I had worn a tank top in defiance of my sentence to exile. Everyone had heard the stories of the Winter Cabin. Judge Taylor liked to send some of the worst cases there. As long as they hadn’t straight up murdered someone. Apparently he drew the line there. I had briefly considered whether it was worth going to real jail for the rest of my life for murder to escape the Winter Cabin.
All I knew was that the people who went in came out different. Without the spirit and fire they had gone in with. Well. They weren’t going to break me.
The tank top had been a bad idea though.
At one point, the road had just...stopped. I’d had to clamber out of the car and stand almost knee deep in snow in my torn-up jeans and tank-top. The air was so cold up here that it seared the bare skin of my arms. I could feel the snow melting into my shoes and soaking into my jeans.
“What now?” I snapped at the guards who stepped out of the car. “Is there actually no Winter Cabin? You just leave me out here in the cold to freeze to death or ‘change my ways’?”
They just eyed me with impassive faces, while I shivered violently, clutching my arms. The car did a U-turn and the three of us watched it drive down the road until it disappeared around a bend.
Usually this is where I would make some sarcastic comment, but honestly, my teeth were chattering too much. How long did it take to legit freeze to death?
That was when the dog sled pulled up. No joke.
“Don’t touch the dogs,” one of the guards said. “If you want to keep all your fingers.”
I eyed the dogs. They were huge, furry beasts, with ice blue eyes. “Are you sure those are dogs?” I said. They looked more like wolves than dogs to mean.
“Huskies. Most aren’t mean, but they’re no Chihuahua.”
An older woman, wrapped up in several layers of what looked like furs, stepped off the back of the sled. She rubbed the fur of several of the dogs, scratching behind the ears of the largest one, on her way to greet us.
“Oh, there’s three of you. Well. The young lady looks like she might need some body heat I suppose it won’t matter that you’ll be very snug.”
I did not want to be pulled along on a sled by some wolf-dogs, especially squeezed between my two guards. But I was also freezing. My arms were bright red with cold. I tried to put as much distance between myself and the jumping, yapping dogs. I flinched every time they barked at me. But then I had to worry about being sandwiched between my two guards. We had hardly fit ourselves into the sled when we were lurching forward and skidding across the snow. The snow hissed as we flew across it, sending up showers of sparkles like water sprayed by car tires.
I confess. I closed my eyes. The wind stung my face and the air was so cold it was like an icy blade pressed against my skin.
When I opened my eyes, we were at the Winter Cabin. As I scrambled away from the sled as quickly as possible, I only caught a quick glimpse of the outside. I didn’t really take it in. There was a lot of wood, some windows. But I was bolting for the door. A, I didn’t really want to be eaten by wolf-dogs, and B. I really didn’t want to freeze to death or have my arms fall off because of frostbite or something.
There was a living room, one wall bright with windows letting in the sun reflecting off the blinding snow outside. But most notably, there was a giant fireplace against one wall, crackling wildly. Like a moth drawn to an electric bulb, I got as close as I could, letting the heat wash over me. The flames were mesmerizing, bright orange and red and gold and blue, leaping from log to log.
I jumped at the sound of my name. The woman was back. Her face was lined with wrinkles, but she only had a little silver in her long, curly dark hair.
I cursed at her in reply. She only raised one eyebrow.
“Violent destruction of private and public property. Oh, and arson.” She glanced at the fireplace and then back at me.
I hugged my arms against myself, rocking back on my heels. “Wood burns pretty well,” I said, looking around the room.
“That it does…” The woman looked up at the ceiling. “Do you know how long it takes for hypothermia to set in?”
“How long it would take to freeze to death?” She eyed me now. “I expect it’s less time when one is not properly dressed for the weather.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it lady. I won’t burn down your house.”
She smiled. “Good. That settles my mind then.”
I squinted at her a little. “Are adults allowed to be sarcastic?”
She shrugged. “Who’s gonna stop me?”
The guards appeared from some hallway. “Your backpack is in the room,” one said.
“We’re going to need you to turn over your phone and computer though.”
Just hearing these guys talk left a sour taste in my mouth. “I don’t have a computer, numbnut.” I said. “And no way I’m giving you my phone.”
The closer one held out his hand.
I cursed at him.
The lady shook her head, but I couldn’t tell if it was at my language or at the guard. “She can keep her phone. It won’t be of much use to her here.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There’s no service up here. No wifi or internet. No power.”
“What.” I turned to the guards then. “You can’t leave me here. This is...this is crazy. You can’t live without power. What if she tries to kill me. This lady is clearly insane.”
They all just laughed at me. The lady chuckled a bit. “Don’t worry, dear, I’m not insane. And I’m not going to try to kill you. Unless you are so fragile your muscles can’t handle a bit of hard work.”
