The holidays, as usual, had played her for a damn fool. Had plied her with deep fried turkey. With gravy and greens. With her daughter’s big eyes and the promise of Santa! With the temptation of Dale’s annual felt box of something shiny. With glitter shirts and midnight kisses. But now it was the middle of December and Nell just wished the whole sad parade was over. The calories they would never burn. The money they didn’t have. The presents they didn’t need. The guilt that saturated every part of it. Enough already! she wanted to shout, growing her annual beard of contempt for those who were still enjoying it, including Dale, her good little husband.
When she stepped outside, the cold caught, then crushed her breath. The night was icy black, the air crisp, almost breakable. Nell, who these days felt far too busy and tired to notice the stars–in addition to being a wife and young mother, she owned her own yarn and craft store–peered up at the sky’s blanket over The Twin Cities for the first time in as long as she could remember. It was a cloudy night and they didn’t seem to be what they used to be, those stars. But then again, neither am I, she thought. She’d loved star-gazing as a girl. Summer nights when she used to arc her back against a hay bale’s bending body and pretend the sky was an enormous black vacuum that could swallow her up and spit her out a long tailed comet that would sail across the universe and wave at all the little people down on earth. God, she’d really thought that, hadn’t she? Laughing at the memory, and, yes, feeling a little depressed by it, even a little bit accused by that long ago girl, she nestled herself against the beige clapboards, a scrap of peeling paint tickling her ear. She lit her cigarette with a gas station Bic and smoked in companionable silence, knocking her ash into her coat pocket.
The cigarette was Nell’s secret ritual. Every weeknight she’d eat dinner with Liza, bathe her, read to her, put her to bed, then sneak outside and huff a Parliament Light before Dale got home. Before it became time to be something to somebody again. The routine played to a rebellious streak she’d nurtured growing up a farmer’s daughter in South Bend, Indiana, had perfected pledging Delta-Delta-Delta at IU, but had been downsizing the longer she was married to the staid and oh-so-health-conscious Dale. A seasoned marathon runner. A man who would never condone a known cancer agent. Before their courtship and marriage, Dale, (of course, she sometimes felt) had been wounded by a series of intrepid and heartless lovers. In turn, he always said Nell’s stability and steadiness were what he most cherished about her. Which was odd because she rarely felt stable or steady. She felt unpredictable and weird, increasingly bitchy over the years, and often frazzled to splinters by the crush of life’s exhaustion, a faded paper copy of that girl on the hay bale. Nell knew Dale wasn’t trying to stifle her, or reduce her in any way, but she quietly resented his image of her, even as she felt pressure to be the woman he wanted her to be all the same, which was why even though it was a minor vice, she kept her smoking a secret and went to elaborate attempts to cover it up. Always brushing her teeth and rinsing with mouthwash after. Changing her shirt and spritzing her hair with rosewater. She and Dale had had a stupid argument about money that morning that she knew he would want to calmly continue when he got home in a little while. There were crusty dinner dishes in the sink. Next month’s buying budget to look at. On top of that, she thought she might be coming down with a cold. She smoked her cigarette, trying to enjoy it, but like the stars, and maybe a bit like her, it fell just a little short.
The snow should have killed her. Of that she was sure. Lying now on her side where she’d landed, she looked up at the slate roof’s dark, overhanging lip, where two months of collected snow and ice had moments ago dashed madly down at her like a suicide bomber, shaking the house on its aging axis. Nell’s breath came in mad, choked hyperventilating hiccups. Her heavy sodden heart, moments ago weary but at least focused, had become a wounded, trembling animal lost in the dark and fighting for its life. One moment all had been still, confidential and nicotine soaked–just her and her sad appraisal of the stars–and the next the world had broken free and tried to destroy her. To collapse her body like a shoe coming down on a Coke can. But it hadn’t. Somehow, before the full devastation had reached her, she’d sensed what was about to happen and ninjaed her body away from the house, deploying instincts more alert than she ever would have claimed to possess or pretended to depend on in an emergency. Except for her feet, buried past the ankle in chunky snow and ice, and a moist dusting in her hair and eyelashes, she was unscathed. Spared.
Lying there, momentarily outside of time and space, strange images ran scattershot through her mind, cinematic and uncontrollable, a highlight reel of all the many things that would have happened had she reacted slower. First off, Dale finding her body frozen in the snow when he came home from work. She could see it happening. He’d first notice the open back door, then come out and find her. His face would wear naked shock. His hands would cover his mouth. He’d say Nell? Nell! NELL! He’d dash down to save her, but of course it would be too late. He’d cradle her body and howl like a banshee. Then there would be the impossibility of explaining things to Liza. Would he wake her up? Would he wait until morning? How would he react six months from now when she woke in the night and, still confused, said, “where’s mommy?” Then calling her parents. And his own. Then burying her, mourning her. Moving on with his life until she became a picture on the mantle. It was like it had all already happened. Like the snow had killed her afterall and these thoughts were a sad parting gift.
As the images subsided and slowed and Nell melted back into herself and the strange stolen moment, she realized with an almost religious clarity that none of these things were going to happen. They’d seemed so real. Real enough that now she began sobbing, beset by the simple fact of being able to continue her stupid unappreciated life. Of being able to go inside and kiss her sleeping daughter. Of waking up next to Dale tomorrow morning. Of Christmas right around the corner. Of an unwritten and possibly wonderful future. Suddenly these were gifts so grand she felt undeserving of them.
Lines of tears had frozen to her cheeks in icy chutes. Her senses had gone fiercely acute. Her body hummed. Not since giving birth to Liza six years ago had she felt so alive. And she tried to savor the sensation of that feeling, in spite of what had brought it on. It was drug like. A warm victual against the nightly tremor of sameness and tedium that was quietly wearing her down to a nub in a way she was terrified to admit. Sometimes made her want to scream, is this it? She’d almost died. Almost lost everything. Now she lay there, in awe of life itself, breathing steamy breath out into the air, watching it hover then rise, trying to make the feeling last.
