I roll over to check if the milk is frozen. Neatly stacked in three crates of glass bottles on my sandy bedroom floor, it’s solid. That probably means the apples and potatoes are frozen, too. The omen of a bad day.
I could pray that the bottles won’t break as my bedroom warms with daylight. I could pray, but I won’t. If it’s going to get cold, it’s going to get cold, and all things—milk among them—freeze. There’s a life lesson for you.
My folded clothes lay on my nightstand, and I pull them into the warmth of the sleeping bag. I am like the salamander that once lived in the cellar. Joseph and I used to amuse ourselves by enticing it with earth- or mealworms. It would shoot from under the stone long enough to bite down before retreating. The salamander couldn’t guess we weren’t going to hurt it. It didn’t need to move fast, but I do. Otherwise, my body heat will escape. The chill will never leave me then.
In middle school, I slept in my clothes, the extra layer providing what the wood stove in the dining room can’t. But it took only one overheard conversation during that petrifying first week of high school before I stopped.
“Did you see Sarah’s shirt? It’s so wrinkly it looks like she slept in it.”
That was the last time I did.
By that point, most of my peers started to notice I was different. If I’m being honest here, it was the first time I noticed. I didn’t wear designer clothes. Heck, I didn’t even wear clothes from Wal-mart most of the time. I didn’t shave my legs or wear make-up like the rest of the ninth graders. I still don’t. No contact lenses for me, either. My glasses are gigantic boy’s aviator frames that hearken back to Tom Cruise and the 1980’s, minus the cool factor.
Yes, I am the salamander in the cellar. Lay low. Let everything pass. Only grasp at what you need to survive.
The clock reads 4:45 a.m. My glasses let me see that. Only sixteen more hours left in the day.
I don’t have to be in the kitchen to know my father sits at the head of the table with a coffee cup in one hand, and Mom sits to his left with a deck of cards in hers. Grace will sleep a while longer, being too young for chores and school, and it’s another hour before Joseph wakes to tend the chickens. He’s lucky; throw some scratch down and refresh their water, and they’re fine. My morning chores are a different story. It takes every second of every minute just to make sure I don’t miss the bus.
Fifteen hours and fifty-eight minutes more.
In the kitchen, it’s exactly as I anticipated. My parents listen to AM radio, the steady tick tick tick of the electrical fence interrupting the morning show with DJ Dan. The only other noise is the burble of the coffee pot on the wood stove and Mom’s cards flicking onto the table as she plays solitaire. If you didn’t know them, you’d think they were identical statues, the pharaoh Ramesses II at the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, cut in duplicate from mountainside stone. But I know them, and I can see Ramesses II’s wife carved there, not the full twenty-meter statue, but standing in miniature, no taller than the pharaoh’s knee.
I press my feet into my muck boots and shrug into Mom’s oversized wool jacket. I’m turning the doorknob when my father speaks. “Not going to say ‘morning,’ are you?”
My fingers stiffen around the knob. With what little air I can control, I say, “Good morning.”
“It doesn’t mean anything now that I had to tell you to say it.”
“I’m sorry.” My voice is soft, little. It’s not my real voice; it doesn’t belong to me. He inspires this voice; it belongs to him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he says.
“To milk the goats.”
“How many times have I told you not to mumble?”
Mom stops dealing the cards to their piles, but her eyes, unseeing, stay fixed on them.
“Sorry,” I say. “I was going to milk the goats.” I put more force behind my words, but they still come out tight.
“Look at me when you speak to me.”
My eyes dart up to meet his. I don’t want to stare into the green we share, but I have to. I can pretend I’m stronger than he is. This time, my words carry. “I was going to milk the goats.”
He turns back to his coffee, Mom’s cards flick to the table, and I escape to the barn.
Fifteen hours and fifty-three minutes.
“Dodge,” I call. The saanen frisks her way through the pen and greets me with a nuzzle. I bat her through the doorway and laugh. “I know what you want, you old nanny.”
Instead of going to the milking stanchion like the other goats do when it’s their turn, she persists. Her nose presses against my pocket, knocking me against the wall. “Hey, hey, hey,” I say. “Patience is a virtue.”
Patience lifts her head from her grain.
“Not you, silly.”
As soon as I unwrap the egg and Dodge satisfies her addiction to cheap chocolate, she jumps on the stanchion like the good little goat she is.
Thank you, Dodge. Maybe I won’t miss the bus today.
My head rests against her belly, soaking in her soft warmth and the acrid scents of bag balm and musk. She may be annoying and stubborn, but she’s always happy to see me. I guess I’d be too, if someone came bearing chocolate and relief.
My parents aren’t in the kitchen when I finally finish milking all twenty goats and set the bucket of milk on the stovetop. Like everything else in the kitchen—the cracked linoleum, buzzing refrigerator, globeless fluorescent light—the stove is 1970’s young. Which means that before my parents bought the farm, before everything yellowed, they were intentionally yellow, and before food splatter turned the backsplash brown, it was, well, brown. Mom has tried to update things to make them nicer. Like putting aluminum foil over the rusted top and covering the burns and scuffs on the floor with a tag sale rug are going to make a difference. At least the rug looks nice. It’s not yellow and brown.
I hold a lit match to the burner until the flame spits. Then I stopper the sink.
The wood stove behind me entices me, summons me, but skimming the hair and dirt from the milk takes precedence over warming my reddened nose, so I ignore its proffered heat. As the milk’s temperature rises—burned hair and animal stink filling the air—I fight down my gag reflex.
When the milk is done, I remove the steaming bucket from the flame and place it in the sink to cool, but my movement’s too quick. Cold water splashes, running down my front and onto the floor. Grabbing a towel from the formica countertop, I inwardly curse my clumsiness.
After mopping the spilled water, I turn back to the cooling milk. This time I curse aloud.
Water wasn’t the only thing that spilled. In my haste, I must have set the bucket down wrong because clouds of milk swirl the water.
“Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap,” I say, rushing to drain the cloudy water. If I’m quick, I can refill the sink with clean water.
Murphy’s Law says someone witnessed my mistake, but no one is behind me. Sweet holy cookies, that’s a relief.
A cup or two of clouded water remains, but I don’t dare risk it any longer. I plug the sink and turn the faucet back on.
“How many times do I have to tell you to run the water before you finish the milk?” His words stride across the length of our kitchen, but they feel breathed, as humid and strong as the steamy milk, into my ear.
“Did you want to burn it, or what?”
I try to think of some excuse—some untruth to explain why the sink isn’t already full of water—but nothing comes. He does, though. Without moving, without disturbing a single dust mote in the sun-shined kitchen, without wafting away a tendril of moistened air, he’s behind me.
“And what? Trying to heat the house with propane now?”
I turn to see what he means. Flame dances on the stovetop long enough for me to register that I forgot to turn off the burner. Then black dots spot my vision. I fall to the kitchen floor.
Scrambling to my feet, I mumble, “Sorry. Sorry. I forgot to turn it off.”
“Do you want another one to help you remember?”
I flee towards my bedroom before my father delivers the promised reminder. Tears sting my eyes, pain my cheek, and shame my pride, but it’s no use crying.