Strange things can happen when you stray from the path. Short story.
I shouldn’t have drifted away from the group, but I had my friend with me and that made me brave. The coach had stopped in a layby just off the forest road. We were still an hour or two away from the castle so our teacher said we could get out and stretch our legs for half an hour.
The other girls stayed near the coach where there were some rocks to sit on, but I walked down to the trees, where a rough fence of untreated logs marked the car park’s boundary. I preferred being away from them because they thought I was strange when I talked to Elena. It wasn’t my fault they couldn’t see her, or that I preferred her company. When she had been alive, I couldn’t always trust her but after she died she was always truthful, which is more than I can say for the living.
“Don’t wander too far,” called Miss Shirley, “we’ve only got thirty minutes here and then we’re off again.”
Elena rolled her eyes and I giggled. Miss Shirley was one of the wettest teachers ever — nobody listened to her and she had a hard job instilling any kind of discipline. One time, back at school, a group of year tens had locked her in the stationery cupboard and only let her out when she started to cry. She was so embarrassed that nobody even got punished for it.
We sat half-concealed behind a clump of ferns. When Miss Shirley turned her head to check up on us, I waved reassuringly. She returned the wave then looked away. “She’ll forget about us now,” I said. “Good. We can get some peace.” Elena smiled and stretched out on the grass. I breathed in the mulchy woodland air and lay back with her, admiring the pines and rowan rising above us tall and dark against the sky, feeling a dewy dampness soaking into my back but caring neither about that nor about the twigs and leaf-mould that were working their way into my hair.
Just as my eyelids were growing heavy and trying to close, a sudden movement caught my attention. I sat up and said, “What was that? A fox?” Something darted through the undergrowth about fifty feet away. As if it could feel my eyes on it, the creature stopped for a moment and stared at me with shining black eyes and a flash of sharp teeth. It wasn’t a fox, but before I could decide what it actually was, it shot off into the shadows, spooked by the sounds of something larger. A man appeared from behind a tree, on the other side of the fence.
“Did you see that?” I asked the man, “What was it?”
“Don’t you worry about him,” he said, “He won’t bother you none. Now, tell me, how would you like to see the Fairy Wayhouse? It’s a wondrous sight.”
Elena and I exchanged glances. She appeared doubtful, and everyone knows you don’t go off into the woods with strange men. But this one didn’t seem threatening. He was delicately-built and simply dressed, in a rather old fashioned waistcoat and trousers that blended in with the wildlife around him.
“What’s a… Fairy Wayhouse?” I asked.
He smiled a wide grin, with no hint of hidden intent and chuckled, “You’ll have to see it for yourselves, girls. That’s all I can tell you. It’s not far. They won’t even notice you’ve gone, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
I could believe that, and his offer certainly sounded more tempting than the leftover bit of history that was our current destination. “OK,” I said. “Where is it?”
“Just follow me.”
“Come on,” I said to Elena, who was hanging back. “Don’t be boring. Let’s go before anyone sees what we’re up to.”
Reluctantly, she followed me. We had to climb over the log fence and I scraped my leg on the coarse bark. I winced and paused to lick my finger and smear the blood about a bit until it dried. “See,” I said to Elena, still annoyed by her lack of adventure, “this is the sort of thing you don’t have to worry about.” She only gazed at me, unsmiling. “No need to lose your sense of fun, just because you’re dead. Make the most of it, I say.”
I ran to catch up with the man, who hadn’t waited for us. After about fifteen minutes of weaving through brambles and bushes, following no obvious path, it felt as if we had gone so deep into the woods that I couldn’t even imagine where we had originally come from. “Is it much further?” I panted, struggling to keep up with his long strides over uneven ground.
“Nearly there,” he replied, without slowing his pace.
The tightly tangled mess of forest opened out into a grassy clearing surrounded by ancient oaks. Their bark was gnarled into shapes that, as I walked past them, seemed to form faces that I could only see from the corner of my eye, but whenever I looked directly at one, it was just a random pattern of shadows and highlights. The feeling of being watched by something unseeable was making me feel uneasy, and I asked Elena if she could see the faces in the trees. She nodded, her lips tight and her eyes focussed on the path ahead. A wonderful thing about Elena was the way she never said ‘I told you so’, even when it was clear that I should have listened to her misgivings in the first place.
At the other end of the clearing, a narrow path snaked down through a low canopy of silver birch. Two children stood on the slope, huddled together in conversation. On drawing closer I saw their tired, leathery faces and realised they weren’t children at all. They glared at me as we passed and muttered to each other, laughing nastily.
