“You mustn’t heed the snow,” said the coughing old man. “They’re not real.” He scrabbled at the young man’s shoulders and his breath wheezed with every strain of his small muscles.
His apprentice said nothing in response.
“Cromlin, look at me.”
Tired eyes opened to meet his master’s. The lamp lights overhead mirrored the stars outside in Cromlin’s misty eyes. Both palms were listlessly at his side faced upward. The master looked at his apprentice, his last hope, already fading in the light.
“After Donovan, I never wanted to raise another apprentice. I ached in places I didn’t think I could. My spine. My skull. My soul. But when I saw you that October very much like you are now, I knew you had the courage to master all I learned at the institution. You might not have had the strength, but you have the discipline to change your fate. It’s too late for me.”
The old man looked into Cromlin’s face. The color returning as he fought to concentrate on his master’s words. It was hard. His eyes veered to the right of the old man’s head.
Like a snap of a finger, the master said, “Cromlin! It’s not real. The blizzard isn’t real. You can do it. Focus.”
Cromlin immediately closed his eyes. His falling tears dripped heavily like the blood of a dying soldier.
Still, the old man spoke, “Fight it.” His own face almost crumbling. Only the snow he also saw fueling the hope for a day in the sunlight. One day both he and his apprentice would get out of the prison if only Cromlin could keep fighting.
“They’ll come for you again today. Pretend that you’re one of them. Don’t worry, they won’t be looking for your unnatural gifts. It’s me they’re worried about. Once you’re out there, remember to free me. My-my wife is waiting for me.”
Three taps disturbed the moment of the master and the apprentice. Their concentration was broken and once again they became stranded in the mountains of snow. Out of the dark depths of the blizzard, the snow queen approached. Her clothes were glaringly white, untainted by the blood that dripped from her fingers. A beautiful, solid crown adorned her head.
“Cromlin,” she beckoned him. The apprentice followed her a few steps but faltered. The queen threw her arm like a grappling hook and snared his right arm. The boy looked back at the lonely man. His clothes were as tired-looking as his face. His years of struggle had turned the pale material of the cloth, yellow.
With a yank, the queen guided Cromlin out of the cell and through the tunnels toward her castle. In a brighter room, a servant brought his allotted amount of food. He tried for so long to avoid the poison in them that blinded him, but his master was depending on him to get out of the prison. He swallowed. Satisfied, they left the room and he fell asleep.
“Crom?” A familiar voice stirred his thoughts.
“Hey, bud. We’ve come to take you home.” It was Daniel, his brother. A rustle of bodies alerted his conscious to the presence of his whole family.
His mother smoothed the hair on his head. “We heard that you’ve been doing well. We’re so proud of you, darling.” She sighed a smile as his father’s hands wrapped around her. They escorted Cromlin past the gate.
He blinked and gave his head a shake. He looked up. The snow was gone. He looked at the unfamiliar words that was painted above the entrance, “Abram Psychiatric Facility.”
His sister Anna tugged on his sleeves and kissed his cheek. “You’ve been in there for a long time. It’s already spring now. Look, the onion flowers are already in bloom!” she pointed. Cromlin wasn’t listening. Anna frowned, “Crom, you’re going to blind yourself if you keep looking up at the sun like that.”
Cromlin turned his head toward his sister. “Sorry Anna, when we get home, let’s go eat a bucket of ice cream just like we used to.”
He came upon his master scratching at the wooden armrest on the bench he draped himself on. Rhythmically nodding his head at a crooked angle, he mumbled, stopping from time to time to look around at the garden. He looked uncertain.
“Phillip?” said Cromlin. His master looked so small. He almost peeked at the spot that the old man was looking at to see what other monsters had arisen out of the snow. No, Cromlin couldn’t see it anymore. The pills had shuttered the other world. Nothing could touch him here.
The man froze, only his eyes moving, reaching out to find the source of a voice so hoped for. “Crom-.” His hands shook.
Cromlin smiled. “I brought you somebody I know you’d like to see.” Hiding the tears, he turned around and beckoned to the person behind him. Cromlin shifted to the left and retreated a few steps. As she passed him, the woman thanked Cromlin with a sad smile and stood before her husband.
The old man’s eyes cleared. “Ella?” he said, his pupils hanging onto her beautiful face that he only recalled seeing two life times ago. Living in one world had sustained his wife’s youth, while Phillip’s life had accelerated his deterioration.
“It’s been a while,” she said. Her once strong husband was now so frail.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to come home.” he said. Ella dropped onto her knees and hugged Phillip, both crying for a life together they lost. They sobbed together for a long time.
Silently, Cromlin backed away from the reunited couple, making sure that every step was on solid ground. He felt for the pills in his pocket that he never forgot to take since the day he went home.
Unable to stop the flow, the tears rushed down his cheeks. He cried for Phillip and the fate he couldn’t escape from.
Phillip and Ella could never be together. Phillip lived in a world where he was a soldier. His battles and legacy titled him as a great warrior of the world, a savior; but Ella lived in a world where her husband couldn’t come home because he kept running away and sleeping, bleeding on the streets. Destiny was playing an unfair game for the lovers. Phillip would never be able to throw away what he had sacrificed two lifetimes for, and Ella could never join the world of the seers. She could never see the snow that fell on her shoulders nor the scar that Phillip carried on his back for her.
She couldn’t see.
Cromlin leaned next to the brick building that used to keep him hostage and sat on the grass. His hands gripped his head and he let the gasp of air out. The tears wouldn’t stop. That first day when Cromlin was taken home by his family, he stored all his memories of the monsters and the wars in his heart and locked it.
He still didn’t know which world was real or not. What he did know was that he never wanted to leave this one.