In the Bleak Midwinter
She couldn't stay in the room. At some point or another they were going to barge in, drag her out, and sit her down with Shane to explain the quiet. With this thought sticky in her mind, she tucked a strand of dirty blonde hair behind her glasses and turned the page of her book. But Shiloh found herself rereading the same paragraph, her mind drifting back to the quiet.
It had become noticeable when her dad had come home. She had been caught unawares and had quickly scooped up her homework to take back to her room, but Dad had simply disappeared into his bedroom. The door shut behind him with a click. After scuttling back to her room, Shiloh flipped open her math textbook and waited for the eruption. It didn't come. She pressed her ear against the wall, but there was nothing.
At first, she was relieved. She blew through her homework and moved to her novel. Around chapter three, the silence became stuffy. Were they dead? She went to the wall again, but this time murmurs of faint conversation floated through. A few minutes later, Shane came into her room.
"Why aren't they yelling?" he asked bluntly. Shiloh shrugged. Shane pressed his ear to the wall.
"I already tried that. They're definitely still alive."
He sat on the bed next to her, crossing his legs and stuffing his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt. "This can't be good," he mumbled. "This is going to be really frickin' bad. It can't be good." Shiloh handed him a comic book, and the two read together, bracing themselves for the hurricane that was sure to come. This was the eye of the storm, and they were about to hit the wall—hard.
Her recollection was interrupted by Dad calling from the kitchen: "Kids, come on out."
Shane and Shiloh looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, and left the room.
Dad was leaning against the counter, head tilted down, hunched over slightly. Mom paced slowly with her arms crossed. She stopped when Shane and Shiloh sat down. Mom and Dad stepped towards them, standing at the other end of the table. Mom nudged Dad almost imperceptibly. He cleared his throat.
"I brought you out here just to, uh, tell you that there's a special Christmas card you'll be making this year." He spoke slowly in a low voice.
Shane and Shiloh swapped confusion out of the corners of their eyes.
"Your father has a new godchild." Mom's voice was tight and sounded as though it might snap. "She and her mother have been abandoned by the father, so she's going to need a lot of love this season." The last few words caught in her throat, hitching into higher notes.
"What's her name?" Shane asked. A pause punctured the conversation. Mom looked at Dad, her eyebrows raising slightly. He kept his eyes on them.
"Samantha," he answered in a hushed tone. "Samantha Rose."
They said nothing. For a long time, they said nothing.
Shiloh tugged on the ends of her hair, looking past the room.
"Is that all then?" she timidly broke the silence. Mom nodded, and chairs scraped on the floor as Shiloh and Shane rushed back to their rooms. Shiloh dove into her book, reading until sleep caught up to her.
When she woke again night had seeped through the window. Sitting up, she noticed a red light flashing under the bathroom door. Shiloh fixed her glasses, picked up her book, and opened the door. Shane stood up and sat on the edge of the bathtub, pocketing the flashlight. Shiloh perched on the sink opposite him. She shut the door softly.
"So, are we buying any of this godchild bullshit?" he asked, running a hand through his dark curls.
"How can we be sure it's not a godchild?" Shiloh's voice lifted hopefully as she twirled a piece of hair between her fingers.
Shane raised an eyebrow at her. "Haven't you been paying any attention to their fights?"
Shiloh shook her head. She had done her best to ignore them, concentrating on homework and putting on headphones instead.
"They talk about how often he's away. He says he needs to make money, so business trips are necessary, and then they fight about money too. Then it comes back to time." Shane's voice grew hushed. "Last week they fought about Dad taking vacations without telling Mom."
Shiloh pulled the piece of hair into her mouth to chew. "What happened?"
"I snooped around. He's been going to a place in Missouri where a lot of his business trips were, except he's also been for vacation a couple times. I hacked his computer—."
"You did what?" Shiloh interrupted, the piece of hair falling out of her open mouth.
"It was important! Shut up and let me finish."
"Sorry," Shiloh squeaked, twisting the hair again.
