As a girl, Sally Smith played with dead children. Although she did not know they were dead at the time. Her Mother had called them imaginary friends. She was now a well known TV journalist and had not seen imaginary people since she was little. Not until recently when her producer had asked her to film the usual spoof Halloween report. This time from Arbor Low stone circle, near where she had grown up. The circle had many legends and as they filmed she felt uneasy. As they finished, she spotted a man watching her from the barrow to the east. He looked suspicious but as she tried to attract someone’s attention, he simply vanished. She put it down to a trick of the light or imagination. Which set her thinking about her imaginary childhood friends. When her mother had moved them from their Derbyshire village to the Manchester suburbs, following the death of her father, she never found any more such playmates. At the time she just guessed that her old friends stayed where they were but, now she thought about it, if they were imaginary, how come she did not imagine them when they moved? That evening the dreams began.
She was back in Eyam, walking by the village green with its stocks and the plague cottages to the church. Playing amongst the gravestones were boys and girls of all ages. Tam and John were there, tousling on the grass as usual. Lottie and Amelia were playing with hoops and sticks. Patience, Sally’s best friend, started to skip over with a big smile until a man’s voice shouted across the churchyard
“Go away. You don’t belong here.”
The man who Sally thought she saw earlier that day stood beside her and she realised she was not a child now but an adult.
The smile faded from Patience’s face and she stood still while the other children joined her. As they walked toward Sally, to her horror, their skins began to peel. Faces fell away to reveal bones and teeth. Sally was rooted to the spot as she saw her playmates rot. As they neared, the man spoke again, louder and more urgently
“Go! Leave this world in peace.”
He spread his arms to deny them passage. The children faded into a mist that rolled over the ground before being drawn into open graves. Sally watched the man turn to face her and cried out when she saw his face, like gnarled wood with eyes glowing green while his hair and beard seemed to twist into leaves and twigs. He started to speak but a bird, a robin, popped its head out of the opening where his mouth should be. Sally sat bolt upright in bed, shaking and drenched.
The same dream repeated every night, many times, with slight changes. Sometimes she saw her father waving from across the churchyard. She liked that but it made her realise there was something she had not thought about before. The children may have been changed places or played different games but while her father was in his jeans and sweater, as she remembered him, the children were always in old fashioned clothes. She tried to recall if that was how she saw them when she was little but she could not remember. Wherever the children were though, it always ended the same. They became terrible creatures and the man who stopped them was just as frightening.
The filming had been well in advance of the day and she had not slept properly since. Knowing that the visit to Arbor Low had triggered something, she needed to go back. There was no work for a few days so tomorrow was as good a day as any. That decided, she had the first uninterrupted sleep all week, waking on Halloween morning ready to investigate. By the time she was ready and breakfasted it was late. She packed a rucksack before driving towards the Peak District and with the traffic getting out of town, it was well after noon when she parked up at the farm and dropped some change into the honesty box before heading for the stone circle. The air was still and deathly quiet, devoid of even birdsong. Heading towards the bronze-age barrow where she had seen the stranger, she was not sure what to expect but disappointed to find no trace of anything. While Sitting on one of the fallen stones, pondering what to do next, a voice startled her.
She sprang up and turned. The man smiled nervously.
“Are you looking for me?”
Her heart raced as she stared at him. No sign of any leaves in his brown hair or trimmed beard but the eyes, while not glowing, were the same green that she saw in her dream.
“You scared me!” She managed to exclaim at last. “What are you doing creeping up on people like that?”
“Sorry,” he replied, “I didn’t mean to startle you but it’s important that we talk.”
She calmed down and managed to put on her best investigative journalist voice.
“Yes, it seems it is. Just who are you and what have you done to me? I haven’t been the same since you first appeared”
He hesitated a moment before taking a seat on the next stone.
“I haven’t done anything to you. But you have disturbed forces here in this circle that could leak into this world unless…”
She started to interrupt but he continued.
