The bodies were found, finally, stretched out on the battered wooden boards of the old comprehensive school. It had been closed and derelict for years, a spooky ghost house, squat or health and safety hazard depending on your age. The police had been drawn in after a passer-by spotted a line of crows noisily queueing to squeeze in through a broken window. The window had been broken by a thirteen year old boy named John, not that anyone asked. He’d found the shattering glass went some way to pacify the anger and upset he felt with the world.
The bodies were incomplete. Of the seven, three lacked heads and all were missing an arm or a leg. They had been there for some months, lined up like toast soldiers getting soggy and seeping into the floorboards. The police forensics teams took the whole floor.
None of the bodies were identified. No one from the town was missing. No one else had heard of them either. The missing heads didn’t help, but the fingerprints were no use, the DNA was a dead end. No wallets, no badges, no clothes no nothing. Aged between fifteen and forty-five, three female, four male. They lay in the cold cold morgue like a charity shop jigsaw; with missing pieces and the wrong picture on the box.
Three months after the bodies were found and forgotten again the school was finally demolished. Spurred on in part by the failed investigation and the desire to erase those disturbing memories. The site was left newly derelict, bulldozed heaps of bricks and drainpipe, window frame and blackboard jumbled and smashed in a metal-fenced pen.
Behind the wasteland rose the forest, thrusting up into the stumpy hills that ringed the north and east of the town. They were not well-visited woodlands, being curiously devoid of rare fauna and flora. Had they been more interesting something would have been built there. A few thin paths blundered through the trees, edging the hills and descending to the town’s old beauty spot, Wendle Pool.
Despite being just a short walk from the town centre the woods and pool were the preserve of squirrels, small birds and teenagers. Two such, Michael and Evan who at the empowering age of sixteen considered themselves hunters and woodsmen, ventured out early on Saturday morning to inspect their attempts at rabbit snares and toss stones into the pool.
The snares remained empty and the boys’ pen knives remained pocketed and unused. They smirked at the routine disappointment of a failed hunt; acknowledging the failure had become an important ritual in itself. In commemoration Evan exchanged a loosely rolled cigarette for a Marlboro Light. The pair smoked and talked quietly as they hiked uphill towards the cliff that lurked over the pool. Even their conversation was routine, a form of words and habits that comforted and ordered the day.
They followed their familiar trail up through the scrappy birches and bracken that bedraggled the hills. The cold chill of the morning held a mist between the trees. It cast a glamour across the unremarkable landscape, imbuing it with softness and shadowy beauty that clarity would never grant. Beneath the furrowed brow of the ridge the boys climbed, the birches were supplanted by a small copse of firs. The green of their boughs mocked the emptiness of the needled earth beneath.
As they passed the last birch, Evan recoiled suddenly. The roll-up he was confidently dangling from the corner of his mouth stuck to his lip and he sucked it into his mouth as he cried out. He fell back into Michael, who failed to catch him and they both stumbled to the needle-strewn ground. Evan spluttered out the strands of tobacco and paper and choking managed only to point. Branches stretched across the clearing and hanging from the branches in the dead centre two heads leered at them.
An ancient scream was fixed in their faces; eyeless holes matched the gaping mouth as if they too were screaming. The boys recovered their fragile teenage swagger. Once they were assured that the heads were indeed just heads, a degree of self-deprecation and bravado could be reacquired. The hills were the regular domain of Michael and Evan, its contents their dominion, surely. With fluttering heart and an unusual physical proximity they approached the heads. They swayed with a breeze the boys had not previously noticed, swinging gently on their own hair which was knotted to the tree branch. The skin on the hanging faces was weathered, their gender was hard to guess. Being apart from their bodies and the hues that should have painted their cheeks left them neuter, inhuman; at once less and more frightening.
The mist clung to the edges of the copse, confining the boys and the heads in a grey cage. Neither boy felt inclined to touch them. A terrible sense that they would bite, or talk, or scream lingered in both their minds though it remained unspoken. There was no doubt that the decapitated heads had not been there the previous Saturday. This was the way they always came. They would have noticed. Of course they would have noticed. They must not have noticed. Perhaps the heads were tied to some higher bough, of course they must have been there. Just out of sight. Of course. Otherwise they were newly placed. Weird though. Really weird.
With their conclusion that the heads had always been present came a sense of acceptance, that this was normal. Concerns that had the heads always hung above their heads that those eyeless faces would have borne witness to a number of blushing youthful indiscretions were half-heartedly laughed off. They should continue with their routine. Finding that the path out of the copse was marked irregularly with amputated forearms, feet and hands pointing in the direction of their passage failed to alert the boys. Their fears screamed below a thin veneer of calm habit.
Leathery fingers crooked as they passed, toes curled. Knees and wrists flexed, dry and worn tendons tugged by unseen puppeteers. The mist was denser, followed them along the path as if the world dissolved behind them to reform before their feet. They breathed cold smoke into the woods. The copse opened out onto the ledge that frowned on the pond beneath. The boys stood shoulder to shoulder. Neither noticed that they were so close that their fingers almost touched; their digits twitched for the warmth and reassurance just within reach.
Below them the mists rose from the pool like a cold fire, burning away the vitality of the water. It lay black and still; clotted. Thoughtless, blinded by the icy smoke wreathing the teenagers they descended the steep path that lead down to the water. In a haze Evan splashed into the water. It rose up in languid waves which cracked and bled, blackly soaking the boy’s trousers. Michael remained on the bank, mutely watching his friend wade into the fracturing mire.
With each step Evan grew heavier. His skin mottled on contact with the diseased fluid that filled the pool. The flesh of his hands and face cracked, falling away in a fine rain. Michael swayed, held up by the smoke and smell of the water. Evan’s face collapsed, sliding down his jacket leaving only cracking bone which crumbled in turn, and Evan’s naked skeleton sank into the pool.
Michael lurched on the edge of the water, unable to draw his eyes away from Evan’s hair as it slowly spread out. The smoky murk lifted briefly as if a giant breathed over the pond. Between the fingers of mist came nightmare creatures. The swans glided through the rank scum, seemingly untroubled by its thickness. They were rotting as they swam, each kick of their feet blackening another feather that curdled. The swans dipped their faces to the water and emerged with rancid treacly beaks oozing bloody waste.
The corrupted swans gathered at Michael’s feet decaying wings raised. Their eyeless faces drooled a welcome call. Michael fell forwards and was embraced by the sludge.