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Die in Winter

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Wednesday was finding her winter holiday to be far less exciting than she had hoped.  What was initially described as a “ladies journey” with her mother and grandmother to commune with the spirits of past matriarchs had turned out to be a long car ride to inspect a colonial-style building which had once been a bed-and-breakfast owned by some great aunt, to see if there was anything to be done with such inheritance or if it should simply be left to decay.  With her grandmother clipping bits of fungus from the floors to use back home and her mother putting in a series of calls to increasingly alarmed real estate agents, Wednesday was largely left to entertain herself.

For the first day or two she was content to huddle under a sasquatch fur coat (“The sasquatch was so kind to donate it!” her mother had said) and read through the pile of books she had brought.  But there were only so many times she could work her way through Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds back to back with the Malleus Maleficarum as a comparison study before boredom crept in.  There weren’t any good books she could read already at the old house- the ones she found were all in languages she couldn’t understand, which was quite an achievement given her passing familiarity with Latin, Hebrew, medieval German and Voynich code.

“Why don’t you go play outside?” her mother asked her when she complained.  “I thought you loved a good snowfall!”

Wednesday had too much pride to admit that snow was only fun when she had Pugsley with her to plant explosives and blow a series of snowmen to kingdom come.  Still, without very much else to do, she trundled outside to wander among the snow flurries and see if she could manage to get hopelessly lost.

There were a series of long-dead bushes that might have once been a hedge-maze, but if so, it was pathetically easy to get through.  Wednesday packed together a snowball to throw at a squirrel, but the squirrel didn’t even have the courtesy to throw one back at her.  A rumbling she had hoped might be the start of an avalanche turned out just to be distant thunder, and there didn’t seem to be any wolves at all in the entire area.  Dejected, Wednesday turned about to go back inside.  Maybe she’d give in and help her grandmother collect fungus and hope that one or two specimens might be hallucinogenic.

And that was when she saw the ghost.

The ghost was leaning against a withered, leafless tree, and the only thing that made her stand out from the surrounding snow-covered landscape was the faint blue tinge to her cheeks and her lips.  Her hair was lank and limp, perhaps once blonde or light brown but with any color long since washed away beneath the snowflakes and the distant sun.  Her garments were faded as well (pioneer garb, if Wednesday was not mistaken) and her large, mournful eyes were a pale grey.  Those blue-tinged lips were chapped grotesquely, and the snow did not melt when it touched her bare skin.

“Hello,” said Wednesday.  The ghost made a wordless moan that seemed to merge with the howling winter winds.  Wednesday took a few steps toward her, and perhaps the ghost was encouraged by this.  She took a few shivering steps through the knee-high snow, but was unsteady on her feet.  By the time she reached Wednesday, she was practically crawling.

“Please,” sighed the ghost.  “I’m so cold.  Please, I need warmth…”  Her voice was like an echo reverberating across the centuries.  When Wednesday didn’t do anything, the ghost reached out and took her by the hand.  The ghost’s bleached-pale hand seemed to flush where it touched Wednesday, a pink tinge joining with the blue and turning a lovely violet.

Unfortunately, Wednesday’s hand was now ice-cold, and the feel of stinging frost started climbing up her arm.

“I don’t think so,” said Wednesday, yanking her hand away from the ghost’s- not an easy task, as she had a grip locked solid with ice.  “I don’t intend to freeze to death and become a ghost myself until I’ve had the chance to grow at least six inches taller.”

“I’m so cold,” cried the ghost.  Her tears froze to icicles as soon as they left her eyes, leaving spiky trails down her cheeks.

“A shame,” said Wednesday.  “You can warm up in the house if you want, though the heater leaves something to be desired.  Come on, my mother will know what to do with you.”  The ghost looked confused, and Wednesday sighed.  “Or not, and you can go leech heat off of some ski-slopers, if you can walk far enough to find any.  I wouldn’t be too sure about finding anything in this lovely weather.”

When Wednesday and her trailing ghost (still moaning about the cold, still begging for Wednesday’s warmth) arrived back at the house, her mother was puttering about feeding tiny portions of ground beef to the spiders.  She looked up with a smile at the new arrivals.

