A short story
by J.G. Mcmillen
Allen P. Worrel was a grounds keeper at the Withering-Woodlands park and preserve, and he delighted in his daily doings. A short and elderly man, with short gray hair beneath his official blue cap, and bushy brows above thick framed glasses which magnified his eyes in a very silly manner.
It was on a fine summer morning at about 9:00 am when the crowds had just started gathering that Allen noticed the school buses pull up and unleash a torrent of uniformed school children. They ranged in age it seemed, from twelve to fifteen or so, and amongst the throng of them were a half dozen teachers, all of whom looked tired and very irritable.
They had come for a tour of the park, and Allen was to be their botanical guide. To which Allen merely sighed and smiled at the thought of a long day afoot. He stretched his old legs before they set out, his knees crackling like tissue paper. He was ready to retire.
The tour did not last very long. The schedule the class needed to keep had only allowed a round about walk of the gardens, and then to the first trail head and back. During this time however, Allen noticed a lonely looking figure near the back of the throng. She was shorter than many of the others, and had very long brown hair, which she wore hanging around her face like a veil to shield her from the outside world. She did not interact much with the others and, instead of looking up and around at the trees and blooming foliage, she kept her nose buried in a leather bound diary, into which she was often hard at work on some mysterious yet urgent matter. Allen did not mind, however, and being rather shy himself found an immediate connection with the silent little figure.
The buses arrived to fetch the class at exactly half past noon, and by that time the teachers were nearing their wits end, and had been reduced to shouting over the heads of students with increasing frequency.
Allen smiled, and waved goodbye to the children, and was about to go and sit down for a drink and a snack when the sheen of brass caught his eye from a nearby bench. It was the leather-bound diary of that girl, she must have forgotten it.
The thought of opening the diary was deplorable to him. At first that is, for he grew very troubled at the thought of the girl tearing through her bags and not being able to find it. The little journal clearly meant a lot to her, and Allen knew the value of the little things that children need to escape for a time the worries that waylay their young minds. He concluded that he would pay for the postage himself if he could only find an address to send it to, or failing that, a name to inquire after, for he realized he had never even learned her name. And so he unclasped the little brass buckle and unfolded the secret inner world within.
His tired brow rose in awe as he marveled at the works of a budding talented artist. It was a lovely page, and it contained not only strings of words in a flowing script, there were illustrations as well, lovingly drawn doodles in the margins, or else separating the pages into differing entries. Allen tried to skim the entry for pertinent information, but found himself drawn into the page, his old eyes wide with wonder. Thoughts and dreams, poems and various fantastical creatures in image and description. He turned the pages delicately as if they might disintegrate if handled without due reverence.
On about the tenth page, Allen suddenly stopped abruptly. The page differed from the previous ones. Dark it was, and written in a heavy hand, so that the penmanship was altered. Even the style was different, loosing all sense of whimsical wonder, and that was only at a glance. The entry itself was the cause of real concern, and It read thusly:
“My fate is decided by my love at long last.
The Darkling man, he is called, and I don’t
Know what to say of him.
Chronicle the coming days.
Days lost in the haze
Of fair older ways,
He arranges it all for me, so that I cannot alter anything.
I’ll not be missed, he assures me. No one will care when I am gone.
They do not know that I am here.
Why do they not know me?
He says I do not belong, and that I never will.
But that he knows where I do belong.
If I prove myself to him, he will take me there.
The entry was dated over two weeks ago, and the rest of the first page was filled by a series of troubling drawings; a figure standing alone on a hill, dressed all in black, and several scowling owls, and grasping tree branches.
Allen swallowed hard. Surly this entry alone was cause for worry. Shifting his reluctant eyes to the next page, he still needed enough to contact someone about her. That way if there was some concern over her safety, it could be handled by the proper authorities.
‘He says that I am ugly, but that it does not matter. He says that
I am dumb, But that it does not matter either. He says he will love
Me, even though I am not worthy. Can he be telling me the truth?
I wonder, for he is cruel to me, yet also, He stays and speaks to me
anyway. If he did not love me then why Would he stay? He loves me
in spite of me, and that, is the truest love of all.
I will soon be with him, in the shadow of the shade, where the
Ground is heavy, by the sinking of the feet, and there at last,
The ghost will come, whom I shall meet.
It seems a worthy reason to die, once he explained it all to me.”
That was enough for Allen to slap the diary covers closed and call the police.
