WINTER, SNOW AND ICE
I kicked at a pile of snow with the toe of my navy blue boot watching the feathery white flakes scatter across the porch. Looking out at the houses that lined my street, the driveways, trees, cars, and roofs were iced in white making it hard to imagine that the grass would be green again in three months. My lawn was covered in a blanket of white as fresh snow continued to float down from the sky. This was snow angel snow—soft, pillowy and perfect for flapping your arms and legs about as the melting flakes soaked into the back of your jeans and coat. Not the dense kind that could be molded into snowballs which Rayne’s sad little snowman was a testament to.
“Winter! Hey, Winter, watch me!” Rayne called, his skinny 5-year-old body stuffed into a puffy black snowsuit that resembled the Michelin Man. A smile touched my lips as my baby brother fell into a snow bank sending a dusting of white specks into the air. He popped his head up from the mound of snow and shook the flakes off his bright blue fleece beanie.
I stuffed my mittened hands into the pockets of my gray peacoat and let out a long exhale watching my breath come out in a cloud of white steam. January was usually the bitter cold start of winter which required layers upon layers of sweaters, long underwear, and a scarf beneath a heavy winter coat, but due to weather conditions winter break had been extended, and Rayne had practically dragged me and my jacket out the front door wearing little more than a long sleeve shirt.
What was I supposed to do for the next few days snowed in up to my eyeballs? Marcus—Mom tsked at me every time I didn’t call him Dad—would be working from home and after seeing me veg out in front of the TV for an hour; he’d find some odd job for me to do around the house, like alphabetizing the Blu-rays or rotating the canned goods in the pantry by expiration date. No thank you.
I didn’t think I could spend another day cooped up in the house with Mom either as she flounced from room to room in a thin lace-trimmed nightgown, a lipstick marked coffee mug in one hand. For the love of all things holy put on some clothes. It’s January. Even as a child—man, could she embarrass me, and still did—I could remember how Mom’s carefree way about her sexuality made people uncomfortable. My friends thought she was cool while boys in my class would tell me how hot she was, like it was a compliment or something. It made me want to melt into the shadows. I won’t even go into how other parents reacted.
I once asked her how she came up with Rayne and Winter as our names—big mistake. I will never ask my mother anything that revolves around her eccentric choices. Like she was deciding between the fish and chips or shrimp platter at King’s Fish Fry, she nonchalantly replied our names were reminders of our conceptions. Without skipping a beat she then went into horrific detail for like a second before I cut her off. Yuck! Scarred for life.
I wished I could go back to school tomorrow. The idea of walking to school in a blizzard was much more appealing than making up a few snow days at the end of my senior year during June in Indiana. I have one word. Humidity. Especially when you sat behind Carter Briggs in English—Miss Kribble was a huge fan of the alphabetical seating chart—who lacked the ability to appropriately camouflage his masculine scent. I wrinkled my nose—I could smell the B.O. already.
“You know your face might actually freeze that way.”
I turned in the direction of the voice to find, Ben, my neighbor standing on his porch, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his ski jacket. His thick dark hair neatly framed his face like it normally did when he didn’t take the time to mess it up with gel like most of the guys at school.
“Only if I’m lucky,” I shot back before returning my gaze to Rayne. Ben chuckled and then joined me in watching my brother try to catch snowflakes on his tongue. I glanced at my neighbor out of the corner of my eye. “Hey, I’m sorry about Janie, I heard the day before winter break started.”
Ben shrugged. “It’s no big deal.” He continued to look out over the lawn as I studied his profile. “It was over a long time ago.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but it kind of hung open stupidly. I’d known Ben a long time, since we were kids; we’d spent summers playing in the yard as small children and went to elementary, middle, and high school together. We were really good friends—at least I thought we were. “What do you mean? I thought you really liked her.”
“I do,” Ben said. He didn’t look at me. “I did. I tried to break up with her back in November—“
“What? Why didn’t you tell me…”
Ben turned and stared at me. “You’d just started seeing Steven and…” He shrugged.
