Dawn’s ionic baptism filtered through the pane of a bullseye glass and danced with curtained lace before landing on adolescent forehead. Imprinting its glow, the boy turned the other cheek to seek the soft shadows of pillowed solace.
Shifting to the cooler side of the fabric, he immediately felt the unnerving sensation of being watched. He opened his eyes to a manic grin, its gleaming teeth stretching vermillion skin thin. Cyan winks gasped with flight, and the surge of adrenaline had the poor boy tumble off the mattress in a heap of sweaty sheets.
“Yikes—Ethan, you still alive?” his brother whispered, genuine concern replacing his facetious facial contortion.
“What the hell Owen,” Ethan asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Why do you keep being such a—”
“Shh,” Owen whispered again, putting his finger to his lips. “Put on your long johns. We’re going to the maples.”
Ethan’s face lit up. “Dad’s coming home?”
“I heard mom mention it last night,” Owen replied. “She’s still in bed, so keep quiet.”
Ethan walked to his dresser and began to layer himself against the season. Sweater over sweater, he built himself out until he was puffier than a snowman, padded and prepared. He wobbled out of his room to find his older brother waiting at the foot of the door. They gave each other a nod then began making their muted escape across the cantankerous hallway.
Picking his spots across the loquacious hardwood with the discerning feet of a wizened trapezist, Owen placed three quick paces along the near wall. This was followed by a short jump to reach the banister, a shift from the right leg to the left so he could extend his strong foot before losing balance, then a folding of his arms to cushion his mass from hitting the handrail.
Once he was halfway down, Owen looked back at Ethan and egged him on. Ethan offered a ginger first attempt.
“Crrrrrrreeaaaak,” the old floorboard groaned. Ashamed, Ethan immediately retreated to the silent safety of the bedroom. He looked to his brother with the heartbreaking pout of waning confidence.
Years of trial and error had unveiled the hidden passage that Owen alone had mastered—a testament to timeworn discipline and craft—but he was not above teaching the waltz of tried-and-true steps to his younger brother.
Noiselessly retracing the path, he backtracked upon this hushed path, each maneuver dictated by the knowledge of which sections could hold their mettle. Once Owen had returned to his brother’s side, he shared smirk of mercy streaked with understanding.
He went to his desk and opened the drawer, shuffling past old birthday cards to remove a page of glittering golden stars—twelve stickers each no larger than a dime. He returned his younger brother, punched at his stuffed shoulder, and took a breath.
With methodical precision Owen retold each step, landing silently to pivot to the floor and place a tiny heavenly tag on trusted timber. He continued in this fashion down the flight, sometimes skipping over two or three of the unfaithful planks, using the support of the wall or the rail to hop his way down. Winding his way towards the door, the last of the beacons used up, he made a final leap from tail of the baluster over the treacherous tiles to the heavy rug securing the border of the front door.
He indicated to his partner in crime still clutching the door frame that it was his time to shine. With a nervous gulp Ethan followed in his brother’s footsteps. Placing his faith in fraternal constellation, Ethan slowly but surely tiptoed across the hallway, hopped over the pratfalls of cacophony and slid his socks towards his starry destination.
Soon he landed beside Owen, a triumphant thud that muffled into the thick mat. He looked up and beamed a smile bursting with surprised glee and self-assured swell. Owen rubbed Ethan’s brown-haired noggin, his eyes welling with pride, and opened the front door.
“KADABADABOOM,” banged the snow shovels, which went from leaning near the door to a pile on the mudroom floor.
“WHAT WAS THAT,” yelled a motherly voice from above. Ethan and Owen hid their laughter in their gloves then slammed the door behind them, running out into the winter morning.
Booted prints left craters in the crusty snow a yard deep as the two brothers trekked over their family’s land. Ethan had his jacket opened and trampled over the unmarked canvas with an assertive stride, the definition of man conquering nature. Ethan trudged behind, hands balled-up in his mittens, face tucked into his scarf, the warm condensation lifting visible dew point over rosy cheeks. Ethan used his brother’s excavating tread to keep his numbing toes away from the enveloping crystalline powder, the morning’s lesson still fresh in his mind. He pulled a toboggan carrying their supplies: a ten-gallon aluminum vessel, cheesecloth, and dry kindling from the firewood shed.
