Ivy

At the very bottom of the garden, where the wild things grow, was a little peach tree. To reach it you had to push through the dangling branches of a particularly resistant willow, balance along a very old and precarious wooden beam which served as an improvised bridge across a stream, and climb a ladder propped against a square of ivy covered walls. Inside the ivy garden, everything felt somehow just a little different from outside.

Outside, the ivy and the mistletoe and the fungi grew with reckless abandon, wrapping their tendrils and threads around every branch, every trunk. The canopy was as dense as that of a rainforest, and anyone walking there would find their boots kicking up thick piles of decaying leaves, or encountering sudden, unexpected rocks and ruts. Nothing had order, though everything felt just as it should.

But once you dropped down from the ladder into the ivy garden, you found that the ivy trailed off into a neat lawn with beds of uniform, colourful flowers, an ornate iron bench next to a sundial, and, right in the centre, the peach tree.

Despite its small size, the peach tree was strong and flourishing, with mesmerising pink blossoms in the spring, and vivid green leaves, huge and without a single imperfection, in the summer. And the peaches themselves were round and juicy each and every year, the most delicious you’ve ever sampled.

Then one year, the tree grew a green peach.

Emery Jones first noticed the green peach on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. It was a deep green, very different from the early colour of an unripe peach – and this peach was as full and ripe as any had ever been. They had first found the ivy garden when they were four years old, and all five summers since then they had enjoyed the peaches on their visits. They always visited the garden alone; they had no siblings and for some reason they never told their one good friend, Lara, about the garden. In fact, they’d never even mentioned it to their Aunt Marian; they assumed she must know about it, with it being in her own garden, and someone must have put the ladders there. But she never asked whether Emery had been there, and Emery wasn’t one to share much about what they did or where they went with anyone.

Having never seen a green peach, Emery wasn’t sure if it would be safe to eat. After a few minutes of examination, they pulled it gently towards them to sniff it and it came away easily in their hand. It certainly seemed ripe and ready to eat. Cautiously, they took a bite – and relief washed across their face as they tasted the most delicious peach they’d ever eaten. Despite savouring each bite, they found they devoured it much more quickly than they’d hoped. After pulling the last bits of verdant flesh from the stone (which was a deep emerald green) Emery stuffed it into their pocket and started to scramble back over the walls and up towards the house.

Emery lived with their Aunt in a large cottage style building; the kind that nobody seems to build any more, with lots of different levels and doors and staircases. Aunt Marian had never had anychildren of her own, but since Emery’s parents died when they were an infant she had raised them as if they were her own child, in the house that would be theirs when they turned eighteen. She was a kind woman, almost always busy with work or chores, and almost the exact opposite to Emery when it came to sharing her thoughts – she would always tell you the truth about what she was thinking and feeling, though generally softened so that you never felt bad about what she said, even if she disagreed with you. She was also very empathetic, and could always tell when something was wrong with Emery which was perhaps part of why they never really shared much – with Aunt Marian there was no need, because she already knew.

On the way into the house, Emery poked their head in to say hi to their Aunt working on some sewing in her study, and ran off to their room where they promptly became engrossed in a book and forgot all about their unusual afternoon snack. They didn’t think of it again until the next morning, when they felt something hard in their pocket whilst they were getting dressed and pulled out the emerald stone. Placing it on their shelf, they turned to go downstairs and suddenly heard a whisper in their ear. Quickly jumping round they stared about the room, looking for the source, but there was no-one there – only the quiet mess of a young child’s bedroom. The whispering hadn’t been loud enough to make out any words, so Emery assumed they must have imagined it, or else a sudden draught had arrived and then hastily left.

But as the day went on, they heard the whispering again, tickling their ear every now and then. They started to make out the odd word “Garden…”, “play…”, “come…” – and once they even thought they heard their name. But each time they would turn, and each time there was no one there. Even more worryingly, as the day went on they started to feel a strange swaying or squirming sensation alongside the whispers, as if their body was moving in many directions at once, despite being completely stationary.

Of course, Aunt Marian noticed something wasn’t quite right almost immediately. Over lunch, she asked Emery what they’d been up to over the weekend.

“Nothing much… just playing in the garden,” came the usual answer. Aunt Marian frowned.

“Nothing strange has happened then? You seem a little distracted…” she pushed, as Emery stared at their ham sandwich.

