Jan/Feb 2018  •   Fiction

The Ice Festival

by Ryan Blacketter

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

She floated the car off of the highway at Red Star, and Cory wiped a view across his side window. Neon signs blinked in the daytime darkness. One said The Ride 'er High, only a few of its letters flashing, the rest burned out. Though Red Star was his father's kind of town, she had changed her mind about moving here, and she'd made other changes, too. She used cuss words, she yelled at the boys. She wore strange clothes. Today she wore an untucked purple T-shirt over a long black cotton skirt. Not that she had to look like the church mothers—Cory didn't care anymore that she was different—but she walked out of rooms, smoked too much, broke a dish now and then. She stayed up late in the night.

"Where's Dad?" Matt said, in the back seat. "Where's he staying?"

"Look at this town," their mom said. "Look at it, in the rain."

Cory opened the empty glove compartment and closed it. The wipers streaked the glass in blurry lines.

She had wanted to move here. When they visited Red Star on their summer camping trip, she liked her childhood mountains—both his parents grew up in nearby country—and his father got a prison job here and moved down in January, five weeks before all of this. Then, when he called to postpone any weekend visits till he found a house, she called back and talked to the old lady who was renting him a room, and right in the middle of the conversation with her, she set the receiver on the kitchen floor—Cory could hear the lady still talking—and she walked into the front yard and kicked over a lawn chair and came back in and hung up the phone. That night at the kitchen table she told the boys, "Let's go down this weekend how we'd planned."

"We're not supposed to," Cory said. "There's no place to sleep anyway. Dad said."

"If we stay in a motel he ought to be happy to see us."

She made no sense when she called Lucy, either, saying Jesus was the only man you didn't have to see to believe.

She turned now onto a street of small white houses with neat yards and fences, turned off that street, and parked on the edge of town, in front of the old woman's house, made of concrete blocks. Rain dripped in a curtain over its two front windows. It sounded as though a river hissed along the road on the other side of the house, but Cory couldn't see the water.

"Shouldn't the house face the river?" he said.

"That's not a river," she said.

"Yes it is. Listen."

"It's the cars going by. We circled back to the highway."

"The house is right on the highway?" Matt said. "What if a car flies off and—no, what if a semi flies off and blows the place to bits?"

She turned the key and the engine died. They stayed in the car. Each passing vehicle on the highway sounded like a piece of paper ripping in half.

When his father stepped out to the rainy porch, his thick hair slumped and darkened on his forehead. He looked away, nodding. Then he trotted to the carport and walked in a circle, hands on hips, and finally waved them over in big sweeps of his arm.

Cory got out of his seatbelt so fast, it cracked on the window. The plastic carport roof thundered above them in the rain. "Come here, buddy," he said, but his arms were around him as far as they'd go. A weird laugh caught in Cory's throat. He coughed it away. Then Matt got his hug.

Matt looked out at the fields past the highway. The fields sloped up to a far blue mountain scattered in pine.

"Is that our mountain?" Cory said. "Where the ranch is going to be?"

When his mom ducked under the carport, his father laid her cheek against his chest, but she kept her arms at her sides, and his face changed. He squinted shut his eyes and held onto her. She pushed out of his hug, walked to the edge of the carport. Her car waited at the curb with clouds reflecting in the windows.

He cupped a shaky flame in his hands, lit a cigarette, and wagged out the match.

Cory grabbed onto a pole holding up the thundering roof and walked around and around it. "Where's our ranch going to be?" he said, but he knew there would be no such place.

"Settle down," his father said.

They all kept an eye on the ground. After a minute, the side door opened, scratching the floor inside. A woman stood behind the screen. She was blond and curvy like a woman on TV, and she made her face into a smile.

"You're Cory, and you're Matt." She said it happily, as if she'd been waiting for them. "I'm Carla."

His mom looked at the pile of gutters against the wall. Dry leaves swirled there and flew out to the rain.

"Is this your mother's house?" she said.

"It must've been a fretful drive," Carla said. "Jim dang—listen to this rain."

"Who else lives here? Is it just you?"

Carla fiddled with the hook-lock on the screen door as though she wanted to fasten it. His father put his hands behind his head, with his cigarette in his mouth. Cory disliked seeing his father so nervous. He always controlled any discussion.

"She had the one room in town," he said. "The mill'd just opened a new saw, and half the state moved to Red Star."

His mom's hair whipped across her face and made it black. She turned and let the wind part her hair, then fingered it behind her ears. In the wind were streams of warm air. It didn't feel like February, but the news said there would be snow.

"I heard you were an old lady," Cory said.

"Older was the word," his father said.

"No, we heard elderly," said his mom. "You said elderly."

"Well, I'm nine years older than you, and Carla's five years older than me. That makes her plenty older, next to you."

Carla had a good smile, but it was gone now. With her chin down, she seemed older than she had at first. She had black hair roots. Her eye sockets were deep and shadowed, like dark tea cups. She touched a dangling earring and looked at Cory's mom from under her eyebrows. "Well, I am getting up there, but I still got some kick in me."

His father stepped to the edge of the carport and his mom walked to where he'd been, as though they wanted to trade places. He flicked his cigarette out to the rain, then pocketed his hands. Across the road, black birds tried to settle on the swinging phone wire.

"Don't be sad," Matt said.

Their mom looked at him, but he was talking to Carla.

"Thank you." Carla smiled and lifted her chin and the small daylight filled her eyes, and she was pretty again. "Thank you, sweet boy."

"Can we still go to the Ice Festival," Cory said, "in Timber City?"

Matt grinned. "You want to come with us, Carla?"

"We have a festival right here in Red Star," she said. "Fiddlers. We meet at the high lake and fiddle in the snow and drink beer till sundown. You people ought to come along. You'll see Swedes, Germans. Last year I saw a Japanese." She laughed and pulled a bandana out of her back pocket and snapped it against the screen. "A little Japanese, on a fiddle! Cutest thing you'll ever see."

"Nope." His father nodded like it was sure. "We're going to the Ice Festival."

"Joanna, you'll take a Coke, I suspect," Carla said. "Marty, want a beer?"

They didn't say.

"Oh!" Carla said. "Did you tell her Lucy called? She called just before you showed up. Left her number. I can call her back and tell her you made it."

"All right. Thank you. She was worried about us crossing the pass."

"Check out my new four-seater rig." His father nodded toward the curb. "One year old and I bought it for a song."

Matt clapped once. "A brand-new truck!"

"We'll drive out and see my daddy's old ranch," he said.

"How'd you boys like hot chocolate first?" Carla said.