"I hacked his computer and found emails to some woman. Nothing explicit, but he was promising to visit and signing the emails 'love'." Shane paused. "I think he had a kid with her. I think he had another kid, Shiloh."
Shiloh pulled her legs up on the counter and crossed them, resting her elbows on her knees. Shane put his chin on his fist.
"It could still be a godchild. I mean, the mom would have to know Dad pretty well to name him godfather."
"He just started emailing her after a couple business trips. He started calling her sweetheart. She calls him babe."
She felt queasy. "Maybe it was a joke thing."
"The vacation—the one the fight was about—was to visit her. He sent her an email saying 'see you soon' before he left. He spent a week with her without telling Mom. What do you make of that?"
The hair was wound tightly around her finger. Her knuckle was tinted purple. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"Because you wouldn't have believed me, you just would've gotten upset."
"Who is she?"
Shane dropped his head. "He called her Cleo. I think she's a legal assistant. She lives in Kansas City."
Shiloh's eyes widened. "Kansas City?"
"Are you sure?"
"What about it?"
Shiloh jumped off the counter and out of the bathroom. She came back a few moments later holding an envelope. "This showed up a couple days ago. It's from Kansas City. I was going to give it to Mom, but I forgot about it."
Shane rolled his eyes. "Of course you did. Give it."
He snatched for it, but Shiloh kept it out of his reach. Hopping back up on the counter, she tore open the envelope and pulled out a pink card.
"What does it say?" Shane made another grab for the card, and Shiloh let him take it.
"It's a birth announcement—Cleo and John's baby, Samantha Rose."
"Dad's name is John—John Dunn Berkeley."
"Holy crap. It's really his kid."
"I thought you knew it was."
"I suspected it. I mean, did you see mom's face? She wasn't happy about this Christmas card thing. He really did it though. He really fucked us over."
"How did mom find out if I didn't give them the card?"
"Email. Phone call, maybe. I don't know."
"Why do they want us to make a card for it?" Shiloh began chewing her hair again. "Why are we even acknowledging it?"
"Maybe the card was blackmail. Maybe she was threatening to send that out unless dad helped out with the kid." It seemed plausible.
"Is he trying to trick us into being a family? It won't work. I'm not writing the card."
"We have to do something about this. He thinks he's being clever and keeping the affair secret. We'll have to expose it ourselves."
"I don't want to expose him."
"What?" Anger snapped in Shane's eyes. "Why the hell not?"
"It's my junior year, the toughest year—you remember. I don't have time for this bullshit. I don't want to hear him tell us we owe it something. It's not our family, and I don't want any part of it."
"We have to tell him we know."
"Because he has to be ashamed of what he did. Don't you get it? We have to make him pay for this, we have to make him admit that he's a fucktard!"
"I'm not talking about it."
"You can't just avoid it forever. I'll tell him, whether you want to or not."
Shiloh pressed her lips together in a frown, glaring at him.
"You know the cards are to the mistress, right? The baby's too young to read them. It's just symbolic."
Her expression lost its edges the way a sheet of paper does when it's folded into a paper crane. "He always had a thing for S names: Shiloh, Shane, and now Samantha." She watched the ceiling light flicker. "I wonder how they met?"
"Shut up, just shut up about it." Shane stood and headed for the door to his room. "Meeting adjourned."
The door closed. Shiloh turned off the light and went back to bed.
She woke up Saturday when the light was grey and thin. The air in the apartment was as stagnant as the day before. Everyone was still asleep. Tacking a quickly scribbled note to the door, Shiloh grabbed her purse and left.
She walked to Union Square and settled on the steps. Pulling her notebook out of her purse, Shiloh put her pencil to the paper. She could think of nothing. The pencil swished and swirled lazily in her hand, and though she stared at the lines, tried to pump her heart for words, nothing came. Everything slid out of focus, blurred into blobs of grey, green, and blue. The hours passed: 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock. She didn't move. She had so much to say, but it could only be screamed.
