Through the Tulgey Wood by Jon Gauthier
The late-summer air was heavy and wet, and it clutched a molasses-like quality that seemed to seep into her bones and impede every move she made. The headache that had plagued her since noon now thumped wildly at her skull. As she headed toward the stairs, a bright yellow mop of hair appeared. Molly breached the top of the staircase and ran toward Ava, her arms outstretched.
“Mom!” Molly cried. Her voice was high and whiny. “Jemmyfroouffuggatme!”
Ava’s brain instantly decoded the slurred babble and she shouted down the stairs, “Jeremy! Did you throw a frog at your sister?”
The stairs creaked and a dirty, freckle-streaked face appeared. Her son’s hands were cupped together, forming an egg-shaped container that Ava knew held the aforementioned frog.
“Jeremy,” Ava huffed. “You better not have brought that frog into the house!”
His gaze and shoulders immediately dropped.
“You take it right back outside,” Ava said, doing her best to keep the sternness to a minimum. “And make sure to wash your hands. It’s almost lunch time.”
Jeremy’s lips formed a pout and he spun around with a sigh. As he stomped down the stairs in defeat, Molly danced behind him, gloating with singsong glee. Ava knew that they’d be screeching at each other again in less than a minute, but she took the opportunity to take in a deep breath and shift her mind back to the unpacking. There were still dozens of boxes scattered throughout the house, and it was clear the kids weren’t going to be much help.
She moved down the hallway that separated the kids’ rooms and looked out the window. From this vantage point, she could see the entire rear of the property: an acre of lush green grass dotted with well-kept maple, apple and spruce trees. The expanse unrolled into a pine forest that was so dense, Ava could only see a dozen feet into it. It was a beautiful and tranquil setting—the perfect place for her and the kids to start over.
The perfect place to keep Jeremy from having another episode.
“Mommy!” The screech snapped Ava out of her momentarily serene state of mind, and she let out a sigh.
“Molly!” she called wearily as she trudged down the stairs. “Leave you brother alone.”
Sleep was impossible. The woodland symphony of crickets, frogs and God-only-knew what else was constant stream flowing through her open bedroom window. With the window closed, though, it would be far too hot, even at the tail end of August. Ava switched on her bedside lamp, opened the combination lock that was affixed to her nightstand drawer and pulled out a tattered paperback copy of Stephen King’s It. She’d been reading the book for more than a year, chipping away at it a dozen or so pages at a time.
She narrowed her eyes at the tiny print and wished she could have an e-reader like every else on the damned planet. It was too risky, though. If Jeremy ever got a hold of it, he’d have access to any book he wanted—pictures and all. It was much safer this way, a paper brick full only with words he could barely understand and the cover torn off. (That creepy cover with that green hand coming out of the sewer. Imagine if he’d seen that…)
After only a few pages, Ava felt herself finally begin to drift off. She turned onto her side and let her eyelids become heavy as the words began to fuse together on the yellowed page like a swarm of black flies.
She’s back at the old house and David is a mess of red and black pulp on the driveway, with a massive Siberian tiger standing in his remains, slurping up pieces of him like he’s a bowl of Purina Fancy Feast. The tiger looks at her—its coat is so perfectly orange and black. It’s like a drawing. And its teeth are diamonds dripping with gore. Fire in his eyes.
She remembers. He’s afraid of fire.
She bolts into the house and hears claws scraping the asphalt as it bounds after her. She flings the door closed and its bulk slams into the heavy wood. There’s growling and scraping and she leaves it behind as she clambers into the kitchen.
Stay upstairs! Her voice is shrill—almost incomprehensible.
She tears open the junk drawer and rifles through the old pens and rubber bands until she finds a box of matches. She runs back to the main room just as the tiger explodes through the front door, the heavy oak splintering like balsa wood. With shaking hands, she strikes a match against the box a moment before the beast pounces. She sees the reflection of the flame in its jagged porcelain maw and hears it shriek in fear before vanishing in a wisp of ghostly mist.
Mommy? The children are on the stairs. Molly is clutching one of her dolls and Jeremy is hugging a book to his chest. It’s a large illustrated edition of The Jungle Book. They’d been reading it together just before the tiger—before Shere Khan—appeared.
