Mom left on time for her 7:20 bus, but I knew it would be late. So late she wouldn’t be at work until after the school had finished making its calls to parents of truant teens like me. I wasn’t really sick, just a scratchy throat. That didn’t stop me from playing it up as she got ready for work. Mom said a hot cup of tea with a splash of lemon juice would do the trick. Lemon meant I had to add a few extra teaspoons of sugars to cancel out the sour. Turned out four was the magic number.
I knew she expected me to drink the tea then head off to school as usual, but why tramp my way through a blizzard when I could curl up under a warm comforter? I’d read a little, then brush up for my upcoming French test by watching Sesame Street. After lunch I’d practice my math skills with the lucky contestants on The Price Is Right. Grade seven sucked: new neighbourhood, new school, new kids. Thanks to cable, I’d learn more by staying home.
I leaned over the kitchen sink, pressing my cheek against the cold glass so I could look up and down our street. Snow was trapped between the screen and window, and still the big fat flakes kept coming. It was hard to see, so I threw on my boots without pulling up the zipper, my coat without buttoning it up, and opened the door. The cold air took my breath away, my nostrils stung so bad they burned, and the freezing wind shot up my nightie. With my thighs pressed together and my arms wrapped tight around me, I waddled to the sidewalk like a penguin.
Our front door opened practically onto the street. We had just moved into our townhouse three weeks earlier. It was narrow, like living in a hallway, and our backyard was so small there was barely enough room to turn a lawn mower around. Still, it was nicer and newer with just a teeny bit more privacy than the apartment we had moved from.
Looking toward Fraser Avenue, frozen pellets stung my face and forced me to close my eyes. I turned around to find another blanket of white, but I was able to make out the blur of cars moving slowly back and forth marking where Church Street ought to be.
I went back inside and fought with the front door. Born Winnipeggers, we knew a thing or two about winter. Before all the boxes had been unpacked my uncle came from the hardware store with weather stripping. Only problem was that it made the entrance so airtight that when you had the screen door shut there was nowhere for the air to go when you tried to shut the main door.
I had it down to a science. I would ram the door with all my might, using both arms and my left hip. Without releasing the pressure, I would twist my rear end so that it was against the door, brace my arms on the walls to either side, and dig my feet into the carpet. From there I would take two or three baby steps backward. If I never let up the pressure I would hear a tiny metal click as the door caught in the latch. Of course, by then I would be out of breath, but it beat Mom’s method of trying to slam it shut over and over and over again, which never worked.
I grabbed my tea off the counter and went upstairs. The neat thing about living in an oversize hallway was the acoustics. The stairs were like a tunnel that led straight into my mom’s room. If you hugged the rail and did a tight one-eighty you’d get to my room at the back of the house.
Sound travelled up the stairs and grew into a loud echo as it bounced off the walls. I’d overheard Mom placing her order from the Sears Wish Book the other night, so I knew what I was getting for Christmas. It was a sweater—no big wow—but it opened my eyes to the benefits of eavesdropping.
And so I sat; propped up with lumpy pillows and my sweet, lemony tea. I’d recently graduated from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple and it was my third time reading A Pocket Full of Rye.
A chapter or two later I heard a key in the lock. Had Mom come home? Had she been at the bus stop all this time? Had the number 47 never showed?
I slid down under the covers, switched off my bedside lamp, and tucked my book under the pillow. Show time. I could feel the fever build, the headache form. And the cough, couldn’t forget the cough. Good thing I had the lemony tea on hand. Proof positive, I was too sick to go to school.
There was a pop of air, the mini explosion we heard every time we opened the door, followed by the sound of the fight to close it. Hmm. Mom must have adopted my method. A small grunt—
Wait a minute.
That wasn’t Mom.
I held my breath, frozen in place by fear. A chill ran through me, deeper than the one outside. I sat still and listened.
There was a tapping of boots on the mat. At least whoever had broken in was polite enough not to track snow through the house. Another small grunt of effort echoed up the stairs as someone bent over to unlace a pair of boots. Snap, snap, snap, small sounds amplified by our narrow stairwell.
Boots removed, whoever it was moved into the kitchen. I heard a zipper slide down its track, the clink as it released, and the rustle of material as a jacket was shrugged off the shoulders. There was a series of small ‘ahems’, loose phlegmy sounds as a closed throat was cleared. Another clink as the zipper hit wood. The jacket had been thrown over the back of a kitchen chair.
My sister Jenny was sixteen. To me, it was the magic age. She was old enough to drop out of school. She did. She had moved out after her birthday in May and was living with friends in a basement apartment in Windsor Park. She had a job, just like a regular grown up. I couldn’t wait until my sixteenth birthday. I was going to be just like her.
Jenny never hung up her jacket. She would walk right past the closet and throw it over a kitchen chair. It drove my mother crazy. Jenny wore Cougar boots made of leather, with a neat, square toe and thick brown laces. I wanted a pair. Everyone was wearing them.
