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Snow, Houston, 1974

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

Through the window next to his bed, Buddy watched his father build a wire cage to house a light bulb to keep the bougainvillea bush warm. The weatherman had warned that it would get down to the 20’s that night, a record low for Houston. As usual, Buddy’s father had appeared after the ten o’clock news, and Buddy waited for him to pass beneath the back porch light, his white lab coat like a ghost. Now, he knelt in the back yard, steam puffing out from the hood of his heavy jacket.

Trip let himself in the backyard gate, offering to help, but Buddy’s father waved him away. By that time, a pink blanket glowed on the wire cage. Trip stood there a moment, hands in his pockets, then slipped up the steps outside Buddy’s window. From the kitchen behind his bed came Trip’s and his mother’s muffled voices.

Buddy put on a jacket like his father’s, leaving his feet bare. The bright yellow kitchen was filled with plants his mother had brought in. Trip leaned against the clothes dryer near the back door, grinning at him through his scraggly beard. Buddy’s mother sat at a yellow table in the middle of the room.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked Buddy.

“Outside,” Buddy said.

Outside, the night air stung his face. Without turning to him, his father said, “What do you think?,” admiring the pink lantern the blanket made.

“It’ll catch fire,” Buddy said.

His father glanced over his shoulder, but the hood of his jacket hid his face. “Is that right? How come you know everything?”

Buddy hadn’t meant that. His toes felt like icicles on the rough cement.

“You better go inside,” his father said. “If you get sick, I’ll have to fix you, too.”

After his mother sent him to bed again, Buddy watched his father guard the blanket. When she’d asked if the light bulb would be all right, his father hadn’t answered her.

During the week, his father worked at the hospital where his mother taught medical technology, and on weekends, he studied enormous books with tissue-thin pages. Most nights Trip, who used to be his mother’s med tech student, but was now in medical school with Buddy’s father, came to the kitchen to drink beer and talk. Often, Buddy watched them from the hallway near the kitchen. When Trip asked his mother when she was going back to medical school, she glanced at Buddy’s father and said that she was too old for such nonsense. “You’re never too old to take chances,” Trip said. Buddy’s father let out a sharp bark which was supposed to be a laugh, but which made his mother jump. She told Trip she had Buddy and his father, which was everything she needed.

Some nights, his parents talked alone. Once, Buddy had seen his father put his face on his mother’s shoulder and cry. He’d backed down the hallway, caught his heel on a nail, and hollered, afraid of what he’d seen. His parents had looked at him as if they did not quite know who he was.

When Buddy woke, the kitchen was silent. His father no longer stood outside. As Buddy watched, the blanket seemed to smolder; he swelled with pride and fear, because no one else was there to see it. Then, as if in a dream, flames leapt up. At the same time, Buddy’s heart leapt, as if he’d wished the fire, to prove he was right.

“Fire!” he yelled. “Fire!”

A commotion arose in his parents’ room. Through his window, Buddy saw his father rush down the back porch steps in his T-shirt and underwear to beat the blanket with a rolled-up newspaper. His mother came to sit on his bed. She thought he was afraid; he wasn’t, though he pretended to be, to keep her there.

“Your poor father,” she said.

Buddy must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, his father stood in the doorway to his room. Above his white T-shirt, his face was dark. “Why didn’t you tell me that was gonna happen?” he said to Buddy.

“It’s not his fault,” his mother said.

She hadn’t caught the joke in his father’s voice; she didn’t know what Buddy had said. Now, it seemed like his and his father’s secret, but Buddy didn’t know what to say to let him know that he knew. Before he could answer, his father disappeared, calling his mother after him, and Buddy’s cheeks burned at his own silence.

The morning was hushed and bright. On the roofs’ mismatched shingles, on the stooped pecan trees, even in the steel fences’ serried links, lay a thin, white dust Buddy had seen before only on TV. Around the bougainvillea, scraps of burnt blanket had turned gray with frost. He pulled his covers over his head and tried to decide if he should tell his father that the snow was there.

Perhaps the snow would keep his father home.

Buddy slipped out of bed, shivering when his feet touched the floor. The walls of his room were yellow and bare, its thin carpet the color of chewed gum. Until his father became a doctor, his mother said, they would have to be careful with what they bought at the grocery store, and how much heat they used at night. Some nights, Buddy woke, and sat up in bed, worried that he himself did not have a job.

