The Snowball Fight Professional

by Angela Ruth Strong

I, Joey Michaels, am the Snowball Fight Professional.

Basically this means that customers pay me to shoot snowballs at other people. I’m going to use the money I make to buy Grandma a great gift that will impress her with how responsible I am so she will give me a puppy for Christmas. Unless, of course, my cousin Winston has anything to do with it …

Earning the puppy wouldn’t be so hard if I didn’t have the following problems:

1) Winston stealing my employee

2) Winston getting me in trouble every time I do something wrong

3) Winston blaming me for things I don’t even do

If I don’t get the puppy … ugh, Winston will get him. And that’s the opposite of everything I want for Christmas. I mean, it is all about me, right?

Chapter 1

“I hate snow.” My dad hunched over the steering wheel, eyes squinting out the windshield, doing a pretty good impersonation of The Grinch.

“Dad,” I admonished, “how can you say that? It’s great ammunition.”

“It’s not so great for visibility.”

My fingers curled around my new fifty-foot range snowball launcher. It had just come in the mail, and I couldn’t wait to try it out. A little Christmas gift to myself—paid for with some of the money I, Joey Michaels, had saved during my water-fighting days.

Unfortunately, a two-hour trip up into the mountains stood between me and sheer snowball-launching bliss. The good news was that, when we got there, the ground would be covered with a blanket of marvelous snow.

By five o’clock, the sun had already set for the day. The way our headlights lit the snowflakes, it looked as if we were traveling through space at light speed.

It made me want to pretend we were in a spaceship and my snowball launcher was actually a laser blaster. I aimed at my nine-year-old sister, Christine, and made a laser blaster sound. “Buzzoinka.”

“Mom, Joey is pretending to shoot me with his snowball launcher.”

“Laser blaster.” I held up a finger. “And I think I accidentally fried your brain because you sound like a dumdum.”

“Mom!” Christine screeched again, practically proving my point.

“Mom!” I echoed. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. “Christine is tattling!”

The car slipped on the road. Christine flew sideways into me. My tummy flipped like I was back in gymnastics, and Mom screamed. That was cool. Not the part where Christine flew into me but the part where we slid toward the edge of the road and the river below.

Once, my school bus had spun 360 degrees on ice. I still wish I’d been bumper hitching behind it at the time, but at least we were two hours late for school that day. Best school day ever.

Mom fanned her face like she couldn’t get enough oxygen. She did that a lot, whether we were careening toward the edge of a cliff or she was discovering I’d been wearing the same pair of socks for a week.

Dad was a little cooler. He muttered under his breath as he regained control of the car.

Christine pushed away from me like we were sitting under mistletoe or something. “Eww … gross.”

Apparently she cared more about her proximity to me than her proximity to sudden death.

“Okay.” Mom caught her breath and turned down the radio as if that would help Dad keep the wheels on the road.

I would rather she had left the volume up because I liked barking along with the dogs to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

“Kids, let’s play the Peace-on-Earth Game.” AKA the Quiet Game. Her favorite game.

“If you wanted peace on earth, Mom, you shouldn’t have let Joey spend his money on another weapon.”

I hugged the snowball launcher close and whispered, “Don’t listen to her, boy. We are so excited to have you in the family.”

Mom turned around to face us. “Sweetie, it’s not a weapon. It’s athletic equipment. Yukigassen is a competitive snowball-fighting sport in Japan that is spreading around the world. It might even be in the Olympics one day.”

She’d recited my argument perfectly. I should be a salesman when I grew up … if I didn’t make it as a pro Yukigassen player.

The whites of Christine’s eyes flashed in the dark as she rolled them at me. “Dad, I can’t believe you let him spend all his money on himself.”

“Not all my money.” I had six bucks left.

“Well, I spent my money on Christmas presents for others.”

Sure she did. At the grocery store around the corner. I bet she got me Q-Tips again so I could clean out my ears to better hear her lectures.

Dad cleared his throat. “Joe made gifts this year.”

