Happy 2016! We’re welcoming the new year, and winter, with a Pop-Up short story by a teen writer! Get yourself a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable …
By Caroline MacRae
The longest winter in recorded human history began on October 13th. On Martha’s Vineyard, where the temperate Gulf Stream waters creep up to the island’s edge, snow was a rarity. But on an autumn day, as I watched the feather-light particles of ice drift down from the heavens, there was this feeling of excitement, of expectation, the kind that everyone always gets at the first snowfall, that begins not when you see the flakes coming down outside your window, falling on the street and sticking in your hair, but when you can just sense that snow will come, whether it be by the piercing chill that precedes the frozen vapors’ descent, or the clean smell of the air in the minutes before the initial fall. And in the end, you welcome it with open arms, seeing it as a chance to miss school or work, to wake up in the morning and see your familiar surroundings transformed into a crystallized wonderland, and to have everything that is so busy and complicated in your world just stop, and be silenced by the monochromatic blanket of snow.
Days later, the wonder of an early snowfall seemed a distant memory—no one gives a damn about the weather at a funeral. I was holding my sister Mia’s hand when the first flakes hit the brown graveyard grass, sleet falling on our black umbrellas. From time to time, she would shift her gaze from the cigar box-shaped urn to stare at me with a confused look on her face. Finally, she whispered to me, “But how did they fit Grandpa in that box?”
“Shhhh,” I hissed back, as my mother looked back at us, concerned. She let go of our father’s hand and walked over to touch my back, but I gently shook her off. She bit her lip and went back to my father’s side, snowflakes dusting her hair as she went. It was all silence after that, apart from my grandmother’s muffled sobs. `Tears rolled down my cheeks, stinging in the cold, as we walked back to our cars. I stopped and turned around, looking back at the urn, as my grandmother stared blankly at the remains of her husband. I gazed down toward the ground.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I turned back, and followed the others, black forms against a landscape slowly turning white.
Our grandfather’s death had actually happened in late August, but our parents didn’t tell us. Mia and I had been dropped off at our godparents’ house in Nantucket so our parents could go to Monmouth Beach to visit my grandfather in the hospital. He had been operated on for lung cancer two weeks prior, and was expected to be out of the hospital in a few days. He had talked to us on the phone. He had laughed. He had discussed the latest developments in world news, while I let him know that my senior literature class would be focusing on modern poetry.
“Now, Nora, it’s time that you learn some decent writing. Have you heard of Robert Frost?” he had asked.
I laughed. “Of course,” I replied. “’Two roads diverged in a yellow wood—’”
“No, not that, everyone knows that one.” He chuckled. “‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.’ Remember that?”
“Your grandmother and I read that to you every Christmas when you were a child. Maybe you could read it to Mia this year.”
“Oh, come on! You’re better at it than I am. Mia would probably agree.”
He sighed. “All right, I’ll read it at Christmas. But in the meantime, I want you to read all of Frost’s poems. That way, we’ll have something to talk about in December. And take care of Mia while you’re at it, too. I know how your parents can get. Promise?”
“Promise.” I smiled, looping the phone cord around my fingers.
“Great. Listen, I—” there were voices in the background— “Sorry, I have to go now, but we’ll talk soon. I love you. Bye.”
“I love you too, Grandpa—”
But he had already hung up.
I spent the next few days reading my father’s dog-eared copy of Norton’s Anthology, writing down the lines of Frost that I liked on a piece of stationery. One day, I put it in an envelope addressed to my grandparents’ house, for him to read as soon as he came home from the hospital.
Eight days later, when my parents came home, I asked how Grandpa was doing, and was told that he had had a seizure, been put into a coma, taken off life support, and finally turned to ash in the hospital morgue.
My letter came back three weeks after that; there was no Charlie Price living at that address anymore. I cried when I got it. It turned out he had died the day it was sent, and all of the faith I had poured into it had circulated around for weeks, the last vestiges of my grandfather’s spirit manifested in ink and paper, searching for its roots but finding nothing. I had lost my faith because my parents hadn’t bothered to tell me that my grandfather was gone.