"Okay," Matt said.

"Look at this youngen. What a precious. You call me Aunt Carla."

Matt hid behind their mom, grinning.

"Cory's sure a tall one," Carla said. "Your dad says you turned into a weed and shot up overnight. You're a sixth-grader? You could be fourteen."

He felt a scowl come onto his face. His mom had told him he made that face too much.

"Hot chocolates, then?" Carla said.

His father looked gloomy. "No. I'm taking my family on a drive. You boys get in the truck."

"Jim dang. Listen to that crash-down rain."

"Jim dang!" Matt said, trying out the words.

"Get in the truck, I told you. Let's go."

"See you cowboy ranchers after dinner?" Carla said behind the screen. "Well, you all have a nice, family time." She chuckled and stepped back to shut the door, but Cory did not see any humor in the word family.

In the new truck, his father moved them through pine woods burned dark and soggy in the rain. A view flashed open past the trees, and off a long ways, between two hills, a train bridge stood tall and black in stacked rows of X-shaped beams. Air sweeping through his father's window smelled like wood and dirt, and the four of them made the perfect square while driving, his father and mom, and he and his brother, around like that in the right order, how they did the previous summer in the rented Jeep Cherokee, only this time his mom didn't talk, and now she slumped against the door, asleep.

"Dad, is she just depressed?" Cory said it quietly so not to wake her.

His father slapped the back of his neck, rubbed it, and glanced at her. She opened her eyes. Far ahead, a cloud tore away from other clouds, lying white and pink against a mountain, with trees poking through.

"Jim dang," Matt whispered. "Look it."

"Don't you ever say that again!" his father said, and Matt cried.

"Do not yell at him," she said. "He can say what he likes."

"Not 'jim dang,' he can't. Worst expression I ever heard." He watched the road a while. "Sorry I had to yell at you, buddy."

It was night when he pulled the truck over to the side of the road. Without any moon, there was nothing to see but cattails swaying in a ditch across the road. The rain on the truck roof had died to single taps. Out ahead, in the headlights, the road went up a hill and fences disappeared into sky. He touched a button, and the doors locked with an airy sound. He kept the engine running and the lights on.

"Here it is," he said. "The ranch I spent my boy times at."

A lady's voice on a radio commercial said, "Are you slain in the spirit? Come touch the wound of our lord. Red Star Pentecostal." The station was scratchy, fading.

"Creepy," she said, and turned it off.

"I went to that church last week. It was the one my mom went to."

"You went Pentecostal?" she said. "I didn't think you believed in anything."

"Figured that church would be right up your line of thinking."

"Your mother is not my line of thinking."

"You two are closer to the same than you think. That's why I married you."

She blinked at him.

"Your mother burned my 'devil records,' " she said. "She thought witches took beer and cigarettes to our beds."

"Maybe they did, in their invisible way."

"How about Carla?" she said. "She a big snake handler, too?"

"You just hold onto that kind of talk."

"I'm supposed to sit pretty and smile."

"Front of the boys, maybe."

"Mom, don't," Cory said. "Stop it."

"Stop what," she said.

"Fighting with Dad all the time. He's been working really hard for us."

"Don't worry. I'm not saying any part of what I feel like saying, though I should, I should."

"He's right," his father said. "Let's not fight."

He touched her elbow, and she picked up his hand and shoved it to his side of the truck. She lit a cigarette and smoked with her head on the window and lit another one off that.

Cory slapped his stomach in a drum roll. "Are we going to have a lot of horses?"

They didn't say.

"Where's our ranch going to be?" he said. "Here?"

She laughed in a sniff, shook her head.

"You said people would throw money at us to learn how to ride," Cory said.

"I didn't want to ask how it was all going to magically come together. But it's not going to. It's not going to all magically come together. Nothing is."

"You're the one who said."

"Cory," his father said. "Watch that tone."

"It's true. She started everything."

"We'll make it happen," his father said. "We'll get loans."

"You need to have something for the bank to meet you halfway. And we don't have anything."

"Sure we do, baby. We'll sell our house, rent a small place in Red Star for a year, and save up more."

"They'd see right through us. They'd want no part of us."

"Honey," he said, scolding her quietly. "You don't talk like that."

"I talked to Lucy. She works at a flower store, and they have an opening."

"This, in front of the boys? I'm trying to be patient, but goddamn."

"How generous of you. You're being patient. Just drop us at the motel."

"You promised!" Matt said. "You promised the Ice Festival!"

"We're going to the Ice Festival," she said. "All I want is to put a night between this day and tomorrow."

His father took hold of the steering wheel then.

"I want to tell you a story," he said. "I want to tell the whole family. A powerful thing happened. Truth be told, I'm a little spooked about it—out here, in these woods. But I'll tell it. I'll just tell it now. That's why I brought you out here.

"Last week, I woke up in my basement, and I thought the ground was opening. Thought the house was sinking. I went upstairs and got a glass of water and—it's crazy to say this—I saw a man nailed to a cross. High up in that tall tree by the highway. Branches against the sky. Moonlight. He moved his lips and I knew what he was saying. He told me, in my heart, Be a good man for Joanna and the boys."

He blew out air.

"Next day, I bought this rig and ditched the old one, so us four could drive together. I've stayed down in my basement every night since, with my door locked, reading the Bible." He held a hand out for her. "I know it's been hard living with a man that didn't believe—and all the other problems I made. But I'm changed. I'm new."

She wouldn't look at him or take his hand. But she turned and patted his knee twice. "I'm glad that happened to you. I've prayed for it."

"I don't feel good," Matt said. "I'm car sick."

"Watch the road," she said.

"What road?"

"Look out the front window."

"Pray with me now, baby. Will you?" He lifted his palms and started whispering a prayer. She didn't pray with him.

The field out Cory's window started to blink in light. It was the wind breaking up clouds under a bright moon. Now he saw, down a short dirt road and up on a hill, the ranch house—a black-brick square against the rushing white clouds.

"Pray, everybody," his father said. "Let's ask for the holy spirit."

His leather creaked when he turned in his seat and took Matt's hand. Cory wanted to hold onto some part of his mom. He touched the bony knob of her shoulder. It didn't feel like he was holding very much of her. She finally took Cory's hand.

His father whispered alone a few minutes, then glanced around, smiling and crying. Cory had seen his mom like this, but never his father.

"I don't feel good," Matt said. "I'm scared, and my tummy hurts. I'm sick, I'm sick."

Cory and his father stayed in the truck while she and Matt got out together. Next to the fence, she stood behind Matt and held his forehead while he threw up.

