Sabrina was on the sofa with a box of Fruity Pebbles when Kevin stomped inside. He took off his shoes, which weren’t wet because the snow was so cold, and he stood watching his daughter eat cereal for dinner.
She dipped her hand into the crinkly plastic and came out with a technicolor collection of starch and corn syrup.
This ritual done, he flopped down on the sofa beside her in his office clothes. Sabrina offered him the box, her eyes still watching and reflecting an inflorescence of colored light from the screen. They sat there and watched commercials on a Friday night. A commercial for Fruity Pebbles came on. Sabrina’s hand reached for the box, and Kevin moved the box away, and her hand reached farther, making little gripping motions that reminded him of when she was an infant.
‘Dad,’ she snapped, swiping the box.
‘I just wanted you to look away from the TV,’ he confessed.
The Fruity Pebbles commercial was over. Sabrina made a sound in her throat as if she was annoyed she’d missed it.
‘Because I just wanted you to.’ It was Friday, he thought. The weekend. Once, he would have taken the time to explain why it was unhealthy to stare at screens all day, but he’d forgotten why himself, and he thought of them sitting there in the half-light. He was still cold from the drive home from work where he’d been the last to leave his brick office building with its black-tinted windows, trudging through the snow-blanked lot and flinging himself into his car, which had been covered and cave-dark, slow to defrost.
Sabrina watched her shows with the sound turned down to an electric whisper. The plastic static of the cereal bag overpowered it. She was watching a cartoon about an infertile couple who had adopted an alien for a son. The alien looked like a human, expect that his skin was purple.
‘Have you noticed the blizzard outside?’ he asked. There was a window next to the television in their living room, and Sabrina hadn’t pulled the curtains back over the night. Snow pelted diagonally down. Twenty minutes ago, he’d been barricaded in his car with the heat slowly melting the build-up on windows he was numb enough not to go out and scrape.
‘Yep,’ she said. ‘They sent us home early. I caught a ride with Carrie.’
Kevin thought about this information. He felt terribly cold, as if someone had opened the window. He didn’t know why. He looked at his twelve-year-old daughter sitting there in her faded jeans and old sweatshirt. She sat with the box of cereal in her lap, clutching it on either side with both hands, and her legs stuck out directly forward from her, her knees bent ninety degrees over the edge of the sofa and her feet resting flat on the carpet. He looked at her light-brown hair—at how the tip of her pink ear stuck out between the curtain in front of it and the wave behind. He thought suddenly of how much he loved that she hadn’t asked if she could have that ear pierced, and then he prepared himself for when she did ask. Then he thought of something worse, and he prepared himself for when she simply came home with her ears pierced, giggling with her friends.
Then another thought occurred to him. He reached out.
‘Hey, dad—what?’ she jerked back.
‘I just wanted to see if you’d pierced your earlobes,’ he said guiltily, touching his own.
‘My ear-lobes?’ she asked, incredulous.
Sabrina looked at him with dark, liquid eyes. ‘Carrie’s mom is getting a divorce, and I think she’s really pretty.’
‘That so?’ Kevin asked.
In his car, in the parking lot of his office, he’d watched the snow slowly liquidate around him—a kind of unformed awe in him, orb-shaped, like a clot, while he thought of the elements: heat and water. Evaporation and condensation. He’d sat staring out on the empty lot and the plow-built glacier that had been added to daily for the last month. By now nearly as high as the second story of the office. Climate and industry, clean and white and glittering beside the drab building where he worked inside with clean, white spreadsheets and cool blue light.
‘I think you’d like her,’ his daughter was saying of Carrie’s mom.
‘Is my daughter trying to set me up with a divorcee so that she can be her best friend’s sister?’
She stared at him, possibly trying to figure out how such an astute question could come from a man who said earlobe. ‘It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.’ Her favorite phrase.
Rejuvenated, somewhat, by banter, Kevin came to his feet, weathered a gust of vertigo, and announced that he was ordering pizza.
Sabrina had reoriented herself to the cartoon.
Kevin thought of what it would be like to go out into the blizzard, stand on a mound of snow and ice like it was a mountain and let the cold tighten.
When the man who delivered the pizzas thumped the front door, Kevin paid him, looking past him out into the hyperdrive night—flakes the size of starlights, slinging themselves through headlight beams.
Inside the living room, the only lights came from the television glow, colder than the storm, and the distant bulb from the kitchen bouncing off the white wall and around the corner. Sabrina had traded the cereal box for a pillow and sat hunched over it as if she had a stomach ache, and Kevin was reminded of how the girl’s mother looked with Sabrina still growing inside of her--
To break his own thought, he threw himself down on the sofa with the pizza box and jounced his daughter and almost spilled the pizza.
Sabrina objected to this rough-housing, but Kevin plopped the box on her lap and opened it to block the screen and said, ‘Eat up quick, and then we’re going outside.’
‘Why would I want to go outside?’ Calm: she thought he was kidding.
‘For fresh air.’
In gestures as exaggerated as the cartoons she watched, Sabrina swiveled her tousled head to him and then to the window as if drawing a line. What lay beyond seemed grim, anti-terrestrial: the white lines of snow flashing all at one slant like erase marks scrubbed over a pencil drawing.
