The Color of Snow Excerpt
Malad, Idaho, early spring 2009
Spring had spread across the fields and pastures. Cottonwood trees fluttered their newly sprouted greenery, and purple asters covered the rolling hills. The snow had melted and Stephanie and I started taking the horses on rides up the valley. It was incredibly liberating to roam and wander without fear.
There was a trail leading from the foothills up into the forest, and once we were in the midst of the wild spruce and lofty pines, the noises of cars and life around the ranch disappeared. The sound of hooves on early spring dirt was solid and steady. The breeze was still crisp, but the sun reached down and warmed our shoulders. For almost an hour we rode in silence. We both were in awe of the day and the splendor that was ours alone to enjoy.
At the top of the hill, the trail opened up to a small plateau and a blue mountain lake. I gasped at the incredible beauty of it. I smiled at Stephanie and she nodded in acknowledgement. Her eyes were bright and her freckles seemed to glow in the sunshine. The horse she rode was a black mare my grandfather was going to sell. Stephanie loved the white diamond-shaped patch on her forehead, and scolded him for even thinking about selling Black Bean. My horse was an old buckskin gelding named Clyde. He lumbered along and rarely went faster than a slow trot, but for a beginner like me he was perfect.
Stephanie turned her horse down the hill and toward the lake. “Do you want to go swimming?” she called back.
“I don’t know how,” I answered.
She giggled as she reached the water’s edge. “You don’t need to. The horses do it all.” Her hair was pulled into two short pigtails and they bounced with each step of her horse.
I waited and watched as she urged Black Bean into the water and out into the lake. As the water got deeper, the splashes became larger around its legs as it pushed forward, and soon they were floating along smoothly.
“Come on!” she yelled, waving me in. She had her legs pulled up on the sides, trying to avoid getting completely soaked. They were pale and freckled like her face, and seemed to make up most of her body. Stephanie wasn’t much taller than I, but her legs and arms were long and made her look gangly and even thinner than she was. She waved so hard she almost fell off the horse, and started laughing as she steadied herself.
It looked like fun, but I was terrified. The water was immense and dark. The largest amount of water I had ever been in was my own bathtub. I wondered what would happen if I fell off in the middle. Stephanie and Black Bean were in the center of the lake and they looked like a serene harmonious duo.
I gave Clyde a slight nudge and he walked to the shoreline. The water lapped as I waited and watched Stephanie continue to beckon. She looked like she was having a marvelous time and wasn’t worried in the least. I patted Clyde and prodded him with the heels of my sneakers. He seemed unconcerned as he clopped loudly into the water. I took a deep breath and told myself to keep looking forward and it would be okay. Clyde had no hesitation, which helped ease my fear.
The sun beat down on us and made splashes of water light up as Clyde moved forward into the water. The splatters that hit my exposed skin were freezing and made me realize how cold it would be if I did fall in. I fixed my eyes on the opposite shoreline and put my faith in Clyde. The horse had a wide back, and as we got deeper into the lake, I curled my legs back the way Stephanie did and clung to his mane. We were riding bareback that day, because Stephanie didn’t want to spend time putting on saddles.
I held my breath as we got further away from the shore and closer to the very center of the lake. At one point I looked down, staring deep into the abyss. There was no bottom, and I felt my stomach turn, knowing I would surely die if I left Clyde’s back.
As the horse rhythmically propelled us along, I began to feel a sense of buoyancy and freedom. When we crossed the center point and were on our way to the other shore, my confidence turned to elation. I started to breathe again and smiled at what I had accomplished. I sat up straight, closed my eyes and imagined I was flying, gliding along on my winged unicorn, soaring through clouds and racing the wind. When I opened my eyes, I giggled at my foolish imagination, but couldn’t help beaming at what an amazing adventure it was.
When the horse’s hooves made contact with the lake bottom and we started to emerge from the water, I wanted to burst from relief and joy. “That was the most wonderful thing ever!”
Stephanie was sitting on a large tree limb that had fallen while her horse munched on fresh new grass beside her. “I didn’t think you’d do it. I’m proud of you.”
“It was so scary, but then it was so amazing.”
“I’m glad you liked it, because that’s how we’re getting back.”
We led the horses to a shaded area and tied them loosely to a tree so they could rest and graze. Stephanie leaned back against a tree and looked out at the incredible view of mountain-lined lake and clear blue sky.
