The Hidden Path
by Joshua Blanc
Elise lay on the bank of the swimming hole, frowning into the water. It was a place of endless amusement, most days. Sometimes she would dangle a piece of meat on a string into the pool, and watch freshwater prawns crawl up the rocks after it. But today, even that didn't engage her. She sighed.|
Suddenly a great splash doused her, and frightened her besides. Craig, sitting in the nearby willow, laughed and watched her leap to her feet.
"What did you do that for?" she said.
"I'm bored," said Craig, swinging to the ground from the lowest branch.
"Go for a swim then, or shall I throw you in?"
"Like to see you try," he said, and ran off up the track.
Elise shook her head and brushed down her overalls. Being a ten-year-old was bad enough, being an older sister even more so. It made no difference there was only two years between them. She went after him, but didn't hurry. He liked to lie in wait and jump out as she approached.
She was surprised to find him standing just off the path up ahead, beside a big old tree-stump, gazing off through the woods at something.
"What have you found?" she said.
"I think it's another path, Sis. I never noticed it before."
Elise looked beyond the stump. An indistinct furrow, half-hidden by the underbrush, led deeper into the woods. She put a hand on Craig's shoulder.
"You were going to hide behind that stump and scare me weren't you, you little monkey."
Craig grinned. "Let's see where it goes!"
"Oh no. We'll tell Mum and Dad first. You don't want to get caught in a snare or anything without them knowing where we are."
"They can follow the path--"
"That we haven't noticed in two whole months? Besides, you know they don't like us roaming too far. We haven't met all of the neighbours yet."
"Oh come on. Please? Just a little way?"
Elise shook her head, but she fancied she saw something through the trees, and took a few steps forward. Yes, it looked like a house, and not far off, either.
"Where are you going?" she said to Craig, who pushed past her.
"Okay. Wait here a sec."
She went back to the stump and hung her towel over the stub where a branch had once been. Satisfied it was visible from the main track, she joined Craig on the hidden path and they followed it into the denser woods.
A hush fell around them. There was barely a breeze, and not even the warning cry of a raven for company.
"Are you as creeped-out as I am?" said Elise.
Craig grabbed hold of her hand and squeezed tight. She smiled.
"We'll just see what's there, then head back, 'kay?"
Bits of the house revealed themselves through the trees. At first the remnants of a high wooden fence obscured most of it, but the path led them 'round. Upon reaching the edge of the trees, they saw before them a small cottage with bare weatherboards; a dark gaping doorway, and, beneath a sagging pitched roof, a window looking out of an upstairs room.
At the side of the house was a lean-to shed overgrown with weeds. Poking out of the tall grass in the yard were three tires anchored in the ground. Children, perhaps much like themselves, had once played here.
A curtain of leaves fell low across the scene. It was as if the trees were anxious to keep the cottage's secrets.
"Isn't it fantastic!" said Craig, letting go of Elise's hand. "We could turn it into a clubhouse."
Before she could stop him he ran forward.
"Hey, we were going back, remember?"
"In a minute, I just want to peek inside!"
Elise gave the house a testing look. It seemed ready to fall over, and more than that -- it gave her the willies. She lifted her reluctant feet and wandered closer.
A place like this is bound to be haunted, she thought. And why had no-one mentioned it? As far as she could judge, it was in the middle of the woods. There were houses and little properties dotted along the perimeter, including their own. But no-one lived in the woods, surely? At least, not any more by the look of things.
"See anything?" she called, her voice fluttering.
She stopped at one of the tires and sat down.
"It's pretty dark," returned Craig. "I think there's still stuff inside, Sis."
Elise heard a twig snap and darted looks everywhere. She slowly got up.
"Craig... c'mere. Hurry. We've got to go!"
"All right," he said, and joined her. "What's the matter?"
She said nothing, but grabbed his hand and started off as quick as she could through the long grass.
Elise stumbled and fell. She looked back to see what had tripped her; it was a tree root. She was momentarily reassured, until she saw the root move.
"Did you see that?" said Craig, helping her up.
But she had no time to answer. With a creak the tree leaning over the yard leaned further. Leaves wrapped around Craig and tugged him skyward.
"What's happening? Help!"
Elise caught hold of his leg, and held tight. The tree lifted both of them off the ground. What was more, other trees surrounding the house were now swaying and groping about. The wooden fence wobbled and fell, and the house itself shuddered as a big walnut tree pushed against it. Elise kicked her legs in an attempt to free Craig from the branches. She kicked against something; one of the tires. She stuck first one foot through then the other, and swung sideways to get a good purchase.
"Get ready!" she said.
She tugged with all her might. Craig remained stuck fast.
"Ow! Hey, I'm slipping."
One more tug did the trick, and they both fell to the cushioning grass. The limb above them swung about in a fury at its stolen prey. The root that had tripped Elise pulled itself out of the tangle of grass and reached towards them.
Crawling, they made their way towards the hidden path. Saplings and roots and overhead branches snatched at them from all directions. But whatever force was compelling the trees had only a limited range. As soon as they were beyond it, they got to their feet and ran.
"What about the trees along the path?" said Craig as they came to edge of the yard.
"We'll just have to risk it," she said.
But nothing bothered them as they hastened up the path. The trees behind them ceased their frenzy, and by the time they reached the old stump all was quiet and still. So still that Elise found herself doubting the whole incident. She retrieved her towel, and when they were safely back on the familiar path they stopped to rest.
"Next time, let's go swimming," said Craig.