Chapter 1. ALL HER FEARS DISSOLVING FOR A SECOND OR TWO.
Even in her sleep she could taste her mother’s grilled-cheese sandwiches: crackling on the outside but rescued from dryness by a fatty residue of butter coating her tongue, the cheddar inside melted perfectly and peeking innocently around the bread crust. It smelled of calmness, security, and warmth.
“Something to drink, Jay?” her mother asked.
“Milk,” Jay mumbled through the first mouthful of the sandwich.
“Excuse me?” Jay’s mother said; she was beautiful but looked tired, with her long hair tied back and a suggestion of shadow around her eyes.
“Milk,” Jay said more clearly.
“Is that how we ask for something?”
“Can I have some milk, please?” Jay blurted out.
Her mother nodded with satisfaction and went to the kitchen. Jay heard the sound of the refrigerator opening and the milk being poured. She had another bite of her sandwich.
The light streaming in through the dining-room windows cast pools of reflection on the wooden tabletop. Jay made sure not to leave crumbs. Her father wasn’t home—he was at work—but she had trained herself to avoid the looks of irritation her carelessness provoked. He made Jay tense and worried. She loved him so much that she grabbed hold of him whenever he was near, pressing herself to his leg or arm, her thumb making for her mouth, all her fears dissolving for a second or two.
The milk was in front of her. Jay couldn’t remember her mother bringing it. Somehow she knew none of this was real, but it felt so good she didn’t want it to stop.
She lived in a place called Minnesota. It was a very cold place where people knew how to behave themselves. It was actually only cold for part of the year, but that cold was so profound, so shocking and even terrifying at times, that it cast a shadow over even the hottest and sunniest days of summer.
Jay’s mother was gone. She had left. That’s right, she had left.
The house was quiet. It was three stories including the spacious attic, full of comfortable furniture and a kitchen always stocked with food. Though she was in a little girl’s body, Jay could remember growing to adulthood there. She’d snuck cigarettes by the big elm in the backyard, and lost her virginity in her room one afternoon when she was supposed to be at school. She loved the house, for all its residue of pain and disappointment.
Another bite of the sandwich. The crispy pan-fried bread gave way to the hot, liquid core. The place was entirely quiet, the way it had often been when she was a teenager, with her father off somewhere and her mother silently painting in the sunporch—no music, no talk radio, nothing but Anna’s endless meditation on the back garden. It had grown increasingly quiet during dinnertime as well, the laughter and storytelling between Jay’s parents having shifted to a more muted song of things unsaid that Jay could never entirely penetrate.
She got up from the table. Strange, she was so short. The top of the table was at about shoulder level. How old was she? Five? Six? She reached up and felt the soft outlines of her cheeks, the feathery wisps of her shoulder-length hair.
The living room was as she remembered (when was it?), with stacks of magazines and books everywhere, her own and her parents’, with Anna’s gardenscapes on all four walls.
Anna. Jay’s mother’s name was Anna. And now she was gone. She had died.
Jay sat on the worn-out sofa under the room’s largest window, raising a small nimbus of dust that dispersed around her. From there she could see the open door to the sunroom, and make out the workbench where Anna kept her paints, rags, and brushes. Jay tongued out a stubborn bit of her sandwich from the back of her teeth, enjoying the flash of a flavor she hadn’t tasted in . . .
She was never going to see her mother again.
With an emotion resembling panic Jay thought of the closet upstairs where Anna kept her clothes. She knew everything was just as Anna had left it; Jay’s father, Lewis, was too benumbed by grief to get rid of them. Jay had an urge to go up there and lose herself in the smell of her mother’s stale perfume and the feel of the dresses Jay used to press her face against.
But she couldn’t. She willed herself to stand, but it was impossible. She might as well have been cemented to the couch.
The room began to break apart as though it wasn’t real. Of course it wasn’t real.
Her bedroom was suffused with the morning chill. Weak light insinuated its way through a crack in the curtains. Jay stretched her body and remembered where she was, and when it was.
Next to her slept a man. Stephen. That was Stephen. He slept with his arms folded, his chest rising and falling, his handsome face tense as though he was working out some unsolvable problem. Somehow he sensed Jay waking up and shifted toward her a couple of inches.
Jay was twenty-three. She wasn’t a little girl any longer, though she could taste the grilled-cheese sandwich of her dream and, almost gasping, remembered that she had been in the presence of her mother just moments before. She had asked for the milk correctly, after some prompting. She had pleased her mother one more time.
She shook her head because it wouldn’t do to start the morning crying. There was a real little girl down the hall, after all, and Jay had to be strong for her. She had to be strong in spite of how certain she was of her own weakness.
It wouldn’t be irresponsible to doze for ten more minutes. Ten more minutes, and then Jay would launch herself out of bed and transform into a domestic whirlwind effortlessly getting Ramona ready for school and then heading to work. It would be easy. It would be simple, in a way that it never was before.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from 14 Degrees Below Zero by Quinton Skinner. Copyright © 2005 by Quinton Skinner. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.