See-through translucent swirls against a blue, purple, and pink background

“Nature Patterns” by Natalia Burmaka


by Sam Downey

 Even in ideal conditions, the backroads are a bitch to navigate, but then again the same thing could be said about me. And these are hardly ideal conditions.

 Ever since I first learned to drive, I’ve loved to race out of town when it’s sunny and get lost in these winding curves, letting the woods and fields and dilapidated farmhouses blur past as I scream-sing to Queen. There’s no sunshine now. It’s foggy and drizzling and the ground is a patchwork of slush and leftover ice. It’s still dark. 

 Ain’t much that’s weaker than a winter sunrise, Alex used to say. Except for the coffee you make, I’d reply, and he’d elbow me. We’d stand shoulder to shoulder at his kitchen sink, miserably caffinating ourselves and staring out at the ice-glazed tree branches. His place was twenty minutes outside of town, but I shared an apartment with two roommates so it was always me leaving for work or class at the crack of dawn and him getting up to see me off. That was one of the things we fought about, towards the end. 

 We’ve been over and done for a month, but I made this drive before I met him and there’s no reason to stop now. He doesn’t own the whole countryside. And if I felt a complicated tangle of emotions when I passed the turnoff to his gravel driveway, well, who’s to know? It’s just me and the deer out here.

 I slow down a bit at that thought. Visibility is shit. It’s nearly dawn; there are definitely deer wandering around. They always liked to lurk at the edge of the woods, catching my headlights in their eyes as I headed home.

 For the five months that Alex and I dated, I only drove between his place and town, never venturing any further into the hills. I vaguely remember this stretch of road from my long-ago summer drives, but what little I can see is transformed by snow and frost and fog. I slow the car to a crawl. What the hell am I doing?

 I’m only here because I couldn’t sleep. One of my roommates fell asleep watching TV and the noise kept me up for hours. We aren’t friends, really, or even at the level where I could have gone in her room and closed her laptop as she slept. So instead I tossed and turned and ignored my buzzing phone until I saw a glimmer of watery sunlight through the warped glass of my window, then I threw off my blankets and sped towards Alex’s. 

 No, I sped past Alex’s. I didn’t think for one second of the first time he’d taken me home, with the autumn leaves glowing golden as he lifted me onto his back so I wouldn’t dirty my shoes. I didn’t think of how I had pressed my face against his neck and laughed, easy and open, feeling flannel and prickly stubble against my cheek.

 I rub a hand over my face, calluses catching on chapped lips. I’m just out for a drive. Like the old days. Not so long ago, actually. I am twenty; every time I say or think it I feel a beat of anticipation that falls flat. Twenty-what? Twenty-nothing. I’ve been twenty for forever. 

 Alex and I didn’t get to celebrate a single birthday together. The thought hurts, physically, like a stab. If it was just regret it would be sharper, probably, but the blade is blunted by guilt and coated in something sour. I press a hand to my chest, half-expecting blood. A mourning dove calls out.

 Even on those sunny summer days, it was hard to find my way back. The highs and lows of the land all look the same, and you can’t tell just how far up a slope you’ve gotten until you’re facing that steep descent. Now I’m half an hour away from home, surrounded by identical bare branches and frozen underbrush in all directions. The sun hasn’t yet managed to haul its ass up over the hills.

  I glance into the rearview mirror, then slam on the breaks. A quick jerk of the gearshift cuts the engine. My hand shakes a bit as I adjust the mirror. Just my eyes: brown, unremarkable, framed by eyebrows so blonde they’re hardly there. I look too young, almost. Like seeing a photo of an actor from decades ago and comparing it to now.

 I might be losing my mind; I might be lost. I try to start the engine. It stalls. Oh, God, I might have to stumble back towards Alex’s house, if I can even find it, or call him to come get me in his stupid truck. I can picture the truck so vividly—mud-spattered and salt-stained, rust creeping over the green paint—that for a second, when I look up and see it in the ditch, I think it’s my imagination.

 My headlights glint off of the rear bumper, which is raised high, too high, off the edge of the road. The truck would have been coming from the other direction. It must have taken the turn too fast, or braked for a deer, or skidded on slush. This is how the thoughts come, at first. Clinical. Ordered.

 Alex might be injured. He might be bleeding out into the melting snow. I’ll call an ambulance and heroically save his life. He’ll want to talk. He’ll want to know why I haven’t answered his texts and calls and DMs and emails. 

 There’s no signal out here. No ambulance would arrive in time. Not in this weather. He is going to die in my arms and everyone will think I killed him. The ex is always the first suspect; I’ve listened to enough true crime podcasts to know that. Alex always hated them. Those are real people’s stories. Real people’s lives. Real people’s deaths

 It repeats in my head. Real people’s deaths. Real people’s deaths. No one I know has ever died. I don’t remember getting out of my car, but suddenly I’m stumbling through the dark towards the truck. My coat is open and I don’t have a hat or gloves. The cold barely registers. There’s a body slumped over the steering wheel. I wrench the door open. It isn’t Alex. It’s an old woman. I touch her shoulder with a trembling hand. She stirs. 

 The fog is mixing with drizzle, blowing around like sleet and falling in clumps. It beads on the cold metal of the truck, on the dashboard strewn with broken glass. The old woman lifts her head weakly and squints at me. She has clouds of white hair, whiter than the muddied, slushy snow around us. I don’t see any blood.

 “What’s your name, child?” Her voice is soft. 

 “Clara,” I say. 

 She laughs. The laugh shakes her shoulders, but it’s barely audible until it turns into a cough. It’s the kind of cough where you expect a bloody handkerchief and dramatic music. The only sound is air whistling through the broken windshield, the creaking of cold branches. She fumbles softly at the door, which I’m trying to hold partially closed to block the wind.

