Shrunch. The flat edge of the shovel cut into the surface of the snow like the prow of an ocean liner, carving cleanly through the icy top layer and scooping out a sizeable chunk of the fluffy white undersnow beneath. With a heave I lifted the full shovel up over my head and flung the load of snow into the yard beside me, and landed—shooff—in a little pile on top of the original layer. The driveway now sported a bald spot, a small patch of grey in the great expanse of white, like a fishing hole drilled through pack ice in the Arctic. I shook the last of the snow off the end of the shovel and shuffled my numb feet a little inside my boots. I was fourteen then; old enough by far to know that forced labor was no way to be spending my winter break. I exhaled deeply and hefted the shovel—not a snow shovel, even, just some flat-nosed garden shovel my father had dug out of some crusty corner of our garage—and tried to make a good show of looking exhausted.
My father, of course, took no notice. He stood at the top of our front porch stairs, half-empty can of Yuengling in hand, hairy belly poking out rudely from under a sweaty Redskins sweatshirt, observing me across the lawn with a slaver’s eye from beneath his faded brown Russian-style aviator cap. “Just like that,” he told me, gesturing instructively with the fist holding the can. “You’ll be done before you know it, trust me. Then you can get back to your game of Medal of Duty, or what-have-you.”
Shrunch. I struck at the ice again, keeping my eyes lowered, concentrating hard on the snow before me as though I could stare it away, melt it with the intensity of my gaze. My father nodded contentedly and turned away, and I heard the front door open and close as he went inside. I threw the next load of snow into the yard and—shooff—watched it land, sending little chunks of broken ice skittering across the flat blank surface in all directions. I knew this wouldn’t be the end: this wasn’t the only driveway on our street that needed shoveling, and only yesterday I’d seen my father talking to Mr. Fenneck down the way, tapping the ice covering his walkway with the toe of his boot and throwing me sinister glances. I pictured myself in Fenneck’s enormous yard, shovel still in hand, digging a massive hole in the center of the lawn, and the last thing I saw before my head ducked beneath the rim of the imaginary grave was my father’s face smiling down at me from above. “You’ll be done before you know it,” he assured me. “Trust me.” Then somebody above me began shoveling dirt on my head.
I shuddered and threw down the shovel in the yard. They couldn’t fool me. I knew after this there wouldn’t be any going back to “Medal of Duty.” Shoveling snow was only the beginning. A few short years and I’d be out of high school and working construction in a lot somewhere, just like my father, and I’d be swilling nasty domestic beer, too, and paying bills, and ironing out the uglier points of my first divorce over the phone with some person named “Marty.” And what’s more, I’d never have a winter break again for the rest of my life.
On a sudden impulse I glanced through the front window and, when I was sure my father wasn’t looking, I made a dash for the backyard, and from there moved stealthily into the forest behind my house, to freedom. The snow in most of the neighborhood yards had long since been pounded into mush by countless snowball fights and stamping feet, but the powder in the forest had been thus far undisturbed. The winter wind had collected it into enormous drifts that froze and refroze in the night chill and finally formed a sort of icy skin like in my front yard, thick and strong enough that you could walk on top of it without breaking through if you were careful. It was walking upon this slippery skin that I entered the forest, moving the direction that the long shadows of the bare trees pointed, and I had almost reached the creek when—
Something snapped beneath me, and before I could react I found myself with one leg swallowed up to my thigh by the snow. My other leg soon followed the first and I stumbled forwards, flailing, and then—BAM! My vision went completely white. I was now laying facedown, my arms stuck up to the elbows beneath the snow-skin, my nose bloody from bashing it through the ice. I could see red even with my face stuck in the snow, and feel its warmth all up my cheeks, its wetness in my nostrils mixing with the wetness of the snow I’d accidentally inhaled.
Then suddenly there was brisk movement. I heard three loud crunches to my immediate left, and I felt a sort of shadow stretch over me, and then I was in motion, my face lifting out of the indentation I’d made in the snow as though I were being pried out of a plaster cast. Whoever-it-was was large, I could tell, and strong; I could feel enormous power in the big hands underneath my armpits, and before they set me back down my feet were dangling a good foot and a half above the snow.
The hands withdrew as soon as I touched down, and when I found my balance again I turned around cautiously. Standing on top of the snow behind me was a young woman, ten feet tall, wearing white robes with a bronze breastplate over them, and a gleaming bronze helmet adorned with a purple plume and two little metal wings underneath which white-blonde hair flowed down to her shoulders like melting ice. Her eyes were dark like the ocean and set close to her flat nose, and they studied me carefully from underneath the brow of the helmet. There was also, I was surprised to note, a fearsome bronze axe slung across her shoulder by a leather strap.
