Laura stuck her hands deeper into the pockets of her fleece in the hope that this would keep the cold out a little longer. It was freezing and dark. She’d stayed late at school to study in the library and finish her biology presentation for next week. She had a tendency to use organisation and routines to stop degrading into a crazy person. Now she had the presentation finished she could relax, or, at least, what passed for “relaxed” in her world. There was always the Spanish exam to study for. It was only two weeks away! Where had the time gone?
Laura wanted to get home and out of the cold as quickly as possible. The road around the hill to her parents’ house was long and winded around the landscape like a snake: cutting across the fields and through the forest would save fifteen precious minutes. She changed direction and reached the fence that separated the paved road from the dirt forest track. She hopped over the fence and splashed into a small puddle on the other side. She thought about the forest as she walked. She used to hate coming here when she was a kid. It was spooky. In winter the bare trees cast threatening shadows in the moonlight, the branches looking like grasping arms. In summer the leaves on the trees were so thick and intertwined that all the sunlight was blocked out, leaving the forest unnaturally cold.
Laura shivered. Her breath misted in the air in front of her mouth. She wondered whether she should turn back but she decided to press on. She was already nearly half way there and besides she wasn’t eight anymore, she was fifteen. She was almost an adult. She had nothing to fear she said to herself. She plodded on, as the muddier patches of the dirt track sucked at her boots. As she reached the forest an owl hooted loudly, Laura’s heart jumped inside her chest. She recovered from the shock and composed herself. It was only an owl, she’d live.
She trudged forward into the forest; the full moon lit her way. In a way it was safer than taking the road: the road had no streetlights and drivers sometimes took chances that they shouldn’t. More than one person had lost their lives on dark evenings when their cars had skidded off the road or someone out walking had been hit by some city dweller trying out their new SUV on the country roads.
It got colder as Laura carried on, she didn’t notice the icy puddle on the ground until she had placed her foot on it. He legs flew out from underneath her and she hit the ground heavily. Her head cracked against a rock and she passed out.
Laura awoke a few minutes later. Her head rang like a bell. She placed her hands on her forehead, she felt something sticky: blood.
“Darn it.” She said. She looked around. The ground was covered in snow. There hadn’t been any forecast and it hadn’t been there before she had slipped. How long had she slept? The full moon reflected off the snow so her surroundings seemed brighter than ever. In the distance she could see a light. There were no other houses in the area other than her home and the area wasn’t scenic enough to get hill walkers. Could it be her parents? She took her mobile phone from her pocket to call them. No luck. The phone must have been broken by her fall, the screen was cracked and just displayed a bunch of zeroes. Laura picked herself up off the ground and walked towards the light. It was moving through the forest in her general direction, it had to be someone with a torch. As it moved closer, Laura realised that it was an old fashioned lantern. It was held by an old man in a long green coat who was shuffling slowly through the snow.
“What you doing there girl?” said the man.
“I’m walking home. My parents live a couple of miles that way.”
“Who are your parents? What’s your name?” He demanded.
“I’m Laura, Laura Richards.”
“Richards? You a relation to Betty Richards?”
Betty Richards? Did he mean Grandma Elizabeth? She’s been dead for years. thought Laura.
“Yes.” Laura said. “I’m a relative of hers.”
“Well then. I suppose I can help you. Come on. We’ll look at that cut on your head. Then I can bring you to the edge of the forest nearer your home.”
“That’s great! Thanks.”
“Move it on! It’s freezing out here.”
Laura noticed that the temperature had dropped dramatically since her fall. She buried her head deeper into the collar of her fleece and walked after the man.
“Come on.” He said impatiently. “My place isn’t far.”
Laura followed the old man. It was strange that she didn’t recognise him. She had been living here for two years, ever since her grandmother died. Her dad had moved the family out here to look after the family farm. He had though it would be a nicer place to raise the family than the city. Laura had protested at the move at first, she had been scared at losing contact with her friends. But rural life wasn’t too bad. Her new home didn’t exactly have a thriving social scene but the village where she attended school did have a scattering of people her own age. As a newcomer she had been accepted surprisingly quickly, half of the other kids’ parents had been friends with her Dad or Grandmother so they’d been very welcoming. It was a surprise to her that she didn’t recognise this man. She thought she’d met most of the inhabitants of this sleepy area. Nothing much changed there and everybody knew everyone else’s business.
Laura and the old man reached a hut in the woods. Laura hadn’t known that anyone lived out here. The old man opened the lock on the door and led the way inside. A fire was blazing away in the fireplace and the hut was warm. The hut contained a bed, a chair, a wooden bench that served as a table and the fireplace. At the far wall there was a small stove for cooking and a cupboard. There were a couple of wooden tea chests placed up against the walls.
“Sit down there and I’ll take a look at your head.” The old man said.
“OK. What’s your name?” Laura asked, embarrassed that it had taken her so long to ask the man such basic information.
“Cotter.” He spoke as he looked at her wound. “It’s not deep; I’ll clean it and put on a bandage. That should do it.”
Cotter moved over to one of the chests and took out a small wooden box and a knife.
He poured some iodine onto a cloth and cleaned the cut on Laura’s head. The iodine stung and Laura grimaced in pain.
“Don’t be such a baby.” Cotter said as he finished cleaning the cut.
He cut a length of bandage from a roll that had been stashed inside the wooden box and wrapped it around her head.
“There.” He said once he had finished. “Come on. It’s late.”
Cotter opened the door of the hut and ushered Laura outside. It was snowing again. Cotter took the lantern off a hook beside the door and led the way through the darkness. They walked in silence through the snow. Laura concentrated on ground as she wanted to avoid slipping on another patch of ice. One fall and injury was enough for one night. Mr Cotter stopped walking when they reached the edge of the wood.
“This is as far as I go. You should be able to make it back to the road from here.”
“I know where I am now. My house isn’t far. Sorry if I ruined your evening.”
“It’s fine.” He said curtly and walked back the way he came. He disappeared from sight into the forest in seconds.
Laura continued in the direction of the road. It had stopped snowing as she passed out of the forest. She had covered nearly a mile when she saw another light approaching from the direction of her home. It was her Dad.
“Dad!” Laura shouted. “I’m here!”
“Laura!” said Mr. Richards in relief. “Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick!”
“Sorry. I took a shortcut through the woods but slipped on some ice in the snow. I cut my head but Mr Cotter took me back to his place and put this bandage on me.”
Laura tapped the bandage on her forehead as proof of her injury.
“What snow?” asked Mr Richards.
Laura looked around. The night was still cold but there wasn’t a flake of snow anywhere to be seen. Even the forest, which had a thick carpeting of snow five minutes before was completely clear.
“But…Mr Cotter. He lives in a hut in the forest. I thought you said no one lived there.”
“Cotter has been dead since I was your age. The hut rotted away years ago. Come on. We’ll talk about it when we get home. It’s freezing out here.”
Dad wrapped his arm around Laura’s shoulder and guided her down the hill.
Laura took one last look at the forest: Next time she’d take the road home, even if it was a longer journey.