At his parents’ door, he stopped. His father had told him to knock, but he pushed it open, full of his surprise. Except for some bookcases and his mother’s picture of Robert Kennedy, the room was as dim and bare as his own. Blinds were drawn over the windows; two white lumps huddled on the bed.

“It’s snowing,” Buddy said.

His father groaned, a sound which could be either serious or joking; now, it seemed serious. Before Buddy could retreat, his father bolted up, hair on end, as if he’d been shocked. “Why can’t you knock on the goddamned door?” he said.

His mother peeked over the edge of the covers.

“It’s snowing,” Buddy said.

“It is not snowing,” his father said. “It has never snowed in Houston, Texas.”

His mother touched his father’s arm.

“What you saw was not snow.” His father’s voice was slow and calm; it seemed less angry than before. “You wouldn’t know snow if you saw it.”

Buddy jumped onto the bed and shouted, “It’s snow! It’s snow! It’s snow!”

Beneath him, his mother clutched the blanket to her chest. His father was yelling at him to get off the bed.

“Honey,” his mother said. “Buddy, why don’t you go back to sleep?”

On wobbly legs, he scrambled to the door and pulled it shut.

“I’m sorry, honey,” his mother said.

“That’s okay,” his father said. “I need to get to the lab.”

“What if he’s right? Shouldn’t we look?”

“You can look,” his father said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Buddy started toward his room, then paused. Eyes stinging, he went to the kitchen. Careful not to upset the plants his mother had brought in, he carried a chair to the sink and stood on it. On a windowsill above the sink were seashells and bits of colored glass his mother looked at while she did the dishes. Outside, snow covered the ground more thickly; a car drove by, leaving a trail of faint stripes. Past the sloping telephone lines, low clouds swallowed the tall buildings downtown. In the window screen, snowflakes lodged, then quickly faded. Buddy gripped the windowsill and leaned across the sink, trying to glimpse the snowflakes before they vanished.

“Buddy?” His mother stood next to him. The darkness of the room made the lines on her face deep and sharp, but her pale green eyes reflected the soft window light.

“You’re right,” she said. “It’s snowing.”

Buddy sat in the kitchen, watching TV. His mother had bundled him in a T-shirt, a regular shirt, a sweater, blue jeans, two pairs of socks, and his heavy jacket. The jacket, his father said, was actually two jackets in one; its bright orange lining could be turned inside-out when people wanted to be rescued, but its outer layer, the dull olive color of garbage bags, was camouflage. Buddy wore the camouflage.

While his mother had dressed him, the weatherman said that all schools would be closed that day. Buddy asked if his father was going to stay home, but his mother kept her lips drawn tight, her eyes focused on the buttons of his jacket. He thought of pale-faced Courtney Pensil, who played hide-and-seek with him at school. Sometimes Courtney cried when it was time to go home, because her father was mean, she said. His own father wasn’t mean, his mother had told him, just frustrated.

Now, the weatherman pointed at a map where wispy clouds repeated their herky-jerky routes across the sky. He said it hadn’t snowed in Houston since 1948, 26 years before. Twenty-six years was 20 more than Buddy had been alive. That it had snowed back then didn’t surprise him; his parents made it sound as if strange and fantastic things had happened all the time. There was the bougainvillea bush, for example, which they had planted when his mother had first bought the house, before Buddy had been born. Even his own birth, his mother told him, had been a kind of miracle. When Trip came over, they often told the story of Big Bertha, a machine in the lab which counted cells. One night, when Buddy’s father was an intern, and his mother was still in medical school, Big Bertha had refused to function. Side-by-side, Buddy’s parents, who were not then his parents, had counted cells all night with hand-held clickers, and that was how they had fallen in love. When they told the story, their voices became beautiful with mysterious words—hemoglobin, cytoplasm, platelets—which swam in Buddy’s mind like brightly-colored fish. In a picture from that time, they stood in front of Big Bertha, whose flat, gray face had a single glass porthole for an eye. His not-yet parents smiled shyly, dressed in matching white lab coats. For a while, Buddy thought they had concocted him in Big Bertha, who winked in the background.

Now, his parents’ voices came toward him from their room. Buddy covered his head with his jacket’s fur-lined hood and secured its heavy brass zipper over his chin.

“You should be here studying,” his mother said, entering the kitchen. “Or playing with Buddy. I’m not going in. That freeway’s going to be treacherous.”

“Someone has to do surgicals,” his father said. “If it’s me, they’ll remember.”

“What about Buddy?”

