Jacob Vincent is a post graduate student from the UK who enjoys reading and writing offbeat stories.
Jess’s second visit to the mountain huddled town, and like the first she thought of snow as it was known in childhood. Then it was a fleeting presence blanketing streets, familiarity glinted between buildings deepening disorientation. Here, snow was part of the landscape untouched by summer. It laid stagnant whether under a sodden autumn sky, or glistening for miles as if scattering light as droplets of sun. But Jess only knew this region in autumn, when the sun had receded but before heavy snowfall made train journeys too laborious.
Compartment was empty as Jess knew it would be at this time, just like the last. During her first journey the moon was absent, silhouettes of trees occasionally punctuated the darkness but otherwise the frozen landscape was known only by the cold which seeped into rattling compartments. It was out tonight, bright and lonely enough to seem a hand reach away.
Snow laid bare in moonlight, luminosity so vivid against the black sky it seemed to radiate from the snow itself. Even when trees were etched across the horizon, sense of expansion deepened with every meter covered. A reminder of the stagnancy encountered by each season, all of which were exerted weakly except winter which seemed to emanate from deep within the ground.
Rose would have leaned closer to the window, nose almost touching glass. No matter how often she came here, such a scene would invoke a smile. Despite being the reason for Jess’s initial visit, Rose refused to come to mind. Jess wondered if it would be different with the second, hoping if only to alleviate the guilt.
Wind strewn snow was the only movement across the planes, but such clouds were barley wisps thinner than smoke.
During those few days of snow when they were children, Rose would be standing at the end of the corridor gazing out the window. While the house gave little protection against gnawing cold, it offered a scenic view. Jess was eager to play outside with her friends but Rose always drifted towards the trees by herself. When she got older, Jess felt sorry for her sister and accompanied her for at least the morning. In the woods, snow was not a masking presence but deepened the stillness which always greeted them.
As the train propelled deeper, Jess began to lose that point of contact as if the white outside bleached thoughts of any content. Even her first visit diminished. Then while travelling through what seemed unending darkness away from a world left behind. Jess felt drawn to the town like a moth as if drawn by instincts formed within forgotten years. Finally darkness shrieked away from a light in the horizon, a few more minutes Jess thought.
Jess had given up probing why she came. Carrying on a ritual my sister adhered to she thought. As if merely an obligation motivated her. Jess had not spent time in any town in this region nestled below mountains, in fact hadn’t spent time in a port town of any kind. But she knew this one was in a process of decay, tourism during the summer brought more business than the sea.
On the train platform, sea was a greater darkness as if hazy blackness framed by snug orange lights had spilled from it. Alone on the platform, she found it hard to imagine being among people which seemed a distant prospect.
Jess found her way to the inn without encountering a single other person. Well-lit streets revealed buildings draped in white, making the roads seem like coal black threads. Inn itself was small but warm. Jess decided her room and cupboard sized ensuite, were snug rather than miniatures.
Knowing she wouldn’t be able to sleep, Jess went back outside feeling the need to find some life outside the establishment so her place was felt beyond the sound of sea and sting of cold. It took only a few minutes to come across a bar.
It was crowded but mostly on one side where there seemed to be a party of some kind. Jess sat at the furthest end enjoying a sharp fruit drink that went further in waking her. Being on the outside of the sound, was cosy. After a few minutes, Jess noticed a woman.
The stranger had dark hair and was about Jess’s age, early to mid-twenties. At first Jess didn’t know why the stranger caught her attention, sure the woman was staring at her but she was clearly tipsy if not inebriated holding the bar to steady herself and yelling to one of her companions. Words drooled from her mouth. But her gaze seemed clear, eyes wide as if in awe. Just has an expressive deer like face Jess thought, ignoring the sense that recognition was what rendered the stranger’s composure clear. A few moments later and the stranger was gone.
To Jess’s surprise, her first night was spent in a deep sleep.
Cold woke Jess early. After showering and dressing, she took out Rose’s pictures. Her sister had been far from her thoughts and Jess constructed the day to remedy this. I will go on one of her walks, where she took this photo. Photo was of a frozen over brook, perhaps it was the light but motion seemed suggested by the sharpness of the ice. A particularly ghoulish tree leered from the edge, one that had attracted Rose.
Beside the brook Jess found the stranger. Clearly suffering from the previous night. The stranger heard Jess’s boots crunching through the snow. She seemed startled. Jess stood silently beside her, making a point of not acknowledging the stranger’s presence.
