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"Winter’s Last Grip" - Jeffrey L. Henry

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                She trudged along the side of the road where there would normally be a sidewalk, were it anything other than winter.  Lifting one foot in front of the other through the gray slush that passed her ankles and gripped her insulated rubber boots, she pushed on.  Heading to her mind-and-body breaking job.  Lost in swirling thoughts that were forgotten as soon as contrived and, as far as any passerby was concerned, of little to no use for a working drone such as her.

                It seemed like, and in all reality, it had not stopped snowing in months.  Now in mid-February, the end of another long winter was like a pinprick of light at the end of a very long tunnel.  Today, like most days, the sky let slip large, wet snow flakes that drifted lazily to the ground.  Occasionally, the wind would suddenly gust and cause flakes still afloat to rush into her.  It seemed like every snow flake was aimed directly at her; like cold, wet moths to a flame—the only source of warmth in their icy existence.

                Nearing the base of the bridge separating her from the warm, yet unfulfilling, place she called work, she prepared herself for the treacherous walk up the slippery slope.  She knew as soon as the bridge parted ways with the earth, to hover over the ever flowing blackness below, the now occasional gusts would become a constant gale.  Soft flakes that now gently kissed her, would become like shards of glass.  She removed her ungloved hand from her too-thin jacket, still carefully clutching her last pack of cigarettes until payday.  Quickly lighting a cigarette, she clutched it between her lips—and caringly slipped her hand and the remainder of the pack back into her jacket, so that each hand could be equally frozen as she shielded the precious, bitter ember from the overpowering cold.

                She burrowed her head down and hunched her shoulders up, trying to shield herself as the wind picked up.  Reaching the apex of the bridge with little incident aside from the occasional slip, she paused to catch her breath and peek cautiously over the side.  It always gave her chills, if it’s even possible to get chills when it’s subzero at noon, to gaze down into the raging, icy waters below.  Water flowing with such viciousness that even in the dead of the harshest winter, the ice could never fully conquer this river.  She continued to survey this cold, writhing snake, her mind wandered to the innumerable lives that it had claimed, some from this very bridge, and some--- not by choice.

                Turning back to the path, she had yet to clear, she obediently continued her arduous, daily, walk to work.  Suddenly, she noticed a crack in the sky as the snow simultaneously stopped falling.  A feeble winter’s sun peeked through the clouds as if to check to see if the coast was clear.  Although the sun was weak and his warmth all but non-existent, she lifted her chin and closed her eyes to bask in his light.  Her mind ran wild as if fully alive for the first time in weeks, giddy with thoughts of spring and warmth and green.  Green!  Anything but this soiled, off-white blanket, covering –not only the Earth, but even the sky.  Could winter finally be coming to an end?

                So enraptured in her bliss, and having decided to wear earbuds beneath her earmuffs earlier that day, she didn’t hear the snow plow barreling up the bridge behind her.  Whether from being startled or from the wave of fresh slush thrown up at her, she wasn’t even sure, but she stumbled back.  Her eyes widened and then snapped shut as she slipped on a patch icier than others.  Her arms flailed out as she came crashing down with a wild panicked thud.  Had her breath not been knocked out of her, she probably would have screamed.

                She opened her eyes to find she was clutching the guard rail that separated her from the icy abyss below, with her head hanging over the water.  Her heart was thudding so fast it seemed a constant whirring, then she finally remembered to breathe for the first time in what felt like several minutes, but had been only arduous seconds.  She watched as the last half of her unfinished cigarette seemed to fall in slow-motion, trailing down into the river.

                Finally, she picked herself up, all the while cursing the Department of Public Works driver under her breath for going too fast, even though at that very moment, other drivers on the road were cursing him for going too slow.  She attempted to brush as much of the slush off herself as she could before it could melt and completely soak into her too-thin jacket and thread-bare pants.  Looking up, just in time, to see the sun disappear back behind its iron-grey curtains and the constant, drifting snow to resume the steady trek to the ground.

                As her heart slowed down to a more acceptable patter, she reached into her coat pocket for her precious cigarettes, only to find that the fall had crumpled the pack.  Daring to hold out hope, she flipped the lid of the pack up, pulled each remaining cigarette out separately, only to find each as broken and water-logged as the one before.  She tossed the crumpled pack into the river after the one she had lost and silently reciting ashes to ashes and dust to dust to herself.  Then turning back, she faced the long, cold road—once again.

                Attempting to make up for her lost time and quiet invasion of negative thoughts, she picked up a brisk pace down the bridge and began to count the days until payday, divided by the number of people that she could beg, borrow, and cash in debts from, only to equal a point-zero number not worth mentioning.  After realizing the futility of this mathematical equation, she thought back to that brief glimpse of sun and how quickly the memory was being extinguished.  At that moment she knew, as surely as a groundhog seeing his shadow, that winter had not given up its last, frozen grip on the North Country.