I was talking with my mama about her sciatica when Craig interrupted.
“Excuse me, Julia, but I was listening to the TV news and they say there’s a real bad storm coming through.”
My husband spoke with the quiet urgency he reserved for minor catastrophes. In Craig’s mind, such catastrophes occurred every couple of days. To be fair, his worries were rarely unfounded. It was simply necessary to apply another layer of questioning to distinguish the skinned knees from the broken arms.
“Is the storm going to be up here in Spartanburg, or is it heading towards Atlanta?” I asked.
“Maybe both. It sounds like it’s gonna hit Atlanta pretty hard. They think it might turn into ice.”
It was never wise to downplay the seriousness of Craig’s pronouncements. I thought the weather people were being overly cautious, as usual. The last time they’d predicted a major winter storm, it had turned out to be forty degrees and sunny. You’d think that here in the bright new year of 1973, they’d have figured out how to predict the weather. You’d be wrong.
“I know we weren’t planning on driving back until tonight, but I think we should play it safe and leave now,” my husband continued.
I looked at Mama. She gave me a small, regretful smile. She knew that if we didn’t leave, Craig was going to be checking the weather all afternoon and giving us increasingly dire reports.
“Okay, honey,” I said. “I understand. We don’t want to be on the road during an ice storm. You go pull Kathy away from her coloring book and tell her to get her things together. I’ll fold up our clothes and pack.”
When Craig had left the room, I gave Mama a quick hug. “Sorry we’re leaving early,” I whispered.
“He may not be wrong, Julia,” Mama whispered back. “I heard about the storm, too.”
“Et tu, Brute?” I said, regretting it immediately. Mama kept the smile on her face, but I couldn’t miss the puzzlement behind it. She was an intelligent woman, but hadn’t read much in the way of literature. She favored Reader’s Digest.
“That’s Latin and it means you’re probably right,” I explained, mistranslating to her advantage. “This was just a weekend trip anyway. We’ll be back soon.”
* * *
Kathy didn’t want to leave her Granny’s house. She and Mama had a bond that pleased me greatly. Kathy was only six, but she was already determined to learn all of her grandmother’s cooking secrets. She would get up on a footstool and stand side by side with her Granny at the old gas stove, diligently measuring and stirring and tasting. They looked like intensely serious scientists but they made the kitchen smell better than any lab. I was glad they had had a chance to prepare dinner for us the previous evening, since tonight’s meal would be a fast food disappointment somewhere on the highway back to Atlanta.
“Bye, Granny,” Kathy said. “I don’t want to leave but Dad is scared.”
Craig cringed slightly at this characterization. “I’m cautious, honey. That’s different.”
We started saying our Southern goodbyes and finally made it into the car twenty minutes later. Craig found his way onto I-85 under a brilliant blue sky the color of summer. I thought about turning on the air conditioner as a joke but decided against it.
We drove in silence along the deadening monotony of the interstate. Kathy had her coloring books and an immunity to car sickness, so we didn’t have to worry about entertaining her. I was thinking how Mama seemed to age more between our visits in recent years. Craig was probably thinking about his ice storm that was going to start any minute. Any minute, I tell you! I pressed my lips together to avoid a chuckle I would need to explain.
Two hours later, the sky was turning grey. I was glad I had kept my jokes in check. My husband wasn’t an I-told-you-so kind of guy, but I never wanted to be in a situation where such a person could embarrass me.
Craig was looking anxiously at the sky through the windshield. “I know we need food, but we have to get back on the road real quick. Let’s just get some burgers.” He took the next exit, where a no-name hamburger place had a sign prominently displayed. The burgers tasted like meat-flavored placemats with a little ketchup spilled on them, but they were filling. We returned to the car with a speed that earned a small smile from our chief worrier.
“All right, that food was terrible, but it’s better than being stuck on the highway freezing to death or skidding off the road,” Craig said. “Only an hour until we’re home.” He edged the car slightly over the speed limit; an unusual and daring act by his standards.
It had started to rain by the time we pulled into our driveway. I conceded that my husband’s caution might have been merited. We unloaded the car in the shelter of the garage and hauled our belongings into the house.
Once we had settled in, I turned on the TV. The weathermen on all three stations were saying that this storm could be a really bad one. They warned us not to go outside and especially not to drive. Craig couldn’t hide his proud smile. It was actually kind of cute.
We put Kathy to bed and turned in for the night not long afterwards. The storm had an eerie and distinctive sound: not the gentle wash of rain, or even the slushy gravel of sleet, but a sharp, insistent patter like an enormous bucket of ants being poured slowly onto glass. The unnatural sound was disconcerting, but we eventually passed into sleep.
* * *
There was a thunderous crack. A thud. A sizzling noise from a Frankenstein movie. Craig and I sat upright at the same moment.
“Mom! Dad!” Kathy cried from her bedroom.
I reached towards my reading lamp and tried to turn it on. Nothing. I picked up the flashlight that my husband had (of course) put on the bedside table before we went to sleep. I clicked it on and a yellowish circle of light spread across the far wall of our bedroom. Craig grabbed his own flashlight and we went to find Kathy.
She was crying when we got there. “What happened? What happened?”
“Sounded like a tree broke and fell over,” said Craig. “Might have landed on the power lines, by the sound of it. And by the fact that our lights are out.”
We carefully made our way down the stairs. At the bottom, we stopped to peer out the front windows. Dim orange sparks from fallen power lines illuminated a large tree that had toppled across our lawn. The power lines were still flailing weakly.
“It’s gonna get cold pretty fast,” Craig said crisply. “We need to get a fire going in the fireplace.” This was a night when pedantic Boy Scout preparedness would finally earn the respect it craved.
We entered the den. I thoughtlessly flicked the light switch and hoped that my husband hadn’t seen me.
Craig aimed his flashlight towards the pile of wood he had stacked carefully next to the fireplace. “I’ll get the fire started. In the meantime, Julia, could you go grab some blankets and pillows? We’ll need to sleep in here tonight.” I nodded, then said yes out loud in case he hadn’t seen my head nodding in the gloom.
Kathy stayed with her father to learn the intricacies of lighting a fire. I gathered our makeshift bedding from upstairs and brought it into the den. Craig was nursing a small flame when I returned, and by the time the blankets were laid out, a respectable fire was burning and the fire screen was in place.
My husband and daughter smiled at each other. They were enjoying the adventure. I was just tired. It was a curiously old-fashioned feeling to have glowing warmth in front of me while chilly darkness ruled the rest of the house. I would have been terrible as a pioneer woman. Give me central heating.
The couch was too far from the fireplace for me, so I offered it to Craig. Kathy and I huddled in our blankets on the floor near the fire and tried to sleep. The musical crackle of the flames was comforting, but outside, we could hear branches creaking and occasionally snapping as the ice storm continued.
* * *
The woodpecker wouldn’t go away. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. It was trying to peck its way through the ice. Why was it so loud? I didn’t understand.
I rolled over and my face got cold. I opened my eyes and realized I had turned away from the fire. At least I had escaped from that woodpecker dream.
Knock knock knock knock knock.
Someone was knocking, insistently and repeatedly.
Craig stirred. “Is that someone at the door?”
The five sharp knocks were repeated.
“Guess so,” I said. “Let’s go see who it is. Maybe it’s workers from Georgia Power.”
We left Kathy asleep in the den and went to the front door. I checked my watch: four in the morning. Not my preferred time for houseguests.
I shone my flashlight through the window. A man and a woman about my age were standing on the front porch looking miserable. The man was shivering violently. I worried that Craig might be overly suspicious of strangers even under such circumstances, but he unlocked the door without hesitation.
“Can we help you?” he asked kindly.
“Please, please, may we come in?” said the woman in a shaking voice. “A tree fell on our house. A good part of the roof was destroyed. There’s ice and freezing rain everywhere. We can’t stay there.”
The man gave a shaky nod. “Please. It’s awful over there.”
“How terrible,” I said. “Y’all come right on in.”
“We have a fire going in the den,” said Craig. “Where do you live?” I wasn’t sure whether that question was neighborly or suspicious.
“We just moved into the house through the woods back there,” the woman said. “I’m Linda Barfield and this is my husband Jay. We saw some light through your windows so we came on over.”
“We’re Julia and Craig Walker,” I said. “Our daughter Kathy is sleeping in front of the fire.”
We went into the den. Kathy was still asleep.
“Lordy, that feels good,” said Jay heartily as he moved close to the fire.
His voice awakened Kathy. “Why are these people here?” she asked.
“Honey, these are our neighbors and they’re going to stay with us tonight,” I told her. “Their house got hurt real bad by the ice storm. It’s all right; just go back to sleep.”
“Okay,” said Kathy. She rolled over and was out within seconds. Kids.
“Thank you so much for helping us,” whispered Linda. “Do you have some place we can just lie down? The past hour has been devastating for us.”
“Let me get you some pillows and blankets out of the guest room,” I offered. “We’re all sleeping in here because it’s the only warm place in the house.”
