The Paw Print

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The Paw Print

The Paw Print



The children of the town call her “Witch” and “Ghost”, because she is like a shadow, concealed in her dilapidated hovel, going out only out of necessity and wrapped eternally in her tattered gray shawl, never speaking more words than what is required. The adults cast one uneasy glance at her pale skin hunched back and uneasily whisked their children away like her mere presence was enough to be infected with her dark bitterness. Nothing can lift her black spirits, not the first flower of spring nor the last strawberry of summer. But she has not always been this way.

“Papa!” Cecelia reached her dirty little fingers up at her father with a blinding smile plastered to her face. From her angle, his face was backlit with splatters of sunshine, casting his strong features into stark relief, but his kind eyes remained soft and crinkled at the edges, like warm amber. 

“Yes, blackberry?” 

But he already knew what she wanted. He scooped her little body up with strong arms and placed her on his broad shoulders.

 She fisted her little fingers in his hair and called out, “Onward, my noble steed!” 

Laughing, they ran through the forest. With a sword of twigs and sheer courage, they fought imaginary foes in glittering armor. They played until the sun began to set and her father led her to the little clearing where the town lay in the shadow of their mountain. 

“Aw, Papa, can’t we stay out a little longer?” Her Papa chuckled a hearty chuckle she could feel in her bones.

“Sorry Blackberry, but Mother’s almost finished cooking, and you can’t be a distinguished lady with twigs in your hair.” He poked her forehead playfully and produced a stick from the explosion of brown curls atop her head. Cecelia only offered a huff of indignation.

“When I get older, I’m going to fight criminals, and then I’ll eat whenever I want however I want, just you wait and see,” Cecelia stated firmly, as the bitterness at being forced to endure such monstrous torture gave way to resolve. 

“Of course you will, Blackberry.” 

They reached the front yard of their home. She stamped over the little patch of yellow flowers by the mailbox, too busy leaving a trail of muddy footprints all over the porch and foyer to notice.

“Cecelia!” She froze. She looked at her sister Vera’s crip blue sundress and Goldilocks curls, and then at her mangled knees and black fingernails. Briefly, she registered a look of horror on her mother’s face. Oops. 

She looked around for Father, but he was trying to salvage Vera’s flower patch outside. Double Oops. 

The moments before catastrophe are always the quietest, the most beautiful. The calm before the storm. The flour on her mother’s apron was a paintbrush’s stroke on canvas. The warm glow of the fireplace illuminated her sister’s golden hair as the first gunshot rang out.

The West Army sprang from the trees as if conjured from the air. For the first time, they had managed to cross the mountain. Her father was still outside, now crumpled on the grass, his shirt turning crimson. She opened her mouth to scream but her mother beat her to it. In a heartbeat, she was outside, trying in vain to drag him inside. Soon both her parents lay on the grass. 

 Her sister was still frozen beside her. She shook Vera’s shoulders and hissed, “Come on, Vera. We have to hide. Fast!”

Tugging her barely functional sister into a closet, they stayed pressed together while the gunshots rang out. 

They never saw their parents again. Together they grew up in the tiny home, relying on each other, the kindness of their neighbors, and all they could earn at that young age of seven. By the time they were fifteen, they were making a meager living sewing and mending clothes for their little town.




The needle went in and out of the fabric, always in the same direction, never quite finished. Cecelia sighed down at her work, utterly exhausted and utterly bored. Opposite the table from her, Vera hummed, stitching together a tiny blue dress.

“Vera,” Cecilia said, “don’t you think we ought to stop for today?” 

A light sigh and a nod from Vera, her perfect hair shaking with the rest of her head. Triumphantly rising to her feet, Cecelia promptly stumbled over her skirts. 

“I’ll be out in a minute!” Vera called after her, cleaning up the materials and adjusting her hair at a painstakingly slow pace. 

The last part was under her breath, so no one heard it but Cecelia. It’s not like Vera would care. She practically had the whole village wrapped around her finger. 

She broke out of the door and gulped the fresh air. In the front of the yard, a small patch of yellow flowers grew. The air in her lungs turned sour. 

Since the first battle, there have been countless attacks. There was no house without repairs and no family without arms. But Vera’s little yellow flowers survived it all. What a shame, Cecelia thought, that the flowers survived and Papa didn’t. What a shame that the only living thing that’s survived since the attack are those stupid flowers. Cecelia felt the bitter prick of tears behind her eyes. In a fit of anger, she yanked the flowers out of the ground and threw them far, far away, where they wouldn’t be able to remind her of all she had lost. 

She blinked. She looked smugly at the little brown patch of dirt in front of her and rose from her crouch. Dusting her skirts off as best she could (which wasn’t very well), she waited. And waited. And waited. Cecelia was fairly certain that she developed at least three gray hairs in the time it took Vera to ready herself. When she did emerge, she had on a beautiful blue dress and a matching bow in her hair. It was disgustingly similar to the dolls Cecelia had as a child.