“So. We’re friends.” I frowned. Why hadn’t he told me? “Geez, Ben, you guys dated for like a year. That’s a big deal.” That’s like a decade in teen years.
Ben’s blue eyes stayed on mine a moment before he turned back to witness Rayne dive into another snowdrift. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Janie did seem surprised by it. And then she did that girl thing…”
I raised an eyebrow at him. What girl thing?
Ben frowned. “She started…crying.”
A small smile crept into the corner of my mouth. “You’re such a dick.”
I didn’t think Ben could frown more than he had, but the deep crease in the center of his brow looked like it was in steep competition with the turned down corners of his mouth. “Really? But…I didn’t break up with her. I, I said I’d try to work it out—“
I squeezed my lips together trying to suppress my smile, but it wasn’t working—I was sure I was making some kind of weird face. For as long as I’d known Ben, he’d always had a very cool and relaxed demeanor about himself. So watching him stumble as he tried to defend his decision to end it with Janie was a side of him I barely knew. And it was funny. Bringing my gloved hands up to my mouth I pretended to blow on them, but my quiet laughter got in the way of anything that resembled that. By the time Ben figured out I was messing with him I was almost choking on my own laughter. He returned to watching Rayne, his expression still and serious.
“You’re going to melt the snow with all that steam you’re letting off,” I said biting my lip to keep any giggles from escaping. No response. I rolled my eyes. Guys were so much more sensitive than girls. I cleared my throat and said, “Janie broke up with you before you could do it to her again, huh? Isn’t she finishing a semester early and going to DePauw in the spring?”
Ben sighed. “Yep.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered under my breath.
As if Ben heard me, he replied, “Whatever. The last month was just a show anyway.”
The screen door creaked open behind me and Mom poked her head out into the January air wearing her usual nightgown plus a pair of fleece-lined boots. Yep, those boots should keep the rest of you warm. I loved my mother, but I just wanted her to be…normal. Why couldn’t she come to open house night and do her grocery shopping like the rest of the moms in their mom-jeans and ‘Go Cardinals!’ sweatshirts? Maybe it was cool that I could talk to her about anything—boys, drugs, alcohol, and sex—she didn’t even flinch or bat an eye. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to talk about it with my best friend, Abby. And it didn’t help that Mom talked about it, ‘making love’ as she called it, as some beautiful art. It was embarrassing and awkward and stupid.
“Rayne, baby, come in for lunch,” Mom called, leaning out the door seemingly unaffected by the cold. I guess those boots were working. “Hey, Ben,” she said, spotting our neighbor standing on his porch. She sidestepped the screen door letting the old wood frame smack against the house knocking a few icicles off the gutters. Ben waved. A small icy breeze blew across our porch ruffling Mom’s night gown so that it pressed against the curves of her body. Heat crept into my cheeks and burned my ears, the chill in the air lost on me. I shifted back and forth on my feet as I looked at my snow covered boots hoping I blocked Ben’s view of my half naked mother. I wanted to die.
Rayne dashed up the front porch leaving a fury of flurries in his wake. I brushed my jacket off with my mittens, but the soft white bits of frozen rain had already melted away.
“You know Winter isn’t seeing that boy anymore,” Mom said. I closed my eyes and wondered if it was my turn to melt the snow off the porch; my whole body felt on fire. She hadn’t been fond of Steven. Truthfully, Mom hadn’t been fond of his mother, Mrs. Burton, after the woman snubbed her at the hardware store.
“C’mon, Mom, I’m hungry,” Rayne whined, dancing around me and tugging our mother towards the door.
“Say hello to your mother for me,” Mom called to Ben as my brother dragged her into the house. I had never been more thankful to hear that wrenched door slam in my life. Ben and I stood on our porches, the sound of winter so soft I could hear the snowflakes settle onto each other as they drifted down to the ground.
