The ax broke. That was the problem that led me into the shed that day. It was a frigid morning and I couldn't get warm; the furnace, I suspected, was failing, doing little more than blowing around the air heated by the living room fireplace. For a long time I sat in front of the fire, watching TJ bat around toys on his playmat rigged with arches that suspended his rattles above his head. Since the night before he had been tugging at his ear, the now-familiar sign of an impending ear infection. Not again, I'd thought with a sense of dread, and nursed him twice as often in an effort to clear all the fragile little passageways. But the chances that would work were slim, and I knew now. Now I pulled the cuffs of my sweater over my hands and held my fingertips to the flames until they began to die down, and then I decided, for TJ's sake and mine, we needed more wood.
Winter had been colder than expected and, where the woodpile was concerned, we were down to the bottom third of the cord which Cade had not split properly. Such had been the theme of the past five months: chores were done carelessly, the remnants of tasks often trailing into the next day or week, as we found ourselves too distractible or disheartened to summon a good work ethic. Cade had it the worst of all. In November he had given away the two remaining cows to the Vogels, unable to continue venturing into the barn to milk them twice a day. Now he slept in until seven each morning, but he wasn't any better rested for it. Often when I awoke to nurse TJ I found his side of the bed empty, and it worried me awfully, this evidence that his sense of work and routines and clear paths through the madness was faltering. If only he could run, he'd be all right, I thought, but you can't run in New Hampshire in the winter. All you can do is stay put and try to stay warm. He'd been using the shed as his get-away place, the cave where he could retreat from the rest of us and maybe find a few moments of peace.
Laying TJ in the playpen, safely out of licking range of the beagles, I strapped on my boots and ventured out into the deep snow intent on splitting just enough wood to get us through Cade's workday. I found the ax and wedge embedded in a section of tree sitting on a larger stump, all powdered with snow, and I cursed quietly. Cade was the worst in the world at putting away tools. When I tried to jerk the ax from the wood, the handle rattled in the fitting and then pulled out, leaving the ax head where Cade had left it.
"Winter and tools, Cade," I muttered. "They don't mix."
I sighed. My breath whirled into the air like white smoke. I shoved my jeans deeper into my boots and began the trek through the snow to the shed. Dodge had conscientiously shoveled paths from his house to both main house and shed, forming two sides of a triangle, and so I headed toward the space he had cleared. Once at the shed I shoved its sliding door open and faced the mess Cade had left behind. At least the tools he neglected to put away indoors wouldn't be damaged by the weather, but the place was still a disaster. In the center of the room was an enormous work table littered with saws, hammers, boxes of nails, pliers in all sizes, rolls of tape, and crumpled bags of barbecue-flavor potato chips. Beer cans were stacked in a short pyramid at one end, as though he'd had the idea to build a wall of them, frat-party style, but lacked enough material.
The walls were covered with nails and braces for hanging all sorts of tools, but there was no ax to be found. I did a cursory survey of the buckets clustered on the floor, then began sliding out boxes from the shelf suspended beneath the work table. The first held a jumble of old drill batteries; the second, a few half-filled cans of paint. Losing hope, I pulled out the last box in the row. Inside it were six lengths of thick metal pipe, neatly stacked.
There was something oddly tidy and uniform about the pipes-- it didn't fit with the mess of the rest of the shed. I lifted out one of them-- nearly a foot long and heavier than expected, pinched closed on each end, with a length of wiry cord protruding-- and turned it over. It sort of looks like a bomb, I thought. And then it dawned on me: it is.
I controlled the impulse to drop it and bolt from the shed. Softly now. I set it back in with the others, then eased the box back onto the shelf before hurrying outside, leaving the door ajar and the latch swinging on its hinge. From the henhouse came the fluttery sounds of the birds, their gentle clucking conversations. The sky was hidden beneath a thick cataract of white clouds. Squinting at the haze of light that filtered past them, I peered up at the top floor of the house-- those four neat windows high above the back porch roof, the rusted grate of the attic fan disturbing their symmetry. Somewhere up there, Leela worked. She was the one I needed to talk to.
I climbed the stairs to the top floor and knocked softly at her door. When she opened it, her kind face wore a businesslike, somewhat irritated expression. The magnifying lens on its dull yellow cord rested against her chest. It came back to me right then, the way she had looked when Candy dumped Lucia's cookies in the trash, her gaze stoic and impenetrable. She was one of them, after all. They had cast off a brother forever, simply because he disagreed with them on a point that, to me, barely warranted a bump in a conversation. I loved Leela and I believed she loved me too, but if I asked her a question that challenged the uprightness of her family, she would align with them, not me.
"I think TJ's getting another ear infection," I said. Her face softened, and I added, "And we're out of wood, and it's cold, and I can't split any because I can't find the right tools. I think the furnace is broken."
She reached out and cupped my chin. Her face had gone blurry. "Well, there, don't cry about it. Dodge'll be back in a bit, and we'll get him to look at it. Surely we've got some of those fire-starer logs in the cellar. Did you take a look?"
I rubbed my cuff beneath my nose, and she pulled me to her. Her hug pushed my face against her shoulder, and I choked a sob. "I know, I know. It's hard when your baby's sick. He'll be all right, now."
I nodded and pulled in a shaky breath. It made me so terribly weary, this business of having family that I loved but could so easily lose. Whatever I had seen in their shed wasn't worth a rift with Leela. Nothing would be worth it, I thought, except TJ, and I tried not to think about how it might come to that, the way things worked in this family.