The cold is a thing any woman can grow accustomed to. Lacey May learned how in precisely three days, which was quicker than anyone who knew her would have ever expected.
It was a Wednesday, newly November, and she was raking the leaves in the front yard, when it occurred to her to check the gas tank. Her knuckles were red and sore from the few minutes she had been outside, and it wouldn’t be long before the nights started to dip toward the thirties. The tank was shaped like a tiny submarine, and it stood in the shadow of the house. She pulled up the metal lid and saw the needle on the gauge pointing down to fifteen percent. Lacey ran inside, still holding the rake, and she dropped the heat down as low as she could stand.
She passed the rest of the day in her good coat, the one Robbie bought her the winter she was pregnant with their first. It was big on her now, but she was more or less fine with it on. She kept the kettle boiling because the steam felt good rising on her face while she stood at the stove, and if she drank cup after cup of coffee, she could keep her hands warm, too. By noon, she was shaking from all the caffeine, her fingernails tinged with blue. She wanted Robbie to call so she could tell him about the tank and ask how long fifteen percent would last, but he didn’t. She called the agency instead to ask again if they’d found anything for her yet.
“It’s kinda hard when you haven’t worked in ten years. And all you’ve ever done is fry fries.” The receptionist spoke slowly, as if she didn’t expect Lacey to understand.
“I’ve been raising my girls,” Lacey said.
“I mean real work, out of the house. Employment.”
“I’m pretty sure I could answer the phone.”
“You don’t have any qualifications.”
Lacey wanted to hang up on her, or to insult her again, but the receptionist didn’t seem interested in a fight. Besides, she shouldn’t risk ticking off the woman who could decide whether to move her folder down to the bottom of the pile. So Lacey mentioned how she had earned decent grades in high school, was quick in the kitchen, better behind the wheel than most.
“You can write that down if you want,” she said, and the receptionist was quiet for a long while. Finally, she said she would add a note to Lacey’s file and give her a call if anything opened up. Lacey thanked the woman for her time and got off the phone.
Later on, when she heard the school bus turn up the road, Lacey climbed into the crawlspace and hauled down the old duffel bag filled with the children’s winter clothes. She waited at the door for them, her arms loaded down with woolen things that smelled of dust and damp, from months spent shut up in the dark. The girls blazed in, chattering, their cheeks windblown, and Lacey handed them each an extra sweater and a pair of mittens, a scarf for Margarita.
“It’s winter in our house!” she said, and the girls caught on quickly. They dropped their school bags and swathed themselves in the new layers, made a big noise stomping around the living room. Soon they were all explorers, sliding across a stretch of ice in Alaska. Somehow, Lacey became a sled, and the girls scrambled on top of her, and, although she couldn’t move, it made them laugh. Diane pretended to be a dog, one of those racing wolf dogs, so she got down on all fours and howled, which made the real dog Jenkins dart behind the couch to hide.
They kept on their sweaters and scarves while they cooked grilled cheese, the yellow squares gobbled up by their hands faster than Lacey could set them in the pan. They were pleased when they were all allowed to lie down in bed with Lacey, and she didn’t make them crawl out from under the blankets to wash their greasy fingers or their unbrushed teeth. Jenkins dozed beneath them on the floor, as if he couldn’t feel the cold at all, and the girls watched their breath puff overhead.
“That’s oxygen,” Lacey said. “It’s what we breathe. You spell it O-X-Y—”
Her oldest, Noelle, liked to look at picture books about the ocean and outer space. In the summer, she tended to the tomato plants in the yard and caught dragonflies and burned their wings off under her magnifying glass. She could be a scientist one day, if she started her extra learning now. Lacey was spelling for her.
Noelle looked a lot older than almost-ten, the little swipes of purple under her eyes a reminder that no matter how fine they all seemed, the girls missed their daddy. She repeated after Lacey, a blanket tucked under her chin, and her face serious, as if she knew how much every letter was worth.
“G-E-N.” Diane and Margarita gave a little round of applause when their sister got it right.