“Nope… I’m just looking forward to the summer holidays, I guess.” they answered. This wasn’t enough to satisfy their aunt, but she knew better than to push further; that would just make them clam up more.

“You know, you are so much like your father sometimes.” she said, as she started to clear her plate. Emery wasn’t paying enough attention to respond.

That night was the first night Emery dreamed about the Ivy Woman. She appeared in glimpses, darting between the trees as they walked through the woods in the garden. At first they weren’t sure she was even really there, there was so much ivy anyway, but then they caught two wide green eyes looking at them, followed by a flash of a bright red smile with gleaming white teeth.

Over the following nights they would see more of the mysterious figure, until eventually she was walking alongside them through the trees.

One night, something compelled Emery to speak to her.

“Who are you?” they asked sheepishly, before immediately regretting the decision to talk.

The woman merely looked at them and smiled. Emery supposed that perhaps she wasn’t able to talk; after all their experience with sentient plant based beings was very slim. But the next night as they walked in silence, she spoke too.

“I do not have a name. I am a daughter of the forest.”

“Are there more of you?” replied Emery, still anxious but won over by their curiosity.

“Not here. I am the only one.”

“What do you do here? Apart from walk with me?”

“I guard.”

Emery’s imagination immediately produced images of countless magical creatures and monsters whom she could be guarding, but not being sure that they wanted to know which one could be nearby they didn’t ask any more. They’d started to find, not enjoyment, but a familiar comfort in these dreams each night, and didn’t want anything to risk turning them into nightmares.

These comforting dreams were becoming more and more important to Emery as their days slowly began to fill with more unsettling happenings and the pit of fear in their stomach grew.

On Tuesday morning they noticed their spit had started to develop a slight green tint when they brushed their teeth in the morning. It was so slight that they weren’t even sure whether it was really there. On Thursday they almost smashed one of Aunt Marian’s favourite glasses when it became inexplicably stuck to their hand for a few seconds. And the whispering grew to be near constant, if very quiet most of the time, and a lot of their focus was spent on trying to tune it out. It reached a peak in their Friday afternoon maths lesson, when they heard their name so clearly they turned and shouted “WHAT?!” at Daniel Marsley, who just stared back along with the rest of the class. Emery turned sheepishly back towards Mr Buttress, who was shaking his head disapprovingly.

“Can we have a word in the book corner, Emery? Everyone else carry on with your work please.”

Emery slunk their way over to the book corner and plopped down onto a giant beanbag, staring at the ground and panicking about what to say, though at least the whispering seemed to have momentarily paused. Mr Buttress arrived and perched on the top of one of the bookshelves.

“I’ve noticed you’ve not quite been yourself this week, Emery. Is there something going on you’d like to talk to me about?” he asked, in a gentle voice. Having expected a thorough telling off, Emery was pleasantly surprised – they looked up and Mr Buttress smiled back kindly through his bushy ginger beard. “You can always tell me if something’s worrying you, you know. Something at home maybe?” he went on.

“Um… no, nothing’s going on. I’m just a bit tired.” Emery replied. As kind a teacher as Mr Buttress was, they knew he’d probably think Emery was making it up if they told him what was really happening, or else tell their aunt to take them to a doctor who’d insist on asking way more questions.

Mr Buttress studied them carefully, and then stood up.

“Okay,” he said “It is nearly time for the summer holidays after all! We all get a bit tired around this time! But you should try and get to bed early this weekend if you can, and you can always ask me to chat again next week if something comes up, all right?”

“Okay” Emery smiled back, and they walked back to their seat, just as the bell rang for assembly.

As soon as they and Lara rounded the corner into a quieter street on the way home from school that day, Lara stopped them and demanded to know what was going on.

“What was that all about in maths?! I heard you saying you’re just tired but I don’t decide to shout at Daniel Marsley whenever I get tired… something’s up with you this week and I know it.” she said.

“No, honestly, I’m fine,” Emery replied, “I’m just bored of school that’s all.”

“I don’t believe you,” replied Lara, “And I’m not giving up until you tell me.”

They knew her well enough to know that she really meant this… they’d have to come up with something more, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to admit the truth even to Lara. It just sounded so unbelievable!

“Fine, I’ll tell you.” Lara stared back expectantly. “I ate a funny looking peach at the weekend, from this little tree in my garden, and I think it might have made me a bit ill or something.”

