About This Tale
Full version of the horrifying tale of monsters and moonlight, and the girl within their midst. This version is presented as it was intended to be, rather than split into two parts…. Immerse yourself in the macabre and gruesome world of Eloise….
Eloise climbs out of a taxi and begins the long walk up a deserted country lane. Completely alone, in the black of night. The wind blows and the clouds shift, allowing the pale moonlight to guide her way.
She’s no more than twenty years of age, and classically beautiful; even dressed in her cheap summer skirt and inadvisably flimsy shirt. She shivers as she walks and immediately regrets the fact that she doesn’t own a coat.
Half a mile up the road she passes a gate, and finally arrives at a luxurious old farm house. Built from old bricks, huge wooden door, slate roof with stone chimney. No smoke.
She knocks on the door and waits. Nothing.
After a few moments, she tries the handle and it creaks eerily open to reveal yet more darkness beyond. She peers inside. Creepy. Dark. Silent.
She pulls out her phone and hurriedly types out a text message – “Where are you?” Hits ‘Send’. Now she anxiously waits, her eyes darting from the dark indoors, to her phone screen, to the brightness of the moon in the dark sky. She hears the shriek of some hunting bird, and the rustle of the tress in the breeze. She nervously flashes back to her phone, unsure.
Finally, she looks back at the door. She tentatively steps inside and shouts “Anybody here?”
No answer. She creeps further in and before she knows it she is knocking over a lamp from a small table in the hallway. She fumbles it back into place and moves on to a large living room which is filled only with the light of the nearly full moon outside the gloriously large window.
Every step becomes as creepy and dark as the last, passing through two or three large rooms until, out of the blue, she jumps; her phone beeps. She nearly throws it across the room, receiving the fright of her life from the silence-piercing beep-beep-beep. She takes a deep breath and reads the text which has arrived – “We’re at the party. U?”
She sighs and continues walking through the house, tentatively opening another large door, only to be greeted with a CRASH! The sound of glass shattering on the floor should put her off, but she continues to push the door further open. Across the room is a boy in his twenties, wearing only a pair of ridiculous shorts. He is standing in a large modern kitchen, and has dropped a bottle of beer in surprise. The pair of them exchange a short shriek of shock at the sight of each other – then laugh.
“You’re late!” he shouts at her, and she suddenly realises there’s music pumping in from outside somewhere. She looks out of the double-glass doors at the other side of the room and sees the party in full flow.
“Yeah. Wasn’t sure how to get here”, she responds, but the boy has already pulled another beer from the sink, which is full to the brim with ice, and is on his way out of the doors into the garden.
Eloise takes a moment to compose herself, and briefly thinks about cleaning up the mess of glass and beer on the floor. She decides against it and wanders outside to join the party rabble in the back.
Her eye line flows around the group, taking in the other guests. There are maybe fifteen or twenty people gathered around, barely filling the spacious garden. It seems to be full of the typical American jock-types or, worse again, English kids trying to look like American jock-types. Arseholes, all.
The patio by the doors hosts a small barbeque grill, and a couple of people mill around it. She isn’t hungry for food, so saunters by. Further down there is a hot tub, and then the garden thins into a narrow line of grass with a stone pathway down the centre.
On one side of the path, taking up most of the grass is a small make-shift tent, covering a table full of beers and bottles of god-knows-what types of booze. The opposite side has a long white table, littered with empty beer pong cups, half eaten burger buns and an assortment of cans, bottles, and ketchups.
Most of the throng of people stand around, chatting and laughing. All drinking and all loving life. A smaller group of mostly girls are stood by the tent, warily eyeing the more raucous, all male, hot tub crowd.
The hot tubbers are playing a drinking game. They are loud and crude and not very discreet with their chatter. They stare and shout and discuss the girls as they drink and play and drink some more. The girls try to turn up the music, and shout small-talk to each other, but it’s not very successful in drowning out the obnoxious so-called ‘banter’ flowing from the boys’ mouths’.
One comment is made about how one of the girls doesn’t suit a bikini. Eloise follows the eye lines of the boys and lands on a girl who looks seriously uncomfortable. She’s an average girl – no more, no less. Not Hollywood perfect, but who is? Certainly not any girl that these boys could attain.
The girl can clearly hear every word as they mock her, and she slowly drops her plastic cup into a bin and wanders off behind the small crowd of girls. Out of sight, out of mind. Eloise’s eyes trace back to the boys and picks out the one making the jokes.
He’s scrawny, maybe twenty or twenty-one if he’s lucky. Let’s be polite and say he’s going to need I.D. for a while yet. He has a ridiculous red tartan deer-stalker on his head, and it looks like he’s already been for a dip in the hot tub with it on. The dangling ear-parts are spraying water off in all directions as he throws his head back; laughing at his own jokes. Classy guy.
His friends aren’t much better. She’s met them before, oh so thankfully briefly. Lucas, who she spooked with the beer in the kitchen, is generally an okay kid. The rest, she wondered about. She had heard plenty of tales, and knew to believe only half of what she had heard. But half was still plenty.
