*Disclaimer: May be disturbing for some readers
Billy stood with his mother near the edge of the precipice, looking down into the valley below. Pinion pines, fir trees and aspens, some tall enough to reach out and touch–if he didn’t want to fall, that is–marched their way down to the edge of the river; and far, far across from them, he could see the rocky side of a mountain.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he called. “I am Billy!” He waited for his echo to come bouncing back to him across the valley.
Perplexed, he looked up at his mother. “What’s wrong with my echo?” he asked.
Helena smiled and put an arm around his shoulder, patting him reassuringly. “Oh,” she said, “Snow probably muffles the sound.”
“Snow? What snn–?” Billy stared, jaw agape. Snow covered every surface. In the bright sunlight, it sparkled extravagantly from treetops and mountainside. The river below was frozen.
A gust of wind blew sheets of it from the pines, casting iridescent flashes across the valley below. The colors were blindingly brilliant, and Billy gasped in delight.
How had he missed the snow a moment before? He would have sworn–
“The world is full of beauty,” Helena sighed. “I forgot about that.”
Helena smiled distractedly and pulled Billy into her arms for a long hug. Billy hugged back. It was nice to get a hug from his mother. She usually wasn’t still long enough for an enduring hug like this one.
“Why don’t echoes work in the snow?”
“I don’t know, baby. Maybe they do. Maybe I’m wrong.”
Billy cupped one hand around his mouth, still hugging his mother with the other arm. “Hello?” he called.
There was still no answering echo.
He didn’t like that. “Where are we?” he asked.
“Isn’t it lovely?”
It was. The snow glittered and flashed, the treetops swayed, colors splashed across the ice on the river below, and everything was gorgeous.
They stood looking, watching the snow blow in whirling dervishes as the wind changed directions. Billy frowned and looked up at his mother. Her chestnut hair hung to her waist, unmoving. His own hair was still.
It was so very odd. Their hair should be thrashing around their heads. Not only that, but he realized he didn’t feel cold.
He was trying not to be scared. “Mom?” he asked. “Are we going soon?”
“I think so.”
Billy looked around. There was no road that he could see, and no footpath, either. “Where’s the car?”
“Oh,” Helena remarked unconcernedly, “It’s around here somewhere, I guess.”
“I don’t remember…” Billy’s voice trailed off. He felt more than uneasy. Nothing was right. “How did we get up here? Did we walk?”
He was wearing an old Alice Cooper t-shirt that had belonged to his father. It was his favorite, and was nearly transparent with age. He had on cargo shorts and ratty old huaraches. He should have been freezing.
“Mom?” He had so many questions! But before he could ask–
Billy turned to see who had called his name. His great-grandparents stood a few feet away. “Gigi Ma! Grampy!” He pulled out of his mother’s embrace and ran to them.
Helena gave a low moan of despair and lowered her empty arms to her sides.
Gigi hugged Billy tightly. Grampy feigned offering a handshake–very manly–and then pulled him in for a fierce hug, too. “Where have you been?” Billy demanded. “I missed you so much!”
Gigi looked over at her granddaughter, who hadn’t moved. “Helena,” she said.
“Hello, Grandma.” She looked at Grampy. “Hello, Grandpa. You look well.”
“We are,” Grampy replied.
“Oh, Helena,” Gigi sighed.
Billy watched this exchange with some alarm.
“I wondered who would come,” Helena said, and smiled. “I’m glad it’s you.”
“Mom?” Billy pulled away from Grampy and started running back to his mother. No matter how fast he ran, she never got any closer. “Mom, what’s happening?”
“No going backward,” Grampy said. Billy turned toward him, and he was right there. “We can only go forward from here.”
“We?” Billy looked back at his mother. “Mom?”
“I love you, Billy.” Still, she didn’t move. She stood at the very edge, hands at her sides, and she smiled at him. “Remember that. Go with Gigi and Grampy, now.”
She looked at her grandmother. “Take him quickly,” she said quietly. “I don’t want him to…to see what’s next.”
She turned to her grandfather. “I never did know anything,” she said. “I never could answer his questions. Tell him about echoes.”
She turned away then, staring out across the valley. “I love you all forever.”
Billy’s hands were clasped by his great-grandparents, and suddenly they were rising. Up, up and further away, his mother seeming to shrink below him. “Mom? Moooooooommmmm!”
“It’s fine, son.”
Billy stared up into Grampy’s face. “Why can’t she come, too?”
“She knows why,” Gigi said.
Billy stared down, no longer able to make out more than an anonymous figure below. “Is she waving?”
“I can’t see her!”
“No more looking back,” Gigi said. “Look ahead, Billy. See?”
A chunky corgi was waddling toward them, and started running when he saw Billy’s face. “Bunny!” Billy cried. “Oh, Bunny!” The dog leapt into his arms and licked his face. “Hello, girl! I missed you!”
Boy and dog raced ahead of the old couple. Grampy looked back, in spite of his own advise to Billy.
“Is she gone?” Gigi asked.
Grampy sighed. “Not yet.”
“Oh, Helena!” They followed Billy, shaking their heads. No more looking back.
Far below, Helena stood at the edge of the precipice. She wondered who would be coming for her. She cupped her hands around her mouth and called “Hello!”
Voices echoed back at her: “Helena! Helena!”
What had she done?