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White ribbons in a white landscape. The county doesn’t sand the roads except where they meet and that doesn’t happen much, so the snow gets packed down hard and stays. It won’t melt till spring. Climate change fucks up the weather lots of places but not up north. Here winter is still white and cold.

We’ve been driving a ways tonight. There’s a spot over by Turtle Lake I’m heading to and the snow’s coming down pretty good and the wipers are working hard so I can see. The truck’s got new snow tires -- Wally fixed me up like he always does -- but if you hit an ice patch, well, those thick treads won’t mean jack. The vehicle will still spin. Taking it a bit slow in other words and that’s got Cayden sorta jumpy. I see him drumming his fingers on his knee.

“Here?” he asks, voice a little tight, when we do finally stop. That’s a question most of them ask. People may seem different, but they all got most of the same questions.

“Nope, we’re going to walk a bit.”

Snap go Cayden’s nerves. “Walk!?! I ain’t walkin’ nowheres. Just shoot me here. I told Tommy I’d get him the scratch. But I don’t got it right now. I’m working on it.” He pauses. The cold’s already seeping into the cab and his breath fogs up the windshield. I haven’t killed the lights yet, and they’re throwing cones of bright into the black. Snowflakes drift into the light and out again. Tiny sparkling ghosts. You can already hear some resignation in what comes next. “How am I supposed to walk out there in these shoes?” and he points to his canvas high-tops.

I shrug. Cayden grew up around here. He should know better. “Why don’t you buy yourself some Sorels like me?”

“Yeah, sure. Can’t go on a shopping spree and pay Tommy back too, can I, smart guy?

Can’t say much to that. “You’ll survive. Come on.”

Shining my flashlight out in front, we cross a field and then push into the woods. Cayden doesn’t grouse about going into the woods. I think maybe he’s curious and wants to know where we’re going. I know the feeling. You stand where the trees start and you want to know how far they go. What’s in there.

What’s in there tonight is something I want Cayden to understand.

“You know what kind of tree this is?” I ask when we get to where we need to go. I trace its straight trunk with my light. The tree goes past the light’s edge up into the darkness.

“A pine tree,” Cayden said, his hands jammed into his pockets and stamping his feet.

“Yeah, but not any pine. This is a white pine and it’s old.” I take off my glove and run my hand over the deep, rough rivulets in the bark. “It doesn’t really belong here. It should have been logged like all the rest when they clear cut through here way back.” I look up again. Cayden has stopped stamping his feet. Looks up too. “Here this one is, though. Why? Maybe it was too small then. Or it was the end of the day and some logger was tired and said, ‘Fuck it. I’m done. That’s enough.’” I wait to let some silence settle between us. “Sometimes we survive because of choices we make. And sometimes we go on living because of choices made for us. That’s what this tree tells me. Get what I’m saying?”

“You know the only thing I get, dickweed?” Cayden shouts, wind-milling his arms and almost falling back into the snow, “The only thing I get is that you dragged me out into the woods in the middle of the fucking night to show me a tree. What the actual fuck?”

The shot is loud, but there’s not a house or cabin for miles.  

Snow’s coming down harder now. TV said we could get twelve to fourteen inches. Those fronts move down from Canada cold as a witch’s tit and scoop up moisture coming across Superior. Then they dump it on us. They call it lake effect snow.

I trudge back to the truck, my tracks filling up behind me.


John Brady is the author of Golden Palms, a not-your-usual-noir set in Los Angeles that’s about politics and is also funny in places. He’s written speeches for mayors, CEOs and community leaders, helped citizens fight the dark arts of bureaucratic obfuscation and created political policies that turned out to be pretty useful. He’s the winner of Exposition Review’s Flash 405 flash fiction contest. His non-fiction writing has appeared in various outlets, including the Chronicle of Higher EducationMother JonesPunk Planet, the Los Angeles Daily News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on National Public Radio.




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