Now that this story has been edited (and bless all your hearts for not pointing out the copious and sometimes hilarious typos in the posts) and has a cover, I’m seeing about posting it around to sell! 😀
As for what project I’ll finish next? Er… I have no idea. I’m just GOING. But look for Winter Boot in the coming days! As soon as I figure out this file conversion nonsense…
If you saw on my Facebook and Twitter, I finished another short story! Winter Boot was it. There’s probably typos but hey! Here’s the next chapter! 😀
The room around us is filled with the same light eating fog that surrounds the house, the floor so cold, I can feel it through my boots as I hurry to the dim outline of a door. I don’t wait long before squeezing through it and I don’t think about getting cought until I hear Rabbit’s horrified gasp.
“Sorry.” I whisper and my blush of embarassment is so warm, I’m sorta glad I goofed.
“Just be more careful!” She scolds me.
Being extra, super quiet, I follow the tug of the hidden candy around my neck. When I slip on the icy floor and catch myself, I find the walls sticky; groianing umder the press of my mitten. I look down at my two friends and we all share the same look of stomach rumbly nastiness.
The jewel leads me down the squishy hallway to a grey, dirty cersion of Marsalla’s warm and pretty kitchen. A pot boils on the stove, way too small to fit the three of us inside it. I would snoop to see what is in it but the jewel shivers around my neck and pulls me around the corner.
Frog hunkers down deep in my pocket. Rabbit squeeks and pressed against me. I don’t think I’m breathing. My eyes tear as I focus on everything the three of us thought we would fine in Masalla’s home because of how people talk. But it’s here. All of it. Jars of creatures, most not moving and others wishing they weren’t, bones littering the floor, some with meat still on them, and a black table with a mirrored top covered in tiny animal skulls and dripping candles. And the smell… How could it just be in this room? How did we not smell it from the hallway? It smells like something the dogs rolled in that made Auntie throw up.
When the jewel urges me inside, I can almost feel it apologize.
Downy feathers fly up, disturbed by my steps as I move and forcing me to look around. I see my poorly repacked bag and rescue it from the floor. With it on one shoulder and Rabbit on the other, I move to the table. I feel the jewel heat up when I look down into it, wax smeared and dribbled all over the edges and a wet, red handprint in the center. The glass shimmers with the frozen man’s face, the handprint making the blue features look wobbly.
“What should we do?” Says Frog in a shivering whisper.
Before I can guess, a low beep comes from the backpack. With Rabbit watching for the Bone Woman, I pull out a tiny cellphone toy. Blinking in confusion as it beeps again in my hand, I hopd the pastel plastic up to my ear.
“Boot?” Marsalla whispers through the toy.
I sputter a minute before answering. “Yes?”
“A real phone won’t work there. I bet whatever is sucking up the warmth is sucking up all kinds of energy so I rigged up this toy.” Marsalla fumbles with the phone on her end. “What do you see?”
“It’s a mirror with candles on it.” I lean forward and shiver. “I can see the Prince’s face but there’s a red hand on him.”
Marsalla gasps. “She’s sucking the life right out of him. Don’t touch the glass. Don’t touch anything, actually.” I hear glass bottles being moved through the ear piece of the toy. “What else did you see?”
“Not much. The walls are sticky and the Bone Lady had us in cages.”
“Ugly, hunched, skinny old bat.” Rabbit huffed. “I bet she would eat me.”
“Boot, be careful! That’s the Cold One!”
I hear skittering heading towards us from the hallway, like the dogs sound when they run around the kitchen, nails clocking on the tiles.
“Get out of there! Whateve ryou do, don’t let her touch your skin!”
“I don’t understan-”
She’s draining the life from the Prince through his blood on the mirror! If she touches you directly, you’ll die!”
I wake up to the sound of my bag being picked through and the painful creak of rusty metal. First I see the metal bars of my cage, them a small glass bottle sails towards me. I flinch when it hits the ground but doesn’t break. Turning to the source of the noise, I see a shuddering, hunched body of dancing colors. All the color the darkness ate or the snow covered glimmered on the creature’s skin.
