It was the coldest day of the year when the furnace gave up and died. It was Thursday. Daniel and his wife were at work and his daughters at school when it happened, so no one knew until he returned at two to discover the house had become a chiller. It was so cold that the leftover milk from the morning cereal had begun to freeze in the sink. He marveled at how quickly the house had shed its warmth into the February air, how easily the heat had flown through the expensive, foam insulation. He picked up the phone and dialed Margaret.
“You think they can fix it?” Margaret asked. She was tending the antique shop the family owned and operated. It was quaint, a bit dusty for Daniel—at fifty-two he was certain he was developing late-life asthma—but Margaret stuck to the excuse that the dust only added value. It was the accumulated weight of years, stuff that made the customers confident in the age of the merchandise. Daniel vacuumed on the days she stayed home.
“I’ll get a guy to come look at it. We’ll probably need a new one,” Daniel said. If that was really true, he didn’t know for sure.
“How cold’s the house?”
“Warmer in the fridge,” Daniel said. He cupped his hand over his other ear and ran the thumb along the lobe. There was silence and Daniel knew Margaret was going to be testy with him. They were fourteen years married and he had known from the start that she was the kind of woman he didn’t deserve. He still thought that. To him, Margaret was a true beauty of the world. He loved her for the way she had given him two shining daughters, for the way they couldn’t watch the news at night because it would make her cry, yet, in spite of himself, he sometimes wished he didn’t know her. A sigh of exasperation followed.
“I’ve been telling you to get a new one,” Margaret said. Of course that wasn’t true. Margaret knew as little about furnaces as Daniel, but he let the comment fall. His lips were beginning to chap and he scraped them with his teeth. The cold air burned through his sinuses as he breathed.
“We’ll go stay at the Marriot. All right? The guy will fix it.”
“How long’s that going to take?”
“I don’t know.”
“Get two rooms. The girls will stay together,” Margaret said. A part of Daniel wanted to protest. Sarah and Noel were too young: thirteen and seven, respectively, but Margaret was ready to treat Sarah like an adult. The phrase “grown woman” had recently found a place in the house, popping up around the kitchen table during breakfast and in bed before sleep. The phrase was like an uninvited dog, one that Daniel couldn’t be rid of, and he wanted to remind the two of them that his daughter wasn’t a cactus. “Grown” just seemed like the wrong word.
“All right. I’ll do it,” Daniel said.
These feelings he kept to himself. Margaret was of the philosophy that children should be left to learn from their mistakes and Daniel deferred to her judgment, even though he doubted it sometimes. He knew it didn’t mean giving them bowie knives for Christmas or watching them drown in swimming pools, but his own childhood had been a rather independent one and he knew how screwed up he had turned out. Then there was Noel to consider, who was intensely loyal to her older sister. Daniel worried because he knew if anything wrong happened with Sarah, if she fell for any of the million traps of her teenage years, Noel could be just as easily spoiled. It made him sick to think about. Often he would snap out of these moods and realize he was being an asshole.
The chill of the house was getting into Daniel, and before calling the handyman and the Marriot he went upstairs to get another coat. As he climbed the stairs he recognized a creeping feeling he was having. How foreign he felt in his own home. He knew the steps. The furniture was still his, the pictures still of him and his family, but he felt like an invader. It was strange, he thought, how a sense of place could be built of so many things, and to lose only one of them could throw the rest out of balance. In his bedroom closet he found a wool coat.
There were other worries. If this was left for too long the pipes had a chance of freezing and bursting. It had happened before at his mom’s house, when he was ten and his brother, Greg, was twelve. Their dad had been gone for years and they hit a rough patch. Their mom lost her job waitressing at a diner when she told a grabby costumer to go fuck himself. They were broke. The gas bill went unpaid and his mother took him and Greg to a friend’s house to wait out the cold. Daniel could still remember the smell of that house, though he couldn’t remember the name of the friend or even her face. They burned wood in the fireplace and cooked fruit-filled pancakes in the morning, and throughout that house was a smell that Daniel hoped would pervade his own someday, one that made him think of kindness and warmth. After a couple of days they returned home to find that water had bled through a first floor wall and soaked everything from the basement to the kitchen. It took years to get rid of the mold.
“Let your faucets drip. I’ll be right over,” Hendricks, the handyman, said over the phone. Daniel hadn’t thought of that, to just let the hot water run. It was brilliant in its simplicity. After booking two rooms at the Marriot, he wandered the house. He turned on the water and felt better about things. Maybe disaster could be avoided.