"How come Mom didn't pray?" Cory said.

He rested his hands on the wheel and bowed his head. He let go and leaned back. He blew his nose in a napkin.

"Is it true he forgives anything?" he said. "Does he really forgive us?"

Cory didn't say.

"You know about him, son. Tell me about him. Does he ever visit you?"

"I don't know."

"Tell me, buddy."

Cory didn't say.

"You can tell me. I'm your dad."

"Yeah. He comes to me."

"What does he do?"

"I don't know. Says I'm bad."

"Does he bring you love, too?"


"He doesn't say you're bad. He doesn't say that."

He didn't like his father asking him questions. He fiddled with his shirt buttons till his mom opened the door.

"I'm changed, honey," his father said. "I'm a whole new thing."

"Marty, I'm happy for you, but at this point, I don't have anything to say. Take us to the motel. We'll see what happens tomorrow."

He turned the truck around, and they rode at walking pace. He tapped the horn and a deer bounced into the woods.

Matt rested his head on Cory's leg, facing him. Cory didn't touch him. Now it was his father who prayed and cried and his mom who wanted to leave, and everything was turned around.

They drove back to the highway. It was getting foggy. Electric sky signs hung in wordless blurs.

His father pumped gas, then walked across a field to Stagecoach Inn. His mom came out of the gas station with a paper tray of hot dogs. They got in the truck at the same time. Cory smelled the cold on his father's clothes.

"The two motels are full up with fiddlers tonight," he said. "Who plays a fiddle in the middle of the damned winter?"

"The Japanese!" Matt was feeling better.

"I'm not sleeping in that woman's house," she said.

"There's motels in Timber City," he said. "Two-hour drive. But no telling if we'd get a room during the Ice Festival. Next closest one's two hours back over the pass, mostway to Laroy."

"Dad," Cory said, "are we going to have horses?"

"Maybe we'll just go back." She took a breath. "The boys and I."

"You don't want to do that. The snow's coming, and you can't put chains on by yourself. Nowhere to call on the road, either."

"You said the Ice Festival!" Matt told her. "You made a promise!"

"Quiet that down, right now. That's your mom you're talking to."

"We'll sleep in the truck," she said, "the boys and I."

"Why?" Matt said. "Don't you like Carla?"

"Who wants this last hotdog?" his father said.

"I want it." Matt grabbed the hotdog. "It's mine. I called it."

"Are we going to have horses," Cory said.

Matt smacked his food. Cory slapped the hotdog out of his hands—it fell to the floor—and showed him his dog face, teeth clenched and bared.

"Look at Cory!" Matt said. "Look at him!"

When they looked back, his face was normal.

"You two cool it back there," his father said.

Matt ate the hotdog with his back to Cory, glancing over his shoulder. They drove a back road, passing lighted porches. The houses floated away in the fog.

Carla opened the side door, and they found her kitchen table right away, as though it was what they had come to see. Cory held onto the table, smudged it, breathed on it. Carla did dishes. She kept turning her gaze on them, but she didn't talk. Once the dishes were clean, she took cups out of the cupboard and washed those.

Matt left the table and sat on the floor by Carla's feet with his coloring things. He chose a crayon—pink.

"I can't talk you people into going to Fiddlers tomorrow?" Carla said. "Joanna?"

"Already said we're going to the Ice Festival," their father said.

"I might just hang around town and read my book," said their mom.

Matt scratched his head with the crayon. "We could still go if Mom stayed behind?"

"You're not coming?" Cory said.

"She is," his father said. "Your mother's coming."

"I don't think so." His mom looked into the empty space between the wall and fridge. "What's the difference if I go?"

Matt grinned. "Carla could go instead."

"I could miss Fiddlers one year," Carla said.

Cory said, "Mom, you're staying behind?"

"The lady doesn't have to go," Carla said.

His father brought out a cigarette, but he didn't light it. "Please come. Please come with us."

"It's about time the women did what they felt like." Carla laughed. "Instead of getting pushed around by the men all the time."

"If anybody's going," his father said, "it's Joanna and me and the boys."

"That's what I was thinking made the most sense. Oh—I forgot! I've got a friend playing at Fiddlers anyway."

Carla lifted a tray out of a drawer and washed the silverware inside of it, piece by piece. On the wall hung a velvet picture of a sword and feet lowering out of clouds. There were Jesus pictures all over.

"Are you a real cowgirl?" Matt said.

"Sure am. That bearskin in the living room? I shot it myself. From a helicopter."

"Wow," Matt said.

"Is that even legal?" his mom said.

"Do you have any kids?" Matt said. "What's your favorite show?"

Carla leaned toward the sink, scrubbing a spoon.

"Todd died at 17, three years ago. Me and Todd were out riding, and we stepped our horses out on the lake. The ice broke, and Todd's horse fell in."

"Do we need to know this?" their mom said.

"Maybe I share too much." Carla straightened up at the sink. She looked at a high place on the wall. "Maybe I'm too quick on making friends."


Matt frowned. "She isn't being any fun."

"You boys like some ice-cream?" Carla said.

"Yes, please."

"It's too late for sweets," their mom said.

"Never too late for sweets," Carla said.

"What are you coloring over there, honey?"

Matt scribbled his crayon.

"Answer your mother," their father said.

"Some grass and flowers, and a nice house."

"Joanna." His voice was thick. "Can we talk—in the basement?"

They went downstairs. Carla fit her hands into her small apron pockets and squatted.

"You can have a small bowl," she said. "You'd have to eat it real quick."

Matt grinned and nodded. At the counter, Carla scooped ice-cream into bowls, glancing at the basement door.

"Hurry, hurry," Matt said.

"Frozen solid," she whispered. "It'll barely scoop."

"My mom said we shouldn't eat any," Cory told her.

"You have any dessert tonight?"

"No," Matt said.

"Then a little bit won't hurt."

They talked downstairs. Carla touched a button on the radio, country music played, and their voices were mostly covered up. They had to swallow the ice-cream too fast. It didn't taste good. When Cory's mom came up, his father was still talking to her in the basement, and she shut the door on him. His mom took away their spoons and bowls and set them in the sink.

"I was finished anyway," Matt said with a full mouth, singsong.

"Only gave them a couple bites," Carla said. "Hope that's okay."

She washed the bowls and scrubbed at the sink while his mom stood looking out the window. His father took his spot at the table.

"Why is there tape on the windows?" his mom said.

They were both taped up black. Cory had thought it was just black night outside.

"The break-downs like to get nosy and wander up to my back fence," Carla said.

"Who are they?" Cory said.

"Car-trouble people."

