Art by Louis Yuhui Zhang
Writing by Sophie Nadel
It really is too cold. Even with the fire roaring in the living room, the chill in the air is unmistakable. A blizzard dominates outside. Flakes race around behind the door, trying to get anywhere but here. I don’t blame them. My gaze shifts to my parents, cuddling in the ugly grey blanket that sheds like a cat. How can anyone be so cozy? Sweet Mo, the only good thing in this house, has also abandoned me. The dog is lying with his hide to the fire, soaking in the embers and dozing. I am sitting alone in the armchair, my bare toes curling over each other and wishing for socks. I keep forgetting that the armchair is not as comfortable as it looks, with its tight leather cushions and back like a wall against the fireplace. And then I sit down and it’s too late. I flip through last year’s family album, landing on a page in late August. My eyes skim past a photo of me buried on the beach, of my parents kissing on the balcony of a fancy restaurant, and of a close-up of Mo lying on the grass in the backyard. God, it’s so sunny in these pictures.
I shiver and draw my feet under me like I’m a chicken and these are my eggs. The striking glow of summer on these glossy pages somehow makes me even colder. I glance over at the rest of my family. They’ve fallen asleep under the hairy blanket. I sigh and shut the book. I guess I should put this back and get something better to read, along with some socks. As I stand, something slips out of the folds of the book and flutters to the carpet. It’s another photo, finally given a chance at freedom after being wedged somewhere between the book’s plastic sleeves. It lands face down, displaying a neatly typed date and address across the center. I set the album on its shelf and pick up the stray photo, glancing first at the date.
No, that can’t be right. I read it again. December 20th, 2020. That’s today. There’s no way this photo could be printed that quickly. And we hadn’t taken any pictures with mom’s
camera today, nor had we for at least a month. Certainly nothing worthy of professional printing. Maybe it’s a typo. Surely we were doing something interesting in December 2019. I flip it over, and remain just as puzzled as I was before. No one is in the photo. It’s a view. Something about it feels familiar, but I can’t place it. Colorful houses lined up over a pier. A brush of tropical trees. Blue skies. Water.
I lean in. The water is a color I can’t describe — something with dark blues and greens, vibrant in a way I can only describe as glowing. It’s unreal. The water is caught mid-ripple, captured in the photo in a way that doesn’t feel still at all. It looks like the water is still lapping gently, like I can stick my hand in and get wet. For a second, I think it will. My finger touches dry paper, and I immediately feel stupid. I don’t know what I’m thinking. It’s an optical illusion. Trick of the light. It’s my mind, tormenting me because I’m cold, and I’m bored, and I want out of this house. But I still can’t shake the feeling that this is more than it seems, and that behind the photo’s glossy finish, the water is alive.
Weird. I stick the photo into my pocket and head upstairs for socks and something to read.
I decide on the travel magazine that’s been waiting for me on my bookshelf. I’m already reading the table of contents when I return to the armchair, and sit down before I remember its deception. Next time I’ll just sit on the floor. I curl up like a rolly-polly bug with fuzzy socks on, trying to relax. I flip pages. None of the photos are appealing. Mountains of Peru are drab and dark; a sashimi platter from Japan is muted; the Eiffel Tower is just a stick against a blue background. And my mind keeps wandering back to the mystery in my pocket, to the photo gnawing at me. It’s the only thing worth looking at. With vibrant colors and a mystique that suprasses any amateur photo in this magazine, anyone would be drawn in. But there’s something else, too. Some puzzle I’m failing to put together, some connection that just barely eludes me. I toss the magazine on the floor in a surge of frustration. Mo startles as it lands. He stretches and paws over to me, sticking his chin on the armrest. I scratch his ears and slide the picture out of my pocket. I study the shapes and colors, the water. It feels familiar somehow. I flip it over again, reading the address. The Reef Hotel. Bermuda.
I show Mo, pretending that he’s one of my literate family members. I scratch him harder as he nuzzles against my hand.
“What do you think this is from, boy? I’ve never been to Bermuda.” I stroke him down the back, where his fur is still warm from the fire. “I don’t think any one of us has.” My hand curls around him. I guess I just want to keep him here, if only to have someone to talk to. And Mo has almost-human eyes, the kind that make you think dogs are intelligent, or at least facially expressive.
“Have you been to Bermuda, Mo? Did you take this picture?” Yeah, no. I flip the photo back to the front and bite my lip. I feel the sun shining on my face. I guess that’s the power of good photography.
Then it hits me. Bermuda. Of course. There was talk last December about a family vacation. I had all but forgotten since then with everything going on, and obviously, we didn’t end up going. Forced to spend the winter in this freezing house, where the heat is always ten degrees below comfortable and the fireplace mocks the sun. The blizzard outside just blocks us further within our own world.
I grip the picture and it crumples in my hand. This is where I should be. This is the sun I should be feeling, the vacation I should be on. The thought infuriates me. Out of the corner of my eye, my sleeping family pricks thorns of frustration down my back. I clutch the photo in my hand, this taunting reflection of a lost reality. Does this not bother them at all? Mo whimpers and I realize I’m holding him too tightly, pressing his body against the armrest. My hand falls off and he scampers away to lie at the foot of the couch, comfortable as can be. I guess the weather doesn’t bother dogs. But I don’t care that I’m outnumbered, or alone. Something in the room has shifted. It’s warmer now, even though the fire is dying and the thermostat stays strictly at 65. The heat increases, until beads of sweat poke through the back of my neck. I peel off my socks and smile. I smooth out the picture on my leg. I swear I see it move. More than just the water. Trees sway and birds twitch in branches. I can even hear their chirping. I hear insects, and people, as clearly as if I were taking the picture. A salty breeze fills the air, and I can’t tell if I’m in the photo or if the photo’s here in the room. Out the window, the blizzard is gone. The snow on the ground has been replaced by gleaming white sand. The sounds of the fire dying out are waves lapping against a shore. In the distance, on the edge of the horizon, I see the sea. It lulls gently, reflecting back glowing, impossible colors.
I walk, one foot in front of the other, to the sliding glass door at the end of the room. Mo rears his head as I undo the latch, and pads over to see what I’m doing. I have to make it to that sea; I have to know what makes the water so impossible.
The door slides open with a bang. Mo slides back, shivering in his fur and growling at nothing. A handful of sand, tossed by the breeze, blows through the door and settles behind me. I should leave it open, in case my parents find their way to Bermuda, too. They’re still sleeping. When the blanket gets too hot in this tropical weather, they’ll join me.
I take my first step outside, and the sand burns my bare feet with sheer, icy heat. It’s a beautiful day, finally. I trod to the water on the peak of the horizon, feet sludging in the sand, growing numb. I don’t look back. I don’t look at Mo, barking violently. I don’t look at my parents, finally waking up in wonder. And I don’t look behind me, not at all, as the sand I plant footprints in melts back into snow.
Writer’s note: What struck me most about the art I received was the vibrant use of color. It reminded me of family vacations, and the picture seemed like a whole other world from my house. I wanted to reflect the urge to escape in my response piece.