I just about fell over again. “Who are you?” I asked. I looked her up and down again; heavy as she was, her sandaled feet barely dented the surface of the snow. “What are you?” I corrected myself.
“I’m a Valkyrie, the girl said plainly, and then, as if in afterthought, added “Valerie, Valera,” and then giggled as if this were a very clever thing for a Valkyrie to say. “Your nose is a mess,” she remarked, gesturing with two fingers at my dripping face.
“Sorry,” I said. I sniffed and felt dried blood crackle inside my nose, and tried to wipe what remained off my face with the back of my gloved hand. I shook off the crumbles and looked at her again; she was still studying me with those icebox eyes. I took a step back. “These woods are private property,” I lied, eyeing her robes and armor critically. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you called?” the Valkyrie asked, ignoring my question. Her voice rang in the frozen air as though she’d struck a gong; I was surprised no snow fell off the branches from the noise.
I gave her my name even before I could even think to say no. “Marshall!” she repeated, nodding, proclaiming the word as though she had named me herself. “I am pleased to have encountered you. It’s colder than Jotunheim out here.”
“Pleasure’s mine,” I said, taking another step back, eyes still locked on the blade of the big axe. “Thanks for helping me out and all, but I should probably be heading back now. I’ve got… snow to shovel. Unless Valkyries know anything about bloody noses.” I gestured vaguely at my still-dripping nostrils.
The Valkyrie shook her head. “Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid,” she said. “Tell me, which way is ‘back’ for you? I’m not exactly dressed for winter, and I’d like to find somewhere to get warm.”
Fourteen solid years of stranger-danger propaganda roared in my ears then, all the half-remembered stories I’d read as a child that warned you of the evils that lurk in the forest. Hansel and Gretel getting swindled by the Witch’s confectionary abode. Little Red Riding Hood being seduced by the charming, ravenous Wolf. Every episode of Dateline I’d ever seen. And I knew that there wouldn’t be a Kind Huntsman coming to rescue me; if I went missing today my father would only slam down a beer in my memory and find somebody else to shovel his driveway. But then the Valkyrie shivered, clutching her white robe around her like a cloak, and sort of hunched over as if to shield herself from the cold with the arch of her back. A winter wind knifed in between the trees and seemed to tear right through her armor, squeezing a film of moisture to the surface of her dark eyes. The change wasn’t big, but just the same suddenly she didn’t look so tall anymore. She looked cold and lonely as the fallen snow.
“Do you like hot chocolate?” I asked her.
I led her back through the woods to my house and let her in through the mudroom door, and she stood awkwardly in the kitchen while I pulled off my wet gloves and hat and socks, stooped like an enormous vulture beneath the low ceiling. I was still bleeding a little, so I stuffed a tissue up my nose and then set a pot of water on the stove to boil before wringing my sweatshirt out over the sink. When the pot started bubbling, I made us two big mugs of hot chocolate and threw in four mini-marshmallows each for flair. The Valkyrie drained hers in about two swallows, belching like a sailor afterwards. “Thank you, that was very nice,” she said gratefully. She had a marshmallow stuck to her upper lip like a little white moustache, or a bit of leftover snow.
My father’s voice called down from the upstairs bedroom, “Marshall! Who’s down there? I heard voices.”
I glanced back at the girl; she was now sitting behind the kitchen counter, teetering awkwardly on a barstool that was far too small for her, cradling her empty mug in her oversized hands. “A Valk—…”
I slapped my hand over my mouth as if my chocolate had burned me, and there was a long silence from upstairs. “A what?”
“A friend,” I hurriedly corrected myself, and then thought to add “…from school,” to make the lie more believable, and the Valkyrie giggled again. My father was silent again. “Dad?”
“Ask her if she wants to help shovel the driveway!” he finally called back.
And surprisingly enough, she did—“For the hot chocolate,” she told me. I dug another shovel out of the garage for her, and with her help we cleared all the snow in ten minutes flat, her powerful shoulders moving her shovel in broad, sweeping arcs twice as fast as my own. When we were finished we sat down together on a heap of snow, breathing wet clouds from our mouths as our lungs sucked in aching air. The Valkyrie’s face was lit up, not with cold, but from a healthy, happy glow. “At least one of us enjoyed herself,” I joked.
The Valkyrie beamed. “Of course! Obedience to your parents is one of your most sacred duties,” she said grandly. “I was happy to help.”
“Great,” I said, scowling. “Now it’s a ‘duty.’ I don’t know if you know this, but I’m not exactly supposed to be working right now. I’m on break, Valerie.”
The Valkyrie frowned. “Valerie? Who’s ‘Valerie’?” she asked.
