I hate that thermostat the way I hate my cream-colored sweater. Like accomplices, they both stare back with a beige vagueness, each concealing a tumult–chips and wires, a burgundy undershirt–like snow on the lawn in December. I used to think these June chills, so generously supplied by the blue snowflake on the keypad, were magical, but now, as I confront this sea-foam wall the way a slab of marble would confront a treacherous old friend, I am tempted to press the red sun.
“Mama,” I call. “It’s cold in here.” The sound of my voice quivers through the permafrost tiles, as I can feel through the thick wool socks.
Her voice cracks through the icy wall of her bedroom: when it reaches me, it’s barely a spit of steam scratching the air beside my ear. “It feels fine to me,” the steam whispers. “Just leave it.”
Blustery, the sleeves of my sweater fall around the equator of my hands. My chapped lips are unsure of their duty for just a moment before they slip open–apparently, they, too, are tired of the cold.
“Can I go to Helena’s house, Mama?” I ask.
“You’ve already gone once this week.”
I teeter on the tile. “That was a month ago, Mama.”
“She’s throwing a party today, and she’ll be mad if I don’t go.”
“Will there be boys?”
Before I know it, my lips are between my teeth. “Hot ones.” I imagine their breathing. I imagine feeling it. I haven’t felt a warm, living thing since Dad disappeared. The house used to crawl with them. My lips are upset; I’ve drawn blood.
“Will there be alcohol?”
“I don’t think so, Mama. But even if there were–” I thumb the stitching on my jeans. “It probably wouldn’t be cold enough to suit your tastes.”
The steam converts itself into a snarl of winter wind; trickling down the back of my neck it becomes a glacier sliding between poles, raising goosebump hilltops. “Get in here,” it says.
Dad used to make this walk. First, he would make a sandwich, then he would eat it, then he would make the walk. I know because I saw it, on those late nights when I would let my eyes glow from the other side of the counter, so far below his that he never suspected a thing–and because the carpet still bear the sighs of his weight, the flecks of dirt he kicked off his shoes, a coffee stain, another.
I am careful to pad softly here. This is haunted ground.
Mama, a sullen face her only visible human trait, has reinvented herself as a moth caterpillar. From within a cocoon of dying pale fleece, her sunken eyes drift absently to my ghost in the doorway.
“Don’t touch that thermostat.”
“Why does it matter, Mama?”
Her face remains unaffected. “It’s our anniversary.”
So does mine. “We’re not a morgue.”
Her head rolls back as if she had never seen me at all. “He’s not dead.”
“He’s good as dead.”
“Don’t say that!” she snaps, suddenly violent from somewhere beyond her weary eyes. As she falls back, her voice collapses into a murmur. “Don’t say that.” But it’s too late. The blanket, for all its ashy sadness, has slipped from her shoulder, revealing the crimson beneath. “You’re bleeding,” she says.
“I don’t understand,” I mutter. “Why is that thermostat so important to you?”
“You should clean it up,” she returned. “There’s some alcohol under the sink. And I can get you some new Chapstick when I go out tomorrow.”
“Why are you so intent on forcing Dad to stay alive?”
“Maybe I can get you a new sweater, too. I think that one is getting too dark, from all the washing.”
“It’s cold in here, Mama.”
“What was that?”
Slowly, Mama removes her hand from her cocoon, revealing to me the thready pallor of a woman draped in cold.
“So am I, baby.”