In a Winter Wonderland

Are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening…


Mystery
Horror
Holiday


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In a Winter Wonderland

Go and bond, he’d said.

We’re only staying here for a week – I don’t see my family often, he’d said.

You’ll have the wedding and Christmas to talk about, he’d said.

They’ll be part of your family too, might as well get to know them, he’d said.

‘You can’t not get married in a church,’ my soon-to-be mother-in-law Christine reasoned (at least, I assumed in her head she was being reasonable). ‘How can you get married, Leona, if it’s not in a church?’

Seemed “he”, my fiancé, had left telling his mother this one up to me. How charitable of him. We had a marriage officiant picked out for a beautiful outdoor ceremony on the jetty of the lake where we’d had our first date. I didn’t get a chance to tell Christine about the officiant.

‘The minister could come out and do it by the lake,’ suggested Eve, my fiancé’s sister. ‘If you have to have it there, just ask the minister.’

That’d be a fabulous idea. If either myself or my fiancé were religious. We weren’t, and it appeared that too he had left up to me to inform his mother and sister of.

Again I didn’t get a chance to say so. Christine had jumped back in before I’d even opened my mouth. She had ideas, it appeared, for how my church ceremony should look – a church ceremony… we weren’t having. Eve had contrasting opinions about the same imaginary church ceremony. She likewise didn’t feel any need to hold them back, particularly while comparing them to her own church ceremony several years before.

I tried to tune them out, turning my gaze from Christine’s heavily pencilled and highly expressive eyebrows to the idyllic little fair – of sorts – us “girls” had been sent to check out while my fiancé’s dad took him and his brothers hunting (something my fiancé didn’t do either). In a sweet little clearing of a forest and carpeted with a glistening recent snowfall, I’d have loved to visit this Christmas market were I doing it with literally anyone else. Or alone.

Five wooden stalls were scattered around the forest clearing, selling everything from baked goods, their fragrances cutting through the olfactory-numbing cold of the winter day, to Christmas decorations propped on assorted tables, shelves, and crates. At one stall, I could see real holly and mistletoe being sold in bunches, handmade wreaths, and candle-festooned mantle ornaments. Icicles hung from the coverings over each stall, and, ready for the onset of early darkness, tall lanterns were lit with flickering flames around evergreen trees hung with baubles and burning candles. In the centre of the clearing was a large campfire crackling away where, for a dollar, you could make your own s’mores, and for five dollars you could get a lunch with some of the roasted ham carved off the bone.

As an out-of-town-er, I had no idea how normal a little Christmas market like this, out in the woods, was. It was almost as though we were back in a time when this was wild country, settled in self-built cabins, and this Christmas market was the closest the people came to economy. To me, not used to so much snow and winter spectacle, I loved the wintery and old-timey look of it.

Loved it enough, I’d momentarily managed to tune out my prospective in-laws. Returning awareness of them evaporated my winter wonderland mood instantly.

‘Well if you’re fitting everyone on a jetty,’ Eve was saying, her false eyelashes so long they’d caught a flurry, ‘you can’t have as many people coming to your wedding as I had at mine. Mine was massive – we barely fit everyone in the church!’

‘But why have a ceremony at a lake?’ Christine said, evidently back to bemoaning that idea. ‘It might rain! You won’t get your wedding dress wet in a church.’

‘Probably not,’ I agreed, jumping in before Eve was able to say something more, ‘but we didn’t have our first date in a church.’

I had a second, watching Christine’s cheeks hollow, to regret my blunt words. Up until this point, I’d been sure to always coat anything I said in polite sugary sweetness. It seemed I’d had reason to do so beyond my nerves meeting the in-laws: Christine definitely didn’t look happy about me having anything straightforward to say. Reflexively, I giggled like fool, indicating I was no threat, and nodded to a stall.

‘My grandmother always had silk baubles on her tree!’ I effused, bubbly. ‘I’d like to have a look!’

‘No. I was interested in the wreaths,’ was Eve’s response. Christine’s was a disdainful, ‘I used to do silk baubles, but they break or unravel too easily. No point in keeping them longer than a year. You know where I found those gorgeous snowflake ornaments I put on our tree?’

Eve was leading the way toward the wreath stall, carrying on the chat with her mother, both their backs turned to me. I was evidently supposed to follow them like a dutiful puppy, and I considered it for a second. Then, feeling daring and desperate to just have a moment away, I turned, internally decided my stance was “fuck you”, and headed for the silk baubles.

Round and round in circles – that had been how every discussion with my fiancé’s mother and sister had gone. Not a one of those discussions friendly beyond the fake smiles. I made a mental note of how best to explain it to my fiancé: like being trapped, them in their own small-minded world and me under their oppressive expectations. In fairness to him, chances were he felt that way too, considering he’d folded right back in to chuckling at his dad’s tasteless jokes and going hunting. He was just more used to it, presumably.

