All at once, Ute remembered that she could scream. She sucked in a breath that tasted like rotting leaves and screamed her confusion and fear at the top of her lungs.

The strange girl's head tilted to the side, like a jay looked at a worm right before it pecked. "There's nothing to be afraid of."

"Get out!"

The strange girl grinned, her teeth red in the dim light from the banked coals. "But it's my home, now."

Ute screamed again. She screamed and screamed, hoping she would scream herself awake in the pallet between Da and Papa, so that someone would comfort her back to sleep.

Instead, the door opened again, so violently that it knocked Ute into the trestles stacked against the wall. Suddenly the little cottage was full. Da and Papa took up all the space, shouting alarmed questions. Ute threw herself at Papa, and he picked her up like she was a baby, but with a grunt that said she was really too big to pick up anymore. She squeezed her eyes closed and pressed her face against the side of Papa's neck, and he gave her back soothing pats as she sobbed out remnants of the bad dream.

Because surely it had been a bad dream. Da and Papa wouldn't be so calm if there was a stranger in the cottage.

But when Ute cracked her eyes open, the strange girl was still there. Ute whimpered, and Papa patted her back. "What's wrong, string bean?"

"Her," Ute barely managed to choke out, her eyes fixed on the strange girl standing by the hearth in a night dress, her hands lax and loose. There was something subtly wrong about her fingers, like someone who had never seen actual hands had drawn them the dirt from a description.

Da and Papa shared a confused look. "Your sister?"

Ute didn't have a sister. The question was so wrong that she thought she was maybe still dreaming.

Ute started to say something but stopped, heart full of dread. She pressed her face against Papa's shoulder so that she didn't have to look at the strange girl. If she just went back to sleep, she would wake up and everything would be normal.

"She had a bad dream," an unfamiliar voice said.

"Ah," Papa said, still patting Ute's back.

Da muttered, "Probably one of those blasted puppet shows."

"They can be pretty frightening," Papa said. "We should have put the girls to bed before dark."
"Should have," Da said. His voice went wry. "We'll miss the bonfire as the price for our foolishness."

"It won't hurt us to miss one bonfire," Papa said, but he sounded a sad.

"Mmm." Da didn't agree. "Even though that's your favorite part."

"Not quite my favorite." There was a smile in Papa's voice. Ute wanted to start screaming again. How could he be smiling at a time like this?

Ute kept her eyes tightly closed even after Papa tucked her back into the pallet. She kept them closed through Papa's song and Da's kiss on her forehead. If she just kept her eyes closed, everything would be normal. But it took her forever to fall back asleep.

 


The next time Ute woke, it was to the sound of the spoon stirring the kettle. She was warmly wrapped in blankets. The air was rich with the homey morning smells of the poked-up fire and cooking porridge. She skimmed just along the surface of sleep, not quite wanting to be awake yet.

Someone said, "Can we have jam?"

Ute's eyes shot open. The strange girl sat on the hearth by Da's knees, watching him sprinkle grain into the steaming kettle. Ute closed her eyes hard, but when she opened them again, the strange girl was still there.

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