Sad Story

.. Inspired by a Long Walk in a Dark Forest

‘THE GLADE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

The call finally came at nine minutes past 4am on Tuesday, February 2nd. The ring from his phone shattered the silence in their bedroom and wrested him from a long and beautiful dream in which he was wandering alone in a massive oaken forest, surrounded by tall trees and warmed by golden summer sunlight breaking through the canopies above. Eric was fast asleep, and had been for hours. It was the middle of Winter, and the small house that he and his wife Nancy shared in Brixton, South London was cold and the wanly lit streets outside thick with an early morning fog that rolled down from the river and flowed through them like so many silent ghosts. He groaned loudly and turned, setting his feet reluctantly on the polished wooden floor beside their bed and shook the sleep from his eyes, searching for the source of the unwelcome noise.

The call came from the Royal Hospital in the city, and he was greeted on the line by an elderly man who identified himself as Dr. Morgan and whose nervous tone immediately gave Eric cause for concern. After making sure he had reached the right person, the other man wasted no time advising him that in spite of their greatest care and attention his mother had finally passed, gently and quietly in the night. Although she had been admitted into care several months earlier with little chance that she would recover from a long bout of pneumonia, the shock of waking up to such news caused Eric to break down and the sound of his quiet sobbing awoke Nancy who rolled over and embraced her husband, knowing immediately what had happened. Eric regained his composure and thanked the doctor for doing the best he could before hanging up and again weeping openly in her arms.

It had been a terrible twenty-four hours after they rushed to the hospital to greet the staff that had made Edith’s final days on earth comfortable, and by the time her funeral had finally come around neither Eric nor Nancy felt that they had any emotion left. They stood silently numb as their bishop delivered her last rites and watched bleary-eyed as her body was slowly lain to rest in a quiet corner of an old cemetery, sheltered by the nurturing arms of a strong willow tree. Edith loved the willow, and Eric knew that she would be at peace here in this place beside her husband and his father who had himself passed-on more than a decade earlier. “At last,” he thought to himself, looking out across the field of stones as a soft breeze animated the long, vibrant grass surrounding them, “you and Dad are together again.” The rest of their friends and family slowly dissipated in time, leaving him and Nancy alone to come to terms with the fact that they were both finally gone.

They held a small wake at a house just outside of the city where his Aunt Meredith, his mother’s sister lived and tried their best to put on a smile and talk only of the happier times he had shared with his parents growing up. Eric had become an only child shortly before his eighth birthday, after his younger sister Julia had mysteriously disappeared one night and although this had been an intense cause for talk and speculation at the time, everyone present was still wiser than to bring it up even now. After most of them, particularly the four or five other elderly women with whom Edith had spent much of her twilight years enjoying outings and other various activities had exhausted themselves of all grief, conversation turned to laughter as they fondly remembered her quirks. Eric’s mother had been raised in a small town east of the Lake District in the country’s north where most still spoke their mind, and her sharp tongue and irreverent personality had caused her more than once to land herself (and often too her close family) in hot water.

They ended up in hysterics as they fondly remembered the time she had berated her husband mid-prayer in front of the congregation for falling asleep during a sermon, and how she had almost chased poor Nancy half-way down the street the first time she had met her after finding out that her son was seeing an Irish Catholic girl. For all her odd behaviour, Edith had proved to be the most loving and genuine mother Eric could have asked for, and despite the large group of well-wishers that had turned out to take part in her wake, deep down he had never felt more alone.

He eventually excused himself from the rest of the party at the close of another anecdote and walked out in front of the house where he stood and looked out into the street, sighing heavily and wondering just what exactly he was supposed to do now. As if to answer, a short, well-dressed man in a dark dinner suit also left the gathering through the front door and stood beside him, offering him a quick gesture of respect before pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket, lighting it up and joining him in staring out across the neighbourhood. After a minute, the other man turned to Eric, extending his right hand and spoke:

“George Kaczynski, it’s nice to meet you,” he started. “I knew your mother briefly in the final few weeks before.. until now.” He finished awkwardly. The name sounded familiar to Eric, who finally realised who it was he was speaking to. He continued, “I was asked to be the executor of your mother’s estate, and was hoping I could have a word today to perhaps arrange to meet and run through a few things.. not today, and there’s no rush of course. Edith and I discussed her intentions at length over the past few weeks, and she was very firm in making sure that I don’t..” he chuckled for a moment, and Eric smiled, “that I didn’t dilly-dally around like every other smooth-talking shark she’d dealt with. I was hoping you could perhaps stop by my office tomorrow, if you’re up to it..?”

“Yes, of course – thank you. I know my mother wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t keep track of her things, you know how she is.. was. I’ll stop-in first thing tomorrow, let you get it out of the way.” George smiled a stiff smile as he crushed his cigarette underfoot, shook Eric’s hand and passed him his business card before making his way out into the street and to his car. Eric stood there alone for another several minutes before squinting skyward and sighing heavily once more. “Well, let’s get this over with,” he thought as he turned and made his way back inside, eager to put the event behind him.

He and Nancy met with Mr. Kaczynski early the next morning at his building in the West End, and quickly got down to business. Edith and her husband David had accumulated very little in the way of non-material assets over the years, acquiring little else other than several old vintage cars (Eric’s father had at one time been a mechanic) and a lifetime of furniture and possessions which still filled the large country house they had shared in rural Cumbria in the country’s far north. As their only son, Eric had more or less been given sole inheritance, and their meeting served as little more than a formality in signing their home and contents over to him before he and Mr. Kaczynski shook hands once more and they left with a set of keys and a long list of inventory for larger assets that remained at the property. It was a bittersweet moment for him as he reflected on the many years that he had spent growing up in that old house, and in the knowledge that it is and would remain empty now that his parents had both finally passed-on.

He and Nancy decided to pack their bags that Friday and drive up to the house to begin the monstrous task of sorting, cleaning and clearing through three decades of clutter and belongings that still filled every room. He had decided and she agreed that the longer they put it off, the more difficult a task it would become and at first light they packed a weekend’s worth of clothing and boxes into the back of her cherry-red V60 station wagon and set-off on a road trip that would take them a little over five hours, traffic permitting. The road out of London itself proved to be a long one however, and despite leaving early they found themselves caught in gridlock on the far side of the river for almost an hour before finally breaking free and reaching open road, and the scenic surroundings of the English countryside.

In spite of the solemn reason for their venture north, it was all that Nancy could do to hide her excitement at spending a weekend in the country. The pair had met while studying in the inner-city and spent the next five and a half years moving from share house to apartment, and apartment to condo and had never once had the luxury of anything larger than a roofed al-fresco as a backyard. She found herself energised by the fresh air and wide open spaces, gushing incessantly throughout their entire journey and the only way that Eric could think to put an end to her excited narrative was to suggest they stop at Carlisle for a long-lunch and some sightseeing before carrying-on the remainder of their journey to Wetheral, their final destination.

While they sat and ate at one of a hundred small delicatessens along the highway, Eric’s mind wandered back to his teenage years spent growing up in the country. The green fields and endless rolling hills brought him back to a simpler time in his life where he would while away the hours roaming through the many woods and glens, mapping every brook and stream which intersected the flourishing landscape. He had loved to fish, and sometimes otherwise to just lose himself in the openness and emptiness of being far away from it all. He also remembered more difficult times as a child coming to terms with the disappearance of his younger sister in one such wood outside the family home, and the taunts and accusations made toward him by the other children at their school, and even their parents. He had been the last one to see her alive before she vanished, and the guilt for having lost her, rational or not weighed heavy on him for most of his adult life.

Nancy on the other hand seemed to be having the time of her life, and beamed a wide and beautiful smile after taking a big bite of a thick sandwich from across the table. After struggling to clear the mouthful, she asked, “This is the first time you’ve taken me up here, you know. How much further is the drive..?” He smiled back at her as she wiped a dollop of butter from her cheek, and replied, “We’re almost there now. Wetheral should only be about ten miles east of here. Let’s have a quick wander along here first to make sure we have everything we need, then we’ll shoot over and get started.” They finished their meal and stopped-in at a grocery store for cleaning products and a few bottles of wine before returning to the car and setting-off in the direction of the village.

As they pulled out of the parking space, they stopped momentarily to let a small family pass before returning to the highway. The two of them watched as the middle-aged parents carefully shepherded a young son and daughter in front of the car and down the footpath, and Eric took Nancy’s hand instinctively into his. They had wanted and tried desperately themselves to have children of their own from the day they married, however despite several hopeful starts eventually decided to see specialist who broke the unfortunate news to them that Nancy had inherited a rare genetic condition which left her physically unable to bear children. Despite all of the wonders of modern medicine, it seemed that little could be done to help them and every time she saw other couples out with their own she couldn’t help but hurt. Eric was extraordinarily supportive however, and would simply say that, “If it’s meant to be, it will be. Until then I’ll just have to go ahead and love you that extra bit more.”

