Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Even in a frozen, post-apocalyptic world, miracles are born. Follow the journey of a young family learning to survive a never-ending winter.
I remember the last spring. The last warm day was 18 years ago and the same day my daughter, Gabby, was born. That morning, I squinted in the bright April sun at our family’s roadside vegetable stand. I squeaked when my water broke as I handed a customer her bag of fresh tomatoes. James, my husband, abandoned our farm to rush me to the hospital and my sister-in-law, Dianna, took over the cash register. Only 13 hours later, I held Gabby in my arms for the first time, while James crowded around to peer at our beautiful miracle.
That night, a record-breaking cold front jolted the country. The scientists tried to explain the Cooling, but I don’t think anyone knew how or why it happened. Certainly, no one expected it to last; instead, it grew colder. The unusual weather expanded across the continent, then the world. At first, the Cooling was a minor inconvenience to most us, but over the next couple of years, the temperature continued to slope downward. Our governments tried to protect us. They tried to feed everyone and keep them warm, but most governments crumbled during the Hunger Riots. After that, we were left to fend for ourselves.
My family was lucky. We lived on a farm, and we kept the roadside stand open as long as possible. When even the hardy crops struggled to survive the cold, we closed up and set aside what was left for the family. It didn’t take much to feed the four of us, James, Dianna, Gabby, and I. We might’ve been able to survive on the farm had it not been for the Big Freeze. For two years, the gradual changes of the Cooling tortured us with hope that the world might warm again; the Big Freeze destroyed us with a temperature plummet that froze the land, the wildlife, and a quarter of the human population. That’s when I knew nothing would ever be the same.
The Hunger Riots started before the Big Freeze, and I wanted to leave the farm to join a local militia group that were occupying a nearby prison. I don’t know what happened to the prisoners. Perhaps they were released during the first pandemic, a few months after the Cooling started. The militia group was building a community inside the prison and within the high fences. I wanted to help them, and I believed the community would offer more safety for Gabby. But James and his sister disagreed. They didn’t want to leave the farm that had been in their family for generations, and they didn’t believe the riots would affect us so far out from the city. James grew to regret that decision.
One night while I was putting Gabby to bed, someone knocked on our door. I closed the door to Gabby’s room, where she slept, and glanced at Dianna at the kitchen sink.
“Did you see someone drive up?” I asked her. The house sat far enough off the main road to notice headlights coming up the driveway.
Dianna shook her head. “No, I don’t see a car out there.”
“Maybe they ran out of gas,” James said as he stood from the kitchen table to greet our unexpected guest.
“James, be careful. What if they’re part of those riots,” I said, and Dianna rolled her eyes.
“Those are only in the cities, and the closest one is 30 miles. No one’s coming this far out to cause trouble.”
“They’re not rioting for trouble, Dianna,” James said. “They’re rioting for food.”
As another knock rang against the door, I grabbed the shotgun that James kept in the coat closet and shoved it into his hands. “You’re exactly right.”
James stared at the gun, musing over his options, then shook his head. He set the shotgun back in the closet.
“I’m not pulling a gun on someone that hasn’t done anything to deserve it.”
My husband was a good man, but he was too trusting. I held my breath when he opened the door and smiled at the two men standing on our porch.
“Hello,” James said. “Kind of late for a visit.”
“Yeah, we’re sorry about that,” the taller man said. “We were heading into the city when our car broke down about a mile back.”
“The phone lines are down,” I said, and James frowned at my rudeness.
“But we can offer a hot meal and shelter for the night if you don’t mind the barn.”
“The barn?” the shorter man said. “We aren’t animals.”
Standing next to me, Dianna crossed her arms and glared at the young men. “No, but we have women and children living here, and we don’t know you.”
The shorter man opened his mouth to argue, but the taller one elbowed him to shut up. “We’re grateful for any help that you can offer us.”
Several minutes later, the two men sat at our table and scarfed down the leftover chili that I warmed for them. James and I leaned against the counter, watching the young men. He slipped a hand around my waist and tugged me close as he smiled at the good thing we’d done. Feeding the hungry made him feel like we’d done the right thing. James didn’t recognize the devious smile that the smaller man flashed Dianna when she took his empty bowl, but the anxiety building within me warned me of something sinister.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I tossed and turned while my husband slept like a baby next to me. But we both jumped from the bed like a rattlesnake bit us when Dianna screamed.
“Grab Gabby, and get out,” James said, but I was already out the bedroom door. I bundled Gabby in whatever blankets that I could find and darted for the back door. I snatched my jacket from the hook and burst from the house. I didn’t stop running until I reached the closest structure on our property, the barn. I slipped my jacket on and held my 18 month-old close as she wailed into the blankets.