“I’m Lilia. You must be new in town.”
Lilia simultaneously shrank from Jess and engaged her, a contradiction that piqued Jess’s interest.
“Just visiting. Wanted to see the milky way.”
A simple enough reply, but one that prompted a sad smile from Lilia.
“Something I said,” Jess asked.
Lilia looked taken aback.
“No. Just a long time ago someone said the same thing. Not in this spot those,” Lilia replied.
Obliqueness of the reply irritated Jess, but didn’t diminish her interest.
“Lots of people must come here for the same reason,” Jess stated bluntly.
“Your right,” Lilia replied ashamed.
“You at Sea Bird Inn,” Lilia asked.
“Lived here long,” Jess asked.
“All my life.”
“Must be hard,” Jess stated blandly.
“I like trekking up the mountain and reading by the sea. But yes it is. Cut off from the rest of the world.”
“Life must feel as stagnant as the snow,” Jess added.
Lilia gave a probing look. Trying to judge if the city girl was mocking life out here. Clearly Lilia couldn’t get a read which annoyed her, or at least seemed to at first. As their conversation meandered, distrust decayed into disgust. But Lilia kept talking, even when Jess turned back intending to head down the trial into town.
“You here only to see the sky,” Lilia asked. Expectancy of her tone intrigued Jess further.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I.”
Suddenly, Jess saw a use for her companion.
“When we get into town, you mind taking me to Cross Path. I’m supposed to meet someone.”
“Made friends already,” Lilia asked.
“Already. How long do you think I have been here for.”
“Arrived sometime yesterday right.”
“Good guess. Last night actually. How did you know,” Jess asked.
“Would have seen you around otherwise. Small place and we only get people for the hot springs but it’s not the season for that. Well, except for the suits staying at the conference centre.”
“Cross Path is this way,” Lilia added.
Apparently the bungalow was on one of the outer streets. Soon they were walking along a cliff with the sea to their right. On the edge of the cliff, bare branches loomed. Jess couldn’t imagine leaves budding, spring must always be fragile here.
Given the yearly persistence of snow, it must seem as if the waves bellowed against the white stillness. It was hard to perceive the depth of shore waxing and waning to the rhythm of the tides. As a child no matter the weather, Jess couldn’t stand being beside the sea without feeling the waves throb against her body. Even when it rained, she would dart in to Rose’s excited squeals. As if that sound was all that was left, somehow enduring beyond Rose herself, it was the only aspect of her that surged in a tangible manner. The more Jess reached, the more spectral memories became like smeared reflections in fogged glass.
Jess realised it had been a while since she spoke. Given the strange Lilia was showing her the way, she became self-conscious.
“I have always loved the sea,” Jess stated.
A banal enough comment but it inspired a knowing smile from Lilia. Jess accepted the following silence as long as that smile remained, which did so before the rocks diminished and were replaced by trees. Lilia stopped even those there was no house in sight.
“They say a spider lives in that tree. You see the hole,” Lilia asked.
“They say a spider haunts it after a man hanged himself.”
“Did he,” Jess asked. She moved forward, Lilia reluctantly followed.
“It happened a few decades ago. Don’t know where the spider aspect came from. Maybe someone fell asleep and found one crawling across their faces,” Lilia giggled.
“Too cold to fall asleep.”
“We hardly walk around without clothes on but out summer here would be different than your summer here,” Lilia replied.
“Here we are. She is really nice,” Lilia said.
“You know Miss Lane,” Jess asked.
“Everyone does, been here since forever. Well, I will see you around. Just across the street,” Lilia said.
Lane’s bungalow was cramped partly due to tight confines but also her possessions and sprawling furniture.
“I like to be snug. Need to be snug around here. Can get pretty depressing otherwise with damp empty rooms,” Lane observed. She entered with two bowls of soup, aroma of which filled the room and made Jess suddenly hungry.
“This is delicious,” Jess said.
It was Lane who had called Jess, telling her of the accident which took Rose’s life.
“You were close to my sister,” Jess asked.
“You know how your sister was like a little deer. But she got more at ease the longer she spent here. Managed to coax her round for the soup. I’m sorry for what happened to her, she was a lovely person.”
“She was. A great sister,” Jess replied.
“What was it she did here. I know she loved the landscape, taking her pictures and waiting for the milky way to become clear.”
