A couple (let's call them Couple A) with a maxed-out credit card packs up their personal effects, three bottles of wine, assorted fancy cheeses, a salami, and their son, Timmy, to visit Couple B (why not?) at Couple B's weekend house in the countryside. On the journey from the city, ice needles stab the windshield. The feeling in the car is that the family is outrunning something.
Couple B's country house, an icicle-festooned alpine chalet the size of an airplane hangar, sits on a low hill on the edge of a frozen lake. Before leaving the car, Couple A performs an imperceptible reprogramming of their personalities. Soon, they will hear themselves tell many breezy lies: We love Scrabble! Whenever you want to eat is fine with us! Staying up until 3 a.m. watching Nigerian soap operas sounds fun!
Couple B has two children: Tammy, age seven, and an eighteen-month-old boy (The Baby) who never stops moving unless it's to violently wail as if someone were pulling the limbs from his tiny body. He never sleeps, Couple B claims. Really, never! He just kind of dozes. Couple B, once bitingly witty in an us-against-the-world way, now despise each other, a fact only evident to Couple A when, upon their arrival, Husband B hisses at his wife, Why can't I trust you to simply watch him for fifteen seconds? Him being The Baby, who has bumped his head on a corner of the dining-room table. A fact further evident when Wife B retorts, You watch him then if you don't like how I do it, after which Husband B storms off, then reappears to say, There's no food, Jesus Christ, if we left it up to you we'd all starve, to which Wife B replies, Fat idiots like you will never starve. Couple A begins to make soothing allusions to the assortment of quality cheeses and salami they have brought until The Baby's wailing reaches a fever pitch and Wife B whisks him away with an apologetic smile and a slammed door.
Tammy pulls Timmy into her room. They're stupid, she whispers. Don't listen to them; let's draw on the wall.
Five hours into the visit, Couple A has, if they're honest, never felt better about their own marriage, their crumbling apartment, the public-school education they are providing for their son. The more vicious is Couple B, the more Couple A responds with private affections, affirmations that they have made the correct choice in each other. Long-dormant love hormones begin to fizz between them again as they snowshoe around the property, alongside an unspoken sense of alarm that this is what it takes to get things going.
All is magical for Couple A in their warm envelope of rekindled affection until day two, when in the morning the children are drawn like magnets toward the frozen lake. This will not end well, thinks Wife A, who has read enough literary fiction to know that a frozen lake always spells peril. Timmy, if you go out on the frozen lake, you will probably die, she says calmly. Timmy is five. He can process this.
Mom, you're such a fraidy-cat! he singsongs.
He is so happy here, inside this monument to the wisdom of Husband B's hedge fund.
Give me a hug, Timmy, she says, and swear to me you will stay away from the lake.
I can't promise that, Timmy says, and then he's off to find Tammy.
Hours then pass with the children glued to the television. Couple A reads their books and pages through the vintage magazines scattered across Couple B's coffee table. They enjoy the winter sun beating in through the massive living-room windows, the snow kicking up at intervals in little bursts across the pines. The dramas of nature here are so sublime and intricate that a person can almost forget about mid-five-figure credit-card statements.
Sometimes they play with The Baby. They largely succeed in ignoring the way Couple B doesn't appear to be speaking to each other.
Wife A needs some Me Time and peers outside at the children, who at last have left the TV room to play again on the cake-white lawn. Keep an eye on them, she instructs her husband. I mean it. The lake is a death trap.
Husband A nods and does not look up from the 1967 Playboy he has discovered on the coffee table. Wife A notes the close-up on a quaint set of teardrop breasts — You never see teardrop anymore in porn, she thinks wistfully — before he turns the page. His nodding might mean: don't give me instructions as if I'm incompetent; or, I have heard you and am taking the matter under advisement. No way of knowing if he's listened to a word of it, Wife A seethes as she strides away.
All is well for the next 23 minutes. The Baby napping, Wife B in the kitchen, Husband B in the garage, Wife A in the bathroom, Husband A focused with complete absorption on a Playboy article about Sweden, when he remembers about the lake. He looks up, and goddamnit if there aren't two small figures in Crayola-colored parkas on the ice.
Goddamn her, Husband A thinks, as if his wife has manifested the unfolding horror to prove herself right. He shoves his arms into a damp parka and begins to sprint toward the lake.
A crack in the ice, known only to the creatures of the lake, begins to form near the children. The microorganisms in the water sense the crack's vibrations without forming opinions. Not like the man from Couple A, who screams GET OFF THE ICE in a tyrannosaurus roar as he closes the gap between house and lake in socked feet.
