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Goodnight, Moon

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I was hanging out at the bookstore; they let me bring in an iced coffee, camp out at one of the tables, look at magazines when I wasn't studying. Nobody else was in there much -- the day was too bright and sunny for that -- but around midafternoon, somebody came in.

I noticed the crutches first; these were silver, and you held them in your hands instead of under your arms, and people have those when they're going to use them their whole lives. The woman using the crutches had on a purple dress, all loose and flowy, and a bunch of beads around her neck. She didn't dye the gray in her frizzy hair. Ex-hippie, definitely. The woman's feet weren't quite at the right angle to her body, and when she moved toward the NONFICTION/SCIENCE shelf, she kind of wobbled to one side. I moved one of the chairs so she'd have a clear path.

"Very good, Joan," God said. "Helping before you're asked. Anticipating needs. I like to see that."

"Thanks." Getting the thumbs-up from God is always kind of encouraging.

"In Style? Glamour? I should think you'd find more interesting things to read in a bookstore."

"I'm studying for exams. Between magazines, I mean." I pulled my hair into a ponytail at the back of my neck; it was so hot I was sweating.

God ran one of her fingernails down the spine of a book called "The New Ice Age." She'd painted her nails this really dark, shiny-purple color, and I kind of wanted to ask God what brand of polish it was.

"OPI," God said. "This shade is called Peel Me A Grape. But you have more important things to worry about than nail polish."

"You could wait for me to ask the questions aloud, you know. It would be polite."

"It would be artificial. Luke reads books like these. You should ask to borrow a few."

So, my mission was to turn Luke's bookshelf into my lending library. Given some of the weirdo assignments God's handed out before, this seemed pretty minor. "You got it. Any particular subject?"

"The more utilitarian, the better." I didn't ask, but God explained anyway: "Utilitarian means useful. Something that applies to your everyday life and needs."

"Nothing about the Big Bang, then."

"No." God shuffled a little further down the aisle; the afternoon sunlight was shining through her gray hair, and it looked kind of like a halo. The books at that edge are NONFICTION/SCIENCE only if you don't define nonfiction or science too strictly -- all this stuff about past lives and aliens and hypnosis and stuff. But God looked completely serious when she pulled out a book about Dream Interpretation. "Though it wouldn't hurt to think about the Big Bang a bit. To ask yourself if beginnings are ever also endings."

"When you get all cryptic like that, I get worried."

She turned to me and pushed her glasses up her nose, very serious, just like a teacher. "Joan, during the next few days, you will have three dreams. Interpret those dreams, and accept what they tell you."

"Okay, but -- as long as we're standing here talking, why don't you just tell me?"

"You'll need to figure this out for yourself. If it doesn't come from inside you -- you won't accept it."

That didn't sound good, but I've more or less learned to stop worrying too much about what God tells me. "That means I'm off the hook for the rest of the day, right?"

"You're free to enjoy yourself, yes," God said. "I think that would be an excellent idea."

"After I study, of course."

And then God, of all people, rolled her eyes and said, "Blow it off."

"Uh -- what?"

"It's a beautiful day, Joan. Hot, but beautiful. I think you should make the most of it."

Now, if GOD tells you to stop studying, you're going to stop, right? I threw some stuff in my bag, packing up. "This is very cool. I'm going to the park, and maybe even swimming -- oh, wow. I need some sunblock."

"Don't bother," God replied. I ran out of the store without looking back.

**

My dream that night was a memory.

If you'd asked me about Hoot Zoot the day before, I could have told you about him. It, I mean. Hoot Zoot was this plastic owl; my dad bought it for the back yard, but I got attached to it and carried it around like a toy for a while. Hoot Zoot stood guard over my Barbie dolls. Why did I ignore my real toys for a yard ornament? No idea. I was 5. Five-year-old logic is not logical.

Anyway, by the time I was 7 or 8, Hoot Zoot wasn't such a big deal anymore. I forgot all about him, and one day we threw him out. But I'd forgotten just what kind of day it was, just how I felt. In the dream, it was like I was back there and it was all happening again.

Fall leaves were everywhere, red and gold. We'd driven out to the dump with boxes and boxes of stuff; Dad threw the boxes in the dumpster, and Hoot Zoot fell out. I hadn't even seen him in a year, probably, but I started to cry.

"We can't keep him forever, honey," my dad said. "You don't even play with him anymore."

"But I love him." I was sobbing like it was the end of the world.

Dad tried logic next. "He's cracked along the side, see? The edges of the plastic are sharp, Joanie. They'd cut you."