Lara continued staring, as if waiting for more. “That’s it. I’m just worried about that, that’s all”.

“So this is all just over a gone off peach?” she asked.

“Yes.” Emery insisted back.

“Well… you won’t mind showing me the tree then? Maybe we can see if any of the others are bad or something?” They didn’t like the idea of showing Lara the garden, but knew she wasn’t going to drop this without some kind of evidence, so they agreed that she could come over tomorrow morning and they’d show her.

The next day the two children pulled on their boots and trudged down to the ivy garden together. Emery half expected to see the Ivy Woman waiting there, but she wasn’t and they breathed a sigh of relief. They spent a few minutes examining the tree, which contained only normal peaches now, and Lara delivered her verdict

“They look absolutely fine. I’m sure there was nothing wrong with this peach, and if there was you’d feel a lot worse by now. You need to stop getting worked up over things and just ask someone for help, silly billy.” Emery feigned relief and for the rest of the morning they made extra sure to act calm and collected, so much so that by the time Lara left to go home for lunch, they had a splitting headache. Their aunt gave them some Calpol after lunch when they mentioned it, and suggested they relax in bed for a while, and they were so exhausted from the effort of pretending all morning that they fell asleep before teatime and slept right through the evening.

They woke at around 4am, sweating profusely, from their most vivid dream yet – in it, the Ivy Woman had asked Emery to come and visit her. They realised they really needed a wee, but as they moved to get out of bed they felt almost stuck to the sheets – pulling the duvet off was like ripping off a plaster. They managed to free their arm to flick on the bedside lamp, and to their horror they saw tiny pointy tendrils sprouting from the skin all along their arms and legs. Shouting, they jumped from the bed and sprinted to the bathroom, and began vigorously rubbing their arms, and a few seconds later, the tendrils seemed to have disappeared, as if nothing had been there at all. Taking a few seconds to catch their breath, Emery paused and listened… they couldn’t hear any movement, so they assumed their scream hadn’t been enough to wake Aunt Marian.

This was the final straw for Emery. What was going on didn’t make sense, but it was happening anyway, and they needed to get to the bottom of it. They knew the answer would lie in the garden, and they decided to head there as soon as the sun came up, which was in just an hour or two. But before they did, they knew that they would have to tell someone about what had happened, in case anything went wrong. They pulled on their clothes and crept down the stairs to where their phone was charging in the kitchen, and pulled up a message to Lara, and then they typed out everything, starting with the green peach and the voices, moving through the dreams, right up to the events of that night. They no longer cared if Lara thought they were lying – they finished the message by explaining their plan. They would go down to the garden and look for the Ivy Woman, sure that they’d find her there, and confront her.

Hitting send, they pulled on their boots and sat by the door, waiting anxiously. After another hour, the sky was light enough for them to set off, and they trudged purposefully through the woods until they reached the ivy garden. They trembled as they climbed over the ladder, and sure enough, the Ivy Woman was waiting for them inside, sitting on the bench.

“I’m glad you came,” she said “I knew you would.” They sat down next to her.

“Why is this happening to me?” they asked “All these strange things. Was something wrong with the peach?”

“They’re happening because you belong here now.” she replied, calmly, and Emery found themselves suddenly exhausted. They noticed a tickle on their back, and turned their head to see that the ivy from the wall was creeping over their shoulder and across their chest, but they couldn’t muster the energy to move any further.

“… what’s going on… who… who are you…” they stammered, falling deeper into a trance and feeling the ivy wrap more tightly around their limbs.

The whispers they had been hearing all week were now clear, crisp voices, and Emery realised they were the voices of other children – which they now realised were here in the garden too, somehow inside the ivy that was slowly covering every inch of their body. They had a vague sense that they weren’t going to be able to get free from the ivy, and that they were going to be taken into it, but they still couldn’t muster enough energy to try and escape. This was going to be the end.

Amongst the children’s voices, Emery started to notice one that stood out from the others.

“Emery!” it shouted, “Emery!! Wake up!!” They felt a strange prickling sensation on their arms. “Come on Emery!! Get up, now!!” Something clicked in their brain… it was Lara! What was Lara doing here?!

“Lara?” they murmured “Lara… is that you?”

“Yes!” she cried, “It’s me! You need to get up now Emery! I can’t pull you out on my own.”

