he morning of my sixteenth birthday, I, Mademoiselle Icicle, used one sharp fingernail to etch a cartoon birthday cake in ice that blanketed my boudoir. Ice coated the inside of my bedroom window so completely the window was like TV without reception, opaque as a velvet curtain. I scratched a dash of candles on the cake, phallic and listing, and gave each candle-cock a paisley flame. The flames were a school of sperm. Fuck me, I wrote backwards, a message to anybody out in the snow—like there’d be anyone in the pitch dark winter fields, where it was all apple trees and pine. I scratched a happy face. A happy face was the same from either side of the glass, speaking the same language from in the house or out.
When I pressed my hand to the ice and held it, the ice welcomed my skin. My hand left a print. I was the Ice Queen.
I’d gone to bed fifteen and woke up sixteen. My parents left during the night. Only the refrigerator breathed, wheezing and asthmatic. Ours was a stucco ranch house designed for Southern California, with picture windows like giant eyes meant to gaze over a beach, now blinded by a Midwestern blizzard. From inside, each ceiling-high window showed the dark slice of a snow drift like an ant farm, a science fair experiment. The experiment was a question: How to be a house when you’re not equipped? The roof leaked, the walls weren’t insulated. The architect was insane, a homesick transplant.
But I wasn’t an ill-equipped house. I was ice. Cold was immaterial. Who needs insulation? Who needs shoes, boots, a winter coat?
I opened the side door and our dog, Charlie, brought a rage of snow in. She dragged a bad front leg. The snow was specked with blood where Charlie’d been waiting. Ever since a car accident on the old highway, she chewed her leg like she was caught in an invisible trap.
In the shadows, my parents’ footprints broke the snow drift just beyond the door. A layer of new snow had settled where they walked. They’d turned back at least once. Turned in circles. Debating? Fighting? Maybe. Shadows of a snow angel in the yard was me the day before, when I was still fifteen, playing in the snow like some kind of kid. Farther off, a couch-shaped drift really was our old couch underneath, put out to air last spring. All summer at night I’d sat on the couch and read magazines while crickets sang. While my parents sang in the house, fighting, swearing, boozing it up.
If I were a savage I could read the tracks of my parents’ path. Savage Ice Queen: The Movie. I could stand in packed snow barefoot. And I was in the snow barefoot, nightgown ruffle blowing against my ankles. Cold is only cold at first, before it fades to numb. I bent down, tucked my knees inside the nightgown to keep a thin line of flannel between damp snow and the heat of private corners, and looked for evidence. My parents had left, and not in a straight line. One but not the other of our two cars gone meant they left together.
That’s so obvious! I looked for more subtle clues. The second car, the Old Car, was a sedan-shaped drift, a match for the snow upholstered couch. But why did I worry where my parents went? I had what I needed: a house, a car, a job. A dog. Pretty much, the American dream. I’d overslept, missed the school bus, but a learner’s permit’s good as a driver’s license when you come from an ice cave miles outside town.
I bundled my nightgown and lifted it. Savage Ice Queen, pees in the wild. Steam cut through the snow between my feet; the bright yellow stain made a hole in the ice crystals. The air filled with the muffled scent of vitamin B I took to turn around a split-end problem. My own heat was warmer as it rushed out; warm air brushed my ankles, and tiny drops splattered. It was the chemistry of urine over ice, body heat transferring. My own experiment.
* * *
Ryan, the stoner, sat closest to the door and tried to trip me as I slid into Chemistry late. Blank faces turned toward the late-opening door, not like they cared, but just asking Who? Who comes so late?
Me. Cheeks flushed, still hot from digging the car out of our long drive. Hair wet with melted snow. Mrs Hapkewitz was behind her teaching counter like the host of a cooking show, with a Bunsen burner and metal tongs. Her elbows jutted out as she swung a test tube back and forth over the burner’s blue flame. Lisa, a paper-thin slip of anorexic weightlessness, was passed out in the back row. I saw Ryan’s outstretched foot but kicked it on purpose anyway, letting my waffle boot slap the side of his waffle boot, orange laces kissing. Snow fell on the slick linoleum off the frozen leg of my jeans. Mrs. Hapkewitz gave me a quick eyeball. Ryan smiled, with only one side of his mouth. I sat next to Rachel Swoops.