Ava’s eyes snapped open to see a tiny face staring down at her. In a flurry of panic and muttered curses, she sat up and tore away her blankets, frantically looking for the copy of It. She’d stupidly fallen asleep without locking it back in her nightstand. Ava lay flat and let her head hang just above the floor, her face pointed at the dark space beneath the bed. The book was there. She snatched it, flipped back up into a sitting position and quickly locked it back up in the nightstand where it would be safe from Jeremy and his… his…
That’s what it was, after all. A condition. Just a condition that they would all have to learn to live with. Like a peanut allergy or dyslexia, or ADHD… they all just had to adapt. Keep moving forward.
She’d told everyone that it had been a bear—a crazed black bear that had just wandered into the neighborhood and attacked David while he was washing the minivan. Then it burst through the door and she scared it away by banging some pots together. And everyone had believed her. There had been no other possible explanation. And if she’d actually tried to give one? If she’d actually attempted to explain what really happened… that Jeremy had somehow—
“Mommy?” Ava’s looked at Molly who was cowering against the wall, staring at her mother with wide blue eyes and chewing anxiously on her fingers. Ava sighed and silently cursed at herself for scaring the girl.
“What is it, sweetie?” She tried to make her voice as soft as possible.
“Can I sleep with you?”
Ava looked at her bedside clock to see it was just past three a.m. She flopped back down on the mattress with a sigh and scooted over.
“Come on,” she said.
Molly immediately hopped into the bed and nuzzled her face into her mother’s shoulder. Ava switched off the bedside light and asked, “Did you have a nightmare?” She felt Molly’s head shake out a no.
“Are you just scared of the new house?”
Molly lifted her face and whispered, “There’s a monster in the woods.”
“Sweetie, you know there’s no such thing as monsters.” A lie, she thought. Such a tremendous lie.
“I swear, Mommy. I heard it breaking branches and I looked out my window and saw it running away.”
“What did it look like?”
“It was like a dragon,” Molly said, his voice almost inaudibly quiet. “With a… with a fish head. And rabbit teeth.”
Ava kissed the top of Molly’s head and ran her fingers through her hair, something that always put her to sleep. Being two years older than Jeremy, Molly had seen plenty of books and movies and pictures before the Jungle Book incident. She would have been very familiar with dragons and any number of strange creatures.
“That sounds like a pretty silly monster to me,” Ava said. Her daughter just giggled nervously in response before finally closing her eyes. Within minutes, they were both asleep.
The next morning, Molly seemed to be in good spirits and she happily ate her cereal. She didn’t even put up much of a fuss whenever Jeremy did something to annoy her. Ava figured she’d forgotten all about her bad dream. Surely the monster—the dragon with the fish head and rabbit teeth—had only been part of a dream.
After breakfast, Ava shooed the kids outside and told them not to come back into the house until she called them for lunch. Now able to focus her attention on finishing the unpacking, she trudged up the stairs into Molly’s bedroom. The floor was littered with partially unpacked boxes and the bed was awry with a pink and white tangle of sheets and blankets spilled halfway to the floor. Next to it stood an empty dresser and bookshelf.
Ava lifted one of the open boxes and dropped it onto the bed. As she started removing the various clothes that had been packed inside, she heard a single stinging scream come from the back yard. She rushed to the window and looked down to see Jeremy chasing Molly with a water gun. Ava rolled her eyes and turned back to the bed. Usually she could discern the kids’ playful screams from the real ones. Maybe she was too anxious. She turned the box over and let all the clothes tumble to the bed.
It had taken less than an hour to finish with Molly’s room. Of course, it would have gone quicker if she hadn’t had to shout at the kids every ten minutes. When she walked into Jeremy’s room, she was pleasantly surprised to see most of the unpacking had been done. He’d pretty much done everything expect hang up his button-up shirts.
Ava grabbed the shirts in a single bunch and walked over to the tiny closet. As she hung each garment, she noticed that a portion of the wood paneling seemed to stick out from the rest of the wall. The protuberance sloped diagonally for about two feet before becoming flush with the wall again. It took Ava a moment to realize what she was looking at. It was a door. A tiny trap door was built into the back of the closet. A sudden childlike sense of wonder and excitement took hold as she knelt in front of it. She was sure she had looked through the whole house before letting the kids inside yesterday, and she hadn’t noticed this. Jeremy must have found it at some point and already looked inside. Ava reached for the door when another scream erupted from the yard. She could tell this one was real.
She didn’t even bother going to the window. Instead she raced out of the room and down the stairs just in time to see the kids burst through the front door, both of them sweaty and red-faced.
They screamed in unison, “Mommy!”
Ava knelt down and embraced them. They were both hot and their hearts were pounding. She released them and put a hand on Molly’s right shoulder and Jeremy’s left. “What’s going on? What are you two getting up to out there?”
