All of Annie’s life had been devoted to making herself disappear, from the time her mother had vanished and her father had begun to stink of whisky and rage. As he stomped around the house flinging cutlery and chairs, yelling and cursing, she had learned to be still, like the dead tree in the garden. Later she had learned to be even quieter and stiller when he would come to her room at night fueled by something viler and darker than whisky. Even when he beat her senseless for disappointing him she had learnt not to cry out or fight back, because it only made it worse.
At school she learned to disappear amongst the blank, dirty faces in the crowded classroom, to avoid the biting sarcasm of the stern-faced teachers whose put-downs and nasty remarks only encouraged the bigger and more brutal kids, who hunted in packs like wolves around the playground, to pick out the belittled and dish out more violent slap-downs. She learned to disappear in a crowd, to become one with the anonymous herd, with no voice or character and just drifted on the sea of life like a dead jellyfish.
Now while she sat before a window in the dark stillness of her room listening to the thing from the forest slowly slouch its way towards her door, she knew that everything that had gone before was preparation for what was about to happen.
She had heard the thing which lived in the dark, moldy holes of the forest floor calling to her before.
She had first heard it a few days after her mother had disappeared. She had wandered the forgotten and overgrown paths of the forest in those initial days of loss, lost in her own agony of loss, her despair eating her from the inside as though it were some horrible worm that had buried itself deep in her innards and was now growing fat and greedy on her pain. Devouring her.
It had called out to her from its hiding place in the dark shadows of the undergrowth from a place which had never been kissed by the sunlight, a stranger to warmth.
"Come here little girl," it had coaxed, its voice like autumn smoke.
"I can ease your trouble," it had said.
"I can end all of your troubles."
She had looked around, confused and scared.
"Are you real?" she had tremulously gasped, in a voice full of fear of what the answer might really mean.
The insidious darkness which lived in the spaces where light had never danced only stared back at her.
After a while she carried on walking down the neglected path and something followed her because she could hear it in the rustle of fallen leaves, or the snapping of a dead branch. And she could hear it in her head, whispering to her and mocking her.
"Pathetic and unloved, ugly and unwanted. Join me and forget it all," it had chanted.
Eventually she became overwhelmed and started to run. Blinded by her tears, she had simply run to escape the thing that was tormenting her; in a panic she had dashed through the bushes which had scratched her, and the low branches which had reached out to slash at her with their sharp pointed tips. The day was burning itself up, like a scarlet rash splashed across the horizon, when she finally broke through the treeline. She bent over and pulled heaving gulps of chilly air into her burning lungs. Her mouth was full of the taste of copper and her nose was blocked with snot. Tears blurred her vision and the seeping blood from various cuts was attracting the attention of tiny feasting bugs.
This time the voice was much closer.
"You can run but I will always find you. You are mine now."
And like the smoke of an autumn fire it was there, spiraling and snaking in the air for a moment before dissipating into the ether.
"I can see you," it would hiss in a voice full of mud and mulch as she passed to and from school.
"One day I will visit you." And then it would scamper away like a rat shuffling inside a wall, leaving her scared and confused. She saw and heard many things and most of them she knew were not real. The things which were true were often more dark and horrific than her imaginings.
But as she walked home alone from school through the forest to avoid the leering looks and grabbing hands of the loud, lewd drunken labourers who gathered outside of the local pub between her home and school, the thing in the hole would sometimes follow her and get so close she could smell its earthy breath and a rich whiff of wet undergrowth.
"Be still, be quiet and it will go away," she would whisper to herself, only to hear a cackle of subdued laughter behind her in the gloom where only the prettiest, most dangerous mushrooms grew.
One day at school, as she lay obscured and hidden in the tall grass , staring at the blue empty sky and thinking about the thing in the woods, she overheard a group of girls talking. One of the girls , a loud redhead who, according to school yard gossip was having an affair with the young and handsome History teacher, was repeating a story her father had told from his days as a soldier in far-away India, about a Holy man who captured a demon in a bowl of water.
"There were this fella that said he were possessed by a demon, a genie or something they call it. Anyway this holy man were called for and he just asked for a bowl of water. After doin’ some chantin’ and whatnot, the man looked into the water and saw his reflection. The Holy Man told him to move away and what were left were the face of a demon staring out from the water. The demon were dead frightened and begged to be let go but the Holy Man made him swear to leave the feller he had possessed alone. Me dad said it were strangest thing he ever saw in India."
After a while, the girls went back to chatting about boys and other things before the bell rang to signal the start of afternoon lessons. Annie lay still staring at the sky and thinking about what she had just heard...
Annie heard the door of her room slowly creak open and caught that almost familiar reek of wet soil, dead leaves and fungal decay. Slowly and soundlessly she turned on her chair to face the window again; silvery moonlight cast a gentle glow, like early morning frost, on the dressing table. Behind her, the thing began to creep and scuttle on its paws towards her, softly cackling as it came ever closer.
She reached out for the ivory hand mirror which had belonged to her mother, one of the few possessions she had left behind, and held it up to her face as she began to comb her long auburn hair with a brush.
The thing gasped but still came closer, laying a hand that felt like it was made of sticks and twigs on her shoulder.
"You are mine," it whispered. "Your father is dead, choked on his own puke in the chair before the fire. He won’t save you," it purred creeping closer.
Quietly and gently, she carried on softly brushing her hair in long, slow sweeps.
The thing shifted position and now looked over her shoulder into the mirror and froze.
The thing was looking at itself for the first time in its life and what it saw drove it mad.
Frozen and still, it cowered and whimpered. It knew no other reality than the ugliness of what was framed inside of the mirror.
"Release me!" it begged. "I will give you anything, if you release me from the mirror!"
She sat still and did not turn but said, "Give me your place and I will release you."
At first the wretched thing did not understand. "A trade?" it asked.
"Your place," she simply repeated. "So I can disappear."
"What of me? What will become of me?" it whined.
She shrugged. "Those are my terms," she stated.
The thing struggled and snarled, biting and chomping, but she was unmoved. She could wait.
After a while it gave in and said in a small voice, "Very well, I accept your terms."
Once again, it could imagine a world beyond the confines of the mirror but it was a hollow, empty feeling for now it was condemned to an existence of wandering and exile.
"Be gone," she said quietly, and so the thing retreated defeated and broken.
Annie waited until the first rosy fingers of dawn appeared on the horizon before she went into the forest, down into the cool, deep holes of the underworld where she became one with the mud and mulch.