The next morning the girls went off to school, all of them with pink noses and runny eyes. Lacey saw them down the hill, and she was jealous of their little black heads disappearing into the bus. They were off to somewhere the thermostat was set much higher than fifty-five.
She took a shower to beat the cold, and it was the most pleasure she had felt since Robbie went away. Had water always been this warm? The stream of it so steady and mighty and good? Her hands set to work on every inch of her—her elbows, her neck, the insides of her thighs—and the heat seemed to sink in deep, underneath the top layer of skin—what was it called? The epidermis?— she had learned the name in high school. It was only these last few weeks, since the nurse moved in next door, that Lacey started remembering she hadn’t been half bad at biology. She had seen the nurse driving down the road to third shift at the hospital and thought, I could have been you. Sure, the nurse was fat and had no husband and left her boy with a babysitter overnight and didn’t bother with the leaves in the yard, but it was probably seventy, seventy-five degrees over in her bungalow, and wasn’t that worth something?
After the shower, Lacey felt the sin of her wet hair. It made the cold worse, a new chill dripping on her neck and shoulders, so she wrapped her head in towels. How much gas was she using now? How many percents did it take to heat the house every day? She wondered whether to go out and check the tank again, but she decided against it. She couldn’t have been using that much, not when it was only fifteen degrees warmer inside than out.
Lacey opened all the curtains to let in the sunshine, thinking some light might warm the place. Half an hour later, she went around drawing them all closed because maybe she was letting in a draft. She had lived in the house for four years, ever since Robbie’s promotion at the shop, and still she didn’t know how it all worked. When she took off her robe to get dressed, she had a sudden, terrible thought: How did the water get heated? Did that use up the gas, too?
She didn’t want to call her sister-in-law but she did. There was nothing else to do.
“I’m worried it might be bad for the girls. All this cold. And the next check doesn’t come for another two weeks.”
“Why don’t you sell your food stamps?”
“Cause we got to eat, Annette.”
“Well, the cold never killed nobody. When we were kids, it was always cold in our house. And I turned out just fine. And we can’t blame the cold for Robbie—”
“It’s not his fault, Annette. I’ve told you. He’s got—” Lacey searched for the words, tried to remember the doctor’s exact phrase. “A chemical unbalanced.”
“I told you to get a job. I said it a year ago when he started disappearing.”
“I thought he was getting better.”
“And I told him not to buy that house, that one day the mortgage would get him. Nothing in this life is free, least of all houses. You played dumb for too long, Lacey May.”
“Why don’t you come by and see how cold it is for yourself? All we need is a little loan.”
“No ma’am,” Annette said. “Robbie already cleaned me out, remember?”
Lacey started to cry. Her sister-in-law tried to calm her but it was no use.
“How’d you burn through the last check so quick anyway? It’s only the middle of the month.”
When Lacey didn’t say anything, Annette made sense of her silence and cursed.
“You’re as shit-rotten as he is,” she said. “You don’t love those little girls half as much as they deserve.”
Lacey put herself to bed, her hair leaking all over the pillows. The dog followed her into the room, whimpering, and settled on the floor by her side. She drew three blankets up over herself and started talking out loud. It was like she was praying, only she was talking to Robbie.
Why’d you buy me this house if it was going to be so cold? Why’d you buy me this house if you was going to leave me alone?
It had been good for a long time. All through Noelle and Diane being babies, and the first years of Margarita’s life, they had lived in town. They had less, but it was fine. Then they bought this little house, blue with white shutters, at the top of the hill on a patch of cleared land. There were only two other houses out in these woods. The first had been empty for a year, after the last family moved closer to town, and the other belonged now to that nurse and her kid. Before, their neighbors had been the Kings, an old couple that took afternoon coffee out on the porch. They died within a few weeks of each other, both in the spring, in their sleep, which Lacey thought was the best kind of ending you could ever expect from life.
Their house was drafty and small, all wood except for the concrete porch that wrapped all around, which Robbie had built himself. There were swings out back for the girls, a plastic slide Diane and Noelle had outgrown but that Margarita still liked to climb.
