Without the turning of pages to mark the passing of time, I have no idea how long it’s been when, with a groan, Braden rolls away from the wall and lies flat on his back on the ice. He’s tied his hood over his woolen cap so tightly that his face is hidden inside a scrunched circle. The pink tip of nose and his lips, shiny with spit, are all that shows. I call Ana twice but she doesn’t pick up. I walk down the steps and over to Braden, cautious on the ice, and bend to touch his shoulder. He hits me with a fist, in the shin. I lose my balance and fall.
I crouch beside him and we stay that way for a while. I study his red nose, the wet edges of his jeans—he’s going to get sick. All of my muscles—even my eyes—are stiff and tense with cold. I think of telling Braden that Ana and Jonas are waiting in the parking lot, to get him to move, but what if she’s not there? At least in here there are benches, and no breeze, though it is freezing.
I might as well skate, to lure Braden by example or at least warm myself up. I take a few cautious steps. No sound or stir from Braden. “I’m going to go skate,” I tell his lips and nose. “You should come join me.” I count to sixty. Still no response.
For the first lap, I hold onto the rail and push off the same foot on each stride. My skates are stiff. Their tops cut into my ankles. So far, skating is just as I described it in my essay, like sitting in church for the first time in months—all I can think is that humans weren’t really made for this.
When my hand finally drifts off the rail, and both of my feet seem capable of doing the necessary work to propel my weight without buckling behind me, twin sounds on either side of me make me jump and nearly fall—two guys just winged past me like swooping rockets, swallowing me in symmetrical paths before converging and braking right in front of me.
“You alright?” they ask, as I wobble toward them.
“I’m fine,” I say, though I’m shaking, still cold and now spooked. One guy is looking at me strangely, with eyes that shine so many shades lighter than his mask of stubble.
“Do you need some help?” he asks. He points to Braden, whose back is visibly wet now, like his jeans. “Is that your brother? Where’s your mom?”
I tell him she’s not in town.
“You’re here alone?” He sounds incredulous. “How can we help?”
The two men offer to exchange their skates for boots and carry Braden off the ice. I thank them and ask them to watch him for a minute instead. It’s been thirty minutes since Ana left—she must be back, or close.
As I get my phone from my bag, the attendant shouts “Hey!” and waves me over. “Are you looking for your sister?” he asks, quieter now. “Cause she’s in the lobby fighting with some guy.”
“Thanks,” I say. I should wait, I should give them the time they need, but I can’t—Braden will get sick. I take off my skates and walk toward the foyer in my socks. The floor, as far as the attendant’s table, is covered by large squares of rubbery foam that link at the corners like puzzle pieces. The foam is damp, cold, so I leap from toe to toe. Before I reach the tile, where the hallway splits at the trophy case, I hear Jonas’s voice, clear as glass but not loud, not strained. They must be standing a few feet from me, hidden by the corner of the wall.
“I told you I could pay, Ana. One semester off, maybe, then we could have made it work…” Jonas pauses briefly, and says, “holdon,” as if Ana tried to interrupt him. “Possibly, okay? We could have discussed it.”
“I’m in college.”
“You were in college.”
He pauses again, as if giving me a window in which to jump in and stop eavesdropping—but I let it pass, and inch closer to the wall instead.
“Ana, I don’t understand. You said you wanted this, and I did too. But still it wasn’t a hard decision, not even a little? You could just make it yourself.”
“I do want it, Jonas. Someday.”
“Well it’s not all up to you. I don’t know if I do anymore.”
A silence spreads like poison gas through the lobby. Another opportunity to speak up, which I let pass. “Does Astrid even need help, or did you lie about that too?”
“She does,” Ana says. “She’s called me three times.” Her voice is choked and clotted.
“I’m going to help her, then,” he says.
After a silence, Ana finally says, “Go.”
Jonas almost runs into me, where I’m standing behind the wall. Before I speak, he says sorry. Tears sparkle in his eyes, which have turned just barely pink. He keeps walking, and I follow him at a distance, feeling ashamed of my behavior, and thankful that Ana isn’t following us.
Jonas pays the attendant and puts his skates on quickly. I sit on a bleacher and take my time with mine, only putting them on to warm my feet.
Then I sit back and watch Jonas, down on the ice, as he crouches like a catcher beside Braden, who finally moves: he rolls into a seated position. Jonas and one of the two men lift Braden by the arms, and Jonas shakes hands with both men. I expect Jonas to lead Braden off the ice, so we can all go home, our separate ways, but instead he takes Braden’s hand and guides him toward the wall, in the opposite direction of the gate.
They start skating together, slowly, gripping hands like lovers on a sinking ship. Braden’s back is soaked. I wonder when it will dry, whether I’ll have to tell Mr. O’Neal how the night really went, how much time his son spent lying on the ice. I wonder, too, if someday Mr. O’Neal will find my essay in a pile in his house. I hope he doesn’t; I hope it’s already in the trash.
To draw a parallel between my sister and I now feels foolish, but I can’t help it—something about Ana’s fight with Jonas has helped me see where I went wrong in choosing my saint. I didn’t take the decision seriously. At the time I thought this made me independent, original, but I realize now I was trying to be the wrong kind of independent. This was Ana’s mistake, too. She didn’t tell Jonas what she’d done—or that she was pregnant—until it was over.
Suddenly Ana sits next to me, surprising me. I didn’t hear her approach. I want to tell her that I know what she did, that I think I understand. I think I’ve figured out what happened with her ID too: she never applied for any medical leave. She’s been kicked out, or suspended, or something, for not showing up for so long. And when she found that out, the person she had to call—still—was Jonas. I want to tell her that she can tell me—I want to tell her all of this—but I really don’t want her to know I was eavesdropping. Anyway, I doubt I’d be able to find the right words. So we sit in silence, arms crossed, watching Braden and Jonas shuffle forward at the edge of the rink. The arena’s domed ceiling stretches like a bubble above us, and scratchy music, which I hadn’t noticed until now, echoes in the emptiness. I want to untangle my arms and touch my sister—hug her, maybe—but I’m cold, and my backpack sits between us.
Finally I ask her, “You want to go skate?”
She laughs. “Skating is hard,” she says. “It’s been, like, ten years.”
“I know,” I say.
“What the hell.”
I wait for Ana while she puts on her skates, and we step onto the ice together, both of us wobbling on our blades. I grab the wall; Ana puts a hand on my shoulder.
“If I go down…” she says, teasing me, but then her voice catches and she stops.
I pause before responding, “I know.” I want her to know that I know, but I’m not sure she’s heard me. Her head is turned away; she’s watching Jonas and Braden across the rink. “I know!” I say again, louder, lifting my arm off the wall and sliding closer to her. In my excitement, I slip and fall. Again. Instantly my wrist and tailbone hurt, enough that for a moment I forget about Ana’s troubles and feel purely angry—at my mother, for not letting me choose Saint Ludwina (maybe the saint could have helped me out right now?), at Mr. O’Neal, for misunderstanding me, and at Ana, too, for messing things up with Jonas. I’m going to miss him.
Ana’s laughter brings me back to the moment. She’s laughing at me. I haven’t heard her laugh in weeks. Her laugh is deep and full, with the thick warmth of a salty sea breeze, not muffled at all though her hands are cupped around her mouth. She stands there, upper body bobbling with laughter, knees bent and blades steady on the ice, until finally she reaches down to grab my hand.