From the author: We count to three and pull hard to gain an inch of light. The ice around the door gives, and a clump of snow is released. The fresh air feels nice for a moment, before it begins to bite at our cheeks. Yesterday’s snow is now an undercoat, and the powdery top layer glistens.
We count to three and pull hard to gain an inch of light. The ice around the door gives, and a clump of snow is released. The fresh air feels nice for a moment, before it begins to bite at our cheeks. Yesterday’s snow is now an undercoat, and the powdery top layer glistens.
“Looks like it’s winking at the sky,” Joshua says.
There is nothing but snow, expectant clouds, and the top halves of our neighbors’ homes. A few still have smoke escaping their chimneys.
“Nature’s secret,” I say, trying to match his detached tone. The wonderland covers cars and bikes; it climbs stairs and devours porches. Our doors are barricaded, with only a few feet uncovered at the top.
Joshua backs up and sighs as he grabs the broom. I lean all my weight in, hoping the door will close easily today, but it doesn’t budge. He sweeps at our warped wood floors.
“We’re lucky to be on the north side of Grant Avenue, kiddo,” I say. Joshua hates it when I call him kiddo, but he lets me off the hook. He examines the slight incline toward the other side of the street. We were spared at least a foot of accumulation. He lingers in the doorway, and a thin arm of sunlight reaches in and warms my face; meanwhile, the icy air and brilliant light begin to crowd around us. We push the door again, together, but it still resists.
We had been enjoying the snow a few days ago. Joshua suggested it would be our new way of life—sleds instead of cars—and that it was nature’s way of eliminating overuse of fossil fuels. The whole town seemed thrilled to be off from work and school. Kids slid down the street on cardboard boxes, and we all started fires and roasted marshmallows together, contributing thermoses of hot chocolate and warm sandwiches, finding communal warmth.
We watched the news for the latest soup recipes. Potato and leek was featured the same day the grocery stores closed for good. Joshua and I were playing Scrabble by the fire when the lights began to flicker. Neighbors stopped venturing outside. There were talks of delaying holidays, and online retailers pleaded their customers’ forgiveness, as shipping would no longer be possible.
Another night of snow, and the wrinkles deepened around newscasters’ eyes, gazes tilted downward; they forced hollow smiles. The mail stopped altogether. Reception faded in and out more frequently, and it comprised reports of missing persons and bodies found frozen in their homes. There had been just under a thousand fatalities from Cleveland to Columbus, and we received texts with the lists of names. There was no news from outside of Ohio, so we were left to imagine how much worse things must be up north.
The snow started coming down with more force, almost violence, and on the tenth day of accumulation, we heard what sounded like a stampede, only to look out the window and see Mr. Henry’s roof caving in under the weight and cold. We lost power completely. More roofs crumbled and generators gave out; my cell became my final digital connection, but I couldn’t recharge it, so I kept it off.
I have an ounce of power left now, if that, and am scared to turn the phone on and lose everything. My son is calm, so I have to pretend to be calm along with him. The kid’s calm doesn’t surprise me, even though he’s a nervous wreck at school, and agonizes over what to wear and what to say and whether he’ll do well in spelling or chess championships. I’ve had to physically drag him to the car the first few days of school each year.
Shortly before the storm, one of Joshua’s teachers called, worried that Joshua never spoke to kids his age and spent his recesses asking teachers what they thought of technology convergence and its potential to break down capitalism as we know it. “He’s smart,” she explained, “but he doesn’t know how to relax.”
John and I agreed to begin family sessions. In therapy, we could come clean. We were still leading our son—and maybe each other—to believe that we could work things out. Deep down, however, we knew there was no chance.
“We’d better find someone brilliant, or else Josh’ll run mental circles around him. He gets that from you, you know,” John said the last time we spoke.
“I don’t think he gets it from either of us,” I told him. “I mean, no offense, but—”
John chuckled, and I asked him when he’d be stopping by. He said soon.
I doubt that Joshua fully believed us about much of anything. He had always challenged our assertions when he was younger, until the day he stopped. The day, I assume, he realized there was no point. After he turned eleven or so, I couldn’t keep up with the kid’s mind, and I surely can’t now that he’s fifteen. But I didn’t need him to show me how he could memorize a deck of cards to know he was special; Joshua has always kept me in a perpetual state of awe.
“Time,” he says.
“Just two minutes, Mom. We can’t go all the way outside, but we can open the window.” Joshua insists on going out incrementally longer every day, to adjust to the cold and increase odds of survival. He wants me to do the same, but I can’t. Nor can I stop him. “Come on, Mom. Two minutes. One. This is going to be life or death, if they don’t arrive soon.”
“I can’t,” I say.
He speaks urgently now, can tell something is wrong with me. “We can tunnel, melt, and pack the snow. I’ve been thinking, and—” He goes on, problem solving, but I’m dizzy and unable to concentrate.
It’d taken damn near all my strength getting the door open a crack, and I can’t fathom the idea of standing outside. The cold is the enemy. I’ve been eating less as our food dwindles, pretending to be full so the boy can eat more, and it’s catching up to me.
“We have to dig,” he says again.
“Let me just sit here and think a minute, okay?” I say, easing onto the couch and putting my hood back up over my ears. I sound vaguely drunk.