They marched their way through the pack, reaching the far end of a field encircled with an electric fence. It was the ruminant paddock where most of the sheep had collected under the polyethylene roof of the hoop house. A few had left the well-worn straw fodder and hay troughs for a fresh frolic in the snow. One of the plucky quadrupeds greeted its two young masters eager for the possibility of treats or at least the novelty of distraction.
Owen removed his gloves and attentively extended his hands through the electrified wires. While the ewe used it as salt-lick, Owen let it patiently have its way before he pat her muzzle, his other hand reaching towards the body to yank out a clump of wool. He carefully folded his arm back under the voltage, pocketed the fluff, and placed his bare hands in the snow for a wash.
“I figured we would start by the fishery and work our way back from there,” he said, wiping his hand on his brother’s toque. Ethan swiped his brother’s arm off and glared back.
“Don’t think for a second that I’m going to do it again,” Ethan whined. His brother just smiled. “Owen, they’ve got to be fifty-feet high by now.”
“At least there’s snow to break your fall this time,” Owen shrugged before recommencing their march into the woods. Ethan stood in the cold, tired and mopey, but he eventually followed suit.
The sun rose and warmed the air to several degrees above freezing as they came to a clearing in the forest, at the center of which was the trout hatchery.
Spanning a dozen acres, the hatchery was the result of six wells drilled into the sloping west end of the tract. Groundwater tapped from an aquifer half-a-mile below combined to form a series of artificial ponds. The largest reservoir housed the juvenile stock, the second largest the nursery, and the immediate influx of fresh mineral water kept these pools unfrozen and oxygenated. The rest had been abandoned to the elements, their maintenance too costly to upkeep.
The two brothers made their way towards the farthest end, its depression a natural runoff used as an irrigation waste trap. Frozen over since December, the carbon sink was partitioned with a pair of Norwegian Maples, their invasive deep roots purposely planted to allow greedy tendrils their fill of sequestering toxic refuse. Shielded by the Scandinavians were the Legacy Sugar Maples. Nearly a dozen were planted in two rows, each with their silver spile shining over a hanging frosted pewter bucket. Sturdy in the deep and loam rich soil, these trees had long since shed their firecracker foliage. Their bare branches now rowed nakedly in the wind like fractured inverted oars.
Ethan and Owen split up and started collecting the tin drums, one by one pouring each bucket’s meager contents into the next. By the time they had reconvened to accumulate their lecherous loot, the sticky arbor juice lapped at the final brim.
While Ethan stretched the cheesecloth over the ten-gallon basin, Owen took hold of the canister of consolidation and muscled it over the net. The sticky fluid made its slow descent before permeating over the strainer, the fine thread mesh filtering the crud from the tree sap. Ethan began to clear out a space in the snow, brushing out a crevasse that tapped the frozen ground under the cover. He then filled it with the dry brushwood they had brought from home. Owen removed the pocketed mutton cotton, took out his flint and scored sparks onto the hair, carefully cultivating the fire with his focused breath until it had grown consistent.
As the flames lashed and swallowed the tinder, the brothers teamed-up to grab the container of cleaned xylem and place the large can on top of the slowly charring logs, turning the tub until a knotted groove rallied it against gravity. As the clear vital liquid awaited the boil to amber, Owen took this opportunity to burnish his competitive specter.
“So, you ready?”
“Can’t we just watch the fire?” Ethan whined.
“Pretty sure the snow isn’t going to catch. Come on, I’ll give you a head start.”
As Ethan sulked behind Owen’s bravado-buoyed saunter, the two brothers proceeded to the hulking trunks of the Norwegian Maples. They arrived at their respective trees and readied themselves for the climb to reach the upper most points of the cream-crowned perennials. Owen eagerly licked his chops as he looked over at his brother several yards away.
“On your mark, get set…GO!”
Ethan hugged the inflated stem and tried to squirm up its wet bark but was unable to get any traction with his puffy jacket and gloved appendages. Owen chuckled and walked over.
“Here,” he said, mooring his hands over his knee to offer a boost. “How about a lift?”
