Cold Front

Michael Berry

Marcus jolts awake, his breaths quaking beneath the weight of another

restless night. Again, sleep has proven to be just out of reach, a fool’s errand reasserting the obvious anomaly in his condition. Something important had gone missing. Something fundamental stolen in the night just as his dreams are now.  

Straining against the darkness, he rakes his dead eyes over his “room.” A

familiar brick cellar, barren save for a failing fireplace in the wall and the dilapidated cot—disappointingly small, even for a child—barely separating him and the freezing floor. The literally freezing floor; covered in snow with frost creeping towards him from beneath the door opposite to him. The routine starts as it inches to the center of the room. 

Three. The shadows, once pushed to the corners, swell with confidence and

march towards him in line with the ice.  

Two

The temperature drops even more, the last ember dying within the hearth

and dragging the light with it.  

One

The dark overtakes Marcus and for a brief instant there’s silence. Then the

tiny wooden door creaks open and lets something in.  

Standing in the frame is an almost sickly thin woman—a small build with

the spindly limbs to match. Her nose is long, a slight smile perched at the edge of her mouth tickling her well defined cheek bones. As usual, her features are all contoured by a pulsing violet glow in her eyes, staining the entire room. 

“Restful night, my child?” 

He grumbles then shakes his head. Though he strains, the words refuse to

force themselves free. 

“Speaking still a chore it seems . . .” Alison glides further into the room. The

ice follows in her wake, but parts for Marcus, giving him a wide berth. “Have you the capacity to stand now? Without assistance?” 

The boy doesn’t react, instead Marcus stares blankly at his breath—the

novelty of vapors dissolving into the air claiming precedent over the questioning. Alison watches, hunching lower and lower, her own breaths hanging in the air much longer. Her brilliant irises narrow into pinpoints as she goes ignored. Eventually their gazes meet and Marcus’ shoots to the floor. He works himself to his feet in slow, mechanical motions—a marionette driven by an amateur puppeteer.  

“You’ve improved much in only a few days,” she pokes at his bandaged ribs

with her claw-like nails. “Though, is sleep still confounding you?” 

He shrugs and shakes his head. A few days? It’s felt longer. While he was

slowly relearning how to be human, he’d been plagued by an odd recurring nightmare. The distant sounds and flashes are some of his earliest memories. On the first day, he awoke to the image of himself sinking into a black oblivion, devoid of heat and life. 

“The dreams concern me,” Alison says tracing ridge of his blackened eye.

“While the body rests the mind wanders, often to a place of past turmoil . . . There’s power within that wandering, and nightmares as vivid as yours, as frequent as yours, concern me.” 

It didn’t concern Marcus though, at least not while he was awake. While he

was awake, that feeling of sinking was so distant it could’ve been another person. Maybe it was another person. Maybe his mind wasn’t wandering, but rather stumbling. Fumbling around in the dark until it eventually fell right into the path of someone else. Maybe he was just a spectator, night, after night, after night. 

Alison eventually ends her examination. She looms over him and holds out

her palms, expectant. Marcus throws his hands into hers and they wrap around him, a frigid blanket. Her eyes erupt with light, further dying the room in lilac. Energy is radiating off of her like steam and her skin begins to crack, opening up for more light to spill from breaks beneath the eyes. Warmth flows into his hands and Marcus shuts his eyes. 

“Go on,” The Witch says with enthusiasm burning at the end of every word.

“Remember what you can.” 

His focus his taken to last night, the emptiness of his sleep. He finds a sound

in the trance a distant clicking, or thumping, at the back of his skull. The warmth in his hands climbs up his arms, stopping just short of the neck, plummeting into his stomach. All at once dread grips his chest and wrenches his legs from beneath him, leaving him gasping for breath as he falls back onto his shoddy cot. His entire body is a leaf in a windstorm and his now fidgeting stare again meets Alison’s soft glow. His reaction didn’t seem to surprise her, though a fresh look of pity—and possibly fear—had been carved into her face. 

“Dreams hold a certain power to them,” she starts after an unbearable pause.

“A certain weight I don’t often struggle to manipulate. Once again, I’ve looked into you and there was nothing,” She turns to exit. “I’ll have to explore new methods, pull the knowledge from you.” 

Her words send chills to snuff out whatever warmth was leftover, and

Marcus begins to strain. He drags the words, kicking and screaming, from his throat with all the effort he can muster.  

The single word is all he manages to croak. “Safe . . .?” 

“Yes. My child, you are safe here so long as you make no unnecessary

motions in my absence,” at her approach the doors open, beckoning her through. “I will begin preparations on your next meal. As usual, our next attempt awaits the evening.”  

She floats from the room, the door clicking behind her—locked. The room

briefly darkens before the hearth flame roars back to life. A steaming meal on a golden platter waits in the center of the room. He feasts on the salmon and asparagus like they were lukewarm, then leaves the bones in favor of kneeling over the dancing flame. The leftovers are long gone by the time he turns around in the evening. 

