Once Upon a Snow Storm

By Jordan S Laird

The wind whipped against the small house all night.  Ryan snored through it all in her usual tangle of four odd blankets, massive amounts of red hair, and six assorted pillows.  She stirred only twice: once to acknowledge her sister Cameron crawling into bed with her at somewhere around one in the morning.  And the second, Ryan was startled awake by the storm at 5 o’clock in the morning.  She slipped out of Cameron’s embrace and the pile of blankets.  She pulled on a hoodie and padded down the hallway, her bare feet prickled on the cold wood floor.  She turned the television on and flipped to the news.  Leaning against the dull turquoise sofa, she waited for the bottom bar to scroll through alphabetically until it reached Lincoln Elementary in Chicago.  Ryan combed her fingers through her unruly hair that, if it were straightened, reached down her lower back.  Through tangles and bleary eyes she found the answer she was looking for: Cameron’s school was closed.

She called work and left a message for her manager, calling off because ‘Cameron’s sick.’  Ryan then wasted no time before crawling back under the covers.  She stroked Cameron’s mousy brown curls, so much tamer than her frizz, and kissed Cam’s pale forehead before drifting off to sleep again.

Cameron shook Ryan awake three and a half hours later.

“What? What, I’m up Cam!”  Cameron crawled on top of Ryan and bounced some more.

“Madthson is here and we want hot chocolate!”  Cameron tugged at Ryan until she sat up.  Cameron ran gleefully down the hallway.

“Madison can make his own hot chocolate,” Ryan grumbled.  She hastily tied her hair up in a messy knot of frizz before walking down the hallway.  Madison was cooking the cocoa and bacon on the stove when Ryan found him in the kitchen.  He opened his mouth to speak.

“Morning, nerd,” Ryan quipped.  Madison snapped his mouth shut and grinned.  He just shook his head and stirred the cocoa a bit.  Madison was wearing a purple flannel and gray sweatshirt with blue jeans.  His tan coat, black hat, and black boots were piled by the door.  He was tall and his skin was the color of extremely rich cocoa.  Madison’s thin hair was usually worn in a tight ponytail with wisps in the front hanging loose.  That morning it looked particularly disheveled and he kept a long wisp out of his eyes with short, intermittent puffs of breath.  Ryan popped toast in the toaster and leaned against the sink, wrapping her arms around her chilly frame.  Through the frosty window she noticed the driveway was cleared, almost pristine.

“Thanks, Madison.  You didn’t have to do that.”

“Oh, the winter gnomes shoveled the drive; I just told them where you guys lived.  They were looking for two beautiful princesses.”  Ryan cringed at the corniness of his comment but Cameron loved it.

“Really!” asked Cameron in wonder.

“Of course, they said one had long fiery hair and was very clever and the other had brown hair and was the most beautiful girl in the whole world.  I knew just who they were talking about.”  Ryan didn’t understand how he could spin such fantasies without cracking up at their ridiculousness.  He was a natural at it though.

Madison handed Ryan the first mug of cocoa and lifted Cameron up, with more difficulty than he had in past years of the child’s life, to retrieve marshmallows from a cabinet shelf for the two of them.  They feasted that frigid morning on their bacon, burnt toast with strawberry jelly, and cocoa.  Ryan munched on her bacon and tuned out the exasperating conversation Madison and Cameron had about species of gnomes.  Cameron was enthralled and Madison never grew impatient.

The shrill ring of the phone interrupted breakfast.  Cameron ran to retrieve it for Ryan.  Ryan answered it and slid away from her place at the table.

“Yes, hello?…But Nick, you know I have a little girl!… No, no Nick, I can’t today… No, wait don’t hang up!”  Ryan lightly thumped her head against the doorframe of the hallway-defeated.

Only a little over an hour later, Ryan leaned against the mahogany podium of Lula’s Café in Chicago.  Ryan wore her usual white blouse with black pants and several silver rings.  Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail behind her head, her long tresses trailing behind her.

Ryan absently picked at the finish of the podium; she had been a nail biter for a long time but had painstakingly kicked the habit at the age of seventeen.  Although she could come up with no reason to distrust Madison, Ryan felt uneasy leaving Cameron with anyone.

Cameron was her baby, her precious little girl, even though by blood they were sisters.  Ryan and Cameron’s mother, Lisa, a former bank teller, became addicted to various drugs and men, equally unhealthy for her, after Ryan’s father abruptly left them when Ryan was eight years old.  Their mother had Cameron when Ryan was 15.  Ryan raised Cameron as the pressure of such a large responsibility drove their mother to worsen her habits.  A kind law clerk that lived down the block helped Ryan take custody of Cameron exactly five months and a week after Ryan turned eighteen.  Ryan had been kicked out two days before her birthday for proposing the idea of taking custody of Cameron.