 “I feel like you should stay in there,” I say. “Like, you shouldn’t move around too much? Sorry, I just don’t feel like walking is a good idea, okay? It’s awful out. And there’s nowhere to go.”

 “I am not going to die,” she says, “In that truck. Help me to the trees.” Those sentences seem to have taken a lot of effort.

 I open the door and awkwardly gather her into my arms. She feels almost insubstantial. I hold her arm over my shoulders with one hand and her waist with the other, and we stagger towards the tree line as a drooping, four-legged beast. There’s a cluster of pines that have blocked the snow from a small patch of ground, so I settle her there, among the roots. She closes her eyes.

 I’m not trained for this. I went through lifeguard training when I was fourteen and then quit a week into the job, but even that is years away. This lady isn’t drowning; she doesn’t need CPR. There aren’t any visible wounds. Maybe she has whiplash? Or had some kind of heart attack? A head injury, maybe. Who knows how much time passed between the crash and me finding her.

 “Clara.” Her voice has all the strength of the pale, faded pine needles she’s resting on. Flimsy but pointed. 

 “You’re gonna be okay,” I say, but I really don’t think she will be. Despite the lack of obvious injury, there’s a horrible pit in my stomach. Dread weighs my movements. 

 She frowns at me, but her dark eyes are distant. Something in her face is familiar. “Who are you?”

 “I told you, my name is Clara.” I reach for something about myself, some personal information. Who am I? Fuck if I know. I haven’t even picked a major. All I’ve got to my name is a tiny apartment, a piece-of-shit car, and a septum piercing done on impulse. I thought it would make me seem older.

 “My name is Clara,” the old lady says, crossly. 


 She closes her eyes and sighs heavily.

 “Oh, shit. Okay, listen. I don’t have a signal, but I’m going to try and find one, okay? Just… wait here.” I wince. “Okay. I’ll be right back.”

 Outside of the woods, the fog has cleared. The sun has broken through the clouds. Light gleams along frosted branches. I stand there, breathing harsh, uneven clouds into the air. The air smells fresh, like soil and dead grass and meltwater. The dappled sunshine is weak, but I can feel it on my face. It’s not warm or anywhere close to it, but the idea is there, the brightness is there. I resent it. I don’t want this new chapter.

 It occurs to me to check if my car will start; no luck. Okay. I need a phone signal. I follow the road as it curves to the right, wrapping around a hill that’s little more than a sharp jut of limestone padded with dirt and crowned with twiggy vegetation. The winter has worn through the layers of earth on its steepest angles, stripping the soil like muscle from bone. What remains is tree roots knotted into miniscule channels in the rock. I stick my fingers into the crannies, dig the toe of my boot against a knurled root. It holds. I climb. 

 I’ve done this before. As a kid, I spent every summer in camp. Girl Scout camp, Soccer camp, circus camp, ordinary day camp. Anything to keep me under supervision from seven in the morning till six at night. I used to get jealous of cartoon characters who struggled to fill the long summer days. One of the camps had taken us rock climbing in an indoor gym. My favorite part had been letting go at the top and feeling the harness swing me down slowly to the safety of the mats. 

 The rush of blood in my ears is repetitive, looping. I focus on it until it sounds like music. Looping guitar and whining vocals. A Pixies record, spinning, dizzy with smoke. The windows don’t open, the boy tells me, and I don’t mind, and he leans in to kiss me, and I don’t mind. Where is my mind, where is my mind?

 He was my age, which was the part that Alex seemed stuck on when I told him. I did tell him, even though he wouldn’t ever in a million years have found out. It’s not like he ran in douchey college kid circles. Unless you count me. He had been unimpressed by my honesty, seeming to withdraw deeper and deeper into himself, like he was aging before my eyes. In the kitchen-window light, I had stared blankly at the encroaching grays, the laugh lines, the full face of stubble. All things that had caught my attention, marked him as different from the beleaguered, beer-flushed boys that filled every dingy bar in town. Then I broke up with him and left for work.

 I’m covered in mud by the time I reach the top. My leggings have torn at the left knee, and somehow there is a twig inside the sleeve of my coat. I shake it out and get to my feet. This hill is tall enough that I can see the sun, low on the eastern horizon, doing its best to shine through the patchy winter clouds. It trickles through the bare trees and sparkles on the frozen clumps of grass beneath my feet. I can hear geese calling, though it’s far too soon for them to be back. My lungs feel scoured. 

 I pick my way towards the tallest part of the hill, where the limestone has thrust up to the pale sky only to be worn down by time and wind. The stone is cold through my leggings as I climb to the top, waving my phone above my head. There’s no coverage out here, really, but Alex’s house had reception and it was on a lower hill than this one. I set up his internet for him. I taught him to use Twitter. I push my hopes up and out, as if I can catch a phone signal with a mental net. I have to call an ambulance, I have to save that woman. Why did I find her, otherwise? No part of me knows what to do with the realization that I might return to find her already gone. I try to picture her face and all I can come up with is a child’s slack, popsicle-red mouth. Skin cracked not by wrinkles but by the shadows of trees. 

 There isn’t a signal. My fingers are numb. A gust of wind pushes at my back and I stumble to the muddy grass with pale sheets of hair whipping past my face. 

 The color of a field in February, Alex had said, carding his fingers through it as I lay on his chest, feeling radiant. I was sure that the brushes of his fingertips against my forehead were leaving incandescent golden streaks. But when I got up to use the bathroom, my reflection looked the same as always, doe-eyed and whip-thin.


Sam Downey is currently an undergraduate student at UW-Madison studying creative writing, psychology, and gender studies. She seeks to explore the magic in the mundane through creative works that include fiction, poetry, and visual art. Her work has been published in Illumination Magazine, Process Journal, and NewNote Poetry Magazine.