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Second-Place Short Story Winner: “Down in the Woods”

            Mr. Everett had a problem.

            He was a ghost of the man he once was, haunting the halls of the weathered Thorngrove Manor. The ghost could not stand being near his home, nor his wife, and especially not the both of them together. It had been this way for 13 years.

            Mr. Everett had a problem.

 

            Little Alice sat on her windowsill, looking out onto the woods beyond the clearing. She dangled her feet absentmindedly, worrying on a stone she had taken from the stream. The maid told her many times not to sit this way–shutters wide open to the stones two stories below.

            It’s terribly dangerous, she told her.

            You could fall and die, she told her.

            Alice agreed with her on both points. But now, as Alice worried on her worry stone, she was not thinking of the maid’s warning.

            Alice had a problem. A much bigger problem than falling out of a window. There was a choice to be made. A choice that carried epic and shocking consequences. Yet, as Alice worried on her stone, dried blood flaking from her skin, she came to her decision quite easily.

 

            Not much happened in the town of Charlotte, especially not at the end of Koehler’s Lane where the cobbled road crumbled to dust. It was at the end of this road that the once envied Thorngrove manor resided. The manor, much like its owner, was nothing more than a ghost of past self.

            Not much happened in Charlotte, but if you asked Little Alice Everett, she would disagree.

            You see, Alice had a secret. A marvelous secret, one she shared only with a small cat who stumbled into her yard one early spring morning. Alice had been sitting on her windowsill, as she so often was, when she spotted something as bright as candlelight lurking at the edge of the woods.

            “Hey, you!” The bright thing froze at the sound of her voice. Her boots connected loudly with the wood siding as she braced herself against the window. For a moment it was the only sound. It was much too dark to see, but Alice knew it was looking at her. She felt it looking at her.

            As foreboding began to set in Alice’s stomach, the thing turned and darted back into the shrubbery. Alice smiled, very pleased with herself for having bested the beast. That was, until it returned the following morning.

            Alice bounded across the clearing, branch readied in hand, and felt foolish upon discovering it was merely a house cat.

            A quite small white cat, with surprisingly impeccable fur in spite of the mud and rain, and a wide pair of peculiar golden eyes.

            Little Alice couldn’t tell you why she decided to follow the white cat down in the woods that rainy morning. Perhaps it was boredom, perhaps it was something darker.

            Alice was certain that she had traveled this far into the woods on her previous adventures. The sun surely must have risen by now yet, there was not a sliver of sunlight peeking through the trees. The cat turned and looked at Alice, blinking its golden eyes. Alice could have sworn the cat smiled at her, in a pleased sort of way, and a voice like silk unfurled inside of her mind.

            We’re nearly there, Alice. Just a little farther, past the owl’s tree and the coyote’s den.

            “You can speak!” Alice exclaimed, dropping to her knees to take a closer look at the strange creature.

            Yes, I can speak, the voice purred, can’t you? A hint of amusement laced the cat’s words. It made Alice feel silly for asking such a question. Of course, she could speak. They continued to walk, Alice gazing curiously at the cat’s little white head, biting her burning tongue.

            At the very depths of the woods, a great tree sat half sunk in a murky stream that ran as far as Alice could see. This was the same stream from which Alice would later pluck her worry stone. The tree was a formidable creature compared to its companions. Water sloshed up the side of the trunk, stripping away grass and dirt, exposing a cave of twisted roots that all sorts of bugs and eight-legged creatures surely resided in.

            Here we are, the cat purred, it is just through the great tree, halfway between life and death.

            “Where is here?”, Alice asked, “Where are we going?”

            To see the others, of course.

            “The others?”

            Come now, Alice, we cannot be late.

            Unease trickled into the back of Alice’s mind. Perhaps she should go home. She was not allowed to play in the woods, and feared the possibility of Mrs. Everett discovering her indiscretion. Mrs. Everett, she thought, yes, Mrs. Everett…

            She gazed at the cat, looking but not seeing, a strange fog carrying away whatever her last thoughts may have been. The shadow of unease pulled at her tongue, but all she said was:

            “How do you know my name?”

            Because we are friends, of course.

            “Why don’t I know your name, then? How am I to trust you when I don’t know your name?”

            Oh, very sharp Alice, very sharp indeed!

            A strange hackling noise that must have been laughter erupted from the cat’s throat. Its features twisted unnervingly, lips pulling back to reveal large, pointed canines. When its eyes opened, they were a vibrant gold, like the flames that licked the sun.

            I am the bright thing in the sky. I roar like a lion. My name is Beetle of Hub, A Bit of Dawn. My name is one three five, A Hill of Sight, A Pity One. I have been called many things by many people. You may call me Little Horn, as I have little horns upon my head. Can you see them, Alice?

             Little Horn bowed its small white head, and sure enough, there were two brown horns curling behind its ears.

            Come now, Alice, Little Horn purred, and it disappeared between the roots.

