Ellie bounced forward in her seat as her mom put the minivan in park.
“We’re here!” her mom chirped. “Thank god the lot is plowed.”
Ellie squinted out at the mountains of fresh snow blanketing the rolling landscape, a flutter in her chest. It was perfect.
“Look at those snowbanks!” shouted Aiden as he and Will leapt out of their booster seats, pushing and shoving, trying to be the first to hit the little black button to open the minivan’s sliding door.
“Seriously,” Ellie mumbled, rolling her eyes at her little half-brothers as she unhooked her seat belt.
“Don’t forget hats and mittens,” her mom called. Aiden and Will fought their way back into the minivan to grab their forgotten winter gear.
Ellie zipped up her parka and pulled on her favorite hat. Ballerina pink, big white fluffy pom pom. More of a dirty pink now, the pom pom gray and matted, and so small and tight it left stitch lines on her forehead, but still the best hat in the world. She tucked her waterproof mittens into her pockets and climbed out into the bright sunshine.
She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with tingling cold. Snowflakes hung in the still air, glittering like tiny diamonds all around her. Snow fairies. A magical sight that only happened after a blizzard, like the one that had turned Ellie’s world into a wind-whipped, upside-down snow globe for the past twenty-four hours. She’d woken up this morning to eighteen inches of dazzling new snow and the two best words ever.
She’d known immediately what she wanted to do with this early Christmas present. Exactly what she did the last time Mother Nature shut down school, back when she was just a second-grader.
“Hey Ellie, help me with the sleds.”
Ellie grabbed the two blue saucer sleds, a yellow rope handle in each hand, and slung them over her shoulders. Her mom grabbed the big red sled and the backpack with extra hats and mittens and, most important, the big thermos of cocoa. Extra hot. Just like on that last snow day. Her mom had taken the day off from work and brought Ellie here. They’d sledded until their cheeks were chapped, had a snowball fight until they couldn’t feel their fingers or toes. Then, the cocoa, its chocolate-scented steam defrosting Ellie’s cheeks and nose, the hot liquid warming her up inside to out. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Of course, that was before. Before moving in with her new stepdad, David; before middle school.
“I’m king of the mountain!” Aiden screamed from the top of a giant snowbank.
Before her pesky half-brothers.
“Arrhhh,” screamed Will as he lost his footing and tumbled down the snowbank in a blur of scarf and hat.
Ellie flinched. “Seriously, do they have to be so loud?”
“They’re four and five. You were loud at that age, too,” said her mom.
“No, I wasn’t.”
Her mom waved Aiden and Will over. “Come on, guys.” She took Aiden’s hand, who took Will’s hand, and they set off across the parking lot.
Ellie trailed behind.
The Mississippi Bluffs golf course’s wrought iron fence enclosed the best sledding hills around. It was locked up for the winter, but lucky sledders knew about the gap, an opening where two sections of fence came together that was just large enough to squeeze through. After sneaking through the fence, they had to walk through the woods and around an ice-covered lake to get to the big hill. Mount Everest, Ellie and her mom had nicknamed it, last time. The journey was almost as thrilling as the sledding. Almost.
They weren’t the first ones here, and a trail had been forged through the thigh-high snow. Ellie’s mom helped Aiden and Will through the gap in the fence first, then followed them. Ellie came through last, tugging the blue saucers.
The woods were just ahead. Or they should have been. All Ellie could see was a small clump of trees. Ellie looked around, confused. “Wait. Are you sure we’re in the right place, mom?”
“Yeah, this is it.”
Ellie frowned. The trail led this way. It must be right. But it didn’t feel right.
Ellie clomped into the clump of trees, still bringing up the rear. She opened her mouth, about to point out a cardinal, when ice cold powder showered down on her. A pile of snow from the bare tree branches above had dropped on her head. She yelped as it fell down the collar of her parka, sending shivers down her spine. “Mom!”
“Just brush it off, Ell,” said her mom as she pulled Will out of a particularly deep snowdrift.
Ellie groaned as she swiped away the snow. Great. Now her hands were cold. She pulled on her mittens and grabbed the sled handles again, dragging them behind her.
