One Step At a Time


From where Murphy pretended to be sleeping on the futon he could hear his brother fidgeting. He closed his eyes in a vain attempt to go from pretending to sleep to actually sleeping. He was tired. He'd been tired for days and it felt like all he ever did was sleep, but then, what else was there to do?

The first day after the blizzard they took some shovels from the shed and walked back to the car to dig it out of the snow bank they'd driven it into. The engine had started that day, but not since parking it in the lane.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do, it didn't take long for either of them to get cabin fever.

Something whacked him in the back of the head and Murphy reached around and whipped it right back at his brother. Turned out to the be the old romance novel they'd found in the cupboard, and it didn't make a very effective projectile. "What the hell's your problem?"

"We're out of peanut butter, Rip Van Winkle."

Murphy sighed. "So?"

"Let's go get some."

"Now?"

Connor looked around the cabin dramatically. "It's a fucking beautiful day out there. I'd have thought you'd be more eager to get out and enjoy the fresh air after being cooped up in Hoag so long."

Murphy sat up and yawned. "You couldn't have waited for me to wake up?"

"It's two in the afternoon, how long am I supposed to wait? Come on, it will be good to get out and see what the town is like."

Murphy pointed over at the patio doors leading to the back deck. "We can see the town just fine from here. Doesn't look like much."

The top part of a steeple was visible poking out over a line of evergreens and that was it. Connor gave Murphy a look and Murphy shrugged back at him.

"And we're almost out of cigarettes."

"You should have said so. How did you get the car started?"

"I didn't. We can walk across the lake." Connor tossed Murphy a wool hat, and with a half hearted grumble Murphy followed. Connor was right, it was nice outside and there wasn't even a lot of wind today. Some of the snow was even melting on the back deck.

The lake looked safe enough to walk over and the ice felt solid. There were plenty of snowmobile trails everywhere, and they chose a relatively straight one to walk along where the snow was well packed. In a few places the snow had been blown away completely leaving bare ice. Connor ran ahead and slid about five feet.

"Come on."

Murphy looked at the ice, and then looked at his brother. He nodded, got ready, took a step... and slipped and fell on his back. "Fuck."

Connor doubled over laughing, and every time Murphy re-lost his balance while trying to get back up he laughed even harder. Finally, sick of falling on his ass, Murphy crawled over to a patch of snow to use as traction under his feet. And still Connor was laughing.

Murphy brushed off his jeans, and carefully shuffled his way towards his twin. "That next patch of ice over there. Both at once, and we'll see who slides farthest."

Connor nodded. "You're on."

They stood side by side in the snow for a moment and then started running. At the ice they slid. Murphy fell again before barely even getting started, but Connor slid right into it a patch of slush and landed on his ass with a splash.

"Fucking perfect." Connor cursed. He got up and brushed his hands over the water and ice on his pants.

Murphy wiped at his eyes from laughing so hard. "Good thing we're not far from town then."

"Fuck that, I'm going back." Connor looked back across the lake. "We'll get the peanut butter tomorrow."

"And the smokes." Murphy added.

Connor took a step and stopped dead. The ice started to crack and cave in around him.

Murphy saw it at the same time and froze. "Shit."

Very slowly, Connor took a step toward Murphy and the ice cracked again, bringing forth a fresh layer of water up through the cracks and into the slush around his boots. He moved again, this time sliding his feet forward in an effort to keep his weight distributed. The ice kept sinking with him as he moved.

Murphy ran towards his brother. He stood at the very edge of where it was safe and reached out his hand and urged Connor to keep moving. It was just ten steps. "Just keep moving. Carefully."

"Of course I'm moving fucking carefully. Fuck." Connor took a deep breath, moved another foot forward, testing the ice for a moment before putting more weight on it. Another sliding step. Another step, he was going to make it. It cracked again. He was halfway there. Another step, and the ice cracked again, opening up under his left foot. Connor tried to adjust and retreat backwards, but it was too late, his left foot went in and the ice around his right foot gave way a second later.

Murphy froze as his brother disappeared under the water.

He threw himself down and stretched out towards the hole in the ice to reach his twin, not caring about how safe it was or not. Everywhere was slush and broken ice. Connor resurfaced, gasping for breath and treading water.

He swam to edge of ice and tried to push himself up but the ice broke off around him. He swept the ice away from himself with his arm and tried again for the edge, but was only able to pull himself up to the chest before losing his grip and sliding back in.

Murphy reached out as far as he could. "Come on. Get back up." He grabbed his brother's fingers, but in the process of pulling Connor towards him only managed to slide even closer to the water.

Connor noticed and let go of Murphy's hand. "Back the fuck off!"

Murphy reached out and grabbed Connor's wrist before he could pull away again. He dug his toes into the ice and braced himself on his other arm to keep from moving forward again while dragging his brother up.

