Between my first and second semesters at college, I transferred from the University of Miami to a teeny, tiny little private college right up on the US-Canada border. It’s small and recognizable enough that I won’t share the name; the people I knew there have had enough to deal with already. It was tight-knit, offered almost no extracurriculars besides winter sports and a few sparse academic clubs, and it was exactly what I was looking for at 19. I wanted to get out of Miami. I wanted relief from the constant heat and humidity, I wanted to get away from my family, and I desperately wanted peace and quiet away from the constant noise of the city.
And after I met him, I wanted Sever.
Sever was the captain of the skiing team, which gave him more clout in the student body than you might think. The team was big considering the small population on campus; it seemed like everyone there but me had been born and raised in the snow or on a mountain.
My college experience isn’t where my deepest regrets come from – those come later – so I’ll just say that I would change two things about it, if I could: first, I would have moved up north right off instead of bothering with Miami for another few months. Second, I would have done at least the bare minimum of athletic training in the relevant sports before moving to a school populated almost entirely by winter jocks. I’m pretty sure I died three times over during our first few weeks of training. Some days I could barely hobble to class thanks to ski practice the afternoon before.
Looking back, I’m surprised that the guys on the team didn’t laugh me right out of the room when they saw me in the lineup of underclassman hopefuls. Only guy on the entire campus probably who had a Hispanic last name, and that was just the start of how I stuck out. Maybe, with somebody else in charge of the team, I would have been an uppity nail that needed to be hammered down. Not with Sever, though.
Sever Zima, man. His last name even meant “winter”, he told me once. He never could have belonged anywhere else. The first test that I passed on the team was probably not being one of the new guys to snicker at his name. You know how some clubs and teams are with each other, how they close ranks whenever any of their own is the slightest bit threatened. The ski guys were like that, and Sever was the team captain and the lynchpin of their dynamic. Nobody even thought about fucking with him if they were smart.
Sever introduced himself to the new recruits at the first practice, and the guys who hadn’t figured out right off that you didn’t jack with the team captain made themselves known. He didn’t say anything to them right then. He had a way of speaking without saying anything aloud. Silent as the winter landscape, those gray eyes drilling into you. God, he was and is the only man I ever thought of describing as beautiful. Even now, with everything that happened in the years since, he’s still beautiful when I remember him, all sharp angles and pale skin, gray eyes and long black hair, longer than any of the other guys wore theirs.
Even with everything that happened, I can still remember him like that. Nothing can take that from me, at least.
Sever never let anybody have it right out in the open. I don’t think there were ever any real blow-ups the way you’d expect from a team and school populated by cocky athletic dudes, not in the ski team. But people got the message, and one by one the guys who wouldn’t make it there drifted away. Somehow, I made it. I like to think that he saw something in me right from the beginning, but who knows. I made the team, and I died a little bit less at each practice as my body adjusted to the cold and I started building up muscles in the right places. Altitude sickness got to me sometimes, but I struggled through.
The first real conversation I had with Sever was, of course, about our names. There wasn’t another Perez for probably a couple hundred miles all around campus, and something about it amused him, I think. I remember asking, cheekily, if I was the first brown guy he’d ever spoken to in his life. That made him laugh. It was a startling sound, out in the quiet of the snow as we trudged back from practice with our equipment under our arms. Everything was muffled except for that laugh, and it echoed off the mountain and the trees. Something about it lingered in the air after the sound had faded away. He didn’t laugh much. It was a rare treat to hear.
By that point, I figured I was pretty well established in the group, so I asked about his name in return. It was Russian, as it turned out. His parents and grandparents had stuck out the Cold War up here in their little cold corner of the US, and once that fabled wall finally came down, there had been a kind of defiant patriotism for the old country that came through in the names of their kids. Sever had a younger brother named Kolmogor, poor kid.
“You ever thought about going by your middle name?” I asked.
“My middle name is Aloyoshenka,” he replied, straight-faced. “So I’m going to stick with the one most people can actually spell.”
“Right,” I said. “That explains that, then.”
And he gave me that little half-smile of his, and I started to fall a little bit in love with him, there in the silent snow.