The moment I move, it’s eyes are on mine, dingy yellow and squinted at me in suspicion. “Where is it?”
“What lead you here.” I think it’s a she. The wobbly voice sounds a bit like a girl. “I know Marsalla gave you something from the prince. Where is it?”
I feel the candy pulse under my coat. “I was just walking with my friends and we fell into your house.” I look around for Frog and Rabbit but only find Rabbit in a smaller cage hanging next to me. Everything in the room around me is flat, painted a furry gray except for puffs of white from my breathing and Rabbit’s. She looks at me before looking back to the skinny, bone woman.
“Liar.” She growls, and turns back to the mess she’s making.
I look down and there’s only a couple of inches between me and the floor but I don’t dare reach for the little glass bottle. Everytime I breathe, the metal cage creaks. I don’t know what the bone woman will do to me if I move more.
I feel a poke in my side and see Frog’s glittering eyes in my pocket. He gives me the froggy version of a thumbs up and I smile.
Bone Woman finds nothing useful to her in my bag and she skitters away in a huff, ragged clothes dragging on the ground. I think of Auntie telling me not to be seen looking raggedy. For a moment I miss her.
“Maybe hunger will loosen your tongue.” Bone woman rasps and a door slams somewhere in the gray mess around us.
I hold my breath. By the time my body forces me to gasp, Bone Woman hasn’t come back. Frog crawls out of my pocket and hops up to my knee, shivering in the cold room. “Don’t worry, Boot. I saw where she hid the key, I can get to it and we can get out of here.”
“Be careful!” I call after him as Frog jumps to the floor. I worry about him since he can’t warm himself but I am relieved when Frog is bouncing back to me with a tiny gold key. I pick him up to take it and put a grateful and proud little Frog back in my warm pocket.
I don’t hesitate once my door is open, running right to Rabbit to let her out. The candy jewel pulses happily as the three of us repack the bag and leave the cages behind.
“I don’t like that.” Frog whispers. “I don’t like that at all.”
I more than “don’t like” what I’m seeing. The black stain in the distance is a scab on the landscape, eating the light around it.
I feel Rabbit’s weight press against the outside of my boots. “We really have to go there?”
“If we want to save the Frozen Man and end this winter?” I sigh, releasing a cloud of vapor from my scarf. “Yeah.”
Frog defiantly lifts his head higher out of my pocket. “I could get used to the cold. And the snow is kinda pretty.”
“Oh, hush.” Rabbit hisses, shaking her head so her ears fall back to her neck. “The sooner we go, the sooner we can go swimming again.”
I remember swimming. Sometimes I dunk my head under the water in the bath and pretend I’m in a warm lake. Craving the real thing, I move forward.
Only now do I notice how much distance we’re traveled. Familiar houses are shadows in the distance and only skeletal trees line the frozen river. The landscape is slowly devoured by the curling darkness ahead of us.
It only grows more silent as we get close enough for the house to take shape. If not for the shadows, it woul dhave been a normal house, complete with white fences and flowered curtains in the windows.
I stop across the street, watching the house and the dark when Rabbit bumps me on the heel.
“Boot, there’s a light in the bag.” She whispers.
The feelin gof the house watching back makes me round a silent, empty block to hide before fishing through the bag for whatever the light is. I probably shifted he bag and knocked a lamp back on.
I pull up what appears to be a candy necklace. The diamond shaped lump of sugar in the center is carved with the simple instruction; “Wear Me.”
All three of us blink at the glowing candy in confusion and a few moments pass before Rabbis finally says “Marsalla is weird.”
Braving a blast of cold air, I stretch the necklace over my head and quickly tuck it into my coat so I can put my hat and hood back on. Before I can zip up, I feel it tug me towards the house and it’s light-eating darkness. Reluctantly, I follow the candy’s instructions and approach on soft feet to make as little noise as possible. My friends are quiet as I move across the street and my eyes adjust to the dark in no time.
