Shattered

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Bethany Nuckolls


ice-crack
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. —I Corinthians 13:12

The lake turned to glass during the night.

Next morning, he can see straight down to the bottom when he lays his forehead on its cool surface. He can see the minnows, brown and motionless like pebbles, hovering mere inches beneath his open palms. The surface is smooth, but not mirror-smooth. There are small dimples and flutters of frozen motion, a scattering of tiny proofs of life. And yet, overnight, it has all fallen still.

He crawls across the lake on hands and knees, exploring what he knows to be impossible. The touch of glass feels like water fondling his palms, or a breeze flowing through his fingers. Ripples are frozen, leaving giant undulations of pooling glass where, perhaps, a mallard has taken flight or a turtle ducked its head. The perfect roundness of every ring and dimple reflects the sun and glimmers, as unique as thumbprints. It seems as if time itself has stopped and he is the only creature still breathing in the world.

He wonders if he is still drunk from the night before. It occurs to him suddenly that the lake may not be frozen at all. Last he had looked at the calendar, it was the middle of June. Perhaps if he stops believing what his senses are telling him, he will wake up and discover that it has all been a dream.

He peers again at the lake bottom. The glass looks fluid, ready to melt, to shatter, and to swallow him. He can feel it giving way. So he holds his breath, and waits for the plunge.

*

A pair of running shoes on the bottom stair, visible in the half-light of the kitchen bulb.

“What the hell are those?” I demand, bare feet slamming into each wooden step.

Shane switches on the basement light, blinding me suddenly with the glare of harsh metal edges—pipes from the furnace and water heater. Dammit! My brother grins at me. There’s a mischief in his eyes that I rarely see.

“They’re yours, Dez,” he says, and I stop muttering curses under my breath. He hasn’t even mentioned the bottle of Corona Light in my hand, or how I’m not supposed to be combining alcohol with medication. He just flashes that stupid grin, like I’m supposed to throw my hands up and start dancing ecstatically on the stairs. Great, I’ve got a new pair of shoes.

I’m not a runner; Shane is. He runs every day to some end of the earth that I’ve never seen nor care about. I tell him I think he’s found a girl that he can’t quite catch. He thinks if he keeps running, one day I’ll follow him. He never says it, but I always know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking right now that this time I will go out, that I will put on those running shoes.

Not a chance.

“You’re out of your mind,” I say and walk back up the steps, Corona in my hand, towards the table shadowed in the kitchen corner. My corner. The wallpaper is peeling and the floor slopes down in the corner, but I like it that way. I like to see the old house peeling away, erasing the place where my wife and I once lived. Soon, I think, or maybe hope, all the echoes will be gone.

I hear my fool brother call after me, “Last one to the end of the road is a pig’s ass!”

Mere boyhood threats. But things haven’t changed much.

I thunder down the steps to grab those running shoes.

 

We used to race barefoot in the woods behind our home in Virginia. We’d follow a creek into the crowd of dark cedars that would suddenly burst apart into dew-soft clearings. There, we would see rabbits sit up straight on their hind paws, surprised at our coming.

I would always be behind, following Shane’s footprints in the muddy clay. I’d notice how they were larger than mine, the strides longer, although he was younger than me. I’d stop as if to catch my breath and say, “I’m going home now!” And that would turn Shane right around, because whoever reached the kitchen first would get to choose his favorite color of ice pop first.

When I was much older, I broke three of my toes, and I stopped running. My wife said it was my fault because I was kicking in the garage door with my bare feet. I don’t really remember anything about it. Shane says nothing on the subject.

 

Today, the sky smells autumn dry. The dirt drive is packed hard beneath my running feet. It is late afternoon and the shadows from the cornfield on my left are weaving a gold and dark mesh across the ground. To the east, trees grimace against the deepening light, turning as red as my face. My breath comes in quick gulps because I know I can’t do this. I can’t run this far. Ahead, I see a small blob of white—the T-shirt of my brother who is at least an eighth of a mile in the lead, shrinking into a human-shaped blur.

I stop to gasp for air, heart throbbing in my chest, phlegm filling my throat. I can’t do this. I will never be able to catch up to my brother.