“There were few people she talked to, you know what she was like. Very shy. I don’t think she did much, enjoyed the baths and was always wandering around the mountains.”
“I met someone called Lilia who seemed to know Rose,” Jess said.
“I know Lilia, sweet but unfortunate girl. They were very close, inseparable in fact. I’m sure Lilia will be able to tell you more.”
“Actually Lilia never mentioned Rose.”
“How did you know.”
“Just how she was acting. Wouldn’t make sense otherwise,” Jess replied.
“Rose always said you were observant. Said you were in tune with things. From what she said it always seemed as if you were the older sister.”
“Rose felt things deeply. Perhaps why this place resonated with her so much. Maybe you wouldn’t understand, living here for so long.”
“I was born here and spent my childhood here. But I spent most of my time elsewhere. Travelled quite a bit actually.”
“Why did you come back,” Jess asked. Glad to move the conversation away from Rose.
“Long story. How about another day.”
During Jess’s initial stay in town, Lane never provided the story. Conversations were kept confined to the day they occurred.
Next day Lilia sort Jess out. It was late evening and Jess was eating at the inn. Lilia bounced along, sober but face flushed from alcohol.
“I work as a hostess and got a party tonight. Have to put myself in the mood. Don’t think I’m normally this cheery,” Lilia warned.
“I can’t stay long.” Lilia spoke as if Jess had invited her to sit down.
“I thought you worked as a waitress,” Jess observed.
“Who told you that. Right, Lane. Part time. Might have to become a hostess full time. It’s a bitch those.”
“How so,” Jess asked.
“Hard to smile at faces you won’t remember in a minute. Stuck up business men who swoop in and think they own the place. Got to give people a good time. Smiles are a valuable commodity,” Lilia giggled.
“I don’t have to worry about smiling.”
“I noticed,” Lilia replied.
Lilia ended up being late to the party, to the point that elevation offered by alcohol dimmed. This didn’t slow the flow of words even if Lilia’s voice dipped. It seemed their conversation was a reflection which reminded Lilia of how long it had been since she talked, no end point or inhibition – perhaps that was why Jess began to feel melancholic.
Lilia’s place in this town became clear, even without being addressed. Lilia talked of mountain trials and deer, jellyfish washed up on shore and seals lounging on the coast. But such images could not be removed from these streets, at least for Jess no matter how they were experienced by Lilia.
Sadness crept more tepidly than the cold but just as hungrily. Jess was pleased when Lilia left, hurrying to the party. Alcohol loosens knots so tight they are barely perceptible until undone Jess thought. This notion comforted her. Still in their previous interaction, Lilia seemed disgusted by Jess as if detecting a foul odour which was absent from an exalted expression enjoyed a moment ago. Lilia’s voice was husky, surprisingly so but the guttural tone did not diminish the easy flow of words.
Next day Lilia lead Jess down to the beach. She talked little, after effect of the party perhaps or embarrassment at her openness the previous evening. But without exerting a word, Jess felt Lilia relax.
“There is little sand here. Coast mostly rocks. Brings the trees closer those,” Lilia said.
“Couldn’t imagine being so close to the sea for so long without going in.”
“Even with swim suits, currents are too powerful.”
“I have never seen waves so big,” Jess muttered.
“This is my favourite spot,” Lilia stated.
A patch of sand surrounded by black rocks.
“Did you bring Rose here?” Jess asked.
Lilia’s surprise lasted a moment.
“I knew she would like it. So secluded, waves sound so much deeper don’t you think?”
Jess wanted to ask what this place meant to Rose. As if by proximity, Lilia would know the essence of Rose’s visits.
“At least now I know why you talked to me. Despite the faces you were pulling,” Jess said.
“What faces? Well, when I saw you I saw her. Made me want to speak to you but you were so different. Just took me aback a little is all.”
“How are we different?”
“Rose couldn’t hide how she felt. So she didn’t talk, but when she did you couldn’t shut her up,” Lilia laughed.
“You were close?”
Lilia nodded, “we were. But I like you. Can talk to you like I could her even if for different reasons. So I don’t want to talk about her, do you mind?”
“Of course not.”
Dark clouds veiled the mountain making its shadowy outline immense. Cold surged along with the wind blowing down the rocks, as if descending from the clouds themselves gaining momentum until reviving numb skin with prickling pain. Stillness of bare branches seemed eerie. With this surge of freezing motion, Jess could not abide the slow pace of their ascent. Laughing at the burst of energy, she set her sights on a single small tree further up where a dove perched.
