issue thirty-five
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(5732 words)
Matt Athanasiou
Another Wisconsin Winter

Yesterday, Jerald walked outside and noticed Tawny's arms in the snow. She was on her back, and they were raised above her shoulders, crooked down at the elbows, spread like wings frozen to the ground. The split logs she had carried from the lean-to were scattered around her, and a wisp of smoke rose from the boiler chimney. Powder drifted across her face, smoothing her wrinkles -- she resembled her decades-old, black and white portrait that Jerald kept in his wallet -- while the sunrise traced frost cracks in her eyes.

Today, he stood over her empty depressions with an armful of firewood. The cold clutched his bare hands. Temperatures had dropped into the single digits last evening, and broadcasters predicted another whiteout this afternoon. The storm would strain the boiler's fire and extinguish the flames unless he added more wood; that had been his chore the morning before, but he had put off the task, and Tawny had been unwilling to wait for him.

His shoulder blades shuddered, spasming for warmth, and a milder wind swung open the house door. Weatherworn siding dangled and cracked. Loosened shingles flapped like snowy leaves. Farm fields bordered the property, and woods lined with birches bordered those fields. Once they had chopped down trees for firewood in those woodlands, had hunted in there too, but no longer. The autumn activities strained their sagging bodies and often ended with them on the couch using heating pads, the same as if they had spent the afternoon shoveling snow.

He adjusted his hold on the kindling and opened the boiler door. The smoldering sounded like muffled fluttering, and heat set on his nose, lips, and cheeks. He envisioned himself feeding the fire and going inside, calling friends, and scheduling a wake where teary-eyed people would recall warm stories about Tawny and embrace him, offer to plow his driveway, to cook his meals, to keep the boiler lit, to help him move on and forget what had happened at his house, so he could stay there.

He latched the door and dropped the firewood. It pierced her impression, as if nailing her ghost to the snow to keep the specter from blowing through every heating register inside. They had been purchasing the wood from the same company since they had stopped cutting their own, but yesterday these split logs had not been good enough for him to get up and use.

The breeze ripped steam from his nostrils. He trudged across the unplowed driveway, went into the garage, grabbed his mittens, snowshoes, and the long-handled axe, and walked out to the snowmobile. He put a knee on the seat, turned the key, and tugged the start cord. The engine blubbered.

This went on until his shoulder burned, until Tawny whispered that he should have put the sled in the garage overnight. Looks like hot chocolate and planning that Florida nest, Jay. Snow crunched behind him. The nape of his neck prickled like sunlight had cast on his flesh, but he did not glance back at the boiler, the lean-to, the house; he picked up the snowshoes and axe, and he walked to the shed for the four-wheeler, looking at the woodland where he would cut his own firewood, regardless of the snowstorm moving in.


       That winter had resembled previous northern Wisconsin winters. Temperatures usually lingered below freezing, the wind sharpened and skimmed flesh, and snow buried homes, toppled trees, and hardened into mounds across the state that residents shoveled, plowed, and salted to loosen the weather's grip on their lives. Anyone who stayed through the season knew what to expect the following winter, and anyone unwilling or unable to struggle through the experience again left. Several of Jerald and Tawny's friends flew south, until a less-tasking spring arrived. "Snowbirds," they called themselves, and Jerald had imagined an ice sculpture melting on the beach when Tawny had told him, "We should be snowbirds too."


       Jerald's joints ached. The four-wheeler's shock absorbers were worn, and driving over buried rocks and fallen limbs jolted his knees and wrists, cracked the frostiness stiffening them. The sagging fenders flapped, and the brush guard banged against the front like a steel beard -- the reverberations vibrated the tiny bones in his feet. When he reached the shore of a frozen stream, he parked and sat and grimaced.

He considered the thermostat at home. The dial went up to ninety, but Tawny had kept it in the low seventies, Pensacola's average that month. She would remind him of this whenever they relaxed on the couch to watch the Packers handle opposition on the Frozen Tundra; she would say that they could enjoy the games in Florida without needing to sweep snow from the porch, deck, or front walk before and after the game, and he would say the chores were part of his good-luck ritual. The Pack needed him.

