What Rose from the Snow
Honorable Mention, Young Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
She first walked into my life a week before Christmas, while I was working at my cheese-dog stand in an obscure European food market. The sky had emptied onto us yet another round of fresh snow, and the sky was still choked with chalky clouds.
My partner-in-crime behind the counter, Alek, was dealing with another customer, so I was idle. When I looked up from inspecting the marble floor, she turned the corner down the aisle and walked towards me, looking around warily. While every other shopper was already wearing the bright reds and greens of Christmas, she was completely covered in black from neck to toe.
I leaned forward on my elbows, watching this starkly out-of-place girl make her way towards my stand, inspecting the shelves of food from under her dark wind-curled bangs. Her eyes landed on the sign that hung above my counter, and she walked towards me. She scanned the choices, and tapped at the glass countertop as she finally looked down from the sign.
When she saw my smirk, she frowned guardedly. One of her eyes was icy blue, and the other dark green. She had an aristocratic nose and an unexpressive mouth, and her chin was shielded by the high collar of her coat.
“Can I help you, Miss?” I popped a gum bubble.
“Half of a cheese-dog, please; the beef kind.” Small, commanding voice.
“Half? You look like you could use two.”
Her frown turned from defensive to offensive, and she leaned towards me aggressively, her long hair spilling forward over her thin shoulders.
“Half,” she ground out.
I bowed my head. “Sure thing, Miss.” I felt her glare on my back when I turned to the ovens to retrieve a beef cheese-dog. I plopped it onto the board, sliced it in half, and slid one of the halves into a white paper bag.
She met my smirk with a silent glare, swapped her cash for the cheese-dog, and turned away to glide for the front doors.
I must admit that I didn’t make much progress with her for the next few days. Every day, when she skulked by for the halfova cheese-dog, beef please, I’d be leaning against the counter, watching the turn around which she usually emerged from. She would meet my grin-and-wave with a frown-and-snip, my gum-snapping with single-worded replies. Though she didn’t seem to like me much, she came by every day without fail, which got Alek, of all people, wondering.
“So,” Alek said one day when our stand was inoperative.
“That girl who’s been coming around every day. The one that wears all black.”
I looked away. “What about her?”
“She don’t seem to like you much.”
“And she still comes by every day.”
He was right.
“Why do you think that’s so?” he continued.
I was kind of annoyed now. “What’s it to you?”
“Nothing, man. Just wondering if you noticed.” He looked up at the ceiling.
“So what should I do? Ask her?”
“Nah. It won’t be right if you outright ask her. I guess if it’s something really important, she’ll tell you.”
Alek dropped the subject then, but his question rang in my head for awhile. He had a point, anyway. Why did she keep coming back if she hated me so much?
So, on the next day, when I handed her the cheese-dog, I glanced around to make sure that Alek was out of sight, before leaning forward on my elbows as she dug around in her pockets for cash. Ignoring Alek’s earlier advice, I asked her straight-on.
“So, miss, why do you come here every day?”
She stopped for a moment. “What?”
“I mean, you don’t seem to like encountering me every day.”
“Oh. Um, sorry,” she frowned, as if she really thought she did something wrong. I smiled.
“No, it’s perfectly fine with me that you come every day. In fact, I kind of enjoy it. I’m just asking.”
The cash was in her hand now. She slid it across the counter, and I toyed with one of the dollar bills as she stood there, silent, contemplating.
“I don’t know.”
I held my breath. Would she open up to me now?
She shook her head slowly, staring down at the glass counter. “I don’t know,” she repeated, slowly, quietly. She lifted her chin to glance at me, and I saw the wariness in her eyes dissolve into something even colder. Loneliness?
During lunch hour the next day, I was wondering if Miss would appear when she walked around the corner with her hood up and her usually wind-curled bangs brushed straight down. I could barely see the tops of her cheeks as she intoned her usual order. Curious, I pinched her sleeve as she took the paper bag.
“What?” she asked with a careful indifference (inspired from yesterday’s questioning?), keeping her head low.
“Something wrong? Because that whole hood-and-bangs thing—it doesn’t suit you.”
Before she could shoot something in reply, I pushed through her carefully-straightened bangs with my fingers, and caught sight of what she was hiding. My smirk disappeared.
“A black eye? Who did this to you?”
She snatched her coat sleeve from my fingers, taking a step back.
