A Place Without Seasons
by Y.M. Pang
In the gloom of the freezer, Shiro dreams of snow. He dreams of bare trees etched like dark embroidery on the white landscape. He dreams of running beside a girl in purple boots, her long braid bouncing behind her. Her laughter is effervescent as shrine bells.
She, at least, he hasn’t lost.
Shiro stretches, paws filling the cramped alleyway between the pork ribs and the package of frozen udon. Beyond the walls of his prison, Mother utters a sharp reprimand, Father grunts, and Grandmother lets out a muffled cackle. Then: Asuka, her voice calm but firm. There’s a thump, probably plates on the wooden table, then the clink of chopsticks on bowls.
Shiro leaps over the frozen udon—leaps too high, for his head hits the top rack. “Ow!” he yells. He lands on the udon, and sends it skittering off the rack and bump-bump-bumping down the levels of the freezer. Shiro grimaces, tries to rub his aching head with a snow-wrought paw. His paw won’t reach. If only Asuka had made his forelegs just little longer… She said he wouldn’t look as cute that way; bunnies should have long ears and short legs. At least Shiro’s nandina leaf ears are appropriately long.
Outside in the kitchen, the conversation stops. Then starts again, louder and harsher. Shiro can’t decipher their words through the thick walls of his prison, but he understands the tone. It’s one he’s heard countless times, whenever he upends an aging pack of roe or hits himself on the ice tray and lets out an involuntary yowl. Shiro tries, he really tries. He hides in the back of the freezer whenever footsteps approach, unless they have the telltale patterns of Asuka’s. He makes himself unseen if anyone else opens the freezer, allowing them to forget he’s here. He’s stopped calling for Asuka when he gets bored or lonely, even during hours when he knows she’s not in class or cram school. He’s long stopped scratching at the interior of the freezer wall, after Mother threatened to throw him out onto the baking July pavement.
Shiro just wishes Asuka had more time for him, like she once had. That’s why he is almost relieved that he knocked over the udon. Now Asuka must give him a talking to. Now he has the chance to see her.
He waits a long time before the clinking sounds and voices die down. He can’t tell time in his prison, but he guesses it’s near Asuka’s bedtime when the freezer door opens.
Light floods the shelves, the wrapped meat, the udon package that tumbles out of the freezer. Asuka peers at Shiro. She wears a yellow dress and blue slippers. Shiro still pictures her in mitts and a parka, in those purple boots. At least her long braid is familiar, and those wide eyes that always seem attentive.
Asuka sighs, picks up the udon, shoves it back on the top shelf. “It was an accident—” Shiro begins the same time Asuka says, “I know it was an accident.”
They stare at each other. Asuka tries to hide it, but Shiro sees the quirk of her mouth, like she’s holding back a smile.
After a pause, Asuka says, “It’s Grandma. She’s threatening to throw you out again. Says she wouldn’t have allowed this if she’d, umm, ‘known you’d act more like a furball than a snow bunny.’”
Shiro pads to the edge of the shelf and extends a paw. Hesitantly, Asuka lifts her hand and Shiro rests his paw on her palm. He could already feel himself melting, losing mass from her body heat and the air outside, but he doesn’t pull away. It’s only for a moment, and he’s not losing much.
“I can’t stand still all the time,” he says. “And I can barely see in here.”
“I asked Mom if we can program the light to always be on. She says it’s a waste of electricity.” Asuka lowers herself to her knees. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Shiro. I know you hate it here, and Grandma and Mom and Dad aren’t happy either. I feel like a—like a jail warden or something. But I don’t know what else to do.”
Asuka’s eyes sparkle, not with laughter now but with unshed tears. Shiro knows he has no heart, that he is snow all the way through, but he feels her pain like it is his own. He nuzzles his nose against her hand. “Am I such a burden? If so, I can…”
He leaps off the rack. “No!” Asuka yells. She moves to shut the door, then seems to think better of it when she realizes doing so would crush him. Their eyes meet, Shiro’s crimson berries to Asuka’s dark, terrified pupils. Standing at the threshold, Shiro feels the heat dappling his frozen fur, feels water droplets emerge. Even after sundown, the apartment remains hot.
“Please,” Asuka says. “Don’t go. You’ll die out there!”
Shiro hates himself for making her cry. Hadn’t he promised to be her friend forever, to never cause her pain?
He flicks his ears behind him, feigning casualness. Better make her think it’s for him, not for her. “It’s so dark and lonely in here,” he says. “Like one of your human coffins.”
Asuka wipes her eyes, sniffs. “I—I’ll visit you more often. I’ll tell Grandma you’re staying, no matter what, or she has to kick me out too. When it gets a little cooler you can walk around the kitchen a bit. And… and when winter comes, you can finally go outside and it’ll be just like old times!”
Shiro moves a step back. Asuka isn’t lying. That much he can tell. He may be her burden, but he is also her friend.
“I should’ve said goodbye to you at the end of winter,” Shiro says. Then the words spill out and he couldn’t stop them anymore. “That’s how the story’s supposed to go. I should’ve melted away with the spring rains, or gone off to a place where you’d never see me again. Next winter you’ll make a new snow bunny, have a new friend. Or maybe I’m the only one, the only one that came to life. When you grow up, I’ll become a dream—”
“No,” Asuka says. “Maybe, in another age… But now we have…” She gestures at the refrigerator, the kitchen, the fan. “It needn’t be like that anymore. I can keep you alive. With me.” She smiles. “Forever.”
“In another age,” Shiro repeats.
In another age, he thinks, maybe you would’ve run off with me. We could go to a place without seasons, where I would be free and you would be free of your family. You would make the sacrifice, in that age, because there’d be no other way for you to stay with me.
But Shiro stares at the trembling Asuka and doesn’t say any of this. It wouldn’t be fair of him to demand more. Of course she wants her current life, her own comforts, her family by her side. Even if that means he’s stuck here.
Shiro leaps back onto the top shelf and curls up beside the udon. “You’re right, Asuka. I shouldn’t just throw myself at summer’s mercy. It’s… good to know you still care.”
Asuka glances at the clock hanging on the kitchen wall. “I need to go to bed, Shiro. Promise me you won’t try to escape? That you’ll stay? With me?”
Shiro doesn’t bother pointing out that once she shuts that door he wouldn’t have the strength to open it again, and his next chance of escape would be when Mother opens the freezer to grab ingredients for lunch. He could race out the door then, but that would mean vanishing without saying goodbye to Asuka, something Shiro couldn’t do.
“I’ll stay,” Shiro says. “For as long as I can, I’ll stay.”
In the gloom of the freezer, Shiro rests his head on his paws. He dreams of rolling down a snowy hill, of scampering up the boughs of a bare tree, of racing a girl in purple boots with her hair pulled back in a long braid.
She, at least, he hasn’t lost.