Ryan remembered all too well all the times she came home from school or work to find her mother passed out and a greasy man who could barely pass for human slinking around the apartment, looking for something to eat or something to take.  All those times Ryan rushed to the room she shared with Cameron to find her hiding in the closet.  She remembered her mother’s empty promises that she would stop bringing men back to the apartment.  And Ryan remembered vividly every waking hour of the days she was separated from Cameron while she fought for custody.  Ryan had absolutely no idea what Cameron was being exposed to, whether or not she was being regularly fed or tucked in or read her favorite books.  Ryan didn’t like trusting Cameron with anyone.

A young couple and their tiny baby asleep in its carrier seat entered the café.  Ryan was torn from her gloomy thoughts; she promptly put a smile on her face and led the family to a table.  During the brunch time Ryan rushed around, pouring coffee and chocolate milk.  Chris was the only other front room staff that day.  Chris was of medium height and strikingly handsome: sandy blonde hair, green eyes, and bronze skin.  He was pleasing to look at and banter with.  But Chris was not overly helpful.  During the morning a toddler managed to knock over two coffees.  The parents apologized profusely; Ryan didn’t mind mopping it up.  Ryan did mind that when she finally was able to circulate between her other tables, they had been left waiting.  While Chris had only one couple and another old man in his section of the café, Ryan had five full tables.  Chris was not a slacker but he was in no way an over-achiever or generous with helping his coworkers.  Apathy and lack of effort bothered Ryan considerably.

After a busy lunch rush, a half-hour break in mid-afternoon, and a steady dinner rush, Ryan’s shift was finally over.  Since his section was empty Chris clocked out early, which deeply irritated her.  Ryan had to wait patiently for her last two tables to finish their desserts and then still had to take the trash out to the dumpster.

When she finally skidded across the icy parking lot to her dark green rust bucket it had begun snowing lightly again.  She rubbed her hands together as she waited for the car’s heat to work.  A muffled beeping came from somewhere in the messy interior of her car.  She rummaged around on the floor of her passenger seat for her phone.  She found several gooey wrappers and an old t-shirt and one slightly crumpled, magenta sheet of construction paper.  The sheet wasn’t blank.  It bore Cameron’s signature crayon technique.  The picture was of three stick figures holding hands under a scribbly rainbow and under each crude figure there were names in smudged purple: ‘Rian,’ ‘Cam,’ and ‘Madson’. Ryan sat for a moment, stunned by the rudimentary piece of artwork.

Ryan drove through the back alley that led to the strips’ employee parking lot and stopped at the outlet to the main road.  She remembered her beeping phone and after more digging around, she found it.  It had one new text: ‘Be careful driving home! Love Cameron and Madison!’

Ryan wiped random moisture from her eyes, tossed the phone in the back, and quickly pulled out of the alley.  She neglected to watch and pulled out recklessly close in front of another driver who was forced to slam on his brakes and apparently his horn.  Ryan pulled all the way out and stopped.  She motioned apologetically at the other driver who only laid on the horn again before speeding away.

As Ryan drove home, her old, whining car radio could hardly pick up a single station and she punched the off button.  In the silence of the dark, empty roads, Ryan found herself, uncharacteristically, musing over what would happen if she were hurt in a car accident.  Who would take care of Cameron?  Who would care to visit her in the hospital?  These were some of the onslaught of difficult questions that pestered her as she drove home.  Although she had dreamed on several occasions of it being her ex-boyfriend, a passionate and zealous artist, James, or handsome, witty Chris, she knew the answer wasn’t either of them.  The single, glaring answer to her questions was not very handsome nor someone she felt overwhelming butterflies around.

The answer was just Madison.

Madison did not share James’ passion for photography and sketching.  Madison was working two jobs to pay his way through school in order to become a teacher.  Madison did have a passion for playing Candyland with Cameron and watching cheesy horror films with Ryan on the weekends-among other Cameron or Ryan related activities.  Madison was not nearly as good looking as Chris.  But Madison’s hair swooped in front of his friendly, chocolate eyes nicely.  And Madison’s lips quirked into a pleasant side smirk when Ryan harassed him.

Ryan recalled her month and a half of community college.  After almost two years of living on her own with Cameron she had enrolled at Chicago City College.  She was working to get a degree and become a dental assistant.  Ryan had been working at a disgusting pizza place and on welfare at the time.  It was difficult not seeing Cameron during the day and struggling to make ends meet.  Four weeks in, Ryan received a letter that told her that her welfare benefits were being reduced.  She was forced to drop out.

Ryan had to take a mandatory English class in College and that was where she first met Madison.  Ryan automatically disliked him for how loudly he laughed.  That was all: he had a dumb, obnoxious laugh.

Until one day, in the pouring rain, Ryan was waiting for the bus.  Madison approached her and offered his umbrella.  Before Ryan could protest he had pushed it into her hands and run to his next class.  After that Ryan felt obligated to talk to him.  And two years later Madison was still doing selfless things for her.

Ryan pushed the pine green door of her home open and slid off some of her layers, piling them in a heap on an old wooden chest.  Her ears were immediately met with a familiar gush of glee at her arrival.

