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Winter Boot

Chapter 1

It was warm the day my father died. It’s been winter ever since.

I knew Daddy had magic. He chased away the monsters under my bed, flipped pancakes, and reached high shelves to get treats for me. But I didn’t think he held back the snow.

“Boot!” That’s not the name Mama gave me. Auntie just calls me that. I don’t remember my real name anymore; the one Mama gave me when she gave me her life. “Have you finished your chores?”

I haven’t done anything amazing with the life she gave me. I shovel snow, feed the dogs, fetch wood for the stove (so we can save on gas, you see). So I don’t blame Auntie for being mad all the time. If my sister died for something, I’d want it to be amazing. I should be as amazing as the stories I hear about people going outside with sundresses instead of snowshoes, bonnets instead of heavy fur hoods, and even swimming! The lake is frozen now. And ice fishing is not amazing.

“Yes, Auntie. The dogs are fed, the porch is clear, and the woodpile is covered for the next storm.” She works hard at the local bank, making all the money for the house. She’s not as strong as I am, she tells me all the time. “Your back is only 8 years old! You can take some of the work from my 56 year old legs!” She said. I don’t mind. House chores keep me warm and the dogs are so big, they walk me.

“Good. Now go get yourself fed and bathed. No time for me to help you since I’ve been on my feet all day.” She says on her way up to her bed. All I see is a flash of nightgown as I get up from the floor, close my book, and head into the kitchen.

There are dishes in the sink. Auntie already ate while I was out with the dogs, I guess. I reach the cabinets I can, finding some crackers and bread. I make a nice sandwich with some of the turkey in the fridge with cheese and crackers. It’s not so bad, eating with nothing but the wind outside. I think I used to eat with Daddy, helping him stir his famous sauce and watching his hands as he chopped vegetables. The scraps always went outside for the rabbits. Auntie hates the rabbits. I sneak them anything I can.

After I clean the kitchen, I take all the food scraps to the pile in the backyard. It’s not easy for the animals ever since the sun went away. At school, they tell us we should share so they survive. But it’s more so we can eat them. I just like to see the flashes of color against the white and gray of the snow and cold. The dogs sneak some, dancing around me when I head out the door, but I shoo them inside. They are spoiled to pieces, warm and cozy and fed scraps from the meal before it’s even done. The wild ones get the rest. It’s only fair.

I see a brown shape bounding through the leafless bushes against the back fence once I’m sure the dogs will stay inside. Little dark eyes watch me step off the back steps and walk to the back of the yard.

I only watch it out of the corner of my eye, because rabbits run if they can tell you’re looking. I’d run, too, especially since we make stew out of so many. It looks at me like I’m a hunter as I plod in my winter boots across the frost-covered grass to leave the scraps as far from the door as I can. When I turn to leave, I make sure my back is to the rabbit so it sees there’s nothing to fear.

“Many thanks, lady.” A voice calls out to me and I can’t help but spin so fast, I land right on my tush. Auntie smacked me a good one for saying “butt” just once before I learned my lesson.

“Be careful there!” Another little voice yells. “You’ll crack your head right open like that, kid.”

I blink snow out of my eyes and sure enough, a brown and white hare is staring at me. On his back is the tiniest frog I’ve ever seen, clinging to the rabbit’s fur with strong, webbed fingers. “How can you… I mean you’re not supposed to-“

“Talk? It’s not supposed to snow year-round, either.” Frog says to me. He’s right. And I’ve pretended tons of other things before so this isn’t so bad.

“Most don’t listen.” Rabbit says. “But I didn’t expect my thanks to knock you on your keister.”

“You’re welcome.” I whisper, getting up on my feet again. “It must be hard to find food now.”

“Well, Rabbit here keeps my feet warm and lets me eat whatever bugs manage to get in her fur.” Frog leans over to inspect the scraps. “And she gives me shelter since the lake froze up. Lotsa us water folk ran off after that.”

“And you always leave the best stuff. And I can see why now that I look at you. You’re thin as the branches on the ground. All coat and mittens.”

“I don’t need much. Auntie gives the dogs so much of her food, they’re spoiled. I can share with you guys.” A nasty wind cuts right through me and I shiver hard, almost biting my tongue as I try to talk.

“Go on inside, skinny. You’ll freeze.” Frog scolds me, leaning in close to Rabbit’s fur. Her voice shivers like mine but she’s got no teeth to chatter.

Nodding, I race into the house, waving to my figments as I go. “I’ll leave more tomorrow!” I call to them as I push back the dogs and go back inside. It’s fun to have friends, even if they aren’t real. I’m usually too busy with chores for Auntie to let me go play. I giggle to myself at the thought Frog on Rabbit’s back bounding through the snow. What a pair they make!

Chapter 2

I shouldn’t have told Auntie.