The wood fence is decaying away and I try to ignore the fact all the edges are chipped with what looks like teeth marks. The candy light leads me and my friends right up to the front steps and to the door.
“So…” Frog says after a moment. “Do we knock?”
The necklace dims and I get the feeling that’s a bad idea. “Let’s just go in.” And I lift my hand to the brass knob.
“Boot!” Rabbit hisses in warning but I still give the door a shove. Frog and Rabbit hide deep in my pockets at the rush of warm air blowing out into the night but that’s all that comes at us. No monsters, no teeth, no nothing. So, I step inside.
“OW!” I wake to sharp pain in my finger and push it immediately into my mouth.
“Sorry!” Rabbit presses her little feet to my knee. “But you didn’t wake up when we tried to call you. We were scared you might freeze.”
“It’s okay.” But I feel warm. The blanket did a wonderful job. My nails are pink, I can feel my face, and my coat is dry as a bone.
“The sky is clear so we should make good time.” Rabbit looks out of the pipe as Frog refuses to leave the warmth of my coat.
Hungrier than before, I finish my leftover half of energy bar and some really salty beef jerky; the kind Auntie would never let me have. As I pack up, I run my tongue along my cheeks to enjoy the shadow taste of the dried meat. I only hope Rabbit can’t tell how much I enjoy it.
I suck on a thick hunk of sliced apricot as we walk. Cold blooded Frog stays in my pocket but Rabbit offers to spare me her weight and plods carefully beside me. With the pack on my shoulders, I don’t think an extra few ounces would have mattered much but I feel guilty about eating the beef jerky so I don’t argue with her.
Following the river is much easier without the snow whipping around but the bright sunlight reflecting off the drifts is blinding. I keep my eyes on the ground right in front of my feet, glancing up to make sure I’m on the right path before looking back down again.
“I would feel better if we knew where we were going or what to look for.” Frog grumbles from my pocket.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. Marsalla wouldn’t steer us wrong.”
“Oh, she’s your best friend now?” I’m shocked at the jealousy in Frog’s voice.
Rabbit chitters softly, laughing. “Any human who can hear us and doesn’t eat me is a friend to me.”
I can understand that. It’s always better not to get eaten.
Several hours pass before I realize there are no more houses around us and we all start to wonder if we really are going the right way. I think Auntie must be upset by noe. I didn’t think we would be back in time for supper but Auntie must be so worried by now.
When I see a dark smear in the middle of the white in front of us, I get a little worried myself.
It was a smart move to keep Frog and Rabbit tucked into my coat. It’s an even loner way to the lake from Marsalla’s house than from mine and I still need Rabbit to give me directions. By the time we’re there, my fingertips hurt and I bet my nose is red from cold.
Frog stays in my coat pocket while I crawl across the ice but Rabbit puts herself on my shoulder. I notice something different from the very first time I push the new fallen snow away from the man’s face. His lips are bluer against the full color of the rest of his face.
“Looks like we’re running out of time.” Frog sighs.
I push more snow aside, looking for a sign to know what do to do, and see the Frozen Man’s arm pointing down at his side.
“Down river.” Rabbit says, snuggling between my neck and the top of the backpack Marsalla gave me. The three of us look down the winding, blue ribbon of ice in the misty white with only darkness in the distance.
“That’s a long walk.” Frog says what we’re all thinking.
I hear Rabbit sight and I don’t blame her. A long walk doesn’t sound good in this weather. At least the snow hasn’t started to fall from the threatening sky.
“We better get as far as we can before it starts snowing again.” I pick up Rabbit from my shoulder and slide her next to Frog in my pocket so they can keep each other warm. The two of them barely fit so I waste no time and turn and walk along the riverbank in the direction the Frozen Man told me to.
