The Wendygo House
Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Americarnie Trash
Text copyright^©^ 2015 Jon Jacks
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Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line,
The line broke, the monkey got choked, and they all went to heaven in a little row boat…
Anglo-American Skipping Song, 1800s
So how do you think Dad tried to make amends for bringing us to this crappy house in the back of nowhere?
By building a crappy wendy house in the back yard, that’s how.
Go figure, right?
Obviously, Dad hasn’t got around to noticing that I moved on long ago from second hand Little Ponies and charity-shop Disney Princesses.
You’d think the way I’m made-up, the way I dress – all that should be a bit of a clue, right?
The dyed purple hair.
The enlarged eyes, all down to carefully applied mascara and whitening.
The thigh-high heavy boots, with more laces and buckles than a dominatrix’s wardrobe.
The very nearest I can get, in short, to looking like a Manga character.
‘The wendy house is somewhere for you and Pearl to hang out together,’ Dad insists grumpily, a little hurt when I furiously point all this out to him.
Yeah, sure Dad. Like every day I’m just so endlessly harping on about how I want to spend more time with my pip-squeak, squeaky clean little sis!
Okay, I’ve got to admit Dad’s put a surprising amount of uncharacteristic effort into his little creation.
Saving money along the way too, naturally.
Taking all the wood he needs from the forest that backs onto our garden. (Some ‘forest’! As tightly packed as a used Christmas tree lot, you couldn’t take a hike in there even if you wanted to!)
Oh, and taking the all the paint required from a road-work crew when they weren’t looking. Even watered down, it glows eerily in the dark, giving the house that oh-so in-vogue jaundiced-skin look.
‘Gorgeous,’ says Sis.
But then, she would, wouldn’t she?
‘Dad’s trying to make things better,’ she hisses at me, like I’m the one being childish.
And so all right, I’ll give her that: maybe I am being a bit mean to Dad, what with my permanently sour face.
Then again, what’s Manga if it isn’t a permanently disgruntled, at-odds-with-the-world face?
Sis, she ‘really loves’ the wendy house, naturally.
‘It’s the best!’ she says.
Off she trips, every morning, down the long, winding garden path. (Well, I say path: a trail of gravel Dad’s poured over earth already so tightly packed with tree roots it grows nothing more than stubbly grass.)
All Sis needs is the basket and the little red hood and she’d make the perfect meal for a hungry wolf.
When I come back from school, she’s still in there. Playing ‘houses’ I suppose. Or ‘happy families’.
But how would she know about them? Happy families, I mean?
How does her ‘play family’ pan out?
The mom who dies, way too young? Way before she had any right to leave us?
The dad who falls to pieces, who has to pack in work? Who can’t even cook a proper dinner without it all being burnt, or as healthy as deep-fried marshmallows?
What the heck’s Sis finding to do all this time in there?
‘Fetch Pearl in for dinner would you please, Dia?’ Dad asks me, ladling out yet another meal the homeless would tip straight in the bin.
I head off down the weaving garden path. It’s already dark: the sun sets early way up here, as bored with the place as I am. The forest blocks off most of its rays anyway, once the sun’s dropped below a certain level.
The wendy house glows, shining with an oil lantern’s dim yellow light against the black wall of tightly packed trees.
‘Pearl! Dinner!’ I yell, hoping she hears, shows her face, saves me the trip all way down there.
Not that a call to one of Dad’s dinners would get a response from even the most ravenous of dogs.
Sure enough, there’s no sign of Pearl.
The door remains closed.
Just how dark must it be in there? There’s no light at the windows, even though Dad’s fixed up a bared electric bulb in there.
I’ll give that to Dad: he’s a dab hand with his power tools. Enough drills and what have you to keep the US military running for the next ten years.
Not that they’re much use to him now his business has collapsed. He’s selling them off, one by one. The only way he can ensure money’s coming in these days.
I don’t bother knocking on the door.
I just angrily wrench open the upperpart of the stable door, irritated that Pearl’s making out she hasn’t heard me shouting.
‘Pearl! Didn’t you–’
It’s no good: I’m venting my anger on an empty room. Well, empty but for this stupid little doll wrapped up in a small bed.
But as for Pearl, she isn’t here.
Surely she’s not in the woods!
When I exit the wendy house, I peer into the narrow, dark spaces between the densely packed trees anyway; just in case.
‘Pearl! Dinner’s getting cold!’
Not that Dad’s idea of a dinner is great whether it’s hot or cold. But I’ve got to show willing, haven’t I?
She can’t be in the woods!
All the kids around here, they have it constantly drummed into them: Don’t go anywhere near the woods!
No matter where you are in there, apparently, it all looks the same.
Anyone could get lost in there. Even if you’ve got the compass, the map, and all those other gizmos that are supposed to help lead you to safety.
So kids do get lost in there!
And then there’s no if little water. No berries, no anything like that, to survive on either.
Just a few weeks back, one of Pearl’s own friends wandered in there and hasn’t been seen since. Despite a massive police search.
Eventually, they had to give up the search. The police put out fresh warnings. Teachers reminded their pupils of the dangers of heading into the woods.
‘I can only hope Ellie’s disappearance serves some purpose in that she’s the very last child to vanish into these woods,’ the girl’s mom had sobbed on local TV.
Yeah, Ellie; that was her name.
She was cute too – long blonde hair, large blue eyes. Or at least, they looked large behind those thick spectacles she always wore.
Last time I’d seen her, she was heading down this path to this damned wendy house.
Thing is, come to think of it, that doll in there: that looked a lot like Ellie too. Blonde hair. Blue eyes.
Perhaps that’s what made me think of her just now.
Not that I want to think of her!
It’s horrible, the way the poor little mite just vanished into these awful woods just like that!
Behind me, there’s a pained squeak from the wendy house. Whirling around, I see the wendy house’s small door opening – and out steps a beaming Pearl.
‘No need to shout,’ she says light heartedly.
‘What? But I just looked in there!’
‘Dia! You can’t have been looking too hard, can you?’
All through dinner, Sis smiles like it’s a private joke; the way she managed to hide from me when I went looking for her in her tiny wendy house.
Has Dad built a small door in the back she can sneak in and out of?
It’s the sort of thing he used to enjoy including in his work; clever, ingenious additions to the kitchens he built that would have his customers cooing in awe and admiration.
Not doors in the back, obviously.
But extra cupboards or drawers where you wouldn’t expect them to be. Or additional table-tops that pulled out from beneath the regular kitchen tops.
Letting the customers feel like they were some sort of magician, conjuring up more and more space from the most unexpected places.
They loved it.
Dad loved it.
But he’d loved Mom more. And when she went, out went that light in him too.
It didn’t help, of course, the way Mom ‘left us’.
Slowly wasting away. Her own body eating her up.
The most horrendous form of cannibalism there is, you ask me.
Reducing her to little more than a skeleton wrapped in overly-tight skin.
No one should see the person they love being brought so low.
We’d placed her bed by the front window of our old house. So she could look out on the street, watch people passing by. Unknowing people, people who weren’t aware that they were being observed by someone slowly dying.
Someone slowly being taken from us.
When she’d finally gone, when we removed the bed, it seemed to create a massive, empty space there.
‘It’s best for her that she’s finally gone,’ Dad had said, taking us in his arms.
We shouldn’t be selfish, he’d said.
She was suffering too much. She hated being a burden on us.
Hated who she’d been turned into; this person who no longer had any control over her body.
I know what Dad meant, what he was trying to say.
Still, I thought it was a dreadful thing to say.
Contrary little miss, aren’t I?
Confused, I think, would be a fairer description.
See, I also hated Dad when he told us we’d be leaving the house where Mom had brought us up.
Where too, of course, Mom had died.
It was a house full of great memories. And a constant reminder of how she’d died.
Depending on which mood I was in.
Not that Dad had much choice about us moving: business was suffering badly. No one wants a handcrafted kitchen put together by someone whose hands tremble, right? Who breaks down in tears at least twice a day?
But leaving the house was like leaving the rest of Mom behind. Like all those memories didn’t count. Best forgotten.
Like she’d never existed.
Does Sis think this way about Mom and the old house?
If she does, she never shows it.
More adaptable, aren’t they, younger kids? Isn’t that what they say?
Perhaps that’s because she hadn’t known Mom as long as I had. Or maybe she hadn’t gotten so used to the old house as I had.
She’s already got lots of new friends here. Round every afternoon after school, every weekend.
All eager to play in her cute, little wendy house.
How do they all fit in such a tiny space? It must be more crammed than the Black Hole of Calcutta in there.
(I learned about that from Mom; she was from England. Maybe it’s because I’m only half Canadian that I really, really don’t like the woods.)
Then again, yeah: without any lights in that tiny house, it can be pretty dark.
Is that all Sis was doing when I couldn’t find her in there?
Hiding in a dark corner?
I glance up from my plate of burnt fish fingers and beans, glowering suspiciously at her.
She shrugs, smiles: like it’s all one huge joke to her.
At school, Sis is little Miss Popular.
All her new friends flocking about her. All hoping for another invite round to our house. All getting overly excited, all tittering about their next big adventure down in our jaundiced looking little wendy house.
Like it’s all a gay trip to some amazing holiday destination. Rather than the first thing in ages Dad’s put together that doesn’t fall apart.
The moms dropping off their kids, they’re all so enthralled too, amazed by the tales their kids tell about the little house. Dad could set up a whole new business making these little homes.
He could make some of the moms too, you ask me.
Not that he seems to notice.
Not that he’s interested.
Mom’s the big hole in his heart. In his mind.
The kids gathering about Sis in the playground, they all sing that damn song they always sing when they call round. Sing it while gaily skipping over ropes, deftly changing places and positions. Precision and timing that would put the Marine Corps to shame.
‘My mama told me, if I was goody, that she would buy me, a rubber dolly.’
Their class walls are suddenly full of drawings and paintings of monkeys and geese. All going to heaven in a little row boat.
Weirder things too. The rabbit from Alice in Wonderland: the one with the waistcoat and watch.
I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.
Then there’s old, canvas topped cars, but with wings. Flying about these crayon-blue skies like countless Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs. Dragons, too, but with kids riding on their backs. Ditto large swans, coasting down weaving rivers, with all these girls nestled between their wings.
Like someone’s been spiking the secondary grade’s fizzy pop with even more sugar than they could possibly handle in one hit.
‘My sister told her, I kissed a soldier…now she won’t buy me, a rubber dolly.’
Yeah, thankfully, there aren’t any pics of any nine-year-olds kissing soldiers.
Now me, I’m a whole way older than nine. And yet kissing’s just as much a foreign world to me as it is to them, at present.
The boys I knew, who I’d got a nice thing going with, we’ve left them all back near the lakeside, along with the old house and memories of Mom. The boys here, out in the back of beyond, they obviously think I’m a little too weird for their tastes.
The only people out here with even a streak of bright colour in their hair are the dear old gals whose pink rinse has been left in too long. Buckles are for belts only, studs for boot soles.
Not that my name helps me kinda blend in. Not when the kids find out Dia’s not short for Diana, but for ‘Diamond’.
Mom and Dad, they thought I was their little diamond when I was born, see?
Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.
Parents just don’t think these things through, do they?
‘Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend.’
That’s popular amongst the most popular girls at school. Amongst whom, of course, I can’t count myself as a member.
‘Hard as diamond.’
That’s what the boys sneer when I tell them to beat it. To leave me alone.
‘A diamond is forever miserable.’
That’s another one. And so okay, they’re right: I am miserable.
I have a right to be, don’t I?
I mean, just look at this dump.
The way the forest curls around the town’s edge, like it’s thick, dark prison fencing. Like it’s the forest itself that’s said ‘Thus far and no farther’, affronted that any settler had chosen to land on this side of the lake in the first place.
According to our history classes, it didn’t give up even this relatively small plot of land until the mid-twentieth century. When they’d at last developed the sort of equipment that could clear this type of thick wood, make the land habitable.
Until then, the forest had stretched right down to the coast, beating back even a large group sailing out here in the late nineteenth century. The trees had broken and blunted saws, forcing the settlers to cannibalise their own boats to provide shelter. They were too densely packed, too, to provide the would-be farmers with game, such that all livestock and seeds had soon been devoured.
After school, I hang around a little while, just in case anyone does want to talk to me.
They never do.
I walk home, taking it easy, unrushed, dawdling.
I take a detour. Walk past where I’ve heard Bradley Janes hangs out with his friends, his girls.
He’s not here.
Not that I desperately wanted him to be, see?
But he’s fun. Even smiles my way sometimes.
He might be laughing at me, course. Making fun of me behind my back soon as I’m out of sight.
‘Here’s my stalker!’
That kinda thing.
Thing is, I don’t intend to follow him around aimlessly like this.
I’m just trying to…trying to get up the courage to talk to him. Maybe even just smile back at him.
Even that, see, I regard as a risk: opening myself up to even more ridicule if his smile’s a false come-on.
Leading me into a trap.
I wander past his house.
I’m in no hurry for the plate of tinned spaghetti that usually greets us after a day at school.
Only, when I get back home, it’s nothing like a usual day.
The house is surround by cars.
Including at least four police vehicles.
It’s not just police cars. There are also large police vans.
Everyone parked as haphazardly on the street as the everyday cars of the moms who would drop off their kids to play with Sis.
Around the house itself, there’s even more chaos. Police in the garden, attempting to control excitedly barking dogs. Phones and walky-talkies crackling.
There’s the wailing of anguished moms too. Angry cries, coming from deep within the house through the wide open door.
Inside the house, things are even crazier.
Moms everywhere, all wringing hands, anguished faces. Dabbing weeping eyes.
Even the moms who aren’t crying, they’ve got all the signs that they’ve only just stopped; the white, strained expressions, the dark streaks of running eyeliner. Like down and out clowns.
When I walk in, there are gasps of relief, a turning of every head my way. Wide-eyed elation briefly passes over each face: a look instantly transforming into disappointment, dismay – even outright hostility towards me, for falsely raising their hopes.
From amongst all these weeping women crowding out our house, Dad suddenly rushes forwards, scoops me up hungrily. Like he used to do years ago, when I was still tiny and precious to him.
‘I sent a car for you, a police car!’ he says urgently, almost accusingly. ‘They couldn’t find you…’
‘I walked home the long way: what’s happening? Why are the police here?’
‘It’s Pearl – and the other girls!’
He glances about him at the weeping moms, like he’s reassuring them, letting them know he’s just as concerned for their kids as he is for Pearl.
He gulps, like he’s not sure what to say next.
He blurts it out.
‘They’ve all vanished!’
All the vanished kids had last been seen gaily trooping down the path towards the waiting wendy house.
Singing their happy little song.
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
‘How do they all fit in there?’ one of the moms had chuckled, watching from the kitchen window as they’d all disappeared inside the wendy house: the door silently closing behind them, cutting off the last line of their singing.
‘The line broke, the monkey got choked, and they all went to heaven in a little–’
‘Oh, Jeanie’s bow!’
Jeanie’s mom had held up the bow her daughter had lost from her hair. She’d slipped out of the back door, running down the path towards the silent wendy house.
When she’d got there, peered in through the door: the wendy house was empty.
Confused, thinking what else but that she could only have missed them all filing back out, the mom had glanced anxiously about herself.
‘Jeanie? Your bow! Your hair must look a mess…’
She’d looked towards the wood, the dark lines of regimentally placed trees.
Surely they couldn’t have gone in there…?
The police had come out surprisingly quickly. One of the other moms, she was well connected: married to a high-ranking officer.
Well connected enough, too, to know the history of these woods.
A history involving the disappearance of other groups of young kids. Back in the Seventies. The Fifties too – and, some said, going back to even earlier times.
A regular Pied Piper, you ask me.
‘It’s dark, and all the same in there!’ this particulaly well-connected, well-informed mom explains worriedly to the other, increasingly frightened moms. ‘Anyone can get lost!’
It not an easy place to find anyone who’s got themselves lost in there either.
The police are having immense trouble in their attempts to hack their way through the closely tangled branches. The search dogs all come back into the garden whimpering, their delicate noses slashed and bleeding, caught time and time again on the sharp twigs.
The moms’ anxiety has turned to anger and recriminations. Dad should have fenced off the woods; there should have been warnings; how could they have been so stupid to let their kids come out to such a dangerous place?
One of the moms, she’s taken to pushing Dad, slapping him. Making him back farther and farther away as she pursues him down the garden.
Then, abruptly, she stops.
Her eyes wide. Intently focused on the wendy house behind him.
Dad whirls around. Everyone who’s seen the mom’s abrupt change in behaviour does so too, following her anguished gaze towards the wendy house.
With the merest of squeaks, the wendy house door has begun to slowly open.
The moms who see this wail out loud, only this time in relief.
A child peers around the edge of the door.
Blonde hair. Blue dress.
Dad’s been holding his breath. He lets out a cry of relieved joy. Rushes towards the wendy house. Moms following him, those closest beating him.
‘Why’s everyone crying?’ Pearl asks, bewildered, perhaps even looking a little weary.
The door silently closes behind her. No one else has come out with her.
The first mom to reach the door wrenches it open so violently she just about pulls it off its hinges.
‘Mary!’ she yells out, her strained shriek both echoing and dulled by the wendy house’s wooden interior.
She dashes inside, other moms coming in immediately after, each shrieking out her daughter’s name.
Dad’s hugging Pearl, crying with joy, mumbling the questions he’s been dying to ask: ‘Where’ve you been? Didn’t you know we’d be worried?’
A burst of intense wailing emanates from the wendy house. The moms stumble out.
‘It’s empty! It’s empty!’
‘There’s no one in there!’
Pearl just turning up like that, safe and sound, while all the rest of the kids are still missing; well, it just makes the moms angrier that ever with Dad.
Like he’s arranged it all. Like he’s at fault, somehow.
‘He’s kidnapped them all!’
Some even take their anger out on poor little Pearl. They grab her, snarl at her.
‘Where are they all? What have you done with them?’
Dad wraps himself around her, protecting her from their slaps, the scratching of talon-like nails.
‘I’d hoped they’d come back!’ Pearl protests, her own face creasing with fear as it dawns on her what their anger with her means. ‘They’re in the woods! The woods!’
‘How’d you come out of the wendy house?’
‘I didn’t see you go in there!’
‘Please, please, Jackie’ Dad pleads, glaring sternly back at the anguished woman who made the last accusation. ‘No one saw her because we were all looking towards the woods, weren’t we?’
It doesn’t placate the moms.
How come she’s safe, they want to scream; you can see it just about hanging off their lips.
She’s the one responsible! Her and her wendy house!
It’s only the presence of the nearby police that’s stopping them tearing Pearl and Dad apart.
Some of the moms are still hanging around the edges of the thick wood, making the odd fruitless attempt to stride deeper into it before having to forlornly give up once more. Pearl’s sudden reappearance has given some of them hope that their own children will turn up safe after all.
Each hoping their own kid will be the next to show up.
Better that their own kid shows up but no one else, rather than everyone but their own kid being safe.
Yeah, I can see that in their wildly bulbous eyes. Like a starving person, prepared to fight over the last morsel of food.
At last made aware of Pearl’s reappearance, a couple of the cops head over our way. Saying they need to speak to her. Try and figure out what went on here.
One of the cops places a protective arm around Dad’s shoulder as he leads him and Pearl back up the path, back to the house. Dad’s arm is similarly curled protectively around Pearl.
‘They must know what’s going on!’ a mom spits at them.
‘We all know what’s going on!’ the other policeman replies sagely, authoritatively, brooking no more arguments. ‘Kids have wandered into the woods; it’s happened before. The difference this time is we’ll find them – we’ve got better systems, more sophisticated equipment.’