When he was all right, they would go out to the back porch and drink beers after the girls had gone to sleep. If they drank too much, he would fuck her right there on the porch, Lacey down on all fours, the concrete scraping her knees. This is freedom, he would say. I can fuck my wife under a sky full of stars, if I want. There was no one around, not in this dark, these twenty miles from town, and he could slap her rump and pull her hair, and she could bite down hard on his finger, and Lacey wanted it all, how he handled her, how it could feel like they did not just own the house, but the whole hill, and the woods, their own skin, one another.
Those were the only times he was rough—he’d never hit her, or the girls, not even after he got real bad. He would get mean and he would cry and he would scream, but he never raised his hand. Only if she asked him, only if they were out on the porch, and it was just a part of their way, as good a feeling as his nimble cock poking at the inside parts that made her sing.
It wasn’t that he had stopped loving her, no, and he hadn’t stopped loving the girls. The unbalance in his brain came first, and then the drugs. And once he had the drugs, his brain needed more, and he started doing things and disappearing so he could have more. It was like being sick. She hadn’t made it all up to defend him—the lawyer had shown her papers, a diagnosis, to prove it was true. But when she told Annette, all Annette had said was, “You’re planning on telling that to a judge?”
Lacey was all out of tears in a while, and she was shivering under those blankets, as cold as if she weren’t inside a house at all. She got up and found the coin jar under the sink. She had been filling it back up ever since Robbie left. It was mostly pennies. She gave Jenkins a pat good-bye and carried the jar out to the car. She drove downhill along the service road to the store. Inside she found a clerk and asked for Hank, and she waited for him by the coin machine, trading in all her pennies for a flimsy receipt that explained she had earned nine dollars. Hank surfaced from one of the aisles in blue jeans and a pretty yellow workers’ vest. His hair was long and combed over so it hung down one side of his face. He waved her out the sliding doors and into the parking lot, where he kissed her behind the ear and lit a cigarette to hear her out. He didn’t offer her one.
She explained about the fifteen percent, and how she still had stamps for food, and she had paid the mortgage, and she had been careful and budgeted for everything, everything except the gas. It hadn’t gotten cold yet since Robbie went away. She didn’t know.
“God, Lacey, you’re as pretty as you ever were. Do you know that? Your teeth are fit to eat.”
Lacey had hardly felt beautiful at all these days; her eyes were red from too little sleep, and she hadn’t been able to afford her good shampoo in weeks. But she did still have her smile, at least. She looked at Hank and turned it on.
“You ever think about selling that house?”
“Robbie wouldn’t like that. It’s the only thing we got to pass down to the girls.”
‘Well, you’re not going to be able to pass down anything if they freeze to death.”
“Can you bring me on to work or not?”
Robbie finally tapped a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to her. She bent over the lighter in his hands, and when she straightened up, he saw he was staring at her. She blew the smoke out in his direction. They had been teenagers together, all three of them, her and Hank and Robbie, when they were all in high school and working at the Hot Wing. Hank had a face full of acne then but it had cleared now to nothing but scars, dark shadows along his cheeks. He didn’t look half bad anymore, with his braces off, his hair washed clean. He had always wanted her, she knew, and she had liked having him get things off a high shelf for her, or rush over with a washcloth if she burned herself on the oil. But Robbie was the one who had won her. They had all stayed friends for a while, until the girls came and they moved out of town, and forgot all about Hank until they came in to do their shopping with the girls, and he would nod at them, and they would ask after his mother, and he would look down at his walkie-talkie and wait for someone to call for him, to request a manager in an aisle on the other end of the store.
“You know I got a place?”
Hank sucked on the tip of his cigarette and let it dance between his lips.
“I’ve got a yard and everything. You and your girls would fill it right up.”
“You would do that for us? You’ve got an extra room?”
“I’ve got a pullout in the basement.”
“It would be tight, all four of us on the couch, but it’s better than letting the girls freeze—”
Hank laughed and shook his head.