They tell legends, out on the mountains. We had our share of local spooks on campus and in the nearby town, usually in the vein of jilted lovers and drunk partygoers who got caught out in the cold. There were other things: people getting snowed in and going crazy, places among the trees that you shouldn’t go, things that meant bad luck if you saw them. When it gets to be properly wintertime, the howling of the wind is so constant that after a while it’s like you don’t hear it at all, and the snow covers everything, hushing it like a hand over your mouth. It’s the kind of atmosphere made for stories about isolation, about getting lost somewhere in the wilderness and finding the unknown things out there – or having those things find you. Sometimes that’s where it ends. Sometimes the unknown things follow you back home. I heard lots of stories over the years, but at the beginning, I was preoccupied with more concrete and physical things than rumors and myths.
Stuff happens at an all-male school, the same way it did (and still does) in the military, and probably at all-girls’ schools, and those remote little outposts all over the world where people are forced close together and the kind of people they would desire under other circumstances are a fantasy at best. Some guys make the trek to the women’s college nearby to see if any of the girls want to party; some don’t care. Some look at the guy next to them and decide, hey, he’s not looking so bad after all. And of course, some guys didn’t need the extra encouragement to start thinking that way, either.
I can’t say when exactly I decided it, but at some point, I determined that if Sever turned out to be in either of the last two categories, nobody was getting him into bed but me. The problem was, I had been told before that I had no godly idea how to flirt with another human being without seeming like I was going to eat them.
I’ll skip over all the messy and embarrassing stretches of time that it took to get from Point A to Point B. Luckily, the solution turned out to be that Sever had decided that he wanted me too.
After that, we just… were. We screwed, yeah. We screwed a lot. You know how a lot of young guys are. We never really went on dates or anything; even if we had wanted to, there weren’t many places locally to go. At times, it felt like there was nothing surrounding the campus except the snow on the ground and the trees and mountains closing you in; so little from the outside got through. A lot stayed inside and never left.
Mostly we just sat in the lounge or one of our dorms – Sever, probably through some team captain magic, had managed to get a single, the lucky bastard – and we drank coffee and studied together in silence. Sometimes we watched movies or listened to music, and one terribly awkward time we watched porn together to see if it would be hot (it wasn’t, at all), but mostly it was just us and the quiet, and my occasional bitching about the cold that I never completely got used to. Yeah, sometimes I was just being melodramatic for an excuse to cuddle. Sever was like a human-sized space heater. Did wonders for the chill.
Listen man, if you’ve ever had a warm place, a place where you’re happy and everything is silent except for your heartbeat, it doesn’t matter what happens after you die. If you’ve had that, you’ve already been to heaven.
We spent the better part of three years like that. Sever graduated before me, but even afterwards he never seemed far away. He had gone to college mostly to please his parents and because the ski team had given him a full ride, but everyone who met him knew that he belonged out on the mountains. He became a ski instructor and mountain guide, putting tourists and newbies through their paces and keeping the advanced trekkers in check so they didn’t get overconfident and kill themselves out on the slopes. He came back around to campus often enough, and he always had stories to tell, a bit of new life from around the area to inject into our tired old local legends.
“You hear things out there, sometimes,” he said once. He was straight-faced and serious like usual, so people listened to him more than they would have someone else. “Sometimes the wind sounds like voices, you know. It spooks the locals and the superstitious ones.”
When pressed, he added, “Sometimes the people who hear voices think that they’re being called personally. Something’s out there that wants them. Every few years, it sounds like, somebody goes crazy and walks out into a blizzard because of it.”
If people kept bugging him for spooks, he would shrug and change the subject to more mundane superstitions, like how employees at one of the ski resorts held that it was bad luck to wear red socks up the mountain. Wouldn’t you know it, their shop only sold red socks and white socks, and the white socks were the more expensive brand. That usually earned a little laugh and got people off his back.
I usually forgot the stories until he spent the night. Everything was good when he did, like it had always been, but sometimes he would stop and tilt his head just so, like he was listening for something. Even when I strained my ears against the silence or the wind that I had been subconsciously blocking out, I never caught a hint of what he was listening for. I would remember some of the things he said about the legends up on the mountain, though, and the chill would stay with me for a while.
I sometimes wondered how much, if any of it, he believed himself. I never asked him about it. I don’t think it would have changed anything if I had, but you always wonder about things like that.