“Your going to slip,” Lilia laughed.
But Jess almost made it to the edge before the ground gaze way, and she slid so effortlessly it was as if she could end in the sea. White sky remained still those, so Jess wasn’t sure when she stopped. But then her body wriggled against a piercing sensation forcing her to sit up. Snow had seeped through her clothes.
“Your insane,” Lilia laughed. She ran over and sat beside Jess.
“I’m freezing. Like I did take a dip in the sea.”
“Come on, bath isn’t far from here. Steady those,” Lilia warned.
Clothes stuck to Jess’s thin frame, but eventually relinquished replaced by a warm towel. Steam in the bath made cold a purely theoretical concept. But it was empty, like Lilia predicted.
Lilia sighed deeply, closing her eyes.
“Was feeling like shit this morning. But now I can’t imagine it.”
After their walk on the beach, Lilia took Jess around town pointing out banal local places but revealing some intimate detail. None of which connected directly to Lilia’s life but revealing intimacy, where marigolds were planted by Mrs Jones every year who ran the news agent, an alley ending in a stream where foxes tunnelled into town from the trees… All before deciding to scale the slope.
“Jesus, your arms are like twigs. No wonder she called you the scare crow,” Lilia laughed. Pinching Jess’s skin.
“Ow,” Jess laughed.
It wasn’t her thinness those, but stillness that intrigued Rose. Jess realised Lilia broke her rule but didn’t mention it.
“She always liked the snow. In our home town I played with the children, making snow men and having snow fights. She didn’t. But we went walking in the woods after,” Jess recalled. She felt bad, as if manipulating Lilia. She knew it was grief that had prompted Lilia’s approach, Lilia’s request not to mention Rose and would now prod her into talking.
“One of the things that opened me up to her was how much she liked the trees. The landscape. I did not always like wandering around here, as I child I did but when my mother became ill, I hated everything about this place - every leaf, rabbit, house and person. It wasn’t until I came back that I felt how I once did. But Rose’s enthusiasm made it so much more.”
Alienation came in many forms, Jess knew this but never before had she thought that some base essence could resonate between people regardless of circumstance.
Lilia rented a room in the house across the street which Jess learned was a converted attic. But insulation had been put up. Snug warmth greeted Jess during the occasional visit, Lilia never losing her self-consciousness.
“Bigger than my apartment,” Jess assured.
“You going to school?” Lilia asked. It was the first time Jess had been up there, day after the bath.
“Finish in a year.”
“What are you doing next?”
“Not sure,” Jess smiled.
Lilia nodded, “Rose was worried about that.”
A week passed without invoking Rose. Time spent with Lilia was comforting in its gentleness, even if Jess knew interactions would never exist in the present moment. But then what has she would ask during her nihilistic moments, still the question brought comfort.
“You said she liked when it snowed,” Lilia prompted.
“Not the same as here with you,” Jess replied.
Lilia was laying on the bed. Closing her eyes against the throbbing pain in her head. Eyes still closed, even as she spoke. Jess was laying on the floor covered in Lilia’s blankets smoking a joint, wearied from the afternoon walk up the mountain.
“What do you mean? What’s the difference?”
“When it snowed you couldn’t tell it was the same town. She could pretend it was somewhere else,” Jess sighed.
“And what did this place mean?” Lilia asked. Her voice slackened, bordering on sleep.
Jess didn’t respond, not wanting to reveal her hopes that Lilia would have the answer. Jess’s gaze drifted towards the window. Taped on the wooden window frame, was a picture depicting a lone woman staring out at the ocean.
That was one of the last times they were up there before Jess’s final week. When Lilia seemed to avoid her.
“Lilia not talking as much?” Lane asked.
“Not as much.”
Lane chuckled, “did the same thing with Rose every time her departure came close.”
“Been spending a lot of my time with her. But she talks little about herself,” Jess said.
“Occasionally, elusively,” Jess replied.
“Before I leave, could you show me where Rose fell through the ice?” she asked.
Lane seemed surprised but nodded.
“Don’t be too hard on Lilia. Her mother was a widow and worked hard skinning fish before falling ill. They never received much help from the town. Always alone. Her mother eventually got her into a school on the mainland. Told me not to tell Lilia about her illness but I did anyway. Lilia came back and poor Aimee resented me until the day she died.”
Wind battered against the door and the glass seemed strained, it took Jess a moment to realise that a storm stirred up the waves.