“Bye kid. Try not to burn down your only shelter.”
The guards walked out the front door, and I tried to run after them. As soon as I opened the door, however, the air was so cold that I slammed it shut again.
“There’s some warmer clothes in your room, Lexi,” the woman said. “I’d suggest getting changed.”
I crossed my arms. “I’d rather just freeze to death now,” I said. “I don’t know what kind of torture house you’ve got here, or what you’ve done to all the other kids, but you won’t break me.”
“Torture house?” the lady laughed. “Darling, I don’t know what kinds of stories you’ve been hearing, but they certainly aren’t from anyone who has been here. There’s other kids here. They’re all out doing chores. Franklin’s out chopping firewood. Allison is taking care of the dogs. Sasha’s down in the greenhouse. Nobody’s gonna hurt you. Nobody’s gonna even lay a hand on you.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “How is this a sentence? Isn’t this basically just jail?”
“Well, it’s true you won’t be getting far if you try to run away, but this isn’t prison,” the woman sighed. When she did that she looked old again. “Life’s about to be very different from your normal. And that’s the point.”
I stood there in sullen silence. The woman stood in the living room, fire crackling on her right, and the brilliant white mountainside blinding behind her.
“You can call me Anna,” the woman said at last. “And I really wish you would change into something warmer. When you’re ready, you can find me in the kitchen.”
“I’ll never be ready,” I spat.
She left me alone in the living room. I didn’t know what game she was playing, but I wasn’t going to play by her rules. Forget going to my room. Forget changing into her prison uniform. I was going stay right here.
I wandered over to the window and stared out. Everything was blanketed by white. The sunlight glared off the surface of the snow, and the sky was ice-blue. Pine trees hung heavy with snow. The mountain peaks surrounding us were like knives with frosted tips. I swallowed. There really was no way off. No way to contact anyone.
I turned back to the fireplace. At least I had one friend here. There was a carpeted space here between the window and the fireplace and I sat myself down there, close enough to the fire to be warmed by its heat, and close enough to the window to still see the landscape out of it from my seated position. I was just going to sit here and not budge until my time was up or I was physically removed or I died right here.
I usually didn’t like being alone or in silence. My thoughts liked to grow larger and noisier when I gave them space and quiet. It’s why I liked fire. When I watched fire, I could let its sound and its fierce playfulness fill up my mind instead.
I sat and watched the fire. Time passed. The flames grew smaller. The sky began to grow pink. Others entered the house. I hardly spared them a glance. Just enough to get an idea of who was there. One girl, her hair twisted up in braids, tried to introduce herself. I looked away, staring at the fire studiously. She left.
The lady--Anna--she came back. I accidentally met her eyes when I looked up to see who had come into the room. She just pressed her lips and nodded to herself.
The other girl came back. She dropped a soft, warm brown blanket around my shoulders.
Anna returned some time later. The fire had turned to embers, a low burn that was somehow even more mesmerizing. Anna added sticks and then logs to the fire and I watched it build again.
The sky grew dark, and a wind had begun to blow, battering about the house. I listened to its howling as well as the popping of the fire. Clouds, like thick grey gauze, gathered at the edges of the sky.
“Snow might be coming,” someone said. They were standing at the window, hands on their hips, looking at the sky. It was a boy, maybe 19, his long hair hanging in his eyes. I bit back a sarcastic comment. Somewhere along the way I had decided I wasn’t going to talk to anyone of them. Part of the rebellion.
“See how the clouds are that pinkish color even though it’s dark? Snow for sure.”
Anna brought me a bowl of steaming soup, and a plate of what looked like freshly baked bread slathered with butter. She set it on the floor next to me. The girl who had brought me the blanket brought me a glass of water.
I almost refused the meal. But I found that there was more hunger in my stomach than anger. The soup was creamy and warmed me from the inside. And honestly I didn’t know that bread could taste so good. It was nothing like the cheap stuff I had always eaten, that turned chewy when you left it out too long or became pasty if you added butter or anything to it.
Somehow, I fell asleep, right there on the floor. Fire still crackling beside me and the wind howling outside. I was swaddled in the blanket, the heat of the flames washing over me like waves.
When I woke, it was snowing. The light was gray, but the fire still roared on. Surely it should have died down by now. As I sat up, blanket sliding down by shoulders, I saw why. Anna sat slumped in one of the living room chairs, face pillowed in her own arm, fire poker still grasped in her limp hand.
Had she been keeping the fire going all night? Just for me?
As I watched, she stirred, starting awake. She met my eyes, saw me watching her.
She sighed. “I wish you would change into something warm,” she said.
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Where’s my room again?”
“Up the stairs, the second door on the left.”
I nodded. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen in ten minutes? I’m ready for...whatever I’m here for.”