As if to back up his statement of reassurance, he looks up towards and indicates the arrival of a police helicopter swooping in overhead.
One mom, she’s not accepting it.
‘You telling me,’ she snorts derisively, ‘they didn’t have helicopters back in the Seventies?’
Dad’s kept both me and Pearl off school
He’s not saying so, but I reckon he’s decided it’s too dangerous for us to attend.
Not because he fears we’ll go missing like the other kids. He fears we’ll get the blame for their disappearance.
The moms still come round here.
Not to drop off their missing kids, obviously.
No: it’s to throw pet mess at our windows. At our door.
Cry out ‘Murderers!’ That kinda thing.
So whaddya know; I’m even more friendless than ever.
And even Pearl, even she’s friendless now.
For slightly different if ultimately connected reasons, of course.
She’s quiet, withdrawn.
More like me, in fact.
For once, we could actually be taken as sisters.
Turns out that she hadn’t come out of her terrible experience as unscathed as everyone had previously thought.
Parts of her body, we’d discovered, when she’d had her first bath, were bruised and scratched.
Weirdly, she still spends time in that nasty little wendy house of hers. More time than ever, I reckon.
She’s even moved the dolls from her bedroom into the house. When I sort of casually drift past the tiny hut (stalking again!), I hear her singing that damn skipping song in there.
Talking to the dolls like they’re her new friends. Even given them the names of those missing friends.
Jeanie. Mary. Ellie.
They’re the ones I’ve heard anyway.
‘You’re safe, safe with me,’ she assures them. ‘Don’t worry!’
I’m worried Pearl might be cracking up
Which, yeah, I realise is a little rich coming from me.
I’ve got to have a word with her.
Dad won’t understand. He’ll just deny it; say it’s just something she’s going through. Understandable really, he’ll say – she’ll handle it.
No one could handle what she’s going through.
And Pearl’s only nine.
I figure the best place to have a quiet talk with her is in that damned wendy house of hers.
A touch ironic, really; I mean, considering that was Dad’s whole point of building it. Somewhere where me and Pearl could hang out.
The next time I see Sis slipping out of the kitchen’s back door, weaving down the path towards the wendy house, I follow her.
There’s no singing coming from the wendy house this time.
Only lots and lots of excited whispering.
Like there really are lots of kids in there with her today.
As I open the wendy house door, it all goes abruptly quiet; like I’ve disturbed whatever was going on in here.
Pearl’s not here.
Her dolls are all tucked up beneath small blankets. Like they’re in bed.
I did see Pearl come in here!
There’s no way she slipped out past me!
Did Dad create some sort of secret door in the back of this place after all?
I step towards the darkened back wall, reaching out to run my hands swiftly over the panelled wood. Hoping to find any kind of indent that could indicate a hidden door.
I don’t need to do any searching. This close up to the wall, the door built into it is obvious: as large as the front door, with all the regular, rectangle panelling you’d expect to find on an interior door.
There’s no attempt to hide it.
How come I never saw it before?
How come no one – not even the police, when they were relentlessly searching this whole area for any clue to the kids’ disappearance – ever saw this before?
How come Dad never mentioned it?
I twist the handle, pull open the door.
Naturally, I’m expecting to step out into the garden lying behind the back of the wendy house.
I step into a ridiculously long corridor.
The corridor winds, dips and rises – it even slips crazily off angle in certain sections – creating corners I can’t see around.
On either side, the walls have lots of doors, but they don’t seem completely real. They’re similar to the flat, coloured doors we see on cartoons. Standing between these doors there are also the same, endlessly repeated sofas and lampstands; ones that are once again typical of cartoons, the type where cats chase mice or ghosts pursue overly curious teenagers.
Much farther down the corridor, but hidden from sight by one of the sweeping corners, I hear the rushed footfall of someone running away from me.
I break into a run myself, feeling quite dizzy as I rise and fall along with the corridor’s constantly dipping floor. At last, as I rush around a final corner, I come to a much straighter section, allowing me to see what must be the corridor’s end lying far ahead of me.
Pearl is there, standing by a table.
She’s also with a large white rabbit, one standing on its hind feet, wearing a waistcoat – and nervously checking his pocket watch.
You’re kidding me, right?
I run down the corridor as fast as I can. Shouting, hoping to catch Pearl’s attention.
She either doesn’t hear or she ignores me. Either way, she swiftly drinks from a bottle she’s picked up from the table.
And yeah, just like in that story, she suddenly begins to shrink.
The rabbit has already opened and ducked through an incredibly small door standing to one side of the table. Now that Pearl has shrunk down to a similar size, she follows him through.
The door clangs to behind her.
And suddenly, I’m in this long corridor on my own.
‘Pearl!’ I shriek out, more uselessly than ever.
I’m breathing hard by the time I reach the table. Not just because I’ve been running so hard. I’m also worried for Pearl.
Probably for the very first time in my life, if I’m being honest.
Where the heck has she vanished to?
Is that where all the other girls have disappeared to?
I have to follow her. I haven’t got time to go back and get help.
Who’d believe me anyway?
I reach for the bottle, bring it hurriedly up to my lips–
Isn’t that the mistake Alice made? Alice in Wonderland?
Didn’t she leave the key to the small door on the table, leaving it out of her reach?
I glance about the table top; there it is!
It’s small, and almost the same glaring white as the table. No wonder Alice had missed it when she came down–
What am I saying?
That Alice really existed?
That Wonderland exists?
Nah! It can’t be!
I take a quick drink from the bottle.
It tastes of fizzy sherbet. Other than that, there’s no other odd internal sensation.
The corridor about me seems to be suddenly expanding, however. The table growing as if alive, as if it were a rapidly growing tree.
Of course, I realise, it’s really me that’s shrinking. But it doesn’t either look or feel that way.
The lip of the table top soars above me. The legs appear to be thickening.
The small door looms larger and larger before me. Its key, the one I’m holding in my hand, seems to be gaining in both size and weight.
In my other hand, I’m still holding the bottle. Thankfully, that seems to be shrinking along with me. Otherwise it would now be much too heavy for me to hold safely.
As soon as I think I’m not going to shrink any further, I slip the bottle into the loop of one of the numerous straps decorating my jacket, securing it with a tightening of the buckle. It’s come in handy after all, it seems, wearing clothes with multiple straps and studs.
The projecting clawed foot of the table is flattened on its top, as if it were a small table top in its own right. On top of this there’s an extremely small cake, yet one that appears normal to me in my shrunken state.
There’s no label on it, however. No label saying ‘Eat me’, as it did in the story of Alice’s adventures.
Even so, as I did with the bottle of magical liquid, I take a few slices of the cake – thankfully, it’s already cut into pieces – and place them within my jacket pockets.
Who knows when they will come to be useful, right?
As I step closer to the small door, I discover that the label that should have been attached to the cake has obviously come undone, its curl of string having somehow got trapped within the woodwork of the frame. Even when I try and pull the label free, it refuses to come away from the frame, as if snagged on some splinter or knot lying within the wood.
‘Me eat,’ it says on the label.
Odd – everyone knows that’s the wrong way round!
The key, at least, works as it should. It turns smoothly within its lock. The door effortlessly eases open.
The door’s ridiculously small, so much smaller than I thought it had been when Pearl and the rabbit had slipped through it. Despite my new, reduced size, I have to drop down on to my stomach and begin to awkwardly worm my way through the minute doorway.
With my head and arms on the other side of the doorway, I can’t help but gawk in astonishment at the richly coloured garden that I find myself in.
The leaves alone gleam with every type of green you’ve seen, from a shade approaching blue to a thick, dark olive. The blooms range from a sunburst red to midnight blue, with every kind of yellow in between. Shapes are exotic and varied, as if through the design of someone who’s got nothing better to do than paint unimaginable flowers.
As I start to uncomfortably scramble farther through the door, I suddenly find myself painfully wedged in its frame.
‘Ouch!’ I shriek, glancing back to see that the doorframe has suddenly shrunk even tighter around my waist.
‘Ouch! My teeth!’ the doorway complains, abruptly opening wider once more as it howls in agony.
‘Just what sort of coating is that?’ the doorway grumbles irately, revealing white, wooden teeth. Teeth that have thankfully cracked on my jacket’s studs, buckles and thick leather.
Without wasting time either replying or expressing shock that a doorway is trying to eat me, I hurriedly drag the rest of my body through the frame, before it decides to clamp down on me once again.
‘You tried to eat me?’ I storm at the doorway.
‘You were warned!’ the doorway protests, pulling its mouth and shattered teeth into an anguished, miserable sneer. ‘Didn’t you read the label?’
‘I thought it was a mistake! I thought it was supposed to say “Eat me”.’
‘Eat me? Why would it say that? Why would I want you to eat me?’
As he speaks – it sounds like a he – he runs a strangely realistic tongue over the edges of his teeth, as if checking where they’re broken.
‘Oh, this is going to cost a fortune to repair!’ he wails. ‘Dentists are so expensive these days!’
‘A dentist? Don’t you mean a carpenter?’
I can’t believe this; I’m actually arguing with a doorway.
‘What would a carpenter know about repairing teeth?’ the doorway sharply snaps back, almost damaging his teeth all the more. ‘Do you get your teeth seen to by a carpenter? Oh, and I suppose you’d have a broken staircase seen to by a dentist?’
‘Doors aren’t supposed to have teeth!’ I insist.
‘Who said? Is that some sort of universal law? Doors can’t have teeth?’
‘Well I’ve never known of any other door that has teeth!’
‘Well I’ve never known of any girl coated in bits of steel and old skin!’
‘Oh no, no!’ It’s only just dawned on me. Were all the other little girls eaten by this dreadful door? ‘You didn’t eat all those other girls who–’
‘All those other girls?’ He sounds affronted, like he can’t believe I would ever believe such a dreadful thing of him. ‘Of course not! They were with the rabbit! They had permission to come in here!’
‘But how am I supposed to get permission?’
‘You ask the rabbit of course!’
‘Where does the rabbit go?’ Tired of my pointless conversation with this ridiculous little doorway, I glance back towards the heavily flowering garden, remembering once more why I’m actually down here. ‘Where does he take the children?’
The garden seems to stretch for mile after mile. Even stranger, however, is that despite my assumption that I must be somewhere deep underground, a wonderfully blue sky stretches endlessly up above me.
‘Into the garden, of course!’ The doorway is still touching the broken tips of his teeth with his tongue. ‘Look, if you could leave me with something to cover the dental costs, I’m quite prepared to forget this whole unfortunate –’
‘Forget it? You can forget thinking I’m going to pay you anything. You tried to eat me!’
I rise to my feet, glowering sternly down at the door.
The doorway gulps, as if realising he’s now in danger of my heavily booted foot making his teeth even worse.
Not that I would, of course. Well, not unless I absolutely had to….
‘Er, well, okay,’ the doorway stammers abjectly. ‘Er, you haven’t, by any chance, got a piece of cake I could eat in your place, I suppose?’
‘Yes, I have as it happens,’ I answer brightly, reaching for one of the slices of cake I’d slipped into a pocket.
I’m just about to feed it into the hungrily waiting doorway when I stop, my hand and the cake I’m holding in it hovering halfway between us.
‘Wait a minute? Wouldn’t this cake make you bigger?’
‘Hmnn…how could it possibly do that?’
It seems to me that he’s trying to sound innocent. I put the cake back in my pocket.
‘No; I don’t think you should have this cake.’
‘Suit yourself,’ the doorway grumbles. ‘But have you thought about how you’re going to get back out of here?’ he adds with a mocking grin.
Leaving the doorway to continue his grumbles about his shattered teeth, I set off along a meandering path. It both weaves and rises slowly up and down as it passes between the towering blooms flanking its edges.
The flowers are incredibly, exotically large, yet not outlandishly so, as I would have expected after drinking the magic liquid in the bottle. As I can hear the songs of birds, the droning and chirping of insects, I can only hope they’re also of a size relative to my own shrunken state: the dangers presented by an overly large bird or insect don’t bear thinking about.
I can’t hear any sounds of playing children, however. Nor anything else that might help me pinpoint wherever Pearl and her strange little rabbit has got to.
Thankfully, for the moment there only appears to be one path. If I continue to follow this, I must surely come across Sis and, hopefully, perhaps even the missing girls too.
Why hadn’t Sis told Dad about this place? Especially after the disappearance of her friends?
Then again, who’d believe her? I certainly wouldn’t have.
And how would an adult get past that carnivorous door? Even if it were broken down, what effect would that have on the rest of the garden?
There’s a new sound in the garden: the languid clop of horses’ hooves. It’s coming from some other path, hidden amongst the brightly coloured bushes and plants, but seemingly running off to one side of my own path.
I break into a sprint, hoping to come as soon as possible to a point where the paths merge. It sounds as if the horses are heading in a similar direction to me, but the paths might easily diverge, or break off into different courses altogether.
‘Girls! Is that you? Are you there?’ I yell out, hoping anyone there can hear me.
‘Of course we’re here!’ a young, happy voice chuckles back.
‘Do you want a ride?’ giggles another joyously.
As I run down the pebbled path, I begin to hear the ever louder strains of a happy tune, music that’s obviously being muted by the surrounding, soaring plants.
So as the veiling plants at last begin to clear, the music hits me full on as I break out into a kind of extended theme park; one complete with winding pathways leading off in multiple directions towards every type of young children’s ride you could possibly think of.
There are swan boats on snaking canals, minute vintage-style cars on raised wooden roads. There are whirling carousels, elevated rides, flying elephants and squirrels swinging high above me, suspended from spinning towers. There are kiosks too, of course, emanating the rich, sweet fragrances of freshly cooked donuts, candyfloss, popcorn and toffee apples.
The only thing missing is people. It’s all running as if controlled by ghosts, as if for the enjoyment of invisible spectres.
The path spreads out from beneath my feet, tentacles stretching out throughout the park, heading off towards even more rides partially hidden beyond further clumps of flowers and trees. Down the nearest path, I can thankfully hear the sounds of swiftly approaching hooves, the giggling of overly-excited children.
The horses round the corner of a thick clump of red trumpet-shaped blooms, their colours every bit as bright as the surrounding flowers they emerge from.
They’re ponies, not horses: and a young girl’s idea of the very cutest ponies too. All long manes and tails, with skin in garish shades of purple, pink, blue, red and green. Decorated with heart, star and moon motifs.
No one’s riding them, however; the girls must have dismounted, perhaps having decided to play some silly prank on me.
‘Girls! Please come out!’
I almost add, ‘Your moms are worried for you,’ but realise it’s not going to have much of an effect on them. They’ve obviously been so engrossed playing in this magical place that any consideration for their parents has completely escaped them.
The ponies exchange puzzled glances; then giggle.
‘Come out?’ one of them asks, her voice that of a young girl.
‘We’re here: can’t you see us?’ another asks with a politely subdued chuckle.
‘Do you want a ride?’ says a third.
‘You can speak?’ I ask, gawping ridiculously in surprise.
As soon as I’ve said it, I wish I hadn’t.
Of course they can speak, idiot!
Haven’t you just spent the last few minutes having an irate conversation with a doorway that tried to eat you?
The ponies laugh good-naturedly.
‘Why shouldn’t we be able to speak?’
Some of them observe me now with pitying glances, like they’re wondering if I’m not just a little stupid.
‘Have you seen a little girl around here?’ I ask, realising it’s probably best not to try and explain why I thought they wouldn’t be capable of speaking. ‘With a white rabbit?’
I briefly wonder if I should explain that I don’t mean she’s holding the rabbit, but I really can’t see the point. I mean, they’ve probably all had long conversations with the rabbit, haven’t they? They might even have tea and cakes with him on a regular basis, going by how nothing around here seems to make any real sense.
‘We’ve seen lots of little girls around here recently,’ one of the ponies answers gleefully.
‘Although not very recently,’ another adds, sadly hanging her head.
‘There’s no one to ride us anymore!’
‘Do you know where they disappeared to?’ I ask hopefully.
‘They went out towards the hut.’
‘The hut?’ I repeat, wondering if this could have some connection with the wendy house; if it is, it might even be another way out of this weird garden. ‘Was it, by any chance, a yellow hut?’
‘Why yes! It was!’
‘How did you know?’
‘Just a guess,’ I reply. ‘Could you show me the way there, please?’
‘We can do better than that!’
‘We can take you there!’
‘Which one of us would you prefer to ride?’
This doesn’t quite fit with my own image of myself; riding a pink pony, with flowers down its flanks. Its long mane whipping around me in the breeze, like freshly blown candy floss.
Perhaps I should have picked the one that more closely matched the colour of my hair.
We trot hurriedly through the rest of the park, passing other rides and amusements: clockwork cars that run along the path itself; miniature trains that wind slowly along elaborately patterned tracks; paddle boats and an old steamer casually floating on extensive lakes; and Cinderella-like carriages, pulled by prancing white horses.
The trot increases to a faster canter as we at last leave the park behind us, entering once again the winding, rising and falling paths that weave through the gloriously coloured garden.
The farther we travel, the faster the pace, until we break into such a furious gallop that I’m soon having difficultly staying astride my mount. She stretches out her head before her as she ferociously pummels the earth. The wind swirling around us beats at my face, whips her mane more violently about me, and seems to be getting stronger the faster we travel.
‘Slow down, slow down!’
I yell out in fright as it dawns on me that we’re hurtling along at speeds no normal horse could ever hope to manage. The wind we’re riding into feels increasingly as if it’s solidifying, it’s hurting so much as it pounds against my face.
I close my eyes against the fierce blasts, squinting them only slightly open every now and again to gain an idea of where we might be heading. The towering plants around us whirl and snap, like a jungle caught in a tropical storm. Blooms are torn from stalks, taking to the air like colourful parachutes. Leaves are rapidly stripped to little more than skeletons of their former selves.
With this sense of a storm comes darker skies, the gathering together of black clouds high overhead. There’s no rain, as yet, but the air snaps and crackles, full of the electricity that heralds a violent hurricane.
We’re riding relentlessly into this vicious gale. Every pony is now stretched out, stretched to its limits. Their bright colours, their motifs of stars, crescents and hearts, have all been stripped away.
Next, the wind begins to shred at their flesh. To rip it apart. To make it blow behind them in the powerful gusts like bloodied streamers.
The ponies don’t care. They ride on, as if feeling no pain. As if thrilling to this experience.
As if they themselves are responsible for whipping up this wind, this storm.
The flesh is torn from them, revealing bared, scarlet muscles, silvery blue nerve endings. The muscles are next to tear, to be stripped away. Followed by innards, intestines and stomachs.
Soon I’m riding nothing but a pale imitation of a horse, a skeleton dressed with nothing but butchered shreds.
The other horses around me now look the same.
They have their own riders now.
‘Where are we going? What’s happening?’
What a ridiculous cry.
What sort of an answer am I expecting?
There no longer seems to be any sense of earth beneath us. We’re riding the storm, as the crests of waves ride a storm-tossed sea.
Wherever we’re heading, I don’t want to go there.
I slip to one side in my saddle. I throw myself off the back of my terrifying nightmare.
Then I’m falling.
Through massed, flying locusts.
The highest branches of the tightly packed trees I fall amongst are thankfully slender, thankfully pliable – and easily breakable.
Even so, as my body strikes and hurtles through them, they lash at my flesh, like they have a mind to strip me as clean as those nightmarish ponies. The more branches I fall through, the more I fear I’m going to end up as nothing more than a shattered skeleton.
The branches whip painfully at my skin. When they snap, then they scratch as I plummet through them.
Yet they slow my fall. They save my life.
