The Snow Queen- Jack Sheehan

In the year of our Lord Twenty Hundred and Ten, the city froze over. A whiteout squall choked the roads and split the capital into a thousand villages. In a tall tower, in apartment 82.5.2, lived young Fi. From distant Mayo, she had been sent to the capital to study at Queen Elizabeth’s College. Her parents used to call her their princess, as did a boy from her school, for a few months. This night in December she was alone. Her companions had returned to their families for the weekend. Fi was beginning to wish she had done the same. She sat, in a plastic chair, by the window, watching the falling snow settle on the courtyard below. Ten towers snaked around the open space, their windows lit and dark at random. Hundreds of people, all seventeen and eighteen years old, lived here. Week by week they tried on different versions of themselves.

She had neglected to buy provisions for the week, and the fridge contained nothing but her companion’s eggs, each one carefully signed with black marker. She had to content herself with a cup of tea and a box of cream crackers her mother had insisted she take for emergencies. Her eyes focussed and unfocussed on the windows of the tower opposite. Strings of fairy lights stretched across the top pane like still candles, and Fi felt a loneliness she didn’t fully acknowledge. But just then she saw, below the lights, people, waving and smiling. There were three girls and a boy, tall and gangly, with bright blond hair and a grey jumper with a vaguely Aztec design. He held a handwritten sign saying ‘Want 2 come over??’ Fi smiled, hopped from her seat and gave a thumbs up. The boy in the jumper smiled back and flipped the sign. On the back it read ‘Do u have drink?’

Fi held up one finger and ran to the kitchen counter, knocking the chair to the laminate floor with an artificial bang. She pulled open the top drawer, above the cooker, and searched behind a packet of lasagne sheets and a jar of red sauce. From the very back she retrieved an enormous plastic bottle of vodka. Brandishing her prize at the window brought near-audible hoots of triumph. The boy in the wool began clapping, his hands held high in standing ovation. The girls danced together to unheard music, doing complicated behind-the-back high-five movements. The boy scribbled with a pen, and Fi could barely read ‘Apartment 86.5.2!!!

She held up five fingers, and ran into her room. She opened up her wardrobe and flung aside bright hoodies. Fi often worried that she dressed too young. The fashion at Queen Elizabeth’s College was confusing and intimidating. The girls from the city seemed so much more confident, like they attended private lessons that she had missed.

She chose, then discarded, a jumper with chunky knitted reindeer, a pair of yellow jeans, a t-shirt with ‘Mondo 4 Ents’ printed across it, four different cardigans in various neutrals, two pairs of ankle boots and a beanie with a bobble. When she stepped into her bathroom she was dressed all in black. She did this when she was nervous.

‘You’re blond,’ she said to herself in the mirror. ‘Real blond. And you’re quite tall. And you’re wearing all black. You’re fine.’ She fastened her huge wool coat and stepped out into the corridor. There were no sounds from the other rooms. She took the stairs two at a time down, and then one at a time back up, to retrieve the forgotten vodka. When she got outside she was sweating, and her face froze. As she rushed across the ice, she heard the shouts and thwacks of a nearby snowball fight. She felt a burning elation that surprised her, and she held her bare head high into the storm. Flakes of snow blew in her eyes and nose. She sneezed, laughing and coughing.

As the door of the apartment opened, she felt a slight stab. What if it had all been a joke? But the look on the face of the boy in the jumper eased her. Inside were people, more people than she had thought. So many names, too many to remember. She settled on descriptions for most of them. Kind looking girl with the braces and the Breton. Short brown-haired girl with the posh accent. The kitchen was her own, mirrored. An L of counter space stretched around one corner. At the other side of the room was an enormous window with views in three directions. The furniture and fixings were in dull colours, hard to break, easy to clean. Cups of beer and vodka lay scattered about like shipwrecked sailors. At the cooker, a ginger boy in a tank top and shorts was making rounds of pancakes and dispensing them on paper plates. From the next room she could hear a group of girls singing along to music.

A group were seated at the kitchen table. Two were in passionate disagreement. The princess asked the girl with the braces about it. She said that they were playing werewolf, and that the wolf had just won.

‘Who was the wolf?’ she said, though she didn’t know the game. The girl pointed to a boy in a denim shirt, with brown curly hair and a smirk. She had met wolves before, at school back in Mayo. This one didn’t look like a wolf. He looked more like a prince. The grey eyes, the pointed chin, the veiled nobility. One of the difficult ones, who doesn’t want to be king. Fi walked over to him, but was intercepted by the brunette. Her name was Caoileann, and she had a lot to say. She really liked Fi’s top, and wished that she could pull off all black. ‘I’m just too short,’ Caoileann explained. ‘You need a certain height, or you look depressed.’

