On the Heels of the Snowman
We have trailed the Snowman for three days, nearly three days longer than we’d anticipated. Like our water, morale runs thin. Benny, on point, assures us we’re on his heels, that it’s just a matter of time. The Cowboy and I remain doubtful, want to abandon the mission, but cannot find our way from the veldt without Benny. The Cowboy says it’ll be worth it. I hope he’s right.
The farther we go, the fiercer the mosquitos become. I ask the Cowboy if mosquitos bite snowmen and he theorizes they do, snowmen a phenomenal source of water. Benny orders us to keep quiet, says if he can hear us, the Snowman can hear us, too. The Cowboy gives Benny the finger, but behind his back: no risk, no reward.
I leave gallons of sweat on the jungle floor, yet the Snowman doesn’t lose an ounce. We caught sight of him earlier today, as thick as ever, on a ledge below a cliff, two clicks ahead. The Cowboy knelt and took a shot, missing badly, the Snowman dashing out of sight. Benny scolded the Cowboy for his shit aim. I reassured the Cowboy we’d get him next time, wondering who I was trying to convince.
* * *
The Cowboy thinks the Snowman is leading us in circles, hoping to break our spirit. It’s working. Several times, we’ve passed a banyan tree shaped like the number 4. Benny doesn’t believe the tree to be the same until I tie my white bandana around a branch, only to see it again 90 minutes later. While Benny keeps silent, I know he’s discouraged, his pace and fervor tripling from this point on.
I did not know these men until four days ago. I was sitting in a bar near the bazaar, swimming in bourbon, doubting a whole string of life choices. I’d put out the word I was looking for work, and after three weeks of killing brain cells, the Cowboy appeared. Benny had hired him that morning, the two meeting on the train. They needed a third. Benny had lost his former crew, two long-timers, on his last hunt. I’d heard the rumors—Benny executing them for attempted desertion—all the more reason to see this to its end, to not cross Benny, to defeat the Snowman and go home.
Neither the Cowboy or I are sure who is paying Benny to take down the Snowman, let alone how much. I know what I’m being paid, which I assume is less than the Cowboy and ridiculously less than Benny. Both have been at this longer, boast considerable reputations. I was a SEAL, but out here, it doesn’t matter what you did for some government. Governments have rules. Guys like the Cowboy and Benny don’t answer to anyone.
We reach the ledge where we last saw the Snowman, where he stood when the Cowboy took his failed shot. Benny finds the bullet lodged in a boulder, scrapes it out with his Bowie knife, and tosses it to the Cowboy. “Lose this?” he says. It’s the first time Benny has exhibited anything resembling a sense of humor. Benny attempts to re-create the shot, gauge the Snowman’s path. The Cowboy, in the meantime, spots something on the ledge: a carrot.
“I wounded him,” the Cowboy declares.
The Cowboy walks to the ledge and immediately slips, arms flailing, falling to his death.
Benny approaches the carrot, spread eagle. “Ice,” he says. He picks up the carrot, flicks his tongue along its length. “Fucker used his own nose as bait.”
This confirms what we’ve known for a while: As long as we’re tracing the Snowman’s footsteps, the Snowman has the advantage. We need to hunker down, wait for the Snowman to come to us.
Benny sends me into the jungle, tossing me the machete from his hip. I need to cut as many vines as I can find. I follow the path to the north side of the ledge, scale the side of the cliff until I can see the whole jungle. Less than a click south, I spy a rush of lianas. I make my way there and hack off as many as I can carry. On my way back, I hear a human scream: Benny. I drop the vines and sprint back to the ledge. Lying, in a half-dug foxhole, is Benny’s corpse, an icicle as long and as thick as my arm poking through his chest. Within minutes, the weapon has melted. It looks like Benny has been stabbed by nothing.
* * *
I wander the jungle for a day, subsisting on the collective water of three canteens. When that’s gone, I drop my pack, keeping only my weapons and the clothes on my back.
I come across the banyan tree in the shape of a 4. My bandana is missing. I try to remember if I or one of the others reclaimed it—in my heart, I know we did not. The Snowman is close, and I am powerless against him. I sling my rifle over my shoulder, remove the clip, and toss it into the jungle. I sit on the bottom leg of the 4, contemplating my situation, think of everything I might not every see again: my parents. My dog. Baseball. A woman.
I wait. The Snowman is not there; I look down at my watch; I look up again; he’s right in front of me. He’s much larger up close, nearly eight feet tall, half of his height his bottom ball. His dead-branch arms grab me, his coal eyes reaching into mine.
“Who sent you?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
I tell the Snowman about the bar, about Benny. He relaxes his grip and settles next to me.
“Where you from?” he asks.
“Part of me formed in Chicago,” he says. “Nearly 17 percent.”
The Snowman takes a long drag off his corncob pipe with a his yarny mouth, then offers it to me. I hesitate, but he insists. I take a drag, tasting the most exquisite tobacco I can imagine.
“How are the Bears this year?” the Snowman asks.
“Shitty.” I’m guessing. It’s been years since I’ve checked.
“That’s too bad,” he says.
We’re silent for a while. Sometimes I look over at him. He catches me staring at the hole where his nose used to be. I apologize. He says it’s no big deal, that there are other carrots. I remember I have his, pull it out of my pocket, and hand it to him—I was going to eat it but forgot I had it.
The Snowman wedges the carrot back into place.
“Obliged,” he says, his voice more pronounced, less breathy.
The Snowman takes off his black top hat and sets it on the ground. He wipes his forehead, leaving a dent. He catches me staring again.
“What?” he says.
“Your hat. I thought if you took it off … you’d stop being alive.”
The Snowman laughs. “You watch too much TV.”
From inside his vest pocket, the Snowman pulls out my white bandana and ties it around his head. I look at his top hat on the ground, kick at it with my toe.
“Do you mind?” I ask.
“Not at all.”
The inside of the hat is lined with silk. I put my hand in and just feel the smooth material, cool to the touch, like silk sheets.
“Go ahead,” the Snowman says. “You know you want to.”
I lift the hat onto my head and pull down.
“It fits you,” the Snowman says, then begins to roll away.
“I’m sorry,” he says to me.
I feel it. The coolness of the hat turns to cold, on my head, inside my skull. I try to lift my arms to take off the hat, but see they are freezing. I try to stand but can’t, my legs freezing, too. My bones and organs hurt, like a burn from dry ice, then I don’t feel at all.
The Snowman takes his hat off my head and puts it back on his, over my bandana. I think I might defrost, turn back to normal, but I don’t. I can’t move my mouth. It’s becoming hard to think.
“You’ll lose consciousness before you melt,” the Snowman says. “That’s good—you don’t want to feel yourself melting.”
The Snowman disappears into the brush. I think I spot him again, just a flash of white in the emerald canopy. Then my eyeballs freeze and I stop seeing. I exhale one last breath, imagining the steam rising in front of my face, a steaming ice statue in a jungle, soon to be no one, soon to be nothing.
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