When I graduated, I didn’t stick around so close. I wouldn’t have minded, but grad school was the thing that would ensure I didn’t have to go back to Miami for the next few years, and there weren’t any good programs nearby. I ended up in New York, which was… noisy. The climate was fine, and the people aren’t actually as rude as you think, once you’ve gotten used to them, but the City That Never Sleeps sure lives up to its name. Sometimes I thought I would never sleep either. It was kind of nice not to be the only Perez around again, but I missed the wilderness and the silent snowfall. When the snow blanketed the city and muffled everything for a few hours, that was the only time I got any relief.
Sever and I kept in touch. I wouldn’t quite call it a long-distance relationship, since we had never officially been in a relationship to begin with, but it was probably that in everything but name. We texted and called, sometimes video chatted or sent pictures over Snapchat if we were feeling hot and bothered. I never asked if he did that with anyone else, and he did me the same courtesy. There were guys, and some girls, who came and went for me, but at some point, I had realized that I would always want Sever.
I kept up with his Instagram and the pictures he posted on Facebook. He wasn’t a great photographer, and having seen the landscape he was taking pictures of, I can verify that his phone camera could never do it justice. All the same, I kept up. I liked to have a little window into what he was seeing.
The last picture that I have of him – the way I like to remember him best – is his attempt at a selfie with the slope of the mountain behind him. Those gray eyes meeting mine across time and space through the camera lens, that little half-smile. I can see him that day, standing on the slope backed by cloudy sky, everything snowy and silent. Literally and figuratively on top of the world.
Sometimes I dream of being there, watching him give me that little smile before he turns and pushes off down the slope. No matter how fast I follow, I can never catch up with him.
I got the call just after New Year’s Day in my final year of grad research.
It was the kind of thing that happens from time to time. Sometimes nature takes a look at the people scurrying all over like they own the place, and it slaps back. All that weight the mountain is carrying comes crashing down with a rumbling growl that everyone around can feel all the way to their core, and then there’s just… nothing. Not just a silence in the aftermath, but a void. The world waiting with baited breath to see what comes next.
Four people went up the mountain. Nature slapped back. Around two weeks later, only one crawled out of the devastation the avalanche had left. The guide. Sever.
One of my other buddies from the ski team who had stayed in the area called me. Sever was in the hospital after being picked up by the rescue team. He was frostbitten, starving, and suffering injuries from some kind of wild animal attack. He was delirious.
He kept asking for me.
I dropped everything, of course. I sent a few emails to the people who needed to know that I had an emergency to attend to, and I was back home within a day. Ed, the buddy who had stayed in the area and now worked with the rescue and medical teams staffing the mountain, pulled some strings so that I could visit Sever in the hospital despite not being family.
He had calmed somewhat by the time I got in to see him. He drifted in and out of consciousness and didn’t always seem to know I was there, but I held his hand, and I like to think that it helped a little. Considering what he had been through, his injuries were surprisingly light. There would be some scarring on his cheeks and lips from frostbite, and he had lost a couple toes, but that kind of thing happened to people all the time out here. The malnutrition he was suffering was what worried the doctors the most, I think. He’d been out there fifteen days with just a few trail snacks to keep him going.
Ed had mentioned that Sever had probably run afoul of some wild animal trying to catch it for food when it happened by. That explanation seemed odd to me, given the situation, and so did Sever’s injuries. I’d seen the aftermath of a few different kind of animal attacks back in Florida and up north, and Sever’s scratches and bruises didn’t look like any of them. They were too shallow, too small compared to what you expected to see left by claws and teeth. He had a proper bite too, covered by a bandage on his shoulder; I didn’t get to see it, but Ed, who didn’t seem to take patient confidentiality too seriously when it concerned people he knew well, had hinted that there was something odd about the bite like the rest of the injuries.
I didn’t think too hard about any of it, really, even the strange parts. I tried not to think too hard about the family of three that had gone up with him but never came back, either. I was just glad that Sever was alive, in that quietly selfish way people are when one of their loved ones has been luckier than someone else’s.
It was another day before he came around enough to be coherent when awake. Nobody was too keen to bother him for anything other than what details he could give that might point them to where they could find the remains of the family he’d been guiding. He confirmed that they were dead, but he couldn’t say just where they might be found. That wasn’t too unusual.
What was unusual was that Sever kept coming up with reasons why he couldn’t explain better, and his story kept changing. Inclement weather would make searching dangerous. The remains, wherever they were, had probably been scattered by wildlife by now. He had gotten turned around after the avalanche and didn’t even know where they had been. He couldn’t remember things exactly. He was too hungry to think.