When I finally break through the very last of these pummelling branches and stems, I drop the rest of the way into the fern-packed undergrowth, landing with a heavy punch that knocks the wind out of me.
With an agonised groan, I thankfully slip into unconsciousness.
When I finally awake, still a little dazed, I find myself deep within a thick forest not dissimilar to the one running along our back yard, or along the edges of our own particular part of town,
If anything, thankfully, this forest isn’t quite as bad as the one bordering our home. At least I can carefully, tentatively move between the trees, without being held back by such tightly packed branches that it would take forever just to move a few yards.
Yet every move I make is painful. I’m badly bruised by my fall. My skin is badly scratched.
I should be grateful. I should be dead.
The trees might have softened my fall, but I could still have ended up with a broken back, or broken legs.
Far ahead of me, I can see that the sun has managed to break through the ceiling of higher branches. The upper parts of the trees glow ethereally in a bright amber band. It’s a sign, I’m sure, that here the forest opens up even more. It might even be a pathway, running more or less at a tangent to my own, more difficult course.
As I quicken my pace towards this beckoning light, I pick up the first strains of a child singing.
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
Ignoring the whipping and scratching of the stiffer stems blocking my way, I force my way as quickly as I can through the undergrowth.
I’m heading towards where the singing seems to be coming from, towards what I’m still hoping is a path.
The singing is that of a girl: a happy girl.
‘…My mama told me, if I was goody, that she would buy me, a rubber dolly…’
My first glimpses of the singing child are easy to make out amongst the dark browns and greens of the forest; they’re flashes of a scarlet red, the red I presume of her clothes.
As I rapidly draw nearer to what indeed seems to be a path, I see that she is indeed wearing red.
A red riding cloak.
Little Red Riding Hood?
Oh, you’re kidding me again, right?
The red-cloaked girl is happily skipping along the path.
Just as the tale tells us, she’s carrying a basket; a basket full of fresh loaves and freshly cut flowers.
For her granny, naturally.
‘Oh what big eyes you’ve got…’
She isn’t exactly acting like a girl walking through a wood plagued by a flesh eating wolf. Then again, in the story, she doesn’t realise there is a wolf hanging around her granny’s home, does she?
At least, not until it’s too late to do anything about it.
Is that why I’m here? Am I supposed to warn her?
‘Don’t go into your granny’s house…’
Am I a sort of feminine replacement of the woodman who saves her in the story?
Or am I just to stay way clear of everything, and let the story pan out as it should?
‘Wait, wait!’ I cry out, running as fast as I can now through the whipping stems. ‘You’re in danger…!’
The little girl hasn’t heard me.
She’s still gaily skipping down the path ahead of me.
Heading towards, I can see now, as I break out of the undergrowth onto the path stretching behind her, a small house lying even deeper within the forest.
A small, yellow house. A small wendy house.
The little girl is still singing: perhaps that’s why she hasn’t heard me.
‘…The line broke, the monkey got choked, and they all went to heaven in a little row boat…’
I run after her, yelling out a warning once more.
‘Please wait! It might be dangerous going in there!’
Drawing up close behind her, I stretch out a hand. I touch her gently on the shoulder to make her aware of my presence.
She spins around, looks up at me from beneath her hood with a garish, extended grin.
She’s had her face painted: yet the effect is terrible.
It’s like Batman’s Joker, with a ridiculously wide, completely askew mouth. Like the poor girl’s facepainter’s stopped taking her happy pills way too soon.
‘Hello!’ the girl trills excitedly. ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’
Her free hand is moving towards her basket.
There’s not just bread and flowers in there after all. There’s also an exceptionally large pair of scissors. They glint in the light of what little of the sun’s rays manage to penetrate this far through the veiling trees.
‘Er, well…yes, of course,’ I answer unsurely.
It’s an answer that appears to placate her: instead of continuing to reach for the handle of the scissors, she instead raises her hand towards her face.
She scrubs hard at her face with her hand, removing most of the face paint.
Even clear of the paint, however, her mouth is horrifically malformed.
Her face has been badly slashed from ear to ear.
‘How about now?’ the little girl asks with her terrible grin.
The little girl’s paint covered hand once again begins to reach towards the scissors glinting in her basket.
I slightly look away, quickly working out my chances of being able to run away.
As if by magic, the evilly grinning girl appears directly in front of me once more.
I turn to run off another way – only for her to swiftly change position yet again, blocking my way.
It’s impossible to run away from her. She seems to simply reappear in front of me no matter which way I turn.
‘You still haven’t answered,’ she light-heartedly admonishes me.
She’s now wielding the brightly sparkling scissors. Waving them in front of my face.
‘Am I pretty?’ she asks again, her voice pleading, desperate.
‘Yes, of course you’re –’
She slashes out with the scissors, aiming for my mouth. Aiming to give me a mouth like hers.
To make me pretty, like her.
I swing my head back just in time to avoid the worst of the slashing scissors, raising my arms at the same time to protect my face.
My studded leather jacket takes the worst of the blow. Despite this, the sharp blades catch me along one cheek. They draw blood, gashing my skin badly.
The girl chuckles elatedly, perhaps thinking she’s caused more damage than she has.
Throwing her bloodied scissors back amongst the bread in her basket, she whirls around. She sprints off into the forest as if the tangled stems are incapable of restraining her.
She’s singing happily once more.
‘…My sister told her, I kissed a soldier…now she won’t buy me, a rubber dolly…’
The sun-like flashes of the little girl’s red cloak gradually vanish into the darkness of the surrounding forest.
The red stain on my hand, however, simply increases the more I try and wipe away the blood pouring from the gash to my face.
I might have escaped the worst of the girl’s vicious slash to my face, but I’m still cut badly, and bloodied.
I could do with a better way of stemming the flow of blood, cleaning my wound.
I glance up the winding path towards the silently waiting wendy house.
Is that a way out of this dreadful place?
Does it connect me somehow with the wendy house in our own back yard?
Does it lead me back home?
Or is it really the home of Little Red Riding Hood’s granny?
Maybe even the lair of the wolf?
I don’t care. I need help to stop this bleeding, to treat this gash to my face.
I start heading towards the patiently waiting yellow house.
I say it as I open up the door.
I’m really expecting granny to be laid out in her bed in here. With big teeth. Perfect for gobbling me up, naturally.
But there’s no bed in here. Not even the doll’s bed I’d seen in Pearl’s version of this little wendy house.
Yet bar the lack of the doll lying in her bed, this little wendy house looks exactly like Sis’s. All dark and gloomy. All remarkably tiny.
At the back, it’s darker still. Once again, just like it is in Pearl’s little house.
Does that mean that this little house has a door hidden there? Just as there is in Pearl’s?
I step closer; yep, the door’s there right enough.
It opens easily. It seems dark on the other side of the door too.
Another corridor, perhaps?
I step through the doorway.
No wonder its dark here.
It’s not a corridor.
I’ve come out of the other side of the wendy house.
And I’m looking directly into the thick, dark forest that runs around the back of our yard.
Minus Pearl, of course. And the other girls.
But now I can get Dad’s help. And the help of anyone else who’s prepared to believe my tale of the white rabbit and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: all lying beneath our back yard.
Yeah; it shouldn’t take much effort persuading anyone about any of that.
I spin around – and my jaw drops.
The wendy house has gone.
Instead, I’m looking out over a pebbled beach.
And, beyond it, the seemingly endless stretch of one of the Great Lakes.
Just before I break down in tears of frustration, I recognise where I am.
It’s the coast, not far from where we live.
Correction: where we used to live. Used to live with Mom.
I remember the general rise and fall of the projecting, rocky spars curving out around our bay. When you’re brought up in such beautifully inspiring scenery, you don’t forget it easily.
I glance behind me once more.
But no; sadly, I’m not almost home.
The forest is still there, almost reaching right up to the beach itself. As it must have done hundreds of years before. Before the settlers arrived here.
There aren’t any houses. No streets. No stores.
So, maybe I’m almost home, bar a few hundred years.
Being a hundred miles out would be an easier problem to surmount.
Glancing back along the run of the beach, I see that there’s something else that differs from my own memory of the coast: large dark shapes, strewn across a large area of the pebbles. They could be the bared and broken skeletons of whales, beached on the edge of the lapping waters.
With nowhere better to head to, I head towards them.
The closer I get, the more I realise I was mistaken to take them as beached, rotting whales. They’re structures of wood. Boats that have been dragged ashore. Boats stripped of their planks and beams. Cannibalised.
Like a scene – if I recall it correctly – from our history lessons at school. Those earlier, unsuccessful would-be settlers, who had to make their homes from the wood of the boats they’d arrived in.
I can understand the problems they’d have attempting to cut these trees with the relatively primitive equipment they would have brought with them.
Dad had gone through god knows how many of his electric saw blades when he’d cut up a few of the smaller trees to make the wendy house.
It was like, he’d joked, the wood didn’t want to give up its right to life easily.
He would have given up, I’m sure. Even the old, more resourceful Dad I once knew would have given up: he’d have bought a trunk from a sawmill, or ready cut planks.
But he’d elevated the building of the wendy house into a final challenge. One that, this time, wasn’t going to bring him back down to earth with a crash, showing him, yet again, what a pathetic failure he was.
He’d struggled on, furiously discarding what remained of his power tools as they packed up one by one.
He wouldn’t need them anymore, anyhow. His business was finished.
He’d finish this damn wendy house, no matter what it took out of him.
Well, sorry Dad: but it looks to me like that damn wendy house still hasn’t finished taking payment for the wood you took to build it.
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
Not that song again!
But wait – what am I saying?
Could that be Pearl? And the girls?
It’s not one girl singing! It’s a group of them.
The singing is coming from the hollows, the dips and recesses lying amongst the grass strewn dunes that stretch out landward from this part of the beach.
I run up the beach, slowing and struggling a little in the thick sand that’s blown against the slightly rising land. I grab at the long, spiky grass as I near the mound’s peak, using it to help pull me up to the top.
Down in the hollow, I see what’s become of the boats. The wood has been transformed into crude homes, low-roofed and small, sheltering from the cold winds behind the dune’s grass-topped hillocks. It’s like a tiny village, made quickly and in desperation rather than with any sense of beauty or pleasantness in mind.
It’s a village that appears to be empty, apart from what seems to be the endless chanting of that damn skipping song.
‘…My mama told me, if I was goody,…that she would buy me, a rubber dolly…’
Running past a number of apparently empty huts, and surmounting two more rises, I find myself looking down on a small group of skipping, singing girls.
Unfortunately, it’s not Pearl and her friends. These girls are darkly, shabbily dressed. It’s an old type of dress too, with what were probably once voluminous skirts.
The girls themselves are pale and skinny. No; not just skinny – withered. Their eyes are darkly set, like they’ve had nowhere near enough food.
Way off to one side of the skipping girls, there’s a hut from which other singing emanates: hymns. It must be what passes for a church here, where the adults have gathered.
It can’t be a Sunday, otherwise the girls would be in there with them. Singing their praises to God, celebrating the cycles of the seasons, of life.
As one of the girls casually glances up from her steady twirling of the long rope, she sees me.
Her slight smile falls from her face. Her already bulbous eyes open wider.
Others, noting her look of horror, follow her gaze to also look my way.
Like her, their faces contort in terror.
The skipping stops, the rope spilling lazily to the floor. The song fades out.
What’s wrong with them?
Do I really looks so bad? So different?
And then I taste the blood in my mouth. The blood running from my slashed cheek.
I must look like some rabid vampire who’s been overdosing on virgin flesh.
I quickly bring up a hand to wipe the blood away: and as one, all the girls scream in fright, then turn and run off towards the surrounding woods.
‘Wait! Wait!’ I yell as I rush after them. ‘I don’t mean any harm!’
And sure; wiping the blood away from my mouth was just the perfect way to reassure them I wasn’t about to devour them all whole, wasn’t it?
As everywhere else around here, the wood brings any further extension of the dunes to a sudden halt, like a solid black wall preventing anything progressing beyond it.
Despite this, the terrified girls manage to effortlessly weave through the tightly packed trees. As I hurriedly follow on after them, I see how this has been made possible: the settlers might have found themselves incapable of sawing into the iron-like trunks (here and there I can spot the shallow gashes, the only results of their fruitless attempts), but they’ve cleared away pathways as they’ve removed the more easily hacked branches.
With her bright red cloak, Little Red Riding Hood had been relatively easy to spot amongst the gloom. The girls, in their spartanly dark clothes, are another matter.
They flow through the forest like spectres, visible only through their rushed movement. Their screams.
‘Please wait! I just want to talk…!’
It’s pointless me shouting after them. They can’t hear. They don’t want to hear.
They don’t trust me.
They just want to get as far away from me as they can. As fast as they can.
Despite the cleared pathways, enough branches and stems remain to claw at me violently as I pursue the fleeing girls. The branches must be similarly lashing at the running girls, yet not one girl seems to care, their dire need to get away from me obviously deemed more important.
Strangely, those already deeper within the forest, those farthest from me, suddenly burst into a louder cacophony of shrieks and terrified yells. There’s also a louder crashing and snapping of branches, the sounds of a careless, hurried onrush through the woods.
The horrified screams flood back towards me, gathering in strength as each girl picks up and repeats the shrieks in a flowing wave of growing terror. With each fresh cry, each girl abruptly changes the direction of her flight, their wraith-like shadows and shapes now urgently rushing off to one side. They crash through the tightly packed trees with absolutely no consideration for any hurt or damage they’re sustaining.
No matter the noise they’re making in their headlong rush through the woods, it’s as nothing to the thunderous crash of thicker branches being brutally smashed and cast aside by the girls’ new pursuers.
There are loud snarls, grunts, growls.
Amongst the rapidly shattering dark wickerwork of the forest, there are flashes of swiftly moving ash-grey fur, of creatures immense in size, and remarkable in their power.
They run on two legs, their arms long and grotesquely muscled, their muzzles extended, and full of sharp, already bloodied teeth.
They could have been werewolves.
But they look like something even worse.
Unlike any animal, the beasts pursuing the fleeing girls possess a dexterity any man would envy.
They twirl and fling heavily weighted bolas towards the fleeing girls, bringing them down already securely bound around the legs. The girls topple, thrash around, vanish with a terrified squeal into the veiling undergrowth.
The creatures pounce on their captured prey, binding the poor girls’ wrists with more rope, any squealing cut short with tightly wound scarves. The wolf-like beasts then hurriedly bundle their quivering, struggling catches into sacks, throwing the filled sacks over shoulders, two to a beast.
Each loaded creature then happily lopes off through the woods, seemingly heading back towards the makeshift village.
With the cracking of whipped air, a bola is suddenly whirling its way towards me. I ty to turn and run – too late.
The weighted ropes curl around my legs, locking them firmly together. Bringing me down.
The beasts leap upon me, binding my arms behind my back in one swift move.
Then comes the scarf around my mouth. The sack over my head.
Even blinded by the sacking, I realise we’re moving with remarkable speed and ease through the woods.
I’m dizzy with fear, with a shortness of breath. Slung over the beast’s shoulder, face down, every movement knocks the wind from my stomach. The muffling scarf makes it hard to breath.
Unfortunately, despite its tightness, the scarf doesn’t block out the stench.
Urine. Rotting meat. Cemeteries.
At last we begin to slow, to even take care as we move quietly through the undergrowth.
‘Careful Henry!’ a female voice hisses.
What sort of name is that for a man-eating beast?
We stop, the beast’s breathing heavy, even a little laboured. I get the feeling that he’s crouching, maybe even hiding.
The female voice again, more urgent this time. Even quieter than before, too, but that’s because she’s now somewhere ahead of us.
The beast rises to his feet, breaking into a spurt of remarkable speed. I bounce painfully on his shoulder.
Next, we’re abruptly rising, perhaps up a small hillock. My hanging, covered head passes through the many blunted strikes of what I presume is thick, tall grass. Then we’re almost tumbling down the other side of the mound, the running of the beast strangely hurried and careering.
Wood creaks in wailing protest beneath his heavily pounding feet. A door slams behind us.
Then I’m flung carelessly to the floor, the loosely fixed boards thankfully absorbing most of the force. Even so, it’s still bone jarring. The sack is pulled clear of my body as part of the beast’s same, easy motion.
I’m in a house.
A small, wooden house.
Is that what beasts live in these days?
The female beast, moving away from the door she’s just closed behind us, hurries her partner.
He moves swiftly, picking me up as if I’m weightless.
It offers me the first clear view I’ve had of these dreadful creatures.
Although in many ways werewolf-like, as I’d first thought, there are many differences. These creatures are gaunt, starved, their furred skin pulled tightly over their skeletons. The bones push out hard against the grey skin, like the bones of the rotting dead, as if readying themselves to cut themselves free of the awkwardly constraining skin.
If, then, it’s anything like a werewolf, it’s a werewolf risen from the grave.
Holding me clear of the floor with nothing but one hand, the beast uses his free hand to open a door behind me, thrusting me into what seems like a cupboard.
But it’s not a cupboard.
It’s a pantry. With bloodied meat hanging from rusting butcher’s hooks.
There’s a rapid, urgent knock at the door to the beasts’ house.
Briefly, the beast’s darkly set eyes blaze with irritation, perhaps even his own equivalent of terror.
‘Damn! They’ve already spotted their brats are missing!’
Over the beast’s shoulder, I see the female shiver, like she’s cold. The fur ripples. The sharp bones lying beneath wrench and writhe.
In a moment, she’s a scrawny, nakedly-pale woman. Like the beast, she’s a skeleton held together by nothing bar skin: but at least this is a human skeleton.
She reaches for a simple black dress that had been flung over the back of a nearby chair. She slips on this dress in an easy, well-practised move.
The harsh knocking at the door continues. With a furious snarl of tattered lips, the beast sharply hoists me up, pushes me back – and brings my back down hard upon the point of a butcher’s hook.
Like his partner (or should that be wife?), Henry begins to transform into an emaciated human, closing the cupboard door as he turns away.
There’s the rustle of clothes being slipped on. Then I hear the woman answer the door, pleasantly apologising for her delay. Making out she was busy cleaning.
She’s interrupted by the caller, who’s obviously got no time for such niceties.
‘The children,’ the caller wails in the quavering tones of a petrified woman, ‘some of the children have gone missing again!’
Henry acts like he’s shocked, concerned.
‘Don’t you worry, Mary,’ Henry declares authoritatively, ‘we’ll help you search for them again, won’t we Mari?’
‘Of course, of course we will dear,’ a kindly sounding Mari agrees.
‘They went in the woods…we told them not to go in the woods!’
Mary’s voice fades as she backs away from the house, the clump of footsteps across the wooden floorboards indicating that Henry and Mari are hurriedly following her outside. Keeping to their word that they’ll help her find her missing children
The door closes to behind them.
And I’m left hanging here, strung up in readiness to be carved up into their next meal.
Why aren’t I dead or dying, the butcher’s hook having already carved out my back and liver?
Thankfully, Henry had been in too much of a rush to make sure he’d gone about his job properly. Thankfully, too, my jacket’s made of sufficiently thick leather and enough abundant loops to have latched onto the hook regardless.
Which all means that when Henry and Mari come back from their fruitless search, they can have the extra pleasure of slicing and dicing me up while I’m still fresh and alive.
My luck just gets better and better, doesn’t it?
I wiggle around a bit on the hook, wondering just how snagged up my jacket is back there. Maybe I can get the leather to tear a bit more. Maybe the loops the hook’s caught up in can be worked a little looser.
Ripping my expensive leather jacket isn’t something I’d usually be hoping to do, but right now I’m praying for it to happen.