“Buddy,” his father said. “Will you remember me when I’m gone?”

Buddy kept his eyes on the TV. His jacket felt hot, but he didn’t dare take it off.

“Leave him out of this,” his mother said; then her voice sank to a whisper. “Where are you going? Tell me the truth.”

“I’ve told you,” his father said. “That’s enough.”

His father’s footsteps came toward him. Buddy held the sides of his chair. His father snatched the hood from his head and looked at him.

His father’s balding, oval head was very handsome. He smelled of aftershave, and his sparse hair was neatly combed. The knot of his tie and collar of his lab coat peeked out from beneath his jacket. Though his eyebrows were fierce, his eyes could be gentle. But now his face was rigid and flushed, his eyes two flat discs, like a doll’s.

“What do you want me to do?” he said to Buddy.

“Leave him alone,” his mother said.

Buddy said nothing; any answer might be the wrong one.

His father lowered the hood of Buddy’s jacket over his eyes, so that Buddy was enclosed in darkness. Then he raised it, and Buddy saw him again. His father leaned sideways between Buddy and the TV, his eyes gentle, his face kind and composed, as if the other face had never been.

“Earth to Buddy,” he said.

Buddy couldn’t help but grin.

“This jacket will keep you warm at thirty degrees below zero,” his father said. “It’s made of the same material that NASA uses in space suits. Did you know that?”

Buddy shook his head.

“Are you going to have fun today?”

Buddy nodded.

“Would you like to do urinalysis and frozen sections instead?”

“No,” Buddy said, grinning.

“Okay, then,” his father said. “I’m gone.”

While his mother finished crying and found a pair of gloves, Buddy went back and forth between the window and the TV, comparing views of the snow. Though his mother never cried when his father was there, she often did when he left. And there were many nights when his parents’ voices, alone in the kitchen, became low, and Buddy went to the hallway, afraid that they would leave. On those nights, his mother asked his father where he had been, and his father explained that he’d been at the hospital, working for them.

Now, the weatherman reported gas fires and burst water mains and houses whose roofs had caved in. Some neighborhoods, he said, were without telephones or electricity. Buddy began to worry about Grandma Liddy. Grandma Liddy and he made plans: to buy a cassette recorder with cigarette coupons, to write President Nixon and ask him why he lied, to build a miniature city out of matchboxes and toilet paper rolls. They had already started the city, chalking streets on the threadbare carpet in his mother’s old room.

His mother came into the kitchen, wearing a trench coat and rain boots, a sweater and scarf over her regular clothes. She knelt in front of Buddy and pulled gloves onto his hands, keeping her eyes from his. “Can we go to Grandma Liddy’s?” he said.

“No, honey. It’s too dangerous to drive.”

“We can walk.”

“It’s too far, honey. Besides, Daddy might come home.”


“So he might wonder where we are.”

Buddy looked down at her, seeking her eyes; he was sure that she was trying to trick him. “You should call Grandma Liddy,” he said. “To make sure she’s not frozen.”

His mother bit her bottom lip and said that he was right; she should call. She went back to the bedroom. When his father wasn’t there, Grandma Liddy asked his mother where he was, and why she had married him. Now, his mother’s voice sounded as it always did when she talked to Grandma Liddy: “I’m sorry, mother,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

On the TV were low houses buried under the snow. Buddy wondered if one of them was Courtney’s, and whether her father was home.

When his mother opened the front door, the snow flashed out at him. Through the window, he hadn’t seen how bright it was. Yards and driveways, curbs and streets, were covered in a shining blanket. Buddy caught snowflakes on his glove and showed them to his mother.

“They’re pretty,” she said. But when he looked down, they were gone.

His mother held his hand. Their feet sank into the snow. The snow, invisible on his hand, fluttered onto the houses’ steep roofs, darkening their squat, frowning, ochre-colored faces. Above him, the sky seemed heavy with brightness.

Buddy let go of his mother’s hand and ran, stumbling, across the yard. He hoisted his hood over his head and zipped the front of his jacket over his face. Arms dangling in his sleeves, he moaned, “I’m a monster. I’m a hemogobblin.”

Something splashed his back. Buddy turned, afraid that one of the older boys who lived across the street had snuck up behind him. He unzipped his jacket enough to see. His mother smiled crookedly and threw another snowball at his feet.

