Cracks in the Ice – Lauren Stearley

I saw the green eyes flecked with grey. For a moment, I thought Mom was looking down on me. But when the mouth opened, the voice was squeaky.

“Wake up, sleepy head! It’s a snow day!”

I groaned and rolled over.

“Go away, Lilly,” I grumbled.

“Today’s the day! Rise and smell the fresh air!”

Lilly whipped the window next to my head open. Cold air crashed in and I hissed before drawing the covers closer around me.

“C’mon, Jenga, this is not the time for dilly-dallying!” Her voice got a little lower, a little closer to my face. I could smell her watermelon shampoo. “I’ll get meaner if you don’t get up.”

I barked out a laugh.

“Okay,” Lilly said, “You asked for it.”

Searing pain shot through my head and I bolted up, yelling.

She released my hair and I opened my eyes to see my grinning sister. In her frothy dress and sparkly eye shadow, Lilly reminded me of a demented cupcake. A determined, demented cupcake. I rolled my shoulders out.

“Fine! Fine. I’m up.”

My feet flinched when they touched the cold floor. I reached towards the end of the bed for my sweatshirt, but it wasn’t where I left it. I eyed the pile of clothes in the corner. Considered digging through them. Nope, not enough energy.

“Here,” Lilly pushed the sweatshirt in front of my nose, “I washed it yesterday.”

I took it without a word and noticed the goosebumps rising on her bare arms.

“You should put a coat on or something,” I said.

“And cover this dress? No way. Besides, if you just turned up the thermostat–”

I glared and she waved me off. “Okay, so planning. I figured we’d start out at twelve in the park…”

I shrugged and rose. Shuffling, I made it to the door before I realized Lilly was still babbling behind me.

“…And then we’ll go to the art museum, and from there we can go to that biscuit place you love, and it’s all on me, so don’t worry about that. Babysitting worked out—”

The stairs creaked under my heavy tread. A familiar crack ran the length of the wall, and my finger absently traced it as I descended.

          When I was younger, the smell of bacon woke me in the mornings. Mom knew it worked better than yelling. Now, Lilly was a vegetarian and I was just unmotivated.

I went to the small, bare fridge and opened it. A bruised apple and a jar of pickles greeted me. I’d have to get more groceries again. There went the rest of my paycheck. I snagged the almost empty milk carton before reaching for the Captain Crunch.

I turned and Lilly was an inch away. I stifled a scream.

“God,” I said, exhaling, “Are you a ninja?”

“Do ninjas wear dresses this nice? No. Speaking of which, I think you should put a dress on too,” Lilly said. “You know, that green one? It makes your eyes into yowza flowers.”

“Into what?” I said.

“Yowza flowers! You know, like the boys walk up and be like ‘yowza’?”

“God forbid. Do you want cereal?”

“Nope. But after biscuits, I figure we can go down to—“

I pulled the chair out from the half table against the wall and sank into it. I rocked on its uneven leg and the rhythm lulled me into my memories. Mom’s voice, her vowels shrugging with southern drawl.

We really should get that thing fixed, Harvey. It’s probably dangerous.

Don’t worry, honey, I’ll get around to it. Next day, I promise.

Dad never had, of course, but it’s useless holding that against him now.

Lilly pulled out the chair across from me, took a deep breath, then stared me down.

“You haven’t said anything about my plans,” she said. “I worked really hard on them.”

Her eyes were wary, and her fingers wrestled with each other on the table.

I smiled. “I know. Today is just hard.”

She nodded. “I understand. I really do. That’s why I think we should go outside and do some stuff. It’ll get the blood flowing through you.”

“How are we going to get to all these places?”

          She blinked. “I mean. Well. I thought you would drive.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because. I mean, I can’t drive…”

The cereal was stale. I swallowed and said,

“I don’t feel like driving. We can do this some other day, okay?”

“Jenny, that’s what you said last time. And the one before that.”

“And you keep asking anyway. That’s not my fault.”

Lilly’s mouth dropped open and she shot out of the chair.

“No fair!” she said. “You don’t get to just decide—I mean, you shouldn’t take it out on me!”

“Take what out on you?”

“You know what I’m talking about!”

“No, I don’t,” My voice sounded sharp, even to me. “Enlighten me.”

“Just because…just because you’re having your emotional whatever, doesn’t mean I have to be stuck in here with you,” She began to cry, little streams of sparkles twirling down her face. “I mean, I know it’s the first year after the accident and Mom…but can we just go outside today? I’m sick of being trapped in here.”

Slowly, I put my spoon down and stared ahead. My body felt still and heavy. Maybe the blood wasn’t pumping after all.

Lilly turned and stomped up the stairs. The slamming door shook the walls.

The milk tasted sour in my mouth. Turning, I could look out the window. The snow almost blinded me. The birch tree in our yard had a split trunk, the two sides constantly leaning further and further apart with each snowfall. The houses around us were silent. Most people were at work by now, probably.

The kids across the street were building a snowman. As I watched, the head fell off and cracked in half. The kids abandoned it and started throwing snowballs. The snowman was forgotten.

Suddenly, my chest felt like a black hole. I curled in and wrapped my arms around myself. I shook.

“Lilly,” I whispered.

Nothing.

“Lilly!”

Still, nothing. Panic began to clog my throat as tears blurred my eyes. I pictured my own head cracking in half, and everyone moving on. They’d make snowballs from the pieces of my brain.

But I would see Mom again, wouldn’t I?

When my voice came out again, it battered the walls.

Lilly!”

“Jenny?”

Feet pounded down the stairs and then she was there. Crouching down, Lilly wrapped her thin arms around me and began stroking my hair. The flowers on her dress rasped against my neck.

“It’ll be okay, Jenga,” she whispered. “Just… Just let it out. Let it out.”

Her hair was auburn, like Mom’s was, and it clung to my wet cheeks as I sobbed.

I was the oldest, I should’ve been holding her, but I could barely breathe. Eventually, her arms were shaking along with mine. We were both crying on the cold floor. Unlike snow, our tears fell loud and hard, burning us clean.