The lady behind the stall eyed me with a knowing blue gaze as I approached over well-trodden snow. Though the cool early afternoon sun was still in the sky, the lantern beside her picked out an orange highlight in her silver-white hair. Her face crinkled with many concentric wrinkles as I stopped by the selection of silk baubles.

‘It’s the time of year for harmony and family,’ she said, her voice a croak that spoke of wisdom. ‘To my eye, it looks thin on the ground this year.’

I met her gaze. Both that knowing look and her words invited confidence, and I was more than tempted. I made sure Christine and Eve were over at another stall, then gave in.

‘We don’t see eye to eye,’ I said. ‘Or, actually,’ I corrected ruefully, ‘I could deal with that. It’s more like they can’t accept any eye might see differently to them. You get stuck in circles.’

Rather than nod, the woman showed her understanding with a little lift of her head. What might be a smile played around the corners of her mouth.

It was what I’d needed to say to someone, and having said it I now felt I’d said too much. Between confiding in a stranger and bad-mouthing my prospective in-laws, something in there wasn’t quite what I wanted to be doing. I pulled a smile and indicated the baubles. The one in my hand had snowflakes embroidered in silver over a winding of iridescent blue thread.

‘These are lovely! My grandmother had simple ones, but I’m loving what you’ve done with them.’ I indicated the varied wares around me. ‘Do you make it all yourself?’

The woman didn’t comment on the change of subject. She looked all the more knowing.

‘We have help sometimes,’ she said. ‘New people can provide something you’d never have yourself.’ She tipped her head to the market around us. ‘We do this every year, picking a place that hasn’t seen our market before and setting up our stalls. It’s a family calling.’

Though a sparsely-populated one. From where I stood I could see only two other groups of people having a look through the market.

‘It’s a pity you don’t get more traffic,’ I said honestly. ‘We saw your sign on the road, but that road just leads to holiday cottages. It wouldn’t be seen by too many people.’

The woman gave a small shrug.

‘People find us,’ was the extent of her response. She’d shifted just enough that I caught sight of a painting hung behind her on the back wall of the stall. On either side of it were gorgeous winter landscapes, but this one was different. Somehow even more detailed and visually magical than a Thomas Kinkaid painting, minute brushstrokes created a cottage bedecked with the product of a heavy snowfall – much like the vacation cottage my fiancé’s family had rented for this visit. Chimneys trailing smoke were set against the cool colours of a winter sunset; icicles hung from eaves, lanterns and decorated trees gleamed out front, and window after window in the cottage was aglow with warm light.

I’d opened my mouth to let the woman know how beautiful I thought the painting was – how it looked like the escape into the woods I’d hoped this trip would be. I closed my mouth at the small twitch of warning in the woman’s face, indicating someone over my shoulder. Christine and Eve, I noticed in a glance. They’d evidently decided they wanted to join me at this stall after all.

‘The trails around this clearing are serene,’ the elderly woman murmured to me. ‘A good walk to clear your mind.’ She cast me a pointed blue-eyed look, and added even more quietly, ‘Things will come right. You’ll find the answer, and then you won’t be trapped any longer.’

Her knowing look sent a little shiver down my spine. I sucked it up in the next moment, offering a sweet smile to Christine and Eve. Only Christine attempted to respond with one of her own. It was wide, full of teeth, but flashed for only one false second.

‘This is nice,’ she mused, stopping before a three foot tall statue crafted in stone. ‘So lifelike – is she a saint?’

The statue was of a woman with flowing long hair, a similarly flowing long dress, and a loose wreath of mistletoe around her shoulders. I stepped nearer to see the statue better. Lifelike she was, the craftsmanship incredible. There was a look of quiet mourning about her face that was deeply poignant. “Nice” though… I wouldn’t go that far. Perhaps it was that sad look on her face, like the appearance of someone enduring something for eternity, but it wasn’t a statue I’d ever want in my home.

‘No,’ the elderly woman croaked, her voice softer and milder. ‘Not a saint. She’s something older.’

Christine’s brows furrowed, as though that was an answer too perplexing for words. Eve wasn’t paying attention. She pointed out the painting I’d been admiring.

‘Oh – it’s just like the cottage we rented!’ she said. ‘You should get that mom, to remember our vacation!’

Christine sidled over to ask how much it cost. I caught sight of a young man bearing a tray. It was his eyes that made me think he was related to the elderly woman manning the stall. A clear blue, they scrunched with a smile as he held the tray of small pie slices out invitingly.

‘Homemade,’ he said, then indicated over his shoulder to where a cauldron had been set up over the fire. ‘And you should try some of our spiced cider too. Nothing better to put warmth in your soul.’

Free food was an offer few could refuse, and the smell coming from the tray was even better. I bit into a slice and nearly moaned. Somehow still warm, the pie was the perfect mix of sweet, sour, spice, and crunchy pastry. Across from me, Christine was chewing, a surprised look on her face as she considered what was left of her pie slice. Eve’s expression was less impressed.

‘Oh I wouldn’t mind buying a couple of these,’ I said earnestly to the young man.

