After the illness broke, her father had agreed to bring her to the mountains. But that had been Christmas and they had waited for over a month until winter strengthened enough to bring snow, even on the heights of the Blue Ridge. Molly’s frustration had turned to anticipation and then to boredom, a determination without passion that her father admired for its seeming so adult. She was growing up and he, Frank, could watch in awe at how rigidly and stoically she sat in the car in the early morning as they drove towards the low clouds and barren tree-coated slopes of the hills. They were both hungry, and he was angry that they had not eaten at home, but he contained his anger, kept his temper to himself, and cheerily suggested they pull over at a minimart. He could barely contain his disgust when he saw the bacon and egg sandwich that his daughter ordered, but his tepid oatmeal in a styrofoam bowl made him envy her salty and sodden meal. They ate as they drove and, when they had discarded their wrappers on the backseat, turned to whatever music was at hand in the car; it was a cassette that he had known well once, and that he told her was an old favorite of hers, though she was not sure whether to believe it, and their failure to recall the words as they sang along brought neither mirth nor comment.
The idea had found Molly a year before, though she had not known it at the time. They were driving the winter previous to visit her aunt, her mother Margo’s sister, and the shorter route seemed, from an uncertain and tense consultation over the road maps, to be through the mountains. Margo had voiced her concerns, as Frank put it when setting them aside, worrying that the weather called for precipitation and that the road would be above the snow line. The drive had gone ahead through the mountains without any nuisance, except for the road-sickness that encouraged them to return the longer, less-winding route at a lower altitude. When they stopped to use the bathrooms, Molly woke from her light nap, left the car and, in a daze, stumbled into the barely winterized shed where the cold seat of the toilet jolted her awake as she came to rest fully upon it, despite her mother’s voice from beyond the door telling her to hover. Walking back to the car in full possession of her senses, she glanced around at the trees cascading down and up the slopes. The clouds were so near above they seemed to lick her face in wisps of drizzle and mist and she noticed, as she looked out over the succession of gentle undulations of the land, that near the clouds, peaks away, the brown trees grew silver and even white in places. It was snowing there.
She took up the idea, and grew to love it, towards the end of her illness when she was able to move from her bed. Her lungs barely burned now when she exerted herself and she walked around her room, dismissive these days of the movement on the TV, indifferent to the books she had stocked by her pillow. She rummaged now beneath her bed, sprawling on the floor, and drawing out piles of books she had read and had read to her years before. When Margo entered, she smiled and asked if Molly remembered this book or that. Sometimes Molly remembered and said so, and other times she lied, nodding when her mother reminded her of her favorite pages or illustrations. Her mother left and Molly continued rummaging, not expecting to find much, but then coming across a damp cardboard edition of The Velveteen Rabbit. She recalled little of the story but the infection diffusing throughout the life of its young protagonist, afflicting even the stuffed rabbit and the imagination that enlivened it. She had a distinct memory of being cold while reading it, even her sheets feeling cold and rough around her, but she doubted whether she could have felt that way and why it would have happened whenever she read that book, but she could remember nothing else, as if the infection had extended even to her memory and then, from that, to her now, for she realized that she was aching and feverish, and crawled back into bed, hoping her mother would not notice. She closed her eyes and thought of the rabbit burning in the flames and of how cold the flames seemed and the ashes of the fire, the wool of the rabbit and the spurs of the wood, seemed like snowflakes to her, colder even than snowflakes, and the curious thought of the snow catching on the dead trees across troughs and crests of mountain swells returned to her, and she thought how near she had been to the line where rain would turn to snow and where you could see the change itself happening, and, standing either below or beneath the line, could see into the world as it otherwise would be.
The thought did not leave her entirely, even though she never recovered it, or chose not to return to it, in its full intensity. What remained from it was a wish to find the line and to see for herself. That came and went through the recovery, growing with the frustration of not being able to move, a frustration that her parents saw as a symptom of health, which fully blossom and remain flourishing so long as her health remained. They hoped that would be a long time; they talked about what she would do with her time most often at night when they could hear her, in her room or in the basement, ordering imaginary friends in imaginary projects, sometimes reading aloud to them. When she told them what she expected of them, sometimes she explained that they were to accompany her to the snow line, to see it for themselves, alongside her.
Weeks later, when she was fully recovered, though not yet back at school, she came in from a walk in the forest near her house, springing over the clammy leaves, dragging her feet in scars of clay, and found her father back early for dinner. Frank smelled of his office, the software sales company: ashy hallways, manila folders stained with coffee, and stale sandwiches. Margo had already embraced them, and now Molly did too, and the early dinner in the dim light of the fall afternoon wrenched the day free from the stultifying routine of convalescence for all of them, so that Frank even asked Molly, though he had long since ceased doing so on account of knowing how thin her answer would be, how she had spent her day. Margo looked startled and almost thought of reaching for the thermometer when her daughter dropped her fork and knife and flailed her wrists in rapid upward and downward movements, describing what seemed to be a casual walk through the woods, but which had really, it seemed been an experiment of sorts—though Margo had no idea of what the experiment could possibly turn up—into whether it might be possible to find a given altitude at which the temperature abruptly shifted. Molly had walked to the creek, which lay some hundred feet down a hall, and returning up the hill from it, had paused to ascertain, as best as she could, what had changed. Frank had understood even less than Margo but was glad at least to find Molly animated, to relieve at least the tedium of the dinner conversation, and his own reasons for returning home from work early irked him less than they would have. Frank and Margo parents encouraged her with nods and vague questions but she glowed blotchy red and they exchanged worried glances and changed the subject.
When the holidays came and Frank and Margo were at a loss for what to get her for Christmas, and Margo suggested a dog and Frank sighed and muttered in dismay, they turned to Molly for advice, coyly at first and then more directly, since nothing she said made practical realities of gift-purchasing any easier, and they needed her to understand the constraints they faced, not to get her expectations as high as some of her classmates. The thought of her taking a trip with Frank felt suitable, both because of her age, nearly an adolescent, and not for much longer finding much appeal in that sort of thing, and because of the expense. They were not without imagination though, and Frank had a ticket printed out and a brochure for the Blue Ridge mountains. They would drive two hours and find the snow-line, once it was cold enough, and on Christmas morning, though the gift offered no immediate satisfaction, Molly smiled broadly, and Frank and Margo felt proud for having understood her.
Frank and Molly woke early on the morning of February twentieth. For the week prior, they had said little about the trip, noting only that the weather looked right, and both knowing what that meant. Frank had smiled and nodded to her and she had smiled back but it was not a common secret between them, but instead a shared anxiety and obligation. Molly had not lost her interest in finding the snow line, but it was now just that: interest. Frank had not complained of the trip to Margo, but he had mused at night in bed over whether she cared at all, whether it might not be better to spend a Saturday together as a family a nearer drive from home, or whether he might ask her if she wanted to redeem the ticket for another destination. Margo had told him not to be silly and so the trip had proceeded as planned with a reminder on Friday night that they would be up before dawn: the snow, even in the upper parts of the mountains, might turn to slush sometime in the afternoon.
The rain had grown steadier as they neared the mountains, which was good a sign, Frank thought, though he worried that the temperature was wrong. He thought maybe it would be better if there were no rain at all, as if maybe that would make precipitation in the mountains more likely. But now, climbing, he saw above them the dusky whiteness of snow-cover on trees and then the bank of clouds absorbing all and he was relieved; with the relief, his mood improved. Molly’s head leaned against the window and she stared straight ahead, her face blank. Frank scolded her lightly. He felt the dimness of his imagination as he started to tell her a story about someone who lived in the mountains, someone lost or a recluse, and realized, as he was telling the story that she was only half-feigning interest, that the story was without plot or purpose or any character, and wouldn’t even hold the attention of a five-year old. It was too random and jumbled, and soon he had lost track of what he was saying, so instead he talked about how when he grew up he lived nowhere near the mountains and heard stories about them that frightened him even though he couldn’t remember the stories to tell her now.
The rain was turning to slush, the wipers smearing and squeaking and the road now streaked with small piles of the stuff, which did not seem solid even then. Frank clenched the steering wheel and Molly held tight to the door of the car, which had nearly skidded twice. When it finally did skid, into the other lane, Frank swore, and Molly, at the moment that Frank brought it to control in his own lane, reflexively grabbed the handle of the door, so that it swung open, and Frank screamed in panic matching her own, as he slowed the car to the side of the road, both of them shaking. Molly’s voice trembled and she yelled that she did not want to continue and Frank tried to calm her, apologizing for his driving, but angry at his daughter for the stupidity of her action, which defied instinct and common sense. He refused to turn around, told her that they would be alright, but the mood was spoiled now, and Molly was muttering under her breath, and then aloud in terror, that she wanted to turn around and she did not need to see the snowline. Her father told her they were almost there, and that they needed only to go a mile further until they reached a trailhead, where they could walk, and find the snowline.
The air gnawed at her face, biting and damp at once, and the waterproof she wore was not suited to this weather; the rain falling in slushy globules pelted it with frigid smacks. Molly saw nothing as she stared back across the road, at a lookout point that was nearly swallowed into a mass of cloud. Her father insisted that it would not be far to walk, and she believed him because he was her father and because he would not want to walk far any more than she would, especially as she realized he was having trouble finding his footing in his old running shoes. She wore galoshes, the nearest they could find that morning as they realized they had not thought of what a hiking trail would require. They waddled up the hill, Frank holding her hand, deeper into the darkened boughs and monotonous brown and grey spires, abandoned now, devoid and distrustful of interest.
The slush endured as slush, and the path remained lazily flat, never turning up as it might many times have done, as the map had shown Frank it would do. When he looked at Molly, pink-cheeked and only recently ill, now being marched through a rainy mountain forest, he was afflicted with the terrible thing he had done and the regret he felt could not be expressed to her at her age, without her seeing the truth of his own stupidity and failure, and his wife’s stupidity and failure. He turned back and embraced her, holding her face against his stomach, and, realizing it would be cold there, opened his raincoat so that she could feel the dry warmth of his sweatshirt and the softness of fat on his belly. He pressed her tight and told her that they had to go back to the car and at a loss for what had happened she responded by nodding slightly, which was enough for him to know that they could return without her feeling too much disappointment, if she felt any at all.
The walk back to the car felt much briefer, was accompanied by a sense of elation and they talked over where they would eat lunch, someplace special. Frank was famished again, his appetite swelling his personality, and when they reached the car, the dry inside and warmth returning inspired him to something that he admitted to her might be foolish. Instead of turning the car to drive down the mountain, he continued it upwards, slowly though, with no rush or sense of destination or even purpose and Molly, hungry too, said nothing in response, no surprise, anxiety or thought of the future, but lost to him in the sound of the slush and hum of the car that had become a barricade against everything outside, so that she felt from within the warmth of the car to be so near to the wet cold and yet utterly impassibly distant from it, not of it at all. Frank said nothing as he looked at her and she asked nothing of him. The slush beyond the windows continued to hammer them, now fainter and fainter, now the road coated with a thin layer of grey mush, which then became snow and outside of the car the flakes were thick and fast, and he pulled slowly alongside the road and turned the car and then, with his foot gently on the brake, went down the road where he had come, cautiously letting the wipers turn off so that the snow caught on the windowpane and then was transparent and then washed away. Molly did not stir at his side but stared out her window, and he turned again, to drive up the hill, going a bit higher this time, and leaving the wipers on now as they rolled downwards, and under his breath saying “now, now” so that Molly looked up and saw through the snow into something that was less than snow, not as firm or defined, without moving towards it any longer, since he had stopped the car on the side of the road. He turned the wipers off. The snow melted on the windshield and then started to catch, sticking until it was covered, the light inside the car bluish through it, and then he turned the wipers on and the snow was cleared away, until it stuck again. For five minutes it went on, and once she made to open the door and didn’t, without his noticing, but another time did the same, and Frank saw, and slowly opened his door and stepped out, and they walked along the shoulder of the road, maybe a hundred feet, or maybe more, they didn’t know and never had a conversation in which they would exaggerate or approximate the distance or anything else about it, and soon they were wet and cold, their hair soggy with the slush that felt more now like rain, their appetites deciding they should leave.