I didn't care. I just kept crying. It was like I'd never loved anything else in the world but this stupid owl. "He's going to be all alone. Nobody will take care of him."

"He's going to take care of everything else we've left here." Dad kneeled by my side and took my hands. "That's what he's for. Watching over things."

For some reason, that made it all better -- well, not all better. I was still crying, but I let Dad drive me and Luke to Burger King for fries.

When I woke up, I was mostly thinking about the fries. Was God telling me not to eat fast food?

But then I heard Kevin laughing. "Can you believe this?" he yelled; I could hear him halfway across the house. "This is crazy!"

I turned my head toward the window, and saw the snow.

**

"You wouldn't have trouble finding things, if you'd clean out your closet once in a while," Mom yelled from the hallway.

I sat on the floor; it was dusty at the back of the closet, and it smelled like leather and old gym socks. A zillion pairs of thong sandals were sitting there in every color -- but no snow boots.

"Everyone acts like this is unheard-of." Luke wasn't making any progress either, but I didn't hear Mom yelling at him. "In 1902, Arcadia had snow on May 30. That's still the record."

Dad walked by my room, pulling on his heavy coat; I don't know why the police always have to go to work when you have freaky weather, but they do. "You think it's gonna stick?" he said as he looked through the doorway.

"Doubt it." But then I smiled. "If it does, I'm making a snow-woman in a bikini."

"That's the spirit." He grinned and went on his way. I heard a soft smack that meant he'd found Mom in the hallway. Those two were so mushy, in a good way.

On one hand, I was kind of annoyed: We were starting summer vacation with some of the crappiest weather in history, and Luke thought it was okay because it was only the second crappiest weather in history. But then it was unusual, and kind of fun, and it would be a good story to tell. When I called Adam that morning, he was all geared up to make a sculpture about it: "Snowflakes in June." I told him it wasn't June yet, and he told me to think like an artist. It was almost like a fight, except it wasn't, and I was supposed to go to his house tonight to see what he'd done. Snuggling in the snow -- sounded nice. It was the beginning of summer, and yet it was like the end of summer --

Ask yourself if beginnings are ever also endings.

The words echoed in my mind, in That Voice. No matter how God comes to me -- male or female, old or young -- I never remember what was said afterward in different voices. I always remember them in one Voice, one I've never actually heard. I don't think you could hear it, like, with your ears. It's not that kind of a Voice.

God was warning me about something. I didn't know what, not then. But I knew at that moment, sitting on my closet floor, that what was going on outside wasn't just an unusual snowstorm.

This was more.

**

By that night, everyone else knew too. The weather reports spread out wider, and wider -- telling us about Washington D.C., about Manhattan, about Los Angeles, Belfast, New Delhi, Tokyo. The meteorologists started talking about deaths -- two, five, a dozen, perhaps as many as a hundred, untold --

My brothers watched TV, silent. Mom stood in the living room like she was watching too, but mostly she was looking at them.

I tried to call Adam, then Grace, but some phone lines were down, and the cellular signals had all gone nuts. For a while I wanted to just walk over to Adam's -- I could get there -- but the howling wind changed my mind for me.

So I went to Luke's room. God was right about the books; he had all this stuff about mountain-climbing (which was full of information about getting through snow and ice), and instructions for building different kinds of machines, and lots of other things too. There was even a copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Guide , which Kevin gave him as a joke. I piled them all in a box, and only after I did that did I ask myself how I knew we were going to be leaving. But I knew.

The rest of the family figured it out a couple hours after that, when the weatherman came on looking scared. So scared. Like, I couldn't believe they let him on TV, looking like that; he looked worse than he'd looked all day, and he'd looked pretty bad. He said the cold front coming in across the country was colder than any on record. Maybe -- and he kept repeating that word, maybe, but you could tell he knew -- it would be too cold for human life within a couple of days.

When the front door slammed shut, we all jumped -- but it was Dad, snow caked on his boots. Mom went to him and hugged him tightly. "I can't believe they let you come home," she said.

"They didn't." We all stared at him, and he tried to smile. "It's my responsibility to take care of this family."

Oh, crap. I hurried to my room.

When Mom followed me there about five minutes later, she said, "Joan, we're going to get in the --" Then she just stared at the suitcases I'd packed.

"I figured we'd have to go," I said.

"Smart move." She ran one hand through her hair. "Can you get that down to one suitcase? We have to get everyone's stuff in the SUV, and Kevin's wheelchair, too."