“Lacey May, you never could take a hint.”
Lacey tilted her head and looked at him confused.
“Let’s put it this way—if you stayed with me, it wouldn’t cost you nothing, but it wouldn’t be free neither.”
The wind blew hard and kicked up the smell of gasoline from the pump at the edge of the lot. Lacey noticed she hardly felt the cold, her skin slowly getting used to the chill, but she pulled her coat around her anyway.
“How would I explain that to the girls?” she said. “They think their father’s on the coast, working a fishing job.”
Hank shrugged. “I’m a man, not a saint, Lacey.”
She stared at the white button on his vest: TEAM LEADER. Until now she had never believed the stories she had heard about him. The rumor was that he was so lonesome he had started taking the high school girls who stocked the aisles out to the back lot during his breaks. He gave them overtime and the shifts they wanted if they let him fondle their tits for a while. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever known a man to do, but she wouldn’t have pinned it on a man like Hank.
“I think I’ll go inside and get a few things for the girls,” Lacey said. She stepped around him and walked toward the store.
“You were always too proud, Lacey May.”
When she didn’t turn around, Hank called after her again.
“You made the wrong choice!”
This time Lacey hollered back.
“I told you it’s not his fault! It’s his brain!”
With her nine dollars, Lacey bought a tin of coffee, another block of cheese, a magazine about TV stars and their weddings, and a fistful of bubblegum lollipops for the girls. She drove back with the heat on low, but still she felt like she was suffocating, so she rolled down all the windows. It was as if she missed the cold. She let the frosty air whip around her, even if she might regret it later, even if she’d have to fight the temptation later on to go sit in the car and let the engine run.
When the girls clattered in after school, Lacey gave them each a lollipop, and Diane, who had prematurely lost three baby molars to cavities, looked at her mother, as if to see if she were sure. Lacey nodded at her and said, “That’s right, sweetheart. Go ahead, let it rot your teeth.”
She asked the girls to tell her what they had learned in school while she made their sandwiches and mixed chocolate powder into hot milk. Diane and Margarita huddled under a blanket on the floor, Jenkins weaseling his way underneath. Noelle sliced up the cheese into perfect thin squares.
“You could perform surgery with those hands,” Lacey said. “Gifted hands!” She knew she’d heard the phrase somewhere but she couldn’t remember exactly where. Noelle didn’t seem to be touched by the compliment and didn’t look up from the cutting board as she pushed the knife through the brick of cheese.
“How come Daddy doesn’t come back on the weekends? We’ve been to the beach—it’s not that long a drive.”
Lacey gave her a little tap on the nose. “Cause that’s when they catch the biggest fish— something about the tide. When he calls, I’ll have him explain it.”
They ate on the couch, the plates on their laps, their hands over their blankets, Jenkins’s fur starting to knot into the fibers of the wool.
“Is it still winter in our house?” Margarita asked, and Lacey kissed the top of her head.
“Yes, ma’am. Isn’t it fun?” She turned on the TV.
They watched a cop show, and the girls didn’t mention their father. They didn’t notice Lacey look away when the officers caught up to the burglar. They wrestled him down onto the shoulder of the highway. They knocked his head against the grass.
The phone rang, and Lacey leapt up. It was Robbie! He’d finally gotten the money she put in his commissary, and he was placing a call. It would all be worth it—heat or no heat, the girls would hear their father’s voice, they’d remember they had a father, and that he hadn’t wanted to leave.
The phone was painfully cold to her ear and Lacey waited for the operator’s voice to come through, for her chance to press a button and choose to accept a call from a county inmate.
“Miss Ventura,” said a bland voice. It was the receptionist from yesterday.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Ventura.”
She waited to hear they’d found her a job, maybe in a laundromat, selling those tiny bottles of detergent to people who had forgotten theirs, or maybe even a doctor’s office where she could put away supplies, label the samples of pee, point people to the bathroom. She would smile and give directions like, “Yes, ma’am, make a left at the end of the hall.” She had a good manner—her boss at the Hot Wing had told her so—and she had her smile. Most of all, she wasn’t stupid. There was plenty she could learn to do.