Eloise judges all of them on the spot, and wonders why she would come here. She certainly wasn’t one of these people. The things she would do for a boy… Any boy will do.
A noise erupts, and the banter dies out, as the kid in the deer-stalker loses at their overly complicated drinking game. It’s followed by a predictably raucous cheer and a chant. They all say it’s his turn… and he gamely accepts his defeat, pulls something from his pocket, and stalks off to the other end of the garden.
Eloise follows his path towards the drinks table. She grabs a wine in a small red plastic cup, and turns to watch the hot tub idiots again. The game loser (aka Loser Boy) sidles up beside her and speaks; inane nonsense, for the most part. He is trying to be charming and funny, and thinks he’s quite witty. Eloise doesn’t agree but laughs along, playing the happy party girl.
Another cheer erupts from the hot tub gang, and she turns to watch. Loser Boy thinks he is being subtle when he uses this convenient distraction to drop something into her drink. He joins her in giving full attention to the rabble and laughs, beaming at the childish antics his friends are practising. She eyes him warily and laughs along. He gives her a look like the weakest lion in the pride who has finally stumbled onto an injured prey.
“What do you say we polish off these drinks and get the party started?” he says and she doesn’t feel she can say no. His confidence is renewed and he smiles then downs his beer. She hesitates until he nods at her drink.
“Drink up, sweetheart, and I’ll get you another.”
She reluctantly gulps it down, and his smile grows ever more irritatingly. “HOT TUB!” he shouts, and the boys all join in with his cheer. Eloise lets out a meek laugh, feeling very self-conscious for a moment. She turns to put her cup down on the table, and with her back turned Loser Boy signals to his boys – success.
She walks with him over to the hot tub, attracting some vicious looks from the other girls. The boys are getting into the tub, stripping to their shorts if they aren’t already in them, beers never leaving their hands. Lucas introduces her to them all, at least in a fashion.
“Matty, Joe, John. This is Eloise. She’s the girl I told you about. From the gig.” They eye her up some more, a piece of meat on display. They spout their hello’s and she doesn’t hear them, not really. She spins, or at least feels like she does, drinking it all in.
The boys sit in a circle round the edges of the tub, Loser Boy jumping in last. She never got his name. She can’t remember the other names either. She’s not entirely sure if it matters.
Before she knows it she has an icy cold beer in her hand. One of them asks a question – was it Matty? Maybe.
“Have you got a boyfriend then, Eloise?”
She shakes her head. “No, not at the moment. I came here by myself.”
“How come? You seem a lovely girl, you know?”
Shy now. “Thank you. I don’t know… I never seem to last long with boys. Or they don’t last with me”
They all bristle at that, and the expected torrent of stamina-related jokes flow over her. She puts on a smile, she hopes it’s enough.
They beckon her in.
“No,” she says “no I couldn’t possibly.” They urge her to down her drink and catch up with them; they’ve been here for hours. She’s only just getting warmed up. She flashes her smile again, reluctant and shy. But actually starting to enjoy herself.
The hunter and the prey. She downs the beer in one swift motion. She knows what comes next.
“I suppose I better get up to speed on all fronts now?”
She locks eyes with them each in turn, while slipping out of her skirt. She makes an effort to peel off her top slowly, knowing they will be watching. Her bikini underneath is a bright orange and she sees the look in all of the boys’ eyes.
“She came prepared – girl must be game”, they think and whisper, too loud. She hears. She knows.
She is tipsy, she knows that too. She better stumble as she climbs in. She pulls it off well, losing her footing just a little; enough to let one of the boys reach out a helping hand, which coincidentally brushes her thigh.
The boys don’t budge. No one is willing to give up their position around the edge of the tub. Eloise moves to the centre, standing as the sole focus of attention now. She is passed another beer.
They say down that too.
She straightens up. Makes eye contact.
“No”, she says. She’s done all the work here so far.
“Down yours”, she teases. They laugh. They cheer. They do as she says.
“Get another”, she commands. They follow.
“Now… I want your heads all under the water. Whoever comes up last has to down everyone else’s beer.”
They look at each other, unsure. She gives them her best farm-girl from Iowa smile.
“Unless you’re all pussies?”
They cheer (they love a cheer), then duck under.
Underneath the water is murkier than you’d expect. It bubbles and twists and becomes murkier still; green and ugly.
They emerge to the surface again, but the party is gone.
The hot tub is nowhere to be seen.
They are dripping wet, standing in a field. Five boys in their beach wear, in the dead of night.
They can see nothing around them, other than an over-grown bush which forms a wall, maybe twenty yards away from them. It looks like a maze, and indeed it is so. Eloise stands in the entrance.
“Boys. You know not what you have done. Look around. This is the only way.”
Complete blackness surrounds them, and they take it in again. The entrance to the maze is illuminated by some unseen light. Loser Boy is taking it badly, breathing heavy. His panic is made more obvious by the utter silence of the others. They are speechless, eyes wandering around, unable to lock onto anything as nothing surrounds them. They come back to the maze. To the girl.
Loser Boy looks to the sky.
“Where’s the moon? What the fuck is happening?”
