The spring after we went to Mankato, I slept through auditions for the musical. I had Ds in geometry and English, and was failing history. As I filled out my Confirmation workbook, I became increasingly convinced that I’d experienced a miracle or some kind of holy mystery. Over and over I forgave Hollis and Emily for my suffering when they shut me out. It was so long ago it felt like a different life.
Uncle Frank woke late one morning and couldn’t lift his spoon to eat breakfast. While I was muttering through a presentation on Bless Me, Ultima, while Emily was in psychology, Mavie drove him to the emergency room. They put him on an IV to thin his blood and told Mavie he’d had a minor stroke.
The bell rang. Emily and I moved through our respective hallways. She had free period, which meant she drove to the park with Julie and peered into the cold stream and smoked cigarettes. I had modern dance, the only class I still enjoyed. I turned pirouettes and fell into a backbend. My name was called over the loudspeaker. I picked up the phone in the dance teacher’s office. It was my mother. She met me in front of the school and we waited for Emily to come back so we could go to the hospital together. Emily sat in the front seat with her hand over her mouth.
I hadn’t been inside the hospital since Emily’s frequent stays there as a child. The light was beige. Prints of tulips and France hung on the walls. Frank had been moved to the telemetry floor for monitoring, and he was asleep. He appeared deflated, his mustache and hair very dark against his waxy skin. Mavie was sitting on a chair beside his bed. Emily started to cry. She took his hand.
“He’s going to be okay,” Mavie told her, laying a hand on the small of her back. “His regular doctor’s already been here. It was a minor stroke, and they don’t think he’ll even need any physical therapy.” But Emily couldn’t stop shaking. Water collected at the ends of her hair and came through her pores. Water trickled down her arms and legs.
I had to look away, but my mother took a washcloth from her purse. She knelt next to Emily’s white boots and soaked up the water.
“Take it, pumpkin,” she said softly to my cousin, offering the cloth from her spot on the floor. Emily hesitated, but let go of Frank’s hand long enough to wring the water into her mouth and then press the damp washcloth over her face and neck.
We waited there for two hours until he woke. The monitors beeped. Water dripped onto the floor, my mother sopped it up, and Emily took it back.
When I heard that Frank had come home, I intercepted Emily in the hallway. Julie glared at me and kept walking. I told her I was glad her father was recovering, and she slumped against a locker and admitted she still thought all the time about seeing him in his hospital bed.
“Even now, I can’t really sleep. I just have nightmares,” she confided, as though she and Julie hadn’t spent the last four months avoiding me in the hallways. “I need a cigarette. You want to come outside with me?”
I was supposed to be on my way to modern dance, but I followed her out a side door. We rounded the corner and hurried down the hill into the woods behind the school. The trees had leaves on them now. Emily sat on a log and lit her cigarette.
“The weekend after it happened, I went to work. Hollis had the day off, so it was just me and the manager. It was super crowded, but I just felt removed, like there was a membrane between me and everyone there.” She blew out smoke. Her hair was damp.
“And I realized there’s like this other world,” she continued. “I’d gotten there without even noticing, and I couldn’t get out.” She glanced over her shoulder. “It’s like there’s the world with your friends and TV shows and tabloids and then there’s another, parallel world that only some people can see. The things we love are all distractions to keep us from seeing the parallel world, which is just loss and pain.”
“What does it look like?” I asked, picturing an endless plain of ice.
“It looks the same as this one. It’s more like a feeling.”
She dropped her cigarette and ground it out with a balletic jerk of her toe. I thought guiltily about modern dance.
“I know what you’re thinking. What happened in Mankato was a dream. You didn’t drop into a parallel universe.”
“I was just asking,” I murmured.
Emily pried a strip of bark from the log with her fingernail.
“Stop acting like what happened was my fault.” My voice came out clotted. “If you hadn’t been so fucked up, Marty probably wouldn’t have dosed me.”
She looked at me with wide eyes, her face guileless.
“I know you’re lying to me. I was even following footprints for a while on the ice. If they weren’t yours, whose were they?”