It was mid-afternoon when they finally pulled-up at the end of a long, unmade driveway that snaked away from the road and descended toward the property which was nestled cosily at the edge of a wide, dark wall of trees. The scenery overlooking it was breathtaking; the house itself was a rustic two-storey affair built mostly from old, rugged sandstone blocks arranged beneath a broad and weathered thatched roof, and it backed onto the western edge of the Wetheral Woods which towered above the roofline like a black curtain and ran for miles in either direction. Despite being late in the day, a shallow mist rose from the soil at the edges of the clearing and gave the surreal impression that they had somehow travelled out of their current time and back to an old and wonderful page in history. The two sat mouths agape as the car idled for a full minute before turning to look at each other, and without speaking Eric nosed the vehicle down toward the front of the house where they parked and got out for a better view.

The house lay almost completely in the shadow of the woods, and Eric and Nancy both shuddered visibly as the cold country air caressed their skin. “It’s just.. beautiful,” she said, sighing deeply as she looked around to completely take it all in. “The old homestead,” Eric replied, shrugging. “I’ll open up, then let’s get this stuff inside and set a fire. We can take a look around tonight to get an idea of what’s needed and get started on the heavy lifting in the morning.” He fumbled for the keys and unlocked the heavy wooden door which creaked loudly as it opened and returned to the car for an armful of boxes and bags. The two gingerly crossed the threshold and moved through the house, making their way to a large and homely kitchen at the far end to begin unpacking. Eric stacked bottles, sprays and paper towels on the counter and Nancy set their suitcases up in the guest room down the hall. She was astonished at just how authentic the interior of the house had remained, and wandered about touching the fixtures, scarred beams and cornices like a curious child, oohing and aahing as she went.

Eric started a fire in the living room and once they were settled disappeared to the kitchen momentarily, returning with two full glasses of wine. He sipped at one and handed Nancy the other before settling down in an old chair by the fireplace, and the two then talked for hours about his childhood, the house and his life growing up in such a strange and isolated place. Eric had never much liked speaking in detail about his life in the country, save for an occasional complaint and had himself adjusted quite nicely to London’s fast-paced and contemporary lifestyle. Given his obvious reservations she had never pressed him for more on his background, but as they finished their first bottle of red and opened another, he began to relax and spoke at length of his father and mother, and seemed to enjoy reminiscing about their old-fashioned attitudes and almost comical day-to-day experiences.

After a couple of hours and when the last light of day had completely vanished from outside the heavy double-glazed windows, Nancy finally plucked up the courage to ask Eric about his sister, something she had never quite felt comfortable bringing up but had been dying to know about since he had first dismissed the subject years earlier by simply saying, “Julia disappeared when we were very young, near our home. It tore us apart for years, but it is what it is.. it’s not a time and place I want to revisit often, if I can readily avoid it.” Her question had seemingly come out of nowhere, and although he squirmed when she asked there was something in her delivery, the innocent concern with which came the question, “What about Julia..? The two of you moved here when you were only very young, do you mind if I ask what happened..?” that made him feel it was time to at least touch on the subject. She immediately apologised when she noticed the wide smile disappear from his face, adding, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to..”

“No, no.. it’s alright,” he replied in resign, “you and I have known each other long enough, and it’s not fair for me to keep such a thing to myself.” He stiffened, and took another long sip of wine. After pausing for a minute, staring at his glass while the fire crackled and hissed in the background, he began. “My parents.. our parents had bought this place themselves after living in Manchester for nearly ten years. After they were married, and the two of us got older they decided to sell the garage and move us north, away from the city and to what they thought would be a safer place to raise two small children. Dad’s family were originally from Birmingham, and he’d grown up knowing exactly what the bigger cities were like.. the violence, drugs. He didn’t want to expose us to everything that he knew went on if he could help it. I was seven, and Julia five. We were both so excited to be moving to the country – I loved the outdoors and Julia was convinced she’d catch a fairy out in the woods.” He smiled for a moment, before taking another sip of wine and sitting closer by the fire.

A few days after we arrived, and before enrolling in school we had pleaded with our parents to let the two of us explore the woods behind the house. We rarely got along as it was, but when we did band together there was no amount of protest the two of them could put up to stop us from getting what we wanted. Despite it being only late January, we were relentless and after a day or so our parents caved and after warning us to watch out for wolves and foxes and other forest nasties, we rugged-up in our warmest clothes, Julia insisting she wear a brand new tartan dress our parents had bought her, and set-out in the afternoon to get an idea of what was out there. You have to understand that this was quite a few years ago, and we were miles away from the nearest town. They had no reason at all to worry about there being any danger out there to us other than ourselves. We said our goodbyes to the both of them and tore out the back door, running blindly into the tall trees beyond.”

“We ran and ran through the forest, leaping over streams and fallen trees and laughed and laughed the entire afternoon. It was amazing out there,” he recalled, staring into the fire, “We must have covered several miles, and were out there for hours before we finally realised that it was beginning to get dark. Julia became scared when we could no longer remember what direction was home, and as the sky grew darker I decided that I’d better make it to higher ground to get an idea of just how far we’d come, and which way we needed to go. I shimmied up a massive oak tree, and just as I neared the top I finally got my head over the canopy and could get an idea of where we were. I ambled around the trunk carefully, as the branches had become quite thin and despite now having a clear view, all I could see were the tops of more trees in every direction. Julia was calling out to me from the ground below, and I could tell that she was upset.. I had no idea where we were, and the last light of dusk was quickly fading away.”

Nancy was herself growing clearly distressed at the retelling, her face a mask of worry and concern but Eric went on, “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t see a light, but just as I was about to call down to her I noticed a wide, low clearing a short distance away in the other direction. It wasn’t home, but all I could think about at this point was giving her something to focus on, and getting the two of us out of the thick wood and at least to somewhere we could feel safe. I committed the way to memory and climbed back down the trunk of the tree before telling her which way we needed to go. She was so upset, and started to cry. I took her hand and with the last light guided her toward the clearing where we at least had a chance of staying safe before somebody came looking.”

“By the time we finally made it out of the wall of trees, it was completely dark except for a sort of weak glow which filtered down from the moon overhead. It was a crescent only about half its size, but it was enough that we could safely navigate our way through the undergrowth and across the clearing. When we finally arrived, we walked in..” He stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow, as if he wasn’t quite sure how to continue. “What happened..?” she asked softly, “Did you make it out..?”

“Not right away,” he continued. “We walked in, and that’s when.. that’s when we saw it.” He stopped again, a look of confusion mixed with apprehension taking hold of his features. To this day he was still reluctant to recall the complete story of what had happened that night. At first he had been so sure of what had taken place, with no doubt whatsoever in his mind but over the days, weeks and months that followed and by the constant dismissal of his account by everyone he had told it to, he had neglected and almost forgotten the arch and the strange ring of stones that he and his sister had stumbled upon. His teachers, friends and even his parents had eventually convinced him that what he thought he had seen was nothing more than a daydream, a mechanism of his own imagining that he had created to deal with what had really taken place. “How could anything else be the truth..?” he thought to himself, “Julia and I were simply lost in the woods, and were separated. There can’t be more to it than that.”

Nancy was by now more than concerned about her husband, and decided that this might be a good time to lay the conversation to rest. It was late, and they had done enough that day as it was.. it was time to call it a night. “It’s okay,” she said, “let’s finish this another time. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, and we can pick up where we left off whenever you’re ready.” She smiled and held his right hand in hers, and brushed his cheek with her left. Eric looked up at her and as he stared into her beautiful blue eyes, the pain and confusion vanished from his face. “You’re right, as usual,” he replied. He glanced at the empty glass in his left hand and then at the near-empty second bottle of red above the fireplace. “Two’s my limit anyway.” She smiled, and they cleared their glasses and bottles to the kitchen sink before returning to the guest room for a restful night’s sleep.

Eric lay awake for hours however as his wife slept soundly beside him. He was tired and drained from the stresses of the past week, yet for some reason he just could not shut-off his mind to what had happened to Julia. It had been years since he had allowed himself to return to that place, to those recollections that he had tried so hard to forget. Yet somehow as he lay there, once more in the old house by the wood where he had lost her he was again convinced that there was more to the story than he was taught to believe. He replayed the remainder of that fateful night in his head as he stared at the ceiling, trying with all his will to recall in detail what had actually happened;

As he and Julia left the forest wall they had found themselves in a wide natural clearing, the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying gently in the night air around it, and moved forward through the tall silver grasses that glowed almost eerily ahead of them, illuminated by the moonlight. At the centre of the clearing stood a wide and low ring of stones, and at its heart was a structure which neither of them could explain. Even now, the closest description that he could come up with was that it was a tall, grey arch of stone comprised of two wide obelisks set several feet apart and across the top, maybe five or six feet high was set a third smaller slab, which rested heavily atop the two supporting pillars. Although it was difficult to make out in the light, strange symbols were etched down the length of each pillar, and the top of the arch was adorned with words in a language that’s lettering seemed almost more to resemble an intricate pattern than a written dialect. It was to that day like nothing he had ever seen, and by the weathered state of the stones and the tall undergrowth around it had stood undisturbed and silent for an extremely long time.

