Ten years old. I stand next to a silver ladder in my aunt’s front yard while my uncle untangles Christmas lights next to a huge plastic Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in his manger.
“Sugar,” my uncle swears, his Boston accent wrapping around the word like a soft splash of water. “Fudge!” He winks at me, his big brown eyes bright with mischief.
I giggle and cross my arms. I love the winter. The way it makes the grass feel cold. I love my knitted cream-colored cardigan. I love my uncle.
The summer before, I catch a pinfish off his dock. When he unhooks it for me, he places it in my hands. I cup it gingerly while it thrashes, threatening to pierce my fingers and palms with its needled fins.
“Throw it in the pool,” he dares. He is in his late twenties. Barely a grown-up.
I glance at my mother, who shakes her head. So I throw it back into the canal instead. (I wish, secretly, that I had tossed it into the pool to see it swim. Except the chlorine would have killed it. So I don’t feel that bad after a while.)
At Thanksgiving, we eat some venison from a deer my uncle accidentally hit with his truck and then brought home to butcher in the driveway. He talks about hunting. I sit nearby listening, my chest thrilling at the thought of trekking through the woods.
As I eat, I lose track of the conversation until he turns to me and says, “Would you like to come?”
“Yes,” I manage to gasp. I look at my parents. They don’t seem to mind. I race through plans. What should I pack? What kind of shoes will I need to go hunting? Will I miss school?
Later, I realize that he’d invited me to go to the grocery store with him. I trudge out the door, feet heavy with disappointment.
“You could be a used car salesman,” my aunt tells me, exasperated.
It took me two hours of dancing around the recliner and asking again and again and again—but I finally convinced them to take my little brother and me to a local fair. The rides are set up in a parking lot. It’s night when we arrive.
First, I ride the haunted house alone. I hate it. Buzzers shrill beside me. A foghorn bellows so loudly, I can feel it in my ribs. I climb out of the cart shaking, trying to keep my face calm so that my uncle will take me on the rocket ride.
He does. We spin in woozy circles. I laugh, and the wind catches the sound away from me, whips it through my hair and into the night.
When my brother and I spend the night, we stay in the guest bedroom. The bed has a white blanket with tiny balls of fabric attached to the top. My aunt has decorated with small Smurf’s figurines. My baby cousin uses the room after he’s born.
At night, before I sleep, I look at a porcelain wall-hanging above the bed. A farmhouse with a water wheel beside a small pasture. I pretend to stand at the window, looking out at the countryside.
I listen to the clock beside the bed as it ticks like a cricket.
Ten years old. It’s February and still cold. When I get home from school, my mom sits my little brother and me down on the couch. I drop my backpack and my fingers curl into an orange and brown afghan.
When she tells me that my uncle went to bed and never woke up again, I shake. My throat closes around ugly sounds.
I sit outside on the porch and cry. I sit in my bed and cry.
I hear adults talking. I hear seizure and I hear that he’d been sleeping in the bed I always slept in, with the white blanket. I picture him unmoving. I picture my aunt calling my parents, sobbing he’s gone, he’s gone. I realize why she wasn’t working at my elementary school that day.
Later, when my mother tells me it’s time to do my homework, I squint angrily at the pages of a textbook, my glasses blurring up with the heat of my grief. It doesn’t seem fair to do something so normal when the whole world is broken.
We fly to Massachusetts. On the plane, I scowl at the landscape below me.
“Maybe we’ll see snow,” my parents say, offering consolation.
But it doesn’t snow. I play with my brother next to a barren hotel parking lot, sneakers crunching through dead grass and dried leaves. We find a frozen puddle. It’s the first ice I’ve ever seen.
I touch it with the tip of my shoe.
We drive to the funeral. The car’s tires shatter the puddle, leaving the ice broken and muddied.
When I grow up, I always remember where I was the first time I saw ice in the winter.