Two months into sixth grade, Mom dies.
I did my Pivotal Moment Project on it.
With chalk crumbling under my grip, I wrote MELANOMA in big, bold letters on the blackboard. My hands, dusted white, made me think of ashes.
I said, “This is my pivotal moment. I thought dying was what happened on TV, and now I know I’m going to die, and my dog is going to die, and—and the Dalai Lama is going to die—and…” A kid near the front of the class said “My grandma died last year and Mom said she’s in a better place.” After class, I head-butted him in the face, then got sent to the principal, who called my dad. We had a conference, the principal, the school psychologist, my dad and me, and we listened to the psychologist talk about “the mourning process” and the importance of “grieving as a familial unit.” Dad listened to the Principal stress “the gravity of the situation” and said “I’ll have a talk with him” and “We’ll definitely be having a serious talk.”
‘The talk’ took place at home, over a Chinese take-out. I had just speared a piece of General Tso’s Chicken, when Dad said “Jonas?”
I concentrated on my plate.
“Jonas, you can’t head-butt people.”
I popped the piece of chicken in my mouth and chewed. Met Dad’s eye. Chewed. Swallowed. Took the fortune cookie out of its plastic wrap and cracked it open. Chewed.
“Your Mom would be disappointed.”
I stared at him, then rushed off to my room and slammed the door. Twice.
My fortune cookie: A positive mind is the road to a positive life.
Dad began talking to himself. He would pace, and rearrange the furniture. Over breakfast one day, in December, he said “I’m thinking of installing a pool in the back yard. What do you boys think?”
Alex, my brother, looked up from cornflakes, said “Mom was the one who wanted it.”
“Even so,” he said, “I’ve come to share her opinion. It would be nice to have, I think, in the summer. Don’t you think it would be a nice thing to have Jo?”
I shrugged, spooned yogurt into my mouth.
“I think it would be a damned nice thing,” he said.
Outside, it was snowing. We ended up having a two-hour delay.
It snowed again, harder, right before we went on winter break, but that didn’t stop Dad from dropping us off to spend it at our Aunt Sarah’s house, up in Vermont. We made the trip in his rusted Civic, the one we’d taken to Virginia Beach a couple years ago, and to Canada before that. Dad didn’t talk much, except to say “Bathrooms coming up boys,” and “Remember I packed sandwiches, say the word and we’ll stop” and “I’ve missed driving down country roads.” He kept playing Ruby Tuesday, over and over again, loud, his window open, freezing air rushing in. It would be years before we found out that he’d been with Aunt Sarah long before Mom.
Alex was with me in the back, head resting against the window. He would look at me for stretches, give my shoulder a squeeze, my hair a tousle. A few miles from the border of New York and Vermont, we pulled over at a rest stop. Dad maneuvered into a space away from the other cars, and we sat for a minute with the engine idling.
“Sandwiches,” Dad said.
He got the cooler out of the trunk and gave us one each, took one for himself, then stared at it as he would a foreign object. “You know,” he said, “they had a Roy Rogers on the sign. I think I’ll have a burger.”
He walked off, growing smaller until he disappeared inside the building at the end of the lot. I bit into my sandwich, not because I was hungry, but because Dad had prepared it. I watched other families blur their way down the interstate.
I glanced in Alex’s direction.
“We’ve got—” he began, “—I told you before. You and me. We’ll be alright.”
I told Alex, three years older and everything I wanted to be when I got to his age: “I don’t believe you.”
He looked stunned. “You’ve got to.”
“I don’t.” I turned away from him, back to the interstate, to happier families on happier trips.
He kissed me, briefly, on the back of my head, the way Mom used to.
Dad returned a half hour later, without food. “Long lines. I got to the front and decided I wasn’t hungry.”
The stars were out when we arrived—they made shadows of us. Aunt Sarah met us on the porch, with faded eyes and fading words, punctuated by hesitations and awkward pauses.
Dad gave Alex a hug, then me, and whispered into my ear, “I’m sorry.”
I told him, “Well I don’t forgive you,” and for the briefest moment, a spasm of pain swept across his face. I wanted to take it back and I wanted not to. His face retreated back to the inscrutable stoicism to which I’d grown accustomed.
“It’ll only be a few days,” he said, staring past us.
“You’re—Sam—you can, you’re sure you—ah, don’t want to spend—” Aunt Sarah said.
“Thanks, Sarah,” he said, got back into the Civic, and drove off.
Five days later, when he came to pick us up, he was driving a new silver Lexus.
I told him I hated him, saw the spasm again, and was happy.
Aunt Sarah made us hot cocoa in the evenings and again in the mornings. She would pad around in her cotton-ball slippers and stare at us, mouth working but forming only silence. And then she would retreat, for hours at a time, into her room, to type. She was a writer. She wrote romances, which people said were quite racy. But she found fame through a different sort of story—The Sound of Healing—about two sisters dealing with the loss of their parents, and the eccentric, cheery aunt who helps them move past the tragedy. It was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. Translated into sixteen languages, including Catalan. A movie was made. People said it changed their lives.