“This is where I go when I can’t stand life anymore. The first time I came here, I tried to kill myself. I stole my dad’s gun and had it all planned out. Then I sat here and looked around at all this and thought...who would care? I’m nothing and no one would miss me, so why do it? That’s when I decided to live for me. I do what makes me happy now and screw the rest of them.”
“You were going to kill yourself. Why?”
Stephanie took a deep, labored sigh. “I didn’t see the point in living. My mom was dead and my dad married that crazy bitch.” She shrugged. “I don’t really fit in anywhere. Even at school, the kids hate me.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe that. There is no reason to hate you.”
Stephanie scoffed. “You say that because you don’t know any better. You don’t know what normal is. That’s why we get along. I’m a freak, but you’ve never had any friends, so you don’t know how weird I am.” She smiled.
“I’ve had friends,” I protested.
“Really? I thought you were kept alone at that house all the time.”
Stephanie raised an eyebrow. “So, did your dad kidnap kids and bring them home for you play with?”
My eyes went large, but then Stephanie laughed and I realized she was joking. I paused for a moment, trying to pick my words carefully.
“Don’t worry about me telling anyone. Remember, we’re best friends, so you should be able to tell me anything. I’ve never told anyone that I was going to kill myself.”
I looked at her with a mixture of love and concern. “I had two friends. I met them when I was eleven. Their mother worked with my father and they came to our house one day. That’s how they knew I lived there. They lived over the hill from us and they came over while Papa was at work and we played in my yard.” I stopped and smiled at the memory.
“You had to hide them from your father. Why?”
“He was afraid that if people knew I was home alone all day, they would come and take me away.”
“Didn’t it drive you crazy to be alone all the time?”
I shrugged. “Not really. When I met Donny and Damien I was much happier. I didn’t know what it was like to have friends before I met them, so I didn’t realize what I was missing.”
She studied me. “Isn’t Damien the kid your dad shot? Why’d he shoot him? Did he catch him with you?”
“Why didn’t you just tell him that you two were friends and that it was no big deal?"
“I tried to convince him, but...there is a lot you don’t understand.”
Stephanie gave me a disappointed curl of her lip. “And I won’t be able to understand if you keep everything a secret.”
I stayed silent.
“Sophie, I’ve already told you something that I never told anyone. I trust you because we’re friends. That is what friends do. They trust each other and they tell each other things. Do you think I won’t believe you?”
“No, it’s not that. And I do trust you, but there are things that will sound strange, and I don’t want you to think I’m a monster.”
She laughed. “You are the opposite of a monster. You’re friendly and kind. People would love to be near you.”
I ran the word through my head several times. I wondered if the statement had validity, because if it did, it explained some of the things Papa told me that seemed unimaginable.
“So, what is this big dark secret? You say your father didn’t kidnap you or treat you badly, so why did he keep you locked up in that house hidden away from the world?”
I thought it was inconceivable that the two of us were best friends. Stephanie had just confessed that she had almost ended her life and now I was about to tell her how I had ended my mother’s and one of my friends. My fears of being ostracized and treated like a disease were still at the surface, but the thought of releasing some of the weight with a person I trusted was like having a balloon inflating inside me ready to burst. I felt my secret was slowly killing me, and the only way I could get relief was to talk about it. I was still scared that once it was out, it would sprout wings and fly out of control.
“I’ll tell you, but you have to swear you’ll never tell anyone else.”
“I swear. I swear on my stepmother’s grave,” she giggled.
I looked at her, worried that she wasn’t in the right mind frame to hear what I had to say. My face must have showed it, because Stephanie quickly lost her smile and leaned forward. She put her hand on my shoulder. “God, Soph, I was just kidding. You look like I just cursed her dead.”
I gasped and put my hand to my mouth. I felt an icy chill go down my back and my heart jumped.
“What?” she asked.
“It’s what you said. That is why I had to hide all those years.”
“What I said? How could that be? I wasn’t even around.”
I was speechless and stunned. Just hearing the word made me dizzy. I put my face in my hands and rocked back and forth, trying to steady my nerves and my thoughts.
“Sophie, what’s wrong with you? You’re not making any sense. I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”
I stopped rocking, and looked up at her. “I’m so afraid to say anything.”
