Originally published in Siren’s Call Magazine, Issue 50.
Rebecca pulled the front door open just enough to stick her head past the jamb, a grin plastered to her cheeks alongside the sticky remains of peaches from her lunchtime MRE.
She watched the snowflakes sprinkle down from the menacing black clouds far above. The neighborhood was devoid of life, each rowhouse stoop barren as the next, silent but for the soft rustling of flakes falling on a line of empty cars stretching down the street in either direction.
She’d never seen snow before. Real snow! She glanced behind her at the dark house; her mother was listening to the radio in the living room. The soft hiss of static and worried voices drifted through the quiet hall.
Now was her chance.
Feeling brazen, Rebecca leaned from the doorway on one pink-socked foot and stretched a hand out for the flakes to flutter down onto. It took a couple tries, but tongue against her lips in concentration, she managed to grab one, capturing it in her palm and squeezing tight.
She pulled her hand to her chest to sneak a peek, but there was nothing. No wetness; only a smudge of dirt remained where the flake had been.
With a frown, Rebecca leaned out again, a little farther than before, reaching wide to catch another. Her hand open to the sky, snow fell around her, caressing her cheeks and dusting her hair. When a flake landed against her palm like a fallen angel, she didn’t crush it, but instead peered down in confusion. Weren’t snowflakes supposed to melt? And be… cold? She poked it with a finger, but the flake—gray, not white like in the Christmas movies—disintegrated at her touch, leaving a faint pile of embers behind.
She bent down to sniff it then, tentative, and pressed the tip of her tongue against the stain. She reared back, her face scrunched up in disgust. This was snow? This was what you were supposed to play in and throw at your friends? She slapped at her lips, trying to get the bitter, acrid taste to go away, but it was slow to fade. It tasted… burnt. She stuck her arm back out the door, wiping sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her t-shirt, determined to try again. Maybe she’d just gotten a bad one?
Her mother’s voice was sharp as a pinprick against her spine, and Rebecca spun, arms tucked behind her back, shame and worry in too-wide eyes.
“Y-yes, Mama?” she asked.
Madeline’s face was stricken as she approached from the hall. She eyed the open door and her daughter’s dust-covered hair and skin, her stomach churning. She put down the heavy candelabra and crossed the room in three fast strides, yanking Rebecca away from the door and slamming it closed, locking the bolt. She didn’t even remember leaving it unlatched. How had she gotten so forgetful—especially with all the warnings on the radio lately…? She looked outside, watching the roiling clouds in the sky, then down at the entryway, where piles of gray had wafted in for them to trample on.
“Show me,” she commanded, kneeling down to eye level.
Rebecca looked to the floor, then withdrew her arms from behind her back, revealing the gray stains of ash across her palms and forearms. Madeline stared at the dark splotches and forced herself to reach over and tuck a strand of her daughter’s dirty hair behind her ear with a shaking hand. There were smudges around Rebecca’s mouth and eyes; across her nose. Dark streaks mingled among sticky flecks of peaches; an emergency ration meal they’d gotten from the National Guard a week before in an effort to enforce the curfew and keep everyone inside.
“I just wanted to see the snow up close,” she said, lower lip trembling. “But it tasted gross and it isn’t cold, and I hate it.”
Madeline forced a smile to her face as she wiped the stains from Rebecca’s hands and face with her sleeve. “I know, but I told you not to touch it, right?”
Rebecca nodded, barely managing to hold her tears at bay.
“This ‘snow’ isn’t really snow… It’s…”
Madeline’s gaze drifted to the window, trying to come up with a better lie than anything she might already have told her, but she drew a blank. The radio kept promising an end was in sight; the situation was getting better, they swore, but they’d been saying that for months now.
Madeline didn’t think she’d ever get the scent of burning hair and skin out of her nose.
“I know what will make you feel better,” she said, standing and holding out a hand for Rebecca to grab before the tears could pool in her eyes. “Let’s get you cleaned up. A nice bubble bath. And no more going outside until the snow stops—you promise?”
Rebecca looked through the glass on the door, at the sky stained black, and frowned. “But it always snows now,” she complained. “When will it be over?”
Madeline tugged her along, trying to ignore the streaks of soot on her daughter’s hands and mouth. Maybe she should tell Rebecca that even now, her own father might be out there, falling to the earth with all of the other dissenters in little pieces of ash.
Perhaps it was his remains that drifted to her from above.
Perhaps it was his remains that lay scattered across their foyer.
Perhaps it was his remains that Rebecca had… thinking it was snow…
Madeline couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought.
“I don’t know, honey,” she whispered, picking up her candelabra and guiding them up the dark stairwell to the second floor, a track of cindery footprints in their wake.
“But I hope… soon. I hope… very soon.”