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Be careful of witches, she said in her quiet, withered voice.
The boy looked at the old, coughing woman, her eyes tired and watery, and nodded. She smiled and her wrinkles tightened across her face. The boy pulled the washbasin closer to the woman’s bed and threw another log onto the fire. With a final survey of the room, he stepped to the doorway and pulled on his old, mottled gloves, blackened and smoky from handling coal. He unbolted the lock and grabbed the door handle but turned around when the old woman called his name.
She pointed a drooping finger from under the covers. It’s cold, boy. Take that scarf on the wall there. He nodded and wrapped the grey, tattered shawl tightly around his neck. It snowed harder now. It was only white outside the window.
He closed the door behind him with a small click, inaudible beneath the howling, whirling snow. The wind was icy and stung his skin. Already, his cheeks were red and already, frost stuck to his brows.
He hugged his coat closer to his body though it barely kept him warm. Grey, fraying patches peeled from the arms and back, hanging by loose threads and torn hems; great holes let ice whip through and bite at his skin. Every inch bore signs of wear and unjust weather.
It was a grey, ragged thing.
The boy followed the main path through the forest.
He had traveled it often and knew it well. Even in the snow, he could make out the particular trees – with their particular knolls and particular twists that marked the way.
He passed, for example, the crooked pine. All the pines in the thick forest grew straight and tall. This one however, bent halfway up and leaned across the sky, a gnarled arch and monument for the unsure road traveler. The boy turned here and set out into the deepening snow, a thick white sea reaching even higher now, grabbing stubbornly onto his thighs as he waded through the clumps of icy cold.
There was a loud bang then, the snap of a branch up ahead that pierced through the whirling blizzard wind. The boy stopped and looked down the road.
There was blood.
Up ahead on the path, there was a single red drop of blood, a rosy blemish on the white strip of canvas. The boy squinted his eyes against the wind. The scarlet splash pushed slowly through the deep white ground and crept steadily towards him.
The boy quickly scrambled from the center of the road and hid behind the trunk of a large pine. He watched. He waited. He breathed slowly. But soon, the red droplet inched closer and he realized that it was a girl – a girl in a red coat. It was only Little Red, the granddaughter of the woman he took care of, and her coat had never looked so particularly deep, such a dark blossoming crimson.
The boy smiled and made to jump out and surprise her and make her laugh when a rustle shook from the brush beside him. He stopped. A small deer leapt out onto the path and turned to face Little Red. The boy stood still and watched.
Little Red held out her hand and walked slowly towards the deer. It did not move away. It only stared back at the quiet girl in red, fluttering its eyes as the snow whirled fiercely around in rushing buffets. Little Red smiled and placed her hand on the neck of the deer.
It shivered. Then closed its eyes.
The boy peeked from behind the pine tree. It was so beautiful, so gentle. He began to move out onto the path when suddenly the deer screamed out.
One short, violent scream.
The deer’s eyes flashed wide open, black and shiny ebony. Then shuddered close. Its body fell limp into the white ashy ground. Deep red blossomed from the deer’s neck, trickling through its matted fur, staining the pallid snow.
The boy’s breath choked.
Little Red crouched next to the trembling deer and reached out, dancing her hand along the red pool, letting the tips of her fingers grow slick as slow circles rippled across the thick surface of blood. She then dipped in her sleeve. The blood spread slowly throughout her coat and blossomed a great crimson blemish.
The boy ducked behind the tree and pushed his head back against the rough bark. He wiped the frost from his face and shut his eyes tight, holding his breath as the cold wind whispered against his cheek. He waited. His hair danced across his forehead in the furious wind and his face grew numb from the icy torrent of snow. The sharp air howled, and finally, he let a slow gasp of air sigh through his lips. He opened his eyes and slowly looked out.
His gaze met Little Red’s. She smiled and raised a hand.
The boy ran.
He sprang out from the thick brush into the road and sprinted through the burying snow. He pushed hard against the deep white ground and waved his arms wildly as if swimming through the air, his weakening body trying to move faster than it actually could, losing against the beating snow. Wind scathed his eyes; cold bit his muscles. His breath shrank and stuttered as he ran from the girl covered in blood.
The boy passed under the crooked pine and reached the Grandmother’s cottage. He stopped and breathed hard and stared at the stiff wooden door. He dared a glance.
Little Red stood not far behind him, a scarlet drop of blood creeping ever closer through the pale snow. He whipped back around and scrambled up the steps, but as he reached for the door handle, his breath stopped and he crumpled to the ground. Needles pricked at every inch of his skin.
He screamed and thrashed his arms and legs against the white ashes around him, erupting wild flurries into the air. He twisted and writhed and flailed. He clawed at the wind and gnashed his teeth and tried to fight away the invisible hands viced around his body. He cried into the sky.
But the cries turned to howls.
The needles disappeared and the boy fell limp into the snow. Suddenly, he felt strangely warm, as if his grey scarf had stretched and wrapped around his whole body. He gritted his teeth. His ears twitched in the shivering wind. He pushed himself from the ground and grabbed onto the wooden steps and heard five sharp little clacks.
Little Red screamed.
Help! Help! she yelled. Somebody please help!