A Winter Morning

by Eleanor Peters '20

          The dog ambled down the sidewalk, sniffing the salt-stained pavement. It had snowed less than the radio predicted—only an inch or so—but they had still salted the roads and sidewalks. It was early, and the sky was barely touched with sunlight on the edges of the horizon. Several paces behind, the old woman followed the dog, hands buried in the pockets of her vest. The wind whipped down the street and blew clouds of snow in dark, dusty swirls. It tugged at the dog’s fur and he grunted, shook, then glanced back at the woman with round, dark eyes. She caught up with him and fed him a treat from her pocket.

          Her other pocket held a crumpled envelope stamped with ‘Return To Sender’. It was addressed to a Gavin Meeker, of Baltimore, Maryland. She hadn’t cried when she’d seen it. She had expected it, and so what she felt was less sadness than fatigue. She felt she should cry, and she had a bit, when he first left—two years ago in January, now—when he shrieked curses at her over the phone, and then the line cut off and the rest of her calls went to voicemail. Even then, her tears had been tired, sluggish, like raindrops making their way down the front windows. She knew he wasn’t coming back, that her son had broken away from her life. The knowledge ached with finality, the phantom limb amputated long ago still tingling, a dull tinge of pain that never quite went away.

          The pair, woman and dog, headed toward the end of the cul-de-sac. The street was quiet this early in the morning, blank and still, the row of ranch-style houses just a backdrop leading, inevitably, to the woods. Birds exploded from a bush near the edge as they neared. They were sparrows, and they rose in a shifting cloud, warping and bending in the sky before disappearing into the thick boughs of a pine tree. Leaves and dry pine needles littered the path in a carpet softened by dampness. The wind made the trees shiver and creak as the dog and the woman made their way along. 

          Several minutes down the path was a stream that managed a weak trickle of water ending in a cement culvert, which in turn disappeared into a side of a hill. Over the stream, a bridge—barely more than a haphazard assortment of boards—balanced unevenly on the muddy banks. The woman had begun to cross it, carefully picking her way along. The dog snuffled along the edge of the stream, nosing lightly at a mossy rock, before stopping. He raised his muzzle, nostrils twitching, then darted off the trail, downstream. The culvert was visible like a gaping mouth through the bare trees. The woman whistled. The dog paid no attention, and she cursed under breath, stepping heavily from the bridge. She moved away from the path and followed him.

          The snow crunched beneath the worn, muddy soles of her boots, and a trailing shoelace tousled the edges of half-covered leaves. The dog was sitting at the mouth of the culvert, ears alert and fur rumpled and raised on his hackles. The woman could hear him growling, a low, grumbling sound, like the motor of an old car. 

          There was a body on the ground. She could see the fullness of a fleece jacket and jeans. She saw the hole in the knee when she got closer, the faded wash where the blue had worn to white, and the bare ungloved hand, a black mitten several feet away. The snow around him had melted, haloing the body in a clearing of bare earth. It was a boy—a young man, really, but a boy by all means to the woman—and he was dead.

          His face was pale and dirty, swollen, bruised from the cold. His lips were cracked and dry and almost blue. His eyes were open, glassy, wide—surprise, or fear, or just an expression of coincidence? The woman wasn’t sure. The dog sniffed at his hair, ruffling the dirty blond curls with his breath. When the boy remained motionless, the dog nudged the boy’s head. It lolled gruesomely, and the dog startled back. The woman crouched down, knees crackling, and laid the boy’s head back. She considered him. She didn’t recognize him, but she was not familiar with the neighborhood kids, not since her son had grown up. She took a hand from her pocket and pushed the lids down over his eyes with two steady fingers, softening his unyielding stare with the appearance of sleep. Her hand returned to her pocket and curled around the returned letter.

          It was still early, but the sky was brighter now—pale gray—and the crispness of the air smelled like a promise of more snow. The woman whistled as she turned away and the dog followed her back along the stream, up the path, to the street. At the far end of the street, a man in flannel pants darted outside to snatch the newspaper that lay soggy on his porch. The storm door slammed, and the sound rattled down the street as he disappeared back inside.

