Melanie Westerberg


By Melanie Westerberg

I went out to the mailbox in my bare feet. The mail just comes every other day. I was having some kind of fantasy about this being my last time out to the mailbox before Dad writes to say he's coming home from Texas, so my hair was loose and yellow and I'd put on a loose dress, also yellow, and my legs were bare too, except for the ankle bracelet Brenna made for me, which is a cord of tan embroidery thread couched in a narrow spiral like a backbone that never ends.

He sent me a pair of shed antlers when I turned twelve. I unwrapped them from the newspaper and for a few seconds I couldn't breathe. I hadn't told anyone what had started happening to me. At the bottom of the box was a letter. In it he wrote the highlights from the sex talk I'd already had from Grandma and from school. At the end of the letter, in handwriting scrunched at the bottom of the page like he was embarrassed, he wrote about what happened to him and to some other people in our family. He warned that it might happen to me. He must've forgotten when it happens for girls, or else it had started late for him. He said to not be afraid and to run as much as I wanted to and just keep my wits about me like I would anywhere else as a girl. If I see a gun, lie down or run away, depending on how close the hunter is. And keep away from bucks. That could get weird. Actually I hadn't thought about that part much.

I ran the crescent between the underside of my fingernail and my skin over an antler tip and felt a good pull. Then I nailed them above my bed. I noticed that Grandma never looked at the antlers.

He used to write me every week. He wrote that I should stick to our acreage as much as I could when I had to run but just be careful of the cars. A car ground past when I reached the mailbox. A few seconds later, it stopped. I couldn't really see the driver through the dust. Then it backed up. I took a step back. It wasn't time for it to happen, but I felt that way a little. Nervous. And like the boundaries of things – I mean the road and mailbox and even the blades of grass – aren't solid, but more like blur and flux.

The car stopped right in front of me. The driver rolled down the window. She was wearing purple sunglasses and her hair was black with grey in it. She'd braided it along the sides of her head kind of like the curls on a bighorn sheep, but the way pieces of hair sprang out of the braids made me think she'd driven all night. She looked at me for a long time. I couldn't see her eyes behind her glasses, but I could tell that she was looking. And I couldn't help it: I went back to the mailbox and opened the lid to check if he'd written me. But it was empty.

After a while, the driver smiled, but it was a sad waver and not a real smile. "You Colt?" she asked in a wavery voice.

"Ma'am," I answered into the black windows of her sunglasses.

She looked down into the empty seat next to her then looked at me again. "I'm looking for your grandma, Riley Crane. It's about her son. Your dad. Vance."

She smoothed back her hair with one hand. She kept her other hand on the wheel. I didn't know what to say. In 1971, Grandma got tired of being a famous artist and moved with my dad from New York to this house in Wyoming. She'd been very clear on what to tell the women who found out where we lived and drove up on pilgrimages hoping to meet her, that I'd call the police and so on. But none of them ever knew the name of my dad. None of them ever knew my name.

"Just a second," I finally said, and my voice came out like a squeak, and I turned and ran back to the house. Which reminded me of another thing he had written that I hadn't thought of on my own: If a hunter sees me and it's too late to lie down, do like I would with a mountain lion and move forward. Move right into them if I have to, because when I transform every part of me hardens into muscle and I'm stronger than any person. Charge, he wrote. But lying down – hiding – is always better, because someone might get scared if I was charging them and shoot anyway.

Dad had some women in Texas who knew all about the way he changed. They all lived together in the hills, grew their own food, and rehabilitated horses, which was what my mother had done before she died. Once a month, after dinner, they went together into the woods and the women watched him change. They'd invented a special chant that they did together just before it happened. One of the women had a baby and another was pregnant.