“Please, let me finish. It will be hard to accept but I must warn you. There are different planes of existence and gateways, such as this circle, allow some movement between the planes at times. These other places and their inhabitants are usually harmless. In fact they are the root of many of your fairy tales but there are also malevolent beings that can do untold damage. Some people, such as you, are sensitive to this and can open the gates. When you were here before something tried to use you to pass though. I stopped it.”
Sally was incredulous and shook her head.
“Come off it. This is the scientific age. We don’t believe in such nonsense.”
But as she spoke, the dreams she had been having made her doubt her confidence. She stood, more in anger at herself for believing than at him for lying. Snatching up her pack she stormed back towards the car. He shouted something that she did not catch and as she started to cross the circle a cold mist froze her. She turned to see if the stranger was following but she could now see nothing beyond the old stones. Figures began to appear out of the mist. She made out small shapes and as they drew closer, she saw they were the children she used to play with.
“Come Sally. Come and play with us again” Called distant voices. She could now make out individuals. Patience moved to the fore and beckoned, smiling. Sally took a step closer to but as she neared she saw it was not Patience. The smile was wrong. The eyes were black and lifeless. The child began to grow and twist into a grotesque caricature of a human with arms ending in long claws and too many legs. The hair, blonde before, turned oily black and seemed to writhe on its head making the child's pretty face look grotesque. Sally stepped back but the creature grabbed at her, the claws cutting into her shoulder. She felt its power but managed to snatch herself back and scream at it.
Before the creature could lash out again a flash tore through the mist with a noise like thunder. A blast hit her, knocking the breath from her body as she fell.
She ended up flat on her back. The mist had gone and there were no creatures, just the stranger stood above her. He helped her to her feet with a worried look before asking if she was alright. It took her a few moments to reply as she took stock. Apart from an ache in her shoulder and a damp patch on her backside she felt fine.
“I’m good I think. What the hell happened?”
“I was trying to tell you,” he replied, “You seem to be a key into this world and they want to use you. Sorry if you were hurt but I had to send them back.”
She was still incredulous but given what she had just seen could not help but ask
“Who are you then and how do you fit in?”
“That is what I was coming to. I am a gatekeeper. I help to stop anything dangerous from moving between planes. I sent them this time back but at this time of year the barriers are thin, they are strong and they will try again.”
Sally found it difficult to take it in. Once again her mind was telling her that there were sensible explanations. A sharp pain in her shoulder told her otherwise and she started to rub at it. The man frowned.
“Here, let me see”.
She let him take a step closer and turned the aching shoulder towards him.
“Take your jacket off so I can get a better look,” he said. She was shocked to see the padding hanging out of long gashes in the fabric.
“No broken skin,” he noted. “but you need to get rest and away from here soon. Preferably somewhere where there is light and people. That will help to keep them away.”
She knew exactly where she wanted to go. They climbed into the Range Rover and started the short drive to Eyam. Her mind was racing with questions but she got the simplest over with first.
“What do I call you?”
“I am called Jack in the Green by many but I suppose Jack Green will do fine.”
“Wait, hang on,” she said. “Do you mean to say you are a Green Man? Like those we see carved here there and everywhere?”
“No so much a Green Man as the Green Man. And the carvings don’t really do me any justice”.
He grinned at that and she laughed but realised that some carvings were not too far from the creature in her dream. The atmosphere lightened though and they began an easy chat. He learned about her dreams and her childhood playmates. She was sure that they had a direct bearing. He agreed but could throw no light on what that may be. As to his part in her dreams he could only guess. She had seen him on the day the dreams started so she must have subconsciously related the two things. He would say nothing about the change in him she had witnessed. She discovered, but still didn’t quite believe, that such things as Elves and Goblins really did exist. There were points in our year when they were more restless. The turning of all the seasons was significant but they were most active around Halloween. A thought she had about the children and their old fashioned dress led her to ask about ghosts. He replied that ghosts could often be seen by others but they were not able to do any harm and his role did not involve human spirits. She tried to read a meaning into her dream. Were the children ghosts or something more sinister? How had Jack commanded them if they were not part of his remit? She needed more to go on and could not think beyond that. Besides, they had reached the village.
