The old woman woke to the bite of the cold. The wind had come up and found its way through her defenses, through her blankets and plastic, through her tattered jacket and her baggy sweater and, worst of all, through the hole in the sole of her left shoe.
The sun had begun to rise, but it made a half-hearted show of it, like a child forced out of bed and hurried off to school. The old woman understood the sun’s hesitancy, she understood the way he seemed to wrap himself up in the grey clouds as if they were warm blankets. She would have liked to close her eyes and welcome the darkness just as the lackluster sun would have liked to leave the day’s work to the moon. But neither of them had a choice. The moon, which had shone so beautifully throughout the night- it seemed she always looked more beautiful in the cold, her friends the stars always shone brighter then, too- had slipped off to parts unknown and the sun would have to do his work, though probably he could knock off early, the shortest day of the year was fast approaching, and the old woman would have to do her work, too, already the joggers in their tights had begun to run by, soon the dogs would drag their people here, later there would be the children whose parents or nannies would send them off to play on the frozen monkey bars while they drank their hot coffee and screamed into their phones. The children would huddle close together, petrified by the cold, and pray for play time to end. And it would make the old woman sad to see them like that. She liked to watch them run and scream and climb. She liked that, sometimes, they smiled at her. But she didn’t like to sit too close to the playground. When she did, often, a toddler would waddle up to her and say hi, or would tug at her sleeve, or would point at her red hat and proudly name it, pointing to her own head as she said the word. The old woman loved the children, but she did not like the fear on their parents’ or nannies’ faces when they were spotted standing so close to her, then those adults would hang up their phones and they would come running over and they would roughly drag the child away. Soon, the child would know better, would know that the old woman was one of those people you aren’t supposed to look at and you’re certainly never to touch.
The old woman sat up slowly, fearful of the monstrous back spasms that always lurked nearby, waiting to strike. She sat still for a moment, huddled up in her blankets and plastic, then gave a great sigh and began to unswaddle herself. She folded her dirty blankets and the life-saving plastic neatly and slipped them carefully into her bulging pack. The wind slapped against her face and reddened her cheeks. She stood and shouldered her bag, then began walking across the frozen grass, away from the rising sun, toward the roaring street.
She walked until she came to the cafe where they didn’t throw her out. She went inside and sat in the fluffy red chair in the corner. All around her, the morning rush streamed by. Inside, the baristas took orders and made drinks and called names, the customers placed orders and watched drinks be made and didn’t listen for their names then scolded the baristas for taking so long. Outside, the people walked quickly, their shoulders brushing, their bags colliding, blending together like water, moving faster where the sidewalk grew thin like a stream forced through a dam. She sat for a long while in the fluffy red chair, stupefied by the warmth after the cold of the night, by the safety after the danger of the dark. One woman glared at her for a moment then huffed away to sit on a stool. Perhaps she would’ve liked to have the fluffy red chair. One man handed her a small black coffee with a grunt that might have been words. She thanked him and smiled. He was careful not to brush her fingers with his as he handed it over.
The old woman pulled herself with some difficulty from the fluffy red chair and stepped out into the cold. The wind howled spitefully through the buildings, scattering trash, ripping words out of mouths, roaring through every chink in the old woman’s winter armor. She crossed her arms and bowed her head and walked as quickly as her sore feet would carry her.
When she got to the church, there was a line that snaked out of the great double doors, down the steep stone steps, and past the nativity scene. The old woman took her place behind Tony, who had lost his left leg in Vietnam and his home in Michigan, and beside the third wise man, who had shown up to a baby shower with embalming fluid. That had always struck the old woman as odd, but the statue of Mary was smiling sedately and seemed to be content with the gifts.
