“So who will be sledding tonight?” she asked after a minute of silence.
“Oh, the whole neighborhood, probably. Our hill is kind of the designated sledding destination. By the time we get there my sister and her friends will probably have made enough runs to pack the snow down and my cousin and my sister’s boyfriend will have the fire started at the top. They’re famous for their monster fires.”
“I hope your mom brings more hot chocolate. I’m cold already.”
“You’ll warm up as we walk. And besides, trust me. The fire will be huge.” Evan had no idea how prophetic his words would turn out to be.
The snow had all but stopped by the time the made it to his house, though the clouds stayed low and continued to look threatening. They stepped inside the back door long enough to warm up and get a report from his father that the sledding had begun, the fire-starters had just left, and his mother was working on warming milk for hot chocolate. Renee was excited to hear this, partly because she really was cold but also because Evan’s mother was the only person she’d ever heard of who made hot chocolate from scratch with milk and her own mixture of dry ingredients. It was the best cocoa she’d ever tasted or ever would taste.
Sufficiently warmed, the duo stepped back outside. It was almost completely dark by this time, but as they approached the foot of the hill, Evan could see miniscule flashes of light at the top, like someone was lighting matches and flicking them through the air.
“What’s going on up there?” asked Renee as they started up the hill. But before Evan could answer, the night turned to day for just a split second, followed by a concussion so large that it seemed to shake the ground. Not knowing what had just happened, Evan instinctively dove onto Renee, who had fallen to her knees. He covered her body with his and put his hands over the back of his head, in a futile attempt to stop whatever had exploded and, from the thudding sounds all around them, was raining down all around them. Just when he thought it was over, he felt a sharp pain to the back of his head. As he slowly lapsed into unconsciousness, he heard Renee scream his name.
The next thing he knew he was in the back of an ambulance, his mother by his side. His head hurt so badly that he felt like it might split open. He reached up to touch his forehead, but all he felt was something soft and gauzy. Then it slowly dawned on him. It was actual gauze. This struck him funny for some reason and he started to laugh, but it caused the pain to spike and be joined by lights popping in front of his eyes, so he decided not to do that again. He heard fragments of the conversation going on around him, such as, “…concussion…head wounds tend to bleed…should be okay…” That last one comforted him as he drifted back to sleep.
And then suddenly, it was bright daylight. His head still hurt, but not nearly as badly. He opened his eyes, but closed them again instantly when he realized that it wasn’t sunshine he was seeing, but a blindingly white overhead light that was pointing directly into his face. “Bright,” he said.
“He’s awake!” said his mother. Somebody somewhere turned the light off, so he opened his eyes again. His vision was a little blurry, but after a few blinks, the indistinct blobs around him coalesced into human beings. Four human beings, to be exact. His mother and sister were on his left, while his father, and Renee were to his right. He was in one of those wheeled emergency room beds. “What…what happened?”
“You saved my life is what happened,” said Renee, grabbing his hand. “You’re my hero.”
“You really did, son,” said his father, patting his knee. “If you hadn’t shielded her, the log would have gotten her right between the eyes.”
He looked around at them. They all had smiles on the faces. His father seemed to find something funny, but he couldn’t figure out what it might be. “Log? I don’t understand.”
“Now that you’re okay, it’s okay to laugh about it, I guess,” said his mother.
“Laugh about what?”
“It was your doofus cousin and Kathleen’s even dumber boyfriend,” said his dad. “If I’d known what those two maniacs were doing, I would have kicked their cans.”
A fragment of a memory staggered into his mind. Tiny flashes of light, like matches floating through the air. “Did they…? Are they okay?”
“Oh, their fine. A little singed around the edges and feeling like they have cotton in their ears. Plus, they feel like criminals.”
“That’s probably because you threatened to call the cops on them,” said his mother.
“What did they do?”
“Well, the wood was pretty wet, so they sneaked into the garage and took a gallon can, completely full of gasoline. Guess they thought if a little was good, all was better, so they stacked up all of the wood they could find and dumped the whole gallon of gas on it. At least they had sense enough to light the matches from a distance and try to flick them at the woodpile. Problem is, they forgot about the gas vapors. By the time they got a match to stay lit long enough to flick it toward the fire, a pretty good cloud had built up, so about halfway to the wood, the vapor all went up like a bomb. All that was left when it was over was big black hole where the wood used to be and the logs came crashing down all over the hillside like mortars.”
Luckily,” said his mother, “the log that hit you was pretty small and, even luckier, you inherited your father’s granite skull.”
“I’m really sorry Evan.” Everyone turned to see Kathleen’s boyfriend at the door. He stood, seemingly unable to decide if he should come in. Evan couldn’t figure out why he looked odd. Then he realized the boy had no eyebrows. “We were just trying to get a good fire going.”
“S’okay,” said Evan. “Seriously. Don’t worry about it.” He turned back to Renee. “Are you all right?”
“I am, thanks to you,” she said, her eyes glistening. “At first I thought you were playing, but then, in the next instant, I heard this crack. It sounded just like a baseball hitting a bat and then I felt you go limp and all your weight collapsed against me. I–I thought you were dead.” She couldn’t hold it back anymore. A tear trickled down her cheek.
He squeezed her hand. “I’m okay, I promise.”
“You were so brave, covering me up like that.”
He didn’t feel brave. He didn’t even have time to think; he just reacted. Did that make him brave? He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t think about it much, though, because it hurt his head. He looked at her, wishing he could wipe away her tears, but he just felt too tired to lift his hands. He didn’t want to sleep, though because he feared that when he woke up, she’d be gone and that her parents would never let her see him again. “I’m really sorry. And tell your folks that I’m sorry.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Sorry? Sorry for what?”
“Almost getting you killed on our first date.”
“Renee!” It was a voice he didn’t know. Everyone turned. It was a large man with a shiny bald head and blue, piercing eyes. Evan thought he looked like a more intense Mr. Clean.
Renee ran to him and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. “Hi Daddy.” She took his hand and pulled him to the bed. “Daddy, this is my boyfriend–and hero–Evan.
The man put his arm around Renee’s shoulder. “Glad to meet you son.”
“I’m really sorry, sir.
“Oh, since you saved my little girl’s life and all, I guess we can forgive you this time. Besides, it has to get better from here, right?”
Between the tension of not knowing if he’d be okay and the absurdity of the event, no one could take it anymore. The whole family burst into laughter.
Epilogue–a week later
“I’m so relieved,” Renee said, pulling Evan’s Flexible Flyer behind her by a rope that was tied onto each of the steering handles, “that it’s still snowy enough to go sledding.”
“This hardly counts as sledding,” he said. “This is barely a hill at all.” He sat down on the sled atop what amounted to about a ten foot hillock at the end of Renee’s backyard. All told, the trip would last upwards of a second.
“Sorry,” she said, sitting behind him and wrapping her arms and legs around him. “Doctor’s orders. And besides, it’s not the size of the hill, it’s who’s riding down it with you.”
She gave him an affectionate squeeze as they leaned forward in tandem, tipping the nose of the sled down the hill. He was wrong; it took almost two seconds. But he didn’t care. She was right. And there wasn’t anyone in the whole world he’d rather be with.