Our First Prize Winner of $100.00 in the 2007 Muse Contest goes to Kim McDougall.
by Kim McDougall
The silence outside tells me snow is falling. Cranky knees protest the cold. I flick aside a faded curtain to watch flakes bury the road, the grass, the driveway. A draft wheezes through the window frame and I pull my bathrobe tighter. My brain aches like an over-stretched muscle to remember a time when I played in the snow.
* * * *
A snowball hit me in the back of the head. I didn’t turn around, just kept shoveling. Mrs. Fitzpatrick had a long driveway, the longest in the neighborhood, and I didn’t have the luxury of friends to help.
The boys jeered one of those clever childhood insults like “Jerk off, Jack Ass!” that uses alliteration and allusion to plant it firmly in the memory, where its insidious tentacles wrap around the frail, childish ego.
Every December, when the snow began to fall, the teachers showed us the Snowbank Movie and for days before, kids whispered about it in awe. The. Snow. Bank. Movie. The filmmakers were masters, turning these fluffy white playthings into sinister traps. We sat quietly through the whole lecture about road safety to see that one titillating scene of faked gore when a girl was crushed under the wheels of a snowplow. Children slid down the banks to the orchestra of grinding snowplows. Or they burrowed too deep and were never heard from again when the fort collapsed. I had no trouble imagining the jaws of the plow mangling hordes of screaming children, or the desperation of one small boy as the snow pressed down and no one heard his screams.
Well, everyone heard me screaming that day. My teacher dragged me to the nurse’s office and called my mother, who came in and screamed some more at the incompetent administration for showing such frightening images to children. My peers were not likely to let me forget it.
“Watch out for the snowplow, Jack Ass! VROOOOM!” A few more snowballs, laughter (not the happy kind) and the boys left me to my job. The cold crawled up my shovel, through my hands and into my chest. I dumped the last pile of snow and dragged my shovel to the front door, thinking there had to be a better way of earning three bucks. I didn’t even ring the bell but the door opened, as if Mrs. Fitzpatrick had been waiting for me.
“Come in, Jack,” she said. “You’ve got icicles hanging from your hat! Look at you! Jack Frost!”
I smiled in the way adults expected, as if I hadn’t heard that joke a thousand times.
“I’ve got hot chocolate all ready for you. Come in. Come in.”
Those were the days before parents warned against going inside strangers’ houses, and Mrs. Fitzpatrick wasn’t really a stranger. She was a neighbor, in a time when that meant something.
I went inside.
I remember this first encounter only as a jumble of sensations--darkened rooms, smells of cooking spices like Thanksgiving dinner and the constant burble of a TV in the background. Mrs. Fitzpatrick wore a shiny pink bathrobe. Her black curls were so tight, I thought they must hurt her scalp.
“You poor thing. Take off those wet mittens.”
She stuck a foaming cup of cocoa in my hands and smiled at me.
“I saw those nasty boys throw snowballs at you. One good punch in the nose would fix them, I’ll bet.”
I laughed. Adults didn’t usually counsel revenge. We must have talked about niceties, school and family, but these memories are eclipsed by the sight of her mouth opening and shutting, illuminating her teeth, like blue-white chips of ice.
“You’re still so cold.” She took one of my hands in both of her own. They were dry and hot. “I’m always so cold, these days too. Feel me.” Her bathrobe had fallen open and she pressed my hand against her bare skin, just above the swell of her breasts. For a moment, the man I would become opened his eyes and said, “Wow!” then he rolled over and went back to sleep and I was, once again, a scared boy, touching the naked chest of a strange old lady. She didn’t feel cold to me.
* * * *
Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s loneliness affected me like a religious zeal. Every afternoon, I fed off the scent of her musty house. I drank cup after cup of cocoa at her table that tipped to the left. Too shy to look her in the eye, I concentrated on the cracked linoleum, a road map of the kitchen’s history. With each visit, she shrank and shriveled. Her curls loosened and matted. Her robe bore new stains and could barely stay tied around her waist. She told me stories about her family, all dead now, or grown up and moved away, about her pets, dead too, and about some people that must have been made up: gypsies, spies and mad scientists. She spoke to hear a voice in the house. I listened to bear witness.