Emery realised that if Lara was there, that meant that not only did she believe them enough to come to the garden, but that she was also in danger. That was enough for them. They started to push against the ivy with all the strength they could gather. Slowly but surely, it began to rip, until it was broken enough that Lara was able to pull them up from the bench and away onto the lawn.

The two children embraced.

“Thank God!” Lara cried. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to get you out!”

“I’m so sorry” sobbed Emery back. “I should have told you sooner. I guess I was just scared.”

“It’s okay, I’m here now, and you’re safe.”

Emery and Lara turned to face the Ivy Woman.

“Why are you doing this?” cried Emery, “And who are all these children?”

“Whatever you do, you’re not going to take Emery away! I won’t let you!” added Lara.

Emery took a breath ready to shout more questions, but then they paused – the woman had fallen to her knees in front of the bench and was staring at the ground.

Putting their hand out to Lara to signal for her to wait, they lowered their voice and spoke calmly

“Look… if something is wrong maybe we can help… as long as you don’t try to take either of us again.” Lara stared at them wide eyed, as if she thought they might have lost their right mind, but the woman started to speak slowly.

“I… I don’t know why I take the children. I only take the ones like me. The ones who keep it inside.”

“Keep what inside?” asked Lara, her curiosity winning over her anger.

“Everything. Everything that they think… and feel… I can’t help but be drawn to them. If we are the same, I… I always think the next one might… might just… be someone who could become a friend.”

It was clearly giving the woman great pains to speak in this way. Emery paused for a moment, contemplating.

“You’re right,” they said. “I was keeping everything inside. But that’s never good. The only reason Lara came here to save me was because I finally told her everything that had been going on.” Lara still had hold of their hand, and at these words she squeezed it tight.

“I know how lonely it can get when you close up like that. But this…” they gestured at the ivy “is not the solution. I don’t even know what’s going on here – to be honest I think I’m a little in shock. But if you have some kind of magic that put these children there… can it get them out too?”

At this, the Ivy Woman frowned and began to cry.

“What’s wrong?” asked Lara.

“She is scared of losing the children, even though they don’t want to be here.” Emery answered for her. They were starting to feel a deep connection similar to the one that they’d felt in their dreams of her. They could feel what she was feeling, and understand her fear.

“But it’s ok,” they continued “You don’t have to be alone. If you keep talking, we’ll keep visiting, won’t we Lara?”

Lara was still somewhat confused by the sudden change of atmosphere but as any good 8-year-old best friend would, she immediately gave a vigorous nod.

“Of course we will. I mean, you’re a magical woman made of ivy. This is amazing! I have so many questions! No-one at school would believe this in a million years!”

The woman smiled meekly and, saying nothing, rose to her feet and raised her arms in the air, and slowly the ivy began to shrink back up the walls, and dozens of children began to appear out of it, first appearing almost transparent, like ghosts, but growing clearer until they were fully formed. Emery noticed that they were dressed in historical clothes, some of them hundreds of years out of date, and realised the woman must have been taking children just like them for years.

“It’s time to go home, children” said the woman, and the children cheered, several of them thanking Emery and Lara gratuitously. Then, one by one, they began walking towards the walls and, as they approached them, faded back into nothingness.

“They are going back to their own times and lives,” explained the woman. “The harm I’ve caused is not irreparable.” She smiled broadly and kindly, ready to begin her new life.

From then on, Emery and the Ivy Woman met many times, and with each meeting they shared more of themselves. When Emery grew old, none of their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren really believed that they had once been shy and closed off – to them, Emery was the most open, honest person they knew.

The Ivy Woman’s friendship with Emery and Lara endured, and each new generation brought new playmates for her… always there now by choice, drawn in by the wonder of her magic and staying for the friendship.

The stone of the green peach still, to this day, stands in a small display case in Emery’s family home, and every summer the family shares a picnic in the ivy garden, joined by the Ivy Woman and Lara and her family, finishing off with a dessert of the most delicious peaches you’ve ever tasted.

The end

Photo by Alyani Yang on Unsplash

Belladonna

The house was fantastic. 

They arrived at the property just a few hours after leaving home but with the unpleasant feeling of fatigue and grime that only an international flight can cause. The cool breeze wafting off the Lago di Bracciano hinted at a little slice of paradise. 

