Things can have changed when you return home. Screams!!! 1/20/2020
| Not The Same Place
It seemed odd to me, the fact that Jodie and I had stayed away for so long. It was more than five years ago that we had packed our bags and headed off to our new lives in the big city.
I could still remember Carol's expression as she waved us goodbye. She looked at us as though we were deserting her, but it was not our fault that we had aspirations. They were different for Jodie wanted to study medicine while I was far more drawn to the Arts. In spite of the differences we got into the same college, while Carol failed to make the grade.
Should we have given up our dreams? We couldn't, could we. For the first year we stayed in touch, but after that Carol stopped replying to our texts. Our calls went unanswered, and eventually we made the decision to leave her alone. If she wanted to talk, she could contact us. She never did.
But now we were heading home. Not to stay, but we'd be there for a week or two. Jodie and I had decided to leave the length vague. If it went badly, we'd head off after a day or two. On the other hand, if things went better than we imagined we could stretch it out longer. It was our holiday, after all.
The town didn't seem to have changed much. There were a few houses that had not been there before; some of the shops had changed hands. We recognized a few of the townsfolk; they looked a bit older, of course, just as we did, but we still could put a lot of names to faces.
"Should we call on her now, or leave it a day or so?" Jodie asked.
I was inclining towards waiting at least until the following day when the decision was made for us. Carol walked towards us, a smile on her mouth that did not quite reach her eyes. "Hello there, strangers," she said, stand awkwardly before us.
"Hey, Carol," I said. "We were just on our way to see you," I lied.
"I guess for once I beat you two then," she said. "D'ya want to come home, catch up a bit?"
I would have rather waited a while and from the glance Jodie sent my way I was certain she felt the same. On the other hand, the invitation had been made; we couldn't really say no. We fell into step beside her, and it was almost like old times as the three of us walked through the town.
The last five years did not seem to have treated Carol well. She was so thin that she looked gaunt and dark circles smudged her face beneath her eyes. There was a brittleness to her that had not been there when we left; but maybe it was because she was not sure how to treat us. We had gone off and left her, after all.
Carol's house was on the far side of town, beside a large woods where we had spent many childhood hours. The house looked a bit neglected; it certainly was not the pristine place that I remembered.
"It's just me there now," Carol said. "Mom and Dad have both passed away. I do my best but... "
"I'm so sorry," said Jodie. "When? Why didn't you tell us?"
"Thanks, but it was four years ago now. And I didn't call because... what was the point? You were busy leading your own lives."
"Still," I put in, "we'd have come back to support you."
Carol nodded but did not reply.
While she busied herself making drinks and snacks, I looked out of the window at the woods. They certainly seemed to have flourished in our absence. I remembered the place as being full of quite spindly trees; it had never seemed really dark in there. Now, the trees were taller, denser; their branches seemed to keep out almost all sunlight even though it was a bright day. The woods reached right up to Carol's garden; it hadn't been like that before.
"Hey, do you remember how we used to play in there?"
"Boy, do I," Jodie stood beside me.
"That was a long time ago," Carol said, joining us. "Things change, places change. It's best to stay away from there now."
We waited for her to say more but she changed the subject, steering it away from home, the woods and her life, to concentrate instead on ours. It made me uncomfortable but I could hardly refuse to tell her anything.
'It's Carol,' I had to remind myself. 'One of your best friends.' In spite of that I was still relieved when we left.
Jodie and I called in on our parents, then went to our old local pub. It was fun to spend a while recognizing those that had stayed or had returned before us. We kept a seat for Carol, sure that she would turn up, but there was no sign of her.
Maybe we drunk a bit more than we should have done; it was hard to say no when people from the past popped across the room to catch up. Even so, we should have been sober enough to know where we were going. The woods stretched out in front of us giving us the choice of turning around and walking all the way through town, or taking a short cut through the trees. We didn't even have to go very deeply inside the woods; the path was bound to be there.
"What do you think?" I looked at Jodie's footwear, not really suited for rambling in the woods.
"We'll go for it," she said decisively. "Doesn't matter if these get a bit dirty, and the path, it won't be so bad."
We were quite happy when we started off through the trees, but Carol had been right; the woods had changed. There was no sign of the footpath, and it took mere minutes for us to get disorientated. "Which way?" Jodie turned to the left and the right. We could not even see the way we had entered the woods so couldn't change our minds.
We didn't mean to get separated, but that's what happened. One moment Jodie was walking beside me, the next she had gone. I called out to her, "Jodie. Where are you?" The trees seemed to muffle my voice, making it not much louder than a whisper.
As that thought made its way into my mind, I heard them, the whispers. They were indistinct; I could not make out a single word. All the same, they were there, all around me. When I caught sight of a clearing, I didn't hesitate but made my way towards it as fast as I could.
This place had not been there before, I was sure. Large slabs of rock had been arranged in the center of the space, splashed with something... I stepped forward to get a closer look, bent down... Was it blood?
"I told you not to enter the woods." Carol spoke beside me. I would not have recognised her if she had not talked, for she was covered by a black robe with a large hood, and she was not alone.
There were five more, all dressed in those strange robes; all with their identities obscured. One of them held a large dagger, one that dripped blood from its sharp tip.
I'm sure I saw Carol shake her head sadly, and maybe it's wishful thinking that she turned away. Hands grabbed me, forced me down on my knees. I begged and I begged, but my words clearly fell on deaf ears as the last thing I see is the flash of a blade in the moonlight.