“I don’t want to go,” I say to Greg. The sky outside looks heavy like something is coming.
“We already told Carl and Anna.”
“It’s gonna snow,” I say.
“It’s not supposed to, the weatherman said.”
I’ve had that feeling for months that something is coming and now the cold and the sky, feels like a storm is gathering.
“They’re wrong all the time.”
“Let’s just wait it out and see.” Greg says.
“Matty’s cough,” I say. Matthew is on the floor vrooming his train quietly across the flowered rug, watching the wheels spin around and around. I want to scoop him up, rock with him in the coming darkness, smell his soft hair, watch the snow that I know will come. I don’t want to watch the ball drop on TV at Carl and Anna’s, nibble little smokies, and chat about the unexpected snow.
“Matty’ll be fine. Let’s put him in pajamas. He can sleep just as easily there.”
I don’t want to drive out past the lake.
“The roads might get bad,” I say. But I know it has been decided, the way I know the heavy gray sky will bring snow.
There have been things frozen between us for months. Greg didn’t want me to go to the funeral, but wouldn’t say. I can still feel it.
“I just don’t see why you didn’t tell me,” he said that day when he came home from work. The streetlights were just coming on outside. The pavement reflected the glow on their black rainy surface.
“It’s not like I lied.”
“I had to hear it.”
“Was I not supposed to go?”
“No.” He hesitated, flipping through the mail on the counter and then letting it drop. “It’s just that we all have. . .”
“What?” I waited to see what he’d say.
“People. We all have-”
“He wasn’t people,” I said, angry at the word. “He was . . .” I stopped here. How did I say what he was? I remembered the phone call and the color yellow out the window. I never noticed that fall turns yellow first. How long had I not noticed? I clutched the receiver, my skin stretched white over my knuckles. I clutched it as if it would hold me up, as if it were strong enough to anchor me to the spinning earth. I clutched it and noticed that the afternoon was golden. That was all I could do.
“He was not people,” I said again. Greg sighed and dropped his shoulders. He turned away from me. “Don’t be jealous. He’s dead.”
Greg spun around.“I’m not.” He stopped and wiped his mouth with the palm of his hand back and forth like he was trying to erase what he really wanted to say. “God, I’m not jealous. I just wanted to know you were going to his funeral, that’s all.”
In the pan on the stove, water bubbled up to the surface and broke. My bare feet were cold on the wood floor. Outside the first yellow leaves lost their grip and fell, gliding past the window like large golden rain drops. Yellow was the first to fall. I looked past him and noticed it beyond the thick pane of glass. The other leaves were brilliant orange and red, but the golden ones were the first to fall.
We exit off the highway. Twenty years ago, it was bare fields and hills, but now a large sign reads Heritage Estates and there are beige houses, gates, and a fountain, frozen like a statue. We drive down through the hills covered with empty trees, but the lake is hidden. Even in the night I see the same heavy clouds.
Greg turns down the radio. “We don’t have to stay ‘til midnight.” There is an electric blue on his face from the dashboard. I can see the whites of his eyes as he glances at me in the dark. “We can come home whenever we want.”
Matty’s chest rattles in the back. He is bundled in a small blue parka and fuzzy footed pajamas dotted with puppies and bones.
I look out the window, watching for the moment the lake will appear between the bare branches. I don’t recognize it in December.
I am remembering twenty years ago, on a night when the stars were warm, when the water was not frozen in the banks but licked the shore with a gentle sloshing sound.
“You ever want to die?” Jack asked out of nowhere. I looked over at him, he was drunk.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Let’s do it,” he said to me. My head was spinning. The stars looked like they were set in a ceiling, curving in all around us, and we were at its center. “Do you want to?”
I shrugged and looked down at my feet swinging out over the water as we sat on the dock. He was quiet and just looked at me.
“Will you be mad if I don’t?” A sound escaped his lips, a snort and a laugh. He looked away and lifted the can to his mouth, gulped and then looked back at me.
“I can’t be mad at you, Sarah.” I watched the moon on the water, how it had broken into golden sparkles on the dark moving surface.
“You won’t do it without me?”
“I’m not going to do it alone.” There was only the spinning earth, and the stars inching slowly across the sky. We spent every weekend together. There was so much between us.
“What is there in the world?” he said, as if the June night, the vague smell of fish, the sloshing water, the metallic pop of a beer can weren’t enough.
“There’s you and me,” I said. He looked at me quickly. Entire lifetimes registered in his eyes. He scanned each one for possibility. He looked so long I wondered if he might kiss me.
I leaned in slightly and looked up at him. He turned his head away. “You’re my best friend,” he said then.
I didn’t say anything. But my skin felt hot and neon.
“There’s no one knows me as good as you. No one I can talk to about this kind of stuff.”
We were silent then. I could only think of one thing to do to hide my burning face.
I got up and jumped off the edge of the dock in my sweatshirt, shorts and white sneakers. The water was cold even in June. “Get in,” I yelled, treading water. He laughed and peeled off his shirt.
“You’re crazy,” he said but did a cannonball into the water and splashed me.
After graduation we spoke less. Our friendship couldn’t survive various boyfriends and girlfriends. A month before my wedding, Jack called and said, “Don’t marry him.”
“It’s 2 a.m.,” I said looking at the clock.
