His boy laughs, a sound rich with wonder and excitement. The snow cascades around his smiling face. He reaches down, grabs some more and does it all over again.
It makes him happy, seeing his son like this, but he can’t help feeling a little jealous. What did laughter feel like?
Hunter is quadruple wrapped in winter clothing, can barely bend his arms to touch his toes but he’s at that perfect age where it doesn’t frustrate him, the discomfort of food stuck to his face or an extra thick snowsuit are simply truths of the world he lives in. Ginny would laugh if she saw him, quoting A Christmas Story and would mention something about him being over-protective. Little bits of truth within her playful teasing.
It’s hopelessly cold, but they’re out in eight inches of snowfall because this is Hunter’s first white Christmas. White frames the edges of every line in the trees, gives texture to the rolling hills of Pine and Douglas Fir. The forest envelopes them, trees standing in silent and stoic vigil like guardians surrounding an ancient burial site. It’s quiet, beyond the crunch of snow beneath their boots or the gleeful sounds of his child.
Something about how he feels puts him at unease. He never expected to find himself here again. He certainly didn’t think he’d ever miss it.
Most of all, he didn’t think he’d miss her this much.
“Papa.” His son calls, pulling him from his reverie. “Papa?”
Hunter is crouched down in the snow, looking at something in the blanketing cold with an intensity only an archaeologist or child could have.
“Papa, look.” He says, pointing to a bike in the snow. “Bike.”
“That’s right, bike.”
It’s been smothered by the snow, left to rust and rot from a season long ago. Without thinking, Mark pulls on the handlebars and lifts it from its resting place.
“Come on,” he says and takes his son by the hand. “I bet Pap and Gran have some hot cocoa waiting for us.”
* * * * *
Christmas morning went by as quick as it had crept up on him. It’s his son’s second Christmas, so Hunter wasn’t at the age of tearing every box open with fevered intensity. Instead he opened one and only moved onto the next when Pap or Gran or Mark pushed one into his hands.
“Open this one,” Pap says, a smile spreading on his face. When Hunter doesn’t move from his wooden puzzle, Pap pulls on the corner of the wrapping paper. “See? Pull on this.”
“He sure likes that puzzle, huh?” Gran asks.
“He sure does.” Mark says, raising a sarcastic eyebrow. “I wonder who got it for him?”
His mother betrays a grin at the corner of her mouth. “That might have been me.”
“Anyone need anything?” His Dad asks.
“I’ll take another cup of coffee.”
They sat in silence, his mother awkwardly playing with her hands in her lap. For the third time that week, she opens her mouth to say something and decides against it. Instead, she crouches and helps Hunter, who’s abandoned the wrapped present and gone back to the puzzle.
“Cream?” His father asks.
“Just black.” Mark responds.
“Since when do you take your coffee black?”
“Since always, Dad.”
He frowns at this then shrugs. “Have you called Ginny yet?”
His mother shoots a glance at her husband then to Mark. She opens her mouth to speak, then repeats the process for the fourth time.
“Not yet.” Mark says. “She hasn’t called.” Today. He doesn’t add. He doesn’t talk about the 13 missed calls he’s gotten in the past week and a half. Four voicemails. 14 text messages. An email. He waited for a homing pigeon to start pecking on the window with a note tied around its ankle.
But the messages stopped on Christmas Eve. He hadn’t bothered to figure out why.
“You need to call her.” His Dad says. “Or at least I can. She may have no right to speak with you, but she does have a right to speak to him.”
“I know, I know.” Mark ponders for a moment then leaves his phone on the coffee table. “Maybe it’s best if you call her. I’m going to take a walk, you can’t miss which number is hers.”
He puts on his jacket and scarf, and steps outside without bothering to tie his boots, coffee steaming from the cup in his hand.
His breath comes out in great white puffs, shoulders automatically curled to brace against the arctic temperature of upstate New York. And yet he leaves his scarf on the mailbox, open his jacket and takes off his stocking cap.
The cold greets him. Wraps itself around him and forces him to shiver before he reaches the end of the driveway.
He welcomes it.
* * * * *
He wants to believe mornings are worse because he wakes up sober. Or that it’s the wrong bed: too stiff and pillows stacked too high. The cheap detergent his mother used since he was a child should have filled him with nostalgia, instead he feels like a foreigner. Trapped in some stranger’s house. Serving time instead of coming home.
In truth it has more to do with the vacant space beside him. The cold other side of the bed. The scent of starch instead of her brand of shampoo.
It’s still dark. A full moon hangs in the sky and blankets the landscape with a bluish hue that makes the world feel frozen in time. Fresh snow covers whatever tracks animal and human alike had made during the daylight, as if the day before had never happened.
Hunter sleeps in his crib, Mark rests a loving hand on his son’s head and leans down for a kiss, then pull the blanket a little further up his son’s tiny frame.