She watched the people filter through her vision, studying their movement. It seemed foreign, how their legs bent, arms swung, jaws clicked. She couldn't remember what it felt like to have a full mind. It was replaced with a raw anger settled in the pit of her stomach that made her feel like lead. She needed to heat it up, send it bubbling over and through her fingers, purge herself of it, but her bones were too heavy. 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock.
She tried pushing the lead, tried to take it apart, but it remained. She rolled it over, felt its rough edges bump against her liver and lungs, but when she let it go it pinned her down again. Didn't those people feel gravity? She turned the lead over and over until she had shaken it out of her shoulders and neck and she could move again. She swallowed, and tasted rust in her throat. But she had to say something, had to spit the lead out. Taking out her phone, Shiloh dialed Ariel's number.
"Hello?" Ariel's voice came through the phone, fringed with static.
"Hey, it's Shiloh." Her voice sounded timid and small, like dragging a bow across the shrillest violin strings. "I have something to tell you. My, um, my Dad—."
Shiloh bit off the sentence. Her lungs were suddenly unsteady. Ariel waited patiently. "My Dad…he had, he—." She held the phone away from her as she took a gulp of air. Her lungs refused to be reined in and her chest heaved as it began to sink in. The lead was molten, sloshing in her, anger was seething, its fire burning her eyes. She could hear Ariel calling for her, so she picked up the phone again.
"I need to call you back." She tried to keep the quiver out of her voice, leaning over until her forehead touched her knees. They hung up. Dropping her phone, Shiloh sat crouched over for several minutes, concentrating on her breathing and making sure her lungs weren't punctured. She hadn't said it out loud yet, hadn't told anyone. Somehow, letting it outside of herself made it real. Allowing this reality to put down roots in another's mind and grow was allowing it to flourish. She hated it, hated it, hated it, hated it, hated it, hated it.
Putting away her things, Shiloh stood and walked away briskly until she found a place for lunch. She ate alone at a table in the corner, staring out through the window. After she left, she jumped on the subway and headed to Ariel's. It had to come out at some point if she didn't want to blow up at home.
Soon, she was banging on the door. Ariel was there in moments, opening the door to let her in, and Shiloh stepped inside. The two of them sat down on the couch, facing each other and leaning against the armrests. A single strand of red hair fell out of Ariel's knit cap and across her face. Shiloh watched it sway for a while.
"So about that phone call…I, uh, need to tell: my Dad…my Dad had an affair." Deep breath. Expand, filled to the edges. She took off her glasses and began cleaning them with her shirt. "Well, he might still be having it. I don't know. And—." Deep breath. "The woman had a baby." Shiloh braved a glance upward. Ariel stared, bug-eyed.
"Are you sure?"
She nodded. "Shane hacked my dad's email and we got a birth announcement. It's definitely true."
Shiloh looked back down, trying to swallow a cry, but a small sound slipped out.
"Do you want a hug?"
"Yes," she replied in a choked voice. Ariel scooted over and wrapped her arms around Shiloh. Tears like glass beads began to fall, dimpling her cheeks. "Thanks."
Minutes ticked by, and they remained still—Shiloh hunched over, Ariel hugging her, leaning her head against Shiloh's shoulder.
"I don't understand," Shiloh sputtered. "I don't understand how he did it. I don't understand how someone just forgets to love something and moves on. I can't forget. How did he?"
It was like almost drowning. Suddenly beached and waves keep crashing, smashing into shore, and gasping as the foam leaks in the mouth's corners, sliding over the frothing lip of the ocean to be spit back out because there is no way to claw a handhold. The ocean inside of her was spilling out, burning with salt and a riptide dragging her under.
Eventually, it washed her far out and the current let her go.
Ariel disappeared into her room as the last of the tears dried up. When she came back, she was holding a small jar of pennies.
"I've got some more wishes for you."
Shiloh offered her a small smile. "Thanks." She took a plastic bag of pennies out of her pocket and let Ariel dump in the contents of the jar.