But of course it didn’t.
She lay there a while longer, waiting for a sign. Or something. And when no sign arrived and the cold began to work its way into her bones, she dragged her ass back inside. The whole thing, she thought, now seemed just as random and terrifying as it actually had been. Even that brief grateful moment had faded to nearly nothing and it all seemed rather stark and cold now. The motherload of snow and ice had fallen off a roof at the exact moment she’d been standing under it. What were the chances? “I almost fucking died,” she said aloud now in the empty kitchen, the words rippling goose flesh into her arms. Her right ankle was killing her and had started to swell, not to mention her sweatpants were soaked from where she’d lain in the snow. She changed into dry pajamas, took four ibuprofen, peeked in on Liza, then poured an inch of Jameson’s into a jam jar. She meant to nurse the amber liquid, but in one desperate swallow it was gone, like someone had forced her hand. Feeling scattered, with more energy in her body than it could hold, she began doing dishes, if only to give herself something to do. Scrubbing Liza’s sippie cups and rubber handled silverware. Scraping the hardened macaroni and cheese off their dinner plates under near scalding water, ignoring her blurry reflection in the window glass. Heat went up her arms and her cheeks grew flushed. She felt like the room was pressing in around her. Her heart felt tight, like someone’s foot was on her chest.
When she noticed her hands were shaking uncontrollably, she started breaking things. First a wine glass. Then a potted rosemary plant she swept from the window ledge. It landed with a sad thump and spread a smear of earth across the linoleum. Then, for her finale, she broke one of the Remington double hung windows over the sink, whose body she shattered with the momentum of a javelined fork. Even as it shattered loudly, even as the fork was caroming away and had not yet hit the ground, the full force of what she’d just done smacked her flush in the chest. She took a frightened step backward, shocked at the spider web of cracks in the glass. At how loud it had been. The windows were not even a year old. They’d saved for two years to replace all the windows in this old house so they could increase its value. Dale had stained them himself, taking nearly all summer to complete the task. He showed them off to everyone who came over. He was going to kill her.
“Fuck,” she said. “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.”
Forty minutes later, she and Dale stood in silence, surveying the pile of snow she told him had almost killed her. Under the brilliant focused beam of Dale’s giant Mag Lite, which he ran back and forth over the horizontal mass, it looked smaller than she remembered. Sizable, yes. Sufficient to snuff out a human life? Maybe. Maybe not. It was honestly hard to tell. Her hands had stopped shaking, though, and she was feeling more in her own skin. Still very guilty and confused. But at least not crazy and out of control anymore.
By the time Dale had gotten home, she’d cleaned up the broken wine glass and plant, and was sitting on the kitchen floor, staring off into space, cradling her swollen ankle, wondering how on earth she’d explain any of it. To Dale’s credit, he hadn’t jumped to any conclusions. His first concern, God love him, had been his visibly shaken wife. Though he’d frowned at the whiskey on her breath, he’d first made sure she was all right—Nell too—before asking just what the heck had happened. In truth, telling him had been a relief. A weight off her chest.
Now they were outside looking at the evidence, the last breadcrumb in the trail. Dale clicked off the flashlight and looked over at her, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He looked at her like she was a stranger. His breath arrived cloudy in the frigid December air. She looked up and noticed the sky had cleared a little; the stars had grown fuller, more lustrous.
“So, tell me again what happened with the window?”
“I don’t know. When I came back inside I just got really scared all of the sudden. I started shaking. I think I finally realized what had almost happened.”
“And so you…threw a fork at the window?”
“I barely remember doing it. It’s like it was somebody else.”
She could feel the conversation arriving at a crossroads and wondered which way Dale would go.
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” he said, exhaling heavily. There was real tenderness in his voice. “I don’t know if it would have killed you, but it would have banged you up pretty good that’s for sure. What timing, huh? I guess you never know. What were you even doing out here? It’s so cold.”
“Just…getting some air. Looking at the stars,” she said.
Dale looked doubtful. Gently, he said, “I know you come out here and smoke. I smell it on your clothes sometimes. Was that it?”
She didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Her secret wasn’t so secret after all.
“I’m sorry about the window,” she said. “Honestly. I can’t believe I did that.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s just a window. But…”
“Well…honestly, I think with the cost to replace it I’ll have to take your Christmas present back.” He laughed softly at this, seeing something sad and funny in it.
“God, I don’t care about Christmas presents!” she said, an edge creeping into her voice, feeling on the verge of tears again, but managing to hold them back. She thought of how alive she’d felt lying there. “I’m so goddamned tired of Christmas. And it hasn’t even happened yet.” She shrugged, then added. “I like that Liza likes it. That’s about the nicest thing I can say about it.”
As if to avoid having to respond, he looked up. “Man,” he said. “There’s a million of em out tonight, isn’t there? I almost never even look.”
“I guess. Who has time for stars?”
“Jesus, Nell, lighten up, will you?” he said. “You’re okay. You’re still alive. You made it.”
“I’m freezing,” she said. “I’m going to take a bath.”
“You’re not coming?”
“In a second.”
Carefully, she mounted the stairs, keeping the weight off her right ankle, using the rail to avoid slipping. Before the door closed behind her, she was tempted to glance back to see if Dale was still looking up. But she didn’t. She didn’t need to.
Benjamin Roesch is an author living and teaching in Burlington, Vermont. His short fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Brilliant Corners, Monkey Bicycle and Seven Days. He was selected as a Fiction Contributor for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.