It kinda hit me then -- everything I owned that didn't fit in that one suitcase was gone. Just gone. I wouldn't see it for a really long time, if ever.

How can you look at everything you have and decide what to give away forever?

**

The roads were bad, and cars were everywhere, and the salt trucks had run out a long time ago. "Remember how I said our buying this thing was an act of environmental sacrilege?" Kevin said as Dad steered us over a huge ridge of ice. "I think I've been proved right, but as of this second, I really don't care."

"I need to concentrate." That was pretty much all Dad had said the whole night. Mom was listening to the radio, all the various weather reports and stories about the people who had died. Who were dying. The green light from the dashboard showed me the trails of tears on her cheeks, and I wanted to say something to her -- but what could I say?

Did Adam make it out? What about Grace? I realized that I wasn't going to have any way to find them, not for a long time, anyway. Did they leave hours before we did? Or were they still at home, counting on things changing, refusing to believe the worst?

I imagined Adam's face pressed against the glass of his workshop's window, the way the frost would look against his cheek. Snowflakes in June. For the first time, I asked God, Why?

No answer. I leaned against the window and tried to fall asleep.

**

"I can't dance," Kevin laughed.

We were in the gym, and it had been decorated for prom: crepe paper and balloons and confetti. Everything was pink and silver, including my dress. Kevin was in a tux, standing on his own two feet, no wheelchair in sight. Nobody else was there, but the music was blaring -- that song about the milkshake bringing the boys to the yard.

"You can! Kevin, you can dance!' It was like a miracle, but he couldn't see it. "You can if you want to. If you can stand up, you can dance."

He tried a couple of steps, totally off the rhythm. "Look at me. I'm a total dork. I can't dance."

"You are. You are dancing." I started dancing too, stupid on purpose, because it wasn't important if the dancing was bad or good. Just as long as it was dancing.

"Look at you." He was laughing at me. "You can do better than that. Remember when we were little, and we'd dance in front of the stereo? You were always better. I could never catch up."

That was true. That was the only thing I was ever better at than Kevin. "It doesn't matter," I said.

"Yes, it does." But then he took my hands, and we just danced together while the lights swirled all around us. Glitter was in our hair, and silver balloons kept falling, and the music played on and on. Everything was beautiful, and perfect, and it seemed to go on forever and ever.

**

When I woke up, the SUV was stuck. Snow was still coming down, thick and fast.

"Try again!" Mom called. She was in the driver's seat, and I looked behind us to see that Dad and Luke were out there trying to push. Mom stomped down on the gas, and snow foamed up behind the SUV, but we didn't budge.

Kevin's eyes met mine. I wanted to tell him not to be scared, but then I would've had to not be scared myself. And I was pretty sure he could read me as well as I could read him.

"How long have we been here?" I whispered.

"A while." Kevin drummed his hands on the door, and I realized how helpless he felt. I wanted to volunteer to get out and push too, but I had a feeling it wasn't going to make any difference.

After a while, Dad and Luke got back into the car. The air that came through the door was so cold it almost hurt. Dad tried to smile at us; his smile was just about all of his face I could see, between the muffler and the big hat. "Okay. We're gonna have to hoof it."

"Walk? Through all this?" The snowflakes were so thick I couldn't see more than a couple dozen feet ahead, and it was only going to get colder.

Mom held out the map. "We think we're only a mile or two from Locke Station. Probably there are people there, and we can see about getting a ride with some of them, or find out about other transportation. That's our best shot." She didn't say what it was our best shot at.

Kevin looked horrified. "Mom -- Dad --"

"Don't you worry about a thing, Kevin." Dad never knows not to do that, that thing where he sounds too cheerful, so cheerful you know things are bad and getting worse. "I'm not too old to carry you."

"We can make a travois," I said. Everyone stared at me. "Luke has a book about the lives of the Native Americans. It shows you how to buid one. I packed it last night. We could take turns pulling the travois, put some other things on it too."

"How did you think of that?" Luke said. I stuck my tongue out at him.

Mom was surprised too, but at least she tried to hide it. "Great idea, Joan. Let's get started."

**

Five hours later, we were in Locke Station, and all of our backs hurt -- even Kevin's, because being dragged on a travois isn't much more fun than dragging it -- and we knew that things were even worse than we'd thought.

About five dozen people were gathered together at the Exxon station. Most of us had lost our vehicles, and the few people who'd been able to drive there didn't think they'd make it much further. Besides, the gas pumps were frozen. Almost nobody had packed food, so we were all eating the candy bars and potato chips and sodas the Exxon had in stock. The clerk didn't make us pay.