"You don't help them?" his mom said.

"I'll put a sign out. Free hotel."

Carla ran a sponge in wide, soapy loops over the counter tops. One counter was sunk in the middle as if something very heavy had rested there.

"Can we have hot chocolate?" Matt said.

"No," their mom said. "Bedtime."

"It's only 9:30. I'm not even tired."

"It would sleepy them up a little." He lit the cigarette he'd been holding. "Otherwise Matt'll be up all night."

"All right. One cup. Then it's to bed."

"Can I use the bathroom?" Cory said.

Carla pointed. "Through the living room and down the hall."

The bear rug lay between the fireplace and the couch, its mouth open and its teeth showing. In the bathroom, Cory turned on the faucet and locked the door. There was nothing good to steal or break. His father's toilet bag lay by the sink. All he did was shove his aftershave in one pants pocket and Carla's perfume in the other. He'd throw the bottles at a telephone pole or something.

In the living room, he stood on the bear rug. They were talking at the far end of the long kitchen, the table out of view.

"I'm getting my toothbrush in the car," Cory said.

"Get your mom's stuff, too, buddy, and your brother's."

He dragged the bear across the floor by its teeth, out to the porch, shut the door, and dragged it shh over the grass in the fog.

The side yard sloped to a creek. Water trickled over rocks. The porch light had faded to a yellow patch. He folded the bear with the bottles inside of it, then dropped a heavy rock on it a few times, till the glass crunched, and unfolded it. In the middle of its back, the fur was wet like blood, sparkling with broken glass. Then he spun the bear into the creek. It landed head-up on some branches on the far shore, its paws on the bank, its butt dipped into the water, as if it was ready to scramble up to flat ground.

Cory got their bags from the car. After the hot chocolate, his father laid a foam mattress in the truck bed. Cory, his mom and brother climbed in through the canopy door, and lay down under five blankets.

"This is crazy," his father said. "Why not sleep in my bed downstairs. I'll sleep on the floor."

"No way," she said.

"Better than sleeping outside, dead of winter."

"It's not so cold."

"Will be. Snow's coming."

"We're staying out here."

His father touched the canopy door, about to close it and go away. Cory wanted him to stay and talk.

"You never told us about your job," he said.

"Don't think your mother's interested."

When she rubbed a blanket hem between her thumb and finger, as though she wanted to hear, he lit a cigarette. "Same as my old job, except it's for kids."

"What did they do?" Cory said. "Are they criminals?"

"They're just boys—but they like to put cigarettes out on their own arms. Shows they're tough, I guess." He smoked and looked down the road in the fog, as if he could see a long ways. "Not the sort of place a mother wants to send her kids."

"Of course not," she said. "No mother would want to."

"Why aren't we sleeping in there?" Matt said.

"Let's get some rest now," she said.

His father said good-night and shut the canopy door. Through the tinted side window, the porch light was stretched and fuzzy. He went into the house where Carla was.

They took the slow way to the Ice Festival, stopping at lookouts. Along the road his father pointed out wide brown signs telling of soldier and Indian dead. At White Bird Hill, the valley was brown and wet. His mom sat on a wooden curb in her poncho, dipping a stick in a puddle as though she was measuring it, while his father traced the battle with a finger across the valley floor, and Cory saw the massacre of soldier men.

In Timber City, at an A-shaped restaurant with animal heads on the walls, she left her plate halfway through dinner, and he put down the money and they followed her to the front parking lot. His father leaned on the wall, next to her. She kept her eyes on the icy ground, black and shiny in the street light.

Cory walked a parking space line up and down, how he'd seen drunk people do it on TV. Across the road, people had crowded a lumberjack ice sculpture. He was ten feet tall, he carried a log on his shoulder, and his legs were dark, stained with highway soot. Matt shouted at the crowd, and a lady waved back. It was Carla.

She galloped across the road, holding her mouth, laughing. Matt jumped in place till she was next to them, and he grinned. Her hair was all blond now, even the roots, and she wore tight jeans and a pink ski jacket.

Carla's breath fogged the air. Her breath mixed with their breath.

"I drove up after Fiddlers, like every year. Had no idea I'd see you people."

"We're taking one more walk," Matt said, hopping, "along the ice sculptures."

"I'll walk with you people, but only a minute."

"Why only a minute?" Matt said.

"Aw. I like you, too. But I have to get home soon—wash my hair."

"It looks pretty already."

Carla smiled. "Your Indian girl called today," she told their mom. "She wants to give us a visit."

"In Red Star?" their father said. "When?"

"Tonight." Carla smiled. "I gave her directions to the house. She sounded pretty keyed up."

"Can Carla walk with us?" Matt said. "Mom can stay in the restaurant and sit by the fire if she wants. She doesn't like it here anyway."

Cory's mom took a step one way and the other way. Then she kept still. "Do what you want." She crossed the road and his father shuffled after her. He touched her elbow, whispering soft things.

"Boys!" he called. "Let's go!"

Carla and the boys crossed the road and walked along the ice sculptures, following. Ice animals glittered pink in the light of the shops—elk, cougar, a begging dog. Since their bodies were snow and ice, they seemed unfinished, as though their makers had walked away half done.

His father glanced back with hard eyes, but he didn't tell Carla to leave. He didn't yell at her and make her go.

After the shops, the lake view opened far and white. Their parents went down the stairs, then Cory and Matt and Carla, and the three of them stood on the short dock while their mom and father talked at the other end of it. "Say something," Cory heard his father say. "C'mon."

Matt squeezed Carla's hand. He shivered inside his fur-lined hood.

"Can we g-get hot chocolate?" Matt said, faking a chill. "She never gets us hot chocolate."

"I'll run back and get one for everybody," Carla said.

"Can I go?" Matt said.

"Okay. It's better if he keeps moving, if he's that cold," Carla told Cory. "We'll jog to the café—the Train Station Café—and come right back. You tell your mother."

They went up the stairs. Cory sat on a log frozen in the ice. On the lake, people moved in little groups, their skates hissing. Laughter came at him sharp and hard. The wind blew, whispering in the trees first, and he leaned onto his legs and hid his face until the cold air had passed over him.

His parents' voices traveled to him along the ice.

"You let me stay in Laroy for five weeks," she said, "and didn't even visit once."

"Full-time job, looking for a house. That means I had two jobs."

"Yes—you've been busy. You sure have."

"Pretty night, huh?"

"Well, I'm glad you didn't come visit. Maybe I never—"

A wind covered the rest of her words. Then Cory could hear again.

