I used to be afraid of running, of falling and hurting myself too far from home. I would always have this vision of being stuck in the ravine with a broken leg, not able to move, subjected to the long waiting period I’d have to endure before someone came to collect me. Then night would come, swallowing me whole, the intestines of the woods curling its way down the steep incline to me, holding me still while bats fly down my throat to choke the life out of my small body.
I think back to when I held such fears and laugh; the only dangerous thing in the woods nowadays is me.
I’ve taken to running through the woods as much as possible, especially at night. It comes alive, then, the woods. The creatures that sleep during the day go through their normal routine and I get to watch. I’ve even made friends with the wolves that live on the perimeter.
Sometimes they run with me.
Today, however, they are hunting, and so I am running alone. Down the stairs, through the reception rooms, through the obstacle course that is the kitchen, down the back steps, through the garden, down the long lawn, timing myself to see how long it takes to get to the edge of the woods.
I beat my own record by a count of three one-thousands.
I normally veer right to run to the meadow, a large piece of land that once was farmed, but now is covered with wildflowers in the height of spring. The meadow is large enough to run several laps without ever stepping on my own tracks twice. It’s my own private racetrack and I am the only competitor.
But a little voice inside my head tells me to veer left, towards the river to the edge of the property. I’m not a fan of the river, had a terrible experience once, but the voice is strong. I can’t help but listen to it and so my feet turn left, sprinting over the large boulder that my sister and I carved our names on eons ago.
The river comes into view just a second later and I follow it, racing the current. The trees’ branches, large and heavy, serve as hurdles and years of running in the woods have given me the skill to measure the height enough to know if I need to jump or duck. Even though I haven’t been this way in ages, these branches great me as old friends, beckoning, can you still remember the way?
I do remember the way, and I hum as I run. It’s an old tune, one my mother always sings. I’ve found that its harmony is in keeping with the woods, no matter the season. It’s as though the lullaby wove the woods into existence, the notes springing up the trees, the melody creating the curves and rapids in the river to my right.
My steps keep the lullaby’s time; the faster I run, the more cheerful the hum. If memory serves correctly, it takes between 11 to 19 repetitions of the lullaby in its entirety to make it all the way to the perimeter at my fastest pace.
Today, it takes nine to reach the old hawthorn tree that obstructs the view of the new road. If it were spring, the tree would be in bloom, but now in the height of winter, it is a skeleton of itself. I don’t mind though; it makes the tree easier to climb, something I can now remember being a favorite pastime of mine. The tree and I are like old friends, always excited to see each other whenever the occasion arises.
I reach up towards the tree and it welcomes me, its branches lowering to bring me into its embrace. I scramble up the trunk, sitting on the branch that overlooks the river. The sun is setting, and from here I can see the valley, watching the sun’s rays say a tender good night to the world while the sky turns into a rainbow of purples and blues.
I’m there for just a few minutes when I hear a car coming down the road.
Obviously, this is not unusual; roads are meant for driving. But the road the car is on is a private drive. It leads to just one place – my home, Astor Park.
How did the driver gain access at the main gate? I would have thought that the old gate would have been rusted shut after so many years of being unused. There are other ways to the house, of course, the service entrances on the north and west edges of the property, but perhaps whoever’s here has a key to the gate.
I turn to view the road, my dress catching on the thorns of the tree. A small tug and I’m free, hiding behind the large branch that reaches up to the sky, smaller twigs acting as fingers.
I am just in time to see a sedan stop on the side of the road directly in front of the tree, the main gate being less than 100 meters from where the car is now sitting. A man gets out, then his wife, I’m guessing. From my spot, I could see that there are children in the car; well, at least one.
A boy, around my age, with soft brown hair that hung across his eyes.
He is staring directly at me.
“Are you sure that this is such a good idea?” The woman is looking all around her, wringing her hands and brushing back her long blonde hair. It’s obvious that she’s a bit nervous. I don’t blame her; the sun is in the last stages of setting and tonight is a new moon, so the area will be pitch black in less than 15 minutes. “I mean, has the house even got electricity?”
“Of course it has, stop worrying,” the man says. He opens the bonnet of the car and begins searching for something. “Well, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with this car. It’s all electric. It’s like looking at the inside of a computer.”
“Well, it can’t just stop the minute we pass the gate and then start up again,” the woman says. Her worry carries up to me in the tree and I smile; my brothers are up to their tricks again. “This whole trip has been odd, hasn’t it?”
“Rosemary.” The man closes the bonnet. “Look, we bought the house. It’s ours. Stop with the superstitions.”
“If it were just one thing, I would let it go, but it’s been everything,” Rosemary retorts, pulling her coat, Barbour from the looks of it, closer to her slim frame. “First the seller backs out, then they come back, the broker’s gone missing, finally we get the house with more land than we can manage, there are stories of the estate, the locals won’t go near it, the hotel flooded, and now the car goes out and comes back on? James swears he heard children laughing. Look around you. Do you see any children?”
