The Poppy Snow Thanks Special:

The Holiday Spirit Knows No Mercy

Part 1

      Erma swallowed anxiously. Rachel had dragged them deep through the woods near their home to catch Summer beetles, and they had taken pause at the mouth of an ominous cave they hadn’t noticed before. Tremors from a nearby mageyser had shot a crack deep down the cliff face, revealing an opening that had been sealed by landslides some months ago. Erma saw Rachel’s ears twitch as the quiet darkness confronted them, and she knew it was going to be impossible to keep her out. She admired her sister’s sense of excitement for the unknown, as she’d never known it for herself. Rachel took a step off the path, but found resistance as Erma tugged at her sleeve.

      “W-w-wait, we shouldn’t…” She stuttered quietly. “Mom’ll get mad, and it- it looks dangerous.”

      “Don’t be such a wuss,” Rachel scoffed. “Even Shirley’s braver than you, and you’ve got ten years on her.” Erma took a reactionary glance at the tagalong kitten, who puffed her chest out and smirked in an attempt to appeal. In that instant of misdirection, Rachel darted past her, before Erma could grab her sleeve again. “Uh oh, better hurry up, I’m gonna go into this scary ca-a-ave!” She laughed, slipping into the darkness, and then went silent. Erma waited for a further taunt at her expense, a prodding remark, any sort of noise at all, but her sister was being uncharacteristically quiet, as if she had simply vanished into the void. She gripped Shirley’s wrist hard enough to elicit loud yowling complaints, and in short, cautioned bursts, skittered closer to the mouth of the cave.

      “R-Rachel?” she squeaked, her voice caught in the back of her throat, ripping at it with barbs of panic. Erma was mere feet away from the cast shadow that marked the boundary between the world she knew and the unblinking gaze that was her own fear. She saw hundreds of illusionary faces swirling within the darkness, tiny shifts of imagined light that left her heart ablaze and her feet frozen cold. It was Shirley who impatiently pulled her the last few steps until they finally joined the darkness themselves, and as her eyes slowly adjusted to the light, she found…

      Nothing. No faces, no void, just a damp, ordinary cave with small patches of moss growing on the ceiling. Just as Erma was starting to catch her breath, she felt a sudden jab in the back followed by a loud shriek, sending her heart through her lungs and up her throat. She turned to see Rachel leaning against a lip in the cave wall, cackling at her own cruel joke.

      “Ahh ha ha haah! You scaredy-puss!” Rachel teased. Her delight quickly turned to guilt however, as she took a closer look at her sister, frantically brushing tears from her cheeks, a small dark spot growing on the front of her dress. “Hell, Erma, I just wanted to spook you a bit, I didn’t think you’d pee yourself.” Her non-apology was non-interrupted by Erma’s withered frame shoving her against the wall.

      “Why are you like this!? I hate you!” It was the final straw for the meeker cat, who ineffectually beat at Rachel’s shoulders with shaking paws.

      “Hey, cut it out! You’re gonna get me smelling like piss too!”

      “You deserve it!” she sobbed. “You’re a horrible little piss goblin! You could have fallen down a hole, or slipped onto the rocks, or- oruh-” She choked on her words, hot tears streaming over her lips.

      “Okay, I get it. I’m sorry, I shouldn’a worried you like that.” Rachel put her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “Look, how about we go home, get you a clean dress, and we’ll just let Mom know about this place, okay?” Erma nodded slowly, and they took each other’s hand. “Alright. Let’s get go-” but then, Rachel stopped, her eyes going wide. “Where’s Shirley?”

      They both looked further down the cave in unison, panic gripping their cores. There was no time for personal concern or fear, they held hands tighter and made a dash inwards, narrowly avoiding slipping every few frantic steps. After a minute of madly groping the walls, they made their way to an open atrium, a large hole in the ceiling illuminating the space, casting their attention to the small figure at the center of it.

      They saw their precious little sister, unharmed and unfazed, and a deep relief filled their entire beings.