I hurried past them, eyes fixed to the ground. I wanted to turn back, to run away, but something told me that would be a very bad idea; I had to follow this to the end.
I struggled to keep sight of the man as the trail grew more overgrown with every step; brambles grabbed at my ankles and holly scratched my face. Just when it seemed that our route would become impossible, we turned a corner and there, at the edge of a cobbled road stood a white building. It was the largest dolls’ house I’ve ever seen, maybe twice as tall as me and about thirty feet wide. A couple of other people were peering into the house. Hundreds of glowing windows revealed old-fashioned tableaux of life. Tiny manikins re-enacted moments in exquisite detail — captured eternally in the act of pouring tea; reading a fingernail-sized copy of Great Expectations in bed or eating dinner with knives and forks like embroidery pins.
The miniature scenes were beautiful but with each one I saw, a cold feeling gripped my insides more tightly. The last window I looked through showed a room decorated for Christmas, including a tree sparkling with candles and a heap of presents scattered beneath it. A family stood around their piano, singing carols — I could just make out the words Silent Night on the sheet paper. The figures’ mouths hung open wide as if emitting voiceless screams; their bead eyes stared soulessly ahead, forever. I shivered and walked faster, wanting to get away from the dolls’ house without seeing into any more of the windows.
The person we had been following was gone. Instead, standing in front of us and blocking the path, there was a tall man with pale skin and dark hair, wearing a black suit and a white cravat. “Welcome to the Wayhouse,” he smiled. “Here is your guide.” He handed me a sheet of parchment covered with inked illustrations and spidery text.
I took the guide and said, “Do we… do we have to go in?”
“Of course not — you are free to leave if you wish,” he replied, and I was filled with relief. “But if you spurn our hospitality on this occasion, I must warn you that we will remove our welcome to you.”
“Your welcome?” I asked.
“You may not have realised, but you travel freely in this land with our open invitation. If we revoke that, you might find things… less welcoming.”
I had the impression that he didn’t mean just this place, but the whole country. I thought of the girls sitting by the coach and a picture came into my mind; that fast thing with sharp teeth appearing from the woods and tearing into my classmates in a blurred frenzy. “We should go in,” whispered Elena.
“And you should listen to your friend,” said the man. “She may be of help to you when you are in the Wayhouse.”
“You can see her?” I said, but even as I showed my surprise, I remembered that the man who brought us to the house had referred to us as “girls”.
“Of course I can,” he frowned at me. “The dead travel as freely here as anyone else.”
A young man wandered over to us from where he had been examining the windows of the Wayhouse. He was probably eighteen or nineteen with wild curls and a t-shirt showing a picture of a cutesy skull and crossbones. With a wide, thoughtless grin, he said to me, “Isn’t this great? Come on, you going in?”
“It’s not great,” I said, trying to warn him with my eyes that he needed to be careful.
“How can you say that? Have you ever seen anything like this before? It’s amazing!” He bounded off towards the entrance.
“You see,” said the tall man, “Your dead friend is not the only thing you perceive more clearly.. Be grateful that you see what others may be oblivious to, and listen to your fear.”
However little we wanted to enter the house, we had to go in. I pushed open the gate of the Wayhouse and climbed the steps. A plump woman with wild black ringlets ushered us over the threshold and into the house. It was a strange sensation being inside somewhere so small. I felt as if I was being crushed although nothing was touching me and I could move without crouching or pulling in my limbs. When I looked from the lobby to the grand hallway beyond, it seemed as if I would never be able to get through the doorway but, when I walked through it, there was no problem.
The marble-floored hall had an ornate coved ceiling that seemed to be so close I could reach out to stroke it and yet, simultaneously, it appeared to be about fifteen feet above my head. The walls were papered in a duck-egg and cream stripe that shimmered in the light from many branched candelabra and an open fire. On either side of the fireplace, twin alcoves displayed jade statues of winged serpents. At the end of the room two oak doors faced each other from opposite walls. A boy dressed in ragged clothes stood in front of the left-hand door. “‘Allo miss,” he said with a cheeky grin, “Step this way.” He held open the door.
I was about to walk through the door but then thought I wonder what that guide says? I hadn’t really looked at it properly since being given it, so I unfolded it and started reading.
“Doncha bother with that miss,” said the boy, “‘s’a loada rubbish. All the intrestin’ stuff’s through this door — I’ll tell yer that fer nothin’.”