Ethan did as he was told and with a little brawn was able to grab and hoist himself up. Owen watched as his brother carefully selected his way, and once he was satisfied went back to his tree, the easier of the two, and started climbing.
Despite each rung having all the potential of a broken promise, Ethan patiently guided himself over the icy limbs. He ignored the tree’s persistent gripes as he ascended and welcomed the northern wind whistling past his alabaster ears. As his chest sucked in the wisps of the uppermost reaches, he was able to trust his weight to a buttressing bough to stop and rest. He looked over to see Owen join him for a sway at the highest point of the forest. From their pinnacle the two enjoyed the view.
The brothers looked out over their family’s Pennsylvanian farm nestled in a valley surrounded by the rolling evergreen plush of eastern Appalachia. Behind them they could see their house, followed by electrically fenced-in sheep paddock, and the fishery murmuring in the background below.
Past the sugar maples and the contiguous pine forest, miles away from the snow-covered expanse of the rugged region came scorched earth, the burnt ground smoking so hot that the surrounding white of winter would not penetrate. Hot crack steamed gashes along an abandoned town, its buildings leveled and blackened with soot. As the wind blew southeast to northwest, the boys could smell the faint tinge of sulfur in the air.
“It seems bigger this year,” Ethan called out to his brother.
“That’s because it is,” Owen called back. “More than sixty years after it started and it’s still burning. The coal is so hard underneath that it’s going to burn forever.”
“Will it ever get here?” Ethan asked.
“I don’t know, but if it ever does we’ll be long gone by then,” Owen assured. “No need for me to rescue my baby brother from falling into a pit from hell.”
“Dad took you once, right?”
“You too, don’t you remember? The rubber on your tennis shoes melted. Dad said it was because you were running super fast but mom didn’t buy it.”
“Oh yeah… I really liked those shoes. They had the red lights in the back.”
“She was so upset. That’s why we can’t visit anymore. And, you know, the law.”
Owen stared out over the landscape, the plot of dead earth roasting in the distance. His eyes turned back to his brother, their luster dulled as if he had been caught telling a lie.
“Sorry I woke you this morning,” Owen called out. “I had a bad dream and couldn’t fall back asleep.”
“You still scared of the dark?” Ethan joked, but Owen’s trodden face ignored the jab.
“I dreamed I was watching a world of people in an endless room, trapped inside these white walls. We all had an invisible collar around our necks, one so impossible to take off that it might as well have been our throats. Tied to each one were a thousand strings, each tied to another person so that we were all attached to the other. And while the strings had slack, if you wanted someone to stumble or gag all you had to do was yank at the string. One person’s lean forward was another person’s fall.
“Eventually the stronger people figured to use their strength and force others under their direction, beating them into submission if they resisted, dragging the bodies behind them like wedding cans. Groups were formed, united against the others, and as they grew the rest fell to the floor. They had hoped to be spared but instead were trampled. It was like this for what seemed like ages, violent and ugly, until one person just stood and stared, soaking in the hysteria. He looked up, closed his eyes and rose. He levitated higher and higher, and as he climbed the others noticed. They pointed and yelled and threw whatever they could at him, eventually tugging on their lines to bring him down, to keep him anchored to their hateful mess.
“And it worked. His momentum stopped and his eyes opened. He looked upon all those who were dragging him back. He dropped lower and closer until the masses were able to snatch at his feet and tear him back into their horde. They climbed on top of him and weighed him down, bit and scratched and punched and kicked until he was motionless under their feet. Then they stomped and crushed his body, breaking his bones and shredding his flesh, all the while screaming with their mouths foaming like rabid dogs.
“He looked dead, all busted and bruised. But then the man’s eyes flashed wide, brilliantly alive and aware, like he realized something. And before they could finish him off he rocketed into the air, higher than before. Again they tried to bring him down, but his energy was greater now, and one by one their lines drew taught as he rose higher. The people who had tried to put him under now clutched at their strings, wrapping them around their wrists, doing everything they could do hold on to the man rising into the sky. And those who weren’t directly attached grabbed on to the ankles of those that were, forming a chain that climbed higher and higher. One by one, each of them followed, clutching hands and joining together, giggling with glee at how they had escaped the madness.