Everyone huddled around the battery-operated radio on the counter and listened. New York is gone, the announcer said. He sounded like it was just one more piece of news. Maybe he was in shock. The British Isles were underwater. So was Japan. The East Coast of the United States was about 50 miles further inland than it used to be. And the storms hadn't stopped. Nobody knew when -- or if -- they would stop.

But then they announced that some Navy ships that had survived the storms were going to try and collect some people. They'd send landing craft to a few cities at the end of the day tomorrow, get as many people on board as they could. One of the cities they named was Samford.

"Samford," Dad said. "That's only about 10 miles from here. If we started right away --"

"We can get there," somebody else added. Everyone in the room was nodding, acting like moving through a blizzard was no big deal, even though by now we all knew better. "Walk all night. If we've got flashlights, and we stick together, we can do it."

We gave it one hour, for everyone to use the bathroom and pack food and throw away yet more of their stuff. Kevin was very quiet.

I went outside -- yeah, it was cold, but it wasn't like it was tons better inside -- to be alone for a couple minutes. But then a small boy wandered up to me, maybe six years old, his walnut-brown face peering from his thick silver parka. "Are you okay?" I asked him.

"I was wondering if you were." No little kid talks like that.

I stared down at God, so mad and so upset I didn't know what to do. For the first time ever, ever, I wanted to HIT God, and I didn't care that this was a really bad idea. "How -- how could you --" I struggled to find words, and finally said, "Why did you do this?"

God just said, "I'm not the one who did this."

And then I started crying, so hard that I couldn't see, or talk, or almost breathe. Why hadn't I begun crying a long time ago? It felt like the tears had been waiting for a really long time. God wrapped his tiny fingers around my hand, but didn't say anything.

Finally, I wiped my eyes and said, "Is this because I used hairspray?"

"No. I'm sorry, Joan. So sorry."

"You could've stopped this --"

"Actions have consequences." God could sound amazingly stern as a little kid. "I know it doesn't feel like it, but you're ready for what lies ahead. If we hadn't begun speaking last year, you wouldn't be."

"What are you talking about?"

"I have been preparing you for the work that will follow. After this -- the world is going to be a very different place, in more ways than one. Many people will claim to hear me, but they'll only be listening to their own fear." God's eyes were watching mine. "You will need to speak above that fear, Joan."

I would never have thought that I could be more scared of something than I was by the storms, but I was wrong.

After a couple minutes, I asked the only thing I could think of: "Will you tell me what to say?"

"When the time comes, you'll know." Apparently that was all the divine guidance I was going to get on that point. "Tell me about your dreams, Joan."

I'd forgotten all about the dreams. First I opened my mouth to answer God, to talk about Hoot Zoot (weird, that God even knew about Hoot Zoot) and about me and Kevin at the prom. But then I realized that those two dreams had to go together. That Kevin was being quiet for a reason. That my back still hurt from the travois, and everyone else's did too, and all these people at the gas station would walk with us, but they weren't going to fall behind to help us.

I said, "You're telling me that we have to leave Kevin."

God didn't answer.

"We won't. We can't. If we leave him here --" I couldn't even say the words, He'll die.

"If you all remain behind, you'll all die."

"So work a miracle. I mean it. Do it." I waved my hands at God, trying to motion something into being. "You can't fix this whole global weather crisis so we'll all be good and use solar power when we actually have a civilization again? Okay, fine, be that way. But you could put us in Samford. Just pick us up and put us there. Nobody would ever have to know that you did it. Even if we told them, they wouldn't believe it."

"Joan, stop."

"Or just fix Kevin's legs. Make it so he can walk. Just for today, even! They'll freak out, but this is the one day when they wouldn't stop to ask too many questions, you know? Just fix Kevin. Just do it!"

"I can't --"

"Yes, you can!" I was screaming now, and I didn't care if they could hear me inside. "You can do anything! ANYTHING! Don't you ask me to kill my brother!"

"Why not?"

I stared down at him, sick and cold. All those Old Testament Bible stories -- Isaac on the altar, the flood, the plagues -- didn't seem so far away.

Finally, I said, "Do you want a sacrifice?"

"None of this is what I want," God answered. "There is a difference between my desire and my will."

Whatever. "If we left Kevin alone here to die, we would be -- like animals. We wouldn't be a family anymore. We wouldn't be PEOPLE anymore."

God smiled. "That's right, Joan. I'm glad you understand. Fear makes people forget that, sometimes."