I told Mia about his death, before my parents could sugarcoat it or offer up some excuses as to why they kept us in the dark for so long. I don’t know exactly when the rift between my parents and me had originally started, but it became clear then. I didn’t quite trust them to take care of her as I might have before. I was a legal adult, bound by no rules, while Mia was only eight years old. I grew much closer to her in the days following, the days where I still couldn’t process what had happened. I started my last year of Oak Bluffs High School in a daze, feeling like a puzzle that couldn’t be comprehended without its final piece. My home didn’t feel like home anymore and my parents became strangers, so I blustered my way through life like a wayward leaf, until October, when I landed on the fresh ground of the grave plot and found myself staring at a pile of ashes in a cigar box.
The night of the funeral, all of the surviving Price cousins and their children gathered by the fire and told stories of Grandpa. My father choked on his beer as our cousin Liam attempted to recount how my grandfather could sing the alphabet backwards better than forwards.
I wandered over to my mother, who stood on the outskirts of the group, making small talk with my grandmother and looking uncomfortable, as she always did at events like these. Her father had died when she was a toddler and her mother was an alcoholic, so she ran away to her great-aunt’s house at thirteen and used a scholarship and inheritance to work her way through the rest of college, where she met my dad. The Price family had welcomed her with open arms, but she never fully reciprocated, never seemed truly at home with them. Grandpa’s death only seemed to make her distance greater.
“You were like a daughter to him,” my grandmother said.
My mother smiled, but somewhat awkwardly, and I could see in her face confusion and uncertainty. I linked my hand in hers and she squeezed it. At that moment, I believed that things were going to get better.
I long suspected that my parents hoped that things would get better —for us, for them—after the funeral, and everything would go back to their normal, the normal of seven years ago. They hadn’t planned for Mia, and while their jobs as painter and doctor had allowed the three of us to live comfortably, her birth had us worn thin. The fighting had begun shortly after she had started talking, when I was twelve. The wall between my room and theirs was thin too, so I heard almost every conversation between them, every argument and complaint. They had argued before, about things that seemed minor to me. It had gotten worse after I started looking at colleges in junior year, and Mia started first grade. These arguments seemed deeper, more personal, and when they happened, I just buried my head in my pillow and was grateful that Mia slept on the other side of the house. Because of her, at the funeral I silently stood with my parents in what I believed were unspoken plans to reconcile our family, unified by our loss.
Yet after the funeral, the snow only got worse, burying any hopes we had of repairing what was left of our family. We did our best to avoid the house and each other, finding excuses to leave, places to be. I went to the piers to tend to our small pocket-cruiser, Boats and Ships and Sealing Wax, which had fallen into disrepair after Mia was born. When I was younger, my father would take me sailing, teaching me how the cutter rig worked in different winds, when to use the outboard motor. I tended to that boat for hours on end now. Mia spent her time on Chappaquidick with our neighbor’s sons, looking for the same purple quahog shells that the original inhabitants of the Vineyard had treasured centuries before. Our father spent more time working on his oil paintings down at Nashaquitsa Pond, not coming back until late, so as to better “capture the essence of fall,” as he put it. But it was wintry landscapes that dominated the countryside now, and as a consequence, the sales of his renowned autumn foliage paintings dropped. My mother began working longer hours at the hospital on the mainland to help stabilize our income, and would come home late, only to be gone again in the morning. We continued that way, only admitting the presence of one another on the way to our little sanctuaries from reality, until the first of the storms confined us to our house in early November.
While it seemed we could all go on with our comfortable estrangement, by Thanksgiving, when severe winter storm warnings stopped all passenger ferries from crossing the North Atlantic strait between us and the mainland, preventing our visit to my grandmother’s house, my parents started to worry.
When my mother called my father from work in the afternoons, I could hear whispers of their conversations: “Getting in the way of family . . . Don’t know if there’s school tomorrow . . . Seven people died from black ice this morning alone . . . . This is getting too dangerous.” The hospital where my mother worked was twenty miles into the mainland, and she was only able to reach it because emergency ferries were still permitted back and forth from the island. She started logging more hours in the hospital. She would stay at the hotel next to the hospital, only coming home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then not at all. During one phone call in early December, she told me that there was no point in taking the hour-long ferry ride through the storms only to go through it all again eight hours later. I couldn’t blame her. Every time she would come home, she and my father would find something to argue about within an hour. They never argued over the phone, but as soon as they saw the other’s face they would be at it like cats and dogs. I wanted them to be together, but I feared that having them near each other would only drive them farther apart. To be honest, I didn’t want her to come home.