      Then, as they got closer, they saw the fresh, frozen corpse curled behind the rock she was standing on. And they screamed.

      Petunia Quibble screamed as well, when a large hand gripped her shoulder.

***

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      “Poppy!! You-! Scared the living daylights out of me!” Petunia held the book to her chest, her hands shivering dramatically. She was never a woman known for reserved displays of emotion.

      “Whoa there, boss,” Poppy backed off, chuckling. “I just wanted to let you know I took the laundry in.” Petunia glanced toward the windows. There were soft patters of drizzling rain starting up on the panes.

      “Ah- Yes, of course, thank you.”

      “That must be a real engrossing read if you couldn’t hear me clomping around for once.” Poppy gestured to the glossy cover in Petunia’s deathgrip, now somewhat wrinkled.

      “Oh, uh, I suppose so, yes. It’s a horror anthology that came in this morning,” Petunia said, trying to settle back into a graceful posture. Poppy took a seat beside her, her weight causing the cushion beneath her to sag heavily. She still insisted on acting as the house maid, despite her upcoming promotion to ambassador, which Petunia suspected was so she could have an excuse to keep wearing the uniform. She would probably even continue to have new excuses after moving to the Queen’s castle, since… they’re now…

      Petunia pursed her lips, refusing to humor that train of thought any further.

      “I never took you as one for horror, Tuna,” Poppy interrupted, to her relief.

      “I’m not, usually. But this month they had a publication from one of my favorite authors, Wallflower P. It’s a story about some young girls who find a frozen corpse in the middle of Summer.”

      “Huh. That sounds… kind of familiar.” Poppy’s eyebrows scrunched, deep in thought. “Hey, who’d you say wrote this story?”

      “Wallflower P.! She has such a romantic way of describing horror that really speaks to me.” Petunia swooned, as if talking about stories involving seductive man-eaters, rather than… literal man-eaters. “I own all of her books in both Onglish and the original Trench, you know,” she said, becoming somewhat self-satisfied as she pushed a 1st-edition of a book titled ‘The Hollow Back’ into Poppy’s hands. The opossum immediately flipped past the text, and studied the author’s bio printed on the dust jacket. “Now, admittedly she’s a little obscure, so I don’t think you would have heard of h-“

      “Oh, actually, she’s my sister.”

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      “Okay, you’re actively messing with me now.”

      “No, really, she’s one of my sisters. Her real name’s Cheiri Possum. I told you I was adopted by a Trench family of cats, didn’t I?”

      “Yeah, but- I mean- Just- What are the chances!?” Petunia sputtered. Poppy suddenly dropped into her life but seemed to know just about everyone in some way, and she was beginning to feel like she was just some side character in someone else’s story.

      “Look, maybe I can introduce you two someday. Anyway, I’m gonna go get dinner started, sorry for interrupting your little horror sesh.” And with that, Poppy clomped back out, her large tail curling gracefully past the door frame. Petunia tried not to get giddy about the idea of meeting one of her idols until she knew she was alone again, and even then, allowed herself only a few scant seconds of excited vibrating in her seat before she allowed herself to get caught up in the words on the page in front of her.

***

      Rachel and Erma sat in bed, sharing a cool towel as their mother laid out fresh clothes for the both of them. They were shivering intensely despite the summer heat, and other adults from the town filled out their den like a hoarder’s desk, questions flying left and right. The atmosphere was heavy with unease as the search party that went to check the cave returned with their findings. The two girls peeked from their window at a stunted figure laying in their front yard, draped and wrapped in a thick sheet and ties, its ghoulish shape all too recognizable to them. They had only looked upon him for a second before they grabbed their sister and fled, but the image was burnt into Erma’s mind permanently, like a brand on wood.

      “Oh, for Felis’ Fur,” their mother started, looking through the glass, “Why did those idiots bring that ghastly thing here?” She stormed down the stairs and audibly parted the chaos in the den, reemerging in the front yard, gesticulating wildly in the way only an irritated parent can. She waved the men off in the direction of the clinic, pointing back at the bedroom window, presumably in reference to her traumatized daughters. Shirley, for her part, was taking everything rather well, as she sat at her miniature tea table, enjoying a popsicle.

