I retraced my footsteps of a few moments ago to the doorway of the living room. I sucked in my breath in a gasp as I saw Jared. In the minute it had taken me to walk to the door, hesitate and come back, he had deteriorated rapidly. His skin was sallow, somehow tinged both blue and yellow at the same time, clinging to his cheekbones as if it couldn't bear to let go. His tired eyes looked bruised, and his bloodless lips were open and unmoving. Even from here, I could hear the agonized rattle of breath. It frightened me, and I knew in that moment that I didn't have a choice.
I hurried from the house and locked the door behind me, turning to face the dazzling day. I was blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the smooth blanket of snow that shrouded everything. Squinting, I made my way into the fields, meandering across the crunching white ground with little sense of purpose but a feeling of great determination. Jared needed me, it was as simple as that, and despite the fact that I barely knew him I had felt some kind of connection with him that made me want to do anything I could to save him. I reached the spot where, I was fairly sure, I had rescued him from a slow and painfully cold death. To my surprise, it appeared to be marked by a rose that had sprung against all rationality from the hard frozen ground.
I dropped to my knees, the material of my jeans protected by the wader boots I had salvaged from the garden shed. The rose had no thorns, and was a vibrant yellow shade. I remembered the words Jared had whispered in my ear, the clue; ''Follow the roses.'' This had to be a sign. Even as I rose to my feet again a swirling breeze crept up and whipped my hair across my eyes. However I could still see the rose bowing gracefully in the wind, the flower bobbing in the direction of the village.
Summoning my resolve, I gripped the straps of my backpack and set off towards the village. In my pocket I felt for the vial, drawing it out for something to look at as I walked. Funny - I hadn't noticed the little light close to the top rim before. It was lit up, flashing yellow. Was this a sign that I was doing something right? Heading in the right direction? I clasped the vial in my gloved fist, thinking.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Half an hour later I arrived. Of course, the streets were deserted; all windows were closed or covered over, curtains drawn to trap what little heat there was inside. A robin twittered from above, perched on a gable, as I passed. I hadn't visited the village for some weeks. It looked like something from a fairy tale; dark brown bricks peeping from frosted white snow - iced gingerbread houses. And with the ever-falling snowflakes, it looked like something you might find trapped inside a snowglobe. Certainly my world felt like it had been shaken up.
I progressed towards the main square of the village, crunching the inch of snow that layered the cobbles under my feet. I stopped when I saw the stone fountain that marked the centre of the square; three tiers topped by a bird spreading its wings in flight, spouting the water from its beak to cascade down its back. Well, it should be; the minus temperatures had frozen the water to ice so the stone was coated with a silvery sheen. More importantly than that, I could see something glinting, that had been floating in the water before it was frozen into the ice. Coins, tossed by hpeful children? No... it looked like flower petals.
I uncurled my fingers from around the vial that I was still holding. The light was permanent now, an unblinking fixture. It made me feel as if I was supposed to be here. I noticed that the bird's beak was open for the water to spurt out, but the frozen stream was so fragile that it had shattered. The gap was round, and just the right size for the vial to fit... without thinking, without realising I was even doing it, I slid the vial into place.
The bird seemed to flap its wings, making me gasp and stumble back, but I realised it was like a ghost of the bird had just unfolded itself from the stone body; it flew like wisps of smoke into the air above the fountain and then kept swirling, soldifiying gradually into what looked like the form of a woman.
Momentarily I was distracted from this by the flakes of snow flurrying past my face; or rather, the lack thereof. I tilted my face to the clouded heavens - snow was still falling, but slowly, erratically, less frequently. Was this never-ending winter drawing to its close at long last?