He stepped off the vehicle, and his ankles popped worse than burning cedar. His legs trembled, and he leaned against the fender. Thick snowflakes stuck in his eyelashes, and he narrowed his gaze on the snow-strangled woodland, as though searching for a tree to fell.

He removed the key and opened the cubby beneath the seat. A piece of paper fluttered out and caught on a snowshoe fastened to the rear rack. His raw eyes glazed, and he watched Tawny shake her head at him from the black and white portrait. It was the photo he had kept in his wallet -- he had wedged it between his new and expired licenses to save the paper from wrinkling. It was the only picture he carried of her, and he had no memory of removing it from his billfold.

Sometimes he was oblivious to his own actions. At the Dells one year, Tawny had found him at the outdoor exercise area. Pasty-faced teenagers challenged each other to curl as much weight as they could, and Jerald unthinkingly lifted a white dumbbell that matched his age in pounds. The weight dropped and broke his toe, and Tawny hurried back to grab her phone near the pool, where seniors perspired on inflatable lounge chairs like lacquered corpses in open caskets.

Now his obliviousness was becoming often. Brewing coffee and frying eggs that morning when he had wanted to skip breakfast. Stuffing her portrait in the four-wheeler. Even setting Tawny's clothes on the bed. He awoke today beneath a blanket of her wardrobe, clutching the hollow breast of her fleecy dress.

The wind slid the photo around the bar, and he snatched it. He glanced at her unblinking eyes so quickly they appeared to turn with his head, and he tucked the picture into his pocket. Another breeze skimmed snow off of branches and dusted the four-wheeler with metallic kernels.

He put the key in the cubbyhole and unfastened the snowshoes. He flipped one over and saw that the tiny crampons had fallen off. The upper strap had busted too, and the lacing sagged. The last time they had snowshoed together, Tawny had said she would rather use them to play tennis with him in Florida; it would be a pleasant workout, unlike the leg cramps that trekking through the snow gave her. He had hiked alone afterward.

He tossed the shoes behind the four-wheeler and unhooked the axe from the rack. The sheath's zipper stuck with ice, and teeth broke as he forced it open. He put the cover in the cubby and lifted the axe, holding the handle too low. Heavy, the blade swung downward and bounced off his boot. He curled his toes, gripped the tool below the head, and walked over the ice. The stream dropped at a short rise north of him and was frozen into a puff of icicles that looked like they had solidified over a cloud.


       Hardpack crusted the snow, but the top layer broke beneath his steps without the snowshoes. He sunk to his shins, his knees, jamming them against the jagged rims of each hole. The cold weighed on him, and he began kneeling to his waist in drifts. His legs stiffened, and finally he felt good about taking a short break to knead his thighs and scan the area for a tree to fell.

A leafy oak's branches drooped with snow and trembled like the tree was trying to fly out of the hardpack. Thin conifers surrounded the tree, and he would have to chop down two or three, so he could take full swings at the oak. Toppling four or five would give the oak a better clearing to fall in; that would do it.

He dragged the axe to the tree and rubbed the icy bark. A broken limb swayed above him. It pointed at a recess disappearing into the base of the trunk, and he remembered the house. He had left the door open, and debris in the boiler had probably burned to embers to heat the rooms. Tawny's sunflowers would die and the cracks stretched across the kitchen walls would widen and spread, once the temperature dropped into the negatives and the blizzard began -- unless Jerald went home and loaded the boiler.

He grasped the handle with both hands and notched a conifer, giving himself an exact target. He pulled the axe back, winding up, and thought of Tawny in the snow with logs spread around her. He lowered the axe and looked down the handle, followed it to his boots where snow had collapsed around a bed of poison ivy.