The rough-hewn exterior was overrun by flora – a soft halo of azalea, gardenia and sweet-smelling freesia spread from each window ledge and balcony. The ageing wooden shutters gave the place an old-world charm. Worn stone steps, and an arched front door with stained glass panels, completed the picture. 

Inside, the flagstone hallway offered a cool, calm respite from the summer heat, and the interior of the house opened up in splendour. The high ceilings and panelled walls of the entrance hall gave way to comfortable living quarters. A traditional brick fireplace and rustic kitchen complete with home-grown thyme and rosemary, lovingly plucked and left to dry, filling the room with an intoxicating aroma. 

It felt like the perfect place for time with friends. Charming, rustic and just stone’s throw from Rome – a place to relax after a day of unashamed sightseeing. 

Maybe a ‘stone’s throw’ was an exaggeration… It would take thirty minutes to get into the city, far too long for a small, unrelenting child. Luckily, the budget had stretched to bringing along the au pair – an Italian herself. Maria, had recommended the small town of Anguillara Sabazia as the perfect place to stay, promising to keep the child entertained during the day.

“It’s weird to be the first ones to bring a child along to one of these – don’t you think?” Jasmine said, poking her head around the doorway of the small ensuite bathroom. 

Stephen looked up at her from the bed quizzically. The group had disbanded as soon as the initial awe of the property had subsided, agreeing to meet back downstairs for drinks in the courtyard as soon as the compulsory ‘freshening up’ was complete. 

“Would you have preferred to leave him at home?” he asked.  

“No… but, would it be much different to leaving him here during the day with Maria?” she asked. 

“Yes. He’ll have a great time exploring the town with Maria – and we won’t have to feel hideously guilty when we get back to England,” he said.  

Stephen put out his arm and pulled her down to join him on the bed, kissing the top of her head gently. Through the open window, they could hear the sounds of Maria showing the child the courtyard out back, reeling off the names of the local flowers, and butterflies and other creepy crawlies. Everything was new to him here, and his delight was palpable. Jasmine sighed, allowing herself to relax into Stephen’s arms. 

Another sound rose up from the floors below, the unmistakable tinkling of ice on glass. 

“We should go down,” she said, standing up and making a move toward the bedroom door. “They’ll think we are up to no good if we stay up here much longer.” 

She paused halfway across the room, as if suddenly aware of her surroundings for the first time. 

“Where does this door go?” she asked. 

She couldn’t recall noticing the door on their way into the room. The smooth, dark wood looked the same as all the others, but something about it felt different. She held out her hand and gave an involuntary shiver as the handle stopped still in her hand. Locked. 

“That’s weird, I wonder what’s inside…” she mused.

“It’s probably where the owner hides while he lets the house out,” Stephen joked. “Along with a jar filled with the faces of his previous guests.” He had crept up behind her and pulled her arms behind her back, making her jump. 

“Very funny,” she said, wriggling out of his grasp and swinging round to bat him away, trying not to laugh. “But please, for the love of God, don’t say things like that too loudly. He’ll never sleep if he hears you. And I am not staying up with him while we’re here!” she said. 

Downstairs, Kate and Dylan sat in the courtyard. Hunched over a sightseeing guide to Rome while Maria and the child explored the back reaches of the garden, poking around in the flower beds and peeking under stones and broken terracotta pots. 

Dylan looked up as they walked out into the garden, smiling, he stood up and gestured towards the kitchen.

“Beer?” he asked. 

*

All was quiet as the sun rose over the lake the next morning. 

Jasmine sat outside, under the trees overlooking the lake clasping a cup of strong coffee and trying to remember what things had been like before the child had come along. 

It had been so easy… 

A difficult night had followed what was, initially, a very pleasant evening. He’d woken up, screaming bloody murder, in the small hours, and had refused to go back to his own bed. It wasn’t unusual for him to wake up crying after a bad dream occasionally, but this was something else. He was hysterical, almost entirely inconsolable. 

Through panicked sobs, he’d choked out a few, barely legible words about a lady that had come to take him away. A nightmare, of course, albeit a bad one. He wasn’t used to travelling, and the excitement, and exhaustion of the previous day must have caught up with him.

Jasmine had sat with the boy all night, until, hours later, he finally calmed down and let sleep take hold. He lay on his side, taking up the thin space in between Stephen and Jasmine, his face pressed into the space between the pillows.