"Wish I had me some ice-skates," his father said. "Remember that first time we came out here? You were 23 and dying to get off the farm? Well, I'd say we made it pretty good for ourselves. Couple of ranch kids." His voice lowered—Cory missed something. He heard him say "back home again."

"Lucy wants me to live with her," his mom said.

"Smell that pine. It's the same air."

"She found a house to rent in Boise."

"That town's filling up with half the state of California. As we speak."

"I could have a whole extra room for a studio, start painting again."

"You're standing here..." his father said, "… accusing me... when you're ready to move in with a known lesbian? You calling yourself a Christian?"

"I don't go around calling myself anything."

"I know what people will call you. 'Dyke.' 'Whore.' 'Squaw's bitch.' "

"What's the matter with you! Is this part of your new religion? Talking like that, acting superior, after all you've done?"

His father slowly walked the dock, stopping twice to look at the lake, with moonlight reflected on it, then went back to her. He tapped his heel on the dock for a minute, as though helping a nail down.

"Sorry. That language, back there—somebody else talking. All this is my fault, I know that. But it's just a matter of setting things right. We'll make it. We'll get there."

Once they were quiet, Cory went up the stairs and waited on a bench. She stood with her back to him on the dock. Then he walked across the ice, in the direction of the truck. It took his mom a minute to cross the dock, stopping to look about her every few paces. She climbed the short staircase. She sat next to Cory on the bench, holding her arms inside her poncho.

"Let's go," he said. "Let's go sit in the truck with Dad."

"Okay," but she didn't move.

"Why did he walk away by himself?"

"Your father and I are figuring out what to do."

"What do you mean what to do?"

"You don't need to know every little thing."

"Did he do something?"

"Yes, he did. He sure did."

"Are you going to Boise?"

"I'm not going anywhere without you. But I have no idea what's going to happen. Let us figure things out."

She leaned onto her knees. Cory started knocking the side of her leg with his knuckles, a floppy slap every couple of seconds. She didn't grab his hand or tell him to stop, so he knocked her leg harder.

"What are you doing?" she said. "You big clumsy fidget." She put loose fists on her eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

He poked her in the stomach and ribs. "Bap, bap, bap."

She took hold of his fingers, then squinted as though she remembered something. She stood up, shoulders lifted, eyes red.

"Where is Matt?" she said. "Where's Carla?"

"I don't know." If his mom wasn't talking, neither was he. "They left."

"Where did she take him? Did she say anything?"

"The train station."

"What train station?" She held onto his shoulders. "Is there a train station here? What exactly did she say? Look at me."

He tipped his head, eyes and mouth open, and went still.

"Stop that," she said.

She walked off, to the shops. Cory rattled the loose armrest. His mom was a far-away rag of poncho he kept losing sight of.

When he was five feet behind her, he slowed to a walk, zipping his coat up and down and glancing into shop windows like she was.

"Mom," he said. "Mom."

Old snow sifted off the rooftops and icy bits flew in their faces. Wind from the lake made an ocean noise in the high pines. The saloon music on the outdoor speakers sounded full of panic.

He hugged her from behind, with his head inside her poncho and his feet stepping with hers, and made a siren noise in his throat, then laughed in a cackle. He lifted his legs behind him, so that she carried all of his weight. She staggered across the sidewalk and between bushes and leaned against the brick wall of the bank.

"Let go! You're too big for this!"

"Stop it," he said.

"You're hurting me! You're too heavy!"

"Stop it."

He stood and pressed his forehead on her back, holding onto her. It smelled like damp wool and it smelled like his mom. She was breathing like a caught thing. She picked at one of his fingers, a sharp, fingernail bite. He let go and trotted in circles, making the siren noise and flapping his arms.

She crossed the road ahead to the next block. There she stopped and spun around, her poncho swinging out in the wind. She called to somebody kitty-corner to her. She jumped snapping her fingers and waving, yelling in the noise of piano and traffic.

Across the road from Cory, in front of a railroad-car restaurant with candlelit tables inside, Matt skipped and giggled with his lidded hot chocolate, toward where the truck was. As Carla jogged out of the restaurant, she slipped and fell on the salted, icy walk, and the styrofoam tray holding the four cups dropped and the hot chocolates spilled. Carla stood up and walked in a circle around her mess, limping and laughing, and took off after him. "I'll catch you!" Carla said.

When Cory and his mom reached the truck, Matt was in the backseat and Carla stood at the open passenger-side door. His father held onto the wheel. His mom waved Cory into the backseat, shut the door, and climbed into the front seat and shut that door. Matt scooted across his lap and they traded places. He wanted to be close to Carla.

Carla tapped at their mom's window, and she rolled it down partway. "What is it, Carla. What do you want."

"The boys—I was only thinking about them. They were cold in their bones, and I went for hot chocolate."

"Let Marty and I think about the boys. I was worried to death."

"What, you feared I kidnapped him? I told Cory, Tell your mom we went to the Train Station Café. For hot chocolates."

"You should've told me. Asked me."

"They were so cold. Maybe I'm a sucker for little children, but I didn't mean any harm."

"Aunt Carla's making a pie," Matt said.

"I said we'd ask you first," Carla said. "I bought it cooked—just needs an oven."

"You better say yes," Matt said.

Their mom pinched the top of her nose.

"Look at those boys in their seatbelts." Carla laughed. "They look like little bears in Sunday clothes, all strapped up like that. Cute as a bug in a rug."

"She makes us," Matt said. "Nobody else has to wear them, huh Dad? You don't wear one, huh Dad?"

"Keep quiet, buddy."

Matt reached a hand out his window, but Carla only winked at him.

"Roll up your window," their father told him.

"What about Aunt Carla?"

"Stop calling her that," he said.

"I know things are funny," Carla said, "but if there's any way to be friends. All I want's to be friends with you folks. Red Star's a small town and we'll be seeing each other around, like it or not. Come home and break bread with me, eat a little pie. That's all I want."

Their mom sighed. "This is too much. The boys and I are stopping long enough to get our things."

"Baby, hold on now. You won't make it over the pass in your car."

"The snow hasn't come yet."

"It's coming."

"We'll put the chains on at Carla's and hope they don't break before we hit snow."

"Come on over. We'll figure it out," Carla said, "one way or another."

"Roll up the damn window. Just roll it up on her."

Their mom didn't roll it up, but he revved the engine and backed out of the space. Carla waved as they bounced out of the parking lot. The broken line of the highway flashed in the headlights, and they were quieter than they had ever been.

Back at Carla's, Lucy was waiting in her truck, with a blanket over her shoulders. The dash light was on, and her hair shined in the green light.

