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On the very first day that Sam walked home ‘as a mature teenager’, the sky was overcast and the air wore a chill. At fourteen years old, Sam was at the age where independence called her name at every opportunity, and as her mother had finally approved her desire to walk home from school without parental company, not even the cold could do away with Sam’s good mood.
Pulling her coat a little closer to her skin, Sam added a skip to her step as a fine mist-like rain fell from the darkening sky. The trip home, when by her mother’s side, usually took a good hour as the woman liked to save money wherever she could. Sam herself didn’t particularly mind – she liked the walk, and today she had already decided she would take THAT shortcut – the one she passed every school day.
Sam had always wanted to take the aforementioned shortcut. It went through a towering woodland before passing a clustered array of the town’s farming fields. She knew this from her mother, who firmly denied every single one of Sam’s requests to take the shortcut.
“It’s dangerous,” she had said. “I heard Suzie’s lass tripped and broke her arm in there. It’s best we just stick to what we know.”
Well she couldn’t say no now, and even though Sam loved her mother dearly, Sam’s curiosity was just too strong. She turned off towards the woodland as soon as the opportunity arose.
Confident that she would be able to find her way once out of the woodland, Sam sucked in a breath once faced with the dirt path leading in. She tried to ignore the shivers skimming over her skin – she was fourteen now! Four. Teen. That meant she was a big kid – and big kids didn’t get scared. Not of stupid trees, or of annoying rain, and certainly not of the dark. For good measure though, she turned on her phone’s torch light. She wouldn’t want to trip after all.
Once in the woodland, Sam found that it wasn’t that scary. It wasn’t that dark either. Only an absolute idiot would get lost there, definitely. Her breath formed brisk clouds in front of her face. Sam shone her light on the trodden dirt path, illuminating broken branches and small drooping plants. She would just keep on walking, following the path until she was out of there. No problem. No problem at all.
Only… The air. Sam couldn’t say exactly when it happened, but for lack of a better word, the air was dead. No more misty rain, or cold chill- it was like the air around her had just … died. It lay heavily around her shoulders like a thick woolen blanket. Sam’s heart rate picked up, and she warily looked around. Still surrounded by trees, Sam quickly decided that perhaps, maybe, she shouldn’t have come this way. It was probably a better idea to have just taken the usual route. To have stuck to what she knew. And then she saw it – the outline of a crumbling decrepit shack right in front of her.
Every single horror story Sam had ever heard filled her head like angry insects – the shack was creepy and stood alone in silence. Dead air forgotten, Sam slowly looked left, and then right. Her heart was racing. Nothing. She stepped forward. No monster or beast ran out to greet her. She stepped forward again. She wasn’t eaten by a zombie. She stepped forward yet again. No scary old troll came out to attack her.
Well of course not – honestly, the whole idea was ridiculous. Banishing her childish fears, Sam let her curiosity guide her feet and ignored her thrashing heart. Up close the shack seemed to be standing-room only. Perhaps it held old brooms and cobwebs. Certainly not childish things, like lost treasure, hidden underground paths and unimaginable mysteries. That would be… Ridiculous.
Her hand on the handle to the shack, Sam counted to three and firmly dismissed her childish hopes and fears once and for all. Big kids were cool and rational, and so she would be cool and rational too. The shack would be tiny, filled with dirt and woodworms and…
Against every ‘rational’ thought in her head, Sam stepped into a gigantic, towering golden room, fully decorated with a deep red carpet at her feet. Her mouth open in a startled gasp, Sam’s feet moved further into the shack. The door shut behind her with a gentle click.
The wallpaper was host to soft gold flakes against a light yellow background. They swam – actually swam! – right around the length of the wall like tiny little fish, each leaving trails of golden dust that would follow the fishy flakes for mere moments before evaporating into nothing. Hand-crafted oak furniture and plump cushion-covered sofas adorned the floor, along with thick old bookcases and large mysterious boxes, and from the ceiling floated an entire solar-system of glittering stars and planets.
The room quite bluntly was magical. Every potential cynicism and critical thought was destroyed in Sam’s head, leaving only her childish wonder and awe. It was all illogical – impossible, but Sam never felt more amazed, or at ease, in her life.
Making her way to the nearest free space, Sam placed her index finger on the wall, grinning as the gold flakes swam around her finger at varying speeds. She giggled as one or two dared to curiously nudge her fingernail before they darted away.
