Millie: The Underlying Problem
It was more of a lodge than a cabin but “cabin” is what they called it. The walls were made of heavy, thick logs, after all. The main living area was a broad space leaking from kitchen to dining area to a two-story-high lounge arranged around a tall, fieldstone fireplace.
Millie sat on one of the couches, staring out the windows, and frowned. It was snowing outside—big, fat, fluffy flakes—but she really wasn’t noticing.
She was alone in the room and then she wasn’t.
Davy was wearing a tropical-weight suit with the sleeves of the jacket rolled up on his forearms. He unrolled them as he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Millie sighed, her eyes tracking up to the ceiling before returning to Davy’s face.
Davy glanced up to the second-floor landing. “The usual?”
Millie jerked her thumb up. “Go look at her door.”
He sighed. “She is an irritation of the spirit.…”
Millie completed the phrase, “… and a great deal of trouble.”
Davy vanished. After a brief pause Millie heard laughter drift down the staircase. Millie stood and jumped, appearing beside Davy in the upstairs hallway.
A sign, scrawled on butcher paper, was tacked to a closed bedroom door. It said:
BEING HELD PRISONER BY TELEPORTING ALIENS!
KEPT FROM NORMAL LIFE.
ALSO ICE CREAM.
Davy was shaking his head and still laughing.
“Stop it!” Millie said. “You’re not helping!”
“You gotta admit, she is funny,” Davy said. “Takes after me that way.”
Millie snapped. “What—you think you’re funny?” She pulled at Davy’s arm, leading him back toward the landing.
Davy raised his eyebrows at Millie and grinned.
“Okay, she is funny, but the underlying problem is no less a problem.”
Davy’s smile faded and he jerked his chin down toward the kitchen, and vanished.
Millie followed to see him putting the kettle on.
“What choice do we have?” Davy said. “I mean, really?”
Millie shook her head. She felt like she should have an answer but she didn’t.
Davy hugged her and that was good … but the underlying problem was still no less a problem.
And it could only get worse.
Cent: “But it will kill you dead, just the same.”
I don’t really exist, you know.
We live in the Canadian Rockies, sixty miles south of the Arctic Circle. I was born here, in this house. Mom and Dad paid a nurse midwife to live with us for the last month of the pregnancy. Dad was prepared to transfer Mom to a hospital if things went wrong, but things “worked out” as did I, apparently. Mom said it was definitely “work.”
But there’s no birth record. No birth certificate. No Social Security number.
We’re in the middle of nowhere. The second largest city in the province is a hundred miles to the southeast, but I’ve never been there. Next nearest town is 140 miles north: Old Crow. No roads to Old Crow, it just has an airstrip and the river.
No roads to our house, either. It was built by a billionaire as a hunting lodge at the head of a mountain valley using helicoptered labor. We get moose, caribou, deer, wolves, lynx, and rabbits. Starbucks? Not so much.
The walls are heavy logs, two feet thick. The roof is steeply pitched anodized steel to keep the snow from piling up. It sloughs off the snow in the winter until the bottom floor windows and doors are buried. One year the snow rose high enough to cover the second floor, but Dad melted it away, making sure that the chimney, ventilation stacks, upper doors, and triple-glazed windows remained clear.
There’s a log-surfaced helicopter pad, but Dad does nothing to keep it clear, no matter what the season. Moss, brush, and small trees are taking it over.
Dad doesn’t care. That’s not how he rolls.
He does spend a lot of the summers fixing up the lodge itself—that and the springhouse out back.
The springs are the reason the billionaire built the lodge here: one hot, one cold. One tasting of sulfur and one tasting like a deep breath of winter. We don’t need a hot-water heater—the hot spring provides bath, washing, and soaking water—though it leaves mineral stains in the tub. We drink from the cold spring and use it to make showers less scalding. For two thirds of the year we run hot spring water through radiators to heat the house, and all year round we use the temperature difference between the two springs to generate electricity.
That was Dad’s doing. I think back when it was a hunting lodge, they had a diesel generator. But it was rusted solid when Dad bought the place. The billionaire had become a mere millionaire during the economic meltdown and a vacation home that required two-hundred-mile round-trips by helicopter became something he couldn’t afford.
Dad’s not a billionaire, but then he doesn’t need a helicopter to get here, either.
The electrical generator came from an Icelandic power company that built it as a proof-of-concept device at one of their geothermal wells. When they upgraded that installation to the megawatt commercial version, Dad bought the prototype for mere thousands of dollars.
When I was little, I named it Buzz since that’s what it does, sits in the basement and buzzes. To be fair, it also gurgles, hisses, and thumps, but for a four-year-old, buzz is as entertaining a word as ever there was, especially if you add extra “zzzzzzzzzzzz” at the end.