I left the Barfields with Craig. I was afraid he might be having second thoughts about letting them in. He’s not paranoid but he can be annoyingly vigilant. It helped that their story made sense: we had heard that the Dalrymples sold their house recently, but we had no idea who bought it. Now we knew. Unless Jay and Linda were really space aliens from planet Zilmar and this was their first step in world domination. Please don’t repeat that to my husband.
I returned to the den with the bedding for our guests. Craig offered the chilly couch to Linda, who accepted it without hesitation. The two men joined Kathy and me on the floor in front of the fire. Craig had added an extra log to make sure we stayed warm. I felt safe and cozy and pleased to be a Samaritan. Sleep came easily. Maybe I could be a pioneer woman after all.
* * *
We hadn’t bothered to set an alarm clock. School had already been canceled the night before, and Craig wasn’t going to try to drive in to work. We had a couple of battery-powered radios to listen to news and weather, so we weren’t completely cut off. Craig had stockpiled enough batteries to power an office building, so our flashlights and radios were going to be fine.
I was awakened by the sound of one of those radios. I opened my eyes and was surprised to see my husband still asleep next to me. I sat up. It was barely past sunrise; the sky outside was pale grey.
Linda and Jay were sitting on the couch listening to the radio. They looked at me sheepishly.
“Sorry; we didn’t mean to wake you,” Jay said.
“We wanted to call for help, but your phone is out,” said Linda. There was a chiding undertone that suggested this was somehow our fault.
“Could you please take the radio into another room? My husband and daughter are still asleep.”
“Oh, we’ll be done in a minute,” Jay said. “We just wanted to get an update on the storm.”
I admitted to myself that I also wanted to hear the update. The highlights were dire: “One of the worst ice storms in Atlanta history…Widespread power and telephone outages…Roads are extremely hazardous…Stay inside except in an emergency.”
Jay flicked off the radio. “I’m sorry that we woke you up. We haven’t been able to sleep. Please go back to sleep if you can.”
I could, and I did.
* * *
The next time I awakened, it was much brighter outside. Kathy and Craig were just starting to stir. The Barfields were sitting on the couch, contentedly sipping from large mugs.
“Coffee,” Linda smiled. “We found a jar of instant on your shelf, so we heated some water in a saucepan over the fire. Hope that was all right.”
“We have plenty of coffee,” I answered. “I’m going to grab a little breakfast myself.”
“Me too, Mom,” said Kathy. “I’m hungry. I want some cereal.”
We went into the kitchen. Kathy pulled her favorite bowl out of a drawer and filled it with a generous helping of Quisp cereal. I opened the refrigerator, momentarily startled by the dim interior. Should have thought to put the food in the garage to keep it cool, I thought. We’ll do that after breakfast.
I reached for the lone remaining carton of milk and was startled to find it almost empty. I flipped open the cardboard spout and stared inside the carton.
“We used some milk in our coffee,” said Jay, who had come up behind me. “We left a little in the carton for the next person.”
I poured the remaining teaspoon of tepid milk onto Kathy’s cereal.
“I need more milk, Mom,” Kathy complained.
“That’s all there is, honey,” I said. “Jay, I wish that you and Linda had thought to ask before you used the milk. Now Kathy has to eat dry cereal.”
“The milk was getting ready to spoil, anyway,” said Linda, who had entered the kitchen. “You should have put it outside to keep it colder.”
“You used a lot of milk,” I said. “And you didn’t ask.”
“We always like a good amount of milk in our coffee,” Jay said. “What’s the big deal? You already said it was okay for us to be drinking the coffee.”
“You didn’t ask about that in advance, either. As it happens, that turned out to be all right. Using up Kathy’s milk was not. Please ask next time.”
“Well, excuse us for our horrible error,” said Linda, in a voice that oozed sarcasm. “It’s almost as bad as having a tree fall on your house.”
Craig spoke up. “Look, we’re sorry about your house and we’re glad to offer you shelter. But the radio says this ice storm has shut down the city and we might be trapped here for a couple of days. We’ll share what we have, but you can’t go plundering our reserves.”
“All right,” Linda assented. “We understand.” She turned to Jay and rolled her eyes. She thought I didn’t see her, but I did.
* * *
After an odd, cold breakfast, we bundled up and prepared to check out the results of the storm. Craig had already been outside to chip some ice off the stairs, and the five of us now trundled down the steps like Arctic explorers. We stopped at the bottom and took a moment to survey the landscape.
“Be careful, everyone. It’s plenty slippery out here,” Craig warned.
“Oh my God, you’re kidding,” said Jay.