“There are only two things which you need know,” Eloise calmly replies.
“If you find me at the end of the maze, you win. To lose is to die… and to die is to lose.”
The boys stare at each other, dumbfounded. Not a word is spoken. Eloise disappears into the gloomy opening of the maze, and her laugh breezes eerily back to the boys’ waiting ears. In a daze, they walk forwards and the maze looms. There is nothing else, they are compelled to approach.
Loser Boy brings up the rear. “What the fuck did you give us, Matty?” he asks. Matt makes no attempt to respond.
“I’m not sure if this is a trip, man…” Lucas says, reaching out to touch the thorny branches in front of him.
“No, of course not. This happens all the time…” Loser Boy protests. The other boys aren’t listening. They walk on, passing inside the archway which forms the entrance of the maze. Once they are all safely inside, it seems to shift and move and the boys feel that they can’t look directly at it anymore, as if the sheer impossibility of it will blind them if they watch the entrance close at their backs.
The path ahead of them immediately splits into two; Matt, Joe and Lucas all head aimlessly to the left without a word. Loser Boy bumps into the back of John, who has stopped dead in his tracks. “We can’t all guess right,” he says rather glumly. Loser Boy understands – the odds of them all going the same way and making it out are slim. Someone has to take the alternate choice.
“Right it is,” he says, and John gives him a haunting look that simultaneously says ‘We have fucked up big time’ and ‘Is this real? Can’t be, can it?’ They take the right path, with tentative steps.
Some way along the left path, the three intrepid souls are at odds. Joe insists they have doubled back on themselves. Lucas isn’t convinced. They stop, once again, to discuss the matter. Matt wanders off ahead, frustrated with the pair of them. He watches as they frantically gesture to different paths, and try to convince one another that they remember where they have been. It all looks the same, he thinks. You could get stuck in here for years.
“I suggest we make a run for it,” he ventures.
The pair look at him as if he is their child, and they have pulled over to consult a map at some dusty roadside diner.
“If we run we waste less time traipsing back along a path when we hit a dead end. We double the amount of distance we can cover.”
“Oh fuck off, Mr Athlete,” Joe angrily responds. Lucas sighs and stands back, expecting a full blown rant. It doesn’t come. Joe just stares at Matt, and Matt at Joe.
“Fuck this,” Matt finally says, and off he goes. Sprinting into the darkness ahead, he leaves his friends behind, assuming he will reach the end and lord it over them all later. Free from their shackles he is out of sight within seconds.
Joe turns back to his friend. “I’m happy to sit this one out now. Let him find the end, he can come back for us,” he says. He slumps to the ground in the middle of the path. Lucas urges him back to his feet. “We’ve barely been in the maze thirty minutes,” he tells him. “Get off the floor and help me find a way out of this shit”.
Joe reluctantly offers his hand up to Lucas, and he helps pull him back to his feet. “Where are we man….?” Joe offers. Lucas cannot answer. He nods to the path in front. “Let’s just find the way,” he smiles and moves along.
They turn several corners in quick succession, with only dense, dark-green bush and thorns in front of their faces. They walk for five minutes, maybe ten. After another thirty minutes they are no further forward. They hit dead end after dead end and double-back more and more often, frustration taking hold.
“What was that?” asks Lucas. Joe shrugs. He didn’t hear a thing.
There it was again. Lucas keeps quiet this time, wondering if he was slipping even more into some kind of coma or maybe his hallucination was just getting the better of him? Maybe that’s the knock of some perturbed doctor, trying to get through to him back in the real world. He rolls with the thought and thinks about how he might actually be in a warm hospital bed or, more likely, slumped in a corner somewhere, overdosing on whatever godforsaken junk Matt had brought to the party earlier. Coma or overdose. These were the happy alternatives to his current situation.
This time it snaps him out of his daydream. That was real. That was here. It was undeniable. But where was it?
“Joe, wait a minute. There’s something…”
Joe is already off and around the next turn. Lucas reaches the same turn and looks left but Joe has disappeared into the darkness. Knock knock. He looks to the right and sees a light, dully penetrating the foggy path through the maze.
“Joe…” he half shouts, half whispers back in the other direction. There is no response. He decides to go for it. Curiosity and excitement race through his veins and he almost freezes on the spot. The light calls to him.
He creeps steadily towards the glow, seeing the fog clear slowly as he approaches. He comes closer and closer until there, in front of his eyes, is a door.
Not just any old door, either. This looks like the door of his parent’s house. White and bright, with the number seventeen in the middle, and the letterbox down below. It is the door of his parent’s house. Bright white light spills out from the sides of the frame, as the fog ghosts over it. Lucas turns the doorknob and is bathed in light and warmth. He smiles and enters.
Matt is running. Sprinting, in fact. He’s never ran so fast, put so much effort into getting somewhere. He’s actually impressed with himself; after a couple of beers this is unexpected. His mind wanders, dreaming up some athletic stardom next year when he will be off to college. Any hint of fame or popularity meant one thing; girls.
He was cruising now, girls on the brain as his legs pounded endlessly on. Running and running.