‘No,’ said Eve, once again summarily dismissing any desire other than her own. ‘I’m making the pies for Christmas.’

Christine cast a look at Eve as she licked a crumb off her lip. My guess was she too wished to purchase a pie. When the man just smiled and moved on, she avoided disagreeing with Eve by eyeing the second bite of pie I was taking.

‘Have you had your wedding dress tailored yet?’ she said, her meaning clear, one of those heavily pencilled eyebrows rising as she condemned my chewing in a look.

My mouth full, I shook my head.

‘Hm,’ was Christine’s acknowledgement. She didn’t leave it at that. ‘Well perhaps it’s better to wait until you’re off work for a bit longer. Lose a bit of muscle.’

I could have moaned again, though for a different reason. So we’d circled back to that topic. Last time it’d been brought up Christine’s view had been “Muscular doesn’t look good in a wedding dress.”

‘You can’t stay a fireman,’ said Eve, her tone logical but her words not. ‘You can’t do it when you get pregnant. Might as well quit earlier. Find something else.’

My teeth actually grit. It was getting very hard not to be offended. It would have been so easy for her to say “firefighter” instead. Or “work in Fire and Rescue”. Not to mention: we’d already said we weren’t planning for children just yet.

The elderly lady’s eyes had crinkled again. With an enigmatic smile, she placed a snow globe in my hand, then unobtrusively extracted herself to straighten portraits.

‘The service is pretty flexible with that,’ I said, keeping my voice light. ‘Always need someone on desk duty, and they don’t mind offering it to pregnant staff.’

Having a reasonable counter to their opinions once again didn’t go down well. Eve’s lips pursed and Christine’s cheeks hollowed. Were it not that they’d soon be my family, I’d be more content with the idea of putting up with it until I could get back to just living my life. That conundrum had me stuffing the last of the pie in my mouth and peering into the snow globe for somewhere to direct my gaze that wasn’t the judgemental stares of prospective in-laws.

Behind the sphere of glass, the snow globe depicted a winter forest in minute detail. Bare branches were laden with snow, and between them I saw a trailing of paths. Looking closer, my eyes picked out a little orange fox hunkered by a trail and, harder to spot, a stag, its antlers mimicking tree branches. I gave the globe a shake, turned the crank on the bottom, then held it still to watch flurries fall on the little winter scene. In tinkling tunes, the crank beginning to rotate, the snow globe started to play. It took a few notes from the metallic music box for me to recognise the song: “Winter Wonderland”.

I could take a guess why the elderly woman had handed it to me. I remembered her invitation to cool off walking the trails around the market. This seemed a covert reiteration of that avenue for escape.

‘Why do you want to be that strong anyway?’ said Christine over the tinkling music. ‘Men respect women who are feminine.’

I felt my eyes flash, and thankfully I was looking down at the snow globe when they did.

Seemed me pushing back had opened the gates. Christine had been far more direct about that one.

Looking up, I saw Christine waiting with those painted eyebrows raised. Eve was nodding, a superior look on her face that dug those ridiculous fake eyelash caterpillars into her brow ridge.

I had no smiles now. Standing tall, I returned the snow globe to a shelf and said, ‘I’d like to check out the trails around here.’

‘No,’ said Eve. ‘There’s so much more of the market I’d like to see.’

That suited me just fine. And Christine could stay with her. I nodded, and, despite knowing Eve expected me to do what she wanted, walked off.

Noooo,’ I mocked in a whisper to myself, when I was far enough away they wouldn’t hear. I pulled a spiteful face, and mocked it again: ‘Noooo.’

No, things must be Eve’s way. Well, I thought angrily, I can say fucking “no” too.

It made me feel a touch better to finally be able to roll my eyes.

But it didn’t stop my internal monologue striding forth into a rant.

Men respect women who are feminine. I could take that idea and shove it up Christine’s ass. I was pretty sure men respected me when I scaled my way into their locked homes without drilling out their front door. When I rappelled down the side of whatever it was this time to rescue someone. When I grabbed their elderly mother and carried her out of the house. Or stood there with the rest able to hold the force of a torrent of water spewing from my hose. Why should I be relegated to being respected for only feminine things?

Their own son and brother – the man marrying me – respected me just fine, whether that was my ideas for our wedding or what I did for a living. He got a bit funny when it was me who was pulling out the power tools to fix something, but that was about it. And having now met his family, I could guess the only reason he did get funny about that was the narrow-minded ideas of masculinity they’d shoved down his throat. I also suspected that was the reason why the man couldn’t even stich a button back on.

Not to mention: I liked being fit and strong. It made my body move in a way that felt capable. Christine and Eve should try it. They’d probably stop being such judge-y busy-bodies if they did.

It’d been two days of this, trapped in that idyllic vacation cottage with them. And I had no idea how I was going to survive the week – let alone the rest of my life married to their family member.