“They’re all so curious, my babies.”
Sam jumped and swiveled around in time to see a young woman step forward from thin air. She mustn’t have been older than twenty-five, slightly chubby in the face and smiling kindly. Sam was quickly sure that the woman may well have been the prettiest in the world – as if it was a fact. The beauty of the room paled in comparison to her, and it was as if the sun itself would second to the radiance of that peaceful and kind expression.
The lady stepped forward and her eyes crinkled with her smile. Gold flakes like those on the walls floated behind her irises, and golden hair cascaded past her shoulders, curling around her face. Her knee-length dress was covered in twinkling stars, and Sam couldn’t help but feel it was like the woman was something of a finishing touch to the beautiful room, like a painting.
“Where… Is this?” Sam breathed. The woman chuckled, and her voice was warm and sweet.
“My home! Welcome! I was hoping someone would stop by – I must be extra lucky today.”
“I… Oh,” Sam said. Perhaps the woman was new – a neighbour? But she lived in such a horrid old shack… And what about the magic? Witches had magic, but they were old and warty, not young and beautiful. Sam quickly began to feel awkward just standing there in her daze, but she soon found herself being steered towards one of the plump sofas. The material sunk under her weight.
“Tea?” the lady said, and soon a small rounded table sat before Sam. Sam could only nod dumbly, and then the table was home to three delicate teacups, steam billowing from the liquid inside. Sam didn’t even notice her jaw dropping as the steam slowly transformed into magnificent shapes – fairies and butterflies and flowers, all made from the tea’s steam right until the illusions naturally broke apart.
The most fantastical shape for Sam was the dragon. Sam had always loved dragons, particularly partial to tales of fire and scales and great thundering roars. She stared at it, amazed, rudely forgetting about the woman. Before she knew it, the tea was gone and so were the illusions. It was only then that Sam found herself questioning; “Why are there three cups?”
The woman’s smile grew wide and slightly unnerving. “So there was enough for everyone! It’s getting late dear, but please, come again? Tomorrow if you can – you’re always welcome here!”
Sam nodded, suddenly very sleepy. Fully intending to get up and walk home, Sam instead sat back into the sofa, her eyelids heavy as her breathing evened out into that of sleep. She awoke the next morning in her own bed, with no recollection of how she had gotten home.
Realising she may well be late for school Sam grabbed her bag and ran out the door, still dressed in her uniform from the previous day. On her rushed way to school, she was filled with thoughts of that magical shack and of the pretty lady, and it was only Mrs Hull that finally broke Sam’s obsessive train of thought.
Outside the gates of school stood Mrs Hull. She was well-known in the small town, and Sam remembered visiting her more than once (though for what she couldn’t recall). That day Mrs Hull was was looking blankly toward some unknown middle distance, and didn’t even blink when Sam curiously waved a hand in front of her face.
“Are you okay?” Sam asked. She almost didn’t expect a response, until Mrs Hull opened her mouth.
“Something’s… Missing.” Mrs Hull’s voice was quiet and unsure. Sam quickly felt nervous. Mrs Hull then began to walk away, her movements stiff and robotic. Sam didn’t stop her.
For the rest of her school week Sam would walk by that mysterious shack and have tea with the woman, who soon Sam dubbed ‘The Tea Lady’, as the woman in question constantly avoided the subject of her name. When Sam wasn’t there, she yearned otherwise, and when she was there she lived for the visions in the tea’s steam, and most of all, that beautiful wispy dragon. Each time the tea would provide different shapes – of soldiers and bunnies, and jewels and vehicles, but there would always be that dragon, swooping and twirling and playfully pecking Sam’s nose.
Sam never said much to The Tea Lady – neither individual had a lot to say. Sam would just sit in front of the tea provided, and The Tea Lady would wait patiently.
The strange thing was, as the tea’s steam soothed Sam’s mind, that sometimes she… heard things. It was if it was all miles and miles away – raised voices, thumps, and sometimes even what seemed like screaming. The dragon was the only thing keeping Sam from panicking. There would always be three cups, and on some occasions more, but Sam only found this curious once the tea was gone, and the tea lady would never properly answer her inquisitions as to the number. Instead, with that kind smile, Sam would sleep.