“Finally, when every person had been lifted, when each one had learned to trust and support the other, the man looked down at all the people he had saved, at the heights he had helped them reach, and brought the lines to his teeth. He gnawed them cut just to watch them all fall.”
The words had blown past frigid ears. Ethan had lost much of what his brother had said, but his brother’s defeated grimace had taught him enough. It was a visage he had seen before in his father, a perplexed insight that frightened and compelled. Knowing he was beyond reconciliation, Ethan sat with his brother atop those silver-skinned arbor soldiers, silently staring at a shared horizon under a steeled sky.
Movement caught the corner of his eye. Ethan turned his attention over his left shoulder and followed the wandering road until it reached a modernized ranch that sat less than a quarter of a mile behind the back of the sheep field. In the bordering valley two men carried boxes from three parked moving trucks, each over twenty-five feet long.
“Hey check it out,” Ethan called, pointing. “People are finally moving into the Caramel place.” Ethan placed his mitt over his brows, peering over the glare. He saw a man in a navy quilted jacket rolling up a ramp into the house. “It looks like one of the guys is in a wheelchair.”
Owen shifted around to see, but before he could offer a sulk, a blonde-haired ponytail bobbed into view. She wore an unsubtle pink polyester goose down jacket puffed over black leggings and fur-trimmed boots. The sight immediately perked Owen up, stimulating compulsive action.
“We should go say hi,” he said.
Before Ethan could retort, Owen was off sliding down the trunk, using the dead twigs as transitory stopgaps to slow his descent. Ethan sighed and slowly picked his way down. By the time he reached the bottom Owen was already kicking snow over the fire.
“How’s the syrup looking?” Ethan said, salivating over the bubbling sucrose. His brother had other things on his mind.
“It needs to cool down for a bit. Let’s go meet the neighbors.”
Visceral motor humming, charged hormones leading, Owen’s quickened pace compelled his legs to churn through the buttery knee-deep snow. Squinting from the solar glare deflecting off the niveous surface, Owen had chased down his target: a young girl kicking at a heap of chemical salt in her driveway. Nostrils flared and exhaled plumes of exhaust as he out-distanced his brother, who as ever followed behind.
In his haste Owen tripped onto the one-hundred foot driveway, the salt crunching over asphalt as he made his stumbling approach. The girl turned, startled, and as her eyes locked with Owen’s she waved her thread-laced hand with a practiced opened mouth smile. It stopped Owen dead in his tracks.
“Hi,” Owen replied. It took him a moment to remember common cordiality. “I’m Owen.”
“I’m Kay,” she laughed. “Nice to meet you.”
“Hi,” he repeated. “We saw you from the trees,” he blurted, not knowing what to say.
“Oh did you now, from the trees? Were you spying on me, Owen?”
“Oh no, we were just…climbing.”
“This must be the wee,” she said, head shifting to see Ethan make his huffed arrival. “Aw, he’s all red.”
“Hey. Low. Well. Come,” Ethan gasped. “To the neighborhood.”
“Why thank you!” she laughed speciously. “What’s your name?”
“He’s Ethan, my younger brother,” Owen interrupted before Ethan could answer. “I’m Owen.”
“And I’m Kay again. I didn’t think I’d meet anyone out here.”
“We’re from the Sonder Farm, just past the woods there,” Owen said, pointing back to where he and Ethan came from.
“And what are you farming from atop the trees?”
“We were tapping the maples,” Ethan said. “Have you ever had snow candy?”
“I can’t say that I have. It’s my first time in Pennsylvania.”
“Do you want to try it?” Ethan asked.
Owen seized the opportunity.
“You’ll like it. You should come try some. We can show you around.”
“Sure, that sounds great!”
As Kay started forward, Ethan looked around for the man in the wheelchair.
“Shouldn’t you ask your father if you can go?”
Kay’s voice lowered.
“I don’t have to ask him for anything,” she purred and started down the driveway.
Owen scowled at his brother before assigning himself to Kay. They made their way towards the woods and as they locked eyes the two could not help but smile at the other. His awkwardness over finding something to say, however, led Kay to break the ice.
“So do you go to school around here?”