Any of these things on their own would have been fine. Maybe even all of them, if Sever hadn’t been acting so… off. I didn’t know how else to think of it. Everyone sensed it, but nobody pressed him. We brushed it off as shock; he’d never had a disaster on his hands before. A lot of instructors and guides never saw something of that scale in their entire career, and Sever was only a few years into his. You didn’t easily recover from three people losing their lives on your watch, even if there was nothing you could have done about it.
I think maybe we all had some sense that it wasn’t just shock, but none of us were superstitious enough to really chalk it up to anything else. There were signs, but we ignored them. I don’t think there was anything we could have done, but all the same, we ignored the signs.
Everything Sever could be coaxed into talking about would always circle back to the same thing. The hunger. He was always hungry. He was starving. And yeah, he was literally starving after spending two weeks trapped in a cave by ice and snow and debris. So of course, nobody made anything of that at first.
I visited as often and for as long as I could. Pretty much all I did when I had to leave the hospital and go back to my motel room was try unsuccessfully to work on school assignments and sleep. I kept picturing Sever’s face even when I wasn’t there with him. The black, dead patches on his lips and cheeks, how hollow and thin he looked all over. There was something guarded and haunted in his eyes now. I was used to him looking at me like he could see all the way down to my soul. Now he hardly looked me, or anyone, in the eyes at all.
Once when I was getting up to leave because visiting hours were over, he caught my sleeve. His hand was so thin and pale that I could almost see his bones through the skin.
“I’m so fucking hungry, Vic,” he said. “I can’t live on this hospital shit. You’ve got to tell them to let me out of here.”
I had even less say in how soon he got out than he did, but of course I agreed. I bothered Ed about it, and he bothered someone higher up in turn. Sever didn’t get released from the hospital, but they did start providing some more carb-heavy meals and vitamin supplements on the side, along with the nutrition he’d been getting via IV already. I think by then, even the most straight-laced of the doctors who checked in on him were getting nervous. No matter how much he ate, it seemed like he was still losing weight almost day by day, wasting away in front of our eyes. It wasn’t natural.
The hunger never abated. Then he started to complain of the cold. That, of all things, was what forced me to acknowledge to myself that something more was wrong here than a man struggling to recover from a tragedy. I wouldn’t have known where to even begin if I tried to explain it to someone else then, but I couldn’t stay in denial after that. Sever had been born and raised in the cold. He loved it, thrived in it. He would wear shorts when there was snow on the ground. He never, ever complained of the chill, even when it was twenty below or colder.
I bothered Ed, and he bothered someone higher up, and Sever got more blankets and more doctors scrutinizing his vitals. He kept starving. His body temperature kept dropping, fraction by fraction. My nerves were unraveling day after day. One evening, I got to my motel room and I just sat on the bed, staring at nothing.
I sat there for God knows how long, staring at the empty wall, and when I finally moved, it had sunk in that we were all watching Sever die in slow agony. Even knowing that, I still held onto the hope that something could save him. I wouldn’t leave him until it was all over, one way or another.
I told myself that. I promised Sever that. I know that there is nothing I could have done, no matter what, but if I could change anything – anything – I would go back and force myself to keep that promise.
It all finally fell apart not long after the final change. Sever, who had loved the winter quiet, who had been born and raised and made me fall in love with him in the silent snow, began to hate it. He didn’t just hate it; he feared it. He couldn’t stand the silence. He started screaming, banging his hospital bed, knocking things over if he could reach them. He was practically a skeleton, but he had that kind of strength that dying people sometimes do.
Sever demanded noise at all times. He wanted the TV in his hospital room turned up to max volume. He wanted a radio. He screamed over anyone who tried to hush him.
He started yelling at people who weren’t there, people that he insisted were just outside his window. He ranted about voices on the wind. He begged me to tell them things. To say that he didn’t want to go with them. To say that he was sorry. That he had been desperate. That he was scared to die.
In the middle of one of these episodes, I got up and left.
I just stood and walked out. I heard Sever calling after me, increasingly frantic, but I kept walking until I was outside, and then I ran as far and long as I could until I collapsed in the snow with tears freezing on my cheeks and Sever’s screams still seeming to echo in the silence around me just like his laugh had long ago.
