BY COURTNEY DACHELLE KEY
“I should walk you home,” Mitchell said, wiping the last of the lager from his lips with the back of his hand, the sleeves of his school shirt having been rolled up two pints ago. “My dad says it’s dangerous in the wood after dark.”
Gemma considered his offer. She’d never felt afraid herself, though the walk from the village to her house was long and wound through a wild wood, cut back only enough for the road to pass. She supposed it might be frightening, though, on wet nights like these with the clouds closed in and no moon nor stars shining overhead to light the way or show what was behind the calls and cracks emanating from the deep dark growth, reaching toward the thin concrete ribbon of civilization.
“What time is it?” Gemma whispered, but she knew without looking at Mitchell’s phone that it was late. Too late, for the hour when Gran had expected her back. I’m not a child anymore, she’d huffed when Gran gave her the curfew. I know, m’love, and that’s the problem, Gran had replied.
But it had been so nice and warm in the pub, with the cider warming down the back of her throat, and Mitchell’s lips buzzing so deliciously close to her ear as he’d leaned in to be heard over the growing din, the blush on her cheeks and blooming down in her stomach when his fingers touched briefly, lightly on her thigh and his eyes met hers as if for approval before looking away, mutually embarrassed. How could she have been expected to keep up with the time when her head was swimming from the alcohol and the smell of Mitchell’s aftershave? Gran simply couldn’t be expected to understand. She was old, and everyone knew old people didn’t have those feelings anymore. How gross it would be if they did, Gemma thought. Ew.
“We should go,” Gemma said, gathering her cardi and school satchel. “I’ll take that for you,” Mitchell offered, and Gemma smiled both at his gallantry and the ridiculous figure he cut, her bag hanging off his shoulder. Picking up on her humor, he sashayed with it to the door of the pub like a model, making Gemma giggle, even as the workaday men with their pints and dirty faces glared.
They walked out of the pub, past the shuttered shops and drawn curtains, past where the lights dimmed and then died, and there was only black, and the road, and the woods. Despite her earlier confidence she gripped his hand a little harder. There was something uneasy about the sight. The rains had given way to a clear, cold night, and her breath puffed out on the air.
“You know what I heard about these woods?” Mitchell piped up. “I heard there was devil worshippers came ‘round here. Proper messed up shit, like baby sacrifices an’ that.”
“Stop trying to scare me!” Gemma giggled, but she held tighter to him all the same.
They walked along for a bit. Gemma’s eyes had adjusted to the dark. She saw the outlines of the trees, blacker against the lighter purple-black and gray of the sky and clouds. Sometimes she saw eyes. A fox, paused in its hunting. An owl, watching them from a nearby branch. From deep inside the woods something else caught her eye. She looked away, buried her head in Mitchell’s shoulder as they walked along the silvery river of road.
“It wasn’t devil worshippers,” she said, out of the blue. Mitchell looked down at her. “Wha’?”
“It wasn’t devil worshippers,” she repeated, glancing up into his puppy dog brown eyes.
“How d’you know that?” he asked.
“Gran told me. She’s lived here all her life, and her gran’s gran too, all the way back before 1066 even. She says it was a sacred place for the small folk.”
Mitchell snorted. “The small folk,” he repeated mockingly.
“Shush, they might hear you,” Gemma scolded him, half laughing, but half serious too. Her mind went back to those days at her gran’s knee, the ticking of the clock on the mantle and click of Gran’s knitting needles as she told Gemma the stories. Of lights in the forest that should not be followed, sounds that should never be heard. Of children who disappeared, only to come back, changed in imperceptible but important ways. Of unwary travelers, who stepped off the path and disappeared to return decades later with missing memories and the knowledge that all they once loved had been lost. Of how those who are small often have the greatest hunger, and those who seem the most guileless and innocent are usually the most to be feared.
Those stories, of course, weren’t the ones Gemma most wanted to hear. She wanted the ones about her parents. About why no one seemed to know her father, and why there were no pictures of him anywhere. About why her mother left, to become that sad woman with the knotted hair sitting vacant-eyed in a wheelchair on visiting day, never saying a word, only looking far beyond Gemma, so far it seemed she was looking at nothing anyone could see, at least not in this world.
But Gran never told Gemma those stories.
Suddenly, from out of the trees they heard a crack. Gemma screamed and buried her head in Mitchell’s shoulder. He ran his fingers soothingly through her hair and tilted up her chin, smiling.
