The snow was falling heavily throughout the town. The sky was the palest grey, and you couldn't look up for long without your vision being blurred by damp, icy snowflakes. Lights glittered in the trees and houses, and wreaths were hung on a lot of home doors. It was about ten in the morning and as you weaved through the streets and cul-de-sacs, there were children everywhere, snowball fighting and building snowmen. They were all wrapped up in their best winter jackets, a rainbow of scarves and hats served to accompany their happy shouts and laughter. It was through these scenes, keeping her distance, that a woman with masses of curly blonde hair walked. She was dressed like everyone else for the weather, wrapped in a fleece lined denim jacket, with knee-high boots over her jeans. She was thoroughly enjoying being surrounded by so many people after being alone for so long. Even if she didn't know them, it was a comfort to her that they were there. There was a particular house she was looking for though. She had come to pay her family a surprise visit. She paused when she came to the far end of a park that divided a square of terrace townhouses. She looked across the groups of children and parents to a grey-painted house with a bright red car parked in front of it. Her face brightened and she sped up, dodging through everybody. As she was nearing the other side, she stopped, catching sight of somebody else approaching that house. It was a young girl, perhaps seven. She had fiercely wavy dark brown hair, and was wrapped in a red woollen jacket, with a white hat covering her head, and a matching scarf and gloves. She knocked on the door as her watcher ducked behind an abandoned snowman as the blizzard let up.
"Jamie!" called the child, "Come on! We're missing out!"
She seemed to have heard some movement in the house and she stood on the doorstep, folding her arms impatiently and tapping her foot. The door opened and a very familiar woman wrapped up in a turtle neck opened it.
"Hi Auntie Amy!" greeted the girl brightly, "Is Jamie ready yet?"
"Yes, he's just…" The woman was cut off as a red-haired boy ducked under her arm, hopping around on one foot as he wrestled with his wellington boots, "…coming."
"Hey!" the boy gave his friend a huge grin, he was missing one of his front teeth.
"Did you sleep in again?" The girl scolded.
"Only cause I stayed up to say night to my daddy!" protested Jamie as he stood up straight. His mother wrapped his scarf around him as he fidgeted.
"I told you not to keep doing that Jamie," sighed Amy.
"But mummy! He's been real busy with work."
"You'll get to see him tonight though¸ and my daddy too!" the girl had the hugest of smiles on her face.
"Yes, you will. But I want you both back for lunch, understand? If you stay out too long you'll get ill."
"I never get ill," the girl practically preened.
The two children ran towards the park in which the woman was standing, and Amy sighed and shook her head with a retired smile. All trace of happiness had left the bystander's face. A heavy knot of loneliness sank into her stomach. Jamie. Amy and Jamie. A bit clichéd, but that wasn't what had kicked her in the teeth. She had a brother, and he had no idea that she existed. He was growing up with his parents, he had a best friend. He got to play outside in the snow. So lost in her thoughts was the woman, that she barely noticed when the two children practically ran her over, chasing each other with snowballs. They were shrieking with laughter, Jamie managed to catch his friend in the face with one of them and she lost her balance, crashing into the snowman by her feet, Jamie kept running ahead.
"Jamie! You are so dead!"
The girl picked herself up and brushed herself off, then suddenly realised that a woman was watching her. She looked around her and the woman visibly saw the penny drop. The girl turned to her, and, much to her surprise, looked wholly guilty.
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" she apologised, "I didn't mean to wreck your snowman!" her tone changed from penitent to annoyed, "Jamie! Get back here right this minute! You need to say sorry too!"
"Huh, what?" Jamie hadn't realised what had been going on behind him until he walked back to join them.
"You made me break this lady's snowman!"
Jamie's face flushed with embarrassment and he looked down, "Sorry lady."
The woman wasn't quite sure how to react to such polite children, "Um, that's ok. I wasn't…"
"We'll help you build it up again! We'll make it better," cut in the girl, "Right Jamie?"
Jamie still didn't look up as he nodded, "Yea¸ ok."
"Go get some stones for the eyes," instructed his companion.
The blonde watched with amusement as the mortified young boy immediately ran off to follow his instructions. So much like his dad. She hadn't planned on intruding after seeing what she had at the door, but she noticed a small amount of warmth was staving off her disappointment and isolation. She had never gotten to do anything like this growing up.
"We'll make it great, promise," the girl grinned, "My name's Zara, what's yours?"
"Didn't your parents teach you not to talk to strangers?" queried her acquaintance,
Zara shrugged, "Yea, but you don't look strange, and if anyone tries to kidnap my friend I'll punch them."
The woman laughed, "My name's River."
"Right, now you're my friend too," grinned Zara, "So if anyone tries to kidnap you I'll punch them as well."
The sentiment rang loudly in River's head and heart. She forced her eyes not to well up as she was stalked once again by the 'what ifs' that so often haunted her. If only someone had saved her…she could be waiting up for her dad or running around with her playmates. But then, she wouldn't be her. Her reverie was interrupted by the sudden feeling of wool enveloped her freezing hand. She looked down, startled, and found Zara holding it in both of hers. She met with surprise warm gold-brown eyes as they looked at her. Through her even.
"You ok River? You looked real sad. I'll make it better, ok? We can build your snowman and you can play with us, sound good?"
River smiled, "Sounds great."
"Hm, you're really cold already. Here," Zara let go of River's hand and undid the knot on her scarf, holding it out to River, "I have my gloves and hat, so I'll be ok." She stood on her tiptoes to wrap it a little wonkily around River's neck and smiled.
A moment later Jamie came back with an armful of stones And the two children immediately started gathering up handfuls of snow and rebuilding the base of the snowman. They were talking and laughing as they did so, and Zara made every effort to include River in the exchange. She eventually decided to start helping out, and crouched down to meet the children's height, helping them to build up their pile and smooth the edges over. After a little while, another group of three or four children who had seen what happened and knew the pair from school or because they were neighbours came over to offer their services.
From her kitchen window, Amy could see the bright red of Zara's coat so she knew exactly where they were. She loved to see her boy surrounded by so many friends. He had always been quite shy and quiet around everyone except Zara since he was at nursery school. But gradually she had chipped away at him and persisted, until he was bright and confident. She noticed a woman helping the children and assumed she was one of the other's parents. But as she watched more closely she couldn't beat the feeling that she seemed familiar,
"Is that…?" she frowned, "Nah. Can't be."
She turned away, unaware that the woman had caught her looking and was still staring up at the window.