"Should we go by the fountain?"
The fountain was not a real fountain; it was a clay pot. They assumed it used to hold a plant, but the greenery was long since gone. As it occasionally overflowed with rain water, they had dubbed it the fountain. The pair had found it looking for a place to spend Shiloh's wish pennies, which she carried everywhere in case of a fountain. It had become a pastime to go looking for fountains, so Ariel had taken up collecting the pennies as well.
When they reached the fountain, Shiloh pulled out a penny and flipped it in. Shutting her eyes, she mouthed her wish. Once she looked up, she and Ariel turned away.
"What did you wish for?" Ariel inquired.
"I can't tell you or the wish won't come true! Come on, you know the rules." Shiloh elbowed her.
"Yes, I know the rules. I'm just hoping you'll get over your superstition and tell me one of these days."
"It's not superstition. I have to take every precaution to make sure my wish comes true." She looked at the ground.
"Let's go back to Union Square."
It was a forty-minute subway ride back. They sat in silence, listening to the rush and roar of wind squeezed past at some ridiculous miles per hour. When they stepped out, she could feel the echoes ricocheting in her ribcage. Shiloh let her hair hang in her face and put her hands in her pockets. She felt as though she had stepped outside after a heavy rain: air seemed clearer with a sharpness she could feel in her chest and a dampness that clung to her skin.
"Every time he smiled at me was a lie," she said quietly, her voice tight and focused, as they walked down the sidewalk. "Every day after he found out was a charade. Nine months of playing pretend." She laughed bitterly, softly, like a sheet of snow sliding off the roof. "He still thinks we're too little to know. He still thinks we don't recognize him for the bastard he is."
"You don't know it was a lie."
"How could it possibly not be? How can someone slink off and have another baby, another family if he loves the first one?" She crossed her arms, hooking her fingernails into her skin.
"He might still care, if only a little."
Shiloh whipped her head to look at Ariel. "Do you really—."
"I'm not saying he was right or anything." She threw up her hands. "I think he's a bastard too. I'm just saying that if he really hated you all, I think he would have left."
Shiloh clamped her jaw shut. They found a spot on the steps of Union Square together and people-watched again, making small talk about the people they saw. Slowly, the heaviness in Shiloh was broken up and dissolved, allowing her to forget for moments at a time. The sun rolled down the sky's dome. Eventually, Shiloh got a call from her brother asking her to meet him for pizza at St. Mark's. Ariel went back home, and Shiloh went to meet Shane.
Shane and Shiloh gnawed on their pizza quietly for a while. He wore a brooding expression, while she was vacant, her mind receding into itself again.
"We need a plan." Shiloh snapped back to reality. "We need to figure out how to deal with this thing."
Shane nodded. "First thing: no contact."
"What if they come to our house?" She wrinkled her nose at the thought.
"Even then, we won't talk to them. Even if they give us a gift, we'll ignore them."
"Should we tell anyone about them?"
"Well you already told Ariel, didn't you?"
"Then we can each tell one person—but no more. I don't want any pity or gossip."
"Alright. What about when we're forced to contact them, like with this Christmas card thing?"
Shane frowned. "I don't know. Mom and Dad will look at what we write, so we can't just say 'fuck off'."
They were quiet as they pondered the subject. Shane shook his head, as though he were ridding himself of the thought, and quickly switched topics. By the time they left for home, dark was seeping into the sky.
"How much do you think Mom knows?" Shiloh spoke in a hushed voice, as though half the sentence was floating somewhere far away.
"Didn't you see her face? She probably knows more than we do."
The conversation ran dry.
Shiloh started towards her room as soon as they stepped through the door, but Shane caught her arm. Mr. Berkeley was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book.
"No, no, we are not doing this," Shiloh muttered.
"Hey, Dad," Shane called, ignoring her. Shiloh struggled, but Shane dragged her forward. "Can we talk to you for a sec?"
"Sure." He put the book down. His face held no trace of apprehension or guilt. It made Shiloh sick. Shane forced her to sit. "What is it?"
