The surprise came a week before half-term. Moyra had been sitting at her desk, reading a magazine before registration, when she was approached by a number of girls she had secretly christened the Group. They were led by Candy Nicholson and it was Candy herself who issued the invitation.
"We're going to Bluebell Wood next Tuesday. Meet us at eleven at the cross-roads and bring something to eat. We'll be having a picnic," Candy smiled. "Oh, and Matthew'll be there."
Moyra could feel herself blushing. How did they know she fancied Matt? She had never told anyone. As she stammered her thanks, the others strolled casually away, as if no longer interested in her.
A picnic! She immediately imagined herself opening a wicker basket, the other girls gasping in delight as they saw all the delicious sandwiches and cold drinks. It was unusually warm for October, so there would be no need to wrap up, and Matthew could see her in that new, red sweatshirt.
Her heart beat faster as she thought of him. With his cheerful grin, hazel eyes and mop of curly, light brown hair, he was easily the best-looking boy she had ever met. At the picnic, once she overcame her shyness enough to talk to him, she was sure he would find her special, not silly like the other girls with their Peter Andre posters and Boyzone CDs.
All the rest of that day she hugged her happiness deep inside her. Things were looking up at last.
Moyra had not been at the school long. Her family had moved to Perimere on the East Coast in August, when her father had been offered a job on an industrial estate a few miles outside town, and it hadn't been easy to become the 'new girl' at the age of thirteen. Everyone had long ago formed themselves into little gangs, partnerships and friendships from which she was, naturally enough, excluded at first.
Now, however, it looked as if her dearest wish was about to come true. Candy must want her to become one of the Group. Candy appeared more grown up than the other girls, more confident and sure of herself. She was driven to and from school by her brother, Chris, who was in the sixth form, and both she and her brother had shiny, fair hair and bright eyes. They always had plenty of colour in their faces, seemingly boundless energy, and had never been known to take a day off sick. Candy wore the shortest skirts, even on the coldest days, and never seemed to mind the chill.
Somehow, this well-being of the Nicholsons radiated out to the whole Group, so there was an almost magical quality about them. Just as some girls feel that if only they had a particular article of clothing, or a certain shade of lipstick, everything would be perfect, so Moyra felt that if only she could join the Group, her life would be transformed.
As time passed, though, her initial excitement about the picnic began to wear off, for the girls barely spoke to her in the days leading up to half-term, and she started to dread that it had been a joke, a cruel trick played on the new girl. She could picture herself returning to school after the holidays, only to have the Group taunt her. "You didn't really expect Matthew to be there, did you?" They would point at her and laugh and no one would want to be her friend.
She was feeling thoroughly miserable as she packed her books on Friday afternoon, and knew that if she didn't make a quick exit, she would disgrace herself by crying. At the last minute, Candy came up to her and said, as if it were a command, "See you on Tuesday", then raced away before she had a chance to reply.
Her tears of sadness changed to those of joy, Moyra hurried home and, in a burst of happiness, rashly told her mother about the picnic.
"How lovely!" she said, her eyes lighting up at the thought of her daughter being taken into the fold, and Moyra knew she had made a mistake. Now Mum would take over and organise everything.
Sure enough, her mother rushed off to the supermarket and bought loads of food, which she spent the morning of the picnic preparing. She wrapped everything in foil and stowed it in a rather ugly backpack the family took when they went camping. All the joy Moyra had anticipated in preparing the repast was gone. She was annoyed, too, at having to wear her heavy jacket and unzipped it immediately after waving goodbye.
Once out of the house - though weighed down with individual fruit pies and scotch eggs - Moyra began to feel better. She had looked Bluebell Wood up on a map and even found the cross-roads, so she knew where to meet the others.
Because of her eagerness, she had left in such good time that she reached the cross-roads just before half-past ten. She had hoped one or two of the others might have been just as excited, and would be waiting for her, but the place was deserted, with not a soul in sight.
In fact, the place had an air of being neglected. There were no houses apart from a tumble-down cottage, and the four 'roads' were just dusty paths, split earth with weeds growing through the cracks, and long grass straggling over the sides of the roads, hiding their edges.
A sudden cold wind buffeted her and made the trees rustle so they sounded like people whispering. She huddled into her jacket then, still not doing it up, but glad her mother had made her wear it, and looked at her watch.