Running and running.
And running. On and on. Doubt creeps in. Matt wonders for a split second where this new found aerobic ability has come from. Then he wonders, in a maze of unknown origin, which is clearly the construct of some kind of mind-bending hallucinogen or the psychotic plan of a maniac, how he hasn’t reached a dead end yet? Or the finish line? It can’t be this big, surely?
He wasn’t this good, or this lucky. The more he thought about it, the more impossible it seemed that he was picking every correct turn and every move was giving him clear running space up ahead. Shaken from his reverie, he notices the noises in the air. The barking of some rabid dog, the howls of some unforeseen terror in the dark. This place wasn’t his private running track. He should be more scared.
Why was he running and getting nowhere?
He turns a corner and looks at the couple of hundred yards of path in front of him. Without pausing for a second, he reaches to the hedge wall on his side and pulls loose a handful of branches, biting his lip as the thorns invade his palm. He drops the branches in the middle of the path and glances back at them, without slowing once.
Right turn. Clear path up ahead. Until, no, it can’t be? It was. There they are – the branches are sat in the middle of the path right in his way. He speeds up his run, veers left at the end of the path this time.
Two-hundred yards of freedom. Apart from those branches. There they are again, never moving. He was running the same track again. He tries a different path, a left, a right. He stops and runs back the way he had came, retracing his exact steps.
But it’s to no avail. The branches are always there, always smack bang in the middle of the path as he runs on by. He stops dead in his tracks, hands on hips, as his breathing tries to regulate. He thinks hard for a few moments and is struck by one very clear piece of information: nothing changes, but the branch he pulled loose did. He could affect the maze. Maybe he can change the maze.
He walks to the wall and places his hands on it. It was thorny in all parts, no easy pickings, but that was a small price to pay. He pulls at the branches and slowly but surely tears great holes in the wall. After five minutes his hands are thick with blood, but as he steps back to admire his handiwork, he realises he is no closer to a way out.
The branches seem to shift and bend in the gaps he creates. By the time he pulls at the next section, the holes he has created behind him are gone; eaten up by more vine-like branches. He looks up and considers his options. Stuck in a dead end that continuously repeats itself, he realises his best chance of escape; to climb.
He scrambles up the side of the wall despite the thorns digging and clawing at his arms and legs. His wet shorts are now ripped and hanging loose, blood dripping from cuts and scrapes all over his skin. He finds it easy to gain a foothold at least, the branches are firm and hold his weight until, finally, he reaches the top.
All around is green. Rows of the maze stretch off in all directions, as far as he can see. Somewhere in the distance he thinks he can see a light; a fire maybe? Something burning and flickering. His senses are distracted as something crawls across his foot.
Looking down, he sees more insects and disgusting creepy crawlies than he has ever seen in his life. Bugs of all manner, green and brown creatures with four legs or twelve. Slithering and writhing in a mass slimy orgy. The entire top of the hedge wall is crawling and he is stood right in the middle of it now. No escape.
Reaching down, he tries to brush them away from his feet, but they pour out of every gap in the branches. He lifts his foot and kicks at them, sending them scurrying off in all directions, but watches as they just head back towards him. A squadron of ants are making their way up his inside leg, and he swats at them. A big one, the ring leader, digs in and he feels it bite or claw at his skin.
He slaps it hard, and it falls at his feet. In anger he stomps on its prone body, hard and fast. But he forgets he isn’t on solid ground. His foot follows right through and into the thick bush below. He stumbles on one foot, reaches down to free himself from the brambles.
A hand darts out from below and grabs his ankle tightly. He screams. The hand is old, purple and veiny. It has a firm grip but he punches and grabs at it, hoping to prise himself free. It has him held securely.
The only way out, he thinks, is to stop whoever is holding him here. He can’t overpower the arm itself, but surely he has the higher ground on this person? He crouches down and sweeps his hands across the surface, clearing the area of the hundreds of bugs still scurrying at his feet.
He peers down into the bush, following the arms length. There he finds an even more terrifying sight – eyes. Not just one set. Four, five, maybe six. Six sets of eyes. And not just eyes. The decaying faces to match, the fragile bony chests and spindly arms. The entire floor beneath appears as a writhing mass of decrepit, ancient bodies.
He pulls away in disgust, screaming yet again. He stands bolt upright, straining to get away, yanking his leg hard, reaching high up above his head hoping to stretch himself free.
It is no use. The arms all grab for him now. Each one takes tighter hold, pulling him, inching him closer and closer. His skin fails, blood seeps down the stretched out arms below, and Matt’s legs disappear under the canopy, followed by his wriggling torso, and his screaming face.
His arms writhe one last time as they are the last to go, disappearing into the abyss, devoured by the maze, waving goodbye to the world outside.
FOUR: AT LAST
Joe looks away. And back again. He can’t comprehend what he has just witnessed.
He heard Matt’s screams from far away, and it felt like an eternity to move towards them. He thought he had lost the scent until that final scream rang out. He had looked up to see Matt’s outstretched body above the maze, and then the rabble of hungry snakes that reached out for him.