The two siblings turned to each other in amazement, immediately forgetting their predicament and walked toward the arch which stood cold and stoic against the deep blue-black of the night sky above. They crossed the circle of stones, and together reached out to touch it, if for nothing else to convince themselves that it was in fact real. They circled the structure for a moment before little Julia’s eyes widened in amazement, and she breathed, “Fairies..!” It took Eric a second before the word registered, and he scoffed back, “Fairies, unlikely.. there’s no such thing as fairies. When are you going to grow up..?” Julia scowled at this, and replied, “There is too – these are fairy stones, look at the words,” she pointed to the strange cursive lettering above them. “See..? That’s their language. You don’t know anything.” The wind had blown her thick, red hair across her face, and only her scowl and little freckled nose poked through it to convey her indignation.

Eric scoffed again, but was too busy admiring the monument to shoot her down right away. When he had overcome his own astonishment, he instead turned and called-out into the woods, “Hey, fairies..! Come out if you’re real and prove it, if you’re not too chicken..!” Julia’s jaw dropped and she admonished her brother, who laughed her off and began teasing her for believing in make-believe and children’s stories. He poked and taunted her, and called her a baby for thinking that magical creatures actually lived in the woods behind their house. She fumed, and this only egged him on.

Deep down he loved his sister, but he just couldn’t help himself. “You’re such a baby,” he jeered, “how can you believe such rubbish..?” Eric slapped the cold stone with his palm and again called-out into the night; “Come on, pixies, show yourselves..!” He leaned-in toward Julia, “There’s nobody here but Eric and his gullible little baby sister – and this is what I think of her fairies..!” He then proceeded to hock the biggest loogie that he could, and spat it on the nearest column. This was the final straw for Julia, who screamed, “Stop it, stop it – leave them alone..!” and chased Eric around the arch as he laughed derisively back at her.

The two siblings ran in a wide circle around the arch, completing a full 360 degrees past the opening once, twice and a third time before Julia decided to outsmart her brother and catch him out by running through it. Eric continued around the structure and his sister turned and pivoted, leaping through the opening as he sped-up and went to circle past it a fourth time. As he rounded the far pillar he stopped and turned to face her, tired and finally ready to endure the flailing of little fists he knew was coming, but she wasn’t there. He turned again, realising that she must have doubled-back but she wasn’t ahead of him either. He stilled for several seconds and stopped to listen for her footsteps but heard nothing more than the gentle night breeze rustling through the grass and thickets, and he himself then passed through the structure, looking right and left for her. He scanned the clearing, and quickly realised that she was no longer there – she had vanished.

He looked around nervously, panting from the chase and called-out, “Alright, I give up – stop hiding and come back.” Again, there was no sound to be heard save for his own heavy breathing and the rustling of trees in the distance. He moved out toward the stone circle, and looked behind every rock and shrub in the clearing, finding no trace of his little sister. He panicked, and called out once more, “Julia, come on – where are you..? Stop playing, I’m sorry I made fun.. come back and let’s start home.” Again nothing. She was not by the arch or behind the ring of stones. There was no way that she could have made it out to the tree line, either – she had simply disappeared. In the wan shadows cast by the moonlight, Eric went on to spend hours searching for his sister, crying and pleading into the blackness for her to come back before futility and fear of the dark caused him to finally run out into the forest and away in the vaguest of directions that he believed to be their home.

He had eventually and miraculously arrived back at the old house in the early hours of the following morning, and was greeted by the flashing lights of several police cars and his two parents, by now worried sick for their two young children. He would never forget the looks on their faces when he arrived alone, and in the company of a search and rescue team comprising local police and volunteers had assisted in scouring the woods for days afterward for any sign of her. He had guided a number of these groups in the direction of the clearing, and although he thought he had led them several times to what he believed to resemble the one they had stumbled upon, none of them had contained an arch nor a ring of standing stones – only long, green grasses and nothing else.

No trace of his sister or the strange stone circle were ever found again.

Losing Julia had affected his parents deeply. Her father had taken refuge in drink, and although he could eventually control his impulse to reach for the bottle whenever the memories returned, the damage done in those few short years that followed had taken its toll, contributing heavily to his poor health and an all too early death. Eric’s entire family were plunged into turmoil as word of his sister’s disappearance became fertile ground for scandal among the other families in the small village, and although they managed to endure and somehow get on with their lives, the hushed whispers and rumour of foul play persisted long after the story had grown cold in the public eye.

Eric sighed and rolled over in bed, deciding against feeling to try and force at least a few hours’ sleep ahead of everything he and Nancy had travelled so far to take care of in the morning. It was strange being back in the old house after so many years, but as he lay there wide awake and listened to the noises it made as it settled, a small part of him couldn’t help but feel somehow safe. In spite of how fast life might appear to pass you by in the day to day goings-on of the modern world, time spent in those places of our childhood, for better or worse always somehow seem to feel warm.

The couple awoke to the sounds of chirping birds outside their window the next morning, just as the first rays of sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and after a home cooked breakfast set about boxing and labelling his parent’s possessions. Eric’s father had always badgered Edith to do away with the countless nic-nacs and redundant articles that she would accumulate for little to no good reason other than it being “an awful waste to throw them away,” however since his passing it seemed that she had once again returned to familiar habits. It took them both the entire day just to box up her books, ornaments and magazines set loosely about the place before they decided it was time for another breather. The two enjoyed a nice hot cup of tea as Eric once again stoked the fire, and as they sat in silence admiring the shadows it cast on the walls as it flickered, he decided in spite of his own wariness that they should get out, take a walk and experience the fresh forest air while they could.

Nancy was less than enthusiastic however, arguing, “I’m exhausted, Eric. We’ve been at it for hours now and I’m sorry if this sounds pampered, but I’d much prefer just to sink into a nice hot bath for awhile, and de-stress. You can still go, though – I’d just rather work-out some of these knots and save my energy for round two.” She looked tired, and Eric began to wonder if she too had had trouble sleeping last night. He was nonetheless keen to stretch his legs and in honesty rather fancied the idea of a few hours of solitude, something the two of them rarely seemed to find in London. “I’ll just pop-out for a bit then, try to find a path and get the blood running again. Do you mind..?”

“Of course not,” she replied with a smile, “after the week we’ve had a little ‘you time’ will be good. Now get lost, so I can enjoy a wine in the tub.” He laughed and kissed her on the cheek before slipping on a thick scarf and parka from his suitcase, and pulling a pair of heavy leather hiking boots onto his feet. He could already hear running water and the chink of glass as he called out goodbye, and as he left through the front door and around the back of the house he laughed again. Nancy was as tough as nails when she wanted to be, but even she seemed to be missing the modern comforts of their house back home. His breath hung about him in a thick cloud as he walked brusquely through the cold evening air, and after finding what looked to be a trail worn into the edge of the wood set off in a half-run, hoping the sudden exercise might start to warm him up.

He had left it until late in the day to leave, and although it was only six o’clock the skies were already beginning to transform into a deep and brilliant red as the sun’s dying rays approached the horizon. Nightfall came quickly to the country, and quicker still in the Winter and after running for the better part of an hour, Eric was feeling very warm but incredibly puffed-out. He had run so fast and covered quite a lot of ground in an effort to get his blood pumping, and hadn’t even noticed that he had strayed from the forest track and veered-off into a denser, taller and more ancient part of the Wetheral that was clearly quite far from civilisation and didn’t appear at all to have been visited by anyone in the recent past. He finally stopped running and bent down, placing his hands on his knees as he doubled-over and struggled to catch his breath. “Where in heaven’s name am I..?” he thought to himself.

His heart finally slowed, and when his breathing had returned to normal he wandered around for several minutes trying once more to find the path that had taken him there. It was beginning to get dark, and as the shadows coalesced and the air was filled with the sounds of hooting owls and other forest wildlife he started to think that his chances of getting back before nightfall were slim to none. ”She’s going to kill me this time,” he muttered to himself, and rather than waste more time trying to find the road he turned and started running again in the direction he felt he had come, believing that sooner or later he’d break through the forest wall once more, if not at the house then at least a short walk from it. As he ran he caught a glimpse of a crescent moon as it peeked through the branches above, and he was thankful that as the daylight completely disappeared he still had some way of seeing where he was going.

After ten or fifteen more minutes however, panic started to really set in. “Surely it would start to thin-out by now,” he thought to himself, “I’m such an idiot for not taking my phone.. though I probably wouldn’t get reception out here anyway.” Just as he considered stopping once more to take further stock of his options, he noticed that the trees ahead were indeed beginning to open out, and thirty of forty yards in front of him he could just see the moonlight cutting stronger through the near-blackness, indicating that he was almost where he needed to be. He pushed himself into a sprint, desperate to get out of the woods and back to a tall glass of wine by the fire and within seconds he reached the edge of the forest and bounded out into the open night air once more.

