A Father in the Snow

The snow from the night before melted and joined with residue from the roof to drip with the resonance of a lady tapping her fingernails. Dan Green turned away from the window to face his wife, Stephanie and watched the peach satin nightgown he had bought her cling with static, defining her thighs as she moved.
    "Are you sure you won't come along?" Dan said. Every year he and Stephanie went through the ritual of packing their fourteen year old daughter Josephine and the five year old twins, Abel and Ricky, into their Grand Cherokee to make the drive from Pennsylvania to New York to see his sister Virginia and her husband.
    Stephanie settled herself back onto their bed with a basket of laundry between her legs, and promptly began folding and tossing socks into Dan's open suitcase.
    "I'm positive. I need the break."
    Dan placed a deep red cardigan in the case that lay open beside her. His hand brushed against the calf of Stephanie's leg and he let it linger for a moment.
    At a holiday party last week Dan had seen Amanda, the receptionist from his optometry office, follow Stephanie outside and the image of the two woman's silhouettes outside the window had been bothering him. He had been sleeping with the girl for two months now, and he wondered if something had been said. It was the only explanation for his wife wanting to ignore tradition and stay home during the children's winter break.
    "Do you want to play the game?" Stephanie asked, folding underwear into a tidy square and handing them to him.
    Stephanie had invented the game shortly after Josephine's birth. She called the game "My Escape" and it consisted primarily of their exchanging fantasies of how they would get away from each other if they could. It was an unsaid rule that Dan went first so he cleared his throat.
    "If I were to escape, I'd sell our furniture while you took the kids to school and buy a plane ticket to Hawaii."
    Stephanie raised one dark eyebrow at his lack of originality and then paused to create her rebuttal.
    "If I were to escape I would sell Josephine to some old man." She folded quickly as though gathering energy as her fantasy went on. "I would duct tape you to the bed and put those horrid navy socks, that you claim are black, in your mouth so you couldn't call out for me. Then I would steal your car and drive till nothing looked familiar."
    Had her fantasies seemed plausible, Dan might have been more concerned. As it was he was frightened but couldn't help admiring the ferocity of her imagination. When he first met her that fierceness had been a current beneath her skin, as pulsating as her blood.
    Her fantasy and folding finished, she leaned her head back against her pillow and moved morning tangles of hair from her face.
    "I'm sorry, just take the children this time."

    Josephine took the front the seat and was buckled before Stephanie had even shut the front door. While Dan checked the car engine Josephine began rifling through CDs and calling out what the soundtrack to their trip would be. Dan didn't always know how to speak with Josephine, but was fond of the fact she liked, or at least pretended to like, his music, and during longer drives she would take off her head phones and listen to the Zombies or the Who and remember the trivial knowledge he had passed on to her about band members. Assured that all was well with the car Dan made sure the boys, Ricky and Abel, were buckled. Josephine had started the car for him and by the time he was in the front seat the windows were defrosted and the Eagles singing. In the upstairs window Stephanie waved.
    Hotel California had played five times when they reached the turnpike and Dan decided not to try and explain the cocaine references to Josephine for fear she already knew from classmates. He heard Ricky whisper an "ouch" and looked in the mirror as Abel withdrew his hand.
    "Look at that snow boys," Dan said, recalling that Stephanie's threats or stories depending on her mood were what made these trips peaceful. The road appeared red ahead and he pressed on the brake slowly as Josephine leaned forward straining her buckle.
    "What is that dad?"
    There was a load crunch as the car hit the carcass of a small, dead deer, compacting some of its bones. The rear tires caught for a moment before the Cherokee continued forward.
    "What was that?" Ricky asked.
    "We killed Bambi." Abel said.
    Dan glanced into the rearview mirror but the only thing he could focus on was the mangled brown body behind them.
    "It wasn't Bambi," Dan said, "and it was already dead."
    Ricky began to sniff in the backseat. Dan believed himself to have been tougher as a five year old. He had been bullied a bit, but didn't remember crying as much as his son.
    "Ricky, it wasn't Bambi." He said again.
    "Nah, it was probably his mom." Abel said.
    Josephine glanced up from her cell phone where she had been staring for ten minutes as though willing a signal.
    "Shut it Abel, or I'll tell Uncle Glenn to throw you in the Great Lake."
    Abel glared out his window while his sister dug around in her purse and extended her arm behind her.
    "Borrow my iPod?" she offered.
    Dan refrained from telling him to turn it down and stayed silent while considering the children he had produced with Stephanie. Abel would be deaf in a few years, Josephine would have carpal tunnel syndrome from texting, and Ricky... Ricky would have some woman's job. Probably cutting hair.
    An hour later squares of yellow light from the windows of Virginia and Glenn's old farmhouse could be seen. It was built away from the road and out of sight from the town. The snow had been ploughed from the driveway in anticipation and Glenn was opening the front door as Dan pulled up.
    Glenn was taller than Dan by nearly a foot and always appeared to be one with his surroundings, standing with the height and sturdiness of the evergreens around them. Dan never asked Glenn about his work, but he knew it involved checking on the local parks and that it paid enough for Virginia to work at her oil painting. Glenn yelled a greeting and grinned down at Dan and the children. There was something disconcerting in the size of his smile, he looked like an ad for dentistry.
    Glenn gripped Abel by the hand and Virginia came bustling down the steps already flushed from cold and excitement.
    "Look at these boys, Virgie!" Even his voice seemed to hold the deep, echoing quality of the woods around them. He bent down to be level with Abel.
    "You boys do any hunting?"
    Abel's eyes widened in interest.
    Virginia clutched Josephine to her as though someone was already threatening them all with a rifle.
    "These are sweet, innocent city boys, don't go ruining them," she kissed the top of Josephine's head violently and then turned her attention back to the boys, "Let's have some cookies."