He thought they were snakes anyway. That was until Matt’s own arms were enveloped into the maze, and he realised those shapes that pulled at him were also the silhouettes of arms. He wondered who the arms belonged to.? He didn’t care to find out.
He runs. Rounding a corner, then a long straight, past some fallen branches in the path, turning right and there up ahead – was it? It couldn’t be.
He screams out, delight filling his face and his lungs and the air in turn. The End. Up ahead. It had to be.
A large opening stands out ahead of him; a red fiery glow behind an unmistakable parting of the maze walls. He sees the ends of several pathways, all converging. This was it. He wondered how big this maze was. So many paths, his friends all lost, and yet here he was at the finish line. All he had done was walk. Nothing to it.
As he approaches the exit, a vision appears before his very eyes. The girl – he remembered her from before… From something? The party! That seems so long ago now.
“Joseph. You have pleased me so much!” she says to him, and he can’t help but smile.
“Come, cross the line, take your prize, wave goodbye to all that nonsense”, she says as she takes his hand and leads him forwards.
“Wait!” she stops herself. “I didn’t expect you to be finished quite so soon – you have done so well, Joseph,” she says whilst almost swooning over him. Joe could get used to this, if this was his prize.
“Stay here a moment. Let me run ahead, I’ll make it a glorious celebration on the other side!”
Joe doesn’t speak. He can’t. He is in awe of her, and at the whole situation. His friends are forgotten.
“Oh, but you can have this,” she smiles, and leans closer. She kisses him passionately and presses herself close to his body. She slips a non-descript white pill from her own mouth to his and he is so enthralled in the moment he doesn’t notice a thing. She backs off and tells him to lie down.
“Take a weight off. Close your eyes. Joe wins the day,” she speaks in a lullaby voice and he finds himself drifting, slowly. His body floats to the floor and rests, his eyes open and taking in everything around him, but he is paralysed from head to toe.
He sees her return above him, holding balloons. How sweet.
He sees her come by with a banner. Confetti floats down over him. She’s a star.
She rears over him now holding a chainsaw. That beautiful girl, he thinks to himself.
I can’t move my arms, he realises. I can’t move at all, he remembers. Fear and panic run through his bones, his mind racing. His body doesn’t move a muscle. His screams don’t come, they only ring in his head; circling his brain and making his head spin as they try to find their way out. Imprisoned in his own consciousness.
His body doesn’t even so much as twitch while she slowly and carefully uses the electric saw to carve him up. She removes his fingers and toes, one by one. Then the legs, in two easy sweeps of the blade. He almost felt that one, he thought. Almost.
She takes his left arm at last, and he feels that. It starts as a growing numbness, then the vibration sinks in, followed by the searing pain, as flesh and bone and cartilage are rent asunder.
She leans over him once more. That beautiful girl. She kisses him on the lips one last time, then he feels her walk away. Effortless. He is able to move his head just enough to watch her disappear into the darkness.
The walls reappear all around him, the exit now just a dream. His pain is a reality, the numbness now gone and any effects of the pill she slipped him wearing off. He wonders how he is still conscious? He wonders why he is still alive?
He knows what he has to do. With his right arm, his last remaining limb, he pulls himself towards the wall. Inch by inch it comes closer, but he swears just as it gets within reach it moves away again. The walls themselves are mocking him.
Finally he pleads and screams and claws and claws and reaches a handful of branches. He pulls himself closer, and forces himself inside. He piles into the dank, cold underbrush and allows the snake-like arms to take him. Take my pain away.
FIVE: DEAD END
Loser Boy and John have been walking for an age now. They are exhausted and are beginning to feel like the walls are closing in. The sticky hot atmosphere makes everything close and claustrophobic. A crow squawks overhead and John follows it with his eyes. He is transfixed for a moment.
“Come on,” Loser Boy shouts at him as he approaches another turn.
“There’s no birds round here,” John replies, walking towards his friend but keeping his eyes on the crow which has now landed on the hedge wall. Loser Boy is losing patience with him, dawdling along. He is about to say something when a scream rebounds off the walls at their sides. A horrifying cackle follows it, the kind that if they heard it in a film they would laugh at its overtly evil styling.
Round the corner, the bird follows. It swoops now, over their heads. John ducks at the last second and feels the wings brush past his shoulder. It stops again, staring at the pair of them. They begin to walk and in comes the crow once again; flying strafing runs like a World War Two bomber.
Loser Boy is growing more anxious now, while John is obsessed with the crow. Finally, it swings low over their heads and turns off down a fork in the path.
“Come on, before it follows back around,” Loser Boy says.
John looks down the path after the bird. He wants to follow. In fact, he thinks it wants him to follow.
“Come on!” shouts Loser Boy, already striding into the gloom in the opposite direction.
John follows him reluctantly, catching his pal up as they come into a large opening in the maze. At first his heart races, thinking maybe they have made it. Is this the end?
“What the fuck is this?” the Loser asks. He is right to do so.
A giant section of hedge wall, maybe thirty foot tall stands in front of them. It dwarfs the rest of the maze so much that they can’t understand how they didn’t see it earlier. They approach it just to witness the sheer size, but knowing this is the dead end of all dead ends.