My husband refused to take the bait and remained silent.
Our yard was beautiful in a deeply unsettling way. Everything had been painted with a thick coat of clear, gleaming ice. The driveway was a glassy sheet. Icicles drooled down from every branch, every leaf. I reached out to an oval ligustrum leaf glazed with ice and pulled off the frozen coating in a single piece. The image of the leaf was clear in the ice, like a fossil, and the icicle dangling from the oval made it look like a musical note.
Jay slipped and fell. My infinitely patient husband reached out a hand, but Jay ignored it and stood up on his own, after a struggle.
“It’s terrible out here,” he said. “Linda, let’s go back inside.”
His wife nodded and they returned to the house, climbing the steps with care.
Craig and Kathy and I continued to explore. Kathy found her favorite red ball coated with ice and laughed delightedly. The pond behind the house was an ice age spectacle: lovely and glistening; frozen and dead. Despite its appearance, I knew the ice on the pond wasn’t especially thick. The temperature had been above freezing the previous week.
Footing was treacherous everywhere. I found myself clutching at the air for balance more than once. As we walked around the corner of the house, Kathy slipped for the second time. She fell gently but she’d had enough.
“It’s too slippery to be fun,” she complained. “I like snow a lot better. Can we go back inside now?”
We gingerly made our way back to the house. In the den, Linda and Jay were relaxing with some books they had chosen from our overflowing bookshelves.
“Hope it was okay to read your books,” Linda said. “Wanted to make sure we had permission.”
I smiled with an effort.
* * *
The day crept by at the speed of a frozen snail. The power and phone remained out. News reports on the radio warned us that conditions were not expected to improve any time soon. We resigned ourselves to another night with the ice and the Barfields.
For dinner, we had a camper’s meal of canned soup heated over the fire. Jay spotted a can of lobster bisque and wanted it for himself. I had to inform him, with insincere regret, that a cup of milk was required to prepare it. Craig turned his head to hide a grin.
Darkness settled in as we sat listlessly in the den. Linda’s profile was outlined by the fire. She had let down her guard in the dim light and looked terribly sad. I reminded myself about the fallen tree’s assault on her house and offered a conversational olive branch.
“So, Linda, where are you and Jay from originally?”
“Toccoa,” Linda answered. I waited for elaboration but none was forthcoming.
“Where is that exactly?” I asked. I knew nothing of the city beyond its name.
“Up north,” answered Jay. “Not far from Tallulah Falls, if you’ve ever heard of that.”
“Oh, yes,” said Craig. “We visited the gorge a couple of years ago. Beautiful.”
“Yes, it is,” Linda agreed.
The conversation fell over and died.
I tried again, “As I remember, the Dalrymples’ house is pretty big. Are y’all planning to start a family?”
“We’ve never wanted children,” said Linda dismissively.
The statement hung in the air for a moment.
“Why not?” asked Kathy, with genuine puzzlement.
Jay made an effort to answer gently. “Some grownups want to have kids and others don’t. Both are fine. You’ll make your own choice when you grow up.”
Kathy still looked confused.
“I’m sure your parents love you very much,” Jay added, using the same tone of voice as a fundamentalist saying that devotees of a heathen religion are nonetheless sincere in their beliefs.
Linda’s expression was hard and unfathomable.
I glanced at my watch and faked a yawn. “I’m kind of tired. Nothing much interesting to do, sitting around in the dark. Let’s turn in early and hope that things are better tomorrow.”
* * *
Nothing was better the next morning. No power, no phone, same ice.
I had slept very poorly. Our lives felt suspended. We were immobilized as firmly as those ice-covered leaves. The radio was our only link to the outside world, and it was a one-way connection.
We were listening to the latest news reports while eating our dismal breakfast. The announcer said that conditions were still wretched all the way into South Carolina.
“Is Granny okay?” asked Kathy.
Some parents lie to their children and say that everything is peaches and smiles. Craig and I don’t do that.
“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “I sure hope so. But we can’t call her and find out. I’m sure she’s thinking about us as well.” I didn’t tell Kathy that I kept imagining Mama sprawled on the ice with no one around to help her. Being honest with my daughter didn’t mean burdening her with my darkest worries.
Craig cleared his throat. “Julia, I’m going to try chipping some of the ice off the driveway. Maybe put down some salt as well. We want to be able to get out when the roads are clear.”
I suspected he was fantasizing about escaping from the Barfields.
“That sounds fine,” I said. “I’m so tired I’m gonna lie down again. I’ll try the couch this time.”