"We were talking, comparing notes about this Christmas card situation, and—."
"We were just wondering what to write since we don't know this girl."
Shane elbowed her in the ribs. Shiloh dug back. Mr. Berkeley smiled.
"That's very thoughtful of you. I think 'Merry Christmas' and something about welcoming a new family member."
Shiloh felt like she was in a falling dream, plummeting towards rocks with no escape. "We aren't related though."
"Well, you're practically family and it would be nice. Have the card ready by Monday." Mr. Berkeley retreated to his room.
"Why did you do that?" Shane hissed.
"I told you I don't want to confront him. You are not dragging me into this."
Shane sighed in exasperation as he went to his room. "God, you're blind." He slammed the door behind him.
Shiloh woke for mass at nine rather than her usual time of noon. She tried to put herself in a good frame of mind to receive the sacrament.
Through the service, she prayed for guidance. She tried to listen for a hint in the tones of the piano, the drone of the priest's voice as he gave his homily, but she couldn't find anything. Love one another, turn the other cheek, she knew these commandments, but surely she didn't have to be friendly with this family that had grown like a tumor on her own? Her knees were red and sore by the end.
She found herself knocking at Ariel's door. Ariel opened her mouth to greet her and shut it again when she saw Shiloh's face, gesturing for her to come inside instead.
"Have you had lunch?" Ariel walked to the fridge.
"Do you want spaghettios?"
Shiloh nodded, sinking into a chair at Ariel's kitchen table. She cleaned her glasses while Ariel heated up the food. Everything seemed as blurry as her vision, out of focus and out of control. Had anyone considered what she and Shane might think? Did it even matter? Could they change things if they knew? Could they change things now? Each question came with a raw ache in her chest, and she concentrated on her breathing and the swirling motion of her thumb over her lenses.
Ariel set a plate in front of her, and they ate.
She didn't look up even though she could feel Ariel's eyes on her as she scraped her spoon across the empty bowl.
"You want to talk about it?" Ariel asked tentatively.
Shiloh took a deep breath. "I found out my Dad had an affair because he told Shane and I to make Christmas cards for the baby," she blurted.
Ariel put down her spoon, trying not to drop it. "Jesus."
Shiloh raised an eyebrow.
Shiloh looked at her lap and began twirling a piece of hair. "I don't know what to do."
Ariel took another spoonful of soup, considered the question. "You could always just buy a hallmark card and put your name on it."
Shiloh shook her head. "No. Those have happy messages. I don't want her to feel any warmth from me."
"I would argue that those carry no real warmth anyway, but if you really want to get the message across…I don't know. I have no idea what to write."
Shiloh took her plate to the sink and scrubbed it clean. "I'll figure something out. Hey, could you help me with the math homework? I skipped the last six problems."
"I'm sorry, I can't. My tutor's going to be here soon."
Shiloh felt like her ribcage had split open, and she shook her head violently. "No, don't make me leave. I'll sit in your room and be super quiet while your tutor's here, just don't make me leave."
Ariel looked at her in confusion. "I'm sorry, but you should probably go home. You can come over tomorrow."
"No, no, tomorrow's too late, please let me stay, just today, let me stay." Her hands were shaking; she tried to bury them in her skirt.
"Don't make me leave, please let me stay, please, I don't want to go home, I can't, I can't go home, I can't wait for tomorrow, don't make me, please let me stay here, please." The shakes spread to her shoulders, shaking loose tears she watched splatter on the tile floor.
"Hey, it's okay." Ariel gave her another hug. "You don't have to go yet."
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I just can't go home. It's too quiet there, and I can't look at anyone. I can't look at my father without wanting to punch him. I can't look at my mom without wanting to cry. I can't go home right now."
"It's alright." Ariel waited until the crying stopped, hugging her friend tightly. Shiloh wept until the earthquake subsided, fading into smaller tremors then disappearing altogether. "Are you okay now?"