"So you don't want us to abandon Kevin?" I was so confused. I wanted to be grateful, that God didn't want anything so terrible, but no other solution was coming to mind.

"Actions have consequences. Death also transforms the living. It's up to your family to decide how."

That was not an answer. That was not even close to an answer. But God was already walking away, his tiny tennis shoes making prints in the fresh snow.

**

We walked, and we walked, and we walked.

It was dark -- pitch-black, because most of the power plants had failed, and there were no headlights anywhere near, and the moonlight was almost erased by the snow. Every step was work, because the snow just got deeper and deeper; when it was my turn for the travois, I realized how much harder that had become. Kevin weighed so much. So much.

Dad was bowed over from the hours he'd pulled, obviously in pain. Mom had her hand on his arm. Her hair was crusted with snow and ice, and her cheeks too. I could feel it against my own skin, the sting and the numbness. Hurting was better than being numb; it meant blood was still flowing. My shoulders felt like they were on fire, but I kept pulling, and pulling. My feet slipped through the ice, and I always felt like I was losing my balance.

Through the wind, I could hear Kevin saying my name. "What is it?" I asked.

"You know -- you guys -- maybe you should --"

I imagined Kevin alone and afraid, hungry and cold with nobody to talk to. No comfort, no help, no hope. Then I didn't want to imagine it anymore. "Shut up, Kevin. Just shut up."

When I squinted, I could see the flashlights of the rest of our party ahead of us, shaky beams in the night. They pulled ahead a little more every hour.

**

Halfway through the night, the group ahead of us stopped. When we caught up, we discovered that they'd found a building, a warehouse still mostly free of snow, and everyone thought three hours' sleep might be a good idea. They were already bedding down when we got in.

I saw Dad's eyes meet Mom's. Kevin was trying very hard to get their attention without actually saying anything, but they wouldn't look at him.

The warehouse had food in it -- lots of food. Canned stuff. Had anybody thought to pack a can opener? I was pretty sure they hadn't. Why couldn't God have mentioned the can opener?

I stretched out next to Luke; cardboard boxes were piled high on either side of us, like walls. It felt sort of comforting. Even the concrete floor seemed like a good place to rest.

Even as I shut my eyes, the world seemed to shift and change; I was dreaming almost before I was asleep. But it was such a great dream: All of us smaller, all of us piled up on the sofa in front of a fireplace we never had when we were little. I had a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows; Luke was still in footie pajamas, yellow ones with little rocketships. A soft plaid blanket lay over our legs.

Mom pulled us closer to her, all piled atop each other in a family embrace. She had a book in her hands, and I recognized it right away. My favorite, I thought, though it never really was my favorite.

"In the great green room, there was a telephone," Mom read. She has such a soft voice. "And a red balloon, and a picture -- of a cow jumping over the moon."

Mom's fingers combed through my hair. When I was little, she would do that to put me to sleep -- no matter how long it took. She could do that, just sit there and wait patiently, combing my hair.

Kevin's head rested against her shoulder. He was too old for this book, but he didn't seem to care.

"And two little kittens, and a pair of mittens, and a little toyhouse, and a young mouse," she read.

"I wish the book would never end," I said.

"Every story ends." Mom smiled at me. "They have to end, before we can tell them."

**

Had the sun come up when we started walking again? You couldn't tell, not anymore. The sky was snow, nothing but snow. I swear it was almost a foot higher than it had been when we stopped to rest.

Mom settled Kevin on the travois; he was whispering to her, talking low and fast. Her face was just -- gentle. I don't know what else to call it. Dad was still all bent over, and I realized he'd hurt himself yesterday. Would he even be able to pull Kevin today?

"I'll start," Luke said. He's almost too scrawny to the pull the thing at all, but he looked so determined that we all stepped away. "I'll do it."

"Thanks, buddy." Kevin didn't look grateful. Just sad.

My feet hurt. My back hurt. I was more exhausted than I'd ever been, ever, and there was nothing to do but keep walking.

Luke could pull the travois, but he couldn't pull it very fast. Within the first hour, we were already falling behind the others. Every once in a while, one of them would look back, but they didn't come back to help. I couldn't even get mad at them about that; it was hard enough just getting yourself through, and a lot of them were helping members of their own families. Little kids on people's backs; old people leaning against their arms.

Then somebody did start back.

I wondered if they were coming to help, but when she got closer, I realized it was an old woman. She paused as she met up with us; her face had lines of ice in every wrinkle.

"The warehouse," she said, as though we has asked her a question. "It's warm enough there, and there's food. I can wait there a while."

