Tracings in Snow
“When Matthew was sixteen years old, he ran away from home. He did not return until Christmas Eve fourteen years later. He showed up on the lawn late at night, while the family was gathered around the tree…”
I write to you from a silent world of ice and snow. That’s right– it began snowing in Portland last week and the city, having no idea how to deal with such a situation, proceeded to deal with it by ignoring it entirely. Although it’s rumored that we do actually have 52 snow plows lurking in some underground parking structure somewhere, they seem to be snowed in at the moment, for I have yet to see a single one of them go by. This morning I glanced out my kitchen window and saw two girls skiing down the middle of the street. Hope you have an equally interesting start to your Monday,
◊ Installment 7 ◊
It was midnight when Matthew’s mother crept out of bed and slid her feet into her slippers. It used to be, she recalled, that this was the time of night when she and Bob would creep downstairs, fill the stockings, and put the presents under the tree. The kids would be up at dawn or earlier, and if any of them had crept down, giggling, to see if Santa had come, they would have been heartbroken to find an empty hearth and Santa’s cookies, uneaten on the mantel. When they grew up and became teenagers, they stopped waking up so early. It was all she could do to drag them out of bed before noon, when the relatives arrived. They came downstairs yawning, hastily wrapping the last of their Christmas presents, and if the stockings had not been filled, they probably would have failed to notice. She and Bob stopped waking up in the middle of the night. They filled the stockings at nine o’clock in the morning, with the sun shining, after enjoying a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast.
“We should all go to bed,” she had said last night, after the silence, dense with unspoken accusations, had grown too painful. “Matthew,” she turned to her oldest son, “you’ll be sleeping here tonight.”
She said it like a sentence, but everyone knew it was really a question. They all looked inquiringly at Matthew. Matthew looked at the floor.
“Well, wait a minute,” said Walter, after a moment. “Where is he going to sleep? You think I’m sharing the bunk bed with this asshole?”
“Matthew can have the bunk bed to himself,” she replied.
“What?” Walter and the cousin demanded simultaneously.
“I’m staying here as a guest,” protested the cousin. “That’s inhospitable.”
“It’s okay,” Matthew spoke up. “I can sleep on the couch.”
They all looked at him, startled, as if they had forgotten he was there.
“Where’s Dad?” Matthew put in suddenly.
“Dad’s dead,” snapped Walter. “You might have noticed that if you’d hung around longer.”
Everyone winced. Matthew tipped his chin down gently to touch his chest, and seemed to retreat behind the curtains of his hair.
“Well, wait a minute,” said the uncle. “What about the turkey? Am I the only one who’s still concerned about the turkey?”
It turned out that he was.
They trickled out of the room, nibbling pieces of fruit and broken fragments of Christmas cookies.
“Of course, no one bothers to establish his identity,” grumbled Walter, as they all went up the stairs except Matthew. “No one bothers to do anything I want. None of you even bothered to tell me the day he left; you just left me sitting there under the porch.”
“I’m sorry,” said the uncle. “You were under the porch?”
“That was an accident,” the mother explained wearily. “For the thousandth time, we didn’t stop to think. We just panicked and drove straight to his school. But we remembered you the moment we came home.”
“No kidding, you remembered me,” said Walter, “because I was there! It’s hard to forget a thing when it’s standing right in front of you, wanting to know why it’s been locked out of the house. If I had been the one to run away, you probably wouldn’t have done anything. Probably no one would have noticed until springtime, when it was time for me to mow the lawn.”
The floorboard in the middle of the hallway creaked familiarly when she stepped on it. She froze, hoping no one would hear. But everything remained dark and still. Outside, she could see the sparkle of Christmas lights on the snow. She passed Kalli’s door, which was open a crack. She could see her daughter’s arm, in a maroon sweatshirt sleeve, flung across the sheets. The door to the boys’ room was shut tight. The ghostly remains of a wobbly “Keep Out” sign still glimmered whitely on the chalkboard nailed to the wall beside it. The guest room door, too, was closed. She knew her brother and sister-in-law would be sleeping soundly, secure in the knowledge that their own son was safely snoring in the top bunk.
Her slippers padded on the carpeted stairs. She stepped over the third step from the bottom, which always creaked, turned the corner, and let out a breath she had not realized she was holding.
Matthew was still there. His horrible hair straggled across his face. She longed to smooth it back from his forehead, but she did not know how he would react if it did. Would he bolt up from the couch and leap for the nearest exit? She did not know what she had done wrong last time, to make him leave. The only way she could think to keep him here was not to do anything at all this time. If she could just freeze time and leave him here, sleeping peacefully on the couch, everything would be all right.
A stripe of light slanted across the floor from a crack in the blinds. Softly, she went to close them. She flicked off the forgotten Christmas lights, and watched their sparkle die away in the snow. She wondered if the windows were locked. Not that it really mattered; Matthew could unlock them from the inside. But she wondered if the small, additional obstacle of having to push open the stiff locks might be enough to keep him here, in a moment of hesitation? What made it easy to leave one’s family, and what was the final straw that made it just the tiniest bit too hard?
She turned toward the kitchen. If Matthew opened the front door he would set off the burglar alarm, but the kitchen door was not connected to the system. She could, however, deadbolt it from the inside. She stepped onto the moonlit tile and froze, her heart hammering wildly in her chest. A man’s body was flung across the kitchen floor.
She stepped forward cautiously and peered at his face. Walter was curled up, asleep, his back pressed firmly against the door. ♦
(To be continued…)