Turn Right – A short story by India Roberts
Picture by Francesco Ungaro; you can find him on instagram
Cass didn’t know where he was. Winding, never-ending paths stretched out before him and bark on the crooked trees looked like they were being strangled by the vines wrapping around them. The sky was evolving from foggy mustard yellow into a black obsidian obscured by heavy clouds. Cass blinked twice, scratched behind his right ear and blinked again. The paths looked the same. Marshy grass was matted to the ground and low hanging branches loomed above him and tickled the top of his head with their slender fingers. He stood straight and still as sweat slithered down his spine, sweeping away his straggly hair from his eyes.
He couldn’t look behind him. His body kept trying to get him to twist and swivel but he worked hard to wrangle his limbs into silence. Yesterday, he was told that if he looked backwards, the wolves that had been trying to nip at his heels would catch up to him and bite gashes out of his achilles and rip their claws into the soft muscles of his calf. In the charcoal sky, a sliver of the moon began to glow above his head and clouds scurried to smother it.
“You’ll run out of time,” His mother had said the night before as she packed his bag, “but keep the moon over your left shoulder and never take a right turn. Remember… no right turns.”
The moon was not over his left shoulder. He could hear the wolves running, their paws squelching on the ground and their heavy pants making chilling mist in the air. He could almost feel their slimy tongues running along the backs of his legs and the hairs on his arms were alert even if his fingers were shaking. He knew that he should’ve been at the other side by now, but he had never been out in the dark before. Curfew was early and people would close their doors and cover their windows in with cardboard. Cass could hardly see in front of him as darkness enveloped him. The left path was thin, and spindly branches were invading the space with their spikes. He swivelled his head towards the right. Something was shining there, something he had seen before.
He remembered when he was eight years old and he had crept down their crooked oak staircase; down five steps, miss the sixth, tiptoe down seven, eight, nine, ten with his back glued to the wall. He had poked his head around a battered door and seen an elderly man in front of his mother. He was wizened and looked like he had just clambered out of a grave with dirt marring his face, crumbling around him on the floor. His walking stick made a pattern on the ceiling. The light danced around the coving and it flickered as he moved his hand over the illuminated stick. It was a soft green, like the colour the grass went in the meadows when it was the height of summer and the sun bleached it lighter. Cass watched as the man slithered his finger along his mother’s collarbone, leaving an army of goosebumps ravaging her skin. In the darkness now, that same colour was pulsing out of the right-hand path. The moon was not over his left shoulder. His mother said no right turns, but Cass could almost see footprints glowing in the marshy grass to the right of him; the green light was beginning to gleam and the wolves were almost at his heels. He filled his lungs with sour air and drew his feet through the mud, remembering the goosebumps on his mother’s skin. He turned right.
Cass’ feet pounded through bushes and over gnarly roots. Sweat dribbled into his eyes and his legs caught on sharp twigs and blood began to ooze, but he kept running. A branch swung in front of him and gouged at his arm. His bag thumped relentlessly against his back and he shielded his eyes with a trembling hand as the light flared ahead of him. The wolves were closing in. He could feel their breath whispering against his legs and hear their hungry pants lusting after him. Cass burst into the clearing. His feet stuttered to a stop as the light blanched through his skin and he could almost feel his blood sizzling in the heat. The wolves were gone. Everything was silent apart from the sound of his heart stomping in his chest and the blood throbbing in his ears. The trees were blurred around the edges in a viridescent haze. His sweat cooled and prickled against his skin as his eyes darted throughout the clearing; he couldn’t see the moon anymore. Roots sprawled towards him. In the middle of the clearing sat the gnarled and knotted trunk of a vast wisteria tree. It was hundreds of years old, and the bark twisted around itself like dancing lovers. Hundreds of mauve blooms blossomed above him and hung around his head, their scents of saccharine honey teasing his nostrils. Cass stepped closer and saw flickering eyes in the trunk. He had seen those eyes before. They were black back then.
Those eyes had leered at the goosebumps on his mother’s skin like they belonged to him. His pupils had bled into the irises until there was no colour left and the red veins in the white of his eyes looked raw and angry. His pale skin was almost translucent and Cass could see the blood pumping and pulsing in the man’s veins. Cass padded closer, hidden by his mother’s bulky furniture and perked his ears up so he could hear the raspy voice of the old man.
“Your pleas will get you nowhere, my dear,” he crooned, “your eldest son will play the game.”
“You can’t. We didn’t do anything wrong.” Cass’ mother said, her fingers clutching her skirt.
“The rules. The eldest son of a traitor plays the game.”
“We’re not traitors. He’s still a child–” The words caught in her throat as his fingers sliced across it, his nail scraping her skin before fluttering up to her lip. She let out a sound Cass had heard before, just before she would start to cry.
“It will take place when he’s seventeen. You have time to train him, not that it makes much difference. If he gets to the other end of the forest… he’s safe,” He whispered to her, and Cass saw a tear quiver down her cheek. He turned to go, the green light dimming before he stopped, “Tell him to turn right.”
Cass stepped closer to the eyes that were embedded in the trunk. They were still inky black but the whites were replaced with a glinting green that projected towards him like a glowing jewel. He squinted, remembering how his mother’s eyes hadn’t seemed blue since he was eight years old when her smile was so wide he could see her candyfloss gums. A monster began to stir inside his stomach, one he hadn’t felt since he watched the grisly man close their door, their floorboards caked in mud. It clawed at his gut and gouged its nails in, climbing up the rough walls of his oesophagus until it was bursting into his mouth and his tongue was hot with fire. His eyes started to dart around, looking for exits and watching frantically for the moon that was not above his left shoulder. He needed to get out. His mother said no right turns. He couldn’t see any paths, even the one he came through had vanished and Cass’ breath stopped as he saw the eyes begin to blink in his direction and a pack of wolves slunk from behind the gigantic trunk. There was a moment when Cass thought they had come to an understanding. He looked at the animals, his shaking knees slightly bent and ready to run. They looked calm. Almost tame. His breath began to slow and his back began to straighten and then he saw a wolf move towards him. It was larger than the rest, its grey fur was matted in tufts and its lips curled up in a grotesque snarl, froth trickling from its mouth. Its eyes were green. Before his next breath could even begin, they pounced.
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