A neighbor once said she saw Sylvia Smith teaching her five-year-old granddaughter archery. Which, admittedly, wouldn’t be the strangest thing in the world, if the lesson wasn’t taking place during the most violent snowstorm of the season. Even ten years after their arrival in a small Wisconsin town starved for gossip, Sylvia and her granddaughter Emily stuck out like sore thumbs. When confronted with blunt questions about where she and her grandmother came from in those early school years, Emily would hang her head, say quietly that she didn’t know. Now in high school, she deflected. Joking—in a deadpan sarcasm that she often had to remind others was sarcasm at all—that her grandmother was a secret agent, or a retired businesswoman, or (her new favorite) a wealthy heiress on the run from some scandal or another. These would always be followed by laughter, and honestly? There were moments where Emily wasn’t sure if she was joking. Okay, she was 99% sure her grandmother probably wasn’t any of these things, but she was secretive.
Emily’s best friend Claire had once told her, not five minutes after they’d first met on the creaking swing-set outside of Nevis’s elementary school, that Sylvia had just appeared. Literally. There had been none of the expected pre-move gossip from a “SOLD” sign, which was a constant in a town the size of Nevis. Instead, Claire’s dad had met her at the corner store as she asked him, in a lilting English, for help interpreting “the money” as she held out a crisp set of twenty-dollar bills. To this day, he swore up and down that the cabin the Smiths lived in hadn’t been there before Sylvia arrived with baby Emily in her arms.
One neighbor’s story made the rounds frequently. About how he’d met Sylvia after he nearly hit her with a car—several times. The first being when she’d walked into the middle of Nevis’s greatest intersection (the only one with a proper stoplight), seemingly without a care in the world. Brakes had been slammed, and she’d startled, ran out of the way. Long gone before he could say anything. The last being when she’d stepped into the middle of the road, grocery bag in hand, and, without running, affixed him with the kind of proud gaze that only she, pushing seventy, could manage. She’d rapped on his window, and he’d had to explain what cars were, how stoplights worked, and why she really, really needed to start looking both ways.
Of course, Emily would never hear this from Sylvia herself. When she’d asked Sylvia why she refused to set foot in a car, to just maybe consider finding a way to pick Emily up from school during January, when Nevis’s temperature dropped to -10°, the response was: “It’s good for you, you must keep on your toes.” Emily had responded that it would be a little hard for her to “keep on her toes” if they froze and fell off, but Sylvia only offered a tight-lipped, mischievous smile. So Emily would never know if Sylvia was afraid to drive because of her several car-induced, near brushes with death. She would never know where her grandmother was or what she did before coming to Nevis. Emily would never know about her own parents. Because, even that, was locked away behind Sylvia’s proud face. Beneath her shock of white hair.
For so long, Sylvia had been Emily’s superhero—someone with important, but necessarily kept secrets. To try to unlock them had been a game Emily had played; in the park, while the final dregs of snow melted, on the walk to or from Claire’s house, over eggs at their wooden table. But as the years wore on, that admiration began melting into frustration. She could never be mad at Sylvia, but she could resent that untethered sensation she always felt when her classmates talked about their parents, the one she laughed off if asked about her own.
Nevertheless, for the fifteen years since Sylvia and Emily’s arrival, whatever secrets Sylvia hid existed untouched. Something to be gossiped about by townspeople, or stewed over by Emily. But one day, something reached out to Sylvia. It was a request she couldn’t ignore, a possibility she’d dreaded.
And she realized the futility of everything she’d held onto so desperately.
Emily’s fingers were numb. Minus whoever-knows-how-many degrees in a worn hoodie tended to do that to you. In her defense, it’d been warm enough that morning for the icicles in the eaves to drip. Oh well. She’d bring a coat next time, the one that hung on a hook by the cabin door in the summer and by the fire during the winter. Imbued with aspen, lavender, and the comforting kind of smokey only achieved after years—the one that smelled like home.
Now, there was the smell of fresh snow. Emily’s shaking fingers ghosted down from the warm exhalations of her mouth back, yet again, to fumble for her pocket.
“Are you doing okay over there?” Claire’s voice was bemused and slightly exasperated beside her.
She’d taken one look at Emily’s outfit in the courtyard that morning before informing her of the weather forecast. Emily had not been particularly amused.
Emily watched her scoff crystalize in the air, “very funny.”
