Here is something a little different than my usual review. May I introduce Emma Newman, who has written 20 Years Later and an anthology of short stories, From Dark Places. She has started a very exciting new project, but I’ll let her get into that…
This is the third in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would prefer to listen to an audio version, you can find it here: and you can find links to all the other stories as they are released here.
The cheap knife he’d stolen from the kitchen bent as Coll dug it into the tree. He cupped his hand over the circle he’d cut in and caught the chunk of bark as it flicked out. The moonlight glinted off the blade as he pocketed it, hands shaking. Inside his chest the pressure was building, it was so hard to keep the secret.
The farmhouse and outbuildings nestled at the bottom of the hill. Only one light was on now; the porch lantern they burnt through the night. Pam said it was for anyone who needed to find a way to a safe haven. It made him want to spit. Safe haven? That place?
He gouged out a hole in the trunk a few inches deep. He didn’t look up as he did so, knowing the silhouette of the branches against the moon would creep him out too much to see it through. At least it was a dead tree, trying to hack out a hole in the trunk of a healthy one would have been impossible.
He dropped the knife at his feet when it was done, needing to get it over with before he could care about covering his tracks. He leaned forwards, feeling the rough knots of the trunk dig into his belly, brushing the edge of the newly carved hole with his lips.
“I love Emily Fletcher,” he breathed into the trunk. “I really do. I love her and I want to shag her.”
He rested his forehead against the tree, resting briefly as the pressure lifted from his chest. Then he stuffed the chunk of bark back into its original place, like driving a stopper back into the neck of a test tube, keeping the noxious secret trapped inside.
He didn’t want to go back to the commune, so he let himself sit at the base of the tree, listening to it creaking in the breeze. Now the pressure had lifted, he felt calm, then silly. Maybe the hippies were getting to him, not that any of them had told him to do it, but it was the kind of thing they’d like. Idiots. He wanted a Chinese takeaway and to hang out with his mates at the local bus stop, like things used to be on a Friday night. Instead he was in the middle of nowhere because of his stupid Dad, doing crazy stuff with a tree because of a stupid dream. Life sucked.
He looked down at the outbuildings, trying to work out which one Emily lived in. She’d be there now, in her nightdress, lying in bed. His fantasy reworked it into her standing at the doorway to her room, backlit by a candle so he could see the shape of her body through the thin cotton. “Hi Coll,” she whispered with the same hungry eyes as the glamour model in the magazine he’d smuggled in. “Come to keep me warm?”
It was a while before he went back down the hill.
“Coll!” Emily’s voice woke him the next morning. “Come and look!”
He stumbled out of bed, groaning at the birdsong as he threw on the same clothes he’d worn the night before. He took a moment to check there were no tell-tale wood chips caught on the rough woollen jumper and followed her out, liking the way her blonde hair brushed the top of her backside.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“You have to see it, come on!”
They went out into the muddy courtyard, she was leading him to the gate out of the farm. The twilight held the promise of a fine spring day, but he was worrying about whether he’d forgotten something the night before. He’d buried the knife, there wouldn’t be this much fuss over a missing utensil, surely?
Emily was heading up the hill towards the tree, he kept his eyes on his shoes as he quietly panicked. He could hear his Dad’s voice up ahead, then the murmuring of others. The crazy old bat with the long grey hair was singing like she did whenever something special happened. He reminded himself that she thought an apple was something special, so he shouldn’t read too much into it, but still, it made him nervous.
“Coll!” his father called but he didn’t look up. He tried not to look at his father these days.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Emily asked, he watched her feet stop ahead, and then turn towards him. “Coll? Look at it!”
He raised his head slowly, knowing the dead tree was up there, hoping desperately that they’d found some rabbit droppings in the shape of a heart or something equally lame that they all sang and gave offerings for every bloody day. Just don’t be the hole in the tree, he thought.
But it was the same tree they were clustered around, the crazy singing lady working herself up into a frenzy as they all pointed and gabbled at the blossom bursting from its branches. “I thought it was dead,” he muttered as Emily grabbed his hand and pulled him up towards it.
“It’s been dead for years,” Emily said. “Mam says it’s a miracle.”
“Gaia is smiling on us!” her mother cooed, stroking the tree trunk reverently. “She sees the way we tread lightly on the Earth. This is a sign of her approval!”
Coll didn’t believe her, but he refused to believe it had anything to do with him either. If he did that, he’d be turning into one of them, and that was never going to happen. He checked the hole was still hidden, it took him a few moments to catch sight of it, looking like just another knot in the bark. It was a coincidence, nothing more than just a quirk of nature.
“I think it’s a miracle,” Emily whispered, squeezing his hand tight. “Don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Coll said, thinking of Emily touching his skin for the first time. “A miracle.”
Thanks for hosting Hannah! I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x