You’re not sure if you can do it, but you have to. You’ve no choice. The other kids are watching. You glance back over your shoulder and see them clustered together on the other side of the road, bikes and scooters scattered around, propped against the kerb or thrown on the grass.
You pretend to not hear the sneer of what you hope won’t become a new nickname, then get down onto your hands and knees, and shove a loose plank aside, push through the gap under the wooden fence and into the witch’s garden beyond.
It’s overgrown but thankfully the ground’s not damp. There’s been no rain since school finished for summer. It still smells of old wood and rot though. Caterpillars and woodlice, those distant cousins of trilobites, scurry away from you. An earwig runs over your fingers, its sleek black body, wet looking and vicious. With a shudder you flick it away, off into the long grass, then, being careful to avoid gigantic stinging nettles you nudge a heavy creeper aside, minding to not get snagged on the curved thorns and stand up.
You’re in a clearing. The garden here isn’t at all wild. You look around and see that the tall, thick hedges act like borders, surrounding a tidy lawn. There are decorations in the grass, rounded stones that probably form some pattern you can’t figure out. Overhead, unlit lanterns hang from wires. It’s peaceful.
At the far end of the garden you can see a quaint little house, all red bricks and big windows. There are roses growing beside the door. Orange, with massive blooms. Brighter than anything you’ve ever seen before.
“You’re not supposed to be here, child.”
The voice scares you. It seems to come from nowhere.
Startled you look around, ready to run, but you don’t know in what direction, you can’t see anyone. You’re alone in the garden. Then another speaks.
“Better get out, before she finds you.”
Finally, you look down. What you thought were simply round stones are actually skulls. The garden is dotted with them. They’ve all tilted and turned themselves so they’re staring up at you with empty sockets, chattering and talking across each other in a swirl.
“Mistress will devour your flesh.”
“She’ll boil your bones.”
“Get out of here now.”
“You’ll ever escape.”
Then, all of sudden, silence. The absence of noise is confusion. You turn around and there’s someone standing by the house. She’s beautiful. Dressed in green and grey, she’s tall and more radiant than you ever imagined anyone could be. Her honey-coloured skin seems to glow. You don’t even think about running.
When she speaks her voice buzzes, like a fly bashing angrily against a kitchen window.
“Why have you come here, child? You were not invited.”
She approaches and you see she’s wearing a necklace made of knuckles and fingerbones.
Before you can reply the lies get caught in your throat, strangled from the start, forcing you to speak the truth.
“I want to take something, from the witch’s garden.”
“Am I the witch?” she points at herself.
Your body seems to be made from stone, but you manage to nod.
“Children never change,” she rubs a finger down your cheek. You’re not sure but you think you might be crying. “You cannot just take something that doesn’t belong to you child, but I can offer you an exchange.”
Her left cheek ripples, as something moves briefly about beneath the skin. It’s like glimpsing a fish breaking a pond’s surface, before gliding back under. You blink, unsure if it was really there at all.
Meanwhile her eyes, all black, dotted with a tiny red centre, remain fixed on you.
“Child, an exchange.”
It’s not a question.
Somehow you manage to get the words out around the lump in your throat. You reach into your pockets and remove, two batteries, half a packet of chewing gum, a folded over playing card, crumbs. Nothing. With trembling hands, you hold this out to her, a feeble offering.
She barely even looks down.
“No. This will not do. There must be something else you can offer. Something worthy, especially when your original intent was to steal.”
You realise that most of the skulls have turned away, as if ashamed or afraid to watch. Those that continue to observe all have massive grins on their skinless faces.
“I would very much like,” she pauses, then whispers, her voice a low buzz, “I would like your breath.”
You don’t know what to say.
She holds out her right hand and places it against your face. Her skin is smooth, so soft and bright. She lifts her left hand to your chin. There is a gash across the palm, marked in pink, a scar, running from the end of the middle finger almost to her wrist.
Up this close she smells like bad meat and granny’s too flowery perfume.
You nod and take a deep breath. Then, you exhale.
The scar on her hand ripples and bulges.
You try to stop, but your breath keeps coming.
Her palm splits open, the fingers shoved back and something, like when you see a flower opening in fast forward on a nature show, forces its way out from inside. The petals unfurl and still you keep exhaling.
Your lungs ache.
You can see your breath, caught above this palm-flower, a miniature tornado, spinning, furiously.
When you feel like you can give no more, it goes on beyond that, then finally the petals close over and everything folds back inside, disappearing into the flesh of her palm. The skin closes over, leaving only that neat pink scar, like a thin mouth, with lips closed tight and flat.
You gasp, and something rattles in your chest.
When you finally look up, she’s smiling like Holy Mary in a religious painting; calm and beautiful, distant and dangerous. Her skin looks polished, cheeks glowing, those dark eyes with the tiny dot of red at their centre, like a photograph of something from deep space.
She offers you an orange rose. You don’t want it anymore, but your hand closes over it anyway.
“Thank you,” you whisper, maybe because you think you should.
Going back through the bushes you prick your thumb on one of the rose’s thorns. It draws blood, just a pinprick. You jam the wounded finger into your mouth, to dull the pain.
Then you stop and look back, but the branches have folded over, like fans opening out, blocking the view, hiding the garden. You can’t remember what you were doing.
You push through the fence to where your friends are waiting.
“Hey, hey, what’d you get?”
“Thought you’d been caught.”
“You were gone ages.”
You hold up the rose, confused. “It was just a garden. Nothing special.”
“Let’s go down the building site.”
“Yeah, let’s roll.”
As the others hop onto their bikes and scooters you drop the rose onto the ground and cross the road.
Picking up your own bike you look over at the fence. Something niggles in the back of your head, but you can’t figure out what.
As your friends disappear into the distance you shove off and pedal after them. Before you’ve even reached the bottom of the road your lungs start to ache and burn, but you push on, pedalling harder and harder to try and keep up.
Ken McGrath lives in an upside down house in Dublin, Ireland with his wife. His fiction has previously appeared in Tales From The Moonlit Path, along with Cirsova Magazine, The Society Of Misfit Stories, K Zine, Liquid Imagination Magazine, Bards & Sages Quarterly, Daily Science Fiction and the anthologies ‘Transcendent’ (Transmundane Press) and ‘Terror Politico!’ (Scary Dairy Press). You can find him online here https://kenmcgrathauthor.tumblr.com/ if you want.