The snow had been coming down for hours with no sign of letting up. Outside Rose’s bedroom window, roofs looked sugar-coated. Coconut-colored mounds in car shapes dotted the street. Trees were dusted. All these sights recalled another day, one Rose had tried to bury under a snowy pile of all the days since. So, there was no surprise that the whirling snowflakes bought only a strained smile, one that melted fast. But sadness couldn’t stop her from going out into the winter wonderland seeking something. So, she dressed against the elements.

Rose stepped with caution along the snow-laden sidewalk. Snowflakes swirled before her eyes. Tires crunched along the blanketed road. Was that Dan’s blue Subaru wagon? Despite knowing that it wasn’t, the sight shook her. The car was soon swallowed up by a vortex of snow. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? Or was it in her head?

Soft crunchy footsteps came from behind. She spun around. No one. Could it be a trick of the wind rustling through snow-draped branches? She wondered as blowing wet snow kissed her face. She turned and continued up the blanketed sidewalk. But soon, the crunching returned. She looked over her shoulder. Was someone there? A child? It can’t be. But certainty is never a sure thing. The snow was now blowing harder, impairing her vision. She walked to where the child should be, but there was no one. If she’d caught up to the Subaru, it might have disappeared, too. Were both tricks of light and snow? Or, were they visiting her, reassuring her on this blustery day?

A giggle tweeted like a bird. Rose looked in the sound’s direction. Someone small stood a few yards away. Definitely a child. Only a trace of face amid the bulky clothing—hat, scarf, thick coat, mittens, snow pants, and snow boots. Rose knew those clothes. The rainbow scarf had been a Christmas gift from her mother, who had knitted it, as she’d made the red wool hat. Blonde strands peeked out of the little girl’s hat, looking like they had been dipped in honey—as familiar as her gray eyes, brightened by what must be a smile under that rainbow scarf.

“Alex…” The girl’s name rode a white carpet of cold air.

But of course this couldn’t be her daughter. The pain plowed through Rose. She raced to the girl, who spun away and ran off, laughing. When Alex ran into the woods, Rose followed. Pine trees appeared wrapped in white garland. Rose looked everywhere. Alex wasn’t anywhere. No footprints other than her own appeared in the fresh snow. She called out the girl’s name but then realized what she was doing and stopped. She leaned against a tree trunk, and her body trembled like the wind-blown branches. It had been a day like this three years ago.

On that winter day Rose had stood staring out the family room snow-crusted window, next to Dan, her pensive husband. “Maybe driving today isn’t a good idea,” he said. It looks bad out there. Could be dangerous, especially in that one patch between here and Merri’s house.”

Rose saw the same sight, but in another light, one filtered by Alex’s cabin fever and its exhausting, “You’re a great driver. Cautious, especially in these conditions.” She knew this first-hand, having driven with him along slick roads.

“But still….” His voice was a plea she didn’t want to hear. All she could hear was her daughter’s shrieking and those little footsteps pounding up and down the stairs. “Mommy, I’m bored” echoed in her head. The sight of Alex running rampant filled her eyes. Three non-stop days of poor weather could cloud her ability to judge things rationally and make her selfish. Still, she should’ve stopped them then. Instead, she related how all Alex had talked about was the party for the last few days.

In all this poor weather, it’d given her daughter something to grasp. “Merri’s her best friend. Alex picked a special gift for her.”

“When are we going, Dad?” Alex shouted from another room.

Rose looked at Dan. “She has cabin fever.”

“I know.”

“I could use a break. We can enjoy some alone time when you get back…Any way, you’re an expert driver. Cautious to a tee in weather like this. Never an accident. Not even a scratch.”

“Okay, Alex, let’s go.” His voice, a strange brew of confidence and resignation. The girl shrieked with joy. Not long after their conversation, she watched Dan and Alex drive off in the swirling snow. She could’ve stopped them, but she didn’t.

In the woods, wet, cold flakes landed on Rose’s eyelashes. If only she had protested, that would have changed the events of that day. Didn’t matter now. She still wore that day’s scar. “Mom.” It was a whisper on the wind but loud enough to draw Rose’s attention.

Alex now stood looking up at her. The girl’s smile was gone. Two small gloved hands reached out. Rose hesitated, knowing this was only a vision. Guilt personified. But maternal instinct took hold, and a longing for her lost daughter overwhelmed any doubts no matter how real. She went to Alex and placed her trembling arms around the snowy air. Nothing? To Rose, the empty air was more than that. Much more. She stood as silent as the iced-over world. She imagined her daughter’s eyes, her warm breaths, even the sense of her petite body pressed against her, like magic, easing her aching heart. And for that moment, the weight of the tragedy lifted, “I should’ve stopped you.” The cold flakes found her lips and stung. She should not have put her needs first.

“Mommy, don’t be sad….” The child’s voice was part of the whistling wind. A scraping sound made Rose look away. Dan stood between two trees, his expression, forlorn; his pain equal to hers.

“Stop blaming yourself, Rose. I went. You didn’t force me to go. It was an accident, Rose—my accident.” She could hear the tears in his shaky voice and then waved to him. He nodded as if it took every ounce of energy to do so. She knew that feeling. Then he motioned to Alex, and she ran to him. In an instant, both her daughter and husband vanished in a swirl of snow. Just like they vanished together that day three years ago. They were together. Still.

Rose stood frozen. The wind’s whistle quieted. All grew so quiet that she was afraid to disturb it by breathing. But she did. Serenity had to be disturbed. The snow lightened to flurries, and she headed home. A constant stream of white breath flowed into the air.

On the walk, she wondered many things. Had harboring guilt been easier than moving on with her life? This wasn’t the first time she’d blamed herself. Nor would it be the last. Maybe she blamed herself because she didn’t want to blame him. She couldn’t. Still, whatever had happened in the woods just now had lifted her. Eliminating the guilt, if even possible would take time. But, seeing Alex and Dan brightened her spirits, at least for today.

Rose thrust out her tongue and caught a few flakes, wet and cold. Healing. The melting flakes made her feel good as medicine should. And, to her, the snow was just that. By the time she reached her house, the flurries had ended. Eventually, the sky would clear. The sun might even peek out before the day was done. If not, that was fine, too.

Philip Goldberg’s stories have appeared in The Raven’s Perch, Evening Street Review, Words & Whispers, trampset, Dillydoun Review, Halcyone, Thrice Fiction, and Main Street Rag. Three works were published in Best of collections, one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and another was a finalist for the 2021 James Hurst Award for Short Fiction. He is currently editing his novel.