An excerpt from chapter 3 of my current work in progress, Bone Chills. This is most of chapter 3, but it leaves off the ending. I chose this excerpt because this is when the story really gets into the thick of things. The only context you need is that Aster was at her Aunt’s house during the summer one moment, then she touched a gravestone and suddenly appeared in this frozen world. Please enjoy.
(Note: This is a rough, unedited draft.)
Aster reeled back, gasping before stumbling over and falling into the snow once more. With her summer clothes on, the frigid snow was touching her exposed skin and getting in under her shirt. The shock of it made it feel all the worse, and pain seared throughout her body.
When she finally managed to pull herself back to her feet again, she squinted around her to try and figure out where she was. One thing was for sure, though: she wasn’t in Hawthorn Hollow any longer. There was nothing but snow as far as the eye could see. She couldn’t even see any trees or buildings. On top of that, it was dark, as if the sun had been completely blotted out from the sky.
She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering uncontrollably. She carefully lifted one foot up and stepped down into the snow, sinking down to her knee. Her ankle stung, and then her entire leg stung. Aster let out a little whimper and looked around hopelessly for somewhere she could go.
This is a dream, she thought. This must be a dream! But as she took another sinking step into the deep snow and a fresh shiver went up her spine, she knew this wasn’t a dream. It was far too real, and she had only dozed off for a second anyway. Her foot caught in the deep snow and she toppled forward once more, her face hitting the icy snow.
Aster pushed herself back up, but by this time her hands, and all of her limbs for that matter, were growing pained with the cold, her skin turning red. She searched fervently, though she wasn’t sure what she was expecting to find. All she knew was that she had to get out of this snow and find someplace warm.
As she squinted through the darkness, she thought she saw a dim light in the distance. It was the only thing she had to go on, so she forced herself to step through the snow, no matter how awful it felt, because she knew that standing still would be worse for her. With slow, yet steady steps, she made her way toward the dim light, hoping it was actually something and not nothing.
For the longest time she didn’t seem to be making any progress, though she knew she was moving forward. Every step she took felt like the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. Her joints began to freeze up and soon she found she couldn’t move any longer and instead fell into the snow. This time she did not get back up.
Aster’s eyes fell shut and her body grew numb. The only thought that was running through her mind was that she was about to die, and there was nothing she could do about it. She tried not to fall asleep, because she knew she would never wake up, but her mind started to drift away to the other side.
“Oh, dear! Where did you come from? I must get you warm!”
She was lifted up in someone’s arms, though Aster was only faintly aware of it. She thought she might have even been dreaming as the tall figure carried her through the unforgiving snow. When she saw a dark graveyard around her, she knew that the one who was carrying her must have been Death. At least he seemed kind, she thought.
The next thing she knew, she was wrapped up in several layers of blankets and laid out on a comfy couch. She felt so cozy then and all the fear melted away from her mind. She could go to sleep now without worrying. Maybe she was dead already and this was the afterlife. If that were the case, it wasn’t half bad.
“Don’t worry,” the kind voice said as a tall figure stooped over her. “You’re going to be just fine. Rest. I need to go out and get some firewood.”
Though Aster didn’t have the strength to respond, she was grateful to how kind Death was being to her. She always imagined the grim reaper as being some cruel, terrifying monster that would forcibly rip a person’s soul from their bodies using a terrible sharp scythe, and that it would be awful and painful. But this Death sounded like a kindly old man who wanted to help and comfort people.
As he walked away to gather the firewood, Aster decided she would let herself at last fall into the deepest sleep she could. She was accepting of her fate now, even if she didn’t understand how she had gotten to this frozen, blizzardous wasteland. She decided that part no longer mattered, not when she had already died.
At some point she heard voices around her, talking in hasty whispers, sounding somewhat argumentative. She shifted under the pile of blankets, turning to nestle deeper into the couch. By this time she could hear a fire crackling somewhere nearby and she realized the room felt a little bit warmer than it had before.
Part of her wanted to wake up and explore wherever she was now, but the other part of her just wanted to stay on this comfy couch, swaddled in the soft, warm blankets, and stay asleep forever. After all, if this was the afterlife, she had all of eternity to explore, or sleep, whichever she wanted. At least, that was her understanding of what the afterlife was supposed to be like, according to her parents. Then again, it wasn’t as if anyone knew what it would be like until they got there.
“Yeah, of course,” a woman’s voice said somewhere nearby her. “Just let me know if you need anything else and I’ll be happy to help.” A cold breeze filled the room just then, but when she heard a door close the breeze went away with it. Aster shivered and curled up tighter under the covers, pulling them partway above her face.
A tall figure bent over her with a faint gasp of excitement. “Ah! You’re moving, good! I was worried you might not wake up! Uh, wait, you are awake, right?”
Aster wasn’t really awake, but she was aware enough to acknowledge what he had said so she gave a slight nod of her head. The figure then straightened and clapped his hands together.
“Good, good. Do you think you could eat something? I have some warm soup for you. I think it will help you.”