“Your mother would bore me to tears with such nonsense. Don’t you mention it again.” She was so mad; I thought she would hit me. But she hasn’t done that in years. I’m a really good girl now. Except that I talk to animals. Who talk back.

Even if Auntie hates it, I promise myself I’ll look for Rabbit and Frog again today. If my Mother could do this, too, she’s given me a great gift.

When I bring scraps out this time, they’re waiting for me, Frog on Rabbit’s back on top of the frozen snow. I try to bring something that’s still warm but the toast crusts and stew veggies are nearly cold by the time I reach them.

“I saw someone who looked like you.” Frog said, leaning forward on Rabbit’s head. “Over in the lake.”

“IN the lake?”

“If you got time, kid, we’ll show you.” Rabbit flicks her ears to shake Frog off as she bites into some carrots.

I look back at the door, shut tight in front of the dogs. I can see them bounding in the window for me to come back. “Auntie is already mad at me because I can talk to you.”

“So let her be mad.” Frog smiles at me and it’s a little scary with no teeth. He’s right. Auntie is always mad.

The lake isn’t too far and Auntie went to bed hours ago. The dogs would never scratch at the door loud enough to wake her, the fires are all down, and all the food is put away. I’ve got on plenty of warm clothes so I won’t freeze and I know to be careful around the lake. It’s frozen real firm but I could still fall and break a bone. If I hurry, I could see this someone and be back before Auntie ever knew.

“Ok. But let’s go fast. I don’t want Auntie to catch me.”

Rabbit looks at me with one ear flopped down to her cheek. “You humans have names. What’s yours?”

“Boot.”

Frog laughs so hard, he nearly falls into the snow. “Well those sure are important these days! Bet you’re just as important as they are!”

“You hush yourself and hold on tight.” Rabbit turns towards the front yard. “I hope you can run fast, kid.”

I keep up pretty good with two huge Huskies, so I point to the furry heads bounding in the window. “If I can follow them, I can follow you.”

Following a rabbit with a frog on her back is much harder than two high-strung dogs. Auntie’s dogs couldn’t hide in the snow if their lives depended on it, insisting on bounding through the drifts like they were wrecking balls. Fur and snow would fly everywhere, telegraphing where they are. Rabbit may be brown but she slips smoothly into the piles of snow and I can’t find where she’s gone till she pops back up again. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Only no whacking.

Just like the game, it’s fun to watch. Rabbit dives into the icy powder with an energetic puff and comes up with a burst of glittering flakes. Each time, I’m able to catch up a few steps. All those walks with the dogs prove to be good practice in keeping sure feet on the slippery snow.

The twisted, frost-covered trees come into view first, frozen in stasis by a motionless river. The only life here is me, a frog, and an impatient rabbit tapping on the riverbank. The fish either froze or escaped to warmer waters.

“Over here, Boot!” Frog calls to me, hopping off of Rabbit’s back and pointing down into the ice. When I reach him, I pick Frog up and cup him between my mittens to keep him warm. “He’s down there.”

“Ok.” I put Frog in my pocket where he’ll be safe and crawl to where he pointed. The ice is solid, not making a single creek, but I’m more worried about slipping on it than falling through it.

The snow sticks to my mittens as I brush the ice clean and I see the face of a man. His skin isn’t blue like you’d expect a frozen man to be. Even with the ice reflecting blue all around him, his face is bright and healthy under the motionless water. I expect him to blink up at me and tell me little girls shouldn’t play on the ice just like any other adult.

And he’s got my face. Just like Frog said.

Rabbit pads carefully to my side. “Boot, do you know this man?”

I squint like it could remove the layers of ice between me and him. It doesn’t bring him any closer or spark any recognition of him in my life. “No. How’d he get in there?”

“Marsalla might know. None of the animals can remember; even the ones who remember Summer.” Frog croaked from my pocket.

Rabbit’s ears fly up, her brown eyes wide and looking to the riverbank. “No time for Marsalla. You should get back home before your aunt notices you’re gone.”

“Yeah!” Frog leaps from my pocket and right onto Rabbit’s back. “We’ll lead you back so you don’t get lost. He’ll keep till tomorrow.”

I nod and crawl to land before I stand up. I feel colder now and run fast to warm myself up. All I can think of is how to get to this Marsalla without Auntie knowing about it.

Chapter 3

It shouldn’t be so much fun to keep a secret. Auntie always said I should be grateful for everything she’s given me; clothes, food, a home. She tells me she doesn’t have to share her life with me and it’s a gift and a privilege for me not to be in an orphanage where I would have to share everything. But the secret is all mine. I found it and I don’t have to share it, ever. If Auntie knew I was going to see Marsalla… I can’t imagine how she would punish me.