“Yeah, I’m in high school.”
“Me too. What grade?”
“I’m a sophomore. You?”
“Freshman. I was afraid this place was too small to have a high school.”
“We’re not that bad.” Owen said. “They bring a bus around to collect the kids from the county. There are two hundred of us in total. Ethan’s still at the elementary school.”
“I’m a fifth grader!”
“That’s nice. I missed a lot of class this. I hope they don’t make me retake it.”
“What for?” Ethan asked.
“I was sick,” Kay replied. “Had mono.”
“It’s when you get sick from kissing boys,” she said.
Owen tripped over his feet and fell into the powder with a poof of embarrassment.
“Are you okay?” Kay inquired.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Owen said, dusting himself off. “That snow bank came out of nowhere.”
Feeling self-conscious chagrin seeping into his cheeks, Owen quickened his pace and walked ahead to hide his face from matching Cupid’s bow.
“So, Ethan, what’s snow candy?” Kay asked, moving on to the next.
“It’s when you pour maple syrup on to fresh snow and then eat it. It’s the best.”
“That sounds delicious. Do you and your brother make the maple syrup yourselves?”
“Well, we usually do it with our Dad, but he’s on a business trip. He comes back today so we got some done this morning to surprise him. That way he can make breakfast for dinner. It’s the best.”
“That’s really cute.”
“It was my idea,” Owen called out. “Ethan wanted to stay in bed.” Ethan’s face sank.
“Can’t say that I blame you,” Kay said, propping-up Ethan. “Staying in bed is my favorite thing to do in the whole world. We had to move early today, so you can imagine what that was like.”
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Toronto,” she said. Ethan gave a quizzical look. “It’s up in Canada. I have been around the States a lot, though.”
“Why, do you move around a lot?”
“Family business. But now I should be able to stay in one spot. We’ve been planning on living here for a while.”
“Right, in the Caramel house,” Ethan said. It was Kay’s turn to look perplexed. “My brother calls it that, because of the color. He says it the house looks like a caramel.”
“I never noticed that before. That’s really clever.”
Owen smiled and slowed his pace, rejoining Ethan and Kay as his younger brother continued describing their home.
“We’re next door, at the Sonder farm.”
“What do you farm?”
“We have some sheep and trout, and maple syrup of course.”
“Do you guys have a sheep dog?”
“No. Our mom says she’s allergic. But I still want one.”
They had walked through the woods before entering the clearing. Kay stopped and stared at the maples in the foreground and the ponds in the back.
“It’s so beautiful. So still and cold, like a painting.”
As Kay took in the landscape Owen gazed at her. Ethan stopped and sniffed.
“What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” Owen asked.
“It’s vanilla and coconut.”
“Oh, that’s me,” Kay said. “Do you like it?”
“It’s alright, I guess,” Ethan said. “Smells like cookies. Do you always smell like that?”
“It’s perfume. I put it on.”
“For your dad?”
“No silly, for you.”
Ethan smiled innocently, not knowing what to say. Owen’s contorted face said it all, however, as the flirtations of his desire drained into the shallow pit of his stomach.
Owen took his angry energy out by running ahead, lifting the tin of syrup on his own, reposing it in the slush nearby and then stamping out the remaining smoking embers. As Ethan and Kay made their way, Owen was checking the tree honey by wiping his pinky across the inside of jug.
“My dad says nothing is hotter than boiling sugar,” Owen said, licking his little finger. “But we should be alright. Are you ready?”
“How do we do it?”
“Start piling the snow into a mound and we’ll tip the bucket and pour the syrup on top.”
While Ethan and Kay created a makeshift snowflake bank, Owen churned his legs and lifted the tin to pour a slow flow of sweet liquid over the brim. A warm trench formed down the center and flooded into the pasty frozen ice crystals, the drizzle diffusing in a fractal ebb. Ethan helped himself but Owen, noticing Kay’s apprehension, put down the bucket and sat in the snow beside her. He grabbed a handful of the coppered snowball and offered it to her.
“It looks like bad mashed potatoes and gravy, but it tastes like heaven,” he said, before scooping up a side for himself.