“Ryan!!!”  Ryan walked down the hallway and entered her living room to find an even messier disaster than the one she had left that morning.  Nearly all of the home’s cushions, pillows and blankets made a massive makeshift fort in the small room.  Madison was struggling to crawl out of the structure when he saw Ryan.  He stood up sheepishly and knocked over half of the fort.

Cameron hurtled herself at Ryan who struggled to lift her sister and spin her around.  Ryan set Cameron down and Cameron promptly began scolding Madison for knocking over the ‘castle.’  Ryan laughed at the sparkly bunny ears Madison was wearing and before she realized what she was doing crossed the room and wrapped her arms around his neck.  He returned the embrace hesitantly.

“Thank you so much for watching Cameron today.  I see you were very productive Sir Bunny.” Ryan stepped back and avoided eye contact.  Madison, beaming, took the costume piece off of his head.

“It wasn’t a problem.  We had fun playing ‘space ship’ and then ‘bakery’ and finally ‘castle.’”  Ryan grimaced sympathetically although Madison really didn’t seem to mind.  Cameron crawled up Madison’s back like a monkey and Madison helped her up, patient as always.  Cameron triumphantly sat on his shoulders and he twirled around in a circle a few times before lowering her to the ground gently.

“Say goodnight to Madison and then go brush your teeth and put your pajamas on,” ordered Ryan gently.  Cameron huffed.

“I’ll be in in a minute and we’ll read before bed.”

“Okay,” sang Cameron “Goodnight Madthson!”  She scurried down the hall to her bedroom.

“Goodnight, princess.”

With the absence of Cameron, the two young adults stood in silence for an awkward moment.

“Well,” Madison finally spoke “I guess I better go.”

“Yeah, I guess.  It’s getting late.”  They walked to the door and Madison put on his boots and coat.  Ryan opened the door absently.

“Well, I’ll see you later.  And thanks so much again for doing this for me especially on short notice.”

“No problem, goodnight.”  Madison walked out onto the dully-illuminated front step before turning around to abruptly kiss Ryan.  He put one hand on her waist and the other cupped her face.  It was so quick and unexpected that Ryan didn’t even have time to react.  And then he vanished into the darkness.  Ryan stayed rooted to the spot for a moment before rushing out onto her front step.

“Drive safely!” she called into the dark.  She felt exceedingly stupid but she didn’t know what to do so she waved.  Madison’s car rumbled to life and drove away.

The next day Cameron had school.  Ryan bundled Cameron in a large purple coat, a rainbow scarf so long it had to be wrapped several times around her neck to avoid trailing on the ground and a smiling green frog hat complete with matching mittens.  Ryan put on a magenta jacket, a black overcoat, and a cream-colored cable knit hat over her loose red hair.

Ryan dropped Cameron off at school and drove to Madison’s morning job that he worked Thursday through Sunday.  He worked on those mornings at a small corner coffee shop where he cooked and baked the stock for the rest of the week: caramel nut brownies, oatmeal cookies, lemon cream cakes, pre-made and saran wrapped sandwiches.

The café’s door had bells on the handle that made a light tinkling noise at Ryan’s entrance.  The mundane noise made Ryan flinch and look around owl-eyed.  The pixie haired barista at the lonely café’s counter motioned knowingly before ducking in the back kitchen-more like a kitchenette-presumably to retrieve Madison.

Ryan sat awkwardly at a table by the frosty picture window.  She watched cars at the intersection go by.  Soon Madison joined her, brown apron in one hand and a plate of cookies and hot cocoas in the other.

“What’s up?” he looked straight into Ryan’s eyes and she looked away.

“I thought I would visit you at work.  You always feed me when I come.”

“True.”  There was an anticipatory pause.  Madison knew her too well.  Ryan twirled a piece of her hair absently before continuing.

“Well, okay, I guess I should just say what I came here for.  This may be out of the blue but-I-do you maybe want to go out sometime?”

“Aren’t we ‘out’ right now,” teased Madison.  He was smirking; he wasn’t going to make this easy on her.

“Like on a date?”  She murmured.  Madison sat back in the chair and pretended to mull it over.

“Nah,” he said leaning forward and taking her hands in his. “I want to go on a lot of dates.  Because in case you haven’t noticed you mean the world to me-you and Cameron.  And I’ve felt that way for a long time.”  Ryan felt strange fluttering in her stomach at the words she had known to be true for a while-but they were still inexplicably nice to hear.  She grinned.

“Well, I need you too.  I’m sorry I don’t always show it because I stink at this whole expression of feelings stuff.  But you really mean a lot to me.”

“I know.”

They did go on a date-many dates.  For their first date a friend watched Cameron and they saw a really terrible action film that wasn’t worth remembering in the end.  They threw popcorn at each other.  And Ryan felt ridiculous when they held hands.

 

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Jordan S Laird is seventeen and lives by Lake Erie in Ohio with her mom, dad, and 6’2″ little brother. Jordan is an avid band and drama student. She plays the trombone in the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony. The author enjoys reading romance, adventure, and fantasy novels. She is the Chief Editor of The Spectrum, her high school newspaper. Some of her editorial work has been published by Cleveland.com.


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