Art by Melissa Mead
by Jennifer Mason-Black
And on the last day came the snow.
Not the pristine blanket of yuletides past, but the gray of ashes, of the spoiled and the lost. It blew against the windows and collected on the bare soil outside, and by noon it had risen to my waist.
By one we'd placed the last of the wood on the fire. Once twenty cords had stood outside the door, a stack higher than my head, more than enough to sustain us until order returned, until the lights turned back on and the furnace roared to life. Halfway through the pile, long months ago, doubt wedged itself sideways into my mind. By the time three quarters of the wood had vanished, we ceased to talk about when, reverting to if and ever. We no longer strained to hear other voices on the radio, nor imagined how it would be to see other people again.
By two the snow had reached the bottoms of the window sashes. Tosh opened the door of the woodstove and we sat together on the couch and watched the embers burn red. "Do you remember," he began, and I put my feet in his lap and pulled the tattered afghan over my legs.
"Do you remember when I took you to visit that college and we got on the highway going the wrong direction? You were, what, like three hours late for your interview? When I asked why traveling from Massachusetts to Vermont required driving through Connecticut, you nearly clocked me. You told me I was the worst brother anyone had ever had."
"You were. Right then, at least."
He pinched my toes. I lifted my foot under his arm and nestled it in the warmth there. The sky outside had already turned darker gray, the sun barely strong enough to counter the sooty haze. I watched Tosh glance from the grandfather clock to the glow from the stove.
"Do you remember what happened once I was there?" I caught his hand in mine, tugging him back into the warmth. "The admissions guy had left early. The secretary sent me to see some English professor instead. All she told me was that he taught poetry. I wanted so badly to impress him. I went on and on about translating poetry and Pablo Neruda. Jesus, I didn't know crap about Neruda then. I'd read three of his poems, total, and only because I'd heard part of one in a movie I liked. I was an idiot."
"True," he said. I stuck out my tongue at him, like I was twelve.
"After, they sent me to eat in the cafeteria. It felt like part of the interview, like I had to prove I fit in there. All I knew was that I'd made a mistake, that I wasn't halfway cool enough to be there. I figured I'd blown the interview and wouldn't get in and life as I knew it would be over."
"Because you've always been so good at keeping things in perspective." He grinned.
"Because I wanted to be someone who fit in. I went outside, wondering where I could hide until you came back for me. When I looked up, you were waiting by the doors. Coolest guy I'd ever met."
"Hey, it was a college. An artsy college. Full of hippie chicks. It wasn't you I was waiting for."
I clenched my toes and he twisted from me. "No tickles, Cass. You tickle me and the next thing we know someone has a head injury."
"It happened once. Twenty years ago. Let it go."