“Mrs. Ventura, the check you gave us with your application bounced. We can’t process any of the paperwork until you write us a new one—and refund us the thirty dollars we got charged for your bad check.”
“I had the money when I first wrote the check. Why’d you wait so long to cash it?”
Lacey didn’t hear the receptionist’s answer because Margarita had started to cry.
“Mommy, I’m so cold. Why is it so cold?” she said.
“Cause Daddy’s fishing,” Noelle said, shaking her head. “Cause he left us. Didn’t he left us? He doesn’t want us anymore.”
Lacey dropped the phone and slapped her child. When Noelle started shouting, Diane joined in, saying they shouldn’t fight, so Lacey slapped her too, and Margarita for good measure, and sent them all to their room. When she picked up the phone, the receptionist wasn’t on the line. She could hear Margarita in the bedroom, still crying about the cold. They would be warmer if they all gathered in her bed—she knew that—but she let them cry softly into the dark. She had been stuck with the cold for two days and they were carrying on as if the heat weren’t on at all. When the girls were quiet, whether because they fell asleep or gave up on crying, she stood and turned the temperature up five degrees.
She hadn’t wanted to send the last of the government check to Robbie, but he needed all kinds of things: new underwear and cups of instant soup because the meals they served inside were rotten. He was clean and seeing a doctor who gave him pills that helped, so she did the math and then deposited the money. He had promised to save some of the money to call.
In the night she went to check on the girls. She stuck their little feet underneath the blankets, sealed the covers around their skinny bodies like cocoons. It was easier for them. They weren’t around all day. They only sensed his absence in the few hours before bed—Lacey never got away from it.
Diane woke with a fever. She was eating her cereal too slowly, and when Lacey touched her hand to the girl’s forehead, her skin was burning up.
Noelle put her hand on her hip and stood up from the table. “You did this,” she said. “This is all your fault.”
And Margarita chimed in, “When’s Daddy coming? When Daddy’s here, it never gets so cold.”
“It’s sixty degrees in here!” Lacey screamed. “That’s the temperature right now in California!” She had made up the fact, but it sounded true. What did they know? When they were home, they were under blankets, and sixty degrees wasn’t bad for such short whiles—it took hours for the cold to snake into your bones. It had started to happen to her. She had risen with a pain in her knee, a stiff back, as if, in two days, the cold had managed to make her old. She started yelling at the children that they were spoiled, that they were off to school where it was warm while she had to stay behind.
“Well it’s Friday now!” Noelle shouted. “What’s going to happen on the weekend?”
And while Noelle yelled at her, and Margarita started moaning about her daddy and a tingling in her fingers and toes, Diane vomited on the kitchen floor. Jenkins started to lap it up, and Lacey kicked him hard.
The girls nearly missed the bus, and Lacey had to chase it down in her slippers and her robe. The only girl who kissed her good-bye was sick little Diane, her face crimson, her hair sticking to her face with sweat. She had to have the heat on by the time the girls came back. She was determined.
On her walk up the hill, Lacey couldn’t understand how tired she felt. Ever since they took Robbie away, her days were emptier, as if he had been the one she stayed at home to raise. Part of it was autumn—there was nothing to do in the yard, no vegetables to water or uproot, no grass to cut. The house was clean, the girls gone. There was hardly any cooking to do without Robbie’s paycheck—no chickens to roast, or turnips, no beef to bread and fry. She couldn’t spend a day making sandwiches, slathering government mayonnaise on bread, waiting for the cheese to get slippery and hot. And there was no more of the sweet waiting—for him to call between fixing up cars to see how her day was, or to apologize for the scene he’d made last night and say he didn’t remember, no more running to meet him at the door, his clothes thick with the smell of paint thinner, sweat, and other men.
Lacey went to the shed for her rake and shears, then she walked across a quarter acre of woods to knock on the door of the fat, unmarried nurse. Lacey read the name on the mailbox— Amelia Green. She started rehearsing the lines in her head. If you’d be so kind, Miss Amelia.
