Chapter Four - I Saw Three Ships
It took her a time or two of trying to get up, only to get herself tangled in her robe all over again, for her to realize what was going on, though even then, she was sure she had to be mistaken. Of course, after everything else that had happened that night, why was she surprised at anything?
She didn’t dare check for verification until she had managed to stand up, which was much easier when she’d noticed her slippers were too big, and she kept slipping on them. She kicked them off, gathered up the hem of her robe, and got to her feet with as much dignity as she could muster, before putting the oversized slippers back on. She’d have to be careful walking in them, but going around barefoot would attract even more attention than she normally would anyway, even if, because of the water, she didn’t feet any colder without them.
She ran her hands down the side of the robe, pulling it tighter closed, her stomach clenching slightly as it kept going in, and in, surely far more than it ever had before. The world certainly around her certainly felt larger, too, but she was hoping that had something to do with being in an unfamiliar place, and with all of the strangeness she’d encountered. At least partly. She didn’t want to look down at herself, to see what had happened, because that could make her sneaking, ridiculous, suspicions true. She didn’t know if that would be any worse than just wondering or not.
Finally, she resolved to just do it, telling herself that it was done already, out of her hands, and with all that she didn’t know about what was happening, it would be better to have at least one thing she could be certain about. So, heart pounding, she glanced downwards, biting her bottom lip. The first thing she noticed was her breasts, or rather, the sudden lack there-of. She had never been incredibly well-endowed, but it had been years since she could call herself truly flat, at least until now. To go with that, all of her other curves had melted away, too, leaving her with the scrawny body of a pre-teen beneath her almost comically over-sized robe. Just staring down at herself as she was - and she found herself a bit lost in the horror of it, trying to get her mind to accept it - she would have guessed that she was eleven, at the very most.
But that wasn’t true, of course. She had just turned nineteen less than a month ago, and while she wasn’t the prettiest girl at her school by any stretch of the imagination, she was most definitely a young adult, not a kid. Or so she had been earlier that evening, back when she’d been at home. How could this have happened?
She managed to work a gasp past the hitch in her chest, felt her lower lip begin to quiver, but forced herself to stay under control. She’d been a bit of a cry baby at around this age, and she knew that once she got started, it would be very difficult to make herself stop. That was the last thing she needed to add to this night.
Obviously this had to have something to do with Ded Moroz, or Pere Fouettard. Her guess would have been the latter, since he seemed more the type to do something so wretched, but, to be honest, she had been around Ded Moroz longer. Either way, Fouettard had mentioned some kind of meeting, so if she could just find Ded Moroz again, she’d eventually find the other man, too. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to do when she found either one of them - if they were somehow capable of making her younger, who knew what else they could do, or why they would bother to reverse it instead of just making her young enough she couldn’t complain - but this was not the sort of problem she’d be able to find the solution to anywhere else.
“Ded Moroz!” she called, turning around, heading back in the direction she thought she’d come from. She got only a step or two before turning back around, confused. She’d noticed the world seemed different once she was away from Ded Moroz, but she hadn’t realized just how much. Not only did the colors seem duller, yet better grounded in the objects they were coming from, but the very street she was on was different. The houses weren’t laid out in neat little rows, as they had been before, but spread out like in any town, with shops between them. She’d noticed the people when she’d first come out, though it was still surprising to see how many of them there were, many of them groups of people her age - whether that be her real age or the one she’d somehow become - walking in groups, going to the houses and singing, getting candy and moving on.
How had they missed them, going into those same houses, she couldn’t help but wonder. But then, they weren’t the same houses, or at least, they didn’t seem to be. There were bits of them that seemed familiar, a brightly colored doorway here, a slightly crooked window there, but the houses she remembered were all bigger, grander. These were familiar, in a way, like something you were recalling from a long time ago, yet clearly not the same.
“Ded Moroz!” she yelled again, trying to ignore the strange looks she was getting as she stood there, not sure which way she should walk, or if moving anywhere in this world would make any difference to whether or not someone in the other could hear her.
At the very least, she was glad for the water she’d drank, since she was sure it had to be frigid wherever here was, seeing how bundled up everyone else was. She knew she had to stick out, and it would have been nice to have something else to wear to change that, but she had no way of getting anything. She had no money of any kind, definitely no native currency, nothing except her dead cell phone. And she couldn’t even sell that unless she happened to find someone else who spoke English.
She glanced up, feeling as if someone were watching her, and, sure enough, finding a group of teenager, probably around seventeen or eighteen years old, mostly girl, staring at her. “Hello?” she said, hoping for a response she could understand. When she didn’t get it, she began to walk away from them, deciding that was as good a direction as any. It didn’t take long for her legs to get tired, though she wasn’t sure if it was more from all the walking she’d done with Ded Moroz catching up with her, or just her being used to having longer legs. She stopped, resting for a minute, outside a house, hanging out in the back of a group of carollers, trying to maintain a distance that would make those walking by think she was with the people singing, but would hopefully not make the carolers suspicious of her.