“We saw the monster,” Molly exclaimed breathlessly.
“Molly,” Ava said. “Don’t scare your brother. We talked about this last night. Monsters aren’t real.
A lie. Such a lie, and you know it.
“No, Mommy,” Molly said, stamping her foot. “We saw it in the woods.”
“I sawed it too,” Jeremy said. “It was like a big snake with legs.”
“Jeremy!” She said it too loudly. Too sharply. Ava took in a deep breath and pulled him in close.
“There’s no such thing as monsters,” she said softly. “Your sister is just trying to scare you.” Ava looked over at Molly with a piercing anger that only a mother is capable of conveying. “Now, I want both of you to stay apart for the rest of the morning,” She said. “Molly, you can go and play in your room. Jeremy, you go and practice.” She pointed to the living room where she’d set up Jeremy’s electric keyboard.
“We’re not lying,” Molly said quietly. And as she and Jeremy stalked away to separate corners of the house, Ava realized that she believed her.
“Where in the Hell did I put you?” Ava muttered as she dug through the large plastic tote that sat at the back of the garage. She was looking for the desktop fan that she usually kept on her nightstand, unwilling to spend another night with the window open and those godforsaken critters keeping her awake. On her way back to the house, Ava stopped to take a long, more detailed look at the backyard. It was gorgeous at this time of day—just moments before sunset, the sky a watercolor painting hanging overhead the silent forest.
Ava wandered over to one of the apple trees and saw that it bore healthy-looking Mackintoshes that would be perfect for baking. She reached out and plucked one. It was something she hadn’t done since she’d visited her grandparent’s farm as a girl. She reveled in the simplicity and wholesomeness of it.
Then she heard something snap. It had come from the forest. It was followed by another snap. Then another. They came in a steady rhythm, like something was moving through the trees.
Ava took a single step toward the pines, surprised at how scared she’d suddenly become. At this time of day, it was probably just a deer or a moose. Not much else could make that much noise other than a bear, and the real estate agent had assured her that there hadn’t been a bear spotted in this township for almost fifteen years.
She was about to take another step forward when a guttural clicking noise emerged from the thicket. It was like the sound of someone chocking and snapping their teeth together at the same time. It wasn’t like anything Ava had ever heard before. It was so foreign—almost otherworldly—and it filled her with a near paralyzing sense of dread. She turned and dashed toward the house with a speed she didn’t even know she was capable of.
Once inside, Ava set the fan on the floor, pulled the phone from its base on the counter, and dialed the number for the local police, thankful that she’d programmed into the phone’s speed dial on their first night in the house.
“It’s just a deer,” she said. “It’s just a deer.”
Is it, though? What if it’s happening again?
“There are no pictures in this house,” Ava said defiantly.
A woman answered, her voice deep and weary: “Police.”
“Yes. Hi. Um… I’m sorry. I don’t know if I should really be calling you…”
“Are you in danger, ma’am? Is this an emergency?”
“No. No. Nothing like that. It’s just… I live out on Tremblay Road, and I heard a strange noise in the woods behind my house. Some kind of animal. I think it may be injured or… maybe rabid or something.”
“Did you see the animal, ma’am?” The woman’s sounded bored—almost annoyed.
“No, I just heard it. It made this really strange sound. I’ve never heard anything—"
“You can contact the municipal office in the morning,” the woman said. “They’ll send an animal control team to investigate.” Ava could tell the woman had moved the phone away from her mouth as she was speaking. She was getting ready to hang up.
“It’s just…” Ava said.
“It’s just what, ma’am?”
“Well, we just moved here. Me and my children... and they… well, they thought they saw something in the woods this morning.”
“Ma’am there’s all sorts of things around here. Now, I’m not doubting you heard something. But unless you’ve actually seen the animal and believe it’s a danger to you or someone else, you’ll have to wait for animal control.”
“I understand,” Ava said, her face now hot with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. Thank you.” She disconnected the call and set the phone on the counter.
“Don’t do this,” Ava whispered. “Keep it together.”
Suddenly, the sliding door exploded into a shower of glass and a thick and scaly length of dark grey rubber shot into the kitchen. Ava screamed and dropped to the floor. She scrambled backward, staring at the intruding object as it thrashed about, snapping furiously in every possible direction as if searching for something.
Then Ava realized it wasn’t rubber, but flesh.
It was a tail.
She rolled onto her knees and scrambled out of the kitchen just as a nightmarish shriek filled the entire house.