It doesn’t take long before I’m shivering with every step and the cold turns my eyes fuzzy with tears. The third time I stumble and nearly fall on numb legs, Frog begs me to stop.
“There’s some old sewer pipes in the bridge up ahead.” Rabbit has to shout over a gust of wind that stirrs up the snow around ut. “They’re big enough to hide inside but small enough so the three of us can keep warm.”
“You can nap for a bit then keep going.” Frog sighs with relief at the thought of shelter and dives back into my pocket the second he’s done talking.
“But what if the Frozen Man runs out of time?” I shiver.
“You won’t be able to save him if you collapse here in the snow.” Rabbit’s voice is soothing as I walk in a daze, following her direction. The wind slows to reveal a small stone bridge reaching over the river, the ice under it frozen much thicker than further up river.
The moment I’m in the pipe, my body heat begins to fill the space. The smell or rust hurts my nose but my growling stomach is more important and I begin rooting through my pack for whatever goodies Marsalla packed for me. I find a box of energy bars, a collapsable lantern, packets of emergency blankets, mini bottles of water, and separate plastic containers of snacks for Rabbit and Frog. At least I hope the jar full of maggots is a snack for Frog and not some sort of spell I would later.
I put the lantern up so I can see into the very bottom of the backpack and fins a regular blanket buriet in the bottom. I wrap it around myself, leaving plenty of room for my friends, and I feel so warm. I’m almost tempted to take off my wet coat.
Rabbit snuggles into my lap. “Magic blanket.” She nods. “Better and safer than making a fire.”
“Bet there’s a lighter in there, though.” Frog finishes his meal and I cap the wiggling bugs before they can escape. “Just in case.”
I nibble at an energy bar, too tired to make conversation. I make it half way through before giving up and putting the rest away for later.”
“Get some sleep, Boot.” Rabbit lifts the blanket to let Frog scurry under and then settles herself next to my heart. “Don’t worry. We’ll wake you when it’s time to go.”
I nod in thanks and close my eyes, sleep so very welcome even with the wind howling outside as my luluby.
I don’t have the heart to turn Rabbit and Frog back out into the cold after taking me to my door. I smuggle them in under my coat and they make themselves at home in a nest of my stuffed animals.
But I don’t sleep. The face of the frozen man and future telling sticks keep me awake till I hear Auntie’s alarm from up the hallway. With dry eyes, I tiptoe to start the day, carefully hiding Frog and Rabbit behind my slippers and the crisply folded corner of my blanket.
While Auntie gets ready for work, I feed the dogs and start breakfast. Everything is done and piping hot when Auntie is showered and ready to eat. As I pick at my food, the dogs sniff at my clothes instead of begging Auntie for scraps, their noses right where I held my friends last night. To keep Auntie from suspecting I share my bacon with the dogs. I’m not really hungry anyway.
Time doesn’t move as fast as it should till Auntie shuts the door behind her and I let the dogs run wild out in the back yard so I can give Frog and Rabbit the chance to come out of my room.
“Where would the Cold One be hiding?” I ask Frog, kneeling at my bedside looking at both animals perched on my bed.
“I don’t think even Marsalla knows that.” Rabbis says, grooming her ears as she talks.
“We could ask her.” Frog fidgets, his webbed feet not happy on my plush blanket. “She could at least direct us somehow.”
“Let’s go now!” I bounce to my feet and run for my clothes. Rabbit follows with Frog on her back, waiting on the kitchen chair out of reach of the dogs when I let them in from the cold. I carry the small animals with me to the front door and lock everything up tight before dashing to Marsalla’s. It starts to snow on the way there, covering my tracks as I sneak around to the back door.
I only knock once and she opens the door, pulling me out of the cold with a smile. “What can I do for you today, Boot?” She says after closing the door against the wind.
“We need to know where the Cold One is.” Rabbit says, jumping from my wet and cold arms into Marsalla’s warm and dry ones.
Frog stays in my elbow where the snow didn’t reach. “Or at least point the way.”
