On her way to Daniel's house Lucy shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat hoping that it might be warm there but the cold that found its way into everything in December claimed her hands again too. She let out a deep breath that turned white around her head and swirled upward toward a streetlight. She pictured the street from the air: the dark yards, the dim, still houses and she pictured herself, the only thing moving, walking down a sidewalk covered in shiny black ice. No porch lights were on for as far as she could see. Daniel had told her at school that she would recognize the house. It sort of sat back in a hole he had said. Farther down she saw a house crouched in a tunnel of dark, its small front windows shining like yellow eyes. She turned toward it, walking carefully over a sidewalk crumbling where roots pressed through it.
Daniel stood on the porch, so thin that he was half-hidden by a post, an arm, a leg extending out of wood. Inside a dog barked, then stopped. "Happy birthday," Lucy called from the walk.
"Thanks. The step's broken in the middle. See?" He held the door open for more light and Lucy stepped up on the porch and inside the house. Daniel closed the door behind them.
A small dog with curly red hair charged out of a doorway like it had just been released from restraints. Its feet scratched over the floor in agreeable fury. "Dad?" Daniel called out, bending over to pet the dog. "This is Happy," he said and the dog did seem thrilled. It ran back in the doorway it had come from, then out again, followed by a small man with black hair. His face was shaved but shadowed where his beard showed through.
"This is my Dad," Daniel said.
Daniel's father wore a white t-shirt that looked pink in the light of a rose-colored lamp at one end of a dresser scarf placed across a table. At the other end of it, between candlesticks with white candles, there was a picture of a woman. The candles made Lucy think of church, of an altar, yet the table was more than a shrine. The picture had presence, as if the woman were looking out into the room. Daniel's father smiled and looked down at the floor and Lucy realized she'd been staring. "That's Daniel's mother," he said and smiled and left the room, attended by the dog.
"Did you bring your stamps?" Daniel asked.
"They're in my pocket," Lucy said and she pulled out an envelope of stamps she'd been saving and took off her coat. "They're a little wrinkled."
"Where'd you get these?"
"From off the envelopes of Grandma's letters. She and my mother write every week. They have the same birthday."
"What does that mean?" Daniel took the stamps out one by one and held each in the light of the lamp.
"I don't know. They're close."
"I knew a man who died on his birthday. Do you ever wonder what day you'll die on?"
"Sort of. I'd like to die in the spring."
"I don't know. My mother says she wants to die in the spring."
"Do you want some cake?" He put the stamps back in the envelope and stood up.
Daniel's father sat at the table in the kitchen, a can of beer and a large square ashtray filled with cigarette butts in front of him. On the plate in the center of the table was a store-bought cake with thin, grey icing. The icing was hard and broke apart when Daniel cut it. His father stubbed a cigarette out. It bent double without breaking. "You and Daniel go to the same school," he said.
"We're in the same class. Mrs. Spruill's," Lucy said. "We sit next to each other." And she thought of how sitting next to Daniel at school felt like home to her, like they lived there at the same place, and how strange it felt to be here at his house. Daniel handed Lucy a piece of cake on a napkin and motioned her out of the kitchen, back into the other room. They sat together on a sofa next to the gas stove and ate their cake. Through the window on the stove Lucy could see inside where a lacy white grate turned orange and withstood blue flames.
"Seems like a cold time of the year for a birthday to me," Lucy said.
"July. The stamps are your present."
"But they're your Grandma's."
"That's okay. There'll be more."
Daniel turned to look at her. "You shouldn't think like that."
"What do you mean?" Lucy took a bite of her cake. It was dry and tasteless, stale.
"You can't just assume your grandma will always be around." He ate the cake without making a sound. Lucy watched his face, his skin pale and transparent. She thought she might see his thoughts pass over it like high, thin clouds passing the moon.
"Did your mother live in this house?" Lucy asked.
"I'm going to bed," Daniel's father said from the doorway behind them.
Daniel stared at the stove. "Good night," he said. The dog circled and lay in front of them watching until its eyes closed. Lucy made herself swallow the cake. She wanted to close her eyes too, make this sad room go away. "I like your dog," she said.
"She's okay. She's a pretty nice dog."
"I had a dog once." Lucy thought of her mother, tried to picture her. "I guess I should go. I told my mother I wouldn't be long," she said, wishing she hadn't mentioned her mother. "You keep the stamps anyway." She took her coat from the chair where Daniel had put it. "See you at school."
"Okay. Thanks for coming," he said, getting up when he realized she was leaving.
"Bye." She waved and shut the door behind her. Outside she took a deep breath with each stride to feel better. She went back the way she had come, toward the streetlight. Near the corner a cat crouching on an empty porch watched her coldly and she walked faster over the frozen walk.
At her house, in their apartment upstairs, her mother sat at the table writing. She said hello without looking up. Lucy warmed her hands over the stove and looked at her mother. "You writing Grandma?"
"Uh huh," her mother said. On her neck her pulse showed, the place rising and falling, a terrible comfort.
Dianne lives in frozen Vermont with her husband, cat, and pack of rescue dogs. She loves winter but this year she's looking forward to the beginning of a long spring.