Mary rolled over and stared up at the ceiling. She blinked a few times before decoding the striations of plaster. Living room ceiling. She took a deep breath and rolled her head toward the sound of her two children running through the room to the kitchen door. She listened to them pulling on gloves and wrapping themselves in scarves, and looked back up at the ceiling when she heard the door slam. Her chest rose and fell dramatically. Still flat on her back, she patted the pockets of her slacks lazily, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a battered silver zippo. Cigarette to mouth, flame to cigarette. She laid on the floor and smoked her breakfast, pushed the butt into the carpet next to her, and swept her left arm out in a searching arc across the floor. Her fingers wrapped around last night’s bottle.
She sat up and swung the bottle to her mouth in one motion. Good morning.
The snow had started early that day, smearing the white sky down into the landscape. By afternoon, the ground was an all-white parallel to the clouds and the snow continued to swing down in fat, heavy flakes. The forts rose brick by frozen brick on either side of the street, barely visible to each other between the sheets of white snow hanging in the air. Children wrapped in puffy coats, layers of denims, knitted scarves, and thrice-darned socks manned them. They armed themselves with bevies of snowballs, piles and stacks of snowballs, snowballs tiny and sharp as their fists, snowballs round and heavy as their skulls. The schools that trapped them indoors most days were all closed for Christmas break but the children woke up at dawn anyway. Their excitement didn’t allow sleep. Christmas Eve had woken them with heavy snow, and they were obliged to greet it with war.
They fought all day, shutting down their street with volley after volley of icy snowballs. Alliances built up and melted like the icicles that bordered their strongholds. Great pom-pom-hatted generals rose and fell like snowdrifts, deploying sentinels around their camps, assassins to the camps of their enemies, and spies to the camps of their allies. Messengers with their mothers’ scarves wrapped around their faces sprinted back and forth across the street, ducking vicious onslaughts of snowballs.
Ann pulled her eyes level to the top of her fort and looked through the snow to the other forts. The snowball assaults had increased in ferocity as the various armies felt the impending sunset. The final onslaught was promising to be the cruelest. One well thrown snowball whizzed within inches of her left ear and she quickly pulled her face below the wall. She sank down into the fort she had steadfastly defended throughout the day’s battle and looked over at her little brother. He had dug shelves into the heavy street-facing wall of their fort, and was fastidiously rolling snowballs and lining them up neatly on the shelves.
“Come on. I have to make dinner.”
“Yes, the troops will need nourishment before our next attack,” he agreed, in his most serious little-general voice, without looking up from his rows of ammunition.
“No, I have to make dinner. Inside.”
“What? Inside?” He looked up at her, then around at their otherwise empty fort, his face written over in confusion and dismay. His general-voice failed him and he became a little boy again. “But, what about the war? If we go now, we’ll lose.”
“We have to get back before the streetlights come on. We can play again tomorrow.”
The excitement of battle drained out of him. He suddenly looked both smaller and older than his nine years should have allowed. “Oh… yeah. Ok.” He patted a final snowball into a sphere and added it to the row on the shelf closest to him, then stood up and brushed the snow from his jeans. They ducked out of their fort and walked single-file down their street, doubled over against wind and cold they hadn’t noticed all day, snowballs sailing over their heads and occasionally pelting them from both sides of the street.
She pulled her mittens off with her teeth when they reached their house and dug into her front pocket for her keys. Her brother hopped up and down to keep warm while she fumbled the key into the lock and pushed open the door, then ran past her into the kitchen. She closed the door behind him and went around to the cellar for some of the fish he’d caught with their father that summer. He always loved eating that fish, she thought as she pulled it out of the icebox, and he ought to be happy on Christmas Eve. She brought it up, braced herself against the cold for the short walk around to the door, and rushed back into the kitchen.
She saw that her mother had moved herself into the kitchen and now sat at the table. She bit her lip and resolved not to let this development ruin Christmas Eve. Her mother’s eyes lazily tracked her movement across the kitchen, but her hands maintained an automatic level of manic activity. They were busy lifting first a cigarette, then a bottle, then the cigarette, then the bottle again.
“Take off your boots! You’re tracking snow on the carpet!” Mary called to her son in the next room. Ann heard him pull off his boots without getting up from the floor in front of the television and smiled to herself. Though they shared the kitchen, they didn’t address each other directly, preferring to shout into the living room at Peter and communicate with each other with understanding smiles and ironically raised eyebrows. Ann called out “Turn up the TV! I want to listen while I cook!” The sounds of cartoon mice torturing cartoon cats filled the little house.
She kicked off her boots and set the frozen fish in the sink under a stream of warm water, then climbed up onto the counter and pulled the frying pan from the cabinet over the stove. Her mother watched her, and nodded occasionally when Ann would turn to her with a questioning look that asked wordlessly “am I doing this right?”
The fish thawed quickly, and she breaded and fried them with a clumsy efficiency. She was just setting the kitchen table – four plates, four napkins, four glasses of water, four knives, four forks – when her father blew into the kitchen with a gust of wind behind him.
“Hey Ann,” he smiled at her, then raised his voice to shout “turn off that damn TV!”
The television went silent with a fade of static and her little brother ran into the room and collided with their father, who swept him into the air.
“You’re getting too damn big for this, boy. Sit down, let’s eat. Mary, you cooked this? Wonderful. I’m starved.”
The three of them took their usual places at the table and sat around Mary, who hadn’t moved more than her eyes. Ann ate silently, letting Peter regale their father with tales of the glory they’d earned during the day’s snow war.