I have to try really hard to do my chores at my normal pace so Auntie doesn’t suspect I’m trying to sneak away. I’m nearly bouncing by the time she gets to bed and I make sure the dogs are so full, they can barely watch me walk towards the back door. When I step out the back steps and don’t see Frog and Rabbit waiting for me, I panic. Did they forget? Did they go without me? Did Auntie find them after all and I’ll never see then again?

“Pssst!” I hear from the front porch. “What is it with you and the back door?” Rabbit peeks around a snowdrift twice her size as the wind piled up on one corner of our porch.

“Her Aunt’s room is the front.” Frog scolds, hopping from her back. “Ready?” He says to me.

I tug my mittens tighter on my wrists and nod. Frog jumps right into my pocket and shouts in a relieved voice, “Follow my directions. Rabbit’s never been there.”

“With good reason!” She squeaks. “I’m sure the witch would love a new pelt to keep warm.”

Yeah, everyone calls Marsalla a witch. Her house is always lit with odd colors and different ones in every window. She never goes out, even for food, fuel, or firewood, yet her greenhouse is dark with plants. Neither kids nor adults dare to try and steal anything from her even if they were brave enough to go near the metal fence and cross the evergreen snarls in her yard to face the hunched figure whose shadow is seen in the windows. The old woman must live all alone because not a single sound comes from her walls.

Marsalla lives in the tallest house in town so following Frog’s directions isn’t necessary several blocks from her home. My footsteps slow and more than just cold makes me shiver.

“Go on, Boot.” Frog says, peeking up from my pocket.

“Sure. ‘Go on’ he says.” Rabbit cowers by my foot as I stare at the house from the street. “Marsalla doesn’t eat frogs or little girls.”

I shouldn’t feel so relieved when I find out I won’t be on the menu. My shoulders drop and I relax until a shadow looms behind me.

“What are you doing here?” A scratchy voice muffled by wool demands from all three of us.

Rabbit goes to run but the shadow is too fast, snatching her up in one hand and my collar with the other to drag us both to the lightless side of Marsalla’s home. There’s nobody on the roads to hear me scream for help but as the reflection of the street lights on snow fades into black, I hope Rabbit was right about not getting eaten.

Chapter 4

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 is 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 least 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 from the cold. I expected Marsalla to be a scary old lady from the way people talk and how she was hunched over. But the bumps 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 can 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 lightning.

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.

“Yeah.”

“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?”

Chapter 5

“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 follow 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.”

“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.”

Chapter 6

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 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 on this 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 a chocolate-colored curl behind her ear. “I can’t go with you but I can make sure you’re well-stocked for your trip.”

Chapter 7

It was a smart move to keep Frog and Rabbit tucked into my coat. It’s an even longer 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.

“Downriver.” 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 sigh 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 stirs up the snow around us. “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 upriver.

The moment I’m in the pipe, my body heat begins to fill the space. The smell of 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 use later.

I put the lantern up so I can see into the very bottom of the backpack and find a regular blanket buried 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 halfway 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 lullaby.

Chapter 8

“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 now. 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.

Chapter 9

“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 would have 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 feeling of 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 the 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 Rabbit 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 its 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.

And my foot touches nothing. Nothing but air.

Chapter 10

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, then 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, its eyes are on mine, dingy yellow and squinted at me in suspicion. “Where is it?”

“What?”

“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. Every time 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.

Chapter 11

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 caught until I hear Rabbit’s horrified gasp.

“Sorry,” I whisper and my blush of embarrassment 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; groaning under 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 version 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 squeaks and presses against me. I don’t think I’m breathing. My eyes tear as I focus on everything the three of us thought we would find 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. With my bag 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 hoped 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 earpiece of the toy. “What else did you see?”

“Not much. The walls are sticky and the Bone Lady had us in cages.”

“Bone lady?”

“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 clicking on the tiles.

“Get out of there! Whatever you 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, you’ll die!”

Chapter 12

The skittering comes faster. Closer.

“Leave the phone under the table and hide. When you hear me say so, blow the whistle in the bag!”

Rabbit dives into the bag and I push the phone under the scary mirror where it disappears into the darkness. I can feel Rabbit squirming to find the whistle as I search for a big enough patch of shadow to hide me.

I crouch behind a giant pot that stinks of rusty ice. I can feel the cold seep through my mittens as the skittering grinds into the room and the Cold One drags herself near me. Her toenails on the floor hurt my ears and I fight really hard to keep from whimpering in pain.

The Cold One scuttles over to the table and leans on it so hard it groans. The small weight of the whistle is suddenly in the palm of my hand and fear steals more of my breath than the cold. I watch her curl her spindly hands over the edge and press her face right against the surface. I think for a second about wet tongues getting stuck on poles but I bet the Cold One doesn’t stick to anything.

