“So once you get a good groove on the ice, you’re just turning it, over and over. It’s not that hard as long as you remember to take the yellow guard off, like this… Who wants to try it?”
Debra watches as a middle-aged father- potbelly, unshaven, cheap winter gear- steps up to try working a hole through the ice, obediently following the guide’s instruction. His children grin at him. He’s practically a celebrity, showing off for the entire group.
There’s a wet sucking sound as the hand-turned drill sinks lower into the ice, and the guide pulls it out with a flourish, bringing mud and slushy ice up. “Just like that!” he says proudly. He smiles at the group. “Your turn.”
Families and couples step up eagerly to try it, to take their drills and fishing poles. Ice fishing! What fun!
Debra sighed and turned away towards the fire. Bill had told her she should try ice-fishing. He used to love it. She had no idea why. She was standing on a frozen lake, for God’s sake, and she didn’t care how safe it was, to Debra that always seemed to be tempting fate just a little. And having to use a drill to cut a hole through the ice and attempt to catch a fish seemed cold and wet and unpleasant to her. Yet here she was. Because Bill had said she should.
She was still listening to Bill, even though he was gone. Because of him she was in the arctic circle, watching bundled-up children dangling fishing rods into freezing water in the hopes of catching something generally wet and floppy. What a stupid waste of an afternoon.
After everyone was done catching nothing a few hours later, the group hopped up on their snowmobiles and drove away, back towards the lodge.
“Hey, Debra!” a mom with whom she’d talked earlier called. “Have a happy New Year’s tomorrow!”
Hadn’t she listened to their entire conversation? “I don’t celebrate New Year’s,” Debra called back icily. “But thank you so much for remembering.”
The woman blinked a few times, looking startled. “Um… oh. Sorry, ma’am. I forgot.”
“Quite all right,” Debra replied coolly. She turned away so she wouldn’t see the woman’s scowl, or the look she would exchange with her husband. The children’s expressions--they would watch with wide-eyed surprise and later wonder why the old lady was angry. Because she was angry. Debra’s whole being radiated anger.
She knew she was a bitch, but Debra hadn’t cared about that for a long time.
When she finally got to her hotel room, clomping snow all over the nice rugs, she paused to make sure the maid wasn’t in there. She had no wish to make conversation with her again. The woman had gotten far too chatty one afternoon when she came by to find her still cleaning. Debra did not want to interact with that again. If she was still cleaning she’d just go downstairs and sit in the lobby for an hour.
She surveyed the empty room. The bed was made. The rug was vacuumed and her clothes were off the floor. There were fresh teacups on the table and towels hanging next to the bathroom, the shades drawn. It was all so lonely.
Debra pushed aside a twinge in her mind, and began pulling off her snowgear. Maybe she’d go out somewhere nice tonight. She could try eating bear, which was supposed to be good. She could talk to some Finlanders, or people visiting Finland too. They could compare how cold they had been that day. She smiled at the thought.
So she went out that night and had a very expensive steak that wasn’t good, but she was used to that.
She made a vow that night to have a good day tomorrow. It was going to be New Year’s eve, after all. She was somewhere beautiful and she was determined to be happy.
Early the next morning, Debra pulled on her winter gear then slipped out to an early breakfast. She breathed in a lungful of cold morning air and closed her eyes.
Today was her day.
Debra ate at a small, cramped cafe, with coffee that was somehow both too hot and too weak, and annoyingly overpriced. But she was smiling because the waiter was nice and made good conversation. Afterwards Debra made her way downtown to where children were ice-skating and parents were wandering through little stands, checking out the prices of reindeer skins. Debra bought one. It was $120, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t even going to keep it. She just wanted to buy it.
Debra had an animated conversation with a friendly guy and his wife who spoke very good English--Debra could be nice when she wanted to. She scratched dogs behind the ears and patted pink-cheeked babies on their heads. Later she signed up to go on a dog sled ride with huskies pulling, panting, and yelping happily. The driver shouted commands and Debra laughed at it all, which she hadn’t done in a long time. At lunch she had a ‘reindeer pizza’ which she felt bad about but which turned out to be quite delicious. More than one person shouted a Happy New Year’s to her in Finnish. Debra just waved it off. Who cared that she didn’t celebrate New Year’s? She was having fun.
A few hours later she checked her watch and paid for her dinner. Time to go, she thought, heaving herself up out of her chair.
She made her way to a bar up the street, packed to the brim with chatter and drinks. Debra sidled her way to the front, muttering “Excuse me, I’m eighty,” and pushing aside people if necessary. She beckoned the bartender. “Two shots to start, straight vodka. And do you have a quieter spot in the back?”
He smiled a little in amusement. “Sorry ma’am. The only quiet place is outside.”
He passed the first two across the table and she took them with her age-riddled hand. She raised the first one. “Twelve shots to twelve hearts,” she said to the bartender. “Think I’ll make it?”