Soon, they were running, dodging behind bushes, their shrieks absorbed in the thick, sharp air. His mother fell backward, waving her arms up and down in the snow. Afraid she was hurt, Buddy ran to her. Her pale green eyes gazed up at him, then past him, unblinking. Snow dotted her smooth, flushed cheeks, sparkled in her graying, teak-colored hair. Her expression was hopeful, as it was when she looked at the seashells and colored glass above the sink. He crouched next to her and put out his hand to wipe away the snow, but it had already faded.

“Lay down,” she said. “Make a snow angel with me.”

Snow crunched beneath his jacket, but he could not feel its coldness. Above him, clouds passed so close that he imagined he might touch them. Buddy waved his arms. His mother said that she remembered when it had snowed before. She had been 15, and all she’d wanted was a little boy. “A boy just like you,” she said.

“Does Daddy remember?” he said.

“Probably not. He would’ve been three years old.”

A strange, jealous pride lifted him; he was older than his father had been.

His mother told him to make a wish. Buddy asked her what she was wishing. “I can’t tell,” she said. “The angels won’t deliver if you tell.”

Buddy closed his eyes. The wish that his father would never come home brushed him like a hand in the dark. Shivering, he opened his eyes. Snow fell into them. His mother was pulling him up, saying that they should make a snowman.

They rolled a mound of snow until it wouldn’t budge, then stood and caught their breaths and began to roll another. His mother told the story of his birth. Each time she told it, it seemed different, and Buddy never tired of listening. He asked her to repeat certain parts, like how he had come early and surprised her; or how the doctors had had to cut him out of her, and discovered that his eyes were opened in her womb.

But now she told a version he’d never heard. Before he was born, before she’d even met his father, she had worked at the hospital, she said, and when she finally decided to go to medical school, she still had to work, because Grandma Liddy had no money to help her, even if she’d wanted to. “That’s when I met your father,” she said. “Sitting in those classes with a bunch of boys 12 years my junior was starting to make school seem as hopeless as Grandma Liddy had said it was. And I was tired all the time—so tired, Buddy, like my arms were cement and my eyelids were lead. I was 33, and by the time your father showed up, I thought I would die alone.”

They lifted the second ball and set it atop the larger one, then waited for it to fall apart. When it didn’t, they knelt and began to roll another.

“Did you like Daddy?” Buddy asked, frightened by what she’d told him.

“Of course I did.” Her glance flickered away. “I love him.”

They placed a third snowball on the others and stepped back to view their work. The snowman teetered forward, as if battling a fierce wind. Buddy’s mother told him to find branches for the snowman’s arms, then went inside.

As he searched the yard, Buddy felt someone watching him. Afraid that it was the older boys, he steeled himself, and looked up.

Across the street, Trip waved at him from the Gages’ front yard. He rented their garage apartment, where he had lived since he was his mother’s student. Buddy looked down, pretending not to notice him. His father said that Trip still lived nearby because he was in love with Buddy’s mother; his mother said that she had never heard of anything so absurd. His father said that nothing was absurd. He asked whether Trip—the Tripster, he called him—would have gone to medical school if he’d had a family to support. And what had the Tripster been up to, his father wanted to know, while he’d been busting his ass at the lab? Getting laid while his parents footed his college tuition? When Trip visited, his father stared at him as if Trip had a toy he coveted, and talked in a loud voice about college, though he and Trip hadn’t gone to college together. Trip’s laughter was polite and embarrassed, and it made Buddy blush with anger and shame.

His mother returned with a handful of leftover Halloween candy. The snowman’s eyes became two green dots, his nose an orange triangle, his mouth a crooked red line. Above his eyes, Buddy’s mother pressed pieces of licorice, which made the snowman’s eyes look fierce, like his father’s.

Buddy and his mother found two branches which ended in sharp prongs. Buddy wanted to strike the scheming smirk from the snowman’s face, poke out his eyes, trample his snowy guts into the ground. As though she knew his thoughts, his mother took his branch and stuck it gently into the snowman’s side. The snowman struggled, his smile desperate, and Buddy felt pity for him as strong as his anger had been.

“He’s pretty sad-looking,” his mother said.

“He looks like Daddy.”

“I know.” His mother squinted past him. “Here comes Trip. Be nice.”

From beneath his dark curls, which caught snowflakes like a garland, Trip watched them steadily. Unlike his father’s eyes, Trip’s were always the same, asking his mother a question which made her uncomfortable. He waved, and Buddy’s mother lifted her hand.

“Hey,” Trip said. “I waved, but Buddy didn’t see me.”

