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Whiteness spread around her. Snow crunched under the heels of her hiking boots, the kind with leather on top and rubber soles shaped like chains underneath. Her chains were worn down to minuscule ridges and she often slipped on the icy paths.
Hugging her thin cotton coat, she walked slowly along the riverbank. The river hadn’t frozen this year; a red flag shone against the thin layer of black ice, its surface dotted with dark holes. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the soccer field with its encircling track and wire fence.
Pausing a moment on the bridge to look at her warped reflection, she walked on across the field hockey fields to the vast wood. She had entered this part of the forest only once for a project freshman year - to observe nature for an hour. The weather had been pleasant that day and the squirrels and ants plentiful. She had left with a heightened sense of awareness that wore off after a few minutes at dinner.
She never tried to recapture that feeling; the rush of disappointment that followed its disappearance had not been pleasant. One other time she had gone to the woods. With Will. That day neither of them had concentrated on the world around them; they were devoted to each another. That day had imprinted itself so distinctly in her memory that she could recall every word, every sound, every smell; but mostly she thought of him, his laugh and smile, a shy smile that rarely showed its teeth, even to her.
But they had taken a different path that day. Today, she had purposely avoided the footbridge that led to the playground where big canons stood guard over the river. Late last fall she and Will had sat astride those canons and pretended to shoot them. They had spoken of war and their childhood. The skeletal red fire engine in the center of a field had offered hours of fun; competitions on the monkey bars, jumping from one platform to another. Later they had walked far into the woods, so far that she had been filled with the fear of getting lost. They had crossed a rickety bridge of two by fours that sagged with their weight and followed the path that ran along the river until they had come to a huge old fir tree. Will had tested his strength by swinging a small log against the trunk; she had proved that it was easy by doing it herself.
It all seemed so long ago, but it had been little more than a year since that merry romp through the forest.
Shadows crossed her eyes and she realized she had wandered into the forest. An icy swamp lay in front of her, its plants grown over the border of the bog, frozen and melted and frozen again by the erratic New England weather. Gazing at these gray strands that had once been alive reminded her that spring was still far off. For her, winter had started a year ago and hadn’t stopped since; the eternal grayness had not lifted even on the Fourth of July. She hadn’t been able to see the fireworks through the fog that surrounded her. Even now she felt numb, cold, although the temperature hovered around 40. Her light coat could not compensate for the chill that seeped from her insides to her fingertips.
The cold had started one day a year ago, a day in mid-February, a day much colder than this. It had started like any other day, her alarm had rung and she had run across the hall to brush her teeth. She moved quickly, nervously; she had not slept well. She had dreamed she had stood in a gray shack on a gray hill; everything was gray. Helen and Susan had entered the tiny room and said hello. They had not seen each other in years. Then an old man, hunched over and wrinkled with age, came through the creaking door. There was a yoke around his neck, and two pails of water hung down from his shoulders. The water and his eyes were the only things in the room a different color than gray; they were deep blue. Will’s eyes were that color; his were the only eyes in the world that possessed so deep and pure a shade of azure. “Eyes to get lost in," her mother had once said. And then her alarm rang.
She had gone to school, troubled by her dream. When it came time for lunch, though, she had almost forgotten the tossing and turning of the night before. Later that afternoon, she sat on the bench at her hockey game, gossiping with her manager when rumors had started. Whispers had risen over the din that filled the concrete room. Faces had turned to stare at her; Will’s friend Rick had entered through the locker door and spoken softly with the coach. The coach had come over to her and, taking her by the arm, had guided her to the spot on the floor wet with melted ice where Rick stood. Something was wrong. She could feel it.
Through the buzzing of her ears, she had heard Rick’s soft voice tell her that Will was dead; they weren’t sure how, it had probably been an accident. An accident. Oh, God. Her fault. All her fault. She should have told someone ... done something. Had he seemed that depressed? He had always been distant. Jesus, no, not an accident. No. No. Suicide. The word had made her cringe then.
As she strode along the bog, she said it softly to herself. “Suicide, suicide." It had been pills. Fifty sleeping pills and assorted others. Rick had found him on the floor, curled up in a fetal position, eyes closed, lips smiling. Smiling. Had he wanted death so much that he welcomed it with open arms?
The next days had been a blur, calls from her mother and Christina at home, nights spent on the couch in Susan’s room, never resting, always lying awake until total exhaustion had pushed her into a deep, dreamless sleep. She hated dreams now, feared them. They told too much.
The small, modern church had been crowded for the memorial service. The coffin had remained open, and the mourners had filed by for one last look. She had gone right after his younger brother. She had stood looking at his face for a long time; she couldn’t remember exactly how long it had been. No. He wanted to be donated to science, not put under the ground with the worms and maggots. He hated the dark. No, don’t close him in. Oh, God, Will, why? You should have come to me. Why? I loved you. I still love you. But you deserted me. Why? What happened to best friends?
As they closed the coffin over his angelic face, flamed with blond hair, she had wanted to scream “No! Don’t shut him in! He hates the dark! He hates being alone! It’s my fault, I let him feel alone." Instead she had gulped down her words and had allowed two warm, salty tears to run down her cheeks. See, Will. I cried for you. I never cry; you made me cry ...
Deep in thought, she looked back where she had just walked from. Behind her a bridge rose over a narrow section of the river. Ahead of her, she saw the old familiar pine. “Why?" She picked up a stick and hurled it at the thick trunk. “Why? What did I do wrong?"
He appeared at her side, carefully searching the forest floor for the perfect stick. He found one and tossed it at the tree. Their faces contorted with anger and effort as they threw their pieces of wood. Her legs gave out from exertion and she collapsed to the ground. He came over and picked her up off the carpet of pine needles and held her close. She broke out in sobs that racked her body, the first time she had cried in a while.
Nothing, he said. I promise I’ll always be here for you. Just think of me, and I’ll be there. He vanished as she wiped her wet eyes.
Glancing around, she noticed that something had changed. The sky was blue, the trees green.
Her fog, the fog that had blocked the fireworks and that had colored her entire world gray, was gone.