Mimi Thebo is an American writer who lives and works in England. This is her first book for young people to be published in America. Previous work has been translated into twelve languages, adapted for film by the BBC, and illustrated in light. The London Times called her work “empathetic and humane” and described her style as “spare, yet poetic.” She thinks good fiction can change the world.
Everything is quiet. I can hear my raspy breath getting rougher with every step of these stupid snowshoes. Then I hear something else—a bird, maybe. But I can’t see where it is. All I see is pine trees in every direction. And snow, of course.
I wonder when I can go back. How long has it been? But I don’t want to peel down my warm, padded mitten to look at my watch. The cold air attacks any little weakness, like a bare wrist. It seems like it’s trying to get at you. As if it’s personal.
And anyway, it’s only been about five minutes since the last time I looked.
I’m supposed to be out here for two to four hours every day, to build up my lungs. The doctor said cold won’t do me any harm, if I’m dressed for it. He said I should take care not to get wet.
There’s a hill I haven’t been up. I’ve always taken the ways that go around it. Today I am so bored, I’ll try to go uphill and see if there’s anything interesting up there. I know I shouldn’t go uphill, but I do it anyway. If my muscles really start hurting, I’ll stop, right?
My dad spends all day out in the cold, and even some nights. When he talks about his fieldwork, I don’t listen. Evidently, finding out about deer populations with natural predators is so important that we had to move to the middle of a giant wilderness. Nothing is that important. It wasn’t worth it.
If I was home, I could walk to the library. I could wander through our little town’s high street, looking in all the junk shops. I could go swimming— No, I couldn’t, because I’m not supposed to get wet.
But if I was home, I could get wet, because I wouldn’t have gotten pneumonia in the first place. I wouldn’t have been in the hospital for three weeks. I wouldn’t be all skinny and run-down and weak. I’d be at a real school, with people who actually like me. I’d be with my friends.
I wouldn’t be with gung-ho lunatics like Susan Hackmeyer, who thinks she knows everything. She doesn’t. She only knows stuff about being here. She couldn’t find her way across London by Tube, like I had to do last year. She couldn’t spot the next big hit song. Just because I can’t tell the difference between deer poo and elk poo, she tried to make me look stupid in front of Tony Infante.
As if I needed any help to look stupid in front of Tony Infante.
I get so upset thinking about all this that I am halfway up the hill, which was a lot steeper than it looked, before my lungs hurt and I notice my breath has gone all noisy and harsh. I really need to stop walking uphill. My legs are burning. But then I see where I am.
I can’t stop. If I stop, I’ll fall about thirty feet, straight down.
You shoe up steep hills sideways, kind of like making stairs for yourself in the snow. It’s hard. Stopping means balancing, and that’s tricky. I have poles to help, but I haven’t been taking them lately. They seem heavy.
My poles are still on the porch of the cabin.
I’ve just been cutting into this hill, letting my anger carry me up. And now, when I need one of the millions and trillions of pine trees in this stupid wilderness, there’s not a single one I can actually reach and hold on to so that I can rest. I have to keep moving or I’ll fall.
All the time I’m thinking about this, my feet keep on cutting little steps and I keep huffing up the hill.
It hurts so bad that my lungs start to ache, too.
All my big muscles are burning now—not just my legs, but my bottom and my arms and back too. The doctor explained why this happens. Muscles need oxygen to flush out the lactic acid that builds up when I exercise. Since my lungs are still crinkly and wet, I’m not making enough oxygen to flush them.
Which is why I’m not supposed to go uphill.
It doesn’t help that my lungs are used to being at sea level and I’m living at more than six thousand feet above it. That’s one of the reasons I got pneumonia in the first place. I’m not adjusting well to the altitude. And it doesn’t help to think of this about a million times a day and get angry at my dad every time, either. Emotional upset isn’t good for my breathing, apparently.
I’m hurting really badly, and the brow of the hill is twenty steps away. I glance, and it’s a long way down. I wish I hadn’t glanced.
I’m getting black spots in front of my eyes. I’m fighting off weird thoughts—like maybe I could roll back down. Or that it would be nice to just die and not hurt anymore.
It was so stupid to try to climb this hill.
And then I get the faraway thing again, when I’m kind of outside me and looking down. As if I’m up somewhere civilized, like a space station, and I’m zooming in on Earth and America and Montana and the wilder-ness and the park and zooming, zooming right in to our area, and our cabin and me, halfway up this horrible hill.
I’m like a black-and-red dot moving up a white page. As soon as you can tell it’s a person, you can tell I’m a girl. Even in my padded clothes, I’m thin. My shining brown ponytail trembles with every movement.
I waver. My knees sink, and for a moment I look as though I might fall. But then I half climb, half stagger to the brow of the hill and then collapse into the snow.
What do bears dream? What do they want?
The bear dreams of her cubs. They sleep against her, in the long time of dark and cold. In her sleep she moves her great arm to gather them close.
Somewhere in her mind a deep reflex: they are not there. The cubs are not where they should be. There is cold where there should be warmth.
She swims up from her heaviness. She feels the dryness of her mouth and opens one eye.
She remembers the last time she saw the cubs. The things the men did. She feels the memory in the pain of her shoulder. Would the thought of leaving her cubs hurt, too? Maybe more? She closes her eye and groans, rolling on her back to her other side, away from the cave’s opening and the place her cubs used to lie.
Snow begins to fall.
I lie in the snow for a long time, long enough for the thick white flakes to cover the red patches of my coat.
When I sit up, I look at my watch, but I don’t see it. I still see me, from a long way away. I am shivering. I crawl to the brow of the hill and look down the steep slope. Part of me notices how far it is, and part of me watches me noticing.
I try to get to my feet, but I am shaking. My knees fold underneath me, and I sit down, hard. My ponytail is dark with melted snow.
Wet, I notice. I got wet. I’m not supposed to get wet.
I look the other way and see a shelter of sorts—a low cave in the rocks of the hill. I crawl inside.
It is dark, and I shiver hard. One of my snowshoes drags behind me, half off my boot. My eyes are pulling shut when I sense warmth and lean my back into it.
The bear half wakes again. Someone is there. Her sensitive nose tells her immediately that it is not her cubs, that it is not another bear. But under the perfumed shampoo and soap and deodorant, she smells another animal. Whatever it is, it is alive. And it is small and cold.
She rolls again, flings out her great arm, and drags the thing to her chest. She feels it warming beneath her touch.