"Well, come on in," Cory's father told her.

"You and I better talk, Marty."

"Oh, we've been talking. There'll be plenty more of that."

In the living room, they stood in the dark while he found the lamp. The lace over the shade threw a web on the ceiling. Lucy waited by the door, rubbing a thumb on the wallpaper. She wore overalls speckled in paint, bright red and yellow and blue. Her jacket collar was turned up. She didn't smile, like she usually did. His mom got on one knee before her suitcase in the living room. She slapped her bathroom bag into it. She squinted, blinking. The air was filled with a headache smell—bad lemons, wet dog, aftershave. It smelled like his father along with many other things.

Cory saw the bear rug in its old place on the floor, and his forehead went prickly with sweat. The towels underneath it had wet marks on the edges that stuck out. His father squatted to have a look. Then he pressed a boot on the bear's back, and it squished.

"What in the hell?" he said.

"It's you," his mom said. "The smell."

"That ain't me."

"It's you, times a hundred."

His father paced heavy-shouldered, hands in his back pockets, till Carla walked in. She turned a switch and the electric fireplace came on, flashing red on the shiny floor.

"What kind of stunt you trying to pull?" he said.

"The bear. Yes, we'll talk about the bear."

"Why's it so smelly in here?" Matt said.

"Are you Lucy?" Carla said. "I like your outfit. Is that part of your tradition? Are you a tribal dancer?"

Lucy didn't say.

"I'll throw that pie in the oven," Carla said.

"We're going," his mom said.

His father made his eyes small. "Who's going."

"Me and the boys, for now. In my car."

"Okay," Carla said, "but the last thing those boys need is get back on the highway three more hours. I'm only thinking about them. How about a little peace and quiet? It's the best thing."

"I want to stay," Matt said. "I want to have pie."

"You'll do what I tell you," their mom said.

"We're too tired to drive. Didn't you even hear Carla?"

"Be polite," Carla said.

"Don't tell my son how to act."

"I'm sorry. You're right." Carla patted the air, as though touching an invisible thing. "I just want to be the peacemaker here. Let's break bread. Then we can all walk away and no bitterness in our hearts."

His mom rubbed her eyes, and his father sat on the couch holding his head. Carla and Matt went into the kitchen, through the curtain of beads in the open doorway. She turned on the light, then the radio. After the music, a man said the big snow coming was finally here.

"You're not crossing the pass," Carla called.

"Yes we are," she said.

"Baby," his father whispered, "let's get in the truck and drive, right now. Back to Laroy. We'll make it over the pass in the truck."

"I can't do that." She looked at Lucy.

"Things're better now," his father said. "Maybe better than they ever was. Sometimes you got to hit bottom. I'll quit booze, for good. That's a promise."

"I said I wanted to talk," Lucy told his father. "I'm all screwed up, too. Let's you and me go outside and talk."

"You come and live with us," he said. "No joke. I'll build you a house on our back property. You're a good friend to my wife. Whenever she wants she can visit you, and you can be best friends all you like."

"I appreciate that. But I've got my own place now."

"Damn it, look at me," his father said to his mom. "I found God. I saw Jesus Christ. Doesn't that mean anything?"

She swung her eyes at him.

"How'd you manage to see through a window all taped up in black?"

"Well, he let me see through it. He opened up my vision. He—"

"Don't tell me about any miracles," she said.

"Sit with us," Cory told her. "Mom."

She sat cross-legged in front of her suitcase. The oven was ticking. After a while, a new smell mixed with the bad one, hot apples and cinnamon. Carla glided into the living room with a plate in each hand, for his mom and Lucy—Matt carried his and his father's—and she brought two more plates and then a jug of milk and cups for the coffee table.

"Eat it up," Carla said.

"Thanks," Lucy said, but she didn't eat it.

"Go ahead and sit down. My house is open to anybody."

"I'll stand."

Carla lay in a beanbag, with a cheek to the firelight. Her face was pink and young looking in the glow.

"Caaar-la," Matt said with a full mouth.

"Kids are so cute," she said.

"You have the prettiest name in the world, I think."

"Shut your mouth, I told you," their father said. "Now why don't you tell us what you did to the bear."

Carla laughed out loud. "What I did to it? I love that bear."

"That why you sniped it from a helicopter, instead of giving it a fair hunt?"

"I whispered thank you in his ear after I shot him. And I whisper thank you every time I lay down on him. Like the Indians did. The Indians were grateful for every little thing life gave them."

Lucy set her pie she hadn't touched in the kitchen and stood at the front door looking out the window.

"What'd you do this time," their father said, "give him a bath, a little aftershave?"

"You'll have to ask Joanna about the bear."

"Ask me," their mom said. "Please."

"Damage has been done," Carla said. "This smell's going to hang around for years. But I guess that was part of the idea."

His father thought about it. "I don't care what happened. I don't care who did what to any bear."

"Well, I happen to care a whole lot," Carla said.

"If my wife wanted to make a point, that's her right."

Cory held onto his glass of milk with both hands. "Dad. I know who did it."

"Keep quiet, buddy."

"Last night, when we were sleeping in the truck, I looked out the window and saw Carla. She dragged the bear rug to the creek, poured aftershave on it, and threw it in."

"I confess." Carla laughed. "Ruined my own prize bearskin."

"Then she talked under her breath. She said, 'I'm doing this because I don't like Joanna and I want to cause trouble.' "

"And who'd I say that to, the moon? You been watching too many cartoons."

"She just said it, Dad. For no reason. It was weird."

"How'd you hear me from the truck?" Carla said. "How'd you see me through the tinted window and the fog?"

"I swear to God, Dad." His face burned. "I stepped out to go to the bathroom, and she came out the front door. She couldn't see me."

Carla lowered her plate—the plate shook and the fork rattled on it—and set it on the floor. She was lying down in the beanbag. She crossed her legs, and a foot dangled in the air.

"I hear you like making things up," Carla said. "That's all right. Sign of a smart kid."

"Anything she doesn't know about us?" his mom said.

"Marty didn't tell me anything I can't see for myself."

His mom pulled at a loose thread on her poncho. His father jabbed a finger in the air. His voice cracked. "Joanna's a good mother."

Carla's foot twitched. She pressed her lips together and lifted her eyebrows at Matt, as if they had a secret.

"She's a good mother," his father said, "and a good woman."

"Sounds like you're going against earlier testimony," his mom said.

"Maybe I had to say some things, to see if I agreed with them."

"Why is she being mean?" Matt said.

"Stop calling me she. Get in the car."

"I'm not going. I'm not."

