“You know,” Stuart said evenly, “as wonderful as you think this Noah is—I’m not all that impressed with him right now.”
I’d had it. I turned around and started walking the way we had come, taking hard, firm steps.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “Oh, come on . . . ”
He tried to make it sound like it was no big deal, but I had simply had it. I stamped down hard to keep my gait steady.
“It’s a long way back!” he said, hurrying to catch up with me. “Don’t. Seriously.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, like I didn’t really care very much. “I just think it would be better if I . . . ”
There was a noise. A new noise under the whistle and the squeak and shift of ice and snow. It was a snapping noise that sounded kind of like a log on a fire, which was unpleasantly ironic. We both stopped exactly where we stood. Stuart flashed me a look of alarm.
And then the surface beneath us just went away.
Maybe you’ve never fallen into a frozen stream. Here’s what happens.
1. It is cold. So cold that the Department of Temperature Acknowledgment and Regulation in your brain gets the readings and says, “I can’t deal with this. I’m out of here.” It puts up the OUT TO LUNCH sign and passes all responsibility to the . . .
2. Department of Pain and the Processing Thereof, which gets all this gobbledygook from the temperature department that it can’t understand. “This is so not our job,” it says. So it just starts hitting random buttons, filling you with strange and unpleasant sensations, and calls the . . .
3. Office of Confusion and Panic, where there is always someone ready to hop on the phone the moment it rings. This office is at least willing to take some action. The Office of Confusion and Panic loves hitting buttons.
So, for a split second, Stuart and I were unable to do anything because of this bureaucratic mess going on in our heads. When we recovered a little, I was able to take some stock of what was happening to me. The good news was, we were only in up to our chests. Well, I was. The water came exactly breast-high. Stuart was in up to his mid-abdomen. The bad news was, we were in a hole in the ice, and it’s hard to get out of a hole in the ice when you are pretty much paralyzed with cold. We both tried to climb out, but the ice just kept breaking every time we put pressure on it.
As an automatic reaction, we grabbed each other.
“Okay,” Stuart said, shivering hard. “This is c-cold. And kind of bad.”
“No? Really?” I screamed. Except there wasn’t enough air in my lungs to allow me to scream, so it came out like a spooky little hiss.
“We . . . s-should . . . b-break it.”
This idea had occurred to me, too, but it was reassuring to hear it said out loud. We both started smashing at the ice with stiff, robotlike arms, until we reached the thick crust. The water was a bit shallower, but not by much.
“I’ll boost you up with my hand,” Stuart said. “Step up.”
When I tried to move my leg, it refused to cooperate right away. My legs were so numb that they didn’t really work anymore. Once I got them going, Stuart’s hands were too cold to support me. It took some tries, but I eventually got a foothold.
Of course, once I got up, I made the important discovery that ice is slippery, and therefore very hard to hold on to, especially when your hands are also covered in wet bags. I reached back and helped pull Stuart, who landed flat on the ice.
We were out. And being out felt a lot worse than being in, weirdly enough.
“Iss . . . not . . . tha . . . far,” he said. It was hard to understand him. My lungs felt like they were wobbling. He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward a house just at the top of the rise. If he hadn’t dragged me, I would never have made it up the hill.
I have never, ever been so happy to see a house. It was entirely outlined by a faint greenish glow, interspersed with tiny dots of red. The back door was unlocked, and we stepped into a paradise. It wasn’t that it was the most amazing house I had ever been in—it was simply a house, with warmth, and a residual smell of cooked turkey and cookies and tree.
Stuart didn’t stop pulling me until we reached a door, which turned out to lead to a bathroom with a glass shower stall.
“Here,” he said, pressing me in. “Shower. Now. Warm water.”
The door slammed and I heard him run off. I stripped off what I was wearing immediately, stumbling as I reached for the shower knob. My clothes were frighteningly heavy, full of water and snow and mud.
I stayed in there a long time, slumped against the wall, filling the little room with steam. The water changed temperature once or twice, probably because Stuart was also taking a shower somewhere else in the house.
I turned off the water only when it started to go cold. When I emerged into the thick steam, I saw that my clothes were gone. Someone had extracted them from the bathroom without my noticing. In their place were two large towels, a pair of sweatpants, a sweatshirt, socks, and slippers. The clothes were for a guy, except for the socks and slippers. The socks were thick and pink, and the slippers were white fluffy booties, very worn.
I grabbed for the nearest item, which was a sweatshirt, and held it up to my naked self, even though I was clearly alone in the bathroom now. Someone had come in. Someone had been lurking around, removing my clothes and replacing them with new, dry ones. Had Stuart let himself in while I was showering? Had he seen me in my natural state? Did I even care at this point?
I dressed quickly, putting on every single item that had been left for me. I opened the door a crack and peered out. The kitchen appeared empty. I opened the door wider, and suddenly a woman popped out of nowhere. She was mom-aged, with curly blonde hair that looked like it had been fried by using a home coloring kit. She was wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of two hugging koalas in Santa hats. The only thing I really cared about, though, was the fact that she was holding out a steaming mug.
“You poor thing!” she said. She was really loud, one of those people you can easily hear across entire parking lots. “Stuart’s upstairs. I’m his mom.”
I accepted the mug. It could have been a cup of hot poison, but I would have drunk it anyway.
“Poor thing,” she said again. “Don’t you worry. We’ll get you warm again. Sorry I couldn’t find anything to fit you better. Those are Stuart’s, and the only clean ones I could find in the laundry. I put your clothes in the washer, and your shoes and coat are drying on the heater. If you need to call anyone, you just go right ahead. Don’t worry if it’s long distance.”