Sever Zima is dead. I tell myself constantly that he’s dead and gone, and that it’s better off that way.
God, I hope there’s nothing of him left.
I never went back to the hospital while he was alive. I have a lot of regrets that you would expect; I abandoned him, I never properly said goodbye, all of that.
Sometimes I regret that I didn’t die too.
I got the call in the middle of the night, a little less than a week after I walked out of the hospital for the last time. It was Ed’s phone number, but it took me a minute to realize that the voice on the other end was Sever’s. He was crying hysterically. I couldn’t get anything coherent out of him, no answer about where Ed was or why Sever had his phone, or anything else about what was going on.
That phone call lasted two minutes and thirty-four seconds. Around two minutes of Sever shrieking and crying, and then someone yelling in the background. A crunching and tearing noise, and then the call abruptly ended.
So of course I, dumbass that I was and am, got out of bed, bundled up, and booked it to the hospital.
Something that always gets me when I think about the whole fucked-up situation is that in a lot of ways, I got off easy. I never made it into the hospital. I never got to see what Sever did when that awful, endless hunger finally won. The police and their cleanup crew found most of Ed – the top half of him, at least – but all that was left of the attending night nurse that Sever attacked before Ed intervened was shredded clothing and viscera. People who weren’t there tell stories about it, but the cops who attended the scene and the guys who had to clean it up never do. Makes you wonder what else they saw that was even worse.
Me, though, I never saw any of it. I only made it to the parking lot.
I only saw Sever.
He was staggering around the lot, dragging something that in hindsight I’m pretty sure was the other half of Ed. He’d gotten taller. A lot taller. Either nobody noticed it happening because he spent the preceding weeks confined to a hospital bed, or it had been a sudden thing. He was still horribly thin, skin sticking to every angle and curve of his bones. The wild mess of his hair kept me from seeing his face clearly, but his mouth-
At first I thought he was grinning, but after turning that image over and over in my mind in the years since, I think that he just couldn’t close his mouth. I think there were too many teeth.
I froze in place when I saw him, but that didn’t keep him from seeing me. He lurched towards me, and a gust of wind that cut straight through me to chill to the bone whispered my name. “Vic-”
I fainted then.
That’s all that I can say for sure that I experienced that night. I have other memories. Ice-cold fingers caressing my face. Heavy, unnatural silence pressing down on me like a thick blanket, like something was blocking out the rest of the world. The only thing that broke the dead silence was the sigh of the wind, so faint I couldn’t be sure I was even really hearing it.
It whispered my name over and over.
There were drag marks and a blood trail in the snow when the police got there and found me, but Sever left no footprints. When the blood grew lighter and lighter and finally tapered off into the treeline past the edge of town, there was nothing else to follow. Maybe there was a scent police dogs could have picked up, maybe not; our little town didn’t have a canine unit, and the snow never let up long enough for a thorough search to be possible before any trail was long cold.
The official story ends there, with a little epilogue tacked on about the human remains found in a mountain cave once the spring thaw came. The family of three that Sever had been guiding when the avalanche trapped them. From what I heard, it had been so long by then that the exact cause of death was difficult to determine, but it probably wasn’t exposure. Some of the damage on the partially-eaten bodies could be linked to the mountain wildlife, but not all of it.
They tell stories up in the mountains about what happens to people who get trapped in the snow. The things some will do to survive and the price they pay for it.
In public, everyone says that Sever is dead. He lost his mind and ran out into the freezing cold night after his wild outburst of violence. These things just happen sometimes up in this part of the country.
I want Sever to be dead, but nobody ever found his body.
I’ve stayed in NYC these past few years. I had to take a break from my grad studies on the recommendations of both my university and my psychiatrist, but I’ve gotten back to them now, and I think I’m doing pretty well. The noise of the city keeps me awake at night, but I need it. Just like Sever before he died, I can no longer stand the winter silence.
When the snow falls and things get too quiet, I hear a voice on the wind and a tapping on my windows like someone asking to be let in. I had to leave my last apartment because I disturbed the neighbors, yelling at that voice to leave me alone. These days, I just try to ignore it, but sometimes I can’t help but respond. Sometimes I just have to shout over it, to tell it to go the hell away and stop pretending to be somebody that I loved.
Sometimes when it goes, I beg it to come back.
Written by Zarinaaa