People say the dead weigh less. I gaze at the faint tracks in the deep snow, everything I've numbed starting to ache once more. But it's a dull kind of ache, the kind that doesn't hurt too much and has a little bit of yearning mixed in with it.
The tracks are definitely his. I know, because I'd left his snow boots exactly where they were since he last wore them—strewn clumsily near my own pair of stilettos. The stilletos are the very pair I had worn to senior prom, some fifteen years ago. They're five-inches tall and gave me blisters like the devil but the look on his face had been worth it.
I remember his smile—the sudden curving of his lips and the crinkles at the sides of his eyes that make me feel all soft and tingly. I'd always remember it, the same way I'd always remember his hair that day. It looked ridiculous. I could tell he spent twenty minutes trying to tame that wild thing, but honestly, it was the same except now the cowlicks are clumped together with cheap gel. I'd told him so and his only response was to laugh and ask me to dance. I might have stepped on his foot once or twice with my godawful heels, but he'd been a sport—even after my blisters made me grumpier than uncle Scrooge from the old comics we used to read.
The icy breeze stings my skin as I survey the now empty space beside the stilettos. He was—and would have been—a good person.
It shouldn't have ended like this.
My fingers tighten on the door handle, the freezing steel less painful than all the feelings that are cutting me open from the inside. As my skin begins to numb from the cold, I realise that the heavy snow is starting to bury the tracks.
It's now or never.
I take one step out into the vacant whiteness and then it starts. Not again. The salty liquid brings warmth where it touches my skin but it doesn't last—wintry air blows past my face, the new cold so piercing that it stings.
It makes me feel alive. My pace quickens and I'm jogging after the tracks, hope soaring high despite the disquieting nature of what I'm doing, of what I'm believing.
A quiet voice tells me to turn back, to at least bid my son goodbye, but I dismiss it. I'm not planning to go forever. I'm going to come back.
He's left me too suddenly.
Guilt seeped through my being. How could I have forgotten him? My diligent little boy, upstairs with his homework, unaware and unsuspecting.
I stood there, trying to think, but my mind was numb. And the tracks were already so faint, I could barely see them. I needed to make a decision quickly.
I could turn back now. I could still do it – I hadn't stepped into the woods. I could sense that the turning point was there.
I clenched my fist inside my pocket. Unexpectedly, I felt something icy nudging against my fingers. I frowned, surprised, and then realised what it was. The ring. My ring.
"Would you uh…" he was sweating profusely, clearing his throat and attempting to look calm, "I mean, would you please – no, sorry – will you uh…" he stared around helplessly, and then stared at me, his eyes intense. His mouth opened, and the determination was clear in his eyes, but the ring had slipped through his sweaty fingers, dropping into my wine glass.
I repressed a smile at the memory, holding onto the ring so tightly that the gold bit into my skin. The happiness lasted only for a fleeting moment – I instantly felt a stab of pain. I missed him so badly that the feeling seemed to burn me from within.
My son would understand. He had to. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
I took a gulp of icy air, bracing myself, and strode into the woods.
The trees were bare, and their branches seemed to reach out to me, willing me to come forth in a sinister, forbidding way.
I paused, repressing a shudder, and then I continued walking. I was gaining confidence with each step I took. I was getting closer. I could feel it.
The excitement began to build up as my pace quickened. It was strange how my feelings contrasted so sharply with my bleak, bare surroundings.
I followed the tracks more eagerly, my focus now razor-sharp, and I realised how quickly they were vanishing. I broke into a desperate run.
He looked down into the wine glass, his face twitching in obvious inner turmoil before he resorted to smiling embarrassedly.
I had to see him.
The cold air ripped through my lungs painfully as I continued running.
His eyes were deep, serious.
My knees were burning with the pain of running, but I pushed myself harder.
"Will you please…"
I was too late. The last set of footprints was right in front of me.
The ring slipped from between my fingers, dropping into the snow, lost.
I felt blank, and then the waves of disappointment washed over me, one after the other, making me feel heavier and heavier. It was like someone had poured ice onto my insides.
Why had I hesitated? I could have made it. I could have seen him. I dropped my face into my hands.
I wanted to cry, but my feelings were already beyond that point.
A goodbye. Or maybe just one last glimpse. Was that too much to ask for?
I stared numbly at the last pair of footprints as they faded away for what felt like an eternity.
There was nothing more to do. You must move on.
I realised that I had said it aloud.
I sighed, looking up at the sky, where the snow had ceased falling. Feeling significantly lighter, I turned to go when I heard a grumpy voice.
"Aw, mum! You followed me here?" I turned to see my ten-year-old son looking at me with a disappointed expression. Looking too large on his small feet were the snow boots.
I stared and his expression turned uncertain as he explained, "I wanted to surprise you with my snowman…"
I stared at him for a moment, too shocked to answer, watching his expression becoming guilty, and then I smiled properly for the first time in months.
"Sure dear, I haven't seen it yet."
He looked excited as he dashed off. "Over here!"
I followed him up the slope to see a rather shapeless but adorable lump of snow standing in the middle of a small clearing, with stones pressing into it to form eyes, nose and a smile.
"I couldn't find a carrot," he said, sniffing.
I laughed and patted his back. "Doesn't matter darling, it looks wonderful to me." His eyes brightened up considerably.
"Yes." I smiled at him, "But it's getting dark and we should go back now. We can come and look at the snowman tomorrow. I think somebody hasn't done his homework." I said, in a sterner tone, and he pouted.
"Okay, okay!" he rushed to my side, and I took his hand in mine. His gloves were wet from the snow and I shook my head. Good grief, I was a terrible mother.
As we were turned to go, I saw something glinting in the snow.
"Mummy, is that your ring?"
"Why-..." he sneezed as I picked it up.
"Come on, we have to get you home quickly," I said, walking faster, worried that he was going to catch a cold. I slipped the ring into my pocket.
We walked about ten feet, reaching the place that I had met him and I froze. I knew that my son's tracks had disappeared in the snow.
But, visible all the way and together beside my own, was another, fainter set of tracks.