headphones. He walked, kicking salt, rolling murky morsels. The buildings cut out high. Glared hard and bright beneath the wintry slate. He went on, looking down. At times, looking up.

Jay was someone rather forward. Malignant. He sat like a monolith in the south copse, by the doors; and crossed the aisle just before noon.

Are you coming then?

He stared at Jay. The thrusted posture.

Tonight, Jay said.

No. I don’t think so.

Why?

Don’t enjoy it, really.

They’ve gotten better. I told you.

He nodded.

I heard.

Jay waited. He leaned in.

Come. You don’t do shit anymore.

He left the building for lunch. Down the walk, aside a bank of pines, barred from the cutting wind. There was a place he’d always gone. Greek. Peter smiled with his dark eyes at him coming through the door. He talked briefly with Peter, eating, then went back into the sour chill. Ignoring Jay, and all rises of virility, he finished somewhat early: four-thirty. The clouds had broken up. The sun was going quickly but spared some colour — a wide apricot rim. He felt his phone vibrating.

Hello.

Could you come over right now?

Sorry?

To mine. Please.

What is it?

Please come, Lewis.

Her tone was sufficient. The pavement was dry then; white,  salt-stained — he sped up where he could. He pushed his feet. Weaved. Cars crammed in the roads. The harsh air gushed over his cheeks and pricked his lungs.

She wasn’t outside. She didn’t answer the door. He called her phone then stood on the steps prodding his lip with his teeth. Compelled by hearing, he went to the corner, then around, where he saw her crouched low.


He called her. She didn’t turn.


Closer, he saw a body stretched bluntly at her knees.

Did you call an ambulance?

She was giving CPR. Straining.

On the way, she said.

Shit.

He helped: uselessly. The body was stiff; the skin milk-white. Blue. Deep lines debossed the face around the lips and eyes. He took his turn. Mostly, repeatedly, he stared.

The ambulance arrived. The police. They were relieved, questioned; the body assessed. Other people crowded in. Their faces were definitive with dullness and dread. The sirens played silently, strangely, off the shapes in the deepening gloom. Afterward, numbed to the marrow, despondent, they went inside together. He stripped off layers and followed her to the kitchen. His ears throbbed. She made tea for them and was standing there.

What are you thinking?

She shrugged. Not yet available.

Sorry, he said.

Silence, for a while. Jasmine didn’t know the woman and had found her as she was, laying there. Nobody else was around. Nobody saw, apparently. It was cold. She sensed the deadness of the body; the lack of vital volume inside. This last bit, he knew, she hadn’t said before — to the police or paramedics. Then she shut up. Stood there, her throat contracting. He looked at the formica, the pot lights, the floor.

Through a doorway into the living room they sat in silence. He pressed the veins in his hand with his thumb. He breathed deeply, thinking about the thing she was thinking about.

If you have to go, it’s fine, she said.

I don’t have to.

I mean it. Not for my sake.

I’d rather stay.

She rubbed her eyes. He watched her pressing them, her arms moving, watched her body on the sofa. Then it was still. Silent again.

It’s a thing in the city, he said. With the cold. There aren’t enough shelters.

She swallowed.

I keep imagining it.

There was nothing you could do.

I know that. I just keep seeing it.

Sure. I know.

There were bags and clothes piled on a chair against the wall. He pressed his hands together while she persisted that he should go if he had to go. But he didn’t have to go.

Do you want me to?

She stared at him.

No.

After an hour, they ate cold pasta from a mixing bowl. Jasmine went to have a shower and he sat a few minutes in the kitchen. There were notepads, letters, and magnets on the fridge. He looked at the marbled pothos streaming before the window. He got up, hearing the shower patter from the hall. He left.

The night air was piercing. Quick. Desolate. A thick pall of breath trailed from his mouth. Lights gleamed, lively, from cars and windows. When he was a few blocks away he felt the joggle of his phone. The firm quake. Without answering, cold clawing down his eyes, he turned back.

Her hair was wet. She wore sleeping clothes and emenated shower fumes. Again, he followed her into the kitchen.

Why’d you leave?

I’m sorry. I felt strange for a moment. I thought I should go.

I still feel like I’m keeping you.

You aren’t keeping me.

It used to feel just like this.

He watched her.

Why did you call me?

I don’t know, she said. Really. I couldn’t tell you why.

He stared. He shifted his shoulders.

Nevermind. I’m glad you did. I don’t want you to think that I’m not glad.

It was a dead woman, Lewis.

When you say it like that. All the same. You should know.

 They lay down on the bed, apart, barely speaking. It grew quiet. He fell asleep. When he woke he felt cold, hearing the wind and her deep breathing. He got up to turn off the light then got underneath the sheets.
It was morning. The dawn light was low and gray. Frost ebbed up the panes. She stirred slowly, and he felt her there. He closed his eyes. Noted the progress. Noted the slow build of an extempore warmth moving toward waking.

Jasmine wasn’t going to work. She wanted to see her sister, she said. Outside, the snow fell vertically. Calm. He didn’t go to work either, or home right away. He thought of the woman, her face, her rigid form. The row of shrunken bodies underground. In the street. The parks. Souls whose vigor could not safely creep beneath flesh and bone.

There was an ache in his low-back. He walked along the canal with the snow, feeling the pain with his fingers, poking in, near to the right of his spine. The water hadn’t frozen entirely. One defiant strip looked dark and silent and fathomless. It looked like a tear in the universe. He watched the snow falling onto the surface, watched the endless procession. Each flake descending like a muted word before vanishing. Dissolved. Pulled apart. Swallowed, he thought just then, by a void too pervasive to match.


Liam Lalor is a Canadian writer of fiction and poetry. Through his writing, he explores themes of extant life; all the looming and potent dimensions of the human condition. He is an avid reader, as well as a devoted lover of music and film. Favorite books include The Heart of the Heart of the Country, favorite music and films include Blake Mills and The Tree of Life. Liam is currently working on his first novella, while also finalizing a collection of poetry. 

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