For April Fleming, winter in Cleveland is exquisitely insidious, a season so refined in its administration it feels like punishment. The snow persists even when there’s nowhere left for it to go. Driving and parking are astonishing endeavors. She feels the cold in her hair and her fingernails: tissue that isn’t even living. What does seem alive are the freezes that slither through the boards of houses. They seep through even the most confidently insulated walls and windows. They steal the warmth from coffee cups and bare feet resting on the floor. Tonight, April looks down at her feet, which are turning the shrunken white of retreating circulation. They are beginning to seem unlike her own. She cannot seem to keep them warm. She looks back up, away from the wave of self-pity that breaks against her ribs, to her mother-in-law, who is refusing to come away from the kitchen window.
“Marianne.” April thrusts out the robe, one Marianne chose from a children’s catalog, printed with purple hippos engaged in what looks like a waltz. “I mean it. Put this on.” The cat crouches beneath April and swats, mad-eyed, at the dangling robe ties.
The nightgown Marianne wears tonight is too big. Its sleeves flop to her knuckles and its hem drags on the floor. Her hair stands up in a thin gray cloud, and April sees her scalp underneath. When they’d first met, Marianne had been shaped like a teapot, reminiscent of the nursery rhyme. She now is no bigger than a preadolescent girl. She looks back. “Do we know each other?” she asks.
“Very well,” April tells her. She dangles the robe in front of her, and, compromising, Marianne stays where she is but raises her arms in a crucifix.
“Well,” Marianne says. She turns back to the window. “I don’t know how long you’ve lived here, but I’m a Clevelander through and through, and let me tell you—” she swivels to face April, pulling the ties out of her hands, “this storm is going to be a big one.” The pale sheerness of her skin is startling. Her bones seem too close to the surface. Her eyebrows and eyelashes are nearly invisible, which makes her face look anchorless. It isn’t that she seems younger with time, though she is only seventy-four, but her face has accrued a particular relaxed certainty that seems ageless. Her expressions are single pieces of paper pared down from a sheaf. “I’ll keep my car here, thank you very much. Winds at sixty miles an hour.” Marianne shakes her head and pads over to the kitchen table.
“Let me tie your robe for you,” April says, reaching. Marianne hasn’t had a car for five years.
“Sixty.” Marianne waves her away and looks sadly down at the front of her nightgown, decorated with some sort of stain from lunch. She licks her finger and rubs the spot. April gives up on the robe.
Whatever else Marianne has wrong, she’s right about the severity of the storm. Sunny is coming home for dinner tonight, driving from college in Pittsburgh, and now April’s worried. Sunny should have left earlier. She shouldn’t be coming at all. April decides she should call her, then decides she shouldn’t. She doesn’t want Sunny distracted and fumbling for her cell phone on the highway. April keeps looking out the window, hoping the sky will have cleared, or at least that the storm won’t begin in earnest until Sunny gets there, but the snow continues to come.
“That view isn’t changing tonight.” Marianne’s voice startles her. For a moment, April had forgotten she was there. Marianne has developed an uncanny new ability to become invisible in plain sight. Even more eerily, when she speaks, she often seems to be addressing April’s unspoken thought. It’s crossed April’s mind that she could be more aware than she’s letting on, but nothing telling lurks beneath her face. And how, April thinks as she watches Marianne primly settle herself in a chair, could someone whose own mind slips away from her more every day be able to read someone else’s?
April takes the chicken soaking in its marinade from the refrigerator. She checks the pie in the oven, and turns off the heat. “I just hope we don’t lose power,” she says.
“Ha!” Marianne lets out a snort, scornful of April’s worrying over a few hours in the dark. No matter how much her dementia has progressed, her allegiance to Cleveland is genuine, and she remains unafraid of this sort of siege, these terrible kinds of confluences. When Sunny and April first moved in with her after Elton died, it was she who descended the stairs into the pitch black basement, who approached the quivering mousetrap, who shoveled out the front walkway, the determined scrape and clang echoing through the wind back into the house. She would still try to do it if April let her, though she is far less enterprising than she used to be. Her memory cuts in and out, like defective wiring. There is no obvious trigger. Sometimes she’s chipper and talkative. Others she is unbearably irritable and sullen, refusing to eat or bathe. These cases usually conclude with her roused into a frightened fury, like a wounded animal, unyielding to April’s attempts to calm her. This, April thinks, is when she somehow realizes what’s happening. She reaches for a memory and when she instead finds a dark hole, she senses the horrifying scale of what she has lost. Once in a while, Marianne’s mind will slide into an extended gloss of lucidity and she’s able to talk about everything as she used to, but those spells are becoming more and more infrequent.