And then one day, when I was fifteen, it stopped buzzing.
I was watching an old anime on my desktop, but the screen blipped out along with the lights and then I was sitting in the dark, listening to the DVD drive spin to a halt.
I heard Mom yell from her office across the hall. “Davy!”
Dad’s voice answered from downstairs, “Yeah, yeah. I’m on it!”
I felt my way over to the door and opened it. The battery-powered emergency light in the stairwell had come on. The windows were dark—it was late afternoon and October, and what little dusk light was on the southern horizon was blocked by the ridge on the far side of the valley.
Dad had just come out of the library when I tripped down the stairs. He smiled briefly at me. “Hey, Cent. Pretty dark up there, I bet.”
“You think?” I said. “What’s wrong with Buzz?”
He shook his head. “Not sure. Let’s go see.” He reached out to ruffle my hair.
I was styling it these days with a lot of gel and I slapped his arm away. “Rule one, Daddy! How many times do I gotta tell you?”
He laughed again. “Don’t touch the hair. Right. Sorry.”
I swear he does it just to mess with me.
When he opened the door at the top of the basement stairs, I heard a high-pitched beeping noise, one I’d never heard before. I started to take a step down and Dad grabbed me by my collar and pulled me back.
“Damn!” Dad said. “Well, at least we know what’s wrong with Buzz. Don’t go down there.”
“What’s that alarm?”
“Halogen detector. There’s a leak in the system. The Freon is leaking out.” He was no longer smiling.
I knew about the Freon. The hot water from the spring boils it to vapor, which expands through the turbine generator. The cold spring water condenses it again. I’m homeschooled, so the generator has been the source of many science lessons: state changes of matter, Boyle’s law, electromagnetism.
“Freon isn’t poisonous, Dad.”
“No. But it will kill you dead, just the same.” The serious look on his face eased at my expression. “Definitely not poisonous. We’re okay up here. Let me give you a clue: Freon is heavier than air.”
I thought about it for a moment. “Ah. Like water?”
“Like water you can’t see or feel or smell, yes. Which means?”
“The air is on top. The Freon fills up the basement and pushes the air out.”
He grinned, big. “On the nosey, little posy.”
“You’d pass out, eh?”
“Before you died. Heard about a shrimp boat with a refrigeration leak down in the hull. Different members of the crew kept going down into the hold to see what happened to the previous guy. The coast guard found the vessel going in circles, everybody suffocated.”
I eyed the stairs dubiously. “You sure we’re okay?”
He got that look on his face and smiled.
“No!” I said. “I don’t need another real-life math problem!”
He led me back upstairs where we found Mom typing at her computer. She had a laptop with a battery. She didn’t have to stop what she was doing because Buzz was busted.
“What’s wrong with Buzz?” she asked.
“Leaking Freon,” Dad said calmly.
“And displacing all the air in the house!” I said.
Mom’s eyes widened and she looked at Dad. Dad shrugged. “Not very likely, but Millicent is going to calculate the answer to that.”
Mom raised her eyebrows and pushed a pad of paper and a pen toward me across her desk.
Dad said, “Assume an eight-foot-high ceiling. The generator room is twelve by ten feet. It’s about a quarter of the entire basement.”
I did that part in my head. “Nine-hundred-sixty cubic feet. How much Freon?”
Dad jumped and I don’t mean he bounced in place. He disappeared, vanished. I said something under my breath, which caused Mom to sit up straight and give me “the look.”
“Sorry. I was watching my show. I already did homework today.” I sounded whiny. I hate sounding whiny. I tried again, with a more reasonable voice. “I work hard, don’t I?”
“The look” faded and Mom said, “Yes, honey, you do. But you know your father. He never finished school. He’s one of the smartest men I know but he has this thing about education.”
“Tell me about it. If I hear the phrase ‘teachable moment’ one more time, I’m gonna barf.”
Dad reappeared at my elbow, a manual and a sheet of paper in his hand. “Had to go to the library for the Material Safety Data sheet. Didn’t know the density.”
I looked at Mom and sighed heavily. Dad put the books on the desk by the notepad and slid a chair over for me to sit.
It was dark, but when he pulled the bedroom door all the way open, the emergency light from the hall shone across half the desk.
“Dad! This is Buzz’s manual—you went into the basement!”
He shrugged. “As you said, it’s not poisonous. I held my breath. Wasn’t in there more than five seconds.” Mom and I both gave him “the look” but after so many years, he’s impervious. He reached down and tapped the notepad.