If I were a gas, I’d be Helium light, settling into my seat. My muscles burned from shoveling.
“Einstein’s new trick,” Rachel whispered.
“What’s it supposed to do?” I hissed back, peeled off my coat, then pulled down the sleeves of a sweater to cover my wrist where the skin was marked with pink lines, burns from the grid of a fry rack from my job at Huff Burger. They called me fry rack at school. Fry Girl, Grease monkey, ha!
“Girls,” Mrs. Hapkewitz said. Her voice broke the crazy way her voice always did, singing up and down even in a single word. “Pay attention.” She added something to a beaker, one liquid into another, the first yellow as my vitamin B. She held the beaker at her eye level, in front of her nose, and went cross-eyed, all frowning and squinted.
She’ll need Botox, Rachel wrote on her notebook, and pushed the notebook my way.
Scientists invented Botox, I wrote back.
“What this should have done…” Mrs. Hapkewitz said. I couldn’t help it. I laughed. I loved it when she said that. Every time, every experiment. They never worked, and I liked it that way.
“Justine, please.” She started again, “It should’ve turned to a greenish gas. I’m not sure what’s gone wrong...” And I couldn’t control it. Why did I like this? It was like being tickled, seeing science fail, the parts not adding up. Mrs. Hapkewitz, pure optimism, shook her head like even small failure was unbelievable. I giggled, hoped she wouldn’t notice, tried not to laugh and snorted instead.
Rachel, already close to flunking, acted like she didn’t know me, with a hand to the side of her face. Mrs Hapkewitz said, “Justine, enough,” like it was a command for a dog.
But she wouldn’t send me out. What I knew, and what she knew, is that I did my homework. I memorized Avogadro’s number, the calculation of a mole. I had the periodic table taped inside my locker. In a room full of dyslexic anorexics, stoners and party girls, I was our Nobel Prize candidate. I pulled the sleeves of my sweater down, stretching the knit to cover the burns. Fry-O-Lator it said in the pink graphics of a burn scar, in backward cursive along the inside of my arm.
After Chemistry was lunch. Ryan saw my keys. “Driving now, fry girl?” He soft-punched my arm, my sleeve, where fry rack tattoos lay hidden below.
I nodded. Rachel looked surprised, more used to me late-night sneaking the car.
“Cool,” Ryan said. And it was.
* * *
After school, before work, when I let Charlie out she stopped to nose the frozen yellow piss in the snow—mine. There was no sign of my folks, nothing about my birthday, still only the one set of tracks leaving the house now mingled with mine both coming and going. A splintered chair in the bushes looked run over. My parents were like lupus, MS or rosacea, the body attacking itself, a leg trying to divorce the hip, the brain. I was a free radical, bumping up between them. It was already getting dark out, a winter day short as school.
I brought my Huff Burger uniform into the kitchen, closed the kitchen doors and turned on the oven full blast. But heat didn’t matter. I could change clothes in a blizzard.
The uniform was a brown polyester shirt that zipped up the back and wide, flared pants. The shirt had a built-in bra, a swerve in the striped fabric where my body was supposed to fill gaps, and fill in some kind of fantasy for the boss, like there was a formula between hips, waist and boobs: if one, then the other. My shirt stayed loose in empty points. I ran a fast line of concealer along tiny red dots gathered under my eyes, spots left from grease snapping in Huff Burger air.
The old car, musty and vinyl, had a dash cracked as dried mud. I headed down our long dirt drive and the car’s tires slid into the grooves made by my parents like I was some kind of trolley running over old tracks. I pulled onto the highway. The car danced a slow glide sideways, front wheels grabbing for asphalt. I could slam on the brakes and the car would swing in a circle. Rachel Swoops and I practiced driving and sliding, cutting cookies, at the school parking lot at night, inside the metal cocoon of that old Plymouth; we wore spilled whiskey like perfume as the tires drew circles over the iced macadam.