I ignored him and continued scanning the guide. It was difficult to read, being made of rough age-yellowed parchment covered in tiny scrawled handwriting that looped up and down and round, occasionally disappearing into the document’s creases and cracks. Elena pointed to one of the pictures. It was so small, I’d hardly noticed it. In an unevenly drawn square, tucked up in a corner, was the sketchy figure of a boy. Glancing up and back down at the paper, I could see it depicted the person standing in front of me — same striped scarf, same tattered trousers, same impish smirk. The caption under the illustration simply read “Master Alan. Although he may not take your blood, he always lies.”
I stepped back from the boy. “Oh, what now?” he said, “Don’t take no notice of that, miss.”
“Thanks,” I said, “But we’re going to go this way,” and I took another step back, towards the right-hand door.
The smile fell from his face and his eyes became flat and dark. He hissed, “Stupid bitch,” but made no move towards me. I turned and hurried through the doorway into a narrow corridor with staircases at each end, going right again and running halfway up the stairs without even thinking, just wanting to get away from Master Alan and out of the house. He didn’t follow.
Sitting on a pale stone step, I looked again at the parchment. There was a diagram that might have been a map and, assuming that it was, I found our current position and traced a route with my finger to the exit. It seemed fairly straightforward. “Come on,” I said. “If we just keep going and don’t stop, don’t talk to anyone, don’t take anything from anyone, we’ll be out of here soon.”
So we continued up the stairs and ran along the corridor, hand in hand, eyes straight ahead and ignoring every open door, every flickering shadow or whispered entreaty. Then down more stairs, round a twisting series of corners, passing intriguing paintings and twisted sculptures without stopping once to look more closely. But when we found ourselves at the end of a corridor that forked in three directions, I had to stop and check the map again. “I think… I think we’re here,” I said, “and I think… we need to take the right hand corridor.” I stared down the long, doorless hallway. No other person was in sight and the house had darkened and fallen silent.
Ahead, a pale light came from the only open door on the long corridor. As we walked past it, I glanced into the room. The room was lined with bookshelves, lit with candles and so welcoming. Elena squeezed my hand tightly. The curly-haired young man was standing with his back to us, reaching up to take a book from the shelf. “Hey,” I called, “Are you OK?”
He didn’t answer and I took a step inside the room, shaking off Elena’s cold grip. A woman in an emerald silk dress rose from a chair. “Good afternoon,” she said. “Welcome to the library. What would you like to know?” I was still trying to get the young man’s attention but the woman was blocking my view of the shelves. “Anything,” she continued, “Anything you want to know… is here.” There were many things I wanted to know. How to make my dreams come true… why my mother had left… what had really happened to Elena… I followed the woman and sat down in the armchair she gestured towards. She handed me a leather-bound volume. “All the answers are in here,” she said. I leaned back into the upholstery and opened the book.
A cry of despair caught my attention. I looked up, although it was difficult to take my eyes away from the pages. Elena was shaking her head with silent tears running down her face. Behind her the young man with curly hair was still reaching up to the shelves, unmoving. I tried to get up but I couldn’t move.
“No,” said Elena, “No, no, no”. She moved towards me, faster than I’d ever seen her, and pulled me from the chair with a surge of energy that poured through me like an electric current made from ice.
said the woman. “It’s not that simple, my dears. You, the dead one. You want to release your foolish friend?”
“Very well. Take her place.”
I shook my head but Elena poured past me, through me, and appeared in the chair. She opened the book. “Goodbye,” she whispered with a sad smile, and started reading. She did not look up again.
“She has made her choice,” said the woman. “And now it’s time for you to leave.” She pushed me and I stumbled out of the door and found myself, not in the corridor where we had been before, but standing outside the Wayhouse.
Through the window I could see a miniature library, perfect in every detail. A doll with curly hair and its back to me was taking down a book from the shelves. Another sat in a wingback armchair, a book open on her lap. The words were too tiny for me to read them. I touched the glass. “Goodbye,” I said.
“Enjoy your visit?” said the tall man who’d been our guide.
“Not really,” I replied. He laughed.
“Come back any time,” he said, “Here’s something to remember us by.” He handed me a gold coin. On one side was a relief image of the Wayhouse. On the other, the message ‘I survived the Fairy Wayhouse!’. I slipped it into my pocket.
“You’d better get going,” he said. “Don’t want to miss that coach.”
I walked back through the woods alone. I saw nobody, not even faces in whorls of bark. When I got back to the car park, it was like I’d hardly been away, apart from there was now a worried -looking couple showing everyone a picture on their phone of a young man with curly hair and asking if anyone had seen their son. I turned the coin in my pocket between my fingers and said nothing. I got back on the coach alone.