The middle-aged writer began as usual, with two cups of coffee and a biscuit. It was cold when he sat down at his desk; he was wearing his grey LL Bean fleece and watching the snow flurries through the window as they buried his house.
He settled, reached for a light stack of blank paper made out of cotton. The paper was yellowed in the dim lighting, but it blossomed as it curled over the thick black ribbon; it was as stark and obvious as the snow falling outside his window. The typewriter wound, clicked, and the writer pushed the paper into the correct margins. His fingers were poised, the moment heavy with potential, and when he finally pounded the first key, he knew that this would be it, the one. Once upon a time…
… there was an Austrian shoemaker with an underbite. The young man raised his eyebrows and flipped the book cover back into view: an ALA best book of 1993, Newberry Medal. Not a simple feat. He hummed and went back to the first line, smoothing the thin page over with his hand, thinking that maybe he’d get his girlfriend to read it too. They’d been together for three months, and he figured they were at least at the point of book recommendations. And, as much as he didn’t like to admit it, he had never enjoyed reading a book alone, without someone else reading it, too. He didn’t know why; it had always been a bit of a mystery. When he was young, a child, he had hidden behind books, used their hard covers as a wall. He had even gotten his younger brother to start reading with him to make it less solitary, but that only lasted until Jay was about eleven or twelve. That was when he discovered math and left words and his family behind.
George reread the first line and subconsciously clenched his jaw, a bad habit he had developed while wearing that God-awful headgear. Even though he was in his early twenties, ten years post-headgear, he still felt the keen sting of metal against tooth, bracket against swollen gum. He hadn’t been allowed to eat popcorn during that time, and even now he couldn’t stomach it. It hadn’t been for naught; now his unfortunate underbite was but a glimmer, a ghost, ready to dissolve. The winter of 1825 was a harsh one, and the shoemaker…
… was finding it difficult to keep himself warm, something that delayed his abilities. The girl shivered and tucked her feet under her blanket, pausing to glance at the rain streaming down her windows. She liked this room and everything in it, especially the chaise she was curled into. Her face was bright with childlike warmth, contradicting the confinements of her post-graduate age. She considered the words, delaying her gaze, and swore she could feel the Austrian snow trickle down her back.
It was paralyzing, the feeling, and she shivered again at the thought. The book had been a strategic purchase, on recommendation from George, something to read to her father as he lay motionless in his hospital bed. Conscious, her father was a finnicky reader, and she didn’t want to risk upsetting his comatose mind, assuming he would hear her, of course. Next time, she thought, she would bring her mother with her during visiting hours, encourage her not to be afraid of her husband’s silence. However, the shoemaker was nothing if not versatile…
… and that was how, three days later, he met Nicholas. “What’s this book?”
“Huh? Oh, I was reading it to Dad earlier.” A soft smile in the corner of her daughter’s mouth. “He seemed to like it.”
“Would I? Like it, I mean.”
“Um, I guess so. Give it a try. I’m going to go grab lunch at the cafeteria – you want anything?”
“No, thank you. I ate before we came.” Her daughter left, taking care to close the door behind her.
The woman paused, considered the weight of the thick novel in her hand. A light frown tugged at her forehead, illuminating the worry lines and crow’s feet, the signs that gave away her age. With a sigh that seemed to designate a ‘why not?’ sort of attitude, she opened the book again and continued at the fourth sentence. Nicholas was young at that time, spending his afternoons rosy-cheeked in the snow, fighting invisible battles with the other children. When the wars were over, he was the master of snowpeople, forming bodies and limbs out of packed, freezing snow. His fingers were deft, nimble, and they never felt the cold.
The woman’s gaze broke as she turned to look at her husband, delaying the action with a kind of timidity. She feared for him, under these bright lights and scratchy blankets, the white that covered him like the winter snow. In the imagined twist of the frozen ice, she began to think of their beginning, their spark, and, suddenly, like a freak hurricane, time swept over her, and she saw her life in the blink of an eye. She saw her uninteresting childhood, perfect report cards, ideal but boring marriage, a simple house, simpler cat, and an even simpler family —
Heart thudding, she blinked furiously to try and rid herself of the images, but the emptiness refused to fade, refused to give in to the relentless hospital light, so she stared at his too-white blankets in hope of a distraction. But she couldn’t stop herself from realizing that this was her, this was her life, and it was as blank as a sheet of paper.
The day that the shoemaker and Nicholas met was a snowy one, the coldest day of the year…