When they’d eaten one piece each, Kevin told her to get her coat, well, first, put on layers, lots of layers—did she have underarmor, and why didn’t he know if she did or not?—and where were her boots, hat, gloves, scarf? He pestered her from room to room, astonished so fully by her own astonished obedience that he forgot to add layers to his outfit, and he had to make her wait while he threw three sweaters over his head and arms.
‘Dad, I’m melting. I’m hyperventilating.’
He came out of his room and looked at his daughter frowning up at him from within her bedizenment—her beanie and her big rag scarf. He grinned at her. She looked kind of brave there, stalwart and stoic in the wallpapered hallway of their house. He wondered what had gotten into him. He felt like he wanted to tear up a little, just a little bit, but the picture he had in his mind was of a cartoon purple alien sobbing center-screen into two buckets set shoulder-width apart. It was an image that had just about cured him of tears.
They stole out of the house, and the wind was loud. They propped themselves up against the door. If Sabrina had wanted to go back inside right then, Kevin would happily have accepted this, but she didn’t; she waited for him, holding her hood down with one mittened hand.
‘We’re going to need shovels,’ he shouted, testing her reaction to this.
They took two shovels from the garage, and, in a flash of forethought, Kevin grabbed the camping lantern and a handful of hand warmers from the camping bin, and he threw all this in the trunk of his car, and he peered around the wheel and stabbed the key into the ignition, flicking the heater to thickest red and tapping the defrost buttons, and he found the ice scraper and retracted his body back out of the car and went to work.
Sabrina sat in the passenger seat while Kevin drove them to the destination he had in his head, and she kept her mittens on and breathed into the little bowl they made together, the shape of her nose soft and crowded against the red mittens. Kevin looked over at her once or twice, wondering when she was going to ask where they were going, but she didn’t ask, and they arrived in the night after thirty minutes of skidding on otherwise empty streets.
Kevin stopped the car in the same parking space in which he always parked. He bet he even had it between the yellow lines, which were buried. They sat there in the toasty interior with the window wipers slinging slush off the glass, and they gazed out at the austere shapes around them—the same place he’d been about two hours ago, the same sensations, his daughter there beside him.
‘Is this where you work?’ Sabrina asked.
Kevin was relieved that she had asked. He had been starting to worry that he’d scared her, and maybe he still had. But her mother had died giving birth to her; she wouldn’t have known the way he’d been then for the first year or two of her life, even though some part of her might have known, even then, and might yet remember. He said, ‘Yes.’
‘Cubicles in there?’ she asked, as if asking if there were sharks in the water.
‘Yes. And a coffee kitchen. And conference rooms.’
She looked shyly at him. After another minute or two, said, ‘Are we going to get out, or what?’
‘You want to?’ he asked.
She didn’t wait. If they’d driven all the way out here with shovels, Sabrina was going to at least take a look at this potential igloo; really, one of the biggest snow piles she’d ever encountered, premade. It was a big lot, after all. But Kevin watched her expression and wondered what she was thinking—what she thought about him as she pictured him in this building, hunched over his desk.
She had the sort of expression people get when they’re about to do something that they’ve known they would have to do for a long time, and whether it would be agreeable or disagreeable remained to be seen.
‘Kinda chilly out here,’ she pronounced on the night. The snow was coming at a blinding angle. Ice on her eyelashes. A bowing row of evergreens along the back of the lot. The air was ash grey and wouldn’t darken any further.
As they climbed the plowed-up hill of ice—using the shovels to pull themselves through gradients of gusts like exhausted travelers—Kevin tried to remember what he’d meant by coming here. He had never been here this late, and it felt unlawful, and whatever spontaneity he’d talked himself into had now been replaced with pensiveness.
They stood on the top and looked around together: two figures on the transitory hill in an empty acreage of office buildings. Just as Kevin suspected from the ground, they were now level with the blackened windows of the second story. He stood and faced the place where his cubicle was. He had a picture of Sabrina on his desk, not a snowball’s throw away. In the picture, she was six, and she had just returned from Carrie’s birthday party, and she was high on sugar and beaming in her chocolate-smeared blouse. She’d come home with a braid, which her friend had done for her, her first braid. Kevin remembered that she’d cried when it came undone in the bath. He loved that picture, and it made him afraid sometimes to look at it.
‘This is pretty cool, I guess,’ Sabrina said, stomping out a flattened plateau under her and stabbing the shovel in and leaning on it, world-wise and weary.
‘You think so?’
‘Yea, it’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had.’
‘We should probably head home then, don’t you think?’ He wasn’t sure what response he was hoping from her. If it had been he who had formulated the idea, it was now she who had taken the lead, and he wished he hadn’t left his phone in the car so that he could take a picture of that look on her cold face as she studied the snow under her as though she’d been commissioned to come here and to shape it into something.
His daughter hefted her shovel. ‘We can go when we’re tired.’
When the wind picked up again, they descended the mountain on the leeward side to the base and began to dig.
ANDREW REICHARD is an author who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Collagist, decomP, Into the Void, and others. Connect with him on Twitter @DrewReichard