by Michelle Kaseler
Papa doesn’t turn from the television when I get home from school. Empty beer bottles litter the floor, and the house smells like sweat and stale French fries. I have to get out.
Snow crunches under my boots as I make my way to the frozen lake. The late afternoon sun burns through gauzy clouds like a naked bulb. I sit on the old stump.
We used to picnic here in the summer: Papa, Mama, and me. He wasn’t much of a cook, but he made a mean potato salad. We’d pass binoculars around and watch birds. One of them would always claim to see a Cerulean Warbler. Up there, Shan, in that tall tree. When I’d finally give up and turn back to them, they’d be kissing. That was before Mama got the new job with longer hours. Before everything fell apart.
Shadows grow long and my breath fogs the air. I tug the knit cap that Mama made down to my eyebrows. It’s too small to go any lower. Only the slightest fuzz of sunshine is visible over McCarthy’s hill. Everything is frozen and still. Like I’m the only living thing on earth.
Would that be so bad?
The kids at school avoid me for the most part, but I pick up words through their whispers. Dad. Jail. Mom. Suicide.
Justin Powers didn’t whisper. I guess your parents did whatever they could to get away from you. How long has your dad been out of jail? I’ll bet he’s planning another crime because he’s sick of looking at you.
I twist my ponytail stiff as a rope. Mama’s hair had been the same shade of blonde at fourteen, when she met Papa. All of her pictures in the attic now, and when he talks to me, he looks over my shoulder.
I blow on my hands and stuff them under my armpits.
It’s a moonless night. Mama’s favorite. See that ribbon of light, Shan? That’s the milk in the Milky Way. Free to shine when it’s not obscured by moonglow.
A lump burns my throat. “I miss you. And I don’t care what anyone says. You’d never leave me on purpose.”
It had been a night like this when she didn’t come home. She’d been arguing with Papa and slammed the door. I followed her outside. She had her telescope, and I asked to go with her.
“Not tonight, baby. Mama needs some time to think.”
At ten, Papa grunted at me go to bed. He was snoring on the couch soon after, the television still on. He’d been sleeping there a lot.
I grabbed a flashlight and followed her snowy footprints to the lake. A jagged hole gaped open in the center, ink-dark against the white ice. It reminded me of the black holes she’d taught me about: once-massive stars that collapse under the force of their own gravity when their fuel runs out. Each one has a boundary, an event horizon, and anything that goes in can never come out again. Not even light.
Her body was found after the spring thaw. We went to the police station together, but Papa wouldn’t let me go into the room with him.
He started to stay out late after that. Stumbling in past midnight, muttering nonsense. I wore earplugs to bed, but it didn’t help. Teachers were “concerned.” A state worker came by. Papa cleaned up his act for a while. We’d eat dinner together. Play cards. Watch birds on weekends.
Then one night he went out to celebrate a friend’s birthday. A man at the bar who had worked with Mama started mouthing off. Said she’d been too good for Papa, that she was better off now. Papa punched him bad enough to give him brain damage.
I throw a stone across the ice. It echoes, chirpy and metallic, like something from another world.
At least that guy didn’t have any kids.
I step out on to the lake. Willing it, daring it, to shatter and swallow me up too. I jump. Over and over. My knees ache and the impact knocks my teeth together.
Not even a crack.
I lie down and rest my cheek against the ice. It sears my skin before my face goes numb.
Maybe I don’t have to fall in. Maybe if I just stay here and fall asleep, the cold will do the job. I strip down to my long johns and spread my arms and legs wide like I was going to make a snow angel. I arc my arms and legs back and forth. Angels, angels, come and get me.
A ball of white light burns a hole in the night sky. The stars fade away and a glowing figure draws near. Mama.
I reach for her. “Mama, take me with you!”
She looks at me with pained eyes and shakes her head before she fades into the forest.
I collapse. Sobs wrack my body. “Why don’t you want me?”
“Shan.” Like a whisper.
The stars are out again. A pinprick of light cuts through the trees.
“Shan!” Stronger. “Shannon!” A man’s voice.
He drops to my side and wraps me in his coat. His boozy breath heats my cheek.
Tears run down his face. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Sorry for not being there. I… I’m just… lost.”
I bury my face against him. “Me too.”
“I keep thinking, what if I’d said something different that night? Went after her? It eats me up every day. But tonight, somehow, I knew she forgave me. And she brought me here.” He rubs his eyes and nose with his sleeve. “I can’t lose you too.”
He places my knit cap on my head. I put my arm around him and we walk home together.
Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when she reads and writes. A two-time Boston Qualifier, the only thing that matches her enthusiasm for creating stories is running. And cheesecake.
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