Jasmine had tried to sleep, at first, to shake off the feeling of unease that had crept in to join her exhaustion, but the room was hot and cramped, almost suffocating, and she sought solace by the lake in the early hours. The morning sun rose to wash away the ill feelings that the night had brought on. 

Surprisingly, the child didn’t seem too phased by the events of the night before. As they left him behind with Maria that morning and headed out to follow Kate’s carefully planned day of sightseeing, he smiled up at his mother, full of excitement for the day ahead – Maria was taking him for gelato after lunch and had promised to show him fish that lived in the lake. 

“Be good today little man,” Jasmine warned him. “If Maria tells you to take a nap you listen, ok?”

She kissed the top of his dark head. 

“Promise, Mama,” he said with a smile. “I can take a nap. It’s safe now.”

“It’s always safe,” Jasmine soothed. Not wanting another discussion about the night before. Feeling terrible, but desperate once again to extricate herself from the house, and from the company of her son.

The child looked unsure, he put his head to one side and stared at her. 

“It’s at night when they come,” he said, stoically. “When I’m alone, and not with anyone.”

Jasmine looked into the child’s eye when he said this. Unsure of what to say or do – he didn’t seem frightened now, but there was a seriousness in his voice that she found unnerving. The house felt heavy again, the air in the room close and oppressive, Jasmine forced a smile, and turned, half running, to leave via the front door.

*

It felt so good to be out of that house.

People often joke that the English enjoy a good queue – but you’d have been hard pushed to find a single person happier to queue than Jasmine on that fateful summer morning. 

The journey into Rome had been uneventful. Once arrived, the four friends had made their way to the gateway of the Vatican, directed most efficiently, by eagle-eyed Kate and her trusty tourist map. 

As they waited in line for the Sistine Chapel – which was to be the first stop on their Kate-led walking tour of Europe’s holiest city – Jasmine felt content. Not just content, but happy, thrilled even. The sun was shining, and the day stretched luxuriously out before them – it would be hours before they had to return to the little house on the lake. 

Once inside, Jasmine was mesmerised. The group were completely surrounded by tourists, a small part of a huge, heaving mass of bodies. In any other circumstance, it would have felt suffocating, but a glimpse of the ornately decorated frescoes was all it took for the crowd to completely fade away. She felt alone, and at peace, as she took in every minute detail.

The was something unworldly about building – the entire story of the creation of man laid out in technicolour, magnificent figures representing the entire spectrum of human emotion, the complex architecture of the vaulted ceiling itself. 

The group moved slowly, taking in scenes from the creation story, Adam and Eve’s temptation, fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a wrathful God’s punishment on mankind with devastating floods, Noah’s discovery of winemaking and subsequent fall from grace. 

Jasmine walked mechanically through the main vault, to gaze, in awe at the masterpiece located over the high altar, representing the apocalypse of St John, and judgement of all souls left on Earth. Her eyes wandered, to pause upon the bottom right corner, to gaze upon the face of Minos, deep within the group of the damned.

Minos, the judge of the dead in the underworld. Whose mortal body had once sent the souls of young boys and girls into the labyrinth, to be eaten by the Minotaur.

She heard sound a close by and the spell was broken. 

“Careful, they say if you look into his eyes you see the devil,” it whispered. 

It was Stephen, stood beside her, arms folded, contemplating the artwork. He turned to her slowly and smiled, raising an eyebrow at the all-too-serious look on her face. 

“Shall we finish up here and go and find Arturo?” he asked.

*

Arturo was an old friend. 

They had met at university, all living together quite comfortably before finding their own routes in life. Arturo was semi-nomadic, he liked to hop around, Asia, the Middle East, Europe – the world was his playground and her never stayed in one place long enough to call it home. He was currently shacked up in Rome. 

The bar where they had agreed to meet was… interesting. Freni e Frizione – that’s Brakes and Clutch in English – was a bar in an old garage, serving organic vegetarian food and trendy cocktails, and had become a favourite haunt of the now ‘flexitarian’ Arturo. 

The group sat outside to await their old friend, who soon came onto the scene, dressed entirely in white linen, and riding an electric scooter, his characteristic facial hair, which once he had enjoyed cutting into all manner of styles, had been left to grow wild, and fluttered slightly in the breeze. 

Arturo pulled to a stop, hopping lightly off his trusty steed, and making his way around the group, giving each friend a customary one-armed hug, his mouth half-open in an excited, lop-sided grin. 

