PRW Runner-Up Tour: When You Go into the Woods Tonight by Sam Hardy
The news could be heard from across the village; reports of a wolf roaming the woods close by – too close – and, finally, a body had been found. It was only a matter of time, you tell me from the window. I shudder, recalling what I had seen just this morning – dark, curly hair and deathly pale skin, all matted in still-dripping blood. I hadn’t been able to see her face as they carried her into the village, it hung too low from her body, barely connected; the animal had ripped her throat out. I turned away after that, ran into the house you and I owned, bolted the door shut and hid in the corner of the room.
I haven’t moved since.
But you, Gretchen, you insist on standing by the window, hoping to hear even a little bit of news about the dead girl. I tell you not to, that it wasn’t safe, but you don’t believe that and, honestly, I don’t want to either. Last night had been the fifth month since the wolf had started coming and not once had it been near our home; it could, we are the closest, right along the edge of the woods, but it doesn’t. We have that to be thankful for. You don’t go outside, especially at night – I am thankful for that, too.
“That poor girl, Harry,” you murmur sadly, your hand on your heart.
That poor girl indeed. And I am sad for her and her family, of course I am, but with her dark, curly hair and thin frame, she reminds me too much of you for me to ignore. I hate it and I can only be grateful that you are alive. I nod when you look at me, so you will never know of my selfishness.
“That could have been you,” you whisper, choking on a sob.
I absently scratch at my right side, just under my ribs. Six months ago, before this horrible business started so close to home, I had been hunting for game in the woods. I have known the woods ever since our father had brought us into it as children. I could successfully navigate myself through the trees and be home in time for supper. That was what I should have done that day, but something in the woods had the animals scattered and in hiding, and I, too determined to bring you something, stayed until I lost the sun. Defeated, I turned back. And that was when it came – in the daylight it was easy to know the way, but in the dark I had taken a wrong turn and I found myself staring at the wolf. Terrified, I ran, but I was no match for the beast and it dragged me down. I was fortunate to still have my knife and I dug it into the animal’s side just as it bit into my already bloody skin. We both howled as pain coursed through us, and then it took off into the forest.
It left me with horrible scars, still jagged and red, but at least I still have my life. Unlike the girl.
Knowing where my thoughts have gone, you smile at me sympathetically and come to sit in front of me. “Oh, Harry. It’ll go away soon, I promise. It’ll be nothing more than a distant memory.”
I want to believe you; it would make my life so much easier. But for that to happen, the nightmares have to stop, too. And that does not seem likely; they only get worse, more bloody, more frightening. Sometimes the wolf comes after me in my dreams. Sometimes it goes after wildlife, tearing them to shreds. Last night, it came after you. It cut you into ribbons with its sharp, razor-like claws while you begged it to stop, screamed my name, and then it bit into your throat with its teeth and you finally stopped, finally succumbed to death.
When I woke, I was so happy to see you standing over me that I sobbed.
I often wondered if I was sleepwalking after a month or so of nightmares. They seem so vivid, so real. How else can you explain the blood stains on my chin or that I find myself outside and nude when I know for a fact that I go to bed in my nightclothes?
I asked you to watch over me last night; to follow me in anything happened. You did, and apart from the sleepwalking, nothing happened, you said. You sounded so sure.
So, why can’t I believe you?
Hunger. Hunger and bloodshed. Animal instincts and urges.
They consume me, cut off everything else. What was I doing before? I can’t remember. I hear cautious footsteps moving away from me, far away, and a heartbeat banging against a human chest. Blood is running wild in her body, begging me to take it. Yes, definitely female. I chase her down, knowing exactly where to find her.
Hunger; I need it. I need her. I need her now.
She’s running away, getting closer and closer to the edge. Does she think that I will not follow? That she is safe when not in the trees? She is foolish. And I am hungry. I catch up to her; drag her down. She screams and begs as I claw at her skin, let the blood run free. Soon there is hardly any skin left. But she keeps on scream, her voice hoarse and faint. And then she screams… my name.
There’s no hesitation; it means nothing to me. I lean forward and bite, tearing at her throat. She stops screaming.
I jump up, sunlight warming my body and keeping the shivers at bay. You watch over me, a blanket already covering what needs to be covered. You look concerned, almost scared for me, but when I ask what happened you assure me that all I did was sleepwalk. I don’t believe you, but my mind is still on my latest nightmare and I’m too happy that you are alive to care if you are lying to me. At least right now.
Then I hear it; the cries of women as they look in horror; the soft words of men as they carry the dead girl into the village. I see her dark, curly hair and her deathly pale skin, but no face – her head is almost off. I gasp, terrified of what I see, and I run into the house. When you are inside with me, I bolt the door shut and I hide in the corner. I don’t move at all.
And the worst part is that I have the strangest sense of déjà vu.
You watch from the window, hoping to hear any news about the girl, and I tell you to stop, but you don’t because you believe that it is safe. The sun is out and the wolf never comes here.
Does she think that I will not follow?
I whimper; I only want to believe you.
You move to sit in front of me and tell me that the nightmares will soon go away, soon become a distant memory. You tell me this every day, but they only get stronger. Don’t you see that? Don’t you understand that I’m cursed now, Gretchen?