“Well… you!” I stammered, suddenly worried that I’d offended her. “That’s your name, isn’t it? Valerie Valerah?”
“No,” she replied, shaking her head, “and you’re saying it wrong. VA-le-RAH, not va-LEH-rah. It’s a battle cry, Marshall.”
“For what battle?”
“That’s what Valkyries do,” she pronounced. “We observe all the greatest battles you mortals wage. We are tasked with deciding the victor, and carrying the fallen off to eternal rest in Valhalla. In two weeks’ time a great clash will take place in this city. Much honor will be awarded, and much treasure will be captured. There will be many heroic deaths.”
“Just what kind of battle are we talking about here?” I asked. Burr Banks was a sleepy neighborhood in those days; the last time I could remember anybody so much as calling the police was when Mr. Fenneck’s fat orange cat fell through old Mrs. Murdock’s skylight, setting off about two dozen alarms and waking up everybody on the block. It took six police officers, two lawyers, and about five weeks of therapy for both Mrs. Murdock and the cat to set things right. I could barely imagine a soccer game breaking out here, much less an out-and-out battle.
“Afraid I can’t tell you,” she replied, smiling apologetically. “Not really for mortal ears, and all that. It’s all part of the job.”
I frowned. “Duty again. Well, I don’t know anything about any battles,” I said, “…and I certainly don’t know anything about any heroic deaths. But just the same, you’d better stick around, so I can keep an eye on you. Just in case.”
Valerie raised an eyebrow. “And why is that?”
“You know where this …thing is going to be,” I said, “but you won’t tell me. So the only way I’m going to find out exactly where and when the fighting will be is to follow you around until it happens. People could get hurt, you know.”
Valerie’s other eyebrow went up, nearly disappearing under the brow of her helmet. “And that makes this your job?” she asked.
I nodded. “Indeed.” Then a thought struck me, and I smiled wryly up at her confused face. “Some,” I continued, “might even call it a duty.”
From that day on, Valerie came back every afternoon of the break to help me shovel snow. The jobs went quick with her help, which at first impressed my father to no end. “Let’s see those shoulder muscles,” he said one day, taking hold of my shoulder and elbow and flexing my arm for me. “Look at that. That’s all that shoveling you’ve been doing. You’re gonna make somebody a great welder pretty soon, just like your old man.”
“Just performing my sacred duty as a son,” I replied, chuckling to remember what Valerie had told me.
My father’s grip on my arm tightened a notch. “Your new friend tell you that one?” he asked.
“What?” I felt a tickle in my nose, and I snatched a fistful of tissues from the box on the kitchen countertop and preemptively held them to my face. My father did not relax his grip on my arm.
“You know,” he said. “That girl who was here a few days ago.”
I nodded around the tissues. “Oh, yeah, that was her,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”
My arm fell free of his hands and swung loose at my side again. “No reason,” he said. “Help me with these dishes, would you?”
Before I could question him further, he thrust a towel in my face followed quickly by a dripping soup bowl, effectively silencing me. I shoved the unused tissue into my pants pocket and we went to work, toiling like day laborers—him washing, me drying, cogs in a great invisible machine—and the pile of dishes in the sink gradually shrank to nothing. Neither of us said a word during that whole time, but every so often my father would stop working and look sideways out the kitchen window into the backyard, as if he were searching for movement among the trees.
But if he was really looking for Valerie out there, he never found her, because she wasn’t there; later that day I happened to walk into my front yard and encountered her crouched in the driveway—doing what I couldn’t see, as her back was turned. Her head was bent forward and her robes were spread out on either side of her like white wings, and as I approached, she heard me coming and turned, smiling. For some reason she was not wearing her helmet that day, and without its shade her dark eyes glittered brilliantly in the bright winter sun. “Come here,” she said, beckoning to me with a piece of orange chalk pinched between her fingers. “I want to show you something.”
I peered over her shoulder and gasped. Instead of the flat grey I expected, every inch of the driveway in front of her had become engulfed in a swirl of vibrant color—a mural in chalk, drawn in such incredible detail that I had to stoop closer and squint before I could really believe what I was seeing. Valerie had drawn what appeared to be the final throes of a fantastical battle between a group of armor-clad warriors and some sort of enormous ice-creature. All except one of the human fighters were either slain or incapacitated, and the remaining adventurer was crouched behind his shield as the monster breathed an icy blast straight at him, trying to freeze him solid. The rest of the warriors still held swords or maces in their dead hands, but this man instead held a weapon I’d never seen before, a peculiar pole-like instrument with a flat, squarish blade fixed to the end. The weapon was almost comical compared to those of his fallen comrades, but he brandished it bravely, and although he seemed to cower behind his shield his face showed no fear.