I sighed and sat down. The manual specs said the generator was charged with 175 pounds of Freon, the ozone-safe R-22 version. The Material Data Sheet told me the density, and when I converted, I got .225 pounds per cubic foot. That seemed pretty heavy but I double-checked it. “Must be a big molecule.” I grabbed Mom’s laptop and called up a calculator. “Seven hundred and eighty cubic feet. Uh, in the generator room that would displace the air up to, uh, six and a half feet off the floor.”
Dad held his hand over his head. “Worse than that, I think. You didn’t account for altitude.”
“Oh.” I blushed. As I’d said, we’d already done Boyle’s law but I’d forgotten. I knew the conversion factor for our forty-five hundred feet of altitude by heart. “Okay.” I multiplied the figure by 1.18. “Call it 920 cubic feet.” I tapped away. “It would fill the room to seven and two-thirds feet.”
Mom spoke. “I guess we don’t have to worry about the whole house.”
I felt the need to make up for my earlier slip. “Really, not even the basement. When we open the door to the generator room it will flow out into the other rooms and be less than two feet high. Not a problem if we don’t lie on the floor.”
Mom turned to Dad. “You won’t leave it there, will you?”
Dad shook his head. “I’ll twin to a higher altitude and suck it out. But before it all leaks out, I want to find out where it’s leaking, so we can fix it. Hopefully without hauling the thing back to Reykjavik.”
“We can put the stuff from the freezer on the porch,” Mom said, glancing at the window. It was eighteen degrees Fahrenheit outside and would probably drop another ten degrees before morning. “But the stuff in the refrigerator needs not to freeze. Ice chest?”
Dad shook his head. “I’ll go get a backup generator. I’ve been meaning to for some time, but Buzz has been so reliable and I’ve been worried about carbon monoxide.”
“Well,” Mom said. “Since it looks like we’ll be without power for a while—” She looked at me. “—Let’s go shopping.”
“Clothes?” I asked, hopefully.
“You’ve got plenty of clothes,” Mom said. “I’m thinking lentils … about nine tons.”
* * *
Yes, I have enough clothes. I know that, but it’s not the clothes I’m interested in. It’s the people—the clerks, the other customers, the people walking by on the streets. Mom and Dad never let me spend significant time with other people.
It’s like being in a cult.
Mom said summer so that meant Southern Hemisphere. I changed out of my sweater into a T-shirt and put on running shoes. When I came out onto the landing Mom was waiting, jeans and a T-shirt like me, plus a cotton work shirt and a broad-brimmed hat.
“Africa?” I asked.
“Let me grab my shades.” I had to fumble in the dark but I found my snowboarding shades and grabbed a Yomiuri Giants baseball cap.
When I came out again, Mom opened her arms and I walked into her embrace. When she let me go my ears popped, the sun was blazing down, and I could smell a feedlot. I put on my glasses and hat. It’s warm enough at home, with the hot spring radiators, but in the depth of winter you’re always aware of the cold at the edges, in the corners, near the windows.
At least for the moment, the sun felt as good as Mom’s embrace.
It was a small town, I could tell. There was a train yard with large grain silos, a passenger station, and a railroad museum. An old-fashioned railway water tank sat among eucalyptus trees. Old-fashioned letters spelled Kalgoorlie Bitter across one square face, with a small image of a foaming beer stein. A street sign below said Allenby Street. Across the road was a Chinese restaurant, and my stomach rumbled.
I pointed at it and Mom shrugged. “Perhaps. Business first.”
Her business was near the grain silos at the office of the Co-operative Bulk Handling Group. A passenger train pulled in while Mom was inside and I watched people get off. Many of them went into the train museum or headed into the restaurant.
I overheard enough to determine that the train had come from Perth and would continue on to Kalgoorlie, and that a few of the passengers were doing the entire run across the continent to Sydney.
Mom came back outside with a man who said, “Down this way. We loaded ’er up yesterday arvo.”
The accent was broader than I was used to. We’d been to Perth and Sydney and Melbourne but this was more like Crocodile Dundee.
He led us around the corner to where a medium-sized dump truck stood outside warehouse doors. He stood up on the step and stuck his his head in the open window. “Yair. Keys are in ’er.”
“Great,” Mom said. “I’ll have it back in four hours?”
“Tomorrow morning be all right,” he said, grinning broadly. “This your daughter?”
Mom nodded. I stood up and nodded politely. His face was like an old piece of leather, lined and tan. I tried not to stare. I don’t get to see people much, not up close.
I started to get in on the right-hand side of the truck and froze in the doorway when I realized it was right-hand drive. I knew there was something odd about the traffic I’d been watching. I got into the seat and slid under the wheel to the passenger side, banging my knee on the stick shift.
Mom followed me in, started it up, and pulled out into the wrong-side-of-the-road traffic like she drove here every day. She took a piece of paper out of her shirt pocket and handed it to me.