She gave another slight nod of her head in response, and the man ran off to get the soup. Now Aster had to wake up so she could eat. Well, maybe she could go to sleep again right after. Or maybe she’d be awake enough by then that she could explore this new afterlife she was in. That might be fun.
“Here, sit up so you can eat it.” The man had returned, so now she had to wake. With great effort, Aster managed to open her eyes. As her vision came into focus, she saw that the man standing before her appeared to be a skeleton. So she had been right. It was Death who brought her there. Because she had figured that out already, his appearance didn’t particularly surprise or frighten her.
She slowly sat up, propping herself up against the arm of the couch. Death, smiling at her kindly, laid the steaming bowl of red soup in her hands. “It’s tomato soup,” he said. “I hope you like it, that’s all I could get my hands on in such a short time.”
Aster flexed her fingers slowly, the bones cracking after how stiff they were from the cold. The steaming bowl felt good on her skin and it was enough to give her fingers strength to lift the spoon to her lips and take a sip of the soup. It was hot and nearly burned her tongue, but she really didn’t care. She was just glad to get some warmth inside of her. Though tomato soup wasn’t her favorite, she couldn’t complain and kept on eating.
The skeleton man watched over her with a smile on his face, wanting to see her rejuvenated and in good health. As Aster ate the soup, she took notice of his peculiar appearance. He was a skeleton, that much was clear, but even so, she expected him to be more lifeless than he actually was. Somehow he seemed to have a mouth that he was able to open and close as if he had lips and skin to cover his jaws, though he clearly didn’t. Plus, his deep eye sockets were lit up by points of white light that seemed to act as his eyes. On top of that, he was dressed up quite nicely, wearing comfortable looking trousers, a large turtleneck sweater, and a long white coat like a doctor or scientist might be expected to wear. She was surprised that he wasn’t wearing the long black robe or cloak that the grim reaper was thought to wear.
“Um,” Aster said in a quiet voice, feeling a little shy now that she was actually speaking to him, “thank you for the soup, and the blankets. I never expected Death to be so kind.”
The skeleton man blinked at her, somehow, and tipped his head to the side. “Death? Whatever do you mean, child? I’m not Death. My name is West. Oh, you must be so confused. But of course, it’s not exactly normal for humans to end up here. I’m sure you stumbled here quite by accident. That would explain your clothes not being suited for this place. Oh dear.”
Aster blinked slowly and then yawned. “You’re not Death. Okay. But I am dead, right?”
“No, no, not at all! You would have died if I hadn’t found you, though. You were lucky. I don’t normally walk home that way, but I just decided to this time for some reason. Perhaps it was fate that I found you.” He smiled again, and Aster got the sense that this skeleton was not the most socially adept, though he was trying very hard.
She took a long sip of soup and let out a breath before speaking again. “Okay, so I’m not dead. That’s good, I guess. But if I’m not dead, then where exactly am I?”
“You’re in Fráfall,” he said. “It’s a world separate from your own. I wish I could tell you more than that, but I’m afraid I don’t understand it myself. Humans don’t live in this world, but some have managed to stumble here before, like you just have.”
“Oh, I see.” Aster didn’t really understand, but she felt if she asked too many questions at once, she’d just end up being a nuisance. “You said your name was West, right?”
“That’s right,” he said with a smile and a nod of his head. “May I ask your name?”
“It’s Aster. Aster Rose, but I don’t like being called by my full name, so just Aster is fine.”
The white points of light in West’s eye sockets seemed to grow bigger, as if his eyes had grown wider. “My, my, such a royal name you have. Both of them, in fact. Why wouldn’t you like being called both names?”
Aster stared at him, taking a moment to answer. “Because being called Aster Rose all the time is such a pain, and I don’t really like either of those names anyway. They sound dumb. That’s what the other kids at school say, anyway.”
“Oh, I don’t think they sound dumb at all! It’s a beautiful name! But…” He turned his back to her then and muttered something under his breath before going over to the fireplace across from the couch to tend to the logs with a poker. “Well, if you don’t like being called that, what if I called you something else?”
“Like what?” Aster asked, watching him carefully.
“Well, what if I called you something like Asroe? I think that has a nice ring to it.”
She thought about this for a moment. It was clearly a shortened version of both her names together, but he was right. It did have kind of a nice ring to it. She actually liked it better than Aster the more she thought about it. “Sure, that sounds fine.”
“Alright, then, Asroe.” West straightened and turned back to her, his eye sockets closed somehow, a bright smile on his face. “I’m happy to have you here and I will do all I can to take care of you for as long as you need!”
Asroe stared at West. Now that she was awake enough to think about things more clearly, she was realizing just how strange a day she was having. It had started out having not-so-great toast at Aunt Fleur’s before working in her garden in the sweltering heat. Now, after nearly freezing to death, she was eating tomato soup while sitting on a comfy couch in a skeleton man’s house. She really had no idea how to feel about anything at the moment.