A horrible sucking sound makes me clap my hands over my ears. Frog and Rabbit burrow deeper into my coat and all I want in the world is to scream for her to stop. When I peek, I am instantly sorry I did as I watch jagged spikes grow from the bent back and hunched shoulders to make her look like a great big, scary, ice porcupine. The house shakes and groans as the noise stops and I swear it’s even colder; so bad my throat hurts when I breathe.

“Do it NOW!” I hear Marsalla scream and I take a deep, burning cold breath and blow on the whistle so hard, my face heats up. I’m exhausted and panting when I stop just in time to hear the little phone I left under the table say; “Run like hell! Don’t forget the necklace will help!” before it explodes in a burst of orange light.

When the bits of toy phone hit the ice, black goo leaks out and the Cold One roars. I don’t stick around to see anymore and I do exactly what Marsalla says. I hold the glowing candy out in front of me with Rabbit in my other arm and run as fast my shaking legs and flopping bag will let me.

It’s seconds before I hear angry growling and scratching behind me and I dare to look back. Black ooze splatters around the Cold One as she runs after us, making such a mess, she slips in it, stumbling to the ice floor as I flee around a corner.

The candy jewel flutters when I make a wrong turn and gleams bright in the dark when I’m right. I nearly scream with joy at the sight of the front door but I feel a snag on my hood.

“Cheater!” The Cold One screams. “Sneak thief! Tresspasser!”

I hear the cricking whine of ice forming on my hood and pull hard to get away from the leaking ice monster. My hood doesn’t rip, it snaps where she touched it. In my panic, the candy necklace gets so hot, I have no choice but to throw it at her.

When it hits her in the cheek, a huge black mark of rot forms. I don’t watch it spread, I yank hard and run away from the wailing. The house is shaking under my feet. The wail becomes a howl when my mittens hit the door knob. I don’t even have to pull; the door crumbles to shards of frozen wood. I jump over them, side stepping the trap door, and reach the gate trembling all over. I don’t trust looking back anymore, not till I’m off the sidewalk and halfway into the empty street.

I hear Frog and Rabbit gasp as we all watch the house fall in on itself. Steam rises from the black ooze creeping over the whole thing. A blackend, clawed hand reaches out of the doorway, scraping at the wood. She screams louder, hissing and spitting under the rubble. I take a step back and bump into something soft. A hand lands on my shoulder and I look up to see the Frozen Prince smiling down at me. He gives me one calming pat before gliding around me.

His feet leave no prints as he passe the gate and walks silently up to the scratching hand. He looks at the Cold One, watches her try and crawl from the junk and I can see his skin glow golden brown. Light pours from his skin and with one final scream and a blinding flash, I’m pushed back by the force of a warm wind so hard, I pass out.

Chapter 13

“Boot?”

That’s Marsalla calling me. I feel her bare hand on my cheek and it’s shocks me. Bare hands outside? Crazy. But her hand is warm and the air doesn’t have the icy bite to it like it used to.

“Honey, your friends are worried. It’s all over so get up now and tell them you’re ok.”

I push up on my butt, rubbing my eyes with soggy mittens. It’s still cold, but the snow is melty and wet and I’m hot in all my layers. Even Marsalla is in a regular coat with no hat or gloves. Rabbit is in my lap but Frog still burrows in my pocket to stay warm.

“What happened?”

Marsalla smiles. “The Cold One was devouring the man in the ice, using his life force to grow stronger. Her powers would have kept me out since the Prince and I use the same magic but a normal little girl like you? Went in just fine.”

The way her lips curl into a smile says her sense of ‘normal’ isn’t the same as other people’s.

“Once you weakened her, he could escape and take his life force back.” Marsalla hugs me, soggy coat and all. “You helped bring back the Spring, Boot. You saved him.”

Rabbit looks up at me, planting her little paws on my chest and bumping her nose against mine. “You did amazing. Thank you for saving us.”

“Yeah!” Frog pipes up from my pocket, just a tiny dot of green from the warm fabric. “That was a little close for me, though.”

“I’m ok, I think.” I get on my feet and turn to see what mess is left of the Cold One’s home. But all I see is a black pit, like the tar that trapped the dinosaurs. I squint at the sunlight bouncing off the surface and for a second, I see him standing right where the gate used to be. He winks at me and smiles. He has my eyes… Then he’s gone.

“Come on.” Marsalla says, wiping at her eyes. I guess the light hurt her eyes a little, too. “Your aunt is probably worried sick by now.”

She might be. Auntie must have checked for me when I didn’t come home to take care of the dogs.

I let Rabbit ride my shoulder and Marsalla takes the bag. We don’t talk as we walk up the street; she just smiles down at me and I smile back up at her. Before we even hit a cross street, I have to pull my hood down because it’s too warm.

It’s finally warm.

END

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