“No one you’d know.”
“Listen, if there’s anything going on at your house or something, just come down here, okay? I work full-time. Seven in the morning to ten at night.”
“There’s nothing going on at home. There’s nothing going on period. Mind your own business.”
After a three-second stare-down, I turned to walk through the gate that separated behind-the-counter from the public aisle. Before she could run off, I was brushing aside her bangs once again, examining her black eye.
“Stop!” she panicked, moving to back away. “You’re drawing attention—”
“Shush and keep still.” When she heard my almost-never-serious voice go serious, she shushed and kept still.
The skin around her icy-blue eye was a pale violet—nothing too serious, but enough to have me worried.
“Geez,” I muttered, staring at the bruise. “Did you put some ice on this? It looks like you forgot about it.”
“None of your business.”
I ignored her and brushed a finger over her bruised eyelid, and froze. She winced and tried to pull away, but I held fast and dragged her to behind-the-counter. I shouted for Alek, telling him to cover for me, and didn’t bother listening for his reply as I pulled Miss into the room where employees kept their coats.
I pushed her gently into a chair, and grabbed a paper towel to soak with water at the sink. As I washed the make-up from her eye, I said, “If you’re going to hide your wounds with cosmetics, at least do a better job of it.”
“Do I seem like someone who’s into make-up?” she bit back.
I snorted. “Touché.”
When I was done wiping away the make-up, I ran a finger over her unnaturally-warm eye, which was violently purple once the make-up was washed off. I retrieved an ice pack from the freezer and held it to the bruise, and she closed her eyes. Some of the omnipresent tension between her eyebrows disappeared, and she seemed peaceful.
She opened her eyes suddenly after a few moments. “What’s the time?”
I checked the clock over her head. “One-thirty. Why?”
She shot up from her slumped position, and stood up so suddenly that she swayed. It must have been low blood pressure. I grabbed her upper arm and pushed her back down.
Her glare was deathly. “I have to be somewhere in fifteen minutes.”
“Not ’til you tell me who did that to you,” I said firmly, pointing at her eye.
“I have somewhere to be.”
“Just tell me. Is it someone at home? A friend? Jealous boyfriend?”
She shoved by me with unexpected strength. As she lunged, her coat swung back, and something black glinted at her hip.
I nearly choked. “Wait!” I said, grabbing her jacket.
It was what I thought it was. A polished gun was lashed to the belt of her black pants. A gun. When I looked up, her black eye did nothing to assuage the haunting power of her stare.
She took advantage of my dumfounded-ness and snatched her coat from my fingers. When I realized that she was getting away from me, the door was already closing.
I rushed outside and looked around wildly, but she was nowhere to be seen.
It occurred to me that she might be some sort of criminal. That would explain her habit of dressing darkly, her violent black eye, and the gun that she walked around with. But the haunted look in her mismatched eyes didn’t match the kind of glare that I thought a criminal would shoot.
The next day, I got Alek to take over around the time when Miss usually swung by. Ignoring his raised eyebrows, I slipped out the front door in my jacket with my baseball cap pulled low, and I stood at the curb of the sidewalk, as if I were waiting for a ride.
She came. I was surprised at this, because I thought that she’d never show her face here again, with me finding out that she carried a gun and all. But she came nonetheless, and she stopped warily at the front door. Her hood was up, her bangs brushed down. She looked around, as if she expected policemen to drop down from the sky like insects.
She reached for the door handle, but when her finger brushed the metal, her hand fell away, and she lurched back to lean her shoulder against the brick wall of the market. It wasn’t until I spoke to her that she realized I was beside her.
She sprang from the wall with a cry. Her hood fell back, and her bangs were caught in a frantic dance as the wind swept by, revealing her wide, distrusting eyes.
Leaning forward, I took both of her arms in my hands. “I won’t do anything—”
Maybe I leaned in too far then, because she yanked away from my grip, and in a flash, she was dashing down the sidewalk away from me. People stumbled out of her way and watched after her with a mix of anger and confusion.
Needless to say, I ran after her, yelling. But my voice seemed to spark the Olympic sprinter in her, because she pumped her arms and legs harder, until she was a streak of darkness cutting through the snow. By the time I trailed her to the edge of the forest behind the market, she was gone into the trees, her footprints masked by the footprints of other snowy-forest trekkers.
