On the day of the funeral, Bo’s father held his hand on the way out of the church. His feet crunched in the snow as he walked, leaving a solitary trail of blue prints on the pristine white that stretched out behind him. They stopped next to his mother at the edge of the white drifts in the churchyard, where she stood with a cluster of people dressed in black. They all looked vaguely familiar to Bo, but none seemed to notice when the two of them approached. A thought suddenly came to him, and he turned to the man next to him, squeezing his hand.
“Father, will you take me skating soon?” He peered up hopefully, but his father was staring off into the dark wood to the left.
Losing interest, Bo squinted into the noon sunshine reflected off the snow, then immediately regretted it. When he closed his eyes, a burning white circle glowed on the back of his eyelids. He rubbed them with a sticky palm, then took off his cap and spun it in his hands. Bo decided that he didn’t like Sunday clothes. They were far too stuffy and thick, not good for running through the woods with Thatcher. He was sweating under the woolen jacket and the shirt collar was itching the back of his neck. He began to take off his jacket but suddenly found his mother’s hands clamped around his wrists.
“Bo, keep your jacket on.” Her tone surprised him. Momentarily forgetting his struggle to undo the smooth coat buttons, he looked up into her eyes. Their familiar blue was outlined in red and her skin was creased in places that were usually smooth. Bo put his hands up and pressed them gently to her icy cheeks. Eyebrows furrowed, he searched her face, trying to understand what was wrong, but was rewarded only with a wet trickle through his fingers as a tear spilled from her eye. She let him leave his hands against her for a moment longer, then briskly detached herself and stood, black skirts rustling.
Bo looked back up to his father, who caught his eye and smiled a strangely sad smile.
Thatcher was waiting at home. As the Model T rattled along the icy drive, he bounded out from where he’d been napping under the bench on the porch and pranced in joyful circles around the car, scattering snow with his wagging tail. Bo watched happily from the backseat. As soon as the car jerked to a stop, he was out the door and jumping up the faded white steps to the cabin, Thatcher trotting behind him. Wiggling out of the stuffy suit, he left it in a crumpled heap by the wood stove and banged out the back door in his usual pants and canvas coat.
The woods were fresh and green against the bright white of the snowdrifts, familiar as ever but whispering a promise of new adventures. Thatcher dashed past, a black streak almost as big as Bo himself, paws flying and pink tongue lolling cheerfully to the side. With a happy shout, Bo joined him in the mad dash to the trees, but had to slow, wading clumsily through the fluffy drifts as the snow rose up his shins, soaking the hems of his pants. The frosty breeze ruffled his brown hair and stung at his nose, and he laughed as tears trickled from his eyes. Silly wind, making him cry when there was no need! The day was beautiful, and the rest of it was his for the taking! Maybe, if he was very good, he could convince Father to take him skating tomorrow.
They had reached the deeper forest, where the snow was thinner, and he took off again at a joyful gallop. One word bounced through his head, a word he had heard murmured and whispered and muttered many times that day, at church and afterwards and in the car home. What a funny word. Death. The grown-ups seemed almost afraid of it, a thought that puzzled Bo. Grown-ups weren’t afraid of anything. Death, death, death. He sang it under his breath, sounding it out and breaking it apart to the point where it wasn’t a word anymore, just a collection of sounds that went d-e-a-t-h.
“Death!” His whisper grew to a joyful shout, and he ran on with Thatcher through the fairytale whiteness of the woods.
Bo’s mother stood silently at the dusty kitchen window where she had paused while getting matches to light a fire, watching her son. Bo romped through the pines, in and out of her vision, bounding at something and then jumping away again. He disappeared momentarily behind a tree and then reemerged at a run, laughing and yelling. She narrowed her eyes. What on earth is he doing? Is there someone else with him? For a second, she could’ve sworn she saw a streak of black dart from tree to tree behind her son, paws flying and – the matches cracked between her fingers as her hand suddenly clenched. She closed her eyes and shook her head briskly. No. That’s impossible. When she looked again, Bo was alone, carving a snow angel into the drifts under a huge oak.
That night, Bo lay under his quilt on the tiny four-poster that took up almost his entire room. It was dark except for a lone candle that flickered on the nightstand, throwing inky shadows that trembled on the floor and reminded Bo of black puddles, shaken by a night breeze. The bed squeaked and jounced as Thatcher’s warm weight landed on the foot, and Bo squished his legs up against the wall to make room for the huge dog. He usually slept with Bo’s mother and father on the foot of their wide bed, but for the past 4 nights he had appeared at Bo’s bedside for some reason.