They walked out of the clump of trees. They should’ve been by the lake. But all Ellie could see was a small, frozen pond.
“This isn’t the right way.”
“Yes, it is, Ellie.”
Ellie spun around to look back the way they came. “Did we come in a different way last time?”
“No. This is the way.” The irritation in her mom’s voice set Ellie’s teeth on edge.
“Look, guys!” Her mom pointed to the far side of the pond, where a set of small hills stood, zigzagged with sledders. “There’s the big hill.”
Now Ellie knew they weren’t in the right place. “That is not the big hill,” she said, over Aiden and Will’s obnoxious cheering and clapping.
“Yes it is.”
They rounded the pond and came to the bottom of the big hill. Ellie looked up. There was nothing Mount Everest about it. “The big hill is way bigger than this.”
Her mom let out a short laugh, infuriating Ellie. “No, you were just a lot smaller. You were seven the last time we were here. You’re thirteen now, and at least a foot taller.”
Her mom helped Aiden and Will up the hill. Ellie trudged behind them. She made it to the top in no time at all. She wasn’t even breathing hard. Proof this wasn’t the right hill. The climb up had been exhausting last time. Ellie had sweated and huffed as she’d dragged the big red sled up by its blue rope again and again to her mom, waiting at the top, ready to give her a big push down the hill.
Ellie dropped the blue saucers down at the top of the hill, and Aiden and Will immediately jumped onto them. Her mom set them up for their first run.
Ellie grabbed the big red sled and took a few steps away to an unused spot. She sat down, and found the big sled wasn’t so big anymore. She had to bend her knees to sit in it.
Her weight caused the sled to sink down deep into the powdery snow. She rocked back and forth to get herself going, but it didn’t budge. She was stuck. She groaned again.
She looked to her mom for a push. But she was busy with Aiden and Will. Again.
Ellie sighed and rocked harder. She pawed at the snow with her mittened hands. The sled inched forward. After a few more pulls, it tipped over the top of the hill and started to gather speed. Butterflies fluttered in Ellie’s stomach. She squealed as snow peppered her face and wind bit at her cheeks.
Then she hit the bottom. Way too soon.
This couldn’t be the right hill.
Ellie slumped on her sled.
Ellie hauled Aiden and Will’s saucers up the hill, her sled bouncing behind her from its blue rope, for what felt like the hundredth time.
At the top, her mom helped Aiden and Will onto their sleds and gave them a push while Ellie rocked and kicked and pushed her sled down the hill by herself.
At least she’d carved out a good path. This was going to be her fastest run yet. She tipped over the top, her stomach jumping as her sled sped down the hill. At the bottom, her sled slid sideways, kicking up a huge spray of snow the stung Ellie’s cheeks. Then her sled flew out from under her and she tumbled into a snowdrift, laughing.
Just behind her, Aiden and Will spun and swerved on their saucers, landing in a giggling heap at the bottom of the hill. “Awesome run, guys!” shouted her mom from the top of the hill.
Ellie scowled. Her run was awesome, too.
Ellie sat down on the snowdrift and folded up her arms. She still wasn’t convinced they were in the right spot. It was close. There were trees, and water. But it didn’t match her memory.
“I’m gonna see what’s around the corner,” Ellie called up to her mom. Her mom waved okay.
Tugging her sled behind her, Ellie followed the contour of the hill around to the far side. The land flattened out into the golf course here. No hills.
She headed back toward the clump of trees. They must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. When she reached the gap in the fence, she turned around to face the trees. Maybe they’d gone left when they were supposed to go right.
She walked through the trees again, this time angling right instead of left. There were no trails in the snow this way. But maybe that’s because the other kids didn’t know there was a bigger hill somewhere.
She forged a path through the untouched snow, growing hot in all her snow gear. She found some hills, but none of them were Mount Everest, and they all backed up against the wrought iron fence. She definitely didn’t remember sledding into the fence.
Ellie dropped down onto the snow, not sure whether to yell or cry. None of this was right.
Nothing was right.
Ellie watched the sunlight slowly shift across the wind-sculpted snowdrifts, torn between wanting her mom to care enough to come find her and wanting to be alone.