My irritated mind marched on, but my feet started to slow. I’d been so caught up in my frustration I hadn’t paid attention to where I was going or what path I’d picked. It’d just been where my boots had trudged me.

The entrance to the lane had disappeared behind me. Ahead, snow blanketed a path dormant for winter, the most pristine white like outlines atop grey-brown branches. The odd evergreen tree peeked its deep green out from below more shroudings of white.

It was a sight like a Christmas-themed storybook. Perhaps, I thought, this is how I’d survive the week: escape my fiancé’s family to go walk in the woods.

It was working on me. The further I trudged along the trail, the more I felt I was far away from my prospective in-laws and their oppressive judgements. It was undeniably freeing.

They didn’t approve of me. I could tell that much. Why, though, was the more burning question. All I could come up with was the list of what seemed to me little things: my job, my appearance, my beliefs (or specific lack thereof), all the decisions I’d made for my own good reasons… None of the things on that list were items I wished to change about myself.

All it did was make me want to get away back home where I could just be myself. This winter wonderland was nice and all, but it came at the severe cost of feeling more trapped than I ever had before.

Everyone is insecure, whether they admit it or not. It was a piece of wisdom my grandmother had handed down to me. That and: everyone likes to feel secure in their own lives the way they want those lives to be. 

Well that was certainly true of me. And I was sick of Christine and Eve trying to make me insecure.

But, in the spirit of Christmas generosity, perhaps I could assume that was the problem. Maybe my appearance made them insecure about theirs, so they… decided to bully me about it? Perhaps, too, they saw me as a threat to what had been their nice, normal, family culture. They might blame me, I reasoned with myself, for encouraging their son and brother to live far away from home. Or for changing his mind in a way that made him reject his family’s stupid ideas.

He’d done that all on his own, but they wouldn’t want to think that, would they?

I huffed a sigh that frosted before me.

‘There ya go, Gran,’ I muttered to the pale sky, ‘I considered it from their perspective.’

Considering my grandmother hadn’t been so great at doing that herself, I felt I’d done a good job. And, for a moment, that small accomplishment achieved a silence in my internal monologue. For that brief moment, all that went through my head was recognition of the crunching sound my boots were making on the snow below.

And then, more benign than my previous thoughts, my mind rounded back to a line from the last tune it had heard: “in the lane, snow is glistening”.

It really was a winter wonderland, I thought, paying more attention, once again, to the trail around me. I started humming, focusing on that rather than my anger and frustration, and felt my mood brighten.

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight
We’re happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland

They were about all the lyrics of the song I knew, and they went round and round in my head as I took my time to appreciate the trail. I did want to buy that snow globe, I decided. I could hear a memory of the tinkling way it played the song. Its music box fit the sense of a freeing walk along winter trails nicely.

What I should probably do, I recognised dully, was head back soon. Darkness wouldn’t be far off, and even with my puffy coat, it wouldn’t be too long before I really started feeling the cold. Those were the more compelling reasons to head back. The less compelling was the knowledge I couldn’t avoid Christine and Eve forever. Even having been away this long would likely have them irritated with me.

That last thought had my feet keep trudging along the path. If they’d be annoyed with me either way, might as well stay out here longer.

Up ahead was a fork marked by a massive tree, its branches sinking under the weight of snow and an attractive adornment of icicles. It could do with Christmas lights, I decided, and took the path to the left. Little flashing twinkle lights would glitter through those icicles.

In a glance behind me, I made a mental note of the way back: one right turn at the huge tree, then the path was straightforward all the way to the market.

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening…

It was so quiet out here. I noticed that when it registered I really could hear only my boots and that tinkling tune in my head. It had me humming again, decorating the scenery with that highly appropriate song. When I trailed off at the end of the chorus, I mused a while at how things really did go dormant in winter. Had I heard birds before? Either at the market or at the cottage? Or did birds go silent in winter? They didn’t back home, but it never got as snowy back home…

I’d started listening hard. No birds but…

I paused, my boots quieting on the trail. There was a distant sound, hard to pick out, of someone else’s boots in the snow. Three footsteps, and then the sound disappeared. I looked around, through trees and behind me, searching for another person. There was nothing, as far as I could see, and that put a weird sort of unease in my spine.

But why shouldn’t someone else be out here? For all I knew, I could be approaching someone’s vacation cottage, them taking their own walk somewhere past the trees. Or, less comfortingly, it could be hunters.

Or it could be Christine or Eve coming to find me.

That thought had my feet starting up again. The sound of another’s footsteps picked up again. I ignored it, but I sped up a little. With my own boots to listen to and such profound silence otherwise, I could even make myself think I was just imagining the sound.

The flurries had been off and on that day. They started up again then, a light drifting of white fluff against the backdrop of trees. Wanting to enjoy it for a bit longer before I headed back, I began my humming again, letting the sense of winter wonderland make my heart lighten.