Our house quickly became an empty shell, and Mia and I were left to fend for ourselves while our father was at the docks working on his “masterpiece,” as my mother jokingly called it. One night, he didn’t come home until eleven. I had been waiting up for him because Mia couldn’t go to sleep, when I saw him staggering through the snow with an empty whiskey bottle in his hand. My blood ran cold, and I ran outside to help him. When we got into the kitchen, he collapsed onto the counter stool.
“Nora, please don’t tell your mother about this. You know how she feels about drinking.”
I nodded. “I’ll be quiet, but only if—”
I was interrupted by footsteps at the top of the stairs. Mia stood, outlined by the hallway light, her stuffed bunny rabbit in her hand.
“Daddy? Could you read me a story?”
I looked at him, and then smiled at her. “Hey, Mia-Moo. Dad’s feeling really tired, so he can’t read you a story tonight. Plus, it’s way past your bed time, so skedaddle.”
She yawned and grimly returned to her room. As soon as I heard her door close, I snapped back to my father, who was still holding the bottle numbly.
“I won’t tell Mom if you promise that this will never happen again,” I hissed. I plucked the whiskey out of his hands and threw it in the recycling.
“I promise,” he mumbled, and lurched to his feet. “I love you,” he called as he entered his room.
“I love you, too.” I closed my eyes as tight as I could and clenched my fists on the countertop. This is not going to be a problem. Just this once. Mom can never know.
By mid-December, our mother’s absence had become so regular that on the rare occasion when she was home, Mia and I ignored her pleas for “family time” and took our regular walks through the snow, looking for trees that could be cleared before they crashed on power lines.
One day, Mia and I went walking through the Great Rock Bight path. There she spotted a limping white rabbit, blood trailing behind it.
“Oh, the poor bunny!” She ran over to its side, and, despite its struggles, picked it up.
“Mia, drop that thing now!” I yelled at her. “You know you’re not supposed to touch wild animals.”
“But it’s dying! Look at its leg, Nora!” She held it up for me to see. “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll name you . . . . Charlie!”
“Mia, you’re scaring it. Its heart can stop from fear.”
“Charlie’s going to die if we leave it here. We can’t just let it die.” She pouted. “We can’t just let Charlie die.”
I looked in the terrified eyes of the still-squirming rabbit, and something broke within me. It seemed so helpless.
“Fine, Mia,” I muttered, kicking a drift out of the way. Mia carrying the rabbit, we headed back down to our house, where our mother sat at the table, head in her hands.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked as Mia shuffled in behind me. She lifted her face from the cradle of her arms, and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“He’s gone down to the docks. He’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Mia found this rabbit by Great Rock Bight. It’s hurt, so she figured you could fix it, considering all the time you spend in the hospital.”
Mom winced at those last words. “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t guarantee anything. Nora, get me my surgical kit and the rubbing alcohol from under the sink. I’ll need you to wash your hands.” She glanced at Mia, still holding the rabbit, and her face paled. “Mia. Put the rabbit down.”
Mia gently lowered Charlie, whose trauma over this experience conveniently made him a manageable patient.
“Let me see your hands. Now.”
Mia obliged, sticking them out. Her thumb and middle fingers poked through the holes in her hand-me-down mittens.
“Mia, tell me you did not touch the wound with your bare hands. Do you know how many diseases come from wild animals? Lyme disease, tularemia, tape worms, I can go on. And why on earth are you still wearing those old mittens? I told your father two weeks ago to buy you new winter clothing! It is just like him to do that, forgetting to take care of you two, never home—”
“She didn’t touch the wound!” I lied. “And you’re one to talk about parental neglect!” Mom’s face went even more white than it already was, and she set to work on Charlie.
Mom quickly sewed the wound shut, applied a bandage, then gently put Charlie down outside. He happily limped away.
Mom turned to us. “Don’t tell your father about this. He’s got enough on his mind. It’ll be our little secret.” She reached for my hand and managed a weak smile.
