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Once upon a time I fled to the forest.
Throat like sandpaper, lungs bursting, feet slamming the pavement through my worn school shoes. Gasping, I hesitated at the fence that divided the street from the dim, whispering trees beyond. Shouts and running feet were coming nearer. There was nowhere else to hide. Without looking back, I squeezed through the gap and crossed over into the woods. The trees closed ranks behind.
Soon all I could hear was my breathing and the snap and crunch of my footsteps on the forest floor. I stopped and looked around. I was alone. Moss-covered trunks leaned over, mouths yawning. There was a rustling and harsh cawing as two birds tussled in the branches, then flapped away.
Why? Why did they always pick on me? I kept my head down at school, tried to avoid drawing attention to my flat chest, shabby uniform, the absence of parents at end-of-term events. But they had noticed. I felt my stomach muscles contract; sobs were rising. I crawled into a thicket and let the howls escape. I stayed for a long time with my head buried in my knees, shoulders shaking.
Sometime later I raised my head. It was then that I noticed the object on the ground beside me. It was about the size of my fist, with segments of what looked like flesh in a structure that gently pulsed. A filigree network of veins trickled through its tight, transparent skin. The thing was tethered by a dark red cord that disappeared, worm-like into the earth. I touched it with my fingertip. It was warm. I had never seen anything like it. Some kind of plant? A mushroom?
It was getting dark; I had to go. The thought of leaving the strange little object made me feel sad, but I didn’t dare pluck it from the ground. Outside the thicket I looked around for a landmark. There was a twisted tree stump I was sure I would remember. I headed in what I thought was the direction back to the street. My instinct was right. I was not far from the fence where I had squeezed in. Reluctantly, I headed home. Over the squatting houses the dusk was a kindly blanket, hiding water-stained concrete and rotting woodwork. Lights were in many of the too-small windows, but in our house the unlit glass was like the black eyes of strangers.
Monday morning. School. I walked as slowly as I could. My bag swung from my shoulder, frayed and dirty from where it had been kicked around in the mud last week. I took small bites from the jam sandwich that was my breakfast. As I neared the gate, I dared to hope I had missed them.
“Here she is.”
They stepped out. It was Kelly Bradley and two others. A weight formed in my chest, then sank lower and lower into my legs. I stopped.
“What’s that you’ve got?” One of the girls pointed to my sandwich.
I held it out.
She took it, dropped it and stamped on it. Jam spattered the pavement. “Disgusting,” she said. “Like your period. If it’s started that is.”
My entrails began to twist.
“There’s mud on your skirt.” said the other girl. She knew very well it was from where she had kicked me in last week’s lunch queue. I kept my face expressionless but tears threatened to betray me. I bent my head so they wouldn’t see my eyes.
The school bell rang.
“You’re late,” said Kelly.
I took this as my cue to move away. They followed, talking loudly.
“What a scrubber.”
“Is that a bra she’s wearing?”
I was a puppet jerking under their gaze. As I entered the school gates my stomach rumbled. I had nothing left to eat.
I returned to the thicket after school. Kneeling in the dead leaves, I peered at the thing. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked bigger. Its pale flesh moved in and out. I found myself breathing in time. Sheltered by the thicket, I felt strangely calm. When dark started to fall, I again left reluctantly.
I returned many times over the following weeks. The object was definitely changing. Under the membrane it swelled in different directions. It reminded me of the dead-eyed forms in jars in the school science cupboard, but, unlike them, this was very much alive. At first I didn’t believe what I was seeing. But there was no denying it. There was the outline of an unformed face with blind, shadowy eyes and a gash for a mouth. Further down, a trunk and four limbs. It was against everything I knew could be possible, but what else could it be? Growing from the earth was a person.
Wednesday. I slammed the front door behind me with relief. Another day gone without incident. What’s more, one of the teachers was leaving and had brought sweets for the class. I had put mine straight in my bag; if I tried to eat them someone would have “accidentally” knocked them out of my hand. I dropped my bag to the floor and felt inside. What I grasped was not a packet of sweets but a handful of crumpled, shiny paper. They were pages from a magazine. Mostly pictures. Of women. Naked women. I dropped them as if they were on fire. My cheeks burned. I pulled more from my bag; there were some men, too, in these. Tears filled my eyes. With the panic of the guilty, I gathered up the pages and screwed them together. I couldn’t think of where to dispose of them. In the end I wrapped them in three carrier bags and shoved them deep down inside the kitchen bin, pushing my hand past the cold, slimy scraps of last night’s dinner. I didn’t feel like eating sweets any more.