He slowed to a trot as he detached himself from the darkness, and it took him almost a full minute to realise that he hadn’t actually reached the end. Instead, he had stumbled into a wide clearing even deeper in the woods, ringed by the imposing black backdrop of the tree line and which was bathed only in the soft white moonlight from up above, and nothing else. Eric wiped the sweat from his brow and rubbed his eyes as he looked out across the clearing, and immediately a deep shiver ran down his spine. Far-off across the opening, and if he wasn’t somehow dreaming he could just make out the silhouette of a wide ring of low stones which ran along the ground like crooked teeth and formed a staggered circle. In the centre of the circle stood a tall, imposing structure which although he could not readily identify it as being so from a distance, his mind screamed out and he knew that he had somehow once again stumbled upon the same secret glade that he and Julia had visited in their youth, and at its heart still stood that same mysterious arch that they had found on the night she disappeared, more than twenty years earlier.

Tears filled his eyes as his body caught up with him, and all he could say, over and over was, “No, no.. it can’t be..!” He walked across the clearing and as he reached the henge around it he was shaking. It was real, and he was right. Somewhere and somehow, after all these years he had returned. He went to cross the awkward stone ring, slowing as he neared it and the entire forest which had become so animated beyond the trees seemed suddenly to have hushed completely into a cold silence in which you could have heard a pin drop. Even in the pale light, he could still make out the same strange and wonderful symbols which extended across the central arch and down the length of either pillar, and stopped only a few feet away finding himself somehow terrified to even touch it. Memories flooded back, and the pain of losing her, Julia on that night so long ago burned inside him. He considered for a moment turning and running away from the clearing, as far away and to anywhere else but something deep within him forced him to stay and investigate further.

It was just as he remembered. The monument stood tall, grey and cold against the dark skies above it, and when he finally plucked up the courage to reach out and touch it, a soft breeze started up once more at the forest’s edge which gently shook the tops of the trees and chilled the sweat on his face and neck. It was real. He stood before the arch, his trembling hands convincing him that he wasn’t dreaming, and in the clear and surreal warmth of the crescent moonlight he found himself speaking to it without even realising.

“Why,” he asked of the night, without expecting an answer, “Why did you take her from me..?”

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he dropped his head and stood against the pillar. As years of repressed anger and sorrow finally came to the surface, he leant his head against the cold stone and finally allowed himself to let it all out. The loss and loneliness, the sadness and guilt all poured out of him and away into the darkness like an awful, painful torrent. It was as he did that he began to feel a strange sensation wash over him, an idea which grew as a feeling that somehow seemed to come not from the arch or his own will, but that of the stone circle.

He stepped back in shock as a voiceless voice suddenly called out to him from the clearing, as strong and vivid as it was beautiful, and he stumbled and fell to the ground in amazement. When he touched the stone, when he placed his head against it, someone or some thing had called out to him. Still shaking and not entirely sure why, he arose once more and held the arch, resting his temple against the weird runes carved deep into it and this time stayed to hear, to feel just what it was that he was meant to know. All of a sudden, images and sensations flooded his mind – beautiful and haunting visions of dancing people and smiling children from a far distant past which erupted in his head and cascaded down through his entire body like a clear and calming waterfall, and he found that for several long moments and in spite of his fear and trepidation he could not have moved if he wanted to.

The trilithon had stood for so long, silent, alone.. waiting. For an unfathomable time the arch had endured, absorbing the hopes and dreams, the love, joy and laughter of those that came and danced before it, and those that were still yet to come. As he touched it, Eric too was overwhelmed with those same thoughts and images which burst into his consciousness in a flash of intense white light and whisked him away to a place beyond time, space and reality for all of what felt like a lifetime, before it finally let go of its hold and suddenly, somehow he knew what he needed to do.

He drew back from the structure, lined himself up and walked almost impulsively in a wide and deliberate circle around it, halfway between the arch and the henge first once, and then twice. As he walked, the gentle breeze in the clearing became a gale, and then a roar as he finally closed a third and final circle, returning once more to face it head-on, and as he did the same winds again died down and the strange and beautiful aura that the arch had gifted him drained away completely from his body, and simply dissipated back into the clearing. For a long moment, Eric just stood before it, waiting for something to happen. He alone, and the arch inert. Just as quickly as the visions had left him, skepticism crept back into his thoughts and he began to feel awkward, and then angry for having allowed himself to fall for the lure of its mystery and his own nostalgia.

Just as he was feeling entirely foolish and about to consider leaving the clearing, his eyes became drawn a small, dark figure peering out at him from behind the far pillar. He panicked as it moved, and for a split second feared that some small creature had come from out of the woods in all the commotion. He called out, “Hey..! Hey, come here..!” and as his cry rang-out and he cautiously made his way around the structure for a closer look, she moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to show herself.

Eric could not control the flood of emotion then that hit him like a sledgehammer as little Julia stepped forward from the darkness and stared up at him with wide and terrified eyes. It was like a thousand dreams that he had had since that fateful night, as he tortured himself over and over again since she was taken. Still wearing the same blue and green tartan dress and little black shoes, his sister stood trembling before him, and asked, “Who are you, where’s my brother..?”

He stood silent and in shock for several moments, unable to comprehend just what was happening. Somehow, across the infinite expanse of time the arch had returned her. By a blessing beneath the same moonlight under which she was taken so long ago, it had called out to him and he had answered. He knew, and at the same time could never know why or how it had happened, but in what was only the blink of an eye for her and a lifetime for him, somehow it had brought them back together once more. Such was its nature. She was clearly terrified, and he became acutely aware of what she must have felt and so replied, “He.. he’s gone, Julia. He had to leave.” He didn’t know what else to say.

She too had tears in her eyes, and before he could say anything else she spoke again, “We were walking, and we got lost. We’ve been out here for ages, and.. I just want to go home. Will you take me home..?” He nearly broke down completely before every fibre of his being commanded him to stay composed, and he replied, “Yes, darling – oh yes you lovely thing.. come here, let’s go home.”

Still shaking, he reached his hand out to her and she took it, and together they walked hand-in-hand from the clearing, out of the shadows of the past and into the silent woods beyond.

Nancy had finished her bath hours ago, and was now curled up in front of the fire with a book while she waited for Eric to come home. He had been gone now for several hours, and although she had no real reason to worry, if she was being honest with herself the woods behind the old house were a little creepy, and made her nervous. There was something strange about how close the trees grew together, the way the wind coursed through the boughs almost like the sounds of breathing and it somehow seemed as though even daylight had a hard time breaking through between them. Shortly before midnight, she found herself considering whether to call the police when a knock finally came at the front door and she placed her book face-down on the coffee table before rising to answer. “Who is it..?” she called nervously through the glass, her hand tightly clasping the handle.

“It’s Eric,” he replied. “I’m sorry I took so long, but I’ll explain.” She opened the door and was immediately surprised to see him standing there, holding the hand of a young girl with long, flowing red hair and who was wearing the most unusual tartan dress. She was relieved to see him, and was strangely drawn to the little girl who beamed back at her with the biggest and warmest smile she had ever seen. Her joy was contagious, and all she could do was reply through her own, “I’m glad you’re back, I was beginning to worry.. and who is this pretty little thing..?” Julia giggled and Eric reached out to take Nancy’s hand;

“Nancy, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

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A Short, Sad Story for a Dark and Stormy Night

‘CLOSURE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

Martin threw his apartment door open with all his might and tossed his briefcase recklessly across the living room. It bounced off of the back of his tattered brown corduroy couch and opened, spilling its contents – pens, papers and wrappers out onto the floor and knocked a half glass of water off his coffee table, which smashed as it fell. He swore viciously before entering and slamming the door shut behind him, and made his way to the broom closet in the hallway.

Things just hadn’t been the same for him since she left, and each day seemed to bring another trial or disappointment, another parking fine to cover or registration to pay. He swept up the broken glass from the floor and threw it in the kitchen bin, collecting a beer from the fridge on his way back as he went to slump on the sofa and switch on the TV, just as he had done every other night that week. He only stayed there for about an hour and didn’t even finish his bottle – he had a splitting headache which was set-off again by the flickering light and the events of the day which weighed heavy on his mind.

Martin had been suspended again from his job as a client representative for a large pharmaceutical company. It was only Wednesday, and he had arrived at the office late for the fourth morning in two weeks, unshaven and still half-drunk from the night before. He had chosen to take refuge in drink since things with Sarah had ended, and his constant mid-week benders soon caught up with him. “Who can blame me..?” He had thought to himself, “Turning up each and every morning to the same dead faces, squeezing budgets thanklessly for every last dollar they can add to their salaries. Who needs it, this is good – I’m glad I’m gone.”

He turned off the TV and tipped the rest of his beer into the sink, setting the empty bottle up on the window ledge with all of the others. As he did, his eyes wandered across to a photo of the two of them; him and Sarah and he picked it up and stared at it for a long while. The picture was taken several years earlier at a time when everything was still new, and only love seemed to matter. They were still just kids when they first met, and were each other’s first true love. He smiled for a moment before fresher memories prevailed – memories of screaming, crying and fighting.

