‘Have it!’ I yell and punt the tattered football towards the goal.
Rich dives for the ball, his arms outstretched. It brushes past his fingertips and he crashes to the ground.
‘Goal.’ I roar triumphantly and pull my t-shirt over my head.
As I jog around the garden in my victory dance the ball thuds into my ribcage, knocking the air from my lungs. I collapse to the ground with a grunt and lay still. I can hear my brother laughing goofily. I spring to my feet despite my tender ribs and pull down my shirt, glaring angrily at Rich.
‘You’re in for it now Rich.’ I growl and scoop up the ball in my hands.
I dart after him, jumping over a pile of jumpers that serve as one of the goal posts. Gaining on him, I deliver a swift kick, aiming for the back of his head. To my dismay, I overpower the shot and the ball soars over the fence.
‘Ow.’ I whine, as Rich dead arms me.
‘Nice one dillbert.’ he sniggers.
‘It wasn’t my fault.’
‘You kicked it over.’
‘Yeah but only cos you hit me.’ I moan.
Rich crosses his arms and jerks his head at the fence.
‘No.’ I shout defiantly and turning on my heels, head towards the house.
Rich follows and wrestles me to the ground. I scream and thrash wildly beneath, trying to buck him off. He is a lot bigger then me and weighs considerably more. After several agonizing minutes of having my face shoved in the dirt, I finally relent. Bruised and muddied, Rich pulls me to my feet and slaps me hard on the back.
‘Come on, I’ll give you a leg up.’
I spit grass and dirt from my mouth and reluctantly move over to the fence with Rich. He intertwines his fingers and nods.
Rich heaves me up with surprising force and I nearly topple right over the fence into the next-door garden. I grab desperately on to the top of the fence and manage to perch upon it. The ball sits on a patch of grass, a few feet away from a huge nest of leaves and twigs.
I am just about to jump down, when I notice a bony hand emerge from underneath the pile and reach for the slightly deflated ball. I feel a scream rise within me but when I part my lips all that escapes are my fevered rasps of breath. The skeletal hand closes around the ball and drags it inside the auburn den.
‘Hurry up.’ Rich calls and shakes the fence impatiently.
I clutch onto the fence for dear life, nails digging into the painted wood and hiss at Rich like a feral cat. He grins devilishly and wanders away into the garden. I glance behind me. The den is silent. I seize my window of opportunity and attempt to lower myself back into the garden.
‘Uh, uh, uh.’ Rich says, returning with a long branch.
Damn. Too late. The stick is thrust up in my direction and I try to bat it away, nearly losing my balance in the process. It catches me painfully in the side and I howl. Rich laughs and goes in for a second jab.
‘Okay.’ I cry, giving in.
Rich smirks triumphantly and crosses his arms again. A sinking feeling grips me, as I lower myself cautiously into the garden. I drop the last few feet and land nimbly on my toes, holding my breath for any signs of movement. Nothing. I wait patiently, my heart beating loud in my chest, my breathing irregular.
A loud bang behind me sends me scrabbling across the ground. I spin round and realize that it’s just Rich hammering against the fence with his stick. I curse him silently under my breath and unfurl my clenched fists, pulling away handfuls of grass. I pull myself to my feet and eye the large nest in front of me anxiously. Some of the larger branches have been bent and tied together to form a makeshift canopy.
I approach slowly, feeling the fear well up inside of me. A tattered piece of cloth hangs from a section of the canopy, serving as a door. A twig crunches underfoot and I freeze on the spot. A pair of dark eyes loom out of the darkness and watch me from one of the gaps.
Overwhelmed with fear, I turn and bolt towards the fence. I can hear shuffling and rustling behind me and push on, refusing to glance behind. The mud clings to my legs, sucking me down. I push onwards, desperately trying to wrench myself free from the sinking ground. In my haste to escape, I trip on a half hidden twig and smack my head on the edge of the brick wall lining the bottom of the fence. My vision is swamped by a murky grey and then everything turns black.
I wake to the sound of rustling and shuffling. I open my eyes slowly, afraid of what I might find. Thin slits of bright light shine down on me from above. As my vision slowly returns to me, something soft brushes my cheek and I hold it up in front of me. It is a small, brown leaf. I glance up again and realize that the roof above is made of an assortment of twigs and leaves. I hear that rustling noise again and pull myself up into a seated position. A sharp pain shoots through my head and I cradle it in my hands.
‘Here take this?’
I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle and look up slowly, my heart thumping loudly in my ribcage. An elderly woman peers back at me in the half-light. She has a wild tangle of grey hair that is littered with dirt and leaves. Her skin is wrinkled and shriveled and covered in what appears to be flour. Her clothes are torn and ragged, her feet bare and caked with dry mud. Her bony fingers are clasped round a dripping flannel that she offers to me in an outstretched hand.
I swallow hard, realizing that it is the same hand that crept out from under the bush. My eyes hover on hers for a moment and I scuttle hurriedly back into one corner. They are the same eyes that were watching me in the garden.
‘Don’t worry.’ She croaks. ‘I won’t hurt you.’
‘Where am I?’ I ask in a panicked tone, looking round at the unfamiliar surroundings.
