“Jacob!” His mother’s voice carried from the landing. “It’s time to go!”
Jacob rolled his eyes. He set down the controller for his game, opting to leave the console on until he came back. There wasn’t enough time to save, and he didn’t want to lose his progress.
He pulled his coat from the closet. The sleeves were too short now. Muttering under his breath, he dropped it on the floor and grabbed a thick hoodie instead. He shuffled his feet down the stairs, reluctant to join his mother and two sisters, who waited all bundled up at the door.
“Where is your coat?” his mother said the minute he appeared.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t fit.”
She threw her hands up. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. If you end up freezing to death, don’t blame me.” She opened the door and walked out, his youngest sister in tow.
“I won’t freeze to death if we’re just walking to the car,” he grumbled.
He climbed into the front seat, buckling himself in while his mother got his sisters situated in the back. Outside, water was dripping off the icicles along the awning of the house. It was warming up; the snow might melt today. He’d wanted to go sledding with his friends in the afternoon, but it looked like that would be impossible now.
His mother started the car, backing out so fast that she almost ran into the mailbox. He could tell she was angry; she was always angry during the holidays. He’d never understand it. What was the point of running around if she didn’t even like it?
“Jake Jake,” his sister Susie, who was six, repeated from the back seat.
“Mommy says you’ll take us to ride the train. Are you going to?”
He hunched further into his seat. “I don’t really want to.”
“I promised Jake would take you, didn’t I?” his mother cut in. “You don’t have to worry about that, Susie.”
He glared at his mother from the corner of his eyes.
“I saw that, Jacob. You can stuff that attitude of yours.”
He fought the urge to roll his eyes. His sisters were bouncing excitedly behind him. Well, it was more like Susie was getting Carrie wound up rather than them both being excited over the same thing. He wished he had brothers instead; they wouldn’t want to do things like ride fake trains at malls.
His mother pulled into the parking lot of the mall. It was packed full of people who all looked unhappy. He got out of the car while his mother helped the girls out. She handed him Susie’s hand. “Hold on to Susie and don’t let go of her,” she warned.
What was he, nine? Of course he knew not to let go of his sister—he was thirteen. His hand clenched around Susie’s.
Susie whimpered beside him. “Jake, too tight.”
“Sorry,” he said, loosening his grip.
His mother lifted Carrie into her arms and grabbed Susie’s other hand. “Let’s go,” she said, dragging them all forward.
The mall itself was teeming with people hurrying from store to store. When they reached the directory, his mother stopped and set Carrie down. “Jake,” she said. “Take your sisters over to the train. When they’re done, you can either come back here or let them wait in line for Santa.”
“Where are you going to be?” he asked.
“I’m going to shop for a while. Don’t go anywhere but those three places, you hear me?”
He nodded, half annoyed. If she’d let him get a cellphone, this wouldn’t be a problem. Then she could contact him once she was finished, and he wouldn’t have to stay in only three places. But he didn’t say any of that. Instead, he picked up his sisters’ hands and began walking toward the middle of the mall, where the train would be set up.
“Jake,” Susie complained, “you’re going too fast.”
He looked down at her and sighed. She was right; he was walking too fast. Carrie could hardly keep up. He tugged Carrie forward. “Stop looking around, dummy.”
“Don’t call her a dummy,” Susie said. “She’s a baby still.”
“She’s almost three,” he shot back. “And who’s the older one here anyway?”
“Just ‘cause you’re older doesn’t make you right.”
“Do you want to ride the train?”
“Then don’t argue with me right now, okay? Otherwise I won’t let you ride the train.”
“Mommy said you had to.”
He rolled his eyes. “Mom’s not here.”
“But I’ll tell on you if you don’t.”
Carrie began jumping up and down excitedly, pointing toward the train that rolled by on its tracks. “It’s a big train! It’s a big train!”
“It’s a little train,” he said.
“Let’s go ride it, Carrie!” Susie exclaimed.
He stood in line with them until the train was free, then helped them into it. Shoulders slumping, he trudged his way over to a bench and sank down onto it. He didn’t remember if he’d ever wanted to ride the train like this; he thought his sisters, laughing and giggling, looked pretty stupid. He hoped that he never looked like that.
His sisters got off the train and came running up to him, both breathless and happy.
“Did you have fun?” he asked.
“Can we ride it again?” Susie’s eyes were bright.
“Again! Again!” Carrie echoed.
“Go get in line if you want to ride it again.”