“You’re the navigator.”
We left the town of Merredin, Western Australia, on 94, the Great Eastern Highway, but only as far as the first exit. Mom drove south a mile, and turned off onto a weed-filled dirt road lined with high brush on both sides. It curved away from the paved road and Mom pulled off as soon as it was out of sight of the highway.
“Watch out for snakes,” she said.
“Great,” I said. “Visit exotic Australia. Get bitten by an exotic snake. Die exotically.”
Mom jumped away, vanishing like a lightbulb turning off.
I climbed out the window and up onto the roof of the cab. After what she’d said about snakes, I wasn’t going anywhere near the bushes.
Mom was in the back of the truck, intermittently. That is, she was picking up burlap sacks one at a time and disappearing, reappearing, grabbing another sack and repeating.
They were stenciled CBHG Yellow Lentils fifteen kilos. I did the math while I watched Mom empty the truck. Nine tons of lentils, presuming she meant English tons, would be about 545 bags. Mom was doing one every five seconds, though she took an occasional break. Straight through, it would have taken about forty-five minutes, but she slowed down near the end. The truck was empty in an hour and ten minutes.
She was sweaty and dusty, too.
“Back to the warehouse?” I said.
She shook her head, vanished, and reappeared, a bottle of cold water in each hand. She handed me one and guzzled the other, sprinkling some of it over her hair.
Before driving back into Merredin, she drove a half hour further out of town and the half hour back. “Mileage,” explained Mom. “Don’t want them to think I’m too local if we buy more.”
We listened to a call-in show on the radio, entertained by the accents. “Why do they pitch their sentences up at the end, like every line is a question?” I asked.
Mom shook her head. “Don’t know. I’ve heard the same thing in parts of the UK. It’s just a variant. I’m sure we sound odd to them, too.”
We gave the truck back to the man at the co-op and he returned a fat envelope. “Darn. Halfway hoping I’d get to keep your deposit.”
Mom smiled and thanked him, and said, “I may need another nine tons next month. Will they still be in season?”
“You like your lentils, I guess. There’ll be some in our warehouse for at least a month after the last harvest, too.”
We went to the Chinese restaurant then, but I was yawning like a fiend by the time we’d eaten. It was early afternoon here, but well after midnight at home. After Mom paid, we went to the restroom and she jumped us home from there.
* * *
I barely remember falling into bed. I don’t remember taking off my shoes, but they were in the closet when I woke up which means, of course, that Mom pulled them off. I would’ve kicked them into the corner.
It was gray outside. The sun was up as high as it was going to get and it still hadn’t cleared the far ridge. The sky was clear, though, and you could see the whole valley, trimmed with evergreens and draped with heavy white snow, except where our local elk herd had used their hooves to cut through to the grass on the flat.
It wouldn’t be long before the elk moved down the mountain to the river valley for the winter.
This time of year the light never wakes me. Instead it was a grinding noise, like a snowmobile or an off-road motorbike, that brought me out of sleep, and I realized Dad must’ve made good on his promise to bring in a backup generator. As I moved downstairs the sound got louder, but it was still a background noise, not overwhelming.
Dad had spread newspaper on the dining room table and was fiddling with some mechanical parts. He smiled at me. “Sleep okay? You guys were back late.”
I made my noncommittal noise: half grunt, half hum. “Where’s Mom?”
He looked around, then said, “Oh, that’s right. She’s organizing the warehouse.”
The warehouse was on the outskirts of a small town in Michigan, a steel building thrown up by one of GM’s vendors right before the local plant was shut down. Dad bought it cheap, and never used.
I gestured at the parts. “Too noisy downstairs?”
He shook his head. “It’s not the noise in the basement. It’s the noise outside, where the exhaust pipe pokes though the wall. Need to get a longer pipe. Run it above the roof, perhaps.”
“Wouldn’t that just make it louder up by our bedrooms?” Dad got that look in his eye, and I said quickly, “Just yes or no. I don’t want another physics lecture!”
Dad grinned. “Okay. No. It wouldn’t make it louder, not if the mounting brackets were dampened.”
I made it all the way through cooking pancakes, buttering them, and pouring the syrup before I asked, “Okay. Why would an exhaust pipe sticking up above the roof be quieter?”
Dad grinned. “Up there the noise doesn’t have anything to reflect off of. The sound waves exit the pipe in a hemispheric pattern mostly up. Down where it’s coming out now, it echoes off the ground and the snow and the trees and even the springhouse. So we’re hearing it pretty loud.”
“Buzz was never that loud,” I said.
Dad pointed at the pipe before him. “And as soon as I get this piece welded we can get back to Buzz. Well, welded and reinstalled, and the Freon charged back into the system.”