He'd written all this in a letter to Grandma in the same cramped handwriting he'd used in his letter to me about what to expect from my body. She threw our teapot through the window after she read it. Then she put on her shoes and picked up the window and teapot shards and we looked at the pile of them in her palm. She's an artist and her lessons are opaque. Her fingers were slowly becoming diagonal from arthritis. I kept thinking about the babies, wondering why he'd mention them if they didn't belong to him, and if they might have the deer gene too. I suggested that he didn't really care about those women and just wanted to make more of us. Grandma told me to go to my room. I lay on my bed and stared up at his antlers.

Grandma can't take care of the house as well anymore and I know she wants me to, but I tell her I have to do homework, and also when she was my age she was practicing for cotillion. I opened the door and went down the dark hallway. The leaves on her old ficus from New York and the bamboo were dusty. Books lined the hallway on both sides and all of them were dusty. I wondered what the woman would think if Grandma said she could come in.

Her studio door was closed, but I could see rectangular pieces of her through the clear parts of her long stained glass window, which is like a quilt made of glass. She was sitting in her chair and reading a book right up in front of her face. The window shuddered when I knocked our special knock. She lowered the book and smiled and I went in. I told her about the woman by the mailbox.

She laid her book in her lap and shut it around her finger. "We've had people before who said they knew about Dad, bunny. They say that to get us to let them in. Did you lock the door behind you when you came in just now?"

I nodded, though I couldn't actually remember. "But what if someone really does know about him?" I asked. "How would we know if we keep turning them away?"

There were some quilt blocks in front of her on the floor. The design was made from hundreds of scraps like brushstrokes: branches or antlers or coral. By now she mostly put her quilts together by touch. Even color she knew by touch, from the phantoms of dyes.

"Did she seem any different from the ones I told you about?" Grandma asked.

The woman's hair was silvery and her car was gold. "Her car has Texas plates," I remembered.

Grandma took off her reading glasses and folded them on top of the book. "I know you miss your dad. I miss him like crazy. But we have to start thinking what we'll do if he doesn't come back."

"I just really have a feeling about her," I tried. "She knows all of our names and came from Texas."

Grandma frowned. She moved her book and glasses onto the table beside her.

I was feeling more and more tense and was starting to think that when I feel like that it's because I wish I could stay a deer. The creek runs, freezes, floods. I can see every living thing and when something moves toward me I stop and watch it and it can't see me because my fur is the same color as the hill. My neck is lean and flexible. I'm energy. I run and jump. The ones of us who die give energy. Last year, I stopped eating all meat besides birds. I told Grandma it was because I was almost a teenager. She laughed and said fair enough.

She put on her other glasses, which were so thick they made her eyes look big and black. "You win. But the deal is you're coming with me this time." She'd never let me talk to a pilgrim before, or even see one, though I always ran to the window and tried. I smiled.

"Just do exactly as I say," she instructed. "When I go back into the house, you need to follow me right away."

I nodded and took her hand. We walked slowly down the hall and I wondered if the woman would even be there anymore. The sunbeam through the front window was in a different place than when I'd first come in. Grandma put on her coat and stepped into her shoes. Her thin socks were pulled halfway up her calves and her legs underneath them were skinny and dry. Her knees creaked when she bent them. She exaggerated her unease to deter the pilgrims, but I worried about those legs and how much longer they would hold her.

The car was still by the mailbox. The woman had gotten out and was leaning against the side, watching us. Even from far away I could tell she was very tall. Grandma walked straight toward her with her head up. Our shadows were long. The sun was moving behind the mountain and half the front yard was now shade. I wished I'd put on shoes and a jacket. She probably thought I was crazy all in yellow. She'd taken off her sunglasses and wasn't dressed warm enough either: she had on jeans and hippie sandals and an open blouse over a man's tank top.

She and Grandma stared at each other for a long time. Something was moving across her face like weather and it started to happen to Grandma's face too. Her blouse was printed all over with little falcons. Their wings were spread.

Her name is Eleanor Morris. We sat in the living room and watched it get dark. Grandma put on a record. I turned on the light and made us all some tea and flipped the record over. Grandma went to her room to lie down. I went up with her for a while and curled into the comma of her body and we talked about Dad in quiet voices. She said it hadn't hit me yet and that that was okay. She said I would have as long as I needed. She put her hand in my hair. Then she went to sleep. I stood on my bed and touched the tips of his antlers before I went back to the living room.