I’ve only been first once, and that was by birth. I should have gotten the best as the oldest child, but I didn’t. On my ninth birthday, my parents bought me a new, black-and-yellow ten-speed bike. They gave Shane a plastic model airplane so he would not feel left out. Shane enjoyed his one little toy so much that he never even asked to ride my bike.

That night, I buried that toy plane in the woods. I told Shane that he must have lost it. Shane cried, of course, but he believed his older brother.

“I’m turning back!” I yell. “I’m going back and I’m never doing this again! You listening, Shane? I don’t run! I never wanted to run!”

I see Shane turn around, but I don’t wait for him to come to me. I walk back up the drive, gazing out at the lake behind the house.

In the basement, I toss the new pair of running shoes into the empty metal water trough beneath the stairs. Then I stride across the basement and push Dad’s old worktable aside. My head clunks against the hanging light bulb. Dammit! I try to steady it, and my hands scatter shadows over the floor. Bed frames and moldy books crouch against the walls and watch me in the half-light. My fingers do the searching. At last, I find the paint can right where my wife set it before she left, the kitchen only half-painted the yellow of lemons.

I pry open the lid, carry it to the trough, and dump the paint over the laces, the soles, the tread, drowning the shoes in yellow. Behind me, I hear my brother come through the door. He doesn’t say anything, and I know he’s watching.

*

A crow caws. He gasps from sleep, his breath ragged. His knees are sore, his muscles tense. The hardness of the glass sends shocks of pain up his arms where they have been pressing against the surface. All around him, little whirligigs fall from the maples, landing on the lake’s phantom surface with the sound of rain. No longer June, but November. The world around him is dying quickly. But he is unable to die, turned back by the lake’s unending flatness.

He thinks about calling for help. Then he remembers:

Shane is gone. Shane has left him behind. He put on his running shoes one day and just kept running…

*

“Put down the phone!”

Shane looks startled as he glances up at me. He’s probably not expecting me up at five in the morning, but as the doctor tells him, “Always expect the unexpected.”

“Goddammit, Shane! I said, put down the phone!”

I reach for the receiver while my right fist pulls back in readiness. Shane gives me one frightened look before trying to slam the phone back in its cradle. I grab it first. “Listen!” I yell into the receiver, “I don’t need any help! Got it? You leave me alone! You and all your goddamn medications! I don’t need you!Crack! Call terminated.

Shane looks at me, stares at me as if I am a rabid animal. I’m not crazy, I want to shout. I want to ram my words into his face. But as I look at him, I can’t help but see the little boy who used to run into my room at night and bury himself beneath the covers. Our parents had given us separate bedrooms, but we had slept in the same room almost every night. “I’m scared,” he had whispered so the shadows wouldn’t hear. It had been our secret so Dad wouldn’t find out. “Promise?” he would beg, the sheets crumpled in his fists.

I should have kept it. I shouldn’t have let one little throb of jealousy get in the way of my promise. For days after I told on him, I would hear Shane crying through my bedroom wall until late in the night, his door blocked from the outside by Dad’s armchair.

“You’re crazy!”

I don’t mean to yell, but I have a strong voice. “You are out of your mind! Don’t you ever, ever call Dr. Mellin without my permission! I decide who to call around here!”

Shane shakes his head. “You need to get better, Dez,” he says. “Why can’t you just accept my help? When are we going to stop playing this childish game of pretending that everything is okay?”

“When hell freezes over,” I snarl. It sounds petty. I’m not even sure what the petulant turn of phrase is supposed to mean—a figurative place undergoing a figurative change. The rest of the world is so set apart from reality that “normal people” can understand every last one of these damned, moralizing concepts. I, however, can only hurl them like blunt objects at the people who know me the best.

Shane has no comeback. He just stands there wordlessly, arms hanging limp at his sides as I turn to walk away. I give him a last warning look, but I feel shame creeping up into my face. So, like a striking snake, my hand snatches and yanks the phone cord from the wall.

*

The smoothness of the lake when he glides his hand over the polished ripples reminds him of ice skating at the university. Erika had taught him how to ice skate. Before then, he hadn’t even dared to try. He knew he would just keep falling on his ass and hear the jeers of the upperclassmen. But she had given him the courage to try, to take a risk, to have fun while he skittered about on his blades, feeling a pull at the bottom of his stomach every time he moved. She had been the one who had pulled him out of himself, who had allowed him to shrug off the mask he had worn throughout his freshman year. He had felt lucky to have won her as a friend.