“Seems to be the kind of person to live in her own head. Rose was like that. I’m not surprised they were together. Rose had little in the city, worked as a waitress and just made ends meet. Always wanted to travel but settled for coming out here. Seems a different country.”
After speaking, Jess went to the window and looked out at the crashing waves - so high.
“Do you think she would have moved out here eventually?” Lane asked.
“Lilia only seems to have one foot in this place so I don’t know. Funny, Rose finding something here while Lilia wants to leave.”
Last time Jess entered Lilia’s attic room was at midnight. Lilia’s arm was draped over Jess’s neck and she was giggling at something, Jess wasn’t sure what. On the stairs Lilia giggled loudly.
“Be quiet,” Jess whispered. She placed a hand firmly over Lilia’s mouth who giggled under it.
“The family wont hesitate to throw you out.”
“I don’t care. Smells for hours after cooking a single meal, fuck them.”
But Lilia fell quiet with intermittent groans. Laying on the bed, Lilia brought a hand to Jess’s face and stroked her cheek tenderly. Jess was surprised until she saw Lilia’s clouded expression, fixed on another time before slipping into sleep.
Lilia was absent during the final day, making Jess feeling melancholic but making the departure easier. Frustration those framed the day. Jess wasn’t sure if there was any point to her visit, but knew Rose was the heart of it. But why or how Rose connected to this place seemed vague, even her features were faint.
Final night and Jess knew Lilia would drift by. While Lilia was the one who withdrew, Jess knew if she had peeled away she would have stayed away. But not Lilia.
“Sorry for staying away. I have been busy. Really I have, even if that wasn’t the only reason,” Lilia muttered. She had come back from the party and was tipsy, a dazed expression seemed fixed on the rain assailing the window.
“I have always liked the rain, makes me feel snug. Lone island of stability when everything outside is lost to movement.”
“Me too. Its nice to see you Lilia.”
“Sorry you didn’t get to see the milky way.”
Jess smiled, “its fine.”
Lilia laid her head against the bed frame after flopping down on the floor. Jess sat on the bed and stroked strands of hair away from Lilia’s eyes.
“I’m not an alcoholic you know,” Lila said.
“Never said you were.”
“Just because you see me like this, doesn’t mean I am one.”
“Never said you were.”
“Rose worried about my drinking. She never said I was but I felt like she thought it. That’s what I like about you, you don’t judge. Talk to Rose because she knows and I know her. But you always have the same expression, didn’t like it at first. Remote like you hide but you don’t, you don’t judge.”
“I’m not an alcoholic. If I stopped drinking I wouldn’t have withdrawal symptoms or anything. And I do stop, before the next party. Before the next smiles.”
Lilia shifted her head onto Jess’s leg, continuing to ramble while Jess kept stroking while Lilia kept talking until falling asleep.
On the platform they talked little but out of nowhere, Lilia asked something that left Jess cold.
“You coming back right?”
“Sure, maybe in summer when I finish uni.”
“I will be here.”
It wasn’t until autumn that Jess visited again, almost a year. But it seemed longer. Perhaps how different the journey was, sparkling snow contrasting to a black vacuum.
Jess took out Lilia’s letter. A few sentences asking her not to come, too busy and that it would be better in the winter. Jess sighed, wondering the cause for alienation. Was it only the postponement that could change things rendering reconnection an impossibility, or just the opposite. Jess hoped it was the former, that Lilia’s life would be remote and unrecognisable.
Despite the difference in the landscape defining the journey, Jess expected to be alone on the platform. To her surprise Lilia was waiting by the bench.
“Like a ghost train,” Lilia smiled. Jess had been the only one to get off, bare white neon light bulbs exposed their solitude against a bare black sky.
“Didn’t have to come,” Lilia observed.
“So you think I came just for you. Woow,” Jess giggled.
“Didn’t get to see the milky way. Sorry you couldn’t keep me away,” she added.
“I wasn’t trying to keep you away. Come on, I’m gonna walk you to the inn.”
“Finished with education?” Lilia asked.
“For a bit. Not sure what to do next so just focusing on making rent for the moment.”
“Rose was worried about that.”
“I was the one who always worried actually,” Jess laughed.
Lilia nodded as if acknowledging while disagreeing with the point. Jess accepted the oblique gesture with slight irritation.
