Thought Wheel

Ann Chiappetta

Survivors Guilt

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Survivor’s Guilt
By Ann Chiappetta

Flash fiction under 1,000 words

He didn’t come out here to live; he came out here to die. He would fall asleep and never wake up, his face poised in frosty rest, his hands clasped over his chest. He was ready, willing his body temperature to fall below normal so he could finally rid himself of the shame of being the one left alive.

When he was a teenager, he was rescued from freezing to death at a winter jamboree. The four other campers with him didn’t make it. The wind chill had dropped the temperature to ten below in the after midnight hours and when the fire went out, they didn’t wake up. The next thing he knew, he was in a chopper and he was burning all over, the medical team telling him he was lucky to be alive. He remembered wanting to scream for them to stop, that he wanted to die. He wanted to tell them to leave him alone and help the other kids instead. He wanted nothing to do with coming back to life. There was no one and nothing to look forward to back then or even now.

This brittle night he was back where he wanted to be, just like the freezing night of the jamboree. He was four years older, four years wiser, and felt cheated. No one waited for him at home; he had nothing left–even if there was someone to argue with him about it. His best friends died that frigid night and now he wanted to join them.
The moon was full and ice white against the depthless sky. The stars floated in cosmic patterns he knew but had lost since he began to freeze. The shaking had subsided. He smiled, thinking they were so pretty. He began singing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. He giggled when he realized he had forgotten all the words. He hummed them instead.

Hot breath found his face and he turned from it, barely able to do so in the frosty air. He flailed and tried to move away from the warmth. But the warmth continued to take over. First one side began to burn as it warmed, and he imagined he was in Hell, lying on the coals of his sins. When his other side began to feel again, he tried to sit up but his arms were like cinderblocks and the best he managed was a hoarse croak. Something warm and damp caressed his face and tickled his nose.
He looked up at the moon, his eyes tearing with the effort. He didn’t want to cry, didn’t want to have any regrets, but for some reason, those soft, warm rubs made him ached for more.
His tears were taken away as soon as he shed them. His thawing flesh was being warmed as it came back from its hypothermic repose. His desire to die thawed, too. As the sky altered its depths from night to dawn, the young man tried once again to sit up. He realized as he tried that he was already propped up against something. He reflexively grabbed at what was closest to his hand. His hand closed over something warm and soft. He grabbed again and his mind flared with recognition, but he was still groggy and he fell back into the warmth, almost against his will.
The next time he awoke, it was close to dawn. He began to understand. He saw that the ice white moon had begun its descent and the weak, pale sun was ascending in its place.
He felt alive, and it jerked him awake as if he was a pike snagged on a line in an ice-hole. What he saw made him freeze but not from hypothermia. Four grey animals lay against him, one behind his back. One at each side and one cradling his legs. All four sets of amber eyes gazed at him, and one of them whined and cocked its head, as if questioning him. He looked at his fingers; some were frostbitten but he didn’t care. He’d look at his feet later. He felt his face and wondered if he’d gotten any frostbite on his nose or cheeks. But it would have to wait until he got back to civilization. He was shaken but far from dying.
The wolves stood close by as he rose, watching him with amber eyes. He got up, pulled the hood around his face with numb fingers. His truck wasn’t far off, maybe a quarter of a mile away. He made sure he had his keys and turned to go. Then he turned back and felt disappointed when he saw the four canines had already loped off.
“Thanks, anyway.” He croaked, watching them.
The four companions trotted and bounced shoulders, great bushy tails swishing as they made their way up the path. Three loped on ahead, topping the rise, disappearing over it. But the biggest one, the one who he thought had probably licked his face, sat and raised its muzzle to the sky and howled.
The tears ran along with its woeful sound, and when it ended, the young man turned and walked to the truck.

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