I smiled my smug, middle-school smile. Now that I was in 7th grade, I got to take this class called “shop.” I know, it sounded like a class Mom and Christine would attend to prepare for the day-after-Thanksgiving sales, but actually we got to use manly power tools in there. I made a pegboard game for Dad, a casserole holder for Mom, a birdhouse for Christine, a guitar pick for Grandpa, and a picture frame with our last name engraved on it for Grandma.

Christine crossed her arms and sat back. “Humph.”

Mom clapped her hands. “Since you’ve all lost the Peace-on-Earth Game, let’s take turns saying what we are most looking forward to this Christmas.”

Dad tapped his brakes and we slowed for a narrow bridge. “I’m looking forward to getting through this storm and parking the car.”

I pressed my lips together to keep from saying, “Bah, humbug,” and patted Dad on the shoulder instead. He’d be a different person when we got to his parents’ house and he was able to sneak some of Grandma’s goodies behind Mom’s back. That’s what he was really looking forward to. Hopefully he’d swipe me a couple peanut butter reindeer and some peppermint fudge while he was at it.

“Yeah.” Mom was clueless about Dad’s sweet tooth. “I’m looking forward to helping out with the Living Nativity. Are you sure you don’t want to play the part of Joseph, Joey? You have the perfect name for it.”

Dad’s teeth glinted in the rearview mirror as he cracked his first smile since we’d climbed into the car.

I smiled back. “How about I play a shepherd? Then I could use the hook of my staff for a slingshot.”

A passing car illuminated Mom’s worry wrinkle between her eyebrows that only appeared when she was looking at me. “Never mind. Christine, what are you excited about?”

Christine flipped her hair so it slapped me in the face. “Ice-skating. Can I get one of those fancy ice-skating outfits?”

I imagined myself commandeering a Zamboni and chasing her around the ice rink, but Mom must not have been imagining the same thing. “You want to become a figure skater? We could sign you up for lessons and—”

“No.” Dad turned up the speed on the windshield wipers. “Not unless she wants to give up her dance lessons. Or singing lessons. Or piano lessons.”

“Please, Daddy?”

Dad was usually a sucker for Christine’s “Please, Daddy,” but it didn’t override his mental calculator this time. “Christine, if you want to take all your Christmas gifts back and use the money to pay for your own lessons, that would be fine.”

Ouch. Turning the holiday into a business transaction? That was extreme, even for Dad.

Mom’s head turned Dad’s way. He was getting “the look” even though it was too dark to see it.

Dad must have known. “So … Joe. What about you? What are you looking forward to?”

Besides hoping that I got an arctic snow shield under the Christmas tree? I chose not to speak the idea aloud in case it hurt my snowball launcher’s feelings. The poor guy was probably still smarting from Christine’s rejection of him. I looked down at the sleek new addition to my life.

Should I name him? He was kind of a pet.

Speaking of pets … “I’m excited to see Grandma’s new husky puppies.”

 Grandma bred huskies. I’d always wanted one, and Dad said I could have one of my own when I saved enough money. But how many snowball launchers could I buy for the price of one of Grandma’s husky puppies? More than thirty. It would be a while before I got a dog.

“Oh, me too,” Christine said.

I smiled at her. She was a girly girl, but at least we both agreed that Grandma’s puppies were the coolest things on earth.

“Look at you two getting along.” Mom twisted all the way around to look at us, though I doubted she could actually see anything in the dark. “Are we on 34th Street? Because this is a miracle.”

“Ha ha.” I humored Mom. That was as good as her jokes got.

Dad chuckled for real. “It’s not 34th Street, but we are almost to Easy Street. Just one more curve, then we will leave this river behind.”

I looked out the window toward the side of the road that dropped away over an embankment into inky blackness. Not quite as inviting a scene as it had been last summer on our rafting trip.

“Over the river and through the woods,” Mom sang.

It had taken more than an hour for her to burst into song. A new record.

Christine and I shook our heads sadly at each other. At least we were continuing to agree on things. This might turn out to be a peaceful Christmas after all.

“To Grandmother’s house we—”

A deer leaped in front of Dad’s headlights.

“—Whoa!” Mom changed the lyrics, though she wasn’t overreacting this time.

Tires screeched.

I jolted forward then swayed violently from side to side as our vehicle fishtailed.