The only problem with the Plymouth was rust holes in the floor. I could see the road. Slush hit my ankles with the kiss of icy spit.
* * *
“You’re on fry rack,” Jeff, the manager, said, before I even had my coat off. He ran a finger over his mustache.
I said, “I’m cashier.”
He crunched up a paper bag and threw a long shot to an overflowing trash can. Missed, hit the rim. “Nope. Rack.”
The schedule was posted on the wall between the walk-in freezer and stacks of buns. I didn’t want anywhere near fry rack. Rack was the worst, torture, a beginner’s station, plus it was all grease and quick moves. Plus, I worked it way too often. Up front, Dana leaned against the register, guarding her spot. Her hair was a curling pom-pom out the back of her hat, with no split ends. The boob gaps in her uniform weren’t gaps, like she was proof of the if-hips-then-boobs equation. Jeff said, “Had a complaint about you last time. A secret customer, said you weren’t smiling.”
A ‘secret customer’ meant a company spy. They wrote up these little reports. Like I’d smile more now, written up? There’s ways to make a girl smile. That’s what I wanted to say, with Ice Queen sophistication: the hard crack of an ice coating over snow, the sweet taste of deadly sap in a Poison Sumac icicle.
He threw a fifteen pound bag of onion rings at me. I caught the bag, white plastic slippery with frozen grease. The Ice Queen never fumbles.
“Ten minutes, dinner rush.” He went to code Dana into the computerized register’s system. Dana smiled, gave an eyelash flutter and tugged at a gold floating heart on a thin chain around her neck.
A low whisper gargled out, “You know they’re screwing each other.” The voice came from around the corner, behind the grilling machine, behind Burger Assembly. That corner was a house of mirrors with warped steel boxes in every direction, and in that corner, from everywhere, I saw skin and uniform and hair, and it was a grunt named Karen putting burgers on the conveyer belt. She was huge, a parade float, her tiny face lost in circles of fat. I hadn’t worked with Karen in a month, but heard the rumors: she had to trade up uniform sizes three times. I’d traded down twice, shrinking, contracting with the winter’s cold. Karen wheezed, and slammed a handful of frozen meat patties against the steel edge of a machine to break the stack apart. Her sausage fingers were huge, taut and red, reflected back in the fun house mirrors a dozen times or more.
What Karen didn’t get is, if you don’t eat, your stomach turns into a hard knot instead of an empty space; it turns into an answer instead of a question.
I put my hat on, got in place.
Heat came off the deep fry oil. A few steps over, cold rose from the drinks station ice. The two made a sickening corridor, hot and cold struggling to mix, and not in the gentle way of tornado weather but more like a house fire in winter. There was an orange heat lamp, glaring and bright, and a white light over the ice. In metal cursive script, on the side of each fry basket, it said Fry-O-Lator, Fry-O-Lator, Fry-O-Lator, with the TM of a registered trade mark.
“We’re closing tonight,” Karen said, breathing hard, lips squished in her new face. “You and me.”
Closing meant locking up at 2:30 in the morning, cleaning, and getting off the clock by three. The company didn’t pay for work after three no matter what, so closing with Karen was good—she was a robot.
I put a basket of rings down and two baskets of fries. Grease snapped at my arms, a biting dog. My job was to tear open the big white bags, take two steps sideways, grab a new metal basket, fill the basket to the marker and sink the whole thing in grease. Fries have to be hot and ready. When a timer beeps, that means the fries are done, and then a rack rises automatically up from the grease. My job was to jump for it. One second is all management allows between when the timer rings and when fries are dumped under the heat lamp. All night long the floor mats grow slick, then slicker with splattered fat.
The beep started, I reached for the basket handle, dumped fries in the bin under the orange heat lamp, and let salt snow down over their hot skins.