"The ice is going to break. Let go!" Connor shouted.

Murphy's response was to just hold on tighter. He would hold on whether he could pull his brother up or not. He would hold on until the end of the world if he had to. "Shut the fuck up and help."

He felt Connor push forwards and at the same time he pulled his arm back as hard as he could, dragging Connor halfway up into the ice. Still gripping his brother's wrist he rolled away from the edge and managed to drag Connor up completely.

They lay together on the ice for a moment before Murphy got up in his knees and grabbed the collar of Connor's jacket and pulled him further from the open water.

"Jesus Christ." Murphy breathed.

"Lords name." Connor muttered.

Murphy reflexively made the sign of the cross. He laid a hand his brother's chest, he could feel his brother shivering from the cold. "Can you get up?"

Connor rolled onto his side and pushed himself up to sitting. He looked up at Murphy and they met each other's eyes. Murphy could see a lot in that look; how close they'd just come to dying, and how much they meant to each other.

Then Connor reached out and punched Murphy's arm. "Next time I tell you to back off, you fucking listen."

"You and what army?" Murphy shot back as he got up.

"This army you idiot." Connor managed to push himself up to his feet.

"We're not that far from the cabin." Murphy said looking back. They'd already walked about a third of the way across the lake. It would take at least fifteen minutes to get back the way they came, and probably twice that to reach the town.

They managed about five minutes of walking before Connor started to falter. Murphy tucked his arm around Connor's back to help steady him and urge him onwards.

Connor's teeth were chattering and his hands were shaking and his face was nearly as pale as the snow around them. Murphy was scared.

Connor fell, dragging Murphy down with him into the snow. Murphy wrapped his arms around Connor's waist and pulled him back up into his feet.

"We have to keep going. You've been through worse. Remember that time I puked on you at the fair after I ate that whole stick of blue candy floss? We had to take the bus through town and the smell of it made everyone around us gag."

"My own fault. I dared you to eat it." Connor added.

"And there's the time you jumped off Uncle Sibeal's roof."

"Fuck." Connor whispered, and he moved his feet forward.

Murphy slung his brother's arm over his shoulder and focused on one step at a time. "You limped around for two days before Ma noticed and dragged you into emergency. I thought they were pulling your leg right off the way you screamed when they adjusted your knee. This is a walk in the park compared, right Conn?"

"R-right." Connor answered and stumbled again. Murphy pulled him right back up.

"No resting. One step at a time." He could feel his brother shivering. "Think of something other than the cold. Be pissed off at me, that'll get your mind off it." Murphy offered. With every step it felt like Connor was getting heavier.

"Y-you just saved my f-fucking life. How c-could I be pissed at y-you?" Connor asked breathlessly.

"You were pissed off at me just a minute ago, remember? I could have gotten us both killed if I fell in after you." He thought about it for a minute. "Remember that action figure of Hans Solo you had? The one you thought you lost? I melted its face with a magnifier glass and buried it in the garden so you wouldn't know what I did."

"And that rash you got in your pants just before your date with Anna on our sixteenth birthday? I rubbed poison ivy in your shorts." Murphy took a deep breath and kept going. "I was mad you were going out on our day." All he got in response was an unintelligible grunt, but it was better than nothing. With each tidbit of past recriminations Murphy felt his brother pick up just a little bit, and he decided his strategy to get Connor's adrenaline going by pissing him off must be working.

But they weren't there yet.

Murphy adjusted his hold on Connor and chanted to himself his new mantra. One step at a time. One step at a time. "Don't be such a fucking pussy. What the hell would Ma say if she could see you now? She'd say, thank fuck you're the oldest, Murph. I always knew you'd take care of your little brother." He really felt Connor twitch on hearing that one. "You can beat on me once we're inside. Or at least you can try. No resting yet." Murphy looked up ahead and felt relief that they were almost at the cabin.

He pulled Connor up the steps to the back deck. He pushed open the door and dragged Connor inside and finally lowered his twin down to the floor.

"Don't make me have to take you to a hospital. You know how much I hate those places. Right? You wouldn't do that to me would you?" Murphy rambled as he threw a few logs in the wood stove. He pulled his brother's jacket off and tossed it in the corner. All the wet clothes got peeled off and tossed in the same pile.

"Help me out if you feel like it." Murphy teased and helped Connor over to the futon to lie down. He piled all the blankets on top of him and stood back a moment to think things through. Connor was still shivering like he was going to jump out of his skin.

"They say body contact is supposed to work, right?" Murphy had taken his own damp jacket off as soon as he'd entered the cabin. He pulled off his shirt and crawled onto the futon behind Connor and wiggled as close as he could get so that Connor's back was pressed against his chest.

He wrapped his arms around Connor, placing his palms flat against his brother's rib cage. It took a minute, but Connor eventually relaxed against him, and brought his own icy hands up to place against Murphy's.