Ariane steps off the bus, into the snowfall, and it’s simple: She isn’t ready for the inside hours, the claustral house, the mom’s practiced quiet and the dad’s mean breath. She takes the long way home.
Snow, thick as lamb’s fleece, shimmies round her. She holds her arms out to feel the way—she believes she knows the place by touch—and when she looks at her outstretched limbs as they grope for the bodies of pine they look soft as television fuzz, and her surroundings, harmless as galaxy swirl. Dazed by this, she forgets about the pond, walks over it, is halfway across when the ice breaks and the shadow-inked water sucks her down.
The girl’s body, already spattered with purple blooms, turns wholly baby blue—she is caught beneath a palm of ice—suspended in polar embrace, in arctic smother.
The thunder-crack from the pond’s split ricochets. An arm of snow slips from a nearby, low-slung bough, and the woods groan, moved by the push of a raw wind.
An hour passes:
The mom knows Ariane should have been home by now. After she strips the girl’s bed of comforters, of pillows, after she pushes the hangers to the far ends of every closet in the cabin, pulls down the ladder that leads to the attic, unlocks and throws open the cellar door, the mom plugs the phone into its jack and dials the houses of her daughter’s friends.
“No, she’s not here. No, we haven’t seen her,” the other moms say.
Outside the snow squall wails.
“She’s not with you?” the mom asks the dad when he walks in through the front door, alone.
The dad does not respond. He takes his boots off, cracks his knuckles, his neck, steps around the mom and into the oven-warmed kitchen where he takes an already opened beer from the fridge, sucks it empty, then reaches for another.
“Check the barn,” the mom says.
The dad is slow, stalls, because outside it is swiftly turning into a three-dog night. The dad obeys because there is a chance he might find her there, and she would be by herself there, and the ground would be soft with hay there.
“Fucking wind chill,” he mumbles as he pulls on his fleece facemask.
Outside, the foot holes his boots make are smeared gone in an instant. A half mile up the highway, the neighbor’s house is gray smudge—like a graphite thumbprint near erased. And, where the southern horizon usually bristles wild and severe with the Obabika Forest, there is no smudge at all. The dad kicks at fat lumps of hay, takes a look behind the tall stack of split fire wood, wolf whistles. Nothing.
“Barn’s goddamned empty,” he says to the mom who has been combing the house again, looking in impossible places—behind the living room’s flannel drapes, underneath the stained and checkered tablecloth fitted over the dining room table, inside the glass-paned chest of the grandfather clock—
“Prolly run off with a boy. Prolly out bein a slut,” says the dad, “It’s what girls her age do—it’s what you did.”
“She’s barely a teenager,” says the mom.
“Don’t matter—she’s your daughter.”
While the mom pulls her snowsuit over flannel-lined jeans, over bruised knees, over hand-knit sweater, the dad sucks on his split lip and lets the dog from its kennel, leashes it. They walk up the road, stop at the door of the gray smudge, rap knuckles against the door. The neighbor opens the door and a wall of heat rushes out from behind him. He is dressed for summer sleep, in yellowed tank top, and threadbare boxer shorts.
“Didn’t answer your phone,” says the dad.
“Never do, not after four,” says the neighbor, hands on his wide, old hips.
“Have you seen Ariane?” asks the mom.
“Haven’t,” says the neighbor.
He takes one hand from his hip, sticks it down the back of his boxer shorts, says, “Better find’er soon. Wouldn’t want a little cherry like her lost in this nor’easter.”
A winged fear unfurls, unspoken, between the mom and dad—the mom fears that whatever this is, it is a result of her silence—the dad fears that whatever this is, it is a result of silence being broken.
They head for the shadow of pinewood, all unlit expect for where their flashlight’s beam touches. It illuminates white fuzz, frosted stumps, dog fur—no footmarks. Their feet fall sibilant through the powder; the chill puts a hurt on their skin. The dog inhales, eats snow, inhales until he picks up her scent. His legs flex, his hide strains over the spread of his ribs, he pulls away from the mom and the dad and his whole self extends toward where the pond lies.
“Fucking animal,” says the dad, as he reaches, too late, for the leash.
They try to keep up with the dog. The mom falls, and if the dad had stopped to help her he would have seen her face, snot and strewn, but strong as stone; she would have seen his face, pale and folded with worry and guilt.
The dog barks. It’s an ugly noise. It’s the only noise.
When the mom and dad catch up with the dog they are out of breath—all cough and wheeze. Mouth stiff, mascara smudged, the mom kneels at the dog’s side, her eyes clear as the animal’s. At the center of the pond there is a hole in the ice—it gapes, black and rough-edged. The dog barks at it, lunges forward, and the mom catches onto his slack-skinned neck, jerks him backward, clutches the collar so tight he gags. The dad backs away from the pond, the dog, the mom. He retches behind a tree and keeps walking, takes the flashlight with him, leaves the mom and dog in the pitch of night.
Taira Anderson lives, writes, and works in Seattle, WA. She has her MFA from Bowling Green State University, and spends her free time volunteering at the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas.