It’s winter, and I’m ten years old. That puts us at 2000. Rodhi and I are out in our boots and coats and gloves and hats, wandering down Good Avenue, which can’t be distinguished between the grass or even the lake next to it because of the snow. Rodhi floats the idea of snatching a few of his dad’s tennis rackets and duct-taping them to our shoes to approximate what we’ve seen in shows about frozen tundras and intrepid explorers, but he chickens out at the last second. My winter gloves are secondhand, several seasons old, with tiny tears in the seams making them unsuitable for snowball fights. I’m stubborn, though, so I use them anyway. I just make every snowball count before my hands get too cold.
When we’re done with that, we take one of my action figures and find a good spot to throw him into the snow. We’ve done this for years, waiting for the thaw so that we can become archaeologists uncovering an ancient find. This year, I toss in my Wolverine action figure. The snow is soft powder, so he falls all the way through to the bottom. We make note of where he fell and take a picture of the spot with an old disposable I found lying around at home. We have so many disposables sitting there at home, some of them untouched for years, and who can say what pictures are already there when I snatch it.
Rodhi and I vow to save up lunch money and get the pictures developed when the time comes. The snow and the cold have been here for weeks, and they show no signs of letting up. This is a true Chicago winter. We leave our artifact behind and turn back for Bay Colony, for our apartment complex. Then we see LC and his crew. We both freeze, looking for an exit but not seeing one. We could turn around and run the other way, but it’d only be a matter of time before they caught us. And if they didn’t, LC knows where we live. They could just turn around and wait at our complex until they found us.
They fan out. Fernando moves to our left to block one end of the street, and Chaz goes to our right to block the other end. LC stands in front of us, facing the lake. The wind howls in our ears. Snow still falls from the sky. LC pulls out a knife, and the other two pick up sticks. They close in around us slowly, a smile growing on LC’s face.
We back up as far as we can, until we’re sure there’s no more ground behind us. LC swings his knife at the air in front of us and tells us to move. Rodhi and I stand there, neither of us doing anything.
Fernando hits Rodhi in the chest with his stick. I put my hands up and motion for Rodhi to follow me out onto the ice, and he does. LC keeps telling us to go out farther, farther. When we stop, he throws rocks at us and threatens to throw bigger rocks out onto the ice. So we keep going. I can hear the ice groaning beneath our feet, but I try not to let on, for Rodhi’s sake.
Then the ice breaks.
First Rodhi is there, then he isn’t. He disappears into a dark hole. The water is calm for a second, and then there’s splashing. And then there’s me slowly sliding over to where he fell in. And then there’s me getting down onto my belly as LC and his crew laugh behind us. And then there’s me reaching my hand in and finding Rodhi’s. There’s me pulling him out and using all my strength to slide him away from the hole in the ice, one of his shoes now missing.
The crew’s laughter recedes behind us as they all run back home, and Rodhi is already shivering by the time he’s flat on his back on the ice. I help him back up, and we get off of the ice and back onto ground as carefully as possible. I don’t know what else to do, so I take him to my Hideaway. My Hideaway is a tunnel underneath the city of Des Plaines, a tunnel you can access by a manhole that some teenager pried the bolts off of long ago. There’s something like a room down there, made out of hollowed-out concrete, and I write little stories by the light of the lightning bugs I keep in jars down there. That’s where I go when things get really bad at home.
I’ve never taken anyone else down here or even told anyone about it, but it seems like the right thing to do. I take off my jacket when we get down there and put it around Rodhi. I huddle up close to him and try to help him stay warm. He shivers for a while but eventually starts getting warmer and quiets down. Without the sound of his shivering, it’s silent down there, and the only thing you can see are the lightning bugs blinking in Morse code.
Neither of us says anything. Rodhi turns and looks at me. I don’t know what to say. He leans in and kisses me, and I kiss him back.
When it’s time to go, I walk him back to our complex. We never speak another word about this day.