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Finch Holes: Short Fiction

A Perpetual State of Awe

A Perpetual State of Awe

We are left with six gallons of drinking water, half a box of graham crackers, and oatmeal we’ve been eating with minimal water and warming on the space heater. We had perhaps our last small fire yesterday, and Joshua found a few packs of raisins, a food that used to make me cringe, behind the fridge. Consumables dwindle so incredibly fast. The plump raisins on my dry tongue were as tasty as any piece of three-layer chocolate cake would have been to my former self, the woman of only weeks ago, the woman who worried about consuming too many calories or not walking 10,000 steps.

I have an ounce of power left on my phone, but the last time I powered it up I threw the thing across the room, so I’m not entirely sure it works now. There’s no internet anywhere. We are left with the emergency laws, instructions, and tips for survival. Also, the lists. Long, stomach-twisting lists.

Joshua heard rustling sounds on and off over the last few days, and he’s sure it’s tunneling, which, at this point, is our only hope—rescue. Freezing to death will take some days yet. We have a lot of cloth, wool, and a cordless space heater that the news suggested before reports stopped. The water won’t last long, though, and this is all I can think of as I try to summon my strength.

We count to three and pull hard to gain an inch of light. The ice around the door gives, and a clump of snow is released. The fresh air feels nice for a moment, before it begins to bite at our cheeks. Yesterday’s snow is now an undercoat, and the powdery top layer glistens.

“Looks like its winking at the sky,” Joshua says.

There is nothing but snow, expectant clouds and the top halves of our neighbors’ homes. A few still have smoke escaping their chimneys.

“Nature’s secret,” I say, trying to match his detached tone. The wonderland covers cars and bikes; it climbs stairs and devours porches. Our doors are barricaded, with only a few feet uncovered at the top. It’s infuriatingly beautiful.

Joshua backs up and sighs as he grabs the broom. I lean all my weight in, hoping the door will close again easily today, but it doesn’t budge. Despite the cold that enters, it was recommended we keep opening the door and clearing the path as much as possible in order to prevent it from freezing closed. He sweeps at our warped wood floors, and I tell him to be careful around the window, where the glass is beginning to crack.

“We’re lucky to be on the north side of Grant Avenue, kiddo,” I say. He hates it when I call him kiddo, he’s too old, but he lets me off the hook. Joshua examines the slight incline toward the other side of the street. We were spared at least a foot of accumulation, not much but something. He lingers in the doorway, and a thin arm of sunlight reaches in and warms my face; meanwhile, the icy air and blinding light crowd everything around it. We push the door again, together, but it still resists, and I imagine the raisins on my tongue. The inside of my mouth is like paper, but I need to hold out before I drink or eat anything.

We had been enjoying the snow only a week ago. Joshua suggested it would be our new way of life—sleds instead of cars—and that it was nature’s way of eliminating overuse of fossil fuels. The whole town seemed thrilled to be off of work and school. Kids slid down the street on cardboard boxes, and we all started fires and roasted marshmallows together, contributing thermoses of hot chocolate and warm sandwiches, finding comfort and communal warmth.

We watched the news for the latest soup recipes. Potato and leek was featured the same day the grocery stores closed for good. Extra parsley and a little red pepper add so much, she said. I wasn’t sure about the red pepper, but I’m pretty sure no one in our neighborhood got a chance to make that soup. Joshua and I were playing Scrabble by the fire when the lights began to flicker that day. We stopped venturing outside, and noticed neighbor sightings were becoming rare. There were talks of delaying holidays, and online retailers pleaded their customers’ forgiveness as shipping would no longer be possible.

Another night of snow. The mail stopped altogether. Reception faded in and out more frequently, and it comprised reports of missing persons and bodies found frozen in their homes. There had been just under a thousand fatalities from Cleveland to Columbus, and we received texts with the lists, those long lists of names. There was no news from outside of Ohio, so we were left to imagine how much worse things must be up north.

Another night of snow, and the wrinkles deepened around newscasters’ eyes; they forced hollow smiles. The flakes were now coming down with more force, almost violence, and on the tenth day of accumulation we heard what sounded like a stampede, only to look out the window and see Mr. Henry’s roof caving in under the weight and cold. That was the day we lost power completely. More roofs crumbled and generators gave out.

***

My son is calm, so I have to pretend to be calm along with him. The kid’s calm doesn’t surprise me, even though he’s a nervous wreck at school and agonizes over what to wear and what to say and whether he’ll do well in spelling or chess championships. I had to physically drag him to the car the first few days of school each year.

Shortly before the storm, one of Joshua’s teachers called, worried that Joshua never spoke to kids his age and spent his recesses asking teachers what they thought of technology convergence and its potential to break down capitalism as we know it. “He’s smart,” Mrs. Bailey explained, “but he doesn’t know how to relax.”

