It was the last day of winter break when the cold came in. The night before, the first night of the new year, as we drove home from my mother’s house–my husband and I in the front seat, our two boys in the back–the cold rolled over us, crackling across our windshield in icy, crabbed lines.
“What’s that?” I said, as threads of ice crawled down from the top of the windshield, split and spread, curled and gnarled until the headlights on the opposite side of the road came at us in fragments.
My husband nodded, gloves on the wheel. He said the wind came down from the arctic: deep freeze, cold front.
The next day he went back to work. The children and I had one more day at home. The temperature plunged. I sent the dog out in the backyard and when I let her in she puked on the floor, balls of undigested kibble, which forced me to take out the garbage. I stepped onto the porch in my winter boots and pajamas. The cold scraped at me, sheared at my bare arms, the lid to the garbage can crusted with ice. I pulled the kitchen door closed behind me and found that the lock had frozen. My sons helped me push a chair against the door.
Outside, the sky was a dull white just like the snow, days old, that bowed the branches of our old growth pines. The winter-blackened needles of the evergreens scraped at the pavement.
Inside too, things were changing. My ten-year-old tugged at me. He had other concerns. He pointed at his nose.
“It hurts,” he said, but he didn’t hurt from the cold. He was afflicted by a different kind of blister. A zit, his first.
“Puberty!” I told him. “It will write itself all over your face. Hair. Your voice will change. Your penis will grow.”
The ten-year-old lived in the warmest room of the house. He looked back at me solemnly, went to his room, closed the door.
There was a call from my husband. The cold had cracked the roads.
“It’s a gaping mess,” he said, the static roaring at us.
“You’re breaking up,” I said.
“I must be in a dead spot.”
I thought he said I’m pulling over, but I couldn’t be sure.
The next morning the schools were closed. Mercury trembled in the thermostat, nowhere to go. Our pipes froze all but for a painful trickle. Bathing was out of the question. Washing dishes would bring an ache to my bones. What could I do? I let it pile up. The cold pushed at our walls and windows. I wrapped scarves around my neck and hands, did the same for my eight-year-old. The ten-year-old was hogging his heat, he wouldn’t open his door. The dog whined to go out and I closed my eyes and let her out. By the time I closed the door she was frozen at the window, one leg lifted like a pointer, frost at her whiskers and chin.
“Mom,” said the eight-year-old. “Sit next to me. I’m drawing airplanes.” He had a library book cracked open beside him, single engines, World War II. He asked me the meaning of words: reconnaissance, aviation, commercial. He gripped colored pencils: slate, khaki, rust red, olive, pearl. All around him, crumpled paper, his little failures, piled up like the snow.
Above us, the footsteps of the ten-year-old in his room, falling softer.
Every window of our house crackled with thin lines of ice, what my husband would have called “reverse condensation”. I put my arm around my eight-year-old, pulled him closer. His pencils whirred. Propeller, wing, flag. I put my hand in his hair. Prototype, cockpit, underwing pylons, maximum bomb load, two fixed forward firing synchronised machine guns. My son would not look up at me. A war plane, brutal instrument, came up under the stroke of his hand.
Below us, the boiler rumbled, its steady heat hummed through the house, then a soft click: silence.
Melissa Benton Barker lives with her family in Ohio. She would like to thank her children for cheering her on with this story. Melissa is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University – Los Angeles, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor of Lunch Ticket. Her work can be found on Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Five on the Fifth, and elsewhere.