“Do you remember the little girl with the nine on her shirt?” Marianne asks April. “Do you know where she is?”
April flips the floodlights on and the patio and driveway are washed in fluorescent light. The snowflakes swirl through the glare. The snow is accumulating, and the ground is beginning to disappear beneath the white. April’s throat tightens and her breath grows shallow, the familiar meteorological anaphylaxis. But there is Sunny, trudging up the walk. April feels relief in her extremities. Her ribcage loosens. She checks her toes to see if they’ve pinkened.
“The shirt was glittery and had ruffles,” Marianne tells the cat, who has moved to doze on top of the refrigerator. “Whatever happened to it?”
The kitchen door bangs open, and Sunny arrives, wet and morose and with a strange short new haircut. She’s rubbed some kind of gel into it, manufacturing what looks like wings of meringue all over her head. A small white whirligig spirals out from the top of her scalp. She never bothers to wear a hat. She stomps on the doormat and coughs a deep, wet cough. She is prone to sinus and bronchial infections. April sees that she’s been crying.
“Fuck me, it’s cold,” she says. A pip of awkward laughter escapes Marianne. Sunny slams the door and tromps in. April wordlessly retrieves the cough syrup.
Sunny drops into the chair opposite Marianne. “Hi, Mimi,” she says. She wipes her face with the back of her hand. Her boots have left a muddy trail across the floor.
“Hello,” Marianne replies, as if she isn’t quite sure why she’s responding to the name, but interested all the same. “Hello,” she says again, trying the word out.
“Hi,” April says. “Storm getting worse? Were the roads bad?” The chicken crackles as it hits the hot pan. The rice has begun to boil over and leave starchy sludge on the sides of the pot. April closes the potholder drawer harder than she needs to.
Sunny shrugs out of her coat. A melting clump of snow falls off the sleeve. “They’re pretty shitty.” She rolls up her pants to take off her boots, revealing the tattoo on her right leg. It’s a cocktail, of all things, in an enormous coconut shell. Its base is wrapped around her leg in the middle of her calf, horribly misplaced. The liquid is an odd bluish color, drawn to look as though it’s sloshing. The straw is a darker blue, jauntily bent next to a pink paper umbrella, open and decorated with what are supposed to be tiny palm trees but look more like spiders.
April looks away. “Dinner’s almost ready,” she says.
Sunny rubs her nose on her sleeve and studies Marianne. “Sweet robe, Mimi,” she says, smiling, plucking at her own sweater in indication. “That must be new.”
Marianne knits her brow. “Sixty mile an hour winds tonight. I’ve lived here all my life, you know. I know these things.”
Sunny nods solemnly. “You’re a tough one. We all better listen to you.” The circles underneath her eyes are still alarmingly dark, even though a few weeks ago April sent her overpriced zinc and echinacea from the health food store and scolded her about staying up too late.
Sunny’s name has become an irony, the punchline for her body, that collage of cryptic impulses and self-destructive decisions. As a girl, women in stores and at playgrounds admired her wispy hair and delicate face. “A little fairy!” one exclaimed. “Not just blonde, but blonde all over.” If Sunny had decided she wanted to be pretty, she certainly could have been. In high school, the same women turned their alarm at her various body modifications into uneasy comments about how she still looked so young for her age. The cocktail, strangely, didn’t seem so bad after April saw the words carved into her left forearm: Viva Hate, in scar tissue, first pink, then white. Carved with what, she doesn’t know—a flat razor, a box cutter.