There wasn't enough in the refrigerator for dinner. I said I'd drive to the store. Eleanor said I was too young to drive and I reminded her that nobody here cares. Thirteen was almost sixteen, which was almost eighteen, and Grandma and I had agreed that it would be absurd for some woman from the government to come and tell us we couldn't live together anymore. Finally, Eleanor drove to the store and came back with enough food for the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards. She set the grocery bags in a line on the counter and the paper crackled as we put everything away.

I said Grandma had plenty of money and to let us pay her, but she said don't worry about it, she was intruding and it was the least she could do. She asked if we'd thought about using Grandma's money to hire an aide to buy groceries, drive her to the doctor, clean the house. I said we hadn't thought of that and repeated what Grandma had told me about her identity being confidential. Eleanor looked at me with an expression I'd never seen. Her eyes were huge and her mouth crooked and she wrapped her hands around mine. I leaned into her shoulder. She smelled like sweat and horses. She smelled a little like what I remembered of my dad. I started to cry. She ran her hand down my hair over and over like she was petting a cat.

She would stay too long. She would help us hire an aide who didn't care at all about iconic feminist art. I would catch her late one night copying some of Grandma's papers by hand into a notebook and I wouldn't say anything about it. I would catch her taking pictures of the house and Grandma's quilts. A few days later, she would leave in a hurry. But at that moment all I thought about was winter and something Dad had written me. If you look at deer tracks in snow more than a few inches deep, they're stretched out from the way those pretty legs drag a little at the end of each step, and to the untrained eye they look nearly human. Eleanor Morris touched my hair like she knew I was an animal and loved me anyway.

This originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle as the third place winner of their short story contest. 

The Emily Ice, part 3

By Melanie Westerberg

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.           

“Goddammit, Hollis—”

“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. 

Originally published by Eleven Eleven. To order a copy of this journal, go to SPDPart 1 posted on Thursday, 9/24/15. Part 2 posted on Monday 9/28/15,.

The Emily Ice, part 2

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.

“Doing what?”

“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.

Originally published by Eleven Eleven. To order a copy of this journal, go to SPD. Part 1 posted on Thursday, 9/24/15. Part 3 will be posted on Thursday, 10/1/15.

The Emily Ice, part 1

By Melanie Westerberg

The letters my mother found when her aunt Mavie died exposed her and Uncle Frank as the kind of Catholics who believed in things like exorcisms and bleeding statues. Maybe they were just more open to mystery because their daughter Emily was made of ice. When they lost her, Frank and Mavie wrote to a Mr. Wren, who advertised himself as adept in communicating with the dead.

Emily’s soul still languished in the physical world, Wren responded. The water she became had evaporated, then reconstituted as snow that fell onto a glacier in Patagonia, where her soul remained. He advised that she could be chipped out of there and carried home by someone who loved her, and then she would melt again and her soul could dissolve into heaven.

Mr. Wren suggested he might be of service in obtaining plane tickets to Argentina. He claimed to speak excellent Spanish and said he could arrange a rental car or schedule a flight to El Calafate on the state airline. He could even go with them.

Poor Wren, who in his letters capitalized words like soul and heaven, had not suspected my great-aunt and -uncle’s poverty. We assumed his final letters had gone unanswered; they grew more and more desperate, as though he were himself convinced of Emily’s presence in the glacier and not just a con man preying on the bereaved. My brother Hollis and I had a good laugh reading them, but they were sad, too.

I had to fly back to Seattle right after Mavie’s funeral because I was the principal in Norma. It was the highpoint of my career. After the final performance, I stood in a corridor in my gown and stage makeup and held the hands of everyone who passed me. All I could think about was those long months after Emily melted fifteen years ago, when I was convinced I’d practically killed my cousin myself.

