I’ve mentioned before that the characters of Wyatt and his sister Maddie came from a short story I wrote years ago. Today, as I was organizing my chaotic Dropbox files, I came upon the story.
Short stories are not my strength, but thought you might enjoy a glimpse into the youth that shaped Wyatt into the protective big brother, uncle, man that he is in Spying on the Boss.
The wind was constant, a never ending voice that sighed softly in summer and became a harridan’s shriek in winter. Today the winds were balanced between the two extremes, but Maddie didn’t know that on this late autumn day. She had yet to face her first winter on the northern edge of Japan.
The wind was icy cold, turning her cheeks and nose bright red. It pushed at her slight form, rocking her back, making her lean forward to keep up with her father and brother Wyatt. She wanted to hold her gloved hands over her cheeks and chin, but needed her arms for balance as she slipped and slid over the uneven rocky shore of the beach.
At last, her father stopped, still well back from the water. The rocks had given over to coarse black sand, littered with pulverized bits of shell and long strands of kelp. Maddie tried to stand behind her father, using him as a windbreak, but he hunkered down and handed the binoculars to Wyatt.
“Can you see it,” he asked, helping eleven year old Wyatt balance the heavy binoculars.
“Um, no. Oh, wait, wait a minute, yeah, there it is. I can see it!”
Maddie squinted out at the ocean. All she could see were gray-green waves with plumes of white foam ripped from the crests by the wind. The wind was too strong, too cold to look directly out to sea.
“Your turn, Maddie,” her father said, reaching around to pull her forward. He knelt down on both knees now, surely getting his pants wet, surely freezing the flesh, to shelter her between his arms.
The long scopes of the high powered binoculars made it almost too heavy for Maddie to hold. She held them steady against her eyes while her father’s large hands bore the weight. Now that her eyes were shielded, she could open them. Still, she saw nothing but water.
“Do you see?” her father asked.
Not sure what she was supposed to be seeing, not sure if she should say she didn’t, not after he’d made a special trip of this, a special outing, just dad and the kids, Maddie stared harder.
“Um, I don’t know,” she finally had to admit.
“It looks like a black lump out there,” Wyatt said, finally giving her a hint of what she was looking for.
She did see that. “Yes, I see, I see it!” A moment later. “What is it?”
“That’s Siberia,” her father said, his tone clearly indicating that there was something special about this. For Maddie, it meant nothing. Wyatt, on the other hand, was instantly excited.
“Really? Neat!” He held out a hand for the binoculars and Maddie gave them over.
“What’s Siberia, Daddy?” she asked.
“It’s in Russia,” her father replied. “It’s famous for being one of the coldest places on earth.”
“Colder than here?”
Her father laughed. “No, probably not.”
“Then why is it famous and Wakkanai isn’t?”
Her father stood up, the wet patches on his knees rimming over white once the wind touched them. He patted her on the shoulder. “That’s just the way of the world, Maddie.” Which explained exactly nothing to her, but she knew better than to continue to ask.
The coldest place on earth comment stayed with her as the winter arrived. By the beginning of October, there had been two feet of snow on the ground. The temperatures wouldn’t get above freezing again until the end of April. Snow would not melt, only pile higher with each storm, even higher along the sidewalks and roads where plows and shovels made narrow, dark corridors.
They rode the base bus to school most days. The tiny air base was hardly more than one large circle. At one apex, were the commissary, the clinic, and the administrative offices, at the other was the dependent school. In the center were clusters of base housing, large pale brick apartment buildings. Sometimes the bus wouldn’t run and Maddie and Wyatt would walk to school, bundled up against the cold. Maddie’s mom picked up a hint from the other moms and put empty bread bags on their feet, one layer of sock beneath the plastic film, one above to keep the feet dry against the snow that inevitably found its way down into the tightest boot.