The two had been together for almost four years, quickly falling deeply in love and spending hours simply just talking or walking hand in hand along the many roads and boardwalks by the quay near to where they lived. Their relationship was intense and before they knew it, they were moving-in together. He had a great job, and she seemed happy.

He still couldn’t understand how everything had fallen apart so quickly. It almost seemed as though one minute they were inseparable, alone against the world and completely content and the next, they were shouting at each other, screaming at each other accusations of infidelity, threats and mistrust.. like they had suddenly become two completely different people.

Martin had loved her deeply, still loved her deeply. It had been nearly three months since she had packed her bags and left, and it felt as though his entire world had fallen apart. He was too self-righteous to follow after her of course, too proud to take a knee and apologise for everything he’d said, everything he’d done. All it might have taken was to hold her close, look deep into her beautiful green eyes and be the bigger man. Instead he simply stayed and watched her go.

He put the picture down, tears now in his eyes and took a good hard look at himself in the dark reflection of the kitchen window. It was black outside, and raining. His white collared shirt was crumpled, and slowly morphing into a pale shade of grey. Sarah had always taken care of the laundry, and he never cared to learn. His face was a mess of thick, dark stubble retained from over the weekend which he hadn’t bothered to shave, and two dark circles sat under his eyes, a testament to many restless nights spent tossing and turning in anger and reflection.

After several minutes Martin turned away, pulling a cigarette and lighter from his pocket and sparking it up. He walked over and sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He had thought that things would get better, that he’d land on his feet and maybe even find someone else. Sure, there were plenty of women out there and he was a young, successful guy – why not..? He had soon however found himself taking home friends of friends and girls from the local strip, none of which he even felt the slightest desire to see again once they were through. It made sense in theory but for him, there was and would only ever be one girl, one true love. And he had let her go.

In his ups and downs following their breakup, Martin had begun to collect ingredients almost subconsciously for what had on several occasions seemed the only solution for the crippling pain he had grown to feel. Through contacts in his industry, he had purchased a small container of potassium cyanide crystals, which could have been easily dissolved into any drink, resulting in a quick and relatively painless cocktail. “Like slipping into a batch of ice-water,” his contact had said. He should have known better and wasn’t often given to such dark thoughts, but on this night he found everything to hit home all at once.

He knew that she would never take him back, not after everything that he had said. He had a sharp tongue when he was angry or upset, and took a small amount of pride in his ability to wound others when the need arose. But never her. The company was deliberating whether to let him go, he knew this. His productivity and success on the job had been on a gradual decline since the separation, and he no longer cared for his job nor the people he worked with. In fact, as he sat and stared into space he had difficulty remembering the last time he cared about anything. He was growing numb, empty and bitter, as though he was disconnecting from the rest of the world.

“I’m just so damn tired..” he said softly to himself.

Dark thoughts filled the emptiness within him and he dragged himself up from the table and wandered out to the laundry, where he opened the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out a bottle. Potassium cyanide.. tasteless, odourless. He closed the cupboard and brought the bottle back to the kitchen, where he pulled another beer from the fridge before sitting back down at the table, eyeing the two of them off for several minutes. He suddenly felt extremely cold, and his eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light of the living room. “Do it,” a voice called-out in the back of his mind, “jump before it crashes.. there’s nothing left for you here except ruin.”

His heart was racing. He had considered doing this hundreds of times before, but now finally felt like he was truly at the end of his rope. Just as he was reaching for the smaller bottle, his hands shaking he was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Fuck,” he said aloud, the noise startling him. He brushed the small bottle quickly into the drawer at the end of the table and closed it, got up and walked to the door, mumbling as he did. “I swear to God, this had better be important..” He reached up and undid the lock at the top and clicked the handle over, before opening the door and speaking through his cigarette, “Yeah, what is it..?”

It was Sarah. He couldn’t believe his eyes. She was standing there, a small purse slung about her left shoulder as she stood smiling a nervous smile, looking as beautiful then as the day he met her. As beautiful as every memory he had of her. His cigarette dropped from his mouth, a long stem of ash bursting onto his shirt as it fell to the floor and he quickly moved to squash it with his foot to prevent it from burning the carpet. She smiled weakly and said, “Hi Marty, can I come in..?”

He was dumbfounded, and only just had the wits to mumble, “Hey yeah – sure, come on in,” before gesturing and moving aside to let her pass. What in God’s name was she doing here..? He hadn’t seen or spoken to her since she had left, and as the two didn’t share any mutual friends he had no idea that she had even thought of stopping by. He invited her to take a seat in the living room, and cleared away the pile of papers from his suitcase that he had thrown onto the second seat. “What on earth does she want..?” he thought to himself.

Sarah took-off her purse and sat down on the sofa, looking around the room as she did. They had shared the apartment for nearly two years, and she was clearly surprised to see the state that he had let it get to; clothes and documents were strewn about the coffee table, plates, bowls and dishes sat unwashed in the kitchen and the carpet had clearly not been vacuumed in weeks, nor the ashtray on the side table emptied. He sparked up another cigarette, and offered her one which she gladly took and thanked him for. After several moments, she was the first to speak:

“It’s good to see you,” she started, “I was meaning to drop by earlier, but things have been a little hectic. I’m glad to see you’re keeping the place tidy,” she joked, giving him a faint smile. Of everything that he missed about her, her smile was definitely the hardest to live without. She had two dimples either side of her mouth that deepened every time, and when she flashed her perfect teeth he felt like he would melt. He stared at her for a few seconds, taking an exaggerated drag of his cigarette before realising that he hadn’t replied and was beginning to make her uncomfortable.

“Sorry about that, I’ve been pretty busy myself. If I knew you were coming..” He took another drag to calm his nerves, and so did she. He continued, “How have you been..? It feels like.. months.” He felt awkward and unsure of what exactly to say, not expecting to see her ever again, let alone tonight. “I’ve been well,” she replied, “Work is going well, and I’ve been sharing a room with Felicity, on the other side of town. Keeping busy. How about you, I’ve asked around and no-one says they’ve seen you in weeks. Are you still working with..” She searched her memory and couldn’t recall the name of the company he worked for, but Martin could not fault her for that. It was enough that she had put up with his stories of his colleagues and the stresses of his job when they were together without remembering every little detail.

“Harris Davison, yeah. I’m still there, same old same old,” he said, drily. “It’s great to see you again, you’re looking.. you’re looking great.” He managed a weak smile. “What are you here for, is there something you’ve left behind, or..?” He immediately regretted saying this, although he wanted desperately to know what she had dropped by for after all this time. He just didn’t want to give her the impression that she was not welcome, and chastised himself. “Idiot, just let her speak..!” He thought to himself.

“Actually, I just came by to talk,” she responded, taking another long drag of her cigarette, “about us.” Martin couldn’t believe it. His heart raced and his mind wandered as he considered what “about us” might have meant. Did she want to try to patch things up..? Or maybe drive the wedge in deeper – he knew what some women were like. He couldn’t believe however that Sarah would go to such an effort out of the blue just to try to make things worse. He was starting to sweat, and ashed his cigarette before replying as confidently as he could, “Okay, cool – yeah let’s do that.”

The two then talked at length about their relationship, about the problems that they had faced and the way they had handled them. Both he and Sarah expressed their regret at how things had played out, Martin conceding that he had approached the stresses of his job poorly, and how earlier experiences had resulted in the immature way in which he dealt with her friends and co-workers. Of the jealousies and insecurities which caused him to lose his temper and to take it out on her. She too apologised for her distance and explained how she would react to his moods by simply walking out and leaving him alone to cool off, and how she had learnt so much about herself in their time apart.

They spoke for hours, well into the night as the rain picked up outside and flashes of distant lightning from the building storm illuminated the edges of his windows from the corner of his eye. All the while they talked, Martin felt the shadows in the room growing darker. He was tired, supposing that a major hangover and a lack of decent sleep was causing his vision to cloud and he thought nothing of it. As the conversation went on, he began to feel as though maybe, just maybe they were on the road to working out their differences, and he started to relax and even to smile, laughing as they began to recall more pleasant memories of their time together.

Sarah was driving the conversation now, and it became apparent to Martin that the reason for her stopping by was not just because she was nostalgic, or looking for the closure that most women seem to strive for. She had genuinely missed him, loved him and was testing to see if they could once again make things work. He could not have been happier, and talked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He also began to feel a little self-conscious – he was unkempt, exhausted and still wearing the same crumpled shirt that he had on when he was suspended from work only hours earlier. He stopped their conversation to say as much, and asked Sarah if she wouldn’t mind if he popped around the corner for a quick shower, before they continued. “It’s been a long day, and I feel like an animal.” he said.

“It’s okay, Marty,” she smiled, “I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere.” He smiled back, ashed another cigarette and made his way into the hallway and to the bathroom, his heart still beating at a hundred miles an hour as he searched the linen closet for a fresh towel. As he stood in the hallway however, he again felt the same claustrophobic feeling that he had had earlier, as though the shadows in the corners of the floor and ceiling were growing, and the dim light from the crack of the bathroom door slowly fading to grey.