The next morning, I called my brother and suggested that we try finding the Emily ice in Patagonia like Wren had proposed. For a while he thought I was joking. Then he said he couldn’t afford it. I told him I could get us there.

Wren’s letters had invoked the glacier so casually I hadn’t thought much about how patches would be dirty, or how the plain that looked so flat on TV was terraced with exhausting little hills. Hollis and I had lost our trekking group behind one of those hills, when we hung back filling Ziploc bags with ice that matched the blue of Emily’s eyes.

We called for our guides until our throats were tender. When my legs started shaking so hard I was afraid he’d notice, I said I needed to sit down and rest. He crouched beside me, and we were about to eat lunch when I remembered that we had only an afternoon’s worth of food with us. So instead of eating, we made up rules. No blame or guilt around the idea to take this trip. No more looking at the bags of melting ice in our pockets. We were not to discuss what we thought had happened to the rest of our group. We still listened for them, though. I could see it when he’d pause, head cocked, one crampon tilted at a toothsome diagonal.  

“We just need to walk in the opposite direction of the sun,” Hollis said.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” he demanded. “The sun moves east to west and we started out coming from the east.”

“Don’t yell at me.”

“That’s not what I meant.” The hardness dropped out of his voice. “We have a long time before dark. Don’t worry.” 

I sighed. The glacier was tongued between mountains, but we hadn’t seen their dark peaks in hours. I watched his ponytail sway against his back.

“You all right?” he asked, swiveling his head around. I nodded. “Stay with me,” Hollis said.

Sheaves of clouds skated on the wind and the ice glittered each time they broke.

“I think we’ve been walking longer than you realize,” I said after a few minutes of listening to our crampon spikes puncture the ice. “I think the sun’s in a different place.”

“I’ll take care of you. We can do this,” he said like he hadn’t heard me. I was pretending, too, smoothing over my panic with each step, but I continued to follow him.

A bird passed overhead and I lurched forward and grabbed his arm. The bird just had to be a sign that we were nearing land. Even after it disappeared over the horizon, we stood with our heads tilted up and remembered the arc it had sketched across the sky.

My sophomore year of high school, I’d see Emily in the hallway after fifth-period choir, often with a rangy girl called Julie. Both of them were seniors. My cousin was thin, her hair long and pale. She was into science. She wore black to disguise the way heat undid her, or else wore layers of outmoded, light-colored clothing in diaphanous fabrics: tunics and long skirts embellished with sequins or wan fur. Her parents thought secondhand clothing made them look poor, so she left and returned home in the cheap clothes they bought her and changed in a bathroom or her car.

She called one Friday evening and invited me to an all-night diner. I went through three different outfits before she picked me up. We sat in the smoking section and she laid a pack of cigarettes on the table. We’d brought our homework. She worked on a chemistry assignment in a notebook. I read Ernest Hemingway. Furtively I scanned the room for people I recognized from school. They moved from table to table, laughing and smoking. At the time, I imagined everyone cool to be of a kind—a tight, clever network of those who were stylish and had one thing they were extraordinarily good at—and so I was confused about why no one came over to talk to my cousin. Elderly women occupied the booths along the far wall. Middle-aged people filled out the room, probably workers the glass factory had laid off when it shut down a few months before.     

The room was so hot that sweat dripped from Emily’s face onto her paper. She held her water glass over the notebook to catch the drips. She melted in the heat and also when she was agitated or upset; her doctors had taught her to collect this meltwater and drink it back into herself. Every time the bell above the door jangled, she raised her head and looked over my shoulder.

“These old ladies must make them crank the heat or something,” she muttered. I snorted. She’d pushed her wet hair back off her face, and her cheekbones gleamed. I shut my book around my finger and asked what she wanted to do after graduation.

“Keep working, I guess,” she said. A peal of laughter came from a nearby table, and Emily ducked her head slightly. She wrapped one hand around the water glass but didn’t drink from it. “Hollis said he’d go to Alaska with me.”

“Can I visit?”

