A bitter wind convinced Jacob to zip up his coat. His breath puffed out in foggy bursts as he made his way down the jogging path. He paused in his steady pace at the sight of something odd up ahead.
A decent-sized patch of ice lay in front of him, covering a good three feet of the path, created by a dip in the pavement. The ice would normally be of no interest, except that rather than the typical glassy clearness, the ice was red—a deep, dark red.
The ice itself was still thin, the weather not cold enough to generate anything thicker. Below the surface Jacob could see the liquid, a thick substance, and he quickly rejected the notion that he was staring at a frozen pool of blood.
No trail of red led away from the hole as if from an injured animal. If a frozen body rested in the center of the ice, everything would be different, but he saw no signs of what might have bled to death in order to create such a large pool. The ice was probably the result of nothing more than children playing around with food coloring. He walked around the red, nearly past it, when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Although it seemed impossible, he thought he’d seen a human hand, ever so briefly, brushing along underneath the ice. A closer look revealed nothing, and after a full minute of staring, he decided he hadn’t seen anything to begin with.
He first saw the ice on December twenty second. Jacob pondered the odd little sight for the rest of the day, but by the next morning, he’d forgotten.
Although he frequently jogged along that particular path, due to the holidays, the next time he made it out wasn’t until January third. The weather had grown progressively colder as winter plowed on, and snow had struck in the last few days of December.
White flakes floated everywhere on that January third as Jacob set out down the path. It felt good to walk it and clear his head, routine once again reestablished now that the chaos of the holidays had ended.
Trees surrounded the path, all of them bare and lifeless, the small patch of wilderness around him quiet. This time Jacob saw not a patch of red ice, but red snow instead covering the ground up ahead, maybe three feet long. In truth, he’d forgotten about the ice, and he put no thought to it as he moved towards the bloody snow, fully expecting to see a dead animal at the center.
He found nothing. There wasn’t even an indention in the snow where an injured animal had lain. The snow wasn’t melted and no white covered the top of the red. It seemed as if the new snow that fell on the spot simply soaked up the red instantly.
Jacob fell to his knees and began to dig through the crimson snow, only a few inches deep. What he found jogged his memory as his eyes took in the ice, just as red as ever.
Slowly, he reached down and ran his gloved fingers over the surface, thought of a hand brushing against the other side. A part of him expected to see the hand once more, following his fingers as they moved across the top of the ice, but nothing happened.
Jacob pulled his hand back and stared at the wet red covering his glove. The liquid on his gloves wasn’t watery, but thicker. As impossible as it seemed, Jacob almost believed blood covered his fingers, as if the ice bled.
He stood up abruptly, and in his bulky winter clothing, almost fell back down in the process. Jacob wanted to get away from the ice, to forget about the way it bled when he touched it. He turned and left the patch behind; retreated into the warmth and comfort of his home.
Three days later and the ice had consumed his thoughts. It danced around in his mind and blocked out everything else.
On two occasions during those three days he started down the jogging path in order to see it again, but both times he had only made it a few steps before turning back. He tried to believe it was nothing, a perfectly good explanation available for what he’d seen; he just didn’t know what it could be.
On the third day he decided to do something.
He walked along the path that afternoon, the sky nothing but grey clouds. In his hand he gripped a metal baseball bat. He’d break it open and see what lay underneath, and when he found nothing, he’d walk away at peace.
It had snowed the day before, but the spot remained as red as it had been three days ago, contrasting starkly against the fresh white surrounding it. Jacob wondered if anyone else had walked along this path and seen the red, but no footprints marred the snow, still smooth and undisturbed.
He dropped to his knees and unburied the ice. He pushed away snow until he could see the entire patch; both of his gloves dripped with red when he stood back up.
The bat rose above his head. This time he could plainly see the human hand, moving just barely beneath the surface. He brought the bat down with a loud crack.
The effect was immediate. Given the thickness of the ice, he thought he’d need to swing three or four times before it broke, but on the first try a geyser of blood sprayed ten feet into the air. Jacob stumbled away, thankfully far enough to avoid the scarlet shower.
The spray lasted for only a few seconds before it retreated back into the puddle. From out of the hole blood still bubbled up, melting the snow around it, bathing the ground, an endless supply kept within the ice.
