Jennifer joined Matthew at the bay window and looked down the driveway.
“No, Matthew, it’s just a snowplow.” She bit her lip and held her breath until the snowplow’s flashing amber lights vanished into the darkness. “Just a snowplow,” she whispered to herself.
The nor’easter continued to bury the driveway in snow. Jennifer shivered at the cold radiating from the frosted window and shuffled back into the living room. She glared at the smiling weatherman as he pointed out the progress of the menacing green blob swirling over Greenfield. The blue bar at the bottom of the screen flashed the time and temperature – 5:35 pm. The boy’s father was over a half-hour late.
I should have said no. I should have told her I was full.
By now she should have been well into the bottle of vodka tucked away in the pantry behind her stash of “sanity chocolate”. It had started out as a Friday night thing, on a snowy night like this one, then it had become Thursday and Friday, and soon it was a nightly ritual. She would plop herself down in the play room with her bottle and glass to sort through the mess the children had left behind. She would toss the shiny blue hippos and green alligators into their bins for the thousandth time, where they lay smiling, as serene as the weatherman standing in the nor’easter.
The ringing phone had found her that morning lying on the floor of the playroom, her empty glass in her hand. She couldn’t bring herself to sleep in the bedroom, any more than she could bring herself to go through John’s bureau.
“Do you have an opening?”
Jennifer blinked and scooped up the bottle of vodka. She rolled her eyes as she looked at her wristwatch. She didn’t have time for this. Drop offs would start any second.
“For what age?”
“Matthew’s three. I’m sorry this is such short notice, but I’m in a bind and it would just be for the one day.”
“I do have daily rates,” Jennifer heard herself saying. She padded down the linoleum hallway to the bathroom. She held the phone between her shoulder and chin as she pulled her hair back and slipped an elastic over the ponytail. The doorbell rang.
Here we go.
“Can you stop by in about an hour? I have drop-offs right now.”
The coffee pot had just stopped gurgling when the tall redhead showed up at her door, crying. Jennifer ignored the pounding in her head and forced a smile at the boy that clung to the redhead.
She didn’t say he was special needs.
The almond shaped amber eyes looking up at her were set too close together, and there was no hiding the misshapen skull under the thatch of unruly red hair. The boy smiled back and waved with his one good, long fingered hand. The other snuggled up like a fetus in the folds of his jacket. His mother dabbed at the corner of her red, blotchy eye with a crumpled tissue.
“Are you Jennifer Howland? I’m Stephanie Coleman.”
They stopped off at the playroom first. Jennifer glared a warning at the questioning looks that Amber, Trevor and Zoe cast toward Matthew’s shriveled hand.
“This is Matthew. He’ll be playing with us today.”
“What happened to your arm?“
Jennifer smiled at the horrified looking five year old girl through clenched teeth.
Jennifer placed two steaming mugs of coffee on the table and sat down across from Stephanie, who shuffled through the papers on the table with trembling fingers. Jennifer took a cautious sip, then placed a hand over her mouth as she struggled with her rising gorge. The pounding in her head was deafening. Stephanie scribbled on the forms with a chewed on pen, then paused.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any background information for Matthew’s father.”
“You only need the one day?”
Stephanie took a deep, ragged breath and nodded.
“Matthew’s father will be picking him up. It- it’s for the best.”
Jennifer groaned inwardly and swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. She hated getting in the middle of custody disputes. The last thing the couple was ever concerned about was paying. Her stomach churned and gurgled again, and this time Stephanie raised an eyebrow. Jennifer pushed her chair back and stood up.
“Please excuse me for a moment. You’ll find my rates on the next page. I accept cash.”
Jennifer scurried to the bathroom and slammed the door. She paused to turn on the faucet full blast before falling to her knees. The running water drowned out her groans as last night’s binge splashed into the bleach-blue toilet water. Finally, the spasms passed and she was left lying empty on the cold tile floor. She gargled some mouthwash and staggered back to the kitchen.
Stephanie’s chair was empty. The chewed pen sat on the kitchen table next to the pile of half filled out paperwork. Jennifer glared out the bay window at the dim red taillights and grabbed the phone out of its cradle on the wall. She squinted at the cell phone number scribbled on the paperwork as her thumb mashed the buttons. She sighed, unsurprised at the three toned disconnect signal.
Every time she had been stiffed, it was over a custody dispute.
Matthew scurried over to the window and stared at the thickening curtain of snow. Jennifer sighed and scruffed Matthew’s red hair.
“I don’t know, but I hope Daddy has cash, kid.”
“Well, happy birthday, Matthew.”
Jennifer turned away from the window that looked out onto the playground, where Amber, Zoe and Trevor struggled to roll a giant ball of snow across the playground. The snow kept falling, thick and heavy out of the dark gray sky. Jennifer swallowed back the coffee and day old vodka creeping up the back of her throat as Amber dug deep into the snow in the middle of the playground.
Please don’t find it. Not today.
Jennifer crossed her arms and walked over to the kitchen table where Rachael sat with Matthew. Her sister-in-law shook her dirty blonde tresses as she looked over the large white blanks on Matthew’s paperwork.