Fi nodded through all of this. She was sandwiched between the counter and Caoileann. Over her shoulder she could see the prince talking to a friend. She thought she could see a glimmer of a nod in her direction, whispers, and then laughter. Someone had connected their laptop to a speaker and was playing music videos. The connection kept dropping, so the music was intermittent. Caoileann asked Fi about herself. She bit her lower lip, and Fi unconsciously copied her. She would have liked to tell Caoileann that she was still scared. That she hadn’t made too many friends yet, and that everyone but her seemed calmer and cooler and older. That she was worried she was in the wrong course. Maybe she didn’t want to tell Caoileann this, but she wanted to tell someone. Instead, she told her about Mayo. Caoileann didn’t seem to have ventured outside the Pale recently, and descriptions of far-flung Ballina and Headford delighted her like the tales of Marco Polo.

‘Hey, Vodka Girl!’ said a voice. It was the prince, holding a melted pink plastic spatula as a sceptre of office. ‘Come get a pancake before they’re all gone-zos.’ The princess put a hand on Caoileann’s shoulder and excused herself. She saw a tiny sadness in the girl’s face as she followed him across the kitchen.

‘Vodka girl?’ said Fi.

‘It’s a night for nicknames, I feel. Anyway, I was bravely rescuing you.’

‘From Caoileann? She’s lovely.’

‘You would have been there for literally seven hours. You’d have starved to death where you stood.’

‘Dramatic.’ He flipped a pancake onto a disposable plate and she shovelled chocolate spread all over it. As she ate she quickly regretted the decision. There didn’t seem to be anything to wipe her mouth on, and the prince kept watching her.

‘Can you not do that?’ she asked.

‘Do what?’

‘Stare at me while I’m eating.’

‘Sorry, I’m just trying to place you. Computer Science?’

‘Nope.’

‘Speech and Language Therapy?’

‘Wrong again.’

‘Human Genetics.’

‘Philosophy and Politics,’ she said.

‘Huh. Usually country people are in…’

‘Science?’

‘Well, yeah,’ he said.

‘We do learn the other things outside of Dublin, y’know? You don’t have to go to private school to do an arts degree.’

‘No it’s just…okay, point taken.’ The prince looked chastised. They wandered together back to the window, without speaking. Outside, the great tempest had become a soft fall. The ground was a carpet of yellow-white powder under the streetlamps.

‘Pretty,’ said the prince.

‘Unless you need to go somewhere.’

‘Ah, but that’s the beauty of it. I love stuff like this, you get snowed in, and you can’t do anything, even if you want to. The whole place shuts down and no one is running around bothering you anymore.’

‘Lots of people bothering you as a first year arts student?’

‘Well, like, no I guess. But there’s always something. Like people want to have lunch and there’s lectures and…’

‘It sounds like you have a very stressful life,’ said Fi, taking a gulp of vodka mixed with a twenty-nine cent bottle of lemonade.

The prince stared at her again. ‘I like you. No one here calls me on my bullshit.’ Fi hadn’t meant to, but there was just so much about him that suggested the potential for improvement. Her life so far had suggested that maybe broken men were there to be fixed.

The boy in the Aztec jumper appeared at her shoulder and ushered them both to the table for a drinking game. The rules were complex, contradictory. It involved cards, plastic cups, accents, mixed pots of alcohol, and so much shouting. By the time half an hour had passed Fi was drunker than she had intended. The prince had spent the time mumbling jokes, the names of participants, their tiny facts into her ear. She could feel him try to bring her in, and it gave her bolts of embarrassing joy. He had the perfect teeth and closed mouth smile of someone who has recently lost their braces and hasn’t updated their muscle memory.

In the bathroom she pointed at herself and shook her hair. As she emerged she saw him walking towards the front door of the apartment with a cigarette between his lips. He swung on a green parka with a fake fur hood and said, ‘Fancy a smoke?’ Outside, the cold was just about tolerable, wrapped up in wool. He handed her a cigarette and she lit it excellently, she thought, for someone with no idea what she was doing. Smoking is sexy, she thought. Dumb too, but sexy.

‘Do you want to go for a walk?’ he said.

‘Ehh, I dunno. That guy in there said you were a wolf. Might not be a great idea.’

‘Me? Simple villager, I swear. Humble lumberjack. I pays my taxes and dances at midsummer.’

‘I dunno if you have the ruggedness to be a lumberjack.’

‘I’m hurt.’

‘Ok lemme make it up to you.’ She linked his arm, surprising herself.

