By Melanie Westerberg
First I told my mother about Mankato, casually, as we were making Christmas candy. She brought it up with Hollis the next time he came for dinner, which happened to be the night after Cats. Outside, the snow had collapsed into dirty slush, but bouquets of flowers brightened the dining room and my bedroom. Hollis deferred to Emily. Unbeknownst to any of them, I’d also mentioned it to my grandmother. She must have still held sway over Mavie, because by the end of that week my mother told me I’d be accompanying my cousin and brother to Mankato.
Julie’s boyfriend Marty was twenty-two; his hair was already silver and it sprang in a wooly nimbus around his head. Hollis and Emily were sitting on a big pillow in the back of his van when I pulled open its door. Marty had duct taped an Iowa flag over the back window, and beneath the russet eagle he’d inked I Only Want Anhydrous. Since nobody talked to me, I spent much of the drive to Minnesota looking out the window. Stands of bare trees separated the white fields from the white sky.
We didn’t ski at all. They spent the whole time in the cottage, smoking meth, drinking beer, watching TV, and talking all day and night. Occasionally, they ran outside and rolled around in the snow. Trying at first to shield me from this, Hollis led me through sparse woods until we found a big frozen pond. He trod on its periphery to test its strength, then shuffled onto the ice. Arms out, he spun at its center, his long hair and open leather jacket fanning around him. I realized he was imitating one of the dances from Cats and slid out to join him, singing under my breath. Crows murmured in the trees, and the branches scraped together when the wind blew. He leapt, landed hard. The pond shuddered in response. Without saying anything, we ran back toward the trees as fast as we could, and when we reached the bank we fell to our knees, gasping and laughing.
But when I looked at him, it wasn’t Hollis. My brother was a serious person. He was in a metal band and the municipal orchestra. Just a year out of high school, he was assistant manager at the grocery store where he and Emily worked. When we got back to the cottage, Emily offered him a pipe and he took it and I watched him turn over.
Nobody wanted to eat, and the only food I had was a small bag of sandwiches my mother had made and a container of Christmas candy. I rationed it. The bathroom and unused kitchen opened off the living room, and in back was a single large bedroom with two sets of bunks and a queen bed. None of them slept. I closed myself into the bedroom for hours at a time. I moved all the blankets onto the queen bed—they were running the heater low—and lay underneath their broad pressure, trying to sleep.
I kept the lights off to discourage them from coming in, but I woke up sweaty the second night and noticed that a lamp by the bunk beds had been switched on. Water dripped rhythmically. The room was much warmer. I folded down four blankets and angled up on my elbows.
Emily stood across the room, in underwear and a tank top, her back to me. I hadn’t seen so much of her body since we were kids. Her skin was pellucid and laced with veins. Tension coiled and released in her hamstrings as she rocked. I sat up; she didn’t notice. The beads of her rounded spine protruded against her shirt. Her arms and head dangled, and water coursed past her fingers and the ends of her hair. She collected it in a bowl she’d positioned beneath her on the floor. She was shorter, thinner.
“Emily,” I said quietly.
Her hair flicked water as she whirled to face me. “Go back to sleep.”
“What are you doing? You have to drink the water back.”
She raised a finger to her lips and pantomimed quiet, darting her eyes at the closed door. “I don’t have to do anything,” she whispered. “Go to sleep. You can’t just have this room to yourself, we didn’t even ask you to come.”
“Do they know what you’re doing?” I asked, raising my voice.
Emily turned off the lamp. The frame creaked as she sat on the bunk. The bowl scraped the floor, and I heard her throat work as she gulped the water back, then the rustle of her putting on her clothes. She returned to the living room without a word.
My heart beat so hard I didn’t sleep again for hours.
I woke at dawn. In the living room, Emily was lying on the couch with her forearm angled over her eyes. A few candy wrappers were crumpled inside the dry bowl near her on the floor. Hollis was curled up on the rug with a mammal identification book tented over his face and, at the table, Julie and Marty played a static game of dominoes, their heads sagging. Neither of them looked at me when I walked out the front door.
I waited until a car with women in it paused beside me on the highway, then I asked them for a ride to the ski area. I had money. I had a marigold-colored ski jacket my grandmother had bought for me. By watching other people, I figured out how to put on my skis and found the rental place’s ski instructor.
He said to bend your knees; my bones felt insubstantial inside the heavy boots. Skis crossed and my compact shadow far beneath me, I took the lift to the top of an easy slope. I looked out over the hills. The snow was a combination of what had fallen and ice crystals spat from machines. I launched myself down. A sheet of wind flapped around my face. I torqued in my legs, bringing my skis to a point. Then I returned to the top.
As I descended my fourth hill, I noticed a pale blue patch near a tree ahead of me. I swerved to avoid it, but I couldn’t control my trajectory. The blue expanded. I dropped my weight back and let my knees buckle, but I’d already fallen.