    The following morning Virginia suggested Glenn and the twins stay home and she take the others to her new art exhibit. She wasn't the featured artist, but several of her paintings were being shown beside another woman's.
    The art exhibit took place in a renovated barn, a barn that like many homes and stores had been renovated with an attempt to keep a rustic appeal. This had failed and the building's integrity was lost, leaving it as a barn in denial, done over to be modern while pretending to be genuine.
    Josephine had borrowed one of her uncle's long flannel shirts for the day after realizing it was too cold for her own clothes. She was tall for her age, yet the shirt hung near her knees. Dan noticed the other women's dresses and beaded velvet scarves and pitied his daughter who looked like she had crawled out of bed and not changed from her night shirt. He joined her at a large painting done by the other woman.
    "Do you think your mother would like this one?" He gestured to the canvas covered in entwining brown lines that at times looked sharp and jagged, and added,
    "It looks like a nest doesn't it?"
    Josephine shook her head, "It looks like a cage."
    "Why didn't Stephanie join us?" Virginia had made her way toward them and extended a ginger ale to Josephine.
    "She's been very tired lately. Not feeling well and she can't always sleep at night." It wasn't a lie. She took sleeping pills with dinner each night and was usually asleep by the time he came up. On the rare occasions when she woke up as he got into bed she usually had migraines and asked him to sleep on the couch. The movement bothered her.
    "Pity, pity. Oh Josephine, did you see the horse I painted? You like horses don't you? All girls love horses..." She took Josephine's hand and left Dan by the cage painting. After further observation he decided it looked like the tumbleweeds he had seen with Stephanie on their honeymoon to the Grand Canyon.

    Waiting for dinner that night the boys ran in and out of the house, warming by the fire and then plunging into the snow until Virginia yelled good naturedly to stay in or get out. Now the two trudged within the house in an unknown game, sometimes firing imaginary guns and then army crawling through the living room. Despite their violent antics Dan found a certain peace in their proximity. They would appear, then go out of sight and reappear once more as they made a retreat.
    He sadly observed that their love of games had been inherited from their mother and no doubt the urge to retreat had been taught to them by himself. Dan wondered if for Stephanie the game was a retreat from their life. She never seemed angry, yet, often when he would bring her coffee and ask her if she wanted to go out that evening she would begin the game, always the game, always something a little crueler than the last time. Once he told her that if he were to escape, he would have an affair, someone younger than her, who was well read and pretty. Stephanie had laughed. When Amanda began coming into his office more frequently he entertained the fantasy, and when the girl stared at him over his desk and leaned across to kiss him, he hadn't stopped her. He saw the realization of his fantasy and tried to enjoy it.
    Dan had realized during the holidays that the affair was coming to an end. Lately Amanda had been asking religious hypothetical questions, and her feelings of guilt were clear.
    Dan had told Amanda he loved her last week, partially to gauge a reaction and also because it seemed like the thing a man in an affair should say. He felt he hadn't done justice to Amanda. Aside from the bonus all his employees received he had given her nothing. Little wonder she had not replied to his declaration, she had swiftly changed the subject and asked him his thoughts on hell. His thoughts were few and any he had he kept to himself, because you couldn't tell the girl you kissed in the hallway and made love to against your desk that hell was having sex with a beautiful receptionist while desiring your wife.

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Avra Elliot
I'm the walrus