The snow frantically spiralled through the air, light and free. The flakes darted through the blurry night as the temperature sank lower and lower. It was piled thick in the tall, grey woods, rising higher and higher, muffling the world until it fell silent. One landed on Monica's face, in the corner of her eye. It melted, leaving a trail of water like a tear along her cheek to freeze in the low moonlight.
She shivered. It was a bad idea, she reflected, to run away from home. And to take the shortcut through the woods. And to trip and fall and be too tired to bother getting up. The snow was coating her, smothering her gently as the Xweetok curled up near a tree. It was so cold. It was too dark. She was too numb. Why wasn't she wearing a coat? Her mother had always told her to wear a coat.
She vainly tried to move, but couldn't. Her body was cold, getting colder. She could feel herself slipping away. Her mind was drifting in and out of coherent thoughts as the world dimmed around her, fading into blue-grey. She was going, wasn't she? Her parents would find her in the morning, lying still in the snow. Oh, how she regretted leaving. Stupid of her. And now she was getting what she deserved, wasn't she?
If she focused, sharpened the blur around her until she could define the trees, she saw a tiny blue glinting golden in the distance. Her house? Did her parents know she was gone? Were they worried?
Monica looked at the snowman. It had been standing, motionless, since she had fallen here. Its pebble smile shimmered in the night, and its stick arms seemed to be waving at her. The moonlight shone on its top hat, satiny black. Monica vaguely wished she had a hat, but the thought wasn’t complete enough for her to understand it.
Suddenly, she heard a noise in the distance. Snow, crunching under boots, ice crystals snapping loudly. She could see a figure far off, moving slowly through the woods, pausing periodically to look around.
“Monica?” the shape called out, and she recognized her father’s voice. In her bleary, half-conscious state she wondered why he didn’t notice her. She was right there, wasn’t she? Why couldn’t he hear her calling out?
She spoke, she knew she did, but nothing happened. Her words were inaudible, even to her, snatched and tossed on the grey wind to whisk away into the moon. Or maybe she hadn’t spoken at all. It was so hard to tell, it was so cold...
With a sudden jolt she remembered her father. He was closer, calling her name in a voice saturated with worry. Monica put every ounce of strength into moving, but couldn’t. She struggled to control her body, to keep the world in focus. Darkness blurred her vision. She felt so detached, unsure of where she was, who she was. Whoever she was, she knew she was going. She would not see the sunlight.
There was another shape ahead. Monica couldn’t believe her fading vision, quite reasonably. Hallucinations were only natural. There was no way that a snowman was moving towards her, dragging itself inch by inch. But, unmistakably, she could see moonlight glinting off the top hat, clear as day. There was no other explanation. She could hear her father’s voice fading in the distance. It was the snowman.
She saw it coming closer, looming over her. She vaguely heard a tsk-ing sound as it looked her over. Then she felt someone take her hand, and finally she descended into sweet blackness.
Monica was warm. Warm meant safe. It had to. Anything warm was infinitely preferable to the fatal numbness of the night. She slowly opened her eyes, blearily blinking as she registered her surroundings.
The Xweetok was in her own bed, her own room, her own house. She looked as the door opened, revealing her mother in the doorway with a bowl of hot soup. “You’re awake,” her mother said softly, happily, as she set the bowl on the table and sat on the bed. “I was so worried.” She stroked Monica’s hair gently.
Monica smiled sleepily. “What happened?” she asked. She was still so tired, and the endless soft depths of the bed were tempting. She snuggled into the soft duvet.
"Monica, dear." Her mother's voice was quiet and careful now, and she could feel her concern. "We were so worried. You just disappeared without warning last night. We looked everywhere for you, even in the woods, and when we got back you were on the front steps, asleep. It doesn't make any sense." Monica's mother stared intently at her. "Do you remember what happened, sweetie?"
Monica paused. "I... I don't. I don't remember." Her mother nodded and left.
But she did remember, didn't she? It was the snowman. She was sure of it. But how could she tell her mother that? She'd be written off as hallucinating. But she knew it was the truth, deep down.
Monica pulled on her coat and opened the door to a light flurry of snow catching the daylight. The Xweetok shivered and hurriedly closed the door of her house behind her. She crunched the snow underfoot as she headed for the familiar woods. They seemed less ominous by sunlight, freindly and warm with peals of laughter as children from the village nearby happily explored. Monica tried to retrace her steps, matching last night's path until she emerged in a meadow.
There was the snowman--being destroyed by a biscuit Kiko and a pink Lutari. Monica blinked, mouth agaoe, as the kids cheerily kicked at the snowman, breaking off stick limbs and smashing the hard-packed snow. "What are you doing?" she cried.