He’s only slept for a few hours, but the grogginess of over sleeping softens the edges of his senses. He goes upstairs and slips on his boots, throws a jacket over his shoulders and opens the garage door.
The light flickers at first then hums to life, bathing everything in harsh fluorescents. Stairs creak and he can feel the frigidness coming off the concrete. He pulls on the bike handlebars and props it up on a kickstand. Every joint and pivot of the metal contraption squeals in protest, it takes two hands to force the handlebars to angle the wheel minutely.
Before he has time to think it over, he slides open the drawer to his father’s old tool chest and grabs his set of Allen wrenches, a dirty cloth from the workbench and a can of oil.
The handlebars won’t budge at first, even after being smothered by oil. It’s not until he finds the WD-40 that he finally got the hexkey to twist. By that time he’s bent two of his father’s tools. The bike lets out a SNAP when the wrench finally turns and Mark can’t help but feel something good inside. He smiles without noticing and twists the wrench until the handlebars are free from the frame.
Once separate, he meticulously cleans them. Dips a wad of steel wool into vinegar taken from the kitchen and scrubs each piece. Several bearings are missing, but his father’s shop has always been excessive.
The door opens and a head pokes itself through the opening, she doesn’t want to expose herself to the cold. Her motherly instincts want to ask him just what in the hell was he doing at 6am, but those same instincts tell her to keep shut. She watches him work: he doesn’t bother to wipe or clean his hands, smearing oil and rust on his face when he addresses an itch. Curse words escape his lips when his hand raps against the chain or sprocket. He eyes a gouge on his knuckles, then shakes it off and gets back to work.
She shuts the door quietly, so as to not disturb him.
* * * * *
It’s midmorning and he hasn’t stopped. He should feel tired and hungry, but he doesn’t. For the first time in weeks, he doesn’t feel anything. No aching heart. No needles stinging behind his eyes. His morning headache or hangover is gone. He hasn’t sighed one time, except to catch his breath. His mind is elsewhere.
It’s no surprise that he picks up his phone without thinking. One hand scrubbing a bike part, while the other fishes the phone from his pocket.
There’s a long pause, then: “Mark? Is that you?”
Mark stops, his shoulders tense at the sound of her voice. All at once the feelings return: his heartache and loneliness and sadness and regret.
He buries his head in his hand and smeared on some more of that grease.
“I miss you.” She says.
I love you. He wants to say. It’s OK, I forgive you. But something in his chest keeps the words from escaping.
“I have to go.” He says and hangs up and tosses the phone into a pile of rags before waiting for a response.
Mark presses the garage-door button and watches as one wall slowly slides upward. A bit of snow cascades into the garage. Once open, the great winter wonderland greets him. Snow edged trees and fence posts reflect the glorious morning sun, he has to squint against its splendor.
He grabs the snow shovel in corner of the garage and gets to work.
* * * * *
“What is he doing?” His father asks while tying his robe around his waist. He hasn’t had his coffee yet, and it shows in his face.
“I haven’t the faintest.” His mother responds.
They watch as their son shovels a pathway down the driveway—a trench with snow two feet high on either side—then continues into the street, tossing snow on either side. Discarding first his hat, then his gloves and wiping his forehead of sweat. Before long, his jacket hangs on the mailbox, leaving him in an oversized T-shirt and a pair of new winter boots that he hadn’t quite broken in yet.
Then, after deciding he was finished, Mark walks back to the house and enters the garage.
His father scowls, “I’m going to ask him wh—”
“Don’t.” She says, but it doesn’t matter, because before she can finish the word, Mark comes pedaling out of the garage. The rickety, single speed bike squeaks and whines as he stands to move up the driveway. He gets to the end and turns onto the shoveled track of the road. For a moment she’s sure he’s going to fall, and finds that she’s reflexively grabbed her husband’s arm, but Mark catches himself and pedals forward, down their graveled street with renewed confidence.
His legs press down on the pedals, pushing himself and the bike hard. Soon he’s picked up speed and flies down his shoveled pathway like a cart on the tracks of a roller coaster. Something close to a grin plays at the corners of his mouth.
The wind buffets around him. Encapsulates him in a cold cocoon of familiar coziness. He welcomes the bite that prickles his ears and the shiver that runs through him as his sweat stuck T-shirt cools.
He can feel the warmth rising in his cheeks, his eyes water against the cold. The bike is old and worn but firm, it holds his weight as he rounds the street again and again and again. Beyond the bike’s protest, it’s wonderfully quiet. Not a sound can be heard, and then something pure, bold and full comes from a man who thought he had forgotten how.
The sound of laughter.
* * * * *
Her phone vibrates, she checks it before it finishes and finds her heart leap when she sees it’s from him.
His words hang wonderfully on the display. Not, I forgive you or I love you or it’s OK.
But instead three words she was sure she’d never see: “I’m coming home.”