When Kay was four, he put his fist though a mirror. After a few moments of stunned disbelief at the sudden welling of blood, he began to cry. His mother came out of the kitchen, tutted, and patted his hair gently as she wrapped a white cloth around his torn fingers. She had continued the gentle petting until, finally, he cried himself to sleep and forgot all about the pain.
When Kay was eighteen, he put his head through a windscreen.
This is the story of how this time crying simply wasn't enough.
Gerda fidgeted, and rearranged her heavy knitted skirt to drape more evenly across her stocking-clad knees.
A few moments later, she readjusted the thick, blonde waterfall braid hanging over her left shoulder.
A few moments later again, she rubbed with her thumb at a faint scuff in the toe of her red leather boots.
She sighed. This must have been the forty-third time she had repeated the same futile set of motions in just as many minutes.
Her appointment was in seven.
She still wasn’t sure why she was so worried. It was only a door she had to open; only a white door about two feet taller than she was with a rectangular plastic placard in the middle and an aluminum ball-shaped doorknob that she would turn to the left and wince at the squeaking it made as it swung inwards. Inwards to reveal...
She took hold of her lower lip between her teeth and gnawed at the already raw interior.
Maybe it wasn’t just the door.
Maybe it was that when she did open the door, she knew what she would find behind it.
Maybe it was that knowledge which made her nervous.
But it shouldn’t be.
After all, it was Kay in there. It was her best friend in all the whole wide world. The sandy-haired boy who had listened to her wild dreams of pink and red flowers growing in tangled heaps of color that pricked her fingers when she tried to touch them; who had helped her plant the rose garden of her fantasy in their conjoined backyards despite their parents’ warnings the seedlings would only die under the coming winter snow; who had stood beside her with a snow shovel bigger than he was and determinedly removed the blanket each and every morning until finally the frost succeeded where the snow failed; and who had under the stars that night swore one day they would plant another rose garden together - a better one, a richer one, a grander, more glorious spectacle than had ever been seen before.
It was that Kay who she was now not sure she wanted to see.
The harried nurse in white cap and practical shoes made notes on a clipboard as she stopped near Gerda’s hard plastic chair. Looking up over the rims of her spectacles, she spoke to the girl.
“You should go in now. Visiting hours don’t last forever, you know.”
Gerda nodded. “Nothing lasts forever.”
The nurse raised an eyebrow, but did not respond.
Gerda exhaled, and stood. “I know, thank you.”
Satisfied, the nurse moved on. Gerda knew she was right. It was now or never.
Gerda held the cold doorknob in her thin fingers, and opened the door.
The first thing she noticed was the overabundance of color in the room. It was like a multiply filter had suddenly been applied to her eyes so that every new wavelength compounded one on top of the other to create a mixture that by its end could hardly be perceived as color at all.
It was the flowers - row upon vase upon table of flowers gently swaying in the current from the open window.
Gerda could only stand in the doorway and blink in reaction to the sudden spectacle.
“Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
Gerda started at the sudden bitter statement. She jerked her head to the side, only just becoming fully aware that she was not alone.
“Ri- ridiculous?,” she stammered.
Kay snorted, leaning back against the head of his bed with folded arms. “I said, it’s pretty stupid.”
“The flowers?” Gerda said, surprised. “I think they’re lovely. They’re presents from all the people who want you to get better soon.”
Kay gave a low, dark little laugh. “Gerda, can you smell anything here? In this room?”
“Take a deep breath. Go on. It’s a simple question. What do you smell?”
Despite her confusion, Gerda complied. She went quiet, testing the air with her nose.
After a while, she frowned. Something was strange. “I don’t smell anything,” she said.
“Exactly,” Kay said. “Now tell me, what do these flowers feel like?”
Gerda’s boots made gentle tapping noises as she approached one of the largest vases on Kay’s bedside table. She surveyed the bunch briefly, before picking out a stem from the center. A yellow rose. Gently, she stroked one finger along the outermost petals, only to widen her eyes in surprise.
“They’re fake!,” she exclaimed, quickly replacing the too-smooth plastic stem.
“But... but why?”
Kay shrugged. “Hospital policy - nothing that could bring in disease.”
“But… that’s ridiculous!”
Kay laughed loudly. “Do you finally see my point?”
Gerda nodded several times. “If you can’t smell them, if you can’t touch them, if you can’t even hear the petals rustling in the wind, then they’re hardly flowers at all! They’re not alive - they’re just pretty things to look at!”
Kay smirked. “Then here’s my final question. What good is beauty to those who cannot see it?
Her bottom lip trembled.
Kay’s third laugh was a dark and bitter sound.
“They’re taunts, that’s what they are. They are the taunts of all those who haven’t lost what I have. The damn things are right there - right there - but I might never know. The only way is -”
He suddenly swung out wildly with one hand, colliding with the vase next to which Gerda stood. Before she could react, the vase was falling, falling, until its ceramic body shattered on the grey floor.
Gerda gave a small cry. Fake flowers spilt from the broken base - no need to water the plastic stems - bouncing.
“-to break them,” Kay finished, his hard smile splitting to bare teeth.
“Kay!,” Gerda gasped. “Why-”
“Oh for God’s sake, Gerda. Just shut up already! I must’ve forgotten until now, but your voice is so damned annoying! Why did you come here, anyway.”
Gerda’s eyes swam. She wasn’t sure whether it was caused by the overwhelming color or her friend’s words. “I... I came to see how you were feeling...”
“And why do you care how I’m feeling?!”
“Because you’re my friend!,” Gerda cried.
“Your friend?” Kay snarled. “Where did you get that idea?”
Gerda’s shoulders shook. “We’ve always been friends - since the rose garden, remember?”
Kay sneered. “How cute, a rose garden. I guess I never told you, but you’re the one who decided that, weren’t you? You’re the one who decided one stupid failure gave you the right to act like a piece of gum under my shoe! Well, you’re pretty rediculous yourself for thinking like that.”
He flapped a hand vaguely. “I think the exit’s back in that direction. Maybe you should leave through it now.”
Gerda’s throat closed up, and she did not dare speak. The only sound that followed her abrupt turn to leave was the increased tempo of her own tapping steps.
They had warned her it would be like this, of course. But even as she had nodded solemnly and replied she understood - this reality was something different entirely.
This reality was not the Kay she knew.
At home, safe in the warmth of her clumsily hand-knitted blankets and the friendly familiarity of faded photos in wooden frames, she curled up in a ball with her knees under her chin and wondered where he had gone.
Despite her friend’s criticisms, Gerda still beheld the dream garden in her mind’s eye. Since the day of Kay’s promise, she had built their new persuit in her imagination - Technicolor cell by Technicolor cell - to proportions of wonder, and she merely had to recall its tangled bushes and draping tendrils to feel at home in its tranquil atmosphere. Standing in the virtual center, Gerda closed her eyes. The roses in her garden were not fake - their scent billowed on the wind that sent stray petals flying and tumbling over each other as they clambered towards the sun high above; when one brushed against her face it was as soft as an angel’s wings; when she opened her eyes again, and moved to pluck a whole pink blossom from its wiry home, her hands came away pricked and bleeding as the small, biting thorns any true rose should have did their job.
Clasping her palms together under her chin, Gerda mumbled softly. This rose garden had brought her and Kay together.
God grant her strength, it may do so once again.
Winter came, and the snow fell.
Gerda shielded her eyes from the sunlight that, despite its wan-ness, reflected from the new morning snow with intensity.
It was today.
It was today that Gerda’s hope would either be rewarded or torn down in shreds.
She stood outside the hospital doors clutching tightly at her plastic umbrella with mitten-clad fingers, waiting.
It wasn’t long before he appeared.
Unwillingly escorted by an unsmiling nurse, Kay scowled at everything he could not see. The thin white cane he held in his hand was as a fencing sword - viciously jabbing and slicing clear the world ahead for every reluctant step he took.
Gerda called his name - “Kay!” - and he barely paused.
“What do you want?,” he spat.
“Please will you come with me?,” she said. “Just for today.”
“Why would I?”
“Because if you do not come with me today, I would only ask you to come tomorrow.”
“And if I refused again?”
“The next day, then. Or the day after that, or the day after that,” Gerda said.
Kay’s breath misted in the subzero air.