“I had a sister once,” she said. “Just like yours, she died too young.” I looked up. Dark eyes held my own. I couldn’t look away, even as I gulped cocoa, and felt it push down my throat in a burning lump. She never spoke of me, only herself, and the stories had been a cocoon of comfort that she now ripped away.
“I know about your sister, Jackie. Everybody does. Even the kids who tease you. Wasn’t your fault you know.”
I nodded, as I had every time I’d been reassured in this way.
“It’s been two years now, but I still see it in your eyes. A little piece of ice that goes all the way to your frozen heart. I have the same ice in my eyes.” She walked over to a small mirror in the hallway, just outside the kitchen and pulled off her hair. She held the wig, like a dead thing in one hand and peered into her reflected eyes. Her head was nearly bald, with only a few tufts of hair above her ears.
“It’s there. That little glint of ice. I can’t melt it, no matter what. Do you see it, Jackie?”
She turned to me and I could only gape.
“Yes,” she said. “I agree. The cocoa helps but only for a little while.”
* * * *
The door was open a crack.
“Hello?” I called, sticking my head into the house.
“In here, Jackie.” Her voice was as faint as a memory. I dropped my book-bag and ran to the back of the house.
“Look at you, so cold again. Come here. Let me take your cold away.” She lay on her bed, with a bottle of pills still clutched in her hand. Gin dripped onto the carpet from a fallen bottle.
“Winter’s in me now, Jackie. Come here and give me all your cold. I’ll take it away with me.”
My feet had been dragging me forward and suddenly I was beside her. She clutched me to her chest like a corpse digging its way from the grave.
“So cold, so cold,” she whispered. “Let me take it all away. I know how you feel, Jackie. That poor little girl lying in the snow.”
Her words were a potion, stirring up that one moment of my life that would never go away. That one moment, when I lost my sense of time and place forever.
“No!” My voice was muffled against her skin. I would not speak the words, would not make them real. My parents had let me keep the cold inside me, had shrugged and turned away when I refused to speak of the accident. Why couldn’t Mrs. Fitzpatrick just turn away? Only that brittle layer of ice kept my heart from exploding into a million shards.
“Tell it to me, Jackie. Let me take it all.” Her fingers stroked my hair, drawing forth the words I had never spoken.
“No!” It was more of a whine now than a denial, and Mrs. Fitzpatrick sensed her victory. She raised my face. Her black eyes, with the glint of ice, held mine.
“I turned away for only a moment. She followed me everywhere and I only wanted to tease...I hid behind a bush and…and she called for me…and oh god. It was our own driveway! Supposed to be safe.” Snot clogged my throat, and smeared its way from my nose to my chin. Mrs. Fitzpatrick didn’t let go. “I was only eight years old! How could they make me watch her! I’m just a kid!”
Becca had only been four, would always be four in my memory. The red car skidded through the slush to turn around in our driveway. He never saw the little girl, never felt the bump of her body hitting his wheel.
“I’m just a kid!”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Fitzpatrick. “Give me your cold. Give it all to me. Where I’m going it won’t hurt anyone.”
Her words were phantom fingers digging into my heart and pulling out the memory of Becca lying in the snow. I could barely conjure her face anymore and when I felt the memory slip away, I panicked.
“No! Give it back!”
But Mrs. Fitzpatrick was no longer there.
“Give it back!” I pounded on her chest. She bounced on the bed with each blow, but was otherwise unmoved.
I ran outside, pulled off my jacket and shirt and fell into a snowbank. My bare flesh steamed in the snow.
“Give it back!” I cried. “Give me back my cold!”
I closed my eyes and tried to remember Becca, but the curve of her cheek eluded me. The color of her eyes and hair was only a fact, not a memory. Only the sound of a tire bumping away life remained. I clung to it.
Wet seeped into my shirt and pants. I would have to tell someone about Mrs. Fitzpatrick soon, but first I needed to find my cold.
* * * *
Snow. Its whiteness levels the world, makes everything equal. From behind my faded curtain, I watch the children shuffle by, bundled tight against the cold, not caring if slush creeps into their boots or ice crusts their mittens. Maybe one of them will take pity on an old man and offer to shovel my driveway. I should be ready with hot cocoa.
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