Hugo Hill pulled the wheel barrow. He’d tied a fraying rope between the handles and then hooked his belt on to that so he could pull the wheel barrow in a way. It was certainly easier than it had been.
It was Winter. That could describe two aspects of what was going on around Hugo. Firstly, it was winter and the road and all the land that fell away from the road was covered with a thick layer of snow. The road followed a ridge and all about him Hugo could see that the world was frozen in whiteness. And even though he had wrapped himself up as best as he could he had to give the best of his clothes, the warmest jumpers, to Winter. There was the other meaning. Winter was his sister. She was barely eight and she was dying.
Hugo had no idea why Winter was dying but he knew it like he knew that soon the snow would come again. He could see the snow falling way ahead of him and he was walking into that snow. He wondered if Winter would make it to the snow. She’d been sleeping now for nearly a day and the last thing she’d said to him was to tell him her stomach was hurting. That was new. She’d had the sweats for days and there was a lump under her arm. She’d even coughed up some blood but at least she’d been able to drink a little water before. When he’d tried to give Winter some water lately, the little he had left, she spat it back up. The water ran down her chin and soaked into her jumpers. It was a waste but he kept trying and she kept spitting it out until she moaned and begged for him to stop and told him her stomach was hurting. Then she slept. Occasionally he would stop pulling the wheel barrow and check if she was breathing. He had to kneel down in the snow and put his head to her chest and wait for her little rib cage to rise. Her breathing was far too shallow, far too slow. He pulled the wheel barrow with more urgency.
Down from the road he could see a town. It had been smashed up by the water and he was sure no one lived there. The water would have washed anything that was useful away when it retreated and anyway if there was anything like food that would have long ago been ruined by the water. He kept walking and the snow began. He pulled the balaclava from his coat pocket and put that on with his bobble hat over it. He drank a sip of the water which was ice against his lips but he didn’t try to give Winter any because he was scared now to wake her. What if sleep was helping? What if she really needed a long deep sleep and when she woke she would be somehow healed? He drank more of the water and snow fell on his nose, on his lips, everywhere.
It was night but he kept going. He thought he’d feel more tired but the need to get there, the absolute complete need to get Winter there, was like fuel for an engine. He was a train chugging across the world and Winter’s illness was a stoker shovelling load after load of coal into his furnace. He wouldn’t stop, he wouldn’t stop, he wouldn’t stop. When they had left home she had asked him if she was going to die and he had told her he would never let that happen. She looked at him like she didn’t doubt, not even slightly, that he was telling the truth.
The map was pretty simple. Thorsten had drawn it quickly with a tiny, blunt pencil onto the thinnest paper. It was so thin it was probably toilet paper but only Thorsten remembered toilet paper. He drew where they were and then an arrow with north written on it and the time it would take to get to the man with the boat. From there they had a day’s travel over water to the road. Thorsten drew the road as one long line north without any estimate of time, just the word NORTH written in bold capitals. At the end of the line was where they were headed.
“When the road starts to look like it’s going back into the water you’ll know you are near,” Thorsten had said.
Winter was murmuring. It was the wind sweeping through the ice-brittle grass. It was the wind over the water. And Winter was murmuring. She kept saying words, just ‘stomach’ and ‘hurts’ and ‘Hugo’. But Hugo had seen the water. The road began going down, a severe slope, right into the water and he was almost running down to the water, pulling and pulling on the wheel barrow, not caring if the rope snapped.
When he got to the water he took out the map. Thorsten had written a message there. ‘Don’t go anywhere, they’ll come to you.”
“Hugo….Hugo….my stomach Hugo,” murmured Winter. He went to her because he was scared she’d try and get up. He’d tied her down with some old shirts but they were too loose. She tried to lift herself but she was too weak.
“What are you trying to do?” he whispered because when she was awake loud noise hurt her head, “you should be sleeping.”
He kissed her head. Despite the snow and the chill wind her head was burning.
“My arm hurts,” she said.
He carefully pulled her jumper down so he could see her shoulder. It was blue. It looked like it was bruised. Looking at her, Hugo was struck by the possibility that all of this could turn out to be pointless. Maybe if he’d just stayed home, just kept her in bed and made her drink, she would have at least died peacefully. Now she was in a wheelbarrow by the water and her body was fading.