Christine’s shriek pierced the air.

I gripped my snowball launcher tighter and ground my teeth together. We were going to be okay. Dad was a safe driver. Just because it looked like we were headed for the edge of the road—

The car jumped as one of the rear tires slid off the edge and slammed the bottom of our car on cement.

Chapter 2

This couldn’t be happening. I must have fallen asleep on the car ride and was having a nightmare. I should have known I was dreaming when Christine and I started to get along. Any minute I would wake up and—

“Hang on!” Dad yelled.

I grabbed the door handle as the car slid along the side of the road, one tire hanging over the edge, sparks shooting up behind us, the chemical smell of burning rubber singeing my nose hairs. Having a dad yell in fear was enough to make anybody wet his pants.

As if in slow motion, Dad wrestled with the steering wheel.

I’d done this on my bike before—when one tire just didn’t make it over a lip on the street. I usually wiped out. But we weren’t on a bike. We were in a car.

And my dad was driving. Strong, stable, no-nonsense Dad.

The steering wheel jerked out of my father’s hands. The front tire on Mom’s side leaped over the edge to join the back one as we kept sliding.

Dad and I threw our weight away from the girls. Could we scramble out our doors to safety? Could we pull Mom and Christine after us in time?

Christine reached for me. “Joey!” she shrieked. She shouted my name all the time, but never asking for help.

If I didn’t do something, she might never have the chance to shout my name again. I dropped my snowball launcher and grabbed her arms, scared to take off our seat belts, but scared not to at the same time. We had to get out of the car.

I couldn’t see anything except snow in the headlights. Deceptively serene.

Our ragged breaths echoed loudly in the stillness.

The car tipped. Slipped. Gravel crunched again. Rocks splashed into the river below.

Our headlights swung down as the vehicle dove off the road.

Ground rushed up to meet us. We could only see what was directly spotlighted by our headlights.

Grass. Bushes. Rocks. Water.

A crunch … then darkness.

My head snapped back against my headrest. The seat belt ground into my gut.

Christine’s fingernails clawed my flesh. She didn’t relent even though we’d stopped moving.

My pants were wet. Had I really peed?

No. Urine would be warm. This liquid stung like an ice cube. River water.

“We’re in the river!” I shouted.

Maybe this was when they would wake me up.

But no. They were all in just as much shock. Because our situation was real.

The car rocked in the waves, making more of a boat-against-the-dock sound than a car-on-the-road sound. Beyond that was the dull roar of whitewater.

A bright spot of light appeared on the ceiling. Mom’s flashlight app on her phone.

The light bounced around the car, blinding me for a second.

“Are you kids all right?” she asked.

I couldn’t see much in the dark, so I did a mental check of my body parts. My spine throbbed the way it normally did after a day of riding roller coasters in Salt Lake City and spending the night in a tent at the campground next to the amusement park, but the only real pain came from the icy puddle of water starting to creep its way up my legs. “I think so.” I unsnapped my seat belt, detached myself from Christine’s clutch, pulled my legs up to the dry seat, and pressed my nose to the frigid window pane.

“We’re going to be all right, kids. We’re going to be all right.” Dad’s voice sounded calm.

How could Dad be so sure? I didn’t even know if we were floating. Or sinking. Or lodged between rocks.

“I’m scared.” Christine’s voice quavered.

The flashlight passed across the car toward the driver’s side. Mom must have handed it to Dad so she could comfort Christine.

I waited for the small circle of light to shine out the window to get a visual of our surroundings. It would be up to us men to rescue the women. My pulse pounded louder.

The small ray of light illuminated a mix of rocks and water. We weren’t floating downstream yet, so that was good. We’d have to get a little wet, but we’d be able to climb across the rocks toward land.

“We have to get out of here,” Dad said.

“We can do it, Dad.” Because the scary part was over. But then I shoved the door open. Hard.

A gush of water poured in. The kind of water that was so cold I might as well have been zapped with the defibrillator thingies emergency workers use.

Before I knew it, I’d scrambled out onto the roof of the car. But getting out of the water didn’t help at all. My jeans clung to me like frost to a Popsicle.