It was snowing that morning, gentle fat snowflakes and the wind had mysteriously disappeared, Maddie stood for a moment, her breath steaming in a cloud around her head and listened. Snowfall was not silent. The flakes landed on top of each other with soft distant crunches, it sounded like the bowl of Rice Krispies she had had for breakfast, only quieter. She looked up at the snow bank towering over her head, then at the sky. She wondered if the lack of wind was because she was hidden down here, sheltered by ten feet of frozen packed snow, the solid round curve of it broken only by sidewalk entrances. The low gray clouds were moving rapidly across the sky, but still, down here there was no wind.
They had left the house together, lunch boxes in hand, doubled gloved, parkas over sweaters over school shirts over tee-shirts over long johns (those itchy woolen ones).
Maddie wore a bright pink, yellow and green knitted stocking cap, the kind with the point that would have trailed halfway down her back if it hadn’t been tripled wrapped around her throat and the lower part of her face. The top was pulled down over her forehead, to the very edges of her eyelids, leaving only a slit to look out at the world. The string on her parka hood was pulled tight, tied under her chin, holding the whole works in place.
“Hold your sister’s hand,” their mom called after them, her Carolina accent too warm for the frigid air.
Wyatt grabbed at her wrist, pulling her along behind him, forcing her into a double time step. As soon as they reached the street, he let go and raced ahead to join up with two boys from his class. They walked, laughing and shoving at each other, about ten feet ahead of Maddie. Occasionally, they would scoop up a handful of fresh snow and toss it back at her. She let the distance increase until she was out of snowball range.
Wyatt had a ton of boys from which to choose friends. There was only one other third grade girl. Maddie had tried to be her friend, but the little girl, in her starched dresses, her platinum blond curls combed to perfection wanted nothing to do with Maddie. Maddie tried staying inside at recess to play dolls or pretend cook in the pretend kitchen with Sophia, but it was too boring. So instead, she settled for arm slugs and getting pushed in the snow by the Palmer brothers, the twins one year older than her, Steve and Thomas.
When the wind returned, she at first didn’t even notice, already had it become so familiar, as ignored as the sound of her own breathing. Something landed on the top of her parka hood and she looked up. Loose snow was being blown off the top of the snow bank, falling down on her in heavy wet clumps. She stepped away from the bank and looked ahead to the boys. They were gone. In their place was a hazy white fog that she had never seen before.
Just as she opened her mouth to call out for Wyatt, the fog hit her with enough force to knock her backwards, off her feet on to her bottom. Now the wind was shrieking like it was a living thing. She’d never heard a sound like it, ever in her whole life. She tried to get up but couldn’t. Bits of ice and snow drove like needles into the exposed skin around her eyes. She flipped over, turning her back to the wind and managed to get up on her hands and knees. She wiggled through the snow until she bumped into the snow bank. Some deep instinct drove her to it, to that solid guide. With one hand digging into the hard packed snow, she was able to get to her feet and turn in to the wind.
“Wyatt!” she yelled, or tried to yell, the wind seemed to reach right down in to her lungs to snatch the word before she could form it fully, snatched it and sent it whirling away behind her. She buried her eyes and nose in the crook of her elbow, too stunned by the force to the wind to really feel the cold. She didn’t know what to do. Keep going towards the school? Try to go back home?
She thought she should go home, it was closer and she could turn her back on the wind if she went that way. She managed to turn around and began to make her way when she realized that the sidewalk to home was on the other side of the road. She couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face in the swirling white out, she would never find the narrow path to home. Maybe she should just go up the first path she came to, knock on the first door she found. Yes, that was what she should do.
A few more steps forward and she thought she heard something. She paused but only heard the screaming wind. A moment later, it came again.
She tried to turn back. “Wyatt!”
In the end, he walked right in to her, knocking her down, then pulling her back up, slinging one arm around her shoulders, the other hooking elbow to elbow. “You’re okay,” he yelled into her ear. “You’re okay, I found you, I got you. It’s okay.”
