I forgot how cold winter can be. The frigid air is a thousand tiny pinpricks on my face as I follow Caleb down the path between our houses.
“Come on, Kiki,” he shouts at me over his shoulder. His breath is a thick white cloud against the night sky. “California hasn’t made you soft already, has it?”
I stick my tongue out at him. “Ha. Ha.” He’s got it backwards. He was the one that made me soft. California has made me strong.
It’s been months since anyone called me Kiki. In Valencia, I’m That-New-Girl-Kyra. As in, “You’re that new girl, Kyra, right?” I like being new. When you’re new, people listen when you talk. They find you interesting. You can be anyone you want when no one knows who you were.
Out there, I’m not Kiki, the geeky trumpet player. I’m Kyra, the mysterious, artsy girl so brave she chose to move across the country for her senior year.
I slip-slide my way to the back of the house. Caleb waits at the edge of his backyard where the land drops off. He watches me fight my way through the snow, amused. The grin that used to melt my heart isn’t enough to keep me warm and I’m glad. It took the California sun to show me there are things that shine brighter than Caleb.
My boots crunch as I sink calf deep into the snow. I make my own footprints instead of using Caleb’s. I try to take it all in. I’ve never paid attention to the scent of winter before, but I do now. It’s bitter and sharp and thick with pine.
When I reach the edge, I look down at the pristine slope waiting for us. The perfect sledding hill, if only it didn’t end ten feet from the road. We found our own way to make it fun, though.
Across the street below, the Johnsons have put up their annual Christmas display. The whole house glows with blinking, colored dots. Even from up here I can read the glitter-crusted letters that spell out WINTER WONDERLAND.
Caleb has his hands behind his head, enjoying the view. “I can’t imagine living somewhere that doesn’t have winter.”
“Yeah,” I say. Not because I agree, but because I can’t picture him living anywhere but right here. He fits in this tiny town in a way that I never will.
Caleb turns to me. Snowflakes stick to his eyelashes and the earflaps of the corny hat he always wears. I want to brush them away, but I don’t.
He scrunches up his face like he’s not sure I can still handle our tradition. “Ready?”
I give him my best badass stare. “I was born ready.”
He laughs, but his eyes pierce mine when he reaches out to take my hand. It’s the same look he had when I answered the door tonight. Like he’s searching for something he expected to see.
Butterflies flit around in my stomach, and I shoot them down. That’s not supposed to happen anymore. I force a smile, breathe in the crisp air. “On the count of three?”
He squints at me for a long second, but then he nods. “On three.”
We count together. “One.”
I get the same rush I have every time. I want to fly down this hill. He squeezes my hand for courage even though neither of us need it anymore.
I squeeze back. In this moment, we’re me-and-Caleb at six, or ten, or any age before things got complicated.
Back when we still had all the time in the world.
I can’t hold in the squeal of joy when we break into a run, giving ourselves over to gravity. Caleb roars. All my layers strip away in the wind until I’m the old me. The girl who ran screaming and giggling down hills with her best friend and didn’t care what anyone else thought. The girl who believed love could conquer all.
It’s over too soon. We land in a tangled heap at the bottom. I can’t remember snow in my face ever feeling this good. I grab a handful and shove it in Caleb’s. Then we’re at war, flinging snowball after snowball at each other. Running and falling and laughing until we’re breathless.
Caleb holds up his hands in surrender. “Truce!”
The cold air burns my throat. I shake my head yes. Truce.
We walk together to the only patch of snow we haven’t destroyed, our ritual so ingrained we don’t need to speak. Caleb stretches his arms out, and next to him I do the same. His hopeful smile when our fingertips brush makes my stomach dip, and I have to look away. We fall back into the untouched snow. Icy powder slips down the neck of my jacket but I hardly notice. We go into a flapping frenzy, trying to outdo each other with the biggest, best snow angel. Finally, we stop, exhausted but exhilarated, and let the stillness of the night settle over us.
I want to freeze this moment. To etch every detail into not just my memory, but my bones.
The blinking colors of the Christmas lights turn the sky into a kaleidoscope. Flakes so fat they don’t even look real float down. The neighborhood is hushed under its blanket of snow, and if I stare straight up, it’s like being inside a snow globe. Just me and Caleb in our own private winter wonderland.
Before I left, living in this town made me feel trapped. Like there was this better world on the other side of the glass, but I couldn’t reach it. Now, being inside those same glass walls feels sacred. My time here is fragile and rare. I know I can’t stay.
Caleb’s hat rustles against the snow as he shifts his head to face me.
“Hey, Kiki.” He sounds different, soft.
I want to look at him, but I’m afraid of what I might see. “Yeah?”
“Are you happy out there?”
I am Kyra, I think. I am funny and interesting and brave. I am who I’m supposed to be. “Yeah,” I say to the clouds. “I think I am.”
When I don’t meet his gaze, he turns back to the sky. “Good.”
I picture what we must look like from above. Two fallen angels in the snow, our innocence long gone. But even as I try to paint the image in my mind, I see it all spinning away from me. Everything. Graduation. College. Life. Caleb on the inside of the glass, me locked out. This last winter already drifting out of reach. All I can do is lie here and watch me-and-Caleb become the past.
Caleb taps my foot with his, his voice hoarse. “I miss you.”
The stars listen to us breathe, our breaths more ragged than they should be by now. I want to tell him he’s too late. He should’ve missed me all the summers I went to band camp, or the times I went to visit my dad. But it’s too late for that, too. So I tell him the truth. “You’ll get over it.”
The wind picks up, swirling the snow around and making me shiver.
“I know.” He blows out a long sigh. “That’s what makes it so sad.”