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Art by Melissa Mead


After stints working in a veterinary office, collecting research data in commercial apple orchards, and keeping people quiet in a library, Jennifer Mason-Black now hides away in the wilds of Massachusetts, where she homeschools her children and attends the occasional birth as a doula. The rest of the time she writes novels, short stories, and long and complicated grocery lists.

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."
By three we'd popped the last of the popcorn, saved for a special occasion. We tossed it back and forth, caught it on our tongues, pulled pieces free when they tangled in the pilled knit of the blanket. Most of all we ate it, carelessly, as if it didn't matter, as if neither of us wore our clothes on bodies slight as willow shoots, tattered fabric hanging loose, belts dotted with holes made with a screwdriver.
"You were cool too, you know." Tosh took a half-popped kernel from the bowl and cracked it between his teeth. "Just took you a while to figure it out."
Cool. I looked at the hollows of his face, the sharp rise of his cheekbones, the cracks that split his lips. I wanted to say this: My brother, Tosh, you were cool then but you are beautiful now. The labels we held so close, so hard, they fell around us now like the snow outside, cold and weightless against our radiant heat.
"Never. I was never cool."
"You were on the cutting edge of raggedy-ass tee shirts."
"You wear anything long enough, it'll come into style and go out again. Not the same thing. You know how I disappointed her."
"Mom? Well, I was never her dream son either. Face it, if we could have combined your ability to date nice girls with my super slick fashion sense, we would have been her ideal child."
The silence stretched long and solid, like the woodpile had stretched from the house to the shed. The shed, whose doors we hadn't opened for months now, not since we'd understood the ground would never again thaw enough for us to dig six feet down. We'd emptied the tools onto the lawn to make enough space inside.
"Could have been worse. She loved us anyway. They both did. Do you remember that silly Santa hat she had?"
Tosh's eyes had gone to the clock again. The pendulum swung, slow and steady. One day. The pendulum would continue for a single day without adjustment, and then it would fall still. We'd allowed time to stop twice since we'd been here. Two days without hours or minutes, two trips out to the shed.
"That hat. You wore it for her every Christmas, even though it was too small."
"Apparently Santa had a pinhead," he said with another grin, this one smaller, fainter.
"That one Christmas, the one…"
"When we had chicken pox?"
"Right. You remember it too?"
"I'd never known pox could pop out in so many places. God, the itch was hell."
"And she sent us outside. Said she couldn't stand our fussing any more. We went out. It had snowed that night, but we ran out in our pjs and lay in the snow…."
"And made snow angels."
"Right. We made like twenty of them, all around the front yard."
"And we were either so cold or so busy that we forgot the itch."
"Then we went in and told her that angels had surrounded the house in the night."
"She did a great job of pretending for us. Went and took pictures. Took all kinds of measurements. Said she'd call the newspapers."
The wind picked up for a moment, the snow swirling like dead leaves against the glass. "And when we thawed out, the itch came back worse than before, and we spent the rest of Christmas taking oatmeal baths." Tosh leaned forward, his lips parted, and I shook my head. Not everything needed to be said. Some things simply happen, when the time comes right.
By five the light had died, inside and out. The couch was all that remained to burn. Neither of us had the strength to break it apart though, and the time it would buy meant nothing to us anymore. We lay on it together, side by side, our bodies like dry and brittle twigs left on the forest floor.
"You never were weird about any of it."
Tosh touched the middle of my forehead with one finger. "You're my sister. We both dig women. What's there to be weird about?"
"Sandra, remember her? Her brothers stopped speaking to her for years."
"That's 'cause she was hot and they were worried about losing their girlfriends." He leaned back, the gaping collar of his shirt exposing the insistent lines of his collarbone, his ribs.
"She was hot." But the only thing I remembered about her was her shoes, an endless supply lining the walls of her closet. "You weren't supposed to notice that."
"Right. Like you never did that with any of my women."
"Different types. You liked girly ones. I wanted someone I could talk to."
"Me too. It just took a while to figure it out."
"Heard that before."
"Well, we're slow learners. What can I say?" He held my hand, his fingers colder than mine. "When Meena split. That sucked. I don't think I said how much it meant when you came and stayed with me."
"Tosh, that's what family does."
By eight the stove had gone cold. Darkness filled the room. Tosh's breath came sour against my face with each exhalation, and the chill seeped in beneath the blanket, beneath my skin. The wind faded away, the only sound left the tick of the clock.
"Do you remember…" I began.
He held his finger against my lips. "All of it. I remember it all. More than you do. I remember when you were born. I remember going to the hospital with Dad to pick you and Mom up. I remember that you used to laugh, all the time. I remember when you used to come and climb in my bed at night and kick me while you slept. It's all here."
He sat up, the air rushing in against my skin, goose bumps rising in response. I shivered.
"This is what we do," he said. "Cass, this is what we do. You need to get up."
I stood, clutching the blanket to me.
"Get undressed."
"What the fuck kind of weird thing you got going on in your head, Tosh?"
"Cassandra, just listen. Take off your clothes. We're going outside."
The cold held my heart now as well. It felt like a knot under my ribs, like some part of me was flying and some part was tethered here, and neither part could be free.
"What are we doing?"
"It worked once before. It'll work again."
"We can't. Tosh…"
"No more itch. That's what it'll mean."
He didn't bother with the buttons on his shirt. I heard it fall to the floor, a quiet ping as button hit wood. His belt made a click. No need to bother with zippers. Even I, made with generous hips, couldn't keep pants on without a belt now.
"I'm going, Cass. Come with me. I don't want to leave you here in the dark."
I waited a moment longer. The clock chimed, a tired gentle sound, and I didn't bother counting the hours it tolled. I'd known time to do all sorts of things, to speed like the devil when I typed my way toward a deadline, to slow to the point of pain when I waited for, well, for anything. I'd let it stop when grief made the world too much to bear.
And now it pooled around my ankles, collecting there, minutes lived, minutes gone, all the minutes the world held without me.
I slipped out of my clothes like a swimmer into water. When we opened the door the snow tumbled in, and for a moment the feel of it stung my feet and I hesitated. But as Tosh pressed forward I saw a sliver of sky, and in it, under the swirl of clouds, the pale light of the moon shone.
"Come on," Tosh said. He took my hand and pushed the snow back with his body. When we'd managed to get out away from the cabin, we stood side by side. "Do you remember how?"
"I remember."
The cold bit into me when I lay back. At first I didn't move, afraid. But the pain died quickly, and my arms and legs felt light, and I moved them in wide arcs in the snow, listening to my breath, Tosh's. Above the moon broke free of the clouds, its light shimmering around me. As I spread my arms to their fullest reach I felt Tosh's fingertips against mine and I stopped moving.
"Do you remember…?" I said.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Author Comments

Cass and Tosh’s story came to me one afternoon while I waited for an electrician to come and wire in our new well pump. Four weeks without water, courtesy of a dry well, was enough to turn my mind to apocalypse. Snow in my rural town often brings with it a disconnect from the world, as old power lines fall victim to limbs off even older trees, and static-laden phone lines simply give up. That afternoon it was all too easy to imagine the waiting, and waiting, and waiting….

- Jennifer Mason-Black
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