I can’t keep doing this.
Can’t keep walking.
Can’t keep holding her.
Soon—so soon—I will have to stop. Will sit in the snow and hold this woman I barely know, and we will freeze to death together in this awful world that isn’t even ours.
I think about my family.
Think about not ever seeing them again, and I try to process what that means as my control over the fear finally slips—
There’s a house in front of us.
Or rather, the second story of a house, because its first floor has been completely buried in snow that’s drifted all the way up to a trio of dormer windows.
Her eyes are closed.
She opens them. Barely.
“Stay with me.”
I set her down in the snow against the roof, stumble toward the middle dormer, and put my foot through the window.
When I’ve kicked out all the sharpest jags of glass, I take hold of Amanda by her arms and pull her down into a child’s bedroom—a little girl’s, by the looks of it.
A wooden dollhouse.
A Barbie flashlight on the bedside table.
I drag Amanda far enough into the room that the snow pouring through the window can’t reach her. Then I grab the Barbie flashlight and move through the doorway into an upstairs hall.
I call out, “Hello?”
The house swallows my voice, gives nothing back.
All the bedrooms on the second floor stand empty. In most of them, the furniture has been removed.
Turning on the flashlight, I head down the staircase.
The batteries are low. The bulb emits a weak beam.
Moving off the stairs, I pass the front door into what used to be a dining room. Boards have been nailed across the window frames to support the glass against the pressure of the snow, which fills the frames entirely. An ax leans on the remnants of a dining-room table that’s been chopped down into burnable pieces of kindling.
I step through a doorway that opens into a smaller room.
The tepid light beam strikes a couch.
A pair of chairs almost completely stripped of their leather.
A television mounted above a fireplace overflowing with ashes.
A box of candles.
A stack of books.
Sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows have been spread across the floor in the vicinity of the fireplace, and there are people inside them.
Two teenage boys.
A young girl.
Their faces blue and emaciated.
A framed photograph of the family at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, in a better time, rests on the woman’s chest, her blackened fingers still clutched around it.
Along the hearth, I see matchboxes, stacks of newspaper, a pile of wood shavings harvested from a cutlery block.
A second doorway out of the family room brings me into the kitchen. The refrigerator is open and barren, and the cabinets too. The countertops are covered with empty metal cans.
Whole, peeled tomatoes.
The stuff that lives in the backs of cabinets and usually just expires from neglect.
Even the condiment jars have been scraped clean—mustards, mayonnaise, jellies.
Behind the overflowing trash can, I see a frozen puddle of blood and a skeleton—small, feline—stripped to the bone.
These people didn’t freeze to death.
Firelight glows on the walls of the family room. I’m naked in a sleeping bag that’s inside of a sleeping bag that’s covered in blankets.
Amanda thaws out beside me in two sleeping bags of her own.
Our wet clothes are drying on the brick hearth, and we’re lying close enough to the fire that I can feel the warmth of it lapping at my face.
Outside, the storm rages on, the entire framework of the house creaking in the strongest gusts of wind.
Amanda’s eyes are open.
She’s been awake a little while, and we’ve already killed the two bottles of water, which are now packed with snow and standing on the hearth near the fire.
“What do you think happened to whoever lived here?” she asks.
Truth: I dragged their bodies into an office so she wouldn’t see them.
But I say, “I don’t know. Maybe they went somewhere warm?”
She smiles. “Liar. We’re not doing so hot with our spaceship.”
“I think this is what they call a steep learning curve.”
She draws in a long, deep breath, lets it out.
Says, “I’m forty-one. It wasn’t the most amazing life, but it was mine. I had a career. An apartment. A dog. Friends. TV shows I liked to watch. This guy, John, I’d seen three times. Wine.” She looks at me. “I’m never going to see any of that again, am I?”
I’m not certain how to respond.
She continues, “At least you have a destination. A world you want to get back to. I can’t return to mine, so where does that leave me?”
She stares at me.
I have no answer.
The next time I come to consciousness, the fire has reduced itself to a pile of glowing embers, and the snow near the tops of the windows is backlit and sparkling as threads of sunlight attempt to sneak through.
Even inside the house, it is inconceivably cold.
Reaching a hand out of the sleeping bag, I touch our clothes on the hearth, relieved to find them dry. I pull my hand back inside and turn toward Amanda. She has the sleeping bag pulled over her face, and I can see her breath pushing through the down in puffs of steam that have formed a structure of ice crystals on the surface of the bag.
I put on my clothes and build a new fire and hold my hands in the heat just in time to keep my fingers from going numb.
Leaving Amanda to sleep, I walk through the dining room, where the sun cutting through the snow at the top of the windows casts just enough illumination to light my way.
Up the dark staircase.
Down the hall.
Back into the girl’s room, where snow has blown in and covered most of the floor.
I climb through the window frame and squint against the painful light, the glare coming off the ice so intense that for five seconds I can’t see a thing.
The snow is waist-deep.
The sky a perfect blue.