“You have no reason to be afraid. I’m not going to tell anyone. You’re my only friend!” She smiled. “You’ll go crazy if you keep it all inside.”
“But what if you don’t want to be friends after I tell you?”
“That’s crazy.” She sat up on her knees and squared her body to mine. She held my shoulders and made me look at her. “Here, think about this. Imagine I’m the one telling you this big secret. If that were the case, would we still be friends? Sophie?”
I realized I had drifted off. I blinked as I came back and smiled. I had no reservations about how I would react if she were the one telling it. Stephanie would be my friend regardless of her secrets and I knew that she felt the same. So with the same strength I had mustered to lead my horse into a deep dark lake, I pushed forward and decided to reveal what had shaped my entire life. It would either knock me into a cold, deep abyss, or I would cross it and end up gaining the confidence I needed to take even more risks in my life. I was willing to take that chance. I suddenly realized that I had no idea where to start. It struck me as funny, and I stopped and smiled to myself.
“You’re a tease!” she yelled. “Come on, out with it.”
“I don’t know where to start. There is so much to tell.”
She leaned back against the tree and put her arms behind her head. “We have all day. They don’t expect us until dinner and I brought food in my backpack. Spill it!”
I took a deep breath. “There is something terrible that happened a long time ago and it’s the reason Papa and I had to hide all those years.”
“Did he kill someone?” she asked, both horrified and intrigued.
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s not something we did, but something that was done to us.”
Stephanie lowered an eyebrow. “What?”
Her eyes shot wide open, but she gave me a sideways grin. “A curse?”
“Yes. We had to hide away because Papa says we are a threat to the people who love us.”
She cocked her head to the side. “How?”
I looked at the ground and felt my face flush. “I’m not sure, but some of them have died.”
Stephanie reeled back. “They died? How?”
I shrugged. “Papa says it’s the reason my mother died and Donny. He says we’re the reason.”
Stephanie shook her head. “You said he didn’t kill anyone.”
“It’s not us. It’s the curse that kills them.”
“How did they die?”
“Donny died when a dirt cave collapsed on him.” I felt a heavy lump in my stomach. “I don’t know how my mother died. Papa never talks about it.”
“Sounds to me like your father gave you a line to keep you in line. There is no such thing as a curse.”
I felt rejected and embarrassed. It had taken every ounce of trust I could muster to tell her and now she brushed it off. “Yes there is.”
She furrowed her brows. “Did you push that kid into the cave?”
I shook my head. “No!”
Stephanie sat up straight. “Do you think that other kid was shot because of this curse, too?”
I lowered my eyes. “Yes.”
She sat in silence, looking as if she was deep in thought. Several times she began to talk and then stopped. She stood up and walked in a circle. “That doesn’t make sense. If you say the curse kills people who love you, then why am I still alive? And what about your grandparents? Why aren’t we all dead?”
“I’m not sure. Sometimes it scares me. I don’t want to hurt people, but I don’t want to be alone. Papa was trying to explain it, but then we got caught. I’ve tried to figure it out, but without Papa, I can’t. There’s more to it, and he’s the only one who knows.”
“Who put the curse on you?” I shrugged.
“Papa said it was done a long time ago, before I was born.”
Stephanie lowered her brow. “If you weren’t even born, why would anyone want to curse you?”
“It was placed on our family for something Papa did. He said it was done out of anger. He said he didn’t believe it at first, but when my mother was killed, he knew we had to hide or more bad things would happen. He said if anyone found out about the curse, I would be taken away. He hid us away for our own good. He didn’t want the curse to hurt anyone else. I didn’t know about it until after Donny died. Papa felt it was his fault for not warning me sooner.”
Stephanie looked at me in awe. She hadn’t moved a muscle or changed her facial expression in the slightest, as though my story had struck her dumb. I started feeling awkward and worried that I had said too much, but before regret set in, she took a seat beside me and put an arm around my shoulder. “So, what are you going to do? If you think you’re cursed and you’re putting other people at risk, how are you going to live?”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”
“That’s crazy, Sophie. There is no such thing. I think he told you that just to keep you from running off. He knew that if people saw you they’d find out who you were. That would threaten him.” She scratched her head; pulling at the hair in one of her pigtails, making it crooked. “He makes it sound very convincing.” She sat back with a start. “He must have seen the newspaper article that ran the sketch. That’s why he took all the mirrors out of your house. He didn’t want you to discover who you really are. On the other hand, this is so strange, because if he really thought you were cursed, a lot of this stuff he did makes sense. That’s totally wild.”