Following silence brought Jess’s first night back. Alley constricted bringing the night sky low, while darkness eagerly crowded either end cloaked from streetlights. Emerging onto the street however, cast darkness aside. In only a few moments, snow had began to fall with flakes catching the moonlight casting a white haze scattered across the dark. Night sky was further now.
“Just realised this is the first time I have seen it snow here,” Jess said.
Lilia smiled, “blizzards are coming. So you will be in for it. Streets will be deserted, barley see two feet in front of you.”
“Do you think we could sprint to the baths?” Jess asked.
“Maybe if we are quick. Better hold my hand tightly those, otherwise you will be entirely lost.”
Jess laughed at the thought of the pursuit against the wind.
“At least we have a plan for tomorrow. Will have to be after I see Lane.”
“Make sure you leave nice and early. No later than midday,” Lilia warned. Pulling her scarf across half her face, hiding her nose emphasising those expressive eyes.
Jess smiled, unable to recall the last time such a sentiment was expressed. Rose never issued tender warnings, feeling in no place to do so.
“Same room. At least it’s warm. Sake?” Jess offered.
“Maybe a little,” Lilia smiled.
They sat in front of the heater and an awkward silence emerged.
“Has anything changed much for you?” Jess asked.
Lilia took a sip, “been saving. Might be my final year here.” Her voice was hopeful.
“You will need to get everything sorted those. No point drifting around,” Lilia warned.
Jess suppressed another smile.
“Snow flakes are so pretty,” Jess said. Heater burned red and Jess could feel the cosy effect of sake. She was comfortable in the silence, not wondering why Lilia tried to keep her away.
In the morning, Jess groaned awake.
“You need to get up if you want to make it to Lane,” Lilia said.
Snow was heavy last night so Lilia borrowed Jess’s blankets and settled near the heater.
“You just want to use the shower in peace,” Jess mumbled. But she got up and dressed before heading out.
Out on the street, Jess heard the window open. Looking up she saw Lilia’s head sticking out.
“Sure you don’t want me to come. Coming down pretty heavy,” Lilia yelled.
“I will be fine but we going to the baths later. Put your head back in before your nose freezes off.”
Lane greeted her as if it was only a day since they last met.
“Must be cold out there. You really wanted to get me out of the way with,” Lane laughed.
“Actually I was eager to hear that long story,” Jess replied.
Lane was fixing up the soup and looked back with surprise.
“About leaving for the city,” Jess prompted. She already decided that Lane left that strand untouched by the sparseness with which Rose was mentioned. Jess knew she did not exude intimacy.
“Nothing much to tell. Not really,” Lane replied. But Lane’s hesitancy reminded Jess of some kind of point that had existed when it was first brought up.
“Born here. Very different from Lilia. Had a big family and had a real sense of community and place. It was only after father’s infidelity, the fracturing of my family which came out of nowhere that I wanted to leave. Not because of what happened, but just everything seemed dead here. As if I had just noticed the fishing operations were closing.”
“And you did those,” Jess pointed out.
“I did, travelled far. Had a lot of fun, met lots of people but I was frustrated. As if being in a new place, severing my roots would lead to something that never came. Some kind of change that would shake down through my very being. But when my dad fell ill, I came back so easily like there was no distinction between before, when I was here and then all those intermittent years.”
“I have found peace with this those,” Lane smiled.
“Do you think it will be the same for Lilia if she left.”
“Perhaps, don’t want her investing in a future on a false premise,” Lane sighed.
“But then you said it was a different childhood for you than Lilia,” Jess pointed out. A cunning smile opened, finding Rose more intimately connected to Lilia.
“I don’t think she ever had a home. Not how you would describe one,” Jess said.
Lane considered this for a moment before shrugging.
“Rose said you were observant. Was it the same for her?” Lane asked.
“I don’t think she felt as if she belonged.”
“And you?” Lane asked.
“The differences between you. She talked as if you were her rock. How one would speak of parents,” Lane continued.
Jess shook her head sadly.
“That was what I told myself. But really I was just stoic. Made her feel inferior in how deeply she felt things so she looked up to me. Called me strong,” Jess scoffed.
“She couldn’t talk to me, I left her isolated. I only realised this when I was here. All before I told myself I was the only person who mattered to her, looked out for her and kept her afloat. All a delusion,” Jess continued.
Her voice was soulless, lacking texture or even sadness. Lane seemed disconcerted by this, unable to offer the comfort she instinctually felt the need to give.
