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Alison Humpal


readingFirst Snow

That morning, she awoke to daybreak creeping through her window, the emerging sunlight dancing across her face. Pushing back the covers, chills ran through her. Creaking down the stairs and padding into the kitchen, she poured a steaming mug of the waiting coffee. Glancing up, she did a double take out the window. She smiled to herself as suddenly the dancing sunlight and chills made sense. The drab November landscape had been revitalized over night by a clean, crisp layer of sparkling snow. Taking a sip of coffee, she smiled to herself and wondered if this was a sign from him letting her know he was alright?

* * *

He had crept into her room and to the side of her bed, excitedly whispering to her to wake up and come downstairs. Slipping past the open door to their parent’s room, they tiptoed down to the living room. At the large picture window, he pushed back the beige drapes and warm sunlight flooded her face. She knew that something was different and from the grin on his face, she knew that is was good. He hoisted her chubby three year old frame over the edge of the window.A gasp escaped her mouth, for outside the window their world had been transformed into a fairy land. Everything was covered in a luminous layer of white. Snow—crisp, clean, and sparkling—covered every surface.

As they gazed out the window in awe, he told her all the fun things that they could do with the snow. Their excitement had woken their parents who were now behind them. He begged to be able to take her out right then, before breakfast. So with the help of Mom, they were bundled up in the awaiting snow wear—he in a new royal blue snow suit, she in his hand-me-down red one. After hats, mittens, and boots were added to the ensemble, mom threw on her coat and sweet smelling leather gloves and escorted them outside while dad stayed in to make breakfast. He took her mittened hand in his and led her carefully through the snow. She took in the silence and peacefulness of their little street, with the only sound coming from the acute crunch made by the snow beneath their feet. He stopped to pick up a handful and took a cool refreshing bite. She mimicked his action and her mouth was treated to the clean taste of fresh snow.

Next, he showed her how to make the perfect snow angel. Step carefully, fall back with arms and legs spread, and swish them back and forth. She followed his lead and fell back, pumping her legs and arms through the magical substance. She looked up in awe at the blue sky that was emerging from the glow of sunrise. Wafts of chimney smoke rolled out of the neighbor’s chimney, adding a warm, musky scent to the air. After a bit of flying, the tricky part of a snow angel came, to carefully get up without ruining the image just created. For her first try, he said she hadn’t done too bad. Though he begged to be able to make a snowman, mom said it was time to go in for now and have breakfast. As they trudged back to the house, she took another glance at the serene street, stopped to scoop up one more hand of snow, and stalled to inspect the glittering substance in her hand before shoving it into her little mouth and smiling at him with sparkling brown eyes and rosy cherub cheeks.

* * *

After her coffee, she padded back upstairs to get ready for the day. Dread filled her as she slipped on the black wool dress. From her desk, she grabbed the notes that would help her organize her thoughts if in that moment what she wanted to say escaped her. Glancing through them, she smiled as she recalled his love of hunting and fishing. It had never been her thing, but growing up, every time he was left in charge she could count on time outdoors.

* * *

As soon as the tail light of their parents’ car crested the neighboring hill and disappeared from sight, he told her to follow him to the basement. After demanding that she not tell their parents when they got home—or else—he led her into dad’s gun room. Carefully, he removed the .22 rifle from its case and grabbed some ammo.

They stepped out into the August sunshine, and he began reminding her of gun safety. Stay behind him, be sure of your target and aware of your surroundings. He then set up the tin cans he’d stopped to grab from the recycling bin. Being older and the “expert,” he shot first. She stood behind him and heard the click, crack, ping of the bullet exiting the gun and hitting the tin cans.

Did she want to try?

“Come on, don’t be such a chicken. And remember, you can’t tell mom and dad.”

After setting up a new set of tin cans, he reloaded the rifle and placed it gently in her hands. Standing behind her, he adjusted her arms and the arrangement of the rifle butt at her shoulder.

“Okay, line up with your target.”

She clicked off the safety, squinted at the target, and crooked her finger around the curve of the trigger. Crack. Silence. After getting over the initial kick back from the gun, she looked up and realized she’d missed her mark.