There’s a blissful sound of tearing, the clink of buckles snapping free. Suddenly, I’m tipping forward, the toppling getting worse as the leather continues to rip and the buckles jerk open.
Wait! What about the bottle I’d slipped into another of my jacket’s loops?
If that smashes when I fall, the shards could cut right into me!
As I finally fall forward, I bend my body to protect the bottle from the worst of the impact when I hit the ground.
Instead, I let my forehead take most of the painfully jarring force.
If I were a masochist, I’d be having the time of my life.
But…that bottle of magical liquid might be my way out of here.
If I take a drink: voila!
In one bound, she was free!
I’d be so small, all these ropes and the scarf would simply fall off me!
The ropes that, presently, are stopping me reaching for the bottle.
The tightly binding scarf that, presently, would stop me drinking from it anyway.
Now, what would Popeye do?
The wood forming the base of the wall just by my head has already rotted a little, creating a tiny hole. Beyond the hole, I can hear the scratching and scrabbling of some small creature making its way here.
A rat, probably. You know, one to come and nibble at my nose.
Just to really heighten the pleasure of being here, trussed up like a turkey.
But it’s not a rat that scrambles through the small hole.
It’s an old style china doll.
Oh, of course!
Why hadn’t I expected that, right?
She stares at me with her wide, bright blue eyes. Lifts a finger to her mouth: ‘Shuussh!’
Oh, dash – and there was me, all ready to have a sparkling conversation about the weather!
Dragging the last of her legs through the hole, the doll rises to her primly shoed little feet.
Quickly yet quietly, she slips around the back of my head, where she begins to attempt untying the scarf. It sounds like she’s having difficulty, the knot too tight for her to get a good grip on any part of it.
Giving up on her hopeless task with a sigh of frustration, she tiptoes back round to my front.
‘I’ll go get help – and a knife,’ she whispers as, with only slightly less of a struggle, she finally manages to pull the tightly tied scarf down from around my mouth.
‘No, wait: you don’t have to,’ I whisper back urgently, using a downward glance of my eyes to draw her attention to the bottle stored in my jacket’s loop. ‘The bottle; a drink from that will shrink me.’
There’s what could be the light of understanding in her eyes. She darts towards the bottle, loosening the buckle and loop holding it in place. She struggles once more with what to her is a massive, heavy bottle. Even so, she thankfully manages to drag the bottle along the floor until it lies close to my lips.
It’s another struggle for the doll to unscrew the cap. She’s drenched as the liquid cascades all over her when the top at last pops off.
I jerk my head forward, wrapping my lips around the opened bottle neck, briefly drinking in the magical waters. Trying to make sure I don’t drink too much, don’t drink too little.
I begin to shrink, the scarf falling loosely about my neck. The ropes around my ankles and wrists similarly drop away as their loops become too ludicrously large to hold me any longer.
Completely unconcerned by the state of her drenched dress, the doll grins happily. She offers me her hand as she indicates with her other than we should leave via the hole she came in by.
Her dress has an odd pattern; one of repeated monkeys, tramcars, geese, and bottles.
I stare longingly at what is now an unmanageably large bottle, wishing there were some way I could take it with me once again. Unlike before, it hadn’t shrunk with me; I’d had to spit its top clear of my mouth once I’d believed I’d drunk enough
Ah well: maybe I can hope that those two hideous creatures drink up whatever’s left. And they end up as the ugly little rodents they deserve to be.
Following the doll as she worms her way back through the hole, I find myself in yet another gloomy cupboard. This one is dominated by a loomingly large and overfilled sack, the many, angular objects packed inside stretching the sacking, like the bones of the creatures pushed hard against wasted skin.
As if the sack were also somehow alive, it quivers, shrugs. Its ‘bones’ move beneath its surface.
One of the sack’s bottom corners has shredded badly. Through this hole, a tin soldier slips out of the sack. He rises to his feet, salutes me.
‘Welcome,’ he whispers quietly. ‘We’re usually too late to rescue anyone,’ he adds with a sad shake of his head, but brightening up as he congratulates the doll. ‘Well done, Diana!’
Diana catches me staring at the pattern on her dress. Is it yet another connection with that damn song?
‘I drew them myself,’ she says. ‘Do you like it? It’s not really much of a pattern at all, is it?’
‘I’d thought it was a strange pattern,’ I admit, smiling to let her know I didn’t mean it as an insult.
Other soldiers step free of the sack, alternating with the wooden characters of Noah’s Ark, a few clowns. There are also a number of other dolls, all of different sizes and quality.
All the toys are crudely made, badly painted and scuffed through regular play. Yet they all smile happily when they see me, with none commenting on my size.
‘We were taken off the other children when they were brought here,’ Diana explains.
‘But now we’re used to entice more children into the house of those horrid wendigoes!’ another doll adds, her face quivering with fear and disgust.
‘It’s starvation that made them this way,’ the solider says with another sad shrug of his head.
‘Is there a way out of here?’ I ask, realising I can’t spend the rest of my life living amongst a cupboard of toys, no matter how friendly and helpful they might be.
The toys exchange questioning, worried glances.
‘There’s one,’ the soldier admits. ‘But it’s probably the most dangerous route out of here of them all.’
It takes a while for my eyes to get used to the lack of light. Hardly any light, of course, can reach beneath the wooden house.
To help prevent its base rotting, the house has been constructed on a number of small pillars of stone. But there’s only a small gap between floor and ground.
It’s enough room for me, of course, in my new, reduced size. But as I peer through yet another small hole in the house’s wooden floor, I can see that the way across the ground isn’t completely clear; everywhere I look, there are obstacles of a subtly glistening white, each one oddly shaped.
‘Bones: the bones of the children they’ve eaten,’ the doll says from behind me, doubtless aware that I might be a little puzzled by what I’m seeing there.
And I am puzzled: because the bones shift, they move. There’s a muted sound of grinding bone, of scrabbling.
‘Rats,’ the soldier says, like the doll no doubt fully aware that I can’t quite make out what I’m seeing. ‘Rats who feed on what little flesh is left on the bones.’
Peering more intensely through the gloom, I see the dim flash of yet another colour.
A washed out yet strangely radiant yellow.
It’s the yellow of a minute dolls house.
No; not a doll’s house.
It’s a yellow wendy house.
‘I’ve got to risk it; it’s my only way out of here.’
The toys have listened patiently to my explanation that the wendy house will take me out of this world and into some new one.
‘You won’t make it: not on your own,’ Diana warns me.
‘I’m sure I can speak for my men on this: we’ll help you.’
The soldier receives nods of agreement from his men.
‘No; it’s too dangerous for you–’
‘That’s our job.’ The soldier cuts me short, his men already filing up by the hole, ready to help me.
‘None of us like our new role: entrapping children,’ Diana explains. ‘Helping you will make up for how we’ve been misused.’
The soldiers aren’t waiting for any more arguments to be made. They’re dropping down through the hole, as silently as they can.
On reaching the ground, they quietly move forward, taking up positons on either side of a protected track they’re creating for me through the jungle of bones.
The doll notices my fear.
‘We have to do it, you know that?’ she says sagely.
I nod in agreement, gulp, ‘Yeah, I know: I’m just not used to facing rats the size of cars.’
‘Cars?’ Diana gives me a puzzled yet understanding frown. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll go first: you can hide behind me. I’ll protect you for as long as I’m needed.’
‘Go,’ says the soldier to me, ‘we need to move quickly and silently.’
Diana slips down the hole, landing as silently as the soldiers on the packed earth. I drop down next, following her and the soldiers who have already gone on ahead. The soldier who’s taken charge of everything follows me down through the hole.
There aren’t enough soldiers to create two flanking lines running completely from the hole in the floor to the wendy house. As we nervously head towards the dimly glowing house, the soldiers we pass curl in behind us, some forming a defensive wall at our rear, the others expertly slipping forward to extend each line a little closer towards our goal.
So far, the rats seemingly remain oblivious of our presence. They gnaw at the bones. They scratch at the ground, at the woodwork.
With any luck, we might make it to the wendy house without disturbing them.
A slight creak of wood emanates from the wendy house. The top part of the stable door swings back. A young, smiling girl appears in the revealed space.
‘Quickly! I need your help!’ she cries out.
And suddenly, every rat beneath the house is aware of our presence.
With shrieking squeals, the rats throw themselves at our defensive lines of soldiers.
I’m expecting the soldiers’ guns to pop and crack. To bring the rats down as they charge at us.
But no: the soldiers bravely stab with their tin bayonets, or use their guns as clubs. Trying to hold back viciously snarling creatures that are at least four times their size.
The toy soldiers might have come to life, but obviously that doesn’t extend to giving them realistically firing guns.
With a brutal swipe of its snarling maw, a relatively gigantic rat rips off the head of a poor soldier. Another rat, leaping on top of another soldier, easily brings him down.
‘Run, run for the house!’ the soldier standing by me yells. ‘We’ll hold them off as long as we can.’
Once again, I’m about to stupidly protest. But the doll takes me by my elbow, and begins to urgently propel me forward.
‘There’s nowhere else to go now! It’s their job! Run!’
A handful of the soldiers peel off from the line, offering us protection on our final sprint towards the wendy house.
They lash out at the rats that follow after us, the rats that are still coming in to the attack from farther afield beneath the house. The rats’ claws rip at the soft tin flesh, their teeth effortlessly sinking deeply into arms, heads, bodies.
We’re almost at the wendy house’s beckoning door when a rat manages to break through the protective line of soldiers. Throwing itself heavily at the doll, it swiftly drags her down. I slew to a halt, intending to help her shrug off her attacker, to get her to rise to her feet once more.
‘No no!’ she insists vehemently, rolling in the dirt with the snapping, snarling rat looming over her as if it were a ravenous lion. ‘Go on! If you stay with me, they’ll get you too. I’ll have failed helping you!’
‘Quickly, come quickly!’ the girl wails pleadingly from the wendy house’s door.
‘Go, go!’ the doll screams as another rat leaps upon her. ‘I can’t keep them off you for much longer.’
I turn once more; and run weeping towards the partially opened door.
The girl waiting just inside the door quickly moves aside, letting the lower half of the door swing open.
I dash inside the little house with a grateful sigh.
The door swings shut behind me, the dreadful squealing and screams immediately silenced: as if that world of mayhem has suddenly ceased to exist.
I can only hope so.
I’d hate to think that Diana and those poor soldiers are still suffering back there.
I hang my head in shame; I shouldn’t have left them. They gave up their lives, sacrificed themselves. To save me.
‘Could you help me please?’
It’s the girl. She’s here in the darkness with me. I can only dimly make her out.
She doesn’t look like any one of Pearl’s friends. Not one that I can remember, anyway.
While patting my jacket clean of dirt and dust, I’ve just realised that the pockets are no longer full of the magical cake I’d picked up earlier.
Have I dropped it all out there? Out amongst the rats?
If the rats eat the cake – what will life be like then for those poor settlers?
I can only hope that it’s the doll and the soldiers who find the cake. If they eat it: well then, at last, they might be able to protect those poor children.
‘Could you help me please?’
The girl repeats her request, a little more impatiently and forcibly this time.
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ I reply distractedly, my mind still not fully on whatever she’s saying.
‘Do you know where my legs are?’ she continues brightly.
‘Where your…legs are?’
Mystified, I look down to where her legs should be.
And she’s right – she doesn’t have any legs.
The legless girl is hovering in the dark air.
Like not having any legs doesn’t hurt, or bother her too much.
I know this tale. A girl without legs, asking where she can find them.
It’s an urban myth: a Japanese urban tale.
If I answer incorrectly, she slices me in half.
Pretty unlikely, normally, right?
But in this place?
‘They’re being held at the lost and found office,’ I answer anxiously. ‘At the Meishin Railway.’
She nods, grins, like she’s satisfied.
‘Who told you this?’ she trills happily.
‘Kashima Reiko: she told me.’
I have to hope I’ve read the correct version of this tale.
She politely nods once again.
‘As a reward for your help,’ she continues gaily, ‘I would like to give you a cape! Would you prefer red, or blue?’
Another urban tale.
If I chose blue, she drains all the blood from my body.
If I choose to name some other colour, or refuse to reply, she carries me off to the Netherworld.
I can’t remember what happens if I choose red!
‘Red,’ I answer, preparing for the worst.
Before I can move, she swings around my back, razor sharp claws sprouting from her fingertips.
She slashes at my back.
Shredding my skin into a bloodied red cape.
With a mischievous chortle, the girl vanishes.
I crease up in agony, my torn skin burning with pain.
There’s no mirror to check on the state of my back. I feel with my hands, cringing in horror as I feel the shreds running through my hands.
Yet…yet when I touch the shreds, it doesn’t send more pain shooting along my back, as I’d expect.
They’re shreds of skin, there’s no doubt about that. And they’re covered in blood.
But they’re shreds of leather.
This time, unfortunately, the skin of my back hasn’t emerged completely unscathed.
Through my pain, I can sense the furrows her talons have gouged into my skin, drawing blood.
Once again, however, my jacket has absorbed the very worst of the damage.
There’s a part of my memory trying to tell me, I feel, that the previous girl I’d met – that evilly warped Little Red Riding Hood – also has her roots in Japanese tales.
Is that how it works here?
The place conjures up into reality tales we’ve heard?
That would explain the Alice in Wonderland rabbit, the drink, and the cake. The original Red Riding Hood too.
But what, then, about the theme park? The ponies? The Four Horsemen?
Maybe it’s not just tales; maybe it’s also other things we have unconsciously flowing through our minds.
Which makes this place as dangerous as I could possibly imagine.
And, going by all the weird tales and images flooding through my brain, that’s not in any way reassuring.
Exiting through the back door, I walk out into yet another garden; this one even more pleasant and delightful than the first one I’d found myself in.
All gaily coloured borders. All elegantly cut hedges and bushes.
There’s music too; light and gay.
And not, thankfully, that damn skipping song!
As I walk along the gently meandering path, I begin to pick up what sounds like voices: happily chattering voices.
Amongst it all, too, there’s the clink of what could be china cups.
Not that that means, of course, that it is cups I’m hearing.
Or that I’m really hearing happy chatter.
‘Shall I be mother?’ someone trills.
‘Tea for me, please!’
Despite all these happy cries, I’m still pleasantly surprised that, rounding the corner of some particularly high flowers, I really do come out into a small clearing containing a highly exuberant tea party.
But one madder than the Hatter’s tea party.
The table’s large, and spread with a glaringly white tablecloth.
It’s also piled high with towering cake stands, filled with every kind of cake you could think of. The tea service is elegant, the finest porcelain at a guess. The cups are minute, however, while the teapot is gigantically oversized, needing at least three people to lift it.
When I say people, I’m using the term only because it would take three people to lift it. Not because three people are lifting it.
Cartoon characters would be a better description. And I don’t mean funny characters: I mean animals literally lifted from some early twentieth century black and white Silly Symphonies type feature. You know, the type where the very earliest forms of animated mice and cats dance endlessly to jazzy little tunes.
It’s not even like these are three dimensional versions of the characters. Not that they’re exactly flat and two dimensional either.
Just as they appear on film, no matter which way they look or I turn, they look as though they would when projected upon a screen – all hazy black lines, and glowing whites.
Like ghosts, whose features have been picked out with an ink-dipped quill.
There are mice here, but no cat. A rabbit too, a duck, and some form of incredibly cute puppy.
They’re seated around the table, eating the cakes. Daintily sipping their tea from the undersized cups.
The only person I can’t quite make out is the one nearest me, the one who’s seated within a high-backed chair that has its back to me.
But the person sitting there obviously knows I’m here.
‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Dia!’ Pearl declares sternly.
Despite her stern greeting, Pearl peers around the edge of the back of her chair; and grins warmly at me.
She’s out of her chair in a second, rushing towards me, throwing her arms around my waist.
She doesn’t appear in anyway unusual. It’s Pearl as I know her in every way. Almost the Pearl I’d originally chased down here, apart from the fact she’s wearing some other dress.
‘You have to stop going deeper,’ she warns me. ‘You have to avoid the wendy houses!’
‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you, you know?’ I sigh, partially frustrated, partially relieved. ‘Now let’s get ou–’
She pulls back, grabs my hand, starts dragging me towards the table.
‘No no! It’s not that easy. There’s no time to explain – the game’s about to start!’
‘Game? No, no, Pearl! We haven’t got time for any–’
She slips back into her chair, indicating that I should take the empty one nearest hers.
The cartoon characters generally ignore me, continuing with their hungry eating, their urgent sipping. At least the puppy pulls out the empty seat for me to take at the table.
As soon as I take my seat however, the seat jumps from under me. The other seats also slip from beneath Pearl and the cartoon creatures, moving to the music as it increases in tempo. They whirl around the table as they twirl and spin, as if taking part in an elaborate dance.
Pearl and the others move around the table too, and I join them, a weird version of Musical Chairs.
‘What kind of madhouse have you created here?’ I ask.
‘I’ve created? Don’t you think, perhaps Dia, that the mad part has a little more to do with you?’
I briefly think about this.
Yeah, that would make sense.
Pearl creates all the flowery little ponies, the sweet Little Red Riding Hood.
All it takes is my bitterly warped mind to turn them into the pale horses of Revelation, the terrifying Japanese girl.
‘But what about your friends,’ I point out. ‘They were lost down here long before I became involved. You’re not telling me your sweet little fairy story characters carried them off?’
She shakes her head.
‘No, not the fairy stories; but their fears, their worst fears, which they’d always tried to hide from – that’s what eventually ended up threatening them.’
The jabbing pain in my back, the dull itch across my cheek: all this tells me that Pearl’s telling the truth.
‘So how come you’ve survived down here? How come you still keep coming back?’
‘Because I was lucky – I had Mom here to help me.’
‘Mom?’ I laugh uncertainly. ‘Mom can’t be here…’
But then, why can’t she?
If I can conjure up half remembered tales I’ve read in Manga comics, then why can’t Pearl recreate Mom here?
I look around hopefully. I can’t see her anywhere.
Could I conjure her up?
My version of her?
Huh, what would my version of Mom be like?
All mean and cantankerous. And continually telling me off for every little slight, every supposed misdemeanour.
Now Pearl’s version of Mom; now yeah, there you’d have an all sweetness and light, helpful Mom.
Before Pearl can answer, the music directing our strange little dance comes to an abrupt halt.
The chairs slip back into place beneath the table.
Everyone rushes for the nearest chair. In my rush towards a chair, caught up in the game, I almost push a cartoon mouse out of the way.
Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to mind.
She waves sadly; and then she vanishes.
When the little mouse vanishes, Pearl looks worried. So do the other cartoon creatures.
‘Pearl, you said Mom’s here wi–’
I almost fall to the floor as the chair pulls itself out from beneath me once again.
The music has started up once more, faster this time. The chairs take up their peculiar little dance, and, once again, we follow them, trotting after them as they spin and whirl around the table.
Pearl shakes her head once more in answer to my question.
‘Not here: no. Mom can’t help us here.’
I can’t see any source of danger here. Is that what Pearl means? We don’t need Mom here?
‘I’ve come here to help you,’ Pearl continues, displaying all the confidence of an elder rather than younger sister. ‘Me and my friends.’
I glance around at the table, at the cartoon mouse, duck, puppy, and rabbit.
‘I don’t suppose you’d recognise them,’ Pearl admits. ‘But these are my friends: Jeanie, Mary, Carol, Debbie, and – well you just saw poor little Ellie leave, didn’t you?’
And as Pearl calls each of her friends’ names out, each cartoon animal smiles and waves a hand in happy greeting.
The music stops.
