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The air was sharp and crisp, snow dancing in the air in light flurries. It was still early in the evening, but the sky had already darkened, as it did in winter months. Salt was spread on the pavement to prevent ice, crunching underfoot. A cluster of houses sat around a cul-de-sac, their inhabitants returning from work or transferring groceries from their cars to their homes. A lone figure walked down the sidewalk, exhibiting the flushed cheeks and chapped lips of a long walk in cold weather.
Passing under a streetlight, the illuminated figure revealed a girl bundled heavily against the chill, wearing a red coat that fell just past her thighs, a checkered scarf and gloves. A schoolbag was slung over one shoulder, its weight giving the girl a slight tilt. A knit hat covered blonde chin-length ringlets, which swayed and bounced as she strode down the concrete sidewalk. The scant light barely disclosed hazel eyes and a delicate nose reddened from the night’s chill. A sudden wind whipped the girl’s hair around her face, whirling one lone curl into her eye. Patiently, the girl removed the curl from her eye and let it fall back in place. She lifted her gloved fingers to her mouth and blew on them for warmth.
The street was freshly plowed and children bounded out of their houses, tackling each other in the snow, sending up clouds of powder. The girl stepped from concrete to pavement, crossing the cul-de-sac with hurried steps. The garage door to her house was open, and from the amount of snow that had blown into the garage, the girl determined it had been that way for several hours. The garage was vacant of a car, letting the girl know that no one aside from herself was home yet.
The girl’s fingers fumbled blindly in the darkness until they found their quarry. She pressed the pads of her fingertips against the cool, plastic button on the garage wall. The garage door moaned in protest as it rolled down, closing out what little bit of moonlight there had been. Reaching into her bag, the girl began to search for her keys. Finding nothing, she stuck a hand in her pocket while she shook out her legs to keep warm. Trying the other pocket, she found her keys and wiggled it into the lock. She turned the doorknob and stepped inside.
She dropped her keys into a ceramic dish by the door, where they fell with a musical clang. A blue-gray light served as a guiding beacon and the girl moved towards it into the kitchen. She glanced down at the small screen of her cell phone, which she had left home to charge. After a brief battle in trying to free her phone of its charger, the girl flipped it open. “Two missed calls”, the screen displayed. Humming to herself, the girl dialed her voice mail and then her pass code.
“You have two unplayed messages,” a robotic voice said, “First new message. Beep.”
“Cam, it’s Mom.” From the harried tone of her mother’s voice, Cam already knew what to expect. Unconsciously, she sighed. “I know I said we’d have dinner tonight…” No, Cam thought wearily, you promised, but what else is new? In the background several people were trying to get her mother’s attention. Cam balanced carefully on one foot, skillfully using her free foot the step down on the heel of her shoe before kicking it off. She followed suit with the other shoe.
“No, no. Do not put the design onto pattern paper until I have approved it. You—No! This is completely wrong. Pull out the stitches and start over.” By the time her mother managed to remember that she was still leaving a message, Cam had hung up her coat and scarf and plopped into a comfortable position on the couch in the living room.
“Cam, sweetie,” Her mother cajoled on the recording, “I’m sorry. You just heard how crazy it is here. With the trouble with the economy, I’ve had to reduce the staff on this project. I simply can’t leave until everything is straightened out—and I don’t think that will happen in time for me to be home for dinner. Go ahead and eat without me. You know I wouldn’t cancel on you unless I had good reason.” Cam cocked her head to the side, considering. How was it a “good reason” if she was canceling on Cam because of work?
When Cam was younger and would be home sick, her mother used to glance guiltily at the clock as she talked to her co-workers on the phone. Her eyes hazed from fever, Cam had watched Mom agitatedly pace back and forth on the hardwood floor of her room. She would run her fingers through her hair, glance at Cam and then her shoulders would sink with disappointment as if she had imagined that Cam would magically get better, so that she might swoop out the door and get back to work. Even when it was just the two of them together, Cam’s mother would find some way to be distracted by work. The few times Cam persuaded her to turn her cell phone off, she would only be half there, her gaze focused on the napkin where she was sketching a new design. She would nod as Cam spoke to her, but she never truly listened.
“I love—“ The message cut off, leaving Cam to wonder whom or what exactly her mother loved. Well, Cam thought bitterly, certainly not me. With a decisive snap, Cam closed her phone without listening to the next message.
She pushed herself off the couch, trying to figure out what to do with the remainder of her evening. She’d have to do homework eventually, but after the disappointment of her mom’s message, Cam didn’t feel much inclined to be productive. She contemplated calling one of her friends before dismissing the idea; everyone was busy with their own lives and schoolwork during the week. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she would need to eat at some point, but the thought of cooking a meal and sitting at the table by herself seemed depressing.
Finally, it was Cam’s shivering body that forced her into action. Grabbing a log from the basket next to the fireplace, Cam knelt on the cold, hardwood floor. She reached out and lifted the long, black bolt that kept the door to the fireplace closed and set it next to her. The door creaked open and Cam stacked two logs, allowing for air space. She rolled up a piece of newspaper and stuffed it into the stack that she had created. Taking a lighter that they kept on the mantle, Cam lit the newspaper and watched the fire catch. The flame built, licking the wood and spewing embers.
Cam waited until she was thoroughly defrosted before settling back onto the couch. Outside, a young girl shrieked as her brothers pelted her with snowballs. Cam shifted so that she could watch them through the picture windows that faced out onto the street and the house across the way. The door to the house opened, and a woman stuck her head out, calling them in. The children ignored her, dodging each other’s throws and attacking in return. The woman fully appeared in the doorway, her hands fisted on her hips, the stance of a displeased mother. She descended upon them, snatching the hoods of two children and towed them inside. The remaining child obediently followed now that he had no one to play with.
Cam watched as the family sat down to dinner, her own hunger forgotten. The room had warmed considerably, the fire gently crackling, but Cam still felt cold. She was too far away to see the family’s faces. For all she knew, they could be miserable, fighting or struggling to make conversation. But in her own painfully silent house, Cam watched them with longing because even if they were unhappy, at least they were together.