“Yay!” they shouted in unison, then raced off to get back in line. He smiled in spite of himself; they looked really silly running around like that. His shoulders relaxed as he leaned back against the bench. Maybe he’d buy all of them a pretzel if they had time after this.
“What’s your name?” a high-pitched voice asked beside him.
Startled, he glanced down to see a small girl, who couldn’t have been much older than Carrie, staring up at him out of large blue eyes. She had a head full of curly hair and a curious expression on her face. Not knowing what else to say, he said, “Jacob.”
She hopped up onto the bench without even asking, and snuggled herself very close to his arm. “I’m Sophie!” she said brightly. She tilted her head, looking up at him, her eyes fluttering and a soft smile on her face. He stared at her, confused. “Can I sit here with you?”
“Uh, sure,” he said. Not that he could have stopped her if he wanted to.
“Why are you sitting here?” she asked. She was really articulate for a kid that young; even Carrie wasn’t speaking that much yet.
“I’m waiting for my sisters to get off the train.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“Sophie!” a voice called. “It’s time to go!”
“That’s my mommy,” she explained. He glanced over to where the voice was coming from to see what looked like her mom and grandma standing off to the side. Her mom was very pretty.
She hopped off the bench and grabbed his hand. “You should come home with me.”
She tugged at his hand. “Come home with me!”
“Uh, sorry, I can’t. I have to wait for my own mom.”
She pouted. “I really want you to come.”
He laughed, a smile cracking out. “Sorry, maybe next time.”
He watched as she returned to her mom and grandma, who were both trying to hold in their laughter. He frowned thoughtfully.
Carrie and Susie bounded up to him. Feeling more patient, he asked, “Do you want to ride again?”
They shook their heads.
“I’m hungry,” Susie said.
He nodded. “All right, let’s go get a pretzel.”
As he walked, his sisters’ hands in his, he thought that maybe it hadn’t been such a bad outing. It wasn’t as fun as playing a video game, but it had been pretty funny.
He bought them each a pretzel, although he ended up not having enough change to get himself one. Susie offered him a bite of hers, which he took.
“Let’s find Mom,” he said.
Neither of the girls disagreed, and they returned to the directory where they’d first separated. His mother wasn’t there yet, so he found a bench for them to sit.
“Who was that girl who was talking to you?” Susie asked.
“You know, when we were on the train.”
“Oh, just some kid.”
“She made you laugh.”
“Yeah, she was cute.”
Susie pouted. “You don’t ever laugh with me.”
“You jealous?” he teased, ruffling her hair.
“Me, too! Me, too!” Carrie tugged on his arm.
“Well, you’re my brother, not hers. What she’s doing talking to you anyway?” Susie crossed her arms.
“I’m so glad to know you care,” he said, but he put his arm around her shoulders anyway. “Look, she was just a funny kid. You’re the one who’s my sister. And you have to share me with Carrie anyway, remember?”
“Carrie’s different. She’s mine too.”
“You just don’t like sharing.”
Their mother appeared then, laden down with shopping bags. She looked frazzled and worn out, not at all like that little girl’s mother had.
She set the bags down in a heap. “Jake, you’ll have to help me carry them,” she said, breathing hard. “Did you take the girls to the train?”
“Yeah, they rode it twice. I bought them pretzels, too.”
She smiled warmly, and he felt better. “Thank you. That was really nice of you. Let’s go have lunch and then head home. I’m worn out for the day.”
He helped her gather up the bags. She lifted Carrie onto her hip, then grabbed Susie’s hand.
He looked up at his mother once they’d walked back out into the cool air. “Guess what, Mom.”
“I got hit on by a kid Carrie’s age today.”
“Don’t say things like that! Where on earth did you learn that?”
“What’s ‘hit on’?” Susie asked suspiciously.
He grinned down at her. “That’s when—”
“Jacob! If you say another word, I’ll take all your games away from you!”
He didn’t want that, so he shut his mouth. But his mother was smiling, and he could see her shoulders shaking. She was fighting not to laugh, too. He looked down to hide his own smile.
“I’m hungry,” he said, allowing himself one tiny complaint.
“Well, where do you want to eat?”
“You can pick this time. Just don’t pick anywhere that your sisters won’t like.”
As they piled back into the car and drove away, he decided that he was glad he’d come.
about the author
Rae Niehaus has been making up stories since before she can remember. Her first short story was published in Independent Ink Magazine in 2013. She spends most of her time searching for hints of magic in the ordinary and, of course, writing whenever she can.