“And you’ll get rid of the noisy generator?”
“Oh no. We’ll keep it for backup. Hopefully we won’t have to run it much.”
Mom showed up shortly after that. She was wearing shorts, a tank top, boots, and work gloves, and she was sweaty.
Dad brushed the damp bangs back from her forehead. “You done already? I said I’d help.”
Mom kissed him. “You load sixteen tons, whaddya get?” She flexed a bicep. “It’s better than a gym, any day.”
I said, “I thought it was nine tons?”
“Cultural reference,” Mom said. “Mid-twentieth century. Tennessee Ernie Ford.” I must’ve looked even more puzzled because she clarified. “He was a singer. ‘Sixteen Tons’ was a song.”
“Oh,” I said. “Old stuff. Like Green Day?”
Mom said, “Somewhere in between. When you’ve eaten, we need to distribute some lentils.”
“Pakistan. The mountains. Pretty cold. Also,” she gestured toward her head.
I grimaced. “Hijab.”
She nodded and looked at Dad. “I’ll want your help transporting, okay?”
“Where are you working?”
“The IRC refugee camp on the border, west of Peshawar.”
“The one Patel works at?” Dad said.
Mom nodded. “The UN supplies have not been getting through. In the south, the Pashtun militias are diverting them for profit, and on the Afghan side, it’s a tossup between the Taliban and the poppy growers.”
“Pretty dangerous area.” Dad’s voice was mild, but he was frowning.
“We’re distributing from the women’s clinic compound. No men allowed. The main problems are outside camp, as usual. Safe enough inside.”
“Okay. While you change, I’ll get this to the welder. Be back in a bit.”
I dressed warmly—long underwear, my snowboarding pants, a fleece pullover. Over these I put on the traditional pants, tight at the ankle, baggy at the hips, and the knee length tunic, then the headscarf. I’d gone with Mom several times into areas where women wore the full burka, veil and all, but I wouldn’t have to today.
Mom jumped me to the interior of a canvas tent, a large ten-by-ten structure over a dirt and gravel floor. It was cold, and the only light was a Coleman lantern Mom brought with her. My ears popped, but not as badly as they had in Australia, which meant the altitude was more like the mountains, where our house was. There were plastic drums and collapsed cardboard boxes stacked across the back, but the tent was mostly empty.
Mom pointed at a tied-shut door flap. “It won’t be dawn for another two hours. We’ll be distributing through that door.”
Dad showed up after that, with a folding screen, six feet high, eight feet long. He set it up close to the door so they could jump discretely from behind it, if necessary, after the distribution started.
Working together, they took a half hour to bring all the lentils from the warehouse. Dad was bringing two bags at a time and he jumped much faster than Mom, flicking in and out without pausing. Of course, he’s been doing it far longer. I dragged the sacks within reach of the door and began stacking them. Our breath was still steaming but I wasn’t cold anymore.
Dad left after all the lentils had been brought in and stacked. Mom jumped out and came back with cartons of plastic bags and big measuring scoops. “Two liters each, right?”
We’d filled about fifty of the transparent bags, ready to hand out, when there was a scratching at the flap.
Mom tensed and then said, “As-salaam alaikum.”
The voice on the other side was a woman’s. “Bonjour, c’est moi, Magrit.”
Mom relaxed and untied the tent flaps. The sun was hitting the surrounding peaks and the air that flowed through the door was markedly colder, not warmed by all our activity. Magrit was a tall woman wearing khakis and a white medical clinician’s coat buttoned all the way up to the neck. She had a wool scarf wrapped up over her chin and ears, and her arms were crossed, her hands tucked up into her armpits. A stethoscope stuck out of one pocket.
“Good morning, Doctor,” Mom said.
Magrit took a step back. She wasn’t looking at us, but at the stacks of burlap bags visible past the screen. “Sacredieu! They told me, but … I saw this place last night, late, before I came to bed—empty! How?”
Mom did that thing she does, that therapist thing. She nodded her head and said, “That must be very disturbing.”
“How did you get this into the camp? Les soldats are checking all vehicles.”
Mom said, “I would think that whoever moved it here would want to keep their methods a secret, so les soldats could not stop the food.”
Magrit opened and shut her mouth a few moments, then exhaled heavily. “There are women waiting for clinic hours. I will send them over, yes?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “Merci beaucoup.”
* * *
The women spoke Pashto and mostly it was “ma-nana” which I figured out pretty quick means, “Thanks.” Some of them asked “Ta la cherta rahg-ley?” Mom answered, “Ze la Canada.”
Mostly, though, I tied a loose knot in the tops of the bags and passed them over, smiled, and bobbed my head. The word spread and by midmorning the line snaked around the compound formed by the clinic’s tents, and out into to the camp proper.