Hendricks arrived around three and took one look at the furnace before pronouncing it “kaputski.” Something had ruptured deep inside of the machine, a fuel line or maybe the drum where the water was heated before being circulated through the house. Hendricks explained everything in detail, like he was in understanding company, and Daniel didn’t question it; he had no eye for the practical or the mechanical. To him, these sorts of things were magic: the magic that made the car go. The magic that kept the house warm. For some, not knowing must have been a life of perpetual terror, being forced to trust in the unknown. For Daniel, it was a relief. He never knew how things could go wrong.
People were another story. Daniel felt he had an acute sense for humanity—he really could see the best in people—but it was the other things he saw that left him with that deep ache of fear. Around the neighborhood were families slowly breaking, parents that treated their kids like crap and children that would grow up to do the same. He knew it. Where was that American love he believed in? Why couldn’t everyone share in the contentment he knew himself? Life was good now, better than it ever had been before, but still Daniel was a man on guard. There was a restlessness that scared him more than anything. All he could take comfort in was in his home.
“Some rotten luck,” Hendricks said when Daniel showed him to the door. “But I like you, man. I’ll see what I can get cracking.”
“It’s fine if you can’t. We can manage,” Daniel said.
“Oh. Well, in that case,” Hendricks said. He laughed and clapped Daniel on the shoulder. “I’m just kidding, man.” Overhead the gray sky loomed, threatening snow. Hendricks walked out to his van. He smiled a big grin and waved as he backed out of the driveway.
The girls returned home soon after. Though it meant waiting an hour, Sarah always walked over to Noel’s elementary school so they could ride the bus home together. It was something neither Daniel nor Margaret had asked her to do, but it was a small kindness that made Daniel proud of her, a kind of love that gave him hope. Daniel watched his daughters as they walked the oak-lined lane through the neighborhood, towards home. Despite the weather, Noel followed every couple of steps with a skip, her purple-capped head bobbing with the motion. It was Sarah who seemed aware of the cold, shrouded in a puffy jacket, her face buried in the collar to conserve the heat of her breath. Up the driveway they rounded. Noel’s cheeks were red from the cold wind and the skipping. Daniel opened the door for them and they huddled through, desperate for a heated house. They were each told to give their father a “damn hug”, because he needed one.
“Why’s it so cold?” Sarah asked. She had been in the process of unzipping her coat as she walked through the door but zipped it back up when the air hit her. Noel seemed at a loss, her pale breath condensing in front of her face. Daniel figured it must be especially distressing for the young to come home to find it not the same place. Maybe that was what being a ghost felt like.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll have it fixed by tomorrow. Mom’s going to come home and we’re all going to spend a night at the hotel.”
“This really sucks,” Sarah said. The sound came muffled from behind the neck of her jacket.
“Language,” Daniel said.
“Sucks,” Noel said. Daniel laughed and gave her another hug. She was shaking, and it worried him that there was nothing he could do about it. He rubbed her arms with his hands. It didn’t seem to help, and he sent the two of them upstairs to pack an overnight bag. Noel followed her sister up the steps. In the kitchen Daniel put on a kettle and found last two packets of hot chocolate mix in the pantry. He put back the mug he had set out for himself.
Noel packed everything except for her clothes. From downstairs Daniel could hear her wailing as Sarah dumped out the bag of games and dolls and helped her find suitable things to wear. “I’m going to be so bored!” she cried, but Sarah was weathered in her sister’s tantrums and they soon petered out. It was too cold to be childish, even for Noel. When Sarah had been a reserved child at her age, more of a reader than a talker, and she still was like that. Wherever those traits came from, Daniel had no idea. It certainly wasn’t passed down in either of her parents’ genes. Perhaps that’s just how things went sometimes, children that were meant to be all that their parents were not.
By the time the girls came downstairs, Daniel had the water boiling. The two of them sat on the couch and watched television, covered in the knit quilts he laid out for them. Marshmallows went in the hot chocolate, and Noel seemed especially pleased when he brought out the steaming mugs. He sat with his daughters and they quietly watched the cartoons that Noel liked. For that hour, Daniel felt at peace, though he couldn’t feel his toes in his shoes. The girls were safe. They were warm and happy. In his mind, he was going to protect them forever. Always be there for them. He was the kind of father who wouldn’t quit.
The gray sky had drained into black by the time Margaret returned home. Noel especially was glad to see her. She leapt from the couch and grabbed her mother around the waist. Margaret laughed. She seemed tickled by the predicament the family had found itself in, or maybe it was just the break from the routine. Once she was packed they left for the Marriot.
The neighborhood seemed desolate as they drove by the houses of their neighbors and friends. Someone was walking a dog along the curb but Daniel couldn’t tell who it was underneath the layers and behind the hood. He didn’t even recognize the dachshund that trailed behind. In summer the world would be alive again. The children would be outside to play. Adults would lounge on their back porches admiring their pools and drinking into the evening. In winter, they were all strangers.