I am sitting in one corner of what appears to be a large den. The ceilings and walls are a canopy of leaves and branches and the floor hard ground. The leaves of which have been swept into a small pile. Occupying the den are an assortment of different odds and ends, ranging from a frayed armchair to an empty birdcage. The elderly woman forces a smile in an attempt to put me at ease but it just comes across a creepy.
Not knowing what to do, I smile back nervously. She thrusts the soaked flannel at me and lifts her hand to her head, motioning for me to do the same. I look down at the flannel. It is grimy and oily but I dab at my head, not wanting to upset her. It is cool and soothes my aching head.
‘Better?’ She asks with a concerned expression.
I nod mutely.
‘Do you live here?’
‘Yes.’ She replies, glancing around the den with a great fondness.
‘It’s nice.’ I lie.
Her eyes narrow and she says nothing. The silence is unbearable and I feel my throat begin to close up.
‘Why thank you. That’s very kind.’ She eventually says, her expression morphing into one of delight.
I breathe out, relieved at my close shave.
‘Would you like some tea?’ she asks, her face brightening up at the prospect.
‘No…thank you.’ I stammer.
She wrings her long, murky coloured dress in her hands, a pained expression on her face.
‘On second thought. Some tea would be nice.’ I say and force a smile.
‘Wonderful.’ she exclaims excitedly and begins pottering about in one corner of the den.
I feel that things may be alright as long as I don’t do anything to upset her. She seems friendly enough on the surface but there seems to a darker presence lurking beneath. One that when angered could prove dangerous.
A loud clatter brings me back to the present and I glance over at the old woman. She stands in front of an unstable looking bookcase, pulling odds and ends from the shelves, that she flings to the floor, muttering to herself as she goes. The small frayed armchair, its covers warped by rainwater, sits a few feet away. I crawl over to it and dump myself in the seat. It’s damp and smells of mould but my muscles comply, happy at a soft alternative to the hard, rough ground.
The elderly woman cackles in delight, as she discovers what she is looking for. A rusty, old teapot. A shopping trolley catches my attention and I look at it intrigued. It’s filled with assorted bric and brac, containing such gems as a half bent trumpet and an orange traffic cone. As I gaze at the various different items I suddenly spot my deflated football and I am just about to go and retrieve it, when the elderly woman returns.
She carries a silver tray in her shaking hands, laden with the rusty teapot, two teacups, a mini milk jug and a sugar bowl. They bounce and wobble across the tray as she shuffles forwards, threatening to topple over the edge. Upon seeing me sitting in the armchair she lets out a loud yelp and drops the tray, the tea set spilling over the floor with a loud crash. I flinch expecting hot water and milk to cover the ground but realize the jug and pot are empty.
‘Get out of his chair.’ She screams, clutching her hair in clenched fists.
I scrabble out of the chair and return to my spot on the floor, holding out my hands, palms upwards.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.’ I splutter.
The elderly woman moves over to the chair and smooths over the seat, removing any trace of my previous occupation.
‘Only Robin sits there.’ She mutters in a low voice.
I glance at the empty birdcage.
‘Is Robin your bird?’ I coax.
The words slip out of her mouth like a whisper, a vacant look in her eyes.
‘Robin, your bird?’
Her eyes drift to the cage and she runs her slender fingers across the metal bars.
‘Yes I suppose he was.’ She says with a slight frown.
‘What happened to him?’ I ask, already knowing the answer.
She turns towards me, her eyes dark pits of coal.
I swallow, tensing myself in case I need to run.
‘How about some tea?’ She announces all of a sudden, the cloud passing.
I nod silently, at a lost for words.
The elderly woman drops to her knees and begins gathering up the scattered china. When everything has been meticulously replaced, she picks up the teapot and mimics pouring hot tea into the cup.
‘Milk?’ she queries, holding up the empty milk jug.
‘Yep.’ I say, tight lipped, staring in disbelief as she pours the imaginary milk into one of the chipped teacups.
She hums a tune to herself as she goes. I am getting really worried now. The elderly woman is beginning to frighten me. I climb steadily to my feet and clasp my hands together anxiously.
‘On second thought. I really must be going.’
She looks up suddenly, as I inch slowly towards the canopy door.
‘You can’t go. You have only just arrived.’
‘I…know but I need to get home for my dinner.’
The elderly woman climbs to her feet and moves in front of me, cutting off my escape route.
‘No. You must stay.’ she demands, growing angry.
I rush over and grab the empty birdcage.
‘No.’ she screams, horrified.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a flash of red and looking down, I notice a dead Robin lying on the bottom of the cage. My stomach flips, at the sight of the limp creature.
‘Let me pass and I will give it back.’ I order, my arms wrapped around the birdcage.
She mulls over this proposal and for a second, I fear that she is going to lunge forward and try to wrestle it free. But to my relief she consents and moves away from the doorway. I cautiously sidestep past her, keeping my eyes locked on hers. I reach the door and place the birdcage on the ground. She goes to move forwards.
‘Wait.’ I instruct.
She obediently listens and waits patiently. Seizing my window of opportunity, I turn and flee. I scramble over the fence into my garden and dart towards the house. I reach the patio doors and scurry inside. I turn and peer through the glass slit of the door, expecting to see the elderly woman climbing over the fence after me. But she is nowhere to be seen. I let out a deep sigh of relief and collapse to the conservatory floor.
© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], . Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.