Whenever I could, I went to see the creature. I made a protective tent for her with some old plastic sheeting. Under its shelter I would sit, watching her heart beat and limbs jerk. The rope-like cord that anchored her to the ground bulged and pulsed. Sometimes I talked to her. Sometimes I cried. Underneath the membrane, there was a flickering in the shadows where her eye sockets were. Who knows what she could hear.
Suddenly, it was happening. Her head thrashed backwards and forwards. Her limbs kicked and strained against the skin which stretched thinner and thinner. It tore. Her arm emerged. She clawed at herself with oversized fingers, jagged and strong as tree roots. Bit by bit she sloughed the membrane from her body. Her skin was transparent as the sky. Underneath, muscles twisted like powerful springs. Hair lay wet between her legs. And her face! Her eyes burned, her cheekbones were like knife blades. Down her back, her hair fell like a nest of snakes. Suddenly, she jumped up and stretched to the heavens. She was taller than the tallest person I knew. She raised her face and took a deep, gulping breath, then another. With a swift movement, she crouched and bit through the cord tethering her to the ground. When she rose her lips were crimson. Her tongue flicked past teeth pointed as a cat’s.
Now she looked at me. Running would be pointless.
“I, I, I’m your friend.” I could only whimper.
She tilted her head, then leaned closer. I thought I was going to wet myself with fear.
“You know me, don’t you?” I stammered, desperately.
She leaned forward and sniffed. She smelled of blood and soil. Her nose, where it touched me, was cold as ice. She hesitated for what seemed like a lifetime. Our eyes met. Then she turned and, with a single leap, disappeared through the bushes.
The end of another day. I tore off my school skirt and tights. My thighs were speckled with red dots. In maths class they had given out compasses with sharp, tiny points. Afterwards, in the crowded corridor, my tormentors had not hesitated to test these new instruments on me. I drew my finger over the wounds, idly joining the dots as if looking for shapes – answers – among the stars. Then I pulled some jeans over them.
I carried the dead fox into the woods with pride. Its orange fur gleamed around the sticky red wound that I held away from me. Fresh road-kill, the flies not even gathered. At the twisted tree stump I was smiling. I ducked under the branches and into her lair. She was lying on a blanket I had brought. Her skin was dull with dirt and leaves stuck in her matted hair, but she was as beautiful and terrible as ever. I dropped the fox in front of her. She leapt up and tore at it with frantic fingers. I watched with satisfaction, then turned and gathered up the food containers lying around the den. She always seemed so hungry, and I had been able to bring precious little.
“Bye,” I said.
She looked up. There was a flicker of recognition in her eyes. Then she bent her head again and I left her.
It was an overheard conversation in the local shop, snatches of gossip in the playground. Cats had gone missing. Two dogs had disappeared on their regular walk; their owner had eventually found one with its throat torn open and half its flesh missing. Strange howls were coming from the woods at night. I kept my thoughts to myself. No one asked to hear them anyway.
Friday afternoon. The school bell cut through my consciousness. All around me, people were rising, pulling bags from under desks, shoving arms into jacket sleeves. I watched Kelly and the others leave with a glance, first at me, then at each other. Slowly I walked out of the school gate, overtaken on both sides by a stream of pupils, laughing, pushing, pulling out phones. The crowd thinned as I neared my side of town. I rounded the corner alone. There they were, as I had expected. Four of them. They shifted from foot to foot, unable to contain the energy they were about to use on me.
“Where’re you going?” said Kelly.
“Home,” I said.
“Not yet you’re not.” She was talking loudly, wanting to impress the others. “Want to go viral?”
I shook my head. One of the girls was fiddling with her phone. Then she held it up, camera eye towards me. “Ready?” she said, “Action!”
They sprang at me.
I turned and ran – just quickly enough to avoid a grasping hand. I heard them in pursuit. “Keep filming!” one of them screeched. At the end of the road I squeezed through the gap in the fence then turned to see if they were following. One of them vaulted right over. Kelly came after. I reached the trees and gulped the thick, vegetable air of the forest. They were still coming. I slowed my pace as I navigated the woods; they would not be familiar, as I was, with the forest floor and its traps. Up ahead, there was a flash of bare skin. Adrenalin fizzed in my veins; my heart hammered as pressure built behind my eyeballs. The breath rasped in her throat, her claws cut the air as she ran. Behind I heard stumbling and swearing. In her belly, hunger raged. Now they could no longer see me. I watched them stop and look around uncertainly. We were by the twisted tree stump. There was an earthy, animal smell in the air. A gust of wind set the leaves swaying. Nearby, a branch snapped. She was coming.
“Let’s go,” one of them said.
“You’re staying.” I spoke just loudly enough for them to hear me.
They turned, their eyes full of stupidity. I stood tall amongst the ancient trees. A snarl rose in my throat. As my fingers tensed and curled I smelled fear emanating from their worthless, fleshy bodies.