Sunny lives in what she calls a co-op near campus, an old rambling house with the original crumbling furniture and visible gaps in between the walls, doors and windows. A few of the residents are also college students, but April was scandalized to learn the vast majority was twenty or thirty years older. Visiting one morning, she tiptoed her way around empty liquor bottles and seven or eight residents in numerous states of undress and coupling, all sleeping on the living room floor. A man about April’s age wearing only briefs emerged from the bathroom and smiled at her. He had an eagle the size of a casserole dish tattooed on his side. She had opened her mouth to speak when he, almost dreamily, flipped her his middle finger. She was so shocked she continued to stare after he’d gone into a room and closed the door. Sunny calls it her community, which April cannot begin to understand, but it seems obvious to her that there is nowhere for that conversation to go.
That wave receded and a far worse one crested, when she learned from bank statements that Sunny had donated her entire inheritance from her late father, which she’d received on her twentieth birthday, to the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
“I didn’t need it,” Sunny said.
“You don’t know what you need,” April told her. Sunny started letting all of April’s phone calls go to voicemail. The message, which April listened to over and over, was a strange man growling that Sunny was busy. He dragged out the syllables—biiiiizzzzzzy—while Sunny laughed huskily in the background.
On their website, April read that the refuge had been established as a wintering area for migrating waterfowl and sandhill cranes. She’d dropped the subject. At least it was a charity, she told herself. And besides, who better than she understood the need for a faraway place to spend the winter?
The most surprising occurrence, however, is the gentle interest Sunny has unfoundedly regained in her grandmother. It began with phone calls during the week. Marianne loves to talk, even though the words fly in and out of her head like sparrows. Then came the weekend visits, during which Sunny would devote an hour to a trip to the pharmacy for toothpaste, but barely speak to April. She’d sometimes watch them from the window, Sunny patiently shepherding Marianne down the driveway to the car. Two small figures, two heads together, one blonde, one white.
When April remarked that Sunny and Marianne seemed to be getting closer, all Sunny said was, “Mimi doesn’t put up with bullshit.” What Marianne does or doesn’t put up with seems completely arbitrary to April, but since her small, private objections embarrass and mystify even her, she says nothing.
April has summoned the courage to ask Sunny why she was crying, the equivalent of provoking a wounded bear, when Marianne gasps. “Good god,” she points to Sunny’s leg, “is that a bruise?”
Sunny wheezes as she laughs. “You ask that every time. Doesn’t she, Mom.” The upward inflection is missing, and April knows her opinion is not actually being sought. She replaces her original question with another.
“Why don’t you take some of this before dinner?” She pours out the cough medicine, which Sunny ingests without comment, her only reaction a twisted face as she swallows. “Orange,” she says. “Gross.”
Marianne continues to study the tattoo, and Sunny pats her purple hippoed shoulder. April sees cigarette burns on Sunny’s arms. She pictures the insides of Sunny’s lungs, once soft and textured like pink grapefruit, now coated with black tar. She resists mentioning that Sunny should wash her hands.
“It’s a tattoo, Mimi,” Sunny says, “not a bruise.”
Marianne sighs and straightens back up in her chair. “Well,” she says, “as long as you didn’t hurt yourself, honey.”
April has just lifted a spoon to her mouth to taste the rice when a surge of wind blows a tree branch into the kitchen window and they all jump. The spoon burns her tongue. The cat bolts. The wind howls at their stupidity for falling for it. The branch jerks back and forth against the glass.
“Holy fuck,” Sunny says, “that could’ve broken some shit.”
“Sunny.” April inclines her head towards Marianne in a language, please gesture, willing herself not to feel foolish. Sunny returns it with a bored, unfastened look. Get a fucking life.
Why can’t it be plain hatred, April thinks as she tosses the spoon in the sink and runs hot water. She could take screaming, name calling, pronouncements of life ruination. She expected them, even. It’s the distant mildness of the derision that she can’t bear.
For most of Sunny’s life, April has believed her daughter is a hologram. Others can see some dimension of her to which April has never had access. They walk around her to marvel from different perspectives. She changes colors. What she conceals from one side she reveals from another. She transforms before their eyes. April stares until her eyes feel as if they’ve ossified in their sockets. She attempts every angle. She keeps trying. She knows it’s there—she’s watched others see it. Sunny remains hidden.