The edge of panic in his voice frightened her more than the wind and snow. Surely he couldn’t be scared? Not Wyatt, not her brave big brother who knew everything?
He pushed at her, moving her forward. “Let’s go, just hold on. Keep following the snow bank.”
They walked on, how long Maddie didn’t know, how far, probably not far. There was nothing left of the world except the wind and the snow that scoured what bit of skin it could find. Nothing but white. Maddie stopped when Wyatt’s hand squeezed hard on her upper arm.
She listened. Was there something? Something like the wind, but deeper?
“Hey!” Wyatt shouted. “Hey! Here. Over here!”
Maddie recognized the sound just an instant before the glowing eye of the snowmobile’s headlight appeared out of the white nothingness. The MP stopped beside them and huddled down to yell into a radio, “Got two more.”
They sandwiched Maddie in between the two of them for the trip. At the school, heads would be counted, mothers called, and the school day would begin. No snow day here. Wyatt kept a firm grip on her the entire trip. As they walked up to the school building, teachers with flashlights pointing the way, he leaned close.
“Don’t tell Mom, okay?”
“And really, really don’t tell Dad.”
Maddie took her brother’s hand. He didn’t pull his away. She nodded again.
Spring was wet. Wet and cold and the drip, drip, drip, of constantly melting snow. And mud. Even with the mudroom, what Maddie’s mom called a vestibule, at the front door, mud and chunks of dirty ice and hard packed snow were tracked in across the hilly faded linoleum entryway floor. The wind remained, strong, constant, doing its part to evaporate the mountains of snow. By the end of May, it was warm enough for a light jacket and dry enough for sneakers.
“What’s that?” Maddie asked of Stevie, the older “by four minutes” Palmer twin. The twins lived next door. The two apartments shared a stairway up to a flat slab of concrete porch that served both front doors.
Stevie was sitting on the top step, holding a jelly jar filled with cloudy water. “Tadpoles,” he said.
Maddie sat down next to him and leaned close to peer through the murky water. Sure enough, there were dozens of tadpoles swimming around. “Oh look!” she exclaimed, pointing with an index finger, “That one’s got little legs starting to grow!”
Stevie held the jar up to his nose, closing one eye in a squint as he looked. “A couple of them do,” he said.
They sat for a moment, staring at the jar. The wind pushed Maddie’s hair back off her face and made the collar on her jacket flap annoyingly against her throat. “Where did you catch them?” she asked.
“Down at the gully,” he said, waving a hand in the direction of the ring of low hills that separated the base from the town.
The kids called it the gully, but really it was just a big ditch, man-made, dug to help divert melting snow from the hills away from the housing units.
Maddie eyed the hills, then the jar. She wanted some tadpoles too. She tried to think if they had any jars in the house. There was the big coffee can she kept her crayons in, that might work.
“Wanna go get some more?” Stevie asked.
After scouring both apartments for jars, the actual capture of the tadpoles was quite easy. All Maddie had to do was dip a jar or can into the still cold water, wait a minute and it would fill with tadpoles. They spent the rest of the afternoon creating a tadpole farm in the sour dirt beneath the porch. At first they tried to dig holes and fill them with water, but the water only seeped away, leaving the tadpoles high and dry. Finally they settled on half burying the jars and cans, Stevie said that would help keep the water from getting too cold.
Wyatt found them crawling around under the porch one morning and told them they were going to get warts from playing with toads. Stevie said these were frogs, not toads.
Wyatt said it didn’t matter, then he pointed at Maddie. “Better be sure Dad doesn’t find you crawling around in the dirt down here, he’ll pop you for sure.”
Maddie didn’t really believe Wyatt about the wart thing. She was pretty sure Stevie was right, that was toads that would give you warts. But she washed her hands real good, just in case. For several days, they kept careful check on the progress, noting more and more legs sprouting, tadpole tails receding. Then the twins went off on a Boy Scout camping trip. The library had finally gotten some new books that Maddie hadn’t read dozens of times over the long winter and she sort of forgot.