 

            They went far below the earth. Alice knew this because the air became frigid and she shivered violently. If there had been any source of light in the tunnel, she was sure she would have seen her breath. She could see Little Horn, however, and she followed the white dot as it darted through the tunnels.

            A curious light grew up ahead as they reached the end of the tunnel. Alice tumbled down, dirt decorating her dress, and gasped.

            The land was identical to the forest that surrounded her home, but she knew she was someplace else entirely. Looking up, Alice could see long distorted roots swinging from a sky of earth.

            Dancing around these roots was the source of the curious light—the fairies.

            Their skin glowed brightly, moonlight radiating from inside of them. They looked similar enough to people—aside from their wings and the fact that they were only the size of Alice’s palm. As one approached Alice, she could hear the creaking and grinding of its movements—limbs an entanglement of branches and vines. It flashed a dazzling smile, exposing several rows of jagged teeth as sharp as daggers. Its eyes were the color of earth, and peering into them Alice thought she could see things growing and blooming, dying and decaying.

             

            Alice spent the rest of the day in the land of the fairies.

            The fairies were her friends. They fed her and danced with her and braided her hair. Alice ate strange berries and drank from sweet flowers. They found the concept of shoes quite amusing, and it wasn’t long before Alice did, too.

            It was as she was plucking off her shoes that Little Horn came to her. But not the same Little Horn she had traveled with. This one had claws that pulled up dirt as it moved. Horns that towered over its head and twisted in unnatural angles. And those peculiar eyes, once golden were now ablaze with such zeal it pained Alice to look into them.

            I can help you. You can stay here with your friends, Alice. You would like that, wouldn’t you? I can see in your eyes that you would like that very much.

 

            Mrs. Everett had a problem.

            What was once a beautiful bride was now a spiteful woman, a decade of anger and hatred wrinkling her skin and graying her hair.

            Unjustly, Mrs. Everett thought, her husband’s infidelity put her in hell, and for over a decade she raised a whore’s child.

            Though as much as she despised the warping wood of her manor, her lying husband, Little Alice and her whore of a mother, Mrs. Everett could not abandon her life.

            What would the good ladies of Charlotte say about her if she left?

            Oh, didn’t you hear? Janie couldn’t handle the talk. She’s packed up and skipped town.

            I knew she wasn’t a fit wife.

            Oh, didn’t you hear? Her daughter has a whore for a mother. Any decent woman would leave if her husband had slept with a whore.

            Mrs. Everett was a grown woman. She knew Alice was not to blame for the dirty means of her existence. The child had only been six years old the first time Mrs. Everett laid a hand on her. At first, she felt she would be sick.

            Then the child started to cry, her face contorting into a horrendous expression, and in it Mrs. Everett saw a whore.

            So, she hit her again and again, and she felt cleansed.

            Mrs. Everett had a problem. Little Alice was her problem.

 

            Alice rolled Little Horn’s offer over and over in her mind on her walk home. She hadn’t wanted to leave Little Horn and the fairies, but her feet were sore from dancing and her dress was awfully dirty. The sun was falling fast, and Alice quickened her pace. She feared being alone in the dark woods. Feared what may be there with her.

            As she burst through the garden door, into the warm candlelight, her fear did not settle. In fact, it grew as she took in the scene before her.

            Sitting quietly and quiet still in an old wicker rocking chair, a large wooden spoon in hand, was Mrs. Everett.

            “I know you’ve been in the woods, Alice.”

            Alice’s small white hands gripped the hem of her dress, a pointless attempt to conceal the evidence of her disobedience.

            “First you dirtied my reputation, and now my rug. That was your grandmothers, you know.” Mrs. Everett stood slowly, anger emanating out of her. “Well, not your real grandmother. I’m sure she was a whore, too. Is that what you’ve been doing in the woods, Alice? Being a whore.”

            Mrs. Everett did not cease when the end of the spoon broke off, nor when the jagged edges of wood turned red. In Alice’s blood was the blood of a whore, and it was soiling her mother’s rug.

            Two floors above, unable to sleep, laid Mr. Everett. He heard the commotion. He heard the child’s screams. His wife had once been a beautiful woman, and he ruined her. I owe her this much, he thought, I owe her this much.

 

            Alice continued to worry on her worry stone until the sky was black and great booms of thunder engulfed the manor. As promised, just before midnight a small white flame appeared at the edge of the woods.

            Alice set down her stone, went to the garden door, and invited Little Horn inside.

 

            When Little Alice awoke in the morning, her parents laid still in their beds, a sheet of red flowing from their throats. There was blood on the pillows, blood seeping into the floor boards, blood on the bedroom wall and blood on Little Alice’s hands. The clattering of the blade brought Alice to, and she rushed to find Little Horn.

            Down in the woods she went, yet the cat nor the great tree were anywhere to be found.

 

 

 

—Miriam El-Sheikh is a daydreamer who resides in a small city just outside of Austin, Texas. She’s a lover of coffee, words, and Pinterest, and enjoys spending her days playing make-believe. She is currently writing the first book in a YA fantasy series.