He remembers.

He remembers laughing.

As he reaches out to touch a tuft of cattail poking out of the surface, his hand freezes in motion. He recognizes the image frozen beneath the surface of the lake… the crossed shape of a model airplane. It should not be here, but it is—dirt-covered, broken, and only an arm’s length away, yet as unrecoverable beneath the glass as a thoughtless deed.

Trapped.

*

“Erika sent this.”

Shane stands at the bottom of the stair, his white shirt stained yellow with sweat. He’s been running. I’ve been staring at my computer, so my vision is cloudy with after-images as I roll my chair back to look at him. I see that Shane is holding out an envelope.

“Come up,” I say at last.

No return address, but that’s to be expected. I rip open the paper and suddenly feel a hot sting. Damn! The paper cut bleeds across my finger and I smash it down against the fabric of the placemat.

A storm had rattled the windows hard the day Erika bought the lemon yellow placemats from the department store. “I just wanted to go out by myself,” she had said in a rusty voice, one longing to not speak at all. “Besides, I can’t return them now. The receipt got wet in the rain.”

She had crumpled the soggy paper in her hand, and the ink had bled between her tightly-clenched fingers.

And so the placemats had stayed, though now they are speckled brown and gray from food and dirt, and now red from blood.

“Damn envelope,” I mutter. “Doesn’t she know how to use email?”

Of course she does. She doesn’t have a computer at her apartment. Her residence is just temporary anyway, but I don’t think she has any intention of coming back, even if she does get the house and everything else through the divorce. For now, the house is my home—home until Dr. Mellin decides to lock me up if I don’t “improve.” It’s a nifty experiment, imprisoning me in my own house. I suppose he and Shane think that this regimen will cure me. Cure me of what, I’d like to know? Divorcing my wife? Marriage used to be a private matter. So had reading the mail.

“What does it say—if you don’t mind my asking?” Shane says, and I know he’s trying to lighten the gloom that curtains the off-yellow kitchen.

“She says, ‘Dear Desmond. Hope you aren’t lonely and you and your brother are getting along, neh deh-neh deh-neh…'” I fall silent, reading the handwriting that looks so familiar, curved in the smooth lines that are being crushed under my thumbs and stained by my bleeding finger. Her flowing hand reminds me of the softness of her dark hair. It was the most beautiful on summer days, when we went hiking in the Appalachians and its dark tangles looked like the patterns of the forest shadows.

We had gone hiking the day after Erika found out she was pregnant. “I might not be able to do this for awhile,” she had laughed. We had talked about names. If it was a boy, I would name it. If it was a girl, Erika would, and I could choose the second name. I had decided on Liam for a boy.

“It follows family tradition,” I had explained to her. “And it means ‘strong-willed.'”

“Like you,” she had said. Erika had a fondness for Hebrew names, so the girl would be named Abby, which she claimed meant ‘joy of the father.’ I had told her it was the perfect name.

It was born on a stormy March night that was much less intense than the confusion at the hospital. Although invited to stay, I left the delivery room and waited in the hospital lobby. Erika’s first contraction had struck me, like lighting, with a sudden doubt.

It turned out to be a girl, a crying, pathetic thing. But Erika loved it; she loved the lumpy red creature that could easily have been mistaken for a large and gnarly potato pulled up out of the earth. The strength of that love frightened me.

I tried to be gentle with it at first, praying that it would not open its eyes and see me, holding it in my arms. Then I tried ignoring it. But every day, I’d see Erika sitting in the rocker beside the crib, crooning to it, singing to it. She’d ask me to make her dinner, and I’d stiffly comply, clenching my teeth against a jealousy I knew shouldn’t be there. I knew it was wrong.

Her face is still vividly there. Her luscious, black hair melts into the creases of the paper. Her eyes gaze at me from between the folds. I can smell her scent on the letter. Her face smiles, then saddens, as a mist in my eyes fades the image out.