“You know my mom loves your mom,” I said, my eyes still glued to my boots. That was an understatement. Mom loved the Thortons. She wanted Ben and me to have little Thorton babies. And Mrs. Thorton was the only one that got my mother. Maybe that’s why I considered Ben to be such a good friend, not because we’d been neighbors all our lives, but because he didn’t act the way everyone else did around my mom. I guess that’s why it hurt that he hadn’t told me about his breakup with Janie. Knowing her she probably made him swear not to tell anyone about it so she could save face, but I thought he trusted me. I wouldn’t have told anyone.
I’d crushed on Ben half of my eighth grade year and into the summer before we started high school hoping he’d realize it and kiss me. But it never happened. And then he started dating Angela Castro when we went back to school who I knew would be totally wrong for him. By the time they’d broken up my ego had been wounded and I was too stubborn to give him a second chance, not that he knew he had a first one.
Out of all of Ben’s ex-girlfriends, I liked Janie best. It’d been so long since I’d had that silly crush I wasn’t even jealous. Much. It was more like this feeling of the person in front of you in the lunch line taking the last slice of pizza and not offering to share it with you.
I turned in time to meet face-to-face with a snowball, its soft, fluff exploding into winter dust as it made contact with my head. White flakes peppered my dark eyelashes and fell onto my shoulders as the snow found its way down the back of my neck and into my jacket. I could feel the snow melt while it ran down my burning skin, no longer chilled by the icy temperatures. Did he really just do that?
I blinked the snowflakes from my eyes and stared at Ben in disbelief. “I’m going to kill you,” I said. Without a word Ben jumped over the rail of his porch and took off down the narrow space between our homes. “You’re lucky that snow was soft!” I bounded off my porch and after him, stepping in his fresh prints that dotted the deep snow that separated our properties. The drifts were deep, above my knees, and I could barely make out his silhouette ahead of me in the spray of snow he’d left behind.
The icy air filled my lungs with each exhale producing a white cloud from my mouth like a smoking dragon as my breathing became heavy with exertion. My throat burned and my thin shirt beneath my coat stuck to my back from the cold film of sweat that had developed on my run from the front of the house. Boy, I’m out of shape. I stopped and rested my hands on my knees—Ben was nowhere in sight. All the houses on our side of the street had long back lots that looked like an open field until it reached the woods at the end of the property line. Just like us, our neighbors had oversized garages that were really large metal barns that could easily store three or four cars.
I scanned the white wasteland before searching for movement. A snowball plopped down in front of me, half of it disappearing in the air before it reached my feet. “For someone who plays sports that require throwing balls, you have sucky aim,” I called.
Ben poked his head out around the corner of the barn. “I didn’t miss the first time.”
A huge grin spread across my face and I broke into a sprint towards the end of the garage trying to stay in the path my neighbor had made for me. Ben threw another snowball at me before he took off down the side of the building’s metal frame, but it fell apart above me and rained down on my head. I laughed as I rounded the corner and watched Ben stumble into a snow drift, but he was quick and picked himself up before I could catch him. The wind burned my cheeks and I was sure my hair was a tangled mess of dark locks plastered to my head. But I didn’t care; I was having more fun than I had opening gifts Christmas morning—and that’s my favorite holiday.
I was out of breath and started to slow down when Ben glanced over his shoulder and lost his footing. The snow had been shoveled to the side in the space between our massive garages and the wind seemed to whip down the large metal corridor that our neighboring buildings created. Ben reached his arms out to balance himself but his feet slipped out from under him leaving him sprawled on his back on the ground.
“Are you okay?” I asked, stopping a few feet away.
“Yeah.” He winced. “But I think I broke my ass.”
I giggled and Ben shot me a dirty look. He was lying on a patch of ice that had frozen over from the water than had run off the gutters. “Let me help you up,” I said, extending my hand.
“No, stay over there or you’ll slip. This whole side is ice.” He rolled to his side and struggled to get up on his feet. Up close I could see how slick and shiny the thin layer of ice was beneath the sprinkling of fresh snow. If I had been the one to take the fall on the ice I doubt I would’ve been able to get up. Mom, Rayne and Marcus—err, uh, Dad—would’ve had to search for me and then defrost me.