So when my father came home late that night, only my mother and I were up. We had waited for hours in silence, her hand still clenched in mine, its own entity. And I could feel how much she wanted to make things work, to fix her family and fix herself. And I realized then that I felt the same way, so much it hurt. So we said nothing as he asked us how our days went. We just stared out at grey landscape of ice and sea that surrounded us from all sides.
Christmas came and went with little celebration. The White Christmas that I had always planned to see as a child was no special miracle, but a soot-stained, cold affair that consisted of our family’s power flickering on and off until finally giving up and shutting down on Christmas Eve, followed by a two-mile walk in the middle of a blizzard to the church we only went to twice a year. Normally, the Christmas service was festive and gorgeous, but the lack of heating and the crying from the pageant children dampened our spirits. To stay warm, we had to light the candles that we normally used for our fire-lit rendition of “Silent Night” at the end of the service. As we church-goers sang the carol, the sound of our congregated voices could not drown out the howling winds outside, or the crackle of another power line being snapped in half under the barrage of the winter storm.
At midnight, already shaking from cold that our feeble candles could not chase away, we stumbled blindly back home, to the house where our traditional candles at the window were black in the night, to the living room filled with the absence of a cheerful Christmas tree that was adorned with sparkling ornaments that we had gathered over the years spent in our old beach house. The search for a tree had proved too dangerous after the giant pines that surrounded the property collapsed on the roads, preventing my family from bringing one of the pine trees’ smaller cousins home with us.
As I headed upstairs, promising to sing Mia some carols, I glanced at the sparse pile of gifts on the ground, all that my mother could manage to buy with what extra money she had. When I opened Mia’s door, I found her shivering in her bed.
“They’re fighting again.”
I heard the muffled shouts down the hall in our parents’ room, and nodded.
“It’ll be alright.” I settled into her bed, wrapping my arms around her.
Once Mia had fallen asleep, I tiptoed back to my room and passed my parents’ on the way. As I adjusted to the cold sheets, I heard crying in the other room.
“I have been trying, so much, too much to help you with—” my mom’s voice quavered.
“Everything. I know. But Lynn, we can get past this, I know we can.”
“You’re just like her. It started the same way, you know. Everyone thought it came from missing my father, and that it would go away in time, but soon it became so much a part of our lives, of who she was, that I never questioned any of it; the late nights, the bounced checks . . . ” Her voice grew louder, almost a shout. “And now I find that you stopped painting weeks ago. Hours spent down at the docks—did you really think I wouldn’t notice? That I wouldn’t remember the signs? Did you ever once ask yourself whether your actions would have an impact on me, on our daughters? Did you ever think about anyone besides yourself?”
“Lynn. I’m so sorry.” My father’s voice cracked. “It just gets so hard, now that he’s gone.”
I could hear the slight noise of my mother drawing a breath. The closet door slammed open.
“Lynn, what are you doing?”
“The best thing I can do. We need money, and I need to get away from this snow globe of an island. The weather reports on the mainland say that there’s another wave coming, and tomorrow is the last day that I could safely leave.” I buried my head into my pillow, hoping against hope that this was all a dream, the kind where everything goes wrong but you wake up and it’s all better. But as I was fading into sleep, I could faintly hear the sound of a door slamming shut. The next morning I woke up to a new layer of snow and no mother. The presents were forgotten.
My sister started feeling ill in mid-January, with a nagging cough that gradually became worse. And as with the snow at the funeral, we took no notice of it. Before, we had been concerned with the ice storm warnings and ensuing power outages, and my father, Mia, and I had joined in the mad rush of islanders to the nearest food store, to stock up on supplies before we were hit again. By mid-January, temperatures that had been hovering just above 0˚ for days began to drop, triggering a mass exodus to the mainland for the members of the Vineyard’s population who wished to leave before the frozen sea fully cut the island off from the rest of the world. Mom had now been gone for over three weeks.
So when the electricity went out and we were left standing in the darkness, we were more concerned with building a fire than with Mia’s hoarse coughing. As the days went by without light, her condition worsened. My mother was still on the mainland, at work, and our father was in the middle of what was decidedly one of the most inopportune midlife crises of all time. He decided to make up for his lack of paintings in being a jack-of-all-trades, and could barely finish a project before starting another. He had also taken it upon himself to finish fixing our boat, which was conveniently near the pub, and stayed out longer each night than he had before Christmas. Mia and I were left alone in the house, and one day, I built her a fire out of books. There was no firewood anymore, so I piled some copies that we didn’t need in the fireplace and set them aflame. She still kept coughing, though, so I looked for more. Most of them had been burned when I ran my finger down the spine of The Collected Poems of Robert Frost. I took it off the shelf and opened it.