On a fast break, I stood in back near the manager’s office and called home. I traced a finger over my scarred arm and imagined quitting: See you later, Fry-O-Lator. Ta da! My arm was so scarred, it had started to look plaid. On the schedule on the wall my name had been crossed out, Dana’s name added for all the register shifts. I could see, through the narrow space between the burger counter and the shelves, Dana and Jeff trap flies in the microwave. Dana laughed, a flash of white teeth. The trick with the fly is, they don’t have enough water in their bodies. Microwave a fly and nothing happens. A fly is its own kind of superhero.
On the other end of the phone line, in our snow covered ice cave, the phone rang. My mother’s voice came on, apologizing: “Sorry, we’re not in right now, but if you’ll leave a message...”
“Mom?” I asked the answering machine. “Dad? You there?”
On the way back to my station I slid a chicken sandwich in my uniform pocket. The sandwich was dead, meaning cold and under the lamp too long. My dad, if he came home, would take the sandwich apart like a mechanical thing and warm it in pieces, balanced on a knife over a burner.
The dinner rush trickled in, then hit; the lobby jammed with kids and old people and some football game that’d just gotten out, and the orange heat lamp at the fry station made my eyes so dry they went blurry.
I poured fries into little paper bags, moving fast, orders in and orders out. A ribbon of white paper pumped out at my station. Fry Rack was a dance, both arms swinging: scoop fries, grab the salt, drop the little paper bags of fries into the bigger paper bags, tear the order off the roll and drop that in the bag too.
Dana’s register jammed, or maybe she needed change. I don’t know, but Jeff was up there, keys in hand. He reached around her hips. One hand to either side. His mouth to her neck. She turned, giggled. The crowd pressed against the counter. Dana smiled, a hand on her ass. Where was our company spy? I didn’t lose pace.
Deep in the rhythm, another fry timer sounded its steady bleat. I turned, dropped the aluminum fry scoop into its rack, hit the timer-off switch, grabbed for the handle on the fries as they rose from the grease, turned halfway back around, and boom! Jeff cut past me, all managerial, in my way, his body in front of my body.
“We need at least three baskets down. Two rings. The orders are backing…” He grabbed fries from the bins, shoved fries in his mouth. As he skated past, his knee hit my knee, foot to my ankle—on purpose? He ducked sideways, and kept going. Both hands full, I skidded on the spot between the big black floor mats, where grease layered over the fake tile floor. I slipped, swung an arm to grab for anything solid, slid into the mechanized basket as it rose, and with a hiss there it was, a pink brand rising around my fingers, with no time to look. Orders came in fast. Jeff was gone, back to counting receipts or browsing porn or whatever he did in his office. I put my burned hand to the ice trough in the drinks station. Held a round cube. The metal basket had left the kiss of a hot, pink grid, y-O-Lato seared backward across my palm.
Late that night, I took the trash out to the locked dumpster. The dumpster was surrounded by a brick fort, with a locked metal gate in front, like Huff Burger trash was pure gold. In winter, in town, the streetlights reflected against snow and kept the night from ever being as dark as it was outside of town, out where I lived, in the fields. Under the street lights, the night stayed a glowing blue. In that blue-white light, I looked behind the brick walls around the dumpster, checked for crazies, then moved with Ice Queen stealth over frozen asphalt.
Karen locked up. Our cars were last in the lot. She drove a rust eaten clunker, small and squashed. My car, twice as big and twice as old, had seats inviting as a sofa, but the lock was frozen and wouldn’t take the key. Karen scraped her windows while her rollerskate-mobile warmed up. I warmed my key in one hand, blowing hot breath on it. I had to force the key, first in, then side to side. Karen got in her car, and the car dropped lower under her weight.
When I turned the key in my ignition, nothing happened. No heater, no engine, no radio. The Plymouth clicked. I gave it a minute. Karen took off, wet tracks in the snow. I tried again. The lot was empty now, except for me and my car, and then snow, new drifts over old, and the black spots of exhaust and salt that marked patches of ice and gravel.