“She was out walking in the blizzard right. That was why she didn’t see the ice. Why was she out at that time?” Jess asked.
“You know they used to come round here together. We used to eat this soup sitting right here, the three of us. Lilia drops round occasionally out of a feeling of obligation. Nice seeing her but sad. They were joined at the hip.”
“I don’t think Lilia had ever been with anyone like that. Hardships and her job killing potential for romance or intimacy of any kind. She told you how hard it is to smile. It goes beyond that if you understand?” Lane continued.
“For those three years, Rose’s visits offered so much. Your sister really helped.”
Jess nodded, but was on an adjoining line of thought.
“Don’t be hard on Lilia, it was hard enough for her.”
“Of course not,” Jess sighed.
“Hi Jess. Your taking too long, blizzard is coming in strong. We can run straight to the baths. Hi Lane. Don’t want Jess to get lost in the blizzard,” Lilia smiled.
Lane looked up startled, seeming ashamed as if having betrayed a secret. She looked at Jess almost pleadingly.
“Sure, sounds nice.”
Density of snow threatened to swallow Lilia who was almost next to her. This made Jess squeeze Lilia’s hands tighter. Lilia wanted to run further but didn’t dare, leading a strange frenetic trudge. Jess couldn’t help but imagine not walking along streets through a blizzard, but across low hills and dips at night between trees – having been steered off course, did she hear the crack of strained ice?
Bath was once again empty. Lilia was talking excitedly, picking up the same vibrancy that had existed last night. Jess pretended she was taking in the warmth and steam, but Lilia noticed.
“What did you and Lane talk about?” Lilia asked. Her voice hardened.
“A lot of things,” Jess sighed. Exhaustion was not just from the bracing weather, but a weariness going back years. Back to Rose staring out at snow, imagining a world she never revealed – I didn’t let her reveal. Left her in silence.
“Talk about me?” Lilia challenged.
Jess glanced over and saw the hurt. Hurt that I know, know Rose was worried about Lilia being drunk with those men and then making her way back to their attic room where they laid with each other above the world. That small window gazing out at the mountain, in the bed Rose’s gaze would be fixed up there. Lilia said she wouldn’t get drunk but Rose didn’t believe her. Laying alone in the dark worrying about Lilia making her way back, missing the warmth of her body – Rose had set out. That was the first reason for the hurt, but there were so many others.
“A little,” Jess replied. She swallowed and felt the same sense of paralysis that descended when she saw Rose’s far flung expression. When Rose descended deeper into the bleakness of things.
“Lane talked about how much happier you were when Rose was here.”
Lilia nodded and gulped back the most sever fear. All this time, she had never spoke of her guilt Jess thought. Jess wanted to confront her, reach in and tear out the guilt and everything else that wasn’t those warm memories. But the fragility, not now Jess decided. A decision that wilted, aren’t I’m doing exactly what I have always done?
“But I was thinking of what you did for her,” Jess said.
“Me?” Lilia asked.
“It wasn’t one way, you made Rose feel a similar way. She was never with anyone, in any way but she wanted to be. But she was with you, before you she might as well have been silent,” Jess said.
Lilia looked away and Jess knew she was crying. But Jess did not regret speaking, even if laying bare her own guilt.
Lilia buried her face into her arms. When she looked up, tear drops would be indistinguishable from sweat.
Lilia eventually sniffed loudly, after Jess placed a comforting but sweaty hand on her shoulder.
“Ready to leave?” Lilia asked.
Once again they trudged through the blizzard. Jess having no way of knowing where they were until Lilia came to a stop.
They warmed themselves by the heater. Lilia seemed as caught up in thoughts and memories as Jess, morning was so much clearer. But Jess felt no regret. Lilia’s timid but tender smiles reassured her.
“How much money do you have saved?” Jess eventually asked.
“Not enough. Not yet,” Lilia whispered.
“Rose always looked out at the snow. I think she liked not recognising that place, that town where she felt so displaced. But we were never together during a blizzard. I wonder what she would of thought, how it would have made her feel.”
Lilia nodded, “she loved the mountain and air. Said it was fresh made her healthier, expanding her lungs with every breath.”
Jess looked out the window. Blizzard so fierce not a single flake was discernible leaving only white static. Jess felt the room had floated, far from the town and across the sea.
“What about you?” Lilia asked.
“I’m not sure. Then or now,” Jess replied.
Wind howled louder and Jess realised the blizzard was gaining momentum as if they were gaining altitude.