“I saw the chalk when we got the shovels the other day,” Valerie explained, beaming, “and I thought all this white and grey could use a little color. What do you think?”
“I didn’t even know chalk could do that,” I replied, still gaping. My eyes were drawn to the center of the piece, to the last tiny warrior still brandishing his weapon at the monster. As I looked closer, I noticed something peculiar about this particular figure: his body, like the others, was covered shoulder to heel in heavy armor, but unlike his fallen comrades his head was bare, his hair blown back and covered in tiny ice crystals. And, unlike the others, I could clearly see his face, and there was something about him that intrigued me, in the eyes maybe, or the way he held his odd-shaped weapon…
“He’s me,” I finally realized aloud. “That’s me, isn’t it?”
“Oh, you recognized it!” Valerie squealed, clapping her hands together. “I wasn’t sure if you would or not.”
“That’s so cool!” I said, staring even harder at the little armor-clad “me” in the mural. “And that’s a snow shovel I’ve got there, isn’t it?” Valerie nodded, her smile widening. “Hah! That’s fantastic!”
“You like it, then?”
I nodded enthusiastically, and suddenly I felt warm and wet liquid dripping down my upper lip. I swore aloud; a dollop of blood fell from my nose down onto the concrete, splattering audibly on Valerie’s drawing. “My” head was now just a spot of red, as if it had been crushed beneath an enormous heel. I quickly tried to wipe it away with the sole of my boot but the blood stayed and congealed, refusing even to smear.
“Are you all right?” Valerie asked. She stood up so suddenly and quickly, and two more drops of blood fell to the pavement. “You’re bleeding again.”
“I’m fine,” I told her. I took the tissue out of my pocket and pressed it hard to my nose. “It’s the cold, I guess,” I said through the tissue. “All this dry air.” I noticed then that she was shorter than she was when I first met her, now that she was standing—only about eight feet tall, rather than ten—but at the time I was too distracted by my bloody nose to care much.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Valerie repeated, looking concerned. I nodded, but this only made the blood flow faster, and I clamped my other hand over my nose to try to stem the current. Valerie nodded in agreement, but the look of concern didn’t leave her features. She looked at me, then back at her ruined mural, then back at me, and opened her mouth to say something but didn’t say it.
I went back inside to wash off the blood and emerged several minutes later with a dry nose and two steaming mugs of hot chocolate. We drank in silence, and as our mugs emptied Valerie finally seemed to relax. “A toast,” I declared, raising my mug above my head, “to the greatest snow break in the history of mankind.”
“…And to the greatest sidewalk artist as well!” Valerie added, giggling.
“Cheers,” I replied. We clinked our mugs together and drained the last of the hot chocolate, and even though by now the drink was lukewarm at best I felt pleasant heat radiating through me all the way down to my snow-covered boots.
The next morning, however, the mural was gone. I found my father standing next to his white Camry in the driveway, spraying the back window with the garden hose. I sprinted outside, intending to turn the water off at the spigot, but the damage was already done. The center of the mural was completely washed out, and the edges were wet and blurry; the only detail I could make out was a mace belonging one of Valerie’s fallen warriors and a bit of the floor of the snow monster’s cave.
“Car needed washing,” my father told me, seeing my expression. “If you’d gotten up a little earlier this morning, you could have helped me.” He adjusted the angle of the hose, and the water began running down the other side of the driveway, washing away what remained of Valerie’s pretty drawing. Chalky water ran down the concrete slope, mixing with the slush and snow at the curb to form puddles of crumbly color, all reds and whites and little flecks of grey, and I imagined that this was how the gutters of revolutionary France looked after the first rainstorm. “These things aren’t meant to last forever,” my father said. “Tell your friend she can draw in her own driveway if she wants to save her work.” And he turned on his heel and walked into the house, leaving the garden hose leaking in the yard.
And so it went. Despite my father’s grumbling, Valerie continued to visit me every day for the rest of the snow break, and while she still steadfastly refused to tell me anything about the supposed upcoming battle, she was extraordinarily generous with details about her previous work and life. She was full—no, bursting—with three thousand years’ worth of stories no mortal had yet heard, and in those two weeks she stayed with me, she told me all the tales of the mightiest battles she had ever witnessed, clashes of arms and wills that had left nothing of the participating armies but empty armor scattered on the scorched, bare earth. She cleared the snow from the park parking lot and drew even more chalk murals, and told me the names of everyone she drew: all-seeing Odin, mighty Thor, beautiful Freya, gallant Baldr, deceitful Loki, and a host of others, including a multitude of beautiful, armor-clad young women just like herself, her sisters, the Valkyries.