“Isn’t that—” Mia coughed out, eyes widening.
“We don’t need it anymore, Mia.” I brushed through the pages one last time, seeing the notes start to blur. I was crying.
“Are you okay?” Mia peered at me.
“It’s just—the smoke got in my eyes.”
“You know, if you say white rabbit over and over again, the smoke will go away.”
She started singing white rabbit in her wheezy voice. I smiled before turning to the last page, where a note was written. Merry Christmas, Nora, Love Grandpa. I ripped that page out, and threw the rest of the book into the fire, and sat down next to Mia. She was still chanting as if some white rabbit would come out of the forest and save her sister from getting smoke in her eyes. She was shivering under the miles of blankets covering her. It was then that I knew she needed serious medical help. I told our father when we got home, and the next day, the three of us trekked across the foot-deep snow, hoping that some help lied in the small Chilmark community hospital.
“Tularemia,” said the doctor, squinting to read her notes in the dimly lit examination room. She glimpsed at Mia but then went back to her diagnosis. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your daughter has Tularemia.”
I looked up at her while my father sank, deflated, into his chair.
“It’s that disease that had an outbreak here about ten years ago,” my father replied, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Quite right, yes,” added Dr. Brenner, “we did have some cases of tularemia in 2004, partially due to the tick population rising. That’s how we know that this is tularemia. Normally it’s diagnosed as a nasty cold, but we have been on the lookout since the last outbreak. Ticks are the main cause of tularemia, but since there have been no ticks in the past four months, it was probably ingested it through the air, or by touching an infected animal.”
At this, Mia’s face blanched.
“Charlie …” she muttered, before turning to look at me with wide eyes.
“Unfortunately, since tularemia is such an extremely rare disease, with only five out of every ten thousand people having it, and since we’re just a small community hospital, we don’t have any treatments for it.”
The doctor’s sympathetic voice broke me out of my daze. My father look surprised.
“But you said that you had cases before—”
“Ten years ago, Mr. Price, but that was back when we had a fully operating ferry, and the death of a man surely hastened the process. But we do not have these resources now. We only have twenty-five beds in this hospital, and we can’t afford to keep treatment for a disease of which there are only two hundred cases per year. I’m sorry, but your best bet is to wait until the storm is over.”
“God knows how long that’ll take,” muttered my father, his hands shaking from agitation and cold.
“I’ll do my best to help. Here, I’ll tell the ferry captain to guarantee your seats on the next boat over, after the storm ends. Just give him this note.” She scribbled on her parchment, ripped it off, and handed it to us. “He’s a good friend of mine. In the meantime, I can give you something to help with the cough.”
Dr. Brenner reached inside her cabinet and produced a small bottle of Mucinex. “It’s not much, but it’ll help.”
My father thanked her for the help, and as she rushed down the hall to check up on the other patients, we left, stepping out of the warm, soft hospital lights into the cold, white, smothering world of ice.
Later that day, I knocked on my father’s bedroom door. He was staring out into the night, his blank face illuminated by a desk lamp.
“Did you get what I asked you?” he asked.
“I’m eighteen, Dad.”
He grumbled, and then muttered, “I don’t think anyone at the liquor store gives a damn at this point.”
“Shouldn’t you be caring less about alcohol and more about Mia? She’s not getting any better.”
“We make do with what we can.”
“Does Mom even know?”
At this he froze.
“Why in the world should that woman know? She’s gone, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Sometimes people aren’t there for you when you need them the most. That’s life, Nora. Accept that and move on.”
I was about to walk out the door when I turned back.
“You know, maybe that woman was right,” I spat out. “She left this sinking ship while she still could, and I honestly cannot blame her. My only regret is that I wish Mia and I had gone with her too.” I caught only a glimpse of my father’s face before I slammed the door and went to give Mia her medicine.