Shiloh sniffled, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"Do you want me to call Shane?"
She shook her head, looking down as pink embarrassment flooded her face. She had to glue herself back together now. "No, I'm headed home anyway. Thanks for letting me stay. I'm sorry I had a total mental breakdown on you."
"It's fine. You can stay here every day after school if you like."
Shiloh half-smiled. "Thanks. I'll see you later."
Shiloh shut the door behind her.
When she entered the apartment, the living room was dark. Mom was making dinner in the kitchen, but apparently no one else had bothered to leave their rooms. She disappeared into her own.
When Mom called them for dinner, they shoveled food down as quickly as possible. Shane grumbled thanks before leaving after fifteen minutes. Shiloh watched her parents carefully. Mom's usually impeccable posture had fallen into a hunch, and Mr. Berkeley had his elbow pinned against his side in an effort not to accidentally brush Mom.
Mom finished next and took her plate up to wash it. Then Mr. Berkeley finished.
"Wait, wait just a second," Shiloh called out, stopping him from making a dash for his room. She met his gaze for the first time in a day and quickly looked away. "You too Mom. Can we talk for a second?"
"Sure honey." Mom sat back down at the table. Both of them stared at her. She looked at her lap and swallowed.
"I, uh, I just needed to know…" She looked up. They were both still watching her intently. "I need to know…are you going to get a divorce?"
There was no shock on their faces, only resignation. A long pause ensued.
"Honey," Mom broke the silence and reached across the table. Shiloh took her hand, and Mom gave her a squeeze. "We decided we're going to stay together."
She felt sick. The bottom of her stomach had dropped out and acid was pouring through her body, eating through bones and flesh. She would have to watch them not speak, have to hear the pointed silence and averted gazes every day.
"What?" She tried to keep her voice from quavering. "Why not?"
"We don't want to put you and Shane through that. Divorce causes so much turbulence—."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Shiloh jumped away from the table, sending her chair skittering backwards. Now surprise registered on their faces. "You think you're saving us from something? You've spent the past two years making us fucking miserable, shouting and screaming and never a moment of quiet! And now that you've finally given up, you're still going to stay together? JUST. FUCKING. QUIT."
"It's finished, done, the end! Don't delude yourselves into thinking it's some kind of help to keep us together. We hate each other now. Just let it die! When something's over, it just has to be OVER!"
She stormed to her room, slammed the door so that it shook on its hinges. Shiloh tossed herself onto the bed and took the sheets in her fist till her knuckles where white. Tears already shed, she turned into the mattress and screamed: curses at her father, the baby, the mistress, God, and everything.
When her screams were worn out, she rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. She had emptied herself, and nothing but a bitter cold was left.
A few minutes later, Shane came into her room.
"Heard you yelling," he said. "Glad you decided to speak up."
She sat up. "I couldn't not say something. They don't think we know anything and they don't think it matters, but it does. We matter."
Shane sat on the bed next to her and wrapped his arms around her. She snuggled next to him. "I know, kid, and they know it too now."
Shiloh wasn't sure how the moments passed, only that they stayed still for a long time.
"Alright." Shiloh pulled away. "It's time for me to go to sleep."
"Kay." Shane stood and walked toward the door.
"Hey Shane," she stopped him just short of the bathroom.
He turned around. "Yeah?"
"What are you going to put on that card?"
He gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Probably nothing, as a sort of protest."
"You know they'll yell at you."
"Whatever. I've already heard it all." He smirked. "What about you? Are you writing it?"
"Yeah. I think I might have something to say."
He smiled. "You're braver than me. Goodnight." He shut the door behind him.
Shiloh looked out her window and tried to count stars—one, two, three—before turning off her light and giving into dreams again.
Her eyes opened in the dark on Monday, before her alarm clock went off. Rummaging through her desk for stationary, Shiloh clicked a pen and scribbled down the card.
I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. These are holidays of birth and beginning, so I know you'll be in everyone's thoughts. I hope that you are given the attention and love a child deserves.