She stood up and crossed her arms. “What are you talking about?” she cried. “You had a vaguely scary dream. I came into it and rescued you, apparently. Ever since then, you’ve been insufferable.” Water had begun dripping from the ends of her hair. “My dad could’ve died. You’re so self-absorbed, you didn’t even cry at the hospital. You don’t know what it’s like to love him so much and know at any time he could just die.”
I stared at her. She started to walk, and I followed. Frank’s recovery meant her grief could be over, while mine was unexplainable and went on and on.
“But he’s getting better, it’s all over. What happened to me doesn’t even make sense. How am I supposed to recover from something like that if you won’t even tell me the truth?” My voice was rising. She had slowed, so I passed her. The woods dropped behind me and I focused on the bricks of the school wall.
“I should have fucking left you there,” she snapped. There was a hitch in her breath from walking up the hill.
I barely saw Emily again until the morning of my Confirmation a month later, when she stood beside Hollis in a church pew. Her dress was the same pearl gray as his suit, her hair in a sodden knot at her neck. She disappeared before I could say anything to her. Hollis looked uncomfortable all through lunch. Emily didn’t want me at her graduation party, so I stayed home. Neither she nor I explained what had happened between us to the rest of the family. Mavie thought she could reunite us by getting us to talk on the phone: Emily, get your dupa down here, she would scream, her hand branched over the receiver.
Emily started to melt that summer. She melted from my height to around five feet by the time we took the Christmas picture that year. My mother said it was just the way she carried herself, her back rounded and head jutted forward; it never occurred to her that Emily might have stopped drinking herself back.
The shadows were lengthening. The wind blew harder. We still hadn’t seen the mountains. “It’s going to get dark in a few hours. Can we stop to put snow in our water bottles? Mine’s almost empty,” I said to Hollis. He didn’t answer.
“I know you don’t have a TV, but every night after rehearsal, I watch a nature show on PBS. I’ve seen a bunch of ice ones.” My brother was silent.
“Remember the rules,” he said flatly.
“I’m doing the rules.” I tugged on the back of his jacket until he stopped walking. His face was raw and red. Hours ago, he'd clamped his water bottle onto a carabineer and hung it off the side of his backpack, and I hadn't seen him drink from it since. “Are you dehydrated? Is your water bottle empty?” I asked.
He just stood there. I lunged forward and shook the bottle. It was empty. I gave him what was left in mine and he drank, expressionless. I unclipped his bottle and scooped it through the snow to fill it. Folding it into my hat, I slid it underneath my coat and folded my arms across it. I did the same with mine when he passed it back. He found the pair of expensive, bruised apples he’d been carrying in his backpack and we ate them.
I hoped for another bird.
Though it was barely cold enough to snow, I knew it was dangerous to drink freshly thawed water. I couldn’t risk my voice. I thought of the bags of melted Emily ice in our pockets. They'd be warmer by now. The Emily ice was weighing us down. We’d need more food to replace the energy we burned by carrying that weight, but all we had left after the apples was half a sandwich.
"This Emily ice thing is absurd," I attempted once we started walking. He pretended not to hear me. "We're dehydrated. Even if she literally became part of this glacier, she'd want us to drink it. Wren said the ice just needs to melt for her soul to dissolve.” I felt embarrassed even repeating it.
“If we’re going to follow someone else’s ritual, we should do it right," he said.
For Easter, Grandma drove up from Des Moines, and I overheard her and my mother plotting the number of sides they'd need to offset Mavie's cheap ham. Frank had lost some weight over his year of recovery and now ate mostly vegetables and brown rice, and he drank red wine instead of beer.
Easter fell early that year and it was still cold outside—tiny domes of snow lidded the plastic eggs Mavie had hung from the branches of the dormant bush in front of the duplex—yet Emily’s skin held no more of winter’s luster. Her hair was limp and dry.