I wasn’t the only one handing out the lentils. Five other women, recruited by Magrit, were filling bags and handing them out. The line was moving at a slow walk, but there was no end in sight.
After a consultation with Magrit, a covey of young girls my age began carrying plastic bags outside the clinic to where a line started for men—orphaned boys, bachelors, or widowers—who couldn’t come into the compound. This line was small, though, because the camp was largely filled with women whose men had died in the fighting, or who had fled from their own husbands and fathers and the Taliban’s strict application of religious rule. “And also,” Magrit said, “they’re men. Some of them would rather be hungry than collect the food. Women’s work.”
At one point Mom disappeared behind the screen and came back with a mug of hot tea, heavily sugared. She took over my job while I drank it behind the screen, grateful for the hot drink, and at the same time, ashamed. The women helping us wore extra clothes, shawls, men’s shirts, but they were still woefully underdressed for the temperature.
“Let me bring some hot tea to them,” I said, pointing at our helpers.
Mom reached out and tugged my chador forward, over my bangs. “Okay. There are Styrofoam cups over the sink. Oh, and while you’re there? Use the bathroom. I just saw the latrine and you don’t want to go anywhere near it.”
Mom jumped me home from behind the screen. I put the large kettle on and, while it heated, used the bathroom and washed my hands multiple times. Mom got me inoculated for everything but as she’d pointed out, I’d brushed hands with hundreds of people just this morning.
I brewed the tea in a plastic pitcher and sweetened it almost syrup thick. When I came out from behind the screen and began handing out cups, I think they thought I was bringing water, but when I tipped the pitcher steam rose in the air. They cradled the cups and breathed in the steam and smell. When one of them tasted it her cry of surprise started the others sipping.
The line ran out before we ran out of lentils and Mom sighed in relief. She did a quick inventory and told Dr. Magrit, “Almost five hundred kilos left. For the next emergency.”
Dr. Magrit nodded. “There is always another. But the army says they’re coming to deal with this latest problem with the militias. The UN has a large convoy waiting for their escort.”
We tidied the tent, stacking the bags neatly, and when Magrit went to do rounds, Mom jumped us away.
* * *
Dad came into the kitchen swearing. “The weld is still leaking. I have to get the part machined from scratch.”
Mom and I were in our bathrobes. We’d used the hot tub on the upper deck to cook the chill from our bones. There’s something decadent about sitting in 110-degree water while fluffy, fat snowflakes are falling all around you. But this time it hadn’t been as good because of the noise and smell of the generator exhaust, which was way worse than the slight smell of sulfur that comes from the hot spring.
When I thought about the girls and women in the refugee camp I felt really petty complaining, but I still said, “Can’t we go stay someplace else while that thing is running? It’s smelly and loud.”
Dad and Mom looked at each other, then back at me. Mom looked sad and Dad looked grim. I knew his answer before he spoke.
“No. We can turn off the generator at night, though. The fridge will be okay for seven hours.”
Right. As if I cared about the refrigerator.
We never slept anyplace else. We’d go places but we’d always come back quickly. I was trying to remember if there was ever a time that I’d spent the night away from home, even when Dad taught me survival camping. Sure we gathered and cooked our own food, but how real is it if you get tucked into your own bed every night?
The next morning Dad went off to get his part made and Mom said, “Your room … clean it.”
“It looks like a laundry and a library exploded. You have shelves, use them. Put up your clean laundry and start washing the dirty stuff, if you can tell which is which. They’re all jumbled together.”
I opened my mouth to protest but she raised her hand. “Seriously. Do it. I’ve got some meetings so I won’t be back until this afternoon, but you should be done by then.”
“I need more shelves.”
“You need to cull your collection. If you’re not going to read it again, put it in a box. We’ll donate it to a reading program.”
“Dad said I could have another shelf.” Dad has books all over the house. You don’t see him culling his collection.
Mom sighed. “One more shelf isn’t going to do it. Okay—one more shelf unit, but you’ll have to move your boy-toy posters.”
“It’s the only wall space left.”
“We could put the shelf in front of one of the windows.”
“I don’t see why—”
Mom jumped away.
It’s not fair.
Oh, yeah, I can see that we really shouldn’t put bookshelves in front of the windows. There’s a great view down the valley, and in the summer I would want it open. But jumping away in the middle of an argument really isn’t fair.
Dad does it, too.
If I could jump, it might be different. I’d fantasized about disappearing in the middle of one of their lectures often enough.
When I was a little girl, maybe four years old, I would stand in front of my mother and say, “Mommy, I’m going to jump!”
