Scores of trees lined the horizon, each one dusted with the same fine powder that obscured every distinguishing feature of the neighbouring landscape. Snow blanketed the entire street and swathed every house in sight. The windows were sealed by a steady build up from the most recent fall, glittering icicles hanging above each pane delicately frosted with intricate patterns. The road had been mostly cleared of ice. The blackened tar cut through mounds of soft earth and sparkled against the twilit sky.
Snow crunched underfoot as Jillian trudged her way through the streets of the quaint little town. She was rugged up in her warmest winter clothes and high-cut boots, her hands buried deep in the pockets of her fur-lined parka. Like an oversized woollen snake, the layers of her scarf coiled high upon her neck, reaching as far as her nose which had reddened under the exposure of the cool winds blowing against her. Jillian shuddered, but the involuntary tremble was not enough to shake the frown that had set upon her features. She lifted her hand to readjust her hat before returning it to the comforting warmth of her pockets as she continued on her way. Her every step was unrestrained as she trekked through the slippery terrain.
‘Stupid…fucking…Nicholas,’ she grumbled, unable to keep her teeth from chattering. ‘When I get my hands on you, you’re going to wish you were an only child.’
She continued to curse under her breath that was condensing in the chilly air. She normally adored this time of day—when the snowfall had settled and hints of darkness were beginning to creep in as the last light dipped behind the mountains beyond their home, turning the sky to a canvas of orange and purple. But today the painted skies did little to calm her as she remained fixed on the task at hand.
Sighing as another street turned up no sign of her misplaced brother, Jillian gripped her glove between her teeth and reached for her phone. She tapped speed dial #3. Her frown deepened when the call went straight to voicemail, just as it had the last sixteen times. She left what she counted as the eighth abusive message before hanging up. She shoved her phone into her pocket and pulled her glove back on before scanning her surroundings.
There was a clearing on the other side of the road, encircled by gentle slopes teeming with excitable children on makeshift sleds. Their laughter echoed loudly as they slid down the hills towards the frozen lake below. Those skating barely noticed them, too busy perfecting their elegant pivots and twirls with their partner. Their skates carved beautifully entwined patterns across the ice that were visible even from afar.
Too cold to admire how gorgeously picturesque her surroundings looked, Jillian left her mark in the form of heavy, frustrated footsteps down the middle of the pathway leading away from the clearing. As she rounded the corner, she heard a familiar voice calling her name. She glanced over her shoulder at the young couple walking towards her.
‘Hey,’ Jillian mumbled somewhat distractedly.
‘We’re about to go skating, want to join us?’ Tomas asked, offering her the spare set of skates he had strung over his shoulder. Jillian shook her head.
‘Can’t,’ she said simply. She looked around at the labyrinth of neighbouring streets, trying to recall where she’d already been, and sighed. ‘You guys haven’t seen Nicholas at all today, have you?’
As she spoke, she pulled out her phone. Her finger hovered above the speed dial for a few seconds before she gave up on the idea of trying him again. The couple exchanged a glance.
‘I think I saw him heading towards the border,’ Mia said.
Jillian groaned. ‘Of course, never mind that it’s forbidden. When was that?’
‘About an hour ago.’
‘You didn’t think to stop him?’ Tomas asked, looking at his girlfriend. Mia shrugged.
‘It’s not my place to tell him what to do. Besides, I didn’t think he’d actually be stupid enough to go all the way there, and who’s to say he did?’
‘He did,’ Jillian muttered. ‘He really is that stupid, and now I have to go drag his ass back before someone else finds him. I’ll see you guys later.’
Before either of them could stop her, Jillian turned on her heel and took off down the secluded road leading towards the outskirts of town. She found herself staring at the border as she walked through the frosted forest. It looked closer than ever before. Something within her stirred, and her pace quickened. Step after step, her body brought her closer to the boundary, an infinite nothing seeming to stretch out ahead of her. Her mind turned to fog as her search was momentarily lost to all the wonderous curiosity just beyond her view.
She stopped mere metres away from the border and stretched her neck back to inhale the crisp scent that lingered this far out. The air felt eerily still even as the earth appeared to curve upwards right before the sudden drop. Tiny snowflakes landed on her arms, decorating her thickly padded garments with white dapples. She blinked away the small flecks of ice as they landed on her lashes.
As the first shadow fell across town, the border fell silent. It was only for a moment before a faint fluttering sounded ahead of her. Jillian froze. With eyes wide, she stared out into the night.
Then she saw it.
Like a monster emerging from the shadows, it took flight, every membrane of its huge blue wings illuminated by the fading light of dusk. It looked every bit like the ones Jillian had seen painted on the sleepwear of children or hanging from the mobiles above every infant’s crib, spinning on translucent strings to imitate true flight. Only this one was real and much, much bigger. Its movements were graceful and slow. As it passed on by, the shadow of its gargantuan body stretched out over the earth, just about reaching town. Every clap of its wings caused a thunderous tremor that rocked Jillian to her very core. It was familiar and frightening and beautiful all at once.
Watching as it flew straight past her, Jillian dared to take a step closer before it disappeared into the darkness. As she reached her hand towards it, she felt her fingertips graze an unseen barrier. The shock of it was fleeting as the temptation of her own curiosity soon got the better of her. She slipped off her gloves and reached out again, this time allowing her whole hand to connect with the invisible force. It was smooth and cool beneath her palm, like touching a window. Mesmerized by the strange discovery, Jillian slid both her hands over the barrier, searching for the limits of its confines but finding none. Her gaze was still fixated on the colourful creature and as she stepped closer, pressing her face within centimetres of the blockade, she felt the wall shudder. A huge white crack split the barrier where she stood.
Jillian staggered back, watching as the glass-like wall splintered like a spider’s web over a watery expanse. She lost her balance and fell to her hands and knees. Her knuckles knocked against something hard as they became buried in the snow. Tentatively, Jillian brushed away some of the white earth. A scream tore from her lips.
Nicholas stared back at her, only he wasn’t quite whole. It was like looking at a strange mask, some jagged fragment from a broken toy. His face was split down his forehead and along his nose, cutting up through thin lips until his jawbone. Jillian dug at the soft ground, all the while begging for him to wake up. Her cries turned to violent shrieking as she uncovered more of him scattered around her. A pale elbow wedged in the perennial snow like a pickaxe; a third of his chest cavity, complete with his ugly brown sweater still clinging to the remains of his hollow torso. It was as if he’d been sawed right through, clothes and all. Every splinter of his body lay entangled among the shattered remains of a dozen others. They were like disturbing pieces of a puzzle just waiting to be put back together.
Her focus was pulled from her discovery when darkness fell over her. Jillian looked back at the cracked barrier. She slowly rose to her feet with her mouth hanging agape. The creature was gone, hidden somewhere behind the glaring green and black moons staring back at her. The overlapping celestials eclipsed for a few seconds before they began their orbit above the town.
The ground gave a tremble, the snow around her feet sweeping up in a sudden wind, and Jillian fell against the barrier. A spasm shot through her body upon impact. She gasped and looked at her hands, pale and cracked like a porcelain doll. She lifted her hands to her face, feeling every new crevice and cleft marring her once smooth skin. Distracted by the change, Jillian barely had time to dodge the shaft of glass that fell from above. She glanced up at the wall. Piece by piece, it began to crumble as her fractured flesh fell away.
Jasmine is a third-year student at the Queensland University of Technology, majoring in Creative Writing. She specializes in speculative fiction novels, but also enjoys writing short stories, flash fiction and screenplays. Often in the voice of a minority, her works aim to confront and challenge society’s understanding of what it means to be human.