Advice on content: Please note this piece references physical violence.

It’s Julie. I think it’s Julie. Stood there, smiling. Crooked white teeth, blue eyes. Is it Julie?

“Can I help you?”

She doesn’t respond right away. She’s so quiet. There’s something up. Something wrong.

“It’s the little ‘uns,” she says, “always with the mischief. Your mum was always good with them?”

“Yeah I’m sure it’s just—I’m sorry but something happened last night. I’m a bit—"

She giggles. “We all get a bit that way don’t we, love?” She steps in; I can’t close the door. “I can wait. But then we really have to sort them out.”

I can’t see what choice I have. I follow her out the door and lock up. She doesn’t wait; I catch her up. We’re a few hours from noon but the day is overcast, murky.

She asks me what I remember about the village. Nothing, I tell her. Very little, anyway.

I join her on the main road. Headlights in the gloom. A car pursues its route out of this place. Julie stops to watch it, this red hatchback passing through. She shakes her head. She asks me what I remember about the village. Nothing, I tell her. Very little, anyway. Julie shakes her head, again. Then shrugs.

“Maybe that’s for the best. Your mother, she’d despair, but that’s another thing all round.”

“Right. Listen, Julie, I’d like to help but I’m really not sure—" She cuts me off, running down the street and shouting at the gang of youths emerging from the shop, a Co-op that must’ve sprang up recently.

When they spot Julie, most of them look like rabbits suddenly finding themselves in the path of a harvester. They slink away while a couple stand firm in their black North Face gear, multi-coloured vapes in white-knuckle grips. What these kids have done wrong I don’t know but Julie is screaming at them, telling them off for doing something I don’t quite understand. Something pollutive and heretical.

The tallest calls her a mad bitch. I intervene and tell him to watch it.

“Who the fuck are you?” he asks me.

“No one, now would you fuck off?” I don’t mean to be so brusque; it just happens.

black and white photo of a woman walking through a forest

The lad has a lock of chestnut hair hanging over one eye and a small scar curling up from the corner of his lip. For a second I think he might punch me but then he relents and walks off, him and his mate. I ask Julie what she thought the kids were up to.

“Skulking, weren’t they? Cluttering a nice place like this, soiling it. We can’t just let it go to the dogs.”

I’m thinking, maybe she is a mad bitch, when something hits me in the back of the head, hard. I wobble and Julie grabs me. I put my hand to where it hurts and it comes back bloody. On the floor is an e-cig, a notch of red splashed on the blue handle. I look down the road and see the lad with the scarred lip standing on his tiptoes, flicking the Vs at me.

I start for him and he runs off, down the old path that runs alongside the old brook, cutting into a damp valley where everything smells of mud and rotting vegetation. There is no birdsong, only the whispers of the brook.

My head’s pumping. It hurts every time my foot lands and my blood jumps, and I haven’t ran anywhere in years. Lungs feel like something big has them in a bearhug. The lad is faster but the ground is slick with wet leaves and he keeps losing his footing. Somehow, I stay upright.

black and white photo of a woman looking up at a large tree trunk

I chase him to a point on the path where a steep bank leads to a deeper part of the brook clotted with browning foam, and the woods completely surround. He falls, lands on his front, comes up panting and mud-speckled. I’ve got him.

“What are you playing at? I should call the police!”

“I’m sorry, just please don’t hurt me!”

“Hurt you? I’m not going to—" And then it’s my turn to fall. I must’ve been too close to the edge because suddenly I’m sliding down the embankment and I’ve taken him with me. We end up in the water, freezing and stinking, and somehow I’m on top of him and I’ve got him held under. He’s thrashing, spraying and bubbling.

I don’t let go. I can’t. The brook is speaking to me. It speaks and I hear its words. I keep him there as he grows weaker and weaker. I want to let go. I don’t. The brook is speaking to me. It speaks and I hear its words.

The bubbles stop. Now I can let go and he bobs to the surface, fish-eyed and pallid. His hair stuck to his forehead. Mouth open, as if to gulp one last breath. Julie comes splashing in, heedless of the cold waters. There’s no defence for this scene.

But Julie’s smiling. Smiling so wide her mouth might split, eyes twinkling and wet. There’s no wind yet the leaves in the trees stir, moved by something unseen. I think I see something in those trees beyond, something big as winter, the colour of autumn, with eyes like an owl. It watches.

Julie cups my face in her hands, thumbs on my cheeks. “Welcome home, child. Mother is so proud.”

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