The children look up, unimpressed. Why does he look like that? they wonder, before going back to their game, a taxonomy of sticks, pebbles, and armpits.
While The Baby dozes, Wife B looks up from the dishes and decides she's done. She will pack a bag and the children and drive to her mother's. She will leave Husband B in this enormous house he insisted on. Couple A can drive him back to the city tomorrow, if they can stomach him. He will find the locks changed on their apartment door, she decides, a shiver running down her arms at the image of his key uselessly stabbing the knob.
Along the front of the house, Husband B piles firewood on top of kindling. He is very high. Stratospherically high. The Baby kicks and screeches in the backpack he's strapped him into. You'll love this, he says, reaching back to loosen his son's mittened grip on his hair. Get ready for it, my man. The lighter fluid he squeezes from the bottle smells like summer. He strikes a match, flings it into the pile, and enjoys the instant, joyous eruption.
And why shouldn't he? He works so hard. He can feel the stress of the hedge fund killing him, but he doesn't talk about it because who could possibly care to listen? His wife has no idea how considerate he is in not yammering on about his miseries, in being the silent pillar on which this all rests, the house and the apartment and two small children and his Wife Who Despises Him. So why shouldn't he see how his firewood catches and erupts? Should he not be warm? Should he not entertain their oldest friends with a spectacular blaze?
Daddy loves you this much, he says to The Baby as he squirts more lighter fluid on the logs.
Timmy! Tammy! Get off the ice! Husband A can barely breathe, he's run so fast. He swoops in and grabs them both by their parka hoods, slides them across the ice to the dock.
On the dock, the children sniffle and bitch. You ripped our pants! Husband A's eyes water with relief. He's wearing only socks. Whoops. Blood pools at the top of a big toe, a dark, spreading stain on the gray wool. The lake has held. See that, Wife? he thinks, jubilant. He may not even tell her about this, come to think of it. Why do that, when they are so breezy here?
A war whoop fills the air. He turns to look at the house and sees smoke behind the stately prow of the snowcapped roof. And then there is his oldest friend in a neon-pink ski hat, doing Tae Kwon Do or something. Moving like a younger man without a paunch. Woo Wee Woo, his friend howls. Yip Yip Yee, Husband A hollers. He will put on his shoes. He will march the children up the hill. They will rejoice.
Everyone is drawn to the fire. Husband A, still shaky with adrenaline and relief. Wife A, who has emerged from her Me Time on the toilet, where she has been purchasing boy's underwear using a coupon code. Wife B sees the smoke out the kitchen window and crunches her way toward the fire to find her husband aglow with madness and purpose. He has dressed The Baby in his snowsuit and boots, a thankless task she admits he appears to have completed correctly, and has captured him in the backpack. My bride has arrived, he says, something tender in the hitch of his voice.
She looks around at their friends and the children, everyone flushed in the firelight, and inwardly shrugs. Another day, another delay in her leaving. The snow on the ground picks up the blue in the darkening sky and there is goodness here, his way of reminding her what they have.
Wife A might call this an epiphanic moment, but Wife B, if asked, would object. Things are never actually over, or decided, or learned.
Couple C has taken a wrong turn on the way to the vet's new office, their ancient cat yowling and smelling of piss in her carrier in the backseat. She will die today. Her kidneys are failing and they cannot afford to pay for dialysis. They've been quietly angry for days at the stark choice before them: debt or death.
It's a left, then a left, then a left, the husband is saying, when they are momentarily astonished by the roaring inferno at the top of a driveway in the gray afternoon. A man in a neon-pink ski hat is doing some kind of dance in the snow while others look on.
Some people have these wild lives, Wife C says.
Weekenders, says Husband C, noting the size of the house. Won't be so wild if the house catches, will it?
Up at the house the fire rages, wet branches dragged in by the children sending up a thick black smoke. An hour later, they will eat fusilli and baked beans found in the cupboards. The children will tell Wife A why Timmy's snow pants are ripped. Tensions will flare: They could have died; why is your first instinct always to make it my fault; is it so much to ask that every few minutes you take an inventory of the children; I wish you could hear how sour you sound; I can't believe you're acting this way in front of our friends; etc.
The sky will dump enough fresh snow tonight to completely cover any trace of the fire. In the hush of the storm, kneecaps will press the backs of knees, hands will curl around loose bellies, and everyone, even The Baby, will give in to sleep.
Meanwhile, the crack in the frozen lake snakes onward. The algae, the protozoa, the frog eggs, the leeches, and the smallmouth bass frowning lazily near the mucky bottom of the lake all tense up. Their senses, such as they are, fill with the urgent, vibrating sound of their world as it shifts.