Misty Hollow

......Chubby twelve-year-old legs clad in tight shorts scurrying down the lane. Round, red face, hot in the morning sun. Panting, panting. Tie askew, shirt buttons undone. Satchel, full of books and pencils and lunch box, banging heavily against his back in time to his jogging run. Timmy is late for school again.
......The twisty, bendy lane makes the journey longer than it need be. It forms a long U, curving round... that place. There's a shortcut - if only he dare take it. But, doesn't his mother's voice echo in his ears? Hadn't she warned him as she'd packed him off, straightening his tie and smoothing his hair: "Don't you go through Misty Hollow, Timmy, keep to the lane"? Hadn't she told him, "It's a bad place, and I want you to keep away from it"?
......If only he hadn't dawdled and delayed. He hadn't meant to be late, but it had seemed like he had hours when his mother had seen him off early this lovely sunny morning. Hours in which a small inquisitive boy can explore the many delights the tree-lined country lane leading to the nearby village where his school is situated has to offer. Timmy has the healthy curiosity of any twelve-year-old, and the way to school abounds with much to investigate. Perhaps too much.
......The water-filled ditch, teeming with wildlife, at either side of the lane had waylaid him for far too long. Skimming water-boatmen, darting upside-down across the still, shallow water, their passage leaving tiny ripples in their wake, and shoals of fat tadpoles beneath the surface, revelling in their fish-like stage, soon to exchange tails for legs. Sticklebacks aplenty peering shyly from the weeds and tiny creatures in abundance, many he could not put a name to, swarmed and thrived, hunted and were hunted and acted out their lives for the pleasure of the fascinated boy.
......He'd fashioned a boat from leaves and twigs and set it to sail on the water, crowing with delight when a dragonfly alighted on it to pilot his makeshift vessel. Then he'd sunk his painstakingly constructed craft with a carefully directed pebble, which was really a torpedo fired from a German submarine. Tiring of the ditch, he'd scaled a small tree, scuffing his already muddied shoes, to examine a bird's nest, which alas proved to be empty. He had stood, still as a statue, observing a fearless squirrel preening itself, its bright button eyes watching him as he watched it, until, no longer able to maintain his immobility, he had made a sudden movement and startled the little animal into a frantic scramble up a safe tree. A busy wasp's nest had been investigated from a judicious distance with the aid of a long stick, until its inhabitants had become intolerant of his prying and driven him away.
......Thus he had dallied, his destination forgotten. The lane was a wonderland, full of marvels for a questioning boy, every step revealing something new and worthy of attention. Why worry about school, with so much to be delved into?
......Some internal clock - he didn't possess a watch - had eventually advised him that time was frittering away. Even so, he hadn't been able to resist the few minutes necessary to examine a gaily coloured caterpillar mechanically munching a leaf, or a spider at breakfast on the succulent victim of its sticky web, or the rare sight of a lonely kestrel soaring high above. Finally, the clangour of his built-in timepiece could no longer be ignored. Panic filled him, he had no time left to waste, school was still a long way away, and he must hurry, hurry.
......He just couldn't be late for school, not again. Mr Drake, Timmy's tyrannical teacher, would surely keep him after classes this time - he'd threatened as much last time. There would be extra work to do, a long, loud lecture from Mr Drake and a letter outlining the reason for his detention to give to his mother. The thought was too much to bear. He really must get to school - and quickly.
......Timmy pauses for breath, his plump cheeks puffing for air. His heaving chest subsiding, his gaze goes to the fence skirting Misty Hollow. If he were to cross the Hollow he could cut out the big U of the lane entirely and rejoin it where it straightens out again. In effect, he would then be going in a straight line and avoiding the lane's long detour. By taking that route he would still be late, but not very. Mr Drake might not even notice, and he would escape detention. But to take the shortcut would be to disobey his mother, and that, in his young experience, invariably resulted in a sound tongue-lashing. His mother's temper was a match for Mr Drake's any day. On the other hand, if he were to arrive back home late for tea with the explanation that he had been kept back as punishment for unpunctuality he would catch it from his mother anyway. He couldn't win!
......One more look at the lane stretching in front of him and the prospect of the distance yet to cover decides him. Timmy jumps the ditch and lands heavily by the fence. Grasping the top rail, his foot on the lower rail, he hesitates once more. His mother's voice is still loud in his ears - she had really meant it when she told him to keep away from the Hollow. As if his mother is there in person castigating him for his disobedience, he pricks up his ears and sheepishly looks round. By some magic skill only adults have, his mother always knows when he has done something wrong. He can almost feel her watching him. He really ought to do as she had told him.
......But this is silly! He tells himself on the point of dismounting the fence and returning to the lane. Mother isn't here, and there's nobody to tell her. How can she possibly know if he goes through the Hollow? If he evades the wrath of Mr Drake and gets back home at the usual time, she will be none the wiser. She'll never know he disobeyed her. After all, it's not his fault that the lane goes miles out of his way. Anyway, what is there to fear at the Hollow? It's just a dip in the ground. Nothing to worry about there. His mind is firmly made up now, and he climbs the fence.
......Feeling quite rebellious and brave, Timmy drops down at the other side of the fence and pushes through the thick hedge that screens Misty Hollow from the lane. He is the intrepid explorer now, fearless in the face of the unknown. What him, scared of a rotten old hole and a few old wive's tales? No way! It's true, the Hollow has a reputation as a place to avoid, but no one says why. It has acquired a bad name for reasons nobody could, or would, explain. If spoken of at all, it is in hushed tones, as if to say its name out loud could somehow hurt you. Even his own mother lowered her voice when she mentioned the place. He, however, is above and beyond all that. He is not daunted by rumour and superstition.
......Even so, he pauses inside the boundary of the Hollow. It is suddenly very quiet. A few yards away at the other side of the hedge and the fence the birds were singing; here they are not. A cloud comes over and covers the bright sun. A breeze blows and a chill descends. Timmy backs into the hedge - was that the wind or did he just hear a voice calling him?
......Timmy realises that his eyes are tight shut. He opens them. The cloud has gone and the sun is shining again - though it's still very quiet... too quiet.
......Stop it! Look around. What is there to be scared of?
......Immediately in front of him is a narrow stretch of scrubby ground that falls steeply after a few yards to form the Hollow itself. Misty Hollow is simply that: a hollow, a depression in the land, said once to have been a small lake, now dried up. Whereas the area around the Hollow in contrast to the lane side of the hedge, apart from a few dispirited bushes, is barren and bleak, the Hollow itself is full of low-growing trees and shrubs. It all looks innocent enough.
......Why is it so quiet then? Why does it feel like everything is holding its breath? And why put such a strong fence and such a thick hedge around the place as if to hide it away?
......Timmy takes a few steps forward. All he has to do is go down and through the Hollow, up the other side and over the fence there. He will be back on the lane again then and quite close to his destination.
......Nothing to it.
......So why is he dragging his feet?
......A few more steps and he is at the very edge of Misty Hollow and looking down into it. Now he is closer, Timmy sees that the trees that crowd its bottom are twisted and stunted. Their gnarled trunks seem to grow out of that which gives the Hollow its name - the mist. For, though the sun has been up for several hours, a thin blanket of swirling grey fog laps round their knobbly stems. It is said that it is always misty here. Perhaps the ground is still moist from the long-gone lake and the sun never quite penetrates the close-spaced trees? Or perhaps it is hiding something?
......Timmy shudders, for the sun has deserted him again and it has become wintry all of a sudden. Reluctantly, he begins to descend the steep bank. Carefully now - the ground is spongy and damp.
......Halfway down he pauses. It really is quiet - eerily so. It's cold too, and he hugs his school blazer tightly around himself as a chill crawls up his spine. Is it the cold that makes him shiver, or a sudden dread?
......Almost at that point where it is too late to turn back, he takes a few reluctant steps further down the slope. The mist laps at his shoes with chill tendrils, then, as he slowly progresses on, at his bare legs, wrapping round them like a cold, wet blanket.
......Committed now, he takes the last dragging paces to the bottom of the Hollow. He stops again. The cloudy layer of mist reaches midway up his body now. To an observer it would seem like he was cut off at the waist - if there were an observer to see him. The trees in front of him look forbidding and threatening. They are skeletal and ghostly and it is shadowy among them as if they are hiding something. The mist slops and eddies around them like a live thing giving them the appearance of distorted, knobbly hands on skinny wrists reaching out of dirty water imploring him to come among them.
......No longer brave, but somehow compelled to carry on, Timmy walks forward. It is as if the mist is sucking him further into itself, parting in front of him to let him through, but closing up behind him to prevent any retreat. Droplets of condensation gather on his clammy skin and run creeping down his exposed legs like cold insects. He is entering the trees now and it is like the sunny summer morning never existed, for here it must always be winter. It is dark and dingy here, and the deeper he progresses into the trees, the darker it becomes. The trees grow thicker and closer together with each step forward, as if they are crowding in on him, joining with one another to surround and enfold him in their woody embrace.
......The worst thing is the quiet. The closely spaced trees lock out the outside world, and the mist absorbs any sound that might get through. Even his own footsteps are muffled and distant as if they belong to someone else, and the sound of his breathing comes from a long way off. It is almost as if there is someone else there among the trees with him, as if he is no longer alone.
......Was that a sound... someone calling?
......No, it couldn't have been.
......A bit further. The mist seems denser here, it's creeping up his midriff now.
......Surely that was a voice?
......Timmy stops, his ears cocked, his senses taut.
......Over there, where the trees grow thickest - wasn't that a movement?
......Timmy stands rock-still. Is someone there - or is it just the mist piling up against the trees giving the impression of a figure there?
......Yes. It's just the mist. There's nobody there.
......Timmy lets out the breath he hadn't realised he was holding. He moves on, deeper into the Hollow. The trees are closer together here, and the mist is definitely thicker and deeper - it is drifting around his chest now.
......He must be in the middle of the Hollow by now. A little bit further and he will reach the other side. Not far to go now. Soon be safe and warm at school.
......"Little boy."
......"Little boy."
......No mistake this time. That was a voice. Very quiet and whispered, but certainly a voice. Calling to him from the trees.
......"Little boy," the voice calls again.
......Over there, by that big tree, the mist is swirling and parting. A dark shape - hard to make it out. Yes - it is - there's a figure... someone there.
......It is a man. An old man, tall and bent and grey, wearing a long brown coat. He gestures to Timmy; long bony fingers beckon the boy to him.
......Timmy stands rooted to the ground, staring at the old man. He wants to run, to run screaming through the trees, but somehow he cannot. There's something about the old man - something in his eyes... His eyes - they seem to shine from his dirty face. Timmy feels paralysed, glued to the spot.
......The old man continues to beckon. There's a smile on his dirty face.
......Timmy feels drawn towards him and repelled by him at the same time. He wants to escape, to run and run, but yet he wants to go to him. His eyes - what is it about his eyes?
......The boy trembles, torn between running and going to the old man. "You must not talk to strangers," his mother always tells him. He's only an old tramp, though. What harm can he be? He doesn't look like he would hurt a fly. Yes, only a tramp, wanting a bit of company. But what's he doing here, in this cold, dank place? And why does Timmy feel so frightened?
......"Come here little boy," the old man says, his voice soft and hypnotic and somehow full of promise, a long, grubby finger beckoning the boy to him. All the will seems to drain from Timmy and he feels himself walking to him despite the great fear inside him. It is as if he is being dragged by some magnetic force too powerful to resist. All the time warning bells clang inside his head telling him to flee far away from this place, yet his feet still take him closer to the old man. As he approaches ever nearer to the beckoning figure and sees more deeply into those strange, powerful eyes the last vestige of Timmy's self-motivation vanishes along with all desire to escape. He wants to be with the old man, to go anywhere and do anything he should wish.
......Timmy is standing right up close in front of the old man now and he can smell the dirt on him. He towers over the small boy and smiles down on him, his eyes holding him pinned like a butterfly in a glass case. "You're a nice plump little boy, aren't you?" the old man says, his voice barely above a whisper, though Timmy hears every word deep inside him. "I've waited such a long time for a little boy like you to come along. Such a long, long time."
......The old man holds out a filthy, bony hand, and Timmy, mesmerised, takes it, powerless to do anything else. In some far distant corner of his mind the boy senses he is being led into a dense clump of trees where the mist is thickest. There, in what must be the most secluded part of the Hollow, the old man stops and draws Timmy to him.
......."Yes, you really are a nice plump boy," the old man says in his whispering voice, "and I'm so very hungry." He smiles, showing rotten teeth, and it is as if by smiling he releases some of the hold he has over Timmy. He is aware again; aware that he is standing in a clump of trees with a dirty old man who smells terribly and there is no one else around. Aware that there is something in the old man's smile that makes him wish he were at school, or at home, or anywhere but here. Yet at the same time he feels strangely excited and expectant. The old man's smile seems to offer thrills and pleasure and forbidden, unknown delights.
......"I've been here so long waiting for a little boy like you," the old man says, at the same time stroking Timmy's hair, then his face, then his lips. He gently pulls the boy closer to him and his hands caress and fondle and explore his young body. Just for a moment Timmy snaps out of the trance that binds him. Just for a moment he knows that from now on he is never going to be the same again. Just for a moment his legs have the strength to carry him far, far from here. Then the moment is gone. He is lost.
......"Yes, there's such a lot I can do with a nice plump young body like yours." The voice is far away in some distant, dead place. The slobbering, sucking sounds are part of some other, alien world, not the one of schoolbooks and playground games. The things that are happening to him are really happening to someone else.
......Something is drained from Timmy. Something is taken away from him. He is a lifeless husk, an empty shell. For a time there is nothing. No feeling, no senses - no life. Just a blankness - a darkness.
......Then something flows into the emptiness. Something dirty, filthy, disgusting. Something very, very old. And he is Timmy no more.
......All is still. The mist swirls, thins, and recedes from the clump of trees. Two figures stand there, one a young boy, the other an old man. The boy straightens his clothes, looks up at the old man and smiles an old, old, smile then turns away. He pushes his way out of the trees, turns again, gives one last look at the old man, then scampers off, his satchel swinging.
......From the trees the old man watches him go until he disappears into the mist.
......He tugs his dirty long brown coat tightly around himself to keep out the mist. He casts his mind out, searching, seeking. No one is near. No juicy young boy is within his influence. He huddles deeper into his coat and prepares to wait. It will be a long time before anyone comes, but he can wait. Timmy is very patient.

Copyright Scorpio Tales 1995. All rights reserved.

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