They pulled up and left the car near the church gate. She was reluctant to enter the graveyard but Jack reassured her that neither the church or graveyard contained anything dangerous. Still, she remembered her dreams and was wary as she made her way in. She pictured where the children were playing and how Patience smiled and skipped towards her. Risking a glance at Jack she saw that he was still human. No sign of the tree-like beast. She went to a gravestone she knew well that simply said “Alan Smith. Rest in Peace”
“A relation?” he asked.
She told him about her Dad and how he had passed away when she was little. They found a nearby shop where she bought some flowers. Returning to the grave, she placed them with a promise to visit more regularly. They then continued searching the churchyard where they found graves with the names of the children she had mentioned but she did not know if they were the same ones. It threw no light on whether her imaginary playmates were ghosts or something worse. Twilight was coming on and she was getting frustrated with her lack of answers so suggested they had a break for a drink.
The Miner’s Arms was decked out for Halloween with pumpkin lanterns and things to amuse children and adults alike. Jack sheepishly admitted that he had no money so Sally bought their drinks on her plastic.
“I see your ‘other worldly-ness’ doesn’t stop you enjoying the fruits of this one” She said as she placed a pint of bitter in front of him.
He just laughed and told her that he was on good terms with John Barleycorn. They chatted a little more as they finished their drinks and, noticing it had gone dark, decided to eat before doing anything else. Sally ordered their food from the bar. Before long the waiter brought out two plates of food and laid them on the table but as he left, the lights failed. A few people in the pub groaned as the bar staff scurried around lighting candles. A man at the bar exclaimed
“Hey, that’s good Halloween trick”
Looking to where he was pointing Sally saw the shimmering figures. Children in old costumes with Patience at the front.
A couple of the customers applauded and laughed. The bar staff looked puzzled and the waiter dropped a glass when Sally and Jack sprang from their seats. Jack pointed at them and shouted something unintelligible but frowned when nothing happened. Sally stared as the children stopped glowing and seemed to take solid form. Patience came to her. Sally pulled back but the child managed to grab her hand. There were none of the horrors that she had seen in her dreams and at Arbor Low. Patience’s hand felt warm and real. All the children looked at Sally, smiling, but their faces fell when Jack pulled Sally away and Patience fell to the floor. Someone from the bar shouted but Sally did not hear what as she looked in shock beyond the children at her father,
“Sally, you need to come with me now.” He said.
His voice was just as she remembered. Patience picked herself up and threw Jack the type of dirty look only young girls can give. Sally’s Dad made his way to her and held out his hand.
“Please, Sally. For me.”
Jack closed his eyes and spoke in a low voice as he seemed to concentrate but nothing happened. Sally was brought out of her shock when her Father took her hand and started to step backwards, pulling her with him. Jack stepped up but the boys and girls ran between him and Sally. She looked around to see Jack try to push through the children. It seemed a long way back. She looked towards her Father again as he inexorably pulled her along. There seemed to be nothing she could do. She felt nauseous as the room span towards a point of light, seemingly at the end of a tunnel. Suddenly, the tunnel ended. It was still dark and chill but she was outside, shocked and shaking. The moon was full and by its light she saw she was in a country lane. A few cottages were dotted along it with lights shining from them Children she recognised were coming towards her. She was still speechless when, with a smile, her Dad said
The children ran to her, adults she did not recognise following them. She was still to shocked to resist when her Father embraced her and kissed her forehead.
“My, how you’ve grown” he said. “It is many years though and I suppose I should expect it. Still, my; little girl a beautiful woman. I’m so…”
She had to interrupt.
“What’s going on? Am I dead?”
“No”, her Dad replied, “Let’s not stand in the cold. Come in and I will explain.”
With no other option, Sally followed him into the cottage. It was candlelit and a warm fire was burning in the hearth. He sat himself down at the table and Sally followed suit.
“Go on then.” She prompted, calming a little, and he began to speak.
He explained that they were on another plane of existence. Before today she would have shrugged such things off as fantasy but following recent events she knew he spoke the truth.