But, once again, I ran out of the lyrics I knew, and my humming died away. It could just be the falling snow, but the forest around me seemed darker than it had been. How long I’d been walking, I wasn’t really sure. I patted my coat pockets, then the ones in my jeans, looking for my phone to find the time. I located it in my seat pocket, and pulled it out. Half past three, according to the standby screen, not far off when winter would start darkening the sky for an early evening. And, likewise according to the standby screen, I had no service.

That wasn’t surprising. The holiday cottage we were staying in was in a dead zone too. But it decided it: if I couldn’t text anyone to let them know I was coming, I’d better head back now.

With a sigh, I turned around and started trudging back.

I heard the second pair of footsteps again. This time, I didn’t stop, but I did listen. Like an echo, I couldn’t tell where they were coming from, and, though I’d been sure before they were from a single pair of feet, now I thought maybe there were more.

Denying my growing unease, I went back to the tinkling Winter Wonderland tune now soundly stuck in my head. Enjoy it, I told myself. Before you’re back with Christine and Eve.

But enjoying it was getting difficult now. I was sure I was winding myself up. Sure I was just getting anxious about being out alone in an unfamiliar place. But something in my gut had my feet shifting into a quicker and quicker stride.

I found the large tree adorned with snow and icicles, took a right, and let myself feel better at the thought I was back on the home stretch. I hadn’t really been paying attention to how far I’d walked this trail, but at least it was just one path to take now.

The sound of other footsteps had either gotten far enough in the distance, or I was doing a good job drowning it out. Either way, I couldn’t hear them right then. With more confidence, I walked on through the light drifting of snowflakes.

Ten minutes, then ten minutes more, and I was sure the sunlight was starting to dim. I picked up my pace again. At the next bend, I expected to see the path come out into the clearing occupied by the Christmas market. I rounded it, and saw only more path.

So it was after the next bend, then, I told myself, and walked on.

But the next bend was the same, and the same again after that.

It can’t be that much further, I thought. I hadn’t been walking that long.

But the next bend led what I thought was the wrong way, and there was no exit into a clearing there either. Nor did I find an exit after the bend after that.

My feet halted. I’d been set on not letting the anxiety catch up with me. But I was failing at that now. I checked my phone again. Four twenty. And, even holding the phone up in that hopeful but rarely useful way, my phone didn’t find service.

It didn’t make any sense. For that long moment I stood there, my feet frozen to the ground, I couldn’t fathom it. I was absolutely certain I had not walked that far. I was likewise certain I hadn’t taken the wrong path. There’d only been a single fork in the road!

Around and around in my head, that tinkling Winter Wonderland tune went. It did nothing to comfort me now. It just felt like my growing panic had my brain hanging on to something to think that wasn’t holy shit I’m lost!

My feet moved, and soon I was trotting. Trotting, and listening, once again, to a pair of footsteps other than my own.

My trot became a run, my breathing ratcheting up into puffs that created frosted clouds before me.

Around every tree I searched for the exit back into the market, but there was nothing.

Nothing, until, coming to a panting stop, my eyes huge and the sight inconceivable, I stared at the large tree adorned with snow and icicles. That same large tree that marked the only fork I’d found in the trail.

Round and round in circles… It’d been how I’d described discussions with Eve and Christine.

That same line came back to me now. For an entirely different reason.

I’d gone in a circle. How I couldn’t fathom. How could I possibly have gone right past the exit back to the market?

But that’s what I must have done. In fairness, I reassured myself, I hadn’t taken any notice of what the start of the trail had looked like. I’d been stomping away, too furious and focused on escaping Christine and Eve to pay attention. So, I decided, it was possible I just hadn’t known what to look for to find my way out.

The sound of other footsteps beginning yet again, I pushed back into a jog. I’d pay better attention this time, I reassured myself.

I’d have to. Darkness was setting in, and that wasn’t going to help me see better.

Diligent, I scanned around every tree for the exit, my searching growing more and more frantic as I huffed along in boots not made for running. No exit – again and again: no exit.

In the lane, snow is glistening…
In the lane, snow is glistening…

My mind had fixated on just that one line, repeating it again and again like a broken record. And when that echoey sound of another pair of footsteps returned, my feet broke into a full blown run.

It sounded like the other footsteps were running with me.

Are you listening…

Remembering a different line didn’t make me feel any better.

A dash of quick movement between trees had my boots slipping on the snow, my arms flying out in an effort to arrest my fall. A heart-stopping moment where I expected the pain of landing hard on the ground, then I caught my balance again, staring wildly in the direction I’d seen movement.

Just visible a short way through the trees, a fox had paused in the shadows to stare back at me. Just a fox. It stared one second more, then turned and scurried away, its bushy tail whipping behind a tree trunk.

I could have bawled. The panic, the after-effects of an additional shot of adrenaline, and the dawning realisation I was probably going to be stuck here overnight – I held back the sobs, but the tears started trickling cold down my flushed face.

I gulped, and started up again, this time at a slower trudge, trying to recover and scared of slipping again. The last thing I needed was to go down with an injury out here, no way to call for rescue.

