They were everywhere. Great swaths of pink, stretched across the far end of the football field. A sea of violet in front of Nasa’s Diner. Golden spheres of sunlight-yellow dotted in the grassy nooks of the Wallmart parking lot. They were the most beautiful flowers anyone had ever seen.
It seemed like just yesterday Oakenville was coated with a film of protective ice that would never melt. Would never go away. Like some overzealous packaging worker in the sky sealed the entire town in frost to keep the spring from getting out. But the sealant had cracked, and spring had burst out in full and violent bloom.
And it was everywhere.
Steve had never appreciated flowers before. Afterall, he was a guy. He had his dignity. But now as he walked to school with his buddies he couldn’t stop staring at them. He stood in front of a patch of marigolds for nearly three full minutes. The vibrancy of their petals sucked him right in. In the back of his mind he was worried the other guys would call him out. But they had all been doing it, too.
Everyone in town thought the winter would last forever. No one said anything, of course. But they all knew. They had wanted it to last forever. Steve remembered it. Like someone else’s dream. Like being in a video game he was forced to play and couldn’t turn off. That desperate longing for a single point of warmth. The feel of beauty and serenity and safety whenever he looked at the snow. The strange way pain no longer seemed to bother him.
Only it had. It hurt just as much as ever when he tried to climb the tree in front of his house and fell and banged his shin on his dad’s car bumper. The bone struck frozen metal and reverberated in spasms of agony though his body. But somehow he just didn’t care. Like someone had a finger in his brain, pinching the neurons that let him feel any way about anything.
The day he opened his eyes in the morning and saw the first bud on the tree outside, the same moment the pain in his shin exploded anew through his nervous system, was the most glorious moment of his life. It was over. The slow freezing of the town of Okenville, inside and out, had ended. It was time to thaw. It was time to heal. He ran out into the street to see people staring at dripping icicles and blades of grass poking through dirty piles of melting snow. He kept waiting for someone to shout out with joy. To scream “it’s over! We’re free!”
But no one did.
That was almost two months ago. Spring exploded into Okenville with the ferocity of astarved tiger let loose into a room made of steaks that had insulted its mama. The sense that the craziness that had gripped the town was gone with the frost was everywhere. It was in the air, and no one could breath in without feeling it flow through their bloodstream.
But no one talked about it. No one talked about the cases of frostbite that had come about when suddenly the citizens of Oakenville forgot that wearing their clothing in layers is a prudent measure when the average temperature is 14 below. No one talked about the pillar of fire seen over Fallsdale woods. No one talked about Bagel and the other kids who had been found in the woods, looking like that. No one talked about Kristen Selka.
No one talked about Ed.
They almost did. He saw it, in the halted words. The look in people’s eyes. He had tried to bring it up himself half a dozen times. To his parents. Or his friends.
“Hey, I wonder what happened to Ed? Remember ol’ Ed? He was on the football team? Our good friend, Ed?”
Every time he was so sure that this time he’d be able to get the words out. Until he opened his mouth. Then he’d be gripped by a feeling. A certainty. That he shouldn’t talk about it. That he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Because these events, these memories, they weren’t his. They didn’t belong to him.
And that soon, very soon, now, something was coming for them.
So he would close his mouth and go about his business. The feeling would haunt him for the rest of the day. He would fixate on it. Obsess over it. What was coming? How did he know that? Why did he keep seeing
a black figure, whenever he closed his eyes?
But then he would go sleep, and the next day the feeling wasn’t so strong. It was crazy, wasn’t it? Something coming to steal his memories. The more he thought about it, the sillier it seemed. He had imagined it. Made it up to justify being such a wimp about not being willing to talk about it. He’d tell himself that over and over, until he believed it. It was a lot more likely than
any other explanation. A day after that he would decided that he was going to talk to someone. He had to get it out of his head. He had to get some god damned closure. It was eating him alive keeping all of this inside of him. Yes. He would talk about it. So he would find someone, confident that this time he’d be able to get the words out.
Until he opened his mouth.
As he stared at the marigolds on this utterly glorious spring day, it occurred to him that it was about time for the cycle to start again. Just about that time. But it wouldn’t. Not this time. Because today was the day.
“Steve, you coming?” said Ryan as Steve tried to get his head around this realization. “Or are you going to, you know, stare all day?”
“I need another minute,” said Steve. “You guys go ahead.”
Ryan nodded. “Alright. We’ll see you at school.”
Steve waved at him and the others, and continued to stare at the marigolds. He stayed right where he was as the voices of the guys faded into the distance.
Slowly, so slowly he barely noticed, Steve realized how important it was for him to keep his eyes fixed on these flowers. He had to keep his eyes fixed so firmly that he couldn’t see anything else. That he couldn’t hear anything else. That he couldn’t imagine anything else in the universe except the rich orange and yellow of the petals in front of him.
Because if he did that, then maybe he wouldn’t have to turn around. Maybe he wouldn’t have to face the thing that, right now, was getting closer. The thing that grew closer as Steve took one floral-scented breath after another. The thing that was getting nearer all the time. The thing that was right behind him.
“You have something that does not belong to you.”
Steve tried to scream. But he couldn’t move. The voice was scratchy and desperate, like a scream. And beautiful, like the song a rainbow would sing just before it faded.
Steve clenched his teeth, and slowly turned around.
The thing stared him in the eyes. It was a shade of black that made him realize he’d never seen black before. It was covered in feathers the way a bonfire is covered in pain. It perched on top of a Volkswagen. Its talons dug into the metal, but Steve knew they wouldn’t leave a mark.
“You have something that does not belong to you,” it said again.
It’s time, Steve realized. It was here to take his memories. It was time. Time to let all of this go. Time for the tumor of understanding to be excised from his exposed, pulsating brain. Everything would be normal, then. Normal and plain and only the tiniest part of him would know that willing frostbite and endless winter and fire-creatures lived a fraction of an inch to the left of where he was allowed to look. Was he terrified? Was he weak with relief? Did he want to laugh? Did he want to scream?
He didn’t know. But it didn’t matter. This was going to happen. It was far, far beyond his ability to stop it.
“I know,” he said.
The creature’s beak-mouth-thing twitched. As if it wanted to smile.
“Then I will begin,” it replied.
It was right in front of him, now. He hadn’t seen it move, but that didn’t change the face that the talon extended towards it. It would cut through his flesh and his mind and his soul. It would reach into the deepest part of him and scrape out what it wanted, and then he would be damaged and healed and harrowed.
Then it stopped.
Steve blinked. The talon was an inch from his eyeball, and it wasn’t moving. No, it was wriggling. As if fighting for movement.
“What is this?” said the creature.
“Step off,” said a voice. Low and calm and cold. “This one is not yours.”
“He is mine,” said the creature. “They are all mine.”
“No!” said the cold voice, more forcefully. “You and yours are forbidden from doing your work here. This town belongs to me. It is protected.”
“Mine!” the creature screeched.
Then it screamed as it flew black through the air and crashed into the Volkswagen. A figure stepped out from Steve’s left and glided towards the creature. It was the shape of a person, only carved out of quartz. It wore a cloak with a hood that Steve at first thought was covered in writhing, multicolored insects. He realized with a jolt that they were words. Moving, living words.
The figure smashed its fist into the creature, which screeched again.
“I have need for these people,” said the figure. “They stay awake. Now begone!”
The creature squawked, then leapt into the air and vanished.
The figure turned to face Steve, and he saw its face. His jaw dropped open. He tried to speak, but his teeth felt frozen together.
“I’m sorry,” said the figure. “That would have been easier for you. For all of you. But I’m going to have to ask you to stick it out. Just a little while longer.”
“Ed?” Steve managed to say.
The figure smiled. Then he turned, took a step, and was gone.
Steve stood there for a long minute. A minute turned into five, and five minutes turned into twenty before he could make himself move. He shook his head, and then his entire body.
He had to tell someone. Anyone. He had to tell them that…that what? He didn’t know. He didn’t care. He just had to find someone and tell them. And this time, this time he was sure it would work.
He turned and started to walk towards the school. Someone was there. Someone would listen. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the marigolds that had recently taken up so much of his attention. If he wasn’t mistaken, they didn’t look as vibrant as they had before. They looked like they were starting to wilt.
Steve shrugged. No big deal, he thought. This spring had gone on long enough already.