They went out of Chimney Town, in the direction they had been pointed in, and Jack took one look back at the strange smokey place that he would be more than happy never to visit again.
“What a stupid town,” he said.
That got Carla talking. “Stupid’s one word for it. Why does everyone think that Chimney Town people know anything? They’re idiots!”
‘Hmmm,” Jack said in agreement.
They soon got to a wood-if you can really call it that-which was made of dead looking trees, none of which had any leaves on them. They stopped at the edge, weighing up if this was really the right way to go. Jack didn’t fancy it: there was something very eerie about the still, closely packed, bare branches. Just as he was about to say so, something caught his eye. A small, wooden sign was hanging from one of the lower branches, creaking as it moved slightly backwards and forwards. In white lettering were written the words,
‘This way to the Old House’
With an arrow underneath, pointing into the wood.“This must be it then,” he said, showing Carla the sign.
“Do you really think this Mr. Old will help us?” Carla said, with more than a hint of anger. “If he’s a friend of that imbecile Lord Puff then I’d rather not bother.”
Jack thought it over. He didn’t particularly want to go into the wood, but then what exactly were their other options?
“We may as well try,” he said. “If he’s an idiot then we’ll just leave.”
Carla paused for a while, and then nodded. “Alright.”
Inside the wood the sharp, lifeless trees seemed even more tightly packed, making it quite difficult to move through them. The children got scratched and poked continually as they went.
On the other hand, Jack was grateful that there were no leaves because at least that ruled out the possibility of having bullets rain down on them again.
The wood was extremely quiet, except for the sound of dry, brittle twigs snapping underfoot. Jack looked up and saw a huge blackbird, with bright yellow eyes, watching them. Its body was as still as the tree it was sitting in, but its eyes moved, following.
“Creepy,” said Jack with an involuntary shudder, but Carla looked up and simply shrugged, unfazed.
After about fifteen minutes they finally emerged on the other side of the wood. The air was thick and for a second Jack thought they’d somehow ended up back at Chimney Town, but there was no sickly sweet smell and neither of them had started coughing. It was more like a cold, murky fog.
It was hard to tell where exactly they were, because they couldn’t see very far in front of them. They started walking very slowly, until Jack walked straight into something rock solid, bashing his knee.
“What the-!” he cried, hopping up and down clutching his leg.
Carla knelt down next to the thing to get a closer look.
“It’s a gravestone.”
Jack rubbed his throbbing knee one last time and then knelt down too. Carla rubbed the stone, clearing away the ice.
“A-L-F- Alfred M-A-C-uls-field,” she read. “1950 to 2012, died aged 62.”
“What was that name?” Jack asked.
“Alfred Macclesfield,” Carla repeated.
A second shudder ran down Jack’s spine. “He’s not dead, I know him,” he said. “Well, he wasn’t dead when I left, anyway.”
“Could be a different person with the same name?” offered Carla, getting up.
But the age was right too…
As the mist cleared a little they were able to see more easily the huge graveyard they were in. Crosses, gravestones and tombs scattered far and wide, all made of old stone, crumbly and ancient.
“Wow,” breathed Jack.
Carla had gone to one of the nearby graves and was reading the writing on the headstone. When she came back her face looked pale.
“She was fine a few days ago. I don’t understand this.”
“Who?” asked Jack.
“A woman from my village. The baker.”
Jack suddenly felt a sense of morbid curiosity, pulling him on. He didn’t want to look at the graves but he also couldn’t help it. He needed to know. Carla must’ve felt it too, because without speaking they both began walking around, kneeling at different graves. By the time Jack had seen about a dozen, it felt like half the people he knew had been wiped from existence. Then, he saw one that made his stomach drop. He thought he was going to be sick, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the writing, let alone stand up and move away.
After a few minutes Carla came to find him. “What is it?” she asked.
Jack could hardly get his words out. “My Mum,” he whispered.
Carla touched his shoulder gently. “It’s a trick, it must be. We need to get away from this place.”
She helped him up and they walked on together, Jack’s legs wobbly and weak. He knew Carla must be right, but still he couldn’t get away from the words he’d read.
Martha Kingston, 1975-2012, aged 37. Taken too young, but never forgotten.