Ava charged upstairs. Jeremy and Molly were huddled next to one another on the landing.
“It’s the monster!” Molly cried. “The monster, Mommy!”
“In my bedroom!” Ava screamed as she reached the top of the stairs. She shoved the kids forward and the three of them rushed into the master bedroom and slammed the door closed.
The shrieking continued, but Ava could tell that it was coming from outside now. Luckily the thing—whatever it was that the tail belonged to—didn’t actually come into the house.
That means it’s too big to get through the door. Ava pushed the thought away. She had to know what she was dealing with.
“You two get under the bed!”
The kids nodded and crawled beneath the bed as Ava crept to the window. Unlike the kids, her bedroom didn’t overlook the backyard, but the front. She couldn’t see anything but a lone oak tree and the gravel lane way that led to the pitch-black road.
What in the Hell is it?
“They said it was a dragon,” Ava said quietly.
No, they said it was like a dragon. It’s actually something different.
Ava turned toward the bed and dropped to her knees. She grabbed her son’s hand.
“Jeremy, where is the picture?”
He didn’t answer.
“Jeremy, I know you saw a picture. Where did you see it? Did Molly draw it?”
Jeremy shook his head.
“Was it a book?”
“Where? Where is it?”
“My closet,” he said quietly.
Ava suddenly remembered the small door she had seen in the back of Jeremy’s closet.
“You two stay here,” she said. “You do not move from this spot.”
The kids nodded and Ava darted out of the bedroom and down the hall. She crashed through Jeremy’s bedroom door, almost ripping it off the frame, and ran to the closet where she tore open the small trap door.
She got on her knees and stuck her head into a tiny room that was only about two feet high, wide, and deep. Inside were an old couch cushion and a small assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. None of the items belonged to her or the kids. It must have all been left behind by the previous owners. Ava moved the objects around until she finally found what she was looking for: a thin and tattered hardback book without a dust jacket.
She grabbed the book and flipped it over to see the title laid out in heavy black font: Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Saw There.
Ava opened the book and flipped madly through the pages. She stopped when she landed on a black and white illustration of a small light-haired girl—Alice—kneeling on a mantle and looking into a mirror. She continued flipping, passing by horses and chess pieces before finally landing at her destination. The terrifying image stared back at her. It was of a small human figure standing in a dark forest with a massive sword raised above their head, facing down an almost indescribable creature. The monster was a long and serpentine thing with leathery wings and gnarled talons. Its face was an unearthly mishmash of buck teeth, blank eyes and spindly whiskers.
Ava’s insides went to liquid when she saw the thing’s tail. It was identical to the one that had smashed through the sliding door. This was it. This was what Jeremy had…
She tore her eyes from the drawing and looked at the text it accompanied. It seemed to a be a poem. The first line, “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”, was all she needed to read.
Ava ripped the page from the book just as something heavy landed on the roof. The noise thundered through the house, rattling the walls. There was another horrible shriek and the sound of a claws dragging across the shingles.
The kids were still under the bed, and Ava heard them cry out in fear as she tumbled back into her bedroom. Above them, the unmistakable sound of splintering wood and falling debris was intermixed with that guttural clicking that Ava had heard when she was outside. The Jabberwock was tearing away the roof.
Ava looked down at the page and scanned poem, squinting at its many nonsensical words. Finally, she saw the ones she’d been looking for: vorpal blade, dead, and head. She looked back at the person in the picture—at the sword in their hands. Then Ava dropped to her stomach and held the page out to Jeremy, her hands shaking.
“The sword, Jeremy!” She had to scream to be heard over the carnage above. “Bring the sword!”
Jeremy stared at her with wide uncomprehending eyes. He had no idea what she meant. He didn’t even know what he could do—what he had done.
“The sword!” Ava screamed again, shaking the picture in front of his face. “Bring the sword just like you brought the monster. You can do it, sweetie. You know you can.”
There was a crash as something landed on the attic floor. It sounded like it was above Molly’s room. They didn’t have much time left.
“Come on, Jeremy!” Ava cried. “I need you to be really brave, now. I need to close your eyes and think really hard about this sword, okay?”
Jeremy’s nodded and squeezed his eyelids together.
“That’s it, sweetie,” Ava said. “Just think of the sword. Bring the sword.”
The Jabberwock let out another shriek as it pounded and slashed at the attic floor.
“Jeremy,” Ava moaned. “Jeremy, hurry.”
Jeremy’s eyes suddenly snapped open and he said, “It’s on the bed now, Mommy.”