A detective Marsh was quick to arrive. He was a tall, stern man, who wore a very snappish charcoal outfit, and looked as though he’d been on his way to or from some important event. The detective read the diary thoughtfully before looking up at last.
‘Have you read this thing?’ he asked Allen.
‘Only some of it.’ Allen admitted sheepishly, ‘Enough to worry.’
The detective scoffed. ‘My guess is you only read the first part of it, am I right? Yea that part kinda raised my red-flags too. But then it gets better—or worse I should say.’ Pinching the bridge of his nose, he mustered up a sardonic sort of chuckle. ‘Its a fantasy story, Mr. Worrel, it goes on and on about a mystical lover, the proverbial dark prince with a heart of gold, and a quest or some guff, to appease some whoopty-woo in the woods. It’s a fairy story.’
Allen was about to argue when there suddenly came a commotion from inside, and the word went out that one of the students was missing from role call. Allen and detective Marsh shared a glance, but the detective declared in stern tones: ‘You, stay here, you got it?
Allen tried insisting that the detective did not know the park like Allen did, and that the far side forest was very large, and unmarked by trails past a certain point. But the detective would not change his mind, and after speaking to a few of the park officials, closed the gates and sent out everyone in different directions to search. Again Allen spoke up; the search patterns were all wrong, and they would be lucky if they even found each other by nightfall. Frustrated by being stonewalled, Allen took the diary (Which detective Marsh had all but forgotten about) and struck out on his own.
Reading more of the entries near the end, Allen was thrust into a dizzying realm of nonsensical ramblings and references which he knew nothing about. It was almost enough to make him give up on the diary all together when he came to the last few page:
Teeth chattering in my ear
I am become a puppet, my strings are sinew
And no more can I ignore his call
It will be today, on the forest field trip
I strain at the bonds, no escape
I ventured too far into the noose,
And have become trapped.
The Darkling man will have his prize.
Woeful is the Watcher in the Wood
Waits and waits for many ages
Past the path of the old neighborhood
Expecting the last of its wages.
The chilling lines were the culmination of a changing tone throughout the diary, and had lost all semblance of being the inner thoughts of a child. The last line stood out to Allen, though it would not mean much to anyone unless they knew the park history, and even to Allen it seemed like a long shot. The ‘old neighborhood’ was what they called the old visitor’s center, before the parks expansion into its present size. It lay past the normal trails and marked the boundary between the casually laid out parkways and a deeper section of the greater preservation. It was a place only frequented by experienced hikers, and was no place for a child. In truth it was not a place for the likes of Allen P. Worrel either, but he had made up his mind and no crackling knees where going to get in his way.
Twilight descended as Allen searched, and the scarlet sky dimmed away and left him squinting in the wane light. An itchy place, the woods where he walked, the air stale. It was not at all like the park trails, where things were kept orderly, this was a scraggly growth of rogue old woods, bent and crooked and which choked away the spaces beneath the boughs. Worries crept into his thoughts; such as his own fate if he got himself lost, or hurt? And what exactly he planned on doing if he found the girl. She may have been only a child but if she did not want to go, Allen did not think he could force her. And if what the diary was not fiction? Even dismissing the nonsensical parts, there would at least be a man in the woods, and which Allen had very little chance of overpowering. Nagging thoughts that would not cease, but he pressed them down and forced himself onward.
Night fell quickly on the forest. Allen had become hopelessly lost. He became aware of a horrendous sound which filled him with dread. Hoping he was just hearing things, but as he went on the sound became undeniable real. a Dissonant droning chant, which was harsh to the ear. No man could make such a sound, Allen concluded, and began recalling all he could about the wildlife that was native to the area, and which might make such a sound; such an unearthly sound, which altered in pitch without warning, and had no pattern. A sound that man was not meant to hear.
He Rested often against the trucks of gnarled trees, when a waft of fresh air fell over him which contrasted sharply with the stale stench all round him. This he followed, like a hound on a scent, his nose pulling in the sweet scent of open air. He came to a rough footpath that Allen would never have found on his own. Following along it, his old legs trembling with equal parts fear, fatigue, and the cold of night, the trees began to spread out, and before long there was a clear corridor, trees standing like columns on either side and arching overhead like a pitched roof. Within the corridor the chilling chant was channeled into almost tangible levels.