Then she heard Aiden and Will, crashing and bashing toward her. She glared in their direction.
Her mom’s forehead crinkled with concern. “There you are. What are you doing over here?”
“Looking for the big hill,” said Ellie.
“We were on the big hill,” said her mom.
Ellie rolled her stinging eyes. Aiden, snow-crusted from hat to boot, yelled some unintelligible challenge to his little brother, then him tackled from behind. Will fought back with a fistful of snow to Aiden’s face.
“Do they always have to be fighting with each other?” snapped Ellie.
Ellie’s mom frowned at her. “They’re just having fun, Ellie.”
Ellie shifted her glare to her mom. “Glad someone is.”
“Hey, this was your idea.” Her mom put her gloved hands on her hips. “What’s going on? You were so excited to come.”
“All you do is pay attention to them.”
“They need help. They’re still little.”
“It’s nothing like last time. Nothing’s the same.”
Her mom sighed. “You’re just growing up, Ell.”
Words piled up in Ellie’s chest. Words she knew she shouldn’t say, but she couldn’t stop them. “You love them more than you love me.”
Her mother’s face erupted in shock. “What? That’s not true.”
But the words, unlocked, tumbled out of Ellie’s mouth like a sled headed for a wipe-out. “You love David more than you ever loved Dad. All you ever talk about is how everything’s so much better with David.”
“But that has nothing to do with you…”
“You quit your job so you could stay home with them. You never did that for me.”
Her mom’s eyebrows furrowed. “I would’ve, if I could’ve afforded it back then. I had to work.”
Ellie turned away, her chapped cheeks burning.
Her mom put her hand on her shoulder. “Ell, you’re my girl. You know that.”
“I miss the old days, when it was just you and me.”
Ellie’s chest locked up again. This day couldn’t get any worse. If only she were home, so she could slam a door.
She waited and waited for her mom to say something. She didn’t. Ellie’s breath stuck in her throat. Her mom must be really mad at her.
Ellie stole a watery-eyed glance. Her mom’s face had crumpled and her eyes glistened like the snow. Her mom was going to cry. Because of her. Ellie wrapped her arms around herself and turned her back to her mom, hot tears stinging her cold cheeks.
Something icy and wet slammed into her shoulder. A snowball. She jumped up, her head snapping around to where her half-brothers were wrestling in the snow. But they hadn’t thrown it. They weren’t even paying attention.
She swung to face her mother, who was shaping another snowball.
“Seriously!” Ellie tried to stamp her foot, but it was stuck in snow.
“Seriously,” said her mom, smiling through the tears on her own cheeks. She threw the snowball, hitting Ellie square in the chest. Mouth agape, Ellie grabbed a handful of snow. She dodged another snowball from her mom as she shaped her handful into a compact ball. She threw it, and hit her mom on the shoulder. Her mom laughed, and fired off another one.
Ellie and her mom peppered each other with snowballs. Aiden and Will noticed, and joined in. Snowballs flew, punctuated by shrieks as they landed. Aiden got hit in the face with one of Ellie’s snowballs, and he fell over, tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth as if he were dead. Will pounced on him and he groaned. Ellie laughed. Sometimes they were kind of funny.
Ellie showed them both how to make snow angels. But they rolled around so much it just looked like snow ditches. So Ellie showed them how to make a snow fort instead.
Ellie’s mom dropped her backpack on the snow and pulled out the thermos and cups. “I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t feel my fingers. Time for cocoa!”
She uncapped the thermos and poured a cup of cocoa. Will reached for it. Her mom lifted the cup out of his reach. “Nope, Ellie first.”
Ellie wrapped her mittened hands around the cup of cocoa and inhaled. Extra hot and chocolatey. Exactly as she remembered it. She took a sip. Its heat spread through her, warming up her inside out.
Ellie’s mom ruffled snow out of Ellie’s pom pom hat. “Might be time to get you a new hat, Ell.”
Ellie pushed her hat back and rubbed the stitch lines in her forehead. “Yeah, I guess. But don’t get rid of this one, okay?”
“Get rid of Fluffy? No way.”
Relieved, Ellie settled back in the snow and savored her last sips of cocoa.