Mrs Hull was sent to a care home not long after Sam saw her outside school. Not only that, but more and more people were quickly showing Mrs Hull’s ‘symptoms’ – men and women of any and all ages would stand outside in silence, looking at nothing, evenly claiming that something was missing. They wouldn’t sleep, or eat, or smile – only wander until someone took them away. Sam’s town gained notoriety fast for the ‘madness’, gaining many tourists and visitors and specialists from right around the country in mere days. Sam didn’t pay much attention to them, her thoughts usually stuck only on The Tea Lady.
In mere weeks Sam had completely fallen into her routine. School, The Tea Lady and then home. The weekends couldn’t pass by fast enough – it was like Sam was living in a bubble, keeping her distant from the town’s spreading madness, her teacher’s constant confusion and the odd gap or two making themselves apparent in her memories.
It was only on the third week on a Thursday that Sam experienced something… different. Despite her class being recently cancelled due to her teacher not showing up, she visited The Tea Lady anyway and was soon sat before her tea. In the background, Sam vaguely noted more noise than usual, but then her beloved dragon lifted its head up from her teacup and began to take flight, turning and twisting and dancing, and Sam could only grin widely as she became entranced yet again … and then her teacup toppled over.
A long and tormented howl tore at Sam’s ears in what she quickly recognized as The Tea Lady’s voice, and the dragon burst into flames. Startled, Sam looked up just in time to see Ryan’s horrified face as The Tea Lady wrapped her hands around his neck.
Ryan! How could Sam have forgotten?! Her cousin had come to visit from the city the previous day, and so Sam had asked Ryan to visit the shack with her. Why did she forget? How?! And then she began to remember them all – the other kids. Mary, who liked fairies and flowers. Kyle, who adored vehicles. Damien, who loved rabbits. Even some of the tourists’ children of whom Sam had made fast friends with – Hannah and Kayleigh, Frank and James… And yet she had managed to forget about every single one of them.
She could even remember Laura – her own best friend, who had warily met The Tea Lady with Sam on the very first day Sam was allowed to walk home on her own. Tears prickled at the corners of Sam’s eyes – she had been tricked, leading all her friends right into The Tea Lady’s hands. What did that woman – that horrible witch – do with them?
Ryan struggled against The Tea Lady’s grip. Jolting away from her returning memories, Sam grabbed the fallen teacup and threw it at The Tea Lady’s face. Squealing, she released Ryan and glared at Sam. Her eyes were sparkling so brightly that Sam couldn’t even look at them, and the woman was still smiling – but her teeth were pulsing as if alive and her gums were writhing like slugs, her smile large and unnatural. Warts had burst from beneath her yellowed skin, and her hair was like broken straw above a tattered dress.
The worst thing was, that she was still beautiful. A woman – a creature – so fundamentally wrong struck a planted awe deep inside Sam, and it was as if The Tea Lady was effortlessly pulling her closer, her arms wiry and twisted as her bulbous fingers twitched and her broken legs creaked. The Tea Lady was beautiful, wonderful, but in a way that proved horrific and wrong.
Fear guiding her, Sam grabbed Ryan’s hand and The Tea Lady roared an ear-rending screech. Roots crashed up from a suddenly dirty floor, the walls bled a horrid-smelling sludge, and The Tea Lady countinued to scream out in a language Sam couldn’t understand. She was glad she of that part – those guttural sounds in themselves made Sam’s hair stand on end.
Before she could understand how, Sam and Ryan managed to get to the door and made it outside, and so they ran and ran and ran and ran…
Sam soon stood outside the woodland with a panting Ryan. They were safe. They’d be okay. They had escaped. It was –
“I always make enough tea for everyone, dear.”
Arms wrapped around Ryan’s neck, and he was dragged backwards into the woodland without even a yelp. In that moment, Sam was sure she would never forget his last horrified expression.
And then Sam woke up in her bed, confused. Did she fall asleep again? She sat up and saw her schoolbag at the end of her bed, right by the pyjamas she had forgotten to put on. She lay back and smiled, sweet memories of that lovely shack and The Tea Lady’s magic filling her thoughts like honey. Sam couldn’t wait to see it all again – the wonder of that beautiful friendly place. But perhaps, for once, she could try and bring a friend – it was all much too great to experience on her own!
Credit To – Ginger