Dirt, Chapter Two

Chapter Two: A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

"I've got a journey for you," the disgusting man said. "Your mother will not be coming home tonight. She's gotten wind that your grandmother is dying of starvation. The drought's gone bad west of Grailwood. Real bad. Mines are being shut down."

I have a grandmother?

"There's no food…people are tearing each other apart. Worse, I hear our soldiers got slaughtered up north. Whole country's going to rot."

"Wait, what's going on here?" I tried to keep my voice level, but I could barely think straight for the fear that was rising up in me. I grasped instead at the frustration and confusion clouding my mind, turned them into a shield against the oncoming panic.

Turned them into anger.

"Where's my mother? Who the devil are you?" I demanded.

For a moment he just stared at me, as if sizing up the short, blond, unwashed little girl who was daring to question him.

"When your mother realized she wasn't going to be coming home, she sent me. I…work with her, you might say." He paused. "You are expected to take food to your grandmother. It will be the most dangerous journey of your life. Your only protection against thieves, against wolves, and all other the evils that have consumed this world, will be this riding hood."

"No." I said simply. This was too absurd. I glanced back at Cerise, Carmine, and Cherry. All watching silently. I won't leave my family.

"Go and take her this food yourself. Wear the riding hood. Brave the odds." I started to close the door. The discussion was over for me. I had children to protect.

The man ran a hand through his slick, greasy hair again, as if he'd expected no opposition from me. "Well, she has to go…" he said under his breath. He almost absent mindedly pressed a hand against the edge of the door, and suddenly all my strength couldn't budge it another inch. He scratched his chest. "Is it the kids? I'll be watching them, don't fret over that. That's part of the oath."

Oath?

"That doesn't reassure me in the least. I would like you to leave now. I'll go on this journey of yours when mama comes home and tells me to go!" The hard shell of my anger was crumbling. I wanted this man to go away before the fear slipped through the cracks and engulfed me.

"Well, no, that's not part of the plan at all, Scarlett. I'm going to be staying here for a long time." He sighed angrily. My patience is worn out. I'm through arguing. Take the basket, take the riding hood, or I'm gonna break the older girl's arm."

I heard Cerise whimper quietly, through a hand clasped against her mouth. I glanced back, suddenly torn. If I stayed, this man had promised to hurt my sister, but I had no guarantee that worse things wouldn't befall them if I abandoned them.

I sighed angrily. I've got to buy some time.

"H-how far is it to my gr-to this woman's house?"

"Eh?" he responded. "Oh, her house. Eh, her shack is in Ebony, just on the other edge of the woods. Ain't you ever been away from this house? You'll see the cliffs from a ways off. Where all the abandoned mines are. Don't fret, girl. I'll be watching them real close. It's in my oath."

That oath again? What's that about?

But before I could ask, he suddenly shoved the picnic basket and red riding hood into my hands, nearly knocking me over. I heard something inside the basket slosh like liquid. Without further preamble, he began to launch into a series of instructions that sounded rehearsed.

"Don't eat the black apples, they'll make you go deaf. Don't peek inside the picnic basket. Its contents are more valuable than gold and more dangerous than any poison. You've been given this riding hood because it may save your life, so wear it always. Grailwood is a dangerous place, so please try not to die. Your family is counting on you. In addition to mounting rumors of ghosts, there are rumors of a rogue woodsman with an axe. Don't let him kill you."

I felt a tear sting my eye. In the midst of this odd stranger's matter of fact speech, I could hear my mother's voice thoughtfully warning me. I knew in that moment that I had to go. The man paused a moment as if out of breath from talking for so long. The basket weighed down on my arms, causing me to stoop slightly. I struggled to think of something, anything, I could do to protect my family from danger, but nothing came, nothing ever came. It made me feel utterly worthless.

"Oh, one more thing. Watch out for those wolves. They're shape-shifters."