He looked alarmed. “Uh… Ma’am, no offense, but don’t you think that’s slightly dangerous with… your age?”
She shrugged. “Probably. But that’s the point.” Before he could say anything else, she downed it in one gulp. “To Maya, for being my favorite cousin, my bridesmaid, and godmother to my children. I miss you.” She pictured her face for a moment, the smile and brightness in her eyes. Maya had always been so beautiful.
“Keep ‘em coming,” she said to the bartender. He nodded, nervous. She took the next one. “To Vivi. The best friend anyone could have had. To my first kiss with a girl, and to your crazy, happy heart.” She drank.
With the burn came the memories and the pain. She shook it off. She was just getting started. Debra took a deep breath, reached for the next one. “To Grammy and Grandpa, for loving us so much and for buying us presents because why not. You were the best. I love you both.” She wiped away a tear and focused on her next one. She pictured her brother’s sweet face.
“To Andrew. Shy, sweet and beautiful, giving your heart away again and again, even as people broke it. You believed so much in true love, and finally you got it.” She sniffed and wiped away a tear. “Miss you so much.”
Shot number five. She was getting a little drunk now, she could feel it. “Hi, Tammy, my big sister. I miss our fights. I miss eating popsicles in the summer, and I miss them melting on our hands. I love you. Being the survivor stinks.” She coughed a little. The ice around her heart was cracking. She picked up the next two.
“To Mom and Dad.” She drank them down. They burned, but not as much as the tears running down her cheeks. “I miss you both so, so much.” She pictured her father’s fisherman hands and gruff voice, her mother’s bouncing blond curls and whip-smart mouth, both of them laughing. She choked back a sob. Love you.
Debra raised a shaking shot number eight. “To Mallory.” She was already crying. People were starting to stare. “To my sweet, happy daughter. Your freckled face and big grin. I love you so much.”
Debra wiped away the tears and tried to breathe. Her hand was shaking as she reached for the next drink, not from alcohol, but the sheer amount of memories flooding in and breaking her heart. Laughing, crying, sticky hands, flower meadows, sunset picnics, curly red hair, pressed suits and empty jars. Homework grades, back-to-school, holding back her hair, panic attacks, breaking, freezing, crying, crying, crying, melting all over again, crying-
She’d done this every New Years. She could handle it.
Debra swallowed her next shot. She noticed vaguely it didn’t taste very good.
“To Georgie. My sweet little boy, you were too young. I miss your early morning smiles and your love for Christmas. I wish you were curled up against me so I could protect you from the bad again.” Her heart was melting into fiery pain, agony. She could barely breathe.
“You alright, lady?” Australian accent. A concerned hand touches her elbow.
“Fine.” She whips her arm away, takes a deep breath and faces her next memory, grinning on the table. She gazed at it stonily and tipped it back.
“Bethany, sweetie, come back. You were so beautiful.”
She coughed out her tears. “I love you, darling.”
There were so many dead hearts in the air.
She sighed, drunk and tired, and picked up number eleven.
“Bill, did you think I would forget you? Of course not. You’re my guardian angel, my sweet basket case. I love you, honey. I wish so much that you were here. You would understand. You would help me. I miss you.”
She was drowning. She ran her hands through her hair and gulped. There were so many gone. So, so many. Too many.
But she still had one more heart to say hello to, shot number twelve, and she reached for her last tiny glass. It felt like such a stretch…
“Lady! Uh, I don’t think you should drink anymore.”
She was so drunk.
Her angels whispered, Reach! Reach!
She did reach, and she stretched until she grasped the cool glass. She’d done it. Debra pulled it towards her.
“Lady, I really don’t think-”
She swallowed and slammed it onto the table. “Happy New Year’s,” she said.
The guy looked startled, but before he could say something the people behind him started shouting, “Ten! Nine! Eight!”
“Lady, are you…”
“I’m fine. Go to your friends.”
“Seven! Six! Five!”
Debra slipped off her stool and outside into the cool air. To…
To all the dead hearts up there,
To my dead heart, and everyone who broke it.
And to the night of the Dead Hearts, which is the night for breaking and melting and freezing again before the dawn hits. Thank you for being there so I don’t break and melt and freeze every day.
“Happy New Year,” she whispered, and as she stood there swaying and drunk and miserable and broken, she listened to two things:
One, the sound of the roars traveling up and down the street mingling with the pops of fireworks over the trees.
Two, the sound of her Dead Hearts whispering to her,
Happy New Year, Debra.
We miss you, Debbie!
Debra, are you drunk? Debra!!
Hi honey, I miss you.
We love you Debra!
“I love you too,” she whispered back, and she had to smile because she knew she was going to see her family soon and be with them and take the ice out of her dead heart.
She couldn’t wait.
Debra walked and walked under the stars in the cold and she smiled.
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Very touching story. I wasn't sure why it vacillates in the present and past tense but that didn't bother me much. Powerfully sad.
Bittersweet. Great storytelling.