Ben managed to get up on his feet, but he looked awkward trying to keep balance, like one of those rat-looking dogs that didn’t know how to move once their owners dressed them in those ridiculous winter sweaters. I bit my lip to keep from laughing, but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “Would you stop trying to be a guy and just give me your hand?”
Ben stood still, silent, like he’d become a part of the frozen ground. The only sound that interrupted the quiet was our heavy breaths that slowed until our inhale and exhale matched.
“I would if I could,” Ben finally said. “If I move I’m going to fall.”
Ha. “I told you so.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Are you going to help me or not?”
“Oh, now you want my help—“
“Forget it, Winter,” Ben said, shifting his weight. “I’ll just fall and break my neck. Your conscience.”
Ughhh, boys. I reached out my hand, but there was a good two feet between us. Ben shuffled his feet across the ice towards me, the worn bottoms of his Vans working against him. Who wears Vans in three feet of snow?
My impatience got the better of me and I placed one foot onto the glassy surface between us. Bad move. My boot slid across the ice until I was mid-split; panic setting in, I grabbed Ben’s sleeve and he leaned back under my weight. We became a flailing mess of arms and legs struggling to stay upright before my feet slid out from under me and our bodies hit the ice.
Damn, that’s gonna leave a bruise. Ben groaned as half his body came into contact with the frozen ground, and I winced as the other half of him fell on top of me.
“Are you okay?” Ben asked. I nodded even though I could feel the slow burn of pain still receding from my shoulder and hip. “Good thing you broke my fall.” He grinned, his blue sparkling.
If he hadn’t been crushing my arm beneath his body I’d have smacked him, but instead I replied, “No wonder Janie broke up with you.”
“Ouch. Low blow.” Ben feigned hurt which made me laugh. It felt good to laugh—to laugh like I used to with Ben when we hung out every day. Then he smiled and we were both laughing. The kind of laughing that you don’t remember what you were laughing about, but you can’t stop, your eyes water, and you just feel…happy.
And then Ben touched my face and wiped away an escaped tear. I stopped laughing—I may have stopped breathing, too. His smile faded, but something in his eyes seemed to change, like the color had deepened and it could swallow me whole if I fell in; yet, they were the same blue I knew. I could hear his breath, even and slow, and I could hear my heart pound until it drowned out my own breath, perhaps I had stopped breathing. The back of my jeans felt damp where my legs covered the ice, but I couldn’t feel the cold. I felt something I hadn’t felt in years—I wanted Ben to kiss me.
The young girl that I’d left behind in eighth grade wiggled her toes and stretched her arms bringing butterflies whose wings tickled the inside of my stomach and nervousness that caused my body to tremble. Ben’s eyes flickered to my lips and then met my eyes again. “You must be cold,” he said, his breath warm across my numb skin. He pulled himself off of me and the cold air attacked the right side of my body he’d been keeping warm. Kneeling on the ice Ben grabbed my hands and pulled me to a sitting position. We crawled to the snow bank and climbed over the shoveled pile of snow, dense and crunchy beneath our hands and knees.
My heart sank. It was Angela Castro and the first day of school all over again. I’d buried the feelings I’d had for Ben, and now they pulled at my insides more fiercely than I thought possible. I bit back the disappointment and grabbed his hand when he offered to help me over the last mound of snow. Before both my boots sank down on the other side of the slope, Ben pulled me towards him and his lips brushed against mine. Surprised, my body tensed and I imagined I looked like a petrified soldier frozen before a battlefield. Not a good look. His soft, warm lips moving against mine brought me back and I relaxed against him, the space between us obscured from the cold.
Ben touched the side of my face, his hand unusually warm against my wind-chilled skin despite not wearing gloves. Every place our bodies pressed against each other felt like a summery blast of heat melting the winter away. I could taste the sweet cinnamon toothpaste that lingered on his breath that reminded me of churros that were sold at the carnival during the summer. Ben pulled away and rested his forehead against mine. “I’ve wanted to do that for a while now.”
My eyes closed, I smiled. “You’re not the only one.”