Allen was about to call out when the droning chant ceased suddenly. He froze where he stood and strained to listen, expecting at any moment to hear the approach of his own end; what form it would take, he could not say, for nothing would be too unthinkable at this point. The sounds of speech reached him before long, an exchange of words he could not understand. Carefully he found the courage to go onward, seeking an end to the blending features of the labyrinthine forest.
A bend in the path lay ahead, and as Allen reached it, the speaking voices suddenly changed in tone to a more alarming pitch, culminating in a shriek of utter terror that filled the spaces between the trees and seemed to come from everywhere at once. Allen, a sinking feeling in his gut, forgot himself in that moment and leaned forward into an awkward run. He rounded the bend and saw a sort of clearing ahead, he came out from the woods and into a wide glade; a rough meadow clearing surrounded by forest, and near its far end was a hillock with steep grassy sides. And at its foot stood the girl.
Allen came to her, warily expecting attack from any angle, at any moment, and whispered harshly to her; “Hey, its alright now.” He said, but she stood still as a statue, facing the mound. “Listen, we’ve got to leave now, alright?’ Allen softened his tone, thinking she must be in shock. putting a hand gently on her shoulder, he saw to his surprise, that she did not seem afraid.
Following her gaze to the top of the mound, Allen could not discern what exactly she was so enamored with. The long grass grew unkempt upon the slope, swaying in the breeze, and Allen squinted hard to see, until he realized, there was no wind in the glade. Taking in a larger view, cocking his head back in mounting horror, Allen saw the hillock itself was shifting as a singular mass, rotating clockwise with unseen means of locomotion. Frozen with fear, Allen could not even cry out when the semblance of what he could only call a head appeared. Long it was, with a horse-like shape. It protruded out from the mound like a turtle from its shell, a hundred little gleams clad the face, and only the combined shifting of them in different directional reflections of light revealed them to be eyes; spider-like eyes, without any pattern of placement. Two great curling horns sat atop the head except that, they were not horns really, for they began to writhe and twitch, canting froward and outward like thick antennae, sniffing curiously. For once in his long life, Allen was glad of his poor eyesight, for he could not bear the thought of seeing this thing clearly, in full light, the unknown holding some comfort for him in the presence of something impossible to comprehend.
The girl stirred, and turned to regard him at last. Allen began to instinctively pull her away from the moving mass. “Come back this way, but slowly child, very slowly.” He managed to say. But the girl planted her feet and looked at him curiously.
“You’re the guide from the park.” she asked calmly, “Why are you here?”
Allen looked at her in disbelief. How could she be thinking of that now? He wondered. The girl returned to her vigil and said quietly, as if to herself: “To help me, I suppose. No matter, I’m alright now. Thank you.”
Suddenly there came a rumbling deep underfoot, the nightmarish head of the living mound craned upwards, revealing an abyssal blackness within its earthen-shell, the suggestion of writhing movement within, and expelled, by means unknown, a lump of something onto the meadow between them. Allen screamed as the shape of a sundered corpse lay in front of him and the girl.
It was smartly dressed in a dark charcoal suit, and had the shape of a tall man, save for being bent and broken. The head was twisted all the way around, and Allen took a moment to recognize the familiar face as detective Marsh. There was something different though; his dislocated jaw opened wide, and revealed a mouth full of needle sharp teeth, and extending back farther than any grin could bear.
“The Darkling man.” Said the girl, seeing the horrified confusion on Allen’s face. “He was no man at all though. I don’t know what he was. But he wanted something terrible from me. And from him.” She gestured towards the mound; The mound which beheld them both silently with a hundred gleaming eyes.
“The Watcher in the Wood——that’s what the Darkling man called him. Or else—I think its a “him”. He’s got a deep singing voice at least.” Said the girl, as if describing a new pet she’d found. “But the Watcher isn’t what the Darkling man thought.” She starred up at it again, with a look of curious adoration.
“What then?” Allen managed.
“I don’t know either.” Said the girl, “but when he pushed me up to the hill, and shouted something about “a virgin for the vaults”, the Watcher started to sing. I though I was going to die. But he—the Watcher, got angry at the Darkling man,” she looked down at the detective, “and, there was a moment between them both, and I saw the Darkling man start to shiver. He got really afraid, and I started to feel a pressure in my head, it hurt pretty bad but, it was a good hurt, like pulling out a thorn. Then I felt——well, I felt myself again. And its been so long since I felt like myself.”
The girl took hold of Allen’s hand and stood beside him, as the great living mound shifted once again, tucking back into its hollow and with a rumbling, settled into the stillness of inanimacy.