“You are in danger in your world.” He continued. “You seem to be bridging the planes and there are things out there that will do anything to get to living people. Including hurt you. I can’t let that happen.”
Sally replied. “I have heard the same before, only today. A man called Jack, some sort of nature spirit I think, told me. He said he could protect me as well. But why me? Why now? I have always led a perfectly normal life and these things have not happened before.”
Her Father pondered a while before he replied.
“You may have led a perfectly normal life but you are far from what you think of as normal. What I have to tell you now may come as a shock.”
After today, Sally thought, nothing would shock me but she said nothing.
“Your companion is a spirit, and very dangerous. I know of his sort. Many years ago on a Midsummers eve I rested by a stream. As I slept I had a dream where a beautiful woman came to me. Only it wasn’t a dream. When our lovemaking finished she told me I would not see her again but she would make sure that I would forever remember her. As she rose I saw her for what she was, a spirit of the river. Her eyes glowed blue and her clothing swirled like mist as she blew me a farewell kiss, laughed and faded into the night. I thought I had forgotten her but no, something happened to remind me. In the Autumn of that year I met your mother and we were married soon after. On the following Midsummers eve we heard a tapping at our door and when we opened it, there was an infant, gurgling happily in a willow basket on our doorstep. When she looked at me her eyes momentarily glowed blue and I knew then what the river spirit meant by her parting words. Your mother was enraptured straight away. We took the baby in and agreed a plan to keep her. That baby was you.”
Sally just didn’t know what to say.
“Well, that was unexpected” was all she could manage. “How does this fit in with what is happening now though?”
“Do you not see?” Replied her Dad. “You are of two worlds. Mine and your birth mother’s. I don’t know why it is happening now but lately there have been great disturbances across the planes. Things from an evil place are trying to get to your world through you and I know how to stop it. This place is not for them. It is where those who have died but are not ready to leave the human world yet can rest before going on. The creatures beyond are not interested in the dead, just the living. Stay here with us and you will be safe.”
Sally was not ready for a life amongst the dead yet, even if it meant she was with her Father and her childhood friends. She had so much she wanted to do in the land of the living. Her work had made a difference to the world. Uncovering corruption and inequality had made life so much better for some. She considered letting everyone know what she had learned over the last few hours then realised that no one would believe her but her head swam with possibilities. While her Dad awaited a reply there was a commotion outside followed by a loud banging on the door. He opened it to a young woman who said, “You had better come quick”, and then darted back into the lane.
Sally and her Dad followed her to see quite a large crowd of people staring in one direction. Following their gaze she saw Jack pushing his way through.
“Sally,” he said as he neared her, “ come to me now. I can protect you from these creatures.”
She took a hesitant step but her Father stopped her.
“No, Sally. Stay here with me. I can protect you. He is dangerous to be around. You mustn’t go to him.”
Alan and Jack made their way towards each other until they stood just a stride apart. She could see the anger in her Father’s eyes as he faced Jack. They circled each other but before blows could be struck, Sally shouted “No!” and she placed herself between them. Jack stood down but remained tense. Alan drew back a step but still had anger in his eyes.
“It’s very flattering having men fight over me but this is not the way. I should get a say in my own fate.”
They mumbled apologies at the same time but it was Alan who spoke next.
“What would you have us do, Sally? You are your own woman of course but still in danger. Your friend may be powerful in your world, but not here. If you go back with him, how do I know you will be safe?”
“She does not belong here.”, said Jack. “Her time has not yet come and I can hold the creatures at bay.”
As they argued, someone in the crowd shouted out. They looked towards the noise and saw a dark hole in the lane through which stepped the horrors Sally had seen earlier that day.
The creature that had injured Sally swept people aside. Children screamed in panic as it raked anyone in its way with wicked talons. Yet another monster, with lidless eyes and oozing sores, stooped to the fallen and seemed to be feasting on them Yet more were following them. Most of the villagers ran but a few brave souls, including Jack and Alan, picked up sticks, tools or anything they could and faced the creatures. The one at the fore made a sound akin to laughing before saying, in a guttural growl
“What do you think you can do, Green Man? You are useless here. And you, human spirit? You cannot stop me. We will have her.”