When he was a teenager, the plant's toxin had no effect on him, as though he was immune like the critters that ate its orange-shaped berries. He imagined now his weaker flesh would become itchy and blister and scab, and he wondered about the mortality rate from eating the poisonous leaves and fruit. He envisioned his throat swelling shut, but not enough to suffocate him.

He lifted the axe again. He dug his feet into the snow, fixing his stance, and skimmed the blade across the notch, deepening the gash. Heavier snowfall obscured his vision, and wind thrust against the trees, making them creak and crack like the sound of woodsmen chopping into their trunks. Jerald squinted at powder rolling over long white mounds. A gale ruffled his jacket, and the photo escaped his pocket.

It flew back the way he had come. He chased the picture and punched it into the snow. He dug, clawing and scooping out the white, and unburied dead grass. The portrait rested on the blades. He cupped it in his mitts and peaked between them at Tawny.

Wet crinkles ran along her forehead, unnatural creases on a portrait from her twenties. They resembled a wadded cloth. They resembled the furrows that had wrinkled her face yesterday, when she woke him to load the boiler. "Chop-chop," she said, and he turned away. His back ached from shoveling -- he had left the path to the boiler unfinished -- and he did not want to see her annoyed expression, a visage he imagined himself making while lugging around a fifty-pound bag of rock salt. "I will," he said. "I'm tired. I used to chop-chop the wood."

His rheumy eyes glossed his view of the creased photograph. He stuffed it in his pocket and picked up the axe. He returned to the conifer, deciding he should fell about four on the north side to get the oak to fall flat. By the time he finished, the snowfall would likely be blinding.

Sweat chilled on his sides. He put the axe head against the trunk, cutting a new notch, and then pulled the tool over his shoulder. Warmth prickled his forearms and he felt something tug the axe. It slipped from his grip and he swiveled, lost his footing on ice beneath the snow, and fell onto the tool. Snow muffled the two swift cracks in his arm.


       They almost flew to Pensacola one winter.

Sitting in the black station wagon, Tawny honked at him on the porch. The suitcases stood beside him. He had the plane tickets in hand but could not convince himself to move. A spur of pressure had formed beneath his kneecap after carrying the luggage downstairs, and the tension had stiffened his leg. He feared hefting the cases across the driveway would make his knee give out, and he was terrified that his knee would hold until the plane; the joint would become rigid on the flight, and medical staff would have to escort him off after they arrived in Florida. He saw himself in a knee brace after surgery, sweating uncomfortably on a patio like a geriatric invalid.

Tawny stepped out of the car and scissored her arms over her head. "Need a strong lady to help with those?"

He tapped the tickets against a suitcase.

She crossed her arms over her chest. "What's the matter with you?" she said once annoyed -- and again worried. She had said that whenever she found him daydreaming at a standstill, she expected him to have forgotten whom they were, his memories atrophying with age. Her feathery hair beat at her shoulders while she walked across the driveway. She slipped at the bottom of the two stairs and stuck her leg in a short snowbank to steady herself. "You want me to break my tailbone coming over here?"

He said, "I can't go."

She set her raised foot back in the snow. "Are you sick? What hurts?" Wrinkles gathered around her eyes, deepening them.

He looked at the thin sheet of snow covering their yard. A brief warm spell had brought rain and melted most of the white, but the cold had returned that week. "Let's stay another winter."

Her posture sagged with her frown. "Water's been turned off. Bags are packed. Car's ready and I'm ready. We have tickets, Jay."

"We toss them." He snapped the tickets and put too much weight on his knee. He leaned into a suitcase and jammed his hand against the top of it to support himself.

"Are you swooning from your ridiculousness? The Crains are expecting us. You told Fulton you'd be there."

"Fulton talks a lot too." Evelyn had persuaded Fulton to pick up badminton as a hobby, and Jerald had heard her and Tawny talking about playing doubles. His leg tightened at this thought. Fulton and he had joked about their snowbird buddies becoming as flaccid as Florida's outline, before the Crains started traveling there. Fulton claimed that he preferred maintaining his home through the winter, but whenever he likened the sand to the snow, his voice lowered and he stared at his feet as if visualizing fine grains sifting between his toes, hour glasses that refilled and refilled.

