In The Woods There Was A Cottage
In the woods there was a cottage.
No one had been there for a very long time. The cottage was overgrown with vines, and rotted furniture dotted the creaking porch. The porch’s wood was soft from years of neglect, but it held Ana’s weight.
Ana shivered despite the hot noon sun. She wasn’t meant to be here out this far into the woods. No one was.
That meant she was alone here.
Ana was glad of this as she pushed herself through the hole she’d managed to make in the decayed door. No one was going to check for her here. She could rest here for the night and then move on in the morning. By next week she could be past the border. By next month, who knew where she’d be? Not here, that’s for sure.
No Tony, no Jade. No well.
She shuddered. She could feel the cold water on her skin. The slick rocks under her fingers.
No, the well was behind her. She was safe here.
She made her way further into the cottage.
It was nicer inside than she had expected. The outside was shambles. But inside, the furniture seemed intact. It didn’t smell of rot. There wasn’t even that much dust.
She found a bedroom door at the end of the hallway. It had faded pink paper flowers taped to it.
“Lissi’s!” a little sign declared.
The door swung open under her touch before she even twisted the handle.
Inside was a pleasant, dry, young girl’s room. In the center of it was a canopy bed. With its plush blankets and a gauzy, see-through curtain over-top, it was like a dream to Ana.
She stepped into the room.
She went to the bed.
Ana dropped her bag and just lay there. She let the stress of her day flow out of her.
The cottage was warm, and it was dry. It didn’t feel abandoned.
She let sleep take her.
Ana dreamt of cold water.
When Ana got up, the moon was out. The brightness surprised her, because she could see the room without effort in its light.
She sat up in bed like a shot. Her whole body was shivering. She needed to move. Needed to pace. Needed to get the cold out of her bones after that dream. She realized she could make use of the light, she could explore the cottage. Maybe she’d find some money she could use, abandoned when the cottage had been. Not that money was that useful. Maybe something else. Something she could trade. Something helpful.
You had to have something to help you, in this world.
Ana hadn’t had anything to help her in a long time. That wasn’t unusual. When the second sickness came, a lot of people had fallen through the cracks.
Tony and Jade hadn’t. But they were happy to push people through.
Ana smelled… bacon?
She followed the scent right into a kitchen. It had a warm yellow light in it and a plump white-haired woman working the stove.
“Hello, sweet one,” said the old woman. “I was wondering when you’d wake up.”
Ana hadn’t wanted to leave the settlement. It was security. She had no people, but that didn’t mean she was left out in the street. People still tried to take care of each other. It didn’t always work.
She tried to pull her weight.
She had a ratty backpack. She’d go out into the woods for mushrooms. She was good at identifying mushrooms. She’d fill her bag up and bring it back to share and get rewarded with full meals and a bed.
Tony and Jade were waiting for her out in the woods one day.
They were like her, eight years old. And they were cruel. She’d heard an adult say that sometimes the sickness got you in other ways.
“See,” said Jade, “she’s got my bag.” The only bag between them was Ana’s backpack.
“Shouldn’t steal, Ana,” said Tony.
“I didn’t steal anything!” Ana yelled. “She’s lying! She always lies!”
“Are you calling us liars?” said Tony, getting up in Ana’s space. He grabbed her hair tight and yanked so hard she saw stars. But when he tried to grab her bag, she wrested it out of his grip and ran backwards until her legs touched old stonework.
“Thief!” said Jade. “Little thief! I’ll tell my mom and you’ll be sent out to the wolves!”
“Shut up!” shouted Ana.
“Don’t yell at us!” snapped Tony, and he shoved her hard.
A moment of floating. Ana remembered the moment she seemed to float.
Then her head smashed against the wall of the old well and she tumbled into the cold water.
Jade and Tony smiled down at her from the circle of sky, the only thing Ana could see when she looked up.
Ana knew she had to leave.
The water was so cold.
“Who are you?” asked Ana. She wasn’t afraid. Given her day, an elderly woman making food in what should have been an abandoned kitchen was positively cozy. The elderly woman was definitely not supposed to be there. But she was smiling at Ana. Ana climbed into one of the kitchen chairs, holding tight to her bag.
“I’m Lily Sutton,” said the old woman. “You can call me Granny Sutton if you want. Most people do. I bet you’re hungry.”
The bacon and eggs sizzled on the stove. Ana couldn’t remember the last time she’d had meat.