Mom would cover her eyes with both hands and I would quietly walk to another part of the room or into another room entirely and say, “Boom! I jumped!” And she would drop her hands, gasp in amazement, and say, “Wow, you jumped!” If I was in the room with her still, she would say. “There you are!” And if I’d left the room, she’d say, “Where did she go?”
I wasn’t going anywhere. At this rate I would never go anywhere.
I stomped up the stairs to my room. I was still in my pajamas: sweatpants and a T-shirt. I tried to slam the door but it caught on a pile of clothes, books, and DVD cases. I groaned. Bad enough that she left in the middle of the argument, but the fact that she was right about the room only made it worse.
I kicked at the pile, trying to shove it aside, and jammed my toe on a book wedged up against the shelf by the door.
“Shit!” I yelled, hopping around on the other foot. I didn’t care that I wasn’t supposed to say that. At that moment I wouldn’t have cared if Mom and Dad were standing there listening. It would be hard for them to bug out in the middle of that one emphatic word.
The posters were old, dating back to when my idea of what a girl’s room should look like was based on girls’ rooms in movies and television shows. I don’t think I’d ever been inside an actual girl’s room. Mom’s mother lives in an apartment in one of those retirement communities now and though Mom once showed me the house she grew up in, we never saw inside. Even if we had, the room she’d had as a girl would’ve been different.
Mom told me, though, that when she was my age, she had pictures of Rick Springfield, Andrew McCarthy, and Tom Cruise. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “But this was pre-Scientology, Risky Business Tom Cruise.”
I had three posters: the Jonas Brothers, Zac Efron, and Rupert Grint. Rupert’s too old but that smile and those shoulders and that hair! I didn’t really care about the Jonas Brothers or Zac, not anymore, but when I was balancing on my desk chair to take Rupert down, the chair rolled sideways while one of the pushpins was still in. The poster ripped diagonally down through his face and I banged the jammed toe when I landed.
“Fuck!” I yelled. It was so loud I imagined it echoing through the mountain valley, the elk lifting their heads to listen. I ripped the rest of the glossy paper down and crumpled it into a ball. Then I did the same thing with the other two posters and slung the damn chair across the room where it knocked a lower shelf out of one of my bookcases and spilled more books across the floor.
I started crying and this made me mad. Mom’s a family therapist by training. There is no stigma attached to crying in our house, though it makes Dad uncomfortable, but I hated how it made my eyes puffy. Also, the thought of Mom comforting me or asking me those open-ended therapy questions while I was still mad at her really pissed me off.
My bed is chest high with a reading nook underneath, with cushions and a light. It’s been my hiding place, my crying place, my safe place since I was little. I hadn’t used it in months but I wanted to crawl into it and bury myself in the cushions. I even crouched to do so but then I saw my snowboarding pants lying across the entrance, where I’d kicked them off the day before.
“To hell with this,” I said, and got dressed instead.
There’s a covered walkway at the back of the house that becomes more of a tunnel in the winter. It’s mostly used to reach the springhouse but it continues up the mountain from there, a steep stairway, steps of squared timbers set into the ground. I use it for exercise, when the house gets to be too much, pushing the snow off to the sides until it’s banked high enough to keep even the blizzard-driven snow out. The stairway leads to a pavilion fifteen feet square, a hundred yards up the slope, where the mountain shelves a bit and the black spruces and sub-Alpine fir thin out. It’s glorious there in the long summer days, if there’s a breeze to keep the mosquitoes away. In the dead of winter it’s lethal, especially when the wind blows. But now, in the fall, the temperatures were still above zero, though the snow was piling deep.
The pavilion marks the top of my snowboard run, which curves north, down a gully, through a birch grove, and down a natural half-pipe that’s a series of short waterfalls in the summer. At the bottom it winds down one more steep slope before curving around to the valley floor, a hundred yards below the house.
I’m not supposed to snowboard unless Dad has checked the run, making sure all the rocky areas are deep under snow and there’s nothing dangerous around. All of the Yukon is grizzly territory and they like to hibernate near the tree line. Despite the snow, this was early enough in the year for grizzlies to still be active.
So, too early, and you can run into grizzlies. Too late, and the temperatures get to forty below zero. Fahrenheit or centigrade. Doesn’t matter. That’s the place where it means the same thing on both scales. Do the math—Dad made me do it.
I hauled my board up the stairs, kicking through some of the newer drifts, my coat open and my hat off. I knew I’d be sweating by the time I reached the top. The snow was even deeper than I’d expected, since the freak storm we’d had back in September dumped three feet and the temperature had never risen high enough for it to melt.
I took the first run slowly. I was breaking so many rules. Dad hadn’t checked the run. I was supposed to be cleaning my room. And I wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Dad would have a stroke if he saw me.