I stood at the edge of the forest, helpless. I knew that after this episode, there was no way she’d ever come back. If I had caught her; oh, if I had caught her…
With a defeated sigh, I walked back to my stand in the market.
“What happened?” Alek asked when he saw me walk in, but upon seeing the expression on my face, he turned away quickly. I was grateful.
Night found me wandering the streets like a homeless dog after work was over. It was eleven at night, and I was dangerously sleep-deprived, but the night air was refreshing.
I was certain now that Miss was some sort of criminal. Why else would she run away from me like she had? And the combination of her black eye and gun. Yeah, that was kind of a dead give-away.
My breath made fleeting clouds in the air. I stopped to blow a single breath and watch the cloud fade into the dark. As I followed the last wisp of fragile white with my eyes, I caught sight of a figure curled against a wall deep in the shadows. The figure shook violently and whimpered. I hurried to the figure, and gaped at what I saw.
Miss was lying there, black eye and all, the fingers of her left hand wrapped tightly around her right upper arm. In the darkness, I could see unmistakable blood stains that snaked through what used to be her black coat and pooled on the sidewalk.
I squatted down.
“That you, Miss?”
The usual sharpness of her gaze was not there as she gazed at me. I took her left hand and gently pried her fingers away, and found myself staring at a gaping bullet wound.
“Miss, may I ask how you happened to get shot?” I quavered.
Her eyes swam, but she attempted to glare.
“N-None of your—argh, do you know where the nearest hospital is?” She gave up trying to sound tough and leaned her head back as a wave of fresh pain washed over her.
“As a matter of fact, I do. You keep going that way, and turn right after two blocks.”
Without another word, she pressed her bloodied left hand into the wall behind her and struggled to her feet. I watched grimly as she began to totter down in the direction I pointed. The light coming from the nearby lamps glanced off of her hair and shoulders, making her limp seem even more severe than it was.
You have to admit, she had serious willpower.
Since the hospital was really close by, I decided against calling 911. In two fast strides, I caught up with her and carefully hoisted her up in my arms. Her squawk of protest was twisted into a thick knot by her pain.
“Shush and keep still,” I said. I paused, and smiled to myself. “Sounds familiar?”
She replied with a choked groan, which set me into action. I made sure that her bullet-wounded arm was touching only the biting-cold air, and set off towards the aforementioned hospital.
Her good arm was wrapped tightly around my neck to keep from slipping off, and her expression was hidden in the crook of my neck. Though her clothes and skin were covered in grime and dirt, and though she was probably getting a fair amount of blood all over my new jacket, I was quite unruffled. Carrying a half-dead person to a hospital really does a lot in forging a bond with the person.
When I walked into the hospital and appeared at the reception counter, the receptionist stood up so quickly that her swivel chair flipped neatly onto its side. Within moments I was surrounded by nurses and doctors of all sorts. I felt Miss’s fingers dig into my collar, felt a groan swelling in her chest, and I quickly asked for a room. I was led to one of the emergency rooms on the ground floor, where I was told to set her down on the starchy bed. Her face, under the grime, was whiter than the patches of untouched snow outside.
As the doctors swarmed around her, I held her searching hand and wiped strands of sticky hair out of her pinched face. Her eyes were growing cloudy, as if she were slowly being possessed.
One of the doctors saw me, and sternly told me to leave the room. I was ushered outside, and forced to press my face against the window of her room and watch as she was swallowed up by a swarm of masked strangers.
I stayed as close to her as I could. After her operation, I was reluctantly allowed to stand by as her wound was closed with stitches. I watched as her arms, legs, face, and hair were scrubbed clean, and I watched as the rest of her wounds, mostly minor, were treated. Finally, someone asked me the crucial question.
“Do you know who she is?” The nurse asked me as she finished binding off a bandage around an ointment-smothered gash on Miss’s leg.
“Is she a stranger?”
“I met her awhile ago, but I don’t know anything about her.”
“Anything at all?”
I shook my head silently, regretfully. The nurse sensibly stopped talking.
When the nurse was gone, a doctor walked in and quickly examined her bandages. He nodded at me vaguely as he blinked at his clipboard. When he left, I was finally allowed to content myself with staring at her face. It was still as white as snow, and still tense with discomfort. But as she lay there, quiet and still, she looked as if she were only having a vague nightmare.