“Buddy,” his mother said.

“It’s okay.” Trip stopped, leaning close to his mother, who put her hands in her pockets. “Did Jim get that thing fixed last night?”

“He did,” said Buddy’s mother. “It worked just fine.”

Why had his mother said that? Buddy thought. Though Trip couldn’t see the bougainvillea now because it was in the back yard, he would later. His mother’s lie angered him; it was stupid. Trip looked at the snowman, then at Buddy, his brown eyes sharp and foxy. “Did he help you with this?”

“No,” Buddy said. “He’s gone.”

His mother cast him a silencing glance. “He’s doing surgicals.”

“Why’s he doing that?” Trip smiled. “Surgery’s canceled.”

His mother stared at the grim-faced houses and white lawns. Buddy stood very still, afraid of what he’d done. “He’s probably studying,” she said.

Trip scuffed the ground. “You don’t need this, Margot.”

“I know what I need.” His mother stood behind Buddy and rested her hands on his shoulders. “I don’t want to discuss it right now.”

“I’m sorry.” Trip looked up at her, then at Buddy. “Want some company?”

His mother’s grip tightened on Buddy’s shoulders. “We’re fine,”

“Maybe later?” Trip said.

“Maybe,” said his mother. “When Jimmy gets home.”

Buddy lay in bed, waiting for his father. Above the backyard, an oily haze ringed the moon. The snow made the fences shorter and the houses smaller. In the midst of the yard, the bougainvillea stood like a tangle of burnt-out wires. After Trip left, Buddy and his mother had gone to check on it. Usually, his parents spoke lovingly about the bougainvillea, as they did about Big Bertha, but now, when his mother touched its dark, sickly leaves, her voice frightened him. “Dead,” she said. “This is what things look like when they’re dead.” The rest of the day, she had gone back and forth between the window and the TV. On the ten o’clock news were pictures of cars stuck in snow. She peered at them, her face close to the screen, her brow knit with worry. When President Nixon came on, she called him a lying creep, and seemed glad to be angry. The weatherman warned that it would get down to the teens that night, another record low. When the news ended, she put Buddy to bed and made him promise not to listen when his father came home.

All day, Buddy had worried that his father might not come home because of his wish. At the dimmest edges of his memory, before his father began medical school, they had played long games of hide-and-go-seek. Nothing had been more delicious than the feeling of being hidden, of possibly having disappeared, except the joy of being found. Sometimes, his father went to answer the phone, or to help his mother in the kitchen, and Buddy, still hidden, listened to his own breathing, and wondered if he came out whether he would be invisible to his father, or whether he would have ceased to be at all.

Outside, his father’s car roared, shuddered, was silent; then his dark, blurred figure rounded the corner of the house, face hidden under the hood of his heavy jacket. He went to the bougainvillea, pinched a couple of its leaves, and climbed the back steps to the kitchen door. Under the porch light, his shadow slid across Buddy’s bed.

From the kitchen, his parents’ voices rumbled through his wall. Buddy slipped out of bed. The floor was cold, but not as cold as it had been that morning, and somehow this, more than anything else, impressed upon him the gravity of whatever was about to happen.

His father sat at the yellow table, staring at his hands. Buddy’s mother leaned toward him, touching the sleeve of his lab coat. Her voice was soft and angry.

“All I’m asking is you tell me the truth. I don’t even want to know her name. I will cook for you, clean for you, put food in our mouths, but I will not be lied to.”

“I told you,” his father said. “We had a rush on surgicals.”

“There wasn’t any surgery.”

His father’s cheeks flushed a deep, bloody red.

“I talked to Trip. Then I called the hospital to make sure.”

“That poor son of a bitch” His father slowly shook his head, staring at the table. “Don’t you know he’s so jealous of me he can’t see straight? He’s been trying to get you into bed for five years now, and as far as I know, it hasn’t worked. They’re gonna kick him out of the program—Dr. Marcuse told me that, confidentially, of course.”

“Please, honey,” his mother said, gripping his sleeve. “Don’t lie like this.”

“Those people at the hospital.” His father waved his arm, freeing it. “They don’t know who’s coming or going. You know that.” He stood, pushing back his chair, which moaned against the linoleum floor. His hands shook. “Where’s Buddy?”

“He’s asleep.”

“Buddy’s never asleep,” his father said. “He’s like Big Brother.”