I thought about the mirrors. I remembered the expression on Damien’s face when he realized all the mirrors in my house had been taken down or destroyed. I still had aversions to them, and rarely gave in to the temptation. They were everywhere at my grandparents’ home, but I did my best to avoid them, knowing that God watched and judged what I did.
“When I tell you that I love you, does it scare you?” she asked.
I contemplated her question, knowing I had thought about it many times before. “It used to, but for some reason I’m not worried anymore.”
“I think I know why.”
“Sophie, I don’t believe in curses or superstitions. I think the more you’re out in the normal world, you’ll realize all the stuff you’ve been told is not real. There is no such thing. All this stuff you father told you isn’t the truth. You’re not cursed.”
What she said completely deflated me. I had trusted her with my deepest, darkest realities and now she said that what I harbored and lived with my entire life was just a lie.
“You’ll never be happy if you live in fear like this. You’ll have an awful life if you never let anyone love you. I think it’s terrible what he did. He’s the one that’s cursed you with stupid superstitions. It’s not real. There is no such thing as a curse.”
I was shocked at what she said and felt the need to scoot away, fearing God would strike her down with a bolt of lightning. “You don’t believe in God?”
“No. And I don’t believe that how I live my life will determine how I spend my death. I believe that you do the right things for this life, not for some afterlife. Everyone around here is so worried about what’s going to happen to them when they die. It’s stupid. When my mom died, people actually told me that God needed her in heaven and that’s why he took her home.” She gave a disgusted smirk. “Why would God take someone’s mother away? My mom died because cancer cells overtook her body. It had nothing to do with God, and it had nothing to do with curses or prayers or any other hocus-pocus that everyone tries to fill your head with.”
I was still uneasy.
“You were worried about telling me your secret because you thought I would be afraid of you. And it turns out, you should be afraid of me.”
“Because I am a bad influence. That’s why I’m not allowed at the school. I asked questions and talked about things that made everyone nervous. The other kids told their parents that I didn’t believe in God and that I attacked their precious religion. That’s the reason I no longer go to school.” She smiled and pulled me close. “I’m worse than you. You may lure them in with your beauty and then kill them off, but I threaten their beliefs and their chances at eternal life. We make quite a pair.”
Being close to her was a comfort, even though I was still concerned about what she said. I cared about her and felt her statements against God would come back to haunt her.
“I know you aren’t just going to believe everything I say. It’s all been drilled into your head for so long, it will be hard to change what you believe, but I want to show you something that will hopefully help you get over all this. We’re going to do an experiment so I can prove that there is no such thing as a curse.”
I didn’t like the idea and was apprehensive.
“You don’t have a choice,” she said, with a defiant lift of her eyebrow. “You are my best friend, my only friend in this world. I love you as if you were my sister. Nothing fatal has happened to me yet and nothing will. I’ll prove to you that you are not cursed.”
I felt funny having her tempt fate for me.
“I was planning on killing myself anyway, so this isn’t a big sacrifice. Quit looking like that,” she chided. Stephanie put her finger to her mouth and feigned deep deliberation. “Hmm. If you have the power to kill people, then let’s work on how we can use it to bump off my stepmother!” She fell back against the soft forest floor in wicked laughter.
She giggled with delight.
I couldn’t help but smile, even though she had made me out as toxic. She had heard what had kept me hidden and silent for years and was still my best friend. She had accepted what I said. She made light of it in a way that made me feel like nothing I told her would scare her away. Stephanie was intriguing and confusing, but I had no reservations that she was loyal and trustworthy. I had given her the secret of what I feared and what had formed my life. She had the power to destroy my world by exposing my enigma, yet I felt assured she would guard it, regardless of her own doubts about its truth.
She stopped laughing and leaned over to her backpack. She pulled out a bag of chips and a bottle of soda, and offered them to me. I took a handful of chips and we sat in silence for a while as we passed the bottle back and forth. “I think you saved me.”
I looked at her strangely, smiled, and shook my head.
She smiled back. “You did. Now the hard part is going to be saving you.”
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