That year, we had already missed over two weeks of school by the end of January. The snow just wouldn’t give up. It covered all the houses, the pine trees were flush with it, and even the creek where Lacy and I would go hunting for crawdads in the summer was frozen, thick as solid ground. Though I had only been in Westerville, Ohio, for the past four years, Lacy told me she had never missed so much school, and she had lived there all her life, in the same house and everything.
Lacy’s father had only become the superintendent of the schools that fall, and he was already messing up. The decision to close or open all of the schools in Franklin County was his to make, and twice he had said no school when only a thin layer of dust covered the ground the next day. But it was even worse when he made us all go to school, three separate times, when the snow started coming down thick before lunch, and we all had to get back on the bus and slowly crawl back home. We were out of snow days, which meant any extra snow days we got would be taken away from our summer vacation. This would basically be the end of the world.
“Have pity on that poor man,” Mama would say, whenever I complained about Mr. Hood’s latest failure. “This year has not been good to him.”
“If I have to go to school until August, it won’t be good to me, either.”
“Shame on you, you selfish girl.”
Mama was right, I knew even then, though at eleven, there was no chance I would admit it. That fall – just after Mr. Hood became the superintendent, though I don’t think there was any connection – Mrs. Hood walked out on Mr. Hood and Lacy. And by walked out, I mean she literally grabbed her bag, said something about how she never got a fair shot at being a folk singer, and drifted out the front door into a van that was blaring Joni Mitchell for the whole neighborhood to hear. When I first met Lacy, in the third grade, her mother sang us to sleep during our sleepovers. She had a voice like an angel, feathery and mournful.
Now, they said there was a storm coming. Storm Barbara, they called it, which did not sound all that menacing. But everyone was talking about it. At school, Lacy became the most popular girl for a day, just like she always did on the eve of one of her father’s decisions. All of the kids surrounded her in the cafeteria, asking, “Do you know yet?”
“How many times do I have to tell you people?” she said, sighing into her perfect ragged curls, pretending she didn’t want the attention. She languidly picked up one of her onion rings and then put it back down. “My dad almost never decides until the middle of the night. Unless it’s like, totally obvious.” The crowds turned away, disappointed. “Lemmings,” Lacy said, shaking her head. She told me what her father did before potential snow days. He’d stay up all night, driving around town, staring at the sky and the ground to determine how bad it would get, running back in to check the forecast. This time, he had to get it right. People were saying the storm could miss us by a hair.
“In middle school,” Lacy declared as we threw out our mostly uneaten food, “People won’t be so stupid.” Ever since we started the sixth grade, our last year at Howard Taft Elementary, it was always, in middle school this, in middle school that, like middle school was another planet that instantly made you better looking and more mature the second you landed on it. I was dreading it. I was comfortable ruling the school, being able to cut to the front of the tetherball line, having a seat in the back of the bus no one would touch.
“People don’t ever stop being stupid, really,” I said, providing the names of several of our teachers as evidence. Lacy frowned. I knew I was supposed to be more sensitive toward her, since she was recently motherless, or that was what Mama said, anyway, Mama who made it seem like pretty much everyone on the planet was less fortunate than me. But that winter, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Mama was six months pregnant, and the way she and Papa acted, I was just about as present as the derelict Mrs. Hood.
Ever since Mama slapped down a little grainy photo of what appeared to be a sea urchin on the kitchen counter and said, “That’s your little brother. Or sister…” it was like nobody cared if I was fed, or if I joined a biker gang or started sacrificing animals in the woods. And when I stepped outside with wet hair or without a coat, Mama stopped saying, “My grandfather took a train to Siberia with wet hair (or without a coat, depending on the situation), and when he got there, he got pneumonia and all of his hair fell out. He never recovered…”
That afternoon, I found Mama on the balcony, staring up at the sky. It was murky, like dirty bathwater.
“What do you think will happen?” she said, barely looking in my direction. Her face was flushed. Her pregnancy had been difficult so far, and a storm would allow her to stay home from work. Her belly was taking over the tiny balcony. There was no room for the three of us on it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Lacy says her dad doesn’t know, either.”
“That poor man,” Mama said, practically to herself. It was like I wasn’t even there. Just to prove this to myself, I removed my coat and stepped closer to her. She didn’t notice. She just kept looking up.
I said, “I’m sleeping over at Lacy’s tonight.”
“But there might be a storm. And it’s a school night…oh!” Mama said, putting a hand over her belly. She crouched down and took a few shallow breaths before straightening out again. She reached out and put my face in her hands. Then she scrunched up her face, like she realized she needed to say something parental. A coat, I tried to tell her, telepathically. I should be wearing a coat.
She said, “Have you done your homework?”
Lacy only lived a ten-minute walk away from me, but she might as well have occupied a different country. Her house was huge and conspicuously empty now, always creaking air. Our condo – two tiny bedrooms and no real living room – held barely enough space for me and my parents. I was starting to understand how things worked in America. If you were the superintendent of the schools, you got a big house. But my parents were only physicists.
Lacy and I were eating mac and cheese with ketchup while flipping through Teen Beat. The news blared on in the background. Mr. Hood was in his office, nervously talking on the phone. He had not decided yet. The forecast said either we’d get a foot of snow or we would get nothing.
“My dad says they’re going to fire him if he messes up again.”
“You think that’s true?”
She shrugged and spooned her last bite of mac. She was bored with the topic. She said, “You’re lucky. I wish I had a brother or sister. It’s so boring here.”