She lowered her eyes and tapped her fingers against the side of her glass. “It gets really cold.”

“But you said Hollis was coming,” I insisted.

“Maybe you can get your parents to fly you up for a week.”

My heart started to pound. Frank and Mavie chronically struggled to pay their bills, which they tried to conceal from Emily. Her family seemed strange and comical to us, old fashioned. The inside of their rented duplex smelled like freezer-burned ice cream. Mavie was my grandmother’s younger sister, and she insisted that she was three years her husband’s junior, though she was actually eight years older, Surely Frank handled their finances and paperwork, yet he never seemed to find out. It was like the world before empirical science, when one might look at stars or the horizon’s curve and see only the dark and the flat.

“I can save up,” I murmured.

“Do you even have a job?”

“I’m fifteen.”

“Right.” She lit another cigarette. “I check out when someone mentions graduation. I can't wait to get out of here.” She laughed, and my heart slowed down.

In her terrible handwriting, she scratched a broad column down the center of her notebook page. I opened my book and closed it. “I think I can get a music scholarship if I keep my grades up.”

“You can. You’re really smart.” Then she slid her glass off the page and clapped her notebook shut. “Hey, I have to meet someone, you want to come?”

“What for?”

“It’s just this guy from work. My parents think he’s sketchy, so we have to meet in the park.” She rolled her eyes and smirked. “It won’t take long.”

She waited as I put on my coat and hat and wound my scarf around my neck. “Don’t you have to drink your water?” I whispered, motioning at the glass. She smirked again and drank half.

We drove to a park with a couple miles of wooded walking trails and a stream, and play equipment on a hill. The parking area was flanked by drifts of plowed snow. Emily’s was the only car in the lot. She did not bother to run the heater. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and kept her eyes locked on the rearview mirror.

“Did Hollis tell you we’re going skiing in Mankato with Julie over Christmas? Her boyfriend’s family’s got a place up there they never use.”

I felt a quick lift in my chest. “I’m usually in rehearsal when he comes for dinner. We’re doing Cats.”

“What’s Cats?”

“For the musical. I play Grizabella. We’re all these cats, and we move just like cats, and all the lines are poetry.”

She compressed her lips into a thin line and exhaled. A car turned onto the long gravel driveway toward us, then backed up and returned to the street.

“Do you think I could come with you guys?” I asked. I unbuckled my seatbelt, drew up my legs until I could rest my chin on my bent knees, and wrapped my arms around my shins for warmth.

“I’d have to ask Julie. We’re just taking one car.”

She turned on the radio, scanned through the stations, turned it off. “I miss hanging out with you,” I ventured. “I miss Hollis since he’s graduated.”

“You wouldn’t want to hang out with us,” she said, not unkindly.  

“Could we turn on the heater for a minute?”

“He’ll be here soon. You could go for a walk or something.”

I flushed. “Okay. I’m kind of cold just sitting here.”

“Sure. Hey, I’ll take you out for real before I leave over break, all right?”

I mumbled something affirmative as I fumbled up the lock through two pairs of gloves. I walked to the edge of the parking lot and looked at the icy trees. Another car turned in from the road and drove toward us. Snow crunched under my feet as I went up the hill to the swings. The air burned my cheeks, but I pumped my legs to propel myself as high as I could. At my topmost arc, I could see the adjacent golf course behind the shag of frozen branches. All the diner coffee I’d drank roiled in my stomach. 

I gave Emily twenty minutes, but when I returned, the windows were iced over thick, parking lot lights speared gold across the windshield. Smoke seeped around the window edges. I knocked on the door, but she knocked back instead of opening it and her friend started to laugh, so I went to the golf course alone. New snow fluted across the hard-packed swells. I looked up at the moon and stars and thought I would get so far away from this town and this family that the constellations themselves would be unrecognizable. Like the Incas we talked about in school, I would know the stars only by the darkness between them. 

Originally published by Eleven Eleven. To order a copy of this journal, go to SPD. Part 2 will be posted on Monday, 9/28/15.