It was sometime late in February, after having heard Mia coughing and crying for over a month, that I decided to take matters into my own hands. On a day when the snowfall wasn’t torrential, I woke Mia up early in the morning wrapped her in her warmest clothing and multiple blankets. I left a note on the counter for my father, telling him not to worry, though I doubted that he would be awake to read it for another twelve hours. He had drunk much more than usual last night, as evidenced by the number of liquor bottles on the ground. Mia waited for me to lock up the house, and then we walked out on the road far enough to be able to wave at the cars that still had gas. I hitched a ride down to the Oak Bluffs marina. We stopped right next to our family boat, the pocket-cruiser. I ushered Mia into the berth under the cockpit, then started the engine. It took a while to get started, but finally gave in.
We puttered along the icy sea, stopping only to push away the ice chunks with a wooden oar. The headwinds got stronger, and the sea turned underneath the boat. Snow kept falling on the maps, blurring the ports of Cape Cod, and waves began crashing against the bow. We were less than a quarter of a mile away from the shore, according to the buoy we had passed a while ago, but we were nowhere near done.
As we got closer to Woods Hole, more buoys started appearing, and I narrowly missed one hidden in the trough of a wave. I was forced to turn the speed down after that, not wanting to hit one and capsize our vessel. Unfortunately, we were no longer skimming the crests, and they started rocking the boat, sending us careening over wave after wave. I thought of our father, probably awake now, wondering where his daughters were.
After what seemed like several hours, Mia stopped shivering. I knew from my life saving course that the inability to shiver was a sign of hypothermia, so I took off my outermost jacket and wrapped it around her. I bent down and shook her shoulder.
She opened her eyes, and smiled at me.
“I’m just going to nap, is that okay?” She closed her eyes.
“No, no. Mia—Mia!”
I grabbed her face and tapped her cheeks. Her eyelashes fluttered open.
“Mia, you have to listen to me. You can’t fall asleep. OK? You fall asleep, and you won’t wake up. You remember Grandpa? He fell asleep, and look where he is now. Look where we are now. I—I can’t let you die. You are going to stay awake until I get you to the hospital, and you are going to get better. So for God’s sake, Mia, keep your eyes open.”
She gulped, and then nodded.
I turned back to the wheel, trying to make out Woods Hole in the distance. Oh my God. What was I thinking? I tightened my hold on the wheel, my fingers tingling. The snow had begun blowing more intensely and swirling as the winds increased. My decision to try to make our way to the mainland had endangered not just my life, but Mia’s as well. On the island, there had always been the chance that she would recover or help would come; now it all came down to whether or not we could find the mainland.
Just as the storm seemed as if it would engulf us, I faintly made out a buoy that indicated we were nearing the Woods Hole marina. I glanced at my watch. A trip that normally takes one hour had taken eight.
We finally reached the marina. I turned off the engine, and tied the boat up, helping Mia step onto the icy dock. Thunder was rolling in the distance as I surveyed the abandoned wharf. I hadn’t been expecting a town illuminated with lights that would put a carnival to shame, or kind-faced strangers offering warm blankets to Mia and me, promising a quick ride to the hospital, but it had never crossed my mind that there wasn’t any help on the mainland. I hadn’t been there since early October, when there were still stragglers left over from the summer going back to their off-season lives. Even the lighthouse was dark, having no ships to steer home.
I picked Mia up, blankets and all, her tiny figure shivering in my arms. She had lost weight in the month that she had been sick. I knew that if we walked far enough, we were bound to find someone that could help us. I shuffled along the deserted stretch of highway, cloaked only in my snow pants and a parka. There were no cars in sight, and the houses were all vacant. This part of Cape Cod was just like Martha’s Vineyard, lively in the more clement months, but when the cold winds rolled in from the sea, the inhabitants of all these shore-towns fled, leaving their homes and villages to be no more than perfectly preserved ghost towns.
The cold was biting my face, the snow causing my eyes to water. There was no end to the wasteland of Cape Cod, and my sister seemed to be getting heavier in my arms. I started wondering how long I would last until I collapsed. I remembered watching the local Boston news bulletins back in November, pieces that listed the names of the countless individuals—including one small boy on Martha’s Vineyard—who were killed by collapsing roofs, or had been buried alive in their cars, headlights still blinking underneath three feet of snow.