April could not possibly have anticipated the burden of this failed effort. She senses that the place Sunny has always been is not especially exotic or surreal, somewhere a mother should be able to go, which makes her failure even worse. She hides her inability to see her daughter like one hides illiteracy. The rice, as she suspected, is overcooked. She can already tell her tongue will blister.
“We’ve got a problem here,” Marianne says. April jerks her hands out of the sink. She has to remind herself that Marianne cannot see inside her head. Marianne clasps her hands over her lap and looks back and forth between the two of them. She rubs her feet together. “It’s an emergency.”
Sunny coughs again and gets up. She offers her an arm. “Let’s go, then.”
April watches them shuffle out of the room together. “I need to go in the most awful way,” Marianne confides in a stage whisper. “You know what I mean?”
April starts the rice over. She watches the wind toss the snow through the air in all directions outside the big kitchen window. The sky, what she can see of it through the sheets of snow, is a viscous black. The shrunken trees sway helplessly, their leafless networks of branches withered like diseased arteries. It’s the worst storm they’ve had thus far this season. The hail starts, tiny grenades pinging hard against the glass. Upstairs she hears the rise and fall of Sunny’s voice, followed by Marianne’s laughter.
We’ve never known anything but this, April thinks, someone taking care of someone else. Marianne found April and Sunny in a storm just like this one. April, a native Californian, barely knew her mother-in-law; they’d only lived in Cleveland for six months. Her husband was dead and winter had just arrived. Sunny was three and had a cavernous wet cough similar to the one she has now. April remembers Marianne standing in the front doorway of their apartment, feet braced apart, hands planted on her hips. Then forty pounds heavier, she reminded April of a badger or a polecat, one of those short-legged, thick-furred creatures known for their grouchy fortitude and self-sufficiency. She cast a dubious glance around the living room, whose windows rattled with even a mild wind. She said, “You two come with me now.”
April had never shoveled snow before, had never scraped ice from a sidewalk or been a widow or raised a child. She didn’t even own a winter coat. Marianne wordlessly took care of the worst chores herself, burying dead pets or stacking firewood, as if it were better for everyone not to watch April struggle through them. When Sunny developed croup and alternately screamed and barked like a seal nonstop for two weeks, Marianne had been the one to stay up nights with her. April, sick with tears and exhaustion and shame, lay on the couch and listened.
There wasn’t a specific day things changed. It was a steady creeping reversal, the way darkness slowly takes the place of daylight as the year approaches its end: the mother-in-law became the child, the daughter-in-law became the parent. Though she’d longed for the end of the days when Marianne made her feel slow and stupid and useless, she now misses her unflinching outlook, her roughness and calloused chubby hands. Aging has softened her. She has become naïve and squeamish, easily discomfited or upset by messes and arguing.
April opens Merlot. She takes her time removing the cork. She uses one of the nice glasses. She stirs the rice. Sunny bounds down the stairs.
“Everything okay?” April asks.
“Fine,” Sunny says.
“Where’s Mimi?” April asks.
“I put the TV in her room on,” Sunny says. “That looks good.” She points to the wine.
“You’re not old enough,” April says. Sunny smirks. “Were your classes canceled today?” April asks. “Because of the storm?”
“No,” Sunny says. She chews on her lower lip and waits.
April looks at her feet again. She really needs to put on socks. “You shouldn’t drive back tonight,” she says. “It’s too dangerous.”
Sunny gives a one-shouldered shrug. She’s pushing her cuticles back with her front teeth. “Maybe,” she says around her fingers.
“Dinner’s nearly done,” April says. “Go get Mimi.”
Sunny takes her hand from her mouth and goes to the cupboard. She brings out a tray. “She wants to eat in front of the news. Can we eat upstairs?”
April knows, without having to ask, that we does not mean the three of them. Sunny stares and lifts her chin, which has the tiniest cleft, like her father’s.
“Sure,” April says. She pours herself more wine. “She needs to take her pills. Her joints have been getting worse.” She relishes relaying this information, knowing Sunny isn’t here enough to know Marianne’s daily needs, the small changes that make their way in unnoticed. I’m the one who’s here every day, April tells herself. I’m the one who needs the wine.
Sunny turns and opens drawers, bustling around, carried off by a swell of domesticity. “I’ll make sure she takes everything.”