"Give me the tickets," she said.

"What's the difference between a southern community for old folks and an old folks' home?"

"You have an accident, no one's cleaning your drawers for you." She whistled and the shrillness jolted his knee. "Remember when you called logs twigs and enjoyed hauling them to the boiler? Remember when you shoveled immediately after a snowstorm? Because it never hurt your back or knees? I don't." She raised her arms and mimed making muscles. The baggy fabric of her jacket dangled like the flesh on her triceps. "These only have so many miles left."

The cold worked through his jeans and eased the strain on his joint. "We can shovel. We can take care of our place. We stay warm together here."

"Not another winter in this drafty house."

His toes numbed, felt heavier. "We're capable. This is where we get to be us."

"Being us makes my bones ache." Steam blasted from her mouth. "This isn't happening. This doesn't fly with me. You got me?"

"I don't want to fly."

He tossed the tickets over the railing. They fluttered and twirled into a snowdrift. Her cheeks flushed, and she yelled, "Get in the car or I'll twist your arm, Jay. Chop-chop, Jay," and he walked inside, pacing himself to hide his limp. He sat on the living room couch and massaged his leg, staring at the picture frame around small, black and white photos from their youth.


       Pain burst through Jerald's left arm from his shoulder to his wrist. A warbling belted out, a ghostly siren that pierced his ears, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. Whiteness outlined his vision like he was digging himself out of a snowy hole. Snowfall blurred the trees and burdened their branches. Something tore inside his elbow, and he tipped over and lost his coffee and fried eggs.

His mitten brushed the axe. He stood it upright, jammed it into the snow, and pulled himself to his knees. His heart pounded and his pulse throbbed in his ears. Broken. Discomfort. Warm. Bones. Hot heat. His mind picked through terms, trying to ground the pain before it caused him to go into shock, but he only sweated, wanted out of the cold, wanted to race somewhere that could extract the agonizing thing inside his surely broken arm. He planted a foot, and his hip made an airy crack. He huffed and groaned and forced himself to hunch over the axe.

Twist your arm, Jay.

His lips parted to repeat the words, to prove he had said them. He moaned gibberish and drooled and his arm hung limp.

Muffled like a mouth crammed with snow, the storm rushed him. Mounds grew and bloated, and flakes collected and crackled in his ears and on his face. The cold gnawed at his wrists, cramping his fingers. He tipped the handle against himself and checked his right mitt. Snow was packed into the cuff, a manacle of ice. He brought it to his mouth, and the front of his mustache, frozen to his beard, tore. His nose ran as he bit and tongued the white. Then he dug it out of his left mitten with his right.

The toe of his boot caught beneath the hardpack. He stepped back and snagged his calf and dropped. His left arm smacked the ground -- he released the axe -- and a searing claw clenched his forearm. The hotness propelled him to his feet, and he walked away from the tool, watching for the footprints that had brought him out there.


       Sweating, he staggered onto the frozen stream and slid through snow heaps. He kneeled to keep from falling, and powder shot up the front of his jacket.

He faced the knotted icicles where the stream dropped levels. His arm stiffened, as if the ice was coating it and spreading into his fingers, along his neck, hardening his spine, and squeezing his chest and thighs.

"Being us makes my bones ache," Tawny said.

He twisted around, raising himself and swinging his wounded arm. Broken bones felt like they scraped together, sparking pain in his bicep. He hovered his right hand over it, defending the injury from invisible blows. A discolored object waved at him from the where the four-wheeler had been.

"You got me?" Her voice again.

His face reddened, and he found his footing, moved toward her words. Every breath chilled his lungs and shrunk them. His throat clogged, and he coughed almost as much as he inhaled. He grabbed the nodding object -- a branch of brown and yellow leaves -- and stepped into the four-wheeler, banging his hip. Snow had piled over its front, whitening the brush guard.