If I fell, I would never get up again. Mia and I would just be two more names broadcast to the public, news anchors gravely announcing that the storm had taken more innocent lives. It would be so easy to just give up, let the cold take me.
Someone was up ahead of me, a form barely discernible in the snow, neither young nor old, and waving at me. I walked towards the figure, but the closer I got, the farther away it seemed, like an oasis that was just a mirage in the end. Strange. The figure wasn’t wearing any winter gear, but rather a thin white robe. It was tied in the back, like a hospital gown. Exactly like a hospital gown.
“No,” I whispered. “This isn’t real.”
My grandfather’s eyes pierced through the veil of snow as he reached his hand out to me. My face crumpled and I started crying, the tears burning cold against my cheeks.
“You’re gone, Grandpa. You died six months ago.”
Just because I’m not alive anymore doesn’t mean I’m gone. He chuckled.
I looked down to see if Mia could see him too, but she had vanished. I looked down at the road. The snow had melted away and it was summer. I still felt the cold in the hollows of my bones, though. I started sobbing.
“What’s happening, Grandpa?”
He smiled sadly.
“Why am I only seeing you now? Am I dying?” I shuddered, tears blurring my vision.
My grandfather looked at me and shook his head. Then he spoke for the first time out loud, and his features became clearer, as did his voice, like a radio tuning into the right frequency after a lifetime of static.
“I have to go now, Nora, but I don’t want you to follow me. Remember the promise you made to me?” He gestured at his body. “I’m dead; nothing you can do can change that. Right now, your body is facedown in the snow, and you’re body’s only getting colder. You only have a few minutes left before you stop breathing. And I won’t let that happen. Remember that line of Robert Frost I read to you back in September?” Of course I did. I had only read that poem a thousand times.
“‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep’?”
He kissed my forehead. “Goodbye, darling.”
The snow came back, the trees slowly rotted, and the landscape was gradually sapped of its color. His face was getting blurrier now.
He turned back.
“I love you from here to the moon and back.”
“I love you too, Nora.”
The snow started stinging me, and I felt the cold seeping into me, numbing me.
But then something snapped and I found myself lying in a snowdrift on the side of the road. Mia was crying, shaking my shoulder. She was doubled over in pain. I gasped, sitting up. She threw her arms around me. I staggered to my feet, and lifted her on my back. I started pushing forward with new strength.
I walked on. I walked until I could not feel my legs, motivated only by Mia’s coughs into the hood of my jacket. After what felt like a lifetime, I spotted a blink of light. Forty feet away, barely noticeable in its mantle of snow, was a diner. I saw lights and heard music playing, people laughing. I struggled to reach it, but almost fell with Mia’s weight.
“Mia?” I whispered to her.
She opened her doe-like eyes and yawned. “Yeah?”
“Could you run to that diner over there?” I asked. “I can walk alongside you.”
“Only if you don’t let go of my hand. Promise?” Mia stuck out her gloved pinkie finger from under her blankets and mittens.
“Promise,” I replied, shaking it.
I set her down on the ground, and we doggedly marched to the diner. We pushed inside and stumbled into the party. The exhaustion and pain that I had kept at bay finally kicked in, and I realized how much I had been holding back. I slumped onto the ground, defeated. I could hear Mia’s hoarse voice in the background as a woman rushed to help me. I closed my eyes, feeling the heat of the diner burn my skin, the voices now dimming to a murmur, and let the darkness swallow me.
I woke up with the sun shining in my eyes. I tried to sit up and see where I was, but I was met with a brutal headache. A machine to my right beeped, and I saw a heartrate monitor next to me. An IV was connected to my arm, and my left side felt strange. I looked down and saw bandages on my fingers. What happened?
I looked to the side and saw my mother sleeping in the chair next to my bed. I sat straight up, setting off a series of beeps from the monitor, waking her up.
“Nurse? She’s awake!” she cried, pressing the call button.
“Mom, could you stop pushing that? My head hurts.” A woozy feeling came over me, and I fell back into the pillows. “Where am I?”