I stared at our house and waited for James to call out to me and say it was safe to return. I didn’t know what had caused the commotion or if Dianna was hurt, but I expected James to solve the problem so that we could return to the warmth of our home. Instead, I saw smoke rising from one of the windows. My heart leaped from my chest at the thought of Dianna and James fighting a house fire while I stood idly out in the cold. Then I noticed the two pairs of footprints that started from the barn and ended at the house. They were much larger than my tracks.
I jumped, hugging Gabby closer, when two gunshots exploded from inside the house. I prayed that James or Dianna wielded the shotgun and not either of the intruders. When the smoke led to flames, I knew we’d lose the house, but I only worried about my family. When James finally stepped from the house, coughing from the smoke and holding the shotgun, I rejoiced. I ran to him and wrapped one arm around him, and Gabby reached for her father’s embrace. He sat down in the snow to catch his breath and hung his head.
“Where’s Dianna?” I asked, but my husband shook his head. Tears streamed down face, and I realized they weren’t only due to the smoke. James was the only person to escape the blaze that night. I don’t know precisely what happened to Dianna or the two men. James refused to talk about it. He held Gabby and me as our home burned to the ground, then he drove us to the prison camp.
James stared at the road in silence while I tried to calm our frantic child. A mile from the prison, he parked the car on the side of the road then asked for Gabby. He wrapped his big arms around her and rocked her against him with his eyes closed. She calmed in his embrace as he shushed her. I’ll never forget the heartbreak in his deep, brown eyes when he peered at me over our daughter’s sleeping form.
“Never again,” he whispered. I bit back a sob and nodded.
The militia camped inside the prison accepted us after a short survey regarding our skills, then they assigned James and I to farmwork and husbandry. After the Big Freeze, we hustled to create potted gardens inside and built insulated barns for the remaining animals. The militia leader, Clare, recruited engineers to establish electric generators for heat and essential lighting. We expanded the community over the next several years, staying within the fence line and building what we needed from scavenged towns. Everyone filled their assigned roles and picked up arms when the community was threatened by outside forces. It didn’t happen often, but Clare trained us on the best way to respond. We hit hard and fast. It proved an effective deterrent and granted us enough safety to scavenge outside the fences when necessary.
Gabby spent most of her time with Max or me as we fulfilled our duties. She liked to help me in the camp’s makeshift greenhouse, and she had an impressive green thumb for someone so young. One day when Gabby was eight years old, she sat at her play table in the garden room while I finished up my work for the day. I smiled as she read to me from a new children’s book that a scavenging group had found in a nearby town last week.
“Benny picked the blue flowers. Poppy picked the pink flowers.” Gabby frowned when she flipped the page. “Mommy, are these flowers?”
Surprised by the question, I glanced to where she pointed and nodded. The children in the book held bouquets of different colored flowers.
“Aren’t they pretty?” I said with a smile.
She nodded at me then glanced around the garden. “You don’t have any flowers.”
“No, I haven’t seen a flower since the Big Freeze.”
“That’s a long time ago.”
I laughed, supposing that six years is a long time to an eight-year-old. Gabby scrunched her face into a pout, and I chuckled louder. James walked in as Gabby slammed her book closed on her play table.
“Uh-oh,” he said. “It looks like someone is having a bad day.”
Gabby crossed her arms and turned away from us. I shrugged at my husband, and he flashed a knowing smile.
“It sounds like we need to stop by the square.”
“Can we build a snowman?” Gabby asked.
“Sure, why not,” he said, and I smiled at my husband. He enjoyed building things in the snow with Gabby. I wished we could offer a different playground other than snow.
Several minutes later, we trekked across the small ice-covered square in the prison center with buildings surrounding us. Gabby danced and slipped across the frozen ground with delighted giggles. James held my gloved hand and cringed against the cold wind. I tried to remember how a warm breeze felt, but the frigid air was relentless. We stopped under a frozen tree in the center of the square, and Gabby pointed to a small frozen pond nearby.
“Mommy, what’s that?”
“It’s a pond. Fish and frogs used to live there before the Big Freeze.” She’d played in the snow and slid across the frozen water many times before, but she’d never asked about it before today.
I watched my daughter step out onto the ice, slipping frantically as she tried to maintain traction. As humorous as her clumsy introduction to the pond was, the knowledge that Gabby would never see a fish or frog, or even flowers, weighed against my heart. She missed out on so many wonderful things.
“I wish there were flowers,” I whispered to James, and he slipped an arm around my shoulders.
“And fish. Can you imagine what she’d think of fish?”
“You could’ve taught her how to fish, and I could’ve taught her how to cook them.”
“Sometimes life isn’t fair,” he said, and I nodded before laying my head against his shoulder.