He grabbed the key from the cubby, straddled the seat, hoped the ATV would handle the weather better than him, and turned the key. The headlight brightened. He reached for the left grip with his right hand, flipped the engine switch, and thumbed the start button.

The exhaust chirred, and the vehicle died. His chest tightened, and he rocked the machine front and back -- gas sloshed in the tank -- and retried. The light winked, then held, and the starter caught. The stench of burning oil cleared his nostrils. Hemming at the smoldering in his throat, he throttled the ATV in park, letting the engine and battery warm to avoid straining them in the cold.


       A dense cloud of snow poured over the front of the vehicle. Frozen ruts forced the tires to veer, and he struggled to hold the handlebars straight. He hit a bump, lifted onto one side, and threw his weight against the airborne wheels. The tires smashed onto the ground and the jolt wrenched his arm. His chapped, puckered lips split, and warmth oozed from them.

A solid white wall waved across his path, and a birch emerged from the other side. Collision, and the brush guard shifted and shattered a headlight. He reversed and stuck. He went forward and stuck. Deep crescents furrowed beneath the tires, until he merely moved in a short arc. The engine sputtered, and he tapped the throttle, digging himself deeper.

He slid off the four-wheeler and splintery snaps spread from his cramped groin to his toes. He imagined frost fracturing across his insides and shuffled to the back, bracing himself on the rear rack.

When his bottom half didn't break off, he stomped the snow and found firm ground. Then he lifted on the rack to raise and free the tires. His crooked elbow beat the air; his spindly knees buckled. He dropped the tires into the grooves and bent over the four-wheeler like it was a walker. Snow dusted his cheeks.

He pressed on his lower back to straighten himself and kicked around the tires to unbury them. He kneeled and scooped snow from beneath the body, making a circular clearing nearly level with the ruts.

This time he crouched at the brush guard and lifted from beneath the body with his legs, breath wheezing between his clenched teeth. The frozen tracks caught the tire tread, but he shoved the machine with his shoulder as a linebacker would and freed the front wheels. He pulled himself up and stood alongside the four-wheeler and gassed it. He walked it away from the furrows, and then collapsed against the side and sat on the footrest. The cold gripped his skull, and he ducked his head by the exhaust piping for heat, before driving at a crawl.

A headwall dropped off beside him, and he ran over sandstones. Further ahead, a lower parallel hill sloped upward, lessening the drop until lower ground met higher. The tires caught better purchase on the rocks and propelled him through snowdrifts. The sandstone wall gradually vanished into a rise that angled to the hill below, too steep to drive down.

The snowstorm shot into his eyes. He squinted and went faster, mentally sighting his home as a landing strip. Clouds parted around the house roof, the garage roof. The brown siding came into view, the driveway, the smoking boiler. A body stretched across the ground where snow buried the walkway. The house glossed, became translucent, and inside an old man slept upstairs.

Snow jutted out over the ridge, appearing to widen the trail, and the tires slid over it and broke through. He leaned left to counter the balance, but the four-wheeler slipped onto the slope and flipped.

Jerald watched the ground rise four feet and slam into him. He skidded beneath the powder and his right hand curled in pain. His wrist and knee tightened against his clothes, while numbness spread across his twitching shoulder blades and back, easing against his damp flesh like a cool body.

He saw himself from above. White shrouded his midsection and began piling onto the rest of him. He could die here, he thought. He deserved this. Deserved it more than fulfilling his desire to hang himself in their bedroom yesterday. He had wanted to live in the cold and he had failed, as a frail creature should. The knifing heat in his limbs dulled, and he focused on her, wondered how much she had suffered, until the cold deadened the pain like her shrieks smothered with a mouthful of snow.

"Why're you ignoring it?" Tawny asked him in the living room, picking up pieces of the candle jar. He had reached for it and missed, had a moment of double vision and swiped it off the shelf. The glass smashed against the coffee table, and he stepped on a shard. He had kept his foot in place since then, and stickiness glazed across his sole and leaked onto the carpet.

"Reminding you how tough I am," he said.