“‘S only a falling limb,” he told her. “Lots of ‘em do that, ‘specially after a big rain like the one just came through. Surely you’d know that, living out in the back of beyond.”
Gemma returned his smile. It was true, she was just being silly, letting stories fill her head with nonsense. Mitchell rubbed his thumb against his cheek, pushing back the hair from over her ear as he did so. His eyebrows narrowed.
“Your ear,” he said. “It’s a funny shape, isn’t it? A little point--”
“It doesn’t matter,” Gemma interrupted, quickly brushing her hair back towards her face again with her fingers. She moved away from him, folding her arms and walking ahead, embarrassed.
“Come on,” she heard Mitchell calling. “Come on. Don’t be like that. I didn’t mean anything by it, Gemma. Gemma.”
But she walked on, quick little steps that clicked on the concrete and made the cold night air bite into the bare patches between her socks and skirt. He didn’t know, she knew in the rational back of her mind. Didn’t know the teasing at primary school, an absent-minded slip and suddenly they’d all seen.
Elf. Alien. Freak.
She’d wondered whether that was why her mother was how she was. Because her ears were different. Because sometimes the cat spoke to her, and she didn’t know until she was seven that cats didn’t speak to everyone. Because once coming through the wood, she’d seen a girl who looked just like her, with her mouth open as if she were screaming.
After a while, she realized she didn’t hear Mitchell behind her anymore. Gemma stopped and turned. The road stretched out, empty and winding back towards the village, hidden by the trees.
She started towards the place where she had left him, breaking into a jog.
No answer came from the woods. Maybe he went home, Gemma thought, but a feeling in the pit of her stomach, a horrible, haunting feeling told her otherwise. Light flashed by the corner of her eye, though no cars had passed by. She called his name again. From somewhere deep inside the woods she heard laughter.
He was playing a joke on her, she realized. Probably all of them, him and the boys who pulled her hair and pinched when the teacher wasn’t watching and the girls who knew subtler, crueler ways of torture. They were all there in the woods and they were laughing at her for being afraid, not of the woods but of herself, and of what they thought of her.
She wouldn’t be afraid any longer.
Gemma took a deep breath. She stepped off the road, and into the wood. It was only when she was twenty steps in and it was too dark and brambly and twisted to see her way back that she realized what she’d heard wasn’t laughing.
It was screaming. And then Gemma started to run.
Dawn faded in with rose and yellow bands through to the forest floor. Gemma woke to a wave of nausea cresting in her head. She rolled over on the wet leaves and propped herself up on her elbow, vomiting. Her head cleared as her stomach emptied. Gemma wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. Somewhere far off she heard sheep. Morton’s farm, she realized. Just outside the edge of the woods, near to Gran’s house. Gemma wondered how she got so far into the woods. She’d been calling Mitchell’s name, but after that she couldn't remember, couldn't remember…
She bolted upright and looked around, but could see little. A morning fog poured through the wood and wrapped around the trees, obscuring anything beyond a five-foot radius from view. Gemma got to her feet, brushing the leaves from her skirt. Her feet felt unsteady beneath her, as if they were somehow new. Stumbling a little, she headed out of the forest, towards the sound of the sheep.
The sun hung halfway to noon by the time she made it to Gran’s. The door was ajar, as if waiting for her to push it open. Gemma scuffed her shoes on the mat and went inside. Gran sat in her chair by the fireplace, telly tuned to some chat show and the sound muted, click-clicking at her knitting. It was a sweater, Gemma noticed. Rust and yellow, like the colors of the leaves on the forest floor.
“You should’na been out so late.” Gran clucked, without looking up from her work. Click-click, went the knitting needles. “It’s dangerous in the wood after dark.”
"But nothing hurt me.” Gemma felt how dry her mouth was. Her words came out in cracks. There was a taste of metal at the back of her tongue, and salt.
Gran sighed. “No, lamb, I don’t suppose anything did.” Click-click. She peered at Gemma over her spectacles, perched on the tip of her nose. “I never said it was dangerous for us.”
Gemma turned over Gran’s words in her mind. She didn’t understand. Or, maybe, she just didn’t want to. She ran her fingers through her hair, touched the tip of her ear. She looked at Gran, intent over her knitting. Even with her hair cut short, Gran always kept her hair over her ears. It had never occurred to Gemma until now to wonder why. Gemma swallowed.
“Gran?” she asked at last. “Where’s Mitchell?”
Courtney Dachelle Key is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Her work has previously appeared on Flashes in the Dark. You can follow her on Twitter @Dachelle.