The air that rushed in to meet his face was sharp and icy, and Laurent knew they had gone through the wrong gate even before the world on the other side revealed itself. The tips of his nose and ears began to freeze, and his first inhale was such a change that his lungs shrunk back in horror and almost set him to coughing. Then they were through.
They were in a forest, sure, like they were supposed to be. But the trees were different. From what little he knew of trees it seemed they were surrounded by pines and dogwoods. They should have come out to the middle of the day, but they had stepped into an early night. No, the middle of the night. The white light that made the forest glow wasn’t coming from a late sunset or an early sunrise. It was from the moon, nearly full and directly overhead, its light reflecting back and back, over and over, off the blankets of snow. As they stumbled forward out of the gate, their feet crunched through snow up to their knees. The gate closed with a whisper behind them, and the two were left in the cold.
Milo coughed, something ugly and wet, and Laurent tried to ignore the red droplets that fell to the snow under him.
“I don’t think we’re in the Pacific Northwest anymore, Toto,” he said.
Laurent swallowed hard. “We picked the wrong gate.”
He took a few stumbling steps, and Laurent reached for him, thinking he was falling. But Milo brushed him off and eventually got his hands on the thin tree he had been trying to reach. Another coughing fit bubbled out of him, and now it was impossible to ignore the blood. It was dripping from his mouth. When he was finally able to gain control, he wiped with the back of his hand.
“I think it’s more than a bruised rib,” he said.
“We were supposed to come out close to the city,” Laurent said. He was staring at the blood on the snow, already congealing and freezing. “Close to…close to help.”
Milo pulled the collar of his shirt up. “We didn’t. We’re in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even…God damn I’ve never been this cold before in my life.”
Laurent had been trying to ignore that, too. He was from the mountains, he thought he knew cold. But the cold here was something else. Damp. Soaking. His fingers had already become stiff, and snow was getting into his canvas sneakers.
“We have to start moving.”
“Where? Just going to pick a direction?”
“I don’t know. But we can’t stay here. We’ll die of exposure if we don’t start moving.”
“Laurent. Laurie, I’m dying anyway, man. You’re right. You need to start moving.”
He had been looking through the trees, trying to decide which direction was right. Every direction just looked cold and snowy and dark. Now, his face grew stony, and he turned and stalked toward Milo in anger.
“I’m not leaving you.”
“You need to save yourself.”
“Saving you is saving myself, you absolute fool.”
“No, I’m saying this,” Laurent said. Everything that had happened since they had crossed the fog gate, all of the close calls they had been through, it had all built up to boiling in his mind and his heart, and he was ready to scream. “I love you, Milo. I’ve been in love with you for months. And I haven’t been exactly subtle about it either.”
“And I know you notice, and you never give me anything back. And that’s okay, because I’m a fool in love, and what’s the purpose of a fool but to suffer?”
“But if you think for a single second I’m leaving you behind in this wilderness you’re out of your mind.”
But Laurent didn’t say anything, only stood with his ear cocked to the wind. For a second, all Laurent could think was, you’re still not noticing. The wind shifted, and Laurent heard it.
Singing. Ethereal, silvery. Faint, just barely riding the wind.
“What is it?” Laurent asked in a whisper, not wanting to lose it.
“I don’t know. And after the last few days, I don’t even want to guess. But it’s better than standing here in the cold and dying.”
The snow and Milo’s injuries made every step a hard-won battle. They were only wearing jeans, and it didn’t take long for the snow to pack itself in the legs, to melt and freeze and melt again. Laurent’s skin was beginning to itch, and it wasn’t long before he couldn’t feel his toes at all. The singing was so quiet they had to stop often to hear it. The crunching of the snow was enough to cover it all up.
Milo was taking the cold and the snow worse than he was, obviously. It wasn’t long before Milo had his arm around Laurent, slung over his shoulder. Laurent was half a foot shorter and not nearly as broad, and the weight was nearly enough to make him topple over. Only the singing kept him upright and moving forward. Well, that and the heat of his confession. Was it ignored, or not noticed at all? Which was worse?
“Snow,” Milo said.
Laurent grunted, nearly tripping on a root. “Yeah, it’s everywhere.”
With the effort of moving he’d hardly noticed, but sure enough tiny bits of white were sifting their way down to join their brothers. Laurent held out a hand to catch one. It melted quickly, but not before he could see its shape. Spindly branches.
He frowned and looked up. The sky had clouded over, the moon was gone. They shouldn’t have been able to see anything.
“I know this song,” Milo whispered.
The light wasn’t coming from above anymore. It was coming from in front of them. Through the trees.
“Hold on, Milo. I think we’re almost there.”
“I definitely know this song.”
The singing was louder now, and resolving into different voices. A choir. As they broke through the last line of pines, Laurent knew what he would see before it was in front of him.
A church, just on the other side of a little graveyard. A church on the edge of a town. He could see the road on the other side, heading straight for homes, and shops, and a large building a mile off. A building he was sure was a hospital. Along the road, and over the homes, colorful lights twinkled.
“I…I think it’s Christmas. We made it, Milo…Milo?”
Milo had left Laurent and was leaning against the little wooden fence around the graveyard. His head was down. In the light from the church, it was hard to tell if he was breathing.
Milo’s head snapped up, and he snapped his fingers.
“‘In The Bleak Midwinter.’ I had to sing that in choir as a kid. What? What’s that look?”
Laurent couldn’t speak. He was too busy trying to get his heart to start beating again. The things he could have said. The things he should have said. His tongue tried to find the shapes to say something. Anything.
He got under Milo’s arm again and the two of them walked around the graveyard. Much easier to do with a path that’s been shoveled and salted.
“Hey, Laurent? What were you saying when the singing started? I was so focused I couldn’t pay attention.”
Laurent sighed. “I’ll tell you later. When we’re warm.”
One catastrophe at a time.