His breaths were thin wind, a visible cloud of smoke in the dusk light, fading as the cold simmered into his skin. The dark came after the pinkish hue of the sky and the clouds dissipated, and it was beautiful.
He was alone. Of course, he was always alone; save the overbearing willow trees and the rough, wind and the whispers of the silver stream. And he loved it. What gave others fear, he himself relished in. The quiet, stillness of the woods provided tranquility home could never allow. But his yearning would be his demise. Solitary is the worst mistake of the woods.
The boy was restless. He carried firewood atop his shoulder; hair draped across his forehead, hiding his dark, black eyes and the beads of sweat that precipitated across his skull. The sky was an ebony hue; there were no stars to light the night atmosphere, and it was a new moon, a chameleon treading across the black sky. The air was cold against his warm skin as he sat near the stream, uttering their greetings to him in their flowing language.
It was the laughter, so he realized. The laughter. A cackling, pounding, evil laugh that attacked his mind with panic, made him turn his head left and right and left and right, and busted a dull, thudding noise to resound in his ears. Each breath became more ragged and uneven than the next, elevating in hyperventilation. He had never encountered such a noise before; the woods only granted him peace and serenity. Fear laced his veins; he became fear, quicker than the rushing river could drown a grown man, rapid and deadly in its ferocious, watery embrace. And so he ran, becoming the wind in the willows, becoming the rain that had started to storm upon him, his pulse quickening like the storm and the wind and the river. Trepidation forced his mind to his house, and he forgot the firewood, forgot what equanimity his safe haven provided. The woods, he decided, were a dangerous place, more dangerous than the chaos inside of his own home.
The boy was the only reason they ever agreed to live inside the same cottage. This was the fountain of his heaviness. The guilt of being born, of being alive. The boy felt betrayed by the woods, that the only place on earth that gave him what he truly needed was his worst enemy.
The trees swept in on him, their branches cutting into his wrists, his legs, his face; he felt blood begin to drip down his cheeks and his head pounded until he could not hear his own breaths in the night. He stopped in the middle of a crossroads---the sun was down. He did not know which way was east, to his home. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his skin, mixed with the blood from his cheeks.
The laughter continued.
The boy was lost.
His hands began to shake, and---there! It was there, he knew, he saw it---
A piece of cloth flew into his face, smelling of mildew and sweat, covering his vision for a millisecond, and---
A dark, stringy-haired girl stood in front of him, smiling toothily. She wore a dark red dress that was heavy about her shoulders, weighing her down like chains; it went down to her knees, and she was bleeding. Her round, childish eyes were like a doll’s---marble blue and large, much too large to be normal, and fangs emerged as she lunged toward the boy.
His legs ran, his throat stinging from his screams, and instinct took over; for the first time in a very long, long time, the boy felt relief when he saw the billowing smoke from the chimney of the cottage, and light in the windows.
He tore into the house, the door creaking behind him. “Mama? Papa?” he asked into the home. Whoever cackled had disappeared and made no more sound in the thundering rain that now pounded atop the roof. Stupid, he thought to himself, to be afraid of only a source of laughter. His imagination had most certainly deceived him. The boy turned his head right to see his father, always writing a letter to his own—
The boy screamed, had never screamed so loud in his life, dropping to the floor onto his back on all fours, reeling and sprawling back from the horror, oh, the sight of it! What he thought was his father was not, was not, was not! He gaped in such a terrified demeanor that he was afraid it would be insulted. Wearing his father’s clothes, sitting in his father’s chair, looking at him was a creature the size of a man; its face plastered white, its cheeks and lips painted red. The monster’s mouth was open in laughter and shock, hair large and crimson. It had no eyes.
He froze, his mouth open from screaming, and wondered what to do. Perhaps his hesitation was his mistake. The beast stood up from his chair, seeming to be a giant before the boy, lying on his back in fear. Its head tilted to a forty-five degree angle, as if peering at him through its popping veins from its empty eye sockets that seemed to curl toward its cheeks, strewn out like a ball of yarn violated by a kitten; it seemed to wonder what a wondrous meal a human boy would make, and grinned broader than the ocean’s horizon, revealing a yellow and ebony toothed smile.
Now the boy screamed, and attempted to scramble out the door, away from the cackling laughter that originated from this creature; this creature that took the place of his father when—his mother, who he had not seen, said, “Whatever is the matter, dearie? Don’t you love your father?” It came from the kitchen; from the kitchen where the scent of baking wafted throughout the house. “Sweetheart, come say hello to your mother; come say hello, hello, hello!”
The boy dared to turn, where the body’s back faced him, when his real mother never called him “dearie” or “sweetheart”, and he should have known. His mother turned, and was not his mother, and struck him with such panic, his heart a drum in the beating rain. Her own face was a replica of the other creature’s—white and red around the eyes (for this one had sight) and its lips and its cheeks, and the beasts were always smiling, always grinning down at him, as he screamed and glared in cowardly, frozen fear. Upon the woman’s nose, however, was a sort of red cotton ball, round and soft, it seemed. Her eyes were streams of red, as if she had cried crimson paint.
His breathing was ragged, his heart and his veins exploding with such raw fear; and the vile beasts came to him, hands outstretched. When they touched him, their hands were cold, as if their veins no longer existed, as if blood no longer pumped through their wrists. The boy struggled, jerking away from their grasps, and unfortunately, into the house. It was raining, raining and howling and hailing now; the storm brewing and winding violently through the dark, dark night.
“Why are you afraid, my son?” his mother cackled. Her hands came up to touch the boy once more; he screamed and snapped back into a mirror on the wall behind him, breaking it with a shatter and a crash. The shards of glass scattered about him, pierced his back and arms as he yelped in pain. He turned around to see blood, running down the mirror, down his reflection in the mirror, cracked down the middle in uneven lines that ran like rivers; the blood splattered about the powdery whites of his skin, mixing with the red around his eyes—
The boy gasped, choking at the sight of his reflection. There lay a mop of red, red hair, soft and floating to the touch. His face was no longer tan and brown, but white and plastered; the skin around his eyes was crimson, enlarging his eyes, which were as dark as they were before. Black, ebony, and dark; dark as the night, and dark as his realization.
What he saw was what he was, and it horrified him. His fear, he saw in the cracks of the mirror, was himself.
And the monsters behind him laughed.