But at dinner, she and Hollis chattered happily, and she told us how she and Frank had taken up walking. For their hearts, Frank added. Our town was walkable. Neighborhoods had sidewalks and houses with front porches; even the shut-down glass factory’s lot, even the blocks of mostly empty storefronts were edged with traversable pavement. Two hours on foot and you were mostly through it. Mavie rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.
I pictured Frank and Emily, side by side, the wind picking at the backs of their coats. My own father was a cop, increasingly stressed and absent from working overtime, and not someone I could walk with like that. Sometimes Frank walked to the grocery store and ate a salad while Emily finished her work, and then they walked home together.
My mother beamed. “Frank, I’m so happy for you. For both of you.”
“This year’s a blessing. Easter, new life,” said Mavie.
After dinner, Emily asked me if I’d come upstairs with her, and I followed her to her bedroom.
“I wanted to know how you’re doing,” she said as she opened her bedroom door. “We haven’t talked in a while.”
“I’m good.” We hadn’t spoken in almost a year. “I started looking at colleges.”
Her room was dim and smelled dense, organic. A large, lemon-colored glass bowl sat in the middle of the floor. Four pairs of tights had been draped over the back of her desk chair like shed skins. Sketchbooks lay open on her floor and bed.
“It’s hard,” she said, answering the question I had not reciprocated. She sat on the bed. I sat on the floor with my back against the door and eyed one of the sketchbooks. She’d drawn a picture of her tights slung over the chair, each with a different reptilian face. Her lines were heavy and confident. The paper was creased, and I could see that on the next page, she’d drawn a geometric landscape, the surface a wash of jagged crystals and the sky empty. “I work full-time and I want to be there for my dad, so I took the night shift so I can work while he’s sleeping.”
She collapsed onto her back. “But I’m so tired. Like right now I don’t even remember what we were fighting about. I just want to sleep for days.”
I leaned forward and flipped the sketchbook page. She rose halfway and looked at me. “Don’t look at that,” she said levelly. “That’s my private shit.”
“What is it?”
“None of your business.”
I stood and, hugging the sketchbook against my chest, blocked the door with my body. “You said it was a dream. You told me I made it up.”
She bounced fast on the bed. She was smaller than I’d ever seen her. Her eyes had the same creepy look they’d had in Mankato, intense but unfocused. Her body had the same electricity.
“Give it back,” she demanded. She stumbled onto her feet and pitched toward me, but I was taller and heavier. Her hands were slippery when she grabbed my arm. Her body left a dark mark against mine where she soaked my clothes. “Why can’t you just leave me alone? You follow me everywhere, you always have.”
I just stood there and let her slide all over me. “I want to know what you did to me,” I said softly.
She sat back down on the bed and met my eyes. “I saved you, you idiot.”
Across the room, her face was sallow. Her cheekbones were dark blots. My mother had told me that when Emily was born, she wasn’t predicted to live more than a few months. Then she wasn’t supposed to live past two, then five, then puberty.
She started to cry. “It’s my place. I made it when I was little. When kids teased me, I imagined a perfect ice place so they’d freeze if they tried to chase me there.”
“How did I get there?”
“I don’t know. Forget about it.” She exhaled sharply and shook her head. “My father almost died. Every day of school my whole life, somebody made me feel bad about what I am. So one fucked up thing happened to you. Let it go.”
Carefully, I turned the sketchbook back to the reptilian tights page. I placed it on the rug. The yellow bowl was filled about a third of the way with water.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and closed the door behind me.
“We weren’t good to them," my brother said the next time I proposed we drink the Emily ice.
"Frank and Mavie, Emily. We never were. It was like everyone decided their family was lower than ours.”
“That was our parents,” I said.
“It was all of us. Can you imagine the kind of debt they were in?”
“Not really.” I paused. “You were good to them, though. To Emily. You never found anyone better. You never moved on.”
“This has to stop,” he murmured. My brother was good. He'd been sober eight years. He still worked at the grocery store, and he taught guitar to kids at an afterschool program. After Easter, that yellow bowl in Emily’s room had stuck with me. Part of me knew what she was doing.