He was uneasier this time, and the feeling was much more intense than before. He tried to shake it off, and marched quickly into the bathroom where he turned on all the lights and the heat lamp and took a long, hot shower. It was mid-Winter, and even with the heating in his apartment on its highest setting he felt like he was freezing to death.

He leapt out of the shower and quickly dried himself, pausing only to swish a measure of mouth wash around and spray deodorant before rushing back to his bedroom to rummage around for clean clothes. This took a lot longer than it should have, but he found a pair of fresh jeans and a T-shirt and returned to the living room, relieved to find that she was still there, sitting on their couch and reading the TV guide with her two slender legs folded up beneath her.

He sat down beside her once more, smiling as he did. As he leaned in closer, about to speak he felt once more the vivid sensation of fading light and a chill which struck him to the core. He shivered visibly and reached for a heavy woollen jumper that was draped over the arm of the couch. “Are you okay..?” Her eyes seemed to ask. “I’m fine, just a little chilly,” he said, “the body corporate haven’t fixed the boilers downstairs, so the heating is still damn near useless. I don’t need to tell you that, though.” She smiled and he leaned in, and talk between the two began again more intimately than before.

“I really do miss you.” She started, “Ever since we broke it off, it’s all I think about. I’ve tried picturing myself moving on, and I just can’t.” She was tearing up as she spoke, finally letting her guard down completely and telling him exactly how she felt. Martin was moved too, and replied, “I miss you too, Sarah. I just can’t do it without you. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed.. everything just seems to be getting worse and worse the longer I’m without you.”

He stopped for a second, considering whether it was time to completely let his guard down too, and then decided just to go ahead and say it. “I still love you. I always have, and I always will. I’m so sorry for everything.” She cried, and he tried his best not to. “God, I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again“ They finally embraced, and as they did Martin could almost feel all of the pain, the negativity and the hopelessness of the past few months leaving his body and evaporating into thin air.

He held her for several long minutes as she shook, still crying now but crying tears of happiness. He too trembled, having dreamt so often of just holding her one more time. As he looked out toward the far window where the lightning flashed, a crack of thunder boomed throughout the apartment and he immediately felt a piercing chill rack his body, his trembling quickly becoming a long and uncontrollable shiver.

She immediately noticed this, sniffed and wiped her eyes, asking, “What’s wrong, are you okay..?” He wasn’t sure right away what to say, and as he moved back, still holding her he noticed that although she was right there, the shadows in the room had suddenly grown so powerful that he could barely make out anything past a couple of feet around them.

Something was definitely wrong, and he looked at Sarah as he continued to shiver, trying to speak. He tried to tell her that he felt like he was suddenly freezing to death, that something was seriously wrong, but the words wouldn’t come out. She just looked at him with a deep concern, and after trying again to speak he realised that he was in fact speaking – he just couldn’t hear a sound. She too tried to communicate, and although he could just make out that her lips were moving, he could no longer hear her words.

The shadows in the room were enveloping everything, and what little light remained had become wan and grey. It was as though he was somehow suddenly disconnecting from reality, and he became more frightened than he had ever felt in his entire life. “No.. this can’t be happening, not now..!” his mind screamed. He tried to reach out to touch her face one last time just as his sight failed him completely, and as she was mouthing one final sentence that he couldn’t quite hear, he was plunged quickly and completely into an icy black nothingness.

Thunder cracked and the doctors screamed at each other to fire-up the defibrillator as Martin finally went into cardiac arrest. It was unusual for a patient that had succumb to potassium cyanide poisoning to last as long as he had, death normally coming quite quickly but they assumed that his ex-girlfriend finding his body and calling an ambulance so quickly had more than likely bought him a few more hours.

He was lying face-down on the kitchen floor of his apartment when she had used her spare key to enter – she knocked at the door for several minutes after hearing him fall inside as she arrived, and had stayed with him ever since. He lay comatose for hours following the event, and Sarah had stayed right by his side the entire time, talking, crying and pleading with him to wake up.

No sooner had those words passed her lips, “I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again” before he finally let go of his grip, and fell into oblivion.

Thomas Wasn’t Like All of the Other Children..

‘THOMAS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

Thomas wasn’t like all of the other children. From the moment he had been delivered by the midwives at St. Mary’s Hospital eleven years earlier, his mother Kathleen had quickly realised that something had gone terribly wrong. She could tell by the looks on their faces as they held him at arm’s length, several of them crying softly that her son had not been born whole. During an earlier routine check-up, her nurses had told her that there were several minor anomalies that were relatively common, however as her term was many weeks shorter than it should have been and complications during her labour had caused her to be in an incredible amount of pain, she couldn’t help but worry.

Her carriage had been extremely difficult overall, and as the child grew inside her she had begun to feel strange sensations of movement that were abnormal, at least insofar as what she had been told to expect. Thomas had struggled, kicked and tossed in the womb almost constantly, and the terrible nightmares that recurred throughout those months had caused her a great deal of discomfort and distress. She had tried to dismiss her concerns however, just hoping and praying that she would make it through the other side without losing him.

On the morning when he finally arrived, a gale outside the hospital had raged and roared, the noise only drowned out by her own agonising screams as she struggled to give birth to her first and only son. She laboured long into the night, naturally delivering her baby boy just as the winds stilled and dawn crept over the horizon, and when she had finally held him for the first time she too burst into tears. The child had been born with a strong defect – brittle bones and a large hump in the middle of his back and although he was remarkably calm and quiet, the sight of what could only mean a lifetime of pain and hardship for the boy was more than she could bear. Kathleen broke down, and for a long time could barely stand to look at him.

Throughout the pregnancy her own mother had often asked about the father, and every time she would give the same answer; “He was just a gentle stranger,” she would say, “a soldier on leave. I’d broken down on the road north out of town one hot summer’s afternoon, and he’d offered me a lift back to call a mechanic. He had the kindest eyes, and had asked to stay with me until I was back on the road.. a true gentleman.”

She refused to go into any further detail, more so because she was still hurt by the fact that so soon after their brief rendezvous he had simply up and left one morning, never to be heard from again. “Michael,” he had said his first name was, and had never given a last. She had fallen quickly and deeply in love, and had not been able to bring herself to be with anyone else since finding out that she was pregnant. Knowing that the child grew within her even early on had made it feel like he was still somehow close.

Michael and Kathleen had spent the better part of a week together before he just mysteriously disappeared one day. He had rented a room in a motel on the outskirts of town, and had explained to her that he was only passing through on his way back home from a posting on the front line. Kathleen had assumed this to have meant a tour of duty in the Middle East, but knew better than to pry too deep into where and what he had been involved with during his service.

All that he had said of his time abroad was that he had seen more than his fair share of violence and heartache, and was contemplating leaving the force for good this time. She poured her heart out, sharing her hopes and dreams as they talked for hours and hours, long into the evening on their first day. By the second they had found themselves unable to resist growing more intimate, quickly becoming passionately involved and Kathleen felt for the first time that she had finally found a man who could make her feel complete.

She had awoken early in the morning on the fourth day to stop-by the motel and surprise him with coffee and a homemade breakfast, however when she arrived was informed by reception that he had already checked-out a short time earlier. After asking to borrow the key to check his room, she entered to find that the other side of the queen sized bed they had shared was still slightly warm. When she walked back out into the parking lot of the complex and looked up and down the street, he was nowhere to be seen and she realised that he was indeed well and truly gone. He had left nothing at all behind save for a single page from a motel notepad at reception which had read:

“Dear Kath, I’ve received orders to leave this morning and return to my station. I feel that seeing you first would only have made things more difficult – I’m sorry. Thank you for everything, and I hope you can understand. Love, Mike.”

She had asked around town to see if there was anybody else that might spoken with or had an idea of how to reach him without any luck, and cursed herself for not insisting on at least getting a contact number from him. She kept the note, and checked-in back at the motel for weeks afterwards in the faint hope that he might return, before finally accepting the fact that he was gone for good, and she would be alone to deal with the consequences of their affair. That consequence was Thomas.

Her son had found adjusting to life as a different child to be extremely difficult. Not just for the obvious visible abnormalities, but also that his weak bones had meant that he needed to be treated with kid gloves. As with many premature children, Thomas was slight and frail, and prone to moments of imbalance and vertigo, as though he had never quite got the hang of walking.

Sometimes all it would take would be for him to lose his footing, and an awkward landing could easily result in several broken bones and another stay in hospital. He was extremely fair, with white blonde hair and pale blue eyes and almost seemed like a ghost as he softly wandered the halls of his school, careful not to draw any further attention to himself.

The other children throughout his early and primary schooling had quickly decided to ostracise him, calling him nicknames such as ‘Backpack’ and ‘Rickets’ and pushed and bullied the boy whenever they saw him. They would test Thomas constantly, cornering and trapping him in the corridors and hallways of his school and provoking him to fight his way free, thus inevitably injuring himself and not causing any of them to claim responsibility for his broken bones and bruising. His schoolmates were extremely cruel, as children often are, and sometimes made life for Thomas seem like a living hell.

