She smiles at me like she always has. The skin around her eyes crinkles as she laughs. I can't hear what must be the most airy, lovingly given laugh of all time. How I long to reach out and touch her face. The frame shifts. He's laughing as well, cooing at me as only a parent could. They love me. I don't need words. I can only imagine that they are my parents, missing in action. Who else could they be? Who else could I love so entirely without ever having known? This is the only time I see them. I savor each second. Suddenly, I feel a tug in my gut. This is the part that frightens me. The vision darkens. The matching pairs of loving eyes turn sour. Fangs creep from their now purple lips. Cracks creep up from their chins and branch out over their ghostly faces.
"Safffeeeee.", they hiss. "Not safffeeeee."
I want to turn away, cover my ears, but I can't. "What? What's not safe?", I scream. The words come out warbled and low, as if heard through thick ear muffs.
"Seeeeeek.", they hiss in unison. "Seeeeek Averrrrrry!" Then they lunge for me.
The bitter cold grasps my throat like a fist. My eyes, still blurry from sleep, can only make out the color of my surroundings. The early morning is a stunning watercolor: a subtle dove gray dappled with soft pinks and bursts of orange yellow. The third morning this week. I hack violently into the snow. Luckily, my raw throat fails to fling a single drop of blood into the stark white snow. My scarf must have come loose while I slept and allowed the frigid air to claw its way between my layers, choking me in my sleep. If I had a home, this wouldn't be a problem. My vision begins to clear. Tall pines tower overhead, their needles swaying in an ever so slight breeze. The trees retain traces of past blizzards, but thankfully the skies have been clear for two weeks now. The long winter is at last subsiding. This is good news for homeless folks such as myself. We're like the wild animals that roam the land around the fjord, scrambling all year to prepare ourselves for the dark days. I work feverishly while the light is still upon us to gather every scrap of food and viable material I can. Such is the life of a penniless orphan in Grizzleheim.
As my lungs reinflate, I'm able to stand. My joints are stiff. My toes hardly have any feeling at all. I arch my back, stretch my arms and let out a yawn. A symphony of awful cracks penetrates the silence. I'm a sixteen year old trapped in fifty year old's body. The trees part about forty paces from where I stand. I start for it, the joints in my knees and ankles snapping as I go. When I near the space, I can see where the sun is emerging on the horizon. It's just beginning to peek out, sending its golden rays of life out over the barren land. Standing at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the fjord patched with ice illuminated by the sun, I'm reminded of the one perk of living where I do. The view is always incredible.
I turn away from nature's masterpiece and trek back into the underbrush to check my traps. Each one is an empty promise. It's rare to catch anything during the dark days, but I am the definition of desperation. Nothing, nothing, and wait for it...nothing. I curse under my breath. Looks like I'll have to spend the day scrounging for trash in the streets. I bend down to reset the last trap. Crunch, crunch! The snow alerts me to a visitor. I whip around. Nothing. I refocus my attention on the trap.
"Aaaaarrrrrrr!" What could only be described as a battle cry rings in my ears just a heavy weight crushes me from above. I'm pinned to the snow, my trap reduced to a pile of tinder beneath me. "James the Great saves the day by defeating the Evil Ice Queen at last! All hail James!"
"Jimmy!" I gasp.
"There is no Jimmy, only James the Great!" My dear little brother stands up and places one foot on my head as if I am his prize kill. He puffs out his chest for good measure.
"Get offa me ya big lug!", I shout up at him. He bounces off into the snow.
"You didn't have a clue I was there, did you? I'm pretty sneaky huh?"
"Look at what you've done, Mr. Sneaky!" I gesture angrily towards the pitiful pile of broken sticks and withered strings. "Do you want to starve?"
"I'm sorry Kestrel, I was just playin'." He flashes his semi toothless grin at me and I can't help but forgive him. After all, he was only practicing things I'd taught him.
I smile back. "Dropping on enemies from above is a good way to catch them by surprise. I wasn't expecting that." Our situation being what it is, I've found it prudent to teach Jimmy (James the Great) to defend himself in all the ways that I can. I'm no expert, but I know my fair share of tricks.
"That trap wasn't catching squat anyways.", I continue, "You'll just have to work hard in town today."
"Yes Ma'm!" Jimmy stands up tall and salutes me with a mittened hand. I reach forward and pull him into a hug. We start back towards our shelter, each of us holding on to the only thing we have.
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