The echoey footsteps started up with me. They were plodding like my feet.

For all I was sweaty under my coat, cold chill after cold chill was racing up my spine and into my throat. I gulped again, and returned to my task of peering around every tree, looking for a way out.

Though dimmer than it had been, I thought I recognised the next bend. It was the one where I’d figured last time I must have missed the exit. I’d failed to find the exit for a second time, then.

Abject dismay had me wiping more tears out of my eyes, clearing them so I could search, like a last-ditch hope, through the darkness between trees. The crunch of my feet, stepping onto the edge of the path, was mirrored by an echoey one. I stared, shifting more quietly.

Something shifted with me.

I felt the colour drain out of my face. Between a cluster of evergreens was a ghostly face, its eyes and cheeks hollowed by deep shadows and its mouth an open gap of black.

I didn’t think. I spun around and bolted for the other side of the path, charging off it and through branches and piles of deep snow. My ankle turned on an unseen dip, but I raced on, driven by terror – being whipped by branches as I shoved through them and panting out voiceless screams.

In the lane, are you listening…

I couldn’t hear any footsteps over the racket I was making, and that just freaked me out more. I had no idea where the thing following me was – no idea how to outrun it.

I stumbled out onto a path and stared around, frantically searching for the thing. I saw it nowhere, not through the trees, and not anywhere along the path. That didn’t mean much, though. It could be hiding in the dark shadows.

I hadn’t had time to worry my mindless flight had made me more lost. It turned out I didn’t need to.

Just down the path was the large tree laden with snow and icicles. The one at the only fork in the track. I was right back here.

Not terror at being more lost, now I was terrified I’d never be able to escape this one path. I had a strong need not to close my eyes – not while the ghostly thing was out there – but I did put both hands to my face and rubbed it.

Around and around in circles. Trapped.

I’d thought I’d never been more trapped than with my soon-to-be in-laws. This was like some cruel joke showing me I’d tempted fate. I’d never been more trapped than this.

Unconsciously, I’d snuck, my boots as quiet as I could make them on the compacted snow, toward the large tree. I stopped in the fork. The path I’d yet to take looked as clear of the ghostly thing as everywhere else around me. And as likely as everywhere else for it to be hiding off the trail.

I had no hope this path would lead to an exit. It was not the way I’d come in. But it looked like the only offer of a way out of going around and around in circles.

There was still some light. A surprisingly orange sunset added colour to the thin screen of clouds above. The path below was shadowed despite the reflection on the snow. And the darkness on either side of the track leered at me with unseen possibilities.

I tip-toed as well as I could in my snow boots. Keeping quiet as I inched along the one path I hadn’t walked yet. It could just be wishful thinking, but I didn’t hear the echoey footsteps. I tried to think that meant I wasn’t being followed.

What were the chances I’d simply seen a person – the only person I’d so far seen out here and, potentially, the only person who could have shown me the way out? I thought that with doubt growing under my fear. Had my fear just condemned me to being stuck for the night?

But in my mind’s eye I could still see that face, and it had not looked right.  Even the memory of it sent another shiver down my spine.

My eyes had seen the deer, but it was so still and camouflaged by a shadow I didn’t notice it until an ear twitched. My feet only faltered for a second. I recognised it with a sort of surreal abstraction.

The stag was at the edge of a bend in the path. Tall and gazing back at me, its antlers reached high towards the branches of the bare tree next to it. I drew closer, and the stag backed off. Another step and it shot into action, turning and galloping away along the same path I was walking.

I’d probably used up all my adrenaline, I decided, watching it go on ahead. I’d actually found it nice to see a benign face out here with me.

My fear had settled into my bones, a tickle between my shoulder blades making me check the path was still clear behind and around me.

I turned a bend, and saw more orange light reflected by the snow. This wasn’t the sunset though. The light flickered in a way that had me expecting warmth and crackling. I sped up, eager to find whoever had lit what I was sure was a fire.

Then, in the next second, I slowed right back down again.

For a brief moment I’d heard those echoey footsteps. What if the person who’d lit the fire was the one following me?

But there wasn’t much for it. My sweat had cooled, leaving me feeling more and more chilled, and that would only get worse the longer I wasn’t running and the colder the night became. To add to that, the ankle I’d turned on my flight off the path was starting to ache.

Hesitant, but desperate, I crept carefully along, my eyes peeled.

Appearing in a small clearing was a storybook image of a campsite. Beside an evergreen tree, a fire crackled inside a circle of stones, a log beside it to sit on, an open crate next to that, and a pot hung in the flames. From the pot I could see a light steam rising into the cold air.

The entirety of my understanding of safety in the woods came from rescuing injured people and Hansel and Gretel. The fairy-tale campsite tickled the second one. It would be all too much like a creepy storybook for me to have been lured here by the ghostly thing.

Which begged the question: lured here for what?

I was fit and strong, I reminded myself. Capable. Ghosts weren’t real. I stood a none-too-bad chance of fighting off anything corporeal. At the least I could run away.