In the evenings she would bring me to the innermost spot in the forest and sing to me the great war-songs of Asgard, colossal ballads with melodies that seemed to be woven from the very strength of her powerful body, from the bone and muscle and sinew. And when the moon was high and the sky was clear and the black night was full of secrets, we would light a bonfire together in the melting snow and sit close to it, passing between us a flask of mysterious clear liquid that tasted like honey mixed with motor oil. And then, when we crossed some mysterious threshold between reason and idiocy, she would scoot over to my side of the fire and slide her pale arms around my shoulders and put her face right up against mine to whisper in my ears the darkest secrets the universe had to offer. I wish now that I could remember just what it was she told me, but the draught affected me so much that I forgot each morning whatever I heard the night before.
“It’s better this way,” she explained to me once. “This way we can share the same secrets every night!” By this point she was nearly human-sized, only about a head taller than I, maybe a little more. Barely anything extraordinary anymore. And together we stretched the mere minutes into eons; for one brief instant that winter everything seemed infinite, as if that one clearing in the woods was a hunk of amber congealed on the side of one of the trees, freezing us two solid, preserving us. Out here, I thought, I could outlast everything—my father, school, the snow— …every breath I took was replaced by another just like it. With Valerie, I was permanent. I was invincible. I could grow roots like the trees and remain just how I was forever.
But of course none of this was true. I went to bed one night with all the time in the world, but woke up the next morning and it was Sunday, one day before the break ended and I had to back to school. Most of the snow had melted overnight, and the change left me feeling oddly disoriented and unsettled. I got out of bed and barely recognized my own house anymore. I kept bumping into things. It took me ten minutes longer than usual to get dressed for church that morning, and I nearly got into the car with my polo shirt inside out before I came to my senses.
But if I felt sluggish, the rest of the neighborhood seemed alive and refreshed by the snow’s departure. The sunlight blazing through the windows was bright and pale and crackled with energy, and my father had a spring in his step that I hadn’t seen all winter. He whistled on the drive over to mass and sang hymns on the way home: To the Work! To the Work! We are servants of God; let us follow the path that our Father hath trod. We happened to drive past my high school on the way back, and my father jerked his chin upwards a little as we passed in a kind of salute.
His high spirits, however, didn’t last the day. Some time in the afternoon I had made up my mind that if winter break was really going to end, then the least I could do was to spend my remaining freedom correctly. At about nine PM that night I boiled water for hot chocolate and made two mugs with five mini-marshmallows each, one for me and one for Valerie, and put cozies on the mugs to keep them warm on the walk to the clearing in the woods. My father was in the family room at the time, watching basketball highlights on SportsCenter with the sound turned up loud. I thought he wasn’t paying any attention to me, but when I put on my coat and hat and was just walking out the door I heard a muffled, nasally voice call my name behind me. “Marshall!”
I turned around. My father was just coming up the stairs from the rec room, holding four or five tissues pressed against his nose. I could barely see the bottom half of his face, but the little I could see was almost completely covered in thick, oozing blood. “Where you going, Marshall?” he asked, slurring through the clump of tissues. “S’ late. S’ dark out. Where you going?”
“Just out,” I told him, edging away a little towards the mudroom. “What happened to your nose?”
“Never mind that!” he growled, walking into the mudroom after me. “Where you goin’?” His voice was thin and nasally and he bubbled when he talked, and he grabbed another tissue from the box on the mudroom shelf and pressed it to his nose as well, but the blood kept coming. “Why you leaving so late?” The blood wasn’t the only thing making him slur, I realized; he was close enough now that I could just barely smell the Bud on his breath, and I could see a wet mark spreading down the front of his sweatshirt that I suspected was of similar origin.
“Got places to be,” I replied, turning my attention back to the woods. The air coming in through the cracked door was chilled and sweet, and it beckoned to me.
“You always got places to be lately,” my father said. “Ever sin’ you got off for break, you haven’t been around anywhere. None of your friends have been around, either. Just that girl. Marshall…”
“I’m late, Dad,” I said firmly, and opened the door wider, but my father continued.
“You don’ think I don’t know where you’re going, do you,” he said. “You don’t think I know what it’s like, having a girl like that around?”
I stopped; the brisk night air was suddenly frigid. “It’s not like that,” I said, half to myself. “That’s not—…”
My father shook his head. “I been young, once, I know. I’ve gone through this. First few weeks, you think nothing can go wrong, you see magic everywhere. Don’ wanna do anything else, but be with her. But sooner or later they leave. Sooner or later you’ve gotta come back home.” By this point I was halfway out the door, barely listening. “You think you’re different than me?” he continued, almost shouting now. “You’re not!” I ignored him. “You’re not!”