Shane puts a hand on my shoulder. I feel it like a blow. Our dad’s voice rings in my head. “You only see the surface, Desmond. You never really get the heart of the matter.” He is standing there in his crisp white shirt and khaki trousers. His frame is tall and thin. His clothes look like paper. I always felt that if I blew gently, the wind might carry him away. But his heart was too heavy. “Goddamn, you’re the most short-sighted son I’ve ever had to raise.”

“Dez.”

Shane whispers in my ear, and I start and look over my shoulder. I see his serious, brown eyes taking hold of mine, trying to draw me out of the darkness. But I can’t keep my gaze steady. I can’t hold it in. The next moment I’m on my feet and I’m swearing like I never have before. My lungs can’t hold it all, the pain, the swelling that fills my chest. My ears roar with static noise.

“I don’t care!” come the echoes of my own words, as if from a great distance. “I don’t care what you say, or anybody says! I don’t need her! I don’t want her!”

The letter tears in my hand, again, and again. The pieces flutter to the floor along with the tears that fall from my face.

I turn on my brother who is looking stunned. “Her… them… You’ll never leave me alone!” I accuse. “Nobody does! Listen to me, there is nothing wrong with me! I’m me… this is me! I am perfectly normal!”

Shane gets ahold of my left wrist and gives it a painful twist and I stop yelling so I can curse.

“Dez, listen,” he says. “Listen to me. You’ll be fine. You just don’t understand… you don’t understand.” He lets go of my wrist and takes several deep breaths, as if winded, despite all of his running practice.

At last, it’s my turn to win.

“I do understand,” I say, coolly. “I know why you’re here, Shane, why you came here. You’re the watchdog. Erika was worried about me, so you thought you’d do her a favor by keeping an eye on me. But that’s the older brother’s job, Shane. That’s my job. I’m supposed to look after you! It’s my right!”

I choke on my own words as I speak. The creature inside of me throws itself against the bars.

Shane grips both of my shoulders now, but he can’t look at me. He’s crying, and shame fuels my desire to run. I try to wrench away, but Shane does not let go. I glare into his tightened face. My fingers begin to reach for his throat. “God, how I hate you…”

“Desmond,” he says.

Something in the softness of his voice causes me to listen this time.

“I—I have always… always looked up to you. I just want you to know that. You were my only big brother and I wanted to be like you. Just like you.”

I jerk away from Shane’s grip. Liar, I think. I already know that he’s going to call Dr. Mellin. He’s going to have me taken away and locked up. They both think I’m crazy. But they don’t know crazy.

Crazy is crawling on a frozen lake without feeling the cold. Crazy is risking death by lying at its center, the weakest spot on the ice. Most of all, it’s being able to look down beneath the surface and see it all clearly, second by second, every regret, down to the deepest level of hell.

But I suppose none of us ever realize we’re standing on thin ice until it begins to crack.

I stalk away from my brother to find something that will stop the pain that is pressing against my ribs and pounding in my head. I search for something I can kick or hurl against the wall. Through a blur of vision, I see the curling ends of the lemony wallpaper border that wraps around the walls of the kitchen, cracked in places where my fist smashed the drywall. It used to frighten Erika when I lost my temper. Sometimes, I frightened myself.

On the cabinet beside the kitchen table, I see the hand-blown glass plate that Erika bought last summer at the Appalachian art festival. Erika had said she could see our own lake in its rippled bands of painted blue. The glass dims and wavers in my mind—a volatile thought coming into focus. Then it breaks beneath the sledgehammer of my fist. I watch the lake shatter into a hundred pieces.

*

He awakens once more. It is winter now. The glass has become ice. The cattails are gone and he wants to leave. He reaches for her hand, but it is not there anymore.

“You can do it, silly,” her voice says. “Keep your knees bent this time.”

Her voice is still there, but she is long gone.

He tries to stand, but his feet slide suddenly on the surface, and his fingers claw the ice for purchase. The lake groans, then cracks. The sun fades fast behind dark trees as he struggles again to stand, the way she taught him, with knees bent.

pencil

Bethany Nuckolls knew she wanted to be a writer since she was five, and thus seventeen years later she earned a degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her writing has been featured in the university’s publications and also in various online publications. Her main hobby, aside from writing, is traveling around the country and the world, and many of the places she has visited have also inspired her stories. Lately, she has spent two years living in rural Japan. Email: writebackatcha[at]yahoo.com

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