Everything’s quiet now, too quiet. I don’t like it. How many hours has it been since I saw the dead girl? How long do I have left before sleep takes me and nightmares plague me? You pace up and down the small room while I huddle in the corner, occasionally looking out of the window, though you mostly watch me, try to sooth me fears. I can’t remember when I stopped listening to you.
When you mutter something about the sun setting, I finally look up from the floor and follow your gaze to the window. The sun is low on the horizon, not quite ready to set but it will soon enough. I bite my lips until blood drips from my chin. I am okay.
“Do you want me to watch over you again, Harry? Do you want me to follow you?” I nod slowly, once, and you smile reassuringly. “I’ll always be here for you, Harry. I’ll follow you anywhere, forever. You know that.”
I do know that. When we were children, lost in the woods when our father didn’t come back, it was you who followed me. You will do it again, and you will do it willingly.
“When you go into the woods tonight,” I tell you gently, almost dangerously. You question me patiently, making no move to get an answer.
I don’t finish what I was going to say. Noise comes from outside and, curious, you follow it, leaving me alone in the house. I jump up, calling your name, but you don’t come back. I try to leave, but I can’t pass the front door. I’m stuck; it’s like an invisible barrier is keeping me inside. Witchcraft.
A figure makes their way over to me, becoming clearer and clearer as she gets closer. She stops right at the door, barely leaving any space between us. Her smile is forced and polite; her close proximity is only because I cannot hurt her. I see it in her eyes; why would I hurt her?
“Are you ready, Harry?” she asks me.
Ready for what? “What have you done here? Where is my sister?”
She does not look surprised by my questions; she looks tired, as though she has explained something to me many times. Yet she is a stranger to me, I am sure of it. My tormentor steps back, her white uniform a stark contrast to the darkness that surrounds her. How is that possible? The sun has not set yet.
“Where are you, Harry?”
“My home,” I answer immediately.
She shakes her head. “Look again.”
So, I do. Slowly and without much warning, the room around me begins to change; it shimmers at first, then the illusion breaks and instead of my living area, which had been bare but warm thanks to the fireplace, is a square, brick room, empty except for a tattered bed. There is one window behind me, showing the setting sun. The woman in white is no longer on the other side of my front door, but behind thick metal bars meant to keep things in.
This is a prison.
That cannot be possible; this is wrong, so wrong. I shouldn’t be here. These witches in their uniforms have tricked me, lured me like a child and a candy house… only I cannot remember that.
I press myself against the bars, shocked when they burn me.
“Silver,” she says as an explanation. That confuses me more.
“Where is my sister?” I demand to know. Where are you, Gretchen? What have they done to you? “I was talking to her just moments ago.”
“No, you weren’t, Harry,” she tells me gently. “You were talking to yourself again. You always are.”
“That’s not true!” I yell. “Gretchen!”
“I’m here, Harry,” you tell me. I spin around and find you leaning against the wall, smiling contentedly. “I’m always here.”
“I know,” I reply.
“No one is there, Harry,” the witch tries to trick me again.
“Shut up!” I scream at her. “And let me out!”
“You know we cannot do that, you know why you are here,” she says. “We’ve told you before.”
I hear whispers in my head, trying to tell me things I can’t understand. “No.”
“Your sister is dead, killed by a wolf.”
“No! A wolf killed a girl; my sister was with me when it happened.”
“Your sister was the girl and you were the wolf.”
“NO!” I push my hands over my ears to shut out the whispers, the nightmares, of you screaming my name… begging me to stop. “NO!”
It’s not true. I am not the wolf and you are not dead. You are with me right now.
“I’m right here, Harry.”
“When you were bitten by a wolf, it infected you, made you like him,” the witch lies. “You have the lycanthrope disease and you killed your sister.”
“Remember, Harry; what did the girl look like?”
I try hard not to, but the memories come back anyway; I see her dark, curly hair and her thin frame, reminding me too much of you, Gretchen. I remember not being able to see her face because it hung too low, after the wolf had ripped out her throat… with its teeth.
It sunk its sharp teeth into her skin and fed… just like in my nightmare. My nightmare of you.
“Don’t listen to her, Harry. She’s tricking you,” you promise me. And I want to believe you, but you lie to me so much these days.
“Come back to the real world, Harry,” I hear the witch say. “The sun is setting, you need to prepare.”
She holds out a vial, tells me that I need to drink it. I back away. “You will poison me.”
“It will help you.”
“LIES!” I shout. “All of you, all you do is lie!”
“If you do not drink it, you will become too dangerous,” she pleads with me. “You might get out, and then you will kill another innocent. Like your sister. You will not be able to stop it.”
“She is not dead!” You are not dead.
“I’m right here, Harry.”
I ignore the burn that comes when I grasp the bars of my cage, pulling myself as close as I can be to the witch. She jumps back in fear; her gaze goes to the window, to the setting sun, and I know that it is too late to drink her poison. I feel my body go hungry, my urge to feed and kill so apparent I fear myself for a moment. It disappears as the sun does. You stand beside me, a smile on your face as you tell me that you won’t leave me. Your dark, curly hair frames your face, your throat is red – blood.
Blood and hunger and the frantic beat of her heart; I need it.
The witch lets a tear fall, frozen, too scared to move.
“When you go into the woods tonight,” I whisper, ready to rip into her skin. I see claws grow from my hands and my back goes crooked when bones break and change. She runs away and I scream at her.
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