“Wednesday, won’t you introduce me to your new friend?”

Wednesday looked back at the ghost.

“I don’t know her name.  All she keeps saying is that she’s cold.  She tried to drain away my body heat and leave me to die and become a frozen corpse beneath the snow banks.”

Her mother laughed and shook her head.

“Ah, ghosts!  You really never know what to expect, do you?”  She turned her elegant smile towards the ghost.  “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to kill my daughter, but you can have some tea or hot soup if that would help warm you up.  Mama, could we get a mug of the death-cap brew for a guest?”

The ghost (looking a bit confused, if Wednesday was not mistaken) was ushered over to a place by the fire.  It burned green from the toxins of the house mold, and the flames leapt high enough to keep out any jolly intruders attempting to bring seasonal cheer down the chimney.  The ghost tentatively placed one hand inside the flames, and though the fire burned lower, the ice coating her fingernails at least started to melt.

As the ghost attempted to warm herself, Wednesday picked up her book again.

“Have you read Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds ,” she asked, “or was that published after your time?  My favorite chapter is the one about the slow poisoners, although the moral outrage over The Beggar’s Opera is rather funny.”  She flipped through the book, past the tulip mania and the crusades, before landing on the chapter about alchemy.  “I was right in the middle of rereading this bit.  It’s amusing how many people wasted their lives attempting to turn lead into gold when the field of chemistry would prove to have so many more useful applications, explosions and narcotics being only the two most popular.”

Rather than endure the ghost’s subdued sighs, Wednesday began reading to her from the book.  It felt silly and annoyingly mature, but at least she wasn’t constantly interrupting the way Pubert always did whenever Wednesday was ordered to read to him from his favorite book, Alraune .  The ghost sometimes tilted her head in a confused (or perhaps curious) manner, so Wednesday surmised that she was at least paying some attention.  She had just gotten to the bit about self-proclaimed alchemists being held hostage until they ransomed themselves with the gold they could not in fact create, when her mother arrived with the mug of hot mushroom-water.

“We are very lucky Mama found the death-caps growing in the cellar,” she said.  The ghost tentatively took the mug from her outstretched hand; she did not drink from it, but simply held it in her hands so that the steam rose up towards her face.

“Are you going to melt into a puddle, dear?” Wednesday’s mother asked.  “If so, I can show you over to where we already have some lovely floor stains you could enhance.”

The ghost shook her head.

“Ah, well.  You can’t have everything.”

The ghost never spoke the entire evening, only turning sometimes to better access the fire.  Wednesday, at her mother’s prompting, reluctantly offered her the use of the sasquatch’s fur coat (“But you can’t keep it- he might want it back.”)  If she wasn’t much of a conversationalist, at least she came around enough to be talked into a game of cards with the women of the house.  She had nothing to bet on poker except hairs pulled from her head, but ghost-hairs could be useful spell ingredients so they were still of some value.

Wednesday fell asleep on the couch after her own mug of death-cap water, with the ghost still curled up by the embers of the fire.  When spiked rays of sunlight through the cracked windows forcibly awoke her in the morning, the mug was still there but the ghost was gone.

Her mother was coming down the stairs with a serene smile.

“Hello there, girls.  Would you like-” then she stopped and looked about.  “Wednesday, where did your friend run off to?”

The two women saw no pools of water anywhere on the floor, nor other signs of melting.  When they went to take a look outside, however, they saw a path melted through the snow.  They followed the path through the pathetically easy hedge maze and all over the grounds, until it finally returned to the withered tree where Wednesday had first seen the strange guest.

“I’ve never heard of a ghost living in a tree before,” said Wednesday, but her mother shook her head.

“I don’t think she lives in a tree, dear.  She probably just went back to where she died of the cold and where her body decomposed, fertilizing the roots of what now grows here.  I suppose we gave her the warmth she had been searching for.”

“Hmph.  It sounds dull.  I would much rather be a ghost and freeze people to death than just find final peace and be laid to rest.”

Wednesday’s mother put a hand on her shoulder and smiled.

“You can do anything you want when you die, my child.  I’m sure your haunting will be a sight to behold.”