His father strode around the table toward the dining room. Buddy retreated, then the footsteps ceased. Heart pounding, he peeked around the corner into the dining room. His mother, half-seated, held his father’s arm.

“Leave him out of this. If you don’t start being straight with me, you can go.”

His father glanced into the dining room, then pulled his sleeve from his mother’s grip. Balancing on his fingertips, he sidled around the table. When he spoke, his voice was soft and angry, like hers, yet pitched as if he knew Buddy was listening.

“You don’t really mean that, Margot. You’re too old to take chances. Trip’s gonna want someone a lot younger, and without a child.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Trip,” his mother said.

“Of course it does.” His father leaned across the table. “Remember when you told me all you ever wanted was a child? I gave you one. And you said if I worked hard, to have money for that child, you’d help me any way you could? I’ve held up my end of that bargain, too. You think Trip would do that?”

“It wasn’t like that,” his mother said, reaching for his father’s hands.

His father turned and faced the TV. Until then, Buddy hadn’t noticed that its dead green eye reflected the yellow kitchen, and his parents somewhere inside it.

“I’ve been with you every step of the way,” his mother said. “If this isn’t good enough, I’m sorry. All I’m asking is you make a decent home for your child.”

His father glanced into the dining room. This time, Buddy was sure that he saw him. As his father came toward him past his mother’s outstretched hand, Buddy scrambled to his bed. But his father was already there, stripping covers from him, his hands above him swift and calm. Shivering, Buddy curled into a tight ball.

“Leave him alone, for God’s sake,” his mother said. “This isn’t his battle.”

“He started it,” his father said, in a voice which was almost joking; then, to Buddy, “Just like you started the fire? Just like you made it snow, right?”

His father bent down, so that the porch light illuminated his eyes. “What do you want?” he said. “Do you want me to stay?”

His mother tugged at his father’s shoulder, beginning to cry. Buddy tried to think of something, some joke which might help his father. But his father, his eyes wounded and merciless, could see his wish, and darkness covered his face when he rose.

“How dare you?” his mother said, as his father pushed past her. “How dare you?”

She knelt beside his bed and drew the covers up to his chin. Against his cheek, her fingers were wet and rough. “Daddy’s just being silly, honey. He didn’t mean anything. Go to sleep. Will you do that for mommy?”

In the doorway, his father stood with his back to them, hiding his face in his hands. His mother went to him and touched his shoulder. Buddy closed his eyes.

When he woke, the sky had cleared, so that the night seemed infinitely blue and deep. A pockmarked moon shone down on him like a beacon. Voices rumbled from the kitchen, talking about the laboratory, but the words’ bright colors were muted, as if they swam at the bottom of a dark well. Silently, Buddy rose and began to dress. He turned his two-sided jacket orange side-out, and went to the hallway.

In the kitchen, Trip, his mother, and his father sat at the yellow table, which was crowded with beer bottles. His mother’s face was flushed and beautiful; she draped her arm across his father’s shoulder. His father had removed his lab coat and loosened his tie. He stared at Trip, taking quick, nervous sips of his beer. Only Trip looked the same, and Buddy thought that it was this sameness his father coveted.

“Yeah,” his father said, leaning back in his chair. “The son of a bitch threw a short and the whole thing went up like a scrap of paper. Cold can do that sometimes.”

“Too bad,” Trip said.

Buddy crossed a stream of light which fell from the kitchen across the dining room floor, then waited for the voices to stop. When they didn’t, he groped through the dark living room and opened the front door lock, holding his breath until it clicked.

Outside, the night air gripped his face, turning it brittle with cold. Stars glinted down at him like needles. He shut the front door, taking care not to waste any heat, then covered his head with his fur-lined hood and secured the heavy brass zipper over his chin. He looked across the street for signs of the older boys, but saw none. When he stepped from the porch, the crunch of his boots made him flinch. Around him, the yards and streets were still and gray and cosseted in silence.

The snow angels were gone. The snowman’s smile was blurred and sinister in the moonlight. One by one, Buddy plucked the candies from his face, so that he would have food for his journey, but when he was done, the snowman’s blank stare frightened him. Knowing that it would follow him, he turned and set off down the row of colorless lawns. With each step, he grew less sure of the distance to Grandma Liddy’s, which the streets’ shadowy outlines seemed to multiply. He remembered crossing a railroad track, and the roaring darkness beneath a pillared freeway, and his heart quailed. Until his mother called to him, he would go as far as he could, though his bootsteps whispered, though he felt himself begin to vanish.


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