Hide and seek was Autumn Wood’s all-time favourite game; she loved the suspense of sneaking off to find a nook or cranny to squeeze her tiny body into and the dizzy feeling she got when stifling her laughter as the seeker would wander past, not knowing how close he or she was to finding her. She equally enjoyed when it was her turn to do the seeking, the mystery of where her friends or family would be hiding, pretending she was a detective collecting clues, and the hilarious pay-off that came with finding her compatriots and surprising them by bursting into their hiding place with a roar, hands outstretched and ready to tickle them. This particular game was going to be extra fun; she was at school and her teacher had just gone home sick so her friends had been given an extra-long lunch break and had decided that everyone in their class should take part in a mammoth game of hide and seek, the head mistress had even said she would give a free cookie to the winner. With the stakes so high, Autumn was taking this particular game very seriously, going over places to hide in her head as Rachel, her best friend, was blindfolded by the substitute teacher; she could climb into one of the classroom cupboards, or climb one of the trees in the playground. No this hiding place had to be somewhere special, it wasn’t only the promise of a free cookie, but the triumph of being the class champion.
“Ready? Go!” called the substitute.
There was a scramble as the children ran off in all directions, giggling and bumping into each other in the search for the perfect hiding place.
“1, 2, 3…” counted Rachel.
Autumn new that when she got to thirty her best friend would whip off her blindfold and begin her hunt. She took a step one way, then the other, not sure where to run and hide, the anticipation building in her as if she was queuing for the best ride at the funfair. Then the idea came to her; there was a huge yew tree at the back of the playground whose solid canopy of leaves spanned metres across and reached all the way to the ground, but beyond the leaves the inside was relatively hollow. It wouldn’t take much effort to pick her way through the branches beyond the green curtain to hide behind its trunk, so Autumn set off as fast as her short legs could carry her, pumping her arms rapidly as she hurried to get out of sight before Rachel was able to see again, her pleated navy blue skirt dancing above her white socks which themselves were just a blur as she ran. She reached the yew tree with seconds to spare, casting an eye over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching, she parted the screen of leaves and stepped into their shade, ensuring there was no evidence of her entry left behind with a quick brushing of her hand against the greenery. Autumn was small even for her age, and she bent and twisted her skinny limbs as she made her way to the centre of the yew tree, her curly auburn hair occasionally snagging on a stray twig as she progressed, the white of her school-issue polo shirt becoming more scuffed and dirty with every entanglement. Her hair pulled against her scalp, stinging as it did so and she had to stop to untangle it from time to time but she didn’t care, this was the best hiding place ever, so it was worth to sacrifice. The sounds of scampering children and surprised laughter as her classmates were uncovered quietened as she reached the trunk of the large yew tree, which she stood behind so that she was facing where she’d entered the boundary of leaves and, beyond that point, the playground. She hugged the wood tightly, pressing her face against its gnarled surface, feeling the cool knots under her fingers and cheek as she breathed in the sweet smell of sap. Her arms weren’t long enough to encircle the trunk fully, leaving a full foot of exposed wood in the space between her hands, and her cheeks were rosy from her dash across the school grounds, the freckles across her nose almost camouflaged by the flushing of her skin. She was breathing deeply, partly short of breath but also through excitement and anticipation of victory, and her curly ginger locks were springing wildly from her usually tidy mane, a result of catching on branches as she passed them but also now stuck in places to the sticky tree bark. Her large green eyes stared unblinking at the spot where she’d entered the shelter of the tree. Her parents had named her Autumn because the reddish-brown of her hair and the green in her eyes reminded them of leaves changing colour with the season, and she had grown into a beautiful child; her plump, rosy cheeks were exaggerated by her otherwise pale complexion, and her large, colourful eyes and shiny curls made her look like an expensive porcelain doll. She had the brains and temperament to match her looks too, consistently toward the top of her class she had also learned good social skills and manners from her parents, who were frequently complimented on their “delightful” daughter. Autumn’s breathing slowed as the distant screams of children being found became less frequent, but she remained in position; she knew that the teacher would announce when all but one of the children had been found, so she must remain still and silent until then. The playground gradually became completely silent, devoid even of the sound of Rachel’s