“According to one of the few sections his mother bothered to fill out, Matthew turns three today. Jennifer, you’ve got to get yourself together. If the Family Center audits you, you’re screwed.”
Jennifer sat down next to Matthew and watched him stack another wooden block onto the tower with his good hand. The boy smiled, and then frowned as the tower leaned forward. The blocks collapsed, clattering over the kitchen table and linoleum floor. Matthew slipped out of the chair and disappeared under the table after the blocks.
“So what’s up with him? Is he Asperger’s or something?”
Rachael shrugged. “We don’t have anybody quite like him at the school. He’s not very social. Has he played with the other kids?”
Jennifer shook her head. “He just looks out the window and watches the snow fall out of the sky. He asks for Daddy every now and then, but most of what he says isn’t English.”
Rachael flipped through the papers. “Maybe his father’s Bosnian. We had a bunch of them relocate here. Apparently, Greenfield is a lot like Eastern Europe, weather-wise.”
Jennifer glanced over her shoulder out the bay window. She bit her lip as Zoe and Trevor rolled the giant snow ball across the spot where Amber had been digging. Rachael’s fingertips rested lightly on her hand, but Jennifer did not look up.
“I can have Frank come over and dig. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about the kids finding it, or it being there when the snow melts.”
Jennifer pulled her hand away and turned her blank stare to the muted television. The tall blonde wrapped her manicured hands around the glowing green blob on the radar as it swirled out of the Atlantic.
“It wasn’t your fault, Rachael. You don’t have to keep coming over every day.”
“You’re not making it, Jen. You need to talk to somebody. It was an accident. Accidents happen.”
Is that what it’s called? Would you be so philosophical, Rach, if life plowed your family into oblivion?
Matthew scrambled out from under the kitchen table and ran to the bay window. The amber light from the passing snowplow flickered across his grinning face. Rachael frowned at the back of Matthew’s oblong head.
“What’s that about?”
“I’ve got to get the kids inside. It’ll be pickup time soon.”
Pickup time had come and gone, along with Zoe, Amber and Trevor. Matthew curled up in the bay window, nose glued to the frosted glass. The green blob behind him on the muted television swallowed up the Northeast.
Amber’s mother had complained about the driveway, but there was nothing Jennifer could do until Frank got home. Jennifer had spotted the new pickup in her neighbor’s driveway and had pestered Frank until he had agreed to plow the driveway. Frank charged her twenty dollars a storm, but he tended to plow when it was convenient for him. Since it was Friday, Jennifer knew he wouldn’t even be home until after midnight. The snow would sit in the driveway until his hangover had subsided late Saturday morning.
The familiar, ominous rumble grew louder and Jennifer turned back to the window. She shivered as the flashing amber lights roared past, then cursed as the plow sprayed a fountain of snow into the end of the driveway.
Now even if Matthew’s father did show up, he would never get up to the house past the snow plug. Jennifer glared at the time and temp on the television screen – 6:05 pm. This was getting ridiculous. She glanced down at Matthew as he continued to gaze into the snow filled sky.
Sorry, kid. The police can deal with your father. I’m done.
As Jennifer reached for the phone, the house plunged into darkness. The vacant blonde and the green blob disappeared from the widescreen in the now darkened living room.
You have got to be kidding.
Jennifer listened in the sudden silence for the click and whir of the power surging back to life. She was in a good spot on the grid, and storms like this usually only knocked things out for a minute or so.
Okay, that’s way over a minute.
Jennifer grabbed the magnetic flashlight that perched on the door of the refrigerator and flicked the switch on. The feeble yellow circle of light splashed on the wall clock.
Jennifer scooped up Matthew and headed for the entryway.
“Come on, Matthew. Let’s get you bundled up in case Daddy decides to show up. We’ll be walking out to the car.”
The flashlight beam whipped about in crazy arcs as Jennifer struggled with Matthew’s boots. The snow tracked in by the other parents had melted, leaving icy puddles in the dark for her to find with her stocking feet.
Jennifer plopped Matthew down by the door and hunted about for her boots. Amber and white lights flashed through the window in the front door again as Jennifer slid her soaked foot into the first boot.
Matthew yanked on the door handle, and the heavy storm door swung open. A frigid gust of snow blew into the entryway. The low rumbling grew louder, vibrating in Jennifer’s chest.
What the hell, are they coming up the driveway?
“Close the door, Matthew.”
Jennifer groped for her other boot.
Matthew was out the door, his beaming face bright in the white light. Then he scooted down the steps and was gone.
Jennifer dropped the last boot along with the flashlight and dashed out into the snow. The boy’s small form stood directly in the path of the pulsing amber lights. A scream tore past her lips.
Jennifer plunged into the snow filled driveway. She wrapped her arms around Matthew. She pulled him away from the rumbling light, falling on top of him in the thick snow. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she shielded the boy with her body.
She knelt there, in the snow, rocking the boy back and forth in the light. A tall, dark shadow eclipsed her. Ethan became Matthew again, and Jennifer looked up.
Pull yourself together.
A tall, slender silhouette stood there in the whirling snow. Matthew squirmed out of Jennifer’s numb arms.