"Mom," Cory said, "what are we doing?"

"Honey," she said to Matt. "Please look at me."

"Joanna." Lucy showed her palm. "I want to do what's best. If that means driving away and forgetting all about you, I'll find a way to do that. The last thing I want is to break up something good. But at least talk to me. Tell me what's going on."

"Baby, right now I've got my boys to—"

"You're calling her baby now?" his father said.

"Mom," Cory said. "Where are we going?"

"Quiet down," she told him.

Cory squatted next to the fireplace. There was a three-foot-tall metal milk container with weeds and cattails sticking out, and he hit a fire poker against it, bong bong. A sharp-pointed finger stuck out of the poker, by the tip. He started asking his how many questions, which always got on their nerves. "How many people would fit on a couch, like if you wanted to pile on as many as you could?" Bong bong.

"Put the poker away, right now," his mom told him. "It's dangerous."

Bong. "Mom, how many people could fit in one car?"

"Lots of people can fit in Dad's truck," Matt said. "All of us, plus anybody else."

"Mom," Cory said, bong bong. "How many in one car, like ten, twenty?"

"Oh, I don't know, but stop hitting that thing, you'll hurt somebody."

Bong bong bong. "How many?"

"Quit it," his father said. "Right now, like your mother told you."

Cory leaned the poker against the wall, where it was before.

"Well, I'm willing to forgive and forget," Carla said.

"Don't talk to me anymore, Carla," his mom said.

"Hmm. Think I'll do what I please, in my own house. In fact, I've been awful polite, considering."

"Boys, get your things," his mom said.

"No! I want more pie and ice-cream," Matt said.

Cory felt his scowl coming on. "Mom, what are we doing?"

"I'm a polite person," Carla said. "I've been nothing but polite."

"Then keep quiet," his father said.

Carla brushed at her lap.

"Sweetheart?" his mom said to Matt. "How would you like a fruit pie at the store?"

"I like it here with Carla."

"Mom," Cory said, "what are we doing? What are we doing? What are we doing?"

She wouldn't look at him. She thought he wanted negative attention—she always said that.

"Nobody in Laroy likes you," Cory told his mom. "All the parents think you're weird. You're the one they call weird. Not just Lucy."

"Damn it," his father said. "Keep your mouth shut."

"It's true," he said. "She's sad all the time and never has any fun, unless she's around Lucy."

"Maybe I'm getting between." With her boot Lucy tapped the wall beneath the window. "Maybe I should go."

"All right, you take good care." His father said it quickly, as if he wanted her gone, but she stayed.

"Anyway I don't care if Mom goes away," Cory said, "and neither does Matt. I'd rather talk to Carla. We keep saying that, but she doesn't listen. She doesn't listen."

His mom breathed out as though she'd been holding her breath. The corners of her mouth tugged. "All right. I'll go back alone." She clicked the suitcase locks and stood up with it, and his father watched her feet head for the door.

"I never saw a damned thing," he said. "No Jesus up in a tree. No nothing. But last night in the truck, in front of the ranch, that was real. I felt something."

When she opened the door, Cory took her wrist and pulled her back. He shut the door with his foot. Lucy had stepped aside and glanced around as if she didn't know where to stand.

"Wait a sec," Cory told his mom. "Dad."

His father was holding onto his head. He was going to let her walk out.

His mom jerked her arm, but Cory kept hold of her. He stood between her and the door. When she reached under his arm for the doorknob, he kicked at the suitcase. She put the suitcase in her other hand and shouldered past him. She had the door open when he yanked her by the poncho collar—a loud hnt came out of his throat—and she fell on the floor with the suitcase clattering under her. She held onto the suitcase, breathing hard.

"Your children are sick!" Carla said. "Look at Cory's face. Is that the face of a child or an angry man? Look at him."

Cory loosened his fists and tried to make his face normal, to take the scowl off, then stepped back farther, big and dangerous, and knocked into the curtain of beads. His shadow bulked across her on the floor, string shadows dancing around it.

With Lucy close beside her, his mom stood and rubbed her knee, picked up her suitcase and went to the car. Cory watched from the door window. His mom took Lucy's hug and touched the back of her neck before driving off alone. Her car faded into the snow.

Lucy sat in her truck, lit a cigarette, turned the lights on, and eased slowly away.

"I see everything in her face," Carla said. "A mother who neglects her children. Who has always neglected them. No wonder everybody in Laroy thinks she's a freak."

"Damn it, put the poker down," his father told him. "We already told you."

"You boys don't want a mother like her. You were right in everything you told her, Cory. And you don't have to feel bad, or like you did wrong."

Cory swung the poker slowly, but hard enough to make a meat sound when the sharp finger chunked into Carla's arm a little ways. She grabbed hold of the poker and he let go of it. She kept it fixed into her arm. At first she puckered her lips, her face bunched in a sour look. Then she widened her eyes at his father.

"Cory," he said. "Cory."

The edges of things were blurry. Cory heard sounds after they were made.

Carla gentled the metal finger out of her arm. At her T-shirt sleeve, a piece of blood started dime-sized and grew.

"Oh. Oh," she said. "Oh."

"She made me, Dad," Cory said. "She was going to hurt Mom."

"Go sit in the truck," he told him.

Cory sat on the front porch. His father and Carla stepped out. He held her around the shoulders, pressing a towel on her arm. After helping her into the passenger's seat, he picked Cory up and set him in the backseat, next to Matt.

On the way to the hospital, Carla kept sucking her breath. "Oh. Oh."

Cory swayed in his seat, tapping his head on the window.

"Hey," his father said. "Stop that."

"He's only after attention," Carla said.

"Quiet down," he told her.

Cory knocked his head on the window, hard.

"I'm the one in pain," Carla said. "I'm the one who needs help."

"What's the matter with Cory?" Matt said. "Where did Mom go? Did she go away, for good?"

The hospital was a grass lot full of trailers. While Carla was getting fixed up, Cory and his father and brother waited in a separate trailer made up like a living room and watched TV. The nurse came in, a lady with long red hair and a Carhartt jacket. "Your wife'll be fine."

"She ain't my wife."

"She said her family was waiting. Who is she?"

His father lifted a hand, as if he wasn't sure.

"My husband's fixing her leak," the nurse said. "She'll walk out of here good as new, but she'll need a steady arm. You'll find her a bit loopy."

"She's my landlady," he said. "The police on their way?"

"The police? Why?"

"If anybody's calling the police, I am. She threatened to hurt my wife. My boy Cory's the witness. All he did tonight was protect his mom."

"I'm sure you good people will wrap this up on your own."