April watches her daughter, in her socks and secondhand clothes. Her bizarre unflattering haircut makes the back of her neck look shorn and vulnerable. April wants to spread her fingers there. I had a sick toddler and a dead husband when I was your age, she thinks. My life was hard. The pills clink into a cup. “Don’t forget the glucosamine,” April says. “The big tan ones.”
Sunny pushes the sticky rice off the spoon with the tip of her forefinger. She sniffs the chicken before nudging it onto plates laid out on a tray. “Wash your hands,” April says. There was a birthday dinner she had prepared for Sunny. She must have been twelve or thirteen, still young enough to hide the adulthood that had taken root inside of her. Sunny wanted chicken fingers, or maybe it was fried chicken, April can’t remember. A new subscriber to Gourmet and Food & Wine, she’d made coq au vin, which she’d arranged on a white ceramic platter with a scalloped edge. She remembers that platter. She remembers that same fingertip pushing against it, slowly, till the weight of the chicken tipped it over the counter’s edge, the red wine like arterial spray on the cabinets, the chicken on the floor resembling a carcass. “See you,” Sunny says as she leaves the kitchen with the tray.
April realizes she should have taken the pie out of the oven when she turned it off. The crust is too dark. It is small clues like these that reveal housewifery as something at which she has merely become practiced, never something that came naturally. She and Elton lived in Berkeley. They were eighteen and unmarried. Elton was from Ohio and in school; April was pregnant. Three years later Sunny clung to her neck, coughing wetly in her ear, while doctors talked to her. She didn’t understand what they were saying, didn’t know about sepsis or blood toxicity.
“He had a cold,” she kept saying. “Just a bad cold.”
“Pneumonia,” they told her.
“We have no insurance,” she said. Sunny’s breath rattled against her neck. “I’m from California.”
“Multi-system organ failure,” they told her. “Is there someone you can call?”
That event catalyzed the ones that followed, a chain April couldn’t stop, though it was mostly because she had no better ideas. They all happened too early, too fast, a set of choices that don’t feel like choices now. Now they feel like prison, she thinks. She thumps the top of the pie until it cracks. If only she’d known. She looks outside. And now, winter in Cleveland. April in Cleveland, she thinks. She decides the chill in her feet is grimly satisfying. She notices their whiteness, their solitude. She decides to ignore whose name is the bigger irony, her daughter’s or her own.
She drinks wine instead of eating. She tries to enjoy it. She isn’t hungry, anyway. She scrapes the ruined rice into the trash and ties up the bag. It will have to stay inside tonight—the garbage cans are covered by now. She has nothing else to do, so she keeps cleaning until the kitchen is clear of all traces of dinner. As she surveys the room, she sees Sunny’s boots and their preceding trail. These she leaves.
The pie, though burned, still smells good when she cuts it. On a whim she puts the entire thing on the tray (in case they want seconds, she tells herself) and uses the good china, her favorite. She goes up the stairs quietly. The TV is still on. The bedroom door is cracked, and she pauses outside. Marianne sits in her armchair in front of the coffee table. Sunny is next to her on the floor.
“A tattoo,” Sunny is saying. “Like mine, only bigger. Much bigger. An eagle.”
The sound of silverware on dishes. “He’s a man who doesn’t know his own mind,” Marianne says. “Mark my words.”
There is a pause, and as April moves to go in, Sunny begins to sob, huge undignified sobs that freeze April where she stands. She recognizes these sobs. They are the sobs of a woman, of loss, and her heart feels as if its final strings have been cut.
“It hurt,” Sunny cries. “It hurt so much worse than they said it was going to.”
“Oh, my dear,” Marianne says. “Oh, my dear girl.”
“But a baby. I just can’t. You know?”
“You’ve got to make a choice sometimes,” Marianne says. “You’ve got to choose.”
The silence that follows is broken only by Sunny’s breathing. April listens to the newscaster announce heavy snowfall throughout the night. She waits.
“Who is your mother?” Marianne asks finally. “Mothers should know these things.”
Sunny laughs and April closes her eyes. She knows the expression on Sunny’s face is the same fixed hooded look that is all she ever sees.
“My mother can’t do anything about this,” Sunny says.