“No. But he was also listening to his music so how much do you think he was paying attention?” The man sighs. I’m guessing Rosemary is always a nervous wreck; I feel sorry for her children. “Listen to me, darling. We are moving in and you are going to have to come to terms with it.”
“Are we ever going to get to the house or is this a camping trip?” I was so focused on the man and Rosemary that I’m surprised to see that the boy, James, has gotten out of the car and is now facing his parents.
“We’re going, I just need to check out the car,” the man said.
“I have to piss,” James said. Now that he’s out of the car, I can see he’s quite tall and slender. “I’ll be back.”
James walks towards me, down the gentle slope, into the forest. I watch him as he passes the tree, not bothering to glance up, going closer to the river.
I wait a few minutes, but James doesn’t come back.
So I slide down the tree trunk, ducking low in case the parents can see me.
I find him next to the river, tapping on something small that makes lights as he puts his fingers on it.
“Who the hell are you?” I freeze. I didn’t think he could actually see me; I’m in the trees, most of my body hidden behind a boulder and a tree trunk. “Well, come on out. I know you’re there. I saw you in the tree.”
I step out in full view, staring at him.
I haven’t seen someone my own age in a long time, so my social skills are not the best.
“I’m Hannah. Who are you?”
“James Travers. My parents bought this estate,” he says, slipping the device back into his pocket. My eyes follow the strange blue light as it disappears. “I didn’t think there were kids my age in this area. How old are you, anyway?”
“Huh. You are actually my age.” He glances me over. “Do you live around here?”
What a stupid question.
“Well that’s specific, isn’t it?”
“Well, you’re still a stranger, so what makes you think I want you to know where I live? You might be a murderer for all I know.”
James laughs. I think I made a joke without realizing it. Jacob is going to flip when he hears I made someone laugh. He’s forever poking fun at me for not being able to tell a proper joke.
“Alright, you got me there.” He’s still looking at me funny. “Aren’t you cold? You know, without a coat?”
“No. I’ve been running.”
“Ah.” I don’t think he was buying it, but I don’t have another excuse to give him. “Right. Well, not to be rude, but I ought to get back to the car. Guess I’ll see you around.”
“Guess so.” I watch him as he walks away. I stand by the river, concentrating hard so I can hear him and his parents get back in the car and drive towards the house.
Once I know that they’re gone, I move up to the road towards the gate. I’ve not been this close in ages, my brothers play in this area and I’d rather not get in the middle of one of their prank wars, but I can’t help it.
I’d like to see if anything’s changed.
The gate isn’t 100 percent original to the house. The bones of it are, but it’s not the same gate my parents commissioned when the estate was built. It’s been reclaimed over the centuries, the coat of arms changing as families move in and out.
Our coat of arms hasn’t been on the gate for over 250 years.
I walk up to the gate as it begins snowing, the tiny freckles of winter falling together in unison, wave after wave. I know that the run back to the house will be a race between me and the snow – can I get back before the snow hides the small rocks and boulders in my path?
I place my bare feet between the iron rods that make up the gate. My feet are small enough that they fit perfectly, and I hang on with both hands, letting the rest of me float in the space that occupies the front of the gate. I stare past it to the road that leads to the world.
I would like very much to run on it.
I put my left hand through the iron rods to the outside world, reaching for change, or at the very least, hope.
As suspected, my hand disappears like a magic trick. It begins to tingle, then burn.
It’s been a long time since I attempted this and I bolt backwards, landing on my back. I hold my left arm to my body, controlling my breathing. I force myself to focus on the pain searing in my hand, willing it smaller and smaller until it’s the size of a hummingbird feather.
Then I blow it away.
I sit at the main gate, the pain now gone. I sit with the knowledge that nothing has changed, but I have a new sliver of hope in James.
His family just might be our way out.
The bell in the small chapel tower on the opposite side of the estate begins ringing.
It’s nearly 4 pm. Time for tea.
I turn back to the house, which I can see just over the hill. All I can see of the car James is in are the taillights that are visible as pinpricks in the growing darkness.
I know I don’t have a lot of time before my mother starts looking for me, so I decide to run straight through the woods to get home.
This time, I don’t bother with willing myself to be physical. It takes the fun out of running, but it’s more important to not keep my family waiting, especially with the new arrivals.
So I run in a straight line, moving through trees, rocks, and boulders, going faster the closer I get to the house. I cut through the house at an angle, showing up first in the library, then the corridor, underneath the stairs going up, then to my parent’s apartments in the East Wing.
I’m at the table in the parlor, sitting down before Penelope, Richard, Henry, Jacob, Camden, and Sebastian, thinking away my summer dress in favor of more formal attire.
I know my brothers have already seen the family, but I want to be the one to tell my parents, who are now just walking in, the news.
“Mum, there’s a new family moving in and the son can see me.”
[Photo provided is of Wollaton Park, Nottingham, United Kingdom by Mike Smith via Unsplash.]