hurried steps. Autumn considered that the pursuit had led her best friend inside the building, or to the front of the school, but as the silence drew on she became increasingly anxious, wondering if she had been forgotten and everybody else had returned to class to continue the school day; after all this was a substitute teacher who might not notice if one of the class was missing, she might not even announce when the game was over as Autumn had been expecting. A lump rose in her chest, manifesting in her neck as she almost began to cry, stopping herself just as the tears collected in the furrows of her conjunctivae. She released her grip on the tree trunk, her hair coming away in tangles as it was pulled from the sap, and was about to make her way back out into the playground when she heard a noise behind her; a rustling sound that was too loud to have been made by a bird or mouse. This was accompanied by a very quiet bubbly, hacking noise, like the one her uncle Raymond used to make when trying to stifle a bloody cough as he died of lung cancer two summers previously. Autumn turned her head and peered into the far side of the tepee created by the yew’s leaves; in the darkest part of the hollow she could just make out a small shape, like a deflated grey balloon but the size of a large dog. Intrigued, she began carefully stepping through the branches in the direction of this shape; the sound it was making had stopped, but Autumn could see the shape was moving slightly, growing larger and smaller as if someone was inflating and deflating the balloon. As she approached she could see the surface of the thing was thin, grey-white and strewn with veins. It had a line of lumps running down its centre, and as Autumn got to within touching distance she could see, curled up beyond the shape, the limbs and head of a naked man. The skin on his arms had been torn off in places, and he didn’t move an inch as she crouched next to him to investigate further; she couldn’t see his face, buried in his arms as it was, but his skin was fascinating to her, completely smooth and chalk white with electric blue veins like hundreds of tiny lightning rods across his back. As she gazed at the map of vasculature between the man’s shoulder blades, Autumn saw movement; not the gradual inflation and deflation that coincided with his breathing, this was something moving under his skin. The surface of the man’s back wriggled like the maggots in her father’s fishing bait box; she had always wondered what it would feel like plunging her hands into the moist, wriggling mass that her father often playfully threatened to pour over her head, but she felt no such intrigue about the writhing within the man who lay before her, instead clapping her hands over her mouth to stifle a scream as she felt fear rising inside her, sapping the energy from her legs and raising every hair on her arms and neck to attention. She had been approaching carefully, making almost no sound as she drew nearer to the man, but now, in her hurry to flee, her feet felt clumsy and her first step of retreat loudly cracked a large dry twig. The noise startled Autumn, but more so did the sudden movement of the man; propelling himself suddenly upward and twisting to face her, he was now crouched on his haunches, his disfigured face hovering just above his bony knees as he looked at her. His forehead and jaw were swollen as if someone with fat fingers had grabbed a hold of his brow and lower row of teeth from under his skin. His mouth hung loosely open, swinging his chin one way then the next as he tilted his head, regarding the young girl frozen in place in front of him. His nose had sunken in, the cavity left behind sealed over by a mucousy layer of skin that oscillated with his breathing, and his eyes were completely black and expressionless. Although they had no obvious focal point, seeming like bottomless pits set in the thin white skin that lay painfully over angulated bone, Autumn could sense that they were focussed on her. She could see movement swimming within them; dark grey tendrils like tiny octopus’ legs gesticulated wildly in the black, so dark themselves that they were barely visible. Autumn lowered her hands from her mouth and took a deep breath, preparing to scream for help, but before she could make a sound the disfigured man leapt forward with unnatural speed, clasping her shoulders so tightly in his bony hands that his wounds bulged and yet more worms became visible entwined in his muscles, and pushed her back forcefully against a thick branch. The back of her head collided with the unforgiving wood with a dull thud, muted slightly by her thick hair, and she felt a sharp pain radiate down her spine and forward into her nose as her vision began to cloud over. A second blow against the gnarled wood knocked her unconscious, now limply hanging from Aaron’s grip on her shoulders he crashed her petite body back up into the branch once more, the cracking of the bark sounding like her bones were being shattered, before letting her fall to the ground. She lay motionless, but still breathing, amongst the fallen twigs, her uniform muddied and torn, her hair bedraggled and lying over her face, until Aaron took hold of her ankles and dragged her out the back of the tree and away from the school grounds.