We sat down against the frozen tree and watched Gabby explore her new winter playground. She sat on her rump and slid across the slick ice, knocked on it with her ear pressed against it, then cupped her gloved hands around her eyes to peer through it. Satisfied that she’d experienced everything the frozen pond could offer her, Gabby scooted up to the bank to build a snowman.
“Mommy, where did the flowers used to grow?” she asked without pausing in her snow building.
“Before the Big Freeze, they grew almost everywhere.”
Gabby stopped to stare at us. “Even here?”
“Yeah.” James waved at the perimeter of the pond. “There were probably flowers along the shore.”
I smiled at my child’s innocence and watched as she shoved snow aside until she reached the deep layer of ice that now covered most of the country. Maybe even the planet. Gabby knocked against the ice as she did with the pond, and James and I chuckled.
“Clare is going to be here soon,” James said, and I glanced at him in surprise.
“Why? Is everything okay?”
He shrugged. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
“You don’t have to go out on another strike, do you?”
“Maybe, I don’t know.”
“You’ve gone the last two times, James. I should do this one. You need a break.”
“No.” He looked at me with a fierce expression. “You need to stay here with Gabby. I need you both safe.”
I shook my head. “This world isn’t safe anymore, but we can do our best to protect each other. Let me help you. Besides, this will give you a chance for father-daughter time.”
I smiled at James and glanced back at our daughter, then gasped. Gabby held her bare hands against the ice, and I scrambled to reach her and pull her away from the cold that could damage her unprotected hands. Inches from her, I paused when I realized her hands were slipping through the thick sheet of ice. James stopped at my side as the ice melted away and water bubbled up around her. When her fingers grazed the earth below, a burst of steam rolled out from under Gabby’s hands and expanded in a broad circle. The hot cloud bellowed across the frozen pond, and the water rippled into a wave across the far shore. Moments later, the entire pond and surrounding earth and trees within the square stood bare and unfrozen for the first time in six years.
“How?” I managed, staring at the thawed, but dead, tree that stood over James and me.
Gabby jammed her hands onto her hips and frowned at the bare ground at her feet. “You said there were flowers here.”
I gaped at her in shock, and James fell to his knees to touch the fresh soil. I didn’t understand how my daughter could be so blasé about this. This wasn't possible, yet I’d just seen it happen. Unsure what else to do, I answered her question.
“They died, Gabby. They couldn’t survive the cold.”
“They died?” She looked at me with sad eyes for a moment then seemed to have an epiphany. She bent down again and pressed one of her thumbs to the dirt.
My heart skipped a beat, and James gasped when a small sprout erupted from the earth next to Gabby’s foot. As we watched, the tiny plant grew, and dozens of other flowers and grasses broke free from the dormant soil. Vines reached for the sky along the length of the trees that breathed with new life as their leaves sprouted and greened. Moss crawled across the pond, accompanied by a few lily pads.
I stumbled back from the explosion of life around me, but James stepped forward in his excitement. He bent down to pick a flower and tugged at the colorful petals. A warm breeze kissed my tear-soaked cheeks as I watched my daughter roll in the small patch of flowers that she’d created. I didn’t know what to do or say. I was scared. For her, or of her, I didn’t know. But I was ashamed of my fear.
Several people walked by the prison buildings' windows and stopped to gawk at the garden; then they piled out into the square to experience the miracle firsthand. When Clare arrived, she pushed past the growing crowd and called out for an explanation, while Gabby picked flowers for everyone within the garden.
“Gabby did it,” I said, and James glanced at me with a concerned expression.
Clare narrowed her eyes at me and stepped forward while the rest of the camp watched. “What do you mean?”
“She created all of this,” James said, swinging his arms wide. “Everything.”
Clare swallowed and lowered her gaze to Gabby, who pressed a bouquet of wildflowers into her face and giggled. When my daughter realized that she had everyone’s attention, she waved her handful of flora above her head.
Clare’s face softened, and she managed a small smile. “They’re beautiful, Gabby. Did you make them?”
“Yeah,” she answered. Then Gabby decided the moss in the pond water might be fun to play with next. As our child occupied herself, James reached for my hand. God bless him, he knew exactly what I needed at that moment.
“How is this possible?” I asked him, and he took both of my shaking hands within his firm grip. His rough hands enveloped mine as he pressed them against his chest.
“This is a miracle.”
“She melted the ice, James,” Clare said, and James grinned at her.
“Exactly. She melted the ice. This is a good thing.”
“What if someone outside finds out and-”
James grabbed my shoulders and pressed his lips into a thin line with a firm stare. “Gabby is our daughter. I will not let anyone hurt our family. Never again.”
Tears sprung to my eyes again, and I pressed my head against him, wishing the world wasn’t so dangerous for our little family. This wasn’t normal. This wasn’t possible. But that didn’t matter. None of it did. All that mattered was James and Gabby.