And then her lips moved.
“They’re gone now?”
I nearly fell out of my chair. “You were awake this whole time!?”
I thought of how her face remained perfectly still as the bullet was dug out of her arm, as the stitches were yanked tight; all without anesthetics, for heaven’s sake.
What can I say? She had willpower.
Her eyes slowly opened. “And you were here this whole time, weren’t you?”
“What time is it?”
I glanced up at the clock. “About one a.m.”
“You should go home. Do your parents know where you are?”
I was enjoying this conversation. I never heard Miss say so many words in one sentence. Plus, most of the pain that had been entwined into her voice had fallen away, and she sounded almost normal. I smiled, unable to help myself.
“They don’t know. I don’t think they really care. Why didn’t you show that you were awake?”
“You learn more when you pretend to be unconscious at a hospital. Why wouldn’t they care?”
“I don’t have parents. I live with an older sister. What did you learn?”
“That I was probably in the gang fight five blocks away. That I was probably going to get carted off to jail as soon as I was well enough to walk. No parents? We have something in common.”
I brushed a wind-curled strand of hair off of her forehead, silent. A gang fight?
She answered my unasked question.
“Yes, I am a part of a gang. Yes, I was part of the fight last night. That’s how I got this,” she said quietly, twitching her wounded arm.
“Part of a gang…”
She just gazed up at me, her mismatched eyes unfathomable.
“Do you have anyone you want me to call?” I asked.
“No. Everyone’s dead.”
“I meant other than your gang.”
“I said everyone’s dead.” Her eyes remained carefully indifferent. I nodded. And then I remembered something.
“I have a question.”
“But you might not want to answer it.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
I looked down at my hands. “Why did…why did you keep coming by every day?”
She stared at the ceiling for a moment.
“Stability, I guess. I mean, I was a criminal. Every day was completely different from the day before. Every day knocked me off my feet, and every day forced me to get back up. Going to your stand every day was like…was like…”
“Yeah. An anchor.”
She paused, and I saw a crease form between her eyebrows. From the look on her face, I could tell that she was debating whether to tell me the rest or not.
“Is there something else?” I asked gently.
“Is this the part you don’t want to say?”
She nodded, just barely. Pressing her was pointless, so I let the topic melt away into the air.
The curtains were drawn back. When I glanced at the window, I saw that it was snowing again—thick drafts of snowflakes, falling straight and steady from the infinite sky, covering everything with a fresh cover of flawless snow. I imagined an eerily-silent maze of unnamed streets five blocks away, splattered with blood and blanketed by undisturbed snow. I imagined an unearthly silence rising, and an unearthly calm settling down to meet the silence, as if in remembrance of the dead.
“Hey,” I said quietly. “It’s Christmas Day.”
She followed my gaze out the window and stared. We sat together in the silence.
Somewhere, a funeral siren began to wail.
There is no happy ending for a murderer.
I know this very well, because I now sit in a jail cell, not destined to leave until many years down the road. The white bathroom is stained black, the bed is a lice-filled sheet stretched over a handful of feathers, and the food looks like snow salt mixed with water. This is what I deserve, and I welcome it; but to say the least, it is hard to bear sometimes.
The one thing that keeps me from drowning myself in the toilet is the daily visits I get from him every day. A bit after ten at night, a guard would come and unlock my cell, and take me to the visitor’s room, where I could talk to him through a hole in the glass window. Sometimes, for the whole ten minutes, we sit in silence. Sometimes, he brings with him a flower or a pebble, to keep me from forgetting what the world was like. Always, he brings with him a spare stick of gum and an optimistic smile.
Eventually, I told him the rest of the reason why I used to visit his stand every day. I told him how my father had been slaughtered before my mother’s eyes, and how my mother made me listen to her rant about it for the rest of her short life. How I used to sleep in the tunnel of a playground. How I nearly forgot what a smile looked like, what it felt like, how it used to stretch my cheeks.
I told him how his smile reminded me. I reminded him of his willingness to watch for me when I usually came by, and how he had been so concerned for my black eye. How he made me feel like I was…I was…
“Loved?” he asked, smiling. Smiling.
There is no happy ending for a murderer. But there are people who try valiantly to make doomed endings happy, and for me, that is sufficient.
Grace Sijia Chen lives in Germantown and is a junior at Poolesville High School.