I reached under the dash, popped the hood, opened the door. Soon as I did, one car came spinning down the highway. The hum of chains against gravel and ice carried from faraway. Headlights moved toward me. I closed the door again, ducked low. The car edged past, tossing slush like damp confetti in a sad parade of one. The tail lights moved into the distance, red and warm, then finally gone. When I opened the door, a night wind cut through the wide, flapping legs of my uniform.
I knocked snow off the Plymouth’s hood, lifted the hood and looked inside, until I heard another car coming. Then I got back in and locked the door.
The car moved past. It skidded to a stop. There was the high pitched whine of a car in reverse. The driver pulled into the lot backwards, tried to brake, and the car slid until he’d passed me again. I looked in the rearview.
Slowly, the car pulled forward, inch by inch, until we were driver’s side window to driver’s side window. There was one man inside. His was an old car, a Nova to my Satellite. He rolled his window down. I wiped condensation away from my window, and peered through the cleared space.
The man pointed down, then turned his hand in circles: Roll down the window. I shook my head, behind fogged glass. A Plymouth Satellite is a comforting wall of metal. Except for the holes in the floor. Tiny planets of new snow glittered in the wind.
“Car trouble?” He shouted. White teeth, a dark stocking cap.
“No,” I yelled back.
He said, “Pop the hood,” and gestured with his gloved hand, thumb pointing at the night sky. A strand of yarn splayed from his frayed glove. It was just him and me, dark gloves, stocking caps, a long stretch of empty highway. And I was the Ice Queen. I’d sit there all night, stay in my car, wait for him to leave and hike along the road on my own. Ice Queen patience. Superhuman endurance.
He said, “I’m good with cars.”
I could walk all night and into the day. I could go home, to an empty cave.
A Huff Burger bag blew along the side of the freeway. The bag was light, as though underdressed for the cold, and moved fast as a lost kid running to someplace like home. I could do anything. I could stand up to burns, to cold, to this freaky stranger, if that’s what he was.
If I were Dana, I’d have a cell phone. I’d have a house, and parents in it. I’d have boobs.
The man got out of his car. He put his gloves on my fender. “You’ll freeze, out here,” he said. What did he know? I was already a sheet of ice, a frozen branch, a twig. I could freeze in my own house, if I wanted to. The man’s eyes darted down the road.
I was an icy slip of nothing. I was invincible.
I reached low, pulled the t-bar to unlatch the hood. I stayed in my car, watched him rustle through his trunk. He connected jumper cables, started his engine.
He called out, “Give it a try.”
I turned my key. Click. He walked around to stand outside my window. Click. He disappeared behind the hood again. Like he knew what he was doing. A fine ruse.
I could see his hands working, through the gap between the hood and the car body, his skin grey white as it reflected one lone parking lot light overhead. It wouldn’t be hard to steal my carburetor. “This cold weather,” he yelled out. “Need all your Cold Cranking Amps.”
He scraped corrosion from the battery, cleaned the connections with a screwdriver. His hands were chapped, a cut across one knuckle. A cotton glove blew off the fender. He didn’t see it go.
“Try again,” he called, and stepped to the side. He rubbed his hands together, blew on his fingers.
That glove would be one of the world’s small mysteries, resting alongside the highway frozen into the slush, snowed over until spring. People would wonder: why take one glove off here? The man would puzzle over where the glove had gone, left with only one of the pair.
The glove would be like my parents, gone without reason.
I turned the key. He shook his head. He pulled off his stocking cap and wiped his hands on it. His face was flushed, dark hair blowing forward.
I had a pen in the car, and I put the pen in my coat pocket. I’d stab the man in the eyes if I had to. That was my plan. Armed with the pen, I got out of the Plymouth, walked across the snow, and picked up the man’s glove where it lay in slush. I put the glove back on the fender with its mate. Mystery solved.
“Thanks,” he said.
I fingered the pen. Kept my eyes on him.
He reached for the gloves, pushed them down into his pocket, and started scraping terminals again. “I don’t know. Might be electrical.” His breath was a white cloud. He wiped his nose on his hat.
I said, “The battery’s almost new,” and watched my own breath cloud, then fade.