“Christine, get up there with your brother!” Dad barked.

She tried to follow. I know this not because I saw her, but because her screams grew louder.

I squinted, forcing my pupils to adjust.

There. A small hand over the edge of the roof.

“Can you get her, Joe?”

Shivering, I crawled close enough to grasp her fingers and pull.

She slithered onto the roof with me like a baby penguin at the zoo would climb the rocks. Except honestly, the better analogy would have to include Antarctica. In the dead of winter.

I huddled close to her for the little bit of body heat radiating through her mostly dry shirt.

She didn’t get grossed out this time.

Dad’s head appeared as he climbed out onto an adjacent rock. He swung the light toward me for a moment before shining the light on Mom and reaching back down for her. “Stay right there, Joe.”

No worries about that. I’d pretty much frozen in place.

Mom’s head appeared. Then disappeared. “Oww …”

“Mommy!” Christine cried out.

Dad’s head disappeared.

“What’s wrong?” I yelled to Dad.

He didn’t answer immediately. Or maybe he did, but I couldn’t hear him over the roar of the river.

Both their heads popped back up, Mom’s arm around Dad’s neck this time. “She hurt her ankle,” he yelled to me.

Then came another voice. “Do you need help?”

Two more beams of light made their way down the embankment toward us.

“Yes! And call 9-1-1.” Dad turned his beam of light toward them.

Guys in ski jackets.

“Thank You, Jesus,” I said. Answered prayer was awesome, but having God answer a prayer I forgot to pray was even better. He was looking out for me even when I haven’t been good. Not even Santa Claus did that.

The car jolted beneath me. Christine and I gripped the edge of the roof before it bucked us off. It stopped just as suddenly as the movement started, though my heart continued its plunge.

All three flashlights swung our way.

“The riverbed is starting to give way,” one of the guys said.

That didn’t sound good.

Uh, God? I forgot to pray earlier, but I’m praying now. Help!

“Here.” Dad handed Mom off to the first guy that reached him. “You get her up to the road, and I’ll get the kids.”

Mom clung to the stranger as she hobbled away. I’d never seen her hobble before. She was usually more of a prancer.

Dad extended an arm toward us. “Take my hand, Christine.”

She shook her head and gripped my shoulders tighter.

Oh boy.

“Come on, honey. The sooner you reach for me, the sooner I can get you to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

She didn’t budge. Except for the way she trembled.

Or maybe that was me trembling. “Go, Christine, or I’ll try out my snowball launcher on you first.” That might have sounded mean, but it did the job.

Christine turned her head my way as if giving me a dirty look I couldn’t see, then her limbs untangled from mine.

“One, two, three,” Dad counted.

She was gone. No splash, so she must have made it to the rock.

Without her weight, the car shifted again. As great a story as it would make, I really did not want to go surfing down the Payette River on top of a car roof. Wrong season.

I slowly scooted to a crouched position. I couldn’t wait for Dad’s hand or the other rescue hero to reach me. It was now or never. I focused on the small beam of light. That’s where I would land. I’d just have to count down for myself. “One.”

“Wait, Joe.”

“Two.”

“Son, let me help you.”

He didn’t understand. The car wasn’t going to respect his timeline. “Three.”

I leaped. Through the night. Not seeing, but feeling. My pulse pounded in my throat. Cool air intensified the sting of my wet pants. Gravity pulled me toward the unknown. My feet hit solid ground, and I sank onto my knees to absorb the impact just like I did on the trampoline. Except I’d landed on a slope and tipped backward, about to continue my descent.

Dad’s hand shot out of the darkness and grabbed the collar of my shirt.

Safe.

“I told you to wait,” he said. So much for a hug of joy to celebrate my survival.

“I couldn’t.” I reached for his flashlight and swung the light toward the backseat of the car where I’d been sitting in boredom only a few minutes before.

Funny how every second in life mattered whether I realized it or not.

 Making every one of those seconds count, I hung onto Dad with one hand, illuminated my snowball blaster, and grabbed it from the wreckage just as the car wobbled, groaned, and took off in a jet stream of whitewater.

Finally my father gave me the joyful hug I’d been expecting.

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