"If only the others would get here," she said, then regretted she had spoken aloud.
The wind was cold on the backs of her knees and tugged at her skirt, and she wished she had worn jeans instead. She fiddled with her slide, trying to tidy her hair, then looked at her watch again.
Just before eleven, Moyra's spirits rose. Any second now one of the others would come into sight. Perhaps it would be Matthew and she could spend a few moments alone with him. She wouldn't feel cold and lonely and frightened any longer.
Moyra checked her watch again and again. The hands crept on and soon it was five past eleven. Once someone got here, she would tease them about being late. She expected to hear voices and laughter any moment, but all she heard was the trees moving in the wind.
By a quarter past eleven Moyra knew the others weren't coming. She felt hot tears filling her eyes. So it had been a trick after all, and she, stupid cow, had fallen for it. She called the others rude names, using language her parents would have been shocked to learn she knew.
Then she got angry. Dashing the tears away, Moyra stamped on the ground, determined to pull herself together. No-one must know she had been duped. She would go into the wood on her own, find a place to sit, and eat as much of the picnic as she could by herself. She would bury the rest of it under a tree, or feed it to any animal she might see. If she saw nothing else, there were bound to be birds and squirrels.
She stepped off the grass and in under the first of the trees. It was gloomy in here and she zipped her jacket up. After all, Matthew wasn't going to be around to see her red sweatshirt.
It was quiet, peaceful. Those others were just pathetic little kids. She would ignore Candy once they got back to school.
The track she had been following suddenly branched and Moyra hesitated. The fork to the left looked more inviting, so she went that way.
She walked on and on, confident that it would be easy to find her way back, that she couldn't get lost.
All in all, the wood was disappointing. One tree looked pretty much like the next and she hadn't so much as glimpsed a squirrel. It was the wrong time of year for bluebells, of course, but she thought she could see some sort of flower not far in front of her.
A few moments later she was sure; there was a bush of pink blossoms to her right, then another to the left, then a second on the right. Soon she was walking along with bushes, rather like rhododendrons, on either side of her. The flowers were all of a fleshy pink and the leaves of the bushes were dark green and shiny, looking black where the sun did not touch them.
Moyra paused to break off one of the blooms. Phew! It had an odd scent. Still, it was pretty and she needed cheering up. She clipped the flower under her hair-slide and walked on.
All at once the path came to an abrupt end and she found herself in the perfect spot for her picnic.
She was in a glade. Trees stood tall and cool-looking on the far side of it and the bushes encircled it, leaving a small gap at the end of the path, just big enough for her to squeeze through. The short grass felt springy beneath her feet, the wind had dropped, and there was a hush over the whole place. She felt as if she had wandered into an enchanted glen.
Moyra spread a rug on the grass, settled herself onto it and unpacked her picnic. She took a swallow of cola and sloshed some of the drink down her front. It must be colder than she had thought; her hands were trembling.
She opened one of the foil-wrapped packages, took a knife and cut a pork-pie in half. Usually pork-pie was one of her favourite foods, but now she found the pink meat in its crusty shell vaguely disturbing. She looked around, hoping to see a bird to throw the pie to, but there were none in sight. She nibbled a tomato, not feeling in the least bit hungry, and turned to look over her shoulder.
There was nothing there, but she had half-expected to see some animal gazing at her, the sensation of being watched was so strong.
Moyra dropped the half-eaten tomato into the grass, reasoning that it wasn't really rubbish and that either an animal would devour it or it would moulder away.
Perhaps that was why she wasn't too hungry, as there was a sort of mouldy smell in the air, a faint stench of rotting vegetation. She opened a second packet.
Bright slices of ham lay on the foil, but she wasn't tempted by them. There was something about their colour, as there had been with the pork-pie. Something about their pinkness, like the pinkness of the flowers.
Moyra knelt up and looked across to the other side of the glade. Should flowers like that bloom in the autumn?
She gazed at the large, pink blossoms, scanned across them from left to right, and suddenly she fixed on one point and her heart seemed to stop.
Peering out between the dark green leaves was a face. She got the impression that it was very pink, like the flowers, and that the rosy flesh would be hot to the touch. The idea of touching that face, of its coming into contact with her, filled her with revulsion.