After a few moments they agree that it is senseless wasting more time staring at a wall, and turn to leave, resigned to more walking ahead. A rustling draws their attention to the opening they arrived through. The crow. There it sits, head almost cocked, watching them leave. Except as they approach, the crow takes to the air again and angles directly for the boys.
They hit the ground hard, throwing themselves out of its way. They turn quickly to watch for its next move and see it hasn’t slowed at all. It flies, beak first, into the wall in front and feathers are thrown in all directions. It squawks and an answering call comes. The rustling from earlier is multiplied by a hundred; a thousand. Unseen wings unfold and excitable beaks snap together. The wall comes alive, all thirty feet of it, bristling and preening. It shakes and rumblings as the sound grows louder and louder, until Loser Boy has to cover his ears.
John is standing in a daze, eyes locked to the wall. He barely reacts when Loser Boy shouts at him to run. He is too busy watching thousands of crows take flight and head in his direction.
He has never witnessed anything like it – beautiful and disturbing and coming right at him. A dirty black cloud forming before his very eyes. The majesty of it all roots him to the spot. Loser Boy grabs him by the shoulders and tries to shake sense into him. He locks eyes with him for a split second, but he knows it’s too late; the birds are coming.
They are circling even now. Loser Boy looks ahead and sees a swarm of black heading his way, and does the first thing that comes naturally to him – he pushes John forward with all of his might, sacrificing his friend to the birds. He turns and runs for his life.
Within seconds he is out of the open clearing and back on his way through the pathways. He doesn’t look back.
If he did, he would have run even harder. For in the middle of the clearing, John is set upon by each and every bird from the wall. Thousands of beaks tear at his skin, pecking and scratching and noisily devouring his very flesh. A voice comes to him from the dark. He knows not where it lives.
“Eat. Feed,” it says, and John understands.
“Eat. Feed,” he repeats, as a crow calmly lands in his outstretched hand. He raises it to his mouth and bites into its soft underbelly, even as its brothers continue to peck away at him.
The squawking dies down. The birds all swirl around, flying a circular pattern around their victim. He stands up tall, feeling something surge within him, a power he has never felt before. His skin rises in bumps and pockmarks and feathers protrude from the cuts and scrapes. His hair thickens and his nails grow into talons and he feels his face shift.
It’s subtle at first, as if he had just violently sneezed. Then as if he had banged his head against a brick wall. Then, with overwhelming agony, and a teeth-clenching, awful rip his nose split open and a bone sprouted forth, beak-like in shape and horrific to view. He doesn’t feel the pain. He doesn’t feel upset at what has become of John.
He feels anger and vengeance. He smells blood and fear. He smells prey.
Lucas has stepped through his door.
His parents’ door. Here in the middle of a maze. In the middle of who-knows-where. But sure enough, he stepped inside the door and there it was – his parents’ front room, TV blissfully jabbering away with some cookery programme or other.
“Hello, son,” his father’s voice broke the silence. He was sitting on the sofa, just a perfectly normal day.
Lucas can’t fight back the tears. He breaks down, right there and then. His mother rushes in and tries to console him, but it’s no use. He has already forgotten how he got here, and why he had been so relieved to see the door. He only remembers the gnawing, terrifying, gut-crunching fear in the pit of his stomach, which just doesn’t want to shift.
It takes him a little while to settle. He isn’t really sure why he is living with his folks again – didn’t he have his own place once? His past is hazy at best, and his parents gloss over it if he ever asks them for details. He learns to ignore that gnawing sensation in his gut.
Two weeks fly by. Then a month. He doesn’t leave the house. His social skills are non-existent. He grows to believe that he has suffered a serious psychotic lapse and he is on the long, slow road to recovery. But still he has no job, no money, no life.
Fear seems to determine his every move. He is forced into counselling by his parents; they even bring the woman here, to his own bedroom, when he won’t leave the house. She is nice. She understands plenty of things. He thinks therapy would be a great idea in the real world. However, when forced to confront it so directly, he is painfully aware that this is not the real world.
Somewhere inside he is aware of this, and yet on the outside he sees the world passing him by. The gnawing returns to the pit of his stomach, and he tries to fix it. He tries to grow, to make himself useful. To integrate into society.
After a year or two, he enrols on a course to become an electrician. He signs up and braves the outside world. He meets new people, he learns the skills. He has very little interest is becoming an electrician, but it’s not long before he is qualified and is offered a job right there and then. Everything is going to plan and he wonders why he doesn’t feel happy.
On day one of his new job he makes a fatal mistake during a routine check of an old ladies house. It’s a rural place, quite a historic house. Ruined. Burnt to a crisp after the electrical fire is finished with it. A shell.
The old lady is fine but her cats and dog don’t escape. He feels terrible. Within a fortnight he hears that the lady died too. Heartbroken and homeless, she lost the will to go on. He feels achingly bad for his mistakes, but legally he is cleared. The company still let him go though, and that hurts too.
