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The International Writers Magazine: Don't go down the woods today

Briar Woods
Lauren Mackintosh

The evening brought a cold that even this part of town couldn't handle. A strange cold that turned cheeks pink and brought mittens and scarves out of cupboards, but not enough to keep people indoors. Surprisingly, the streets were still heaving with locals when I thudded down the station steps and into the dark night air, my breath dancing in front of my face. Pulling my scarf up and my hat down, my nose already flushing a rosy colour. I walk on, unsure of my route but vaguely familiar with the final destination.

When I finally turn the corner, the street is dark. The lights had been shut off years ago, and by now they had taken down most of the remnants of the old lamps. The stumps were still there though. Like battle wounds, amputated limbs, obviously missed by what's left behind. I breathe deeply. The icy air filling my lungs, making me dizzy, but, at the same time awakening me. This street. This town. It had changed greatly since I had left, but it was still strangely, eerily, the same. What was once a lively, community spirited row of houses was now nothing more than that. Houses. Bricks and Cement. I bow my head and walk on.

Tonight the streets were brought to life as eyes peeked through blinds. Stranger? Lights went out and fingers, eyes, appeared. My pace slowed. Making that walk down the centre of this desolated street, my footfall uncertain, my hands trembling, I plant a smile on my face. Inside, inside my stomach churns. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. I immediately regretted choosing my Jimmy Choo boots. The heels tapped lightly on the cobbles, but it was me they were watching. Me who had interrupted their quiet, silent existence. It was me who had chosen to come here. I hesitated, counting numbers, my eyes finally settling on five. My fingers catch the corner of the card and there, in script was the address.

5 Briar woods,
Come Quickly!

Looking up again I come face to face with a child. Her eyes sparkled and she smiled... A toothless grin. It took all I had in me not to recoil in horror at the poor thing. She couldn't be more than eight, but her hand was withered like that of an old lady. I smiled back at her, pushing the image of a tree's wrinkled and broken branch out of my mind.
"Are you here to save us?" She asked matter-of-factly. I examined her more closely. Did she need saving? Other than her withered limb and the teeth she seemed a perfectly normal child. She could walk, as evidenced by her standing before me, and her hair framed her features, curling lightly around her shoulders. I questioned her and she smiled blithely in return. "Momma said that there would be some people coming, some people who would put us all out of our misery. But they haven't been yet. I wondered if you were coming to do that?"

I stared, bewildered for a long while before slowly lowering myself onto my knees, ignoring the freezing ground beneath me, I bundle her into my arms and pull her with me, protecting her, sobbing into her blonde locks. Such an innocent child, so harmed by this place.

Guiltily I pull myself away, aware all to quickly that I must be scaring the poor thing. She looks unfazed and I wonder why until I realise that we are no longer alone. My eyes flicker from face to face, all looking down at me. I feel like the catch of the day, about to be weighed and bundled into the hold. I rise to my feet, brushing off the wet patches on my jeans and swallow. Eyes watch, fingers point and children excitedly pull at their parents trouser legs. The little blonde girl is gone, absorbed into the mass of creatures in front of me. Some with limbs withered or missing, all achingly beautiful until you look closely, seeing missing eyes, half-bitten ears and some whose skin looks like its been attacked already by maggots.

"You've taken a wrong turn, Darlin'" someone shrieks in my ear. A sickly smell seeps into my nostrils and it takes all I have not to retch. I turn away. There are more behind me, people, everywhere. I turn again, but there's nowhere to move, I've interrupted them and now they want something from me. Retribution? Punishment? I try to move, but my path is blocked.
"Someone don't belong here!" I hear yelled from the corner of the crowd.
"Rich Bitch!" is spat in my face. I panic. Run. People surge forward. There's nowhere to go. My breathing quickens and I turn in all directions. I shout. No one helps, no one moves. They all just watch me. They're laughing somebody is laughing. I can't take any more. I drop to my knees again, gasping for air. Tears fall from my eyes.

When I open them again, they're gone. As far as I can see, there is no one. I glance at my watch. Ten past Seven. I look up again and she's there. Smiling her toothless grin.
"Are you here to save us?"
I stare bewildered at her. I've been here before. I've done this before. I shake my head, obviously not, it can't be like that.
"Save you?" she smiles back at my question. No more than eight, but with a demeanour so far beyond her tender years.
"Yeah, Momma said that the carnival won't be the same without a carnival queen to save the urchins!" She beams. Her words playing on the air between us. A carnival? Today?
"Its tonight, we're going to do the parade and then here," a broad sweeping gesture with her arms shows me the performance space. "We'll do the show. You can be the carnival queen right?" An obvious excitement is in her eyes, but it dims as a woman not much older than me emerges from one of the houses, number nine? Her hair is pinned into a severe bun but her face is kindly. She smiles and introduces herself as the girls mother. I check her over for missing limbs, damaged features, but she looks positively normal. I breathe out and smile back at her, "I'm Leigh" I shake her hand, her perfectly normal hand.

After a long chat in the street she informs me that there is already a carnival queen. The little girl was duly reprimanded for suggesting me for the role and I was cordially invited to stay to watch the carnival. As the street grew darker still, candles appeared. A line of dancing, flickering lights. A square. The centre of the street illuminated as if some ritual were about to take place. We take our seats around the edge of these candles, and the show begins. Dancing children filling up the rectangular "stage". Laughter, cheering and a festive mood filled the air and I wondered to myself what I had been worrying about. As the children all ran back, through the crowd, to the door marked BACKSTAGE, though really it was just a home volunteered by a proud parent and kindly neighbour, the audience applauded. A young woman, of only seventeen or eighteen glided into the centre of the stage. Reaching the centre she lay ceremonially onto the ground, her toes pointed to the south and her crimson hair fanned around her. A halo. Her crown was never out of place, her gown never creased. Without warning the men in the audience moved forward, surrounding her. The women too moved forward blowing the candles out. Plunged into darkness my panic returned. I looked around, but all the women had gone. Back to their own homes, not part of the rest of this evening. My breathing was heavy and my heartbeat thudded in my ears. What was going on? What kind of warped carnival was this?

As they all disappeared, each to his own front door. With the click of each lock. I watch in horror. The carnival queen lies in the street, no crown out of place, not a crease in her gown, just a neat slit in her throat.

© Lauren Mackintosh November 2008
<blindedconsent at>

Lauren is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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