My father lurched forward, his voice following me out the door, rising in pitch and volume like an approaching ocean wave. “You’re young!” he almost screamed. “You’re young, and you think this can last. But you can’t beat this thing, Marshall. You can’t outrun it. I don’t even know if you can fight it. Maybe it’s something that can’t be killed.”
But I only heard half of what he said; the rest was cut off as the back door slammed behind me on my way out to the forest, to where Valerie, was waiting. I didn’t want to hear another word.
I arrived back at my house at almost eleven at night, and when I did the kitchen light was off and my father was nowhere to be seen. The furnace had just clicked on, filling the air with a gentle thrumming as it heated the house. I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and mudroom for a moment, listening to the sounds of the sleeping house and feeling the vents in the floor blow warm air past my ankles. The room stank vaguely of rusted metal, which I thought was coming from the air vents until I turned on the light; in the middle of the kitchen counter there sat a small pile of balled-up tissues, and each one was crusty with dull red blood. I don’t know how long my father’s nose would have had to bleed to fill so many, but I imagined that losing that amount of blood couldn’t possibly be healthy. I jogged to the bottom of the stairs and peered up the dark staircase. “Dad?” I called. “You all right?”
Nobody answered. I called again; this time I did hear a noise from upstairs, a single deep snore. I sighed heavily and turned back to the untidiness on the countertop. My father was fine, certainly, but this mess wasn’t going to clean itself up. I fished a spatula out of the kitchen drawer and began to scrape the pile of tissues into the trashcan beside the sink. It wasn’t easy work; the tissues were so clotted that they ripped apart at the slightest touch, leaving little red-and-white specks that stuck to the countertop, but a sponge and soapy water soon fixed that as well. When the counter was clear I took off my jacket and hat and rinsed mine and Valerie’s mugs in the sink, and left the soiled spatula in one of the mugs to soak. Then I went upstairs and poked my head through my father’s door; he was sleeping on his side, a lump beneath the blankets, like a corpse stuffed in a burlap bag. Only his steady snores convinced me he was alive at all. I got into my own bed and fell asleep soon after, and dreamt of fire, and blood-soaked battlefields, and Valerie.
But in the end my father was right. The next day was school at last, and when Valerie met me at the bus stop early that morning she barely spoke to me, and disappeared before the bus arrived. She wasn’t human-sized any longer—if anything she was taller than ever, closer to eleven feet, by my estimation—and she was wearing her helmet again and carrying her axe in her fist instead of on its strap, giving her an altogether warlike and almost frightening appearance. I knew then that she would be leaving me soon, and I nearly cried to think that I actually might lose her for good. She didn’t belong to this world, I knew, but after so much time I couldn’t help but think that somehow she belonged to me now. My Valkyrie, is how I thought of her. My Valerie.
School itself was a disaster: I couldn’t concentrate on a word of the teacher’s lecture, and kept doodling pictures of axes and swords in the margins of my notebooks. Plus, I had to be excused from class three times that day to take care of nosebleeds. The leaks weren’t major, never more than a few little drips, but they always came without warning and were always enough to send me running for the tissue box. And I couldn’t help but think that they were only a front, the vanguard of some larger force, the volatile edge of the approaching storm. After all, today marked the end of Valerie’s two weeks; we were due for some manner of ‘great clash’ sometime very soon—at this point it was just a matter of where and when.
I didn’t get to see Valerie all that morning or afternoon, but she did escort me to the football game a few hours after the school day ended, following me on the two-mile walk from my house to the high school, staying out of sight in the woods beside the road. Once there she sat with me on the bleachers, munching on the pizza I’d bought for us in a strained silence, and I marveled at the fact that nobody else seemed particularly surprised by the ten-foot-tall woman in armor sitting cramped-legged next to me, nearly bending the metal bleacher with her weight. People’s glances just seemed to slide over her; their eyes would fog up the minute they looked in her direction, but then immediately move on to something to the immediate left or right. I suppose everybody just had better things to look at that day, because nobody seemed to notice her at all.
No, that’s not true, not entirely. Somebody did notice her. Just before the game began Valerie excused herself and didn’t come back for quite some time. I searched in vain for her in the crowd, finding it strange that I couldn’t locate such a tall girl even in such a big crowd as this, but finally I spotted her down on the field near the home team’s bench. She was talking to one of the players, our big fullback, and now she was shorter than he, again sized like a normal human girl. She stood very close to him, and as I watched she took his hand and placed it against her breastplate, right in the center where her cleavage would have been if she were showing any. They looked natural together, I thought, his shoulder pads nicely complementing her armor and helmet, a perfect pair of warriors. The fullback squeezed her hand and grinned like an idiot, and my teeth scraped together involuntarily, the saliva became foam in my mouth. By the time Valerie rejoined me I was fighting back my biggest nosebleed yet, and when I tried to say something to her I only coughed. I tasted blood and mucus, and after that I didn’t say anything at all.