“So, what’s going on guys? It’s so good to see you all,” he beamed, taking an empty chair, and conjuring a waitress with a flick of his wrist. 

*

The afternoon passed in a blur – cocktails, shots, and heavy Italian cigarettes; it wasn’t long before they found themselves pulling up outside the little house on the lake once again. 

It was late, and the house was quiet, Maria sat on her own in the kitchen, anxiously awaiting their return.

The au pair had volunteered to put the child to bed for the duration of their stay. Jasmine had refused the offer at first, having always enjoyed the ritual of putting her son to bed, but the night before still hung heavy in her mind, and she had been all too willing to give up her duties for the evening.

Of course, the night’s bedtime routine had not gone as planned. The child had grown anxious and restless as the evening had worn on, he had asked for Jasmine, over and over again, and was inconsolable when he found out that his mother would not be home to put him to bed. 

“He kept speaking about a lady,” Maria told Jasmine. “A lady that would come once he was in bed – he was terrified.” 

The poor girl was obviously distressed. She was used to looking after the child – but his behaviour over the last two nights had been very unusual. Jasmine relieved the au pair of her duties and proceeded to check on her son. 

He lay on his side, curled tightly into a ball, having finally given up and fallen asleep – but he looked anything but peaceful. His pillow was damp from tears, and a serious frown was pasted across his small, pale face.

A sudden rush of guilt overcame Jasmine, and she dropped to her knees beside the bed, laying a hand on his soft cheek. The boy didn’t wake, or even flinch beneath her touch, but remained fast asleep. 

Jasmine composed herself, not wanting to leave, but reluctant to risk putting the boy through any more distress. She stood up, and then paused, as her eye caught sight of something glinting in the corner of the room.

A key, similar to a house key, lying abandoned on the wooden floorboards. She picked it up, feeling the weight of the object, and the cold sting of the metal against her hands. 

It didn’t take long for her to remember the locked door.

A sudden intense curiosity filled her veins, the need to look inside was almost primal, an energy pulling her out of the bedroom. She reached out for the door, and slowly put the key inside, turning it with a satisfying click. The door relented swinging open onto the landing. 

It was the smell that first hit Jasmine. Dust and mould, like a house left empty and unloved, and something else, rotten and sulphurous, which stung the back of the palate. She held her breath and looked inside – there wasn’t much to see. It was a small cupboard, a thin layer of dust and cobwebs coated the floor and patches of damp and mould crept up the yellowed walls, other than that there was but a single occupant, covered in an ageing dust sheet. 

Jasmine pulled aside the cloth to reveal a renaissance style portrait. She felt bile rise in her throat, unsure if it was the picture itself, or the smell in the cupboard, she fought back the urge to vomit. The face of a lady stared back at her, but it was all wrong, like someone had mutilated the Mona Lisa.

There was no beauty in the eyes of the fair lady, no magic, no secret smile. Hollow sunken eyes like bottomless pits, puckered cheeks, sagging jowls, a hideous sneer played across her lips. The entire thing was tinged an unnatural shade of green, like nuclear slime. The painting was alien, ungodly, ill-feeling and bad thoughts, it was malice, despair, discomfort, abandonment, fear. 

Jasmine stumbled backwards, throwing the hideous image back into the cupboard, and turning at once to flee the scene, and put as much distance as possible between herself and that godforsaken portrait. 

The sound of Jasmine’s frantic footfall was enough to bring the rest of the group running in from the garden, half-burnt cigarettes still in hand, and puzzled, panicked looks across their faces. Jasmine stood, bent double in the kitchen doorway, retching and gasping for breath, attempting to vocalise the horrors she had witnessed on the first floor. 

Time for confusion, or questions, was cut short by the sound of a door slamming, accompanied shortly thereafter by an ear-splitting scream. 

“Paulie,” Jasmine choked. 

She struggled to her feet and lunged back toward the staircase, all fear of the ghastly green lady expunged by dreaded anticipation of what would await her at the top of the stairs. 

A blanket lay abandoned on the floor, spilling out of the bedroom and onto the dust-strewn landing. Pushing the door aside, Jasmine saw, with dismay that the little bed lay empty, a small imprint all that remained on the tiny child-sized mattress. 

The cupboard was closed. The door was locked tight. And the key was nowhere to be seen.

Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash