I watched mesmerized as frost formed slowly on my fingers. The cold ate away at me and my bones felt frozen and brittle. The icy wind burned away at me, but if anything I had never felt more warm and safe in my entire life. Even as my knees shook and my toes sunk in the snow, I had never felt more at home. I closed my eyes and let the snow consume me.
When I was younger, I had always preferred the cold. It was comforting and numbing. My house had always felt hot, as if it was a furnace. Even in the dead of winter when we lost power, it was suffocatingly hot. I had always preferred to sit outside on the steps, my bare feet on the freezing concrete, testing how long I could hold it this time.
My father was the source of the heat. He radiated it. A fiery anger coursed through him. I never talked to my father, and he only yelled at me. I was a nuisance, a mistake, a psycho. I was nothing like him. Even though his words where loud, I never really heard him. My mother had told me it was the whiskey that set him on fire. However, I knew that all the whiskey did was fuel him. My father was never a nice man, and he had set himself on fire.
My mother told me that I was like her. She even made me shave my head like hers. My father called us freaks and monsters, my mother called us unique. I blame her more than my father. I could dodge a kick and ignore his heated words, but she was a broken shard of glass that lodged itself in me. I don’t think I will ever be able to get it all out. I hope I never end up like her.
There was only one place for me to hide. It was cool and dark and it was mine. I could hear my father yelling, but the darkness kept me safe. The gravel under the house would scrape my arms and legs, but I kept crawling, trying to go deeper into the recesses. That was my space, in the darkness, anything could be true. I would squeeze my eyes shut and pretend to be far away, deep in a cave somewhere, the drip of water and the squeak of bats as my only companions. I imagined I was anywhere but home.
Sometimes when the yelling was loud enough to be heard even deep under the house, in my secret cave, I took to the woods behind our house. It was a sparse cluster of trees, but if I climbed a special tree high enough, I couldn’t be seen from the house. That is where I kept my treasure. A decrepit birdhouse balanced precariously on a branch and inside, wrapped in a cloth, was my doll. The face was faded, and the original clothes where long gone, but her hair had been meticulously brushed and kept clean. I had also made her a dress, of sorts, from an old tee shirt I had outgrown. She was my pride and joy. She was my best friend, and my only friend.
Sometimes she was a fairy who could grant one wish, sometimes we were runaways or Indians, but mostly she was someone to talk to. I told that doll everything, and while I talked I would practise braiding her hair. She was a good listener. I told her what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be, and she listened. She was the only one I told of my plan, but she didn’t see it executed.
The day I decided to leave, a heavy fog settled and a monotonous rain sputtered down. I took my doll, and my raincoat, ready to leave. I made it down the street, when I heard a child crying and ducked behind a trash can. I still picture that child, but she never saw me. She sat on the curb, her face bleeding and her arms and legs covered in bruises and cuts. Her pale blue dress was stained with dried blood and mud. Her hair was dripping wet. She couldn’t have been more that seven.
Indistinct yelling from one of the homes made her jump to her feet, turning her back to me in search of the voice. She stood there long enough for me place my doll nearby her on the pavement and return to my hiding spot. I didn’t want to part with her, but that little girl needed her. I shoved my hands in my pockets, fidgeting with the lighter I had stolen from my mother. I was going to miss my doll and only companion, but the girl and my doll both had on the same color dress. Besides, I didn’t need her anymore. I was getting out. That is all I can let myself remember, that was the day of my first and last smile. That is the day I have done nothing but try to forget since it happened.
I opened my eyes, not wanting to drift too far into the past. I shivered, but not from the cold. As my hand shook, the frost turned to freezing droplets and fell to ground. I could feel the heat rise inside me, as I struggled to keep it down. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the falling snow sizzled when it hit my skin, steam rising off me. I grabbed at handfuls of snow trying to bury myself with the comforting numbness, but it all melted away. I could hear my parents calling out to me, my father screaming that I was nothing like him, and my mother singing sweetly. Instinctively I reached for my mother, hating myself even as she held me close. In her sing song mantra, she cooed softly, “Just like me, just unique. Can’t have a fire without a spark. Just a little spark.” She gripped my arms like iron, “You’re just like him, just unique. Just a little spark, just a little spark.” Her voice turned into a stranged shriek, “How could you, how could you?”
The smell of ashes suffocating, a heat pressed down on my chest. I could feel a needle in my arm and my body relaxed. The cold darkness swallowed me up again. I stood on a snowy mountain, watching as frost climbed up my arms and wind whipped against me. Even in that bitter cold, I had never felt more at home.