It was a while before the door opened, and Amelia stood in a checkered pajama set, fleshy and tall, her hair in a big wet knot on top of her head. Lacey could feel the heat streaming out the open door, and it seemed to overtake the cold outside to touch her fingertips, her frozen nose, and her lips, which she hadn’t realized were cracked. She was embarrassed, but she smiled her smile anyway.
“I wanted to see if I could help clear up your yard.”
Amelia Green stared at her as if she had no teeth at all.
“You know, prune back the bushes and pull up the weeds, rake the leaves. I could wash your car too. The front steps.” The gutters could use a cleaning, as well, or she could sweep up the leaves covering the porch. If Miss Amelia had a ladder, she could even clear the roof.
She realized then she should have changed out of her robe and slippers. She could have put on her good blue blouse. Her boots. She could have dressed herself like a woman who worked.
Amelia Green clucked her tongue.
“Why would I pay you to clean up this yard when it’s gonna be covered up in ice in a few weeks?”
Lacey wondered whether to tell her about Robbie, whether this nurse, whose lights were always on, whose house was warm, who had a babysitter drive up through the woods to watch her boy while she went to the hospital to draw blood or clear bedpans or take temperatures or whatever it was she did, could ever understand what it was to have a husband, to love him with your bones.
“My propane is down to fifteen percent. Probably ten now.”
“That’ll last you till Monday when the truck comes around. You need their number?”
Lacey explained her middle girl had a fever; her youngest was only six. They were making out all right with Robbie gone—it was just the heat.
“What I’m trying to say is, I ain’t got it, and I don’t know what else to do.”
Amelia crossed her arms. “You see, the rest of us, we work. We don’t depend on the government or no husband.”
“Maybe you could just lend me a few gallons out of your tank to hold us over.”
“If you expect me to pity you, I don’t. You’re not the only one who married some sonofabitch who can’t take care of his own kids—”
“It’s not his fault. He’s got a chemical unbalance—”
“They all do,” Amelia said, and she went to close the door.
Lacey pushed her hand against the frame.
“My babies are freezing.”
“This is real life, sweetheart. Find a way—that’s what women do.”
“You fat cunt.”
The nurse slammed the door.
Lacey stomped through the woods, smashing down fallen branches and the still-green grass under her slippers. When she got near the house, she could hear her phone was ringing. She ran to make it in time.
It was the school nurse. Diane had vomited again on the bus, and she needed to go home. Could Lacey come and pick her up? On the long drive to the school, Lacey found herself shaking. When she went to the office and gave her name, they sent her straight to the principal’s office.
Margarita was the one who had spilled the beans. When her teacher asked her why she kept putting her head down on her desk, she said she hadn’t slept right because it was winter in her house. And since Diane threw up on the bus, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
“I’m working on a solution,” Lacey said.
The principal shook her head and asked what was going on—wasn’t her husband a mechanic at the body shop off Haw? Lacey hadn’t realized that they didn’t know. Shouldn’t there have been a letter that got sent from the court or the jail to the school? Wasn’t there something the government had done to spare her this moment?
“My husband got high and stole a cop car. Not one of the black and white sheriff’s ones, a regular one. It just belonged to a cop. It was parked in front of a bar downtown. He didn’t know.”
The principal said she was sorry, but she couldn’t look the other way. Lacey said she knew she wasn’t the only one to ever have to lower the heat, one November or another, but the principal didn’t back down.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Ventura, but after Monday, I’ll have to make a call. You’ve got the weekend.”
Lacey went around to the classrooms and got all her girls. They drove home in silence, past the houses all in a row, and then out of town to where it was all fields and forgotten barns, the railroad tracks where they had to stop and wait for a train to pass.
“Woo-woo!” sang Margarita and it made Diane smile weakly, her cheeks pink.
Back at home, she boiled cans of broth for the girls, peeled and dropped in potatoes, a tin of shredded chicken. And then she made grilled cheeses too and chocolate milk and they carried it all into Lacey’s bed, where she piled blankets on top of the girls and then crawled in herself.