          On the woman’s porch, a pot of crisp brown pansies had gone limp in the cold. She stomped her boots out reflexively on the front mat and went inside. The dog followed, nails clacking on the tile of the entry. Melting snow left puddles on the floor. The woman shrugged off her coat and laid it over the stair railing. 

          The phone in the kitchen was reciting the automated message from the pharmacy, “your prescription... is filled,” as she turned on the sink and washed her hands. The soap left citrus-smelling bubbles in the sink. Her pantry was full of cans—corn, baked beans, green beans, peaches. She rifled through them and grasped a dusty can of chicken noodle soup. She stared at it, taking in the slight dent on one side and the curling corner of the label that had begun to peel.

          The dog, sitting at her feet, thumped his tail when she glanced down at him. He stood up at the sound of the soup can hitting the counter with a dull thud and followed her over to stand in front of the glass sliding doors that led out into the backyard. The woods were close, and only a small strip of dry grass separated the back step from the trees. She stared into them, imagining she could see down to where the boy lay beside the culvert. The view grew foggy as her breath left a circle on the glass. She wiped it away and opened the door.

          After she got back, she put the soup on the stove and held her hands, which were red with cold, above the burner—she had left her coat inside. The snow had resumed, and thick flakes floated down to collect on the ground and in the trees. The soup sizzled. She turned the burner down to simmer and set the lid on the pot.

          When the doorbell rang, the dog started barking. She made her way there and peered out the front window. A police officer stood on the porch, hands in his pockets, doughy cheeks flushed. He reached towards the doorbell, and she quickly opened the door.

          “Hello, Officer...?”

          “Officer Manning, ma’am. And you are?” He grinned with easy-going politeness.

          “Betty Meeker.” Behind her, the dog punctuated the sentence with a sharp bark. 

          “Right, well, Ms. Meeker—”

          “Mrs.,” she corrected.

          “Mrs. Meeker.” He paused, and scratched the top of his balding head, looking past her into the house. “Is your husband home? I’m trying to speak with everyone I can, so...”

          “My husband lives in Virginia.”

          “Oh. Okay.” He wet his lips with his tongue. “Well, I guess... I guess I’ll just talk to you then.”

          “I guess so,” she said pleasantly. He grinned again at her, with slightly more strain.

          “Well, Mrs. Meeker. I’m looking for a Howard Peck. His parents call him Howie? He’s sixteen and lives a couple of streets over. His parents reported him missing this morning, and we’re going around, asking the neighbors, seeing if anyone’s heard anything.” He looked at her, waiting.

          “Yes?”

          “Well, have you heard anything? Or seen?” He shifted from foot to foot.

          “I don’t believe so.”

          “Right. Er. Did you know Howard at all?”

          “Howard Peck.”

          “Yes,” he responded, even though it wasn’t a question.

          She considered this. “The name doesn’t seem to ring any bells. I’m awfully sorry.” The dog barked again, and she patted his head absently. “I sure hope you find him.”

          The policeman breathed out a long sigh, then took his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together. “It’s a cold one today.”

          “It is.”

          “Well, let me know if you see anything,” he called through the half-closed door.

          “Of course, of course.” She shut the door with a click and watched him trudge down the front walk and over to the house next door. The chain lock clattered on the wood as she drew it, and she walked back into the kitchen. The soup had started to boil over, so she took it off the flame. A cloud of smoke billowed into the air as she removed the lid, floating towards the ceiling and setting off the alarm. She ladled soup into a bowl as the smoke alarm screeched overhead, then turned to the kitchen table.

          In the chair at the head, a boy sat with his eyes closed, slightly slumped, as though asleep. His fleece jacket was still damp from the snow, and a leaf was caught on his hair. She walked over to him and gently pulled the leaf away, then sat the soup in front of him. Stepping back, she surveyed the scene, then took his arms, one by one, and set them on either side of the bowl. She took another bowl of soup for herself and two spoons, sitting down next to him. The dog whined at her feet, and she gave him a treat. She took a spoonful of soup and inhaled. She blew away the steam with a focused breath, then tasted it.

          “Delicious,” she said. She smiled. “Nothing like chicken noodle soup on a snowy day. Wouldn’t you agree, Howie?”