The snow was deeper than usual these days. Where most after-school walks earlier that winter had blinded them with glittering snow and a sun-filled sky, the light was gone today. The sky was an unrelenting grey and the air felt unusually thick and still. Emily was not a superstitious person by any means, but the atmosphere almost felt… uneasy. It seemed to hold its breath as they drifted through it. On the other hand, there was none of the underfoot crunching of built-up snow—someone must’ve shoveled the sidewalks after last night’s storm, so they had that going for them.
“God, I hate winter,” Claire muttered, crossing her arms.
“You’re telling me.” The cold walks home were one thing (though, admittedly made colder by her own stubbornness this time around) but her chattering teeth had also made Emily stutter even more than usual in class. Her cheeks still heated with embarrassment at the memory of the aftermath of being called on last period.
Claire, as always, knew exactly what she was dwelling on. “Seriously, don’t worry about that. No one was judging you.”
Emily knew Claire wouldn’t. And, admittedly, no one had laughed, but Emily couldn’t stop thinking about it. It, and every other stumbled-over word.
She was forced out of her thoughts by a startled “watch out!” from Claire. There was an engine roar and a showering of cold from her left. Snow. Already soaking into her jacket, already making her cold arm even colder. Claire yelled at the taillights of the retreating pickup truck, while Emily stared at it in disbelief. The speed limit in Nevis was, like, two miles per hour. It was a small town and, gossip aside, people were usually pretty friendly.
Claire rolled her eyes and tugged at Emily’s arm, “Well that sucked.”
Emily huffed out a laugh. “What do you think, that or a puddle?”
They began walking again.
“You know, if you asked me that yesterday I would’ve said snow because, ideally, it’s cleaner,” Emily spared a glance at Claire’s red coat, now covered in blackened slush. Claire brushed a patch of it off of her arm, “ideally.”
Emily watched the last of it melt into her sleeve and was hit by an age-old impulse. A tried and true joke. “Hey, maybe I was actually born someplace warm and that’s why I’m so cold right now.”
A dog barked behind the closed door of a snow-enveloped house as they passed. The stairs she knew led up from the sidewalk hadn’t been shoveled yet.
Claire laughed, “Right. Or maybe it’s because you’re wearing a hoodie,” then, more seriously, “still no word from your grandma?”
The (metaphorical) warmth Emily had been feeling seemed to swap places with the uneasy air. There was a tiny twinge of resentment there too. She shoved her hands as deeply as they could go into her pocket. A nervous habit.
She shook her head. “Nothing. I just don’t understand why she needs to be so secretive all the time. Would it kill her to give me something? Like, oh I don’t know, my mom’s favorite food? I literally don’t know anything about my parents.”
“Or anything about my grandmother pre… me, I guess,” Claire didn’t respond and Emily felt her chest tighten just a little, “I’m sorry I keep bringing it up. I guess I just thought that when I got older she’d tell me something, but here I am, in high school for a while, and still nothing.”
“Hey, if I were you I’d have a lot of questions too. I can’t imagine how weird it would feel if I didn’t know where I was born.”
“Yeah,” Emily replied.
Claire stopped outside of two glass doors. A chalkboard in the window gave a menu complete with doodles of steaming cocoa. Sully’s Coffee. Claire and her parents lived above it. No lights were on in the second-floor windows—made pitch black by the early lack of sunlight during winter—both of her parents worked late. Claire pulled out her keys absentmindedly then turned to face Emily.
“Well,” Claire’s mouth quirked into a smile, “At least we’ve got tickets to that new Marvel movie!” She gestured at the faded logo on Emily’s hoodie, “maybe that’ll take your mind off of it. Plus, she has to say something eventually right?”
“Maybe,” Sylvia was the most stubborn person Emily knew, but Claire’s perpetual optimism was infectious, “I can hope. Anyways, meet you here tomorrow. Make sure to have your notes for math ready!”
Claire stopped in the doorway, rolling her eyes, “Oh trust me I know, can’t wait to not sleep!”
Emily smiled. “Same here, call me if you need a study buddy.”
The whoosh of the glass door cut into the snow-filled silence. Claire waved, then it was shut. Emily jumped up and down a couple of times, again regretting her choice of dress, shoved her hands even further into her pocket, and continued her walk home, ruminating on mathematical theorems, and then, as she seemed to be doing more and more frequently these days, the question of Sylvia.