The chairs slip beneath the table. And once again, there’s a sudden, mad scramble for them.
This time, two chairs must have vanished, for both the rabbit and puppy disappear with a last, sad wave.
The other cartoons glance my way worriedly, like they’re anxious that they’re losing their friends because I’m here.
‘You’ve turned your friends into cartoons?’ I cry out to Pearl above the increasingly loud music as it starts up once more.
The music and moves are more frenzied than ever. I’m running faster than I’ve ever run, in my efforts to keep up with the hurriedly whirling chairs.
‘It was the only way to save them!’ Pearl yells back at me.
‘Save them? Like this?’
‘I didn’t have any other choice! They understand that – that’s why we’re here to help you! To make sure you don’t win!’
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
The cartoon creatures are singing that ridiculous song again. They’re gasping for breath as they run around the table.
When she’s not trying to shout out to me, Pearl joins in with the song. The song’s beat fights against the strenuous rhythm of the music that’s playing, that’s directing the feverish actions of the chairs.
‘To make sure I don’t win?’ I cry back at Pearl, the whirling chairs now adding the shrieks of a furious wind to the cacophony. ‘How does that help me?’
‘As I said –’
The music stops, as does the whirl of the chairs.
Only the skipping song remains as everyone heads towards a chair.
‘…and they all went to heaven in a little row boat!’
Two chairs have gone. The last mouse and the duck vanish along with them.
‘You’re getting in too deep…’ Pearl shrieks out as loudly as she can as the music and whirlwind of dancing chairs begins again, louder and more frantically than ever.
One of the two remaining chairs swirls off high into the air.
There’s just the one chair now, tossed around as if in a powerful tornado.
‘You have to let me win!’ Pearl screams out above the noise. ‘I know how to deal–’
The music stops.
I dash towards the chair.
‘Pearl, you can sit on here with me–’
But it’s all too late.
I’m sitting on the chair.
And Pearl has vanished.
The music is calm and pleasant once more.
Of course, I feel neither calm nor pleased.
What have I done?
What’s happened to Pearl?
The chair I’m seated on is no longer facing the table. I’m looking out onto the garden, a neatly cut lawn stretching out before me.
Behind me, where the table lies, I hear the clink of cups once more.
Rising from my chair, I whirl around, hoping that everyone’s back in their seats around the table.
The party is on again.
But this time, different characters are seated there.
The emaciated man and woman who I had earlier seen as fearsome wendigoes.
Little Red Riding Hood.
And four cowled figures whom I can only presume are the Four Horsemen.
The cakes displayed upon the high stands begin to move slightly, to crumble as they move.
Insects suddenly emerge from them, engorged on the innards of the cakes. What remains of the cakes falls into nothing but dust.
The characters reach for the insects and, as if actually picking up fallen pieces of cake from the white tablecloth, eagerly bring them up towards their hungrily gaping mouths.
Like the cakes, however, the clothes and flesh of each character begins to crumble away into dust. It all falls away until bared skeletons and grinning, hollow-eyed skulls are revealed.
The insects drop through the bared, empty skeletons, only to be followed by evermore insects as bony hands greedily reach out for more and more to desperately devour.
Despite this lack of any proper nourishment, each skeleton begins to rapidly increase in size, but grotesquely so: for rather than just enlarging, each bone sprouts further bones, until each creature is actually formed from a vast number of combined skeletons, writhing all over each other. Perhaps over twenty times my own height, each enlarged creature wails as if with a hundred voices, with a hundred mouths to feed.
There are no more insects for them to devour, for they have hurriedly swarmed off, either scuttling into the undergrowth or flying off into the air.
The darkly hollowed eyes of the skeletal creatures turn my way.
As one, they stretch out towards me with hundreds of hungrily reaching, boney hands.
I urgently step back, nervously brushing aside the nearest reaching hands with a sweep of my arms.
The skeletons howl, outraged by my resistance. Blazes of anger light up within the dark pits of hundreds of hollowed eyes.
Spinning around, I sprint across the lawn, even though I realise I can’t hope to outrun the gigantic skeletons. I’m looking about me everywhere I can, looking for anything that might help me evade them.
Behind me now, I can hear the frustrated shrieks of hungry mouths denied their expected meal. With the grind of bone against bone, the skeletons set off in pursuit.
I swerve off towards the more overgrown areas of the garden, the more natural and therefore wilder parts of grasses, bushes and trees.
Even though I duck through and beneath these bushes, I can easily see the pursuing skeletons: they loom over everything, like War of the Worlds’ Martians, ponderous in their moves, but assured that there is no escape from them.
Just as I can so easily see them, they can obviously easily see me. Every mouth wails out directions, every arm points my way.
I’m hoping that the trees’ spreading branches will at least block the skeletons’ attempts to reach out for me. But, as ever, it’s a false hope.
With a shrug, one of the huge creatures simply allows his constituent skeletons to scramble free, to drop to the ground,
With jubilant, hungry yells, they rapidly swarm through the undergrowth towards me.
Caught in a burst of sunlight, the bones of the pursuing skeletons flash like sparks of lightning as they rush towards me through the undergrowth.
Their greedily gawping mouths, like their eyes, seem dark and bottomless.
I need some way of escaping them. Yet my only hope now is that I come across a wendy house that leads me into another world.
Yes, I remember Pearl’s warning; but what choice do I have?
Then, suddenly, the wendy house is there.
It’s like a tree house, hanging high above me in one of the surrounding trees’ many branches.
I just have to climb a staircase of small steps carved into and spiralling around the trunk. And then I’m there.
Winding around the trunk, one moment I’m hidden from the pursuing skeletons, the next I’m putting myself in full view once more.
But I don’t have any choice. I have to reach the wendy house. To go on to – or down to – the next level.
Pearl warned me to avoid going deeper. But is she just wanting to keep Mom to herself?
Is Mom on those deeper levels she talked about?
Deeper levels where Mom will help me, just as she helped Pearl?
Not that I need Mom’s help, of course.
I can deal with most things that life throws at me. Mom doesn’t understand that: doesn’t understand me.
But it would be nice to see her again.
The stable door to the wendy house lies open. I charge into the hut’s dim interior, letting the door slam to behind me on its own accord.
The sounds of the chase vanishes in an instant.
Inside here, it’s silent.
There doesn’t – thankfully – appear to be any terrifying child waiting for me in here.
In fact, this wendy house is very much like Pearl’s. Pearl’s wendy house just after the disappearance of the first girl, poor little Ellie.
Just off to my side, I see a slight glint of reflected light.
Light reflecting off the polished china face of a doll lying in its own little bed.
The doll isn’t the one that Pearl had put to bed in her own little house, however.
Even so, it’s a doll I recognise.
It’s Diana; the doll who had saved me from the wendigoes, from the rats.
I nudge her slightly.
There’s no response from her. She still continues to sleep.
‘Diana? I think I need your help again!’
She still doesn’t respond to my request for help, my continued prodding.
Here she remains as lifeless as any normal doll.
She’s no more than an empty, worthless shell on this level.
Or was it the rats? Did they leave her like this?
I peel back the bed sheet, to see if the rats had caused her any damage.
She seems fine. The regular pattern of monkeys and trams remain unbloodied on her untorn dress.
Then, as I pull back the last of the sheet, I see that she is hurt after all.
She’s missing one of her legs.
I jerk back in surprise, in fright.
This reminds me too much of yet another Japanese tale.
Where, whenever you find a doll with unusual legs, it means that…
Oh no no no!
My leg already feels leaden, dead – useless.
I look down.
I’ve now also lost one of my own legs.
And it’s been replaced by a thicker, unmovable china-doll leg.
Was that the movie in which the poor guy was deliberately hobbled?
Oh how I’d chuckled nervously, grimly, as I’d watched that story pan out!
Well, if this is all down to my warped mind, then it’s sweetly happy Disney movies for me all the way if I ever get outta here!
I stumble out of the wendy house’s back door, wondering what’s awaiting me next out there.
The bright sunlight makes me blink. I’m on a path, but one surrounded by tall, thick hedges.
Like a maze.
The farther I walk, the more I believe I really am in a maze.
The path keeps on branching off at angles, into different paths. But I’m not allowed to see where I’m heading, the hedges way too high to see over.
I have to just about drag my useless, heavy leg.
But that, of course, if the Japanese tale comes true, is the least of my worries.
For in that tale, the doll-like qualities of the leg will continue to spread.
Eventually, it will take over my whole body.
And then, just like poor Diana, I’ll be nothing more than a dead, empty shell, of no more use to anyone.
My hobbling is already worse, my hip now of hollowed china, just like my leg.
Just like Diana’s hip and leg. As if we’re now forever linked.
Worse, the maze seems endless.
Tracks leading nowhere in particular. Just leading me round and round. Back to places I could swear I’ve seen before.
I’m constantly trying to remember each different section of the maze, trying to work out the maze’s pattern in my head. If I can figure out how it’s been designed, I can discover a way out of–
‘She must have followed me.’
That’s Pearl’s voice, I’m sure! Coming for somewhere way over the hedges. But not that far away either!
‘Tell her to leave!’
That’s Mom’s voice! I’m sure.
‘Mom! It me!’ I yell it out as loudly as I can. ‘It’s me, Dia! I’m here too!’
‘I told you not to tell anyone about this place!’
Mom continues talking to Pearl like she hasn’t heard me.
Yeah, that’s Mom all right!
‘I didn’t tell her!’ Pearl wails, like she’s about to burst into tears.
Like I’d just imagine her to act.
‘If they find out about this place, they’ll burn it down!’ Mom snaps angrily.
I’m hurrying as fast as I can through the maze, using the talking voices as a guide to where I need to be.
I just about crumple to the floor in my eagerness to throw myself around what I believe is the final corner.
‘Mom, it’s –’
Both Pearl and Mom have their backs to me. They’re walking away, walking up a long corridor running between the bordering hedges.
But there’s another Pearl and Mom, walking away from me up another long, straight corridor.
I whirl around.
There are nine pairs of them.
All walking away from me as if I don’t exist.
Choosing the pair I had first come across, I hobble painfully after them.
It’s hard to keep up with them, let alone gain on them; the stiff china-like quality of my doll’s leg has already spread to my waist, making the whole leg more of a dead weight than ever.
I feel such a fool. Humiliated beyond belief.
I’m not calling out to them anymore. I want to retain some of my pride.
At last, with an extra, agonising effort on my part, I find myself within reaching distance of them. I stretch out an arm, touch Mom on her shoulder.
She stops. Turns around.
She has no face.
Mom’s face is blank, featureless; like a white balloon.
When Pearl spins around, she has exactly the same kind of featureless face.
Even so, they’re both chuckling wickedly.
I spin on my own heels, anxiously looking back up the other corridor I can still see. Wondering if I’ve simply chosen the wrong pair to follow.
Pearl and Mom are still walking away from me in this corridor. But, as if at last sensing my presence, they turn around.
Once again, they’re both faceless.
They both laugh.
Suddenly, I’m no longer standing in the single corridor I’d chosen to hobble down. I’m back in the hub, the central point from which all nine corridors emanated like the spokes of a wheel.
Up every corridor, Pearl and Mom are staring at me with their horrifyingly blank faces.
Even the pair I had originally caught up with are now standing a good distance away from me.
Their laughter, however, is as loud as ever.
Then, abruptly, the laughter vanishes. As does every faceless pair.
I’m in the maze on my own once again.
There’s a wail in my voice I can’t control; a helplessness I don’t like admitting to.
My whole body shivers, as if I’m suddenly incredibly cold, freezing. I can’t move any farther; my other leg is now of china, as is one of my arms.
Why does Mom do this to me?
Why does she always have to leave me whenever I need her most?
She didn’t like me, did she?
Not the way she liked Pearl.
She loved Pearl.
But not me.
That’s it, isn’t it?
That’s my greatest fear.
That’s what’s festered away inside me for so, so long.
The doll-like quality is spreading through me.
Leaving me now almost unmovable. Statue like.
Mom wasn’t angry with me.
I was the one angry with her.
‘Oh Mom: I wish you were here! I didn’t show it, I know; but I did love you!’
The tears run down cheeks that are now of hard, glistening china.
‘Dia? You called me?’
My eyes are so welled up with tears I can hardly see through them
The approaching figure is hazy. Dissolving and liquefying, even as I attempt to blink my eyes clear of water.
It is Mom.
She reaches out to hug me. Wraps her arms tightly, warmly, about me.
Lovingly about me.
‘Ohhh Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom!’ I weep. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you!’
‘I know, I know,’ Mom replies brightly, kissing away the wet tears on my cheeks of china. ‘I know because I love you too.’
‘But…but I was so awful to you! Because I thought you were being awful to me!’
Mom chuckles lightly.
‘That was one heck of a protective shell you’d created around yourself, sweetheart. The hard-bitten teenage girl who can’t be hurt; who doesn’t really have any true feelings!’
‘You…you knew it was all an act?’
‘Isn’t it always? It certainly was when I acted like that, that’s for sure.’
‘You, you too Mom? When you were younger, you mean?’
She nods in agreement.
‘It’s a confusing world, isn’t it, especially as we grow up in it? We all need to hide our fears; and we fear more than anything that we might reveal them to others, show our weakness. Show that we can be hurt.’
She tenderly strokes the hard china of my cheek, the increasingly hard skin around my mouth.
‘The trouble is, once we’ve created our protective shell, we even fool ourselves into believing it’s the real us! We endlessly go through the same reassuring motions, the same patterns of behaviour. Fooling ourselves that it gives us control over our lives – no longer realising it’s now a barrier, preventing others from getting to know the real you.’
‘Mom, I don’t want it anymore. I really don’t.’
I’m hoping this admittance will finally begin to dissolve away the spreading of the hardening shell. But I feel no better. If anything, the skin around my face seems to be hardening, become stiffer.
‘Good, good,’ Mom smiles. ‘Because it’s your creation; and only you can decide to shrug it off.’
She kisses me once more; but then, she begins to pull away.
It’s so hard to talk now, I wonder if Mom can even hear me.
She’s drifting away from me, still looking my way. Still smiling warmly. Still holding out her arms, as if she wants to hold me again, to hold me forever.
‘Don’t leave me again! I need you!’
The tears fall down my face once more. Slipping over lips of hard ceramic.
‘I am with you, always,’ Mom says kindly, continuing to slowly move away from me, as if hovering across the ground. ‘You’re a part of me. But so is Pearl: and so together, I am there for you.’
I can’t run after her. I can’t move at all now.
The only thing of me that’s still moving are my tears, running down my polished cheeks.
As Mom drifts away, she fades. Vanishes.
But someone else is there. Standing exactly where I’d last seen Mom dissolve away into nothing.
She’s looking my way.
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
The mice are jumping over the skipping rope. The cute puppy and even cuter rabbit are taking turns to jump with them. A joyfully squawking duck is holding and expertly twirling one end of the rope.
Beyond the duck, there’s a monkey, dancing on top of a jovially rolling tramcar.
I’m holding the other end of the rope. And I’m singing along with them all. Singing the song I can’t stand anymore.
‘The line broke, the monkey got choked, and they all went to heaven in a little row boat.’
As we sing this, the monkey is suddenly choked and flung into the air by a snapping cable. The rail buckles, the car topples from the line. The monkey lands in a small boat already being rowed up to heaven in a lazy spiral by a tipsy goose.
It’s all a cartoon. All a Silly Symphony. All repetitive action, to a repetitive tune.
No, it’s more an Alice in Cartoonland. The one that was an early mix of black and white cartoon characters and a real girl.
Because Pearl is also here. Taking part in the skipping, the song. Only she’s for real: she’s not a cartoon like all the others.
I stretch out my hand a little bit more before me, to see what I’m like.
It’s not a hand.
It’s a paw.
A cat’s paw, I think.
‘My mama told me, if I was goody…that she would buy me, a rubber dolly.’
I’m a cartoon cat. Dancing inanely. Uncontrollably. I don’t seem to have any choice in the matter.
Is that better than ending up as nothing more than a rigidly unmoving ceramic doll?
Probably. But not much.
‘My sister told her, I kissed a soldier…Now she won’t buy me, a rubber dolly.’
Shouldn’t that be aunty?
Is that why I’m here? Pearl’s revenge for ignoring her, for mistreating her – being jealous of her?
Nah! It’s all just a coincidence, isn’t it? And me just searching for reasons why all this is happening to me.
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine…’
And so it all begins again. The goose tipping his bottle to his mouth.
The mice jumping over the rope.
Just like one of those damn cartoons.
An endless cycle of sheer fun, right?
Why’s Pearl keeping us all here, keeping us all like this?
Why isn’t she letting us go free? Letting us go home?
That’s not like Pearl; she’s not a nasty person.
Far from it.
There: I’ve admitted it.
She’s a better person than me.
A kinder person.
One with – yeah, let’s face it – nicer, purer thoughts.
Which is why she’s survived this place.
And I haven’t.
But then, why is she holding us here?
Because…because she thinks she’s protecting us.
Giving us something repetitive and easy to remember to distract us; so we don’t dwell on our fears. And fall prey to this evil wendy house.
We’re safe here, for the moment. Here in our own, self-contained little world.
But Pearl obviously hasn’t figured out yet how to get us all out of here.
Which means the wendy house has us all trapped here after all.
‘Pearl! I need to talk to you!’
I hiss urgently at Pearl as she takes her turn jumping over the twirling rope, along with one of the mice.
She acts like she hasn’t heard me, like she wants to ignore me.
But I caught her frowning worriedly. She heard me all right.
She’s glancing nervously about herself, like she’s frightened something awful’s about to happen.
‘Sing: you should be singing,’ Pearl hisses back without even glancing my way.
Her eyes are still fliting nervously, as if she wants to take in everything she can all at once. As if she’s expecting things to start altering for the worse any moment now.
‘Everyone else can sing,’ I persist. ‘I need to ask you some questions.’
She still continues to ignore me, her own singing increasing in volume, in urgency.
‘My mama told me, if I was goody…that she would buy me, a rubber dolly…’
‘Pearl, if you don’t talk to me, I’m going to stop swinging this damn rope…’
‘Okay, okay!’ she grimaces. ‘But keep swinging the rope!’
She glances everywhere about herself once more, obviously still frantic that our talking is somehow going to result in something terrible happening.
‘Correct me if I’m wrong,’ I say, ‘but all this is your creation, right?’
She shakes her head. Her place and that of the mouse has now been taken by the puppy and rabbit. She expertly takes the rope’s handle off the duck, who joins in with clapping along with the song alongside the other mouse.
‘No, of course it’s not my creation: it’s the woods’ creation – they’ve created it all, somehow!’
I chuckle edgily.
‘The woods?’ I repeat uncertainly.
‘The wendy house Dad made, remember? It’s made from wood from the forest. Maybe it didn’t like that. They’re not normal woods – you’ve felt that, surely?’
The singing, the skipping, it all rhythmically continues as we talk.
No one but me seems to mind that we’re endlessly going through this same, repeated routine. Pearl seems to be desperately controlling and hiding a terrifying nervousness.
The duck, mice, rabbit and puppy expertly swap roles, the singing never faltering. No one seems to be making any effort to change positions with either myself or Pearl, however.
Maybe they realise, even if they don’t show it, that we’re talking. That reacting to our talking might interrupt the rhythm of everything we’re doing here.
‘It took Ellie first, right? This wood?’ I say.
‘We found her in this weird land it had created for us; tapping into our imaginations, giving us whatever we wanted. But it picks up on your bad thoughts too; spiders, darkness, things moving under the bed. Drags you deeper into its clutches, like it’s steadily devouring you.’
