It had snowed all last night, and Elizabeth thinks that bad things happen the way snow falls: silently, accumulating at a fierce rate while you sleep, while your eyes are closed.

The children are expectant, controlled by their appetites. She only has frozen fish sticks and hand cut fries. The snow made getting to the store difficult. Her husband left an hour early to trudge three miles to work.

Brad, the oldest at eight, is pounding the table with his fork and spoon, chanting, "We want the cook. We want the cook." Lea and Ernie join in, and soon they are shouting in sync. 

The heat from the wood stove does not reach this room.  She fills Ernie’s plate first. He is the youngest at three.  She feeds Brad next because he is the most demanding. Brad scoffs at his plate, presses his lips together and shakes his head whereas Ernie immediately begins eating. She reaches over and grabs Brad’s fish sticks. Brad holds both of his hands out to her, beseechingly, and she deposits the fish into them. Lea, newly five, doesn’t complain as Elizabeth places the plate before her.  There aren’t enough for Elizabeth to eat.      

Elizabeth checks the wood stove that heats their home. The fire is low. She does not tell the children she is going out. Grabbing the wood will only take a moment. She doesn't even put shoes on.

Outside, on the front porch, she grabs two logs and returns to the door, turns the knob and pushes. The door does not budge and for a moment she panics, sure she locked herself out. She peers through the thick glass and sees Brad's short legs climbing down from a chair. He has locked her out.    

She drops the logs and runs across the porch, down the stairs, around the house, falling once, her race hindered by the deep snow. She hurls herself against the back door, rushes up three stairs, and turns the knob of the inner door. It too is locked. She reaches up, above the door, where the spare key rests on the ledge of the molding, feels blindly until she finds it. She inserts it in the lock, and turns it. She almost laughs as the door opens, but her muscles recoil when it stops short. Brad has secured the chain lock. He kneels on another chair, his face in the crevice the door has created.

"What’s the magic word?" he sings.

“Brad, open this door."

Brad, unseen, voice hard, “What’s the magic word?”

Elizabeth shivers. Her socks are wet and the snow in the cuffs of her jeans is melting.

The quiet is sudden. She is afraid that he is no longer behind the door.  She reaches through the door, feels for the chain and tries to pull it to the end of the lock. As though he has been waiting for this, Brad hurls himself against the door. Her arm throbs. The fire will go out. It is so much easier to stoke one, maintain it, rather than start all over.

“You open this door now or I’ll wring your little neck.” She hears the venom in her whispered words. She swears she hears Ernie begin to cry.

She resorts to begging. "Please? I'm so cold.” There is only silence, but it is the silence of a child choosing not to speak, not the silence of deep night during middle winter. What is there to do? In a sudden fit, she rages at the door as though to take it off the hinges. She pushes with her entire body, the weight of her frustration. As suddenly as the fury comes, it abates and she is tired.  Brad is eight, his energy endless. She knows to wait him out. She knows him even when the knowing scares her.

She descends the three steps to the landing, rests her hand on the doorknob of the back door. There is outside--trudging to the nearest neighbor, which isn’t an option, not really, for what would she say that wouldn’t reveal in some way her failure to mother—or there are seven step descending to the basement where she can wait. She takes the stairs and at the bottom, reaches her hands out and walks forward slowly, blindly, until she feels the dangling string. She pulls and there is the wan light of a bare bulb.  She puts on a pair of her husband’s discarded tennis shoes, drapes herself with a dusty blanket, and discovers a jug of cheap wine that’s gone vinegary. She sits in an abandoned rocker, drinking and unbraiding her hair. Her ears are cold and she thinks, after several deep swallows, that her hair will act as a blanket for her ears, her naked neck. She sits there, rocking and drinking steadily. She strains to hear movement above. The cold settles on her. She is tired. Tired of mothering. Tired of waking from dreams where one child is trapped under the bed, while another is choking on a dime, and a third is bleeding. When she wakes and steadies herself, her husband is not there. He is off, lighting the 2:00 a.m. kiln at the factory. Her husband juggles three jobs like chainsaws. They do not have health insurance. Her dreams make her knees go watery because she knows it would take only one accident to make poverty an unchanging fact.

She drinks in the quiet, tries to build a room inside of herself that she can carry upstairs. Deeper though, is the anger.

She climbs the steps, looking crazed with her crimped hair and blanket shawl. Her husband's oversized shoes flop like a clown’s.  She turns the knob and the door glides open. Brad sits in a chair facing the door.

"I'm sorry, mom," he says. He sounds and looks like the child he is. She does not understand, not while she does it, or ever after, why she does what she does next. She does not name the quick thrill of satisfaction.

She bounces on the balls of her feet. She shakes her blazing hair. “I’m not your mother,” she whispers. In the light it glints red and golden and flares out dramatically, raised in static from the blanket and the move up the stairs. She laughs triumphant. His face crumples like the newspaper she uses to light the kindling each cold, lonely morning, and then he begins to wail.