“If one of us is going to be sick, we might as well all be sick together,” she said, and she kissed her girls on the nose. It was still light out, hardly past midday.
“Aren’t you going to turn up the heat? You heard what the principal said.”
Noelle still wasn’t looking at her, her ears flushed bright, and Lacey wondered whether she was catching a fever too, or if she was just ashamed. Maybe her friends at school knew now how they had been living.
“Hush,” Lacey said. “I’m going to tell y’all a story.”
The girls squeezed in closer to their mother, even Noelle, although she probably only wanted to get warm.
“Once upon a time, there was a princess, and she lived in a castle deep in a forest. And she lived there with her sisters, but there was no one else around cause all the men were at war. It was a kingdom with no old people, you see, so there was no one to show them what to do while the men was gone. How to fill the moat, how to feed the horses, how to keep the torches lit, and the dungeons clean—”
“What’s a moat?” Diane asked, sucking on a Tylenol and making a face. Lacey told her to swallow it.
“So they saddled up the horses, and they went riding, far and far, over valleys and streams to a kingdom they had heard of where all the men went to war and never came back. The princesses in this kingdom showed them how to do all the things they were afraid of—how to clean the stables and grow wheat, how to cast spells, and burn the dead—”
“How to fill the moat?”
“Mmhm—and when they knew everything they needed to know, they went riding back to their kingdom, all day, and all night, and when they got there, they weren’t afraid anymore. They were all ready to rule, but they didn’t have to after all, cause while they were gone, the princes had all come home. They had won the war.”
Diane asked whether they had a party, and Lacey explained they hadn’t just held parties but weddings. One wedding every day, one for each princess and her prince.
“And they feasted and they drank and they ate chocolate cake, and when the moon came up, they would go out on boats and talk about how it felt like there never wasn’t any war at all.”
Noelle rolled her eyes. “Short war,” she said.
“I like that story!” Margarita shouted. Lacey told her to lower her voice.
“I hate it. It’s stupid,” Noelle said, and she crossed her arms. “They ride their horses all that way to another kingdom and they learn all those things, and it doesn’t even matter. They never even get a chance to rule.”
Lacey wanted to explain that at least they knew how, and you should never give up a prince if the prince really loves you, but Noelle plugged up her ears, and Margarita shouted that she wanted to be princess, and Diane stood solemnly and asked for someone to go with her to the bathroom because she had to throw up.
After the girls nodded off, Lacey slipped out from under the blankets to clean up the bowls and the mugs they had left on the floor. She shut off the light and went out to the back porch with one of the leftover lollipops from the supermarket. She sucked it down to the white stick, cracking the hard candy between her front teeth. She counted the days on her fingers since she had sent Robbie the money—five—and he still hadn’t called. Goddamn you, Robbie, she thought. Goddamn.
She went back inside, and she didn’t feel a difference anymore between inside and out. Maybe it wouldn’t matter for her anymore, whether the heat was high or low or off. She wouldn’t be able to shake off the chill for a while—it was under her skin now. But the girls.
Lacey found her old address book in a drawer, and she went flipping through the pages until she found him there, alphabetized by last name. Sommer, Hank. She carried the address book and the phone out to the living room. She muted the TV and dialed, waited for the ringing to stop.
“I knew you’d change your mind,” he said, and Lacey smiled. With her free hand, she turned up the thermostat a full ten degrees.
Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street, a novel forthcoming from Little A in Fall 2017. Her stories and essays have been published in The New York Times, Arts & Letters, Guernica, and The Rumpus, among other places. An alumna of the Columbia University MFA program, Naima also holds degrees from Yale and Fordham University. She is a winner of the Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize, the Margaret Lamb/Writing to the Right Hand Margin Prize, and the Elmore A. Willets Prize for Fiction.
Naima has taught writing in a range of settings, from youth programs to prison to university seminars. She is a Brooklyn native, but she lives in North Carolina with her family. She tweets about literature and culture as @zafatista.