John and I agreed to begin family sessions. In therapy, we could come clean. We were still leading our son—and maybe each other—to believe that we could work things out. Deep down, however, we knew there was no chance.

“We better find someone brilliant, or else Josh’ll run mental circles around him. He gets that from you, you know,” John said the last time we spoke.

“I don’t think he gets it from either of us,” I told him. “I mean, no offense, but—”

John chuckled, and I asked him when he’d be stopping by. He said soon. He said, “He really does get that from you.”

 ***

I doubt Joshua fully believed us about much of anything. He was always challenging our assertions when he was younger, then came the day he stopped. The day, I assume, he realized there was no point. After he turned eleven, I couldn’t keep up with the kid’s mind, and I surely can’t now that he’s fifteen, a three-dimensional age. I didn’t need Joshua to show me how he could memorize a deck of cards to know what he was capable of, and I knew his abilities meant deficiencies in other ways, painful ways; much as it doesn’t seem so, especially now, I think life finds its odd sense of balance.

“Time,” he says.

“No way.”

“Just two minutes, Mom. We can’t go all the way outside, but we can open the window.” Joshua insists on exposure, incrementally more every day, to adjust to the cold and increase odds of survival. He wants me to do the same, but I can’t. Nor can I stop him. “Come on, Mom. Two minutes. One. This is going to be life or death, if they don’t arrive soon.”

“I can’t,” I say. “How many inches, you think?”

“30, 32,” he says. He grabs the broom handle and pushes it into the snow diagonally until the whole of it is covered. “Maybe more. This is the time, Mom. We need to do this.” He speaks urgently now, can tell something is wrong with me. “We can tunnel, melt and pack the snow. I’ve been thinking, and—” He goes on, but I’m dizzy and unable concentrate. I imagine the weight of the raisins, the warmth of the fresh water we have.

It’d taken damn near all my strength getting the door open a crack, and I can’t fathom the idea of standing outside. The cold is the enemy now. “Can you bring me water, kiddo?” I’ve been eating less as our food dwindles, pretending to be full so the boy can eat more, and it’s catching up to me. He obliges, helping me to untangle the scarf covering my mouth.

“We have to dig,” he says again.

“Let me just sit here and think a minute, okay?” I say, easing onto the couch and putting my hood back up over my ears. I sound vaguely drunk.

I haven’t seen a car drive anywhere in two weeks, and the last person to walk by was Mr. Henry, and I haven’t seen his lights go on since his roof fell. One of his windows shattered. The cold is too much for anyone, let alone someone his age.

I power on my cell, so I can write down everything from the Storm Emergency Instructions text we all got before losing power. It contains hints and tips, assurances that FEMA is on the way, and the last list of names—those missing as of Friday, catalogued by zip code.

“A new way of life,” I repeat my son’s initial optimism or maybe pragmatism—who knows what he expected—scooting to a part of the couch that had been touched by the sun. “I think this ice is too thick to melt. I think we’ll have to wait for someone to come.”

More snow pushes its way in, dusts Joshua’s boots. “Look,” he says, pointing. From the crack, we watch as the snow a few feet away shakes slightly. I think I might be imagining it, until he vocalizes my thoughts: “Something is moving beneath the surface.” I take another greedy sip of water, examine the instructions I copied again and feel a twinge of hope.

A muffled sound, maybe a man’s voice says, “We are,” then goes quiet. I look up from my phone.

“They’re coming,” Joshua says and gathers all our cleaning fluids. “I have to show them we’re here.” He pours some electric blue cleaner into a large squirt bottle. He sprays at the base of the door then nudges snow to the left with his boot. I stare at my phone and scroll down to John’s name while my son is still busy. My phone gives me a warning that it will soon shut down. The screen is cloudy.

Joshua thinks his father is safe, or at least out of town on business as usual. I think I said Florida, but I can’t remember. It was an easy lie, to say he was out of town, and it was in a place before the snowfall. Our separation wasn’t official yet, after all, and I believed him when he said he was coming soon. When I couldn’t get ahold of him last week, I knew.

I stare at his name, illuminated then blurry. My phone flickers off and something inside of me goes with it. I stand up only to sit right back down, dizzy.

The muffled voice arrives again, and this time we hear the entire message. “We are here to help. We are tunneling to each residence. Please bundle up,” it says. “Please continue to chip away where you can. Again, if you can hear this, we are tunneling toward you. Please stay warm. Please stay calm. Remove any snow that you can.”

Chances of survival drop quickly after an avalanche, and suffocation or asphyxia sets in after approximately thirty to forty minutes, depending on the weight of the snow and air available. I did not copy this bit down, but it repeats in my mind, a fact from our survival guide, now a forced mantra. Joshua stops and starts, stops and starts. He is spraying as quickly as he can. Then the blue liquid is gone and there is a dent in the snow, the size of a baseball.