‘And the skipping song stops them thinking of such things?’
She nods again.
‘It’s easy to remember. We just have to do it until we’re tired: so tired that we’re too exhausted to think bad things.’
‘But you can get home, right?’
I’m hoping my comment doesn’t have the edge of an accusation.
If it does, Pearl doesn’t seem to either notice or be concerned by it.
‘I just wakeup back in the wendy house, back amongst the dolls I’ve named after you all.’
After all of us?’
She nods again, all the while twirling the rope, singing the song when she’s not talking to me.
‘I’ve been back since you came down here: time’s different there. You’ve not been missing long enough for Dad to worry yet.’
‘This doll; it’s one you’d originally called Diana?’
She glances up at me in surprise. I’m a little surprised too that there really is a connection: I’d just asked Pearl the question on the off chance that there might be a link.
‘I use the dolls to come back in here: you know, singing the song to them.’
‘Why come back?’
‘I need to work out a way to get everyone back home.’
‘And can you? Figure a way out, I mean?’
She shakes her head.
‘I’m only nine, remember?’
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine…’
Nine: Pearl’s age.
A coincidence again, of course.
Even so, I look about me, seeking other connections.
‘…the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
Sure, here everything in the song is all replicated in the cartoon characters’ actions: the goose having his tipple, the monkey chewing.
Didn’t Mom warn me that I shouldn’t rely on the supposed patterns I think I see around me? Something like that anyway, I think.
But is it different here? Different because Pearl’s constructed this whole weird world around the song?
Does the song give us any clues on how to get out of here?
‘The line broke, the monkey got choked…’
The tram car’s skewed off the broken rails once more, slewed to a grinding halt. The poor monkey’s whipped up towards the boat, already making its way up to heaven.
‘…and they all went to heaven in a little row boat.’
Maybe there’s no pattern here to help us after all.
Maybe, as Mom says, I shouldn’t be relying on patterns.
It’s a pattern of behaviour we’re trying to break out of here anyway, isn’t it?
Like we’re just unthinkingly following a path someone else has set for us.
Like the tram and its rails.
And it only breaks free when the rails are broken…
The mice, puppy, duck and rabbit are all wide-eyed with fright.
They continue to sing the song, but now nervously, their squeaky little voices quaking. They each anxiously grasp the armrests of the seats they’ve taken on board the jolting, rolling tram.
‘…the goose drank wine…’
Persuading them to break off from their skipping, to take a risk and clamber on board the tram, had been easier than I’d imagined.
Deep down, they’d all realised we’d be trapped here forever unless we tried this.
‘…the monkey chewed tobacco…’
Boarding a tram you know is about to crash though: it’s bound to be a little nerve wracking, isn’t it?
Especially as I’m standing by the brake’s large handle, readying myself to override its automatic application when the tram careers off the buckled rails.
‘…on the streetcar line…’
It’s the only way. The only way to have a chance of getting back home.
‘The line broke…’
Pulling the brake handle back hard, forcing it to go against its instructions to automatically bring the runaway tram to a halt, I snap it off. The whole thing comes away in my hands.
‘…the monkey got choked…’
But with a painful screeching of cogs, the brake pads jump free of the wheels. The tram bounces off the snapped rails.
It doesn’t slew to a halt this time.
It continues to roll down the slight incline. Gathering speed.
And now there’s no brake at all to stop it from careering completely down a hill that would shame San Francisco.
‘…and they all went to heaven in a little row boat.’
Despite the shrieks, the screams, everyone but me still feels safer continuing with the song.
‘My mama told me, if I was goody…’
The tram shakes and rattles violently as it tears down the hill.
Just when I think I’ve made a mistake, that we should never have attempted this foolish idea, the hurtling tram at last begins to slow down a fraction as the road begins to rise once more.
After the slight rise, however, there’s yet another steep drop. The tram sets off wildly careering downhill once more.
It really is like a cartoon version of San Francisco, with an exaggerated mix of hills and valleys, giving us all the most terrifying roller coaster ride of all time. The houses are Victorian, clapperboard, and no doubt rather attractive if I had the time or inclination to admire them.
People – or, rather, a large variety of animals who take on the actions and poses of people – watch us pass by in astonishment, large exclamation and question mark symbols appearing above their heads. Somewhere, far off down some adjacent street, I hear the clanging of fire bells, the wailing of police sirens. No doubt some animal equivalent of the Keystone Cops is rushing to our aid.
If they are, they’re going to be too late to save us.
At the bottom of the steep hill we’re now uncontrollably rushing down, there’s a dockside, with a large expanse of water lying just beyond it.
Who knows? Perhaps, as we’re a cartoon, the tram will simply precariously turn a sharp corner, balanced only on one set of wheels?
But it doesn’t.
It rattles at unbelievable speed across the cobbles of the dockside.
It flies off the dockside’s edge.
It lands in the water – and begins to rapidly sink beneath the rolling waves.
This isn’t anything like cartoonland anymore
The water flooding in around us is freezing.
The mice, being the smallest among us, are frequently slipping under, no matter how often we reach out for them and pull them back up to the surface. As we lift them up to safety once more, they gasp out their thanks, nervously spitting out the water they’ve swallowed.
By grabbing hold of armrests and the ceiling’s hanging straps, we’re all desperately trying to drag ourselves up the middle of the increasingly sloping aisle that runs between the seats, the tram gradually tipping forward as it sinks.
The more the cartoon tram sinks, the more real rather than cartoon-like it becomes: its seats are now of wood and material, while its sides and base are real iron. The sea, too, is now actually water, flowing over us, threatening to envelop us; to drown us.
We, however, are still cartoons: still cartoon animals, struggling to survive in what is now a threateningly real world.
Even though we all realise that the danger facing us is now undoubtedly real, we help each other clamber up what is an increasingly steep aisle. The water swiftly rushes in around us, gurgling happily as it sweeps through windows, or bubbles up hungrily from below. Some of us have already managed to scramble free of the rapidly sinking tram, climbing out through the opening towards its rear. We exhaustedly clamber up onto the rear window, this now effectively being the top of the tram as it is swiftly devoured by the swirling waters.
From here, even though exhausted, bedraggled and shivering with cold, we lean over the sides to help those still fighting to escape the sinking tram. We instinctively form into a long, supportive line, desperately clinging on to each other to ensure everyone gets clear.
But yet again, a mouse towards the end of the line loses her grip once more, her hands too wet and slippery, her grasp now weaker than ever. She sinks, the waters now greedy and powerful. The swirling currents grab at her, remorselessly sucking her down.
Although the duck could have easily saved herself long ago, she had remained at the line’s rear, helping others clamber higher up the line. Without any hesitation, she dives farther down into the dark, surging waters.
As the rest of us gratefully pull ourselves up onto the tram’s rear window, we glance nervously down through the glass at the burbling waters swirling just beneath our feet. We all gasp with joy as, at last, we see a ghostly blur of white rising up towards us.
Somehow, the duck (Why don’t I know their names? Why hadn’t I taken notice when Pearl had introduced them all to me?) must have managed to find the poor mouse deep within those grasping waters. Her wings are almost angelic in their whiteness as they urge the mouse to keep swimming up through the whirling darkness.
Spluttering and anxiously fighting for air, the mouse weakly accepts our outstretched hands to aid her as she tiredly clambers up onto the tram’s windshield. The duck remains in the water, helping push her up from below.
Abruptly, the sea around them both violently bubbles. It gurgles noisily, the very last pockets of air escaping from their imprisonment within the stricken tram.
The glass window lurches, almost toppling us all back into the water: then with a last shriek of fleeing air, the tram begins to completely sink beneath us.
As our only platform suddenly vanishes from beneath our feet, the waters rush around us once more, determined to suck us down along with the hungrily devoured tram.
There’s a frantic flaying of arms, a frenzied wriggling of legs; but thankfully we all manage to stay afloat.
No; not all.
The duck is still trapped beneath the glass.
The tram is slipping down through the waters far too quickly for her to work her way free.
As the tram disappears into the black waters, her outspread wings form a last, eerie white glow in the darkness; but soon, even that is gone.
‘She’s a cartoon; people don’t die in cartoons.’
I don’t know who says it.
But it’s something we’re all thinking.
Not that any of us believe it. We might still be cartoon animals, but everything else around us seems all too real.
I can even smell the sour stench of the barges containing the city’s waste, a tug dragging out a lazily meandering line of them out of the harbour and towards the sea.
We should be swimming towards them: to make sure no more of us drown.
But instead, we’re all still frantically treading water, staring down into the depths. All still hopping that the poor duck (Who was she? Jeanie? Mary?) has somehow survived.
‘Will she be okay? Is Carol still there?’ one of the mice forlornly asks. ‘Isn’t she scared of the dark?’
Pearl intently but miserably peers down into the water.
‘I…I don’t know…’
‘There! Look, she is coming back!’
The rabbit’s eyes are wide with delight. She makes us look beneath our wriggling feet once more; an eerily white glow is rising from the dark depths towards us, the wings gently rippling the water.
‘Yaayyy!’ a few of us cheer.
All of us smile inanely.
Carol continues to unhurriedly draw towards us, her white wings spreading out to a greater extent than I thought possible. Her eyes are closed, as if blissfully asleep.
She rises up between us. We all cheer happily, but Carol doesn’t respond.
She continues to rise, leaving the water.
Her white glow is now truly ghostly. She is partially transparent, an early cartoon illustrator’s idea of a soul rising up towards heaven.
The only thing missing from such an image is the harp.
Carol drifts past us, continuing her slow ascent into the air. She still seems to be peacefully asleep.
It seems both ridiculously comical and yet also remarkably heart breaking.
Carol isn’t really a cartoon, of course: she was once a girl, a real girl.
And this has all the signs of being a representation of her actual death.
Now the girls around me are sobbing. A few of them almost hysterically.
‘We…we have to save ourselves,’ Pearl says, taking charge. ‘We should swim for the barges: get on board one of those.’
As the tug has turned towards the open sea, the swinging line of barges lying behind it has drifted incredibly close to us. Pearl’s right: if we don’t take this opportunity to save ourselves, we could all end up drowning.
Without waiting for any discussion or disagreement, Pearl starts heading towards the barge drifting closest to us. One by one, the others follow, scrabbling ungainly through the water.
It’s not far to swim. Even those who can’t swim can manage a scrambling doggy paddle.
We clamber aboard the waste-filled barge, once again helping each other as we exhaustedly pull ourselves up out of the water. At least, unlike Pearl, we don’t have water-drenched clothes to contend with.
At some point, she’s either removed or lost her shoes: when we were treading water, they were probably too heavy to continue wearing safely.
The stench of the waste is just about unbearable. There’s everything you can imagine here: discarded washing machines, damp cardboard boxes, rotting slimy fruit and vegetables. We’re already all covered in a disgusting film of oily dirt.
‘Look! Look up there! It’s Carol!’
The little puppy is elatedly staring and eagerly pointing up into the sky above us.
Carol is seated in her own little boat: a boat being rowed by the monkey and the goose. A boat ever so languidly spiralling upwards into the sky.
Alongside me, a bedraggled Pearl fearfully mumbles a line from her skipping song.
‘And they all went to heaven in a little row boat.’
Despite the horrendous smell, and the odd way the piled trash seems to ooze and move beneath our bodies, we lie back amongst the waste as if it’s the world’s most comfortable bed.
We’re all just so relieved to be alive. Too exhausted, too, to care about getting filthy.
About us, seagulls squeal excitedly, aggressively swooping low. They land on and peck hungrily at the vast pile of waste on each barge. Around us, insects of every kind scramble over the waste, greedily devouring what they can.
The wind grows cooler and stronger as we move out of the harbour and pass out into the more open sea.
‘I didn’t realise we could die,’ the little mouse tiredly laid out alongside me says.
Her face is tightly screwed up. She’s so near to being tearful once more.
Jeanie; this is Jeanie, I realise.
Minnie Mouse-like, the mice have bows around their ears. Only this mouse has just one bow: and didn’t Jeanie’s mom say she’d lost her bow?
And the other mouse?
Isn’t that little Ellie? The one who vanished at the wild tea party?
The one who vanished, in fact, before any of the other kids did.
I don’t know too much about Ellie; but to see clearly, she had to wear these ridiculously ugly spectacles, ones that unfortunately made her look bug-eyed whenever she was forced to wear them. And this other little mouse has fearfully large eyes, lemur-like in their pitifully vulnerable stare.
‘I’d thought that, as cartoons, we’d be safe,’ the rabbit miserably agrees.
‘We’ve come out of the cartoon world,’ Pearl points out. ‘We’ve got to realise we’re all in danger once more.’
‘I’m sorry; it’s my fault,’ I say, surprising myself with my honesty and humility.
Sad cartoon faces all look my way.
‘It’s not your fault, Dia,’ Pearl says determinedly. ‘You were right: we couldn’t stay there forever. No matter how safe it seemed.’
‘It was still a prison, really,’ the puppy adds, with a nod of her head.
‘I want to get home; to see Mom, and Dad. Even Joey.’
Joey? That’s the brother of Mary.
So that means the rabbit is Mary.
And the puppy? Well, that’s got to be Debbie.
‘I miss Carol.’ Debbie’s letting the tears flow once more.
Pearl curls a reassuring arm around her weeping friend’s shoulders.
‘I know, I know; I do too. But let’s all try and get back home safely. That’s what Carol would want us all to do, isn’t it?’
Sometimes, it is hard to remember that Pearl is only nine.
Around me now, the others are moving oddly, almost as if they have little control over their own movements.
They have to straighten up every now and again, as if they’ve unconsciously slipped, or even fallen slightly.
Stranger still, my own body is now involuntary moving in its own way too. My arm abruptly slides deeper into the surrounding filth. My hips suddenly sag. I have to pull my arm out, to sidle my hips to one side, where the massed rubbish feels firmer – then this area too suddenly drops away from beneath me, sucking along part of my body with it.
‘The waste’s moving! It’s alive!’
Mary jumps up from the floor of rubbish as if it’s burning her.
The waste is hot, admittedly – it’s steaming with the heat it’s giving off. Yet she’s actually leapt clear of a part of the pile that collapses before her, like it’s dropping away into another world.
‘The other piles of waste – they’re vanishing!’
Debbie points off towards the other barges, the ones stretching out so far ahead of us they’re already in deeper water. She’s right, too. The hills of waste are dropping lower, the ones in the forward barges having almost completely disappeared.
‘They’re slipping away – like sand in the top of an hour glass,’ Ellie points out more studiously, her wide-eyes intense as they apparently take in every detail of the rapidly diminishing piles.
‘They’re getting rid of the waste; letting it slip into the sea.’
Pearl glances worriedly at our own increasingly swiftly moving pile. It’s flowing away from us now almost fluidly, causing us all to stumble wildly on our feet.
‘We’re moving with it!’ Jeanie yells in warning, looking back towards the edge of the barge, where we were standing only moments before.
‘It’s the middle of the barge!’ I shriek out in fear as it dawns on me what’s happening. ‘The whole bottom’s opened up, like two huge trapdoors – everything’s slipping into the sea!’
Just as Ellie had so aptly described it, the waste is slipping away like sand in an hourglass.
The middle is dropping away fastest of all. It’s sickeningly dipping away from us at an ever steeper angle.
Out feet slip, slide and sink into the fluid waste, unable to find anything to grip onto. We can’t grab at anything with our hands either, for everything now moves, flows, tumbles. It’s all vanishing into the ever-growing pit.
And we’re going with it all too, slipping down the pit’s inclining sides. The filth and rotting food pours around us, dragging us along, pummelling and showering us in an avalanche of slime.
Mary’s the only one who seems capable of hopping from one large item to another, her long rabbit feet giving her a distinct advantage. Yet instead of saving herself, she constantly offers a hand to the rest of us. She drags one of us higher up the waterfall of rubbish, only to then rush back to help someone else.
‘It’s no good! We keep slipping back!’ Pearl wails.
She’s already been helped twice by Mary. But she’s once again uncontrollably slipping back down the pit’s relentlessly moving sides.
I feel that it’s hopeless too.
The waste is in no real hurry to move, its many broken and discarded objects languidly tumbling and falling over each other. Yet it’s gradually moving faster, gradually drawing us deeper into its embrace more efficiently than any quicksand.
‘Pearl! Look – is that what I think it is?’
Amongst the innumerable unwanted ovens, boilers and large garden toys, I’ve spotted something familiar.
A yellow wendy house.
Like us, the wendy house rolls and sways, as if caught on a lightly wallowing sea.
Like us, too, it’s being inexorably sucked towards the very centre of the vanishing pile of waste.
‘What good’s that to us?’ Pearl groans.
‘If we get in, before it vanishes too, it’ll take us to another level!’ I point out, scrambling up through the rippling tide of waste with new vigour and purpose.
All though they haven’t said so, the other girls obviously agree with me. They’re also all making their way as best as they can towards the rocking, bucking wendy house; the same way the sailors of a sunken ship will swim towards a floating spar.
And yes, we swim too: swim what could have been the breaststroke through the tumbling, slimy waste. There’s an extra advantage, too, in that the wendy house is actually drawing towards us on the waves of rolling waste.
The wallowing waste is disgusting beyond belief. It’s not only the mix of the most obnoxious stenches I’d ever come across; it’s not even the way its slimy gunge washes over you, swells around your neck and rises up towards your mouth – it’s the mass of insects that, like us, are fleeing the waters swallowing the waste, drawing them all together into a writhing carpet of black bodies and scrabbling legs.
By the time we’re close to the wendy house, its back has frustratingly spun towards us. The door at the front is too far around, too difficult to reach. We won’t reach it before we all finally slither down through the growing hole, where the waste slips beneath the sea’s surface.
‘The back door!’ Pearl gasps, grabbing hold of the wendy house’s rear and using the slender slots between the planks as a means of pulling herself clear of most of the waste.
Her fingers flitter urgently over the wall’s surface, frantically searching for the edges of the door, for anything that could give a hint to where it actually is.
‘Hah!’ she suddenly cries jubilantly.
Prising her fingertips into a gap she’s discovered, her face creases in pain as she strains to make use of that minute gap and pull the door open.
She sighs with relief and joy as the door pops open.
‘Quick, get in, get in!’ she screams, pulling herself half inside the door, turning around and reaching out a hand to pull me aboard.
As soon as I’m half inside, I reach out for Ellie. Pearl next drags inside a gratefully moaning Jeanie.
I urge Mary to move quickly, stretching out my hand towards her.
I realise we’re not going to move on to another level until we’re all aboard, until we close the door behind us. But I also realise we’re not going to make it.
We’ve run out of time.
The edge of the waste, where it slips into the water, is only a tumble, a fall, away.
‘There’s no time!’ Mary shouts back, like me realising it’s hopeless. Like me, realising we can’t all get inside before the wendy house slips into the waiting sea.
Even so, she reaches out: and she slams the door shut.
As Mary slams the door to the wendy house shut, the house itself tips violently. It rolls on the sludge of waste as it drops into the sea.
We’re all sent bowling across the short floor, crashing into the front door. The door flies open. We fall clear of the wendy house, tumbling in a chaotic pile onto a ground of solidly-packed earth.
Somewhere within that slight drop, we change, the bodies falling about me no longer black and white, no longer cartoons. Now we’re all unashamedly bright pink or brown, and unmalleably hard.
Our hair is of flowing nylon, either sheer black, or a shiny blonde.
We’re dolls. Pearl’s dolls, the ones I’d seen in her own wendy house.
Only she, of course, remains as she had been before. She’s thankfully still human.
Behind us, the wendy house rocks unsteadily – then vanishes, as if magically swallowed up by the hard earth.