Beyond the smell of exhaust, there was something else in the air. Cinnamon, or vanilla. His pant legs flapped in the wind. Polyester. They were navy blue, with a paler blue stripe. I asked, “You in a marching band?”
He looked over my way, then went back to chipping at corrosion on the battery terminals. He said, “You look cold.”
Cold? I said, “I can stand in snow barefoot.” Savage, and proud of it. “I can reach into hot grease with my bare hands.”
He laughed, and shook his head. “Nobody should have to stand in snow barefoot...” He hit something inside the car with the side of a wrench. Tapping. “...or reach into hot grease. Try it again. Might be your starter.”
I didn’t move to start the car. But in my pocket, I let go of the pen. I took my hand out, and opened my palm to show the brand, the geometry of a fry rack grid against the constellation of grease-splatter burns. The backwards cursive, y-O-Lato, was blistered and raised, the burn still new.
He leaned in close, squinted to see under the flickering streetlight, and said, “Jesus!”
The strange thing was, for a minute, just as he said it, I saw my hand as though it wasn’t my hand at all but was somebody else’s, a red and raw thing, like my dog Charlie’s leg. He said, “What’s that about?”
I nodded at Huff Burger. Closed my hand. The skin was stiff and hot. I put my hand back in my coat pocket, and then it was mine again, but not like it mattered—just skin and bones, immaterial.
“Listen, you need a ride somewhere?” His car sat waiting. There were no other cars on the road. Everything was icy and muffled.
“To where?” He looked up and down the road. “You smell like French fries.”
“It smells good.”
I smelled something sweeter. “Smells like doughnuts, to me.” The air smelled sweet as a bakery. But I hadn’t eaten in hours, in days, all week. An Ice Queen doesn’t eat. Even an anorexic can’t compete with ice.
I needed food the way a fly needed water: barely.
“Panda Pastries,” he said, and nodded down the highway. Far down, there was a giant, revolving doughnut-bellied panda sign. Sweet, frying dough. Perfume. Sugar. I said, “Never smelled it from here, before.”
He pointed at his car, took the few steps, opened his car door and showed boxes, pink and marbled with grease stains. He pulled one box out and had to use two hands because the box was that heavy. He sat it on the hood of his car. When he opened the lid, I saw a field of crullers and maple bars, powdered sugar coated cake doughnuts, chocolate filled, and eclairs. There were oversized fritters and coiled springs of glazed dough, bars and doughnut holes. He said, “Have what you want,” like he thought he was offering me the world or something.
I stayed back. Kicked the snow. I said. “Is this like, ‘Hey little girl, want some candy’?”
He shrugged. “My own personal embarrassment of riches. I take’em back to the dorm.” His blue striped pants, I saw now, weren’t real clothes. It was Panda Pastries gear. “They call me ‘Nuts Man,” he laughed. “Cause I provide. Go ahead, dig in.”
I didn’t need food. The doughnuts smelled so sweet! But what did I need with sweet? Then I saw, in one low corner of Mr. Nuts Man’s greasy box, a cupcake. It was a white cupcake with blue and red letters across the top, and a scatter of sugared dots like confetti. Happy Birthday, the cupcake said.
“Whose birthday is it?”
“Nobody’s,” he said, and shrugged. “We just make’em up.”
It wasn’t my birthday anymore, either. It was after midnight. I flicked a finger at the box, like that crap was only for suckers. Fatsos and softies. That cupcake was a trap, laid in my path. This guy was a softie. The Ice Queen lived on cold air. I breathed in. But even the air now was sweeter than before. I said, “And you don’t mind?”
“Mind? No way, have all you want.” He leaned against his car.
“I mean, you don’t mind being called ‘Nuts Man?” And for some reason, as I said it, my eyes welled up. My throat was tight. I choked, reached a hand to my neck.
“You okay?” he said.
I said, “That smell!” I coughed. “Maybe I’m allergic.” My voice broke, my eyes clouded. Even my hands started shaking. Could I be allergic to a smell? It was the smell of a kitchen. An oven used for more than heat.