April braces the tray between her stomach and the wall to steady it and takes deep breaths. The images in her head sicken her. Sunny on a table in a cold room, her knees open and trembling, some male doctor peering up inside her. She forces herself not to imagine the rest.
“My son died,” Marianne says. “Did you know that?”
“Yes,” Sunny says. “He was sick.” Her crying quiets, then turns into a fit of coughing.
“And I just did what I had to do,” Marianne says. “I knew what I had to do, and that was that.”
Sunny continues to cough. April recognizes its hoarseness. Her throat is drying out. She’ll lose her voice soon if she isn’t careful.
“You take care of yourself, now,” Marianne says. “Don’t think about him or anyone else, just take care of yourself. That cough is nothing to mess around with, in this weather.” Sunny blows her nose. The news program announces its finish with trumpet music. The two are quiet.
“Do you know,” Marianne asks, “the little girl with the nine on her shirt?”
Sunny’s laugh sounds wet. “You like to talk about her, don’t you?”
“I gave her that shirt,” Marianne says. “She was the most precious little thing. The number was an appliqué.”
“Yeah,” Sunny says. “I know her.”
“And I would say, ‘Tell me what number’s on your shirt, honey,’” Marianne says. “And she would look down at it and you know what she would say?”
“‘Six!’” Sunny says. “I would say, ‘Six!’”
“Six!” Marianne laughs. “Makes sense, doesn’t it? When you look at it from where she does, it makes perfect sense.”
“Yeah,” Sunny says.
April pushes the door open and Sunny spins around. “Mom.” The dirty dinner dishes are piled beside her.
“Ready for dessert?” April says, wearing her ignorance too plainly. Sunny’s eyes narrow. April doesn’t know quite what to do with her face, a dead giveaway. Sunny looks down, and April can feel her retreating, her warmth returning inside to keep only the most necessary organs functioning.
“Oh, that smells good.” Marianne turns around in her chair.
“Pie,” April says. “Apple.” She kneels on the floor and lifts the pie to the coffee
table. There is silence as she cuts into it, lifts slices onto plates. Sunny holds hers as if she’s waiting to pass it to someone else.
“This is tasty,” Marianne announces, “though a little dry. Who made this? I have a very good recipe I’ll use next time.”
“Don’t you want to try it?” April asks Sunny.
“I’m full,” Sunny says. She returns her plate to the tray.
“The trick is you have to add butter on top of the apples,” Marianne informs them knowingly. “You wouldn’t think so, would you?”
April watches Sunny steadily massage palm prints into the rug. The hush seems to grow not heavier but wider, a thinly seeping stain. She tastes wine on the back of her tongue. Her throat barely allows air to pass.
Marianne looks unhappily down at her empty plate. “Is there any more?”
“I saw him,” April says. “When I came to visit you. I know who he is.”
Sunny glares at her and hugs her knees into her chest. April puts her own plate beside Sunny’s and takes her hands, which Sunny lets droop, two tranquilized creatures.
“When was this? Why didn’t you say something?” As she asks the questions, April realizes it could have been months ago. It could have been happening repeatedly. Sunny could have contracted something. She pictures Sunny’s immune system like the network of branches on the trees outside, battered by some invisible force. Sunny doesn’t answer her.
“Did you have any follow-up?” April slides closer. “What did the doctors say? You did go to a doctor?” Surely Sunny had not tried to take care of this any other way.
Sunny wipes her nose against her arm. She looks at April as if she’s speaking a language neither of them know well enough to use.
“We can get you help,” April says. “Someone to talk to.”
“We who?” Sunny says finally.
As she speaks, there is a crash, and they both look up. Marianne is standing holding the tray. The plates aren’t broken, but pie has splattered all over the carpet. A chunk of crust rolls to a stop at April’s knee. Marianne looks terrified.
“It slipped,” she cries. “I thought I had it but it slipped.” There is pie all over her hands.
“Marianne, for god’s sake,” April says, “you should have let me do it.”
“It isn’t her fault,” Sunny says. “She didn’t mean to.” She gets to her feet and goes to the bathroom.
Marianne scans the floor. There are the tears in her eyes. “Oh,” she says. “It’s just such a disaster.”
