The ice was gleaming white under the pale sky, ringed with clumsy snow and crossed with the scars of yesterday’s ice skates. The children were mostly going in circles today, at the other end of the pond. Mary sat, huddled and shivering, on the bench damp with cold, right next to where she’d parked the car. From there she could see all the kids, and hear their voices – not that they were being quiet enough to miss a mile off – and if she needed to, could spring up and run to them if something happened. She didn’t think she could do anything especially useful about it, but at least she was close enough to be on hand when something awful happened. It wasn’t just her kids, too. She imagined knocking on the door of the house down the street, and Laura coming to see, expectant and smiling to greet her son. Her face would freeze and Mary wouldn’t say “They’re in my kitchen, having some hot chocolate, but I’ll get them back by five.” She’d struggle to speak, and watch Laura’s eyes grow worried, and finally burst out that they needed to get to the hospital right away. Just the thought made her shudder, her chest tight and her eyes tearing. She straightened her back, brushed the thought from her mind. In any case, that was a silly scenario. She’d probably call straight from the ambulance, and meet Laura in the emergency room. That made more sense.
Her kids were shouting, “Mom, Mom, look! Watch this!” Her eyes snapped back to them, and she chided herself for letting her gaze drift. Jackie was standing in the middle of their clump, and once they were sure that Mary was looking they all turned to her. The little girl sort of hopped – her breath caught with the movement, watching so far away – and she spun, almost a full rotation before her legs splayed and she landed hard on the ice. Mary jumped from her seat and started to run, until she say Andy hauling Jackie to her feet and the girl trying to laugh instead of cry. It seemed that the breath dissolved in Mary’s lungs, and she wasn’t stiff and bursting with it anymore, a scream waiting to come out. Her shoulders relaxed and she backed to the bench again, feeling a little foolish.
Andy shouted over, “Mama, did you see?”
She stretched her face into a smile for them and nodded, calling out, “Yes, Jackie honey, that was great. Keep practicing!” The ice seemed fine, sturdy. It was certainly cold enough. She couldn’t feel her fingers anymore, or her nose. The kids were whirling and ducking again, playing some game. If one of them fell again, would the ice break? One of them was sure to fall again. Some one of them would fall, and a great crack would open under them. The whole pond would groan with the damage, and then that poor kid would fall through the new wound in the ice into the frozen waters. The other kids would all crowd around, screaming shrilly – or maybe they would fall in after the first one. That seemed possible.
Mary checked her watch again. They had been there just over an hour. The kids, of course, hadn’t been skating that long. There had been the obligatory twenty minutes of sitting in the snow while they stuffed their feet into too-small spaces and argued over whose skates belonged to whom. When they had launched out over the still white pond, she thought she might cry. That nightmare of falling through broken ice must have run through her head sixty times by now. Watching them play sports or climb a jungle gym was nerve-wracking, but this – they’d never skated before. She had hoped they wouldn’t like it, that she wouldn’t have to add hypothermia to her growing list of worries, worries that she picked at in her head like tangled threads, counting them over and over again. Of course, the kids had all taken to skating as if they were born to it. They’d probably want to go again, probably often. She bit her lip, and barely felt it for the cold. At least now they seemed like they’d had enough, they would want to go home soon. That might be exactly the time when disaster struck suddenly. That seemed to be how it worked, spitefully, hitting just when she thought they were safe. She saw Rob start over toward her, arms flailing as if he were trying to propel himself through the air.
In the next five minutes, the kids all followed, shaking the snow from their jackets and bearing broad grins under their rosy cold noses. She ushered them into the car, breath finally coming evenly, and when she got into the driver’s seat she turned to do a head count without even feeling a flutter of panic. For the moment, at least, they were done with skating and they wouldn’t fall through the ice. Maybe when they got back to the house, she’d make them all hot chocolate.