Ava got to her feet and saw a massive sword lying on her bed. It was at least twelve inches wide and took up almost the entire six-foot length of the mattress. Ava’s heart fell. There was no way she’d be able to lift it.
One of the Jabberwock’s front paws suddenly burst through the ceiling and Ava had to duck away from the razor talons. Without thinking, she grabbed the sword’s hilt and swung it upwards. It was much lighter and the movement was much swifter than she had anticipated. She managed to nick the paw just as the Jabberwock pulled it back up into the attic. A thin spray of blood spattered Ava’s face. There was a furious cry of pain and the clatter of claws on wood.
Sword at the ready, Ava stood firm, staring up at the hole in the ceiling and poised for the next attack. The Jabberwock’s face appeared, bringing with it a hideous moaning snarl. Teeth the size of piano keys snapped at her and hot swamp-smelling saliva sprayed her face. The creature’s eyes were beyond white but seemed to focus on her regardless. Two antennae jutted from its head like giant spider legs. Ava swung at the monstrous face, barely missing it each time. It snapped its jaws at her in return, weaving forward and backward and side to side as it calculated the best moment to attack. The cat and mouse game went on for only a few seconds, but Ava’s arms screamed with exhaustion. Finally—mercifully—she tore a deep gash into the Jabberwock’s cheek. It let out a screech and disappeared back through the hole.
Adrenaline coursed through Ava like an electric shock and she ran out of the bedroom, pulled open the hatch that led to the attic, and clambered up the ladder. Her head entered the attic just in time to see the Jabberwock’s tail flick up through the opening it had torn into wall and roof.
Dragging the sword on the floor behind her, Ava jogged to the massive fissure. Snapped pieces of lumber stuck out like crooked teeth, making a crude ladder. She took hold of one of rungs and hoisted herself up. The climb was short but precarious, the twenty-five-foot drop to the outside ground only a single mistake or broken board away.
It was waiting for her on the roof. Its hulking dragon-like form looked completely surreal against a backdrop of star-streaked sky. Wasting no time, Ava drew up the sword and charged forward. The Jabberwock, seemingly surprised by her boldness, jerked backwards, its front paws clattering on the rooftop as it tried to re-position itself.
Ava thrust the sword forward. She swung it in every conceivable direction, fending off the swiping paws and snapping jaws as she ripped and tore at the monster’s flesh. Then, seeming to gather all of its strength for a final attack, the Jabberwock lowered its head and lunged forward, its hideous mouth wide and glistening. Ava stepped out of the way at the last possible moment and, with a final desperate snicker-snack, she chopped downward and sliced off the bottom half of the creature’s jaw. It screeched and fell forward onto the roof, and Ava brought the massive vorpal blade down on its neck. She struck it again and again, chopping away at the thick flesh until she finally felt it go through straight into the roof itself.
In the next moment, the Jabberwock’s head was rolling away from her, vanishing just before it reached the edge of the roof. Ava felt a tremendous weight leave her hands and she looked down; the sword was gone, too. Next to her, the Jabberwock’s wings gave a final twitch before the entire corpse disappeared.
Ava was suddenly alone, the late August chill biting at her hot, blood-stained skin. She looked out over the back yard and examined the deep dark woods where the thing had come from—where Jeremy had brought it from. It will never end, she thought. He’ll never be able to stop. Dropping her head, Ava turned to the destroyed portion of roof that led down into her home and went galumphing back.
“I’ve only got half an hour for my lunch break,” Ava said.
The man took the picture from her. “It’s just a sketch, right?”
Ava nodded. “But his whole body,” she said. “And it needs to look as much like him as possible.”
He started thoughtfully at the picture for a moment and said, “I don’t get it. I mean, I’m happy to take your money, but I don’t get it. Why do you want a drawing of a photo?”
“It has to be a drawing,” Ava responded. “It won’t work otherwise.”
“Okay,” the man said, pointing at a sofa that sat at the other end of the studio. “Just take a seat over there. It shouldn’t take long.”
Ava watched as he walked over to his desk, the photograph of her dead husband clutched between his thumb and index finger. Then she walked over to the couch and sat down.
And she waited.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son.
Copyright Jon Gauthier 2019
Jon Gauthier is a horror and science fiction author from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His stories have appeared in multiple markets, including Mythic Magazine, Polar Borealis Magazine and the Tales to Terrify podcast. He can be found online at jgauthier.ca or twitter.com/@JAGauth.
Jon is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. His work is also available in the Fantasy Library and Horror Library.