Him, too. He smiled, and led her out of the block, to a road now invisible. Under their feet the snow compressed like packing foam, rubbing together with staccato cracks. He moved quickly, almost pulling her.

‘Steady on,’ said Fi.

‘No time to tarry. By nightfall these hills will be swarming with orcs.’

She laughed and said, ‘Did you do that just to make that joke?’

‘I’m also cold.’

‘Fair.’

The street was empty, lined with old growth trees and old money houses, red brick, turreted. The kind that look just right with hanging splinters of ice and a thick snow thatch. These are places for the minor nobility. At the end of the road was a tram station, the tracks snowed over and the cars anchored at a terminus miles from here. They walked along the lines, to a bridge over a river. Below them the sides of the water were iced over. Through the static they could see a smokestack on a hill and a dark and unmoving watermill.

‘It has been winter for too long now. The Sun God demands a sacrifice to bring the spring,’ he said.

‘You are a weirdo.’

‘Play along, Vodka Girl.’

‘I am not Vodka Girl.’

‘No! You are a comely maiden of the town. The Sun God requires we sacrifice to the river a fair virgin’s…shoes. Ow.’ She had punched him on the arm.

‘I could be the town harlot for all you know.’

‘Eh, good enough. C’mon let’s get those shoes off you.’

‘You can fuck right off.’

‘You’re no fun.’

‘Neither’s frostbite,’ said Fi. He stuck his tongue out at her. They walked down to a snowy patch of grass. The powder here was untouched, thick, like a piece of handmade paper. He immediately fell on his back and spread his arms and legs. ‘Snow angels! C’mon!’ he said. She folded her arms.

‘Angels. Virgins. Maidens. Anything you want to tell us, Mister Wolf?’ He pushed himself up and grabbed her hands, getting to his feet. He shook himself, dislodging snow all around.

‘No wolf, I swear. Humble lumberjack, remember?’

‘No, no, not that either. You’re a…’ she knelt and picked up a handful of snow, placing it on his head like a crown. ‘…prince of the kingdom.’ She made the sign of the cross on his forehead, her red, numb fingers brushing his soft, frozen hair.

‘And you’re a princess?’

‘Something like that.’

‘I think we’re aiming too low here. I could be King and you could be—’

‘The Snow Queen?’ she said. He kissed her then, suddenly, and they held together for a few seconds. They looked each other in the eye slightly, and then kissed again. He pulled away, a solemn expression on his face.

‘What’s wrong?’ she said, a note of distress sounding.

‘Well if you’re the Snow Queen, and I remember correctly, the first kiss makes me numb to the cold.’ He shook his hands to demonstrate. ‘The second makes me forget about everything but you.’ She blushed slightly, impossible to see under the windburn.

‘But the third one kills you,’ he said.

She pushed him to the ground and covered his face in kisses and snow like she was trying to drown him.

Back at the apartment the party was now new couples and groups singing. ‘See?’ he said, ‘Sometimes a total shutdown is a good thing.’ He had his fingers intertwined with hers, like they were frozen together. She grabbed the remnants of the huge vodka bottle from the counter and led him out, down, up to her apartment, without saying much. She was drunk. Successfully drunk. She had tried so many times and usually it ended in sickness or sleep or sadness. On the floor of her room they made a pile of blankets and pillows next to the radiator. The alcohol hid the sharp sparks as the life came back to their dry hands, to their forgotten feet. They drank more of the vodka, sitting side-by-side against the bed. And the things she wanted to tell someone, she told him, there.

Later, what she remembered most clearly was not when they had sex. It was the part after. The long half sleeps. Murmurs, mumbles, phrases that didn’t link, soft gestures and warmth.

At perhaps six he said again, ‘No, the third kiss is the one that kills me.’

So she kissed his eyes and said, ‘Look, I’m melting the snow that blew in.’ They both laughed, though neither knew exactly what it meant.

The morning was fine, she had thought. He was missing some of the arrogance of the previous night, but perhaps that was a good thing. They drank tea and water. He kissed her again, and was gone.

She had thought perhaps they might go out. That they might get a drink some time. That maybe she would bump into him on a night out. But none of this happened. She never saw him again. A girl in her class, Rose, told her that he was still around, somewhere. For a while she looked out for him around the college. Once, she thought she saw him, across the street at another Christmas.

She was never sure of anything about that night. Sometimes she thought she shouldn’t have slept with him so quickly, or that she should at least have taken his number. That maybe he wasn’t a prince, or even a lumberjack. That maybe he was the wolf after all. She remembered that in the story, the Snow Queen was the villain. She thought maybe she should have thrown her shoes into the river, and let him carry her. She wondered if the third kiss really did kill him, if a piece of ice got in his eyes or in his heart.

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