"That," she said and piled fragments into a glinting nest on her palm, "is very attractive and masculine." She prodded his foot. "Pick it up."

"I got it." He knew she would see it and suck air between her teeth, a high-pitched sound that somehow exacerbated wounds. His toes bent and the glass shifted. He winced. "Do it in a minute."

"The pain should motivate you to take care of it." She waved him off. "Flee, child. Scamper away. People are coming to take care of you."

Jerald spit out snow. He had wet himself, and it leaked over his waist. His right arm swept in a motion of knocking over candle jars, and the sensation of flames against his wrist rolled him onto his elbow.

Smoke wafted from beneath the four-wheeler. The rear stuck in the air, the underside planted against a red oak. The throttle was jammed, and the vehicle appeared to be driving into the ground.

He stood on his good leg and paused to breathe steadily. His chest thrummed, and his blood flowed against the damming cold. He glanced at where he had landed. Half a snow angel and a set of footprints beside it marked the spot, as if he had hopped into the white and out of it before flopping onto his stomach. Nausea rose to his cheeks.

He limped the path that the four-wheeler had cleared. He leaned over the handlebars, hit the engine kill switch, and matches ignited on his wrist. He pressed his back against the tree, allowing both arms to dangle. Burnt wood and gasoline permeated the air.

The left front and rear tires slanted out of the wheel wells. Even if all fours touched the ground enough to drive, the right would pull more of the load, and the left side would become congested with snow. He would have to continually stop to dig himself out, likely emptying the decrepit machine's gas tank before he made it out of the woods.


       So he hobbled, and the snowstorm worsened into a blizzard. Wind drove against his stooped posture, and drifts clung to his legs. His quads cramped, and he rested against a tree. His right hip grated in its socket, and he rested against a tree. His shoulder banged against a tree, and he rested against a tree.

His dry tongue raked his cheeks, but he avoided eating snow. He had heard it could reduce body temperature and induce hypothermia. He balled his fists to fan embers of pain, to motivate him, and he hobbled further, his rigid leg dragging like a broken shovel handle.


       He hobbled long enough to see a ghost. The specter's outline appeared and disappeared with trees and boulders in the whiteout. The ghost danced and morphed into a cloudy silhouette of the Crains playing badminton. They hopped around the woods and swung invisible rackets at invisible shuttlecocks and sweated twigs. The sticks twined across their bodies and merged them into a wooden Tawny. She reached over her head, bringing her hands together, and swung down like he used to do with an axe. Her body splintered and collapsed into a smoldering nest.

Jerald lurched toward the branchy mess and the vision dispelled, and he found a pied blanket hanging from a tall, thin shelter instead. Some of the wooden panels had been stripped from the walls and ceiling, and it resembled a deserted cage or tall crib. Snow had mounted to the seat inside.

The blanket was partially torn up the middle. He suffered the crackling in his wrist and yanked on a tapered end. His fingers opened. The blanket stuck. He banged his forehead against the door's plexiglass window and saw that the cloth was caught on a nail inside. He tried the doorknob and banged his head again, bones below his palm seeming to buckle. Next he jerked the blanket with his teeth, but it held firm.

The wind swatted a frayed corner, and he thought of sitting on the couch with Tawny during Packers games. They shared a blanket -- when he let her drape it over his lap -- and the players collided. The games got to him at times, and he sweated, swore, and cheered with the athletes as if he had injured his throwing arm, as if he had fumbled the ball, as if he had sacked the quarterback.

He broke snow and ice away from the lower half of the shelter, and then he positioned himself at the front. He rammed his shoulder into the doorframe, and the wood groaned. Talons wound into his rotator cup with each slam. The booth tilted backward, then forward, and he thrust himself against it when it rocked back again. Feathery wings of snow burst around the shelter, as he toppled onto the door.

Exhaustion waved over him. His chest pumped slower. His eyelids fluttered. Every muscle shivered, and he tongued his wet, scabrous lips. A hand seemed to press on him and flatten his body.