The children looked up. "Oh, we're sorry," the Kiko said sincerely. "We didn't know it was yours." Embarrassed, they walked off into the woods.
Monica stepped forward and sank to her knees. She pressed a paw to the broken snowman, smashed beyond repair. A tear trickled down her cheek. It was gone now--she hadn't even had a chance to repay it. She should have saved it. It had saved her, after all. She felt the cold, damp, snow, wondering for the first time who built the snowman. But she had no time to ponder. She could hear her mother calling her.
That night, Monica dreamed.
In her dream, she was walking slowly, carefully through the woods. The pale moonlight cast tall, thin shadows along her path. She was searching for something, trailing her hands along the rough bark of the trees as she peered in the darkness. But what?
It came to her. The snowman. She needed to find it. She needed to rescue it, like it had her. To pay it back. It was hard to have a guilty conscience for an inanimate object, but seeing it destroyed had hurt her. She needed to know it was still alive. What if someone else needed rescuing?
She opened her mouth to call for the snowman, but closed it. Snowmen didn't have ears. They weren't alive. This one... just happened to have saved her life. Did that make it--him?--alive?
She was running now, frantic. Where was it? Her breath came in short pants, her legs ached, but still she ran. She ran, slipping and sliding through the snow and the darkness consumed her and she woke up with sweat running down her face.
Monica had the same dream, the same crushing fear, night after night for a week. The loneliness of the frigid woods haunted the soft blackness when she closed her eyes. Her parents didn't notice. They were gald she was back, and that was all that mattered to them. But she was ravaged. The need to find the snowman overpowered her.
One day, she went out again, following her path until she reached the clearing. The partial lump of the ruined snowman was still there. Exhaling softly, Monica began to build. She scooped up as much snow as she could and packed it the the pile, patting it down until it joined with the other snow. She worked tirelessly, mindlessly, eyes blank as she focused on rebuilding the snowman.
She built another. And another. She populated the meadow with snowmen, all in the same pose. Her hands became numb, her fingers barely moved, and still she packed snow tightly. In her eyes, which were unblinking and heavy, they were watchmen of the forest. Guardians built to watch over runaways like her. They seemed almost mythical, like ancient lore.
She built until her hands blistered and it became to dark to see, and then she headed inside. She lay in bed with a light heart, but again in her dream she walked the forest searching for something she couldn't name. Again she woke up sweaty and disoriented, and could no nothing but cry silently, because sleep was no longer an option.
The next day, Monica was so frazzled and tired that her parents noticed, voicing their concern over breakfast. She assured them she was fine in a dull monotone, and she could tell they didn't believe her.
She did nothing all day. She sat, bordering on sleep, watching the woods from her bedroom window. Several times during the day her mother asked her if she was okay, and each time she responded with a flat affirmitive. At evening's fall she went, hopefully for the last time, into the woods.
She had figured it out. Or at least she thought she had. The reason she wasn't finding anything in her dream was because it was just that, a dream. She needed to act it out. Then she would find what she needed. Then the dreams would stop.
So her mission was to find the snowman. The snowmen she had made must not have counted, so she moved in the opposite direction, silently walking between the thick trunks of trees. There was a tangible note of finality in the air. If she couldn't find it tonight, all hope was lost. Everything--her sanity--was riding on this venture through the forest. It seemed different than her dream, not as familiar as the friendly woods of her daytime, or the dream woods, which were burned into her memory. Still she bravely walked on.
Without warning, she emerged into a tiny clearing. There! A snowman, the snowman, stood in the moonlight. She walked over to it, breathing deeply. She reached out to touch it and heard a tiny voice on the wind.
With a click, it all came together. The snowman. She had seen the top hat, not the actual snowman. Anyone could wear a hat. A snowman was just that, a snowman. It couldn't move, or save people. It wasn't alive, just snow in a certain shape. No more magic than dirt.
And the dreams. Of course. They wouldn't stop because she thought she needed to find the snowman. But that wasn't what she was looking for. Sure enough, she turned her head and saw a lump of snow on the ground. But lumps of snow normally didn't conceal fur or have bright blue eyes. It all made sense now. This was who she was looking for. This was what she had to do. The snowman was nothing, a signpost at best, or the means to cover up the world in myth. Walking, talking snowmen were the most obvious explanation, but not the best one. It was so obvious now.
With the smallest of smiles, she snatched the hat off the snowman, plunked it on her head, and began a slow walk to the figure in the snow.