Sunny guides Marianne back into her chair. “Hold out your hands, Mimi,” she instructs. Marianne hesitates. Sunny waves a washcloth. “It’s just warm water.”
She is no longer crying. She briskly wipes down each of Marianne’s fingers. “It’s over, Mom,” she says. She pauses to study a scratch on Marianne’s palm. “There’s nothing to do about it now. Forget it.”
“Nail scissors,” Marianne reports.
“I could have helped you.” April feels as if she’s watching a movie, the unbearable pressure of wanting to act on something inactionable. Her head is aswarm with a thousand iridescent flies. An ache comes from some locationless place in her brain. Dizziness passes through her and she feels herself swaying gently. Sunny pushes back her sweater sleeves and April sees the tiny scarred disks that line her arms, lozenge-pink and shiny. None of this seems like something Sunny is equipped to handle on her own. But here she is, calmly running a wet rag over her grandmother’s bony wrists.
“You need slippers,” Sunny says. “I’ll get them for you. Are they downstairs?”
“In the kitchen,” April says. Sunny disappears from the room.
“Socks can be so slippery,” Marianne agrees. “Dangerous on the stairs.”
April looks around at the mess, and feels, somehow, as if it’s she who has made it. She who has dropped the tray, she who thought she had a firm grasp when she did not, she who is answerable. Marianne is gazing at the storm beyond the window. “I should really put my car in the garage,” she says. “I can’t believe I’ve left it uncovered.”
April puts her head in her hands. “You don’t have a car, Marianne.”
“What are you talking about?” Marianne snarls. She twists her face up, so severely her upper gums are exposed. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course I do. It’s a very distinct shade of green.”
“You haven’t had a car for years. Years and years. You have no idea what you’re talking about,” April shouts. “I’m the idiot?”
“You really are a completely unreasonable woman.” Marianne sniffs and pulls her robe tighter. “There’s just no talking to you.”
“You know what?” April grabs the robe ties and shakes them like whips; Marianne lurches. “Just go ahead. I don’t care. I don’t. You can just fucking freeze to death.”
“Mom.” Sunny stands in the doorway. April releases Marianne slowly, and Marianne sways, looking as if she has emerged from the Tilt-a-Whirl. April looks for a moment at the floor. She wants to ask them how she is the only one who doesn’t seem to know how she has chosen this life.
“Go to bed. I’ll clean this up,” Sunny says.
Marianne looks up at Sunny, and a smile practically splits her face in two.
“It’s you!” she cries. “You’re here!”
April lies in bed awake and listens to the whir of the vacuum cleaner and the murmur of voices. When she does drift off, she sleeps the half-sleep of the traumatized. She has piled three blankets on her bed to keep warm. At first they seem not nearly enough, yet she wakes up sweating, her damp shirt clinging to her breastbone and stomach, her hair snarled into sticky knots. She has the uncontrollable, abrading sense that she lost something without knowing it, as if she’s only now discovering that years ago she threw away a winning lottery ticket. Her dreams straddle sleep and wakefulness, producing a delirium of half dream, half memory. Dozing throughout the night, she first smells lemons, the hot scent of San Francisco, but then remembers that it’s Christmas and California does not exist. Oh, she thinks, how could I have forgotten? I have to decorate. Elton is there, balding for some reason, and she wants to ask him when he started losing his hair. She knows it should make him seem older, but instead the opposite is true. She wants to reassure him that it doesn’t affect how attracted she is to him. She worries that he’ll be self-conscious. But she doesn’t have to say anything; she feels his relief.
But it’s Christmas. She must not forget. She sees the insides of boxes: dried wreaths and garlands, some lights and window decals, the Nativity scene from which the baby Jesus went missing years ago. Sunny stubbornly insisted she’d had nothing to do with its disappearance. April finally gave up searching, and put in its place the smallest in a set of nesting Russian dolls, a small red capsule with a yellow star for a face, which looks like a little pellet in its manger.
When April gets out of bed in the morning, her face feels swollen from sleeplessness and she has a catastrophic wine headache. The smell of pie lingers upstairs and makes her feel even sicker. A blister has formed on her tongue. She wraps her arms around herself and crosses to the window. Snow is just barely falling, and everything is covered in white. There must be at least two feet of it. The world is mute and invaded. Last night, this place was all the storm cared about. Now it has abandoned them, filled up their driveway and their yard and their line of sight with its masses, and moved on. The sky and ground blend into one another, borderless, as if the city has split off from the rest of the planet. There is no sign of life outside.
