1. Family

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CHAPTER ONE

FAMILY


Snow laminated the horizon. The sky wept white tears, mourning over the stretches of frozen trees and hills. The entire winter scene seemed as though there was no end, as if the road would stretch on forever and ever.

Slates of ice rolled down a thin river next to a lonesome road where the silence was only broken by a single car. Frost crept up from the corners of the windows. A boy in the backseat, no older than sixteen, pressed his hand against the glass and felt the cold that seeped into his skin. He gazed longingly outside, a barely audible gasp escaped from his throat. The window fogged up slightly because of it.

Using his sleeve, he wiped away the steam to once again see the wonderland before him. There were no animals or people in sight, only the family that accompanied him in the cold of the car. He kept his back to them, pressing so hard against the rusty door that at any moment, it could have swung open. The boy was not totally against the idea.

A silence suspended the family, filled only by the sounds of the wheels crushing the snow on the road. There was no radio playing in the background with a happy Christmas song, or conversation to thwart the awkward ambience that existed within the vehicle. Only once or twice, a cough would cut through the quiet.

He receded into his puffy coat, pulled his red hat further over his forehead, then placed his arms across his chest. For the most part, the hat concealed his lengthy brown hair, the fringe brushed to the side to avoid curling too far down his face. He rubbed the little flick at the tip of his nose.

His eyes, a wood-like brown, were transfixed on the tall, slender trees that confined the car to the straight and narrow road. He tried to pay attention to their individuality, but all he could see were the same bare branches pointing towards the sky, where a sheet of snow covered any sunlight from shining down.

No matter how daunting the trees appeared, it could not compare to the chill within the car. His sister sat on the other side of the back seat. Her gaze was also focused on the silent snowfall, a subtle smile on her face as she swooped her long blonde hair over one shoulder. He could no longer see her face. His brother sat in the front passenger seat. He wore a hat similar to the boy's but of a monochrome grey, and he had very little hair to conceal.

Both siblings were older than the boy, and they looked more alike to each other than they did to him. They took after his father, who drove the car down the road, never straying his concentration from what lay ahead. The boy stared at his father for a long while, and it seemed as though his father's mind was completely void from all thought or feeling.

The blue eyes of his father, as he could see through the rear-view mirror, never paid any attention to him, despite the boy's own reflection in the same frame. There was a harsh quality to his face, with his jaunted cheekbones protruding through his translucent skin, and the jawline boasted sharp corners from his chin to the base of his ears.

But those blue eyes had watched the boy grow from the innocence of childhood to the questionable progression through his turbulent teenage years. Those windows into his mind were now unreadable and distant.

The car now followed the gaps in the trees, straying from the snow-covered road to a rocky, unstable lane. Still, there were no signs of civilisation beyond the confinements of the car; not a bird in the sky or a deer amongst the bushes.

The front wheel hit a bump, jolting everyone inside the car from their stagnated states. The boy reached inside the pocket of his coat, feeling for the trinket that provided his heart with some warmth, and held it in an unbreakable grip.

Beyond the trees ahead, smoke broke the nature-filled scenery. As the car approached it, the boy's attention became absorbed to what he could see through the snow.

It was a cabin, most of it covered in deep snow. The stone chimney proudly stood out from the top, sending its smoke high into the air until it blended in with the whiteness of the sky.

The car came to a halt near another car and the boy wasted no time in escaping to get a closer look at the cabin. Immediately, the icy crisp air awoke every taste bud on the boy's dry tongue. The cold conquered every pore on his face, reminding him that his heart was still pumping warm blood around his body.

He could smell the burning fire from within. Despite it being daylight, the sheet of snow darkened his surroundings to allow the orange light from within the cabin to spill out and guide him towards the entrance. A porch appeared and welcomed him, the small wooden steps clear from most of the sleet.

Before he could knock, the door to the cabin swung inward and a young woman stepped out. She could not have been much older than him, for her skin provided a smooth, youthful glow. She carried a bag, and before greeting them, she dived into it first and pulled out a jingling set of keys.

'You must be the Osment family,' the young woman said. A hint of relief infected her voice. 'I'm Claudia. I can't stay for too long, I'm already behind schedule as is.'

His father approached her, shifting his way past the boy to climb the porch steps first. 'Yes, sorry about that, the snow has caused a lot of traffic on the main motorway and it put us behind an hour. Never mind. I spoke with your father on the phone about this place, where is he?'

'He is rather busy, after all it is Christmas Eve,' Claudia informed them. 'I didn't have too much to do today, so I'm acting, sort of, like his apprentice.'

As she spoke, she examined the children of the man before her. Her friendly smile helped the boy to feel less inclined to retreat. She looked at him and his siblings. 'You have names?'

'Freddie,' the boy told her, his voice broke from the speech he had neglected for hours. It came out at a higher pitch than usual too, and his father glazed over it and went straight into regaining Claudia's attention. His brother and sister never bothered to reply.

'So this cabin, it's been years since we've visited for Christmas - is it still running?'

'The plumbing is fine, electricity is fine, there's also heating but the fireplace in the living room heats up the cabin in seconds. There is absolutely nothing to worry about, Mr. Osment. Except...'

'Except?'

She hesitated before continuing. 'There is a snowstorm coming. As you can see, the snow is not letting up, the roads are jammed, and this cabin is out in the middle of nowhere. You're going to have to stay indoors. It will not be safe out here, so I urge you all not to step foot outside.'

Freddie's father grabbed the keys from her.

'I don't need a child to tell me what to do,' he spat, and walked past her to the front door. 'Come on, kids, it was a long drive.'

Claudia simply raised her eyebrows and shook her head. She alighted the steps and walked past Freddie. He looked at her as she passed.

His voice returned to him, and he asked after her, 'is this cabin really nowhere near anything else?'

Claudia stopped next to her car to look at him. 'Judging by your father, I bet you really wish there were more people around, huh?'

Freddie nodded. Claudia appeared sympathetic. 'Unfortunately, there is nothing around here. I'm afraid you're really going to have to stay inside with your family. Make the most of it. Be positive.'

She unlocked her car door and opened it. 'Take care, Freddie. It was nice to meet you. Oh, and Merry Christmas!'

She closed the car door. 'Merry Christmas to you too,' he called after her, waving as her car faded into the white of the distance. He felt a piece of him travel with her, longing for that ability to escape. He remained for a long time rooted in that one spot, before turning towards the cabin.

His feet crunched a depressing melody on the snow. He took one last look at the woodland around him, then he opened the door and passed the threshold.

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