“Ah, I think I can help you out there.” Marsalla smiles that grin where I can tell she knows something and turns to her kitchen. I take off my boots and leave them with my coat to drip in the hallway before I follow.
“Mama was good at the sticks. She could read the future of things using branches, bones, even chopsticks. If I dropped a handful of pens, Mama could see something to tell me.” Marsalla let Rabbit jump down onto the counter a good distance from the bubbling pot on the stove. “My specialty is water. I can read shapes in the ripples and reflections and it can tell me where things are.”
When Marsalla looks into the big copper pot boiling on the stove, the rest of us lean in, too.
“Uh, I can’t find anything if all I see is your faces.” She says.
Blushing, I back away and Marsalla turns off the pot. She watches as the steam coils up to the ceiling. I try to be patient as she looks at the water but it’s worse than waiting for the huskies to do their business outside during a really bad snow.
“I should have known.” Marsalla sighs, taking a mug down from the cabinet and tossing a tea bag into it. Pouring water on top, she points for me to sit.
Once I’m comfortable and Frog is bouncing on my shoulder with impatience, Marsalla sits next to me with a plate of goodies fit for all three of us; cookies, veggies, and a small cup of maggots for Frog who hops down right to them to eat.
“Go back to the frozen prince and follow his direction.” Marsalla shivers. “He will show you the way to the Cold One.”
I look up at Marsalla from my cup of tea with complete awe. This is what I expected from a witch who the whole town fears.
“Sorry, Boot. You don’t have time to wait for your clothes to dry before going onthis trip.” Marsalla pats my head with the same tender stroke she used on Rabbit’s fur. “Go on. Finish your tea and all of you, eat. By the time you guys are dressed and ready, I’ll have a bag packed for you.” Marsalla tucks that same curl behond her ear. “I can’t go with you but I can make sure you’re well stocked for your trip.”
“Me?” I back away from the sticks as if they’ll come after me. “If you can’t do it, how am I supposed to?”
“I wish I knew, hon.” Marsalla looks at me sadly. “Mama was the original witch of this house; the lady everyone was scared of. She had a way of knowing things. She knew she would die facing the Cold One, she told me never to go there, and she knew about you.”
A clock chimes nine in the other room. “You better go home, I don’t want you to get in trouble and if you’re seen here, you’ll have a lot of trouble.” She lifts Rabbit up to her shoulder. “Can you take her home?”
“We’ll keep her out of sight.” Rabbit chirps.
“And keep close to her.” Frog pipes up from my shoulder.
“Yes.” Marsalla lowers Rabbit and lets her jump to the floor. “She’s gonna need you two.”
I pull my coat on in a daze. “If two witches couldn’t win, what can I do?”
Marsalla hands me my hat with a smile. “Like Mama always said; the answers will come when they’re ready. You just have to pay attention.”
This chapter is short not because I was late or had no ideas… It just seemed like a good place to build tension. XD
“Come to think of it, you do look familiar.” Marsalla says to me, turning a cup of tea in her hands. I dunno why but I expect more after I finish telling her my story. She scratched her nose, picked at her sweater, tucked a fussy curl behind her ear but that’s it. I expected something… Witchier.
Rabbit, after she stopped shacking, looks up from the warm nest she’s made for herself in Marsalla’s lap. “Looks just like the guy, right? And she can hear us.”
“And your Mother could talk to animals?” Marsalla scratches between Rabbit’s ears.
“That’s what Auntie told me.”
Marsalla stops scritching Rabbit’s ears and picks her up so she can stand. “C’mere, kid. I want you to look at something.”
I bring my cup with me and Frog balances on my shoulder as I follower her out of the cluttered living room into an equally cluttered library. It’s like a book store exploded in here with only one clear area left untouched; a wood stand with a glass case on top.
“Take a look, Boot.” Marsalla points her chin at the case and I step towards it. Inside are a bunch of scattered sticks.