Jacob could only stare, bat still in hand. His eyes remained fixed on the hole he’d made, and as he watched, a hand rose out of it and gripped the ice. It broke away another piece, sharp and red like stained glass, widening the hole. An entire arm reached upward, dripping wet.
When the head appeared, a man’s face visible, bald, face strained as he tried to break more of the ice away, Jacob ran. He didn’t stop until he reached his door, and then hid away in the bedroom of his apartment, contemplating the reality of the past half hour.
Had he actually seen a man pull himself out of a bloody patch of ice in the ground? Just as he’d thought about the patch of ice itself, there had to be a reasonable explanation, but nothing Jacob thought sounded plausible. If a man had actually been frozen in the ground like that, he couldn’t still be alive, and nothing could explain away the blood.
That night Jacob didn’t sleep. He stared at his door and waited for the knock to come. The man from the ice would be out there.
No one knocked on Jacob’s door, and when the morning came, he knew another walk was needed.
Baseball bat once again in hand, Jacob trudged down the jogging path. Even though things were always quiet during the winter, he found the silence even more encompassing the closer he got. The only sound came from the crunching of his feet in the snow and his own breathing.
No blood stained the path anymore. The patch of ice remained, just as red as ever. A thin layer had begun to freeze back over the top.
While he saw no blood, he did see footsteps leading away from the hole and off into the forest, and that’s where Jacob went. The man, naked and curled up into a fetal position, lay dead in front of a tree, his body caked in frozen blood.
The bat fell from Jacob’s hand as he stared at the corpse. Maybe if he had stayed this man would still be alive and his story told, everything explained, but now that couldn’t happen. Jacob shook his head and turned to leave when behind him the man stirred.
Jacob heard a whisper of a groan. He turned towards the stranger and watched as he lifted himself off the ground. He appeared to be in his early thirties, maybe younger. This time Jacob didn’t allow fear to cloud his judgment. He moved to help the man.
As soon as Jacob touched his shoulder the man turned towards him and punched. The fist buried into Jacob’s stomach, stole away all air. He fell to the ground, both arms wrapped around his waist, and watched as the man picked up the baseball bat. The next thing Jacob knew, he woke up next to the patch of ice, freezing.
Movement caught his attention. His eyes found the man, now in Jacob’s clothes. Jacob himself lay naked on the ground, shivering violently.
The man, noticing Jacob had awoken, knelt down in front of him. He smiled, his face still covered in bloody frost.
“Sorry about hitting you,” the man rasped, his voice little more than a whisper. “Even more sorry about what I have to do now, but when you have to do it yourself, you’ll understand.”
“W-w-what are y-you d-doing?” Jacob managed to say, colder than he’d ever been before.
“I have to make a trade,” he said. “Like I said, I’m sorry.”
He didn’t look sorry as he walked up to Jacob and grabbed his shoulders. The man still smiled as he dragged Jacob over to the hole and used the bat to break the thin layer of ice. Jacob tried to fight back, but his head throbbed and his body was numb. His muscle didn’t respond as the man picked Jacob up and dumped him in the hole.
Jacob screamed as he hit, his mind crying out for survival. He tried to grab hold of the ground and pull himself back up, but the man wouldn’t allow it. The bat struck Jacob’s arm, and then his head. Jacob remained conscious, but what little strength he had vanished, and he found himself sinking into the blood.
The cold he felt now was all encompassing. He felt it creep into every part of him, and up above the ice began to harden over. Through it he saw the man, still smiling, staring down at him as Jacob tried to swim back to the surface.
His hands touched the ice, but he couldn’t break it. He tried to punch but found he just didn’t have the strength. He should’ve been dead already, no source of air, but his lungs didn’t burn, slowed down by the cold, just as the rest of his body was.
When the man left, Jacob could do nothing but drift through his new home. He couldn’t see anything through the blood other than the patch of ice up above him.
The man had been trapped down here until Jacob set him free, and for his kindness, Jacob had to take his place. Eventually someone else would come along and see the ice, just as Jacob had, and maybe they’d set him free. If what the man had spoken was true , and a trade was needed, would Jacob put his savoir in this hole as well?
Jacob told himself he didn’t know the answer, but deep down he knew it for a lie. With nothing else to do, Jacob stared up at the world outside the ice, and waited.