When the group’s song ended, the old couple at the door applauded, handing out handfuls of candy and a few coins to the older kids at the front, who went to work distributing it among the others. Justine was readying herself to start walking again when, from the corner of her eye, she saw something. She turned quickly, just in time to see one of the kids on the far side of the group unwrapping a chocolate, though the kids handing it out hadn’t gotten to him yet. A girl, dressed all in white, small, yet clearly older than any of these kids in a strange, ethereal way, stepped away and into a small sleigh. It was white, too, blending in with the snow nearly perfectly. She waved, and then vanished.
Clearly, she wasn’t someone normal - was she somebody like Ded Moroz, or Pere Fouettard? Considering she’d just disappeared into thin air, that seemed likely. Perhaps she was the solution Justine had been searching for! Justine stepped away from the group of carolers, trying to be discrete, waiting for them to finish with their candy so she could follow them to their next house, see if the girl showed up there, too.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t as inconspicuous as she’d hoped. One of the boys in charge of candy distribution spotted her, walking over with a stream of questions she obviously couldn’t answer. “I don’t speak… Whatever you’re speaking…” she said, hoping again that one of them would understand her. To get her hopes higher, one of the bigger girls came forward, but all she did was turn to the boy and scold him before kneeling down in front of Justine, spouting more gibberish. Justine felt like crying all over again - not so much because nobody knew what she was trying to say as it was the thought that she was sure she should be just as tall as this girl, if not taller.
“Look, I just need you guys to keep singing… Don’t bother with me,” she instructed them. Instead, the girl reached out towards her slowly, like Justine was a lost kitten she was afraid would bolt if approached too quickly. “I’m fine, I promise,” she said, pulling away from the girl hand.
The girl stopped and nodded, saying something that sounded reassuring. Unfortunately, as she was doing so, she was also reaching into her pocket, taking out a cell phone. For a second, Justine wasn’t sure what to do. She knew the girl was probably going to call the police to come take care of her, and surely there, she’d find someone who could speak English, and she’d be able to get home. But once she was in custody, she didn’t like her chances of getting back out, and she doubted she’d find anybody capable of growing her back up at the police station. Right now, that was her most important mission.
She knew she couldn’t run in her slippers, so she slipped out of them slowly, trying not to let them notice what was going on, glad for how big her robe was on her now, as it hid the action much better than ir normally would have. Then she moved her hands down slowly, grabbing the side of her robe, and then, all at once, she pulled it up, turned, and ran. She could hear a commotion behind her, and then shouting. She ducked between two houses, the snow banks there slowing her down, but not as much as it would slow someone who could still feel the cold. She waded her way through backyards, weaving her way through the houses, still moving long after all sounds of pursuit had stopped, listening for the sound of singing.
She peeked her head around the corners of the houses being caroled at, looking for the girl. It took a while, long enough that she began to question whether she really had seen what she thought she had, but finally, at the end of one song, she saw a twinkling, like light reflecting off snow, only bigger, and there she was. Justine couldn’t see the sleigh at first, but as she snuck closer to the carolers, she managed, just barely, to make it out. It was small, and delicate, big enough for the girl and not much else. Luckily, Justine was pretty small herself now, so she was pretty sure there would be enough room for her to ride as well.
When she got closer, she saw that the sleigh didn’t just blend in with the snow - it was, apparently, made of snow, with the runners being ice. She set a foot inside gingerly, afraid that she was doing something wrong, that the whole thing would collapse under her, but it felt just as firm as the ground had. Quickly, she got the rest of the way in, ducking down, not wanting any of the kids to see her and get the idea that they should try doing the same.
A minute or two later, the girl stepped inside with her, waving to the kids. She didn’t seem to notice Justine, simply picking up the reigns of the sleigh - though there were no animals attached to them - and flicking them. As soon as she did, the world dissolved away, running down her eyes, re-forming into the place she’d been with Ded Moroz. It was much quieter and lonelier, yet somehow not in a bad way. The houses changed their shapes, most of them getting bigger, though some shrinking into cute little cottages, though still retaining some little thing that made them, just barely, recognizable.
Not wanting to startle the girl, but unsure of how not to do so, Justine cleared her throat, then slowly stood up, holding her hands in front of her. “Please don’t freak out, but I… Well, I’m not going to hurt you or anything. I just need your help. I don’t belong in this place, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only place that I can be fixed, so, I just need you to…” She stopped herself, blushing slightly at how much she was babbling.
The girl did look mildly shocked, but only for the briefest of moments. She didn’t seem as bothered by the avalanche of words as Justine, but, at the end, she had only one thing to say. “Snegurochka!” she exclaimed.
Justine’s heart broke as she sank down onto the seat on the sleigh as the girl watched her, seemingly more surprised at this than at her sudden appearance. She hadn’t expected not to be able to talk to this girl, either. She felt a sob bubbling up from deep inside of her, and, as lost and tired and lonely as she felt, she couldn’t stop it, could keep herself from bursting into tears on the seat of the magic sleigh.