“Linda and I are exhausted as well,” Jay said. The darkness under his eyes confirmed his statement. “We’re just going to listen to the radio or read some more of your books.”
I was sure that Jay would return to our volume of Charles Addams cartoons. I had seen him look through it several times, but hadn’t heard him laugh even once.
Linda said nothing. She put her hand on her husband’s and looked up at me. She was making less of an effort to hide her feelings today, and her expression was deeply troubled. Her gaze made me uncomfortable and I looked away.
“Time for me to lie down,” I said. “Honey, have fun chipping that ice.”
The couch embraced me. I’d almost forgotten the comfort of a soft place to sleep.
* * *
Craig was shaking my shoulder.
“Julia, wake up. Where is Kathy?”
“I’m sure she’s around,” I mumbled, my eyes still closed. “Probably up in her room playing with her dolls, even though it’s cold.”
“No, she’s not there. And I can’t find the Barfields either.”
My eyes sprang open. “Where have you looked?”
“Everywhere in the house. I came back inside after finishing the driveway and there’s no one here except you. They must be outside somewhere.”
I sat up. “Linda and Jay hated it out there. Why would they go back?”
“I don’t know,” Craig said. His worried expression matched my own feelings, for once.
“Maybe Kathy got bored and asked to go outside, and the Barfields took her,” I suggested.
“I hope that’s all it is. Grab your coat and let’s go find them.”
I quickly pulled on my shoes and my jacket. Craig’s driveway work had been at the front of the house and he hadn’t seen anyone, so we went out the back door and headed into the icescape.
The hardened beauty of the yard appeared unchanged from the previous day. We rounded the corner of the garage and I felt a tearing in my heart.
Kathy was walking on the barely frozen water of the pond. She was padding towards her beloved red ball, which had somehow made it all the way out to the middle.
Jay and Linda Barfield were standing at the edge, watching.
“Kathy!” I screamed. “Stop!”
She waved. “Hi, Mom! This is fun!”
Linda and Jay turned around. Their faces were blank, affectless.
“Kathy, listen to me,” Craig called. “Walk back to the edge of the pond as gently as you can. Pretend like you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be and you don’t want anyone to hear you. Keep your feet flat on the ice.”
Our daughter grinned that big happy grin of a six-year-old; the kind you never associate with the possibility of imminent death. She obeyed her father’s instructions, walking with great care to the edge, complete with an oooh-I’m-being-so-quiet pantomime face.
We heard the ice crack. I had a vision of a child-size coffin.
But the frozen surface held. Kathy reached the edge of the pond and came walking, slipping across the icy ground towards us. We went to her with the same wobbly speed, reaching her at last. Everything of importance was in that moment of safe reunion, the crushing hugs and joyous tears and the dark specter of sidestepped horror.
My husband and I rose from the ground and faced our enemies.
“What were you doing?” asked Craig, with the venomous understatement he used in the most serious situations.
“We were just playing,” said Jay. His voice was toneless and he kept blinking his eyes slowly, as if he were having trouble focusing.
“And you let Kathy wander onto thin ice while following a ball that somehow got out to the middle of the pond,” Craig continued, with the same quiet ferocity.
“Everything’s fine now,” Linda said. The words were conciliatory but the disappointment in her voice was chilling.
I was about to say something when I saw a man working his way through the woods. He was coming from the direction of the Barfields’ house. Jay and Linda turned to see what I was looking at, relieved that something else had caught my attention.
The man emerged from the woods. He was a police officer.
“Excuse me, folks, we’ve been working around the clock trying to handle the worst problems caused by this storm. The phones are okay over on the next block, and someone called in that a tree had crushed a good part of that house back there. Do you know who owns it?”
“We do,” said Jay, putting his arm around his wife.
The officer’s face changed. “Sir, I’ve checked inside your house and I am so, so sorry for your loss.”
“We have insurance,” said Linda.
The officer looked at her kindly. “I don’t mean the house, ma’am. I mean the little girl.”
“We never wanted children,” said Linda, her eyes bright.
Jay pulled her close. They stood there unmoving, burned-out ruins in the frozen landscape.
The officer spoke to us quietly. “I’ll deal with this sad business. There ain’t nothing worse than losing a child. You go back inside and take care of your own little girl.”
We turned away from the painful scene and returned to our house to await the inevitable thaw that would free us.
Carl Tait is a software engineer and author of two books for older children: Tales from Valdemere Castle and Lavinia’s Ghosts. He has also written a number of short stories for adults, all of which are set in Georgia, where he grew up. He currently resides in New York City with his wife and twin daughters.