“Today, then,” he said. “Let’s get it over with so you can leave me alone.”
Kay would not be led down the curved, flat brick path. He insisted on finding his own way, despite repeatedly stumbling on the poorly-swept snow drifts and dirt.
Gerda watched his futile efforts wordlessly. She wondered when - or even if - he would remember this path and all its turns. After all, to her this walk was no more than muscle memory. She called the steps in a soft, singsong tone, more for her own benefit than his.
“...right by the river who ate my red shoes and left where the bell-flowers grow. Then straight at the crow who caws hello and on to the golden palace...”
For a while, there was quiet, and the only sound was Gerda’s half-formed chant.
“What a stupid song,” Kay said.
“It’s about when we used to play here,” Gerda said. “don’t you remember?”
“I don’t,” snorted Kay.
Gerda shivered as the first of many snowflakes landed cooly on her cheek, and continued to mouth the words of her song.
Eventually, Gerda’s song came to an end, just as surely as the path itself.
The paving stones dissipated at the foot of a great structure, its every length a glass panel encrusted in glittering ice so that it rose up out of the falling snow like a crystal castle.
Gerda stepped up to the castle, and found its door. She unhooked a small brass key from its chain beneath her scarf and slid it into the frozen lock. The mechanism groaned and squeaked in protest as she woke it from its cold-induced slumber.
“Come in, Kay,” she said.
He entered without another word.
The snow had no power here - it was warm inside the ice palace. Its crystal walls were such a frosted boundary that the world outside seemed to melt away to nothing. Not even the sound of the wind’s frigid wailing could penetrate through.
Gerda removed her scarf and jacket, and placed them on the floor. Kay did not take off his jacket. He stamped his feet and chafed his gloved hands. “It’s cold,” he said.
“Kay,” Gerda asked. “Kay, what do you smell?”
Kay glowered at her. “That’s a stupid question,” he said.
Gerda smiled. “Nevertheless, it is only the same one you asked me.”
Kay snorted, but obediently tilted his head back to smell.
“It’s just air,” he said dismissively.
“Try again,” Gerda said.
“I said,” Kay began angrily, “it’s just-”
Suddenly, a change came over his face. He blinked his pale eyes in surprise, and took a deep breath. He seemed to relax; the stiff lines of his shoulders slackened, and the cane in his hand was lowered.
“It smells sweet,” he said.
“It does,” Gerda replied.
“It smells rich,” he said.
“It does,” Gerda replied.
“It smells familiar,” he said.
“It does,” Gerda replied.
“It smells...like roses,” Kay said.
“It is,” Gerda replied.
The ice castle was filled to bursting with rows upon rows of tangled rose bushes, all overflowing with blooming blossoms and tightly curled buds. They grew from pots, they grew from jars, they grew from clumsy holes cut from the hard ground - from everywhere a space could be found on the two-level lengths of wire mesh shelves, a rose grew.
Gerda took Kay’s hands in hers, and placed an object in them.
“What does this feel like,” she asked.
Kay dazedly worked his fingers up and down the length of the object.
“It feels...smooth, no, velvety...”
“Yes,” Gerda said.
Kay continued. “It’s flexible, and fragile, and - ow!”
He recoiled from the sudden source of stinging pain, dropping it to the floor.
“It’s a rose,” he exclaimed.
Gerda bent down, and picked up the offending flower.
“This is a true rose,” she said, cradling it gently in her hand. “Not a false one.”
“But it hurt me,” Kay said.
“And how should that change the fact that it is indeed a rose? It is not the rose’s fault to be born with thorns,” Gerda said. “Nor is the rose at fault for those unwise few who forget the thorn’s presence.”
She turned to Kay, reaching up to touch his face. “The rose simply is,” she said. “We are the ones who lay blame and try to make it into something it’s not. A rose is simply a rose.
“All we can do is try our best to handle it carefully,” Gerda said, interlocking Kay’s pricked fingers with her own. “And to heal our wounds when we fail.”
Gerda held Kay’s hand tightly, and said nothing more.
Kay began to cry.
The hot, fat tears spilled over from his dull eyes, and dripped down his face.
And Gerda still said nothing, but wrapped her arms around him and held tight.
They stood together, and it was summer in the icy castle, forevermore.