Apprehension appeased, Kay accepted with open palms. She stuck out her cherry tongue for a taste and her eyes opened wide in agreement. Owen relaxed, letting himself watch the others enjoy the amber treat. As the three enjoyed their sugar, the distant sound of bubbling water echoed like playful banter. Kay looked around the forest, trying to spot the culprit.
“What’s that sound?” she asked.
“It’s the fishery,” Owen said. His mind then piqued with possibility. “Hey Kay, do you know how to ice skate?”
“Are you kidding?” she replied. “In Canada, skating is our national pastime.”
“Have you ever done it without the skates?”
Kay shook her head.
“Come with me, I’ll show you how we do it in Pennsylvania.”
With that, Owen stood and offered his hand to Kay. She gracefully accepted as Owen pulled her up and close. She smiled. Ethan stumbled to his feet. Owen took note.
“Ethan, Mom’s probably wondering where we are,” Owen said. “See if you can return some of the gear back, and I’ll take what’s left after I walk Kay back to her house.”
“It was nice to meet you,” she said before being whisked-off across the snowy forest floor.
Before Ethan could say anything, the two were gone. He dropped his chin to his neck and sheepishly began to pack the sleigh. With two hands straining at the thin handle of the bucket, Ethan slopped some syrup over the lip. It slowly slid down the pewter as it landed. Ethan grabbed some snow to sop it up. He tasted it, but the sweet delight had gone bitter with time.
Then he heard her laugh. Wicked and beatific, the notes pitching high and swallowing low at just the right mix of attractive decency and alluring sin, a siren song compelling him to trace the source.
Ethan crept up the knoll to glimpse at the flirtations of Kay and Owen, clutching each other as they slipped and slid their way over the frozen water of the surplus pond. Entranced by the coquettish charms and feeling alone for the first time in his life, Ethan extinguished the logic of staying away to satisfy the yearning of being accepted rather than abandoned. He followed them on to the ice, inching over the brittle glass overheating with amorous amity.
“There’s no way you haven’t done this before,” Owen said to Kay, watching her confidently progress across the expanse.
“I’m a quick learner,” she replied.
“Apparently. You really are good at—” he stopped as Kay’s eyes looked behind him. Owen turned to see his younger brother at the edge of the pond.
“Ethan! What did I tell you?”
“I heard you two laughing. I just wanted to laugh, too.”
“No, Ethan, go home.”
“But I just—”
“Get out of here!” He dashed over to his younger brother but could not stop his slide in time. The older brother shoved the younger, causing Ethan to thud to the ice. Ethan tried to get to his feet, but he slipped and fell on his back again. He tried to get up by clutching at his brother’s leg, but instead he caused Owen to fall as well. Kay let out a pitying snicker, and Owen’s rage resurfaced. Stepped over his brother and gave him a push to keep him down.
“Leave,” Owen said. As Ethan tried to get up Owen again him back down. “Us.” Ethan tried once more only for Owen to snuff it out. “Alone.” The force of the final shove shook the icy cover.
Ethan’s innocent inclusion had now soured into seething rancor. Owen turned his back to his brother, but Ethan piled himself to his feet. Gaining a head of steam, he charged at his brother and tackled him. The impact of their landing shuddered through the encasement to the waters underneath.
Years of built up sediment and sludge had compiled at the bottom of the pond, its bed twelve feet under stirring heavy metals with decomposing compost into fertilized warmth. Methane bubbles mixed with saline oozed upward from the carbon-sequestration, and the vibrations above caused minuscule cracks to fill with tepid gas, compromising the icy solution from below.
On the other side Kay backed away from the center of the ring to watch the boys wrestle. A pang of remorse in her eyes, she blinked as the sun’s rays cut through the clouds to kiss her on the cheek. The thawing layer upon which she stood began to buckle and crack. Panic settled in her throat but before she could scream, the ice beat her to it.
A swift crack shot out into the winter air. Ethan and Owen immediately ceased. For a beat all three hearts had stopped and held, their faces looking at each other, praying for continued silence. Physics, however, is beholden to a different religion. The air popped with a WOOSH as the ice surrendered, tumbling all three bodies into the hostile temperatures below.
