The snow wrapped the ground in an icy blanket, chilling even the coldest soul with its blue, spindly fingers. Not an inch of the village was untouched by the frigidness. The villagers, cloaked in their burlap sacks, trudged throughout the streets, dragging their booted feet across the crumbling cobblestone as they went about their daily business. The peddlers sat on the corner, hoods drawn over their frozen faces, awaiting their next meal beside a pile of tin pans, leafed books dressed in faded leather, and stones. The stones always sold.
But Hugo Moreau couldn’t have cared less about the stones or the peddlers or the horrid winter that had struck the village. He barely noticed any of these things, save the winter, as his stove now hungered for wood and a chill swept across his feet, nesting in the small hole where his toes had emerged. He toiled endlessly, his calloused hands peeling back the parchment, scribing until they cramped. His hands, after countless hours of work, had permanently curled. They were stained black from his work. But none of that mattered.
Hugo was on the verge of a great discovery. The past eight months had been spent in that one room. He had arranged a tin bucket in the corner, just behind the ragged draperies, and his wife, Zoe, brought in stale crusts and fresh milk near noon. She despised her husband’s absence, and it visibly wore on her; Zoe’s hair, which had once been a deep chestnut, was now streaked with gray, and her eyes, once bright and vivacious, were dull. She never spoke out against her husband’s actions. Rather, she pursed her lips into a thin line and forced herself to bring him necessities, such as food. If he refused to come home, the least she could do was bring home to him.
“Mon cher,” Zoe whispered in his ear, drawing her hands across his back. “When will you be home?”
In those eight months, Hugo had forgotten what his home even looked like. He knew not whether there were one or two windows overlooking the front walk. For many days of his childhood, Hugo had sat up in those windows, dreaming and calculating, wondering what kind of man he would become. And now, he was merely the shell of a man, functioning only as necessary, while his mind lay elsewhere, perhaps centuries in the future.
“Mon trésor, it is awfully cold. You will fall ill.”
He shook her off, grumbling, “The house, the cold, the winter ….”
Zoe drew a slight breath. What did he not understand? She straightened her apron, pressing her lips into an even finer line.
Before she could reply, Zoe found herself staring at a peculiar young man who had suddenly appeared in the room. He wore not the burlap sacks, but a velveteen jacket, red like the ribbon that tied back his ebony hair, although most of it was hanging loosely around his prominent cheekbones, which were coated in a fine layer of white powder. Zoe found herself sinking down to her knees.
“No, no,” the young man said quickly, nodding in her direction with bright eyes. “I should be the one who grovels at your feet.”
Hugo’s heart quickened, heat pulsing through his icy veins. Who was this man, and what business did he have there? Hugo quickly drew his parchments over the calculations. There was no sense in this strange man taking any of his work.
Hugo stood. “Monsieur, what can I do for you?”
The smile disappeared from the stranger’s face as he turned to face Hugo. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Enzo Louis, and I must say, Monsieur Moreau, I am quite fond of your work.”
“My work?” gasped Hugo. No one, not even Zoe, had heard even the slightest details of his revolutionary discovery.
But the stranger nodded. “Oui. It is a spectacular project that you have here.”
“No, monsieur, you must be mistaken.”
Enzo turned to Zoe, who was standing, frozen, by the door, her hand quivering slightly on the knob. “Am I mistaken? Is your father’s work not extraordinary?”
“He is my husband, monsieur,” she murmured.
The stranger turned, the red ribbon bobbing against the back of his head. He looked between Zoe and Hugo for only a few moments before raising his eyebrow, disturbing the powder that evidently lay there too. His eyes drifted back to Zoe’s.
“You must’ve married as a child, madame.”
“I was 15.”
“And still not a day older?”
Hugo felt his blood begin to boil. He stood, his back a series of pops and clicks. He was slightly below eye-level with the man. Darn the hunchback he had acquired the better half of that year!
“You admire my work?”
Enzo nodded. “Oui. What you have is something special, something useful … something that will make a lot of people bow down at your feet.” His eyes floated down to Hugo’s worn boots. He nodded again.
Hugo was not ashamed by the condition of his boots. They were easily a size larger than the stranger’s. “What I have, monsieur, is mine.”
“I understand that. However you could change many lives with your findings … starting with your own.”
“This is my private work … and this is my private office. My wife will show you out.”
Zoe lowered her eyes to the floor as she turned the knob. “This way, monsieur.”
Enzo shifted his weight. “Please, monsieur, consider it. My office is just along the river, and what a beauty it is with this winter we are having. We all study there, all of us. There is room for a man like you, Monsieur Moreau, and your wife can travel too.”
Hugo kept his back turned to Enzo.
“We bid you adieu, monsieur,” whispered Zoe as the man reluctantly left, but not before whispering softly into her ear. And with that, Enzo left and Zoe started walking toward her husband.
Hugo raised his large hand in the air, stopping his wife mid-step. “I know what you are about to say, Zoe. I know you.”
“And I know you, mon cher,” she hummed, nearing closer to his work. “This is what you’ve always dreamed of!”
“You know nothing of my dreams.”
She took a step closer, drawing her hands across her torso. The air had become cooler. “We were children together, Hugo. You used to tell me everything.”
“But I am no longer a child. I am a man. I have different dreams.”
“That may be, but I am still your wife, if not your only friend, Hugo.”
He grunted. His hands were frozen over the blank parchment.
Zoe took her final step. “Why do you no longer tell me things?”
Hugo seemed to consider this for a while, but then he turned and, with the flick of his wrist, slapped his wife. She staggered back, more astounded than pained.
Zoe shook her head. “You swore, Hugo,
after everything ….”
He too seemed stricken. His eyes stayed trained on the red splotch that spread across her pale complexion, and there they remained throughout Zoe’s rant, as the tears fell from her eyes and she walked out the door. The image was burned into his mind. His hand. The splotch. Her tears. It all blended into one.
Hugo turned back to his work, where beside all the calculations, all the diagrams, all the blurbs of his findings, lay a small glass box. In it, there appeared to be only air. But, after these eight months of sweat, blood, and now tears, Hugo knew better. The box was not empty –rather, it was full. It was full of smaller life, life that was simpler, quicker, with less blood, less sweat, less tears. It was a life that he so much desired at that moment.
But in understanding the simplicity, Hugo had forgotten one small thing: even the smallest, simplest, quickest life had power. And it was with that power that he had changed the world, destroyed the world.
Now it was up to us to stop him.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.