Unbearable pain in her back woke Autumn from her induced slumber; she was thrown down powerfully onto a creaking metal surface that made the sound of a screeching bird, announcing her arrival as she impacted against it. The excruciating pain erupted in her back almost immediately, and she felt the cold, rough edge of rusted metal as it jaggedly pierced her skin and entered the small of her spine. She tried to sit up but was being held down by the man that had kidnapped her, and the metal spike penetrating her back scratched against her vertebrae, sending shocks of numbness through her body like she’d hit an almighty funny bone. She lay as still as possible to avoid any further grating of her nerves and felt cold metal spikes being bent around her wrists and ankles, holding her in place. She opened her eyes, that had remained tightly shut as she winced against the pain, and saw Aaron standing over her; the room she was in was dimly lit by a shivering flame, and shadows danced over his pale skin as the light quivered by the side of the bed to which she had been fixed. The trembling light only served to exaggerate the movements within Aaron’s skin, which were far more prominent now than they had been in the playground and, as he stood over her, his pitch black eyes reflected the flame as though his retinas were on fire. Autumn was struggling not to cry, she was young but stubborn and she didn’t want this man to enjoy anything he was about to do to her. Despite her efforts tears silently made their way down her cheeks, winding in between her freckles as she stared defiantly up into the mutilated face that loomed over her. Her nostrils flared and the corners of her mouth down-turned as she fought not to cry.
“My daddy will find me.”
Her voice was uneven, shaky, and her words stuttered as they left her lips unconvincingly,
“He’ll rescue me.”
Her statement didn’t seem to register with her captor, who stood unmoving except for his head, which tilted from side to side as he scanned her over and over from head to toe, jaw hanging loose and scraping against his chest as it moved. Autumn remained as still as she could, her tears had dried but sweat now beaded her brow, sticking her auburn curls to her forehead. Her breathing was staggered and rapid, and disturbed the occasional lock of hair that hung close to her mouth or nostrils. Aaron moved a hand to her face, gently brushing her hair away from her eyes with graceful, dextrous movements as he used his fingers to brush out the knots so that it hung freely between the winding metal rods that supported her. Dropping slowly to his knees, Aaron brought his head close to Autumn’s, and she could see for the first time that the tuberous swellings framing his face were pulsating gently as if pumping liquid into his skull. His thin skin shone white as it strained to maintain its integrity above the prominent bones beneath it, and there were no worms moving underneath it. Wet, black grime had accumulated in the creases between the pumping tubes and around the thin film of mucous that overlaid his exposed sinuses, and Autumn could see that he had no teeth in his gaping mouth, nor any gums to speak of, which were merely millimetre-thin crescents of red, as if someone had stuck some coloured string into his oral cavity to give it some character. His breath smelled of rotten eggs mixed into a baby’s diaper, and it misted around her face as he exhaled toward her in the chilly air, making her wretch and gag as it lingered around the entry points to her own airways. The room was silent except for Aaron’s wheezing breaths, exaggerated by their proximity to her ear, and a faraway sound like screeching metal that came and went sporadically. Autumn had been so distracted by the propinquity of her captor’s face, and by the foul smell coming from his mouth, that she had not noticed his hands move under the bedframe where her hair now dangled. She squealed piercingly as Aaron clasped a handful of her hair and pulled sharply down; the back of her head pressed painfully against the metalwork and her scalp stretched from its anchorings as her hair was wrenched unforgivingly downwards, bulging through the gaps in the wire bedframe. Autumn yelled in pain, her scream reaching a crescendo as the tears welled up once more in her eyes, fingers grabbing at air over and over, feet flapping furiously to try and break free of their bonds until her scalp gave way sending her head reflexively upwards and a large handful of ginger hair was pulled from her head, bringing with it small segments of flesh that oozed blood and left behind tenderness that stung when Autumn attempted to rest her head back down against the bedframe. Her tears now in full flow, Autumn could not control herself any longer and wept uncontrollably as Aaron brought his prize around and held it aloft above her face. Without warning, the handful of hair was plunged forcefully into her mouth, and she felt cold bony hands enclose around her nose and oral cavity. She could taste the earthy metallic mix of mud and blood mixed in with her hairs, which crunched against one another as she was forced to chew, sending reverberations through her skull. She gnawed the obstruction furiously, trying to clear it so she might be able to breathe; her chest was in-drawing but no air entered her lungs while her nose and mouth were occluded by Aaron’s hands. The macabre mouthful soon knotted together, tying itself painfully around her tongue but becoming just about small enough to attempt to swallow. Autumn choked as she felt the hairball drag slowly down her oesophagus, trailing hairs tickling her windpipe and sending it into spasm, and she gagged as it slid past her voicebox