I watch them like she said. I take in the ceramic plate, the clean glass, the knots on every twig but nothing happens. “Am I supposed to see something?”
“Not unless you’re a witch with training in divination.” Marsalla smiles. “My mother cast those sticks. It’s the last reading she did before she died. She knew the winter would come and it’s because that guy is stuck in the lake.” Marsalla looks sadly down at the case, her eyes watering. “She tried to stop it but the Cold One was too powerful. It killed her.”
“I’m sorry.” I whisper, missing my mother, too.
Marsalla shrugs, blinking more than normal. “Thanks but that’s not important.” Her hand goes back to Rabbit, who flattens her ears in happiness. “My mother told me the reason for the endless winter is the Cold One put that man in the lake. To free him and end the winter, the Cold One has to be defeated.” She looks down at me. “And it has something to do with you.”
The trip down the tunnel is a blur of sound; Rabbit struggling and Frog squirming in my pocket. The way I’m being dragged, my coat is bunched up, trapping Frog in the folds. My hat id pushed halfway down my eyes so I don’t get the full force of the light when we reach it but when we do, the hard grip loosens and I tumble to the floor. Frog hops out and lands on my knee and Rabbit runs for the nearest hiding place.
“What were you doing outside my house?” I can hardly make out the words with so many scarves over the mouth in the shadowed face above me.
“You’re scaring her!” Frog scolds from my knee. “At lease take your head gear off when you talk, Marsalla.”
The shadow starts pulling off clothes till a face is finally revealed from under a hood, a hat, and two scarves. The olive colored skin still blushes form the cold. I expected Marsalla to be a scary old lady from the way people talk and how she was hunched over. But the pumps on her back where the overlap of the scarves and the packages strapped under her coats. Her face is round and she looks younger than Auntie.
“Why were you out in front of my house in the middle of the night?”
I notice adults use the phrase “middle of the night” to mean “any time after when a kid should be out of my way.” “Frog told me you know about the man in the river.”
A smile makes her cheeks round and Marsalla tosses her coat on top of a growing pile of outerwear. “Well, any friend of Frog’s and blah, blah, blah.” Marsalla rolls her shoulder so her bag slips off, a long fingered hand catching it before it can hit the floor. Her teeth are small, straight, and very human, smooth skin and hat hair all say normal lady just come back from the cold. How is she a witch?
“You might wanna get up off the floor and get comfortable. You’re already sweating.” Marsalla reaches out to me, short nails so clean, they look like ivory, and takes my hand so I cans get up. “Sorry about the drama. I got tired of kids busting windows since before the winter came.”
“Go on, Boot. You’re safe.” Frog whispers before jumping down to the carpet. “You come out too, Rabbit!”
Marsalla’s blue eyes light up. “Rabbit?” She darts off to where Frog is shouting and snatches up Rabbit with a quickness I didn’t think a woman of her size could do. Auntie is all bones and can’t move that fast but Marsalla is all curves and moves like lightening.
Rabbit only has time for one squeak before she’s pressed against Marsalla’s chest. “I haven’t seen a rabbit in years! And so adorable! Aren’t you, sweetie?”
Some of her baby talk is muffled as I pull off my coat and look around. Books and picture frames and mirrors are everywhere, the only bare spots on any flat surface clean from a fresh dusting.. The carpet stops in front of the kitchen and a wide circle around a fireplace as big as Auntie’s dogs. Once my coat is off, I notice how warm it is; my heart stops pounding and I notice the room smells like soft incense.
“Marsalla, you’re smothering her with your mammal parts.” Frog teases and I giggle when I see Rabbit’s baffled expression as she’s snuggled ruthlessly into the front of the woman’s sweater.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I disobey every rule about staring at people, my mouth open in disbelief.
“You lookin’ for the witch who lives in this big, scary house?” Marsalla says.
“Then you’re in the right place.” Marsalla puts Rabbit down on the floor gently before planting her hands on her cocked hips. “And who are you?”