It wasn’t just the other boys, either. Thomas also had a hard time finding the courage to speak to the young girls at his school, who found his appearance to be grotesque and despite his perfect manners and positive approach, not one of them would even give him the time of day. As the years crept by he became isolated, sad and alone, constantly looking over his shoulder only to catch snippets of hushed conversations and the jokes they would make at his expense.

Most of the time he sat by himself and during recesses would try to find an empty classroom to hide in so as to avoid the other children. He would then sit quietly and read until his next class, sometimes books about birds and animals but mostly fantastic stories of far-off worlds and amazing, wonderful people. Anything which might provide an escape from the reality of his own deformities. He also loved to paint and draw, and spent a lot of time trying to recreate those places and animals he had read about, particularly birds in flight. There seemed to be something about how easy it was for them to just pick up and move on at any moment they wanted to that appealed to him.

Often too he had found it all to be too much and would sometimes rush home from school early and burst into tears in front of his mother and grandmother, who would try their hardest to console him. “Why do I look like this..?” he would cry, “Did I do something to deserve it..? I’m a monster..!” He was so clearly wounded by the way that his classmates treated him, and it broke his mother’s heart.

She loved Thomas dearly, and on her own mother’s advice had come to look at his disabilities as a gift – he had in spite of everything developed an amazing empathy and sense of morality, and was painstakingly polite, concerned and well-behaved. “He is every mother’s dream,” she would often say to her, “take it as a blessing.” Deeply hurt, Kathleen would simply hold him close and remind him of just how special he was to her, and that things would get better in time.

Thomas himself found this hard to believe. As the years went by, he found that the hump on his back still seemed to be growing, although he noticed his bones to strengthen a little as he grew. His grandmother would make and alter clothing to fit around the long hunch between his shoulders which ran from the base of his spine and broadened as it reached toward the back of his head, forming a dense and irregular lump that jutted-out and made fitting into normal clothes almost impossible.

He had been forced to wear the same metal braces on his legs that one could expect to be found on a child with rickets, and whenever his class had had to take physical education, his doctor insisted that a special lined helmet and pads be worn, which only further fuelled the teasing, bullying and name-calling he received from the other students.

On the morning of his twelfth birthday, Thomas awoke to find a special breakfast that his grandmother had prepared waiting for him downstairs. It was his favourite – buttered toast, scrambled eggs and bacon, and although his mother had started work early that day, she had also left a small gift for him on the kitchen counter, which he couldn’t wait to unwrap. As soon as he had finished eating, he threw a quick glance at his grandmother who smiled and nodded, and he then proceeded gleefully to tear the brightly coloured blue and green wrapping paper from around it.

He gasped audibly as he held up a packet of brightly coloured pastels and a beautifully adorned sketch book that his mother had herself decorated by hand, with his name embossed in metal leaf on the front cover. He couldn’t believe it, and the smile that her gift had brought to his face quickly spread to his grandmother who told him to “Put that safely in your schoolbag dear, and thank your mother when you get home.” She turned to start cleaning the dishes, and Thomas did as she asked before securing his braces and leaving through the front door, a spring in his step.

As much as he loved his mother, he had grown to develop a strong affinity with his grandmother who seemed always to have the time to spend with him. Without his father around, Thomas needed as much support from his family as he could get and he was always excited and challenged by the wisdom she would impart to him.

She had used to read and tell stories to him as he lay in agony in his younger years, her soothing voice helping to calm him down as she spoke softly of far away places, clear skies and new and different people. While broken bones set and the sting of mockery and abuse burned deep within him, she would always be there to take his mind off of the pain and spirit him away to a world of possibilities.

Kathleen had become quite busy in working alone to provide for him, and with her mother now retired it was a welcome helping hand that she could provide by staying home and looking after Thomas while she was out. She stood by the kitchen window and watched him leave, inspired as always by his ability to smile in spite of his hardship and prayed as she always did for his safety and happiness.

Thomas arrived at school that day just in time to make it to his home room before his teacher, Miss Davis closed the doors locking any stragglers out. He was moving down the aisle between two rows of desks, rushing to reach a seat at the back of the room when all of a sudden his feet slipped out from under him and he came crashing to the ground.

His books flew into the air as he threw his arms forward to stop himself from landing face-first, and as his left wrist connected with the classroom floor the air was split by a sickening crunch as his brittle bones shattered under the weight of his body. Several students gasped and two girls screamed as they caught a glimpse of his twisted left hand, flopping about on the end of his arm while he himself rolled over and yelled in pain.

Thomas lay on the ground wincing in agony, and as he braced his wrist and went to sit up he saw two of his classmates high-fiving each other. One of the two boys, a bully named Mark was dragging his leg back from the aisle as they did and it was more than obvious that he had tripped him up. Miss Davis quickly rushed across the room to look after Thomas, helping him to his feet and asked him what had happened.

Thomas looked up at Mark who glared threateningly back at him, before saying, “It’s nothing, my.. my foot caught on the desk leg. I must have tripped – I’m so sorry.” She frowned, not entirely convinced and he choked back tears as he held his wounded arm close and was escorted out of class and to the sick bay by another student. As usual she had had her back turned to the class when the incident occurred, and as she did not see what had taken place could do little more about it besides calling his mother.

As he sat in the sick bay, Thomas took out his new sketch book from his bag and with his right hand began to draw a colourful scene of a lush green meadow, complete with horses, birds and butterflies. He knew it would be awhile before his mother would be able to stop by and pick him up, and used the time to take his mind off of his injury. Eventually she did arrive and rushed into the sick bay to hold him close, saddened to see her son yet again sitting there, hurt and alone.

“What happened..?” she asked, holding out his wrist, “Did one of the other boys do this to you..?” He then gave her the same story that he had given Miss Davis a short time earlier, despite knowing full well that he had been tripped on purpose. In spite of what had happened, he felt that there wasn’t much point to retaliating and getting Mark in trouble. Thomas then remembered his birthday gift, and kissed his mother on the cheek, “Thank you so much, Mama – it’s just what I needed.” The two of them returned home where he sat and rested under the gentle shade of a tall oak tree in the yard, drawing away while she watched from the kitchen window feeling fearful and concerned.

The next day, Thomas returned to school with his left arm braced and bandaged. It did little good for the school nurse to apply plaster, as if they had done so for every time he’d broken anything he’d never have had it taken off. Luckily he found his bones to knit quite quickly, and all that was needed were a few sturdy steel rods and tightly wound bandages to hold it rigid. He had made it through his home room class without any further incident this time around, although the same boy Mark and his best friend Danny had spent an unusual amount of time staring back at him, laughing and whispering to each other which made him feel uneasy.

Mark’s own parents had recently separated, and this had caused him to look outward for ways to distract himself from what had become a volatile situation at home. He had teased and bullied Thomas in the past, but now more than ever he hounded the boy, finding him to be a useful tool for escaping from his own problems. Danny was his lackey, and seemed himself to take a kind of sick thrill in picking on the weak and vulnerable.

The bell eventually rang for recess, and as usual Thomas waited for all of the other children to leave before discreetly making his way for the door and scanning the buildings for a room that looked to be unoccupied. He wandered across to a long row of classrooms with his book and pastels in hand and peered through a window whilst standing in the garden bed outside. “Yes,” he thought to himself, “no students or teachers – this is the one.” He then turned around to make his way to the entrance and suddenly stopped dead. Mark and Danny were right there, standing arms crossed and staring him down with their usual throng of followers. They had quietly formed a semi-circle around him and as he stood back against the wall, he began to feel fearful and claustrophobic. Mark spoke first:

“Hey Rickets – just what do you think you’re doing, peering in the windows like that..? Are you some sort of Peeping Tom..?” The children around him laughed, and Thomas gulped before replying, “Hi Mark, no I was just seeing if the class was empty, I.. I just wanted somewhere to sit and draw, that’s all.” The other children giggled, and Mark stepped forward to snatch the sketch book out of his hands, causing his brand new pastel set to drop to the ground and several to shatter as they fell. “What have we got here..?” he asked.

He held the book up to the others, saying, “Get a load of this, guys – it’s Quasimodo’s colouring book..! Let’s take a look and see what the freak’s been doodling.” He then proceeded to tear-out the first few pages that Thomas had been working on, laughing as he did and poking fun at the colourful and imaginative landscapes that he had put so much effort into the day before.

“You’re a real little sissy, aren’t you Tom,” he said, as Thomas’ eyes began to fill with tears, “you wouldn’t think someone with a back like yours could be such a spineless runt.” They began to push Thomas around now, and Mark and Danny both spat in his sketch book before hurling it face-down to the ground and stomping on it. This was the final straw, and Thomas suddenly felt something uncontrollable stirring in him that he’d tried for many years to suppress.

It wasn’t anger, and it definitely wasn’t hate. It was a strong and overpowering feeling of injustice at what was happening to him, and although he had become adept at bottling these sorts of feelings up whenever he was being bullied, the sight of his mother’s gift lying ripped and dirty on the ground and the vivid, colourful smear of his brand new pastel set that had been stomped into the concrete caused him to finally lose control and do something he knew would have dire consequences.