The flame dies and Alison appears again, her expression a silent command

to rise. Her hands sweep over his like a cold front, the light swells and the warmth begins to spread. Up his arms and past his neck, but then it grows. Warmth becomes pleasant heat, a lovely burning, then the sensation drives itself from once it came. Through his fingertips it pushes into Alison, who howls and breaks her hold to inspect her hands, now blackened and smoking. Marcus’ palms steam—smoke—golden cracks in the skin slowly sealing themselves as temperatures equalize.  

This time a work of anger is etched into Alison’s face. Her fury forces the

shadows in the chamber to shrink. Away from the blistering violet in her eyes.  

“We try again tomorrow!” Alison hisses as she flees the room.  

This continues for days. Marcus sits with the fire until Alison brings food

and another vain attempt to delve into his memory in search of meaning and a reason for his for his restless nights. Each failure feeds a new fire of doubt and burns a question into his skull. Was there anyone else outside the tiny room that’s become his life? Were they on their own now, waiting for him to get better and come back? Maybe they were waiting for help themselves? Every day the shadow of that missing something eclipses Marcus more and more, tugging at questions Alison couldn’t answer and things she refused to teach him.  

With every interaction, Marcus notices a shift. Alison’s pity slowly warps

into determination. In the mornings she comes looking like death. She blames this on studies that went well into the night; what he understands to be the study of old magic. He’d asked about them before, but—as far as Alison was concerned—they were nothing more than old stories, old nonsense. In the evenings determination become desperation, a silent pleading behind the glow in her eyes. Her concern is almost too personal.  

Every so often she’ll burst into the room, off schedule and with a tattered

book held close. This one bearing a method sure to ease his sleep. Though as sure as the flame dying at her approach, she’ll return to her studies soon after—completely dejected. At times Marcus wants her to stop. It’s not that important, he doesn’t need to sleep, but he never says it, afraid that one day she’ll listen and stop coming entirely.  

He'd be glad he hadn’t. 

* * *

Alison takes his hands in hers, today with an unending fervor that refuses to

subside. “We end these visions today.”  

Like each time before his eyes shut, waiting for the warmth to echo over his

skin, drift through his hands and up his arms. To find some distant fragment of the dream, then fizzle back to normalcy. 

This doesn’t happen. 

The warmth floods into his hands and up his arms, but this time it keeps

going—skipping his neck to ensure the brain is put in a vice. The ice burn clamps down hard, and the pain sends him tumbling backward into the fire.  

* * * 

Ash and embers fall away and in an instant he’s eight forevers away from

anything familiar. He feels the atrophy like the steady beat of a metronome—tick, tick, tick—a dull rhythm at the back of his head for the world to dance to as it leaves him behind. 

Tick. The acidic bile ransacking his mouth barely registers as sour

anymore.  

Tick. His vision tightens on itself, darkening to the emptiness of a single eye

held closed. 

Tick. His fingertips go numb as if the heat and blood had stopped halfway

up his hand.  

Everything seems like it’s stopping halfway now, he can’t commit to abject

terror or a dead calm, even his thoughts are stopping short. Dread is working towards his core like a rot slinking out from the damp recesses of his mind to eat him alive. He can’t run from this, he can’t remember how anymore, he can feel it all leaving his head, feel himself forgetting. His mind is rotting, and he can’t stop it.  

Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick.  

His foundations soften and warp beneath him, snapping under the weight

and giving way to crack after crack after crack in his recall. The once small faults have grown into a fissure, an emaciated sinkhole large enough to fit a lifetime—one hungry for names, faces, and places—the excess he wouldn’t need anymore. He finds himself enraptured by the expanse, his head jerking to the wild drumming of the nothing that surrounds him. There’s a silent acceptance in those final moments, comfort in the terribly malleable magnolia of his recollection.  

“It’s such a fragile framework,” someone whispers to him as the abyss

lurches at him. He's swallowed without a fight, his ankles bound by weight of a thousand hopes and wrists shackled to a thousand fears. 

* * *

His eyes snap open to searing sunbeams. Suddenly he’s outside, suddenly

he’s freezing, and now he realizes he can’t move.  

Color floods his vision. Reds, yellows, and oranges wrapped up in black

plumes swirl up into a single break in the clouds, letting the sun pound directly onto him. Soon his neck is free, and his gaze is free to find purchase elsewhere. He hits a burning forest canopy just beyond what appears to be a massive snowdrift that, until very recently, had him completely frozen. 

Tick. Tick. Tick. 

Just beyond the tree line, Alison stands with her hands clasped together, her

skin shattering in places and bleeding violet light. Nearby snow darkens, now reminiscent of frozen grape juice rather than water. Her long black hair whips wild in a sudden icy gale that carries more snow to top the pile. Marcus claws at his confines from within, struggling against the drowsy delirium of the cold. He fights until the break in the clouds closes and the sun is forced down, as the distant inferno shrinks to a smolder. 

The faint crackling lulls him to sleep. 

Cut from Fall 2022