On a Colorado mountainside one bitter winter night Mom and Jim argued. Lynn and I hid our faces, shivering as much from fear as from the cold under the thin blanket in the narrow bunk above the bench seat at the far end of the rickety camper that seemed to shake with the yelling within more than it did from the howling wind without. Suddenly the door exploded open and freezing wind and snow and silence rushed in before the aluminum door banged shut, then low curses stabbed the frigid air like icicles- fallen from rusted metal eaves- splintering on boulder-covered ground. I dared to pull the scratchy woolen edge down to see why the yelling had stopped. Mom was gone.
I watched Jim grab his coat, yank his hat and gloves on angrily, throw the door open, and plunge into the dark. He had gone after her, leaving us without saying another word.
We waited and wondered what to do, two little girls, six and seven. Lynn whimpered that she was cold so I turned over onto my other side and wrapped my arms around my little sister and whispered, “It’s going to be okay.” She wiggled and complained; I answered her questions as best I could until finally in frustration I just told her, “Be quiet! I don’t know!” Thankfully, she stopped talking and within a little while she was asleep. Though I tried to stay awake- listening for the door to open, expecting Mom to come back soon- I must have fallen asleep, too, because the next thing I knew I was being shaken awake by Jim. He pulled the blanket off of us and told us to get down and put our coats on.
I did as he said without question because we had been taught to obey our elders; I had learned that any sound that could be construed as possible backtalk was always instantly silenced by Mom’s swift backhand. Lynn, though, never seemed to learn that lesson, or to keep her mouth shut. She cried and asked, “Where’s Mom?” I tried to shush her but Jim said, “She’s okay,” and without really answering the question repeated, “Get your coats on.” Then he opened the door once more and stepped back out into the night.
Within seconds the heavy Chevy pickup door slammed shut, the engine roared, and the camper lurched. Tossed like mittens into a pile on the bench, we scrambled back up into the bunk and trembled as the camper was pulled down (or maybe it was up) the mountainside.
A little warmer with our coats on, I lay on my back and looked at the ceiling, eight or nine inches above my nose, determined to stay awake. I could almost make out a pattern in the cracks so I concentrated on them with one part of my mind while I wondered with the other part where Mom was and whether she was really okay. Like the deer we’d barely glimpsed on the winding road yesterday, leaping out of sight just beyond the reach of our headlights, the thought crossed my mind that maybe Jim had killed her and would kill us next.
I remember standing in a cold cabin the next day, blinking in the bright sunshine, eating icicles drizzled with maple syrup.