“Marry me instead.” When I was quiet he laughed and said, “Just messing with you.” His speech was slurred.
“What’re you drinking?”
“Same thing we always did. Out by the lake.”
“It’s late.” But I was sitting up looking into the darkness, eyes open wide. It had been nearly two years since I’d seen him.
“I fucked up,” he said. “It was always you.”
“Don’t call me like this again.”
“You were the best friend I ever had.”
Jack moved to Tennessee. People said he was crazy. There’s no oil down there, they said. I got married, had Matty. Later, in town over thick white coffee cups they said that he was worth a million. But it wasn’t enough. He bought five acres in the back woods and quit when he got enough to live on. He lived alone in a crumbling trailer, smoking pot all day, listening to the bugs crawl through the grass. One day he grabbed the hand gun that hung over his bed and pulled the trigger. A neighbor found him two days later. I wonder did my name float through his wounded head? A final impulse before all the synapses fired for the last time, a leaf blowing in the wind, a shadow passing? You’re my best friend, before he fell backwards? Did he remember me?
He did it without me.
Jack hated having his picture taken. So his Senior portrait sat in an 11 x 14 frame on an easel. Rain dripped down the glass. His eyes looked at me. I hadn’t seen his face in twenty years. The casket was closed. The wound. They couldn’t leave it open. His mom and sisters huddled under the green tent, but I didn’t talk to them. Only a dozen people stood in the gray rain and shivered. I couldn’t look away from the eyes that stared back at me twenty years later, like he’d never been gone, like I’d only just seen his face, only just heard his voice.
At midnight, I listened to the rain on the roof. I waited for Greg to fall asleep. I cried silently next to him, trying not to shake the bed. How could I explain June, the water not yet frozen? How would he understand? I could still hear Jack’s voice.
We come around a curve and there is the lake, its surface ghostly white against the dark sky, glowing under the hidden moon. Frozen like a delicate glass plate. It is unrecognizable on this cold night in December.
In the distance we see Carl and Anna’s house on the hill, light pouring out of the bare windows, like the orange glow of a single star in the night.
We pull into the drive. A chorus of dogs greet us, large and small, yapping, tails wagging. The house is tucked in the hills with barns behind it. Greg grabs Matty out of the back seat. I stand outside the car, feel the dark hills behind me and the frozen lake that no longer resembles June.
How did I get here with him on this night with this little boy? I can’t see all the steps in between. I only see each moment in a snapshot. First this one, then that. Then and now. The two side by side and no clue in either that the other one exists. I could be two different people living two different lives.
What if I’d said, “OK,” ? There would be no Matty, there would be no me standing out on the cold gravel looking at the black outline of hills over the frozen lake. I have a horrible feeling like hunger eating the inside of me. What if I break through the ice and swim down into the cold black water?
“I don’t want to lose you,” Greg says. It’s so sudden, so honest that everything stops. He is standing in front of me with Matty bundled against the cold in a cocoon. His outline is silhouetted by the light from the house and a small white wisp of his breath escapes. We can hear a radio playing rock songs, a hard drum beat, muffled voices, and a woman’s laugh.
“I’m right here,” I say.
“You’ve been gone for months.” In the night air we face each other: Greg holding Matty who squirms and me looking at the two of them, an invisible line running between us. “I’ve heard you cry at night,” he says, “and I know it’s because of him.”
I want to tell him. I want to explain how the entire world looked golden before it fell. I want to explain June and its soft wind. I want to tell him that I can’t let it be over.
But how do I?
I didn’t mean not to tell him I was going to stand out in the rain, twenty years later at the funeral. I want to hold his hand, feel it warm and light in mine, climb the steps to the porch, go through the sliding glass door where the radio and human voices will count down time and drown us. But the dark hills make my heart ache.
When the snow comes there is no warning. Just one flake falls and then another and another and then the whole sky is falling. I hold out my hands, turn my bare palms up and catch the snowflakes that melt in an instant. The world changes silently. I look up at the sky and the flakes rush past me like I’m moving upward past them on my way to somewhere else.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. The white flakes look like falling stars, end of the world. They fall over the dark hills, the frozen lake, over Greg and me and Matty.
I want to say, we all live two lives. The past is never really over. I want to tell him that Jack will never write a check that has the new year on it. That he won’t clutch my hand the way Greg did when Matty was born. That he won’t look at me and promise forever like Greg did. But the hills are dark, and I want to walk up into them. I want to evaporate like our white breath that breaks apart and disappears.
Matty coughs and Greg says, “We should get him inside.” Then he turns to me. “You coming?” he says and holds out his hand.
In front of me the house, the laughter, the music, the warm glow, and the frost on the window panes. Behind me the hills, the lake, the night, and a black silence.
I grab Greg’s hand. I have to move forward. “It will be OK,” I tell him but I don’t know if it will.
I don’t want to leave the night air, the cold dark hills.
Anna’s at the door and leans her head out. “Come on in. It’s freezing out there.” I brace myself for plastic conversation, for midnight, for the rest of my life and climb the porch steps into the warmth, into the golden light, onto the precipice of a new year. But part of me stays out in the night. Part of me walks up into the dark leafless hills and disappears amidst the falling snow.
–Story by Linda Niehoff