There were plenty of reasons to love winter.
Warm fireplaces. Stews. Christmastime. In her head she listed everything pleasant about the season, yet she still pulled a handmade quilt closer around her body, like a shield that could protect her.
It rarely snowed here—Atlanta usually settled for a motionless, quiet winter, with the sort of cold that crept into her bones and was hard to shake. Before Christmas the cold seemed a necessary price for the holiday, the presents, the celebration. Now in January, still months to go till spring, the weather was hateful. It felt like an enemy bearing down on her, something not to be trusted. Something she should fight.
There were plenty of reasons to love winter, but Dalia did not.
She shivered, let one hand slink out from under the quilt to the end table—it was beaten and dented, one leg steadied with the X volume of an otherwise-missing encyclopedia set. Her fingers fumbled to pick up a penny, which she held over the candle for a moment, till it got just hot enough to burn her fingers. She leaned toward the frostbit window and pressed the penny against it for a moment, then pulled it away. It left a perfect, watery circle, like a ship’s porthole. She peered out. Was he there?
There he is—at the window on the other side of their apartment building’s courtyard, only a dozen or so feet away but separated by air and cold. A penny pressed to the glass, and then an eye with long lashes looking out. Green, bright, warm, the sort of color that made her think of grass and the sweet-scented Southern heat of August. She smiled, and through the frost she could see his face break into the same expression. He pulled back from the glass for a moment, and then the penny returned. He dragged it along the frost, creating a shape—an arrow, pointing up, an unspoken question: Can I come over?
She traced a y for yes with her penny, then leaned away from the window, buried her arms back underneath her quilt. It wouldn’t take him long to arrive—the building was shaped like a squared-off U, the bottom of the letter composed of overflowing storage lockers for each floor. It was difficult to cut through those and no fun to walk downstairs, through the courtyard, and back up six flights of stairs, so they usually took a shortcut across the roof, through the garden their parents had planted together ages ago.
He didn’t understand why, exactly, she was so reluctant to go outside this time of year, but it didn’t matter. He was willing to come to her. They played board games and he made up stories by the fire until her parents began to look between him and the clock sternly. Then he’d go home, and she’d hold her breath until she saw his face in the window, confirming he’d made it through the cold.
Or at least, that’s how it used to be.
Now they sat by the fire, a largely untouched board game between them, watching each other, smiling at each other, and recently—very recently—leaning in to kiss each other when Dalia’s mother wasn’t looking. It was terrifying and wonderful, kissing your best friend. Dalia cast a wary eye at her mother folding laundry in the kitchen. They’d have a moment, a few moments, maybe, when her mother went to put the clothes away….
Dalia smiled and shivered, and this time it wasn’t from the cold. She dropped the penny back in its place on the end table and stared at the fire, waiting for him to knock.
A moment passed.
She frowned and leaned back toward the window to see if there was another message, if he was trying to get her attention—maybe his mother wouldn’t let him come, or maybe he couldn’t find his coat… though those things rarely held him up for long. But no, he wasn’t there, and the arrow was slowly being devoured by new frost.
Dalia rose, pulled the quilt closer to her body, walked to the door anxiously, and looked out the peephole. The hallway was freshly painted, with shiny new gold knobs on all the doors. No movement, no sign of him…
“What’re you doing?” her mother asked, raising her voice to be heard over her favorite radio show.
“He said he was coming over…” Dalia started, trying to sound bored, like it was nothing.
“Of course,” her mother sighed. She liked him well enough, but he made her nervous—all boys around Dalia made her nervous, especially poor boys like him. Dalia walked into the kitchen and slumped down at the table, watching her mother’s hands grab and fold sweaters, quick and precise. Take away the fabric and her hands would be whirling about, as if she were dancing or casting spells.
The radio sputtered, and static filled the air. Dalia’s mother groaned and walked to it, popping it on the side a few times. It behaved itself for a moment, but then the static continued, growing louder, till it sounded like wind through the speaker.
It wasn’t until her mother looked up and gasped that Dalia realized the wind sound wasn’t coming from the radio—it was coming from outside. Wind streaked through the building’s courtyard, throwing trash and dead leaves into the air. The windowpanes rattled as if they might shatter, and fingers of cold inched their way across the apartment and into the kitchen, wrapping themselves around Dalia’s cheeks, neck, and ears.
“Look at that,” her mother said, walking to the window.
Snow. It was snowing.
Not the thick, fat flakes that were perhaps the only friendly-looking thing winter had to offer. Tiny flakes that whirled around like bits of ash. More and more of them until Dalia could barely see his window across the courtyard. It felt as if they were being buried, even on the sixth floor.
“Your poor father. I hope it lets up before he has to walk home,” her mother said absently, then returned to the kitchen as if this were nothing. Dalia, however, was certain her heart was stopping.
He could be on the roof, trapped in the storm. There was nowhere to hide up there, nothing but rosebushes and a rickety trellis. It’s just snow, it’s just snow, there’s no reason to be scared. Just snow, frozen rain, nothing more.
But even as she tried to calm herself, she grabbed her shoes and yanked them on. She ran for the door, tangling herself in her coat and pulling the quilt around her shoulders. Her mother called at her to stop, but Dalia was already in the hall, feet pounding up the steps. Two floors till the roof, and he’d be up there, he’d be right by the door. He’d laugh at her for her worry and step inside, and then they’d let their fingers link together as they walked back downstairs. The wind howled; was it growing stronger? It sounded like an animal, like a wild thing that would dash inside and devour her as soon as she opened the roof access door.