The nurse went out when Carla came in. She smiled in a sleepy way, touching her pink jacket at her arm. She moved very slowly. She straightened the magazines on the coffee table.

"This is such... a nice room," she said. "What are you boys watching?"

"Did you hurt my mom?" Matt said.

Carla smiled. "No no no. No no. Let's go home and... put this ruckus behind."

They took their seats in the truck and slowed in front of a liquor store. Bars covered a dark window, snow mounding on the sill. His father slapped the wheel.

"Mother of goddamn hell," he said. "I knew it'd be closed."

"It's all right," Carla said. "We could stop for beer... or... I got a... bottle of Wild Turkey. For a special day. We could have that."

"You don't need any."

They parked in front of Carla's house.

"In the morning," Carla said, "I'll make french toast. You boys can do up a... snowman. Pretty, pretty snow. Look it. First thing after I get up tomorrow is rip down that black tape. Let in the sunshine. Marty... That first night... and we talked... and you said how unhappy you and the boys were. I'd like to change that."

"I'll take that bottle now," he said. "I want you to stay in your room."

"I wouldn't challenge a man. Wouldn't make him look bad... in front of his boys... This is your house now. You have full say-so."

"You just run and get that bottle."

In the basement, his father rested on the couch, tipping the bottle over his glass every so often. The boys each lay on a couch arm. On TV a gate swung open and a man rode hard after a steer, swinging his rope and missing.

"The day I met her," his father said, "she found me in her sights and pulled the trigger. Then she came after you boys and your mother." He coughed once and tipped the bottle. "You saw it. You all saw everything."

The door opened at the top of the stairs. The kitchen light slid along the brick wall. "Okay if I bring down chili?" Carla said. "You men need to eat."

She set down a tray of bowls on the coffee table. Cory's hands shook and his teeth chattered, but he wasn't cold.

"I'm sorry I hit you. I thought you were going to... hurt Matt."

"Your mother," his father said. "She was going to hurt your mother."

"I'm sorry," Cory said.

"Anybody's sorry, it should be her," he said.

She bent to Cory and opened her arms for a hug. He gave her one. She moved a hand along his back.

"You didn't mean it," she said. "The stress you been under. I understand."

"Quit playing momma, and get back to your room."

She went upstairs.

Matt leaned to his bowl, blowing on the spoon. Cory and his father left theirs alone.

"What do you think of your dad now? Cheater, old bag of shit?" He wrinkled his face in what looked like a cry, but he couldn't make any tears. "I should've gone to church more. I should've prayed with your mom."

When the rodeo was over, they kept watching TV, as if static was just a different style of program, one they might get used to. The TV static was changing into different shapes. The movement made Cory stare. Then his father wandered the room, crouched below the low ceiling.

"Time is it. Midnight? Have to get up early for work. Have to go talk to those little juvies." He staggered backwards two steps. "Aw, hell." He waved something away in front of his face. "Let's go for a walk, me and my two cowboys. Let's go climb the fence at the rodeo and sneak up in the stands, sit there in the dark. It's just up the road."

"Okay," Matt said to the concrete floor.

Cory yawned like he was sleepy. "Can I stay here?"

"If you don't talk to Carla."

"I won't."

Matt and his father put on hats and jackets and went up the stairs. Cory tried a sip of the bottle, then coughed hard. Everybody knew liquor tasted bad, but it gave a warm feeling. He had one more drink, and one more, coughing each time. Then he pulled the phone cord hand over hand till the banana phone scooted to the couch. He called their house in Laroy. The phone rang seven times before his mom picked up.

"Mom, is that you?" he asked into the phone. It didn't sound like her. It was a loud person, with music in the background. But he knew it must be her. "Did you cross the pass okay? Was it snowing hard?"

"Yes, I made it," she said, "I made it over. I worried all the way to the mountain, and then I said, 'You know what? I'm putting these chains on myself and climbing this pass.' Then, over the top, the snow was dumping and my headlight was drilling the night ahead, and I wasn't afraid. Listen to me. I shouldn't be so giddy. It's just nerves, honey."

"Dad's drunk," he said. "He'll be drunk every night."

She clicked her tongue and sighed the way she did hearing of other families' troubles. Disappointed, and sorry to hear the news.

"I didn't mean those things I said in Carla's living room," he said.

"You think I didn't already know about what you said? Laroy isn't the place for me. Neither is Red Star, I'm afraid. Those kinds of people will never like me, and I'll never like them. And listen, this house'll be here for you guys to sell or live in, and whatever happens—all I know is, you kids will live with me most of the time, and with your father some of the time—never think you helped drive me away. Never think you played any part in this. I'm a big girl and I make my own decisions."

Her voice turned so kind, she got farther away at every word.

"Are we still best friends? Am I still your mom?" she said. "Well, Lucy has a charm on people. She'll help us. Wait and see."

After they hung up, Cory went upstairs and trotted out the front door, then out to the road. In his jacket and hat he stepped in place to keep warm. His father and Matt were far gone. Their tracks were covering over in the snow. He didn't want to follow boot prints in the dark and get lost.

Snow fell in the circle of porch light. He wanted to call his mom again and say the perfect thing to make her come back—or at least have one more sip of the bottle, but the doors were locked. It was dark in there. Even though he could wake Carla, he didn't want her to come to the door.

The breeze was cold, and it filled his clothes. Then he remembered what his mom said to do if they were separated when he was little, to sit quietly and pray. That's what he did. He sat on the curb and laid his chest on his legs for warmth and told God he and his father broke up the family, and he said they were sorry.

It wasn't too long before footsteps brushed the snow and his father messed his hair playfully. "You sleeping?" he said. When he stood in the yard, Matt touched his arm.

"Dad said we won't have to live here very long," he said.

His father took a hard step back, not staggering, just keeping steady. He wasn't too slurry.

"Thought some on the walk just now. What I'll do, I'll put in some time here... then see about Las Vegas. Your Aunt Darlene's talking about a move there, too. Won't be so bad. We got family and friends there—Spike and Jerud. Not so bad, huh? Look at me."

"Yeah," he said.

"Let's get you inside. You're a cold one. Sorry I left you alone. Why didn't you come along? Nothing there but a broken down rodeo stand anyway, I guess. We didn't even try and go in."

"Dad, can I have one sip of your bottle for the heat, and then no more?"

"One sip," he said.

Cory smiled then, feeling a little better with the one drink to look forward to—the way he'd seen his father get instantly cheerful before a six-pack.

His father swayed in the snow, looking at one key for a moment, then at another key. They went in through the kitchen door.