***

      Petunia paused for a second. It occurred to her that she could no longer visualize Shirley as anything other than what she assumed Poppy to have been like in her youth. Maybe that was just a coincidence, but she couldn’t shake the feeling this story may have had some personal inspiration. She read further ahead, as the narrator described the ensuing town meeting.

***

      The coroner stepped forth.

      “It’s been over eight hours since young Folgere’s body was recovered, and it still hasn’t shown any signs of defrosting, even after we applied the sun lamps. Furthermore, while it was found within a cave, it was left directly exposed to sunlight during that time.” She laced her fingers. “I think it’s safe to confirm that shortly after going missing early last winter, Folgere was…” she shivered as she spoke. “Caught by the Specter of Winter.” There were murmurs from the crowd as she confirmed their suspicions. From the doorway, Erma put her hand to her mouth as she considered the full implications of her words.

      She knew the stories of the Specters of Winter, of course, every child is warned never to leave the safety of their home when the annual blizzards begin. In the Winter times, the Specters roamed the land, gigantic shadows that chased disoriented travelers and stole their warmth with a single touch. But she wasn’t a child anymore. She no longer believed in Faeries or the Mother of Mercy, and she had long since assumed that the Specters were just how parents explained the dangers of the cold winds to their impressionable children. But here they were, talking about them as a real, tangible danger. And what’s more, a body frozen solid for months, permanently devoid of heat? She couldn’t ignore it, or attempt to rationalize it away, she had seen it for herself.

***

      The following pages flew by as Petunia devoured the story. Erma’s Summer passed into Fall, which quickly passed into the inklings of Winter, and the dread mounted. Shirley had gone missing again, quietly beckoned into the woods mere hours before the blizzard was set to hit. Petunia bit at her claws as Erma and Rachel searched desperately, every word stringing her along, wondering whether this story’s ending would be happy or tragic. Finally, she turned to the last page.

***

      Erma scooped armfuls of snow from the small mound before her. Her heart sank as she saw Shirley’s tiny form curled up, unmoving. She immediately pulled her under her sweaters, and her terror melted away as she felt the softest signs of cold breath and shivering against her tummy.

      But then she heard it. The loud crack that signified the change in the skies above. The winds picked up, almost mechanical in their rhythm, and the air around her started to become whiter with each passing second. She took one last clear look at home’s lights and oriented her internal compass on it. And she ran. Her legs ached, and her throat burned, but she knew she couldn’t afford to stop for even an instant. She knew if she so much as turned around, they would end up found only after the snow melted, looking just like that twisted, terrified corpse they had seen that Summer. She felt a rasping breath in her ears, and cold shadowy hands closing around her neck, and it was not her imagination. Nothing she could imagine felt like this.

      And then, just like that, the gates closed behind her and she was surrounded by a bright light. Her family threw their arms around her, tears in their eyes, and the other townsfolk soon followed. Erma sank to her knees, and was quickly picked up and brought in for rounds of warm baths and cocoa. They would be thankful for that Winter, at least.

      Some days later, Erma noticed Shirley leaning up against the wall, listening intently, her eyebrows scrunched, deep in thought.

      “And what’s all this?” she asked.

      “Shhh!” Shirley stuck her finger to her lips. “Mama told me all about the Speckles of Winter, so I’m listenin’ out for them.”

      “Well,” Erma laughed gently. “I don’t think you’re going to hear anyon-” She paused as her ear brushed against the wall.

      Somewhere, half a kilometer away, a soft noise cut right up to her ear through the wind and wood.

      It was breathing. Waiting.

***

     Petunia shut the book, her eyes wide and her mouth taut.

     She listened to the patters of rain slowly turn into pings of hail and she slowly let herself drift into a catnap.

     The first day of Winter was tomorrow.

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End of Part 1

Part 2