“We’ll protect her,” Clare said. James and I looked to her as hushed whispers shuffled through the crowd around us. Clare turned to her people and raised her voice for all to hear. “This child melted the ice and revived the plants here. If she can do it here, she can do it everywhere. She can save the world.”
“Mommy. Daddy,” Gabby said as she reached for me to hold her. I hesitated, so James shot me a look and picked her up. She laid her head against him and fell asleep within moments. I’d never seen her go down that fast.
“She’s exhausted,” I said, and Clare flashed me an eager grin.
“She should rest up because tomorrow she’s going to save the world.”
“Tomorrow?” I placed a hand on Gabby’s back as she rested in James' arms. “She’s too young to leave the protection of the camp.”
“She can stop all of this.” Clare threw her hands into the air. “Isn’t saving the world worth the risk?”
“No.” I stepped in front of James and Gabby with a snarl. “Nothing is worth risking my daughter’s life.”
“She doesn’t have that kind of power anyways,” James said, trying to defuse the situation, and Clare shifted her determined gaze to him.
“What do you mean? She melted the entire square.”
“And two minutes later, she’s passed out. She obviously doesn’t have the kind of stamina it would take to affect the entire world.”
“So what, you won’t even let her try?” Clare said.
“Give us time,” I said. “Let her grow up, and we’ll work with her.”
“That way, she’ll grow stronger,” Clare nodded. “Fine. We’ll do everything we can to keep her safe and to help you. And when she’s strong enough, she’ll save us all.”
Our friends and fellow campers nodded around us and cheered in agreement, and I smiled in appreciation. When James and I returned to our room within the camp, I took Gabby from my husband and held her sleeping form in my arms for several long moments before placing her in her bed. As much as her new power frightened me, I could never let anyone or anything harm her. That much I knew. It settled into my gut, and while it didn’t go away, it calmed enough for me to ignore it.
James named the garden Eden, and we took Gabby to visit it every day. Some days, she’d frolic among the plants and flowers. Other days, she’d swim in the pond. Sometimes, Gabby created new plants that she’d read about in a book. I never grew accustomed to Gabby’s ability, but I did my best to hide my unease. James was better at reacting to her creations, even encouraging her.
Our fellow campers stopped by the square while Gabby visited to watch her work. Most people were amazed by her power, but some were fearful. It didn’t take long for me to ask Clare for privacy in the square, and she agreed without much fuss. After that, our visits to the Eden Square were just the three of us, except on the occasions that Clare popped in to discuss Gabby’s progress. She made a point to stop by the day that Gabby opened the sky.
James skipped rocks across the pond while Gabby and I read a book about stars. She pointed at the blue sky in the picture book with a bright, shining sun.
“Is that star?”
“That’s the sun, sweetie.”
“When the sun is up, it’s daytime. Right, mommy?”
“That’s right,” I said and flipped the page.
Gabby ran her fingers across the new page and frowned. Little stars darted the painted night sky in the book, and a bright full moon covered one corner of the page.
“That’s the moon,” I said.
“And these are stars like the sun?”
“Yep, they’re just further away from us.”
Gabby looked up into the cloudy sky. “I don’t see any stars.”
“It’s day time,” James said as he sat down to join us. “The stars don’t come out until nighttime.”
“Then where’s the sun?”
“Behind the clouds. They’ve covered the sky since the Big Freeze. No one’s seen the sun nor the stars since then.”
Gabby scrunched her face into a pout and huffed at the sky. “That’s not good.”
My daughter shoved her hand into the air, and the clouds parted enough to reveal a wedge of the blue above. Gabby flung her arm to the left and then to the right, wiping the clouds from the sky. She smiled when the yellow sunlight beamed down on to the three of us.
“It’s the sun!”
James laughed at his daughter’s latest show of power, but a small ball of molten anxiety grumbled in my gut. I put on a happy face and pushed away my concern, but I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling.
“Wow,” Clare said from the doorway of one of the buildings as she gaped at the clear sky. “It’s been so long. I’d forgotten how wonderful the sun could feel against your skin.”
James and I stood to speak with the camp leader, while Gabby jumped up to run in the sunshine.
“We’re going to need to reinforce the fences,” Clare said.
“Why?” James asked.
“People are going to see the opening in the clouds,” I said. “They’ll come here looking for an answer. Maybe hoping for warmth.”
James nodded. “We have room for more people.”
“Until we don’t.” Clare shrugged. “Eventually, we’re going to run out of space, and then we’ll have to turn people away. Strong fences are our best defense against those that disagree.”
James and I nodded in agreement with Clare before Gabby called out.
“Mommy, Daddy. Can we sleep outside tonight? I want to see the stars.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Clare said, and I agreed.
To Be continued...
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© 2020 by Kelly A Nix
Cover image painted by Megan McCloskey