Everyone looks at each other in surprise, with wide, gleaming eyes of green, blue, amber.
We curiously, fearfully, feel the hardness of our ‘skin’, our shells.
I’m wearing the most ridiculously frilly dress. One like Diana had worn.
‘Mary – where’s Mary?’ Pearl wails, fearfully glancing about herself in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of her missing friend.
‘She…she didn’t have time to get inside.’ I feel that my voice is close to cracking. ‘She shut the door; so that we’d be saved.’
Ellie looks my way with her huge, sad eyes.
‘Did…did she rise up, like an angel? Like Carol?’ she asks, her own voice trembling with the same despondency I’m attempting to control within myself.
‘I didn’t have chance to see,’ I admit with a slight shake of my head. ‘But I’m sure she must have,’ I add as brightly as I can manage.
The exaggeratedly large eyes of the dolls surrounding me seem full of emotion, full of fear and sadness. Maybe, though, there’s also a hint of the hope that Mary and Carol have in some way managed to survive what could be their deaths.
I know Pearl well enough to recognise that she’s finding it hard to hold back her tears. I can sense the way she’s gathering herself together. She knows that the others are relying on her to get them safely out of here.
‘We need to find out where we are,’ she says, glancing about us, taking in our new surroundings.
We’re lying in what appears to be an oddly shaped sandy depression, a deep hollow in what is otherwise rolling, grassy ground. It’s like an overly-large bunker on a golf course.
The sides of the depression are quite high, quite steep: we all have to help each other to clamber out and scramble up onto the grassy area.
‘Oh oh: this isn’t good – this isn’t very good at all,’ Jeanie declares worriedly, looking back on the depression we’ve all just climbed out of.
At first, I can’t understand her anxiety, even as I try and make sense of the odd shape of the depression.
Jeanie points out the tight curve of the depression’s rear, the individual holes towards the front.
‘It’s a footprint,’ Jeanie explains. ‘A giant’s footprint.’
The trail of the giant stretches back behind us over the gently rolling landscape.
Each footprint is gigantic in its own right. The giant obviously walks barefoot. His weight must be considerable too, for the depressions within the hard soil are quite deep.
‘Where’s he gone?’
Unlike the rest of us, Debbie isn’t looking back to see where the giant came from. She’s staring ahead, frowning in puzzlement.
‘See?’ she adds, pointing out that the trail of footprints only stretches a little way ahead of us. Ten or twelve more footprints, and that’s all.
‘Perhaps the ground’s harder there.’
‘Maybe he jumped?’
‘There no sign of him landing anywhere,’ Debbie responds with a doubtful shake of her head, shading her eyes as she peers farther off into the distance. ‘He might be a giant; but he’d have to have wings to jump that far.’
‘Then maybe he just vanished; you know, like the wendy house?’ Jeanie says hopefully.
‘Listen – can you hear anything?’ Ellie asks, cupping a hand around an ear.
We all instantly stop speaking, straining our ears to pick up whatever Ellie thinks she might have heard.
There’s a laboured grunting, the odd weary groan. It sounds like it’s coming from somewhere close to the last set of giant footprints.
‘An invisible giant?’ Jeanie whispers in terrified awe.
From the farthest footprint, a spout of dirt shoots up into the air. It lands on the grassy sides with a clump.
There’s a pained groan as another fountain of soil rises from the depression. Soil which once again falls into the surrounding grass.
We waddle over towards the last footprint as quickly as we’re able, our gait awkward and difficult to get used to. It’s like walking as an over-padded toddler. Our legs are stiff, unbending. We’re only jointed at the hip, with no flexibility at the knee.
The piles of dirt rising into the air are coming from the circular hole that would have been formed by the giant’s big toe. The grunting and groaning emanates from there too.
Peering down from the edges of the hole, we find ourselves staring down at an industriously busy and surprisingly small man. He’s too busy digging the hole, throwing the dirt high over his shoulder, to have noticed any of us gathering around him.
The little man jumps nervously when Pearl calls down to him. The shovelful of earth he’s throwing up into the air falls in a filthy rain all over his bent back.
He whirls around, his face contorted with fear. It’s a large face for his small body, with even larger features. He’s hardly bigger than I am, or the rest of the dolls.
He’s a dwarf, maybe, or a goblin, I’d guess. Something like that anyway. Leastways, he’s dressed like a gnome. His feet are large and bared, his hands similarly over-sized for his body.
‘Who are you?’ the dwarf demands irately, perhaps in an attempt to hide his terror at being unexpectedly surrounded by a group of weirdly glaring dolls. ‘You shouldn’t be here! The giant – the giant will get you! And eat you up!’
Despite his bravado, he’s cowering within his hole, holding his spade before him as if it were some sort of defensive weapon. It’s a full sized spade, one that even Pearl would probably find difficult to handle. The dwarf’s thick arms are obviously incredibly powerful.
‘What giant?’ Debbie asks doubtfully.
‘The giant who made all these giant footprints, course!’ the dwarf blusters edgily.
‘You seem to be the one making them,’ Pearl says dismissively.
‘Is there a giant?’ Jeanie asks.
‘Might be,’ the Dwarf answers with an archly raised eyebrow. ‘You’d better run, hadn’t you?’
‘We don’t think there is a giant.’
I’m sure I’m answering for all of us when I say this. No one attempts to disagree with me.
We all just glare angrily down at the dwarf. We’ve been through enough without this silly little man trying to scare us with tales of non-existent giants.
‘Just because I’m digging this hole doesn’t mean giants don’t exist!’ the dwarf persists.
‘But there aren’t any around here, are there?’ Pearl declares with an assertive scowl.
At last lowering his spade, the dwarf resignedly shakes his head.
‘I suppose not; now you come to mention it.’
‘So why are you trying to scare people then?’ Debbie snaps irritably.
‘Don’t you realise how scary it is for me, living out here on my own?’ the dwarf replies, scrambling out of his hole with difficulty until Pearl offers him a hand.
‘So why do you live on your own?’ Ellie asks.
The dwarf shrugs.
‘Because no one comes out this way: I don’t know why not.’
‘The giant scares them off, maybe?’ I say.
‘But there isn’t a real giant, is there?’ the dwarf says.
‘But if they see the footprints–’
‘It’s not supposed to scare off people who want to be my friend!’ the dwarf retorts, rudely interrupting poor little Jeanie.
Before anyone can point out the major fault lines in the dwarf’s bizarre logic, there’s a thunder-like groan high above us, a lightning-like crack that’s sharp and sudden.
The clouds rolling solidly across the sky aren’t dark, however; they’re as white as can be, as purely unblemished as an artic landscape.
Despite this, a branching streak of lightning breaks out from between the clouds. Yet it’s one that’s strangely slow in its movement and – even more improbably – bright green rather than white.
More plant-like than a burst of condensed light, the rapidly elongating green streak stretches down towards us. Smaller sections fork off in every direction.
The main stalk strikes the ground close by us, thickening, curling and burgeoning leaves as it does so. Its lower forks spread and root within the ground.
It’s not lightning. It really is a plant, after all.
It’s a giant beanstalk.
The clouds rumble angrily once more. The drumming booms of thunder.
The beanstalk vibrates, its twang like that of a strummed guitar string.
The dwarf nervously grabs hold of Pearl.
‘Someone’s coming down it! Down the beanstalk!’ he shrieks in panic.
Through the break in the clouds that the massive green shoot had originally emanated from, there’s now a flash of bright red, of black.
It’s someone running. Running as fast as they can down the weaving, curling beanstalk.
Yet it doesn’t seem to be a giant.
Going by the width of the beanstalk rooted by us, I’d guess that he’s not much bigger than Pearl.
The bright red is his jacket, the black his boots and hat.
It’s a uniform.
And the closer this solider get towards us, the more I recognise him.
It’s the solider. The solider who, along with his men and the doll Diana, had rescued me earlier when I’d been imprisoned by the wendigoes.
The soldier’s taller now that he had been when I’d last seem him.
Perhaps, after all, he and his men had been the ones who had eaten the magical cake, rather than the rats.
Good: I’d hate to think they’d lost out to those awful rats.
As he sprints ever closer towards us, he stares at me in growing astonishment, then absolute delight.
‘Diana?’ he yells excitedly. ‘You survived!’
‘No, no,’ I cry back, realising that he’s mistaken me for the friend he’d lost as we’d fought our way through the massed rats, ‘it’s me; the girl you rescued!’
He frowns briefly in bewilderment, but he’s too intent on running to bother himself too much with this puzzle. Jumping down to the ground as he reaches the last wayward curl of the beanstalk, he unceremoniously grabs the spade off the startled dwarf.
‘Sorry,’ he shouts, ‘but I have to cut this beanstalk down. Before the giant has a chance to use it and follow me!’
Using the iron blade of the spade, the soldier hacks frenziedly at the beanstalk’s fibrous stem. Cutting away chunk after weeping chunk.
High above us, the clouds rumble yet again, this time more clearly recognisable as a deep, grumbling complaint.
‘Who’s making all that dreadful racket? Can’t a man get a decent sleep around here anymore?’
From the clouds there now also comes a steadily burgeoning rain of objects; immense cups, roof-sized plates, ornaments the equal of garden statues. And the more the solider hacks at the beanstalk’s thick stem, weakening it with every violent blow, the more the objects fall, the signs of a huge house beginning to disintegrate.
Soon it’s chairs, a table, a sideboard. All massive, all collapsing into a splatter of shards as they fall to the hard earth with a cacophonic, shattering impact.
Within seconds, it’s not only household objects but also part of the building itself that’s crashing to the ground around us. Huge sections of brick wall, of crumbling mortar. Enormous wooden beams, all of which must have been constructed from similarly unimaginably large trees.
Next comes something that, apart from those unbelievably enormous beams, is more gigantic than anything that’s previously fallen; a huge oblong of wooden slats and metal framing, of materials flowing about it like useless wings.
It’s a bed.
A bed that falls out of the sky like some oddly shaped meteorite. It hits the ground with a clang of springs, of buckling metal legs.
There’s also a tremendously loud groan of pain: and the giant slips from between the sheets.
Partially rolling off the far side of his bed, he slumps to the floor, as if dead.
‘Is he dead? Could he have survived that fall?’
The dwarf, wide-eyed in wonder, looks towards each of us for an answer.
‘There’s no movement,’ the soldier says, cautiously stepping closer towards the fallen bed, towards the awkwardly crumpled form of the giant. ‘But he could just be unconscious.’
As the dwarf had done earlier, he holds the blade of the spade out before him, his sole weapon against a giant who would have no trouble in casting both it and him aside with a simple swipe of a massive hand.
‘He’s already killed my men. He thought he’d killed me too, but I’d just been knocked unconsci–’
He’s interrupted by yet another horrendously loud crack, this one coming from behind us.
As one, we all whirl around. The already weakened beanstalk is continuing to shred and crumble, more and more of its protruding stalks breaking off and crashing to the ground.
As the stalk continues to disintegrate, so does the giant’s cloud castle, with more and more of it beginning to tumble from the sky. Large cast iron ovens. Whole wardrobes packed with immense clothes. Massive armchairs. They all crash to the ground with the boom and crash of an exploding volcano.
When we look back towards the bed, we can no longer see the giant.
‘Where’s he gone?’
The soldier glances nervously about himself.
‘He hasn’t had time to run off!’ Pearl points out.
‘Why would he run off?’ I add.
‘He’s under the bed,’ Debbie says with fearful certainty, even though the thick shadow beneath the bed is as black and impenetrable as a block of coal. ‘Isn’t that were all nasty things live? Under the bed?’
‘Clever girl,’ the giant snarls from beneath the bed – and a huge, grasping hand reaches out towards Debbie.
The giant’s huge fingers snatch and close – around empty air.
Instead of fruitlessly trying to run away from the grasping hand hurtling towards her, Debbie has thrown herself towards it. Leaping onto the fingers while the palm was still open, she’s clambered up them all as if they were the steps of a living ladder.
Reaching the top of the uppermost finger, she leaps clear.
With a howl of frustration, the giant abruptly rises to his feet. He throws off the bed as if it were nothing more than a heavy cloak.
He looms over us, so mountainous that he blocks out the sun, casting a huge area of dark shade around us. He glowers at us all, but particularly at Debbie. He’s incensed by the way she’s cleverly avoided his grasping hand.
‘You first, I think!’
Growling furiously, he strides out towards us all, but reaches down towards Debbie with his grasping hand once more. Just as she did before, however, Debbie uses her small size to her advantage. She runs towards him, ducking out of the way of his uselessly closing fingers.
She ducks and weaves again and again. The giant howls in fury and frustration, his grasping hand again and again grasping nothing but empty air. It’s like a man hopelessly trying to catch a swiftly darting mouse.
We rush forward, either hoping to pull Debbie clear of the constantly snapping, snatching hand, or at least distract the giant long enough for her to re-join us.
With a lazy, irritable back swing of his hand, the giant swats us all away. He sends us all flying up into the air.
We land with body-jarring impact, despite thankfully falling into the softer parts of the dwarf’s depression, the loose soil exploding around us in an earthy dust cloud. Hurriedly picking ourselves up, swiping aside the muddy earth clogging our mouths, our eyes, we dash towards the depression’s edge.
The giant has turned away from us, his back facing our way.
He’s still awkwardly stumbling after a fleeing Debbie, still uselessly snatching out at her as she cleverly avoids his every grasp.
She’s drawing him towards the area where the rain of falling objects is at its heaviest. Towards where the crumbling beanstalk stretches high in the air above them like a vast, green crack in the sky itself.
The falling furniture, the broken sections of castle, crash around them like a shower of exploding comets. Many fall and crash into the beanstalk’s angled stem, bouncing off and at last crashing to the floor, but not before making the already creaking trunk rock and sway.
Something large and yellow drops from the clouds. It hurtles towards Debbie. She looks up at it, sees it heading her way: and stops where she is.
The giant’s overjoyed to see that she’s finally tired of running from him.
He thankfully and unhurriedly steps towards her. He leans over her. He reaches for her with a massive hand; and the yellow object strikes him hard on the bald crown of his huge head.
The deadly projectile briefly bounces back into the air, striking the giant once more as he falls. It lands on and rolls down the giant’s back even as he begins to slowly topple forward, his legs already crumpling uselessly beneath him.
‘Run Debbie!’ Pearl cries anxiously, realising the toppling giant is going to fall on her.
Debbie has already realised this.
She’s running away from the swiftly falling giant. This time, she doesn’t stop running until she’s well clear of the giant’s rapidly slumping body.
When the giant’s mountainous knees strike the ground, everything around us reverberates as if the whole Earth is suffering an earthquake. The ground shakes and rumbles. The beanstalk quivers, shedding leaves and branches. The crack in its trunk widens ominously with a shriek of tearing flesh.
The rest of the giant’s massive, slumping body continues toppling forward, an arm limply extending as he finally crashes heavily to the ground.
The arm comes crashing down last of all, the open hand flopping lifelessly yet heavily as it lands directly on top of poor little Debbie.
We all wail out in anguish.
We all hurriedly clamber out from the depression, sprinting across the ground towards the giant’s massive, motionless hand.
It’s hard to believe that Debbie could have survived the weight of that huge hand falling on her.
Even as we draw closer to the immense, slightly arching fingers, it seems to gradually dawn on each of us that there’s nowhere near enough room beneath the flattened palm for Debbie to have remained unharmed.
We each frown morosely as we realise the hopelessness of the situation.
We each gasp, too, as we spot a burst of wavering movement around the top of the hand.
It is Debbie, and yet it’s not Debbie.
It’s a translucent, angelically winged Debbie. An angel rising up through the hand, up through the air into the sky.
She’s still doll-like; yet in this softly transparent form, she could be regarded as being almost human.
I blink, as I’m sure everyone else must do, as she rises up before a glaring sun; and suddenly she’s no longer rising up on her wings. Instead, she’s comfortably seated in the rowboat languidly looping its way up towards heaven.
Like Debbie, the monkey and goose are no longer cartoons. They’re cutely soft toys, pulling on the oars, blissful smiles on their faces.
Before any of us can make any comment, the air is rent with a fearful shriek, the ripping of the shredding flesh of a gigantic plant.
The beanstalk, weakened all the more by the earthquake-like jolts of the falling ogre, is at last completely collapsing.
And we’re all standing underneath its extensively spreading branches.
There’s nowhere to run.
It’s like being caught in the shadow of a toppling redwood tree.
No; in the shadow of a tree larger than any that could possibly exist in the real world.
‘There! A wendy house!’
Ellie’s urgently pointing across to the large yellow object that had felled the giant. And she’s right: it is a wendy house! Albeit one that’s partially smashed, and lying on one end.
‘In the back, as before!’ Pearl screams as we run towards the little house. ‘It seems to help us rise up through the levels!
With nowhere else to run, we all head towards the wendy house. Even the bemused dwarf joins us in our sprint.
Fortunately, the back door to the house lies open.
We begin to quickly scramble inside, helping each other, unsure as to how long we have before the rapidly shredding beanstalk completely collapses on us. Already, enormous branches and leaves are crashing to the earth all around us. The earth shakes violently once more, the choking dust enveloping and blinding us all.
‘Are you all going? Leaving me on my own again?’ the dwarf asks fearfully.
‘No, no: no one deserves to be left all alone!’ Ellie declares determinedly.
She steps back from the open door, pulls hard on the little man’s arm; and pushes him up and through the doorway.
With a heart-stopping snap, a terrifying rumble and a frightening shaking of everything around us, the main stem of the crumpling beanstalk finally comes crashing to the ground. The house jumps, rocks, the back door clanging shut.
With the sound of a hurricane rushing towards us, the first stems of the falling beanstalk begin lashing our little house. Smashing the wood. Making the house leap and rise up into the air like a hot jumping bean.
As the house shatters and splinters with loud cracks all around us, the front door flies open.
The floor of the house rocks, jolts; and once again we’re unceremoniously thrown out through the front.
We tumble across the ground, screeching in agony as we roll across sharp twigs and stems. We crash in an ungainly, painful heap against the thick trunk of a tree.
I say we.
By that, I mean only me, Pearl, and Jeanie.
There’s no one else with us.
And we’re in such a tightly condensed wood that hardly any light falls around us.
‘Are we home?’ Jeannie asks hopefully.
She glances everywhere about herself in a mix of barely controlled terror and surprise.
It’s a reasonable question.
The tightly packed trees remind me of home. Or rather, of course, of the dark forest surrounding our home.
There’s hardly any room to move between the innumerable trees, their trunks staunch and rigid like so many uncountable pillars. Within the space that should exist between them, a seemingly infinite number of branches lock and intertwine like a thickly black tapestry.
And we’re all human again.
It’s not too much to hope that we’re finally home again, is it?
But then, we hear the whispering.
The countless voices. All talking over each other.
The singing, too.
A singing that, eerily, sounds like the distant voices of long-dead children.
‘Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line…’
I notice a flash of bright red amongst the thick carpet of fallen, interlocking twigs.
Reaching out for it, picking it up, I find I’m holding a toy soldier. Lying nearby there’s also a battered garden gnome, one smiling happily as he shoulders his over-sized shovel.
I feel incredibly sorry for them both. Especially the little tin soldier, who had risked his life for me earlier.
I kiss him.
‘Are…are these Ellie’s?’ Jeanie asks tearfully.
She’s spotted something glinting amongst the massed twigs. She holds up a pair of broken spectacles.
Pearl nods in response to Jeanie’s question.
‘I think they are; yes.’
‘Does that mean…mean she was human too when she…when she…?’
She can’t say it, can she?
