A few miles outside of Burgess, Pennsylvania
His shoulder shook.
He tried to keep his breathing even. Maybe she'd think he was still asleep.
"Jackson, wake up." His shoulder shook harder. "Wake up. I thought I saw something." His little sister's voice fell into an awed whispering. "I think it might have been Santa Claus."
"Pippa," Jack groaned, and rolled over, brushing his brown hair out of his eyes. "It was probably just a deer. Go back to sleep."
"But, Jackson," she whispered. "Christmas is in the morning. It could've been him. It really could've."
"Mother's going to scold you for being awake this late," Jack warned her. "Go back to sleep. Santa Claus went to our house. We're almost home; you'll get your presents in the morning."
He saw Pippa smile in the dark as she curled up next to him. "Goodnight, Jack."
"Goodnight." He closed his eyes and allowed sleep to take him again.
When he woke, it was cold. It was still dark outside their wagon, and cold as ice. "Pippa?" he yawned. There was no answer, and his brown eyes grew wide. "Pippa?" Jack peered outside and saw tiny footprints in the snow. He swore as he grabbed his brown cloak from the corner. "Pippa, Santa Claus isn't here!"
He groped around for his shoes, but couldn't find them. His mother breathed softly toward the front of the wagon. If she woke and found Pippa gone… He shook his head, cursing his little sister a thousand times before he stepped, barefoot, down onto the snow.
He bit his knuckle to keep from crying out. The snow stung his feet, and the icy cold numbed his fingers. He'd find Pippa fast and give her a stern talking-to, after he'd bandaged his frostbitten feet.
Jack followed her footprints with ginger steps, treading on as little snow as possible. "Pippa!" he cried. "Pippa, come back!"
"Jack?" someone screamed. Pippa. She sounded panicked. "Jack! Jack, help me!"
Jack wasted no time in speeding over the pristine snow until he heard swift sloshes. He knew he was by the big pond, fed by the rushing river that he and his sister had visited in the springtime. He took a sharp breath through his nose. His sister, only eight, couldn't swim. "Pippa!"
"Jack!" Her voice began to gurgle, and eventually became a wordless scream.
Jack blinked so the light of the full moon could register with his eyes. The pond was frozen over, save a little hole in the ice. Water sprayed up around it and the ice began to crack and splinter, floating around as the small figure in the middle fought to hold onto it.
Without hesitation, Jack sped onto the ice, slipping and nearly falling onto his side. "Hang on, Pip!" he called. A low branch hung off a tree. He snapped it off easily and stretched the hooked end toward his sister. "Take it!"
A little hand grabbed it, but slid off. "Jack, I can't hold on!" Her lips were turning blue, and her blonde hair was glued to her head. "J-Jack…"
"Pippa, I'm here!" He abandoned the branch and propelled himself forward onto his stomach. He reached for her and took her hands in his. He winced as the frigid water hit his skin.
Her brown eyes were glazing over, and she trembled. "I-I'm gonna drown, Jack," she stammered.
"No, you won't. I won't let you." Jack tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'm your big brother. I'm not going to let that happen. I promise." He leaned forward and lifted her under her arms so she half-lay on the ice behind her, although from the hips down, she was still submerged. "Can you kick your legs up?" he asked.
Pippa kicked, and one of her feet hit her brother in the eye. "Ow! Pip!"
"S-Sorry." She chuckled a little bit.
He had gotten hold of her ankle and swung it out of the water, ignoring the throb in his eye socket. Her other leg followed, and he reached over the hole and pushed her so her whole body was steady on the ice. "See, Pip?" He grinned. "What did I tell you? I'm not going to let you-"
Jack broke off and glanced down at the ice beneath him. It had let out a loud crack, enough to halt his sentence. A fissure was tracing its way under his chest and stomach, and he looked at his sister.
"Jackson…" She was looking at him, shivering. She was too weak to even lift her head.
The ice cracked again, but this time it broke fully, sending Jack scrabbling for a grip. He managed to keep it in place, but he knew he was too heavy to last long. "Oh no…"
"Jack!" Pippa struggled to rise.
"No!" Jack screeched. "You're cracking your own lifeline! Don't move!"
Pippa shuddered and was still. "B-but Jack… You're going to fall in!"
Jack couldn't assure her otherwise. "Pip, you have to stay still."
"Please, Pippa." He met her eye as she began to cry.
The ice groaned under his weight, and a thousand words formed on his tongue. You can have my Christmas presents. I love you, Pip. Stay warm. Make sure Mother finds you. I- Before he could say anything, it slipped from his fingers and he plunged into the ice bath that was Burgess Pond.
It was impossible to describe the cold that enveloped him after he fell. Agonizing, maybe. Yes, agonizing was probably the right word to use. A thousand needles struck every point of skin on his body, covered in fabric or not. His hands and feet were used to the frigidity of the water; unsurprising, as he thought back to his panicked trek looking for Pippa.
He struggled to hold his breath captive in his lungs, but after a while, he grew lightheaded searching for the surface. A bright area was directly in front of him, and he forced his legs to push him upward. It had to be the moon. If it was the moon, it was the surface, and he'd be able to breathe again. He kicked harder, using his arms to help, but his clothes weighed on him. He overrode his shrieking muscles and tried harder to reach the surface.
Jack's face crashed into something hard, sending him reeling. He thrust a hand up, and found it defaulted to the palm-up position, as though he was pressing his hand against a window.
He'd drifted under the ice.
Jack curled his hand into a fist and pounded on the ice. A little hand appeared, clearing snow off the window. Pippa!
Her tiny, sunken face appeared, shock clouding her features. Her mouth moved in a shrill scream, but Jack could hear nothing. His vision blurred on the edges, and he blinked hard. It was no use. The cold had sunk into his body and rested there, freezing him inside and out.
He put his palm back on the ice. His sister rested hers against his, and he saw her tears splash to the ice.
Jack let out his last breath as he mouthed the words I'm sorry. He sensed his eyelids close, and he felt nothing in his flesh.