“That’s okay” he said, and helped her rearrange and get ready to shoot again. “Remember, keep your elbow down and in...okay, now focus on the bead, not the target.”

Click, crack, ping! She smiled as she relaxed the gun, prepared for its kick this time, and saw that the bullet had hit the can. “There you go, now let’s keep going, see how many you can hit.” While she never wanted to shoot a living, breathing thing, she felt powerful manning that gun. And being competitive by nature, she took pride in the ping of metal on metal as she hit the tin target more than she missed.

* * *

She was brought back to reality by the buzz of her phone. Seeing the face appear on the screen, she quickly picked up. “Hi baby girl! How are you doing honey?” Through sniffles she heard the voice on the other end waiver.

* * *

“She’s here!” Two simple words filled with so much joy. She left work that day, jumped in her car, and navigated rush hour traffic out of the metro, reaching the calmer roads of rural Wisconsin. The light of her phone screen lit up her car in the darkness of the November evening as she glanced at the directions to the hospital she hadn’t been to since childhood, visiting some distant relative with her grandmother. Finally she pulled into the small town hospital’s tiny parking lot. Grabbing her bag and crutches from the passenger seat, she hobbled into the hospital, glancing at the meager directory, before stepping into the elevator and pressing two. She teetered down the hall, coming across her sister-in-law’s family.

“What did you do?” asked her brother’s best friend and brother-in-law.

“Fell down a flight of stairs—fractured the arch of my foot.” she replied.

“Only you,” he said with a shake of his head.

“They are in with the nurse now, trying to breastfeed and check vitals,” added his wife, her sister-in-law’s older sister. “We’ll be able to go in and see them in just a few minutes.”

A moment later, her brother came out into the hall, met her eyes and smiled.

“You guys can come in now,” he said.

As they packed into the small room, someone pulled up a chair for her as he carefully took his brand new baby girl out of his wife’s arms and placed her into his sister's. Tears filled her eyes as she cradled this most perfect little being. Gently, she took a finger and brushed the baby’s wavy hair and traced the curve of her cheek. She looked up at him and smiled again,  “She’s absolutely perfect!” she said. “And Happy Birthday by the way, are you ready to share your day with her from now on?” He beamed.

* * *

Knowing her too well, her husband brought her another mug of coffee. She smiled in comfortable appreciation and let out a sigh. Taking a sip, her big brown eyes shot back up at him. Smiling sheepishly, he admitted “I thought you could use a little something for your nerves as well.”

* * *

She’d refused to ask him. Her friend called and asked him instead. When he got home that afternoon he said, “so, you're coming with tonight?” She smiled awkwardly, “I guess so!”

Leaving a note in case grandma came over, they hopped in his truck and headed to Erv’s—the farm where generations of locals had went for a good time. Walking into the cinder block basement with pops of yellow and white wicker furniture, her friend jumped up to greet her. “You came! I told you he’d bring you! What do you want to drink?”

She started with Busch Light from the keg, and with her first refill he taught her the art of pouring the perfect glass with minimal head. The basement began to fill with kids as country music and classic rock blared from the stereo. As the night progressed, he left his group of friends to come and check on her. After realizing she was taking to the beer like a champ he decided that “if she was going to do this, she should do it right.” He went back to his friends and grabbed the bottle of whisky and proceeded to mix them both a whisky Coke. He handed her the red plastic cup, gave her a glazed smile, and said cheers as he sloshed his cup into hers. His big brown eyes grew larger as she took a huge sip without any flinch as the burn of the whisky slid down her throat.

* * *

When it was time to leave for the church, her husband helped her into her coat and she pulled on a sweet smelling pair of leather gloves—a nostalgic ode to her mom. With a ragged breath, she stepped outside. Once again the sight of the snow covered landscape calmed her. She could do this. She could say good-bye to him—the one who taught her to make snow angels and snow men, how to ride a bike, shoot a gun, drive a truck, drink whisky. This first snow of the year was a sign from her big brother that he was at peace now, but would always be there to watch over her.