The figure stepped forward, eclipsing the flickering amber lights.
Jennifer rose to her feet and brushed the snow off her pants. She wriggled the dead toes on her bootless foot, more like a numb brick now. She opened her mouth and launched a scathing lecture at the late father, but the frigid wind carried it away, unheard.
The father took another step closer, and Jen craned her neck to look up. Her heart skipped a beat as the unblinking, almond eyes sparkled down at her. Jennifer’s panicked glance flickered from the figure towering over her to the other shapes moving about in the rumbling white light.
Oh, no. Oh, hell no. This isn’t happening.
Jennifer stumbled back a step as Matthew wrapped his one good arm around his father’s leg. She didn’t know whether to scream or run or faint.
“Daddy, the lady is very sad.”
Jennifer moved to recoil as the long multi-jointed fingers stretched toward her, but she might as well have been cocooned in cement. The cold gray fingertips touched her forehead and Jennifer whimpered.
“No, don’t –”
John had insisted that they go that night. He had said the Christmas concert would be a good start to the holiday season, and since Rachael’s kids we’re singing, it would give Ethan a chance to see his cousins. Since Jennifer’s brother had left Rachael, they hadn’t been around much.
Had she known somehow? Jennifer remembered the clenched feeling in her gut as John scooped Ethan out of the snow-covered playground and carried him kicking over to the idling Subaru. Ethan had put up such a fuss about losing the bear outside earlier, but they had been running late. John had promised to look for the stuffed animal in the morning.
The snowstorm, the blind curve, and bad luck had conspired to put the Subaru in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, when the snowplow had roared out of nowhere, lights flashing like something out of Close Encounters, there had been nowhere to go. John and Ethan had been on the plow side.
Jennifer had taken one look into the backseat, and then had glanced over at John. Her numb fingers hit the seatbelt release, found the door latch. She slipped around the airbag and into the snow. It smelled like gasoline. She listened, detached, to the cursing of the plow driver. He looked into the car, and his tirade changed to alarm, then to blind panic. Jennifer stumbled over to the snow bank, the amber flashes marking the moments until more lights appeared, red and blue this time, to take what was left of John and Ethan away.
A gust of cold snow scratched her face, bringing her back to the driveway and the tall silhouette standing before her in the bright light. Jennifer glared up through her tears into the unblinking amber eyes.
The cold gray fingers wrapped around hers and drew her hand closer to the large domed head. Jennifer squealed in the back of her throat, but her invisible cement cocoon held firm. Her fingertips brushed the smooth, dry scalp.
A small gray body lay before her on a table of soft white light. It had the same nose and chin as Matthew. The amber eyes were glazed over, and the tiny lips were blue.
Her hand dropped to her side and the cement cocoon was gone. Jennifer glanced down at Matthew, watched as the long fingers wrapped protectively around the boy’s shoulders.
“I’m sorry. I guess it’s been a shitty winter for everyone.”
Jennifer recoiled as the impossibly large head leaned closer. Something twinged behind her eyes, and the flashing amber lights spiraled into blackness.
The soft white light of morning greeted Jennifer. She blinked her eyes open. She lay on the couch in the warm living room under a woolen blanket. The weather channel was back on, and the vacant blonde had been replaced by a business-like brunette. She pointed elegantly at the green blob on the radar, now spinning away to the south.
Jennifer’s stomach felt odd. She realized that she had woken up without the usual urge to vomit. She stumbled into the kitchen and opened the pantry. The bottle of vodka sat there, untouched. She grabbed the long glass neck and unscrewed the cap. She shuffled across the linoleum to the sink and watched the clear liquid splash and swirl down the drain.
The phone rang. Jennifer fumbled for the receiver and hit the TALK button, then collapsed into the chair at the head of the kitchen table.
“Jen, how’d you make out last night? I tried calling to check on you but the phone just rang and rang.”
Jennifer stared blankly at the gleaming golden coins scattered about the table and reached for one. It flashed in the morning sun as she twirled it in her fingers.
“Yeah, Rach, I’m ok.”
“Jen – I’m just going to say it. I know an AA group –“
Jennifer bit the thin smile on her lip as her thumb traced the bold letters above the profile stamped on the heavy coin.
“It’s okay, Rach. I think I’m going to be okay.”
“Jen, it’s not that easy –“
Jennifer hit the END button and set the phone down amidst the coins. She went to the entryway and slipped her boots on. She fought the two feet of snow the nor’easter had dumped on the porch and managed to crack the door open. Jennifer slipped out into the snow and slid down the steps into the sunny driveway.
Her chest tightened as she trudged toward the end of the house and turned toward the playground. She inhaled sharply. The mounds of fresh snow gave way to bright tulips, red and yellow, gracing the outer edge of the circle, while clumps of earthy brown mushrooms dotted the vibrant green grass.
Jennifer stepped onto the lawn and crept toward the center of the circle. She knelt on the thick grass. She didn’t fight the tears welling in her eyes as she picked up the stuffed bear. Its dry, scratchy fur was warm on her cheek.
R. Christophe Ryber lives in Hardwick, VT where in addition to writing he runs a small business with his wife, homeschools his children, and studies literature at a local college.