Mom had insisted on buying me shiny black boots with tiny heels like hers. They had next to no lining so my toes froze if I was out longer than sixty seconds. Come spring, when the snow started to melt, my feet would get soaked. I couldn’t walk through deep snow or keep my balance on icy paths. I wasn’t allowed to wear high-heeled shoes yet, but there were heels on my winter boots! I looked like a geek and, since I couldn’t manoeuvre through the snow like a normal person, I was forced to act like one too.
Jenny was cool. With her tip money she had saved up for the boots and a bomber style winter jacket. She wore it zippered only half way up, like everyone else did, but her feet were warm and toasty.
Jenny cleared her throat again, in the way that only Jenny could. She had bronchial asthma and carried an inhaler. I heard her rummage through a pocket then the hiss of air as she used the puffer.
There was a soft thud as her cigarette pack slid across the table. Jenny pulled out a chair, her jacket zipper tinkling against the leg, and sat down. She drew a deep breath, cleared her throat again.
Mom was a smoker too and always kept an ashtray and lighter on the table, the way some families would keep salt and pepper and some napkins. The lighter was a joke. It was round and had the look of wood but the shell was plastic and it would never light. A twenty-nine cent Bic lighter would do the job every time, but everyone knew how much a twenty-nine cent Bic lighter cost. At a distance the lighter looked rich, and that’s why Mom kept it.
Jenny began flicking the lighter. The battle had begun and I wondered if she’d win or give up like Mom and finally light her cigarette by leaning in close to the stove element. I heard her growl and grit her teeth, flicking the flicker with more and more determination. A quiet sigh; she had won. Jenny inhaled deeply, held it a second then let it out slowly. There was a small creak as she leaned back on her chair.
I hopped out of bed to go downstairs. Jenny wouldn’t give me any grief about skipping—I’d learned the tricks of the trade from her. I padded down the hall in bare feet, knowing that sound didn’t travel down the stairs the same way it travelled up. I decided I’d better let her know I was home, so she wouldn’t freak out when I materialized in the kitchen.
“Jenny? It’s me, Meg,” I called as I started down the stairs.
I stopped mid-step. The house was eerily quiet. I felt a rush of cold trickle down the centre of my spine like a stream of ice water.
I raced down the rest of the stairs and around the corner. From where I stood I could see the house was empty. The kitchen at the front of the house, the dining room in the middle, the living room at the rear with no partitions in between; the big hallway we called our main floor.
All four chairs were tucked in. The ashtray and lighter were at the far end of the table next to Mom’s empty coffee cup and a plate full of toast crumbs.
No smoke hung in the air, but I could smell Jenny as surely as if she had been standing next to me. I ran to the door. The mat was dry, no telltale signs of melting snow. Her boots weren’t lying in front of the door; her jacket wasn’t slung over any of the chairs. I checked the closet just to be sure. Her things weren’t there. She never hung up her jacket. She never put her boots away.
I turned around, puzzled. “Jen?”
Outside, I could hear the wind drumming against the front door. A few feet away, hanging on the wall in the kitchen, the clock was ticking. I squinted, trying to see better, think better, hear the sounds that were no longer there.
A shrill ring pierced the air. I jumped and my heart thudded in surprise. It took another two rings before I realized it was the phone.
My throat went dry. I wasn’t sure I should answer. What if it was the school? My sister had disappeared into thin air. A call from the school secretary was the last thing I needed. Mom would be easier to handle. A little drama, a cough and a sniffle, and she would tumble from angry scolding to nattering worry in a matter of seconds. I picked up the phone and did my best to sound weak and feeble. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t hard to do.
I bit my lip. It didn’t sound like any of the school secretaries I’d ever talked to. Probably Sears calling to let Mom know my geeky sweater was ready for pick up. I dropped the weak voice and assumed my mother’s pinched look.
“Who’s calling please?”
“This is the St. Boniface Hospital. Are you Mrs. Sharpe?”
I made a face at the phone. St. B.? Why would St. B. call us? One thing was sure, if I wanted to know I’d have to let them go on thinking I was Mom. “Yes, this is she.”
The woman bought my lie. “Mrs. Sharpe, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“Oh, dear me,” I said. I even brought my hand to my mouth the way Mom would.
“It’s about your daughter, Jennifer.”
“Jenny?” My knees started to shake.
“We admitted her early this morning, Mrs. Sharpe. She’s developed pneumonia. We’ll be keeping her a few days, but if you can make it in this storm, I’m sure she’d like to see you.”
Jenny? In the hospital? She was just here. A shiver ran from my neck down to my toes. I hugged the receiver close to my chest and turned around, looking high and low until the phone cord had twisted around my waist but I still couldn’t find her. I’d have to call Mom. I hoped she’d made it to work.
I brought the phone back to my lips. “I’ll be right there.” I spun back around to loosen the cord and hung up without saying another word.
I fell on the door and whipped it open. The snow was still falling; the wind still blowing it into drifts and peaks. Jenny’s boots were heavy and big. They would have left solid tread marks in the snow. The walkway at school was full of them.
Leading up to our house, all that was visible through the blowing snow was the faint trace of a pointed toe and tiny heel mark; the fragile imprint of my own boots.