Alice woke up to packing. Her mother was bent over, sorting out clothes. She had big half moon shadows under her eyes, like the dark golden ones that the closed window shades cast throughout the room. She gave tight, quick smiles and pushed her bronzy sand colored hair out of her face. The hair fell back, anyway.
She folded some of the clothes, neatly smoothing out cotton cloth to leave no room for wrinkles, and carefully put them inside the borrowed suitcase. Others she put into the big, black trash bag by her feet and sighed. She picked up a small faded pink sleeper, Alice’s old one from when she was a baby. “I couldn’t get the smoke smell out of it,” she whispered to her husband sitting on the old wooden chair, cramming things (a razor, some shampoo, a blue and yellow Old Navy bag a quarter filled with silverware) into a black bag that was too small. “I must have washed it ten, twelve times, but it just won’t leave.”
Dan Kendall looked over from his packing.
She held on tightly to the outfit. “I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s just, I mean, it’s the only thing left for me to remember how everything used to be.”
“That’s not ridiculous, Julie,” Dan murmured. He fumbled with a zipper. “I think my mom has some photos, though. Yours, too.”
She laughed, slightly, but didn’t loosen her grasp on the sleeper. “I’m gonna get one of those big Ziplocs,” she said. “Maybe, at least, the smell won’t get to the rest of the clothes.”
Dan nodded, and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. Alice’s hair was the same color. She reached out her own tiny hand, and fingered a strand. Her father looked over to her and quickly smiled. “Hey, sweetie. Glad you’re up. Are you hungry?”
Alice’s eyes wandered towards the bags. “We’re leaving pretty soon. Today, at least-- hopefully before tonight.” Dan said. “We’ve got a house, now. It’s not that big, but you’ll like it. There are some other kids nearby. Remember how you always used to say there were never any kids near our old house?”
Alice pushed the starched white sheets past her chin, watching him with solemn brown eyes.
“You sure you’re not hungry? I could fire you up some awesome French toast with extra cinnamon, and maybe even some cool whip.”
A tiny smiled tugged on Alice’s lips. She gave one of her thin shoulders a shrug.
“Right. Awesome. So do you want your Totally Amazing French Toast here or in the kitchen?”
Alice shrugged again. Julia walked in, holding the plastic bag by the opening band on top. Her eyes flickered to those of her child. “Oh, hey, honey,” she said. She offered Alice a small smile.
“I was just going to make Alice some French toast. You want any?”
“I’m okay. I had something earlier,” she said. “I think I’m going to work on the packing,” she added, as if it were a question.
Dan regarded her for a moment. He looked back at the little girl. “C’mon, Liss, why don’t you help me with the cooking?” He lifted her up by the armpits and swung her to his hip. She was small for her five years. Alice twisted her head as he father headed out of the room, watching her mother. Julia smiled at her, and sat on the bed, playing with the ends of the Ziploc.
Alice sat on the granite countertop. The grey and white polished stone speckled into shapes, and she traced them with a finger: a giraffe, a boat, a face. The counter, she thought, was almost like a cloud in that way; it was just harder. Clouds are supposed to feel like pillows, except they’re really even softer because they float in the air instead of lying on some hard mattress. She squinted at the counter, so that the varying shades of greys blurred into each other and it looked like she had ten fingers on each hand.
Outside, through the window behind her, it began to snow. They were big, wet flakes that flew in every direction like moths fluttering around a light. They almost looked like moving, weightless speckles of granite. Alice twisted around, turning her legs underneath herself, to get a better look out as the air began to smell richly of butter and sweet spices. She twisted her head to look at the stove. It was the kind with the big and little orange spirals instead of the spiking, flying blue fire.
Dan smiled at her, a single dark eye brow rising. In the silver no-stick pan, cinnamon swirl bread (no raisons) soaked in bubbling gold liquid. He turned back to the stove to add sugar. The crystallized powder fell and became little more than nothing in the butter.
“I’ve got most of the clothes packed,” Julia said. She stood in the doorway, a hand fluttering anxiously from the top of her hip to back by her side. “We should probably write a note to Mark and Anna to thank them for letting us use their house and everything.”
It was past midnight before the car was packed. Julia kept needing to go back to the house for some forgotten tooth brush or photograph. The moon was full and extraordinarily bright. It illuminated everything, from the purply white Milky Way above, to Julia’s pretending face.
The snow had stopped, but the ground was slushy. Alice stomped in one of the snowy puddles, watching the slowed diamond ripples blow around mini frosted icebergs. She wanted to reach down and grasp a handful of the snow sticking out, to feel the melting cold in her palm. At that moment, though, her mother took her hand and led her to the car.
“We’ll have to add rain boots to the list,” Julia said. She lifted the little girl into the back seat and handed her the little pink backpack in the shape of a pig’s head. Alice hugged it to herself.
The car was dark. Heavy with shadows. Alice wasn’t used to being in the car at night. It was different. She couldn’t tell if she liked it or not. The air was fake, over bearing, snugly warm, but the window was somehow still frosty with that thin condensation belonging to winter. She pressed her hand against the window. She let her fingers warm the glass and form her small imprint, complete with lines and creases, the storybook of her palm. When she removed it, her hand was cold and wet. She flexed it gently, letting the car’s forced air warm it back up.