He imagined the shelter erupting in flames and himself soaring out of the fire, blazing a trail out of the woods -- but he only lay there and hurt, knowing that numbness would replace the knifelike sensations dragging across his skin and eventually a cozier warmth might sprawl from his chest to the rest of him, hypothermia making him delusional and adamant about undressing and finding a way into the useless shelter and nestling there until he died. Birds could pick at him thawing naked in the spring.

He fished the photo from his pocket. Folds and wrinkles cracked the paper, several ringing her eyes. The picture resembled less of the twenty-year-old Tawny than it did the woman he had watched thaw at the hospital. He had stood out of arm's reach from the gurney, immaturely afraid that her fleshy hand would seize his.

He raised the photo to his lips and shuddered. The paper stuck to his cuts, and he grimaced while tearing it away. Red scored her face and colored her hair more like it had been.

He scooted himself off the door and dropped to a knee. He reached into the shelter and unfastened the blanket from the nail and draped it over his head. The parted ends hung to the back of his boots. He pinched the cloth at his neck -- pain in his wrist a mild pecking -- and staggered forward.


       Soon everything he expected -- trees and rocks, dips and rises -- was gone. Gritty whiteness remained. A cloud solidifying around him. An inescapable sky he had launched into.

His jacket suffocated him. His pants became stifling. He told himself to clutch the blanket, never release the blanket, and he wobbled with dizziness, might have moved as the crow flies, might have wheeled around the same spot. He stumbled in a squat, prepared to collapse, but always, always thought: Chop-chop.

The wind screeched like spades against pavement, and something looped around his leg. He glanced back, saw a snare of dead corn holding his boot. He stepped out and around the stalk and ducked against turbulent gales plowing into him. The blanket flapped at his sides.

Silvery lines glistened like he was soaring over a roadmap and shaped into pines, a clothesline, a woodpile. A phantom floated in his direction, and a thick man embraced him. Jerald said, "Right. Take my right," and the man practically scooped him off his feet. They reached a porch, where a redheaded woman held the door.

The man laid Jerald on the couch. He told the woman to call an ambulance and covered Jerald with blankets. "You're good, Jay. You said Jay?" He scratched a trimmed beard like Jerald once had. "Wife thought an angel was coming up to sneak out of the storm. I said kid. Look at us. Keep those on, Jay." He fixed the blankets Jerald had tossed off himself and left the misty room.

The television played a commercial for sizzling deals on shovels and bags of salt. The items soared across a bird's-eye view of lively beaches. Votive candles flickered on the coffee table, bordering a small, empty picture frame. He blinked at it, and the woman brought him a cup of lukewarm water. She helped him straighten against the armrest, lifting him from a sensation of sinking in sand. His body tingled again, and the tiniest flame flared and extinguished in his forearm. She tipped the cup to his lips.

"Ambulance's coming." She no longer held the cup. "What're you doing out in this? Cold only makes you cold. Please now." She tucked the blankets beneath him again. Suitcases stood against the wall by the stairway. "Hope he never gets that dumb. Guess he'd have to like the winter first. He made me get groceries myself yesterday, and here he leaves me with an ice sculpture. This's what you do with yourself?" She laughed.

"Quit jabbing at him." The man brought over a thermometer and stuck it in Jerald's mouth. "You weren't warm, she'll get you going." The thermometer was gone. "You think he escaped a home?" He rubbed Jerald's chest.

"Make it out this far?" She sat on the largest suitcase. "Start a bath."

The man wiped at Jerald's nose with a tissue. "What were you doing, Jay? Digging for things? Tell me about it. Keep your lids up."

Jerald's eyes watered and heat streaked his face. Warmth bled into his right arm, and he unburied his hand from the blanket. The man and woman seemed to perch along the coffee table, their speech inaudible chatter, and they watched him open his mitten. Tawny's crinkled picture dropped out and unfolded on his chest, her head lifting as if she was rising from a fall in the snow.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Matt Athanasiou. All rights reserved.