“Not everyone talk at once,” Margaret said. The cold hadn’t gotten into her like it had for Daniel and the girls. It hadn’t had time to. He felt sleepy and the heat of the car was barely working through him, even though the floor vents blew hot air up his pant legs. Silence worried Margaret because it could mean so many things, take on so many faces, but Daniel treasured its company. It was the quiet moments with his family that made him feel like himself again. Margaret turned on the radio and they listened to staticky jazz because nobody wanted to be responsible for picking a station.
That evening, once they were checked in to their rooms, the family went and saw a movie—one of those kiddie, CGI ones that Daniel hated because they always made him feel like crying—and ate dinner at a chain restaurant. With a naughty smile Margaret ordered an apple martini, and when it came she gave the first sip to Sarah, who sipped, nodded to her mother, and took another. Noel watched the two of them like they were playing with a doll she wanted for herself.
“Why not buy her a whiskey and get it over with,” Daniel joked.
Margaret pulled the cherry out of the drink and ate it. “Whiskey gives me a headache.” Outside, beyond the booths and windows, snow drifted to the ground. It made Daniel think of dust, the way it spun and fluttered in the wind. He wondered why the trucks didn’t just vacuum it up instead of throwing salt everywhere. Maybe he could have invented something like that if he had ridden out those physics and calculus courses he had dreaded so much in college, but that was a long time past, and he was sure salt was used for a good reason.
They got back to the hotel by nine but it wasn’t time to sleep. Daniel, in a sort of vengeful idiocy for the martini, had allowed Noel to drink his coke. In a perfect world, this would have been a deliberate message sent by Daniel for his wife to read—We can let them choose, but we all live with the choices—but really he had just thought it cute. Now Noel seemed a child on speed. As they walked through the lobby a song she knew came in through the overhead speakers and she broke into dance. Margaret was delighted by this and shouted, “Woo baby! Go!” Other families watched and grinned. For a moment Daniel felt like he was going crazy. The four of them got into the elevator and Noel grabbed her father around the waist and squeezed with her skinny arms. Daniel ruffled her hair.
Sarah went to her room to read and Margaret brought Noel back to their room so she could have some peace. As he sat on the edge of the king-size bed, Daniel wondered if there was such a thing as a peak to a sugar rush, because he was sure he was witnessing one. First, Noel wanted to watch cartoons, but after three minutes of that, decided she wanted to hide under the covers of the bed and pretend to be a netted leopard, like the one she had seen in the movie earlier. Margaret laughed and held down one side of the comforter. She told Daniel to do the same and he did for a little while, allowing Noel to buck and fight against the restraint like she wanted to. He imagined a plain-clothes cop walking by and arresting the both of them. Noel snarled under the sheets and Daniel could feel himself growing embarrassed. After another half minute of struggle, Noel crawled out from under the covers flushed and breathless. She demanded they do it again.
“That’s enough for now,” Daniel said, but part of him wished they would do the same for him. Nothing had managed to get the chill out of him, even the hot water he had run over his hands in the bathroom. His fingers still ached when bent. Really, he just wanted to sleep, to crawl under the covers with Margaret and make love if she was up for it, which she probably would be. He wanted to wake up to a fixed furnace, clean clothes and warm joints. Most of all, he wanted the Daniel of the last twelve hours to disappear to wherever he had come from. He wasn’t part of the family.
“Should someone go check on the house? See if everything’s all right?” Daniel asked.
“Let Noel do it. She could probably run the whole way there,” Margaret said. She laughed and scooted next to him on the bed. She threaded an arm through his open jacket and rubbed a hand along his back. Her hand was warm and soft with moisturizer. Daniel imagined his skin melting under her touch, leaving behind only an imprint of her fingers and palm. It was like a legend: he the ice man, she the woman with the warm touch. They were meant not to be, and yet they were. The sound of stomping feet came from the bathroom. Noel was doing jumping jacks in front of the mirror.
“I’ll tire her out eventually. Hurry back,” Margaret said. She kissed him on the neck. “There’s a lot of night left.”
By the time Daniel got out to the parking lot the snow had stopped falling. It couldn’t have been more than a couple inches, but it seemed to have buried the world. It was a shroud for good things. Standing in front of the lobby doors, Daniel pulled a cigarette from his pack and lit it. Margaret would be able to smell it on him later, and he was sure she would complain, but he was also sure she would understand. He just wanted to be able to think straight. That’s when Sarah walked through the lobby doors.
“Hi, dad,” she said. Her winter coat was zipped up to the neck and her bag strapped across her shoulder. She looked ready to travel. “Can I come?” Daniel wasn’t sure what to make of this. It certainly wasn’t an unpleasant thought, having his daughter along. They rarely spent time together, and he had gotten used to it. Maybe, he mused, she would know this feeling when she had a child of her own: how someone can miss a person who lives under the same roof.