The sky was growing dark. People on PBS dug snow caves to sleep in. We could do that, too. There had been no more birds. My stomach was tight with hunger.
“Look, Tracie. I guess I haven’t been totally honest. Emily and I were really good friends, and she told me things she didn’t tell anyone else.”
I slowed my pace and he matched it. “This thing about Mankato and what you dreamed. It was a real place to her. She told me how much it messed you up to see it, but it was a sort of meditation for her.”
“She told me she went there in her mind when kids teased her,” I said.
“There’s more, though. At first, she’d just end up there without trying sometimes. When she woke up back in her room, there’d be snow in the treads of her shoes. Then she figured out she could get there deliberately if she melted down far enough.” He was looking at me. His eyes were red.
“I told her not to try it. I told her what’s good in this world, like her family and her friendships with me Julie. I talked about moving to Alaska together. Then the thing with Frank happened, and she seemed happy with him at home. We didn’t see each other as much. I was so fucked up all the time, I didn’t notice how far she was melting.”
“You were a good friend to her,” I said, because he looked as stricken as I’d seen him at her funeral. “You were the best friend to her anyone could be.”
He sighed, and I could see that he’d carry that guilt about Emily for the rest of his life, and still I didn’t say anything about what I’d seen.
We hadn’t brought any kind of flashlight. I wondered when my brother would let himself read the coming of night that was written all over the sky.
At the beginning of the summer after my junior year, Emily locked herself in her room. Mavie was woken repeatedly by the sound of their daughter pacing. Occasionally, Emily’s window creaked open and the smell of cigarette smoke drifted through the house. Then Hollis called because she’d missed a shift at work. Frank broke down her door. A lemon-colored bowl that had gone missing three years before stood in the middle of the wet rug. It was filled with water.
Frank retrieved a nice blue glass from the kitchen. He and Mavie wrung the rug water that had been my cousin into it, and then Frank called us and Mavie called Grandma and we called other people so Frank and Mavie could go to bed.
Two days later, we drove in a procession to the park. Hollis wore his hair down so that it hid his face. In the car ahead of us, I could see Frank in his hat with the little clutch of feathers, and that Mavie was tilted forward, probably gripping the glass of their daughter between her knees, the bowl on her lap. Marty's van was behind us, followed by cars full of people from school, the grocery store, and town. We filled the parking lot, then walked in a line up the hill, past the play equipment. The tall grass rasped against my bare calves and left long red marks. Hollis walked up with Frank and Mavie; since they were old and unsteady, they let my father carry the bowl and my mother, the glass. I walked between my parents. No matter how slowly we moved, there was no way to keep water from splashing onto me. Birds looped overhead, screaming.
We descended the hill to the stream that connected to a river that fed the Mississippi. We stood in a thick circle around it. Across the stream, Julie and Marty looked rough and old. Each of us said something kind about Emily. Frank talked the longest. They poured her into the water.
I made sure Hollis drank his water slowly, then I showed him how to dig a snow cave. When Emily and I had molded the landscape of my front yard into tunnels and hollows, her hands had been almost as white as the snow they pawed into. Her veins were visible underneath her skin and I thought she had rivers inside her. Hollis and I used our hammers and chisels. We worked fast— it was almost dark.
I drank half the water in my bottle and offered the rest to him. As I dug, I put snow in my mouth.
Hollis finished the water and handed back my bottle. “Thanks for watching out for me," he said. "Thanks for listening. Tomorrow morning, we’ll find our way back. I’ll buy you a hot chocolate.”
I indicated a spot ten yards away. “I want to fill the bottles up with clean snow.”
A blurry yellow orb of rising moon glowed behind the stranded clouds. I scooped snow into his bottle, tamped it down, and filled it the rest of the way. The temperature had dropped with the sun, but I took off my gloves before putting my hand in my pocket. I wanted to make certain I didn’t spill anything when I undid the seals on the bags and poured each one into my water bottle.
I drank the Emily ice in one slow sip.