“Take a break, kiddo. I got this for a while.” I look at his hands after he takes off his gloves. They are a deep purple, almost as bad as mine, and his face has gone solid as though it’s frozen. “You okay, baby?”

“I’m shaking,” he says. I reach out my arm.

“This isn’t magic at all,” I say. “But we’ll be okay. We’ll try that soup. Heavy cream, celery… do you remember all we need?”

“Oil, russet potatoes, leeks, vegetable stock, salt, lemon juice, heavy cream, crème fraiche, parsley, and pepper.”

“Do you remember the measurements?” I ask.

He starts listing them off, and then I ask whether he remembers tomato bisque and then chicken noodle. The Julia Child’s recipe? He recites until dozing off.

FEMA does not arrive that night, but I hear more announcements and stay up, unable to close my eyes. I am rocking my son as though he is young again. Crashing sounds reverberate, and I am in a cosmic waiting room.

Just a month ago, I was agonizing over which heels to wear with my new suit, a suit I believed would land me a new position. That wasn’t me, those trivial things, but they consumed me. Now, I am swathed in thick cloth, a cacophony of clothes and blankets, and I am barely able to stand.

As Joshua sleeps, I watch the fissure develop along the wall. The one on the ceiling is a slow-moving animal, opening its mouth slightly more, and the one on the wall crawls toward it. I look toward the kitchen and see that the ceiling there is worse, a web of lines. The lights are gone. There is no basement to run to, no outside, no nothing. I hold my son, listen to the creaks of shifting beams and the soft explosions above us.

“Honey,” I say, waking him. I wake him to give him a little more time. Even fear is life. Pure life. He looks up, and his face has reddened at the cheeks. The sound of glass breaking outside our door tears at my stomach.

“I want to make my son soup,” I say.

“Mom?”

“I want to give him more life,” I say.

“Mom, I’m right here. They can’t hear you yet.”

A sharp object splinters the wood of our door, and as I feel the cold again, I realize I am dozing off. “Sorry,” I say.

A bundle of fur and cloth breaks down our door, and I can see two eyes, brown and reddened at the rims behind goggles of some sort, and I think of the cucumber martini with the chili rim I drank with John the night we decided to split. I feel an icy arm lift me up.

“Your mother is in shock,” a man says. “We’ll carry her. We have a safe place to take you. We have food.” He places something warm in my hands.

I close my eyes and, just like that, I am resting my head on my husband’s shoulder, warm, listening to my son practice his definitions. My thoughts all cluster together, a mass of images. I feel myself move a little. I run my thumb across my fingertips. The man has taken my son outside and is helping me toward the door when I hear another loud crack and then see crumbling at the ceiling.

“I’m fine now,” I say, dozing off again. The man nods, lifts me at the elbow and leads me out. I continue to look up. I see him reach for me, but this is not his choice.

I feel pieces of my home fall, ricochet off my back. We head into the narrow tunnel, and when I look back there is darkness. There is nothing. The house and snow are caving in. I try to push forward, but nature has already decided. Joshua has grabbed my arm. “Your father,” I say, but he stops me, says he knows and it’s okay. His blood is thick now; he will survive.

“It’s a new way of life,” I say. “Your father and I—” No one hears me, and it’s all the same. The snow continues to wink at the sun, and we are at its mercy.

After a dark blanket is thrown over my shoulders, my vision shifts and I can see a little clearer. I can see the outline of each snowflake as it falls, settles, melts slightly as it lands, only to find a larger, solid shape.

There are two bodies, fur and cloth, reaching for me in the background—strong bodies, thick blood—but they begin to flicker out. I tell them I don’t want to leave now. I see the patterns, magnanimous, the absence of time, and how intoxicating this is. John holds me. As we watch our son, we remain in a perpetual state of awe. He forgives us, we know, and we accept that he will be safe. My husband and I watch as the snow caves in. The generous snow, framing us in an eternal portrait. It doesn’t take forty-five minutes. It doesn’t even take thirty. It takes no time at all.

Photo By: blmiers2

4 Responses to A Perpetual State of Awe

  1. Jane Smith February 6, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    Beautiful and horrific. Well done.

  2. Nadine February 6, 2015 at 5:54 pm #

    Wow. Beautiful, and yes, quietly horrifying.

  3. Steven Gowin February 6, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

    Wonderful piece. Especiallay to anyone who’s ever been snowbound.

  4. Dan February 23, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

    I really liked this piece. I read the ending four times to get at the different levels. It seemed that it is very questionable whether or not the narrator and her son actually encounter rescuers or if it is part of a dream, and this draws doubt into the whole conceit of them being snowbound; it seems that the story may just be the narrator’s metaphor for her suffocating separation and her inability to move on or even communicate with her son, who is able to move on as his parents’ marriage dissolves. Very moving.

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