Run away along a path that led round and round in circles…

The warmth of a fire and offer of a place to sit was luring regardless. Cautiously, I crept over to it, keeping an eye out.

Inside the pot was what looked and smelled like spiced cider, a ladle and mug left invitingly on the log. What was more unnerving was what was inside the crate.

Silk bauble after silk bauble filled the crate, both in the plain variety my grandmother had had, and the decorated kind I’d seen at the stall.

I blinked, and then, a second later, thunked down onto the log, my legs abruptly sick of carrying me.

What the hell?

The creepy face. The footsteps. The exit that disappeared. And now this: a campsite prepped and seemingly ready for, unless I was much mistaken, me. An unattended fire with cider mulling away was one thing. Why in the world would anyone leave out in the middle of the woods a crate of Christmas decorations right next to a handy evergreen tree and warming fire?

Particularly: the exact type of Christmas decorations I’d been nostalgic about?

I just stared. I couldn’t make head or tail of any of it.

Off to one side of the clearing the trees were sparser. I blinked, getting my eyes back into focus, and looked again, chill slipping once more down my spine and into my legs to turn them to jelly.

A face was staring back at me between the trees, its eyes and under its cheekbones hollowed with shadows. Slowly, its mouth sunk open into a black hole.

My breath caught in my throat, but this time I didn’t bolt. I could see it better now.

The face was connected to a body in a dark puffer coat, it sitting on a log with a fire crackling behind it. Exactly as I was.

I raised my arm. So did it. Ghostly, like a murky image reflected on a pond, its arm waved back at me.

My eyes travelled higher, noticing something I hadn’t before. The orange sunset was lasting a weirdly long time, neither growing redder nor fading away. The direction I was looking was toward the light, and I saw now it was shifting and flickering. Like lantern light, but on a massive scale.

And I saw too, that the sky didn’t look quite right. It seemed lower than it should be – far closer to the top of my head. There was a sheen on it – an area where the thin cloud I thought was above seemed to disappear along a wave of refraction.

I rose and stepped around the log. The echoes of my footsteps dogged mine. Before me, the ghostly thing had risen too. It reached out a hand as I did, and both our fingers met the cool, slick surface of glass.

My own reflection was distorted by the curvature of the glass. Where the glow of light off the snow around me was less, it was shadowed into invisibility. Beyond my reflection, the view was murkier, but I could see the flickering flame of a lantern huge and high above my head.

Its light refracted off the curved glass dome that stretched all around me. The curved glass dome that had me trapped.

Something shifted, blocking out the lantern light. I was plunged into sudden darkness as I stared up into the wrinkled face of the elderly woman from the stall.

Her head was enormous, dwarfing me with panic for all her blue eyes twinkled and, beyond the distorting glass dome, her mouth crinkled into a smile. I gaped, cowering.

To me her voice was a booming sound dulled and made weird by the glass dome.

‘Things will come right. You’ll find the answer, and then you won’t be trapped any longer.’

It was a repetition of what she’d said to me after I’d confided in her my troubles with Christine and Eve. I could recognise that much through my stupefaction. Her massive eyes twinkled again, and then the ground below me was heaving and swaying like a perilous ship in a storm.

I hit the deck, landing in snow on hands and knees, hunkering further to try to keep my balance there. My body told me what I standing on was being moved, but I couldn’t see enough to know in what direction. It spun my head and made my stomach churn.

And then the ground below me clunked down. Somewhere under my feet, a metallic music box chimed just three notes before the crank ran out of energy.

In the lane, snow is glistening
Walking in a winter wonderland…

My brain supplied the lyrics. It was easier to do that than to come to terms with the idea I was truly trapped inside a snow globe.

Trying to conceive of that had my head spinning harder and my stomach giving a heave. I squeezed my eyes shut, going for that obvious answer: I must be dreaming.

Please, please let me be dreaming.

But my knees hurt from the fall. My hands were burning in the cold snow. And though I kept my eyes  squeezed shut for what felt like a long time, when I opened them it was to the sight of the same clearing bordered by a dome of glass. The ruddy fox, emerging from the brush to one side, went scampering across the clearing.

If you had to put me inside a toy, some cynical vestige of my internal monologue provided, why the hell did you have to make that toy contain lifelike frozen snow?

It shouldn’t have been a terribly useful thought. What it did, though, was admit to myself that this situation was now well and truly beyond what I was capable of dealing with. Trying to find a way out while running from a spectre: that involved action. This…

I hadn’t much but indulging my own cynicism to do about this.

Sitting up on my knees, I dusted off my hands, then tucked them into my pockets.

Beyond the glass dome, I could see the snow globe had been placed somewhere different. Above me was no longer the sight of thin clouds illuminated dimly by moonlight and the shine of orange lantern light. Instead, up that way was simply blackness, the clearing around me much darker. I was somewhere in shadow, and considering that shadow got darker off to my left, I guessed I was probably on a shelf at the back of the covered market stall.