The next morning someone whistled. He jumped up and his hand went to the gun that Thorsten had given him. There was only bullet in it but maybe one was all he needed. A man was standing there next to the wheelbarrow, looking down at Winter as she slept. He had his arms folded and there was a rifle slung over his shoulder. He didn’t even have a hat or coat on, just a jumper.
“You’d shoot me, would you?” he said but Hugo didn’t lower the gun.
Hugo’s hands were shaking but that was probably more with frost bite, from being exposed there all night watching Winter sleep.
He looked at the man more closely. The jumper looked so clean. His jeans looked newly washed. He was wearing good boots. He was clean shaven.
“Have you come for us?” asked Hugo, his voice shaking worse than his hands.
“I have,” said the man, “we saw you this morning.”
Hugo lowered the gun. The man looked back at Winter and shook his head.
“She doesn’t look great,” he said and then he lifted the wheel barrow’s handles before seeing the belt tied to the rope.
“Clever,” he said and then, “come on.”
The man pulled the wheelbarrow and Winter kept sleeping. Hugo followed.
Winter woke a week later. Her arm wasn’t blue, the lump was gone and if anything she felt a little like she had overslept; muscle sore but muscle ready.
She looked around the room. She was lying in a bed with a heavy duvet over here. She looked under the duvet and saw she had a nighty on. She called out Hugo’s name but there was no answer. The door to the room was slightly open and she could see someone sitting on a chair by the door.
“Hello, Hugo,” she called again.
The person in the chair lifted their head. Had they been sleeping? They stood up and came in to the room. It was a man and he was old. His head was completely bald; it didn’t even look like he had eyebrows. She really wished Hugo was there.
“Hugo!” she shouted as loud as she could but the man just sat on the edge of the bed and smiled. That didn’t comfort her. He had such a stern face that the smile didn’t suit it.
“He’s asleep,” said the man, “he’s still exhausted from the walk.”
Winter could vaguely remember leaving home. It was Hugo’s idea. He said she was too sick to stay. She had wanted to stay because of momma. She had waited to stay because she was too tired to go anywhere. She could remember snow and the sky.
“Where am I,” she asked.
“Where do you think?” he asked and again smiled his awkward smile.
She remembered Hugo telling her where they were going but she hadn’t believed anywhere like that existed. It was just a fairy tale he was telling her to get her to sleep.
“I don’t believe you,” she said and she pulled the duvet up to her chin.
“Hmm,” said the man, “if Hugo was here then would you believe me?”
She nodded. Someone went past the door. She could hear a woman singing.
“Okay then,” said the bald man, “I’ll make you a deal. What do you think?”
She furrowed her brow. She really didn’t like his smile. She really didn’t like bald men. Thorsten had long hair, right down to his knees.
“Deal?” said the man and he winked.
She nodded slowly.
“Okay, how about I go wake Hugo if you can guess my name.”
She frowned at him. How was she meant to know that? It was a silly deal. He was trying to trick her. She wished he would stop smiling. How could she ever guess his name?
“Go on,” he said, “I bet you can if you just think.”
She frowned harder at him as if frowning would counter his smile.
She wanted to see Hugo. She wanted Hugo to tell her everything was okay. She tried to imagine what name the man could have. She really didn’t know that many men’s name. The only men she’d ever known were Thorsten and Hugo and Hugo probably didn’t count as a man yet.
She remembered before she was ill. There was a name. Hugo kept talking about it. Or rather Thorsten would tell Hugo the stories and Hugo would tell Winter but Winter would never believe him. The man in the stories had such a silly name anyway.
She looked at the bald smiling man. He looked like he would have a silly name.
“Well?” he said, “any luck?”
She pulled the duvet down a little away from her mouth.
“I don’t know,” she said and the man stood up.
“Well I suppose Hugo does need his sleep,” he said and went as if to walk out of the room.
“Wait a minute,” said Winter.
It was such a silly name. It was like if Hugo was called Hugo Hugo or Hugo Thorsten even. But the man in front of her was real. The man in Hugo’s stories was just a story. She looked hard at the man almost thinking if she looked really hard at him she might feel his name, like it might pop out of nowhere. But all that popped out of nowhere was an urge to say the silly name.
So she said it.