And deep in his soul, that little something gnaws at him some more. In the dead of night he wakes in cold sweats, dreaming of dark, wet soil and thick green foliage, where crows and snakes haunt him, and arms grab at him from all angles.
He finds he has a knack for writing about his experiences. He tells the story of his grief at the old ladies’ death, and how he felt for her pets. He puts his dreams down to this loss of life, that he must take the blame for. He makes a modest income writing for a local paper and donates a large amount to a cat and dog shelter nearby. The gnawing is subdued for a while, but it’s never gone, not completely. It is never far from his thoughts.
He meets a girl through his charitable efforts, and he falls in love. It’s a bumpy affair, and he suffers the indignity of having the love of his life fall for another man. They work through it, and he allows himself to be happy, only to find she has slept with two other men. No falling for them this time; just out-right wanted to have sex with people who weren’t him.
He is miserable, depressed and broken. And the pain in his soul gnaws worse than ever before.
He marries the girl, thinking it might tie her down. It’s a last resort more than anything, and he feels himself in freefall, looking for answers to something he doesn’t understand. On their honeymoon, his new wife tells him that she is in love with someone else and, worse still, she’s pregnant. She doesn’t know if it is his.
On the flight back home he murders his wife in cold blood, with the pain in his soul gnawing so much that he can’t ignore it. He hates himself for losing control. He contemplates seizing the aircraft with intentions to crash it into some mountain in the middle of nowhere, to put an end to it all for good. He is thwarted and arrested with ease, and trialled for murder among many other things.
He attempts suicide in his cell, and only manages to lose an ear. He is made someone’s bitch in the showers every day when word gets out that he was a wannabe terrorist.
The cat and dog shelter is seized by the government for fraudulent payments. His payments. His banking activities are investigated and he is found to have committed so many different types of fraud he can’t even comprehend. He doesn’t remember committing fraud.
As payback, they take his parent’s home which he bought for them. They end up with nothing. His own parents; ostracized for raising the murderer. Kicked out of their home for aiding a fraudster. Living on the streets with not a penny to their name.
The officer tells him the news while he sits on his bunk in his cold grey cell. The pain in his soul gnawing away. He is told of his parents’ undignified demise, and he weeps uncontrollably. What had he done to deserve this life?
In fact, he sat and he thought, and he wrote and he slept, for the most part of three decades, and he wondered about his luck, and what could be worse than everything that has happened to him in his long and painful life so far?
“They’re letting you walk,” this young man is telling him. “You’ll be a free man before you die.”
He hears the words but doesn’t understand them. They said he would never see the outside word again. He knows he doesn’t deserve to. He knows he doesn’t want to. Given the choice he would happily die in this very moment.
Freedom looms. And the pain gnaws at his soul worse than it ever has before.
He stands now with his meagre belongings in hand, and he raps on the door to be let out into the world. The glow around the door frame looks familiar. It looks out of place for a prison, he thinks.
And his memory returns, dawning on him like a crushing hammer blow to the cranium, if such a thing could ever be said to have dawned.
Loser Boy is careening through the maze, stumbling, falling and back-tracking constantly. The cackle and rabble of the crows is never far from his back. He considers giving up, but he has never given up. He was blindly competitive all of his life before now, and that is enough to keep him going when death is the easiest option.
He thinks he has it figured out now. He has sobered up fully, thinking clearly for the first time. He maps the maze out in his head as he moves, and soon knows every wrong road, every stray path, every dead end. No more blindly running down the same route four or five times. He breezes through and feels the fog lifting around him.
But the swarm is always behind him. Always just far enough behind him to let him know they are coming, but never seeming to gain any ground. It’s a form of torture he does not appreciate, and can’t quite comprehend. He guesses they are playing with him, believing he would never find the way out.
But they are wrong. His smile is impossible to hide. There – directly up ahead- he can see it. The finish line. The grand opening in the maze wall, and he is heading for it swiftly. He sees the fire and the smoke beyond the opening, and supposes they are for his benefit when he reaches the end.
He looks back. They are gaining.
The hedge wall runs along his right-hand side, while the left opens ever wider as the end approaches up ahead. But they are gaining.
The storm of crows gathers pace and swoops closer now; one nipping at his shoulder, one clinging to his leg and attempting to take a chunk out of him. A guttural roar snatches his attention away from that welcoming fire – looking back he sees its source.
John is running, no, flying – John was flying? – towards him… Or something… Some thing in John’s tattered and torn skin, is chasing him down and screaming like a bird of prey from hell.
He can’t take his eyes from the creature, this thing that used to be his friend. He stumbles, and he falls hard. His face scrapes along the dirt floor and he eats a pile of dust and mud. He is done for. He knows it.
The birds swoop and circle. They sense the end is here at last.
Loser Boy rolls over to face his doom on the floor of a maze in the middle of nowhere, and sees a sight he doesn’t understand.
There, in the side of the wall, right in front of his eyes, is a door.
The bright white light spilling from the door frame fills him with delight, and he lunges for the door knob… And in that split second he hears it…
He falls short of the door but watches it open wide anyway. The warm light spills through and the crows squeal in anguish, reeling back, retreating to the safety of their new master. A shadow blocks the light briefly, and Loser Boy sees the cause.