“I didn’t know you were here,” said Ana. Her stomach growled. “I’m sorry about your door.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine, you were distressed,” said Granny Sutton. “I’m not upset. Here, let’s get you fed.”
She loaded up a plate with food and brought it over to Ana. Ana took a piece. Tears stung her eyes. Good food. Someone being kind to her. She only made it two bites before bursting into a pitiful wail.
“Oh! Oh sweet one, no, no, don’t cry,” said Granny Sutton, gathering Ana into her arms. Ana held tight, her body wracked with sobbing.
Granny held her, murmuring comfort. Ana gripped the back of Granny Sutton’s dress, letting out her whole miserable day. Her whole miserable remembered years.
“I’ve got you, sweet one,” said Granny softly.
Eventually the pain in Ana subsided and she sat back, wiping her eyes. Ravenous now, she fell upon her plate, polishing off the food, down to the last crumbs. Granny ate her own food much more slowly, distracting Ana with little tales.
“I suppose I need to stop talking your head off about Lissi,” said Granny, after a long story. “She’s my granddaughter, you know. She’d be happy her bed helped you out. Such a sweet girl.”
“Where is she?” asked Ana.
She looked expectantly at Granny and polished off her last bit of bacon. The food had been wonderful. She hadn’t drunk anything throughout the meal; the only beverage on offer was water and she wanted nothing to do with it.
“She’s nearby,” said Granny. “Will you look at that! The sun’s rising! You were asleep a long time, little girl. I wasn’t sure I’d have your meal ready when you woke up.”
Ana went to the window and wiped away the dust on the glass to look outside. There was movement in the bushes leading to the house.
Two teenagers walked out into Granny’s yard. They looked familiar.
“You know who they are, sweet one,” said Granny Sutton behind Ana.
And Ana did.
She knew that red vein on the girl’s cheek. She knew the twisted smirk on the boy.
“I was asleep a very long time,” she said.
“You had a hard day,” said Granny. “You should go say hello.”
And Ana went outside to say hello to Tony and Jade.
“Look at this place!” said Tony as he and Jade invaded Granny’s garden. “There’s gotta be tons of scrap we can sell in it.”
“Whatever,” said Jade, picking a bug out of her hair. “This place gives me the creeps. You know we’re not supposed to go past the red line.”
“Oh yeah, because we’re totally going to get caught in first-sickness gunk, Jade. It just floats around, waiting to get ridiculously attractive people.”
Jade laughed, pushing his shoulder.
“Dumbass. Fine, let’s go in. But I bet the house is filled with bodies,” she said.
“Naw, looks like they’re all out here,” said Tony, kicking over a wooden grave marker. “We should grab this wood too. Could build something with it.”
“That’s my honey, always thinking,” said Jade. Then the smile slipped from her face.
Ana waved at them, kitty corner to them in the garden by a decayed fence.
It was Tony who screamed first. It was Jade who ran first.
It wasn’t like how running used to be.
Her legs didn’t move. But she came closer and closer to them. Jade and Tony looked back and there Ana was. Closer.
They didn’t like it when she started laughing. But it was funny! They’d never been afraid of her before and they ran like geese. They ran back past the red line. Back towards the settlement. Where they thought they’d be safe.
Ana appeared in front of them. They switched directions.
The chase stopped at the edge of the white cliff when the ground crumbled. Ana remembered they’d always been told not to go there: the edge wasn’t safe.
Ana went back to Granny.
Granny was sitting on the front porch of her cottage when Ana returned. The ruined rocking chair wasn’t ruined anymore. The whole cottage had taken on a new life in Ana’s eyes.
“Do you feel better?” she said.
“I do,” said Ana. She placed the knocked-over grave marker back in place.
You were loved
“I buried them all,” said Granny. “I was the only one who didn’t get sick. Lissi was the last. My poor sweet one. And then I waited in the house and help never came.”
Ana nodded and sat down beside her. “So you were alone.”
Granny nodded. She stroked Ana’s hair, looking off into the distance.
“You can move on now, I expect,” said Granny Sutton. “Seems you were just waiting for your chance. I don’t know if I’ll ever find mine.”
“I could. But aren’t you lonely?”
“I am,” said Granny.
“I’d like to stay then,” said Ana.
Granny smiled, and pulled Ana into her lap to hug.
“Thank you, my sweet one.”