“Of course,” Daniel said. He flicked his cigarette into the snow. The cherry hissed as it died. They walked through the night, through the parking lot and to the car, and Daniel felt a sudden happiness roll through his body like electricity. What an unusual feeling this was. Sarah said nothing. They got into the car and drove.
Then Daniel started in on the questions. This was his chance to reacquaint with his daughter, and so he asked her about school, about life. Sarah didn’t have much to say. Everything was “fine” or “all right”; her life was routine. An ice truck passed by, and kicked-up salt rocks skittered across the windshield. Daniel dropped the questions and allowed a calm silence to follow. Sarah didn’t want to be interrogated, so instead he watched over the snow-swaddled town as he passed it by. Nobody was out on the sidewalks. The wind blew white tails through streets and down alleys, and while some would consider it a depressing sight, the detritus of the year’s darkest days, Daniel thought it beautiful. Sarah turned from the window and watched him for a moment.
“Did you ever think about running away?” she asked. She stopped and seemed to reconsider this for a moment. “When you were a kid, I mean.”
“What brings this up?”
“Just wondering. Mom said you had a hard time.”
“You sure she doesn’t mean now? I don’t know if I’ve ever really grown up,” Daniel said. He chuckled, but there was truth in what he said. Of course growing up had been hard in that struggling house. He had spent every night of his teenage years thinking of the places he could run to. There were dreams of Pittsburgh, where he had heard that work was good, or of catching the train to California and work picking strawberries or whatever it was they grew out there. Even now, with such a perfect, livable life, he still imagined these other selves. The men he could have been, if only he had been braver.
“No. I never thought of it,” Daniel said. Sarah seemed unconvinced. She sighed and stared out the window, perhaps lost in thought. Something about this was distressing to Daniel. He wanted her to believe him so she wouldn’t have to live with the fears he had known himself. Abandonment had followed him through his life like a specter, and now he worried he had passed on that fear like a defective gene.
“I’ll always be here for you. You know that,” he said. “If you ever need help with anything, I don’t care how bad it is, come and find me. Or call me and I’ll find you. I promise.”
“Thanks, dad,” Sarah said.
As they pulled into the driveway, Daniel was surprised to find the house darker than it ever had been. The light he had left on in the living room was out, and he looked to the rest of the neighborhood. Every window was dark. No porch lights glimmered in the gray night. The snow must have knocked the power out. Daniel dug around the trunk and found a flashlight. He offered it to Sarah, but she waved it off. He told her to only get what she needed and meet him back at the car.
When Daniel went into the basement to check on the pipes, his worst fear was confirmed. The line that ran to the furnace had split open and gushed water across the concrete floor. It continued to leak a slow, steady stream, and wherever the water had spread was now glazed with ice. Without thinking, he rushed forward and slipped. Down he went and took the worst of it on his shoulder. His breath flew out of him and he yelled out in pain. He rolled onto his back and clutched his collarbone, worried it was broken or fractured, but now the cold was working into him again. The pain radiated in pulses, but they soon slowed. He breathed in and looked at the ceiling. He listened to the water drip and wondered if was possible for a house to try and kill its owner.
The pain receded, and as he lied on the ground he thought of the life he could have lived. He didn’t want to lose Margaret, especially didn’t want to lose Noel or Sarah, but was it right to have a family and feel so unfulfilled? Everything he had been taught to want was his—the business, a wife and children, a house of his own—and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that, out there, someone was living the life that had been meant for him, and he the life meant for them. He, this other man, would have been a good father, said the right things, and been able to fix a furnace with his own hands. He would have been a good husband to Margaret, the rock on which she leaned. Daniel was meant to wander, and now fifteen years of stationary existence had fashioned him in clothes he was unfit to wear.
But he was here now. He was a husband and a father, and the path he had followed here wasn’t a prisoner’s row. He had picked this life for himself because he didn’t want to listen to the instincts that ran in his blood. He picked this life because he wanted to leave one good thing in his world, and that was his family. That was his daughters. This feeling would pass, just as the seasons change and houses once frozen thaw.
After a minute he got back on his feet. The valve was a few feet up the line and he turned it. The dripping stopped. In the next couple days, when the furnace was fixed, they’d have to carefully melt the ice little by little, mopping up the water before it could flow away. It was going to be a task, but, for now, he was going to have to let it be. He climbed the steps out of the basement.
He looked out front, but he didn’t see Sarah. She must have still been looking. He called up to her room. There was no response, and so he took the steps two at a time, even though it hurt him to swing his shoulder. He stopped at the landing and listened. The house was completely silent, as if stuck in time. His breath was a gray mist in front of his face. Sarah’s door was open and, as he approached, he felt a rush of wind flowing through. He peered inside to find that Sarah was gone. The window was open, and the cold was getting in.