She might have stayed rooted to the spot for hours, but she saw the bushes move and caught a glimpse of white drapery. Whoever, or whatever, the face belonged to was moving towards her.
Moyra leapt to her feet, scattering her possessions, forgetting the rug and the backpack in her panic.
She began to run, too afraid to look back to see if anything was following. Not bothering to find the path, she forced her way through the bushes.
Then she was among the trees and running, running, sure that if she was caught it would be the end of her. Dead leaves flew up on either side as she pounded along, and she thought she heard something laugh some way behind her, a malevolent, mocking and triumphant laugh.
It mustn't catch her!
Putting on a frantic burst of speed, trying to ignore a stitch in her side, she raced on.
All at once, just as she thought she could run no more, the trees thinned and she could see the cross-roads ahead of her. Thank God her sense of direction had not failed her; she would soon be home.
Reassured by the sight of the derelict cottage, Moyra risked pausing for breath. Her heart was hammering and she pressed a hand to her side as she glanced back.
No one was in sight. Nothing was following her. She stood stock still and listened, but, apart from natural sounds, she could hear nothing.
Having rested for as long as she dared, she ran on.
Something grabbed her arm.
Moyra screamed and beat at the thing which held her, until she heard a voice saying, "Shut up, you idiot!", and found herself looking up into Matthew's face.
"Oh," she quavered.
How strange that Matthew, too, had chosen to wear a red sweatshirt, thought an idle corner of Moyra's mind. Her sense of fear beginning to leave her, she opened her mouth to speak to him, but something in his expression silenced her and the smile died on her lips.
Chris, Candy's brother, emerged from the shadows and took hold of her left wrist.
"Is...is it some sort of game?" she stammered, knowing that it wasn't, sensing that their intentions towards her were anything but friendly. They couldn't really do her any harm though, could they?
"Why didn't you meet me at the cross-roads?"
The boys did not reply, and their silence was unsettling. The three of them walked back under the trees. Moyra didn't like the way they gripped her arms. She tried to reassure herself that there was safety in numbers.
Despite the shock that she had suffered and the strange behaviour of her companions, part of her could not believe that she was in any real danger, and she was almost soothed by the boys' presence. Panic, however, continued to lurk just beneath the surface of her apparent calm.
Suddenly she could see Candy up ahead of them, beckoning. How pretty she looked, but there was something odd about her appearance, something discomposing. Oh, yes, Candy's hair was wreathed in flowers, a garland of pink blossoms...
"No," Moyra whispered and tried to back away, but Chris and Matthew held her even tighter. Moyra tried to brace herself, to dig her heels into the surface of the path, but the boys were too strong for her and hauled her in amongst the bushes.
They dragged her into the centre of the glade, where she could see everything shimmering, as if through a heat haze, and the air crackled with electricity.
"What are you doing?" she gasped. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
As they flung her down onto her knees, she felt a burning sensation as the grass grazed her skin.
She looked up at Matthew in disbelief. She had hoped that one day his hands might caress her with love, but now one of them was clamped to her right shoulder, keeping her on the ground, and the other was tangled cruelly in her hair. There was no pity in his hazel eyes.
Candy and the rest of the girls began to dance, swaying around and around, chanting, widening the circle with each circuit until, at last, they were tripping along the very edge of the glade. Then Candy clapped her hands loudly and the dancing ceased. A deathly quiet fell once more.
The girls formed two lines and bowed deeply to the bushes, where the air had begun to flicker and waver. Slowly, slowly, seeming to form itself from the rippling haze, a figure began to appear. At first it was just a liquid outline, but then it took on shape and colour, solidifying, becoming more compact, more real, with each passing moment...
A scream of pure terror was torn from Moyra's throat.
"What's the matter?" sneered Candy. "We thought you wanted to be one of us."
They emerged from the wood hand-in-hand. It had grown very late, almost dark, and it was time to return home, though home seemed a shadowy, insubstantial place now. Only this seemed real, the wood and the glade and these young people, with their bright eyes and shining hair, their energy and the fierce heat which burned in their veins.
They smiled at her and she, reluctant to let them go for even a little while, smiled back.
Moyra was no longer herself; she belonged to the Group.
Copyright (c) 2000 Katherine Haynes
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