She huddled within the pile of furs at the center of their small tent. Two days ago, the snow had come, whiting out the sky and covering everything with its coldness on the same day Hess disappeared, abandoning her in the snow she had denied existed. Elza still didn’t know why he had left.
Maybe he finally came to his senses. We shouldn’t be traveling together. The Creator didn’t send us here to Observe each other. Elza shivered deeper in the furs, wondering how cold it could get. At least I don’t have to listen to Hess gloat about the snow. Outside, the wind howled its anger.
The tent shook around her, sending down showers of fine snow. Elza flinched, waiting for the tent to collapse. Instead, the door flap peeled back to reveal a pale figure. With wooden motions, Hess crawled into the tent, turned to refasten the door, and dropped to the ground beside her.
He didn’t abandon me. Elza touched his shoulder, then yanked her hand back. He was as cold as the snow. “Where did you go?” she asked.
“Got lost in the whiteout,” he said. “Stupid. Should have stayed closer to tent. Died ten times, at least. Now I remember why I never returned north.”
“You’re cold,” she accused.
“Do me a favor? Kill me. Rock to my head. I’ll come back warm.” Hess lay in the same place he had collapsed, body twitching but not shivering, radiating coldness.
“I can’t kill you,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Elza said. She placed half of the furs from her pile onto him. “You’ll warm up.”
“Hope not. Dying is less painful.”
She burrowed deep into her furs, feeling the cold more than ever from the door’s opening and then losing half her covers. “I guess you were right about snow.”
“Thought being right would feel a little better,” he said. “Next we can find the sea. Only fair.”
Elza watched him for a time. “We can’t stay together, Hess. We have a purpose.”
“Sure you want to leave me alone? Might do something wrong.”
“I know you will. But She didn’t send me here to watch you.” Elza tested his temperature with a finger. She couldn’t tell if there was any improvement. “I still don’t understand why you interfere.”
“I was close to here when the world started. Just a mountain over.” Hess spoke slowly, voice rasping. “Had a tribe, a mother, and a sister. Lots of memories that weren’t real. Started observing. Things seemed fine at first. Men did their work, women did theirs. Everyone helped out. Sister grew into a woman. Beautiful. So kind. I loved her as much as I could one of them, knowing she wasn’t real.
“Best hunter of the tribe decided he wanted her. Got rid of his old woman. Seemed wrong, but I wasn’t there to judge. My sister . . . Cora . . . she was scared, but went when he came for her. Cora stayed with the hunter, with Ron. Cora was a good woman to her man. She fed him and lay with him and made clothes for him. Wasn’t enough for Ron. He liked when people feared him. He fought with the other men. Hurt them for fun. Started hitting Cora too.
“But I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t there to judge. I was just an Observer. I stayed in my own tent and watched the people ruin their lives. After Ron broke Cora’s nose, she wasn’t so beautiful. He hit her more and harder after that. He was better when she held his child in her. I hoped it would stay like that. Cora stopped speaking to anyone except Ron. She wouldn’t even look at me.
“She had her baby when Ron was out hunting. Cora was so happy. She held her baby all that day, smiled at everyone. She thought Ron would be happy, too. But Ron wanted a son. He took the baby and threw her in the cooking fires.”
Elza watched Hess, reading the rage in his features. His voice grew stronger suddenly.
“I couldn’t do nothing that time. Ron was bigger than me and much stronger. When I hit him, he hit back until I couldn’t stand. Then he held my hand in the fire so it would be useless for hunting. I tried to push him into the fire later that night. He was too strong and instead he broke my neck.
“I kept coming back, Elza. I kept trying to hurt this man. He kept killing me and I kept returning. The other people were frightened, but Ron didn’t care. He thought it was a joke that he could kill me so many times. While Ron and I were fighting, Cora left the camp. They found her body at the bottom of a cliff. Ron took another woman and I left the tribe.”
Hess met her eyes. “The world is not right, Elza.”
She placed her hand on his neck, feeling the returned warmth. “If you were a man, you would be a good one,” she said.
“But I’m not.”
“No. Instead you’re a terrible Observer.”
“Do you ever wish you were just a woman?”
She pulled her hand away from him. “I wouldn’t like that. The Creator didn’t give me an appealing form. If my purpose was to find a man, I don’t think I would do well at it.”
“You might do better than you think.”
“No, Hess. I have tried to play the part of a woman for a long time. Men only want me when a better woman isn’t around. I would rather be an Observer than one of them.” She rolled to her other side, away from him. He was the same as other men, exclaiming over the beauty of his sister and reminding her constantly of his last woman, the beautiful Dalana.
The cold didn’t relent as they lay in silence.
“How long does it stay like this?”
“Three months,” Hess said.
“I don’t like snow. It’s too cold.”
Hess shifted closer to her. “In the north, you have to share warmth if you want to sleep comfortably.” Elza didn’t protest as he rearranged the furs around them.
“I never asked to see the snow,” she said.
Hess slid close until they were touching and wrapped an arm around her. “Maybe if we hate the snow enough, the Creator will make the next world without it.”
“Your clothes are wet,” she said. Hess began to shift around beneath the covers, then tossed his clothes onto the top of their covers. With fewer layers between them, she could feel the heat of his body. “Do you really think the Creator cares about our preferences?”
His warm breath tickled her neck. “He wouldn’t need Observers if He didn’t want our input.”
Elza shifted closer to his warmth. “She wants our experiences, not our opinions.”
The hand around her shifted. “Then why aren’t we supposed to participate?”
“I don’t know, Hess.”
His lips brushed her neck. She leaned into it. “Hess, I’m still cold.”