An old man steps through the door, a battered old suitcase in hand. He looks down at Loser Boy and smiles, nodding in recognition. Tears stream from his eyes. He reaches back to shut the door.
“Don’t shut the fucking door!” Loser Boy screams at him, but it is too late.
The birds, riled up into a frenzy by the light, swarm immediately and envelop the old man before he has a chance to react. Loser Boy doesn’t stick around to watch this – he scrambles to his feet and heads for the exit again, sure he recognises the old man but not able to place his face.
The Birdman arrives in a hail of feathers and noise. Without a second glance he brutally snaps his beak-nose towards Lucas’ neck. Blood gushes from the wound and the crows feverously lap it up. Lucas falls and dies an ignominious death in the dirt. The Birdman watches Loser Boy stumble across the finish line, out into the open space outside of the maze and now outside of his influence.
Loser Boy staggers to his feet, a winner. He has escaped the confines of the maze, and he looks back to see his former friend, the birds encircling him once again.
Birdman looks to the sky and erupts with an ungodly, agonising sound. As he does so two bony, jagged-edged wings tear out from his back, his skin splitting and bleeding ever more. He takes off, flying high up into the pitch black sky, and the crows follow in a filthy cloud.
Just as they fly out of sight, Loser Boy notices the hedge wall moving, growing longer and searching out great sickly-looking arms. It connects with itself, arms turning to branches, and sealing the opening which was the finish line only moments ago.
He breathes heavily. He turns, dragging himself to his feet, and looks ahead. Standing in front of him is Eloise, watching him. She stands in an ornate and beautifully sculpted water fountain, made of elegant stone and currently showering its water over her. The water is pouring from a ten foot tall serpent, the body of which winds its way around a central column, climbing from the large basin of the fountain.
At the top of the fountain, and at various points around the base, fires flicker and burn and lick and hiss as the spray from the fountain catches them.
He looks up at Eloise and tries to say ‘thank you’ or ‘fuck you’. He tries to ask how or why or what or, yes, why? Why why why?
He can’t speak. He tries again. Throat dry, chest heaving.
Did he win? Didn’t she say there would be a winner? Does winning mean survival? He guessed that meant death for all of his friends. He was the only one stood here at the end.
As his mouth moves, and no words come out, his eyes take in the sight of this girl. This sweet, sexy but unassuming young woman, who now stands looking down on him from the fountain. She’s towering over him in fact. She’s growing larger still, higher and higher – and the sky around is dying, any remains of light drawing into her as her skin turns a sickly green and her hair curls and her voice cracks and she screams, “Return to me”.
Awake. He is under water.
He panics, looking around, knowing he is back in the hot tub, and for a moment he is relieved. His brain tells him that the impossible is not possible, that the impossible did not happen. That he is safe again.
The water around him slowly thickens, turning dark, turning black… or is it red….?
He jumps up out of the thick bubbling pool; his hair flattened by the bloody water, his stupid hat long since lost. He spins around, reeling and takes in the sight. Around the edges of the pool are his friends. Or at least, the gruesome remains of his friends.
They have limbs pulled out and eyeballs missing. Blood and viscera seep into the hot tub from every wound. He screams, spinning around, taking in each and every one of them, and sound comes to his lungs at last. Feathers float on the surface, and he is violently sick at the sight.
In the middle of the tub, right where we left her is Eloise. Except she is no longer the Eloise we left here. She has transformed into a green-skinned, crazy-haired beauty/horror show. She cackles like an insane witch, and her voice is as deep and as poisonous as you could ever imagine.
“You have won, boy. You will now receive the prize you wished to take”.
She removes her bikini top, still sensual and seductive in her movements. In fact, more so than Eloise ever was. She closes in on him, pushing him back, back, back. He feels the warmth of a friends dismembered, bloody corpse press up against him. He screams again, and steps forward reflexively… into her waiting arms.
He frantically tries to fight back, arms flailing, punching, grabbing. He bites and wrestles. She holds his arms, pins them down, unnaturally strong. What else did he expect? She pushes him back once again, pinning him against his dead friend. Reaching below, she pulls hard at his shorts and whips them out of the water, tossing them away.
Her claw-like hand pushes into his chest, nails gouging his skin. She pins him back and mounts him. Forcefully, and horrifically, she has her way with the Loser Boy, the winner of her game.
As her wild roaring and moaning and trashing dies down, she leans in, tenderly close to his ear. He has given up now, in a state of absolute shock verging on catatonia. His screams are as dead as his friends.
She whispers to him, “I hope you got what you came for…..”
With that she pulls back her head and her face appears to slither, her features moving and sliding and rearranging themselves. She grows again, a foot taller, now two. Her jaw slackens and unlocks until, serpent-like, she opens wide and lunges for him – taking off his head with a sickening snap of her teeth, in one clean bite.
Her whole body expands now, as she stands upright and swallows. His head slides down her neck with a gulp and the oily scales which have become her skin glisten under the pale moonlight.