The game wasn’t even a battle, anyway; it was a massacre. The fullback played the best game of his life, running for over a hundred and fifty yards, not even bothering to weave around defenders on his way to the end zone. If somebody got in his way he smashed through them like a kindergartener pushing over a cardboard box, screaming like a demon all the while, and when he was tackled it usually took two or more men to bring him to the ground. The quarterback quickly caught on and got the ball to him nearly every play of the game, so by the time halftime finally rolled around our team was up forty points and three of the opposing players were sidelined with career-ending injuries.
The halftime whistle blew, and the fullback ran to the edge of the field and pointed victoriously up into the stands; the crowd went nuts and pointed back at him as one body, but I knew he was celebrating for Valerie alone. Their eyes locked, Valerie giggled and beamed, and suddenly my nose exploded in a fountain of blood. I was gushing; I whipped out a tissue but couldn’t contain it all; it was soaking through the tissue and staining my hands and dripping off my fingers onto my jacket and pants. Nobody saw but Valerie, they were too busy celebrating, but she offered me a corner of her tunic to soak up the bleeding and after a few moments’ pressure the gushing miraculously stopped. “We should go,” I spoke up above the crowd, my voice a little muffled by Valerie’s robe. She nodded rather curtly and we both stood up and left. Behind us I could hear the marching band starting to play something appropriately bombastic, but to me the tune didn’t sound victorious at all.
The walk back home was quiet and dark, and as the noise of cheers and marching band music faded behind us I noticed Valerie’s footsteps getting heavier and heavier. I stopped and turned to stare at her; she’d grown back to her normal, towering height, and was smiling sheepishly down at me, the light from a streetlamp behind her illuminating the air around her head like a halo. Her robes weren’t bloodied any more, I noticed; the fabric was immaculately white, brilliant in the streetlamp’s glow. Now I knew for sure that she was leaving. “I’m really sorry,” she said.
“Don’t apologize,” I replied. A breeze blew past us, carrying a few leftover tufts of snow down from the bare branches, and one lit in Valerie’s bangs and clung there. She let it melt there until it trickled down one side of her face, then she wiped it away like a wayward tear. “It’s okay,” I said. “I know it’s your… duty.”
“My duty,” she parroted. She frowned, lowering her eyebrows as if trying to remember something. “I’m a Valkyrie,” she said. And then, as if in afterthought, she added, “Valerie, Valera,” and she laughed mirthlessly as though this were a very unpleasant thing for a Valkyrie to have to say. “It can’t be helped.”
“Of course not.”
Valerie was not looking at me. She stared at a spot just past the crest of my hair, where the top of my head would have been if I were only a few inches taller. “I could stay longer,” she murmured, half to herself. “I don’t have to leave right away. It wouldn’t be long, but… it’d be something, right?”
I shook my head. “We both know that’s a bad idea,” I told her. My nose tingled like it was going to bleed again, but I sniffed and kept going. “You don’t belong here.” I said. “You…” I paused and corrected myself. “We’re both busy people, you and I.”
Valerie closed her eyes and was silent for a moment, breathing the winter air in and out in soft gusts. “Your battles aren’t as I remember them,” she said finally, turning back in the direction of the school. “Everything’s changed so much. There’s no honor in it. There are no heroic deaths anymore.” She looked at me, and another snowflake must have fallen on her face because her eyes were wet and gleaming faintly. “Where do you go when you die?” she asked. “Where does somebody like you go when they die?”
“I think,” I replied, “that depends on if you were good, or bad, or—…”
“On how you lived,” she interrupted.
“On how much you loved,” she concluded.
I shook my head. “On if you did your duty.” And I stared hard at her, daring her to deny it.
“But it doesn’t have to be like that!” Valerie cried, taking one faltering step towards me. “Not yet. Not for you. I could—…” She broke off suddenly, and looked at me with beseeching eyes. “Please, Marshall,” she begged.
I smiled sadly and shook my head again. “That wouldn’t fix anything,” I said slowly. “…Not forever. And these things…” The words were out of my mouth before I realized I was saying them, even before I realized they weren’t mine. “These things aren’t meant to last forever.”
Valerie looked at her sandals. “So now what? “ she asked, moving one heel back in forth nervously on the concrete. “Where do you go from here?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “But I think I’m going to have to find it out on my own.”