Until her mother opened up the mudroom door one morning and screamed like Maddie had never, ever heard a real person scream. Screamed like that woman in that scary movie they wouldn’t let her watch the other night, the one she snuck down to the landing on the stairs to watch. She and Wyatt collided in the narrow hall rushing to see what had made their mom scream.
At first Maddie couldn’t see anything. Then she saw it. Frogs. Itsy-bitsy bright green frogs. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. The mudroom floor was a writhing, hopping green mass.
Their mom stood staring. “Look at this!” she said in real horror, a touch of rising panic in her voice. “Where in the hell did these frogs come from? God, I hate this place! I hate it!”
Wyatt looked over at Maddie. Maddie looked at Wyatt and felt her stomach pinch in on itself. Boy, oh boy, was she gonna get it now.
Wyatt only shook his head and put a finger to his lips. He pulled their mom back. “Go get me a paper bag, Mom,” he said. “Maddie and I will get rid of them.”
Took them a couple of hours. The frogs had filled not only their mudroom, but Mrs. Palmer’s also. There were surprisingly few down below, most, it seemed had tried to move up, towards the warmth of the building. They took them back to the gully to set them free.
“Thanks for not telling,” Maddie said on the way home from the last trip.
“Some things,” Wyatt told her, “parents don’t need to know.”
“Do you think she’s dead?” Maddie asked.
They were sitting in the sun, enjoying wearing short sleeves, enjoying the feel of seventy-two sunny degrees shining down on their faces. The grassy field they sat in was on the other side of the base from the hills. The grass was over their heads when they sat down, Wyatt held the end of Maddie’s kite string, tied to a stick. It was strung out almost to the end in the gentle summer breeze, too far for Maddie to hold on to.
“She’s not dead,” Wyatt said with perfect big brother disgust. “If she was dead, they’d have to tell us.”
Maddie looked up at the dot in the sky that was her kite, a pretty green and red dragon that she had bought with real yen at a store in downtown Wakkanai only a few days ago. Her chin trembled and her lips twisted in to a knot.
“Then why won’t she come out of her room?”
“She’s sick, she has the flu. You don’t want to get the flu, do you?” Wyatt said, his words, right down to the inflection, the exact speech her father had given.
“But she’s been sick before and didn’t stay in bed for this long. Why can’t we see her?”
Wyatt concentrated on the kite string, reeling it in a little bit.
“Do you think she’s going to die?”
“Maddie! Shut up!”
Maddie shut up, but only because her throat ached worse than when she had had tonsillitis last year. Tears slid over her eyelids and she sniffed.
Wyatt drove the stick that held the string in to the ground. “Stop crying. Don’t be such a baby. She’s not going to die. She’s just, she’s sick.”
Maddie pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “I don’t believe it,” she said and put her face down and cried.
Wyatt scooted over and put an arm around her shoulders. He leaned in close to her ear. “I don’t believe it either.”
Maddie leaned against him and cried even harder. Something was wrong here, here in this cold, windy strange place. Everyone was different. Her dad. Her mom. Even Wyatt. She wanted to go home, but there was no home to go back to. Just a list of bases, places she had lived in her nine years of life.
She stopped crying, fear crowding out the pain. She lifted her head a little bit, enough so her voice wouldn’t be muffled, but not enough to see Wyatt’s face. “Do you think he hurt her?”
Wyatt made a sound and Maddie peeked over. He was crying. That made her cry again. She snaked a thin arm around his waist and he hugged her tighter with his arm around her shoulder.
After a few minutes, Wyatt slid his arm off her shoulders and took her hand. “I’ll always take care of you Maddie, no matter what.”
They sat in the warm sunshine for a long time, watching the delicate dance of tall grass in the wind.