“I was never bored,” I said. I thought of how, when I was really little and we still lived in Kiev, I would walk between my parents and hold their hands. When they stopped walking, I would flip backward, still holding tight. Mama would protest, but then I would flip forward again. That’s how things were for a long time. But now, in America, the land of plenty, I wasn’t enough for them. I said, “These days, they don’t care if I live or die.”
“What do you want them to do, wipe your ass for you? You’re almost twelve. We’re practically in middle school.”
“I can wipe my own ass, thank you,” I said, and I got sulky after that. It wasn’t my fault that Lacy didn’t have a brother or a sister.
Her father came out of his office as I finished washing our plates. “Girls,” he said, clasping his hands together. “Who’s hungry?”
We were stuffed but we let him order a pizza. He didn’t seem to care or notice that I was sleeping over on a school night, either. I felt sorry for him. He had tiny eyes under his thick glasses, a belly bigger than Mama’s, and a head of hair gone almost completely gray since his wife left. Though Lacy once shocked me by revealing that her dad was only five years older than my parents, the way he looked, he could have been as old as the bald Siberian grandfather I had never met.
We went to bed early that night. We were too mad at each other to do much but watch Buffy reruns, and we didn’t even have the heart to look through Mr. Hood’s hidden porn stash or even to prank call the school secretary.
Before she fell asleep, Lacy pressed a hand to her window, glared outside, and said, “There’s nothing.”
I stayed up, watching the sky. After all the lights in the houses across the street went out, I saw Mr. Hood easing the car out of the garage to go on his first mission to monitor the weather. I only noticed that it began to snow when I saw it in his taillights, a thin, meager powder.
I watched the moonlight fall on my friend’s face and felt sorry for her. She was loud, and good at sports, but she read at a third grade level. Her mother had cajoled the teachers to keep her out of the remedial classes, though her father thought she should get the help she needed. Now her mother was gone, and she couldn’t keep her safe anymore. In middle school, Lacy wouldn’t be able to escape the remedial classes, and even I could see she would not be a pretty young woman. Here she was, my best friend in her heyday.
Sleepily, she opened her eyes. “I’m sorry for snapping at you earlier, Sashie. I was just – jealous.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”
If she were more awake, I could tell her that ever since we met, when I was finally released from ESL, I had been jealous of her – the big house with the infinite supply of toys and the Super Nintendo, the pretty mother who never criticized her and sang like Mariah Carey, and the ease of being born in Westerville, Ohio, not having to explain that you moved there from Kiev, Ukraine, never having to help people pronounce your last name.
Then I saw how quickly something you can’t plan for could change everything, and now Lacy, motherless, was jealous of me. Her face was dreamy, all smiles.
“Sing me to sleep,” she said. “Will you please?” She was too tired to be embarrassed or sheepish, to remember that we were supposed to pretend to be mature now, and though I couldn’t carry a tune in a swimming pool, I obliged. I sang her the song her mother always sang to us, from Jesus Christ Superstar:
Try not to get worried
Try not to turn on to
Things that upset you, oh
Don’t you know, everything’s all right, yes
And we want you to sleep well tonight
Let the world turn without you tonight…
She drifted off within seconds, but I kept going. I switched to a song my father taught me on the plane to America. That was when he informed me that my last name, the most common in all of Ukraine – one that literally meant Smith – would be a challenge to Americans. Well, it wasn’t really a song, it was more of a chant, but I made it one, set to the song from Jesus Christ Superstar. It went like this:
K, as in Kite
U, as in Unicorn
Z, as in Zebra
N, as in Nancy
E, as in Edgar
T, as in Tom
S, as in Sam
O, as in Octopus
V, as in Victor
A, as in Apple
Mr. Hood pulled into the driveway as I finished my song. The snow was falling faster now, but it wasn’t sticking all that much. He walked out in the middle of the street, under the lamplight. I tip-toed down the stairs out the front door. I wanted to see if he would tell me to put on a coat or some shoes. He was crouched down, scraping his index finger along the pathetic amount of snow on the ground. The car radio was on. Someone was saying, “We’re expecting at least an inch within the next hour, but after that, we’re not sure…” When Mr. Hood saw me, he just smiled, like it was perfectly natural that his daughter’s best friend was walking out barefoot in the middle of the night.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said.
“That’s all right.”
He took off his glasses. Under them, his face was naked and not fully formed, just like the sonogram of my baby brother. Or sister.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a good influence on my daughter. We’re lucky to have you around. Especially during this difficult time,” he said. This made me uncomfortable and I backed away. He had never mentioned the “difficult time” before. But then his face softened as he added, “Even if you’re here on a school night.” This was his way of showing me that he still knew what was what.
“Is it still a school night?” I said.
He didn’t answer. We looked up together. The snow was falling in thick clumps now. But I remembered something Papa had said – the thicker the clumps, the shorter it will last. I thought it was like Lacy, burning so bright now, and then what? Me, I was more like a thin powder – who knew which way I would go?
“Have you decided yet?” I said, trying again.
He put his glasses back on and moved toward me. This was a comfort, Mr. Hood as I knew him, returning to normal. A snowflake fell on his nose, and for a second, I was sure he would tell me to put on a coat. But he only looked up again.
“I don’t know,” he told me. “What do you think?”
A song came on the radio as I tried to fumble an answer. At first, I was sure I was hearing Lacy’s mom’s voice – it was so light and sweet and comforting that I was almost ready for slumber. The look in Mr. Hood’s eyes told me that he suspected the same thing, that however improbable it was, his wife was serenading him as the snow fell outside, keeping him from doing his job. I already forgot what he had asked me, so we just stood there waiting to hear how the song would end.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Ukraine and grew up mostly in New Jersey. She has an MA from UC Davis and is currently pursuing an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, New Ohio Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City and is working on a novel.