Winter Dream

She had not owned a black dress, so she had been obliged to cobble together a decent outfit for the occasion. The dark turtleneck had long sleeves that enveloped her hands until only her fingers poked out. However, the skirt was too short for winter, and she pulled her legs close in their thin black tights.

He had lost her easily in the crowded funeral home, and it was only by chance that he caught sight of her blond hair while daydreaming by the window. Jacket in one hand, he went down the back steps and perched on the landscaping stones beside her.

"Mary." He dropped the coat on her head. "I realize it's too stuffy in there, but it's also freezing out here."

She wiped a sleeve across her face, sniffling, then pulled the jacket tight around her shoulders. "Sorry, Julian. I didn't mean to stay out here this long, but…" She offered a wan smile, face flushed with nearly-dried tears.

"It's okay. Funerals are hard; no one will blame you." He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at his hands. "You really miss her."

Her shivers were lessening. Mary meditatively traced a finger along the toe of her black dress-shoe. Scuff marks littered the dark surface, and the material was worn from her nervous habit of rubbing her right toes against the pavement. But they were comfortable, much warmer than her other shoes that she used for parties.

"That's not it," she confessed. "I only saw my great-aunt sometimes at holidays. I didn't really know her. I hate the sound of it, to say that it doesn't feel like much of a loss. That her death doesn't affect me."

Mary closed her eyes, burying her chin in the coat's collar. "But even if I don't miss her, I keep thinking. What if one day I do want to see her? What if one day I suddenly realize how much we're missing, and then I suddenly remember she isn't there? What if I'm being selfish not to regret now? And even if she wasn't in my life much, I still feel abandoned, like she's leaving me behind."

She was sniffling again, and Julian suddenly felt grateful that his mother had shoved a packet of tissues into his coat pocket before he left. Leaning against his shoulder, Mary murmured, "I guess there isn't any reason for me to cry, either. But everyone else is so sad, and I feel like if I don't, it's just another way I'll be left behind."

"I'm not going anywhere without you," he reassured softly, stroking her hair. It was still mussed from when he had tossed the jacket on her head; she had been too distressed to worry about smoothing it down.

Mary continued to rub at her tears with her damp sleeve, so Julian caught her hands and gave her a tissue instead. Winter had only begun that day, and if felt fairly mild with the lack of wind, so the late December weather was not miserable for sitting outside. She might not want to return indoors until the end of the visitation, and he hoped her parents would not mind.

Evergreen bushes filled the landscaping, but they could not disguise the bare branches and piles of dead leaves. Two incongruent opposites, like the comfort of a home atmosphere and the bereavement of a funeral.

Mary balled the tissue tightly in her fist, then sprang onto the sidewalk. Her back was towards him so Julian could not read her expression, but she was swaying on her feet like she wanted to move but was not quite sure how.

"What would you say if I told you I wanted to hibernate?"

Julian hoped she would be receptive to humor as he offered, "You mean, you want to spend all of autumn getting fat, and then have beauty sleep all winter to get skinny again?"

She laughed, the sound a little awkward from her stuffy nose, but she seemed to be alright. Bouncing on her toes, she resembled a little bird impatient to soar into the crisp winter sky.

"It's just that we're sending her off on the longest night of the year, and I can't help but think how lonely that is. I'm sure she would much rather be at home, wrapped up in a warm blanket, sleeping and waiting for Christmas. And it made me think of hibernation."

"I see," Julian nodded. "But that still doesn't tell me why you want to, though."

She spread her arms wide as if the gesture explained everything. "Just look. All the leaves have fallen, all the trees are asleep, and all the flowers have curled up. So many animals are curling up in their dens. Everything is leaving us, following Mother Nature back to the earth and sleeping." Mary scuffed her right foot rhythmically against the concrete. She continued in a softer voice, "We're being left behind. It's cold, and it's lonely."

"And you want to go with them."

"Yes." Her voice took on a wistful note as she turned to look at Julian over her shoulder. "I just want all of us to be together, to be peaceful, for a little while. Sharing warmth, sharing the same dream. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world only of dreams, if only for a few fleeting moments of winter?"

She stared up at the grey sky, exhaling on the exposed tips of her fingers, red with cold.

Julian took her hands between his own. "It sounds lovely. Your great-aunt would agree, if she heard you. So remember it for that day."

She smiled through the tears that gathered again—not grief, but longing and hope. Hand in hand, they returned to the wake.