She almost steps on the cat. He is licking the dirty plates from last night, which Sunny has stacked at the top of the stairs. The uneaten pie languishes beside them. The cat hisses at her, flexing his tail and she resists the urge to kick him. Marianne’s bed is empty and the covers are thrown back. Sunny’s bed is also slept in, also empty. As April descends the stairs, a bubble of congestion rises through her sinuses, compressing her eyes and worsening her headache.
They are nowhere. The kitchen is vacant. Sunny’s muddy tracks are still on the floor, sharply rendered as crime scene footprints. Coffee has not been made. Sunny’s car is an undisturbed mound of white in the driveway. April calls their names. There is no answer. She returns upstairs, her heart drumming. She checks the bathrooms. Her hairline prickles.
“They’re gone,” she says. Her voice rings in the emptiness.
It’s the storm—parasitic, ominous, inexorable—but it’s more than the storm. It’s Cleveland that has cornered her here, that has ripped Sunny’s secret from her, that has stolen Marianne’s mind. April is in the seventeenth year of her exile, and she knows now that all along this particular winter was coming for her. The winter that would see fit to strip her of her cruel lovely child, of the shell of her mother-in-law. The winter that would grant her what shameful things she wished in secret.
She fists her hands and presses them to her eyes, feeling the heat that builds up there. Her mouth tastes like morning and fear. The quick cold shock of nausea brings sweat to her face. She knows what she will have to do: pile winter clothes on her body, suit up to go out and fight through mountains of snow unearthing the smallest of things—a door handle, a sideview mirror, a place to put her feet. These tasks feel insurmountable, purposeless beyond any effort to search, to dress, to move beyond where she stands. She slides down the wall to the floor. “Where are they?” she asks no one.
The first plate is moving too slowly to break. She pushes it off with one fingertip and it rolls almost comically down the stairs, coming to a spinning stop. The second goes askew, making a divot as it hits the wall and leaves a trail of pie bits behind. It sings as it cracks in half on the wood floor. The third she actually aims. Splinters and shards fly in a small explosion as it smashes into the second plate. Because the pie itself is so heavy, she uses both hands. Her rotator cuffs, still rigid from sleep, wrench as she lifts her arms above her head and hurls it. It sails in an arc above the stairs, showering the carpet with crust and juice. It lands on its edge, and the dish, white ceramic with scalloped edges, breaks with a thick sound. Then there is quiet. Her hands are cold and sticky and numbness begins to creep down her fingers.
A voice from behind the house. She crawls to the window that overlooks the backyard. There are two figures, one tall, one short, snow reaching well up over their knees. Both wear old winter coats. The snow absorbs the daylight, and their faces are just barely clear. It’s still dim enough outside for them to appear like ghosts. Sunny is wearing her pajama bottoms. Marianne’s nightgown and bathrobe bunch out from under April’s old navy blue peacoat. She struggles in the snow and April sees the tops of the galoshes she wears. Neither of them looks up at the house. April watches their mouths move.
I used to have a car, April imagines Marianne saying. What happened to it?
It was old and you didn’t need it anymore, Sunny answers. April watches her blow on her bare hands and vigorously rub her arms.
Marianne looks forlornly down at her feet, dwarfed in the galoshes. Sunny takes Marianne’s hands in hers and holds her gaze. Next time you want to go outside, you come and find me first. Okay? April cannot remember the last time she met Marianne’s eyes for longer than a few seconds. We’ll go together. Wherever you need to go. They look like schoolchildren in the midst of swearing an oath.
April watches Marianne gasp. The wrinkled white planes of her face press against her bones. Weightless desperation spins across her face. Her expression shifts, worry to fear, and back again. Sunny moves to wrap an arm around her shoulder and points at the house. The two slowly begin to make their way. Marianne turns to Sunny. This cold gets into your bones, doesn’t it. It feels like it’s been here forever.
Sunny rests her palm on her grandmother’s hair. They keep inching forward. Yes, April can almost hear her say. Like forever.