“Do you believe in God?” Maya asked. She blew out a frosty steam of air and laid her mittened palms on her narrow bright-red face to warm it.
“What?” her sister asked. Her boots were much larger than Maya’s; the tops too wide, letting in clumps of snow onto her sockless feet. The boots, thick black rubber with heavy soles, sank through the crusty rim of snow and into the softer belly, almost to the frozen dirt six inches beneath.
Maya repeated the question.
Jane sat down in a pile of snow and leaned back to look at the sky, thinking hard. A V of black-billed geese made their way across the pure white sky. Maya paused and waited, the rope of the sled hanging limply in her hand. The mitten had begun to sag around Maya’s wrist beneath her jacket, exposing reddish skin with chapped cracks spiderwebbing across her pale wrist.
Maya watched Jane’s face with an expression that turned gradually from intense interest to desperation. The way younger siblings watch their older siblings’ faces when they’re unsure of what to think. Maya would decide whatever Jane decided, believe whatever Jane believed.
The unsaid hung in the cold air between them. Maya dropped the sled handle and bent to pick it up, and when she stood back up, the moment was over. Her breath fogged out underneath her tightly wound scarf.
“It’s hot out here,” Jane said abruptly, still watching the V of geese. Wind blew icily around the two girls on the white hilltop. Maya shivered. “I’m hot.” She unzipped her jacket lying down and sat up to pull off the sleeves, which were leaking tufts of stuffing.
Jane lay back down on the snow, thin sweater sticking to the ice particles. Maya thought Jane was beautiful, lying there in the snow in an ugly sweater and uglier boots, as all younger sisters know their older sisters to be beautiful. Jane put her hands behind her head and looked up at the sky once more.
It was scudded with blue by now. It had begun to heal over after the day-long furious storm that had begun with rain and ended with six inches of snow all across southern Oklahoma and north Texas. The first such snowstorm in ten years.
“Jane!” Maya stomped her foot.
Her sister stood, snow clinging to her back and hair. She sighed, took the handle of the sled in her bare hand, and walked past Maya up the hill. Maya stared after her. Then she balled her cold hands into fists and ran after, leaving Jane’s tattered winter jacket on the ground behind her.
Jane pulled the sled up to the top of the hill and sat down on it expectantly.
“Push me,” she said.
Maya sat down behind her, put her arms around Jane’s waist, and gave a shove with her feet. The two girls, one with saggy mittens and the other with huge, clumpy boots, shot down the hill. They hurtled past Jane’s limp grey jacket, which waited patiently on the hillside.
The sled crunched to a stop at the base of the hill. Jane and Maya, curled tightly together, paused. They squinted in the sunlight. Maya tucked her head onto Jane’s shoulder and whispered, “What about time? Do you believe in time?”
Jane twisted around, less gracefully than she would have if not wearing a thick sweater, scarf, and snow pants. “Of course I believe in time.”
“I mean — ”
Jane stood and yanked the sled out from under Maya. “Come on, let’s go home.”
“Please? One more time? There’s no one here.”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
“Jane, please! One more time, then we can go.”
“I’ll buy you hot chocolate on the way.”
“I don’t want to go home. Please. Not yet.” The last part came out as a whisper.
“Well, you’re pulling the sled up.”
Maya took the handle in her mitten and started walking back up the hill. Sweat beaded her forehead and slipped down through the holes in her scarf. Little woollen strands had come undone from the purling and waved in the static air behind her.
“I mean,” Maya panted, “Time, like the future. Do you think about the future?”
“Of course.” Jane paused and turned, hands on her hips. She looked out over the golf course now covered with a blanket of pure white. Thin black tree branches hung over soft-looking dips in the snow, all bearded with icicles. The sun glinted across the snow like an owl’s yellow eyes falling dangerously on its next prey. In the summer the course was full of carts and cars and people, but for now the snow rested in the hush, ringed by trees and the feeling that this wouldn’t last long. (Looking out, she thought about a couple at the store she’d heard the month before. “Do you think it’ll snow one of these next few years?” the husband asked. “No,” the wife responded decisively. “Not for a long time.”) “All the time, actually. I dream about leaving home and never coming back. Just two years to wait. I’m already gone.”
Maya knew it. “But I mean, do you think the future is inevitable? I’ve been reading this book — ”
“Oh, you’ve been reading this book.”
Maya pressed on, undeterred. “There’s a philosophy about time that has to do with alternate universes and things, and if those exist then they think the future is inevitable.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“When we came here last, I was four,” Maya continued, though she was almost at the top of the hill. “Do you think, then, that it was inevitable we came back here?”
“You mean…” Jane said slowly, interested despite herself.
“If we hadn’t come back would we have broken time? The future? Ten years is a long time, Jane,” Maya said, grunting as she positioned the sled on the steeper side of the hill.
“No…” Jane said, putting her finger on the bridge of her nose, as she did when she was thinking hard. “I mean…”
“You’re gonna say I read too much.”
“You always read too much. You don’t need me to tell you.”
Maya sat down on the sled and put her feet up on the board. Jane sat behind her and wrapped her arms tightly around Maya’s waist.
“Ouch! Move your boots.”
“Can’t help it,” Jane grunted, pushing hard on the ground to get them going. “Dad won’t buy me a different pair.”
Maya was silent, swallowing and blinking hard. “Don’t call him Dad.”
“He’s not our dad.”
Jane was quiet. The wind rustled fiercely in their ears as specks of snow flew up and sliced their chapped faces. When they ground to a halt at the bottom of the hill, they mutually paused.
“Do you think,” Maya said quietly, “that Dad’s dying was inevitable? If he hadn’t… if he hadn’t fallen off the roof, and the pneumonia, and all that, if some or none of that never happened, we wouldn’t be here? Because then Mom wouldn’t have married him. And he wouldn’t have come. And we would not have come here just to get away. We would not be here.”
“If he hadn’t fallen… You can’t think like that, Maya,” Jane said. “Just don’t. You couldn’t’ve helped the pneumonia.”
“My book says you can’t change the future,” Maya whispered. Twin tears ran out of her eyes and bled through her scarf. They dripped down onto her pale collarbone, reddened with the cold and the chafing wool scarf. Bruises like faint traces of ice dust had darkened the skin. “Or fix the past. Do you think…?”
They met eyes for the first time.
“… Fix the past?” Maya mumbled indistinctly. “I want to. Have to.”
Jane heard. “No. You can’t time travel, no matter how many books you read. There’s no fixing Dad’s bones or lungs, or his coming into our lives.” Her strong, beautiful sister stood up, brushed off her pants, and gave Maya a hand standing up. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
Jane threw her long arm, as graceful as Maya had always known her to be, across Maya’s shoulders as they walked heavily through the snow. On the way to the car Jane bent and slung her winter coat over her shoulder.
Maya dragged the sled behind them, its runners digging deep into the snow, following a pattern of barely discernible indentations in the snow where tears had fallen.
“Do you think…” Maya whispered once more, looking up into Jane’s face, “that it’s inevitable? Or that we can change the future…?”
“Of course I do, girlie,” Jane said firmly. “Nothing’s inevitable until you let it be.”
Maya relaxed and smiled, as she always did when Jane called her “girlie.”
They reached Jane’s battered Toyota and Maya swung the sled up into the truck bed as Jane started the raspy engine. Jane turned the radio on as loudly as she could, and when Maya got in, told a joke that made Maya throw her head back in laughter.
A hawk landed in the tree at the top of the empty hill and surveyed the empty field.
The sun shone down on the snow-covered golf course, smiling until it began to melt, and the tracks of the sled were almost, but not quite, invisible.