His mother entered, the floorboards groaning under her feet. She stood by the head of the bed and gazed at the dusky wall. Bo watched her. Her face looked tired. After a minute, she shook herself out of her trance and bent down swiftly to kiss him on the forehead.
“Sleep well, Bo.” He patted her hand and yawned sleepily in response.
Father knelt on the ice, gloved hands stretched out to Bo. Bo wobbled dangerously on the thin blades of his skates, tensing every muscle in an attempt to stay on his feet.
“Come on, Bo. Balance. You’re almost there.”
His legs trembled beneath him and suddenly the skates lost their hold on the slippery surface, shooting out from under him and landing him hard on his backside. The shock slammed away his breath and rattled his skull. But Father’s hands were already under his arms, lifting him back to his feet. Thatcher whined from the bank of the pond.
“It’s all right. You’re not hurt. Try again, little man.”
Father held his hands and skated backwards while Bo traced uncertain squiggles onto the ice, nearing the center of the pond. Bo stared determinedly into Father’s reassuring eyes.
And then - it all happened so fast that Bo wasn’t sure what came first. A sharp crack split through the air and Father was shoving him away, Bo was sliding on his back over the ice towards the edge of the pond, Thatcher was howling and bounding past him, the ice was breaking and moving and Father and Thatcher were disappearing and
Bo opened his eyes, forehead damp with a chilly sweat. He could feel his heart beating roughly in his chest, thumping and thudding and trying to escape. Through the sleepy haze of his darkened room, he could make out the figure of his father standing in the door. Bo blinked, and when his eyes opened again his father was sitting on the floor next to his bed.
“Father.” His voice trembled. “I’m afraid.” His father reached up and stroked Thatcher, who was still sprawled over the end of the cot.
“Now, little man, it’s all right. I’m here.” There was a pause, as Bo lay and listened to his own breathing, relaxing into the mattress with the comforting presence of the man next to him.
“Will you take me skating, father? Soon? The winter’s almost over.” This time, Bo held his breath, waiting for a response.
His father let out a long breath. When he spoke again, he sounded pained. “Bo, you know I can’t do that. We can’t go skating again, love.”
Bo sat up in bed. “But, father, why? You promised!”
His father was staring straight ahead, his eyes distant and dull in the dusk of the room. Bo stared at the side of his head. He couldn’t tell why, but the happy laugh-creases next to his father’s eyes were all wrong. The dappled moonlight played over his face and shoulders, and it seemed to Bo that he didn’t look entirely solid.
When the answer came, his voice was firm and toneless. “Bo, the answer is no. Now, do not ask me again.”
“Father, you promised.” Bo was suddenly angry. More angry than he had ever been. “You promised!” He was screaming. He was jumping up in bed. He was pummeling his father with his fists, yelling and crying, vision blurry with anger. Thatcher had leaped up and was barking. Bo found his father’s hands on him, grabbing his wrists and trying to hold him down as he kicked and kicked and kicked.
“You promised, father!”
In the next room, Bo’s mother took a shaking breath and crossed her arms over her own chest. Nothing was all right. Nothing ever would be all right. Inhale. Exhale. She lay in the blackness, leaking tears and trying not to fall apart.
It was her fourth night lying alone, the fourth night since the ice had swallowed her husband and the loyal Thatcher, almost taking her little son along with them. The bed felt endless and cold, another reminder of the aching loss, the empty place by her side that could never be filled again.
At least I have Bo.
On a sudden and desperate whim, she crawled from bed and tiptoed lightly to her door and along the passage to Bo’s room. As she neared his open door, she heard Bo’s voice, repeating something over and over through choking sobs. Alarmed, she rushed to the door and yanked it open, then froze in horror and confusion. Bo was lying on his bed, kicking at the air, twisting and fighting and crying, his little balled-up fists pinned flat to the bed and struggling against nothing. She gripped the doorframe for support, trying to make sense of the scene.
“Bo! What in heaven’s name are you doing?” With the sound of her voice, Bo went suddenly still. He stopped twisting. He stopped fighting. He stopped crying. He seemed to suddenly gain control of his body, and he sat up and looked at his mother, pale and swaying in the doorway. His cheeks glistened with tears.
“Mother, will you take me skating?”