Autumn – Chapter 10 – 01

                “Mr. Thom, Mr. Thom, there’s snow out there!”
                Thom muttered something under his breath, rousing slowly.  He blinked blearily at Angie in the dim light of dawn.  “Huh?”
                “Little patches of snow,” Angie said, tugging at his hand.  “Will you come see?  It looks like footprints.”
                “All right, all right,” he muttered, gently disengaging from Marin and easing her down to the ground next to the fire.  They’d fallen asleep sitting there together after their encounter with the silver woman—that’s what Thom found himself thinking of her as—the night before.
                He kissed Marin lightly and got his feet under himself, scrubbing the sleep from his eyes.  His limbs felt heavy, sluggish as he moved, but at least his ankle and his ribs weren’t hurting as much anymore.
                “All right, kiddo.  Show me.”
                The little girl took him by the hand and led him to the far end of the tent.  The grass beyond was lightly frosted—except for in a dozen footprint-shaped spots, where there was definitely a crust of snow.
                “Fuck,” Thom breathed, momentarily forgetting the girl was there.  That’s where she was, where she walked.  Her feet seem so damn small, looking at those prints.  They were already softening slightly around the edges from the warmth lingering in the ground.
                “Someone was making those footprints last night, weren’t they?”  Angie said quietly.  “Did you see them?”
                The morning sun would erase the marks soon enough—once the sun had actually risen, anyhow.  Thom took a few unsteady breaths, looking down at Angie.
                “You can’t tell anyone else about this kiddo,” he murmured.  “This needs to stay between us—you and me.  Did anyone else see these this morning?”
                “Mr. Jay, maybe, but I don’t know.  Paul and Miss Stasia went right out to check the animals, so I don’t think they saw.  Paul said I could come out here and play with my soccer ball as long as I was quiet.”  She bit her lip for a moment.  ”I’m sorry I woke you.”
                “It’s okay.”  He pressed her against his hip and though in a one-armed hug, then exhaled.  “Come on back by the fire.  I’ll make you some toast before you come out here with your ball.”
                “Okay,” Angie said, letting him lead her back toward the fire’s glow.
                Damn.  I sure hope those footprints are gone by the time everyone else starts getting up.  Thom scrubbed one hand roughly over his face.  He, J.T., and Marin had all agreed not to talk about their shared experience with that woman if they could avoid it.
                He wasn’t quite sure who she was, but he’d felt her power from the moment the mist began to gather outside the tent.  More importantly—and frighteningly—he’d been able to see and hear her clearly, something he hadn’t experienced in months.  It meant something.  He just wasn’t sure what.
                “Why’d you wake me up, anyway?”  Thom asked as he started working on a couple of slices of toast for the girl.  Why me instead of Marin?  We were both right here?  Or Jay if she saw him this morning—she could have asked him.  Why me?
                Angie shrugged, playing with a half-empty jar of peanut butter.  “I don’t know.  I guess I just thought that you wouldn’t get angry or lie to me about where they came from.”  She gave him a tremulous smile.  “You’re a nice man, Mr. Thom, and the bad things are right to be scared of you and Phelan and Miss Marin and Mr. Jay and Miss Kellin.  They are.  You’ll protect us from the bad things, won’t you?  People like my brother can’t always see so they don’t know how bad some of the things are.”
                Damn, kiddo, I don’t even see it half the time.  Thom tried not to shiver as he put two pieces of toast on a plate for her.
                “I’ll do my best, kiddo.”
                She smiled, standing up.  She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him before she bounced off into the early morning sunshine.  Thom rubbed his ribs and watched her go.  I should either find that kid’s faith comforting or terrifying.  Maybe both.
                “That was touching,” Phelan rasped to his left, eyes half-lidded and gleaming with fever.  “Is it a promise you can keep?”
                “I hope so,” Thom murmured, feeling a brief tremor shoot through his limbs.  “How long were you awake?”
                “Just a few minutes.”  Phelan coughed.  “Water?”
                Thom reached for a jug sitting a little ways away from the fire.  “Glad you’re awake.  J.T. and Jac were afraid it’d be like the time she stabbed you the first time.”
                “You mean I haven’t been unconscious for three days?”  Phelan groaned, lifting his bandaged hand to cover his eyes, pausing in mid-motion to study the wrappings as if he couldn’t remember why they might be there.  “Did I win?”
                Thom froze.  “You don’t know?”
                Phelan’s eyes drifted shut again.  “No,” he mumbled.  “The last thing I remember was going over the edge of the ravine with her.”
                Damn. What does that mean?  Thom finished filling a sports bottle and handed it over to Phelan, who seemed perfectly capable of drinking on his own.  “So you don’t remember anything?”
                “Just going over.  And something about not being able to breathe, or move, and it smelled.”
                “Matt and Jay fished you out of the river.”
                Phelan snorted, then groaned.  “Oh man.  Well, that explains it.”
                “What, the smell?”
                “And not being able to breathe,” he rasped. “Throat feels like I swallowed an electric sander.”
                Thom sat back down next to the fire, idly running his fingers through Marin’s hair.  “Has this ever happened before?”
                “Has what ever happened before?”  Phelan asked between gulps of water.
                “Not being able to remember after a fight?”
                Phelan paused, staring at the tent’s ceiling for a moment.  “Once,” he said quietly.  “But only once.”

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