Standing still was even worse than walking. The cold brought tears to the old woman’s eyes and fire to her ears. The line moved maddeningly, foot-shufflingly slowly, but, finally, she was safely inside the heavy double doors. The warmth wrapped her in its arms and held her tight. She didn’t mind the waiting much then, but she was growing terribly hungry. When she got to the front of the line, the priest and the old women who volunteered to work with him and who always looked at him like they were a little bit in love, gave her a plate filled with potatoes and green beans and a little turkey and a brown bag filled with sandwiches, chips, and apples.
“It’s gonna be a real nasty one tonight,” the priest said, “I suggest you head on down to the mission as soon as you’ve eaten. I don’t want anyone caught out in this cold.”
The old woman suppressed a groan as she found a seat at a table. She hated the mission. They slept on beds like army cots, so close together she could stretch her arms out straight and touch someone on both sides, and always there was someone coughing fit to die, someone screaming fit to wake the dead, someone crying fit to break her heart. But the priest was usually right about these things. He’d warned her of the blizzard years ago that had blanketed the whole city in three feet of snow. So she’d go to the mission.
The woman beside her, Claudia, gave a toothless grin. She smiled back. In a past life, Claudia had conquered most of her demons, or at least managed to keep them at bay. She had lived with her sister who had given her the love and the medication she needed. She had been adored by the neighbor children whom she liked to bake cookies for and she had won employee of the month twice in a row at the grocery store where she stocked shelves. And then her sister had died and Claudia had fallen headlong until she crashed into the street.
When she had eaten, the old woman lingered for a bit, trying to store up the warmth of the place like a solar battery. But, as soon as she stepped outside, the warmth fled, the cold conquered. She shivered and shook, her teeth clattering together so intensely that her jaw began to ache. Her back felt like it was being contorted into unnatural shapes and her feet hurt terribly then, worse still, grew numb.
The lazy winter sun had already begun to slip beneath the horizon when the old woman reached the mission. A red-faced man stormed past her as she walked up the steps to the front door. She soon knew the reason for his anger. The mission was full. The doors were locked. There was no room at the inn.
The old woman limped slowly down the steps. The darkness had come on quickly and the stars seemed terribly far away. Hot tears warmed her cold cheeks. She sat for a moment on the bottom step, exhausted and afraid, but the cold of the concrete stabbed through her jeans and she pulled herself to her feet. She knew a place, a grate that would keep her warm. She didn’t like to sleep there, always felt herself awfully exposed to passersby, but it would keep the worst of the cold at bay.
She stumbled through another long walk on numb feet. The dark of the night was oppressive. The moon seemed to be goofing off behind clouds while the far-off stars shone only at half-brightness. The cast-iron street lights were woefully outmatched by the dark like so many birthday candles in a miners’ pit.
When she reached the grate the old woman found it covered with a sheet of metal, firmly locked in place. The city had paid someone to go around and lock up the grates so that freezing people wouldn’t gather around them. “Bastards,” the old woman yelled, kicking the padlock. She struck her toe hard against the metal and gave a pained yelp. A man in a thick greatcoat and a red scarf gave her a troubled look. She walked away from the grate as quickly as she could, stumbled as if drunk through the dark and the cold until she came to a little park. In the park there was a bench. It wasn’t her park and it wasn’t her bench, but it would do for the night.
The old woman wrapped herself in her blankets then wrapped the sheet of plastic around them, pulled her hat down low and her scarf up high and lay on the bench, gazing up at the shivering stars.
The cold bit her again and again. She curled into a tight little ball and squeezed her eyes shut tight, but still the cold circled around her, still it slapped against her flimsy coverings, still it snuck through the hole in her left shoe. She shook with the cold and with her fear of the cold. She prayed for the sun to rise, for the night to end.
A soft snow began to fall. The old woman was a little girl riding a radio flyer down a snow-covered hill. A soft snow fell and made the earth new and beautiful. Icicles glistened in the light of the winter sun. Then she was inside, standing before a roaring fire and sipping from a blue mug of hot chocolate. The old woman smiled softly. She had begun to feel so nice and warm.
Megan Neary is a writer and teacher living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Rejection Letters, Near Window, and Flyover Country, which she edits.