He ducked down and looked up, as though to see my eyes. “You’re too cold. Let me walk you to a pay phone.”
A pay phone. I shook my head. Who would I call at three-thirty in the morning? Rachel Swoops? Her parents would kill me, think I was on drugs. My parents, who knows? Mrs. Hapkewitz at least would understand the failed science of a dead car, a late night. My lips felt fat, but I wouldn’t cry now. “No need,” I said, and I held my own hand, one linked in the other.
He said, “Troy,” and he held out his hand. I unclasped my hands, and reached out.
“Justine,” I said. His hands were so cold, at least as cold as mine, and somehow that was almost a comfort.
Troy drove me home. I held a pink baker’s box on my lap. The car filled with the smell of burgers, fries and doughnuts. In matching polyester, our coats and winter boots, we passed through suburbs crowded to either side of the highway.
“Keep going,” I said.
When we got to my house outside town, there were no cars in our long drive.
Troy pointed, “That drift looks like a couch.”
Still nervous, I asked anyway, “Want to come in?”
He shut off the engine, followed me around to the side-door. “You have a dog.” He meant the frozen spot of yellow snow. My morning experiment, a lifetime before.
“We do,” I said. And as I turned to look for Charlie, one hand out with a key for the door, I slipped on ice and slid, the fry-rack dance, and the world swam underfoot. I grabbed Troy’s shoulder, he put a hand to my side, steady again. When I caught my balance, I pushed open the door to the house and we moved from dark to darker, from the night sky to our cave.
“Your parents don’t believe in furniture.” He kept his coat on.
I shrugged. “We used to have more.”
The dog was inside. “She’s hurt,” Troy said. Her shoulder was damp where she chewed, where she looked for metal pins buried deep in her bone.
“Ages ago,” I said.
He said, “But she’s bleeding.”
I shrugged. “Self inflicted.”
Charlie followed us into the kitchen. I closed the doors, and turned on the stove. We had a table and chairs. A ceiling light. I poured brandy from a bottle up above the sink, one short glass for me and one for Troy. My parents’ brandy was a bribe; I didn’t want him to leave.
I said, “You’re in college?”
He nodded, looked in the fridge. “There’s nothing here,” he said, like he’d never been in an ice cave before.
“There’s milk,” I said. “And beer. And this.” I pulled the cold chicken sandwich out of my coat pocket, dropped it on the table. It had started to snow again outside, big damp flakes that covered our tracks. Troy moved for the front door. I said, “Where are you going? It’s a storm.”
He went out, just like that, and then I was alone in the house again. I felt like a five year old afraid to go to sleep, and at the same time like a grown up with a house all my own, but neither way felt nice or right or settled. I picked up a little rag rug, off the floor, and gave it a shake. Dirt fell. I put the rug over my lap like a blanket, waited for the sound of an engine, or the lights of Troy’s beams against the snow on our driveway.
Fast enough, the screen door rattled open. Troy stomped snow off his boots. He slid one big, pink box onto our wobbly kitchen table, opened the lid and flashed a world of crullers, éclairs, cake doughnuts and fritters. That cupcake, my own little birthday, sat in one corner all dressed up with nobody to sing.
Early morning, I showed Troy to my parents’ room. Their floor was carpeted with dirty clothes and towels. Cold candles dripped hardened wax onto saucers. A chest of drawers had the drawers out, the bottom of one drawer splintered like somebody’d stepped right through it.
“Sure they won’t come back?” Troy lifted a book off the blankets and touched the worn sheets.
“I doubt it.” The air smelled greasy and sweet. It was Fry Girl and ‘Nuts Man, Episode One. He started to unlace his boots. He slid one boot off, to show a black sock. The mattress had two indentations, two dips or gullies—the shape of two people, sleeping side by side. Troy, when he slept, would roll into one like an old habit. I ran my hand along the other. And this was a new story: me, sixteen, older than I’d ever been, with a warm man soon to be sleeping in my parents’ bed.
He asked, “What if they do?”
I said, “Wake me.”