I haven’t seen a car drive anywhere in two weeks, and the last person to walk by our home was Mr. Henry, and I haven’t seen his lights go on since his roof fell. One of his windows had shattered. The cold is too much for anyone, let alone someone his age.
My cell gives me what I’m sure is its final warning when I power it on, so I write down everything from the Storm Emergency Instructions text we all got before losing power. It contains hints and tips, assurances that FEMA is on the way, and the last list of names—those missing as of Friday, cataloged by zip code.
“A new way of life,” I repeat, scooting to a part of the couch that was touched by the sun. “I think this ice is too thick to melt. I think we’ll have to wait for someone to come.”
More snow pushes its way in, dusts Joshua’s boots. “Look,” he says, pointing. From the crack, we watch as the snow a few feet away shakes slightly. I think I might be imagining it, until he says, “Something is moving beneath the surface.” I examine the instructions I copied again and feel a twinge of hope.
A muffled sound, a man’s voice, says, “We are,” then goes quiet.
“See, someone’s out there. Maybe we can help.” Joshua gathers all our cleaning fluids and pours some electric blue cleaner into a large squirt bottle. He sprays at the base of the door, then nudges snow to the left with his boot. I stare at my phone and scroll down to John’s name while my son is still busy.
Joshua can’t know—won’t know, not now. He thinks his father is safe, or at least out of town on business as usual. It was an easy lie, and it was in place before the snowfall. Our separation wasn’t official yet, after all, and I believed him when he said he was coming soon. When I couldn’t get ahold of him last week, I knew.
I stare at his name, illuminated, then blurry. My phone flickers off and something inside of me goes with it. I stand up, only to sit right back down, dizzy.
The muffled voice arrives again, and this time we hear the entire message. “We are here to help. We are tunneling to each residence. Please bundle up,” he says. “Please continue to chip away where you can. Again, if you can hear this, we are tunneling toward you. Please stay warm. Please stay calm. Remove any snow that you can.”
Chances of survival drop quickly after an avalanche, and suffocation or asphyxia sets in after approximately thirty to forty minutes, depending on the weight of the snow and the air available. I did not copy this bit down, but it repeats in my mind, a forced mantra. Joshua stops and starts, stops and starts. He is spraying as quickly as he can. Then the blue liquid is gone and there is a dent in the snow the size of a baseball.
“Take a break, kiddo. I’ve got this for a while.” I look at his hands after he takes off his gloves. They are a deep purple, almost as bad as mine, and his face has gone solid, as though it’s frozen. “You okay, baby?”
“I’m shaking,” he says. I reach out my arm.
“This isn’t magic at all,” I say.
FEMA does not arrive that night, but I hear more announcements and stay up, unable to close my eyes. I am rocking my son as though he is young again. Crashing sounds reverberate, and I feel like I’m in a cosmic waiting room. Just a month ago, I was agonizing over which heels to wear with my new suit, a suit I believed would land me a new position. Now I am swathed in thick cloth, a cacophony of clothes and blankets, and I am barely able to stand.
I know it’s coming before it does. As Joshua sleeps, the ceiling begins to crack. The crack is a slow-moving animal, opening its mouth slightly. I look toward the kitchen and see that the ceiling there is worse. The lights are gone. There is no basement to run to, no outside, no nothing. I hold my son, listen to the creaks of shifting beams and the soft explosions above us.
“Honey,” I say, waking him. I don’t know why I wake him, except maybe to give him a little more time. Even fear is life. Pure life. He looks up and his face has reddened at the cheeks. The sound of glass breaking outside our door tears at my stomach.
“I want to make my son soup,” I say.
“I want to give him more life,” I say.
“Mom, I’m right here. They can’t hear you yet.”
A sharp object splinters the wood of our door, and as I feel the cold again, I realize I am dozing off. “Sorry, kiddo. Sorry.”
A bundle of fur and cloth breaks down our door, and I can see two eyes, brown and reddened at the rims, and I think of the cucumber martini with the chili rim I drank with John the night we decided to split. I feel an icy arm lift me up.
“Your mother is in shock,” a man says. “We’ll carry her. We have a safe place to take you. We have food.” He places something warm in my hands.
I close my eyes and, just like that, I am resting my head on John’s shoulder, warm, listening to my son practice his definitions. My thoughts all cluster together, a cold mass. I feel myself move a little. I run my thumb across my fingertips. The man has taken my son outside and is helping me toward the door, when I hear another loud crack and then see crumbling at the ceiling.
“I’m fine now,” I say. And as the man nods and leads me out, I continue to look up. I see him reach for me, but this is not his choice.
I feel pieces of my home fall, ricochet off my back. We head into the narrow tunnel, and when I look back, there is darkness. There is nothing. The house and snow are caving in around us. I try to push forward, but nature has already decided. Joshua has grabbed my arm. “Your father,” I say, but he stops me, says he knows and it’s okay. His blood is thick now; he will survive.
“It’s a new way of life,” I say.
After a dark blanket is thrown over my eyes, I begin to feel warmer. John is still holding me. My son forgives us. We are all safe. There are two bodies, fur and cloth, reaching for me in the background—strong bodies, thick blood—but they begin to flicker out. I tell them I don’t want to leave now. I am home. I embrace my family gently as the snow caves in. The snow is generous, framing us in an eternal portrait. It doesn’t take forty-five minutes. It doesn’t even take thirty. It takes no time at all.
This story originally appeared in Atticus Review.