I read it myself, years later, when Dad told me, during one of our twice-a-year phone conversations (his birthday and mine), that Aunt Sarah had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
The book was actually very good. I especially like this scene, where the three of them, the aunt and the two sisters, they go out in the middle of a blizzard and have a snowball fight. The wind’s blowing snow in their faces and they’re throwing snow into the wind, it becomes a snowball fight against the blizzard, a primal thing, and they’re laughing and they’re crying, but they know they’re together, they’re in it together, and the house is close by, feet away, and inside is the kitchen, and in the kitchen are three cups just waiting to be filled with hot cocoa, a table just waiting to be sat at, and a silence waiting to be broken by laughter and exuberant words—in short, by the sound of healing.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up.
I went out into the storm with a vague and romantic notion of dying. Swallowed up by the white. Ascension—but, where to? Heaven? Even at that age, there was something suspect about a place where you get to be happy without having that happiness taken from you.
We’d heard news of the storm on the weather channel the day before.
Fourteen-to-sixteen inches, winds up to thirty miles per hour.
Alex sat with me on the old couch, with its sagging cushions, arm around my shoulder. I leaned against him and listened to the weather man.
Fourteen-to-sixteen inches, winds up to thirty miles per hour.
“I didn’t know it could snow so much,” I said.
“It can snow more. One time,” he said, in the same dramatic voice he used to tell me stories, “when God was angry, he flooded the whole world.”
“That’s just a story,” I said. “And it was rain. That’s different.”
“Snow’s just rain that’s cold, Jo,” he said. “And the flood could’ve been real.”
I thought maybe Alex was right. Maybe we invented God to explain the flood. Maybe there really was some farmer who led two of each of his animals onto a boat and left the rest to drown…
A fantasy of drowning in snow took hold in me.
In my fantasy, I did not anticipate how cold such an end would be, even in full winter paraphernalia, with a scarf that said Canada whipping about around my neck. I couldn’t have found my way back if I’d wanted to—white in every direction.
I didn’t so much run away as stumble away, through knee-deep snow. If it had been later, if it had been darker, Alex never would have found me. I knew he was calling my name, but I just didn’t care. I moved on as I could, and had stopped looking back when he tackled me. We fell into the white, him on top. I tried to push him off but he was stronger. He pinned me and said “What the hell Jo?” What the hell? You’ll freeze, I thought. I averted my gaze. He didn’t finish.
He leaned forward and kissed me on the lips.
I looked up at him. “What—” I squirmed, tried to get up.
He held me down, eyes wide, and said, in an alarmed voice, “You can’t tell. You can’t tell Jo.”
He only let me up when I promised I wouldn’t. Then, with gloved hands on my shoulders, he led me back to the house. We fell into Aunt Sarah partway up the drive, half-dressed and screaming into the sky, screaming our names, and crying. Her hair was filled with ice. When she saw us, she quieted, trembling to herself, and led us back inside, telling us to “Hurry, hurry.” She made us hot cocoa, saying “It’s too dangerous now—you can play later, when it quiets down,” mostly to herself. She didn’t retreat into her room like usual. She stayed, and watched us, and Alex watched me, until I got up and locked myself in the bathroom, where I stayed for a long time.
When they knocked, and asked me if I was okay, I said I was having diarrhea.
“You can’t have diarrhea for an hour and a half Jo,” Alex finally said.
“Yes I can, and I will.”
“That’s not even diarrhea. That’s like dysentery.”
“Then I have dysentery.”
“You don’t have dysentery Jo. People in war get it.”
“Leave me alone!”
And so they did.
Alex and I shared the guest bedroom. We took turns, alternating between a single size bed and an air mattress on the floor. That night, our last night, I had the bed. Alex shook me awake and whispered, “Why did you run Jo? I need to know.”
I pretended I was asleep.
He shook me, harder, his fingers digging into my arm.
I knew he wasn’t going to stop until I answered. “You kissed me.”
“You promised you weren’t going to tell.”
“What if I do?”
“What’ll you do if I do?”
“Nothing,” he said, and let go of me altogether. “It’s just—I like you more than pretty much anyone else in the world.
I didn’t fall asleep again until much later, and when I did, I dreamt of Mom. She was running just as I’d run, and I was chasing her. Just as I reached her, she turned to ash. The wind took her away, and left me stranded, alone in the storm. I opened my mouth to scream, but couldn’t, snow filled my mouth, my throat, fourteen to sixteen inches of snow, which turned to water and drowned me. In my dream I died, but I don’t remember what happened then. I don’t remember what happened after my death.
The next morning, Dad drove up and we went home. The whole way back, Dad talked about the pool he wanted to get. He’d done a lot of thinking while we were up visiting Aunt Sarah and he’d decided on an in-ground. “No point in not getting the best right? You only live once, right? Carpe Diem, right? Boys?”
About the author:
Emil Ostrovski is represented by Laura Langlie of the Laura Langlie Literary Agency. He has several other short stories published in Word Riot. His debut novel will be released in 2013 by Greenwillow.