Chapter One – ‘Pickaxe’
K-thwack! When the pickaxe hit her forehead she suspected it was going to be a bad end to a bad day. Dropping the ax, she slumped into the shallow hole she’d chipped away at for over an hour – not much of a dent in the two foot ice pack that lay hard beside the now rundown Alaskan log cabin she’d helped to build so long ago.
“Great,” she muttered through chapped lips into the darkness, “now what?”
Adrenaline took over as she pulled off her thick gloves and touched the blood on her forehead that quickly turned to what felt like raspberry sherbet on her dirty fingers.
Yesterday, snow on her aluminum roof had thawed then swooshed and plopped to the ground where it froze overnight after yet another subzero cold snap came barreling in around midnight.
“Don’t cry. You’re not dead. Not yet.”
Her eyes, green with hints of hazel flecks that caught light like fool’s gold in a limpid forest pond, were already red and puffy from too many months of crying, and several tiny blood vessels on the skin beneath them had popped and bled from the pressure. She closed them now and like a turtle under attack drew her head deep into the hood of her rust-orange parka.
Center … focus … one, two, one, two, one ….
She forced herself to take short shallow breaths because ice from the moisture of her breath already lay like slivers of white glass on the ruff around her parka hood and she didn’t want her lungs to freeze. When her heartbeat slowed to normal, she opened her eyes again.
A shooting star burst out of the thousands of other stars spattered across the Alaskan sky.
Still so beautiful…
She’d once loved to bundle in a velvet lined cape she’d fashioned from an Army blanket and identify the constellations using a simple chart and an old flashlight. She’d gotten pretty good at it too. Even knew the meanings of some of their names. But that was before the trouble started and now there was no time for such luxury. No energy either. The old car made sure of that. The old car and the man.
Can’t think about it. Too cold. Gotta find that stupid extension cord. Plug in that rotten car.
But when she pulled herself up to sit on the side of the hole and saw the blood on her fingers, she bent over, wrapped her arms around her belly and rocked back and forth to keep warm. She let out a long low sigh as childhood memories from growing up in Los Angeles surfaced – had the blow to her head jarred them loose? – like the time long ago, when her hands were cold from fright and Dolly, her piano teacher, had told her to sit on them to keep them warm.
She could almost feel the hard straight back pine chair under her fingers; see the worn wooden floor beneath the chair, the long rope pulleys hanging from beyond the catwalk high above her and the flecks of dust drifting slowly in the air, silhouetted against the bright stage lights that waited for her.
She closed her eyes again and listened to the frozen silence around her, as though her stillness could somehow conjure up the sounds of the oboe and orchestra that had played before her on the program that night. She had studied and practiced long and hard for that moment, the one in which she would play the First Movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor as soloist with the Southeast Symphony of Los Angeles. An article in the L.A. Times had declared her a ‘child prodigy,’ and she had performed on TV shows long before her first menstrual cycle.
Doesn’t seem real now
Secrets surfaced too, like the night her mother threw bottles of booze at her alchoholic father in the kitchen and the neighbors called the police. Nobody in the family talked about it, no one asked what it felt like after the policeman burst into the bathroom where she and her two sisters laughed and played bubble bath games naked in the tub.
Shame came to live at her house that night. It crept in to cover her hands and hide them from the world.
Doesn’t matter anymore.
She stuffed her slender fingers back into her gloves – now stiff – then stood up and squared herself, taking care not to slip on the ice in the Army surplus rubber boots that pretended to keep her feet warm. She stepped out of the hole, slogged down the mound, grabbed the pickax and dragged it back up to the hole. The wooden handle, splintered from years of use, felt strangely comforting as she heaved the steely blue tool over her shoulder and attacked the ice again.
If I hit that blasted cord, I’ll get electrocuted. If I don’t get it out, the car won’t start in the morning.
She’d often seen Sinbad, the family’s half Lab, half Rotweiler, half crazy dog grab the cord with his teeth and thrash it around the yard in a game of tug-of-war. She figured that’s what he’d done before snow buried it. But she wasn’t angry with him because it now lay frozen beneath her so that it couldn’t reach the car.
Selfish idiot man.
Joy busted the ice open again and again as chips flew around her, sometimes hitting her face. She didn’t care anymore. The cold forced her to stay focused on her task and she paused only briefly to take a sideways glance at the curtain-less window above her after she heard laughter.
Her only son, barely fifteen now, and his little sister played a game of their own imaginings, safe in the cabin’s wood-heated warmth. He hadn’t been able to eat much more than cold cereal and Top Ramen since the holidays, when they’d moved back to the old Gas Well Road place, but he’d maintained a B+ average at school. She’d kept up with her dance classes, even though her back caused her pain that she didn’t talk about until much later.
Joy shivered as a soft light above them, coming from the stain-glassed lamp she’d traded for piano lessons, mixed with the glow of their faces.
Turning her attention back to the hole, she noticed that a small portion of the cord now lay exposed. A faint smile nudged her freckled cheeks slightly upwards, as though wishing to somehow make her taller or her cheekbones higher and stronger.
It matters. It has to matter.
She shook off the cold, hoisted the pickax over her shoulder and softly began to hum. The old dream, the one that never left her, held her steady as she remembered back to the day after the rain fell in Los Angeles. Chapter Two