The Frozen Planet
by Una Mannion
Third Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2016
Ballygawley Lake had frozen solid. As they drove through the dark, she could see its surface between the trees. Earlier there’d been skaters, their bodies bent low at the waist. She’d pulled in the truck so her ten-year-old son could watch. Someone called the Gardai. The skaters had hand-drilled a hole in the ice with a foot-long bit and still hadn’t touched water. Finn said he could tell they weren’t Irish, the way they knew about ice.
She downshifted as the road rounded the lake. The ice had already taken a neighbour’s son. She heard they’d had to use a jackhammer to break the earth to bury him.
‘I wonder is this what Pluto’s like,’ Finn said, looking out. Since it was demoted, Pluto was his favourite planet. Outside the world was white. Branches bowed under the weight of snow and icicles sparked in the glance of the truck’s headlights.
At the petrol station, they stopped for water in case the pipes froze again. She recognised the boy at the till but by the refrigerator a man she’d never seen was reciting the butter and margarine labels. An oversized black coat dwarfed him and a wool hat was pulled low. Plastic bags stuck out of the top of his boots.
At the counter, she gestured toward the dairy-fridge, ‘All okay?’
‘Yeah. Think so,’ he said.
She sat back into the truck.
‘We’ll wait a minute,’ she said.
‘We don’t know that man inside.’
‘I don’t know. There’s no car.’ They sat in the dark, the heat blowing from the vent on the floor. Finn pressed his forehead against the window.
‘Don’t be obvious,’ she said, but he ignored her, staring out, wiping the condensation when it fogged his view. The man moved to the bread rack and stood again.
‘Maybe he doesn’t have a car,’ Finn said. ‘Or, he does, but he doesn’t drive it in snow.’
They sat without talking. When the man moved toward the door of the shop as if to leave, she leaned down and turned on the radio. The temperature headlined — minus 10˚ to 15˚ across Ireland, another bitter night.
‘That’s why he went in,’ Finn said. ‘He’s cold.’
The man crossed the forecourt to the road. She put the truck into gear and drove. Finn turned to look out the cab’s back window but there were no streetlights.
Later, she lay on Finn’s bed and looked up at the glow-in-the-dark solar system glued to his ceiling.
‘Which one’s Pluto?’ He pointed to the smallest circle the furthest away.
‘Pluto has the shape of a heart on its surface,’ he said, ‘that’s made from ice.’
She woke later with a start. She’d been falling. She’d dreamt she was in a frozen landscape and lit a fire on a grave, and the flames were fluid and rushed like roots through her, the earth and through the veins of the buried body beneath her. The ground shifted and she began to pitch through space.