Out of nowhere, he balled his right hand into a fist and reached his crooked shoulder back as Mark, Danny and the rest of the boys suddenly hesitated. He swung his right arm with all of his might, and punched Mark across the jaw with such force that he knew even before the feeling registered that he had broken his hand. The blow sent Mark staggering back and as his arm followed through, Thomas twisted to his left and fell to his knees.

An excruciating pain coursed through his arm as he quickly rose again and found his feet, and for a long minute nobody moved. Thomas had never retaliated before when picked on by the other students, not even once. None of them knew just how to react at first, except for Mark who spat a mouthful of blood to the ground and raised the fingers of his left hand up to touch his lip that that had been split wide by the blow.

Nobody made a sound as the two just stared at each other, contemplating their next move. Mark was breathing heavily and was seeing red, “How dare that hunchbacked little freak fight back..!” he thought to himself, “Hit me..? I’ll break every delicate bone in his twisted little body..!” He was incensed and given his troubles at home considered this to be the perfect way to loose his aggression and get his mind off of the reality that he found himself trapped in. He pointed at Thomas finally, saying coldly, “You’re dead,” and turned to the others to command, “Danny, guys – let’s get the freak..!”

Thomas knew straight away that they were going make him pay for what he’d done, and he knew that they would chase him, beat him and there was even the real possibility that they might cause permanent damage. As little as he cared for his own welfare, he just couldn’t live with himself knowing that he would be responsible for putting his dear mother through such an ordeal and quickly decided that he needed to flee. Before the other children could react, he pushed past Danny and the rest and ran as fast as his legs would carry him, through the playground and out past the schoolyard gates.

The other boys were now so worked up that they took no notice that they too were leaving the school grounds, and they ran out of the gate and chased Thomas down the main street and towards the centre of town. He was running faster that he had ever ran in his life, and could feel his lungs burning and his knees beginning to buckle as his feet pounded the pavement. He knew that he couldn’t go on much further, that he would have to slow down and eventually stop moving altogether and so started to look around for somewhere that he might hide to give them the slip.

They were gaining on him quickly, so he couldn’t simply crouch behind a vehicle or run into an alleyway and besides, the last thing that he wanted was to find himself cornered again. He veered off from the road and sprinted through the doors of the local hospital which he knew was a big enough building to hide in, at least for a little while.

St. Mary’s was in fact the largest building in town, and rose six stories high above the rest of the shops and businesses around it. Thomas flew through the doors and quickly slowed down as he approached reception, careful not to attract any unwanted attention. He gave the receptionist a quick and nervous smile which she returned before he made his way over to the elevators – he was often visiting the hospital for one reason or another, and from his already bandaged arm she had just assumed he was in for another routine follow-up.

Not far behind him, Mark, Danny and the others also reached the glass entrance of the hospital, slowed down and casually wandered past while the receptionist’s back was turned. Just as the elevator doors closed and Thomas disappeared from view, Mark pointed and said to the others, “The elevators – he’s going up..!”

They stood by the grey metal doors and watched the panel above them to see what floor Thomas had gotten of at. “1.. 2.. 3..” the numbers climbed, “4.. 5.. 6.. R.” The display stopped there and Thomas leapt out of the elevator shaft as he reached the roof, and he searched for somewhere to hide hoping that the others had been caught in the hospital foyer and thrown back out again.

They hadn’t however, and squeezed into the next idle elevator, pressing ‘R’ for the roof of the building and slapped and high-five each other for their cleverness. If he was in fact on the roof, then he was trapped. Thomas had decided to hide behind a large steel vent on top of the building and when he finally stopped moving, he collapsed to the ground to catch his breath.

His hand was throbbing and he could tell just by looking at it that several bones had been smashed or jolted out of place when he lashed-out at Mark. His left arm was still useless and his legs ached from the long sprint down Main Street. He knew that if he was found up there, there would be nothing that he could possibly do to defend himself, and nowhere left to run.

Mama had brought him up to be religious. She had taught him from an early age of her God, his angels and of heaven as she knew it, and would read to him from the bible often as he lay in bed either at home or in that very same hospital. As he sat on the roof out of view, he looked skyward and prayed that he might stay hidden and if not, that he might find mercy in the hearts of those who sought to do him harm.

Just as he finished his prayer, he heard the unmistakeable rattle of the elevator doors as they slowly squeaked open again from across the roof, and held his breath as he peeked out over the top of the vent. “Please help me,” he said to himself, “please get me out of here.” He was shaking with fear as they left the confines of the elevator shaft and spread-out across the roof of the building to look for him. The winds up there had suddenly become fierce, and several almost lost their footing as a gale swept across it.

It was only a matter of seconds before Danny reached the vent, and after peering around the side of it he turned and called back to the others, “Hey Mark, guys – I’ve found the little freak. Get over here..!” The rest of the boys converged on where he was hiding and again formed a semi-circle around him, trapping him at the edge of the building while Mark wandered over, glaring at Thomas with a fire in his eyes that resembled pure hatred. The long cut on the left side of his lower lip had dried, and he touched it with his tongue as he stood there, sizing up Thomas who was now himself as white as a sheet.

“So you think you’re a tough guy do you, Rickets..? Think you can step-up and hold your own in a fight – well I don’t think you can. I think we need to see if you can take a punch as well as you can give one first, hey guys..?” He threw his arms wide, bobbed his head and looked around the group, the rest of the boys laughing and egging him on. Thomas felt like he was about to be sick, and as he stood there, his hair tussled by the wild wind and waiting for yet another in an endless line of inevitable beatings, his mind wandered to a more peaceful place. He closed his eyes for a moment, and imagined that he was miles away from Mark, his school and its students and high above the town, far beyond the reach of anyone and just looking down at the rest of the world below.

Suddenly, he felt a strong serenity wash over him and opened his eyes again to see Mark pointing at him and laughing derisively. “What’s the matter, Tom, not going to faint on us, are you..?” he taunted. Thomas was tired. He was tired of the bullying, and the teasing. Tired of the names, the beatings and being pushed around by people that he knew would never, ever stop. He was tired of the pointless lessons, of the small town and its selfish people and suddenly from somewhere deep inside him was overcome by the feeling that it was time for him to move on, time to leave it all behind. Time to put an end to it all.

As the others watched-on in surprise, Thomas climbed up on the ledge at the front edge of the roof behind him and stood facing his attackers. As he found his feet, his thoughts suddenly turned to his mother, and his face sank as he somehow realised that he was about to leave, and might not ever see her again. But as the winds once again picked up, he felt sure that it was time. Time to let go.

“What the hell are you doing, freak..?” Mark called out to him, his voice nearly drowned-out by the rising winds, “Are you trying to get yourself killed..? Get back down here and take your medicine like a man.” Mark nodded to Danny and the others to pull him down, and several of the boys began to slowly edge towards Thomas who was standing perfectly still and staring up and out above their heads. They were only a couple of feet away from closing in on him and about to reach out when the most amazing thing happened, stopping them dead in their tracks.

Above the roar of the wind, the children suddenly heard a loud crack and a sound like the tearing of fabric from behind Thomas, and backed away as his face suddenly contorted into a wild and horrible mask of pain. He buckled and screamed a bloodcurdling scream as two magnificent feathered wings burst forth dramatically from the misshapen hump on his back and stretched-out either side of him, billowing majestically in the wind as it coursed over them. None of them could believe what they were seeing.

From somewhere deep within he had always known that this day would come. He had never known his father, yet to him Michael had always been more than just a faceless soldier. He had listened intently to his mother as she read from the New Testament, riveted and awestruck by those tales of angels and names that somehow seemed comfortable and familiar.

The other children just stood in front of Thomas, mouths agape and their eyes staring as his massive white feathered wings flexed and ruffled beside him, drops of a strange amniotic fluid dripping from them as they shuddered. No-one spoke for a long minute, before Mark looked up at him and asked, “What in God’s name..?”

“What indeed,” Thomas smiled to himself, “In God’s name.” He turned on the ledge then and faced the chill wind, smiling broadly he raised his arms and felt it run over his body. Only now could he understand just how important it had been that his bones remain light and hollow, and he took one last look over his shoulder at the other children before flapping his mighty wings for the first time, and taking-off into the clear and endless skies of his imagination. As the others watched him disappear into the distance, they could just make out a second dark and similarly winged figure descend from the clouds to join him before they both vanished skyward and out of view forever.

Kathleen was leaving the cafe in town that she had worked at for most of the morning when she heard the distant beating of wings from the sky above her, and looked up just in time to make out two huge shadows as they flew across the face of the midday sun and away into the distance. “Mike..” she said softly to herself, dropping her coffee as she realised what had happened. Somehow she knew, somehow she had always known and was filled with a profound calm as she stood and watched them go.

The sketch book that still lay in the playground had blown over in the sudden winds, and when it finally stilled the pages had stopped upon a drawing that Thomas had made the day before, a drawing of a pale blue sky above a sea of white clouds, and two winged angels soaring high above.