Crunching a mouthful of cornflakes and milk, I watched the snow come down outside. Because of that snow I had a whole day off from school. Not much fun without anyone to spend it with, I thought as I poured myself another bowl of cereal.
Loud thumps on the stairs announced that my 15-year-old brother, David, was awake at last. David and I used to spend lots of time together zipping our toboggan down icy hills in winter or passing lazy summer days in the three-story treehouse that overlooked the creek. But now that he was 15, David had better things to do than hang out with his 10-year-old sister.
The cornflakes stuck in my throat as I remembered the last time I had gone to David's room for a chat. "Can't you see I'm on the phone?" he had yelled. "I shut the door so I wouldn't be bugged—by you!" I had backed out of the room, but not quite quick enough to miss hearing David tell his friend, "My little sister is a real pest."
The breakfast dishes rattled as David jumped down the last three steps and landed with a thud in the hallway. "Hey, Renea!" he called. "The guys and I are planning a snowball fight, and I need some target practice. Get your snowsuit on." I froze in mid-chew. David wants to play with me?
I jumped up and pulled on my coat and hat before he could change his mind. David wound a scarf around my neck. "Let's party," he said, giving me a wink. It felt like old times.
Outside we stumbled through piles of snow, our heads bent down against the wind. The snow came up almost to my waist and hit David right above his knees. He held my hand tightly so I wouldn't fall, the way he always had. When I learned to ride a two-wheeler, it was David who ran behind me steadying the back of the seat.
Now my big brother was already talking about going away to college. David was not scared of being on his own. He was not scared of anything. When I got frightened, he was always there to protect me. He won't be around much longer, I thought, gripping his hand tighter. Who will look out for me then?
Through the whirling snowflakes I recognized some girls from my class. David waved to some boys his own age. One of them tossed a well-packed snowball toward my friends. "Snowball fight!" someone shouted.
It wasn't much of a fight. It was more like a shooting gallery with us girls as the little yellow ducks. Most of our snowballs plopped down into the snow right in front of us, not hitting the boys at all. Pretty soon I was soaked, but I didn't care. David and I were having fun. This was the best snow day of my life!
"Let's get some hot chocolate," one of the boys suggested. The teenagers walked off, leaving us girls behind. Just like always, I thought. Big brothers only care about you until something better comes along. I hurled a snowball at the retreating figures of the boys, but they didn't even notice it behind them.
"Hey, Renea, help us make a snowman," one of my friends called.
"No, thanks," I said, wrapping my scarf tighter. "I'm going home."
As I started back over the snow, something caught my eye. Across the field, beside the frozen creek, stood the empty treehouse. Its first two stories sat in the fork of the tree. But the third part of the clubhouse was on the very tallest branch, hanging out over the water. If I climb up to the top, David will have to come up to get me. That's when I'll hit him with a pile of snowballs from above! My plan was sure to work. I'd get my brother's attention.
I chuckled to myself as I made my way up the rope ladder that connected all three parts of the treehouse. On the top floor the wind was stronger. The ice-coated branches cracked, and the tree swayed beneath me as I packed my snowballs, one by one. The sun lit the frozen creek with a pinkish-orange glow.
"Renea!" David called out from across the field. "Get down from there right now!" His voice was sharp and had something in it I'd never heard before. Something almost like fear. David's afraid? A clump of snow fell from the branches above me and thumped down onto the wooden floor by my feet.
"David!" I called, suddenly afraid myself. I felt the floor beneath me shift. Then a loud crack split the air. Before I could even scream, the treehouse came crashing down. I plummeted straight down toward the frozen creek!
Then somehow I was standing on top of the ice. The world around me was incredibly bright, even brighter than the sun reflected on the frozen creek. I walked calmly to the bank, where I could see David running across the snow. But instead of running to me, he crawled out to a jagged hole in the ice. "Renea!" he yelled, looking down into the hole.
David sounded scared and lost—but when had David ever been either?
"Renea!" he called again, as the other boys slid out to the dark hole and peered into the water. "Please answer me!"
He thinks I'm trapped underwater! I tried to reach out to him, to make him feel better, the way he always did with me. That's when I realized I wasn't standing on the bank at all. I was underwater, at least my body was. But I was also standing on the bank, watching my brother plunging his arms into the icy creek, trying to save me.
I sensed someone standing behind me on the bank. Even without turning to see who it was, I felt protected, strong and confident, like when I rode my bike with David steadying me. Only this time David was protected too. Someone was watching over both of us.
Two other boys reached into the water. "We got her!" they shouted. Together they pulled, and as they did, I had the sensation of being sucked back toward the ice, down into the hole and back into my body. The next moment I felt a shock of cold air as the boys pulled me out of the creek. David held me in his arms with my wet cheek pressed against his ski jacket.
A trip to the doctor showed no serious injuries from my fall through the ice. "Don't go climbing into any more treehouses," David said later, as the two of us sat side by side on the couch, drinking cocoa. "I thought I lost you forever!"
I leaned my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes. I thought I lost you forever too, David, but I was wrong. Sure, he was growing up. He had a lot of new interests that did not include me. In a few years he'd be going off to college. But he still loved me like a big brother.
I'd always remember how he held the back of my two-wheeler, steadying me as I learned to ride. But now I know that there had been an angel behind him, watching over both of us. No matter how far David and I might be from each other, we're both under God's protection. That's one thing that will never change.