Stranded world, after her other Christmas story
“I’m afraid,” her mother told her, before she’d managed to stop crying, “that this Yule may only get stranger.”
“Stranger?” she asked, tucking the box with the pendant in a pocket. “I’m not sure I can handle that.”
“You’re a strong girl, Autumn. You’ve always been the strongest of my children.”
“I…” That was a weird thing to say, and she wasn’t sure it was true. But with Tattercoats’ gift still sitting heavily in her pocket, she just nodded. “What is it, Mom?”
“Your father left you a gift.”
The bottom dropped out of the world. “My… Mom!” She swayed uncertainly, leaning hard against Gregor’s arm. “Mom,” she repeated quietly, blinking back sudden tears. “That’s not funny.”
“It’s not… well, he left these a long time ago, honey. One for each of you, on your twenty-third Christmas.”
“Why twenty-third?” That question paled as another one took its place. “Wait, that means Winter knew about this already.”
“Yes. And I swore him to secrecy, as I’m going to do with you – and you, Gregor, don’t look at me like that. It would have been nice if he could have arranged to be here with you, but you have Gregor, and he’s a nice young man for such things.”
Gregor smirked at Autumn’s mother. “And many other things too,” he joked, giving Autumn a chance to calm herself down.
“Don’t I just bet. It’s in here, honey, under the tree.”
“Of course.” Her voice was a raw croak; when had that happened? She let Gregor guide her, not feeling all that steady. “This is a dirty trick,” she muttered. “You’ll be lucky if Spring doesn’t burn the house down when it’s her turn.”
“I’m always lucky that Spring doesn’t burn the house down.” It wasn’t a big box, but the outdated paper made it stand out from the rest of the tree immediately. Minnie Mouse. Autumn swallowed a sob.
“Twisted Strands, Mom, this is macabre.”
“This wasn’t my choice, Autumn. This was your father’s call. And I’m sorry, baby girl. I’d have done this differently.”
She took a ragged breath. “I know. I know, Mom. So. What did Dad leave me?” And why now? She knelt on the floor, feeling four years old again, the shadows of her siblings pressing in on her. Whatcha get, Auttie? What is it? Her hands shook as she opened the box. Alone, not alone. Winter had done this before her. Winter had done everything before her.
First, a slip of paper, with her father’s unmistakable handwriting. Autumn. Save this for the one that really needs it. She moved the paper gingerly, afraid it would disintegrate.
Underneath, nestled in silk and twined in protective strands, sat a small cobalt glass bottle, corked and sealed in wax. It looked, to her eye, mostly-full of a dark liquid. “Ink,” she whispered, nearly falling over. “He left me ink.”
“Your father,” Gregor murmured, “seems to have been a very wise man.”
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