Together, they walked to the market (Everyone that was there perked up visibly at Vera’s arrival.). It stood in the shade of their mountain shielding them from the worst of the weather and many attacks from the West Army. Speaking of bad weather, there was a heavy rumbling in the sky. Bewildered, Cecelia looked up and saw that the sky was as clear as ever, the color of Vera’s dress. But then from the west, giant mechanical birds roared across the sky and the world exploded. 

The bombs shook the earth and the smoke obscured her sight. It crawled into her throat like a living thing and coated her lungs with dust. Her eyes burned, but the raw skin around her left leg burned more. Vera, she thought. I have to find Vera.

She looked around frantically until she saw her. 

“Vera come on!”

But Vera was frozen. She sat sprawled on the path with a distant look on her face. With a frustrated growl, Cecelia hauled Vera up to her feet and pulled them both into the shelter of the mountain’s caves. 

“Vera. Listen to me. Snap out of it.”

“Wh-What just happened?”

“We’ve just been bombed. No doubt cover for an invasion of the West Army. I’m going to find an exit on the North side of the Cave and circle back to help fight.”

At this, Vera’s eyes took on a stormy sort of blue.
“Cecelia, you can’t just go out there and risk your life for no reason. What we need to do is exit on the south side, where we can ride out to the nearest city and stay safe.”

“So you want to run like a coward?”

“No, I-” She was cut off by a great rumbling. The way they came in collapsed. They were trapped. 

Vera whipped her head around to glare at Cecelia. 

“I’m not going to risk my life just for a few minutes of glory!” Her eyes were like ice as she stared Cecelia down.

Cecelia took a fiery step forward. 

“That’s not what this is about. But I don’t care what you think. You may have the whole town worshiping you, but you don’t deserve an ounce of the respect they have for you. I’m going, whether you like it or not.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean!” Vera called after her, but Cecelia was already storming down the nearest tunnel, not caring about the horrible sting in her leg. 

She blazed through tunnel after tunnel, furious with Vera and furious with life. Of course, she wants to run away. This could be my one chance to prove myself, to finally cause more good than harm, but of course, Vera can’t stand that. She wants to ruin my one chance. That’s who she is. 

She stopped for a minute to catch her breath and looked around. The fire in her gut was promptly extinguished. Around her, unfamiliar walls and damp rock floors were littered with bones. Dread dropped deep in her stomach. Reality dawned on her in sinking clarity. She had left Vera behind. Her breath started to speed up; It came in and out in rasping gasps and her head began to spin much too fast. She braced a hand on the damp rock. I have to find Vera. 

She turned around with determination, but that determination gave way to panic when she realized there was a fork in the tunnels, and she had no clue which one to go through. 

“VERA!” She screamed with all her might, panic evident in her voice. 

The only response she got was a sort of whimper-like cry that set her heart hammering. Throwing caution to the wind she barreled down one of the tunnels, frantically searching for the source of the cry. Horrible person or not, Vera was still her sister and she couldn’t leave her to die. 

“VERA! VERA PLEASE!” Salty tears were beginning to roll down her cheeks, tears of regret and fear. Because they could die here, alone. Her footsteps increased in pace. She stumbled through the tunnels blindly, and in her panic, she missed the trail of footprints going off to one of the tunnels to her right. 

She continued running. She barely knew how many turns she had taken at this point. Her voice was growing hoarse from her screaming and her calf made her lightheaded every time she put weight on it. It had been hours since she last heard Vera’s cries. 

Limping down an especially long tunnel, she remembered the bones. Why were they there in the first place? Lord knows what lives down here. Suddenly, a flash of blue caught her eyes. It was a torn piece of fabric, splattered with blood. 

 The pain in her leg and her heart became too much. She sank to her knees and wept bitter tears as she mourned her sister, taken by the beast of the caves.  

Cecelia remained curled in the fetal position until the sun rose. 

Wait, the sun? Cecelia’s heart sped up. If only Vera were here. This brought a fresh wave of white-hot guilt and sorrow over her. She wept again, this time for all the things that they would never experience together. 

Many days passed. Cecelia was so, so heavy. It was too much effort to crawl to the exit that had started this all. The reason Vera died. She suddenly knew that she could no longer stay in these evil caves. She panted and crawled inch by inch, following the light. Every movement hurt worse than a bullet through the heart. Turning a corner, she saw a flash of golden hair. 

She became infused with strength and rose to her feet with a groan. She swayed a bit but she still took steps forward. And then she clasped a hand over her mouth in horror. 

Sprawled by the exit, lay Vera, in a pool of her blood, dark red. She had glazed-over eyes and a chalk-white face, all the life bled out of her. On her torso, there was a deep gash, still dripping blood. Cecelia remembered the sharp stalagmites from the caves. It hadn’t been a cave monster at all. 

For the third time, Cecelia wept, this time because trapped in her false grief, she had let her sister die, only a few minute’s walk away.

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