I was eleven when the ice held me like a raft. Rather than dimming over the years, the memory of that winter morning remains vivid. While my visceral response to the memory lies dormant on good days, when it’s a similar New England winter day in my soul, every part of nature drained of color–brown tree trunks, white snow, gray sky–I am besieged by a current of high-voltage panic about what might have been. Cold invisible hands grip my throat and I gasp for breath, my two-hundred pound, six-two frame sapped of power.

The violent zap having passed, I lean over Helen’s crib, bumping the mobile with my head. Pink and purple stuffed elephants, woken from their rest, bob up and down. But Helen remains asleep, her tiny hands curled into fists. Her small back stirs up and down. The pneumonia is in her left lung for the second time this winter.

I have pulled a comfortable armchair into Helen’s purple room to rest while still keeping a watchful eye on her. Outside the wind howls and the windows rattle. I am thirty-four, and what I think most about that winter morning is the woman across the lake. She was walking her dogs. Two of them.

The woods behind our neighborhood were dense and circled a man-made lake, a former rock quarry that was supposedly over three-hundred feet deep in the center. Boats were prohibited because if one capsized, bodies might not be recovered.

Connecticut is not Buffalo in the winter, but it’s also not Greensboro. Lakes freeze over and sometimes the sky drops snow every day for a week, like that winter when I was eleven. To keep our roof from collapsing, my father had balanced on the A-frame structure and shoveled all day beginning in the early morning. His heavy footsteps woke me. By late afternoon, our house was a miniature castle with a snow wall wrapped around it. Even in daylight, the downstairs was dark.

On Jack’s front lawn, we neighborhood kids had built a giant mound that we hollowed into a snow cave. Six of us crawled into the crude igloo and horsed around until our mothers called us in. After lunch, everyone but me climbed on top of our snow fort. I preferred the cave’s inside–lying on my back half listening to the muffled sounds of the other kids’ voices while counting the spots of blue snow. This turned into a game called Kingdom that Jack’s younger sister, Hannah initiated. Jack and Luca weren’t around that day.

School had been closed for three days. Every day, Hannah told me what the boys were up to; “Jack and Luca went sledding. My dad drove them. Now they’re playing video games at Luca’s.” I said nothing, hoping my silence could disavow the feeling of exclusion. “They get to have sleepovers every night,” she added as if I were not yet their age.

On our third day off from school, the roads were too icy to drive. The previous day’s mild and sunny temperature had melted the snow and then overnight the temperature plummeted. After breakfast, I peered out the living room window. At Mom’s request, Dad had made a cutout in the snow wall so we weren’t closed in. Luca and Jack were sliding off the igloo that looked caved in on one side.

Luca was a muscular guy, already at home in his athletic body and faster than anyone in middle school. Jack, lean and sinewy, was taller than me too. I took off with them toward the lake trails feeling important.

Just months before that January morning, Jack’s mom had invited me to join Jack for Halloween. But it wasn’t just Jack. Luca was there and so were four other boys. Me and my slow gait lagged behind the pack of them as they sprinted from house to house, up precipitous driveways, across lumpy front lawns, leaping off rock walls. My plump legs hurt for trying. Sometimes the boys waited for me before approaching a house, which was worse–all those eyes on me as I limped up a walkway.

“Come on slowpoke,” Jack had teased, like a brother. The other boys and I laughed.

At home, I went straight to my bedroom, tired. I tipped over the pillowcase, raining mini assorted candies–Snickers, Hersheys, Three Musketeers, M&Ms. In bed, my belly ached as much as my knees.

That winter morning, the one amplified in my memory, lake trails were empty of other hikers. Luca and Jack led us to a beech tree that had been uprooted by the wind. Its enormous network of roots propped up the bottom part of the trunk. Luca stepped up onto where the dead tree was just a foot off the ground, tore up the trunk like it was a plank, and leapt off over the roots, catching the limb of another tree. He effortlessly clambered himself atop the limb where he sat swinging his legs. Jack followed right after Luca. As Jack heaved himself into a seated position next to Luca, Luca said, “Come on, slowpoke, let’s see what ya got.”

I walked under these kings of the woods and sat on the crunchy hard snow so I could be a part of their conversation. “Big boy, you don’t climb trees?” Luca said. I sat for a while, noticing the rich smells of decaying wood and wet earth, until I felt the melted snow had seeped through my jeans.

At the lake’s bank, Jack tapped the ice with his boot heel, “Frozen solid.” Luca picked up a thick branch and tossed it like he was skipping a stone. The branch glided over the lake’s surface.

Only now do I recognize the look Luca had given Jack after he said to me, “Yeah, you go first.” It had been a smirk. And Jack had flashed one back to Luca. But when I was eleven, I had seen it as a smile, encouragement for me to lead them. Or maybe I hadn’t. Maybe I knew they saw me as prey, but pretended I didn’t notice. Pretended, not to them, but to myself. Maybe I told myself a story that these were my boys I was spending time with, and I belonged.

I paid little attention to the lady and her dogs. From across the lake, they were mere moving figurines.

Jack and Luca’s attention emboldened me. Walking on ice requires anchoring one foot for traction and then dragging the other along. I shuffled slowly past where bare twigs poked through the cloudy frozen surface. On ice, it doesn’t matter if you are slow. I turned to see the distance I had created between me and my friends. The wind whipped around me, and I stuck out my arms for balance. Then the wind stopped and the whole lake grew quiet. A hawk flew over my head and shrilled.

“GET OFF THE ICE!” the lady’s voice boomed across the lake, like a teacher or parent. “NOW!” She was waving her hands frantically. Her dogs began barking furiously at me. I paused. I was in trouble. Caught. I turned back. Under my feet ice cracked. Jack’s and Luca’s eyes widened with concern.

This memory takes hold of me, pricks my chest, makes me gasp. Would they have found my body if that lady had minded her own business? How broken-hearted my parents would have been.

I place my hand softly on Helen’s small head. There is no more fever. A blessing. Could it be that Helen has her own lady across the lake?


Kerry McKay is at work on a novel set in Staten Island. Her work has appeared in Harvard’s Education Next, Your Teen Magazine, Adanna, and other publications. She is a high school reading specialist and holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University.