Valerie gave me a strange look. She stooped down almost to my height, putting both her hands on the sides of my shoulders, having to bend over awkwardly to do so. “Well, that’s something, I suppose,” she said.
And then, completely out of nowhere, she kissed me. This girl—this Valkyrie, this Viking warrior maiden or whatever—probably could have bitten my head off if she wanted to, so being kissed by her was terrifying. Her face was pressed hard against mine, and I could feel the muscles in her jaw clenching and unclenching arrythmically. I had no idea what to do with my hands. Her breath and lips tasted like that clear liquid she kept in her flask, so much so that if I had allowed myself to I probably could have gotten drunk off that kiss, off of her. And I could feel her power in that kiss, inhale her secrets off her breath, hear her war-songs in the pounding heartbeat in my head. She was telling me all, giving me Valhalla one last time, as though the kiss was some sort of contract between us.
The kiss didn’t go on for any more than ten seconds. When she was finished, Valerie squeezed my shoulders like she was signing her name and pulled away, and the pressure on my aching cheeks relaxed. “Good luck, Marshall,” she said, and then there was a blinding flash of light accompanied by a noise like a balloon exploding, and even before I opened my eyes she was gone. There were no cars on the road then, no dog-walkers out on the sidewalk that night. The marching band was done playing, and the fans were too far away for me to hear their cheers. It was dark and cold and the wind had stopped, and even the stagnant air felt lonely.
My nose was bone-dry all the way back. When I arrived home, I let myself in through the mudroom door and found the house asleep. All the lights were switched off, and everything within was quiet and still and doused in crisp shadow. I found my father passed out on the family room couch when I entered, wearing nothing but sweatpants, the remote control still clutched tightly in his fist. The television was still turned on to SportsCenter but the volume was muted, forcing the commentators to mouth their recaps in silence. I sat down heavily on the couch beside him and he cracked open one eye. “You’re home,” he murmured, a bit surprised.
I nodded. “Yup.”
“Didn’t expect you back so early,” he said, sitting up a little. “Tried to wait up for you, but…” He shrugged halfheartedly and continued. “Game go okay?”
I nodded again, and the room was silent for a moment. SportsCenter turned over to a commercial for an action movie, a noisy affair with an axe-wielding girl in armor fighting off some sort of enormous, serpentine monster. I expected my father to change the channel, but he let the commercial run all the way to the end until it switched over to an ad for dog food. “She’s gone, isn’t she,” he said at last. It wasn’t a question.
I nodded, and my father closed his eyes and leaned back again. “Sorry to hear that,” he said. He switched off the TV, groaned and stretched, and then pulled himself off the couch to a standing position, creaking, cartoon-like, from the exertion. “Well, I’m off to bed,” he told me, beginning to wobble sleepily towards the stairs. “You should go too, you’ve got school in the morning.” He paused at the foot of the stairs for a moment and turned and looked back at me, his face obscured in the gloom. “By the way,” he said, “thanks for cleaning up the kitchen last night.”
He vanished up the stairs, but I didn’t follow him immediately. I sat alone on the couch for a few moments, staring at my warped reflection in the blank TV screen, and when I finally walked into the kitchen I happened to notice a single open beer can my father had left on the countertop. I picked it up and heard a sloshing sound at the bottom; the can was still about a quarter full. I’d always hated the taste of alcohol, especially my father’s cheap beer, but on a whim I raised the can to my lips and took two quick swallows. Immediately I gagged and almost dropped it; what was left in the can was mostly foam and some of it nearly went up my nose, and the liquid beneath didn’t taste like honey at all—it tasted like it always did: bitter, caustic, and real.
I poured the rest down the sink and got myself a tall glass of water, but no matter how much of it I drank I couldn’t wash that acrid taste out of my mouth. The bitterness remained and seemed to cling to me, stinging the edges of my tongue like the aftertaste of a particularly unpalatable medicine. So at last I gave up, and crushed the now-empty can between my palms, and I left it there, ruined, leaking flecks of white foam across the marble countertop. Then I went upstairs, and went about the business of preparing for sleep. Brushed my teeth. Flossed. Got into my pajamas. Before I went to bed I went to my bedroom window, pulled back the blinds and looked out into the backyard, where in the moonlight I could see the bare lawn and the woods beyond. All that remained of the snow now was a few thin flakes of ice shimmering among the pine needles, floating like tiny white islands in the darkness. I stood there at the window for a few moments, taking everything in, fogging the glass with my breath. Then I climbed into my bed and dreamt of nothing at all.
Jacob Steven Mohr is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He comes from Raleigh, North Carolina, and has been writing fiction for five years. His fiction explores the boundaries between worlds, between reality and imagination, and challenges readers to draw the dividing lines for themselves. This is his first published work.