What I could tell more clearly was that, propped on the same shelf directly before me, stood the painting of the snowy cabin in the woods. I’d thought the brushstrokes minute in the detailed painting before. Now, each were as large as my arm. It gave me another shock of realisation that I was currently tiny myself.

My eyes trailing up the painting, I found another thing to be shocked by. The brushwork changed at a ground floor window. It still appeared to be done in paint, but to my magnification: the view of the window lifelike and detailed to the microscopic. And, lit from behind by crackling firelight of their own were two women standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the window.

I blinked, and stood up. Pressing my face near the glass and using my arms to shield my view from the firelight behind me, I could see better.

The two women were moving. The rest of the painting static around them, the light behind the two moving figures flickered. On the glass before them, the women had written the words “HELP US!” in what looked like lipstick.

I had a good idea who the two women were. They’d noticed me. The older woman waved frantically at me, then pointed at their message on the glass.

‘Help you?’ I found myself muttering, both incredulous and hardly surprised. ‘How the hell am I supposed to help you?’

I stepped back and considered the glass. I didn’t have a tube of lipstick on me. I considered, then headed for the campfire. Grabbing the ladle, I dug with it by the fire for some soot, tossed a lump of snow in it, and mixed it into a paste.

Returning to the side of the snow globe, I took a moment to work out how to write it backwards. Then I dunked finger after finger into the ladle of soot paste, writing on the glass the words, “CHRISTINE? EVE?”

In the cottage window opposite, the younger woman I was sure was Eve shouldered her mother aside to wipe the glass clear with her sleeve. Producing the lipstick, she wrote back, “YES! WE ARE TRAPPED!”

‘No duh,’ I uttered. ‘Can you not see I am too?’

This, I thought with that helpful dose of cynicism, is probably the best conversation I’d so far had with Christine and Eve. It was relegated to only what we could write on glass. And I could say my irritated thoughts aloud where they couldn’t hear me.

It was rather satisfying, too, that they were trapped in a pretty cottage that served as their own cage of a small-minded and perfect-looking world. Just the way they might have thought they wanted it. I wondered briefly if they’d learn anything from this.

Probably not. I had to credit the elderly woman with something though: she’d trapped me in my version of a perfect sought-after escape too.

Using my hand like a squeegee, I cleared the glass of its dripping soot-paste letters and wiped my hand clean on a pile of snow. I wrote back “SO AM I”, because chances were they were too self-centred to have worked that out themselves.

I waited, my face near the glass dome to see out as well as possible. Eve was writing a new message:

“HOW DO WE GET OUT?”

‘Like I know that,’ I said, exasperated. ‘Come up with your own fresh ideas, would you?’

Screwing up my face, I responded to myself in a mockery of Eve’s voice: “Noooo.”

And then I stepped back, went over to the pot of cider, and dunked the mug into it for a drink. Plopping myself on the log, I blew at the steam, taking in the warming scent of alcohol, spice, and sour. Held in both hands, the mug was starting to do a lot for my frozen fingers.

You’ll find the answer, and then you won’t be trapped any longer.

It was what the elderly woman had said to me twice, and it was that line I thought of as I took a restorative sip of pure spicy heat. I mulled it over.

All cynicism and craziness aside, it really wasn’t a bad way to have a real conversation with my prospective in-laws. There were only so many snarky words they could fit on their window, and they had only so much lipstick. Plus: what the hell else were we going to do while stuck here?

And when I needed a break, I could always come back here, glug spiced booze, and hang silk baubles on a tree. My grandmother had been soundly of the opinion decorating a Christmas tree was festively meditative.

I took another sip, and pondered on. If I thought back… What I’d complained to the elderly woman about was Christine and Eve being unable to accept I saw things differently. If, as it certainly appeared she had, the elderly woman had stuck us here because of what I’d said, then perhaps “the answer” that would release us was the same as what would have done it without the snow globe and painting shenanigans: effective communication.

‘Teaching tool, is this?’ I asked of the elderly woman I couldn’t see. ‘Show us all how trapped we really are and force us to talk properly? Force us to see eye to eye – work together to get out of here?’

It didn’t make me like the elderly woman much, but I’d prefer to think of her as wise and benign, rather than someone who wanted to keep me as a show ornament in a curio.

That, and a moral lesson suited the storybook painting of a cottage and fairy-tale campsite I was sitting in.

‘All right then,’ I huffed, hauling myself back onto my tired feet and sore ankle. ‘Never fear Eve: I have a potential answer. And you’re not going to like it.’

Eve and Christine were waiting at their cottage window when I returned to the glass dome. They’d replaced their previous message with my name, an insistent three question marks after it.

My cider mug in one hand and the ladle full of soot paste propped against a tree, I wiped the glass clear, and started on a new one:

“WE’RE NOT GETTING MARRIED IN A CHURCH BECAUSE NEITHER OF US ARE RELIGIOUS”

I stepped back, glugged my cider, and nodded to myself. That was as good a start as any.


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