Though I was sprawled on the snow in an unfamiliar place, there had been no jolt of impact. The ground rippled in confectionary peaks of white and blue. Except for the shadows of scudding clouds, everything was motionless. My skis had come off in the fall and I was wearing my regular boots again. I walked hesitantly forward, sidestepping up an incline the way the ski instructor had demonstrated.
From the ridge, I could see that the landscape extended infinitely in every direction. My stomach constricted and my vision blurred. My jacket was all wrong, I thought. Long after I died here it would stay crumpled on the ice, a scrap the color of flowers my mother liked to grow.
“Hello?” I called out. “Help me. Please.”
The wind skittered a layer of ice over the surface. I noticed a trail of footprints nearby and followed them for a few yards before they disappeared. A shudder coursed through me. My tears froze over my cheeks and the cold was sharp each time I breathed it in. I cried for help again, and the wind howled back. I started to walk.
“Tracie,” a girl’s voice answered moments later.
I turned and saw Emily coming toward me. She walked easily over the rises. She had no coat, just her white boots and a cable-knit sweater and black jeans, and her momentum spread her hair around her like a wing.
I watched her approach until she was right in front of me. “What is this?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said gently, and put an arm around me. We started to walk. With her beside me, my feet no longer slipped.
Once I could walk on my own, she moved ahead of me. I reached for her, terrified she’d disappear as quickly as she had materialized, but my hand just pawed the air between us. “Follow close,” she ordered. “Put your feet exactly where I do. Otherwise, you could step into a crevasse, and I can’t get you from there.” I kept my eyes on her back and the lilt of her hair. I couldn’t reconcile this Emily with the version of my cousin I’d seen the night before. Periodically, she turned to check that I was still following.
“What did you give her?” Hollis asked.
I looked around, but the landscape hadn’t changed. I hoped I might see a polar bear or some penguins, and the thought made me laugh.
“Come on, man. She was bumming you out, right?” said Marty.
“You motherfucker,” Emily growled, and the cables on her sweater twined and sighed; my feet were breaking new snow and I leaned toward her to look closer at the cables, which were like open, leering faces.
Emily lay beside me on top of the blankets. I could feel little twitches in her body. The room smelled like vomit. My brother was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“We’re leaving,” she said sternly, and smoothed back my hair with cold fingers.
I raised my left foot, tilted forward, and stamped my crampon spikes into the ice. Then I did the same with my right. My ankles purred, hesitating on the edge of pain. I searched the glacier’s surface for cracks that could indicate crevasses.
“You remember Mankato?” I asked. Hollis winced, and I felt an unexpected twinge of pleasure.
He brushed my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know we never talked about it. I can’t believe how we were then.”
“It was almost twenty years ago. That’s not why I’m bringing it up.” I paused. “But yes, now that you mention it, you could’ve stood up for me.”
“I never talked to Marty again.”
“You barely spoke to me until Emily died, either,” I snapped.
“Tracie, I’m so—”
“You know I forgave you. All of you.” I took a slow breath. “When I was out, I came somewhere that looks like this. I mean, I had this long dream where I hitched out to the slopes and took skiing lessons and went down a few hills. Then I skied into this patch of blue and I was here. I was alone. Then Emily came and she helped me get back.”
Hollis waited a long time before answering. We passed a patch of dirty ice shaped like a fox. It looked just like one I’d noticed two hours ago, right after we saw the bird.
“You’re doing it again,” I said finally, my mouth dry.
“Disengaging when I need you here.”
“I’m not. I’m thinking. I remember Emily mentioning that, what you said about the ice world.”
Secretly I’d hoped Emily had never told anyone about how obsessively I’d pursued her about it. “I was convinced it all happened literally,” I admitted. “I thought she was lying about it being a dream, that she was hiding this secret place from me.”
“I should’ve been there. Mom told me you were having trouble in school. I thought it was because of what Marty did and how we all avoided you after. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry, Tracie.”
“It’s all right. I mean, Marty dosed me and I had a dream. It just took me a long time to get that.”
We came to the edge of a small hill, so I dropped my right foot at a diagonal down the side and kept my left foot level. A curl of blue was frozen at the bottom of the incline. Deep beneath the ice, there must be fish. Flat, silvery fish, and a sort of vermillion corkscrew animal. A pale pink creature resembling a fan rotted through with holes. I must have seen them on television.
“Emily and I talked about you all the time, you know,” my brother said. “She loved you. She wanted to protect you.”
“I really think we’re walking in circles.”
“We’re heading back, I know it,” he assured me.
I never told anyone about seeing Emily try to melt herself. I knew that part of the night hadn’t been a dream: she was high and had probably been experimenting with how far she could go before drinking her water back. Seeing her that way was so grave and intimate I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. And not telling had been a type of subtle revenge, I thought, for the way she ignored me, for the way she began to turn her anger and hurt on me. I cupped my palm over the lump of Emily ice in my pocket.