“Boston Hospital. You were put into a coma for your brain damage and moved here after the condition was stabilized. Mia’s in Atlanta with your father and grandmother at the Center for Disease Control. She’s still being treated, but she’s not critical. The good news is that you didn’t sustain any damage that therapy can’t fix, or lose any major limbs, though you did lose a finger tip getting you over here.” Sure enough, the tip of my left ring finger was visibly shorter through the bandages. My mom smiled ruefully, glancing down at her own finger. She was still wearing the narrow wedding ring that my father gave her when she was 26.
“Where were you?” I whispered.
Her smile fell for a second, but she recovered it. “What’s important is that I’m here now.”
“I’m not asking about now. I’m asking why you left us when we needed you then.”
She shook her head. “Do you understand what it was like, Nora? How hard it was to be in that house? Now, I am sorry for not being there 24/7, but—”
“You can’t really be looking me in the eye and telling me how hard it was, when I was going through the same thing, too. And you’re the adult here, you’re the one who’s supposed to stay, not run away like some little kid!”
“Your father, Nora—”
“He got worse after you left, and I know you knew that would happen, so don’t try to explain that away, too. He needed you, and you got scared. You wouldn’t even try fixing Dad’s problem before giving up on him, on your family. You freaked out and left two kids to deal with what you couldn’t. The worst part is that you didn’t fight for us, your own children. God, look at you. Did we mean anything to you? Did you think about us at all while you were walking out that door on Christmas Eve? I just don’t understand how you can look me in the eye and still call yourself a mother after what you did. I certainly won’t, and I honestly hope Mia doesn’t when she sees you again.”
Her face crumpled, and her entire body stilled. “You think that it didn’t hurt me.” Tears started falling down her cheeks.
“You think that I just got off the hook when I left you three? That I didn’t live with that every day for the past three months? I tried my best to help you guys–I sent you money, I called you and your sister–but I-I just couldn’t go back.”
“Look, I’m sorry your family was so terrible to you, and I wish I could fix that, but that doesn’t mean you can just leave your own children like that. You’re not the kid here, you’re the parent.” She sniffled, wiping her nose with her sleeve.
“I have talked to Dad during the two weeks you’ve been out,” she said. “I think the problem with us was that we kept our feelings inside and we didn’t talk about them until they come up again in the worse possible ways. I need to stop burying things inside and expect people to react as if they could possibly know how I was feeling, and he needs to stop manifesting his grief over Grandpa’s death in unhealthy emotional outlets. We’ve decided to take counseling, and he’s looking at treatment, but I can’t promise anything. He was angry at you for doing what you did, and so was I, I still am, but this mess, ironically, is what got us working together again. I’m sure he’ll be happy to know that you’re awake, especially since he was already on his way over here.”
“What, the roads are open again?”
She smiled. “You were in a coma for two weeks, sweetie. The snowstorm you were in ended six days ago. The two-foot high snow is still here, but it’s March, almost spring. ”
“I forgot what spring was.” I laughed.
“Me too, Nora,” she murmured. “Me too.” She brushed my hair back from my face, and this time, I didn’t jerk away.
“Just promise you won’t leave again,” I murmured into her shoulder as she drew me in. I was falling asleep, and I felt her squeeze my shoulder three times gently, our childhood code for I love you. Yet somehow that wasn’t enough. Tears stung as I stared into her own tired eyes.
“Mom. Please.” She gave me a look that was neither sadness nor happiness, and that short glance was enough. She knew, as I did, that our entire family had changed in irreconcilable ways and that a simple ‘I love you’ wouldn’t cut it from here on out. It was trust that we lacked, and trust was what we needed if we had any hopes of making it through the rest of this winter intact.
“I’m going to stay. I promise, I’ll stay.” She whispered, and I felt myself slipping away, falling asleep in her arms.
And through the veil of blurred numbness and uncertainty that normally accompanies those on the edge of sleep, I could detect the faint trill of one tiny bird, alone in the world, waiting for her loved ones to return to her again, for the snow to melt so the grass could grow once more, and for the sun to bear down on these cold crystals that covered her world, melt them away, and eventually chase the winter into the budding, dawning springtime.
Caroline MacRae lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she attends Germantown Friends School. She runs Cross Country and plays the guitar and spends her summers in Algonquin Park, Ontario, living without electricity, running water and the Internet, and going on long canoe trips with her friends.