I only had one biff, not really a boomph, when I buttslid out of a carved turn, cutting up short to avoid a rock sticking out of the snow. The rest of the run was clean, and now that I’d marked the rock in my head I could shred the whole thing at speed. There was even a cornice to the left after I exited the pipe that would let me bust huge air above the last steep pitch down into the valley.
I didn’t even look in the windows as I climbed up past the house. Dad might think I was with Mom and vice versa, but if either of them saw me or realized my board was gone from the back hall, I was busted anyway.
I was gasping by the time I reached the top again and I sat until my breathing slowed and I was feeling the chill. I buttoned up and snapped my bindings over my boots and started down the slope, aggressive, keeping closer to the fall line. I hit air twice in the pipe and remembered to cut hard at the bottom so I could catch the cornice. To hit the right part of the slope below I had to cut hard, right before the lip, and under the pressure of the turn I felt something shift below my board. I was airborne when I heard a deep thudding sound overlaid with a sharp crack.
I hit the steep slope below, my knees bending to absorb the landing shock, and risked a glance upslope.
The entire cornice, fifty yards across, had let go. As avalanches went it was small, but it filled the last slope, funneled even tighter by the near-vertical cliffs on each side. I couldn’t cut sideways out of its path.
My only hope was to get down before it caught me. I steered straight down the fall line and leaned forward, putting my arms behind, slipstreaming.
I might have made it, but a slight bump in the slope concealed a loop of willow branch. It wasn’t thick but it was ropy tough, and even though it broke, it took me down, tumbling, to fetch up against another drift just in time to watch tons of snow bear down on me.
“Sorry, Dad,” was all I had time to say.
It’s the air in front that hits you first, driven by the snow. The blast popped me into the air and then the snow was all around and pushing me down, down, down … and then I hit something and everything was dark.
I wasn’t unconscious so the darkness surprised me a little. I’d fallen in deep powder and the snow conducts the light surprisingly well, but not this time. I thought there must be tons of snow above me, but I didn’t feel any pressure. I’d wrapped my arms around my face, to keep an air pocket, which is one of the things they say you should do. Now I thrust forward, hard, trying to make the air space bigger while the snow was still soft. But the snow gave way and my hand hit something hard and smooth. I kept thrusting, pushing the snow … and then there was light coming in from where the snow had cascaded away from me, and I saw a stretch of carpet, a stack of underwear, and six paperback books.
I was in the reading nook under my bed with about two cubic yards of snow.
Davy: Wet Dream
Davy had the dream, again, the one where the scars on his chest were fresh, and if he tapped just below his right collarbone, there was a solid disk-shaped lump under the skin. In the dream he felt the tingle in his throat, the coughing, followed almost immediately by the nausea—the titanic heaving of his stomach muscles as he vomited—and he woke up on a steeply pitched roof on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard in ice-cold, driving rain.
The vomit, at least this time, was only in the dream and once fully awake, he flinched back to their bathroom, swearing loudly. Despite being awake now, he couldn’t stop his fingers from probing the old scar below his right collarbone, but the old device had not magically reappeared below the skin.
Millie sat up in bed, abruptly, a sharp intake of breath. “Davy?”
In the dim illumination that leaked from the bathroom nightlight, Davy saw her patting the bed beside her, searching for him.
“Here,” he said. “It’s all right. Had the dream again.”
“Oh,” she said. “Just the dream?”
“No, dammit.” He took off his wet pajamas and groped for a towel. “They’re having a northeaster on the Vineyard.”
“You haven’t done that in a while.” Millie sank back against her pillow. “So, on the rooftop in the rain? That’s good.”
He snarled at her through the towel.
She laughed. “Sorry. I mean that if it’s unpleasant enough, we stand a chance of getting rid of the compulsion. They spent so much time making it unpleasant everywhere else. It’s good to counter that.”
Davy picked up the wet pajamas and threw them violently into the laundry bin. “Too bad they replaced the building, then. Falling to the foundations from three stories up would be really unpleasant.”
“At least they didn’t rebuild it exactly. You wouldn’t want to reappear in someone’s bedroom.” Millie said reasonably.
The current owners of the property had torn down the flood-damaged old mansion sixteen years before and replaced it with a two-story beach house.
“I’m going to soak in the springhouse,” he said. “Chilled.” Come with me? He didn’t voice the thought. It wasn’t fair to wake her up in the middle of the night as it was.
“Come back to bed soon,” she said. Her voice trailed to a whisper by the last and she smacked her lips and closed her eyes.
She was breathing deeply, sound asleep, when he came back. He was thoroughly warmed by the hot spring, overheated in fact. He toweled dry, put on dry pajamas, then slipped between the sheets carefully. She made an “mm” sound and resumed her deep breathing.
He stared at the ceiling until dawn.