“They may not be able to stop you. But I will.” Sally spoke, surprising everyone including herself. The whole scene had changed before her. Everything became clear. The children and her Dad were ghosts, transparent and insubstantial. Jack was no longer the modern man but a creature of power with tree-like limbs and a carved oak face. The horrors coming through the hole were dark, writhing things but with no substance. All the illusions she had seen before were laid bare and she knew the truth.
“Be gone from this place. You don’t belong here.” She commanded, echoing Jack’s words from her dream.
Her eyes glowed a livid blue and from her hands, gushed a silver river, washing the creatures back through the gap before the hole vanished. Everything turned to how it had been minutes before. Sally felt drained yet elated as everyone looked on. She managed a smile as she saw her Father and Jack staring open mouthed.
“Just who is protecting who?” She asked.
Jack, Sally and Alan retired to his cottage and the village went quiet. There were injuries but nothing critical. Patience, Sally was pleased to see, was untouched but her Mother had a broken arm. Others had cuts and bruises which surprised Sally because, in her moment of revelation, she saw the creatures for what they were. Projections from another place.
“Don’t underestimate the power of suggestion.” Alan had said and, in her line of work, she knew that to be true. She didn’t understand everything but she knew where her heart lay. The day had taken it’s toll on both mind and body though. She needed to eat and sleep. Following a supper, which made up for the lost pub meal, her Dad showed her to a small room with a comfortable bed which she instantly dropped on to. The last thing she heard before falling into a deep sleep was Jack say “I think we need a drink.”
“Men!” she thought before she fell into a deep sleep
The morning was overcast and cold. There was no one in the cottage so she stepped outside where Alan and Jack were stood chatting amiably. They both wished her a good morning before her Father asked the question she expected.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“I know exactly what I need to do. But not before breakfast, I’m starving.” she replied. Bread, cheese and a very pleasant infusion of fruit and herbs were taken before they went outside again. Sally found Patience and tousled her hair, smiling.
“Sorry Patience. But I’m grown up now and don’t play children’s games any more but I will always hold you dear.”
Patience looked unhappy as Sally turned back to her Father and Jack. Her Dad nodded sadly.
“I wish I could spend more…”
But she shushed him with a long embrace before turning to Jack.
“I’ll ask you if I need help. I know where to look.” she said before hugging him too. Then with a wave of her hand a rent appeared in the village lane. It was not dark like the gate that had let the creatures in but rippled like blue-grey water in the sunlight. With a few steps Sally passed through it and the rent repaired itself.
“She’ll be fine.” Jack said to Alan.
“I know. Maybe I can now start the rest of my journey.” He replied.
A dog was startled to see Sally appear outside the Miner’s Arms but its owner was looking the other way. She made her way back to the car knowing nothing would be the same again. All through that winter she continued making her reports but whenever a disaster struck, be it natural or man made, she could see dark shadows in the background. Sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. By spring she knew it was time to make a change. She left the public eye. She sold her quayside flat and bought a cottage near Eyam. Downgraded her Range Rover to something smaller and greener. She visited her Mother a few times but never mentioned what she now knew. Midsummer’s eve came along, dry and warm. Sally had resigned from work a while before in anticipation. Walking the dozen or so miles to Arbor Low, she arrived when the sun was low. Her plan was made, her mind made up, but she more than a little apprehensive. Having read up on old folk-tales she now understood that some were for protection from other realms. So, following tradition, she walked three times round the ring before stepping in just as the sun touched the horizon. The mist arose instantly but no monsters from hell rose with it. A lone figure walked towards her and as she looked at Jack he asked, with a smile
“Did you call me?”
“I did,” she replied. “There’s something going rotten with the world. The things out there are influencing wars and polluting our world. I want to stop them but don’t know where to begin.”
“Oh, I think I can help,” said Jack, offering her his arm. “Shall we?”