It snowed the day they killed the boy’s parents.
An accident, they said much later, but he was there when it happened and knew it was no accident.
The snow came before they did, almost like a cold white omen, falling from the gray sky.
He could remember how confusing it was. The sweltering heat had brutalized their city for months that stretched into years, an infinite line of days filled with sweat and pain and hunger. He and his family survived. Hopeful mornings devolved into afternoons of scavenging for food, of loud fights and terrifying noises. Then evenings of numbness from the long hot days. He would sit with his family and watch the light fade from the sky and the world slowly disappear before his eyes, wondering if it would reappear with the dawn.
Sometimes the crazies came, indifferent to day or night. But his family didn’t speak of them. Not his mother, not his father; certainly not him. It felt as if admitting their existence aloud might summon them, like an incantation calling forth devils. Only Lizzy, two years younger but twice as brave, had the guts to talk about the crazies, as if she were the only one smart enough to see superstition for nonsense.
And she was just a little kid.
The boy knew he should be the one with courage; he should be the one comforting his little sister. Don’t you worry, Lizzy. The basement is locked up tight; the lights are off. The bad people won’t even know we’re here. But he always found himself speechless. He’d hug her hard, squeezing her like his own personal teddy bear for comfort. And every time, she’d pat him on the back. He loved her so much it made his heart hurt. He’d squeeze her tighter, silently swearing he’d never let the crazies hurt her, looking forward to feeling the flat of her palm thumping him between his shoulder blades.
Often, they fell asleep that way, curled up in the corner of the basement, on top of the old mattress his dad had dragged down the stairs. Their mother always put a blanket over them, despite the heat—her own rebellious act against the Flare, which had ruined everything.
That morning, they awoke to a sight of wonder.
It was his mother’s voice. He’d been dreaming, something about a football match, the ball spinning across the green grass of the pitch, heading for an open goal in an empty stadium.
“Kids! Wake up! Come see!”
He opened his eyes, saw his mother looking out the small window, the only one in the basement room. She’d removed the board his dad had nailed there the night before, like he did every evening at sunset. A soft gray light shone down on his mother’s face, revealing eyes full of bright awe. And a smile like he hadn’t seen in a very long time lit her even brighter.
“What’s going on?” he mumbled, climbing to his feet. Lizzy rubbed her eyes, yawned, then followed him to where Mum gazed into the daylight.
He could remember several things about that moment. As he looked out, squinting as his eyes adjusted, his father still snored like a beast. The street was empty of crazies, and clouds covered the sky, a rarity these days. He froze when he saw the white flakes. They fell from the grayness, swirling and dancing, defying gravity and flitting up before floating back down again.
“What the bloody hell?” he mumbled under his breath, a phrase he’d learned from his father.
“How can it snow, Mummy?” Lizzy asked, her eyes drained of sleep and filled with a joy that pinched his heart. He reached down and tugged on her braid, hoping she knew just how much she made his miserable life worth living.
“Oh, you know,” Mum replied, “all those things the people say. The whole weather system of the world is shot to bits, thanks to the Flares. Let’s just enjoy it, shall we? It’s quite extraordinary, don’t you think?”
Lizzy responded with a happy sigh.
He watched, wondering if he’d ever see such a thing again. The flakes drifted, eventually touching down and melting as soon as they met the pavement. Wet freckles dotted the windowpane.
They stood like that, watching the world outside, until shadows crossed the space at the top of the window. They were gone as soon as they appeared. The boy craned his neck to catch a glimpse of who or what had passed, but looked too late. A few seconds later, a heavy pounding came on the front door above. His father was on his feet before the sound ended, suddenly wide-awake and alert.
“Did you see anyone?” Dad asked, his voice a bit croaky.
Mum’s face had lost the glee from moments earlier, replaced with the more familiar creases of concern and worry. “Just a shadow. Do we answer?”
“No,” Dad responded. “We most certainly do not. Pray they go away, whoever it is.”
“They might break in,” Mum whispered. “I know I would. They might think it’s abandoned, maybe a bit of canned food left behind.”
Dad looked at her for a long time, his mind working as the silence ticked by. Then, boom, boom, boom. The hard cracks on the door shook the entire house, as if their visitors had brought along a battering ram.
“Stay here,” Dad said carefully. “Stay with the children.”
Mum started to speak but stopped, looking down at her daughter and son, her priorities obvious. She pulled them into a hug, as if her arms could protect them, and the boy let the warmth of her body soothe him. He held her tight as Dad quietly made his way up the stairs, the floor above creaking as he moved toward the front door. Then silence.
The air grew heavy, pressing down. Lizzy reached over and took her brother’s hand. Finally he found words of comfort and poured them out to her.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, barely more than a breath. “It’s probably just some people hungry for food. Dad will share a bit, and then they’ll be on their way. You’ll see.” He squeezed her fingers with all the love he knew, not believing a word he’d said.
Next came a rush of noises.
The door slammed open.
Loud, angry voices.
A crash, then a thump that rattled the floorboards.
Heavy, dreadful footsteps.
And then the strangers were pounding down the stairs. Two men, three, a woman—four people total. The arrivals were dressed sharply for the times, and they looked neither kind nor menacing. Merely solemn to the core.
“You’ve ignored every message we’ve sent,” one of the men stated as he examined the room. “I’m sorry, but we need the girl. Elizabeth. I’m very sorry, but we’ve got no choice.”