Wait? Wait for what? I didn't ask, and she just kept going. Far ahead, I could see the middle-aged woman who was probably her daughter. Her head was bent over, and I thought maybe she was crying.

We continued walking. I noticed that Dad was limping -- just a little, not enough to really slow him down. But when Luke couldn't go any further --

Get ready, I told myself. I meant for pulling the travois. Get ready.

**

Sunlight at last.

We were almost alone at this point, because the others were so far ahead. Was it 6 a.m.? Noon? No telling. But the storm had lessened a little, if not for long. We could make up some ground now.

"If we could fashion some runners, this travois would work better," Luke said. He was sagged against the snow, handprints and kneeprints inches deep. He never complained once. "If we just had time."

"We don't," Kevin said. He looked small, curled up on the travois, bound to the fabric. "Mom, Dad -- can I talk to you?"

They knelt by his side. I stepped away, so I wouldn't have to hear.

I tried to look back the way we had come; the snow erased all our tracks quickly, so it was hard to tell what was ahead and what lay behind.

Anything in the world could have happened to Adam, and I'll probably never know what. I'd eaten my last Big Mac, ever. All the stuff that used to annoy me -- school, traffic lights, stupid shows on TV -- none of that existed any longer, and now it seemed beautiful and important, something I should have been more careful not to lose.

That was what my mind was telling me. My heart was still numb. I couldn't get sad about the whole world. I couldn't feel any emotions about anything further away than the travois.

"Kids?" Mom almost sounded cheerful. When I turned around, she was smiling. Dad was crying. My stomach dropped. "Come here. We need to talk."

Luke stomped over to them and said, "You're not leaving Kevin here alone."

"No, we aren't," Mom held out her hands, one for me and for Luke. As her fingers closed around mine, she said, "I'm going to walk back to the warehouse with Kevin. We're going to stay there a while."

No, no. Not Mom. Not Mom too.

But then I remembered what I had said to God, what he had said to me in that Voice. Leaving Kevin alone -- that was something we could never get over, not ever. We wouldn't be a family after that. We wouldn't be people after that.

But if Mom stayed with him, it gave him a chance -- not much of one, but a chance. And even if he died --

--when he died, when he dies, when they both die --

--they won't be alone. And they won't be afraid.

Dad just kept looking at Mom's face, like he'd never seen her before. "Honey, please -- I should --"

"It's my responsibility to take care of this family too," she said. brushing her hand against his cheek. "Joan and Luke need you. Kevin needs me."

Mom's eyes met Kevin's. They were both smiling. I remembered my third dream, the way she had looked while she read us "Goodnight, Moon."

She loved him enough to stay with him. I had to love him enough to let her. Our family had to love Kevin enough to let Mom go. That was the only way we would survive -- not by staying alive, because some of us wouldn't. But we would survive as a family. What we had right now, with all of us circled together in the cold -- that would live on.

Tears started running down my cheek, hot only for the first moment. Luke was shaking, and he held onto Mom's hand so tightly that it looked like it hurt. "I don't want to," Luke said, and he sounded a lot younger than 15.

"I know, baby." Mom still didn't seem scared at all. "But I want you to. Will you do that for me?"

Kevin blurted out, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. If I hadn't --"

"Don't." Dad's voice was thick. "Kevin, don't."

"I understand." It was all I had to say. "We'll do it. I'll take the books." Both Luke and Dad stared at me, like they couldn't believe it. For the first time ever, it hit me that I was going to be the strong one, at least for a while. I didn't want to be stronger than my father, not even for five minutes, not ever. But I could be. If that was what Mom needed, what God asked, I would be.

"Good, Joan." She was relieved. Maybe she'd been counting on me -- on one of us, anyway. "That's good."

"I love you both so much." I knelt down and put my arms around Kevin; he hugged me for the last time, and I remembered the prom from my dream, the dances we never shared.

I could hear Dad whispering something to Mom. Luke was crying. We had to end this soon, but it would never end, not really, not inside.

"She'll take care of you," I whispered to Kevin. "She'll watch over you."

"You watch over them," he said. It was as close as he could get to goodbye.

Mom got the travois on and started back. She took a few steps, waved over her shoulder, and then walked away into the snow. The flakes slowly erased her and Kevin, turning them into a dark smudge, getting lost in the white.

"Let's get moving," I said. Dad and Luke fell into step beside me, moving slowly, like zombies. I led the way. We couldn't look back the way we'd come, only the way we were going.

**

THE END