Ann cleared the table after dinner and stood washing dishes at the sink. Her father squeezed her shoulder appreciatively on his way into the living room. She heard the TV click back on and listened to him listen to the news. Her little brother was already in his bunk, eyes squeezed shut, lips stretched in an anticipatory, night-before-Christmas smile, by the time she walked into their shared bedroom. She wouldn’t let herself sleep though. Like millions of children all over the world that night, she vowed to stay awake and listen. The alarm clock next to her bunk ticked away while she laid awake in the dark and her eyelids drooped lower on her eyes. Just when they felt impossibly heavy and she was almost ready to surrender herself to sleep, she heard the TV click off and her father’s steps take him into the kitchen. She slid out of her bed and, quickly and silently, padded barefoot down the hallway to the slatted wood door that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house. She folded her legs under herself and pressed her face against the door, lining her eyes up with a gap in the wood.
Her mother hadn’t moved from the chair she’d occupied all day. Time, like her family, had just moved around her. The beauty in her face was just beginning to blur, her eyelids just starting to droop, her cheek betraying the beginning of the drunk’s network of broken blood vessels. She looked across the room and focused her eyes on her husband, then reached into her coat and withdrew a slender glass bottle. The golden brown liquid inside sloshed toward her as she poured no small amount into her mouth. She never took her eyes off him.
“Mary, I’m done. I’m done having this fight. I’m tired of trying to talk to you about this.”
His brow folded, his lips pressed together as he tried to speak to her calmly. He opened his mouth to speak further but choked on the words, or maybe on a sob. He leaned over the table in front of her and poured his emotion out of his eyes, trying to see the woman he had loved, trying to make her see him, to pull her out from under the weight of her whiskey and make her remember Family and Love. “Please listen to me. I’ve been offered the headmaster position at a high school in upstate New York. I want to take the kids, and I want you to come with us. It can be a fresh start for all of us. You’ll have new friends, a new house. New everything. Leave this here. Come with us and leave the drinking here. Let’s never have this fight again.”
She would not meet his eyes though, she only stared at the bottle on the table in front of her.
He stood and pulled his emotion back into himself. His eyes hardened, his face relaxed.
“Fine. You choose. You can come with us, or you can stay here and drink.”
She met his eyes then. She stared into them, but not the way he had stared into hers. Her eyes were empty, blank. She wrapped her fingers around the bottle, put the glass to her lips, and tossed her head back.
Ann pushed herself up and ran back down the hallway into her room. She dove under her blankets and caught her breath, laid motionless on her bed, and listened to her father stomp down the hall behind her and slam his bedroom door. She cried into her pillow so her brother wouldn’t hear her.
Peter woke her up early in a fit of Christmas enthusiasm. “Come on come on come on come on we have to open presents!” He jumped up and down next to her bed while she sat up and rubbed her eyes.
“Okay, relax,” she breathed. “Let’s get dressed and then we’ll go see what dad wants to do.”
They found their father in the kitchen, packing their dishes into cardboard boxes. Their mother was gone.
“Good, you’re up. Petey, go get some more boxes from the garage. Ann, go pack up your and your brother’s clothes.”
Her brother’s lower lip trembled. “But… dad… it’s christmas, everybody else is opening presents…”
Her father’s eyes were cloudy with dark circles beneath them. “Well, not us. We’re packing boxes instead of opening them. Go to the garage and get more. Might be I’ll have something for you in the car.”
By noon that day she was staring at her reflection in the window of the family car, watching their little Connecticut town vanish behind them. Blue Velvet played on the radio. She thought about what she’d seen the night before and wondered how much of her mother was in her. Her brother pouted in the backseat, tucked between every possession they could squeeze into their car. They stopped for gas and sandwiches at a tiny dinner. They ate silently, her brother confused and close to tears. The waitress smiled at them sadly and brought out two ice cream sundaes, free of charge. Ann thought the ice cream tasted like pity and wouldn’t eat more than a bite, but her brother didn’t seem to notice. Their father leaned across the table.
“I’ve taken a position at a school in a town called Port Henry. There will be mountains you can climb, and woods you can play in. A whole new start.” He had polished on a level of optimism both children could see was an act. Ann decided to play along because he seemed to need that from her. Her brother managed, though, to blurt between mouthfuls of hot fudge, “When’s mom coming?”
Her father sighed heavily. “Your mother…” He looked out the window, as if he didn’t know the answer but it might come bounding across the fields any minute. She looked too, but all she saw was snow and wind and the darkening sky. Their father cleared his throat and turned back to them.
“Hey. I didn’t forget Christmas. Want your presents?”
Her brother bit his lip and she saw his eyes well up, but he wiped them with the back of his hand and nodded. Their father reached into his coat, produced a pair of brown boxes tied with ribbon, one only a few inches long and the other nearly a foot long, but both narrow, and handed them across the table. The children both opened their boxes slowly, carefully untying the ribbons and placing them on the table. Her brother got his opened first, and pulled out a small, shiny red Swiss army knife.
“Wow! Thanks dad!”
“Now that’s no toy, you’ll have to be careful with it. When we get to our new town we’ll go camping and I’ll show you how to use it.”
“I’ll be super careful!”
She lifted the lid off her box and extracted a pair of shiny wooden knitting needles. She forced a smile, for her father’s sake. “Yeah, thank you dad.”
“Good. See? I wasn’t gonna forget Christmas.”
He peeled a few unwrinkled bills from his money clip and placed them on the table, then ushered the kids through the wind and back into the car.
Her father drove and the car ate mile after mile, hour after hour. They were both asleep by the time he steered the car into the town of Port Henry. He pulled up to a motel and carried them both inside, Peter fast asleep on one shoulder, Ann feigning sleep on the other.