“Owen!” Ethan gurgled, legs churning in the glacial waters. He stayed close to his brother, but was losing energy as he splashed furiously to keep his head above the frigid liquid.
His brother’s face had blanched but his eyes held stern. His winter jacket that had sponged in the fluid and the air packed his collar, pressing against his face. He calmly guided his gloved hands to get a grip on the remaining ice around them, but the forceful burden of his struggle only widened the hole.
Kay’s body had fallen forward but her legs remained dry, scrambling above the water as her face screamed under the surface. The pond’s reeling cover beckoned her to fall in, but she dug her steeled-toed boots into a fissure, catching a crack. She trusted her security to the leather of shoes and it held. She lifted her torso up from the arctic cavity, her lungs immediately gasping for air.
Wriggling her way from the polar fall, she backed out on to terra firma and looked at the two boys whose heads had gone white. She began calling out instructions.
“I’m going to swing my jacket over. Grab it and I’ll drag you out.”
Kay flung off her jacket and sprawled over, carefully spreading her weight across the ice. She passed the fabric over to Owen, who grabbed the sleeve and gave it to Ethan. The younger brother started to heave himself up on to an ice patch that proved still reliable. Once Ethan had his abdomen out, Owen pushed his brother’s legs out of the water. Not wasting a moment, Ethan turned and grabbed his brother’s arm. He then flopped over, pivoting over the ice.
“Kay!” Ethan screamed. “Hold on to my legs!”
Kay seized Ethan’s legs and began towing them backward. She gained traction and kept dragging while Ethan locked his hands around his brother’s elbow. Grip resolute, he flexed his brother’s midsection out from the depths. Owen smiled at his younger brother with purple lips, eyes glowing in admiration.
But the moment would not hold. Kay, teeth clenched as she pulled with all of her might, lost her grip on the wet leg of Ethan’s snow pants, causing all three bodies to lurch in separate directions. The effort broke the remaining sheet of ice, somersaulting in the water. The floe collapsed on top of Owen, smacking his head and rendering him unconscious. With no muscle to keep treading, the weight of waterlogged clothes caused Owen’s body to sink.
Cold had seized Ethan’s lungs, forcing him to swallow the mire on reflex. As he swung his arms to keep his body afloat, coughing and sputtering for air, he realized that both his arms were now empty of his older brother. Ethan looked over at Kay, who started to try another attempt at rescue, but Ethan shook his pale head.
“Get help!” he screeched before the surface closed over his face. Kay stared at the black water that had gone deathly still, chunks of ice floating like buoyed tombstones where the two brothers had been.
She bolted for home. By the time she had reached the woods her blonde hair was washed-out and bleeding over her temples throbbing blue with frostbite. Her breathing had turned into a rusty accordion, sealing over with asthma. Soaked and shivering, inhalation worsening, her raspy exhalation forced her winded slog to breakdown. Her legs kept turning but her lungs had begun to run out of oxygen. She dropped to her knees and crawled forward, her airways inflamed and unable to work past the constriction. Coughing out white phlegm, Key felt her eyes cloud over.
Ethan’s kept his his eyes open despite the sting of the frozen water as he sank into the vile deep, desperately trying to rescue his kin. Lungs already burning with the need to open, the chill around him pressed against his every movement. He desperately swam through the dimming haze to no avail. Frantic, he kicked and grasped at random as he sank further, feeling a soft mass by his knee. He reached down and clutched at Owen, whose face had been down in the muck. The cold had transformed his endothermic sinew into gelid organs, an anchor of bone and petrified tissue. By now the air in Ethan’s brain was so blue he had no resolution. As the pressure collapsed his senses, he wrapped his arm around his brother and thrust his legs off the pond’s bottom, propelling them up towards the surface. He kept paddling, he and his brother were nearly there.
Until his head struck a piece of ice. The knock to his crown coughed out the rest of his oxygen in bubbles that pressed against the ice from below. No longer able to resist the fatal temptation, Ethan’s lungs inhaled the torpid swirling numbness. His eyes began to flurry over into a fading oblivion. The last thing he saw was his brother’s forsaken face, their arms remaining locked as he yielded into the desolate cradle of eternity.
“At least,” Ethan thought, “I followed my brother.”