None of us can, I suspect.
‘When she died.’ That’s what she’s wanting to say, isn’t it?
I can only shrug in answer to Jeanie’s hopefully pleading stare.
‘I think, yes; she was,’ Pearl thankfully answers for me.
She doesn’t sound in any way doubtful.
Which surprises me.
There’s a hushed chuckling, as if the whispering voices are in agreement with my surprise.
‘I think we must be higher up the levels, closer to home,’ Pearl states assuredly, rising to her feet.
Dusting herself down, she tries to peer through the darkness of the surrounding forest.
‘If I’m right,’ she says, ‘we need to find something – like a sundial, or an ancient henge – that will point us towards the double suns.’
‘Double suns? Is there such a thing?’ I grimly chuckle.
‘What’s a henge?’ Jeanie asks.
We’re all ignoring the whispering voices, refusing to recognise them.
We’ve been through so much, travelled through so many odd lands, that I suppose none of us see any point in worrying until we know for sure what we’re facing.
Listen carefully, however, and there are individual voices amongst that strangely drifting yet also remarkably intense whispering. Children who are lost. Children who are scared.
All those children who have been lost in the forest: they’re all still here, somehow.
‘They appear on the final level out of here as two suns,’ Pearl explains in answer to my question. ‘But yes, really, it’s just our own sun, blazing in through the windows either side of the wendy house’s door. As for a henge, Jeanie; have you ever seen pictures of Stonehenge?’
Jeanie nods, manages a weak smile.
‘But they’re not always made of stone. They can be of wood – tree trunks embedded in the ground,’ Pearl continues. ‘Or it can just be a circle of massive stones, rather than ones topped with other stones. The main thing is, they act like pointers, showing us where the two suns are.’
‘I can’t see how we’re going to find a stone circle amongst all this,’ I point out miserably, observing the enveloping, packed trees.
‘We won’t unless we start searching,’ Pearl replies, beginning to push her way through the entrapping branches.
The branches crackle, spitting flashes of what could be static electricity.
The sparks spread, branch to branch, stem to stem. They light up like massed stars around us in the darkness of the packed wood.
It reminds me of something, but I can’t quite place what that something is.
The voices are suddenly agitated. There are wails, screams.
‘Go back, go back!’
‘No, no; that’s not the right way!’
‘This way, this way!’
‘Come with us!’
‘Come with me!’
Alongside us, Jeanie shivers, cowers against us.
‘This…this is what Ellie said she had heard: voices, telling her to join them in the forest. She didn’t like being alone.’
‘It’s the forest; the forest is stealing children.’
It’s the first time I’ve seen Pearl look truly frightened. She glances up nervously towards the flashing sparks of electricity now swiftly running along the branches.
‘It’s always stolen children,’ Pearl says, her expression of fright now tinged with the gawping, wide-eyed qualities of awe. ‘Dad just made it even easier; when he made the wendy house out of its wood.’
‘Easier? Stealing children?’ I’m still puzzled, even though I recognise that Pearl might be on to something with her theory, no matter how bizarre and unlikely it might seem. ‘Why would a forest steal children?’
‘Because it’s alive. I don’t know how – maybe, you know, all the people that’s died here through starvation? Perhaps it’s soaked up all their fears, all their hunger.’
She carefully touches a branch once more: and yet again, it quivers and sparks. It sends a flash of electricity rushing up back through the rest of the forest.
‘All these tightly packed trees, all connected with intertwining branches, all snapping and crackling against each other – it’s gained intelligence. Like it’s a gigantic brain.’
Looking up at the flashing sparks, the shards of electrical energy running along the millions of connecting branches, I realise that Pearl might be right after all.
For that’s what all this reminds me off: the insides of an immense, living brain.
Once again, Pearl tries to push her way through the massed, interlocking branches.
Once again, the stems flash and spark – and remain immovable.
The voices now are angry. Even a little afraid, as if they sense that they’re under attack.
‘She wants to hurt us!’
‘She’s a danger to us!
‘They’re a danger to us!’
‘They know we’re here!’
At first, I mistake Pearl’s warning cry for one of the millions of voices now laying siege to our ears.
‘We have to get out of here!’ she shrieks urgently, trying to violently force her way through the intertwined stems.
She breaks a few of the weaker branches, raising howls of pain and anger from amongst the innumerable voices.
‘They don’t want to be a part of us!’
‘They want to leave!’
‘Stop them, stop them!’
The branches surrounding us now begin to writhe, to stretch out, their ends of slender twigs like the bony hands of witches. They lash around my wrists, my ankles. They wrench me suddenly back towards a trunk, holding me firmly there.
Pearl has been similarly snatched at by the branches. They drag her back, despite her renewed, frenzied protests. They crash her hard against a trunk, binding her evermore securely as more branches wrap around her. Cocooning her against the tree’s thick body.
Only Jeanie has somehow managed to avoid the grasping branches. In a panic, she ducks and weaves, crashing frenziedly through the branches.
‘Run, Jeanie, run!’ Pearl urges her, her cries partially strangled by the stems curling around her throat. ‘Look for the twin suns!’
I’m not sure Jeanie hears.
She’s just running wildly, lashing out violently at any branches drawing close. She’s snapping them before they have time to take a firm hold.
I’ve no idea how far she gets.
She vanishes into the darkness of the forest.
I hope she manages to get clear. To get home.
Although looking at how me and Sis are so tightly bound to these trees, I can’t see how we have a hope in hell of ever being able to join her.
But that’s always been me, hasn’t it?
Always just thinking of myself.
‘It’s been nice knowing you, Sis.’
Yeah, it’s a clichéd line, isn’t it?
I should be capable of coming up with something more original. Something more personal and unique.
But heck, it’s quite apt in the circumstances, I suppose.
‘And to think, you’ve only just got to really know me; right?’
I’d nod in resigned agreement if only these damned branches would let me.
‘Then again,’ Pearl adds with a sour chuckle, ‘I don’t suppose we’ve ever really had the opportunity to just talk to each other like this, have we?’
‘You’re taking all this quite lightly,’ I point out. ‘You know, the fact that we’re caught up in some gigantic, evil, living brain.’
‘You too, don’t you think?’
I’d nod again, if I could.
‘Yeah: why is that, do you think?’
‘Because, maybe, we can’t really believe all this is really happening? We’re hoping it’s all just some crazy dream we’ll wake up from? I mean, we’ve managed to escape everything else that’s been thrown at us, haven’t we? Aren’t we just hoping that we’ll miraculously get out of all this too?’
‘I forget: just how old are you really, Sis?’
Maybe we are taking all this too lightly.
Maybe, once we stop kidding ourselves this is all some great adventure and start facing up to reality, we really will begin to panic.
To fear for our lives.
But before all this can take place, something even worse drags us back to the awful reality of our situation.
From deeper within the forest, coming from the direction that the fleeing Jeanie had headed, there’s a wailing shriek.
The shriek is followed by another wailing scream. Then another.
Soon, the whispering voices around us are drowned out by what could be hundreds of fearful shrieks. Like a terrified crowd.
The connecting sparks and surges of energetic electricity flow through the branches so wildly that the darkness is now completely lit up. Yet this amazing glow is as nothing to the bright flashes of yellow, of red, that light up and urgently crackle through the massed trees that lie farther off from us.
The voices crowding around us now whisper anxiously the same word over and over again.
What more could a forest fear than fire?
Clouds of grey and black smoke curl through the trees. Wisps of smoke are already reaching us, making it difficult to breathe, giving both Pearl and me painfully hacking coughs.
‘Jeanie – did she start it, do you think?’
‘She’s scared of fire.’ Pearl’s reply, like my question, is racked with harsh coughs. ‘But if she got desperate; if she realised fire was the only way of putting an end to this evil forest – then yeah, she might have felt she didn’t have any choice.’
‘Even though we all die horribly too?’
‘Yeah: even though we all die horribly too.’
The shrieking of the trees, the branches, is now mingled with the continuously sharp cracking of splitting wood and stems. There’s also the roaring of a wind being sucked in by voracious flames.
There’s another kind of crackling and sizzling mixing with it all too; the sharp fizz of the electrical bursts of energy frantically rushing from one branch to another, one tree to the next. Yet some of this energy is fading, even vanishing, some parts of the forest stretching high above us now dark and lifeless.
The brain is damaged. The brain is dying.
The branches binding me suddenly don’t seem anywhere near as tight or inflexible. Here and there, they droop away from me a little.
Like limp limbs. Like nothing more than normal branches once more.
When I struggle against them, they don’t fight back. They don’t attempt to restrain me with an even stronger hold.
They simply bend back, as if the way they’d clung to me was simply the way they’d naturally formed as they’d grown. As if, somehow, I’d simply managed to get myself tangled up amongst them.
Pearl also seems to have realised that the branches are no longer under the control of a greater intelligence. She, like me, is pushing her way clear of the tree’s trunk. She’s pushing or even breaking the branches away.
‘Which way?’ I ask, shrugging off the last of the stems that had been so securely holding me.
‘It may seem the craziest thing to do,’ Pearl answers, ‘but it has to be towards the fire.’
Yeah, that does seem the craziest thing to do.
That means running into what even from here looks like a solid wall of flame. The fire appears unstoppable, unquenchable.
Pearl senses my unease when she catches my doubtful grimace.
‘If we run the other way,’ she explains, ‘we’re running back into a part of the forest that’s still alive. It could trap and hold us again.’
We take off at a run, forcing our way through branches that are now only naturally rather than intelligibly resistant. It’s still hard going, the branches whipping us as we force our way past. Some of them still form an obstruction, until we plunge through with no care either for them or ourselves.
The nearer we get towards the swiftly advancing flames, though, the worse our position seems to be.
The heat alone is increasingly intolerable, like a wall in its own right, apparently sucking up every drop of moisture from our bodies in an instant. It leaves us gasping for air, sore throated, and near fainting.
This is crazy!
And as we run towards the fire, it’s running towards us at an even faster rate. Chuckling happily, it greedily sweeps through the wood.
Everywhere around us now there are falling, blazing branches. Each flaming branch sets alight the thickets of lesser stems and twigs it falls through.
Larger trunks, already afire, crash through it all, like the great beams of a cathedral being rapidly ravished by an inferno.
‘We can’t survive this Pearl!’ I scream worriedly at her.
‘There,’ she shrieks back, pointing towards a point somewhere deeper within the fire, ‘we have to head there!’
I can’t see what it is that she could be pointing at.
It all looks the same to me: all a massive, onrushing tsunami of flame, looming over us. Preparing to consume us as easily as it has this vast wood.
‘The suns,’ Pearl continues to yell, continues to urgently point, ‘the twin suns!’
With my eyes dried by the heat and smoke, everything around me is little more than an indistinguishable blur. All Pearl appears to be pointing towards us yet even more of the oncoming fire.
How are you supposed to spot a sun amongst a wall of flames?
‘That’s just the fire!’ I scream back.
She shakes her head. Urgently and almost brutally, she pulls me across to where she’s standing. She points once again to the exact spot amongst the trees that she wants me to look at.
‘See the trunks, the fallen beams of the wood?’
It’s an area of the wood where the massed, darkened trunks have toppled against or even fallen on top of each other. It all forms a virtually solid wall. A solid wall apart from two small gaps, where the fire beyond glimmers through it all like viciously blazing eyes.
‘It’s acting just like a henge,’ Pearl shrieks above the almost overpowering noise of the advancing fire. ‘That’s how a henge works: blocking out all but the most important light!’
‘It’s just fire…’ I continue to protest, even as I follow after Pearl.
She sprints towards these twin blazes of light. We abruptly find ourselves in a tight corridor of charred and blackened trunks, an area where the fire has obviously already rushed through.
Either side of this dark corridor, the fire continues to race through the rest of the wood, a sort of parting of the Red Sea.
Everything around us is still ferociously hot, including the ground we’re passing over. Darkened plumes of smoke and ash rise from the charcoaled shards. Areas still glow red, still burst briefly back into flame.
Amongst it all, there’s a different kind of glow. Small and bright, and sparkling.
A shard of white rather than sheer blackness.
It’s the glint from a broken pair of spectacles. Alongside the shattered lenses, there’s also the charred remains of a blue bow; Jeanie’s blue hair bow.
Pearl meets my own curious gaze with one of her own.
‘You think Jeanie…?’
What’s the point of asking the question?
We both know the answer.
Jeanie, despite her fears, had started this fire. To rid the world once and for all of this evil forest.
Had she also managed to escape?
Probably not: more likely, having started the fire in such a dry, tightly packed area, she would have been caught up in the worst of the swiftly expanding flames.
Ahead of us, the glimmer of the fire shines through the two gaps in the blackened tangle of trunks. This close, the flames glare at us more like eyes than ever.
Between the two flaming gaps there’s another gap created by the toppled trunks. One at ground level. One that could be a nose, lying between the blazing eyes.
‘The doorway,’ Pearl sighs confidently. ‘That’s the way out of here!’
Her hopeful sigh is met with the groan of the delicately balanced and crumbling trunks shifting and slipping against each other. And with a sickening lurch repeated within our hearts, the branches forming the doorway cave in towards each other.
Without having the good sense to stop and think about how impossible all this should be, I leap forward, reaching up for the end of the branch forming the top of the doorway.
I’m holding it up, the beam supported more by my shoulder rather than my arms and hands. Even so, my back is aching, near to splitting I would guess.
The incredible weight I’m supporting is ridiculous. All I can think is that the trunks and branches are so closely entangled that some of the weight is still being borne by other, still intertwined beams.
Whatever the reason, I feel sure that if I step away, the particular branch I’m supporting will continue to slip out of place. And that will bring the rest of the pile above it all crashing down, filling in the doorway.
‘Quick, quick, get through Pearl!’ I gasp and mumble through teeth held firmly together. ‘I can’t hold it much longer!’
‘No, Dia! I can’t leave you here too! I can’t save myself after losing all my friends!’
‘You can save yourself because I’m your older sister and I’m telling you to save yourself!’
‘No! Let it go: step back! We’ll find another way out of here!’
‘You know there isn’t any other way! Go, now! Please, for me!’
‘Go! I’ve been wrong, all my life I’ve been wrong! Complaining that Mom and Dad were always putting you first. I was the one being selfish! Now I’m putting you first!’
Pearl looks my way, like she’s going to protest again. I glower angrily at her.
‘Go! I think I can duck through; once you’ve gone!’
Realising she’s only wasting time, Pearl rushes by me, ducking beneath what is now an incredibly low beam. Even then, she turns, raising her hands to support the branch as I attempt to slip through behind her.
But no one could hold up this giant, shifting pile with nothing more than raised arms. Least of all a young girl like Pearl.
Besides, it’s now all too late.
The charcoaled, crumbling trunks crack and shatter, slip and shift.
The main, supporting branch splinters, dissolving into blackened ashes that fly up into my face.
With a fearful rumbling, everything above it jolts, shakes, lurches – then tumbles down on top of me, burying me as surely as any grave digger.
I’m seated in the boat.
The little boat, being rowed up to heaven by a grinning monkey and goose.
They’re alive. They’re real, this monkey, and this goose: how bizarre is that?
They stare at me with wide, admiring eyes. Like, for once, I’ve really achieved something in my life; achieved it by dying.
Wow, if only it had been that easy to impress everybody else in the world.
They’re in no rush, my otherworldly rowers.
As before, they’re taking the long route up to heaven.
The pretty route.
It’s a languid, lazy, corkscrewing course. One giving me every opportuning to peer over the sides of the boat. To see the wonderful landscape stretching out beneath me.
It’s not what I was expecting.
Sure, the forest is ablaze. The smoke curls up around us: vast plumes as black as the trunks being left behind by the fire on the ground.
What I wasn’t expecting, though, is that the emergency services would be on call in whatever strange world I’m exiting.
Yet there they are.
The fire brigade, pouring on great, surging waterfalls that turn to nothing but steam as soon as they plunge down onto the crackling flames.
The police, their cars’ brightly revolving lamps casting their own eerie red glow.
The ambulances, parked as close to the burnt out sections of the forest as they dare. Their uniformed crews are already rushing amongst the charred shards.
There are houses, too. And streets.
Streets I recognise.
And there’s our back yard. The wendy house, like the nearby forest, ferociously on fire.
Dad is rushing down the path towards the blazing wendy house. Fearfully screaming out our names
The wendy house’s door flies open.
Pearl dashes from it. Straight into Dad’s gratefully spreading, gloriously embracing arms.
But he’s still frantic. Still glancing anxiously towards the blazing wood.
Still anxiously crying out for me.
Of course, I shout back
Of course, he can’t hear me.
Can’t see me.
And yet, I’m not in a completely different world.
I can still feel the intense heat rising from the flames soaring up towards us from below.
The highest of the flames even lick around the edges of our little boat. It’s like we’re rising on a torrent of fire.
The wood singes, crackles. Darkens.
Then it too – remarkably, strangely – bursts into flames.
Flames are odd things, aren’t they?
There doesn’t really seem to be any real substance to them at all.
One second, there’s a bright orange flare right in front of your eyes.
The next; it’s gone.
As if there had never, ever been anything there at all.
Yet, of course, they hungrily feed off, actually gain their own life, from every other substance they can reach out to.
As I fight my way through them, they’re like an all-enveloping veil. One that hurts agonisingly if I’m foolish enough to touch it.
But suddenly, I am through them.
I’m in a garden.
Before I can work out where I am, Dad’s there. Dad throwing his arms around me. Dad drawing me so close. So warmly, lovingly close.
‘Dia! You made it too! Oh thank the lord, thank the lord! I couldn’t bear to lose you!’
Pearl’s with us both too, the three of us together. All holding each other close, like we haven’t done since Mom died. Since I persuaded myself the world was an evil place, a world I needed protecting from.
All around us, there are other Dads and Moms. Dads and Moms all holding their kids, holding onto them like they’ll never ever let them go.
There’s Jeanie’s Mom. And Jeanie, too. Without a single bow in her hair.
And there’s Ellie, minus her spectacles. Being hugged by a Mom and Dad who are going to make sure she’ll never, ever feel alone again.
Mary, Carol, Debbie: they’ve somehow survived everything we’ve been through too. Their parents are gratefully holding them high. Kissing them, embracing them. Like everyone’s only just realised they have so much love to give.
‘Thank goodness for the fire! It’s made them all come home!’
If any of the girls want to correct their parents, I don’t see any of them in a rush to try and explain what really happened in there.
Maybe, though, someone someday will try and make sense of what really happened in that dreadful forest.
For there aren’t just Pearl’s friends stumbling out from the charred remains of the wood.
There are other kids.
Hundreds of them.
Some dressed in a style that might have been fashionable fifty years ago. Some in the style of the settlers who’d tried to carve out a living for themselves here centuries before.
They look bewildered. As bewildered as the emergency service teams rushing towards them, draping them in blankets, reassuring them that everything’s going to be okay.
They were, at last, in safe hands.
They’re led off towards the waiting ambulances. Carefully made comfortable inside before the doors are closed behind them.
I hug Dad, as hard and as warmly as I can manage. Telling him that I love him. That I’m sorry. That I’ve been an idiot.
I hug Pearl, whispering in her ear that I love her too.
And then I think – To hell with whispering!
‘I love you,’ I tell her.
‘I love you too.’ She grins, hugging me back so hard my back feels like I’m holding up that massive weight once more. ‘I’ve always loved you.’
Sure she has.
Is she really only nine?
As one of the ambulances drives away, I’m just about sure I can hear the kids inside happily singing.
‘…my sister told her, I kissed a soldier…now she won’t buy me, a rubber dolly…’
If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Americarnie Trash