Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.
“You want me to come?” Her voice breaks a little. She’s a couple years older, but I’ve always been the “big sister”.
“No,” I say. “I just felt, you know, the weight of it today.”
“I feel it every day,” says Carissa. “You haven’t heard from Pete, have you?”
“No. He’s still in jail.” To change the subject, I tell her I made $400 dollars in tips last night.
“At least now, Leah, you can keep it.”
After we hang up, I take a sip of cold coffee and return my mug to the numbers 1 and 3 slashed into the top of Mom’s oak table. Back when snow shrouded the cabin, Pete carved the numbers–his dealer’s cell–into the wood. Mom never said a word to him about it. Wouldn’t, of course. Not any more. She’d forgotten how hard she’d worked to refinish the table in the first place, but I remembered. She’d been so proud of her handiwork. Then she fell in love with Pete and her world narrowed down to a chunk of meth.
I run a finger over a burn in the oak, scrape crud out of the 6. Grime darkens the tips of my nails. I get up. Take a knife and wash rag out of the sink. Dig at the numbers, intending to clean out the gunk, but as I work, the blade obliterates every digit.
Through the winter, Carissa and I have lived with what we’ve done, her down in LA, me on the mountain. She tells me her days teaching English are filled with hypocrisy, her nights with chardonnay. I go to work at Brewster’s, serving margaritas and beer, scooping pretzels from plastic bags under the bar. I shop at Vons, drop by the post office, fill my truck with gas, go to Mass, but not confession.
Now the snow is melting along the roads, polishing the asphalt, revealing discarded ski gloves, wine bottles, the occasional empty syringe. The locals emerge like bears from caves. The skiers and boarders head home. I slouch down side streets to avoid the cops, even though they swallowed every word we fed them.
I’m late for work–Saturday lunch–me walking head down, avoiding puddles, thinking hard about leaving. I can escape when the college kids and Aussies go.
“Hey.” A voice. Rough. Close to my ear. And a smell like cat pee. Pete’s grip is hard. He drags me off the road, through muddy slush, and into a crowd of trees. I’m shocked at his strength. He is, after all, a middle-aged tweaker. Just like my mom.
“You got me put away, didn’t you?” He shoves me facedown into a sooty ridge of snow; digs his bony knee into my back. Icy crystals flick into my nose. “Well, the jury let me go.”
I struggle against him, but he presses harder. Yanks off my backpack, wrenches my shoulder. I let out a muffled scream. Then his weight lightens as he rummages through my stuff.
“Where’s your money?” He curses, jerks me up, his scabby face in mine, his eyes glittering like ice.
I cough, catch my breath. Through the pines, I glimpse the cabin. My voice comes out a squeak, “Home.”
Inside the cabin, Pete shakes me. “Where is it, bitch?”
“In… bedroom. Chest… of drawers.”
He throws me to the ground, my head smacking against the hardwood floor as he struts away to claim his booty. I curl up, wrap my arms around my ears, close my eyes. Drawers slam in the next room. Glass shatters.
I begin to scoot toward my mother’s scarred oak table. Pull myself up on shaky legs, search the top for the knife.
It’s not there.
Suddenly air whooshes from my lungs he slams me to the floor. Dollar bills–last night’s tips–flutter down.
“Don’t screw with me.” His fingers bite into my neck. “Where’s the insurance money?”
I gasp. “We didn’t get–”
“You had to. You killed her. I want it.” His sunken eyes remind me of my mother’s.
My leg is free enough to move. I force a soothing whisper, “It wasn’t like that, Pete.” Then I become a dervish of energy, knocking my knee into his groin. He lets go of my throat.
I scramble under the table. The knife’s on the floor. I reach out, grab for it. Can’t get it. Twist closer. He’s on me. My knuckles scrape his ribs. I turn my hand downward, getting the blade into the softness of his belly, and thrust up, his stench spiking my adrenaline.
The throbbing world suspends. I hold my breath. Close my eyes. See the wraith-white snow settling on the roof of my mother’s car.
Pete goes still. I wait until I’m sure he’s dead, then work my way out from beneath him and crawl back under the table, folding into myself, my face wet, my nose running. My mother was a junkie. She begged us.
While a January blizzard pounded the cabin, my mother sat at the table across from Carissa and me, her hair the color of moldy straw, her body reduced to twigs. She picked at a scab on her lip, slanted her eyes away. We didn’t understand, so she took our hands and stared hard at us. She’d been in and out of rehab. She was miserable. She wanted out. We didn’t want to do it. But in the end, we drove her up the mountain. Carissa fed her one last needle, we kissed her good-bye and rolled the old black Ford into the ravine.
All winter long, it snowed like crazy, but now the snow is melting.
Gay Degani wrote her first novel in the fifth grade using a purple ballpoint on lined paper. Later she scribbled a short story in a high school creative writing class that everyone hated. It came in second in an Atlantic Monthly Writing Contest. She then managed to put writing lower on her priority list until her kids were launched and now she is dead serious.