down into her stomach. She could still taste the greasy metallic taste of her scalp flesh as Aaron removed his hands from her face, and only the precious inhalation that followed prevented her from vomiting. Before she could catch her breath another clump of hair was grasped and pulled sharply downwards, again pinning her head back against the metal coils but this time producing more pain as the exposed areas of flesh rubbed against the jagged, rusted frame. Her hair came away easier this time, her scalp tearing from her skull rather than give up its hold on her roots, and again Autumn was presented with a grizzly mouthful that was aggressively thrust upon her; there was far more flesh this time, which squelched as she masticated matter-of-factly, desperately trying to avert her thoughts from what was in her mouth. She could feel warm blood dripping from the back of her head, cooling as it resided on the metal, and she could smell a musty odour on Aaron’s fingers as they were pressed firmly against her nostrils. Panic rose in her as she felt heaviness in her chest through lack of aeration, and she attempted to swallow unsuccessfully; instead of going down into her stomach, her mouthful returned and brought with it burning, acid tasting vomit that erupted from her mouth through Aaron’s fingers, spraying sideways and arcing through the air over her face like a garden sprinkler system. Aaron withdrew his hands from Autumn’s face, dripping with green-yellow fluid and draped in bloody, wet hairs like gruesome Christmas tinsel, and turned to fetch something from the table at the end of the bed. His victim lay still, panting furiously as she recovered from her asphyxiation, face doused in sputum and vomit, blood-red hairs hanging from the corner of her mouth as she stared up at the ceiling. Aaron returned to the bedside, kneeling once more, and firmly grasped Autumn’s hand, splaying her fingers out with his; she no longer fought against him, diminished by her struggles so far. He produced a pair of pliers from behind his back and shakily applied the grip to the nail of Autumn’s index finger, transfixed on her face as he squeezed the handles together, tightening his hold. Aaron stood up, holding the pliers in both hands now, staring at his victim who was herself gazing blankly at the ceiling, seemingly unaware of her plight. With a sharp tug the nail was torn from its bed, making a quiet sound like a beetle being squashed underfoot and causing very little blood to be spilled from its heretofore resting place. Autumn remained focussed on the ceiling of the room, wincing only slightly as her nail was removed and, on seeing her lack of reaction, Aaron bent over her emitting noises like a drunk drowning in a puddle, his jaw swinging wildly as his head jutted back and forth. He returned to Autumn’s fingers, clutching another nail in the teeth of the pliers and yanking it from its bed, this time with no pause for effect, and refocused his gaze on her face; again she hardly seemed to notice the torture and instead was mumbling quietly to herself. Aaron leant closer to hear her words, so softly spoken that they were almost drowned out by the distant rumbling of passing trains;
“my daddy……….my daddy…….…my daddy………..”
Aaron stood tall, pausing over Autumn’s prone, mumbling form and slowly a confused expression came across his face, the skin almost tearing as it was manipulated over his facial bones. He felt like he knew this girl, like he’d met her before. He took a step back and rounded the bed so that he was at its foot, staring wistfully at the girl he had just maimed. He’d seen this before; a young girl, lying on her back, injured, but this girl had been different, she’d been his. She had straight black hair, pale skin and blue eyes. Her name was Jemima. Aaron searched his mind for where he’d seen Jemima last; he could see her lying down in mud, crying and unable to move but staring up at him pleadingly. Sunshine had beaten down on her face and through her squinted eyes he could remember that she’d needed his help. Aaron stood frozen in time as he desperately sought out any clues in his memory; he saw the field he’d woken up in, the imposing thicket behind it, the Garden Lodge Motel in all its finery, but he couldn’t place the image of his daughter anywhere. Then he remembered something about room114, something that didn’t quite fit in with the preposterously clean sterility and minimalistic décor; apart from the green leather chair that seemed to follow him everywhere and held no clues that he could see, there was a picture above he bed. It was a picture of a church, he remembered, a bleak, run-down church in the middle of nowhere that sat atop a grassy hillock and was surrounded by graves. In his mind’s eye he could see rain running down the hill, pooling by the gravestones and eroding the earth, washing mud down towards its base. Then he remembered the words spoken to him by his mother’s voice inside his head; you could always pray for them, she’d said. Aaron darted for the door, finally sure where to find his family. As he exited the room he could feel his back twitching and stretching as worm-like tendrils protruded from his posterior in the direction of Autumn as if desperately reaching out for her. The tendrils emerged from Aaron’s spine and the back of his arms and legs, and they twirled furiously in the mid-air in an attempt to propel their host back towards the young girl lying prone inside the room. Aaron’s gait slowed as his body was dragged back towards Autumn, but he struggled forward one slow, heavy step at a time, and his will won through as he exited the room leaving the young girl still mumbling to herself on the metal bed.