Alice leaned in closer and rubbed the snowflake frost with the sleeve of her pink hoodie. She peered out the window, studying the blurred nighttime scenery. In her cleared circle, the trees were bare and unmoving, husks of what they had been before the leaves disappeared to the ground and were covered with white snow that first time. She thought she saw foot prints. People on their way to Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house in the forest, like in her book.
In her dream, everything was on fire. She was in her bedroom (the old one) and it was on fire. It was hot. Everything was orange, grey, and black. Her fairy pink comforter was charcoal with floury ash, but she sat on it anyway because it was the only thing that wasn’t burning up. She huddled with her back to the wall where all her favorite pictures used to be and watched. Dead ash got into her nose and all she could smell was the acidic, choking burning. It got into her eyes but she couldn’t shut them. She watched the fire climb up her wall, crackling, eating away at the wood and melting her rainbow mural. She watched it twist her castle mirror into evil swirling, deforming patterns. When she looked in it, she didn’t see herself.
She woke up with crescent marks pressed into her palm. Everything was too hot, but she wanted her blanket. She hugged herself, bringing her knees up to rest by her stomach. She looked towards the front seat to make sure her parents were still there. They were. Dan was driving, his fingers tapping lightly on the shadowy steering wheel. Julia was asleep, her face tilted to the side. Her dark sand hair was in her face again, and her pink lips were just slightly apart, like she was trying to say something with her eyes closed.
Dan’s eyes looked at hers through the curved rectangle of the rearview mirror. “You okay?” he asked. She blinked and turned back to the window. She pressed her thumb to her cheek. The window was covered with wet droplets as if it had been raining inside the car and only just let up. There were lights, though. Tiny yellow and white lights racing past in wobbly, glittering, falling dots. Alice bit her lip. She couldn’t tell if they were the good kind of lights, or the bad kind. Maybe she was still in the dream.
“We’re in Boston,” Dan’s face said with the help of the mirror. “We’ll be at the new house in a couple hours. Hopefully, it’ll be almost light, then.” Then, he added, “You’ll like it. I promise.”
“You know, you’ve been in Boston before. You were just really little. We went to the big green in the middle of everything and had a picnic. There were pigeons everywhere, so mommy decided to show you how to feed them. You were more interested in trying to chase them, though,” he said, smiling at the road in front of him. “You were only just learning how to walk, so you kept falling. The pigeons only had to move a few inches every time you got up to keep out of your reach.”
Julia stirred from the front seat. “Oh my God,” she murmured, almost a whisper. “How long have I been out?”
Dan shrugged. “Since about one,” he said, his tone changing. Alice leaned over to see the glowing red numbers. It was 4:30.
Julia yawned, and struggled to sit upright in the passenger’s seat. She brushed past her hair with her fingers. “Hey,” she said, softly, “stop at the next Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ll take over for you.”
Somehow, theirs wasn’t the only car in the parking lot. There were others, maybe eight, mostly white and black, though one looked like it might be red. The sky was still pitch black; the cobalt of early dawn wouldn’t appear for a few hours yet. Julia helped Alice out of the car. The little girl looked around. There wasn’t any snow, except for a few scattered about banks the color of dirt. It was warmer out, too. Not so warm that she didn’t need a coat, but it was definite.
The hot sugar air eagerly flew out of her brown paper bag as she peeled it open. Alice liked donuts. They were a treat, the kind of thing you might get on your birthday for breakfast. She sat on the hood of the car, on an old ragged blanket that needed to be washed, anyway. She held her chocolate glazed treat in one hand, the other tearing off tiny sugary pieces to pop in her mouth. He parents stood around, slowly sipping their coffee. It was hot. It would take a while for the outdoors, even, to cool it down.
Dan leaned against the car and pointed at the sky. “Do you see that?” he asked Alice. “It’s the big dipper. It’s supposed to be shaped like a spoon.” He grinned. “It’s one of the only things I can make out in the sky, but there’s others. I think there’s a bear somewhere, too.”
Alice looked up. There were a lot less stars, and she couldn’t see the Milky Way. The lights were all on the ground, instead. The lights were the lamp posts, and the yellow insides of the buildings around her. From the top of the car, even Dunkin’ Donuts’ windows looked yellowy. Other cars drove past, their lights on, too. On the ground, there was almost more yellow than there was black. Even the sky, the sky with its too few stars, was almost just grey.
It started to rain, slowly at first. A cold droplet fell on Alice’s face, right below her eye, as she stared up.
It rained harder once they were all in the car. The windshield wipers were a poor defense against the rain’s onslaught. The rain pounded, demanding its imprint against the glass. Puddles formed out of nothing, and when the car rolled over them, they became the ocean. The puddles roared and tried to smash themselves against bumpers. Julia sighed and said, “This would happen now.” She turned up the speed on the windshield wipers and gripped the steering wheel tightly.
“We can switch again, if you want,” Dan said lightly, almost amused.
“Funny,” Julia said, her eyes straight ahead at the road and the rain.
At the new house, everything was white and grey, except for the ground. The street was navy blue, like streets are, and the grass was mostly green, as if it forgot to turn brown for winter. But the house was white, with chipped black shutters on only some of the windows. It looked old. The sky was the darkest white she’d ever seen. It was oppressive, heavy. Alice wondered if that was what the sky looked like in Chicken Little, when it was about to fall down. She wondered if that was why it was supposed to fall, too-- if the sky just got too heavy to stay on top of everything.